Hans Reichenbach (1891-1953); No Relation to the Falls

I stumbled on this map of the philosophers recently.  It’s basically a who’s who six degrees of separation of philosophers based on lines of influence.   Never much a one for philosophy myself, I nevertheless recognized the guys in 20 point type and even a few of the smaller fry.

I did just wonder, however, about the outliers, the people furthest away from Plato.  That poor fellow at the very bottom, for example, all alone, no one much to talk to. Who it could possibly be?  No doubt a name I didn’t know.

In fact it was a name I knew.  Hans Reichenbach.

It’s only a slightly convoluted story.  My father’s family had spent the 1931/2 year on sabbatical in Berlin where my mathematician grandfather soaked up the wisdom and good fellowship of the University’s mathematical and physics superstars  (Einstein,  von Neumann, et al.).  Also hanging about was Reichenbach, who had recently published Atom und Kosmos, basically a bound collection of some radio addresses he had made for the general public on the then state of theoretical physics.  My grandfather thought the book worth translating into English, as did the publishers at MacMillan.*

So who was this Reichenbach?

Son of Hamberg businessman, half Jewish, half Lutheran.  He initially thought to become an engineer and began his collegiate studies with that in mind, but soon was beguiled by physics, mathematics, and philosophy.  German universities being what they were, he was able to follow a peripatetic existence going from lecturer to lecturer to get whatever he could from whomever.  This meant he could go directly to Einstein, to Planck, Born and others of similar stature.  He wound up taking his PhD from the University of Erlangen in 1915, just in time to head off to the war, the Russian front, where he was part of the signal corps. Peace was declared, then back to academia, specifically, coursework under Einstein.

He was appointed to Stuttgart Polytechnic to teach and to write.  A lot.  There was movement to get him back to the University of Berlin, but his long history of lefty politics was working against him.  It took Einstein again to overcome the opposition.

Now more or less settled, he became a founding member of the Berlin Circle, which crew took a particular fascination with relativity and its implications on philosophy.  He edited their journal Erkenntnis

A true egalitarian, he ignored the tradition of Professor as Living God and encouraged among his students a relaxed discussion of the issues at hand – a novelty in academia in general and German academia in particular.

He saw the writing on the wall once the National Socialists won power in 1933, and accepted a position as head of Philosophy at the  The University of Istanbul. From there in 1938 he made his way to UCLA.  (After Pearl Harbor, he was legally a resident enemy alien for almost two years before the paperwork cleared.  Bureaucracy.)  For the next ten years until his death in 1953, he worked to make UCLA a leading center of philosophy.

One of his big things was applying severe standards to philosophical inquiry.   Logical empiricism.  No flights of fancy or metaphysics –  if you can’t nail down your work it is, in his eyes, useless.

Well, you couldn’t prove it by me one way or the other.  For those with an interest in such things, I refer you here and here.


*Poor grandfather.  His sabbatical was just in time for the political contention that saw the Nazi’s take over.   A man of the progressive left,  he was pretty alarmed by, and thought the English speaking world should have access to, exactly what Hitler was on about and proposed a translation of Mein Kampf. The proposal was universally rejected – not enough market, it was thought. (Plus, an abridged edition had come out in 1933 in England, redacting some of the more egregious sections.)    Props for trying.


Wesley Salmon, 1977, “The philosophy of Hans Reichenbach,” Synthese 34: 5-88.

Defending Einstein: Hans Reichenbach’s Writings on Space, Time and Motion

(Photo courtesy Hans Reichenbach Papers, ASP.1973.01, HR 042-03-01 Archives of Scientific Philosophy, University Library System, University of Pittsburgh.)



2 thoughts on “Hans Reichenbach (1891-1953); No Relation to the Falls

    • Who can say? The trouble with genealogy, like boxes of chocolates, is that you never know what you’re going to get. In the end we are all of us descended form saints and sinners. It’s not something to get too het up about. Past is past and we are all of us constrained to do our best.

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