Logical Positivism

Logical Positivism

1. Introduction

Cultural and political reasons played a role in the movement’s ebbing on the continent: most of the original logical positivists were Jews, and the movement itself was intellectual and cosmopolitan rather than connected to any one particular national spirit. Nationalism can be found in some of the movement’s critics, prevalent in philosophical rejections of the logical positivist ideas in Eastern Europe and Germany. This nationalist sentiment was soon to have its heyday in association with dark political movements on the European continent. Logico-positivism also ran afoul of the incumbent traditions and institutions of those nations. Insofar as the above characterizations of a living logical positivism are at least partially apt, what went wrong for the logical positivists? The crisis of logical positivism is essentially this: a movement that fervidly extolled the value of philosophy and still traced a world of knowledge resting on a far more cavernous foundation sought to bring philosophy and the rest of human knowledge into an immaculate union, perpetually tearing down and reconstructing the latter to meet the standards of the former, until the two became (in principle) identical. But its teachings and hopes about the world at large gave the movement itself mandates to constantly reassess its own foundations, promptly scrapping anything amenable to empirical refutation. Cognitive dissonance began to set in for the ambitious philosophizers. Wartime and the apparent fruitlessness of their work provided the final mallet-strokes. All too facetiously in the end, the movement fell on its own sword.

The logical positivists cannot have been expected to foresee the crisis in which their philosophizing would eventuate in the 1960s. Having been forced to flee Nazi persecution, many logical positivists ended up in the United States, where their teachings and continuations of their ideas slowly began to spread and exert an influence over the Anglo-American philosophical world. The ideas of Popper and Kuhn were both deeply influenced by logical positivism, and even those who have reacted against the tradition of their teachers often do so in a way that is only comprehensible in its dialectic (take, for example, Quine’s writings). In contemporary analytical philosophy, there are still critics of and adherents to the ideas of logical positivism, but it is no longer a source of vital controversy. The traditions of Ludwig Wittgenstein, due in large part to the efforts of his students and the British Wittgensteinian philosophers who picked up his torch, have largely eclipsed the logical positivist movement.

2. Key Principles

There are a few such doctrines, one of which is called logical positivism, that might be suitable for the scientific method. And it is obvious that all of them somewhat belong to the nature of the material considered in the close or exact sciences. But they mainly serve to erect a barrier against metaphysics. According to the most extreme form of the doctrine, metaphysics, like a belief in the earth’s flatness, was excusable in its day, but no longer suits the complexity of the facts it aims to interpret and control in the world of science and common sense, if such a world exists. Metaphysical entities, useless for the purpose of explaining observations, can only be defined in terms of observed facts, that is, in the language of some science, and are often poorly defined there. An analytic test is proposed to distinguish the language of sense or science from that of metaphysics, with the only cognitive function of the latter being the implicit denial of tautologies. Tautologies are assertions constructed in such a way that there is no possible state of affairs that would make them false. Thus, much philosophical discussion, whether it is really about philosophical problems or about logic and the structure of language, can at least be conducted in an artificially tautological form, a procedure familiar to readers of Spinoza and not actually inappropriate to certain subtleties.

3. Criticisms

… and to assert what the limits are to the theory’s domain of relevance. But this is impossible under the verification principle, as it asks to decide whether the availability of a verification method, but a statement about every existent and non-existent thing which can’t be directly verified is still relevant to the existent thing and has no method of proof or disproof. This results in the verification principle not being able to discern between meaninglessness and meaningful tautologies, and decides that all negative existential statements and talk about non-existent things are meaningful. But these are clearly not verifiable.

Further criticism is given to its criterion of demarcation. First, Popper argues that in its binding to the verification principle, logical positivism has interpreted the verification too liberally such that it includes confirming evidence. It has also forgotten the possibility of theories being irrefutably sup…

Despite logical positivism’s great influence on the philosophy of science and the foundationalists’ criticism, the crucial move from strong verification to the weak one has drawn a lot of criticisms, which led to the decline of logical positivism. The weak verification stipulates that a sentence is meaningful if and only if it is either analytic or empirically verifiable. The analyticity is understood in the traditional sense. Critics argue that this move does not increase the meaningfulness of empirical science but decreases it, since the general theoretical term and statement can never have the same truth value as the observational report. Deductive logic and mathematics cannot be reduced to empirical science, therefore they are literally meaningless under the weak verification principle. The only way to decide if a theoretical sentence is true is to use deduction to derive a prediction and see if it is true. If the prediction is not true, it makes no difference to the observation report and sentence deduced from it, thus the theory has no empirical content. And if the prediction turns out wrong, the theory has to be modified to accommodate the prediction, but a theory formulated only in terms of observation and general term, not concept, can never be modified, resulting in theoretical science itself being abandoned.

4. Influence and Legacy

The Neurath, Carnap, and Hempel school of logical empiricism, or the first wave of logical empiricism, was most prominent in the 1930s and 40s before its gradual demise. This is a fact of history, a history that social scientists have begun to write (Coser et al 1975, p. vii). In the fullness of time, logical empiricist philosophy of social science will be critically evaluated, and part of the evaluation will most certainly involve some comparison with the famous unity of science movement proposed by the positivists of the Vienna Circle era. This could possibly lead to a resurgence in the philosophy of social science inspired by logical empiricism.

Feigl’s involvement in it in the 1970s emphasized the similarities in method between the social and natural sciences and logical empiricism’s potential contribution to the philosophy and theory of social science. British philosopher Alfred Ayer, a logical positivist, was an influential expounder of the theory of logical positivism who in 1936, on the occasion of a visiting lectureship at the University of Vienna, attended the bi-weekly meetings of Schlick’s group before Schlick’s assassination by a deranged student in 1936. The meetings continued until close to the end of WWII, and discussions on the philosophy of social science occasionally took place in Schlick’s home, with Schlick present. Later, Schlick’s discussions with members of his group had a heavy influence on the development of logical empiricism. Schlick’s ideas on the philosophy of social sciences are only relatively recently becoming more widely known in the English-speaking world after being introduced in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Logical positivism had a major influence on the social sciences. The movement, heavily influenced by a desire to move away from the abstract and metaphysical to a more practical, direct, and scientific approach to philosophy and the sciences, had a profound impact on empirical social research. Logical positivists saw the synergy between the unity of science assumption and a practical strategy for unifying the social sciences, and to this end thinkers such as Otto Neurath and Herbert Feigl were influential in the founding and governing of the International Committee on the Science of Man, an organization set up in the 1940s with the aim of coordinating and developing the social sciences.

5. Conclusion

The firm ground on which Logical Positivism claimed to have empirically and logically argued for the scientific status of its own doctrine was too much quicksand, and it has later foundered in the fruition of the actual scientific cultural changes since it was a viable doctrine. Kakla writes, “As philosophers do not possess some privileged route to knowledge, the only assessment of the acceptance of a theory or the form of a scientific explanation is the assessment in the light of the prevailing theory or theories of the particular discipline.” Logical positivism failed to adhere to the general sage advice which they tried to dispense a fortiori exclusively to theoretical science, that there should be a distinction between framework and content. Essentially, they had entered into the philosophy of science without having philosophy of science about philosophy of science and found themselves arguing regularly spills over into pure philosophy.

Positivism claims that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method. A.J. Ayers writes, “Logical positivists have much in common with empiricist theories of the nature of science; for both, the attempt to source scientific belief in experience and sense data.” This is their method to determine sense-experience as a procedure which is merely protocol sentences that are conclusively verified or refuted given the truth of the factual content that they claim to determine. The general consensus within the philosophy of science is that there has been a strong shift in the past two decades away from the positivist view of theoretical language being specific to observational language, seeing it as a more complex interplay of observation and theory.

The main theme running through the discussion is scientific discovery and how it pervades the progression from theoretical to methodical world. At all times, we have tried to show how science grows out of a primitive status through stages of abstract speculation and logical rationalization into one more and more akin to the world of observed fact. Science, in the end, is a social product; it is practiced by communities of men with a common aim of understanding the world and formulating general rules for such understanding.

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