Category

logical positivism

Logical Positivism

By | Karl Popper, logical positivism, Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein

Moritz Schlick
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). 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 gained more fame, assisted by the 1929 publication of the German pamphlet 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 here is that a uniform scientific language should be the medium for all knowledge. The manifesto defers 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. However, 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, where 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.

Rudolf Carnap

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. In The Logical Syntax of Language (1934), Carnap 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 for many years a Professor of Philosophy 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; strong arguments have been lodged against Popper’s tendency to diminish the importance of induction. However, Popper was nevertheless concerned to separate scientific from pseudoscientific statements, without insisting 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, a significant minority movement of scientific intellectuals, attempting to negotiate Kantian and Hegelian arguments (positivists did not reject all the Kantian repertory by any means). Logical positivism was the ideological counter to Fascism, losing out to “ordinary language,” afterwards surviving in the intellectual language of analytical philosophy.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 16th 2010

ENTRY no. 9

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Wittgenstein Revisited

By | Bertrand Russell, logical positivism, Tractatus, Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein

There are some very different interpretations of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). I mentioned certain of these in entry no 2. I also stated that the Tractatus (1921) did not inspire me, but only interested me. This famous treatise was certainly an influential and significant work.

A key sentence of the Tractatus is well known. “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Much depends upon what we really can speak about.

A basic problem looms. There is still no definitive or standard view of what the Tractatus means. Contrasting interpretations of this salient text can evoke irritation. The ambiguity discernible here perhaps underlines Wittgenstein’s own statement, made to his publishers, that what the Tractatus did not contain was more important than what it did contain. This paradox is sometimes interpreted in the context of the “metaphysical” dimension which Wittgenstein regarded as being beyond speech.

According to one trend of exegesis, Wittgenstein recognised deficiencies of the Tractatus in his later years. “It was above all [Piero] Sraffa’s acute and forceful criticism that compelled Wittgenstein to abandon his earlier views and set out upon new roads” (G.H. Von Wright, “Biographical Sketch,” in Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, Oxford University Press, 1958; repr. 1980, p. 15).

Another interpretation suggests that he was less discontented with the Tractatus in his mature years than is often believed. The crux here is that Wittgenstein was more dissatisfied with the assumptions that he probed, not with his actual conclusions. The basic confrontation transpired to be with logical positivism. He examined the belief that an entirely empirical language is possible. Adherents of this explanation say the Tractatus proved the proposition about language to be untenable. In this perspective, Wittgenstein had no reason to correct anything in the Tractatus at a later date.

From this angle, his main point of disagreement was with what other philosophers made of the Tractatus, especially the Vienna Circle, who were enthusiastic about this work. Wittgenstein is said to have perceived that Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, Rudolf Carnap, and others did not fully understand the arguments involved. In this light, the flawed interpretation of the Tractatus by the Vienna Circle was the main reason for Wittgenstein’s return to Cambridge in 1929 and subsequent application to the Philosophical Investigations (1953).

Some investigators have found a problem in Wittgenstein’s “contemplative philosophy.” His form of verbalism avoided “metaphysical” identifications. However, he did at least once express a positive view about the conception of God. There are different commentarial statements about whether he actually believed in God. In theory, he should have remained silent about such beliefs, in accord with his austere discussion of language philosophy as represented in the Tractatus.

The significant memoir by Professor Norman Malcolm states: “Wittgenstein frequently said to me disparaging things about the Tractatus. I am sure, however, that he still regarded it as an important work” (Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, repr. 1980, p. 69).

Malcolm also penetrated the difficult subject of religion in this instance. Wittgenstein told Malcolm that he had been contemptuous of religion in his youth; at about the age of 21, a change occurred in him, when “for the first time he saw the possibility of religion” (ibid., p. 70). Then during his service in the First World War, he was strongly influenced by Tolstoy’s writings on the Gospels (ibid.). Yet he produced such an ostensibly “positivist” work as the Tractatus, from which Malcolm cites 6.44: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” Like other aphorisms of Wittgenstein, special interpretation is needed.

Wittgenstein was impatient with declared proofs of the existence of God. He disliked the writings of Cardinal Newman, “but revered the writings of St. Augustine” (Malcolm, op.cit., p. 71). Yet he cannot be called a Christian. The verdict of Malcolm was:

I believe that he looked on religion as a ‘form of life’ (to use an expression from the Investigations) in which he did not participate, but with which he was sympathetic and which greatly interested him. Those who did participate he respected – although here as elsewhere he had contempt for insincerity. I suspect that he regarded religious belief as based on qualities of character and will that he himself did not possess. (Malcolm, Memoir, p. 72)

Wittgenstein has been described as a tortured genius, subject to bouts of depression and suicidal tendency as a consequence of his homosexual disposition. One interpretation is that he was ashamed of the disposition and wanted to escape from it. He contrasts with the more suave and socialising heterosexual figure of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), his former tutor who became a figurehead of the radical liberalism gaining popularity at the end of Russell’s long life. It is possible to criticise both of these entities for lifestyle problems without denying their intellectual merits.

See further Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (1990); Monk, Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921-1970 (2001).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 11th 2010

ENTRY no. 8

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Analytical Philosophy

By | analytical philosophy, logical positivism, Paul Feyerabend, Wittgenstein

The subject of analytical (or analytic) philosophy is far more complex than often appears at first sight. This subject is sometimes divided into two strongly defined phases, meaning the circa 1900-1960 trend of developments, and the post-1960 contemporary version. Thus entries 2-6 on this website refer to the preliminary period.

The contemporary analytical trend is widespread in Britain, America, Canada, and Australia. It is not a uniform model, and exponents differ markedly in their views. Contemporary analytic is frequently viewed as a rival of what is known as “continental philosophy,” one exemplar of which is Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), whose “deconstruction” of texts has been strongly queried.

Many contemporary analytical philosophers emphasise clarity of argument via logic and language analysis. Not infrequently, they have actually rejected basic ideas found in the pre-1960 phase of the analytic phenomenon. It is no longer easy to keep track of all the formulations and dispositions involved. Language philosophy is sometimes said to have been relegated as a primary pursuit, having become a secondary support, though nonetheless visible.

A fair number of contemporary analytical philosophers have integrated the natural sciences into their worldview. This has sometimes tended to converge with earlier attitudes of the Vienna Circle and logical positivism. However, there are variations.

The logical positivists are noted for rejecting many traditional problems of philosophy, especially anything relating to metaphysics. Their emphasis upon empiricism opted for the conclusion that philosophy must decode to the strictly scientific and logical clarification of thoughts and concepts. The truths of science were regarded as verifiable, with logic and mathematics the runners-up for accuracy. These interests comprised the only meaningful statements. Everything else amounted to an irrelevant statement, not actually being true or false, but meaningless. Ethics, metaphysics, and aesthetics were placed in the category of meaningless statements.

Logical positivism encountered a challenge in the 1950s, notably in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953), a work strongly associated with language philosophy. Some British philosophers emphasise the influence of Wittgenstein in the 1960s and 1970s; they lament the fact that developments in American analytical philosophy, during the 1970s, offset the British trend by a new fascination with computers, neurophysiology, and other matters.

In Britain, the “contemplative philosophy” associated with Wittgenstein was argued as part of a new approach to the philosophy of religion, said to have revived when logical positivism fell from favour. Some have reflected that “contemplative philosophy” is very sparse in Wittgenstein’s published output, a factor contributing to my own interpretation in entry no. 2, which does not deny any significance of the innovated phrase, but instead concluding that the new language philosophy failed to express complexities inherent.

The trend to philosophy of religion illustrates the diversity of contemporary analytical approaches. Indeed, metaphysics was reinstated in the form known as “analytic metaphysics.” This is quite detailed, and has involved a deference to scientific realism via such data as is afforded by quantum physics. The friction with logical positivism has entailed strong debates.

Karl Popper devised the theme of falsification in his philosophy of science. He is viewed as being in reaction on this point to the logical positivists. The falsifiability criterion met with varied denials. The philosophy of science continued into the paradigm theory of Thomas Kuhn and the relativism of Paul Feyerabend, who is often viewed as overturning the formerly assumed priority of the natural sciences. Feyerabend’s “cognitive relativism” gained a strong degree of popular acceptance. Objections have nevertheless been lodged. See, for example,  About Science and Paul K. Feyerabend (2008).

Logical positivism effectively restricted ethical philosophy in the pre-1960 phase. The prevalence of sceptical vogues was stifling for this neglected subject. Value was demoted. A revival occurred at the end of the 1950s, restoring the Aristotelian emphasis on virtue. Kantian ethical philosophy was evoked in the 1970s, a partner to virtue ethics. Utilitarianism has also survived. Ethical philosophy became noted for a concern with environmental issues and animal rights.

The “logical atomism” of Wittgenstein’s early Tractatus (1921) was obscurantist about values, affirming that (philosophical) language can say nothing about them. Such a tenet was welcome to logical positivism, which deliberated that ethical and aesthetic judgments cannot be true or false, but merely constitute a subjective attitude. The confusion of ethics with art is a serious shortcoming, one that decodes to a science without scruple and a science lacking objectivity. However, Wittgenstein himself was resistant to logical positivism, furthering a somewhat different orientation.

What is known as the philosophy of mind struggled to emerge from the grip of behaviourism associated with Gilbert Ryle (see entry no. 5). Basic forms of mind-brain cognitivism developed, known by different names. Eventually, dualism emerged as a minority element in contemporary analytical philosophy. Such matters are contested.

All things considered, analytical philosophy has a very different face to the one presented half a century ago. There are many unresolved issues, and strong debates. Despite Brian Magee’s reflection about a “bankrupt tradition” (see entry no. 5), one can be more optimistic here. Bankruptcy might indeed have occurred if the more limited vistas had prevailed after 1960. The new mood of expansion and daring acted as a compensator to poverty.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 7th 2010

ENTRY no. 7

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

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