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Vienna musings

by Kurt Schuler March 30th, 2014 11:03 pm

Before I greatly reduce the frequency of my posts sometime in April, I have a backlog of items to unburden myself of. Here's one.

A month ago I visited Vienna briefly to attend a conference. I had a couple of hours free before the conference began, so I walked around the center of the city. I was particularly curious to see two places where Ludwig von Mises had lived, identified in Jörg Guido Hülsmann's sweeping biography. Alas, Mises's boyhood home, Friedrichstrasse 4, is undergoing renovation and has a big protective mesh over it to keep the plaster from falling on pedestrians. His later home, Wollzeile 24, is an undistinguished building that looks more modern than many others around it. I assume that was where Mises wrote The Theory of Money and Credit and Socialism, at least when he wasn't writing at the office. No plaque or other marker denotes the spot.

Ludwig von Mises and his brother Richard (later a renowned mathematician who became a professor at Harvard) attended the Akademische Gymnasium, Vienna's oldest and most famous high school. It is on the Beethovenplatz in a magnificent building. The alumni list includes Franz Schubert, Erwin Schödinger, and Lise Meitner (co-discoverer of nuclear fission, should have received the Nobel Prize in Physics), all of whom are listed on plaques on the front of the building. I didn't see any for the Mises brothers...apparently they were not famous enough to make the cut.

Thinking about Ludwig von Mises and his work, it occurred to me that he rarely covered the same ground twice. Many of his works had partly overlapping subjects, but if he touched on a subject again it was as part of a different enterprise. After The Theory of Money and Credit he wrote and later discussed monetary issues in monographs, essays, and other works (notably Human Action), but did not publish another full-length book on money.  I don' t know if Mises intended from the start to be a system-builder, but looking back on the books he published during his life makes it apparent that he covered a wide ground at the intersection of economics, political philosophy, and epistemology. It was not just a collection of problems that interested him; it was a group of topics that he considered vital for the future of civilization. Considered in that light, it is not so surprising that he did not publish a second full-length book on money; his time was too precious. As I have commented in a previous post, I do not think that Mises integrated his ideas on socialist calculation and his ideas on monetary theory as well as he could have. That was left to a later generation, starting with Larry White.

While I am on the subject of Vienna, I will mention this passage I recently found in Herbert Simon's book Models of My Life on Karl Menger, the mathematician son of Carl Menger the founder of the Austrian School of economics. Karl had the good sense to leave Europe for the United States in the 1930s. Eventually he ended up as a highly honored professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago, where Simon taught as a young man.

Toward the end of my career at IIT, I had a luncheon conversation with Karl Menger that I cannot forget. He had started his career, he said, with a deep interest in logic and the foundations of mathematics. The publication of Goedel’s famous Impossibility Theorem (1931) struck him a blow from which he never recovered. If it was impossible, as Goedel had shown, to provide wholly rigorous foundations for mathematics, what was the meaning of mathematical certainty? Menger never again worked on the foundations of mathematics. Even thinking about the subject depressed him, and as he recounted the story, he gradually subsided into a gloomy silence that continued through the lunch. (p. 101)

Aside from the interest the passage has as a record of the encounter of two brilliant minds, it struck me that this passage implies that there may be a couple of as yet unexploited sources of material on Carl Menger. Karl Menger the son had children who are American citizens and may still be alive.  Hülsmann's biography of Mises (pp. 103, 136) cites an unpublished paper by Karl about Carl in the Carl Menger papers at Duke University. Perhaps somebody interested in the history of the Austrian School can get on the telephone and try to find Carl's grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, to ask whether there is any oral history that would add to the written record?

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