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CRITIQUE OF LOGICAL POSITIVISM

Paul Gerard Horrigan, Ph.D., 2009.

Logical Positivism
Nineteenth century positivism attempted to dismiss metaphysics as illusory and
detrimental to the advancement of the positive sciences (e.g., Comtes three stages), while
twentieth century neo-positivism or logical positivism, with its principle of verification (which
maintains that, aside from the tautological statements of logic and mathematics, meaningful
propositions must be verifiable, either directly or indirectly, by sense experience), dismisses
metaphysical propositions as meaningless or nonsensical. Logical positivism castigates
metaphysics as nonsense because its sentences fail to conform to the conditions under which
alone a sentence can be literally significant,1 namely, sensible verification. Its statements
belonged to the category neither of the true nor of the false, but of the meaningless. Linguistic
analysis distinguished it sharply from science, regarding it either as a diseased intellectual
condition to be cured by the therapy of the linguistic analyst, or as a group of problems that
inevitably arise from the use of natural language and that are to be solved by linguistic
elucidation.2 The logical positivists dismissed metaphysics as an emotional outpouring that
should use poetry as its medium, but instead used didactic language in an effort to represent itself
as objective truth.3
The neo-positivism4 of the Circle of Vienna,5 basing itself on the principle of verification,
had declared metaphysics, religion, and normative ethics to be nonsensical or meaningless,
reducing most of their propositions to the level of irrationalist sentiment or emotive expressions.
Metaphysical propositions like God exists, as well as most of the propositions of religion and
normative ethics would, according to logical positivism, be deprived of content inasmuch as
every content must be derived from sense experience, and so, for the neo-positivist, affirmations
like God exists and the human soul is immortal are nonsensical. The central thesis of neopositivism is that the fundamental propositions of metaphysics, ethics, religion, and aesthetics
are simply meaningless, for they fail the test of empirical verifiability.
Neo-positivism or logical positivism is an attempt to establish the validity of what man
knows by an analysis of what he says. After all, mans knowledge of reality is expressed in
propositions, so that a linguistic analysis should reveal whether a given proposition is meaningful
1

A. J. AYER, Language, Truth, and Logic, London, 1946, p. 35.


J. OWENS, An Elementary Christian Metaphysics, Center for Thomistic Studies, Houston, 1985, p. 10.
3
Ibid.
4
G. MORRA, Il problema morale nel neopositivismo, Lacaita, Manduria, 1962.
5
The Circle of Vienna (Wiener Kreis), initiated in 1895 as a chair of the philosophy of the inductive sciences in the
University of Vienna which went to Ernst Mach, who taught a series of courses there until 1901. In 1922 the chair
went to Moritz Schlick (1882-1936), who, together with a number of like-minded philosopher-physicists, published
in 1929 The Scientific Vision of the World: The Circle of Vienna (Wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung: der Wiener
Kries), which became the groups manifesto. Aside from Schlick, members of the group included Rudolf Carnap (its
most celebrated theorist), Kurt Gdel, Otto Neurath, Hans Reichenbach, Richard von Mises, Gustav Hempel, Karl
Menger, Hans Hahn, Friedrich Herbert Waismann, and Victor Kraft.
2

or simply verbal manipulation. Neo-positivists and logical positivists agree that the Humean
view of causality and empirical induction are givens, and that all philosophy is, in fact, logical
analysis, that is, it consists in the analysis of the language which ordinary people speak. There is
also a common point of agreement in the fact that such a linguistic verification eventually leads
to the rejection of metaphysical propositions such as those about causality, substance, accidents
and so forth. Such metaphysical statements are to be declared meaningless, at least in their
original intent. A certain proposition can only be sensical, and therefore true, if the elements of
such a proposition, after a linguistic analysis, can be reduced either directly or indirectly to some
sense experience or some sense data. If this is not possible, then the proposition is rendered
nonsensical or meaningless.
An example. What does the common expression mangoes exist mean? This logical
empiricist philosophy will answer that there are no such things in reality as mangoes, for this is
simply a verbal constant applied to what is an almost unlimited number of sense impressions and
sense references, organized and focused upon by the thinker. The logical positivist declares that
there can be no such thing in reality as a substance mango, and since this is a fact, mangoes
do not exist. Locked in an anthropocentric immanentism and empirical phenomenalism, it is
not possible to apply the word exist to mangoes, but only to the conglomeration of what is
sensibly perceived when we see what we call a mango. Ideally, a proposition like mangoes
exist would have to read: there is something such that this something is a mango. But can the
expression mangoes exist have any meaning? Yes, for such an expression can be directly
reduced to sense experience and sense data.
Now, what happens when logical positivism is applied to the problem of the existence of
God? To ask the question Does God exist? is to ask whether the expression God exists has
any meaning; whether it is possible to reduce it, either directly or indirectly, to sense experience.
The answer is no, for it is impossible to have a sense experience of the subject God in any
way; the proposition cannot be transcribed in terms of any known experience. Therefore, the
expression God exists, asserts the logical positivist, is meaningless; not true or false, but
simply nonsensical. Aside from adopting the erroneous positions of Humean phenomenalist and
immanentist empiricism, logical positivism adds its own so-called principle of verification which
is the principle that, aside from the tautological statements of logic and mathematics, meaningful
propositions must be verifiable, either directly or indirectly, by sense experience. The only
trouble with such a principle is that it fails to pass its own test: the principle of verification is
itself unverifiable by sense experience. It is a metaphysical philosophical principle.
Wittgenstein
For Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1952), philosophers have not suceeded in formulating
true propositions like scientists have done because they have failed to understand the logic of
language and have attempted to say what in fact cannot be said. Therefore, most of the
philosophers questions and statements, he asserts, are neither true nor false but meaningless. He
writes in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921): Most of the propositions and questions to
be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical. Consequently we cannot give any
answer to questions of this kind, but can only establish that they are nonsensical. Most of the

propositions and questions of philosophers arise from our failure to understand the logic of our
language.6
Explaining Wittgensteins logical positivism in the Tractatus period of the First
Wittgenstein, which became a standard reference work of the logical positivists of the Vienna
Circle, Armand Maurer writes: According to Wittgenstein, only propositions whose terms stand
for things and their qualities can be either true or false. And since these propositions concern
facts that can be verified by the senses, they all fall within the domain of the natural sciences.
Consequently, The totality of true propositions is the whole of natural science (or the whole
corpus of the natural sciences).78
Wittgensteins Tractatus asserts that the propositions of metaphysics are nonsensical or
meaningless since they are unable to pass the test of empirical verifiability. Maurer explains that,
for Wittgenstein, the propositions of philosophy and metaphysics are nonsense (Unsinn). They
go beyond the limits of language and attempt to say what is inexpressible. The philosopher
cannot talk clearly about such matters as God, immortality, or ethics; the riddle of life lies
beyond time and space and hence it is strictly inexpressible. We feel that even when all possible
scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of
course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer. The solution of the problem
of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.9 This, then, is the correct method in philosophy:
to say nothing except what can be said, i.e., propositions of natural science i.e., something that
has nothing to do with philosophy and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something
metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his
propositions.1011
Carnap
The Circle of Vienna, of which Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970) eventually turned out to be
their main theoretician, was heavily influenced by the Tractatus of the First Wittgenstein,
although Ludwig Wittgenstein was never a member of their group and attended none of their
meetings. The members (of the Vienna Circle) read his Tractatus, which confirmed them in
their antimetaphysical and positivist views. To the Viennese positivists metaphysics attempts to
demonstrate the existence of entities lying beyond experience entities such as Kantian thingsin-themselves or a transcendent God and this, they contended, is impossible. Wittgenstein
6
L. WITTGENSTEIN, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Kegan Paul, London, 1922, 4.003. What about the
propositions of logic and mathematics? Maurer observes that for Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, while propositions
of logic exhibit the structure of the world, they themselves do not say anything about reality. In Wittgensteins view
they are tautologies without a subject-matter (cf. Tractatus, 6.124). If they treated of anything they would be
pictures of facts and we could speak of them as either truly or falsely reporting facts. But the question of truth or
falsity does not arise in their connection. The same is true of the propositions of mathematics. Wittgenstein contends
that they are merely equations and hence pseudo propositions. This is a point Russell learned from him and which
caused the mathematician great disappointment(A. MAURER, in E. GILSON, T. LANGAN, A. MAURER, Recent
Philosophy: Hegel to the Present, Random House, New York, 1962, p. 524).
7
L. WITTGENSTEIN, op. cit., 4.11.
8
A. MAURER, op. cit., p. 524.
9
L. WITTGENSTEIN, op. cit., 6.52 ; 6.521.
10
L. WITTGENSTEIN, op. cit., 6.53.
11
A. MAURER, op. cit., p. 525.

convinced them that metaphysics goes beyond the limits of language; that all significant
statements can be analyzed into elementary statements about ultimate or atomic facts that are
verifiable through sense experience, and consequently that the only meaningful propositions are
those of natural science. As positivists, they wanted to establish a theory of meaning that
would restrict meaningful statements about the world to those that are verifiable by sense
experience.12
For Carnap, logical positivism is an activity that can be described as the logical analysis
of scientific terms and statements, which include the factual statements of everyday life. All of
these statements, in Carnaps view, are verifiable by sense experience, and their meaning lies in
the method by which they are verified. Since he holds that the statements belonging to the
traditional branches of philosophy, such as metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology, cannot be
verified empirically, he concludes that they are meaningless. They are not statements at all but
pseudo statements. What remains as valid in philosophy is general logic and the logic of science,
that is to say the logical analysis of the language of science.13
Having reduced philosophy to an analysis of language, centered upon the language of
science, to be verified by sense experience, Carnap dismisses the propositions of metaphysics as
meaningless or nonsensical. Maurer explains that, for Carnap, metaphysics attempts to discover
and formulate a kind of knowledge that is not accessible to empirical science; but this is enough
to condemn it as meaningless, for if it lies outside the field of science its statements cannot be
verified by sense experience. Carnap is not saying that metaphysics is mere speculation or the
telling of fairy tales, for the former may be true and the latter, though in conflict with experience,
may not be illogical. He is saying that metaphysical statements are not statements at all.
According to this view, he writes, the sentences of metaphysics are pseudo sentences which on
logical analysis are proved to be either empty phrases or phrases which violate the rules of
syntax.14
But if the statements of metaphysics have no cognitive meaning, how can we account
for the persistent efforts of eminent thinkers to formulate a metaphysics? Carnap attributes the
perennial interest in metaphysics to mans effort to express his general attitude toward life. Like
the religious thinker and artist, the metaphysician gives expression to his emotional and
volitional reaction to the world about him, only he uses verbal expression and argumentation in
place of, say, the purer media of poetry or music. Metaphysicians have a strong inclination to
work within the medium of the theoretical, to connect concepts and thoughts. Now, instead of
activating, on the one hand, this inclination in the domain of science, and satisfying, on the other
hand, the need for expression in art, the metaphysician confuses the two and produces a structure
which achieves nothing for knowledge and something inadequate for the expression of attitude.
In short, Metaphysicians are musicians without musical ability.15

12

A. MAURER, op. cit., p. 532.


A. MAURER, op.cit., p. 533.
14
R. CARNAP, The Logical Syntax of Language, Humanities Press, New York, 1951, p. 8.
15
R. CARNAP, The Elimination of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language, in Logical Positivism,
edited by A. J. Ayer, p. 80.
13

Carnap includes in metaphysics, as meaningless verbiage, epistemological theories such


as realismThe judgments of value of normative ethics and aesthetics are likewise eliminated as
meaningless statements on the ground that the objective validity of a value or norm cannot be
empirically verified or deduced from empirical statements.
The only meaningful statements Carnap admits beside the factual assertions of the
empirical sciences are those of mathematics and logic (and their contradictories, which are false
but meaningful). Following Wittgenstein, he considers these necessary truths but devoid of
content. They are tautologies that are necessary in terms of their formal structure.16
Ayer
The logical positivist Alfred Jules Ayer (1910-1989) popularized the neo-positivism of
the Circle of Vienna among English speakers with his work, Language, Truth, and Logic (1936,
second edition 1946). Maurer explains that for Ayer a proposition is empirical when its validity
is determined by the facts of experience; in other words, when it is empirically verifiable. But
what is meant by verifiable? Ayer has written much on this subject without by his own
admission dispelling all vagueness from it. He distinguishes between a strong and a weak sense
of the term. In the strong sense a proposition is verifiable if its truth can be conclusively
established by experience; it is verifiable in the weak sense if it is possible for experience to
render it probable. The only class of empirical propositions that admit of strong verification are
basic propositions, which refer solely to an immediate experience such as this is green or I feel
a headache. All other empirical propositions are only weakly verifiable; for example, general
propositions such as all men are mortal, and all statements about the past and future. These
cannot be conclusively established; at best they are highly probable.17
Ayer does not mean that every significant empirical statement must actually be verified,
but it must at least be able to be verified, either directly or indirectly, by some observations that
would be relevant to the demonstration of its truth or falsity.18
In Ayers view this rules out metaphysical propositions as meaningless. They are not
intended to express a tautology, like the propositions of mathematics or logic, but rather to assert
something about reality transcending the limits of all possible sense experience. But this means
that in principle they cannot be verified. Ayer argues that the propositions God exists and
human souls are immortal are unverifiable. We cannot conceive of an observation that would
prove them to be true or false; they are in principle unverifiable. Such metaphysical utterances
are neither true nor false; they are literally meaningless.19
Ayer also uses the verification principle to rule out normative ethical and aesthetic
judgments as true or false. In saying that a certain type of action is right or wrong, or that a work
of art is beautiful or hideous, I am not making a factual statement, not even one about my own

16

A. MAURER, op. cit., pp. 534-535.


Cf. A. J. AYER, Language, Truth and Logic, Victor Gollancz, London, 2nd edition, 1946, pp. 9-12, 36-37.
18
A. J. AYER, op. cit., p. 38.
19
Cf. A. J. AYER, op. cit., pp. 36, 115.
17

state of mind. I am merely expressing my sentiments or feelings. No objective validity can be


attributed to these statements.2021
Critique of Logical Positivisms Principle of Verification
The problem, of course, with the neo-positivist or logical positivist principle of
verification is that the principle itself is unverifiable in sense experience, it being a metaphysical
principle grasped in intellectual knowing. In his critique of neo-positivism, Mondin quotes
thinkers that have criticized neo-positivisms canon of the principle of verification as being itself
a metaphysical principle: Ewing, Lewis, Warnock e altri, si schierarono contro di esso e ne
misero in evidenza la superficialit e le contraddizioni interne. Mostrarono che c
contraddizione persino in uno dei canoni fondamentali del sistema, quello che afferma che ha
significato teoretico solo ci che traducibile in proposizioni sperimentali. Ora, questo un
canone che non suscettibile di verifica sperimentale, e appartiene pertanto a quelle proposizioni
metafisiche che i neopositivisti condannano come prive di senso.2223
Now, if immanentist phenomenalism of the Humean positivist kind reigns and knowing
is reduced to that of sense knowing, metaphysics as a science is destroyed, for being qua being,
substance qua substance, and cause qua cause, are all grasped by the intellect and not understood
by the senses. Thus, there is an urgent need for the promotion of a methodical philosophical
realism that not only affirms the proper role of sense knowledge (against, for example, the
innatism and apriorism of rationalism), but also the existence and superiority of intellectual
knowing, capable of degrees of abstraction and of the separatio, capable of the resolutiocompositio, a methodological realism that makes being prior to thought, is respectful of both
gnoseological and ontological transcendence, and does not subordinate or reduce metaphysics,
the science of being qua being, to any one of the particular human sciences discoverable by the
lumen of reason alone (in the case of logical positivism it is the reduction of philosophy to that of
linguistic analysis and logic, centered upon the logic of science).
In his critique of logical positivism, Frederick D. Wilhelmsen writes that logical
positivists have their own first principle and this is called the principle of verification or
verifiability. For the positivists, all thought is nothing but the way in which we order our sense
experiences: There are no things in a realist sense of the term; there are only facts which are
the data given sensation. Scientific law and all other meaningful discourse rise out of mans
attempt to order his experience for the sake of his practical mastery over life. A statement has
meaning, makes sense, only if it can be reduced to some sense experience with which it is
20

Cf. A. J. AYER, op. cit., pp. 107-113.


A. MAURER, op. cit., pp. 540-541.
22
Il principio di verifica una proposizione di metafisica e, di conseguenza, se si deve credere al positivismo
logico, priva di senso(C. E. M. JOAD, A Critique of Logical Positivism, p. 71). Il criterio della verifica
sperimentale una riduzione allassurdo sia della conoscenza che del significato [...] perch lintenzione di
trascendere lesperienza immediata dellessenza della conoscenza e del significato(C. I. LEWIS, Experience and
Meaning, in Readings in Philosophical Analysis, a cura di H. Fiegl e W. Sellars, New York, 1949, p. 133). Anche i
viennesi sono caduti senza accorgersene nella trappola della metafisica da loro tanto detestata(G. J. WARNOCK,
Criticism of Metaphysics, in The Nature of Metaphysics, London, 1957, p. 141). Cfr. anche A. C. EWING,
Meaningless, Mind 46 (1937).
23
B. MONDIN, Corso di storia della filosofia, vol. 3, Massimo, Milan, 1992, pp. 460-461.
21

directly or indirectly identifiable. Positivists do not mean merely that all human knowledge
begins in sensation which alone confronts existing things; they mean that every affirmation and
negation making sense is composed of a subject and a predicate which symbolize some sensorial
data experienced or capable of being experienced. But the proposition being is being, while
including sensible being, transcends the material order; it does not point to sensations or to
data, but to the truth that things are, that they exist. Therefore, say the positivists, it is
meaningless: not false, not true, just gibberish.
Through this attack on the primacy of being, the logical positivists sweep away all
metaphysical and religious discourse. The belief that there is a God is not condemned as false; it
is just dismissed as nonsense In this way, positivism cuts beneath the great debate about the
final meaning of human existence that has engaged civilized man since the day he discovered he
had a soul. Positivism is a far more popular philosophy today than idealism
If all propositions must be verified in sense experience, then why not the principle of
verification itself? The principle is a complex of meaning, no element of which is identified with
sense experience. Every meaningful proposition is verifiable in sense experience. The
predicate, sense experience, is not sensible; it is an abstract, intelligible content; it is not
identified with any given sense experience. Meaningful is not a sense experience. What is the
meaning of meaning? Whatever it might be, it cannot be identified and understood simply by
pointing at something and punching it. The whole proposition might be said to stand for the
totality of sense experiences and thus to symbolize them all. If this is so, then there is a
meaning beyond experience, and this meaning is meaning itself.
The amusing thing about positivism is that it proceeds to deny the intelligence by using
the intelligence denied. It sets up an elaborate criterion to destroy the intellect, and the criterion
turns out to be highly intellectual in structure. Positivism is, therefore, self-contradictory, selfdestructive, a system that dissolves from within once it is seen to be what it is.24

24

F. WILHELMSEN, Mans Knowledge of Reality, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1956, pp. 49-51.