Part 7 - Logical Positivism

Logical Positivism, A.J. Ayer and Wittgenstein.

 It is true to say that if Existentialism has been a most influential philosophy over the past decades in the Continent, with Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Logical Positivism in a variety of forms has dominated the Anglo-Saxon world over the same period. The early Wittgenstein was a logical positivist, and although he later modified his views he retained nonetheless the general logical positivist outlook. A.J. Ayer contributed to spread the ideas of logical positivism in the English-speaking world with the publication of his book, Language, Truth and Logic, written before his 26th birthday and which became an immediate best-seller.  Logical positivists embraced wholeheartedly many of David Hume’s conclusions and they tend to regard him as the greatest philosopher of the last three hundred years. From the point of view of Christian thought, and Rosminian in particular, Logical Positivism is an unmitigated disaster, reducing philosophy to a simple branch of logic with the only purpose of clarifying language, according to their criteria. The language used by Metaphysics, Ethics, Theology, Aesthetics is declared meaningless, therefore all such sciences should be discarded

Logical positivism developed from the work of a group of philosophers known as the Vienna Circle. These philosophers, working in Vienna in the 1920s, included Moritz Schlick and Rudolf Carnap. The philosophical group did not want to understand how we gain knowledge about the external world, but how we use language as the means of conveying knowledge. The fundamental principle of Logical Positivism was that only those propositions “that can be verified empirically” have meaning. As the leader of the Vienna Circle, Moritz Schlick put it, “The meaning of a proposition is the method of verification”.

The logical positivists, following Hume, only accepted two forms of verifiable language:

  • Analytic propositions (a priori), which are logical definitions, tautological, necessarily true because of the logical meaning of the words used: “A triangle is a three-sided figure”, “A=A”, “A bachelor is an unmarried man”. All such propositions are necessarily true, because of the meaning we have given to the words, not because you can actually verify them through experience. A bachelor is an unmarried man, independently of any real bachelor. All analytic propositions are tautological: the predicate is contained in the subject, the second half of the proposition is already contained in the first half, you are simply repeating yourself. Such propositions, necessarily true, do not give us any knowledge about the world. They are conventional definitions.
  • Synthetic propositions (a Posteriori) by which knowledge could be proved true or false by some form of sense experience or experiment. Synthetic propositions are based on experience, therefore they can be true or false, and they are always meaningful.

This distinction of only two types of knowledge, analytic a priori and synthetic a posteriori, is also known as Hume’s Fork: any other type of knowledge is ruled out as meaningless. Let’s see then what happen to knowledge about Metaphysics, Ethics, Aesthetics, Theology when we apply Hume’s Fork or the Logical Positivists’ Principle of Verification. The language used by metaphysicians, ethicists, art writers, and theologians is not seen by them as “analytic a priori”, as tautological, as repetitive of conventional definitions, as simply an exercise in logic with no reference to any true state of affairs in the real world. Their language, therefore, is not analytic a priori. It must, then, be of the second type, “synthetic a posteriori” to have any meaning at all, it must be possible to verify the propositions through experience. But is it?

“This Picasso is a masterpiece!” (example of aesthetic language): is it meaningful?
“God loves me” (example of religious language): is it meaningful?
“Time is unreal” (example of metaphysical language): is it meaningful?
“Murder is wrong” (example of ethical language): is it meaningful?

For A.J. Ayer, all the above statements are “meaningless”, simply because they cannot be verified through experience. How do you verify through experience that the Picasso painting is a masterpiece? What is the “experience” that makes it true to say that it is a masterpiece in reality? Is not rather a question of “taste”, and we know that “taste” cannot be true or false. “This Picasso is a masterpiece” is therefore a meaningless proposition in the sense that it cannot be true or false, it is not part of knowledge but of taste.

How do you verify through experience that God loves you? Have your senses seen God? What does He look like? In what ways can He love you? You can experience the love of your mother by her attitudes, her behaviour, her actions, her words, etc; but how can you ever experience through the senses God’s love for you? Religious language, therefore, cannot be verified through experience, is meaningless in the sense that it does not provide a true or false statement, it does not provide knowledge at all.

All metaphysical statements fail the test of verification: how does one verify through experience that time is unreal, that the world is ascending progressively towards Absolute Reason, that the idea of being is the foundation of all branches of knowledge, that there is a “substance” behind the accidents, that there is an A priori principle of cause and effect, that there are A priori principles of logic, and even that there is a “self” and a “mind” or “soul”. Ayer claims that no metaphysical language will ever pass the test of the Principle of Verification, therefore it should be discarded as meaningless.

One might be surprised to see that even ethical statements are declared meaningless. Should it not be true that “rape is wrong”, that “stealing is wrong”, that “honesty is good”, that “telling the truth is good”? For Ayer, all these statements are simply meaningless, there is no question of truth or falsity in them. When we say, “Murder is wrong” we are not proclaiming a truth at all; how can you verify through experience the “wrongness” of murder? For Ayer, all ethical statements are simply expressions of our own emotions, not statements of truth. When one says, “Rape is wrong” he is simply expressing his emotion of revulsion and trying at the same time to evince the same feeling from people around him. The expression, “Helping the poor is good” is again simply an expression of one’s emotions about helping the poor; another person is equally entitled to say, “Helping the poor is bad” since his proposition simply means that he is expressing his own emotions which are different; neither of the two propositions is true or false; they are both meaningless from a cognitive point, they simply express emotions which cannot be true or false. All ethical statements are, therefore, meaningless and they simply express emotions (Ayer’s Emotivism), or prescription (Hare’s Prescriptivism) or taste (Russell’s ethical subjectivism).

The Logical Positivists and Ayer in particular wanted to stress that the only language that can truly pass the Verification test is scientific language; scientific language is the only language that is truly meaningful, because based on experience and on experiments. Ayer realized, however that some scientific and historical propositions have not been verified with certainty. He introduced two forms of the Verification Principle, “strong” and “weak” verification, to deal with this problem.

“Strong” Verification occurs when there is no doubt that a statement is true, as one verifies it using sense experience, observation. An example of the strong form would be the statement, “Brother Nigel wears glasses”, which could be proved true or false by visiting Brother Nigel.

“Weak” Verification is a statement that there are some observations that are relevant to proving a proposition true or false. For example, “Columbus discovered America” is accepted as true because people affirmed the event at the time. Similarly, statements that could be affirmed in the future are meaningful: “A proposition is verifiable in the strong sense of the term, if, and only if, its truth could be conclusively established… But it is verifiable in the weak sense if it is possible for experience to render it probable”.

Ayer considered that empiricism cannot account for our knowledge of necessary truths. He accepted analytic propositions because to reject such statements would be illogical. He accepted a priori truth in both mathematical and linguistic statements because “they add nothing to our knowledge”. He accepted them because,

“… the power of logic and mathematics to surprise us depends, like their usefulness, on the limitations of our reason. A being whose intellect was infinitely powerful would take no interest in logic and mathematics. For he would be able to see at a glance everything that his definitions implied, and accordingly, could never learn anything from logical inference which he was not fully conscious of already”.

John Hick claims that verification is possible for religious language, not the ordinary verification in this world, but the “eschatological” verification, a verification which will take place at the end of our life. He uses the parable of two people walking the same road towards the “celestial city”, one of them believing that there is no celestial city at the end of the journey, the other, instead, holding the belief that they will at the end arrive at the celestial city. Their propositions about the celestial city are meaningful, but their truth or falsity will be verified only at the end, at the eschaton.

Many philosophers have rejected the Principle of Verification. The reasons for its rejection include the following:

  • The principle itself is not meaningful because it cannot be verified using the Verification Principle. The principle is not analytical nor is based on experience.
  • The principle makes general scientific statements meaningless because they cannot be verified through experience. How do you verify that water is H2O? You need to analyze all existent water in the universe in order to pass the strong verification test; this applies to all general statements of science with the result that scientific language becomes as meaningless as religious or metaphysical language, the opposite of what the logical positivists had intended.
  • Many philosophers object to the view that human beings have been involved for millennia in using ethical, religious, metaphysical, and aesthetic languages only to be told now by the logical positivists that they had been wasting their time and their efforts. There seem to be great arrogance, without adequate reasons.
  • The principle of verification has been changed over and over again in order to try to cope with the constant waves of criticism; it seems more reasonable to abandon it all together.
  • In the 1950s, Anthony flew applied the Principle of Falsification to religious language and concluded that religious statements are meaningless. Flew argued that this is because there is nothing that can count against religious statements. Religious statements can neither be proved true (verified) nor false, because religious believers do not accept any evidence to count against (falsify) their beliefs. For example, Flew argued that Christians hold to their belief that “God is good”, whatever evidence is offered against God’s goodness: “Even if God slays me I will still trust in Him” (Job). Hence, for Flew the expression, “God loves me” is meaningless because it cannot be falsified.

Wittgenstein had supported the logical positivists, but he came to reject the verification principle. He decided that the meaning of words is in their use; the function they perform as agreed by the particular group or society using them. Each activity has its own language, and Wittgenstein regarded this rather like a game with its own set of rules.

Language games exist within all forms of human activity and life. People not in the game will be unable to understand the use of the language. If people do not understand the language, then it will seem to be meaningless. Religious belief has its own language. A non-believer will find religious language meaningless because he or she is not in the religious game. But an outsider cannot claim that the language used in a particular “game” is meaningless just because it does not make sense to them.

Descartes believed that he had proved his existence because of his private thoughts. Wittgenstein argued that individuals could not create a private language: How would individuals know that they were using words correctly? Language is a social product and therefore any thoughts are not in private but in public language, with socially agreed rules on how they are to be used and understood. Wittgenstein denied the first-person certainty that had underlined both rationalist and empiricist approaches to philosophy. He is in agreement with A.J. Ayer who had denied the existence of a “substantive self”: there is no I as a permanent subjective entity:

“Our reasoning on the self, as on so many others, is in conformity with Hume’s. He, too, rejected the notion of a substantive ego on the ground that no such entity was observable. For, he said, whenever he entered most intimately into what he called himself, he always stumbled on some particular perception or other – of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. He never could catch himself at any time without a perception, and never could observe anything but the perception. And this led him to assert that a self was “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions”.

For Hume, Ayer, Wittgenstein, and G. Ryle there is no “substantive self”, there is no permanent subject or soul occupying our body. What we call the self is nothing more than the fleeting perceptions of an endless number of sense-experiences. “There is no ghost in the machine”, said G. Ryle criticizing Descartes’ view that the Mind is a substance entirely different from the body and yet interacting with the body. For Ryle, your mind, or soul, or I is your behaviour. When we say, “He is in pain” it is not the case that there is a mind, a permanent self that experiences in an entirely private way a pain; what we mean is simply the public facts of tears, contortions, jumping about, uttering of cries; there is no one hidden who does all these things, we are entirely public, there is no more to the self than our behaviour.

Ryle accuses those who claim that there is a substantive self, or a permanent I, or a Mind, of committing a “category mistake”. If you take a group of visitors to the Vatican, and show them St. Peters’ Basilica, the square, the various shops in the area, the living quarters of the Pope and of the citizens, the Systine Chapel and the Museum, you would be amazed if they tell you, “Very good brothers, you have shown us the Church, and the shops, and the square, etc. but where is the Vatican? You have not shown us the Vatican!”. You would rightly be amazed because your visitors are making the mistake of thinking that the Vatican is something above all the things you have shown them. The Vatican is precisely the things they have seen, is not another entity over and above the various things they have seen. They are committing a “category” mistake, they are putting the Vatican into the category of one more thing to be seen. But there is not one more thing to be seen, the Vatican is simply the total of what they have already seen.

There is no Mind over and above your behaviour: you are a public object, with no hidden ghost. How can you verify the existence of an entirely private soul, or mind, or self? How can you prove the existence of something “spiritual” over and above your body and its behaviour? Human beings have emerged through a long process of evolution from the “primordial soup” of non-organic matter: matter is entirely open to scientific investigation, matter is public. There is no place anywhere in the world for the mysterious spiritual reality we call soul, or mind, or substantive self.

A final point on Wittgenstein. He accepted the meaningfulness of religious, ethical, metaphysical, aesthetic languages, for the people involved in such forms of life. To a Catholic person the statement that Jesus was born of a Virgin is completely meaningful, to a Muslim the statement that Mohammed received the Koran directly from the Archangel Gabriel is also fully meaningful. Scientific language to those involved in science is meaningful, and so on for all forms of life. There are societies that have different moral codes, different traditions, different world-views, different relationships from the ones that we may have. Cutting the hand of a thief is acceptable in certain countries, but not in others, freedom of expression is sustained in some societies and is repressed in others.

Wittgenstein would say that we learn our language at our mother’s knees, and with language we learn all the patterns of truth, all the rules, all the world-views which are bound up with the language we use. Within each society or form of life, language is meaningful, and more: it provides all the patterns of our truth. The traditions of an African nation, the traditions of the Venezuelan people, the traditions of Europeans, are all meaningful, and are all expressive of a pattern of truths. But is there any form of life that can claim the Truth? Is there any language that can be said to be True? Religious language is meaningful for Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, etc:  but, is it True? Is there any objective Truth that human beings can discover?

For Wittgenstein, when we begin to dig in search of the objective Truth, “the spade is turned up”, it cannot get there. He did not think that any language, any form of life contained the objective truth. It would be even impossible, for him, to disentangle the truth of a form of life from the objective truth, if there is one. For all our languages are biased. This conclusion can certainly help to be tolerant of traditions other than our own. But it is a conclusion that opens up the door to radical skepticism.


Concluding remarks.

Logical positivism is derived from Hume’s philosophy and leads to skepticism. It is a materialistic doctrine, that denies both the existence of spiritual realities, and the value of the language used to express them. Wittgenstein’ s views that it is not possible to discover any objective truth, and that all truths are relative to forms of life have proven extremely influential. It is often repeated today that any quest for an objective truth is “folly”; we must be content with the partial truths bound up with our language and our traditions.

The attack on the “substantive self” is continuing today; philosophers who support Cartesian dualism or the existence of an independent soul are very few in university circles, and in written publications. Physicalism is taking over, the view that the mind is the brain, or that the mind is translatable in patterns of behaviour, or that the mind is to be described in terms of the functional activity of the brain, like a computer.

These few remarks should be sufficient to make us realize the immense need people of today have of the solid and powerful philosophy of Rosmini. His genial solution to the problem of the origin of ideas, his most powerful criticism of any form of skepticism, his description of the constitution of the human subject, his proofs of the irreducibility of the spirit – and of the mind, of the I, of the soul – to matter, should be landmarks for people of today. To know Rosmini, and to make him known is a most urgent and profound responsibility for all Rosminians today.

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