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Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty

Science, Liberalism, and Private Life

Publication supported by the Susan Elizabeth Abrams Fund in History of Science

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. 

392 pages | 22 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2007

History: European History

History of Science

Physical Sciences: History and Philosophy of Physical Sciences


“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

"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

"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

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: A Scientific Dynasty

1          The Mind Set Free: Preparing a Liberal Society in the 1840s
2          In the Stream of the World: Coming of Age in the 1860s
3          Memory Images: Models of Reason in the Liberal Age
4          The Pigtail of the Nineteenth Century: Determinism in the 1880s
5          Afterlife: Inheritance at the Fin de Siècle
6          The Education of the Normal Eye: Visual Learning circa 1900
7          Citizens of the Most Probable State: The Politics of Learning, 1908
8          Into the Open: Measuring Uncertainty, 1900–1914
9          The Irreplaceable Eye: Visual Statistics, 1914–1926
Conclusion: A Family’s Legacy
Appendix: The Exner-Frisch Family Tree


Center for Austrian Studies/U. of Minnesota, Austrian Cultural Forum, NY: Austrian Cultural Forum Book Prize

Association for Slavic, East European, & Eurasian Studies: Barbara Jelavich Book Prize

University of Chicago Press: Susan E. Abrams Prize in History of Science

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