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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The key to unlock Viennese culture and ideas, 13 July 2012
By 
Christopher H (Keilor, Australia) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Wittgenstein's Vienna (Paperback)
This remarkable study is the single most illuminating key to unlocking Viennese culture and ideas. The book's title is a form of paradox. Is the book about the culture of Hapsburg Vienna? Or about the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein? Or about the aspects of Vienna that moulded Wittgenstein's ideas? It is all three of these things, and then again it also explores issues that somehow sit outside these categories.

As the title of the second chapter conveys - "Language and Society" - this book surveys and carefully explains the scope and nature of Viennese writing in a very wide sense: novels, theatrical drama, journalism, social and cultural criticism, belles lettres. The aim is to show how public debate of the time was being constantly pulled between highly rhetorical styles of writing which did not rock-the-boat, and more innovative forms which exposed uncomfortable truths.

Having given a quick rundown of the issues facing Viennese culture and society in the late 19th century, the initial hero here is the social commentator-cum-satirist Karl Kraus, whose simultaneously barbed, angry and mocking journalism both outraged and stirred Vienna. The book then explores a broader cast of writers and intellectuals, including Arthur Schnitzler, Robert Musil, Peter Altenberg, Stefan Zweig and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, figures in the arts including Adolf Loos, Gustav Klimt, Otto Wagner, Oskar Kokoschka and Arnold Schönberg. This is one of those all too rare studies which connects literature and the arts to bigger debates that are taking place at the time, showing how theatre, fiction, painting, music and even architecture are responding to contemporary moral issues. And the authors do not force or impose theory upon the works: they reveal genuine underpinning ideas.

Following from this discussion in the first four chapters of the book, the authors then move into a chapter on weighter philosophical debates current in Viennese academic circles, which is followed by two chapters looking specifically at Wittgenstein's evolving thoughts before, during and after the Great War (including analyses of the Tractatus). The final two chapters are especially relevant to today's world, going on to consider a broad range of issues mostly revolving around political language (those weasel words of our leaders).

There is intellectual gold in this work. I have read the book right through twice, and selectively re-read those first four chapters several further times. I especially found it useful on getting a firmer grasp of Schnitzler's drama, Musil's novel The Man Without Qualities, and Loos's minimalist architecture. A combination of cultural history, history of ideas, and history of Viennese literature this is the necessary adjunct to Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday, George Clare's Last Waltz in Vienna, and, crucially, Clive James's Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time - if you have any, or all, of these books then "Wittgenstein's Vienna" completes the picture.
(All of the Viennese figures lauded in Clive James's work are discussed in depth, and many more figures are added to the argument.)
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Kulturgeschichte of a remarkable cultural and intellectual watershed, 6 Jun 2011
By 
rob crawford "Rob Crawford" (Balmette Talloires, France) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Wittgenstein's Vienna (Paperback)
This is a dazzlingly dense intellectual history of a time when there was an explosion of new ideas in both the arts and sciences. The place was Vienna, at the end of the Habsburg monarchy, where not only Sigmund Freud (psychlology) but also Loos (design), Schoenberg (music), Kochoscka (painting), and many others were establishing what we now call "modernism." It is also a philosophical tract of great depth, focusing on Wittgenstein. What is so remarkable is how commonplace their ideas and techniques have become in our everyday vocabulary - think "unconscious", but also "form follows function" - and how they all originated there, at the end of the 19C.

According to the authors, the starting point of the modernist movement is to be found in the deterioration of the Habsburg monarchy, spread as it was across a vast central european empire with dozens of languages and ethnic groups. To keep it all together in the face of rising nationalisms, the Habsburgs strove to maintain appearences of power and cohesion at all costs. This created a kind of living falsehood, in which issues were avoided by the use of code words and empty symbolic rituals.

Add to this the rise of new bourgeois fortunes, whereby a new middle classe arose based on industries. They too constructed their own private worlds within their homes, mimicing the Habsburgs and ignoring issues - in particular sexuality - to the point that it generated a latent hysteria in its women and anxiety in the working men, whose children despised them as fakes. Their houses were studded with overly ornate decorations, which were designed to ape the lifestyles of aristocrats, and they lived by elaborate codes of conduct and narrow career choices.

Obviously, this explains the biases in Freud's theories towards explaining too much by "suppressed impulses" buried in the unconscious (read hysterical women), but the authors argue that the great innovator of the age was Karl Krause, an independent satirist who called for honesty in language and the way one chose to live one's life. All of the others, they claim, were direct followers of Krause, from Klimt - he rebelled against the formalism of the royal academy of art with his Secessionist movement - to Wittgenstein and his study of language structure and meaning; even the great physicist Ernst Mach was apparently a follower of Krause, as was Canetti. They all knew eachother and were interested, and even participated, in eachothers' disciplines. This was a total surprise to me.

This is a fascinating intellectual tour (in the first 120 pages) that is evoked in dense prose that I had to read more than once to fully comprehend. I was particulary interested in their explanation of how Loos was attempting to strip away all ornament in an attempt to concentrate on the actual function of the buildings he designed as well as the household objects his followers created. This led directly to Bauhaus and all the other modernist schools of design, which exploited the new materials coming available, such as aluminum and tubular steel, to re-invent furniture, homes, and office spaces in ways that are still ripe for exploration today. I never understood the context in which this movement arose until I read this book.

The remaining 200 pages place Wittgenstein's philosphy in this context. To be honest, this interested me a lot less, but it is a must for students of modern philosophy. This is where the structure of language was explored, which led to the structuralists and to a degree the existentialists. It follows him to England, which comes in for heavy criticsm by the authors. In a way, this reads like a separate book.

Highly recommended. It is an intellectual adventure that is truly first rate.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Worth reading but difficult., 20 Jan 2014
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This review is from: Wittgenstein's Vienna (Paperback)
Fascinating story of the man and his times. Difficult for the non-philosopher but the message is clear;- his philosophy was set in Vienna, well before he reached the UK.
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5 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ESSENTIAL READING, 28 Nov 2011
By 
D. NICHOLLS (LONDON United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Wittgenstein's Vienna (Paperback)
"In the four intervening chapters, we have been reconstructing a picture of the social and cultural situation in late Habsburg Vienna, indicating the importance of the continuing post-Kantian critique for the men of that milieu--not just for professional philosophers, but for all educated, thinking men. As the outcome of this investigation we have recognized (1) that the need for a general philosophical "critique of language" (Sprachkritik} was already acknowledged in Vienna some fifteen years before Wittgenstein wrote the Tractatus; and (2) that the shortcomings of Mauthner's first attempt at such a comprehensive Sprachkritik had left unresolved one quite specific difficulty which might nevertheless be overcome, if some method could be found of reconciling the physics of Hertz and Boltzmann with the ethics of Kierkegaard and Tolstoy, within a single consistent exposition. The hypothesis to which our analysis has led is, quite simply, that this was the problem with which Wittgenstein was originally preoccupied, and which determined the goal at which the writing of his Tractatus was directed."

Wittgenstein's Vienna p 167/8
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Wittgenstein's Vienna
Wittgenstein's Vienna by Stephen Edelston Toulmin (Paperback - 1 Sep 1996)
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