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Otto Neurath

Otto Neurath (1882–1945), was a polymath whose life’s work encompassed politics, sociology, philosophy, urbanism, and visual communication. Concerning the last-named field: he was the leading figure in the work that is now most commonly termed ‘Isotype’.

Neurath was born in Vienna, the son of the political economist Wilhelm Neurath (1840–1901). He studied mathematics and physics, then economics, history and philosophy at the University of Vienna; he gained his doctorate in the department of philosophy at the University of Berlin. From 1907 he taught political economy at the Neue Wiener Handelsakademie (‘new Vienna academy of commerce’) until war broke out in 1914. After some war service, he became director of the Deutsches Kriegswirtschaftsmuseum (‘German museum of war economy’) at Leipzig. In 1918–19, working as a civil-servant (though he joined the German Social-Democratic Party), Neurath ran an office for central economic planning in Munich. When the Bavarian ‘soviet republic’ was defeated, Neurath was arrested and, after trial, sentenced to one-and-a-half years’ imprisonment, but was eventually released after an intervention from the Austrian government – with a condition that he did not return to Germany.

Back in Vienna, Neurath became general secretary for the Österreichischer Verband für Siedlungs-und Kleingartenwesen (‘Austrian association for estate-housing and allotments’), a collection of self-help groups that aimed to provide housing and garden plots for its members. In 1923, he became the director of a Siedlungsmuseum (a museum of housing – it went under various titles). At the start of 1925 he opened the Gesellschafts-und Wirtschaftsmuseum in Wien (‘social and economic museum of Vienna’), for which he became fully engaged in the use of visual methods for explanation and education. Working with Marie Reidemeister (from 1925) in a gradually developing team of collaborators – the main other one was the artist Gerd Arntz (from 1928) – Neurath created Isotype.

Alongside his work for this museum and for the housing movement, Neurath also became a very committed Logical Positivist. He was the main author of the Vienna Circle manifesto (1929). Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, he was the driving force behind its successor Unity of Science movement.

In February 1934 a brief civil war in Austria broke out: the conservative-nationalist Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss took control of government and began to suppress socialist opposition groups. Neurath and his core group at the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum left Vienna for The Hague. They had already established a working organization – the ‘International Foundation for the Promotion of Visual Education by the Vienna Method’ – there.

The group from the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum then continued their work from this new base. Its international spread, which had already started in Vienna, intensified and extended. In 1935 the name ‘Isotype’ was devised to describe what had been known as the Wiener Methode (‘Vienna method’). With the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, Otto Neurath and Marie Reidemeister left The Hague and mainland Europe, heading for England, which they reached. (Gerd Arntz stayed behind in The Hague.) After internment – along with all other ‘enemy aliens’ – they resumed their work, now living in Oxford; the Isotype Institute was established in 1942. Otto Neurath died suddenly in December 1945, in full flow – and with some remarkable accomplishments to his name and to those of the groups of collaborators of which he was one.