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Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism, and Private Life 1st Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-0226111728
ISBN-10: 0226111725
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Editorial Reviews


“Deborah Coen has written a magical book that interweaves the story of a fin-de-siècle Austrian family with the wider history of Austria itself. Here is a family—the Exners—that over several generations struggled to navigate between the shoals of doctrinaire religious certainty on one side, and the disorientation of a groundless relativism on the other. Between psychology, biology, physics, and statistics, the Exners aimed to create spaces for a new and reasonable modern life, a private-public space in their country compound, a new form of university life in the city. Their vision shaped thoughts as diverse as those of Schroedinger, Freud, and Frisch—recapturing this way of seeing has much to teach us about a hopeful and wrongly forgotten coherence in Viennese (and modern) culture.”
(Peter Galison, Harvard University)

“A remarkable portrait of a remarkable family in remarkable times: Deborah Coen turns the prodigiously talented Exner family into a microcosm of a distinctively Austrian brand of liberalism in fin-de-siècle Vienna. She deftly interweaves science and politics, family and landscape, aesthetics and medicine. As vivid as the Exners themselves is their core value of uncertainty—as scientific tool, metaphysical postulate, and moral stance. This is a fresh look at an extraordinarily creative milieu, in which reason and affect joined forces to forge a new way of thinking, feeling, and living.”

(Lorraine Daston, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science)

“The culture of fin-de-siècle Vienna has long played a decisive role in the imagination of what modernity means. Deborah Coen approaches the culture of that moment through an impressively clever and careful story of the deeds and sufferings of the Exner-Frisch clan, a dominant bourgeois family of Austrian intellectuals, scientists, feminists, and liberals. She gives us a challenging and radical vision of how the Habsburg world ended and the role of the sciences in that great crisis. The book involves a deft interweaving of intelligent interpretations of the sciences of uncertainty and chance, decisive elements for modern intellectual and practical life, with a refreshing attention to the habits and visions of family life, its intimate concerns and utopian ambitions. The book is beautifully illustrated with emblems of nostalgic vacations; pastoral experiments on clouds, bees, or atoms; and the urgent urbanity of newfangled cultural politics. The result is a powerful analysis of how Viennese conflicts of education and culture forged a new and fraught image of knowledge’s social place, an image ever more urgently to be questioned in the epoch of industrial society and nationalist conflict.”
(Simon Schaffer, University of Cambridge)

Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty locates the particular quality of Austrian liberalism in its practitioners’ bold assertion of the moral value of probabilistic reasoning. Defying the absolutism of politically entrenched Catholic dogma and the relativism of radical skeptics, the professorial Exner family and its allies transformed the worlds of education, science, law, and politics in the century after 1848. Deborah Coen’s authoritative account traces the seamless connections between the family’s domestic experience and the unique character of its members’ scientific research and active civic engagement. She argues persuasively that the Exners’ family life, particularly their summers in the Austrian countryside, provided a critical foundation for their monumental achievements in science and politics. This stunning volume, imaginatively conceptualized, meticulously researched, and superbly realized, will transform historians’ thinking about European liberalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

(Pieter M. Judson, Swarthmore College)

Winner of the Susan Abrams Prize for best book on the history of science published between 2005 and 2007 by the University of Chicago Press.
(Susan Abrams Prize)

"An important contribution . . . one that will especially interest those fascinated by the varied interactions among science, society, and culture. . . . The many-sided life of the Exners, presented so skillfully by Coen, serves to remind us all about the responsibilities of scientists to not focus only on a specific problem and to search for connections beyond the limits of a single discipline."
(Manfred D. Laubichler Science 2008-01-25)

"Coen offers a striking and convincing interpretation that the Exners were part of a Viennese intellectual culture that, far from abandoning the values of rationalism and liberalism, as suggested by Carl Schorske in his classic history of fin de siècle Vienna, developed an empirically founded philosophy of probable knowledge in order to combat the twin dangers of dogmatism and relativism."

(Mary Jo Nye Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences)

"Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty may stand as a new landmark text . . . because Coen provides us with a tangible answer to the tensions within Austrian liberalism, which is one of the fundamental questions of the history of this period. As such, this work is essential reading for scholars of liberalism in other fields. . . . An outstanding, meticulously researched work well worth reading."
(Larissa Douglass Canadian Journal of History)

"A lucid and erudite account of a complex cultural phenomenon that will be of use to both historians of science and students of Austrian culture."
(Mary Gluck American Historical Review)

"Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty brings the history of science as a field into more nuanced contact with science and education in Austria and provides a deeper, thicker description of the role of family in liberal intellectual and scientific life in the late nineteenth century. . . . An important contribution to understanding what was distinctive in this culture."
(David S. Luft Journal of Modern History)

"A most impressive first book that brings us dramatically closer to solving the Rubik's Cube of liberalism's history in Austria."
(Harry Ritter Austrian History Yearbook)

"Coen weaves a graceful and brilliant narrative. . . . Rare is a book that manages to revise political history, cultural history, and the history of quantum mechanics substantially at the same time. Coen has achieved this distinction with an acuity and charm worthy of the Exners themselves."
(Robert M. Brain Journal of Interdisciplinary History)

About the Author

Deborah R. Coen is assistant professor of history at Barnard College.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 392 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (August 1, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226111725
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226111728
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,916,995 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
Professor Coen's book traces Vienna's Exners, a distinguished family of intellectuals, jurists, scientists, and educational reformers from the 1840s through the Second World War. As Austrians faced the uncertainty of modern life, some clung to a dogmatic certainty, while others veered to the opposite extreme by denying the possibility that people could know anything at all. Coen traces how members of the Exner family used probabilistic thinking as a tool to navigate between the dangerous extremes of dogmatism and radical scepticism. This book is an excellent companion to The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand's bestselling history of pragmatism. Like the philosophers, educators, and jurists described in The Metaphysical Club, members of the Exner family worked out the implications of their probabilistic world view in a range of fields including optics, the law, meteorology, and high school pedagogy. In education, for instance, the Exners shared a belief that "education was the acquisition not of eternal knowledge but of the ability to find one's footing in an unpredictable world" (122), and advocated a philosophy course for high school students that would "immunize" them against dogmatism. In the law, one Exner used statistics to grapple with questions like what constitutes an "act of god" or force majeur in an unpredictable world. Probabilistic thinking could not solve all the problems that the Exners tackled, but their efforts illuminate even when they fail. Like most books written for academics, Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty requires a bit of effort to read, but Coen's book repays the effort handsomely.
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