Category

Vienna Circle

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.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

By | J. P. Stern, Nietzsche, Tractatus, Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein

One of the most celebrated modern philosophers is Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). He early wrote the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), believing that he had solved all the outstanding problems of philosophy in this compact work. The Tractatus was much favoured by the Vienna Circle, a group of scientists and philosophers who pioneered logical positivism, and who interpreted Wittgenstein in that light. The Vienna Circle emphasised language, and in terms of the presiding insistence that the only meaningful statements are those which are empirically verifiable. In other words, what you cannot prove, never state, because such a statement is worthless. Metaphysics, for instance, is out of bounds.

The Vienna Circle survived their diaspora in the face of the Nazi regime. Logical positivism lived on in America and Britain, and became influential. This contingent made a relevant critique of Fascist propaganda; that form of political rhetoric saturated Germany and other countries in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Wittgenstein was born in Austria, but became a British citizen, and one strongly linked to Cambridge University. When I was a young man (and a resident of Cambridge), the dons would discuss “what Wittgenstein really meant.” There were permutations of this during my temporary employment under Professor J. P. Stern, who enthused about Kant, Wittgenstein, and Nietzsche in our conversations, which occurred in his book-lined study overlooking a panoramic garden in a select area of Cambridge.

Professor Stern (who taught German at London University) was an expert on Nietzsche. I found great difficulty in conceding the importance of Nietszche. I also found the Tractatus a rather disconcerting work, though in a different way to Thus Spake Zarathustra. Professor Stern pressed upon me the Tractatus when he grasped that I had an interest in philosophy. He expected me to enthuse over the treatise, like many undergraduates at that time. I was an exception to the fashion. This was in 1973. I never did find the Tractatus inspiring, only interesting; it is generally considered significant in the history of philosophy.

[Wittgenstein had early read Schopenhauer, and believed that the latter was basically correct in his worldview. Wittgenstein persisted in the attitude that ultimate reality was beyond conceptual grasp, and therefore a factor of which nothing can be said. Only the phenomenal world could be described. Various objections have been lodged against this rather inflexible view. However, in the 1970s, the exegesis of Wittgenstein was still in the ascendant at places like Cambridge].

Wittgenstein himself demonstrated a dissatisfaction with the Tractatus at a later phase of his career. By then he knew that he had not solved all the problems of philosophy. The Tractatus had been influenced by theories of the mathematician Gottlob Frege and his own tutor Bertrand Russell. Critics say that the Tractatus is ambiguous and contradictory, and even that Wittgenstein’s version of logic made nonsense of his own propositions. He urged that philosophical problems arose from a failure to understand the logic of language.

Amongst the academic philosophers, Wittgenstein is the one who came closest to being a citizen philosopher. In 1912 he became an undergraduate at Cambridge, but he reacted to the example of his tutor Bertrand Russell, who at this time authored The Problems of Philosophy (1912).

“ ‘How few there are who do not lose their own soul,’ remarked Wittgenstein one day. Russell felt obliged to tell Wittgenstein that he would not get his degree unless he learnt to write ‘imperfect things,’ a constraint which incurred the junior’s displeasure.” (Shepherd, Meaning in Anthropos, Cambridge 1991, p. 149).

Neglecting the degree, Wittgenstein moved back to the Continent. At this time he became a rich man, gaining the fortune of his deceased father, an industrialist tycoon. Yet he retired to Norway, building himself an isolated hut near Skjolden, his intention being to live in complete seclusion. The First World War changed his plans, and he volunteered to join the Austrian army. After the war, he became a schoolmaster, teaching in various remote villages in Austria. He subsequently became a gardener and an architect.

Two of his friends criticised the Tractatus, and Wittgenstein is said to have abandoned his earlier views. In 1929 he returned to Cambridge, quickly acquiring a Ph.D. (on the basis of the Tractatus) after his lengthy absence of sixteen years in obscurity. He thereafter did much writing, but without publishing the result, apparently because he did not wish to be misunderstood. Dr. Wittgenstein was noted for giving unconventional lectures in a mood of deep concentration.

The advantages of his transition to academic status are not totally convincing. He remained a virtual alien within academic life; his aversion to appearing in the college dining room is a well known detail. He regarded all the talking as superficial. He frequently visited the local cinema in an effort to suspend his prolonged concentration on philosophy; he could appear quite desperate not to be distracted while watching the film. During the 1930s he escaped for nearly a year to his distant hut in Norway. In 1947 he ceased to lecture at Cambridge, and moved to Ireland, where for a time he lived alone in a hut beside the sea in Galway. (For a partisan account, see Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, Oxford University Press, 1958.)

Some critics have said that Wittgenstein was idiosyncratic, suicidal, and homosexual. He certainly possessed a strong personality; he was apparently an exacting schoolteacher in the 1920s. “His sexuality was ambiguous but he was probably gay; how actively so is still a matter of controversy.” See D. J. Richter, “Ludwig Wittgenstein,” Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

After his death, many of his writings surfaced in print. The most famous of these later works became his Philosophical Investigations (1953). Wittgenstein was here committed to what is known as linguistic philosophy. He emphasised language as a tool, and introduced the concept of “language game.” His treatment of philosophy as language can be considered more of a philosophical problem than a solution.

The meaning of life remains a mystery to much contemporary philosophical language. Wittgenstein failed to describe his own notable striving for experiential equipoise. The new language philosophy did not describe, for instance, the hut in Norway or his recurring thought of entering a monastery. The intrinsic struggle to penetrate “philosophical problems,” and to detour artificial surface discourse, eluded his mode of language tool.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
November 17th 2009

ENTRY no. 2

Copyright © 2009 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

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