No full-scale biography of Carl Menger?

Interesting situation, given the number of books that have been written about second and third order intellectual figures, how come none about Carl Menger, one of the leaders of the marginal revolution and founder of the Austrian school of economics?

There is a monumental volume about Ludwig von Mises, his most influential follower and an equally wordy story about half the life of Karl Popper, another Austrian who spent a deal of time in New Zealand.

When von Mises was born the Austro-Hungarian empire encompassed Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, as well as parts of present-day Poland, Romania, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia and Montenegro. After World War I the empire was dismembered in the name of national self-determinism, and so the Balkans were balkanised, laying the foundations for further conflagrations up to the present day. The glory of the empire at its height can be seen from the number and size of the public buildings, monuments and museums in Old Vienna today.

Writers, scholars, administrators, entrepreneurs and revolutionaries moved backwards and forwards between the major centres of the empire. They created a rich tradition of culture and learning that was multicultural in a way that is scarcely comprehensible to Anglo-Saxons. With at least ten languages in the empire, they fed on the thoughts of Russians, Poles and Germans with the same facility that they absorbed ideas from England and France, thought their accents betrayed them when they fled to safety in the west during the 1930s.

Some of the most important threads of modern thought passed through Vienna, not necessarily through the university but also through the coffee shops and private seminars. The best known were the circles of Schoenberg (progressive music) and the Vienna Circle of logical positivists. Others included a Freud group and seminars convened by Ludwig von Mises, Karl Menger (son of the great economist) and Richard Mises (brother of Ludwig).

Karl Popper almost came to the University of Sydney in 1945. John Anderson invited him to join the staff in Philosophy but Popper delayed his decision in the hope of an offer from the London School of Economics. When that offer came Professor Anderson was spared the confrontation with a colleague as assertive and argumentative as himself.

Popper died in 1994 at the age of 92 and this is the first comprehensive book to appear on his life and work, although he detailed account stopped halfway through Popper’s life. Hacohen charted the evolution of Popper’s thinking with close attention to his intellectual influences and the explosive social and political tensions in Vienna which informed his thoughts on politics and ultimately prompted his flight to New Zealand. Over twenty years in the making, this is likely to be the standard reference for some time.

The book has at least four different aspects, each of considerable interest. One is the reconstruction of Popper’s intellectual career as he groped towards his seminal work in the philosophy of science and politics. The second is to give some impression of Popper the person, the being of flesh and blood who is practically invisible in his intellectual autobiography Unended Quest. The third is the recreation of the social and political milieu of Vienna, the life of high culture and intellectual achievement that thrived but finally expired under the volcano of fascism and anti-Semitism. The fourth is Hacohen’s mission to reclaim Popper for the social democrats, to snatch him back from the clutches of the Cold War liberals and the New Right.

Hacohen reports that Popper worked for 360 days of the year, all day, without the distraction of newspapers, radio or TV. Several times a month, even in old age, he worked all night and some friend such as Bryan Magee would get an early morning call from Popper, bubbling with excitement to report on his latest ideas. Popper lived well out of London near High Wycombe and when Magee gained Popper’s confidence he was invited to visit, taking the train to “Havercombe” (in Popper’s heavily accented English). When I made the trip to Havercombe, Popper arranged to meet me at the station, carrying a copy of the BBC Listener, presumably to pick him out from all the other elderly gentlemen of middle-European extraction who might be thronging the platform at 2.00 on a Wednesday afternoon. In the event, he left the magazine at home and the kiosk had sold out so he had to buy The Times and fold it to the size of the Listener.

Of course he was the only person in sight apart from the Station Master. Popper, then aged 70, had what his research assistant tactfully described as a “very positive” attitude to driving. Fortunately it was not far to his home and there were few other cars on the road. Safely home, our conversation laboured, and he frequently pushed a tray of choc-chip cookies towards me. Later he lamented to his assistant that I had eaten a weeks supply of his favourite cookies.

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4 Responses to No full-scale biography of Carl Menger?

  1. Rafe,

    My PhD was on Austrian capital and interest theory (sadly an area that the mainstream want nothing to do with); I read some of your work on Hayek. Both Hayek and Mises state that Menger made each of them, respectively, economists. His subjectivist approach to value is superb, which obviously launched the the school and steered it away from the German historicists. People value things subjectively based on importance and urgency.

    One story about Menger which I love is that in his early days he was a journalist. The story goes that he reported on the market prices of commodities. However, he saw that there was a divergence between what economic theory taught and what he saw happening in the market place (sound familiar?). This it seems prompted him to figure out why.

    He wrote his Principles of Economics as his habilitation thesis. Hulsmann on Mises is interesting, and important, but it lacks intellectual depth. It is a great historical work and provides significant scope on Mises’ background, but it does not plumb the intellectual depth of what Mises was trying to do. I believe that there are other biographies on Mises – his wife’s for instance. I am not sure whether there is a full-scale biography done on Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, who taught Mises, Schumpeter and others. That would be interesting.

  2. Aynsley Kellow

    ‘Popper, then aged 70, had what his research assistant tactfully described as a “very positive” attitude to driving.’
    Popper’s driving was legendary. He visited Otago while I was a PhD student there in the 1970, and I was fortunate enough to hear him give a lecture. Alan Musgrave, who held the chair in Philosophy, took him down to Te Anau and Milford Sound. Popper apparently insisted on having a drive. The roads were unsealed. I think a comparison was made with Toad of Toad Hall, and Alan’s hair greeted noticeably in a few weeks.

  3. Rafe Champion

    Nice story. I can just imagine the scene.
    Incidentally von Mises was the same, they both learned to drive late in life and von Mises was worse than Popper because he insisted on touring. Twice he had moderately serious accidents according to Hulsmann.

  4. Aynsley Kellow

    Oops – ‘Alan’s hair greeted’ !! It did not greet – it greyed. I suspect autocorrect.

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