A Circle In Vienna
Logical Positivism was a theory developed in the 1920s by the ‘Vienna Circle’, a group of philosophers centred (unsurprisingly) in Vienna. Its formulation was entirely driven by Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, which dominated analytical philosophy in the 1920s and 30s. The Circle itself owed its existence primarily to Moritz Schlick, who came to Vienna in 1922 as Professor in the Philosophy of Inductive Science; besides Schlick, the Circle included Rudolph Carnap, Otto Neurath, Friedrich Waismann and other very able thinkers – but not Wittgenstein himself, who could not be persuaded to attend their meetings. The Circle had a programme of research and a journal, Erkenntnis, to publish its results. Waismann defined the hallmark of Logical Positivism – namely ‘the principle of verification’. As Waismann explained this principle: “If there is no way of telling when a proposition is true, then the proposition has no sense whatever; for the sense of a proposition is its method of verification. In fact whoever utters a proposition must know under what conditions he will call the proposition true or false; if he cannot tell this, then he does not know what he has said” [My italics] (from ‘A Logical Analysis of the Concept of Probability’, Erktenntis 1, 1930-1). So the principle of verification was supposed to be a criterion to determine whether or not a sentence is literally meaningful: and the criterion was that the user must know the conditions under which the sentence’s assertions are verifiable.
This doctrine drew a line of demarcation between science and what the Circle’s members pejoratively called ‘metaphysics’ – a word they used as a synonym for ‘nonsense’. Their principle of verification meant that only propositions concerned with matters of empirically-verifiable fact (‘It is still raining’), or the logical relationship between concepts (‘A downpour is heavier than a shower’) are meaningful. Propositions that fall into neither of these camps fail to satisfy the principle, they argued, and consequently lack sense. It follows, therefore, that the propositions of ethics, aesthetics, and religion, are meaningless nonsense. The same would be said for any proposition that expressed a judgement of value as distinct from propositions solely concerned with facts.
One Englishman attended meetings of the Vienna Circle: A. J. Ayer, who in 1936, at the age of twenty-six, published a book called Language, Truth and Logic. This brought the ideas of the Vienna Circle to the attention of the English-speaking world. The title of the first chapter of this dogmatic, even arrogant, book, is ‘The Elimination of Metaphysics’. Here’s how to do it, according to Ayer:
“We may define a metaphysical sentence as a sentence which purports to express a genuine proposition, but does, in fact, express neither a tautology nor an empirical hypothesis. And as tautologies and empirical hypotheses form the entire class of significant propositions, we are justified in concluding that all metaphysical assertions are nonsensical.”
Poor Immanuel Kant – all those years of effort on metaphysical analysis wasted! His analysis of the concept of free will, for example: meaningless! For the sentence ‘I chose freely’ is neither a tautology nor an empirical hypothesis (for it is incapable of being either proved or disproved empirically); therefore it must be nonsense. Isn’t that shocking?
It never seemed to occur to the Vienna Circle that the proposition ‘the sense of a proposition is its method of verification’ is itself a metaphysical assertion that cannot be verified by its own test: their doctrine is self-contradictory, and therefore must be false.