Monday, July 31, 2006


The name of Richard von Mises ( 1883-1953), applied mathematician and engineer, philosopher, and authority on the poetry of the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, may sound familiar at first only because it vaguely recalls the name of his more famous economist older brother Ludwig von Mises (1881-1971). To humanists, the name of Richard von Mises is not as familiar as it deserves to be, since it would be reasonable to say that he anticipated much of what is best in the humanist program under the positivist label, which at this time is not a popular one in academic philosophy. Few people in any age have a right to an opinion about how the world works. Von Mises had that right, and also wrote a great book in which he started from what we know scientifically and how we know it, and strove to examine the connections between scientific thinking and such fields as art and religion.

Von Mises was born in the city then called Lemberg, Austria, now Lviv in Ukraine, the son of parents Jewish on both sides, whose families had risen as distinguished Austrian professionals. As a young man, he was converted to Catholicism, then and now the dominant religion of Austria. In 1901 he graduated from the Academic Gymnasium (advanced secondary school) in Vienna at the age of 18 with honors in Latin and mathematics, and already showed a serious interest in poetry and philosophy. Mechanics was in the 19th century the unifying model for all physical sciences, which exponents of each emerging branch of physics tried to emulate. At the Vienna Technical University, v. Mises studied mechanical engineering, and after receiving his engineering degree, he went in 1906 to Brno (now in the SE Czech Republic) to work as assistant to the professor of mechanics there, and in 1908 he received his doctoral degree in technical sciences in Vienna, with a call soon thereafter in 1909 to Strassburg as assistant professor of applied mathematics. Even his early work was distinguished by a striving towards formal mathematical models for physical systems which combined clarity, elegance, and mathematical rigor. His work on fluid mechanics led to his work on aeronautics, in which he gave the first university level course in the world in 1913. He could design, build, and fly airplanes, which was the basis for his activity during WWI, when he designed and had built what was then a mammoth 600 HP aircraft for the Austrian army. At the close of WWI, v. Mises joined the University of Dresden in 1919 for a year, and then moved to the University of Berlin in 1920. His versatility and personal dynamism made the Berlin institute of applied mathematics which he headed a great center, comparable to Goettingen in this area. With the physicist Philipp Frank, a student of Boltzmann and Einstein's successor at the University of Prague, he revised the treatise on applicable mathematics which had grown out of the lectures of Bernhard Riemann into a famous two-volume treatise on the mathematics of physics (1925), which together with the two-volume work by Courant and Hilbert on the methods of mathematical physics (1924) contributed greatly to the mathematical tools underlying the new physics of the 1920s. Being of Jewish provenance, v. Mises left Berlin when Hitler was unmuzzled in 1933, and took a professorial position in Istambul. He left it to join Philipp Frank in 1939 at Harvard, where v. Mises continued to work on mathematics, statistics, and applied mechanics as professor of aerodynamics and applied mathematics. He died in Boston in 1953.

In 1950, v. Mises completed a translation and slight revision of a book that he had written in German and published in 1939. The original German edition bore the title Small Textbook of Positivism (1939; reprinted 1990). The English-language version was entitled Positivism. A Study in Human Understanding and was published in 1951

v. Mises book came out of the sort of impetus that underlay the great work of A.N.Whitehead and Bertrand Russell which aimed to tie together logic and mathematics into one continuous whole. Positivism is almost a humanist breviary. When I was a student, I had the honor to know v. Mises' collaborator Philipp Frank (then emeritus), whose work was an important backdrop for v. Mises, and who was as much a philosopher of science as a physicist. I recall the framed photograph of Bertrand Russell, looking very foxy, which he had on the wall near the entry way into his apartment near the NE corner of the Cambridge city park north of Harvard Square, where it set the stage for the sort and level of thinking that one could expect in that company.

This book of v. Mises is nearly 400 pages long, and quite readable. He gave a synopsis of it in a report to the fifth International Congress for the Unity of Science in Cambridge, Mass. in 1939, which is reprinted in the second volume of his selected papers. Rather than summarize a summary (dry!), I quote the words of Philipp Frank, who wrote a description of it in the introduction to a posthumous volume in honor of Richard von Mises, published in 1954 by his friends, colleagues, and students.

"In Positivism, a study in Human Understanding, v. Mises gave us a summary of his views on many topics in science and life. In this book the word "positivism" is not meant to designate a sectarian doctrine of some philosophical school; v. Mises uses it rather to characterize a way of presenting his views that takes its cue from the methods of science and should establish understanding among those willing to drop prejudice and accept what reason and experience suggest. Throughout the whole book v. Mises does not fail to emphasize that the role played by human imagination is not less important in the invention of scientific theories than it is in the works of art and in religion. Perhaps it is best to characterize this book by the author's own words. "Positivism does not claim that all questions can be answered rationally, just as medicine is not based on the premise that all diseases are curable, or physics does not start out with the postulate that all phenomena are explicable. But the mere possibility that there may be no answers is no sufficient reason for not looking for answers, or for not using those that are attainable." He stresses the point that too many people interpret the present world struggle [the Cold War – LF] as a battle between two ideological systems of extremely metaphysical character. "If this goes on", writes v. Mises, "the predictions of those who believe that the next step towards the solution of the basic sociological problems must come from physical annihilation of one of the two groups of people will be borne out."

"In our opinion, the only way out is less loose talk and more criticism of language, less emotional acting and more scientifically disciplined thinking, less metaphysics and more positivism."


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