Kurt Grelling

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Kurt Grelling
Logician Kurt Grelling at work in his study, ca. 1934.jpg
Kurt Grelling at work in his study c. 1934
Born(1886-03-02)2 March 1886
DiedSeptember 1942
EducationUniversity of Göttingen (PhD, 1910)
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolAnalytic philosophy[1]
Berlin Circle
ThesisDie Axiome der Arithmetik mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Beziehungen zur Mengenlehre (The Axioms of Arithmetic with Particular Regard to their Relation to Set Theory) (1910)
Doctoral advisorDavid Hilbert
Main interests
Philosophy of science, logic, axiomatic set theory
Notable ideas
Grelling–Nelson paradox
Memorial Stolperstein at Kurt Grelling's residence Königsberger Straße 13 in Berlin

Kurt Grelling (2 March 1886 – September 1942) was a German logician and philosopher, member of the Berlin Circle.

Life and work[edit]

Kurt Grelling was born on 2 March 1886 in Berlin. His father, the Doctor of Jurisprudence Richard Grelling, and his mother, Margarethe (née Simon), were Jewish. Shortly after his arrival in 1905 at University of Göttingen, Grelling began a collaboration with philosopher Leonard Nelson, with whom he tried to solve Russell's paradox, which had shaken the foundations of mathematics when it was announced in 1903. Their 1908 paper[4] included new paradoxes, including a semantic paradox that was named the Grelling–Nelson paradox.

He received his doctorate in mathematics from the same university in 1910 with a PhD dissertation on the development of arithmetic in axiomatic set theory, advised by David Hilbert. In a recorded interview with Herbert Enderton, Alfred Tarski mentions a meeting he had with Grelling in 1938, and says that Grelling was the author of the earliest textbook in set theory, probably but wrongly referring to this dissertation, since William Henry Young and Grace Chisholm Young's Set Theory was published in 1906.

As a skilled linguist, Grelling translated philosophical works from French, Italian and English to German, including four of Bertrand Russell's works. He became a strong proponent of Russell's writings thereafter.

From 1911 to 1922 Grelling published exclusively journalistic articles in publications connected with the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

In 1915 his father, Richard Grelling, wrote the anti-war book J'Accuse, condemning the actions of the Central Powers.[5] It enjoyed huge sales outside Germany. Richard followed this success up with Das Verbrechen (The Crime), in which he attacked his critics, who included Kurt Grelling.[6]

From 1924 onwards Grelling's publications were exclusively in the field of positivist philosophy.

Unable to find a university position in either Göttingen or Berlin, Grelling had to teach mathematics, philosophy and physics in secondary schools. Nevertheless, he worked with Hans Reichenbach in planning the meetings of the Berlin Circle, which was closely associated with the Vienna Circle. In 1933, Reichenbach emigrated to Turkey and the Nazis forced Grelling to retire. But he struggled to keep the Berlin Circle active by organizing small seminars and colloquia.

Grelling collaborated with Kurt Gödel and in 1937 he published an article in which he defended Gödel's first incompleteness theorem against an erroneous interpretation, according to which Gödel's theorem is a paradox as Russell's paradox.

Although many of his relatives and friends had fled Germany, he did not think seriously about leaving until 1937, in which year he went to Brussels to work with Paul Oppenheim, this time writing several papers on the analysis of scientific explanation and on Gestalt psychology.

On 10 May 1940, the first day of the German invasion in Belgium, Grelling was arrested. He was deported to southern France, where he was interned for over two years under the Vichy regime. Oppenheim and Hempel tried to help Grelling by securing an appointment for him at the New School for Social Research in New York City. News of the position and a visa to the United States reached the camp where Grelling had been joined by his wife Greta, who had refused to divorce him for safety reasons. But U.S. immigration officials were perplexed by Grelling's alleged propensity towards Communism, so there was a delay that was fatal to Grelling. He and his wife were shipped to Auschwitz, arriving there on September 18, 1942 and perishing in the gas chambers that day or soon thereafter.[7][8]

Selected publications[edit]

  • Grelling, K.; Nelson, L. (1908). "Bemerkungen zu den Paradoxien von Russell und Burali-Forti". Abhandlungen der Fries’schen Schule II. Göttingen. pp. 301–334.
  • Die Axiome der Arithmetik mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Beziehungen zur Mengenlehre. PhD dissertation, Göttingen University Press, 1910.
  • Anti-J'accuse. Eine deutsche Antwort. Zürich: Art. Institut Orell Füssli, 1916.
  • "Gibt es eine Gödelsche Antinomie?", in: Theoria 3 (1937):297–306.


  1. ^ Milkov 2013, p. 7.
  2. ^ Milkov 2013, p. 19.
  3. ^ Milkov 2013, p. 13.
  4. ^ Grelling, K.; Nelson, L. (1908). "Bemerkungen zu den Paradoxien von Russell und Burali-Forti". Abhandlungen der Fries’schen Schule II. Göttingen. pp. 301–334. Also in: Nelson, Leonard (1974). Gesammelte Schriften III. Die kritische Methode in ihrer Bedeutung für die Wissenschaften. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag. pp. 95–127. ISBN 3787302220.
  5. ^ Fernau, Hermann (1916). Because I Am a German. London: Constable and Co. p. 6.
  6. ^ Droz, Jacques (1973). Les causes de la Première Guerre mondiale (in French). Éditions du Seuil. p. 19.
  7. ^ Emmer, Michele (2004). Mathematics and Culture I. Axel Springer AG. p. 60. ISBN 978-3-540-01770-7.
  8. ^ Biography (in German) at Berlin Stolperstein site


  • Nikolay Milkov (2013), "The Berlin Group and the Vienna Circle: Affinities and Divergences", in: N. Milkov & V. Peckhaus (eds.), The Berlin Group and the Philosophy of Logical Empiricism. Springer, pp. 3–32.
  • C. G. Hempel, "Autobiografia intellettuale" in Oltre il positivismo logico. Armando: Rome, 1988. (Text of an interview Hempel gave to Richard Noland in 1982, published for the first time in Italian translation in 1988.)
  • Abraham S. Luchins and Edith H. Luchins, "Kurt Grelling: Steadfast scholar in a time of madness", Journal of Gestalt Theory, Vol. 22, Apr 2000, pp 228–281 — Includes a picture gallery.
  • Günther Sandner, "The Berlin Group in the Making: Politics and Philosophy in the Early Works of Hans Reichenbach and Kurt Grelling". 10th International Congress of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science (HOPOS), Ghent, July 2014. Abstract.

External links[edit]