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Positivism

Positivism is a philosophical movement characterized by an emphasis upon science and scientific method as the only sources of knowledge, a sharp distinction between the realms of fact and value, and a strong hostility toward religion and traditional philosophy--especially metaphysics. An outgrowth of the empirical tradition (see EMPIRICISM), positivism was first introduced into the philosophical vocabulary in the early 19th century by the Comte De SAINT-SIMON. As developed by Auguste COMTE, Ernst MACH, and others, the movement had great influence in philosophy well into the 20th century.

Hostility toward traditional thought was especially strong in Comte, who denied the possibility of metaphysical knowledge, which he held to be a stagnant and useless branch of inquiry. He demanded a "sociocracy" ruled by scientists for the unity, conformity, and progress of all humanity. Mach's interest, on the other hand, was in physics, which he regarded as the paradigm of knowledge, since he believed it to be based on sensations and abstractions from sensations. He was suspicious of any thought (including scientific hypotheses) that was incapable of being reduced to direct observation. Positivism thus redefined the purpose of philosophy, limiting it to the analysis and definition of scientific language. It was a logical and historical ancestor to contemporary LOGICAL POSITIVISM and ANALYTIC AND LINGUISTIC PHILOSOPHY.

J. T. Moore


Logical positivism is a 20th-century philosophical movement in the tradition of ANALYTIC AND LINGUISTIC PHILOSOPHY. Like earlier forms of POSITIVISM, it had close ties to British EMPIRICISM and was marked by respect for natural science and hostility to metaphysical speculation. It originated, however, with a group of German and Austrian philosophers known as the Vienna Circle. At first just a discussion group, it later became a more formal organization, publishing its own philosophical journal. Organized by Moritz Schlick (1882-1936), who came to the University of Vienna as professor of philosophy in 1922, it also included Herbert Feigl, Kurt GODEL, Hans Hahn, Friedrich Waismann, and, after 1926, Rudolf CARNAP.

The Vienna Circle was decisively influenced by Ludwig WITTGENSTEIN, though he was never really a member of it. In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Wittgenstein put forward a general theory of linguistic representation, according to which propositions are "logical pictures" of possible facts. This implied that a proposition is not meaningful unless it determines a precise range of circumstances in which it is true. A partial exception was made for tautologies (such as "Either it is raining or it is not raining") and contradictions (such as "It is raining and it is not raining"). Such propositions say nothing, since they are, respectively, true or false no matter what; they show, however, the workings of the "logical constants," not, or, and, and so forth. In metaphysics, however, philosophers have often tried to say something about reality as a whole, making claims supposedly so general and fundamental as to be indifferent to the particular facts of the world. On Wittgenstein's theory of language, such claims are literally nonsensical, words without meaning.

The logical positivists used this argument for the meaninglessness of metaphysical propositions but interpreted it in a way that Wittgenstein almost certainly did not intend. Wittgenstein had distinguished in an abstract way between elementary and complex propositions. The positivists took his elementary propositions to be reports of observations. This was the origin of their central idea, the verification principle, which said that any meaningful proposition, other than the tautological or, as they came to be called, "analytic" propositions of logic and pure mathematics, had to be verifiable by means of observation. Propositions belonging to traditional metaphysics--such as those about the existence of God, for example--were deemed not to meet this condition and were declared meaningless. Metaphysical statements were not the only ones to fail the test. Ordinary moral judgments seemed to fail it too. One way this was dealt with was by saying that such judgments were expressions of emotion, rather than genuine propositions.

With the elimination of metaphysics, the business of philosophy was seen as the logical clarification of scientific statements and theories--for example, putting informally stated theories in strict axiomatic form, so as to distinguish clearly their analytic from their empirical elements.

Nevertheless, a good deal of controversy centered on the interpretation of the principles of logical positivism itself. One problem concerned observation statements: Were they about an individual's private perceptual experiences, as Schlick thought, or publicly accessible events? Another concerned the verification of scientific laws that, because they apply to a potentially infinite number of instances, cannot be verified with absolute conclusiveness. Eventually, the original strong notion of verification gave way to a weaker notion of confirmation. Attempts to make this notion precise by constructing a formal inductive logic met with only limited success, however. In general, the more the verification principle was qualified, the harder it became to distinguish logical positivism from other forms of logical empiricism.

With the advent of Nazism, most members of the Vienna Circle chose exile, many settling in the United States. This marked the end of logical positivism as an organized movement. In England it had found an able spokesman in the young A. J. AYER, whose Language, Truth and Logic (1936) is a classic statement of the positivist outlook. Logical positivism's subsequent influence, however, was stronger in the United States. In contemporary philosophy, especially in the United States, the spirit of logical positivism can be seen in the respect for science, distrust of high-flown jargon (or what is thought to be such), and insistence on clarity and rigorous argument. Its specific theoretical ideas are no longer accepted in their original form.

Michael Williams