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Logical positivism

What is logical positivism?

A new generation of thinkers who were influenced by Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) created a twentieth century version of Auguste Comte's (1798-1857) nineteenth century intellectual endorsement of science. The term "logical positivism" was coined in 1930 by two supporters: E. Kaila and A. Petzall, philosophers who were part of the early movement that logical positivism came to represent. The twentieth century positivists Moritz Schlick (1882-1936), Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970), Otto Neurath (1882-1945), and in England, A.J. Ayer (1910-1989) were members of what became known as the "Vienna Circle."

The Vienna Circle

Was the Vienna Circle an actual organization?

Yes, it was a discussion group of scientists and philosophers in Vienna, who held meetings from 1922 to 1938. Its members were highly influential in setting the subject matter of future analytic philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of science, philosophy of language (excluding ordinary language philosophy), and philosophy of mind.

What was the mission of the Vienna Circle?

The aim of the group was to restate ideas about both scientific knowledge and philosophy and establish a form of philosophy that would be close to science, unlike German idealism. The members did not think that philosophy had a positive content of its own, or even a distinct epistemology or theory of knowledge. Rather, philosophy should study the knowledge methods and claims of science and justify them. For example, they thought that Albert Einstein's theory of relativity had shown that philosophers could not have the last word on either space or time, as Kantians believed. Arithmetic was believed to be reducible to logic, and synthetic a priori knowledge (rational knowledge derived from thought alone that was true to experience) was unnecessary. The principle of verification, or verificationism, was their main tenet. Whatever claims to knowledge could not be verified in the sciences was simply not knowledge.

The manifesto of the Circle was Wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung: Der Wiener Kreis (The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle) was published in 1929 and translated by Otto Neurath (1882-1945) in his Empiricism and Sociology (1973). The manifesto proclaims that the scientific world-conception of the Vienna Circle is distinguished "essentially by two features. First it is empiricist and positivist: there is knowledge only from experience. Second, the scientific world-conception is marked by the application of a certain method, namely logical analysis." Logical analysis is a way of using symbolic logic to determine whether sentences or their components refer to experience. Many logical positivists were also phenomenalists.

What is phenomenalism?

Not to be confused with phenomenology, phenomenalism is the empiricist doctrine that sense data, or the sensory organ's impression of perception, could be used to explain the meaning of sentences about perceptual objects. Some believed that perceptual objects themselves, such as a computer, a desk, or a car, could be reduced to sense data. This last ontological version of phenomenalism would involve a general commitment to philosophical idealism or the doctrine that the only things that are real are mental phenomena.

What is verificationism?

Verificationism is a theory of meaning. The meaning of a statement is its empirical methods of verification that ultimately yield sensory information. For contemporary verificationists such as Michael Dummett (1925-) this meant that the truth of sentences must be related to the ways in which they are or can be verified.

What was tragic about Schlick's death?

After the Nazis came to power in Germany and Austria, many members of the Vienna Circle fled to the United States and England. Schlick remained. Although not Jewish, he was distressed by what was then happening in Germany. While walking up some steps at the University of Vienna to teach a class on June 22, 1936, Johann Nelbock, a former student, confronted Schlick with a pistol and shot him. Schlick died of a chest wound. Nelbock was convicted but soon pardoned, after which he became a member of the Nazi Party. Although Schlick was not Jewish, logical positivism was condemned as "Jewish thought" by the Nazis.

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