‘Words Divide, Pictures Unite.’ Otto Neurath’s Pictorial Statistics in Historical Context

Sybilla Nikolow


Otto Neurath’s (1882–1945) well known slogan, has been extensively quoted in the recent image, media and communication studies to claim the superiority of pictorial languages over verbal languages. His pictorial statistics has been used as evidence for the validity of this modern assumption. But if one looks in the historical context of the first half of the 20th century, in which Neurath developed and used his method, this evaluation seems to be less straight forward. What we gain if we historicize Neurath’s pictorial work is a deeper understanding of the sociocultural transformations and upheavals in media technologies in his time, that could be made responsible for and has driven the birth of innovations like this in the visual culture of modernity. Of course his method was exceptional in its radical nature, but it was also a typical project with the aim to modernize and democratize society. It illustrates how societal blueprints and scientific concepts fertilized each other. – In my paper I am working out how Neurath embedded his method in three historical contexts: First, how he developed his communicative understanding of pictures in line with his methodological premises of the Vienna Circle. Second, how he modelled his pictorial statistics as counterpart to specialized technical and artificial languages. And third how he defined his method as useful approach to problems of everyday life in contrast to forms of expressions practiced in propaganda and art work. I will show in greater detail how the pictorial statistics was born in the interwar period of Red Vienna and how later the original Vienna Method was transformed into the International System of Typographic Picture Education (short: Isotype) in the 1930ies in the Dutch exile and further developed in Neurath’s British exile.


20th century philosophy; history of philosophy; philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; isotype; Neurath Otto; pictorial statistics; scientific world conception; Vienna Circle

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