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The 3 Most Important Ideas from the Vienna Circle

vienna circle most important ideas


What does it take for a sentence to be meaningful? How does a theory of meaning relate to a theory of science? This article explores certain answers to these questions given by the philosophers who formed a group known as the “Vienna Circle.” It begins with an introductory section on the philosophy of science itself, before introducing three key ideas: the Vienna Circle’s opposition to obscurantism and muddled thinking in philosophy; their theory of meaning; and their theory of scientific language. This article then concludes by exploring several influential criticisms of logical positivism offered by W.V.O Quine.


The Vienna Circle on Theorizing Science

experiment wright
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright, 1768, via the National Gallery.


The Vienna Circle were interested, in part, in deciding how we should theorize about science. It is worth offering a brief summary of how this question can be developed, before diving into the Vienna Circle’s own answers.


There are many ways in which we can attempt to theorize, analyze, and understand science in general. For one, we could focus on how scientists think, or on the method of science as it actually is practiced. For another, we could attempt to offer a theory not of what scientists do, but of the logical relationship between theories, evidence, method, and other relevant abstractions.


Another move, one which has become more common in the latter half of the 20th century, is to try and examine science in a more distinctly historical way and to focus especially on how it is that science changes over time.


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As seems to be characteristic of the problems with doing the philosophy of science, disputes over what our theoretical focus should be often seem to get bogged down in disputes about terms which have become totemic, or loom large in the popular conception of science, without being especially interesting or helpful. For instance, there is a fixation on the idea of scientific “objectivity” in spite of that term’s obscurity, and similarly, an attempt to define a “scientific method.”


freedom thinking pevernagie
The Freedom of New Thinking by Erik Pevernagie, 1997, via Wikimedia Commons.


The point isn’t that either term is necessarily useless, just that an attempt to offer an account of potentially heterogenous concepts can be unhelpful. It is possible that simplification and generalization often take us further from actual scientific practices, and the further we get from an account of the philosophy of science which engages in actual scientific practices, the more difficult it will be to properly explain the relevance of the philosophy of science beyond its disciplinary borders.


The aforementioned attempt to explain what counts as a scientific theory in logical terms is coupled with an analogous attempt to apply rigor and clarity at the expense of actually engaging with science as it is practiced.


One contemporary philosopher of science, Peter Godfrey-Smith, gives an answer to the question of how the philosophy of science can develop its theories by relying on the concept of strategy. We can, in his view, attempt to develop the strategy which science takes in trying to understand the world, and then consider what kind of connection to the world itself we might obtain by following this strategy. This notion of “strategy” clearly stresses a kind of pragmatic, instrumental approach to science—it is an interpretation of the scientific method as directed towards an end, not constituted by the clarity, rigor, or beauty of the method as such.


1. The Vienna Circle Argued Against Obscure Philosophy

vienna opera
Vienna State Opera at night by Mike_68, 2019, via Pixabay.


Who were the Vienna Circle? They were a group of philosophers, chief among them Moritz Schlick, Herbert Feigl, Otto Neurath, and Rudolf Carnap, who developed a view about language which they took to have significant implications for whole regions of human intellectual activity. The term normally given to this view is “logical positivism.”


Logical positivism was a radical form of empiricism, revolutionary in the most literal sense of the term. Many of the philosophers of the Vienna Circle saw themselves as taking a stance against much of the philosophy of the time. In particular, they took themselves to be responding to philosophers like G.W.F Hegel and, more contemporary to them, Martin Heidegger.


Members of the Circle saw both of these philosophers as obscurantist, imprecise, indulgers of a meaningless word soup with the appearance of substance and gravitas. A historian of philosophy might find something worth noting about how (often) a critique of style is closely related to a critique of method.


2. The Vienna Circle Put Language and Meaning First

bruegel tower babel
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1563, via Kunsthistorisches Museum.


We said that logical positivism was based on a certain kind of view about language. This is normally seen as having two main theoretical components. First, there was the analytic-synthetic distinction, and second, there was the verifiability theory of meaning.


The first comes from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and so is not an original invention of the logical positivists. The distinction is this: whereas analytic sentences are true or false simply based on their meaning, synthetic sentences are true or false based both on their meaning and on how the world is. To take a generic example—”all bachelors are unmarried men” is an example of an analytic sentence, whereas (borrowing, as with much else in this article, from Godfrey-Smith) “all bachelors are bald” is a synthetic sentence (and a false one at that).


The development the logical positivists make is to claim that mathematics consists entirely of analytic propositions, and so can be dealt with in a stringently empiricist framework. This is to say that mathematical propositions do not, in and of themselves, describe the world. We can use the language of mathematics to describe the world, but truths of and by mathematics alone are strictly analytic and therefore lack factual content.


etel adnan
Untitled by Etel Adnan, 2013, via Callicoon Fine Arts.


The second principle, i.e., the verifiability theory of meaning, is the idea that for us to know what a sentence means is just to say that we know what it would be to test whether or not it is true. If we do not know this, then speech is meaningless. The criterion for verification favored by the logical positivists was (naturally enough for empiricists) to be grounded strictly in experience.


These two claims about language had revolutionary implications. Importantly, they led to the conclusion that much of everyday speech is meaningless, although perhaps less perniciously so than much of philosophy, which gives the impression of being meaningful when it is not so.


3. Science, Language, and Scientific Language

anatomy lesson rembrandt
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt, 1632, via Mauritshuis.


What were the implications of this theory of language of the Vienna Circle’s theory of science? For one thing, it led them to draw a distinction between observational and theoretical language, although they disagreed to some extent about how best to draw this distinction.


Schlick held that any reference to sensation was observational language, and all else was theoretical language. Neurath held that theoretical language referred to a narrower field of reference, and in fact, should only be taken to refer to propositions that come about as a result of intersubjective/public forms of testing. In other words, in Neurath’s conception, referring to objects is not necessarily using theoretical language, as it is for Schlick.


Underlying the theoretical-observational language distinction is the purpose of science as conceived of by the logical positivists, which was to anticipate experience. As the name would suggest, logic was an important part of the project of logical positivism. Logic as it is practiced is most often deductive—meaning, it is an attempt to make sense of the validity of a conclusion given some premises. More controversial was the attempt to develop an inductive system of logic, as the logical positivists did. This ran into various theoretical problems, but there isn’t space to develop those here.


Quine’s Criticisms of the Vienna Circle

derby orrery
A Philosophy Lecturing on the Orrery by Joseph Wright, ca. 1764-1766, via Wikimedia Commons.


What can and should be developed here is one of the most significant criticisms that logical positivism ran into: the one proposed by W.V.O Quine in his famous paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.”


Quine argues for a “holistic theory of testing.” For him, as for the logical positivists, knowing how we can test a proposition’s veracity is central to a theory of meaning. Holism about testing amounts to the claim that any particular proposition is fundamentally bound up in all of the background assumptions which underlie it. Testing any one idea is always, effectively, testing a whole host of other ideas along with it.


One practical consequence of this is that it is very hard to say whether or not a certain idea has or hasn’t failed whatever test of verification we come up with for it. If a hypothesis we are inclined to test does fail, it could be that a background assumption has malfunctioned rather than the hypothesis we actually intend to test. How far this conflicts with the doctrine of logical positivism is a matter of dispute.


forest before the trees
You Can’t See the Forest for the Trees by Marcel Odenbach, 2003, via MoMA.


Quine also used this holistic view to throw the analytic-synthetic distinction into question, given that no analytic claim can ever be immune from revision in light of the background assumptions which constitute it.


This isn’t obviously in conflict with logical positivism—Carnap, for instance, acknowledges that analytic claims can become false if new logical or linguistic frameworks are adopted (if, say, the term “bachelor” ceases to refer exclusively to men). Quine’s criticism has nonetheless been taken to weaken the usefulness of the analytic-synthetic distinction regarding mathematics. Quine’s arguments are certainly seen now as central to a more general turn away from logical positivism as a theory of language and as a theory of science.

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