In R S Cohen and M W Wartofsky (eds) Methodological and Historical Essays in the Natural and Social Sciences, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, XIV, D Reidel, Boson, 1974

In this long paper (10,000 words) Bartley points out that some of the most important background to the ideas of Popper and Wittgenstein had dropped out of sight, despite the intense scrutiny of their published works and the immediate influences upon them – Bertrand Russell in the case of Wittgenstein and the positivists of the Vienna Circle in the case of Popper.

This anticipates the more recent work on Popper’s antecedents by Wettersten and ter Hark

The ter Hark links have links to more related material.

Bartley suggests that it is doubtful that the thoughts of Wittgenstein, Popper, and the Vienna Circle can be properly understood or appreciated without better knowledge of the social and  intellectual milieu in which they developed. “Moreover, this hidden background is well worth studying for its own sake, since it is an important part of one of the most fertile and exciting periods which any culture has enjoyed”. 

It is tragic that Bartley died in 1990 at the age of 55 when he had just started serious work on the biographies of both Popper and Hayek. He intended to write four fat volumes to map the incredible rich intellectual landscape of Vienna and Austro-Hungarian empire over the last two centuries.

“The topics which I have chosen to discuss are: (1) the once famous but  now virtually forgotten school reform movement which was developed  in Austria by Otto Glöckel immediately following the collapse of the  dual monarchy and which managed to survive until the Dollfuss dictatorship of 1934; (2) the psychological school whose ideas undergirded this school reform: namely, Bühlerian child psychology, a critical version of  Gestalt psychology, difficult to classify precisely, but perhaps closer to  the thought of Piaget than to that of Wertheimer, Koffka, Köhler, or Kurt Lewin; (3) the personal participation in this movement by Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper; (4) the development of Wittgenstein's thought construed as that of an amateur child psychologist turning -  partly as the result of his experience in schoolteaching at this particular  time - from an essentially associationist psychology to a configurationism or contextualism close to that of the Gestaltists; (5) the thought of Popper  viewed as that of one chiefly a schoolteacher and neo-Kantian Gestalt  psychologist, a man far removed from the essential ideas of logical positivism, who virtually stumbled into his relationship with the Vienna Circle  and the consequent development of his hobby - namely, the philosophy  of science - on which his reputation came to rest but which cannot properly be understood without some knowledge of his earlier research interests  and permanent anti-positivist outlook; (6) the thought of the later  Wittgenstein and the early Popper viewed as far more closely linked in  spirit one to the other than to that of the Viennese positivists whom they  influenced.”

The School Reform Movement

Bartley started with the Austrian school reform movement and especially the theoretical basis of the challenge to associationism in psychologyas  propounded by Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841).

“After the revolution of 1848 most chairs of philosophy in Austria were filled by  followers of Herbart, who viewed the human mind as neutral and passive,  lacking innate faculties for producing ideas. The theory of the human mind, as presented by Herbart, rather resembles what Popper in his early  article, 'Die Gedächtnispfiege unter dem Gesichtspunkt der Selbsttätigkeit', was to describe as 'the bucket or tub theory of the mind', an expression that Popper was often to repeat in his later work. According to such theories, ideas themselves might be active; but they lead their lives  in passive storehouse minds. To a Herbartian, whose aim above all is moral education, teaching consists in feeding students those ideas which it has been decided should dominate their lives. At no time, according to Herbart, should a teacher debate with his students on any matter.”

“It was such a doctrine, such schools - Drillschule and Lernschule - and such a school system, that Otto Glöckel (8 February 1874-23 July 1935), not to mention his perhaps somewhat better-known subordinates, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, was to combat.”

“Under the impact of such reforms the Austrian school system was literally transformed between 1920 and 1926. But this was also a period of deep social division for the first republic, accompanied by serious economic difficulties; and gradually the country became polarized politically between the Social Democrats - those like Glöckel who had undertaken and carried out the school reform movement - and the much more conservative Christian Socialist Party, dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. For some seven years Social Democratic policies prevailed in the schools. By the middle twenties, however, the Christian Socialists and other even more right-wing groups began to grow rapidly stronger, resulting in a sharp retrenchment in the school reform - especially after the bitter political and religious strife of 1926. By 1927, when the Christian Socialists had obtained  control almost everywhere in Austria except in the city of Vienna, the most  interesting experimentation was forced to halt - except, that is, in Vienna,  where the school reform movement continued under the leadership of  Glöckel, who became administrative president of the Vienna School Council and remained in this office until 1934 - when the Dollfuss Dictatorship ended school reform, arrested many of its leaders, including  Glöckel, and forced its chief publications - the journals Die Queue and  Schuireform - to cease publication. During the censorship that followed these journals were even locked up ('gesperrt') in the National Library, and thus made inaccessible to the general reader.”

“Despite these upheavals, the general excellence that prevailed in Vienna until 1934 ought not to be underestimated. Robert Dottrens, of the Institut Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Geneva, reported: "At the conclusion of a tour through Czecho-Slovakia, Germany, Belgium, England and France, I do not hesitate to say that Vienna is ahead of all the other cities of Europe from the point of view of educational progress." Dottrens continued:  "It is to Vienna, the pedagogical Mecca.., that the new pilgrims of the modern school must go to find the realization of their dreams and hopes." 

The Buhlers and the Pedagical Institute

“One of the most important and famous shrines of this mecca was the  Pedagogical Institute of the City of Vienna, the leading figures of which  were Karl and Charlotte Bühler. As noted, an implicit psychology under-girded Glöckel's reforms: namely, a theory of the child as an active social  being whose mind was far more than a bucket to be filled with appropriate information. In its attack on the Drillschule and Lernschule, the reform movement was essentially anti-Herbartian, anti-associationist, anti-elementarist in psychology.”

“Bühler's career had begun in Würzburg, where, in 1906, he became assistant to Kulpe, the critical realist and critic of Mach's positivism. Following Kulpe, Bühler began in Wurzburg to develop the theory of 'imageless thought'. This idea, as understood by Kulpe and Buhler, was that in the intentional act of representation the particular image or model used, if any, need bear no imaginal resemblance to what is represented. Abstract words, used conventionally in this process, cannot be reduced to sense impressions. International attention was focused on Bühler's early ideas, as published in his habilitation thesis in 1907, as a consequence of a prolonged controversy with Wundt triggered by them. Bühler remained at Wurzburg for only two years, following Külpe to Bonn in 1909 and to Munich in 1913.  Whilst still at Wurzburg, however, he became associated with Koffka, also an assistant to Kulpe at this time, but who was soon thereafter to join Wertheimer and Köhler in forming the 'school' of Gestalt psychology. The association between Koffka and Bühler continued for many years, but it was not harmonious. For Bühler claimed priority in developing some of the basic laws and experiments of Gestalt psychology, and, as a result, bitter polemics were exchanged.” 

“By 1920 Bühler had also made important contributions to the theory of language and to child and developmental psychology, fields which he cultivated in collaboration with his wife, Charlotte Bühler, herself an important psychologist. These subjects, which played important roles in his  work at the Pedagogical Institute in Vienna and which were responsible  for his being called to this post, provided the themes of his major works: Die geistige Entwicklung des Kindes (1918), an abridged version of which  was translated into English as The Mental Development of the Child (1930),  and of three other books, unfortunately still available only in German:  Die Krise der Psychologie (1926), Ausdruckstheorie (1933), and Sprachtheorie (1934).”

“During his sixteen years in Vienna, Bühler acquired many students and  disciples who were later to attain distinction in their own right - among  them Paul Lazarsfeld, Egon Brunswik, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Konrad  Lorenz, Karl Popper, Lotte Schenk-Danzinger, Albert Wellek, Edward Tolman. Egon Brunswik's name may appear surprising in such a list because of his own well-known association with logical positivism. This should not mislead one into thinking that Bühler looked favourably on the positivist movement. As a professor in the University of Vienna he naturally collaborated professionally with positivists; indeed, he and his wife were very good friends of Moritz Schlick and his wife. To give two pertinent examples of their professional cooperation, Schlick and Bühler were Popper's Ph.D. examiners; and they were the Ph.D. examiners as well for Thomas Stonborough, Ludwig Wittgenstein's nephew (who, incidentally, wrote up his dissertation in Wittgenstein's hut in Norway). However cordial their social and professional relations, Schlick and Bühler were far removed philosophically. Indeed, Bühler regarded positivism with a combination of hostility and contempt. It is reported that he found  it difficult to endure the thought that Brunswik had joined the Vienna Circle and had then gone on in America to advocate operationalism and  'unitary science'. This Bühler is said to have regarded as a personal betrayal.”

Wittgenstein and the “mystery years” 1921-1929

The material in this section is based on a remarkable research program that Bartley conducted in Austria and England, and resulted in Bartley’s biography of Wittgenstein.

“I have just described Karl Popper as one of Buhler's disciples; and earlier I mentioned the personal participation of both Wittgenstein and Popper in the school reform movement. It is occasionally recalled that both Wittgenstein and Popper were schoolteachers in and near Vienna during the 1920s. But to my knowledge, no one has ever raised the question whether their activities as schoolteachers might not be relevant to their philosophies. I believe that there was a quite important relationship between these two activities.” 

“Take Wittgenstein first. I am about to deal with the 'mystery years' in his life between the completion of the Tractatus and his return to Cambridge in 1929. The story I am about to relate makes Wittgenstein appear a more rational and sympathetic figure than other accounts I know. Writers often express some puzzlement about Wittgenstein's behaviour after the first war.”

Bartley referred to writers who were amazed that a man of such genius could turn his back on the intellectual life of Oxbridge and go off to teach primary school children  in remote Austrian villages. 

“Wittgenstein was, however, hardly of the stuff of which the typical British don is made. He was not even British: he was a patriotic Austrian who had during the war become a sort of socialist mandarin of a Tolstoian stamp of mind. I suggest that he deliberately and for good reason chose elementary school teaching as a career. It is unlikely that Wittgenstein chose school teaching because of the Reform Movement; such was hardly his style, and the slogans of school reform were frequently of a vulgarity which would have irritated him. But his family, including the two sisters who took a particular interest in him, Hermine Wittgenstein (who herself ran a day-school for poor boys in Vienna) and Margarete Stonborough, knew Glöckel personally; and Wittgenstein could hardly have been unaware of the opportunities available through the new movement. Again, Ludwig Erik Tesar, an active school reformer, was one of the beneficiaries of Wittgenstein's famous bequest to Ludwig von Ficker, better known for its more famous beneficiaries: Rainer Maria Rilke and Georg Trakl. It would, however, be wrong to overemphasize any such 'rational' element in Wittgenstein's choice. Shattered both mentally and physically by the war, he certainly took up his school teaching career at least in part as a means of 'Arbeitstherapie'. And his choice was strongly influenced even before his return to Vienna by the persuasion of his fellow-prisoner in Monte Cassino, Dr. Ludwig Hansel.” 

“In any event, within ten days of his return to civilian life, Wittgenstein  was enrolled at a teacher training college - one of the first Lehrerbildungsanstalten operating under the general direction of Glöckel - and attended  the year-long course required for the certificate. By the autumn of 1920 he was teaching children in the third form, aged 9 and 10, in the tiny village of Trattenbach in lower Austria.”

“As a schoolteacher he is said to have been unusual in certain respects. The accepted teaching procedures held no interest for him; he was always experimenting with new methods and devices of instruction. He dissected animal corpses and assembled their skeletons, explained models of steam-engines, set up with his students a potter's wheel on which they fashioned clay pots…If he happened by chance to meet some of his youngsters in the evening, he might give them instruction in astronomy on the spot. In mathematics, he had great success; he took his students well beyond the ordinary requirements for their class, and introduced the older, more gifted ones to advanced problems in algebra. Despite such successes, a serious crisis flared up in Otterthal in 1926 having to do in part with complaints arising from his disciplining of a child. This led to a trial and a compulsory psychiatric examination for Wittgenstein. Although he was eventually acquitted, Wittgenstein voluntarily resigned his post in April 1926, thus bringing his career as school-teacher to a close.”

Popper as a Schoolteacher

“Everybody knows that Popper's main formal background was in physics and mathematics. It so happens, however, that what everybody knows is false. In fact, Popper is an amateur physicist and mathematician, his formal training having been in education and in Gestalt psychology, under the supervision of Karl Buhler. His thesis for his teacher's  training certificate (1927) was entitled: 'Gewohnheit und Gesetzerlebnis';  and his doctoral dissertation, Zur Methodenfrage der Denkpsychologie  (1928), was a defense of Bühler's ideas - as outlined for instance in Die Krise der Psychologie - against the associationist physicalistic ideas of  Schlick, which Popper vigorously attacked.”

“Unlike Wittgenstein, Popper was not a recluse, but was for a time actively involved in socialist party activities in Vienna and in the School  Reform Movement. One of the more important figures with whom Popper collaborated in his political and social activities was Alfred Adler.  Throughout this period Adler worked as closely as he was permitted with the school reform movement in Vienna. Adlerians, including Adler himself, contributed to Die Queue and Schuireforin; Adler gave courses at the Volksheim and at the Pedagogical Institute; and some of his disciples - e.g., Birenbaum, Scharmer and Spiel - opened an Adlerian school for children of poor Viennese families in September 1931. An Adlerian child guidance clinic was opened as a pilot project at the Volksheim; and eventually twenty-eight such centres existed in Vienna, most of them situated within school buildings. Stressing his ideological kinship with the Bühlers, Adler argued that individual psychology showed many ideas in common with Gestalt psychology; and Wolfgang Köhler later agreed with this evaluation - although without reference to the Bühlers. In his book on Adler, Lewis Way writes that the viewpoint of Gestalt psychology "is as near as one could wish, given its different subject matter, to that of Individual Psychology.(18) Another social and psychological theory closely akin to Adler's in some respects is Popper's doctrine of 'the logic of the  situation'.”

“It was not only through Adler that Popper was involved in the School Reform Movement. Indeed, Popper has often told the story of his personal break with Adler. (20) Popper also worked with Eduard Burger, the  editor of Die Quelle, and contributed articles on pedagogy to both Schulreform and Die Quelle…Popper also published dozens of short reviews of books and of articles on psychological and educational topics. These reviews, sometimes only a few lines in length, are occasionally revealing about Popper's allegiances, betraying his extensive familiarity with the publications of Adler's school as well as his alliance with Bühler in the latter's quarrels with the Koffka group. For  instance, in reviewing a work on Gestalt psychology published in 1931, Popper complains that it fails to consider the views of Külpe and  Buhler.” 

“Considering the depth of Popper's involvement with both individual  psychology and Gestalt psychology, it is curious that in his later writings  he mentions them so rarely: some brief, favourable but mildly critical  remarks about Gestalt psychology - without any reference to the individual founders of the school - are to be found in The Poverty of Historicism.(22) Popper's interest in education, on the other hand, can easily be  seen in his later works, perhaps best in his essay 'Back to the Pre-Socratics', where he contrasts the dogmatic as opposed to critical traditions in  education.”
“When one views Popper's thought against this background, it is hard, surprising as it may seem to some, to find much of strikingly novelty in his philosophy. His methodology turns out to be in effect a kind of critical continuation of the theories of Kulpe, Buhler, and Koffka - one that also bears a close resemblance on many points with the work of Piaget. I  mention Piaget because it is sometimes said that his theory differs from that of the Gestalt psychologists in that he - by contrast to the Gestaltists - thinks that learning occurs not only in the elaboration of intellectual structures but also in perception. Some Gestaltists have indeed written as if perceptual constancies of shape and size belong to the object perceived and are not modifiable by the observer. Whether or not this is a misreading of the intentions of most of the Gestalt writers, it is clear that for Piaget perception of such things as figures is not only gradually built up  but also gradually corrected. Clearly Buhler, as well as the teachers of art in Vienna with whom he collaborated, held such a view. And Popper's view of conjecture and refutation or, as expressed by his associate E. H. Gombrich, 'making and matching' - is also close to Piaget.”

“Popper's attacks on the positivists may, then, be construed as direct applications of the attacks already mounted by Koffka and Buhler on the associationist psychologists. Even some of Popper's constructive ideas, including the emphasis on testability in connection with the hypothetico-deductive method, may be found in the work of his teachers: in particular, in that of Heinrich Gomperz. Popper's views acquire their distinctive form and emphases from the fact that they were elaborated in dialogue with the logical positivists; but they acquire no originality from this circumstance.”

Wittgestein, Popper and the Psychologists

“I mentioned earlier the possibility of construing the later thought of  Wittgenstein as that of an amateur but gifted child psychologist who  turned, partly as the result of his experiences in school teaching during  the twenties, from an essentially associationist psychology to a configurationism or contextualism closer to that of the Gestaltists. It is to this  theme that I now wish to return.” 

“In Zettel 412, Wittgenstein asks: "Am I doing child psychology?", and answers: "I am making a connexion between the concept of teaching and the concept of meaning.”

“My suggestion, then, is that there exists an important family resemblance between the views of the Gestalt psychologists, Popper's philosophy of science, and the views of the later Wittgenstein. To avoid misunderstanding, I am not chiefly interested here in making categorical  claims about 'intellectual influences'. That Popper's thought was decisively moulded by that of Bühler, Kulpe and the Gestalt psychologists is beyond dispute. Whether Wittgenstein was directly influenced by Bühler or other of the Gestalt theoreticians is uncertain. He definitely was familiar with Bühler's ideas. The connection here is more direct - and more complicated - than it would be simply because of Wittgenstein's participation in school reform. Wittgenstein knew Karl and Charlotte Biihler socially and personally: in fact they were present at the famous first encounter between Wittgenstein and Moritz Schlick, as the guests of Wittgenstein's sister, Frau Margarete Stonborough, (31) and had been invited at  the suggestion of Wittgenstein's nephew, who was studying with Buhler at  the University of Vienna. Whether Wittgenstein ever made any conscious connection between Buhler's psychology and his own later thought is, however, an open question. Friends and members of his family recall that Wittgenstein did not like the Bühlers personally, and that he occasionally referred to Karl Bühler as a 'charlatan'. This personal reaction, however, by no means precludes at least some positive intellectual influence.” 

Family resemblances.

1. The common opposition found in these three ways of thinking to psychological and logical atomism. 
“2. Second, there is the contextualism or configurationism shared by them.  According to the Wittgenstein of the Investigations, there is no sense in talking of a one-to-one correspondence between the simples of language and the simples of reality (even assuming such simples exist). Wittgenstein reasons that simplicity is not a matter of absolutes, but is context-dependent: one might break down the visual image of a flower into all the different colours of which it is composed.(32) But as Wittgenstein shows in  Investigations 47, the question of which properties are more simple makes  little sense. Multi-colouredness is one kind of complexity; being composed of straight lines is yet another. Since, on Wittgenstein's view, we use the words 'composite' and 'simple' in a great many different ways, and ways that are also differently related, questions that presuppose absolute complexity and simplicity apart from context are not answerable and ought not to be asked.” 

“If we turn to Popper - or to one of his disciples, like Paul Feyerabend, who was also influenced by Wittgenstein - we find an entirely different  way of putting the matter. But the basic point, and the family resemblance, remains. For Popper and Feyerabend too, what is relevant in one's analysis of an object will depend upon the theory one is entertaining or testing.  Like Wittgenstein, Popper also uses a series of geometrical shapes to illustrate his argument. In Appendix No.* 10 of The Logic of Scientific Discovery (p. 421), he presents a series of shaded and plain circles, triangles, squares and rectangles to show that "similarity, and with it repetition, always presuppose the adoption of a point of view."

“As for Wittgenstein and Popper, so for the Gestalt psychologists. Take Külpe's famous experiment with cards (which also bears some resemblance to Wittgenstein's example of coloured boxes in Investigations 48). Kulpe had contrived his experiment to combat Mach's claim that mental processes could be reduced to sensations; in it, Kulpe presented his subjects with cards containing nonsense syllables of various colours and arrangement. Some subjects were asked to report on the colour, others on the pattern, others on the number of the items seen. In every case, the subject abstracted the features he had been instructed to report and made no mention of - and in many cases did not even remember! - other features of the card which could easily well have been taken as simples. Here again the answers depended on the question, on the context. Whereas for the associationist organization or theory arises from previous association, for Külpe and the other Gestaltists association depends on organization or theory.”

“Thirdly, there is the conventionalism in respect to words (not sentences or theories) shared by Wittgenstein, Popper, and many of the Gestaltists. That both Popper and Wittgenstein - rejecting the picture theory of language - regard words as tools is so familiar that it does not bear comment. In both cases, in Popper explicitly, in Wittgenstein implicitly, there is an attack on 'essentialism' in respect to words. The case of Kulpe is less well known. For Kulpe, abstract words, being 'impalpable', cannot be reduced to sensations - or otherwise reduced; they are used instrumentally.”

“Fourthly, and closely related to this conventionalism, is the idea of 'imageless thought'. I have already referred briefly to the views of Kulpe and Bühler on this matter. Roughly the same idea occurs frequently in Wittgenstein: for example, in Philosophical Investigations 395, 396, and 397. One can do no better than quote Wittgenstein himself: "There is a lack of clarity about the role of imaginability in our investigation. Namely, about the extent to which it insures that a proposition makes sense. It is no more essential to the understanding of a proposition that one should imagine anything in connexion with it, than that one should make a  sketch from it. Instead of 'imaginability' one can also say here: representability by a particular method of representation. And such a representation may indeed safely point a way to further use of a sentence. On the other hand a picture may obtrude itself upon us and be of no use at all." 

“One could continue to sketch such family resemblances among the ideas of Wittgenstein, Popper, and the Gestaltists. For example, one could compare the accounts Buhler and Wittgenstein give of the relationship between naming and describing and Popper's critique of the 'causal theory of naming'. But enough has been said to indicate a broad family resemblance. A more detailed survey of the similarities and differences among these thinkers could be carried out on some other occasion.”

“But, to repeat, I have not solved the intriguing and complicated question, why the background was allowed to disappear in the first place. To answer that question would involve a vast programme of research - one that I hope will one day be carried out.”

California State University, Hayward 

Written in Ascona, Switzerland 
August 1968 

Bibliographical postscript. Due to the delay in the publication of the present monograph I add this note in proof. I have been studying central European intellectual history of  the period between the two World Wars for some ten years. A small part of my research, which greatly amplifies the information on Wittgenstein's Austrian context, was published in 1973 in my book Wittgenstein. The present monograph overlaps in some places with that book, but is for the greater part supplementary to it. Most of the material on Gestalt psychology and all of the material on Sir Karl Popper is presented  here for the first time. 

This monograph was read at Boston University in October 1968, and also served as the basis of papers I read to the Western Pennsylvania Philosophical Association, to the Philosophy Colloquium of Vanderbilt University, to California State University, Hayward, and to the Humanities Seminar of California Institute of Technology. Abbreviated forms have twice been published in German. After a meeting in Minneapolis in 1969 the essay was copied and freely circulated without my prior knowledge, and it has  since then been quoted both in periodical publications and in dissertations. (36)

Scholarly attention to Austrian intellectual history has significantly advanced during  the past decade. Among those works which have contributed to understanding of this period and of Wittgenstein's Austrian context are: Paul Eagelmann: Letters from  Ludwig Wittgenstein with a Memoir, 1967; Wilma Abeles Iggers: Karl Kraus: A Viennese Critic of the Twentieth Century, 1967; Frank Field: The Last Days of Mankind:  Karl Kraus and His Vienna, 1967; and William M. Johnston: The Austrian Mind, 1972.  A less responsible work on these matters is: Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin:  Wittgenstein's Vienna, 1973. 

Unfortunately, there has been no comparable development in the understanding of  Popper and his thought in their Austrian context. His book Objective Knowledge, 1972, fails to indicate the significance of Buhler's work or of his Viennese background. A  general hagiographic account of Popper's life and work by Bryan Magee (Karl Popper,  1973) almost completely neglects his education and early development, and does not  mention Buhler. 


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