The University of Iowa

About Gustav Bergmann

Bibliography of the writings of Gustav Bergmann

Papers of Gustav Bergmann in UI Libraries' Special Collections

From American National Biography, Vol. 2, Oxford University Press, 1999, 639-641

Gustav Bergmann 1906-1987Gustav Bergmann (4 May 1906-21 Apr. 1987), philosopher and mathematician, was born in Vienna, Austria, the son of Fritz Bergmann, an import/export merchant, and Therese Pollack. Before Bergmann took a Ph.D. in mathematics with a minor in philosophy in 1928 at the University of Vienna, he had already been invited to join the famous Vienna Circle. This group of philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians had adopted what they called logical positivism (or sometimes logical empiricism): advocating a scientific world view, they rejected traditional metaphysics and religion as meaningless and regarded ethical and aesthetic statements as only expressions of attitudes. As one of the youngest members of the Circle along with his Gymnasium classmate, the mathematical logician Kurt Gödel, Bergmann was especially influenced by the philosophers Moritz Schlick, Friedrich Waismann, and Rudolf Carnap who were members of the Circle.

In 1929-1930 Bergmann taught mathematics at the Neubau-Realschule in Vienna and the following year joined his dissertation director, Walther Mayer, in assisting German physicist Albert Einstein in his work in Berlin. Discouraged by the prospects for Jews in academia, Bergmann took a J.D. from the University of Vienna in 1935 and began work as a junior in a firm of corporation lawyers. With financial assistance from Circle member Otto Neurath, Bergmann moved to the United States in the fall of 1938 with his first wife, Anna Golwig, whom he had married in 1927 and with whom he had his only child. On the boat trip across the Atlantic, Bergmann wrote, at Neurath's request, a monograph on the Vienna Circle, published as "Erinnerungen an den Wiener Kreis: Brief an Otto Neurath," in Vertriebene Vernunft II: Emigration und Exil Ӧsterreichischer Wissenschaft (1987) and in English translation as "Memories of the Vienna Circle: Letter to Otto Neurath (1938),” in Scientific Philosophy: Origins and Developments (I993), both edited by F. Stadler (Bergmann insisted that this document be published only after his death).  During this voyage he and the novelist Hermann Broch became close friends by nightly reading of their works-in-progress to each other.

After working in New York as an actuary for a few months, Bergmann was able, with a letter of recommendation from Einstein and the assistance of Circle member Herbert Feigl, who had left Vienna for the University of Iowa in the early 1930s, to obtain an appointment at Iowa, where he was to remain for the rest of his career. Bergmann began in 1939 as assistant to the psychologist Kurt Lewin in the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station. In 1940 Bergmann received a faculty appointment as assistant professor in Iowa's Department of Philosophy, and in 1943 he was given an additional appointment in the Department of Psychology. In that same year Bergmann divorced his first wife, who had been institutionalized shortly after their arrival in America, and married Leola Nelson, a scholar of American studies, and a printmaker. In 1944 he became an American citizen.

With the exception of a short piece on literary theory, Bergmann's publications before his emigration were all in the field of mathematics and mainly on his specialty of topology. His reputation in philosophy was established in the 1940s and early 1950s with numerous papers in the philosophy of psychology and the philosophy of physics, and in logic and probability--an aspect of Bergmann's work that culminated in his Philosophy of Science (1957). In this area of philosophy Bergmann's ideas were, and remained, largely those of orthodox logical positivism. During these early years at Iowa Bergmann also established an association with the psychologist Kenneth Spence, a student of Clark Hull.  (Bergmann had spent two months with Hull at Yale in the summer of 1939.) This association, which resulted in several important papers in the journals Philosophy of Science and Psychological Review, proved to be the most productive of the many associations across the country that constituted an important part of the intellectual culture of the time--the alliance between logical positivism in philosophy and behaviorism in psychology. Bergmann was named full professor of philosophy and psychology in 1950.

By the late 1940s, Bergmann had begun what was to become his most important work--studies in metaphysics, philosophy of logic, and philosophy of mind. A collection of papers published as The Metaphysics of Logical Positivism in 1954 resulted in his intellectual, and in a few cases personal, estrangement from other members of the Circle (most of whom had also settled in America); Bergmann insisted, contrary to positivist orthodoxy, that not only did some traditional metaphysics make sense if properly recast, but that logical positivism itself contained an implicit metaphysics.

In rejecting what he regarded as the narrow scientism of most of his colleagues in the logical positivist movement (which included many thinkers not in the Vienna Circle), Bergmann adopted the "ideal-language" method of doing philosophy. This method, of which Bergmann remains the best-known practitioner, calls for the reformulation in principle of all of the meaningful sentences of natural language into a certain kind of artificial language that allows a precision and independence from context unavailable in natural languages. In discoursing about this ideal language (a language never actually to be spoken and to be written only in fragments), the philosopher would be able clearly to formulate and, in principle, definitively to solve the traditional philosophical problems. Although the notion of an artificial language for the solution of philosophical problems originated with German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Bergmann's form of it derives from the work of two of the century's most important philosophers, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who, with G. E. Moore, were the most important influences on him in the early years of his metaphysical thinking. From Moore he adopted the idea that certain beliefs of everyday life (that there is a world that exists independent of our minds, for example) are the ones from which philosophy begins. Russell's primary influence was in more technical matters having to do with metaphysics, logic, and the formal structure of the ideal language, while Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus of 1922, which contains numerous examples of the use of the ideal language method, was probably the single most important work for Bergmann at this time (although he eventually became the primary critic of its most important doctrine).

If in his early years Bergmann was "the most sophisticated and plausible of the positivists," as characterized by Robert Turnbull, in the 1950s Bergmann's work moved in directions that were to make him eventually, in the words of another eminent philosopher, Hector-Neri Casteñeda, "the major ontologist of recent decades." Ontology for Bergmann was the attempt to specify comprehensively what the categories of the simple constituents of reality are as discovered through direct experience of reality and dialectical reasoning about it. The simplest signs of the ideal language would stand for the simplest constituents of reality with the structure of reality thereby exposed in the structure of that language. Bergmann's collection of essays, Meaning and Existence (1959) dealt with these themes and was partly responsible for his invitation by the government of Sweden to lecture at the four Swedish universities during the academic year 1961-1962. By this time, too, partly by placing many of his students as faculty in departments of philosophy and psychology in leading universities of the United States, Bergmann had brought national status to a small philosophy department in a middle-sized Midwestern university.

A fundamental aspect of Bergmann's ontology was his insistence, contrary to Wittgenstein, that logic (including mathematics) is a part of reality itself and not "nothing," or just the way humans think. Papers on this theme and others were published under the title Logic and Reality in 1964. In philosophy of mind, by rejecting the materialism and phenomenalism of his positivist teachers, Bergmann insisted on dualism, or, as he preferred to call it, "realism," in arguing that mind and matter are each independently real and neither reducible to the other. His theory of the nature of the mind as consisting of mental acts that are intrinsically intentional, while original and profound, acknowledged the influence of the Austro-German tradition as represented by Franz Brentano, Alexius Meinong, Gottlob Frege, and Edmund Husserl. Bergmann treated these themes and others in Realism: A Critique of Brentano and Meinong (1967).

In 1967-1968 Bergmann served as president of the American Philosophical Association, Western (now Central) Division. In 1972, by being named Carver Professor, he was awarded the first named professorship in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Iowa, and in 1974 he formally retired as Carver Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Psychology. For a few years he continued to teach at Iowa his famous "History and Systems of Psychology" course, through which he had transmitted his ideas in theoretical psychology to hundreds of philosophy and psychology graduate students over the years. The main product of Bergmann's postretirement work was his posthumous New Foundations of Ontology (1992). Chronic illness prevented him from accepting most of the requests for lectures elsewhere that continued to come his way.  He died in Iowa City.

Bergmann's social values were roughly those of classical liberalism tempered by Freudian pessimism. (He was a strong believer in tile power of the unconscious and had undergone psychoanalysis himself during the Vienna years. Although he never met Sigmund Freud, he was acquainted with Freud's psychiatrist daughter, Anna Freud.) In the arts Bergmann had both devotion to and substantial knowledge of literature, painting, and music. But these matters played no direct role in his academic philosophy any more than did his extensive knowledge of European history, with the exception of the history of philosophy itself. His values were best expressed in print in a nontechnical but, for many of his readers, one of his most powerful papers, "Ideology" (Ethics 61 (1951): 205-18), in which he maintained that "the ideal of an ideology-free society is a consummation devoutly to be desired, if for no other reason than the humanity, the intelligence, and the courage it takes to bear life without the support of ideological illusion.  To me such a world is the only one worth living in and therefore, if necessary, worth dying for." His attempt to live a life without the illusions of religion and ideology was manifest in his daily existence.

Bergmann had a strong personality that affected people in markedly different ways. While some perceived him as harsh in his judgments and brusque in his manner, for those who knew him well he was a man of great generosity--of time and of spirit. While he and his family had suffered great indignities because of their ethnic heritage, he always remained capable of judging a person on that person's individual characteristics, as was most strikingly evidenced by his willingness to befriend and to direct the dissertation of a (non-Jewish) German student who came to America soon after the war.

Bergmann's earlier work in the spirit of logical positivism made its way into anthologies and libraries, but his later work in ontology and philosophy of mind mark him as one of the most important philosophers in the analytic tradition of the second half of the twentieth century. This later work, while having sustained interest only for a small minority even within professional philosophy, received significant attention not only in the English-speaking and other northern European countries of the analytic tradition but also in the former Soviet Union, in Germany, in Spain, and especially in his beloved Italy, with his theory of the nature of consciousness and his use of the ideal language being probably the most important topics of lasting interest. He is widely recognized within professional philosophy as one of the few, from Plato to the present, who has pursued the fundamental ontological questions so deeply.


• A complete bibliography of Bergmann's published writings can be found with his papers on deposit in the archives of the Main Library of the University of Iowa. His famous "Ideology" was reprinted in his The Metaphysics of Logical Positivism (1954) and anthologized elsewhere. In addition to the six books mentioned in the text, Bergmann published about 125 articles, reviews, and discussion notes. With the exception of the early articles in German language mathematical journals, almost all of these are in professional English-language philosophical journals and anthologies; a few are in psychological journals and physics journals. There is an account of Bergmann's association with Kenneth Spence and Clark Hull in Laurence D. Smith, Behaviorism and Logical Positivism: A Reassessment of the Alliance (1986). The only study devoted to a comprehensive survey of Bergmann's philosophy is Laird Addis, "The Philosophy of Gustav Bergmann," Algemeen Nederlands Tijdschrift  voor Wijsbegeerte 63 (1971): 78-98. Addis also provided an obituary in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 61 (1987): 164-65.

LAIRD ADDIS