The Fall (and return) of Logical Positivism

So last week I began talking about logical positivism. It is, genuinely, the foundational philosophy for much of analytic philosophy that currently dominates philosophy departments in the US and UK. If you will recall, the logical positivist position can be boiled down to a single statement:

“All meaningful statements are either analytic or empirical”

I tried to give a brief explanation of what “analytic” means by saying that it is essentially something that is logically sound (both valid and true). I also defined empirical (as the positivists did) as those things that are derived entirely from sensory observation or a combination of sensory observation and analytic statements.

The result of such a strict criteria was the exclusion of many disciplines from the academic discourse (or any discourse) not because they were false, but because they were without meaning. In other words, if I start talking about religious things then I would be considered by the logical positivists to be spouting nonsense not falsehood. This strategy was actually wildly successful in the first part of the 20th century for marginalizing these other branches of the humanities. However, the victory would soon be short lived.

Cracks begin to form

A lot of the fervor for logical positivism came from a clearly optimistic perspective of what could be done in the world. In many ways, it was thought that if efforts were simply focusing on meaningful goals (as defined by the logical positivists), then most of the world’s problems would be alleviated. In particular there was a huge amount of optimism about the potential that science had to explain and revolutionize our world. This optimism, however, was shattered in World War I. Then, it became clear that science was not a purely positive thing, but could be used for negative as well as positive ends. This disillusionment with the ideal, though, could mean that the efforts of the logical positivists needed only to be increased (and that was the initial response). However, some more fundamental problems began to arise.

One of the foundations for reason in Kant’s writing was this idea that mathematics were synthetic a priori truths. In other words, they did not meet the criteria for meaning as the logical positivists had laid them out, but instead mathematics were things that we, essentially, constructed and yet could readily identify as being true. This did not sit well with the logical positivists and one of the primary goals of the movement was to give an account of mathematics that was entirely analytic.

This challenge was taken up by Bertrand Russell, a brilliant mathematician and philosopher, and Alfred North Whitehead. Russell’s initial work The Principles of Mathematics was meant to be a first volume, but the second volume was eventually expanded into three and became a much more important influential work in its own right. This work, Principia Mathematica, is truly a monumental and spectacular work in mathematics and was the most serious attempt to give an analytical account for mathematics. However there was a problem.

Three of the axioms that were needed to make the logical system work, axioms related to infinity, choice, and reducibility, could not be made into logical (read: analytical) axioms. Russell tried to avoid the problem by not necessarily affirming the axioms, but in the end the system was incomplete without these axioms.

Once one couples this with the other criticisms of the project, and the even more foundational criticism levied by Wittgenstein, who had once been seen as an ally to the logical positivists, and the entire project ended up a spectacular, if very insightful, failure.

So disillusioned was A. N. Whitehead by this that he eventually, upon abandoning the positivist movement, went in a very different direction as a founding member, in many ways, of process philosophy and process theology (a rather interesting, but I would argue also fundamentally incorrect) movement.

The Nail in the Coffin

The final blow might be traced to a few different criticisms. However, the one that seemed the most decisive was the one offered by someone from within the logical positivist group. In 1951 W. V. O. Quine published what might be the most important philosophical paper of the twentieth century. In his paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” he dismantles the logical positivist position in a number of ways. The first of his critiques, which itself has been questioned and criticized, it that the analytic-synthetic distinction seems forced and arbitrary. Admittedly, this particular section does not seem all the convincing. However, in his second argument, he attacks to dogmatic approach the logical positivists have to meaning. Recall that for a statement to have meaning it must be either a) analytic or b) derived from sensory experience. The problem is, this criteria for meaning is itself neither a) analytic nor b) derived from sensory experience. To use the phrase Quine does to describe it. It is “self-referentially incoherent.” Under no definition of analytic or empirical truth can the claim that those are the exclusive claims to meaning be established. Quine does reserve the final section to discuss what amounts to applying Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm views to the positivists. He notes that there may be attempts to reconcile the positivist vision with this attack upon the “core beliefs”. Surprisingly, though, in philosophy at least, the logical positivists quickly began to fade. By the 1960s it was largely considered a dead movement, built upon demonstrably false premises. It does exist in a few forms here or there, but these are not taken seriously by the majority of the philosophical community.

The Surprising Return

Perhaps its not that surprising that this movement has returned, particularly through a few science popularizers.  Specifically, I am referring to the New Atheists. Of course there arguments and calls to dismiss religious beliefs as ridiculous and general refusal to accept that religious and metaphysical claims have a say in society are not new; no they aren’t new, they are foolish and display a massive ignorance of philosophical history (and not obscure philosophical history, but some of the most foundational work in the 20th century English language). They are new in their surprising zeal, showing much more enthusiasm (and calling for the same among their untrained followers) than the positivists. If you will notice, though, there are virtually no philosophers (and really few scientists who are still engaged in active research) who are involved with the movement. It is, largely, a populist one. This is not because they want to bring “power to the people” or help save people from the “oppression of religion”. Rather, it is because the view can only thrive among those who are ignorant of this past movement. One of the surprising exceptions might be A. C. Grayling, a philosophy professor at the Univeristy of London (Brickbeck College). However, upon examining Grayling’s recent work, it becomes clear that he is less a philosopher and more a sensationalist (i.e. he likes being in the news). His Atheist Bible was a bit of an abomination, cobbling together bits and pieces of religious and literary texts, all of them horribly out of context, and with no citation whatsoever. Follow that up with his current project, a for profit college called New College of Humaniies which seems to exist primarily to grab headlines with ridiculous claims and to offer the children of wealthy parents who are unable to gain admission to otherwise respectable universities the chance to pretend theirs is an elite school. This project (which welcomed its first class this fall) has been almost universally criticized as misunderstanding almost everything known about higher education. In the end, the New Atheists like to ridicule and dismiss religion as foolishness, when in reality they need only look at their own history to see who really are the foolish ones sticking their heads in the sand.


3 thoughts on “The Fall (and return) of Logical Positivism”

  1. Only just found your blog. Nice piece. I have just written an article documenting a discussion I had with a New Atheism who holds to scientism. It’s the same problem. Funny though – how the New Atheists try to belittle philosophy. I look forward to reading more of your blog. Hope you might check mine out too!

Join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: