The mathematician and professor Karl Sigmund details the personal, intellectual, and social interactions of the Vienna Circle, a small band of Viennese intellectuals whose work profoundly altered the course of Western philosophy.
Exact Thinking in Demented Times, Karl Sigmund’s fond and knowledgeable exploration of the ideas and members of the legendary Vienna circle between the two world wars, contains stark warnings not only about demented times, but also about the possible costs of exact thinking ... These arguments [between members of the Vienna Circle], which seemed so abstract, produced insights of vital importance for computing, astrophysics and cosmology, not to mention theory of science and philosophy. Mr Sigmund devotes a considerable part of the book to explaining some of these concepts. Readers unable to grasp them immediately are in good company ... Between the two crimes of (possibly demented) conscience, Mr Sigmund describes a world of intellectual endeavour. Barring the odd stylistic infelicity, he handles his material well. A Viennese physicist himself, he is as comfortable with local detail as he is with the grand picture.
Sigmund makes little effort to assess the legacy of logical positivism after the breakup of the [Vienna] circle. Nor does he furnish anything more than a superficial — and, in one respect, seriously inaccurate — survey of its philosophical antecedents. What he does supply is a brisk and engaging account of the volatile mix of characters that came together to form the Vienna Circle... The book also gives a vivid picture of the 'demented times' in which they attempted to carry out their 'exact thinking,' chronicling how Vienna between the wars, diminished by the loss of its status as the capital of a multiethnic empire and riven by ideological tensions, descended from cultural vitality into Nazi barbarism ... All of this makes for a book that, if not philosophically sophisticated, is packed with information and, for the most part, a pleasure to read. But one thing detracts from its appeal: its pages are stuffed with hackneyed phrases. That may not be the author’s fault.
Sigmund, a distinguished mathematician himself and a professor emeritus at the University of Vienna, has produced a stimulating account of the [Vienna] Circle, not only stating with clarity its ideas but also giving colorful portraits of and personal stories about its members — altogether a more accessible and entertaining work than an older book on the subject by Victor Kraft, published in 1953. At the same time, Sigmund has thoroughly researched his subject, with many quotations from the journals, papers and books of the people concerned and a bibliography citing more than 350 original sources, many of which the author read in the original German ... Sigmund’s book is full of vivid descriptions of people and places ... My main quibble with Sigmund’s book is its frequent digressions, breaking the narrative flow to give us several pages of biography of a new character — and there are far too many characters to follow — or to provide historical or intellectual background.