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Otto Neurath and the History of Economics, edited by Michael Turk.

Otto Neurath and the History of Economics, edited by Michael Turk, London and New York: Routledge, 2018, vi + 207 pp., AUD 221.00, ISBN: 9781138732032.

Otto Neurath (1882-1945) was an eminent philosopher, a founding member of the Vienna Circle and a genuine polymath, who wrote on physics, mathematics, logic, sociology, ancient history, political theory, history of German literature, architecture and graphics as well as a large amount on economics. The author of this fascinating book on Neurath is not a historian of economic thought or an economist but a philosopher, whose 1975 Harvard PhD dissertation (cited more than once here) was on 'The Vienna Circle in Historical Perspective, 1920-1940'. After a very brief introduction, the volume under review contains 'eight self-contained essays in separate chapters', which focus on 'different elements of [Neurath's] thought and sources of influence, and also making comparisons with other notable economic figures' (4).

After a very brief introductory chapter, the first of these essays, 'Neurath in his milieu', constitutes chapter 2. Here Turk says a little about the intellectual climate in early twentieth-century Vienna and rather more about the influence on the young Otto of his father, the economist Wilhelm Neurath, of the German Historical School and of the Austro-Marxists. Chapter 3, 'Faulty philosophical foundations of economics', is devoted to methodological issues and offers a comprehensive and nuanced account of the ways in which Neurath applied his philosophical principles to his thinking on economics. I was intrigued to learn that this logical empiricist was an explicit opponent of any microfoundations program, since for him '[t]he "whole" represents a complex that cannot be comprehended by breaking it down into its component parts... This is the notion of the precedence of "totalities" over individual parts or elements' (47). In chapter 4, Turk sets out 'The divergent paths of Otto Neurath and Max Weber' (this is the subtitle, which conveys a rather better understanding of the contents of the chapter than the title, 'Out of the German Historical School'). Here he repeats his attack on microfoundations: 'When one turns to Neurath, it is impossible not to see the notion of "totality" qualitatively different from the sum of its constituent elements at work in his economic thought throughout his career' (73).

In chapter 5, 'Ecological economics and quantitative measurement', Turk follows several previous authors (for example, Clive Spash) in identifying Neurath as an influential forerunner of ecological economics, above all in its reluctance to put a price on nature. His 1917 essay, 'The Conceptual Structure of Economic Theory and Its Foundations', is 'in retrospect a pathbreaking piece in the prefiguration of ecological economics' (90). I was rather less impressed by chapter 6, on 'Neurath, Sraffa, and the problem with prices', in which I found the notion of an 'intriguing overlap' between the Austrian and Italian theorists (119) less than entirely convincing. But chapter 7, 'Otto Neurath and the linguistic turn in economics', does provide an excellent account of the philosophical foundations of Neurath's 'critical program in economies', including its implications for much more recent work on the language of economics by Deirdre McCloskey and others. This is the only chapter to have been published previously (Turk 2016). It concludes with a brief but intriguing discussion of whether Neurath himself should be regarded as a modernist or a postmodernist (147-8).

In the penultimate chapter 8, 'Socialist calculation in an age of information', Turk deals at some length with Neurath's views on Utopian thinking and on 'social engineering', a term that brought strong criticism from his liberal Austrian critics. Turk insists that, contrary to the claims of von Mises and Hayek, 'throughout his career Neurath challenged and rejected the notion of any kind of omniscience', arguing instead only for 'establishing effective coordination across different sectors of the economy and different economic agents within it' (164, 165). The book concludes, in chapter 9, 'Modernism and postmodernism revisited', with a more detailed discussion of the issues raised at the end of chapter 7.

It is impossible in a brief review to do full justice to the many significant questions raised by Michael Turk. To take just two, very different, examples from the final chapter: Neurath's intellectual relationship with Thorstein Veblen is discussed in some detail (167, 183-6), and an intriguing contrast is drawn between 'the radical and even revolutionary impetus of the work of the Vienna Circle in Europe in the 1930s' and 'the much more narrowly conceived analytical philosophy that attained great prominence in the 1950s' (192). Many more quite different and very interesting questions are dealt with throughout the book But there are also some problems, not least with the 'self-contained essay' format that Turk has adopted. There is inevitably a substantial degree of repetition, as noted above in the instances of microfoundations and (post)modernism. I regretted the lack of a single, systematic biographical chapter setting out chronologically the most important features of Neurath's eventful life (for which readers should turn first to chapters 2 and 7, with additional information to be found in several other chapters). I was also disappointed by the absence of chapters devoted entirely to Austro-Marxism, to the Austrian neoclassical, and to the German Historical School, all of which significantly influenced Neurath without dominating his thinking. In particular, the question of his relationship to contemporary Marxism is raised in almost every chapter, without any substantial or systematic appraisal. This is a serious omission. It could be argued that Neurath's rejection of markets and the price mechanism was derived from his early reading of Marx and his youthful discussions with his father Wilhelm and with his student colleagues Otto Bauer and Rudolf Hilferding, who all saw the growth of monopoly as evidence that capitalism was a contradictory system mat was in the early stages of abolishing itself. But Turk does not pursue this possibility, and I think he underestimates the importance of Neurath's work on the economics of early twentieth-century warfare, which appeared to him to vindicate the Marxian analysis (King 2018).

It would, however, be wrong to finish on a negative note. This is a well-written, scholarly and challenging book about an early heterodox economist whose ideas should be much more widely known to historians of economic thought.


King, J. E. 2018. 'The Economics of Socialism: Four Austro-Marxist Visions of a Post-Capitalist Future', paper presented at the 31st Conference of the History of Economic Thought Society of Australia, Curtin University, Perth, September 2018.

Turk, M. 2016. 'Otto Neurath and the Linguistic Turn in Economics.' Journal of the History of Economic Thought 38 (03): 37189.

J. E. King

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia Federation University Australia, Ballarat, Australia

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Author:King, J.E.
Publication:History of Economics Review
Date:Aug 1, 2018
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