Book Review: Deborah R. Coen’s Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty

Historian Deborah Coen writes of exceptional lives in tumultuous times, and how scepticism was a vital part of liberal culture in post-1848 Vienna

Clockwise from left: jurist Adolf Exner, physicist Franz Serafin Exner, neurologist Sigmund Exner, ethnologist and Nobel Prize Laureate Karl von Frisch and Marie von Frisch | Illustration: Katarina Klein

people in 1900s

Clockwise from left: jurist Adolf Exner, physicist Franz Serafin Exner, neurologist Sigmund Exner, ethnologist and Nobel Prize Laureate Karl von Frisch and Marie von Frisch | Illustration: Katharina Klein

The Exner-Frisch Family: Science, Liberalism and Private Life

Moving slowly through the last decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty takes us through major cultural and political events as they collided with the lives of illustrious members of the Exner-Frisch family – or were shaped by them.

Some families have it all: the right place (the intellectual meltingpot that was Vienna), the right time (rapid advances in scientific theory and instruments), a multitude of talents (in philosophy, law, medicine, literature, the arts and several branches of science), and the ability to make the most of these, during periods of both tolerance and reactionary relapses.


A scientific dynasty 

Almost all the 19 members of the Exner-Frisch family would leave an artistic or intellectual legacy of some sort, directly through their own published works or indirectly through their inspired teaching at university.

Brought to life by historian Deborah Coen in Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty, this family history spans three generations, the fall of a multinational empire, and the difficult birth of a democracy. It reveals how closely intertwined science, liberalism and private life were in the late 19th century and early 20th century in Austrian society, where the frontier between the public and domestic spheres was not so marked as in other leading European countries.


A lakeside utopia

That “the personal is political” has become a staple of contemporary thought; that science can have its roots in private life is less common. Yet between the 1880s and 1930s, the Exners created a stable, liberal environment at their secluded summer retreat in Brunnwinkl, in the Salzkammergut, where new ideas were born.

One reached Brunnwinkl by the train to Salzburg, followed by five hours in a carriage. Then in 1893, the railway to St. Gilgen opened.

A cluster of cottages on the edge of the Wolfgangsee, the Schafberg’s tall peak so near – this was a rustic version of a Vienna salon in a splendid Alpine setting, a bridge between the Exners’ public and private lives.

Coen sets Brunnwinkl within the wider socio-cultural phenomenon of the Austrian Sommerfrische, described by fellow historian Rossbacher as “between elegance and folksiness, [between] society’s aloofness and summer’s friendliness.” Viennese families would summer in the same locations year in, year out, neighbours and friends together, so close communities were re-formed. One foreign guest remarked that this “association of outdoor life with the most refined culture of intellect and love” was truly Austrian.

Sigmund Exner, neurologist, viewed himself as a hunter, the decoder of nature’s signs, preferring observations at the hospital bed to laboratory experiments. His brother Adolf reformed the law of liability in cases of accidents involving new technologies (e.g. the railway) in the early 1880s by using the farmer’s wisdom as a paradigm, before becoming Rector of the University of Vienna and member of the Herrenhaus (Upper House of Parliament).


Taming uncertainty

Coen challenges the theory expounded by Schorske in his seminal Fin-de-siècle Vienna, providing a more nuanced account of the birth of the “modern” in Vienna 1900. Liberalism did not fail because the middle class became sceptical of the absolute claims of science and law. On the contrary, a critical attitude was precisely its strength. Thus Coen charts the evolution of authority, from a basis in absolute truth and religious certainty, to one in scientific speculation and uncertainty. Adolf’s rectorial address in 1891 began with: “Doubt is the father of all insight.”

The first Exner, Franz, was to thank for this. He helped reorganise Austria’s secondary schools (Gymnasium and Realschule) after the political upheavals of 1848: Catholic indoctrination gave way to training in critical thinking. The theory of probability and the emerging science of statistics played a pivotal role in this transformation: “Probability would fortify young minds against the lure of religious dogmatism by providing a model for action in the face of uncertainty. And it would skirt relativism by transforming knowledge won from lived experience into a language of universal validity and transparency.”

Austria departed from its Western European neighbours, where liberals embraced science as a tool for social engineering. Indeed recent research has identified a school of “Viennese indeterminism” – a coherent philosophical tradition that also encompasses economics and physical sciences. Thus Coen argues that scepticism was “a vital element of liberal culture and natural science in post-1848 Vienna.” Embracing uncertainty and quantifying it was precisely what revived Austrian sciences.


Beyond the causal principle

One of Franz’s four sons, Sigmund, described causal thinking as “a mental habit” that evolution might overcome. Other family members all applied probability in their own ways but shared a common belief: The world was too complex for deterministic laws, yet an open mind, careful observation, and recording vast numbers of events (be they at the microscopic or social level) made it possible to detect regular patterns.

Field study of the Alpine environment around Brunnwinkl shaped the new physics. Serafin devised a research programme, taking his students away from the laboratory into the open, and constructed a portable electroscope to measure the electric potential of the atmosphere. They would learn to treat unexpected fluctuations as meaningful signals rather than noise to be ignored, or errors to be corrected. Similarly, Felix studied mysterious temperature fluctuations at various depths of the Wolfgangsee.

His cousin Karl von Frisch sought to bridge psychology and physics by studying the scintillation of starlight at night. In 1912-13, he experimented with bees’ perception of colour, enrolling holidaying relatives to count bees on squares of coloured paper; his decoding of the dance of honeybees led to a Nobel Prize.


Post-dogmatic minds

What shines through this book, eight years in the making, is the Exners’ ceaseless fight against intellectual rigidity, as educationalists, philosophers, artists, and scientists; they did interdisciplinary research avant la lettre. Today it is hard to conceive that atomism had been silenced in Austria by the church’s opposition, but after 1848, molecular physics were freed from their shackles. Similarly, “natural law” had been taught as a subfield of “rational theology” but jurist Adolf imposed his liberal conception of law in the late 1880s. Felix fathered statistical meteorology at ZAMG (Vienna’s Central Institute for Meteorology and Geomagnetism).

All of these pioneering developments are recounted seamlessly in Coen’s rich narrative. The more mathematically-gifted will enjoy the equations in the sections on physics. Everyone else will be able to feel what a “liberal life” was like in a fascinating time of change. Some of the fierce debates are discussed at great length which also means that the family at times recedes into the background, and we are left wanting to know more about these exceptional lives.


The end of an era

Vienna in the Age of UncertaintyLiberal reforms were successful only up to a point. The liberal elite, to which the Exners belonged, did not manage to reproduce itself as a class. After the liberal party’s dissolution in the mid-1880s, its ideals were taken over piecemeal by several parties. And the fascination with probability splintered in two very different directions: the education programme of Red Vienna, whose architect Otto Glöckel promoted the pedagogical values of observation, the inductive method, criticism and acceptance of the empirically quantifiable, and the Austrian School of Economics led by Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises.


Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism, and Private Life
by Deborah R. Coen,
University of Chicago Press (2007), pp. 392

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