Logical positivism

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Logical positivism (also known as logical empiricism, scientific philosophy, and neo-positivism) is a philosophy that combines empiricism—the idea that observational evidence is indispensable for knowledge—with a version of rationalism incorporating mathematical and logico-linguistic constructs and deductions of epistemology. It may be considered as a type of analytic philosophy.[1]

Logical positivism, in the formal sense, began from discussions of a group known as the First Vienna Circle which gathered during the earliest years of the 20th century in Vienna at the Café Central. After World War I, Hans Hahn, a member of that early group, helped bring Moritz Schlick to Vienna. Schlick's Vienna Circle, along with Hans Reichenbach's Berlin Circle, propagated the new doctrines more widely during the 1920s and early 1930s. It was Otto Neurath's advocacy that made the movement self-conscious and more widely known. A 1929 pamphlet written by Neurath, Hahn, and Rudolf Carnap summarized the doctrines of the Vienna Circle at that time. The doctrines included the opposition to all metaphysics, especially ontology and synthetic a priori propositions; the rejection of metaphysics not as wrong but as having no meaning; a criterion of meaning based on Ludwig Wittgenstein's early work; the idea that all knowledge should be codifiable by a single standard language of science; and above all the project of rational reconstruction, in which ordinary-language concepts were gradually to be replaced by more precise equivalents in that standard language.

During the early 1930s, the Vienna Circle dispersed, mainly because of political upheaval and the untimely deaths of Hahn and Schlick. The most prominent proponents of logical positivism emigrated to the United Kingdom and the United States, where they influenced American philosophy considerably. Until the 1950s, logical positivism was the leading school in the philosophy of science. During this period, Carnap proposed a replacement for the earlier doctrines in his The Logical Syntax of Language. This change of emphasis and the somewhat different opinions of Reichenbach and others resulted in a consensus that the English name for the shared doctrine, in its American exile from the late 1930s, should be "logical empiricism."


During the late 1920s, '30s, and '40s, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein's formalism was developed by a group of philosophers in Vienna and Berlin, who formed the Vienna Circle and Berlin Circle into a doctrine known as logical positivism (or logical empiricism). Logical positivism used formal logic to underpin an empiricist account of our knowledge of the world.[2] Philosophers such as Rudolf Carnap and Hans Reichenbach, along with other members of the Vienna Circle, claimed that the truths of logic and mathematics were tautologies, and those of science were verifiable empirical claims. These two constituted the entire universe of meaningful judgements; anything else was nonsense.

The claims of ethics and aesthetics were subjective preferences. Theology and other metaphysics were pseudo-statements, neither true nor false, simply meaningless nonsense. Karl Popper's insistence upon the role of falsification in the philosophy of science was a reaction to the logical positivists.[3] With the rise of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism in Germany and Austria, some members of the Vienna and Berlin Circles fled Germany, mainly to Britain and the USA, which helped to reinforce the dominance of logical positivism and analytic philosophy in the Anglophone world.[4]

Logical positivists typically considered philosophy as having a very limited function. For them, philosophy is concerned with the organization of thoughts, rather than having distinct topics of its own. The positivists adopted the principle of verificationism, according to which every meaningful statement is either analytic or is capable of being verified by experience. This caused the logical positivists to reject many traditional problems of philosophy, especially those of metaphysics or ontology, as meaningless.


The main influences on the early logical positivists were the positivist Ernst Mach, Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and the young Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Mach's influence is most apparent in the logical positivists' persistent concern with metaphysics, the unity of science, and the interpretation of the theoretical terms of science, as well as the doctrines of reductionism and phenomenalism, later abandoned by many positivists.

Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was a text of great importance for the positivists. The Tractatus introduced many doctrines which later influenced logical positivism, including the concept of philosophy as a "critique of language," and the possibility of making a theoretically principled distinction between intelligible and nonsensical discourse. The Tractatus also adhered to a correspondence theory of truth which the positivists adopted, although some, like Otto Neurath, preferred a form of coherentism. Wittgenstein's influence is also evident in certain formulations of the verification principle. Compare, for example, Proposition 4.024 of the Tractatus, where Wittgenstein asserts that we understand a proposition when we know what happens if it is true, with Schlick's assertion that "To state the circumstances under which a proposition is true is the same as stating its meaning."[5] The tractarian doctrine that the truths of logic are tautologies was widely believed among the logical positivists. Wittgenstein also influenced the logical positivists' interpretation of probability. According to Neurath, some logical positivists disliked the Tractatus, since they thought it included a great deal of metaphysics.[6]

Contemporary developments in logic and the foundations of mathematics, especially Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead's monumental Principia Mathematica, impressed the more mathematically minded logical positivists such as Hans Hahn and Rudolf Carnap. "Language-planning" and syntactical techniques derived from these developments were used to defend logicism in the philosophy of mathematics and various reductionist theses. Russell's theory of types was employed to great effect in Carnap's early anti-metaphysical polemics.[7]

Immanuel Kant also had an important influence on the positivists, both positive and negative. Negatively, Kant was often scorned by the positivists in their early debates, and Kant's doctrine of synthetic a priori truths was the doctrine they most wished to discredit. However, Kant's opinions about the nature of physical objects pervaded the protocol sentence debate,[8] and Kantian opinions of the relationship between philosophy and science were shared by the positivists to some degree.[9]

Logical positivism in Germany

Positivism in Germany is thought to have developed in response to Hegelian and neo-Hegelian metaphysics, which was a famous philosophy in Germany.[10] Hegelian successors such as F.H. Bradley attempted to explain reality by postulating metaphysical entities that did not have any empirical basis.[10] Logical positivists in response wanted to stop such metaphysical entities from being used as an explanation.

Another, less well-known factor that encouraged logical positivism was the urgency of solving new philosophical problems raised by new scientific developments. The Vienna Circle under the influence of Moritz Schlick and the Berlin Circle under the influence of Hans Reichenbach consisted of scientists, mathematicians, and scientists turned philosophers, who shared a common goal of solving new problems in the philosophy of science.

Basic tenets

Although the logical positivists held a wide range of views on many matters, they were all interested in science and skeptical of theology and metaphysics. Early, most logical positivists proposed that all knowledge is based on logical inference from simple "protocol sentences" grounded in observable facts. Many logical positivists endorsed forms of materialism, metaphysical naturalism, and empiricism. (See James Ladyman, Understanding Philosophy of Science, p. 147)

Perhaps the view for which the logical positivists are best known is the verifiability criterion of meaning, or verificationism. In one of its earlier and stronger formulations, this is the doctrine that a proposition is "cognitively meaningful" only if there is a finite procedure for conclusively determining its truth.[11] An intended consequence of this opinion, for most logical positivists[citation needed], is that metaphysical, theological, and ethical statements fail this criterion, and so are not cognitively meaningful.[12] They distinguished cognitive from other varieties of meaningfulness (e.g. emotive, expressive, figurative), and most authors concede that the non-cognitive statements of the history of philosophy possess some other kind of meaningfulness. The positive characterization of cognitive meaningfulness varies from author to author. It has been described as the property of having a truth value, corresponding to a possible state of affairs, naming a proposition, or being intelligible or understandable in the sense in which scientific statements are intelligible or understandable.[13]

Another characteristic feature of logical positivism is the commitment to "Unified Science"; that is, the development of a common language or, in Neurath's phrase, a "universal slang" in which all scientific propositions can be expressed.[14] The adequacy of proposals or fragments of proposals for such a language was often asserted on the basis of various "reductions" or "explications" of the terms of one special science to the terms of another, putatively more fundamental one. Sometimes these reductions consisted of set-theoretic manipulations of a few logically primitive concepts (as in Carnap's (1928) Logical Structure of the World); sometimes these reductions consisted of allegedly analytic or a priori deductive relationships (as in Carnap's Testability and Meaning). A number of publications over a period of thirty years would attempt to elucidate this concept.


Logical positivism spread throughout almost the entire western world. It was disseminated throughout the European continent. It was spread to Britain by the influence of A. J. Ayer. And later, it was brought to American universities by members of the Vienna Circle after they fled Europe and settled in the United States during and after WWII. Logical positivism was essential to the development of early analytic philosophy. The term subsequently came to be almost interchangeable with "analytic philosophy" during the first half of the twentieth century. Logical positivism was immensely influential in the philosophy of language and represented the dominant philosophy of science between World War I and the Cold War.


Early critics of logical positivism said that its fundamental tenets could not themselves be formulated consistently. The verifiability criterion of meaning did not seem verifiable; but neither was it simply a logical tautology, since it had implications for the practice of science and the empirical truth of other statements. This presented severe problems for the logical consistency of the theory.[citation needed] Another problem was that, while positive existential claims ("there is at least one human being") and negated universal claims ("not all ravens are black") allow for obvious methods of verification (find a human or a non-black raven), negative existential claims and positive universal claims do not allow for verification.

Universal claims could apparently never be verified: How can you tell that all ravens are black, unless you've hunted down every raven, including those of the past and future? This resulted in a great deal of work on induction, probability, and "confirmation," which combined verification and falsification.[citation needed]

Karl Popper's objection

A well-known critic of logical positivism was Karl Popper, who published the book Logik der Forschung in 1934 (translated by himself as The Logic of Scientific Discovery, published 1959). In it he argued that the positivists' criterion of verifiability was too strong a criterion for science, and should be replaced by a criterion of falsifiability. Popper thought that falsifiability was a better criterion because it did not invite the philosophical problems inherent in verifying an inductive inference, and it allowed statements from the physical sciences which seemed scientific but which did not satisfy the verification criterion.

Popper's concern was not with distinguishing meaningful from meaningless statements, but distinguishing scientific from metaphysical statements. Unlike the positivists, he did not claim that metaphysical statements must be meaningless; he also claimed that a statement which was "metaphysical" and unfalsifiable in one century (like the ancient Greek philosophy about atoms) could, in another century, be developed into falsifiable theories that have the metaphysical views as a consequence, and thus become scientific.

Popper denied that science need rely on inductive reasoning, or that inductive reasoning actually exists, although most philosophers think it obvious that science does rely on it.[15]

A.J. Ayer's defense

A response to the second criticism was provided by A. J. Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic, in which he defines the distinction between "strong" and "weak" verification. "A proposition is said to be verifiable, in the strong sense of the term, if, and only if, its truth could be conclusively established by experience." (Ayer 1946:50) It is this sense of verifiable that causes the problem of verification with negative existential claims and positive universal claims. However, the weak sense of verification states that a proposition is "verifiable... if it is possible for experience to render it probable" (ibid.). After establishing this distinction, Ayer claims that "no proposition, other than a tautology, can possibly be anything more than a probable hypothesis" (Ayer 1946:51), and therefore can only be subject to weak verification. This defense was controversial among logical positivists, some of whom touted strong verification, and claimed that general propositions were indeed nonsense.

Hilary Putnam's objection

According to Hilary Putnam, a former student of Hans Reichenbach and Rudolf Carnap, making an observational/theoretical distinction is meaningless. The "received view" operates on the correspondence rule that states "The observational terms are taken as referring to specified phenomena or phenomenal properties, and the only interpretation given to the theoretical terms is their explicit definition provided by the correspondence rules."[10] Putnam argues that introducing this dichotomy of observational terms and theoretical terms is the problem from which to start.[16] Putnam demonstrates this with four objections:

  1. Something is referred to as "observational" if it is observable directly with our senses. Then an observation term cannot be applied to something unobservable. If this is the case, there are no observation terms.
  2. With Carnap's classification, some unobservable terms are not even theoretical and belong to neither observation terms nor theoretical terms. Some theoretical terms refer primarily to observation terms.
  3. Reports of observation terms frequently contain theoretical terms.
  4. A scientific theory may not contain any theoretical terms (an example of this is Darwin's original theory of evolution).

Subsequent objections from Quine and Kuhn

Subsequent philosophy of science tends to use certain aspects of both of these approaches. W. V. O. Quine criticized the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements and the reduction of meaningful statements to immediate experience. Work by Thomas Kuhn has claimed that it is not possible to provide truth conditions for science independent of its historical paradigm. But even this criticism was not unknown to the logical positivists: Otto Neurath compared science to a boat which we must rebuild on the open sea.

Contemporary status within philosophy

Most philosophers consider logical positivism to be, as John Passmore expressed it, "dead, or as dead as a philosophical movement ever becomes." [17] By the late 1970s, its ideas were so generally recognized to be seriously defective that one of its own main proponents, A. J. Ayer, could say in an interview: "I suppose the most important [defect]...was that nearly all of it was false."[17] It retains an important place in the history of Analytic philosophy as the antecedent of philosophies which continue now, such as Constructive empiricism, Positivism and Postpositivism.

See also


  1. See, e.g.,  : "Vienna Circle" in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
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  4. Prominent amongst these were Ludwig Wittgenstein and Rudolf Carnap. Karl Popper might also be included, since despite his rejection of the term his method has much in common with the analytic tradition.
  5. "Positivismus und Realismus", Erkenntnis 3:1-31, English trans. in Sarkar, Sahotra (ed.) Logical Empiricism at its Peak: Schlick, Carnap, and Neurath. New York: Garland Pub., 1996, p. 38
  6. For a very informative summary of the effect the Tractatus had on the main logical positivists, see the Entwicklung der Thesen des "Wiener Kreises"
  7. See Carnap, Rudolf. "The Elimination Of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language". Erkenntnis 2 (1932). Rpt. in Logical Positivism. Ed. Alfred Jules Ayer. New York: Free Press, 1959. 60-81.
  8. See the essays by Schlick, Carnap, and Neurath in Ayer's Logical Positivism.
  9. Friedman, Michael, Reconsidering Logical Positivism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Suppe, Frederick, The Positivist Model of Scientific Theories, in: Scientific Inquiry, Robert Klee editor, New York, USA: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 16-24.
  11. For a classic survey of other versions of verificationism, see Hempel, Carl. "Problems and Changes in the Empiricist Criterion of Meaning". Revue Internationale de Philosophie 41 (1950), pp 41-63.
  12. For the classic expression of this view, see Carnap, op. cit. Moritz Schlick, a major logical positivist, did not consider ethical (or aesthetic) sentences to be cognitively meaningless. See Schlick, Moritz. "The Future Of Philosophy". The Linguistic Turn. Ed. Richard Rorty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. 43-53.
  13. Examples of these different views can be found in Scheffler's Anatomy of Inquiry, Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic, Schlick's "Positivism and Realism" (rpt. in Sarkar (1996) and Ayer (1959)), and Carnap's Philosophy and Logical Syntax.
  14. For a thorough consideration of what the thesis of the unity of science amounts to, see Frost-Arnold, Gregory, "The Large-Scale Structure of Logical Empiricism: Unity of Science and the Rejection of Metaphysics" at [1]
  15. Okasha, S., the Philosophy of Science -- A Very Short Introduction , Oxford University Press, 2002 p.23, ISBN 978-0-19-280283-5
  16. Putnam, Hilary, Problems with the Observational/Theoretical Distinction, in: Scientific Inquiry, Robert Klee editor, New York, USA: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp.25-29.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1 at line 2409: '=' expected near 'site'.

Further reading

  • Achinstein, Peter and Barker, Stephen F. The Legacy of Logical Positivism: Studies in the Philosophy of Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1969.
  • Ayer, Alfred Jules. Logical Positivism. Glencoe, Ill: Free Press, 1959.
  • Barone, Francesco. Il neopositivismo logico. Roma Bari: Laterza, 1986.
  • Bergmann, Gustav. The Metaphysics of Logical Positivism. New York: Longmans Green, 1954.
  • Cirera, Ramon. Carnap and the Vienna Circle: Empiricism and Logical Syntax. Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1994.
  • Edmonds, David & Eidinow, John; Wittgenstein's Poker, ISBN 0-06-621244-8
  • Friedman, Michael. Reconsidering Logical Positivism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999
  • Gadol, Eugene T. Rationality and Science: A Memorial Volume for Moritz Schlick in Celebration of the Centennial of his Birth. Wien: Springer, 1982.
  • Geymonat, Ludovico. La nuova filosofia della natura in Germania. Torino, 1934.
  • Giere, Ronald N. and Richardson, Alan W. Origins of Logical Empiricism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
  • Hanfling, Oswald. Logical Positivism. Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1981.
  • Jangam, R. T. Logical Positivism and Politics. Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1970.
  • Janik, Allan and Toulmin, Stephen. Wittgenstein's Vienna. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973.
  • Kraft, Victor. The Vienna Circle: The Origin of Neo-positivism, a Chapter in the History of Recent Philosophy. New York: Greenwood Press, 1953.
  • McGuinness, Brian. Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle: Conversations Recorded by Friedrich Waismann. Trans. by Joachim Schulte and Brian McGuinness. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979.
  • Mises von, Richard. Positivism: A Study in Human Understanding. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951.
  • Parrini, Paolo. Empirismo logico e convenzionalismo: saggio di storia della filosofia della scienza. Milano: F. Angeli, 1983.
  • Parrini, Paolo; Salmon, Wesley C.; Salmon, Merrilee H. (ed.) Logical Empiricism - Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003.
  • Reisch, George. How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science : To the Icy Slopes of Logic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Rescher, Nicholas. The Heritage of Logical Positivism. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.
  • Richardson, Alan and Thomas Uebel (eds.) The Cambridge Companion to Logical Positivism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Salmon, Wesley and Wolters, Gereon (ed.) Logic, Language, and the Structure of Scientific Theories: Proceedings of the Carnap-Reichenbach Centennial, University of Konstanz, 21–24 May 1991, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994.
  • Sarkar, Sahotra (ed.) The Emergence of Logical Empiricism: From 1900 to the Vienna Circle. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.
  • Sarkar, Sahotra (ed.) Logical Empiricism at its Peak: Schlick, Carnap, and Neurath. New York: Garland Pub., 1996.
  • Sarkar, Sahotra (ed.) Logical Empiricism and the Special Sciences: Reichenbach, Feigl, and Nagel. New York: Garland Pub., 1996.
  • Sarkar, Sahotra (ed.) Decline and Obsolescence of Logical Empiricism: Carnap vs. Quine and the Critics. New York: Garland Pub., 1996.
  • Sarkar, Sahotra (ed.) The Legacy of the Vienna Circle: Modern Reappraisals. New York: Garland Pub., 1996.
  • Spohn, Wolfgang (ed.) Erkenntnis Orientated: A Centennial Volume for Rudolf Carnap and Hans Reichenbach, Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991.
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