Logical positivism

13th November 2020

The Vienna Circle

The Vienna Circle, from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The Vienna Circle was a group of scientifically trained philosophers and philosophically interested scientists who met under the (nominal) leadership of Moritz Schlick for often weekly discussions of problems in the philosophy of science during academic terms in the years from 1924 to 1936.

[…] its members styled themselves as conceptual revolutionaries who cleared the stables of academic philosophy by showing metaphysics not simply to be false, but to be cognitively empty and meaningless. In addition, they often associated their attempt to overcome metaphysics with their public engagement for scientific Enlightenment reason in the ever-darkening political situation of 1920s and 1930s central Europe. Small wonder then that the Vienna Circle has sharply divided opinion from the start.

Core values

Logical positivism, or logical empiricism, had at its core a few fundamental values and attitudes:

  • a critical attitude towards traditional Philosophy
  • Philosophy should deal with the only type of authentic and reliable knowledge, namely science
  • the purpose of philosophy is to provide a neat and clear scientific method, by rigorously applying logical language
  • experience is the only source for knowledge, while philosophy alone can’t provide anything. The only way to make science evolve is by taking advantage of experience.

The unity of science

Logic is the method, while experience is the content, the material of study. The aim is to make the same logical method to be applied to all sciences, unified under the same method.


Goals

  • a descriptive task: providing a universal language for any science
  • a normative goal: prescribing how a science should formulate its theories, in order to classify them as “scientific”

Logical approach

Traditional Aristotelian logic isn’t adequate for Logical Positivism’s purpose.
The only type of logic which is precise enough is modern symbolic knowledge.

traditional Aristotelian scholastic logic is quite inadequate for this purpose. Only modern symbolic logic (“Logistics”) succeeds in gaining the required precision of concept definitions and of statements.

Philosophical approach

Philosophy is just a tool to address issues which come from science. Philosophy doesn’t need to add anything: the task of philosophy lies in the clarification of problems and assertions made within the realm of science through the method of logical analysis. We use philosophy to sort out which statements are meaningful so the ones which come from science. Therefore, in a situation where empirical material lacks, the Logical Positivist approach can’t be used.

Acceptable statements

the notion that thinking can […] lead to knowledge out of its own resources without using any empirical material

Lack of meaning comes from the lack of empirical data; there are rigorous rules to apply logic reasoning, the only acceptable statements are:

  • synthetic statements a posteriori
  • analytic statements a priori

Any assertion not belonging to logic or to states of affairs in some way empirically verifiable are not meaningful, nonsense.

We can notice here a resemblance to Hume’s philosophy:
there’s a strong distinction between relations of ideas and matters of facts.


The Principle of Verification

A lot of emphasis on the system of verification: how to verify if a statement is actually meaningful.

This principle was one of the most discussed and criticized, re-elaborated several times and rejected by many. (Among the ones which refuted it, Karl Popper)

Verification is both:

  • a criterion of meaning
  • a test to understand whether a statement is meaningful; a sort of true-or-false exam on the content under examination



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