Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism, and Private Life

Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism, and Private Life

Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism, and Private Life

Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism, and Private Life

Synopsis

Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty traces the vital and varied roles of science through the story of three generations of the eminent Exner family, whose members included Nobel Prize–winning biologist Karl Frisch, the teachers of Freud and of physicist Erwin Schrödinger, artists of the Vienna Secession, and a leader of Vienna's women's movement. Training her critical eye on the Exners through the rise and fall of Austrian liberalism and into the rise of the Third Reich, Deborah R. Coen demonstrates the interdependence of the family's scientific and domestic lives, exploring the ways in which public notions of rationality, objectivity, and autonomy were formed in the private sphere. Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty presents the story of the Exners as a microcosm of the larger achievements and tragedies of Austrian political and scientific life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Excerpt

It has become an icon of the modernist subversion of rationality. Gustav Klimt's mural Philosophy was commissioned as a tribute to the illuminating light of knowledge by the faculty of philosophy and natural sciences at the University of Vienna. But the image unveiled in the first year of the twentieth century was murky and otherworldly, its naked figures clinging to each other in despair. In a flurry of public protest, Vienna's scientists and philosophers barred the painting from the walls of the university. Instead, thanks to Carl Schorske's account in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, Klimt's Philosophy lives on in the historical imagination as a symptom of what Schorske diagnosed as the “crisis of rationalism.” To Schorske, the mural and the uproar it occasioned were tokens of the fall of Viennese liberalism, a movement that he defined by its confidence in “rational man” and in the “scientific domination of nature.” Klimt and the professors seemed to Schorske to stand on opposite sides of a historical disjuncture, representatives, respectively, of the old rational, ethical culture and the new aesthetic, subjective culture.

Among the scientists who figure in Schorske's account as critics of Klimt's mural and thus as proponents of “liberal rationality” were the brothers Sigmund and Franz Serafin Exner. The Exner family, Schorske pointed out, achieved renown in science as well as politics, displaying a breadth of interest characteristic of their upper middle-class culture of “rationalistic liberalism.” Viewed from the perspective of the Exner family, however, the Klimt

1.Carl Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture(New York: Vintage, 1981); see too
William McGrath, Dionysian Art and Populist Politics in Austria(New Haven: Yale University Press).

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