Classical Empiricism and Logical Positivism
The Rise and Fall of Logical Positivism
Philosophy of science in the early part of the 20th century was dominated by ‘logical
positivism’ and its moderate descendent ‘logical empiricism’.
They flourished for several decades, then were decisively rejected in the 1950’s/1960’s.
Even though it’s discredited, you can’t understand where philosophy of science stands
today unless you understand logical positivism.
But in order to understand logical positivismwe have to first take a look back at ‘classical
3 Big British Empiricists
Empiricism is the idea that all knowledge comes from, and justified by, sense
Classicalempiricismruled 18th century British philosophy.
The ‘big three’ British empiricists
Bishop George Berkley
Empiricism was a reaction to Classical Rationalism, the idea knowledge comes from and
is justified by reason.
Rationalists thought reason could give us metaphysical truth telling us what the
world is ‘really like.’
Rene Descartes and Plato are both classic rationalists.
(Note: today ‘rationalism’ just means confidence in the power of human reason.)
Two Central Questions of Empiricism
How do you know? The only acceptable evidence for any claimhas to refer back to
some sort of experience.
Something you can point to, repeat, share with others.
Metaphysics of Plato and Descartes can’t pass this test.
This mentality laid the groundwork for modern science.
Two Central Questions of Empiricism
What are the limits of knowledge?
What kind of instrument is the human mind?
What is it equipped to know?
Why think that it can grasp grand metaphysical truths about ‘the true nature of
Locke’s attack on ‘Innate Ideas’
Locke wanted to ‘clear the field of rubbish’ (i.e. metaphysics)
The job of philosopher is to clear the conceptual ground of confusing ideas.
Plato and Descartes both think that some ideas are innate, hardwired into the human
Locke attacks this theory of ‘innate ideas.’
How do you know that any given idea is innate?
Locke claims that it’s not the case that there are some ideas that everybody
The Tabula Rasa
Locke introduces the concept of the ‘Tabula Rasa’ or ‘The Blank Slate.’
We are born with nothing in our mind, just an empty page upon which sense
experience imprints ideas.
Imagine if a person is born with no sensory modalities at all.
They have no sense experience at all.
On this persons 21st birthday we have to ask the question: do they have a single thought
in their head? Do they know anything?
Sensationalism and Skepticism
Empiricists viewed the mind as a dry sponge.
Sensations poured into the mind via the senses and the mind just absorbed
Today this is seen as naïve, for reasons we’ll see later.
One problem for empiricism is that it tends to lead towards various form of skepticism,
the view that we cannot have any knowledge at all.
External world skepticism: since we only experience sensations, not the ‘world
itself’ we can never have knowledge about the world.
Inductive skepticism: since we only have experience of the past and present, but
never the future, we can never know if the future will be like the past.
External World Skepticism
The mind is confined behind a ‘veil of ideas’
We can never get ‘outside our heads’ and see the world the way it ‘really
All knowledge come from experience.
We never experience ‘the world itself.’
We can never know anything about the world.
This seems to eviscerate science.
We’re no longer studying objective nature, we’re just studying patterns in our
own subjective experience.
The Vienna Circle
The group that founded logical positivismafter WWI was know as ‘the Vienna Circle.’
They were interested in scientific developments, mathematical logic and
philosophy of language.
At the same time, they hated ‘German Idealism’, the dominant philosophy of 19th
Hegel and Heidegger in particular were detested.
Hegel Was horribly obscure, perplexing and obtuse.
Much of his work is incomprehensible, even to trained scholars
The Vienna Circle placed a high premium on reason, clarity and precision of language.
They wanted to dispel mysticism, romanticism, and nationalism.
Two Main Ideas Of Logical Positivism
Logical positivismsubscribed to a particular theory of language
The two main points were analytic/synthetic distinction and the verifiability
theory of meaning.
Analytic propositions are ones that are true or false in virtue of the meaning alone.
e.g.– “All the bachelors are unmarried men.”
Synthetic propositions are ones that are true or false in virtue of how the world is.
e.g.– “All bachelors are bald.”
The Analytic/Synthetic Distinction
This distinction did a lot of work for the logical positivists.
Among other things it allowed them to make sense of mathematical claims.
“2+2=4” seems true independent of how the world is.
But how can this be, if all knowledge comes from experience of the world?
The positivists said that such a claimis analytic, and hence only a ‘truth about relations
We define the meaning of ‘4’ as ‘2+2.’
It’s true by conventions, by stipulation, not true of the world.
The Verifiability Theory of Meaning
How do words get their meaning?
If I say ‘water is blue’ and ‘aqua es azul’ those two sentences ‘mean the same
But what does it mean to ‘mean the same thing?’
According to the positivists, the meaning of a sentence is how you verify it.
If there is, in principle, no way to verify a statement, then it’s meaningless.
So ‘water is blue’ means ‘if we look at water, we’ll see it is blue.’ Ditto with ‘aqua es
Only statements that are testable have any meaning.
Experience is the only source of knowledge and meaning.
Observational Language and Theoretical Language
The positivists divided meaningful statements into two categories.
Observational statements and theoretical statements.
But exactly how we draw this distinction is tricky.
Do ‘observations’ have to be with the naked eye?
Do augmentations like telescopes and microscopes count?
Can we ‘observe’ an electron?
Not directly, but we can see consequences of electrons.
Does that count?
Context of Discovery, Context of Justification
The positivists distinguished between the context of discovery and the context of
Scientists don’t always discover their ideas in a purely scientific fashion.
Einstein said he knew relativity was true long before he could test it because ‘it
was so beautiful it must be true.’
But what legitimizes science is not how the ideas are discovered, but how they’re
It was only when Einstein’s ideas were tested and verified that they became
The positivists weren’t interested in history or discovery.
They focused on the justification, and ignored biography.
Problems with the Verifiability Theory of Meaning
The verifiability theory says that much language is meaningless
Poetry, ethics, and theology aren’t verifiable.
The positivists accepted (even embraced) this.
We can jerry-rig meaningless statements to make them testable.
‘Water is blue and Absolute Spirit is perfect’ can be tested by falsifying the first
(If A is false, then A&B must be false, too.)
The positivists tried to fix this problem, but only ended up digging themselves in even
Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”
Perhaps the biggest objection to the empiricists came from W.V.O Quine.
His “Two Dogmas” was a game changer, and is considered a classic modern
Quine thought that testing and meaning were holistic
That is, you can’t test ideas in isolation; when you test one idea, you test every
idea connected to it.
Let’s say we perform a test of hypothesis X and get a result we didn’t expect.
Is X falsified? Maybe we just miscalibrated our instruments.
Before we can test X we have to assume a host of ideas (and we can never test all of
The First Dogma: The Analytic-Synthetic Distinction
Quine’s argued there is no scientific way to make sense of the analytic-synthetic
If he’s right about holism of testing then we also test our analytic beliefs, as well.
Quine said we have a ‘web of beliefs’ that all make contact with the world through
If we hacve the right experiences, we might even revise analytic statements.
Consider: non-Euclidean geometry and Schrodinger’s Cat.
Logical Empiricismand the Hidden Structure of the World
“Nature loves to hide” says Heraclitus.
Lots of us think that science doesn’t just describe experience, but also describes
The view that science can talk about this hidden structure is called ‘Scientific Realism.’
Logical Positivismhas to deny this.
Logical empiricism(the milder off-shot of positivism) wanted to avoid this problem.
When scientists talk about electrons they seem to be talking about more than
just patterns of experience.
But ultimately empiricist principles had to reject the idea of ‘depths’ in nature (there is
The Fall of Logical Positivism/Empiricism
Ultimately, the objections of Quine, scientific realists and others brought down logical
It’s a close to a completely rejected theory as we can get.
Many of the positivists ideas still have some value, and will be preserved in future
But by in large, the most important lessons to be learned from the positivists are
the limitations of empiricism and a caution to not be over-confident.
Thomas S. Kuhn
The main ideas postulated by him:
Normal science and scientific revolution
Crisis and critical science
Incommensurability between paradigms
The paradigm in Kuhn is something more than a particular scientific theory. Rather it is
methodology, norms, and tools and standards of puzzle-solving that leads to the
extension of the paradigm by testing or presenting a successful or exemplary new
Popper & Kuhn
Kuhn viewed Popper as ‘naïve falsificationist’ as he gave the notion of theory-testing by
falsification. If, as Popper suggested, failure of data-theory fit were grounds for theory
rejection, all theories would be rejected at all times.
Note: Popper was a political theorist and Kuhn a physicist.
3. Hermeneutics /Interpretative School
In contrast to posivitism, there is a shift of emphasis from abstract objective causal
explanation to interpretation of subjective and contextual understanding of meanings
and motives of human action in hermeneutics.
The first major philosopher of science in this tradition is German philosopher Wilhem
He propounded a distinction between natural sciences and human sciences.
Erklarung vs Verstehn
The natural sciences relies on the method of Erklarung (Abstract explanation) to arrive
at deductive homological explanations.
The Human sciences employs the method of Verstehn (empthatic understanding) of
human beings in a historical /cultural context, their meanings and motives of social
To Dilthey myth and mythology are not a primitive mode of religion as is often thought.
They are actually primitive mode scientific thought and theory.
Myth like science is an attempt to explain the connectedness of natural and social
Dilthey thus sees a continuum, rather than a discursive break, between mythology and
Dilthey’s philosophy makes it possible to give attention to both objective external
conditions and subjective feelings of ‘agency and suffering’. He deals at length with the
relationship between biography and history.
3 Main Ethical Incentives in Human Action
Dilthey delineates three main incentives of human action in society and history:
Benevolence related to human solidarity
To do what is right, and
To perfect oneself in a socially legitimate manner.
Dilthey thus moves closer to Immanuel Kant by acknowledging that ultimately we must
make ‘moral judgment’ that are ‘unconditional’ and ‘synthetic’ a priori. This is
reminiscent of Kant’s ‘Categorical Imperative’.
Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002)
Gadamer is another major and a more recent hermeneutic philosopher. He develops a
distinctive and thoroughly dialogical approach that rejects simple notion of
interpretative method and grounds understanding in a linguistically mediated happening
Basic Tenets of Gadamer’s Hermeneutics
The positivity of ‘prejudice’: Prejudices are ‘fore-structures’ of understanding a
preliminary understanding of what is to be interpreted. In course of understanding
prejudices may become the focus of dialogical questioning.
Understanding always takes place in the context of a happening tradition; it is an ‘effect’
of history, which in turn may be seen as a ‘cause’.
Linguisticality of understanding :
Language is the universal horizon of hermeneutic understanding a merging of the
universal and particular horizons takes place.
In reading a text, Gadamers, hermeneutics emphases a relationship between the whole
and the parts of the text and moving back and forth.
Gadamer’s two central principles of ‘universality’ and ‘historicity’ of hermeneutics that
suggests a dynamic continuity of a culture and tradition.
Anthony Gidden’s postulation of ‘double hermeneutics’ in Gadamer compromising, ‘pre-
interpretations or practical consciousness’ of actors in a social situation and ‘discursive
consciousness’ involving knowledge at the level of discourse produced jointly by
4. Critical Philosophy
The best way to locate a distinctive critical philosophical approach in modern philosophy
is to refer to Hegel the Idealist and Marx was how to make a seemingly abstract and
idealist philosophy of Hegel more practical and materialist in the sense of changing
practices by which the societies realize their ideals and objectives.
In so doing, philosophy can link the empirical and interpretative to make normative
claims of truth, morality, and justice.
The founder of the Frankfurt School’s Critical Theory in Germany in the 1920s, Max
Horkheimer postulated that a critical theory is adequate only if it meets three critical
It must be explanatory
It must be normative, and
It must be practical
All at the same time.
To, Horkheimer, critical theory ‘has its objective human beings as producers of their own
historical form of life’. In the light of the practical goal of identifying and overcoming all
the circumstances that limit human freedom or human emancipation, this explanatory
goal could be furthered only through interdisciplinary research that include
psychological, cultural, and social dimensions as well as structural or institutional forms.
Critical theory, when capitalized, refers to the Frankfurt School that began with
Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno and stretches to Herbert Marcuse and Jurgen
Habermas. Any philosophical/ theoretical approach with similar practical emancipatory
aim could be called a ‘critical theory’ (in low case), including feminism, critical race
theory, and some forms of postcolonial theory.
The fall of Logical Posivitism
“the harmonious feeling or attitude, which the metaphysician tries to express in a
monistic system, is more clearly expressed in the music of Mozart…. Metaphysicians are
musicians without musical ability”.
Rudolph Carnap (1871-1970)
Logical posivitism rejected as illegitimate every statement about the world that was not
based on direct experience . This position forms the basis of a verification principal – a
sentence can be meaningful if and only if it can be either empirically verified or it can be
shown to be true by analyzing the conventional meanings with signs and symbols.
In short, understanding the meaning of a proposition now required that you know how
to verify it.
A sentence is only meaningful when we can verify it by sense experience. Else the
sentence is meaningless at all- doesn’t have to be true or false, right or wrong but
literally have no meaning.
The logical positivists held that scientific hypotheses could be reduced to what they
called ‘protocol statements’. Which are the basic reports of the direct observation .
These reports form the standards by which other empirical statements are to be tested.
This raised a new question: didn’t protocol statements need to be verified?
Neurath held that they can’t be the starting point of the sciences. This led him to
compare knowledge to a ship that has to be continually rebuilt even while it is still in
Reconciling the objectivity of science with the subjectivity of personal experience
presented a challenge to a Vienna circle.
If experience take the form of private sense data how can science achieve the attitude of
detachment to which it aspires.
Neurath and Carnap resolved this problem with a new version of materialism called
The aim of physicalismwas to turn the physics into a catalyst for unifying the sciences.
It stated that everything that exists or happens can be completely described in the
vocabulary of physics.
A scientific language could theoretically give voice to all the sciences.
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