Logical Positivism

Logical positivism is a school of philosophy concerned with empiricism in combination with rationalism.  It is no longer considered a robust theory since W.V. Quine, the 20th Century philosopher, took a fine scalpel to the Logical positivist’s sharp-edged theory and disproved its principles so deftly that it never fully recovered. 

However, logical positivism is of interest to atheists for its statements that linguistic concepts of god and belief in god were meaningless.  The positivists were also ruthless critics of the propaganda put out by the Nazi Third Reich prior to World War II.  They ridiculed and savaged the hate riddled statements issuing from the German Nazi Party.  Their anti-Nazi activity is important to many secular humanists. The group was called the Vienna Circle originally, and the positivists gathered at the Café Central in Vienna before the war.  In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Otto Neurath’s efforts made the group more widely known.[1]  Most of the Logical positivists in the circle were social and physical scientists by training rather than philosophers.  In 1929, Neurath, Rudolph Carnap and Hans Hahn issued a pamphlet that summarized the circle’s position on its philosophy.  Their most important statement for the purposes of this Preface was that the circle found metaphysics not wrong per se, but unintelligible.

The Vienna Circle dispersed with the rise of the Nazi Party in the early 1930’s.  Many of its members arrived in England and the United States, where they had a significant influence on philosophy. The Vienna Circle was influenced by the early works of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, both influential 20th Century philosophers.  It was dominant as the philosophy of science until the Cold War. 

The most important tenet of the Logical positivists is what they maintained concerning truth claims.  They said that a statement makes a genuine truth claim (is true or false) if and only if it is either empirical (testable by sense experience) or analytical (true by definition.) The positivists stated that the statement “god exists” fails the test since it’s neither true nor false.  It simply lacks cognitive meaning and only expresses some sort of vague feelings.  They concluded that it is senseless to ask whether there is a god.  A.J. Ayer, who wrote the impressive Language, Truth and Logic (1946) while still in his twenties, had a large influence in propagating Logical positivism’s theories.  His work was taken up by many thinkers.[2] Ayer was an atheist who saw religious language as defective and without meaning. 

W.V. Quine successfully questioned the positivist’s distinction between synthetic and analytic statements.  He also found the reduction of statements that were considered meaningful to immediate experience incorrect.  Karl Popper, a 20th Century philosopher, stated in his book The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959), that the Logical positivists’ theory of verifiability was too strong and argued that it should be replaced with falsifiability. He maintained that scientific theories are provisional and that true scientists should always think of ways their theories could be falsified.

Despite its critics, Logical Positivism went on to be an important influence on analytic philosophy.  The Logical positivists helped to explode the “truth statements” of religion.  They were an important step on the way to secularism in the United States and England.

Video of Lecture: Logical Positivism

Lecture: Logical Positivism

Recommended Books

Ayer, A.J. (1946) Language, Truth and Logic. 2nd Ed.New York: Dover, 1952.

Many readers of philosophy still find Ayer’s book from 1946 interesting, mind-changing and relevant.  Despite the waning of Logical positivism, readers appreciate the young Ayer’s fearless cutting through the obfuscations of religion, ethics and years of classical philosophy.  It is worth repeating once again positivism’s gold standard for meaning in a sentence.  A sentence has meaning if its truth is analytic or if one can test it empirically concerning its truth.  If these conditions do not pertain, then the sentence is meaningless nonsense. 

Ayers believed that once Metaphysics was eliminated from philosophy, philosophy’s problems would vanish. In his text he expressed hopes that readers will understand that many “philosophical” difficulties such as souls, the nature of the soul and so on, belong to metaphysics and not philosophy. The final portion of the volume is taken up with Ayer’s discussion of various “philosophical problems” and his application of Logical positivism to them.  This is a well written book and readers who would like to read a foundational book by a Logical positivist will find Ayers of interest.

Friedman, Michael.  Reconsidering Logical Positivism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Friedman’s book is a collection of previously published essays written by him, which reconsider Logical positivism in the present day.  Friedman goes against received opinion and maintains that Logical positivism was neo-Kantian, particularly in the concept of relative a priori.  Friedman is a fine writer, historian and philosopher.  He focuses on Carnap, Schlick and Reichenback.  This volume provides an excellent history of Logical positivism.  The book is for readers who want a more technical understanding of Logical Positivism.

Books for readers who want to learn more concerning Logical Positivism:

Alan Richardson and Thomas Uebel (eds.) The Cambridge Companion to Logical Empiricism. (2007); Aloysius Martinich. Analytic Philosophy: An Anthology (2001). Peter Achenstein. The Legacy of Logical Positivism. (1969); Sakhar Sahota. The Legacy of the Vienna Circle. (1996); William Werkmeister. “Seven Theses of Logical Positivism Critically Examined.” Philosophical Review (Cornell University) 46 (3) 276-297; Ludwig Wittgenstein. (1921) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. (2010); Wayne C. Mayhall. On Logical Positivism (2003); Barry Gower. Logical Positivism in Perspective: Essays on Language, Truth and Logic. (1987).



2 Magee, Bryan.  The Story of Philosophy. U.S.A.: DK Publishing, 2001, p. 200.

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