What is Logical Positivism (Brief)?

Logical Positivism or Logical Empiricism was a school of philosophy that became popular in the first half 20th Century. It developed out of Positivism and dominated the early Analytic Philosophy. The core principle of Logical Positivism was to lay logical and scientific foundations to human knowledge. For Logical Positivists, a proposition is only meaningful if and only if it is either formal – that is, based on mathematics and/or logic – or it is possible to verify that proposition empirically (hence Logical Empiricism). As a result, Logical Positivism was quick to denounce almost all of Metaphysics and hitherto established Ethical theories precisely because neither could be grounded in logic or empirically verified.

Additionally, Logical Positivism attended to the idea of ‘Unified Science’ – that is, an institutional approach to all scientific propositions that would be united by a common language. This would be accomplished by reducing and explicating the established scientific jargon to a more common (or rather fundamental) umbrella term. See the Logical Positivism (Extended) post for more details.

One of the earliest advocates for Logical Positivism was the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach. In the 20th Century, it was Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (published in 1921) that became the dominant text for this school of thought. It should be noted that Wittgenstein relatively quickly distanced himself from the Logical Positivists and the Vienna Circle. It was the latter, under the guidance of Moritz Schlick, that brought Logical Positivism to the front light of philosophy in the early 20th Century; though it was not until 1929 that a pamphlet written by Otto Neurath (and co-signed by Hans Hahn and Rudolf Carnap) set out the goals of Logical Positivism. Interestingly, a somewhat independent Berlin Circle advocated for similar doctrines and goals in the late ’20s and early ’30s.

The British philosophical community (not all of it, of course!) adopted Logical Positivism through A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic (published in 1936). However, it should be noted that the earlier three volume Principia Mathematica by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead had already set the stage for developments in logic and mathematics, which was of great inspiration for Logical Positivists that aimed to replicate philosophy on a mathematical model.

By the middle of 1930s, the Vienna Circle dispersed, primarily due to the political instability in Germany and Austria. Nevertheless, Logical Positivism and the aims for clarity and empirical verifiability became the foundations of the tradition currently known as Analytic Philosophy.

Further Reading

Ayer, A. J. (1952). Language, Truth and Logic, Dover: Dover Publications.

Russell, B. & Whitehead, A. N. (1997). Principia Mathematica, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2007). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, New York: Cosimo Classics.

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