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Logical Positivism Essay

Also known as logical empiricism, rational empiricism or neo-positivism, logical positivism is the name given in 1931 by A.E Blumberg and Herbert Feigl to a set of philosophical ideas put forward by the Vienna Circle. This Vienna Circle was a group of early twentieth century philosophers who sought to re-conceptualize empiricism by means of their interpretation of then recent advances in the physical and formal sciences. Hence, the Vienna Circle represented a radical “anti-metaphysical” stance which held the view that an empiricist criterion for meaning and a logicist conception of mathematics could prove the meaningfulness of statements (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy). Logical positivism is the school of thought that attempts to introduce the methodology and precision of mathematics and the natural science into the field of philosophy.

The movement, which began in the early twentieth century, was the fountainhead of the modern trend that considers philosophy an analytical, rather than a speculative inquiry (Passmore). As a school of philosophy, logical positivism “combines positivism with a version of apriorism , that is, the view that holds that some propositions can be held true without empirical support” (Wikipedia Encyclopaedia). According to the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, the movement’s doctrine is ‘centred on the principle of verifiability. This holds the notion that individual sentences gain their meaning by some specification of the actual steps we take for determining their truth or falsity’. In essence, logical positivism seeks to verify the meaning in statements through empirical observations.

Historical Background of Logical Positivism

The position of the original logical positivists was a blend of the positivism of Ernst Mach with the logical concepts of Gottleb Frege and Bertrand Russell. But, their inspiration was derived from the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein and G.E Moore. According to Passmore, in his article “Logical Positivism”, the logical positivists thought of themselves as continuing a nineteenth century Viennese empirical tradition, closely linked with British empiricism and culminating in the anti-metaphysical scientifically oriented teaching of Ernst Mach.

He further pointed out that in 1907 the mathematician Hans Hahn, the economist and sociologist Otto Neurath and the physicist Phillip Frank, all of whom were later to be prominent members of the Vienna Circle, came together as an informal group to discuss the philosophy of science. In addition, Passmore posited that they did this in hope that they could ‘give an account of science to the importance of mathematics, logic and theoretical physics without abandoning Mach’s general doctrine that science is, fundamentally, the description of experience’ (par. 2). Subsequently, they adopted views from the “new positivism” of Poincare and coupled it with Mach’s views in an attempt to anticipate the main themes in logical positivism (par. 2).

Logical Positivists view of Traditional Philosophy

The philosophical position of logical positivism in its original form was the outcome of the profoundly incisive influences of Wittgenstein and Moore (Runes 359). Logical positivists were concerned about the soundness of metaphysics and other traditional philosophy. They asserted that many philosophical problems were indeed meaningless. Hence, they decided to abandon the traditional approach to philosophy and attempted to persuade people to utilise their approach instead. One of the chief tenets of logical positivism was that the supposed propositions of metaphysics, ethics and epistemology were not verifiable and so were not strictly ‘meaningful’.[1] Furthermore, Carnap, of the Vienna Circle, corroborated this view in his work “The Unity of Science”, when he stated that ‘we give no answer to philosophical questions and instead reject all philosophical questions, whether Metaphysics, Ethics or Epistemology’ (qtd. in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Therefore, the purpose of the logical positivists was not to renovate the principles of traditional philosophy but to destroy them. Metaphysics was rejected on the grounds that its assertions were meaningless since they could not be verified in experience. Thus, statements about the existence of God were discarded as pointless because they could not be verified. Notably, whereas earlier critics of metaphysics such as Kant and Hume had rejected the claims of metaphysics as a form of theoretical knowledge, the logical positivists took over from Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus” the rejection of metaphysics as meaningless. Furthermore, the logical positivists argued that the propositions of metaphysics were neither true nor false but could be regarded as pseudo-statements (Logical Positivism 61).

Metaphysics was not the only traditional discipline that the logical positivists were concerned about. Likewise, epistemology faced harsh criticisms from them. On one hand, the neo-Kantians saw epistemology as ‘the propaedeutic to metaphysics and all other philosophical disciplines’ (Oxford Companion to Philosophy 647). They maintained that philosophy could be reduced to epistemology in which a topic like “the reality of the external world” was discussed. On the other hand, for the logical positivists, epistemology was disregarded as a significant branch of philosophy because they thought that there was no way of verifying the assertions postulated by epistemology. They argued that this branch of philosophy was “quite meaningless like assertions about the Absolute.”[2]

They held this position because for them there was no way of empirically verifying that an external world exists which is independent of the world we know now, as such those statements were ignored. Another tenet of traditional philosophy that the logical positivists disagreed with was ethics. Certainly, they all rejected any variety of transcendental ethics and any attempt to set up a “realm of values” over and above the world of experience. Passmore stated that, Assertions about values thus conceived, fall within the general province of transcendental metaphysics and had therefore been rejected as nonsensical.

But while Schlick sought to free ethics from its metaphysical elements by converting it into a naturalistic theory along quasi-utilitarian lines, Carnap and Ayer argued that what are ordinarily taken to be ethical assertions are not assertions at all. For example to say that “stealing is wrong,” is neither, they suggested, to make an empirical statement about stealing nor to relate stealing to some transcendental realm. “Stealing is wrong” would either express our feelings about stealing, our feelings of disapproval, or, alternatively (this was where the logical positivist opinions differed), it is an attempt to dissuade others from stealing. In either case, “stealing is wrong” conveys no information. (par. 17)

In addition to the above mentioned concepts, logical positivists also posited the idea that propositions of logic and mathematics were meaningful but their truth was discovered, not by experiment or observation, but by analysis. Also, for logical positivism the ‘business’ of philosophy was not to engage in metaphysics or other attempted assertions about what is the case but rather to engage in analysis. Furthermore, the only genuine propositions were those that are verifiable (Brown et al 218). Basically, the logical positivists’ emphasis was on logic and language. Logical positivists preferred that, instead of accepting traditional philosophy, philosophers should subscribe to the doctrine of verification.

Doctrine of Verification

Central to the movement’s doctrines was the principle of verifiability, often called the verification principle that is “the notion that individual sentences gain their meaning by some specification of the actual steps we take for determining their truth or falsity”.[3] According to logical positivism, there are only two sources of knowledge: logical reasoning and empirical experience. The former is analytic a priori, while the latter is synthetic a posteriori; hence synthetic a priori knowledge does not exist (Murzi 7). For logical positivists, the meaning of a statement lies in the method of its verification. This means that a statement has meaning if, and only if, it is verifiable” (Bochenski, 57). Verifiable, in this sense, means that the statement is derived from knowing the conditions under which it is true or false. If the statement cannot be proven true or false it is disregarded as meaningless.

Carnap emphasized in “Logical Positivism” that only meaningful sentences were divisible into (theoretically) fruitful and sterile, true and false propositions (61). In essence, a sequence of words is meaningless if it does not, within a specified language, constitute a statement. Ayer also defined, explained, and argued for the verification principle of logical positivism. Ayer expressed, in his book Logical Positivism, the view that “sentences (statements or propositions) are meaningful if they can be assessed either by an appeal directly or indirectly to some fundamental form of sense-experience or by an appeal to the meaning of a word and the grammatical structure that constitute them. In the former case, sentences are said to be synthetically true or false; in the latter, analytically true or false.” Once the sentences under examination fail to meet the verifiability test, they are labelled meaningless.

Therefore statements about metaphysical, religious, aesthetic, and ethical claims are considered insignificant. For the logical positivists, based on the verification principle, an ethical claim would have meaning only in so far as it professed something empirical. For example, “if part of what is meant by ‘X is good’ is roughly ‘I like it,’ then ‘X is good’ is false.” The primary ‘meaning’ of such sentences is emotive or evocative. Thus, for Ayer, ‘X is good’ is a meaningless utterance. As such statements are not verified by looking at the entire words in a sentence but by minutely analyzing the words singularly in a sentence to determine there meaning.

Likewise, for Carnap, words or sentences must be verified by certain criterion, for instance, the syntax of a word must be fixed, that is in each use of the word in what Carnap calls an ‘elementary sentence’ the meaning must be unchanging. Secondly, for an elementary sentence containing a word, it must be determined from what sentence is the word deducible, and what sentences are deducible from the word. Also, under what conditions should the word or sentence be considered to be true or false, how is it to be verified and what is its meaning? For instance, take this example by Carnap using the word ‘anthropods’.

Anthropods are animals with segmented bodies and jointed legs (this is the elementary sentence) from this it can de deduced that X is an animal, X has a segmented body, X has jointed legs. Hence, “by means of these stipulations about deducibility or truth- condition, about the method of its meaning of the elementary sentence about anthropod, the meaning of the word is fixed.” In this way every word of the language is reduced to other words and finally to the words which occur in the so-called “observation sentences” or “protocol sentences.” Carnap claims that it is through this reduction the word acquires meaning. (Logical Positivism 62-63).

Problems with Logical Positivism

In the Contemporary European Philosophy, Bochenski claimed that the doctrine used by logical positivists to verify sentences involved great difficulties of various kinds. For instance, a one protocol-sentence can be called into question and tested by another protocol-sentence, such as; the sanity of a physicist can be called into question and examined by the psychiatrist (58). The question has been asked of the logical positivist as to the basis of the protocol sentence, but they replied by stating that the object of experience can only be sensations. Questions of reality are ‘pseudo-problems,’ because we can never encounter anything but sensations and we can never verify the existence of things that are other than our sensations (59).

Bochenski also commented that since verifications are made by the senses, “no statement can be verified other than those relating to the body and its movements; all statements of introspective psychology and classical philosophy are unverifiable, therefore meaningless.”[4] It follows that the only meaningful language is that of physics, and that all science should be unified. One condition remains to be fulfilled according to Bochenski and that is, for a statement to have meaning: it must be built in accordance with the syntactical rules of language. Therefore, it is meaningful to say, “the horse eats” but “the eat eats” has no meaning. Also statements that you and I know such as, ‘I love you Mummy’ or ‘I am feeling really sad today’ would have no meaning because they cannot be empirically verified.

How then would we express our sensations? There is therefore no guarantee that things verified will remain verified; for example, it was commonly known that the world was flat and that if you go to the end you will fall off, this was how it was known to be until it was rediscovered by Columbus and his men that the world was round. Another problem outlined by Passmore is that, because “the meaning of a proposition is the method of its verification,” it is not a scientific proposition.

Positivists responded to this by claiming that it should not be read as a statement but as a proposal, that is, a recommendation that propositions should not be accepted as meaningless unless they are verifiable. In response to Passmore’s statement, Carnap suggested that the verifiability principle is a clarification which will distinguish forms of activity which are otherwise likely to be confused with one another; metaphysicians will thus be able to tell what propositions are meaningless (Logical Positivism).

Impact on Subsequent Philosophy

Passmore wrote that logical positivism is dead, or as dead as a philosophical movement ever becomes; but it has left a legacy behind. Logical positivism was essential to the development of early analytic philosophy. It was disseminated throughout the European continent and, later, in American universities by the members of the Vienna Circle. According to the Routeledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, this transplanted to the English – speaking world of ‘analytic’ philosophy. Originally, it set up a series of sharp contrasts: between metaphysics and science, logical and factual truths, the verifiable and the non-verifiable, the corrigible and the incorrigible, what can be shown and what can be said, facts and theories. Logical positivism tremendously influenced the philosophy of science and the application of logic (language) and mathematical techniques to philosophical problems more generally.

Logical positivism therefore has an established place in the history and continuing development of philosophy. At least three reasons can be given for this. One is purely historical, regarding the considerable impact and influence of the movement in its glory days. A second lies in the intrinsic interest of its ideas. The third lies in the fact that even if no one today would call themselves a logical positivist some of its main positions, such as verification and emotivism in Ethics, are specification of the actual steps we take for determining their truth or falsity (Hanfling). Also, logical positivism was immensely influential in the philosophy of language. The philosophy of language for the logical positivists is concerned with four central problems: the nature of meaning, language use, language cognition, and the relationship between language and reality. Also, it was used in conjunction with logic (Wikipedia Encyclopedia par 1).

The spread of logical positivism in the USA occurred throughout the 1930s. The pragmatic tradition of Pierce, James and Dewey, with its instrumentalist conception of science, provided a healthy stock on which to graft logical empiricism, which, particularly in Carnap’s work, already had a pragmatist bent (Hackers 183). The rise of logical positivism was evident in the European continent. The English philosopher Alfred Jules Ayer played an important role in spreading logical positivism. In his book, Language, Truth and Logic, Ayer completely accepted both the Verifiability Principle and the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements, and so he asserted that metaphysical sentences were meaningless.

Furthermore, a direct influence was exerted by Waismann and Neurath who immigrated to England. According to Murzi, in his work “The Philosophy of Logical Positivism”, in the twentieth century, logical positivism has provided a platform for Italian philosophy, Polish philosophy and Scandinavian philosophy (19). The influence of logical positivism began to diminish around 1960 with the rise of “pragmatic form of naturalism due to Quine and a historical-sociological approach to philosophy of science due mainly to Thomas Kuhn.” Nevertheless, it must be noted that logical positivism played a very important role in the development of contemporary philosophy, not only for its philosophical principles, but also for its editorial and organizational activities.

The efforts of the logical positivists to rid science and meaningful discourse generally, of metaphysics, their attempt to create a ‘unified science’ by laying bare the logical structure of scientific theories and thereby showing the structural similarities, their insistence on logic and empiricism as being the only two reliable and acceptable pillars of knowledge—all these contributed towards a scientific universalism.[5] Logical positivism is studied by many modern day students of philosophy and authors; philosophers well as have written about it thus testifying to its continued existence, if not its practice. Notwithstanding the above mentioned, it is necessary to note that while logical positivism may have laid a platform for other philosophies, its approach seek to have dismissed the traditional philosophies. Now, if one should pursue logical positivism seriously, then as postulated before, certain feelings would become empty.

As Coppleston noted, the growth of logical positivism has helped to produce a mental outlook which was unfavourable to metaphysics and to religion (32). Logical positivism is synonymous to an amoral type philosophy and with those tendencies entrenched in our society a chaotic environment would be established. Personally, looking at its attempt to rid itself of things that can not be proven, in every case it has destroyed too much even where philosophers found it difficult to continue writing.

Magee in his book, Confession of a Philosopher: A Personal Journey Through Western Philosophy from Plato to Popper, professed to this. For him, “there was a period in which several of the cleverest philosophers became reluctant to say anything at all, because almost nothing that might be deemed to be worth saying was, unless it was factually provable, permissible.” In conclusion, logical positivism, then, is an approach to verifying the meaning of statements through empirical observation.

It is a philosophic tradition that attempted to use science and logic to determine the truth or falsity of statements, and to disprove the meaningfulness of metaphysical, ethical and epistemological ideas as we know them to be meaningful. Like any other school of thoughts in philosophy it has come up against criticisms, however it did make contributions to philosophy and philosophical thinking as we know it today whether it is by being studied, opposed, or supported by philosophers.

Works Cited

Ayer, A.J. ed .Logical Positivism. New York: Free Press Co-operation, 1959.

Bochenski, I.M. Contemporary European Philosophy. London: Cambridge University, 1956.

Brown Stuart et al. One Hundred Twentieth Century Philosophers. London: Routledge Publishing Ltd. 1999.

Hackers, PMS. Wittgenstein’s Place in Twentieth Century Analytic Philosophy. London: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

Hanfling, Oswald. Logical Positivism. Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1981.

Honderich, Ted, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.

“Logical Positivism.” Concise Routeledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2000. .
“Logical Positivism.” Wikipedia Encyclopedia. 5 Nov. 2006 Retrieved 18 Oct. 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logical_positivism

Magee, Bryan. Confession of a Philosopher: A Personal Journey through Western Philosophy from Plato to Popper. New York: Random House Inc. 1997.

Murzi, Mauro. The Philosophy of Logical Positivism”. Online posting. 18 Oct. 2007. http://www.murzim.net/LP/LP00.html

Passmore, J. “Logical Positivism.” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 26 Oct.
2004 Retrieved 24 Oct. 2007. http://www.comnet.ca/~pballan/logicalpos(passmore).htm

Runes, Dagobert. Living Schools of Philosophy: Twentieth Century Philosophy. Iowa: Littlefield, Adams and Co. 1958.

Shah, Mohd Hazim. “Logical Positivism, Scientism, Universalism and Globalization.” Online posting. 11 Jun. 2002. 24 Oct. 2007. http://sts.um.edu.my/E-Library/Lecture%20Notes/SFGS6111/LP2.pdf

“Vienna Circle.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 28 Jun. 2006 Retrieved 18 Oct. 2007 http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/vienna-circle/

[1] Honderich, Ted, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. [2] Passmore, J. “Logical Positivism.” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 26 Oct. 2004 Retrieved 24 Oct. 2007. http://www.comnet.ca/~pballan/logicalpos(passmore).htm

[3] Honderich, Ted, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. [4] Bochenski, I.M. Contemporary European Philosophy. London: Cambridge University,

[5] Shah, Mohd Hazim. “Logical Positvism, Scientism, Universalism and Globalisation.” Online posting. 11 Jun. 2002. 24 Oct. 2007.

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