Saturday, 16 January 2010

Logical Positivism

The phenomenon known as logical positivism (or logical empiricism) originated in the Vienna Circle, a 1920s group of thinkers led by the German philosopher (and physicist) Moritz Schlick (1882-1936), whose image is to the left on this blog entry. Other prominent members were Rudolf Carnap, Herbert Feigl, Otto Neurath, Philipp Frank, Kurt Godel, and Friedrich Waismann.

Yet the ultimate origins were a little earlier, from about 1908 onwards, when the philosophy of science was debated by mathematician Hans Hahn, political economist Otto Neurath, and physicist Philipp Frank. These men favoured the positivism of the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach (d. 1916).

In addition to the Vienna Circle, there was a similar gathering in Germany known as the Berlin Circle, inspired by Hans Reichenbach. However, the Vienna Circle is the more famous, and was assisted by the publication in 1929 of the pamphlet in German often known as the Vienna Circle manifesto. The English translation of the pamphlet title is The Scientific View of the World: The Vienna Circle.

This document amounted to a summary of the formulations favoured, including a reliance upon empiricism or “knowledge gained by experience.” There was strong opposition to metaphysics and the doctrine of synthetic a priori truths associated with Immanuel Kant. The contention was made that a uniform scientific language should be the medium for all knowledge. There was also a deference to the Tractatus of Wittgenstein, a book originally published in German as Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung (1921).

The contribution of Wittgenstein was here problematic. The logical positivists favoured his critique of language, but ironically, some of them are said to have disliked the Tractatus, deeming that work to be metaphysical. On his own part, Wittgenstein transpired to be in reaction to logical positivism in his later career.

In 1924, Schlick contacted Wittgenstein, who eventually agreed to meet him (and Waismann) to discuss the Tractatus. Yet Wittgenstein subsequently concluded that the Vienna Circle were not representing his ideas correctly. He refused to attend further meetings, although he maintained a correspondence with Schlick.

The logical analysis in favour with Schlick and his colleagues deemed metaphysical statements to be meaningless. Such statements were said to be irreducible to statements about experience, i.e., not empirically verifiable. This meant that many traditional philosophical problems were rejected as fallacies resulting from mistakes in logical and verbal applications. However, other “problems” were awarded a reinterpretation as empirical statements, and thus deemed worthy of scientific investigation. The Vienna Circle validated statements in accord with their logical and mathematical code of “materialist” rationalism. They insisted upon a criterion of “verifiability” to determine the relevance of meaning.

A tragedy occurred when the Nazis gained power in Germany and Austria. Science could not compete with Fascism at this juncture. The Vienna Circle dispersed in the early 1930s, a fair number of them emigrating to America, where they became influential in universities. Schlick chose to stay in Austria, but he was assassinated in 1936 by a fanatical student at the University of Vienna. The killer later became a member of the Austrian Nazi party.

The German philosopher Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970) was especially influential amongst the logical positivists. His early book Pseudoproblems in Philosophy (1928) maintained that many traditional problems were meaningless, being the result of faulty language; Carnap advocated the elimination of metaphysics from philosophical discourse, an emphasis which became a characteristic.

Carnap had met Wittgenstein, and in The Logical Syntax of Language (1934), he reformulated the concept of logical syntax proposed in the Tractatus. Carnap stressed philosophy as “the logic of the sciences,” which some critics say is too narrow a definition. His subsequent book Philosophy and Logical Syntax (1935) again rejected metaphysics, favouring the concept of verifiability in strict positivist idiom. See further P.A. Schillp, ed., The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap (1963).

Carnap emigrated to America, and was a Professor of Philosophy for many years at the University of Chicago. “Since ordinary language is ambiguous, Carnap asserted the necessity of studying philosophical issues in artificial languages, which are governed by the rules of logic and mathematics.” See Mauro Murzi, “Rudolf Carnap” (2001), Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

After Wittgenstein, the second complication for logical positivism was the contribution of Karl Popper, who became famous as a critic of the positivists. His early work Logik der Forschung (1934) disputed the verifiability criterion, urging that this should be replaced by a criterion of falsifiability to compensate for excesses. This conflict has been much discussed, although there have been strong arguments against Popper’s tendency to diminish the importance of induction. However, Popper was nevertheless concerned to separate scientific from pseudoscientific statements, although he did not insist that metaphysical statements are necessarily meaningless.

In his autobiography, Popper says that he heard about the Vienna Circle in 1926 or 1927. He read the books of Carnap as these were published. “They [the Circle] were trying to find a criterion which made metaphysics meaningless nonsense, sheer gibberish, and any such criterion was bound to lead to trouble, since metaphysical ideas are often the forerunners of scientific ones” (Popper, Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography, revised edn Fontana 1982, p. 80).

Popper preferred the guideline that “scientific theories always remain hypotheses or conjectures” (ibid., 81). He furnished the illustration that the Einsteinian revolution in physics “ had shown that not even the most successfully tested theory, such as Newton’s, should be regarded as more than a hypothesis, an approximation to the truth” (ibid.).

In contrast, Carnap became noted for asserting that metaphysicists are like musicians with no musical ability. Metaphysics was here relegated to the status of an art, not a science, and one amounting to poetry.
Of course, this viewpoint has been disputed by those with a tendency to metaphysical thought.

Is the art in all cases the same poetry ? Are dogmatic theologians really demonstrating the same artistry as metaphysical philosophers like Plotinus and Spinoza or a linguistic “contemplative” such as the aphoristic Wittgenstein ? Certainly, the Tractatus was at the root of logical positivism, and yet can be interpreted as an opposing factor to the format upon which it was grafted.

At the opposite extreme are those who deny all relevance to logical positivism. Yet this was a significant minority movement of scientific intellectuals, attempting to negotiate Kantian and Hegelian arguments (though positivists did not reject all the Kantian repertory by any means). Logical positivism was the ideological counter to Fascism, and lost to “ordinary language ” media of indoctrination, though surviving in the intellectual language of analytical philosophy.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 16th 2010

ENTRY no. 9

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