Positivism and Magical Realism


Otto Dix “The Seven Deadly Sins” 1933- crop

[Opening Parenthetical: There were no entries on this blog in 2016 and readers may imagine that I’ve gone into hibernation. But 2016 was a crazy year both professionally and personally. Much of my time was spent finishing my new book, The Myth of Disenchantment, forthcoming May 2017 (order on Amazon here). The energy I usually reserve for blogging was mostly spent on Facebook posting about the shit-show that was the 2016 US election. On a personal note there were a few too many deaths and political disasters last year, but the shining ray of light in the dark-cloud of 2016 was my marriage to the ever-delightful Dalena Storm.

In the process of finalizing the book, I had to do a lot of trimming and one of the things left on the cutting room floor was a short section about the connection between the Vienna Circle of Logical Positivism (or Logical Empiricism) and the artistic movement known as “magical realism.” The connection is interesting, but much less robust than the link between famous Positivists, magic, and paranormal research that takes up the chapter. Still I figured some readers might find it interesting as an oddity in the history of philosophy. So it is reproduced here as a small research note.]

Follow across the fold if you are interested. 


We feel that there is an inner kinship between the attitude on which our philosophical work is founded and the intellectual attitude which presently manifests itself in entirely different walks of life; we feel this orientation in artistic movements, especially in architecture, and in movements which strive for meaningful forms of personal and collective life…. Our work is carried by the faith that this attitude will win the future.

-Rudolf Carnap, Der logische Aufbau der Welt, 1928

Der logische Aufbau der Welt (The Logical Structure of the World, hereafter referred to as Aufbau) is  Rudolf Carnap’s most famous work, and indeed one of the most famous works of the Vienna Circle of positivism. The quotation above might seem incongruous to readers expecting the dry logic suggested by the title. Besides, Carnap is often taken to be philosophy’s equivalent of Dragnet’s Joe Friday, constantly spouting the equivalent of the latter’s catch phrase “All we want are the facts, ma’am.” The whole goal of the Vienna Circle is often taken to be directed toward turning philosophy into a science and purging all meaningless metaphysics (understood as art, religion, poetry, ideology, etc). So what are we to make of quotes like the above?

Taken together, these lines hint at a utopian mass program or at the very least suggest that Carnap felt optimistic that a new cultural movement was on the horizon. In the next few pages, I want to excavate this particular program and show a connection between Logical Positivism and an unanticipated artistic movement.


Carnap was referring in part to architecture, and previous scholars have identified the specific movement he had in mind as the modernist Dessau incarnation of the Bauhaus School. This makes sense insofar as the positivists were frequent lecturers in Dessau.[1] But architecture was not the full extent of Carnap’s stake in aesthetics, nor was it likely the only artistic movement he intended.

The lack of scrutiny of Carnap’s conception of aesthetics is especially surprising because one of his central arguments is that metaphysics is a substitute for art. As discussed in my book chapter, in “Überwindung der Metaphysik,” metaphysics/art has a cultural function in the production of life-worlds or basic orientations that render existence meaningful. This means basically for Carnap art  is communal. Moreover, in that work, Carnap is not calling for the death of metaphysics; what he wants, in effect, is for metaphysicians to admit that what they are really doing is literature, not philosophy. This is often taken as a dour logician’s scorn for the arts, but actually Carnap is arguing that many philosophers are just mediocre artists. This would suggest that Carnap had something he thought was artistically superior in mind.[2]

On a few rare occasions Carnap has been loosely connected to the Post-Expressionist school known as neue Sachlichkeit.[3] Neue Sachlichkeit is an expression difficult to translate into English; it might be rendered as “New Matter-of-factness” or “New Pragmatism” or “New Objectivity.”[4] But it was less a unified aesthetic than a broad characterization of day-to-day representationalist art reemerging after the high tide of expressionism. There are good reasons to connect this movement to the Vienna Circle, not the least of which Herbert Feigl later recalled that: “Neurath and Carnap felt that the Circle’s philosophy was an expression of the neue Sachlichkeit.[5] But there was something that for Carnap was literally closer to home.



Franz Roh, Contact Print Strip 1929

While Carnap was writing the Aufbau, he was also reconnecting with an old friend, the German art critic Franz Roh (1890-1965). Carnap knew Roh from a phase of his life
generally omitted from shorthand biographies of the philosopher, namely his participation in a quasi-pagan branch of the German Youth Movement (Jugendbewegung).
[6] In general, the Youth Movement – a distant cousin of the American Boy Scouts – was a bourgeois back to nature movement associated with folk festivals and hiking.
arnap’s particular branch of the Youth Movement was a group called the Sera Circle (Serakreis) led by the publisher Eugen aristophanesDiederichs. Although today the publishing company Diederichs founded is an imprint of Random House, at the time it was an important outlet for works about German mysticism, fairytales, and Eastern religions. Diederichs was also an avid devotee of Nietzsche, whom he read in a romantic vein; he saw the Youth
Movement cultivating a new culture for the Nietzschean Übermensch.[7] Under Diederichs’ leadership, the Sera Circle engaged in pagan celebrations that included traditional costumes, dancing, leaping over bonfires, and ritual hymns.[8]

Participating in this movement was a formative experience for Carnap. In an early draft of his autobiography, Carnap wrote about the Sera Circle although he ultimately decided to expunge it from the text (although the writings are still available at the Carnap archive). In those excised pages, Carnap remarked: “the spirit that lived in this movement, which was like a religion without dogmas, remained a precious inheritance.”[9] It seems Carnap situated his personal spirituality in the Sera Circle’s poetic neo-paganism, and as he elaborated:

I often felt as perhaps a man might feel who has lived in a strongly religious inspired community and then suddenly finds himself isolated in the Diaspora and feels himself not strong enough to convert the heathen.[10]

Although famous as an atheist, Carnap nevertheless held to a kind of secularized paganism of his youth to such an extent that he felt it marked him out as a member of a kind of diasporic faith.


Roh was a fellow member of the Sera Circle; the two men shared a writing retreat as well as this background in the Youth Movement and a later commitment to leftist politics. In the very period that Carnap was working on the Aufbau, often at his father-in-law’s residence in Buchenbach, Roh was using the same building to write his own manifesto.[11] In the period that followed, Carnap and Roh discussed both works while on ski trips together in Davos. Roh too was a friend of Neurath’s and likely discussed the work in progress with him as well.[12] So what was the art movement Roh was forming alongside Carnap’s Aufbau?

The text Roh was working on was Nach Expressionismus: Magischer Realismus (After Expressionism: Magic Realism, 1925). Roh’s Nach Expressionismus is today remembered for one thing: being the origin of the term “magic(al) realism,” indeed the famous genre of “magical realism” emerged as a classification as Roh was translated into Spanish and read in Latin America.


When he coined the expression “Magischer Realismus,” however, Roh was not referring to literature, but to a new kind of painting exemplified by artists like Georg Schrimpf, Alexander Kanoldt, and Otto Dix. Roh explained his odd choice of terminology thus:

With the word ‘magic’ (Magische) as opposed to ‘mystic,’ I wish to indicate that the mystery does not descend to the represented world, but rather hides and palpitates behind it[13]

Magical realism was a kind of realistic art describing the fixtures of ordinary life. Its key feature was that it placed a particular emphasis on the object, allowing the material world to emerge in eerie ways. As Roh added, it portrayed “objects that express ‘convulsive life,’[or] ‘fiery exaltation.’”[14] In this sense, like Carnap’s Aufbau, Roh’s Nach Expressionismus was aimed toward a new experience of the phenomenological world.


In a way, this is a matter of synonyms. Roh’s “magic realism” overlapped with the works that later came to be referred to as “Neu Sachlichkeit.”[15] Roh, however, described his rejection of the term “Sachlichkeit” (matter-of-fact-ness) for the group:

[Objectivity] doesn’t acknowledge that radiation
 of magic, that spirituality, that lugubrious quality throbbing in the best works of the new mode, along with their coldness and apparent sobriety.[16]

The “magic” of magical realist art was intended to capture an animated world of things. It also likely resonated with the combination of enchantment and sobriety Roh and Carnap had encountered in the Sera Circle. Nevertheless, the term Magischer Realismus took on a life of its own. The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset translated part of Nach Expressionismus into Spanish in 1927 as “Realismo mágico, post expresionismo.” In so doing, he shifted the term “magic realism” to “magical realism,” and from there, by way of various detours, the concept came to inspire Latin American authors.

Carnap likely had Row’s manifesto in mind when composing the Aufbau. In that respect, Logical Positivism and Magic Realism were born together. Carnap’s ideal aesthetical style would seem to have been “magic realism” in Roh’s sense of the term. I do not want to read too much into this connection, but is one clue that magic and positivism are not the antitheses they are often presented to be.

More importantly, Carnap’s project suggested a kind of aesthetic project that appears


Otto Dix “The Uneven Couple”

from positivism’s self-conscious incompleteness. In the introduction to the Aufbau cited above Carnap also identifies this coming cultural movement with “an orientation which demands clarity everywhere, but which realizes that the fabric of life can never quite be comprehended.”[17] This is a hint that he elaborates elsewhere in the text, remarking that “we should be wary of the shortsighted belief that the demands of life can all be met with the power of conceptual thinking alone.”[18] Restated, there is a need for the irrational in order to constitute a life-world, and this is an irrationality Carnap identified with metaphysics and art. So instead of attempting to fully jettison metaphysics (and art) from life, Carnap seems to be suggesting that art is needed to construct community and lifeworlds.

This is also the place for religion and specifically mysticism in his system. There is one final passage that jumps out in the work:

It is an open question whether it is perhaps possible to gain insights in a manner which lies outside of conceptual knowledge and which is inaccessible to conceptual thinking. Such a possibility would lie, for example, in faith, perhaps on the basis of religious revelation, mystical absorption, or other types of vision (intuition).[19]

Here Carnap is providing at least a small opening for not only art and the irrational, but also mystical absorption. Try and square that with the cliché of Carnap and positivism.

In sum, the positivists are famous for their attack on metaphysics. They are often regarded as a significant form of anti-philosophy, aiming to purify philosophical language until all that remained was the skeleton of austere logic. The Vienna positivist might seem to be last group to have a utopian notion of art, much less one connected to magical realism. An awareness of positivism’s aesthetics begins to put pressure on the received view.

The chapter that this is was originally from follows with a discussion of Carnap’s interest in the paranormal. I also show how in the writings of other members of the Vienna Circle “positivism” and “magic” were taken to be synonymous (seriously). I also show how the attack on metaphysics had Left-wing, even Marxist, politics as a critique of ideology. But for all that you’ll have to read the book.

Expect more posting in 2017.


Otto Dix “War”

Footnotes incomplete. For full context and fuller notes, see Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Please check with me before citation. Also, I claim no copyright over the artistic images reproduced in this blog post. They are mostly from wiki commons and similar sources but if you are a copyright holder and would like any image taken down let me know.

[1] Galison. 1990. See also Feigl 1981, 62-63.

[2] Carnap 1996, 81.

[3] Hans-Joachim Dahms. “Neue Sachlichkeit in the Architecture and Philosophy of the 1920s.” In Awodey and Klein 2004, op. cit, 357-376.

[4] Steve Plumb. Neue Sachlichkeit 1918-33. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006, 11.

[5] Feigl 1981 62-63.

[6] A. W. Carus. Carnap and Twentieth-Century Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 50. For more on Diederichs see George Mosse. The Crisis of German Ideology. New York: Grosset, 1964, 52-63.

[7] Gary Stark. Entrepreneurs of Ideology. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1981, 103-106.

[8] Carus 2007, 55.

[9] See Josephson-Storm 2017.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Dahms 2004, 363.

[12] Dahms 2004, 364. See also Galison 1990.

[13] Franz Roh “Rückblick auf den Magischen Realismus,” in Das Kunstwerk 6, 1 (1952): 7-9.

[14] Translated Lois Zamora and Wendy Faris. Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995, 18.

[15] Franz Roh. German Art in the Twentieth Century. London: Thames & Hudson, 1968.

[16] Translated in Zamora and Wendy Faris 1995, 20.

[17] Carnap 2003, xviii.

[18] Ibid, 297.

[19] Ibid, 292.

2 thoughts on “Positivism and Magical Realism

  1. Hi,

    I pretty much liked your “The Myth of Disenchantment Book”. I must confess, however, that I didn’t read the whole book as of now, but I am keenly interested in your research because I was doing a master’s in philosophy of science about the demarcation problem, and I took parapsychology as a case study. Because of that, in your book, I specifically liked your analysis of the Vienna’s Circle (which I referenced in my thesis). And this new “research note” is also very interesting as it kind of puts Carnap more close to the current metamodernist movement and its engagement with magical realism (or am I wrong?)…

    Another interesting point that might be interesting in this regard as another link to this history of the Circle’s engagement with the paranormal, in case you don’t know that already, is Carnap’s explicit mention to spiritualist seances and how the phenomena witnessed there could, if proven, lead to the adoption of a linguistic framework with four dimensions of space in “Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology”. The fact that this is an article from 1951 struck me because at that time, J.B. and Louisa Rhine had already established the much more “scientific” Zener cards paradigm of investigation of the paranormal. So, I don’t know if Carnap wasn’t aware, which is doubtful, of Rhine’s work at that time, or if he was just willing to go so far as to defend a spiritualist seance even in the face of Rhine’s less spooky experiments; or, thirdly, maybe more plausibly, he might have thought, correctly in my opinion, that the phenomena witnessed at a spiritualist seance was more directly relevant to the adoption of a four-dimensional space framework. Anyway, I think this is also very interesting and hope it might enrich this post and your other remarks on the paranormal side of the Vienna’s Circle.

    • Thanks for your comment and reading my book. Also, I appreciate the Carnap article. I had missed the reference to seances. Cheers!

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