THE WONDERFUL HORRIBLE STORY OF

LOGICAL POSITIVISM

Scene: Evening. An old world sitting room. Twelve men sit around a well worn table. Two of the men puff calmly on pipes. A servant cleans the remains of supper and deposits a decanter of claret at the center of the table. The servant quietly exits the sitting room and closes the heavy double doors. A discussion ensues.

We can easily imagine it beginning like this. Serious men committed to a singular idea: the advance of scientific rigor into the realm of pure philosophy. The idea itself seems to exude a whiff of late 19th-century Europe, like the smell of mothballs and cedar. But what we find to be most fussy and old-fashioned about such a program is its underlying assumption of empirical certainty.

We of the late, great 20th century have recast certainty, knowledge, and meaning in the role of Macbeth's witches: at best messengers of philosophical half-truths, at worst merely the reflections of our own benighted desires. But it was not always so.

In Vienna, in the last rosy afterglow of the Enlightenment, a group of men believed that the game of knowledge might still be worth the candle of rigorous analysis. It is a measure of how much has changed in the space of less than half a century that the conclusions of the Vienna Circle strike us not as wrong, but as perfect folly.

In the beginning was The Idea. A proposition would be examined to determine if it could be empirically assessed, and if, and only if, it could be, one could say it meant something. The seductive power of this verifiability principle was irresistible because what it lacked in subtlety was more than made up for in its comprehensive efficiency. Occam's guillotine, if you will.

In practice the scheme went something like this. First, take a given proposition; say "the man has painted the town red." Next, pull out your empirical apparatus; say, a red meter and an unemployed painter. Continue by interrogating the painter on his experience with paint, and if satisfied, have him render a paint assessment based on his extensive knowledge of the subject on the town in question, while simultaneously reviewing the output of the red meter for color confirmation. Last, certify the proposition as meaningful based on the fact that it could be empirically assessed and that this assessment could be reproducibly verified. All propositions regarding non-sensory topics, including everything under the rubric of metaphysics, were unverifiable and therefore meaningless.

What was readily apparent, along with the fact that a truly ugly methodology was being employed, was that this was not the method of professional philosophers — the Neo-Kantian crowd at Marburg and Baden. And why should it be? The Vienna Circle was populated with men of science: mathematicians, chemists and physicists. And as one might guess, the method of their philosophy naturally mirrored the practice of science or, where hope outstripped reason, the rigor of physics. And as every 19th-century schoolboy knew, physics had lately reduced the world to a set of measurable and fully predictable properties. But did this pedigree make the verification principal any more true than any other? The proof would be in the pudding of analysis. And pudding it would, indeed, turn out to be.

Seemingly as a side note, one might note that the support leant to the Vienna Circle by its scientific colleagues, who considered more productive the pursuit of science as science, was faint. Perhaps the Circle dismissed this lack of support from that quarter as the work of weak wills or weak imaginations. While this isolation was no doubt bracing, however, the lack of enthusiasm from the scientific quarter might have told the Circle something much more telling about the enterprise itself.

Historically, the paradigmatic nature of the concept of gray heads pondering the nature of scientific reality while young turks simply did the grunt work in the labs would already have been well understood by these spectators of quantum mechanics. In fact, by the early '20s this structure was a kind of idée fixe for those infected with a systematic slant on the sciences. (One need only read the titles that floated like the dearly departed ether: Heisenberg's Physics and Philosophy, Planck's The Philosophy of Physics and Bohr's Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge.)

But beyond the cliché of old men and new ideas was an ironic truth: The Vienna Circle, while proclaiming the need for a scientific determinacy for philosophical discourse, was tacitly assuming an ideal of science that was far more deterministic than science as it is actually practiced. In the real practice of science, one never begins by doubting everything. Nor does one ever establish any scientific theory with certainty, as new observations can always make necessary the revision or replacement of heretofore useful theoretic constructs. In other words, nothing in science is ever completely verified; so in espousing an absolute verification principle, the Circle was actually promoting a new ideal that had never been put into practice. A dangerous starting place for proclaimed anti-idealists. And this germ of idealism would in the end consume the whole of the edifice of logical positivism itself.

The problems inherent in the Circle's idea were clear from the moment it was founded in, and diverged from Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Like Wittgenstein, the Circle was using logic as an analytical tool to clear the brush of unclear ideas and their fuzzy meanings as a preliminary to doing the heavy lifting of uncovering reality in its unadorned glory. But where Wittgenstein got cautious when he realized that this method could only be applied consistently to the statements of mathematics or logic, and thus could at best only establish that some empirical facts must exist, the Circle argued that this method could tell us what the underlying nature of these facts was. The Circle was on a fast train down a particularly slippery slope.

Classical logical positivism as formulated by Moritz Schlick and the first generation of the Vienna Circle, immediately foundered on the shoals of what would be a recurrent problem: No matter how precisely we refined our description of reality, it remained unclear because of the inherent weakness of language itself — unless we agreed to certain basic concepts from which the descriptions would arise a priori, in which case the "analysis" would have degenerated into a rather unscientific idealism (none of that important testable stuff).

Otto Neurath tried to reform the descriptions themselves by first establishing rules for reducing them to a desired level of precision, and then allowing these precise protocol sentences to be compared to one another. The resultant internal consistency or inconsistency between propositions would then produce a kind of organic evolutionary process that would allow a means for testing the nature of empirical facts. While Neurath's idea was clever and, with its self-correcting tendency, even resembled the scientific method itself, it remained flawed by the criteria of the Circle because its underlying theory of truth was still unmistakably idealistic; that is, it requires one to assume that comparing fact statements does indeed produce a scientifically accurate description.

Schlick hated Neurath's idea so much he proposed a worse one almost immediately. Schlick argued that the confirmation of a proposed description, rather than the description itself, could produce accurate empirical facts. Thus the phrase, "The man has painted the town red" could produce the confirmation sentence, "It is red now". Schlick overcame the uncertainty of Neurath's protocol statement with the wholly subjective certainty of the confirmation statement. Unfortunately, what was most certain about any confirmation statement was that it was truly unverifiable. Not exactly the surest confirmation of the verifiability principle.

Rudolf Carnap next came up with a truly off-the-wall, and, one could say, amusing idea for verifying fact statements. Carnap proposed that responses to requests for confirmation could be reduced to simple physical acts whose meanings could not be misinterpreted. Thus, a person could be told to pull a red lever when he is exposed to a town that was actually painted that color. Carnap's formula begged the question of whether physical acts actually reproduce the psychological states they are intended to reflect, as (in this case) the observation of towns painted red. Even worse was the fact that if the statement had any subtlety the information was itself unclear. In a given case would the lever pull be any different if the town were merely rusted red rather than being painted that color? Carnap himself quickly abandoned his proposed physicalism for the virtues of a kind of linguistic multiculturism.

Like Neurath before him, Carnap proposed a useful idea for understanding how people really assess propositions through their use of language. In Carnap's Principle of Tolerance, the idea was that any language form that produced useful information about the empirical world was legitimate, whether or not the language could be said to have accurately reproduced that world as it was. The heresy for orthodox logical positivists in this formulation was twofold: first, it was thoroughly idealistic, and second, it undermined the goal of certainty.

One can read a kind of final chapter in this chronological overview of the Circle in the rise and fall of A. J. Ayer in the pantheon of positivistic true believers. Once the most rigorous of the orthodox hard-liners, by the late 1950's Ayer had adopted an idealist critique that undermined the foundation of the verifiability principle itself. The later Ayer pointed out that the idea of verification as a guiding principle could not itself be empirically assessed and had to be assumed a priori. And what would justify a privileged position for this proposition, as against all others? Silence.

And speaking of those things which one might pass over in silence, what about metaphysics? As we recall, metaphysical propositions were the exemplar of anti-protocol statements, the most meaningless of the meaningless. But Wittgenstein suggested otherwise.

If like Oedipus, all children are destined to betray their fathers (at least in a metaphorical sense), than the relationship between the Circle and Wittgenstein, its putative father, was thoroughly Freudian. Because even if Wittgenstein could rightly be called the progenitor of all things analytic (a quintessential honor for the Circle), he was careful that history should place him above that narrow label. In philosophy (and Wittgenstein, the grammar school teacher, architect and soldier, was always a philosopher first and last), the sine qua non was, and always had been, metaphysics. The major league of the big thinkers.

What Wittgenstein understood, and the Circle blindly ignored, was that the hallowed position of metaphysics was no accident. Hence the justly celebrated proposition seven of the Tractatus:

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

As Wittgenstein's later notebooks make clear, this statement is intended not to dismiss metaphysical statements as meaningless, but to concede that their meaning is not susceptible to logical analysis. Three thousand years of thought had taught us that human feelings themselves mattered, and that those feelings could validate as meaningful that which was otherwise unverifiable. This insight, of course, begged a whole wagonload of questions about the nature of meaning, but it was right in the best sense. Wittgenstein's acknowledgment of the total futility of any attempt to corset first principles within a scheme of linguistic analysis reflected more genius than all of the reductive empiricism that preceded it.

So what do we make of this mess? The Circle failed to recognize the circularity of their methodology and the hollowness of its philosophical vision. Yet the history of philosophy has treated them kindly. Why? The customary argument is that for all the Circle's faults, it helped sustain an aggressive analytic tradition. Lots of, "But what do we mean by that?". Does this balance the ledger? I would suggest otherwise.

What logical positivism promoted was the same tired skepticism that has waged war on conceptualism at least since Hume, in the guise of a quest for a clarity that was wholly pernicious. And what becomes obscured in such a pursuit of more and more reductive frames to define the limits of empiricism is the place of human perception as both that limit and as the transcendent key that can supplant that limit. In other words, meaning derives not merely from what we perceive, but also from the human perceiver whose innate concepts and feelings supply the other half of the equation. This realization must function as a base line test for viable analysis, because without it, any philosophical enterprise is reduced to a pedantic, if clever, word game. This then is the sad saga of logical positivism.


About the author: Henry Nicholls is a lawyer with an additional degree in physics and a penchant for philosophy. He spends his days grilling arson suspects and his nights lying awake in bed.

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Updated 10/21/97

© Copyright 1997 by Henry Nicholls