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

Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Feyerabend, c. 1948

I think it was Dr. Parakenings, the curator of the Philosophical Archive at the University of Constance, who first drew my attention to a possible personal connection between Feyerabend and the Austrian poet, writer and playwright Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973). The subject came up in one of the stimulating conversations we had while she was kindly assisting me with my doctoral research on the Feyerabend Nachlass, the Feigl Collection and the Carnap Collection, during my first visit at the Archive back in autumn 2004.

I had not failed to notice that Bachmann’s name occurs in one of the many, sometimes longish, notes with which Feyerabend used to “enrich” his papers in the 1960s. (Some of Feyerabend’s colleagues found such notes even more interesting than the main text of his papers, though most of them questioned Feyerabend’s style in that it made his pieces even harder to read than they already were. Feyerabend gradually dropped such a habit in the following decade, when stylistic matters became one of his main concerns). In particular, Feyerabend quoted Bachmann at some length in his “Reply to Criticism” (Feyerabend 1965e), a central paper in the consolidation of his proposal of a “Theoretical Pluralism”. Here, drawing on a Carnapian metaphor on which I will return in a future series of posts, Feyerabend presented his pluralistic conception of knowledge as “an ever increasing ocean of alternatives” rather than “a process that converges towards an ideal view” and, in this train of thought, compared scientific knowledge with the ongoing conversation which constitute a literary tradition, appropriating Bachmann’s terminology while criticizing her “naively falsificationist” – as Lakatos would have it – conception of scientific knowledge.

Feyerabend emphasized  that “[a]ll theories, even those which for the time being have receded into the background, may be said to possess a ‘utopian’ component in the sense that they provide lasting, and steadily improving, measuring sticks of adequacy for ideas which happen to be in the center of attention” (p. 225). And, in the note just mentioned, he specified that:

“In this respect scientific theories are much more similar to works of literature than one would be inclined to believe. ‘The domain of literature’, writes Ingeborg Bachmann in her ‘Frankfurter Vorlesungen’ [Ingeborg Bachmann (Munich, 1964), pp 298ff; esp. p 333f], ‘is an open domain — and this is true of ancient literature as well as of more recent works. It is less closed than any other domain — for example the sciences, where each new theory eliminates what has preceded [which is precisely the point at issue — P. F.] — it is an open domain as its whole past intrudes into the present. With the force of all times it presses towards us, towards the threshold of time where we reside … and we are made to realize that none of its works is dated, or can be made ineffective. It contains all those presuppositions which resist final judgement and final categorization. These presuppositions which reside in the works themselves I would like to call “utopian” presuppositions.’ A little less reliance on Wittgenstein whom Miss Bachmann seems to know quite well and a little more acquaintance with the history of science would have convinced her that the opposition between science and literature is much less pronounced than she seems to think.” (pp. 253-254n13; both the passage in the main text and the note were not subject to any change in the reprint of the paper in volume 1 of Feyerabend’s Philosophical Papers; see Feyerabend 1981a, p. 107 and n13)

Thus, between the lines of a note showing Feyerabend’s familiarity with Bachmann’s — rather than, say, Kenneth Burke’s — lectures on poetry and literature, one can read open criticisms against Whiggish history as well as more oblique ones against Wittgenstein. Some may also want to read into them a criticism of Popperian falsificationism. As I will show in a forthcoming paper I am not among them, at least not without a number of crucial qualifications. It seems fairly obvious anyway that the note featuring Bachmann’s name can hardly escape the attention of any Feyerabend scholar.

However, at the time of my conversation with Dr. Parakenings, I did not know much about either Bachmann herself or her own work. Most likely, Dr. Parakenings mentioned that Bachmann, just like Feyerabend, completed her academic studies at the University of Vienna at the turn of the 1950s under Victor Kraft’s supervision or maybe I discovered these intriguing details browsing the web while I was at the archive. Be it as it may, I seized the occasion offered by Dr. Parakenings’ hints to delve deeper into this aspect of Feyerabend’s intellectual life. To approach Bachmann’s work and see if anything could be made of it in my Feyerabend studies, I followed Dr. Parakenings’ suggestion and hastened to buy a copy of Bachmann’s novel Malina as soon as I got back home. I read the first pages of the book, but soon lost interest in it and set it aside together with my good intentions to unravel the Feyerabend-Bachmann affair. I cannot remember if I got the feeling that pursuing those clues would not lead me to any interesting result with respect to what back then was the main topic of my research (Feyrabend’s idea of incommensurabilty) or if it was for some other, possibly futile, reason that I decided to postpone any systematic research on this matter to some undefined point in the future. Whether deliberately or less so, I resolved to leave that research path and just keep alerted about any relevant evidence about Feyerabend’s connection with Bachmann that would pass under my eyes while following different paths.

I must confess that I have not recorded much in this respect over the next several years. As far as I can tell, but I could well be wrong, Bachmann’s name is a hapax legomenon in the entire corpus of Feyerabend’s works, not occurring anywhere else but in the above-mentioned note: neither in those papers in which Feyerabend took up again the topic of the relation between literature and science (see, e.g., Feyerabend 1967h), nor in Feyerabend’s frequent autobiographical remarks, including his autobiography (Feyerabend 1995a). BeiheftApart from it, an extremely thin and indirect connection between Feyerabend and Bachmann can be seen in the fact that, in 1960, an essay on Wittgenstein by Bachmann (“Zu einem Kapitel der jüngsten Philosophiegeschichte [On a Chapter of the Most Recent History of Philosophy]”, Frankfurter Hefte, 8: 7, July 1953, 540-545) and one by Feyerabend (Feyerabend 1954e) were included, together with a few other secondary literature papers, in the supplementary volume to the first installment of Suhrkamp’s multi-volume collection of Wittgenstein’s works (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Schriften: Beiheft [1], Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main 1960). That was it.

So, I was quite enthused as well as somewhat relieved when, about six months ago and more than a decade after my studies brought me in closer contact with Bachmann, I learned that Joseph McVeigh was working on Bachmann’s Viennese years and that Feyerabend had a role to play in McVeigh’s forthcoming monograph. Someone had finally ventured down a path that I had hesitated to take and had explored it moving from the opposite end. Now, thanks to McVeigh’s freshly published Ingeborg Bachmanns Wien 1946-1953 (Insel: Berlin 2016, 314 pp.), a little more light has been shed on the relation between Feyerabend and Bachmann.

17645The book offers a reconstruction of Bachmann’s life in Vienna between the early autumn of 1946 and the summer of 1953, namely from the time when she moved to the Austrian capital city from her native Klagenfurt, via Innsbruck and Graz — where in the aftermath of WW2 she had started and had continued her university studies, respectively in philosophy and German literature and in political science — to the time when she left Vienna for Rome with a significant intellectual baggage, including a Ph.D. in philosophy and membership in a ramified network, which in 1953 celebrated her lyrical work with the Group 47 literary prize. Indeed, McVeigh emphasizes that “[f]or the development of Ingeborg Bachmann as a poet and intellectual, her years in Vienna were of great significance not only because of her studies, but also because of the people she met there” (p. 49 [all passages from McVeigh’s book are quoted in my translation]).

The capital of the second Austrian republic was then occupied by the four main allied forces (and so it would remain until 1955) and was striving to recover from the devastation left by WW2. In such peculiar conditions, graphically portrayed in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), the intellectual atmosphere was particularly spirited and it seems that at that time “Feyerabend was everywhere where interesting things were going on, provoking people”, as Alan Janik noticed in a letter to the late Feyerabend (quoted in Feyerabend 1995a, p. 69). So, it is not surprising that McVeigh lists Feyerabend first in the group of people who Bachmann met in Vienna and possibly had some influence on her intellectual development.

As a matter of fact, Bachmann’s Viennese years largely overlap with Feyerabend’s longest stay in his hometown after his coming of age under Nazi propaganda and occupation; a delicate process that in Feyerabend’s case, not unlike many others’, was disrupted by the war. First the Reichsarbeitdienst, i.e. the six-month Reich Labour Service compulsory under the Nazi rule for men aged 18-24, and then proper military service as a Wehrmacht soldier and officer kept Feyerabend mostly away from home on the western and eastern fronts of the conflict from the spring of 1942 to early 1945, when he was severely wounded in action. Subsequently, he spent a protracted convalescence around Weimar, during which the area (including the Buchenwald concentration camp) was liberated by US troops and, after the Third Reich’s surrender, passed over to Soviet control. Feyerabend returned to Vienna only in the summer of 1946, just a few months before Bachmann’s arrival. He left again for some considerable time in the autumn of 1952, when he moved to London to pursue his post-doctoral studies at the London School of Economics under Popper’s supervision. He was back in the early summer of 1953, just a few weeks before Bachmann’s departure. Feyerabend definitely waved his farewell to Vienna two years later, in the late summer of 1955, to take up a position at the University of Bristol. He would never go back to his hometown for more than a few weeks of vacation until after his burial in 1994. Since then he is resting in peace in the Vienna South-West Cemetery.

As McVeigh makes clear, however, “nothing certain can be said over the intellectual exchange between the two”  (p. 50), though there is no doubt that “[t]hey met and struck up a loyal friendship with each other” (p. 49). The main evidence is provided by Bachmann’s correspondence and by her sister’s testimony. McVeigh reports that “[i]n a letter to her parents of 7 June 1948, Bachmann writes that Feyerabend acted as middleman for a meeting with [the Austrian Jewish author] Hermann Hakel [(1911-1987)]”, who had just returned from his voluntary exile in Switzerland, “and with [the Austrian writer, poet and librarian] Rudolf Felmayer [(1897-1970)]” (p. 237n54; see also p. 88). Moreover, in a series of letters to the Austrian Jewish writer and theater critic Hans Weigel (1908-1991) from the later spring and early summer of the same year, Bachmann “refers […] not infrequently to the fact that she has gone out with Feyerabend,” writes McVeigh (p. 237n54; Bachmann had become acquainted with Weigel in September 1947: see p. 46; apparently also Feyerabend was somehow acquainted with Weigel: see Feyerabend 1995a, p. 69). Isolde Moser (née Bachmann) confirmed to McVeigh that her sister “was friends with Feyerabend” and Isolde seemed to “remember about day-trips together […], but without specific details” (quoted in redacted form by McVeigh, p. 237n54). On such a basis, McVeigh concludes that “in the spring of 1948 and during the 1948 Summer semester [Bachmann and Feyerabend] occasionally attended lectures, visited exhibitions or made day-trips together on the hill of Kahlenberg or in the Vienna Woods” (p. 49).

On the other hand, the epistolary evidence and oral history testimonies collected by McVeigh do not clarify when and how the friendship between Bachman and Feyerabend started. According to McVeigh, “[w]e do not know how it happened that they encountered for the first time, because Feyerabend at that time studied physics and in 1947/48 he did not attend the same classes as Bachmann” (p. 49), whereas only “[i]n 1949 Feyerabend switched from physics to philosophy and wrote his dissertation Zur Theorie der Basissätze [Towards a Theory of Basic Statements] (1951) under Viktor Kraft like Bachmann” (p. 50). However, speculates McVeigh, “[i]t is absolutely possible that Bachmann noticed him for the first time when Feyerabend together with other natural science students infiltrated the seminar of [the philosophy professor] Alois Dempf in order to proclaim to those present that the natural sciences were by far superior to the humanities” (p. 49).

Apparently, McVeigh builds this conjectural narrative on the grounds of the fact that, for both Bachmann and Feyerabend, the time period 1946-1952 included the years of their academic studies at the University of Vienna: from their enrollment in the 1946/47 winter semester to their doctoral graduation in philosophy with Kraft as Doktovater in 1950 and 1951, respectively. In addition, presumably for lack of other sources, he relies on Feyerabend’s various autobiographical remarks concerning this period (McVeigh refers to Feyerabend 1995a, Feyerabend 1978a and Feyerabend 1983q). However, Feyerabend’s recollections are notoriously problematic and those about his university studies are no exception.

In particular, Feyerabend consistently claimed that before moving to Bristol “[he] had never studied philosophy” (Feyerabend 1978a, p. 116) and that when he “got the Bristol job [in philosophy in 1955] […] [he] had no preparation whatsoever, because [he] had never studied philosophy or philosophy of science” (Feyerabend 1995e, p. 115). At the same time, he confessed about his very early, but casual, flirts with philosophical classics as a high school student (Feyerabend 1995a, p. 27; Feyerabend 1995e, p. 115) as well as about having written encyclopedia entries on methodology and the philosophy of nature after his return from London to Vienna in 1953 (Feyerabend 1995a, p. 97; see Feyerabend 1961j and Feyerabend 1961k). In fact, had McVeigh had a chance to examine Feyerabend’s Studienbuch (record of study) in Feyerabend’s Nachlass (PF 9-3-65), he would have discovered that philosophy courses are listed in each of the eight semesters  through which Feyerabend’s student career developed (from the 1946/47 winter semester to the 1950 summer semester) and that these regularly included philosophy lectures or tutorials given by Dempf (with the exception of the 1947 and 1949 summer semesters and the 1949/50 winter semester), by Dempf’s pupil Leo Gabriel (all the remaining four semesters since the 1948 summer semester) and by Kraft (with the only exception of the 1948 summer semester), among others. Moreover, starting from the 1947/48 winter semester, Hubert Rohracher’s psychology lecture courses are included in Feyerabend’s Studienbuch for four consecutive semesters, whereas a Praktikum (training class, internship) organized by Rohracher is recorded in the following 1950 summer semester.

Assuming that Feyerabend did attend all the classes that are listed in his record of study (which is not entirely clear) and considering that, according to McVeigh’s reconstruction, throughout the six semesters encompassed by Bachmann’s career as a student at the University of Vienna (from the 1946/47 winter semester to the 1949 summer semester) she registered for twelve classes given by Dempf, five by Kraft, three by Gabriel and also followed Rohracher’s lectures, doing a Praktikum with him  (pp. 38, 40), there definitely was much more overlap between Bachamnn’s and Feyerabend’s courses of studies than McVeigh contemplated on the basis of Feyerabend’s autobiographical remarks alone. Indeed, the opportunity for them to socialize presented itself since their first semester at the University of Vienna, when both certainly attended Dempf’s lecture course on metaphysics. Therefore, it seems safe to conclude that in all probability the classrooms of the University of Vienna were the setting in which Feyerabend and Bachmann became acquainted with each other in the time span between the autumn of 1946 and the spring of 1948.

(end of Part I – go to Part II)

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