Feyerabend and Bachmann in Vienna (1946-52) – Part II/II

(continued from Part I)

As seen in Part I, evidence to the effect that the relationship between Feyerabend and Bachmann became more intense in the spring of 1948, together with McVeigh’s interpretation of Feyerabend’s recollections as indicating a shift to philosophy in Feyerabend’s interests dating to 1949, prove expedient for McVeigh to account for Bachmann’s sudden “academic orientation towards Kraft” which, he suggests, “could […] also be influenced by her friendship with Feyerabend  in the crucial years 1948/49” (p. 50). In fact, in the winter of 1948, following the advice of Ernst Topistch (1919-2003), who was then working on his habilitation with Dempf, Bachmann had enthusiastically decided to write a dissertation in “pure philosophy” under the supervision of the Catholic metaphysician, focusing on the idea of holiness in the work of late nineteenth century German authors such as Meyer, Nietzsche and Burckhardt (see pp. 42, 46-47). However, in 1949, Dempf received a call from Munich, where he would move from the 1950/51 winter semester (see pp. 40, 42, 47). In such circumstances, surmises McVeigh, “owing to [Dempf’s] forthcoming departure and the consequent loss of his protection, [Bachmann] finally switched to Viktor Kraft in order to save her project to embark on an academic career after earning her doctoral degree” (p. 47). Thus, despite the fact that Bachmann “completed […] a large part of her lecture courses with Leo Gabriel” (p. 47), in the 1949/50 winter semester she attended a seminar given by Kraft. As early as the end of 1949 she finalized a dissertation on “Die kritische Aufnahme der Existentialphilosophie Martin Heideggers [The Critical Reception of Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy]” and in the first days of the following spring she was awarded her PhD (see pp. 47-48).

Viktor Kraft

A few comments are in order concerning McVeigh’s account of the final stage of Bachmann’s academic studies. First of all, it should be noticed that the career strategy that McVeigh attributes to Bachmann does not seem entirely convincing. At the time of her decision to switch to Kraft as her Doktorvater, Kraft was at the end of his troubled academic career and due to retire in 1952, whereas the chair left vacant by Dempf was to be quickly and smoothly passed over to Gabriel (1902-1987). The latter had habilitated with Dempf in 1946 and was made extraordinary professor when Dempf resigned in 1950, becoming full professor just a year later. Therefore, Bachmann’s choice was not particularly longsighted. Perhaps these developments within the University of Vienna philosophy department could not be exactly foreseen in 1949 or Bachmann was then totally unaware of the situation or she was ill-advised about her career prospects. All of these conditions, however, seem quite unlikely, also given Bachmann’s good relations with an insider such as Topitsch, who would become a faculty member in 1956. On the contrary, apart from briefly helping Topitsch to manage the department of philosophy around the time of her doctoral graduation in the second half of March 1950, Bachmann never had a concrete chance to get a position at the University of Vienna (see p. 48). However, thanks to a series of grants awarded to her by the city of Vienna and the Austrian Federation of University Women after her graduation, Bachmann could spend several months abroad between October 1950 and early March 1951: initially in Paris and from December in London (pp. 108-111). Shortly after her return to Vienna, she found a job by the secretary of the US Intelligence Agency “News and Features Section”, whereas from the following September, owing to contacts with the journalistic and literary scene established with the help of Weigel, she was employed as scriptwriter and editor at the Allied radio station Rot-Weiss-Rot (see pp. 74-77). Bachmann’s job in radio journalism as well as her occasional pieces in printed journalism were instrumental, both intellectually, socially and financially, to support her literary production before her final departure from Vienna in August 1953 (see p. 82). In May 1952 she was invited for the first time to a meeting of the Group 47, which exactly twelve months later would officially recognize and honour the value of her lyrical work. (For an overview of Bachmann’s life, including her Viennese years, see this web page by Helga Pöcheim, Ingeborg Bachman Literary Circle – in German).

Insofar as the above considerations put into question the attempt to understand Bachmann’s turn towards Kraft as part of a career strategy, they seem to make Bachmann’s move even more puzzling. Alternatively, they highlight the stress put by McVeigh on the influence that Feyerabend’s shift to philosophy could have had on Bachmann’s choice. Indeed, starting from the 1948/49 winter semester, Feyerabend did make a perceptible switch (back) to philosophy after having devoted most of his second, third and fourth semesters to physics. (According to Feyerabend’s Studienbuch, the philosophy/physics classes ratio in the eigth semesters of his student career was: 5/0, 2/12, 4/11, 2/9, 7/5, 2/2, 4/1, 4/2). As Feyerabend made clear in the self-presentation attached to his 1951 dissertation, his return to, or closer rapprochement with, philosophy was due to his meeting with Popper in the summer of 1948, at the fourth International Summer School organized in the Tyrolean village of Alpbach by the Austrian College Society. This para-academic institution was born out of the unexpected success met by the Alpbach annual events, boldly launched in the aftermath of WW2 by Otto Molden, a Viennese member of the Austrian Catholic resistance to Nazism, and Simon Moser, a professor of philosophy at the University of Innsbruck, and known since 1949 as European Forum Alpbach. Feyerabend became involved with the activities of the Austrian College Society from early 1948 and, most likely in the following autumn, he actively contributed to the establishment of a study-group on the philosophy of nature (naturphilosophischer Arbeitkreis), which started to meet regularly under the academic leadership of Kraft and, accordingly, informally known or referred to by Feyerabend as “Kraft Circle”. (For a detailed account of the meeting between Feyerabend and Popper and for references to Feyerabend’s recollections, see my paper (in press), p. 11 and the draft of my introduction to a forthcoming volume including the Feyerabend-Popper correspondence, pp. xi, xvii-xviii. The best accounts currently available concerning the establishment of the European Forum Alpbach and the Austrian College Society and about Feyerabend’s involvement in its activities are provided, respectively, by Schorner’s “Comeback auf Umwegen. Die Rückkehr der Wissenschaftstheorie in Österreich” [in Vertreibung, Transformation und Rückkehr der Wissenschaftstheorie: Am Beispiel von Rudolf Carnap und Wolfgang Stegmüller, F. Stadler (ed.), LIT: Vienna and Berlin 2010,pp. 189-252] and in Kuby’s 2010 dissertation on Feyerabend’s years of apprenticeship in Vienna – both in German).

Considering that Bachmann had possibly attended Moser’s classes when she was a student in Innsbruck in the autumn of 1945 and that she had manifested a deep interest in the Alpbach events between 1948 and 1950,  though it is not clear whether she ever participated in them (see McVeigh 2016, pp. 16-17, 233-234n13), one may wonder if it was not she who introduced the activities of the Austrian College Society to Feyerabend. However, I do not expect that this question will find a convincing answer anytime soon, if ever.

The last traces left of a direct contact between Feyerabend and Bachmann can be found again in their records of study. As they were classmates in their first term at the University of Vienna, so they were in Bachmann’s last term, the 1949/50 winter semester, when apparently both of them attended Gabriel’s courses and Kraft’s seminar. It seems, however, that their connection via Kraft was of a rather thin kind and did not extend beyond the precincts of the university buildings. In particular, notwithstanding Bachmann’s final choice of Kraft as Doktovater, neither Bachmann ever mentions the Kraft Circle in her correspondence (see pp. 51 and 237n59), nor Feyerabend ever mentions her as one of its regular members or occasional visitors, nor any other evidence could be found that Bachmann attended its meetings at the headquarter of the Austrian College Society in Kolingasse 19, at walking distance from the University of Vienna main building. This is possibly due to the intellectual distance between, on the one hand, Bachmann’s interests in spiritual and existentialist philosophy — as testified both by her projected dissertation and by the different one she completed at the end of 1949 —  and, on the other one, the epistemological, sometimes technical, topics discussed in the study-group led by Kraft and Feyerabend.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, April 1950
Ludwig Wittgenstein, April 1950

A side effect of such circumstances is that Bachmann could not seize the opportunity to meet Wittgenstein during his last stay in his hometown. Wittgenstein moved from Cambridge to Vienna on Christmas Eve of 1949, shortly after having being diagnosed with a prostate cancer, to be closer to his unmarried sister Hermine, who was terminally ill with a similar disease. He spent the whole 1949/50 winter living with her and the house servants at his family home, at 4 Alleegasse (now 16 Argentinierstrasse). Hermine passed away on 11 February 1950 and Ludwig waved his farewell to Vienna about a month later, on 23 March —  exactly on the same day in which Bachmann earned her doctorate. In late January, under the stimulus of Goethe’s Farbenlehre [Theory of Colours], Wittgenstein probably started composing the twenty short annotations now collected in his Remarks on Colour, Part II, whereas sometime over his last weeks in Vienna, as he felt in better and better health conditions to philosophize, Wittgenstein also agreed to participate in a session of the Kraft Circle led by Feyerabend.

I started summarizing what we had been doing and made some suggestions of my own. Wittgenstein was over an hour late. “His face looks like a dried apple,” I thought, and continued talking. Wittgenstein sat down, listened for a few minutes, and then interrupted: “Halt, so geht das nicht!” (“Stop, that’s not the way it is!”). He discussed in detail what one sees when looking through a microscope […]. I remember the precise way in which he pronounced the word Mikroskopp. There were interruptions, impudent questions. Wittgenstein was not disturbed. He obviously preferred our disrespectful attitude to the fawning admiration he encountered elsewhere. (Feyerabend 1995a, p. 76)

The extraordinary event was made possible thanks to the mediation of Elizabeth Anscombe. At the time, Wittgenstein’s British pupil was in Vienna to perfect her Viennese German in view of the English translation of Wittgenstein’s work. She had been participating in the Viennese cultural life and she ended up in the audience at a lecture on Descartes which Feyerabend gave at the Austrian College Society. (An English translation of a selection of Descartes’ works by Anscombe and her husband Peter Geach would appear only a few years later; see René Descartes, Philosophical Writings, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe and Peter Geach, Thomas Nelson and Sons: London 1954). This started a fruitful and lifelong friendship made of lengthy philosophical discussions and good advices which helped Feyerabend start an academic career. Initially, Feyerabend invited Anscombe to talk to the Kraft Circle and, following Wittgenstein’s arrival in Vienna — most likely, after she began to meet him regularly three times a week, as early as February 1950 at the latest — she managed to have Wittgenstein persuaded to accept a similar invitation.

Anscombe tried to explain Wittgenstein, though without much success. This, we thought, was a particularly uninspiring kind of child psychology. Hearing of our reaction, Elizabeth suggested the I approach Ludwig Wittgenstein himself, who happened to be in Vienna. I went to the Wittgenstein family residence […]. The entrance hall was large and dark, with black statues in niches all over the place. “What do you want?” a disembodied voice asked. I explained that I had come to see Herr Wittgenstein and to invite him to our circle. There was a long silence. Then the voice — the housekeeper, who spoke from a small and almost invisible window high up in the lobby — returned: “Herr Wittgenstein has heard of you, but he cannot help you.”

Wittgenstein Palais at 4 Alleegasse and its grand staircase

Elizabeth, who seemed to be familiar with Wittgenstein’s peculiarities, suggested that I write a letter — “but don’t make it too subservient.” […] Wittgenstein seemed to like what I had written. “I’ve received a rather nice letter,” he said, again according to Elizabeth, emphasizing the “rather,” and was thinking of coming. Now the science students balked. “Who is this guy?” they asked, “and why should we listen to him? Anscombe was bad enough!” I calmed them down and reserved a room. […] Afterwards, Elizabeth told me how difficult it had been for Wittgenstein to negotiate this particular event. Should he come at the correct time, sit down, and just listen? Should he come a little late and enter with a flourish? Should he come very late, simply walk in, and sit down as if nothing had happened? Should he come very late and make a joke? (Feyerabend 1995a, pp. 75-76)

(McVeigh, perhaps following the vague indications that can be found in Feyerabend’s autobiographical remarks, misdates the event back to early 1949, see McVeigh 2016, p. 51. However, on the basis of Wittgenstein’s correspondence, it can be argued that the meeting of the Kraft Circle in which Wittgenstein participated took place in all probability between mid-February and mid-March 1950; see Wittgenstein to Malcolm, 29 December 1950 [#414]; Wittgenstein to von Wright, 12 February 1950 [#419]; Wittgenstein to Malcolm, 12 February 1950 [#420], 5 April 1950 [#421], in Wittgenstein in Cambridge: Letters and Documents 1911-1951, B. McGuinness (ed.), Blackwell: Malden (MA), Oxford & Carlton 2008, pp. 454, 459-461. This complements the concise reconstruction provided in my paper (in press), p. 10, n19 in particular).

Bachmann’s missed chance looks especially unfortunate if one considers her failed attempt to pay a visit to Wittgenstein in Cambridge about a year later, in early 1951 (McVeigh 2016, p. 52), when she was based in London and Wittgenstein was hospitalized at his doctor’s home to live his last days. Such turn of events acquires even further weight in light of Bachmann’s 1953 article on Wittgenstein’s philosophy mentioned in Part I, her ensuing radio lecture on “Sagbares und Unsagbares – Die Philosophie Ludwig Wittgenstein [The Sayable and The Unsayable: The Philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein],” broadcasted by BR Munich in the late summer of 1954 (see McVeigh 2016, pp. 237-238n62) and, ultimately, of Bachmann’s claim, in a 1955 interview, to the effect that her acquaintance “with the work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein” had been “the most important for [her]” among the “intellectual encounters [geistige Begegnungen]” she had during her Vienna years and to which “some aspects in [her] works could be traced back” (Wir müssen wahre Sätze finden. Gespräche und Interviews, C. Koschel & I. von Weidenbaum (eds), Piper: Munich and Zurich 1983, p. 12, quoted in McVeigh 2016, p. 238n63).

In addition, the hypothesis  that news of Wittgenstein’s possible visit to the Kraft Circle did not even reach Bachmann is particularly telling with respect to her position in the network around Kraft and to the nature of her relationship with Feyerabend. (Of course, it cannot be ruled out that Bachmann was in fact informed about the exceptional guest, but either in early 1950 she was not yet interested in Wittgenstein’s philosophy or just contingent reasons prevented her from attending the meeting of the Kraft Circle on such occasion. Had this been the case, however, it seems unlikely that it did not leave any trace in her correspondence). Indeed, it could be taken as further supporting evidence, however indirect, that Bachamnn was rather eccentric within Kraft’s entourage. Moreover, it seems to indicate that the relationship between Bachmann and Feyerabend loosened up with time and that they possibly parted ways as their philosophical interests took them in different directions. In short, their intellectual siblinghood, as pupils of the same Doktorvater, was not an especially significant bond at the time.

In fact, it is not even clear that Bachmann and Feyerabend were Kraft’s pupils in the same time period. As was the case with Bachmann, though for different reasons, Kraft was apparently also Feyerabend’s second best option as supervisor. According to Feyerabend’s own recollections, in his doctoral dissertation he had initially planned to deal with a problem in theoretical physics, classical electrodynamics in particular. However, facing serious difficulties in pursuing that project, he eventually resolved to turn his own notes from the Kraft Circle into a proper philosophy thesis under Kraft’s supervision, so that the resulting work could fit academic standards and earn him a doctoral degree  (see Feyerabend 1995a, p. 85).  When such decisive turn occurred and how long it took Feyerabend to finalize his dissertation remain uncertain. However, there is no doubt that Feyerabend’s plan B proved successful as he submitted his dissertation in mid-May 1951, defended it before a panel composed of two philosophers (Kraft and Friedrich Kainz) and two physicists (Hans Thirring and Georg C. Stetter) and officially graduated at the end of that year, more than twenty months after Bachmann’s graduation.

Considering the absence of evidence of a relationship of any kind between Feyerabend and Bachmann after 1948, one must concede that this is no evidence of absence of any relationship whatsoever between the two. On the other hand, going full circle, one may still wonder what urged Feyerabend to include the note critical of Bachmann’s remarks on science and literature quoted in full in Part I in a paper that he completed at the end of 1964, more than fifteen years past their acquaintance and about a decade since they both left Vienna and, in all probability, definitely lost touch. An easy answer could simply notice/point to the fact that Bachmann’s collection of lectures from which Feyerabend excerpted a quotation had just appeared earlier that year. Such a hypothesis, however, would assume that Feyerabend kept a sustained interest in Bachmann’s work and a corresponding attention for her publications throughout the intervening years, which we would have no other reason to believe. My alternative, and to me more plausible, guess is that Feyerabend was rather made aware of Bachmann’s volume by common acquaintances and, more precisely, that Feyerabend’s 1964 reference to Bachmann’s work is not unrelated to Feyerabend’s return to Vienna in the summer of 1964, after an almost six-year-long absence.

Indeed, throughout  his Bristol years (1955-58), Feyerabend had the chance to visit his hometown at least twice during summer vacations. In September 1956, he introduced Vienna to his wife-to-be and her chaperoning brother, living together in his old flat after participating in the Alpbach event. About two years later, between mid-July and late August 1958, Feyerabend was in Austria again: he explored the viability of getting an academic position in Vienna and, on his way to Alpbach, he had his last opportunity to see his father in Bad Ischl, where the latter had moved with his new partner since the mid-1950s at the latest (cf. Feyerabend 1995a, p. 4). He attended the first few days of the Alpbach event, where he met Popper, John W. N. Watkins and Hans Albert, before returning to the United Kingdom to board on the ocean liner that, between 27 August and 2 September, took Feyerabend from Southampton to New York. Thence he reached Berkeley, where he started his appointment as visiting professor. It was not before the end of July of 1964, however, that Feyerabend saw Vienna again.

In the meantime, several aspects of his life had changed, both professionally and personally: in the spring of 1959 he became Associate Professor at the University of California, Berkeley; in the spring of 1961 he lost his father; a year later he was promoted to Full Professor and in the following summer he got married for the third time; finally, in the spring of 1964, the situation between Feyerabend, Popper and the Popperian School became very tense (see my paper (in press), § 2.2) and Feyerabend’s relation with his wife did not fare much better. Austrian para-academic institutions such as the Salzburg International Research Center on Key Issues of the Sciences [Internationales Forschungszentrum für Grundfragen der Wissenschaften Salzburg] and the European Forum Alpbach seemed happy to celebrate Feyerabend’s in-many-ways extraordinary international success in academic philosophy and invited him to participate in their 1964 summer activities. On the other hand, in a time of personal crisis, having just turned 40 and feeling extremely isolated in Berkeley, both socially and intellectually, Feyerabend could perhaps hope that returning to his hometown would help him reconnect with old friends, reestablish lost ties and steer a new course. He spent the remaining of the summer in Austria, mostly in Vienna, inaugurating a crucial time period in his intellectual development. As it happened, the second half of the 1960s proved to be a time of transition for Feyerabend, not only because he split his time almost equally between the US, mostly Berkeley, and Europe, where he stopped for longer periods in Vienna (1965), London (1967-70) and Berlin (1968); but also because he strove to emancipate himself from the legacy of his Popperian apprenticeship, turning his Theoretical Pluralism into Methodological Anarchism.

(end of Part II)

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