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Logical Positivism

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It is customary for the opponents of Marxism to have a good laugh at the numerous splinter groups on the political left. But the situation is not much different with the squabbling groups which emerged from logical positivism. Nevertheless, it is very much a question of the same tune played on different keys. In Britain, they were based at Oxford, where G. E. Moore represented a typically English trend based on a "realistic and commonsensical" approach to ethics and the theory of knowledge.

In the early years of the 20th century, Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead, reacting against the prevailing pseudo-Hegelian idealism in a different way, set out to develop a "new logic," in a work published in 1910-13, which they modestly gave the same name as Newton’s epoch-making masterpiece Principia Mathematica. "The origin of this philosophy is in the achievements of mathematicians who set to work to purge their subject of fallacies and slipshod reasoning." (Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, p. 783.) This kind of boastful language is all too typical of the whole trend of logical positivism, which, just like Dühring promised a great deal, and delivered practically nothing.

Here reality is stood on its head. The world must be understood by analysing ideas, or, worse still, words. Here we are back with the same old mysticism of Mach’s empirio-criticism, which Lenin had demolished in 1908. Russell twists and turns on the central issue of whether physical objects exist outside our senses. At one point, he claimed that the observer had to infer the existence of a material world as the best available hypothesis to account for his experiences. Elsewhere he argues that physical objects could be taken as logical constructions out of sense-data.

This obsession with language is no accident. It fits in well with the deeply ingrained prejudice of the intellectual that reality is equivalent to ideas and words. It requires an effort of the imagination to remember that the period under consideration was one of unprecedented social upheaval. A world war with millions slaughtered, the Russian Revolution, economic crisis, the miners’ strike in Britain. And in Oxford and Cambridge? Thick tomes on the meaning of words, and attempts to create a "perfect" language. A retreat into the rarefied atmosphere of syntax, the breakdown of language into its "atoms," perhaps in an attempt to make sense of a senseless world. Better still, deny its existence altogether! That was the way of the Greek and Roman skeptics, of mediaeval monks, of Bishop Berkeley, and now of the self-appointed philosophers of science. Was there ever in the whole history of philosophy such a comically misnamed piece of pretentiousness?

There is a common thread connecting all these schools. It is the exaggerated importance given to language. "In the beginning was the Word," wrote John the Evangelist, at the beginning of his gospel. This has been taken by logical positivism a its rallying call, with one slight amendment: not just in the beginning, but in the middle and the end as well! It’s all a question of words. This is entirely in consequence with the psychology and prejudices of people who live by words, written or spoken. A soil without nutrients will produce only feeble plants. An anaemic environment will only bring forth a bloodless philosophy. All this semantic fiddling and fussing for decades was supposed to represent philosophy. As Hegel once commented: "By the little with which the human spirit is satisfied we can gauge the extent of its loss."

Note that, by reducing everything to words and their meaning (semantics), we have by no means escaped from idealism. What are words if not expressed thoughts? This alleged "scientific realism" is, in fact, a resurrection of idealism in another disguise. The appeal to language, merely moves us one step further away from the material world, so that, instead of asking whether a particular idea corresponds to reality, we now confine ourselves to asking whether a given word or phrase corresponds to the idea we wish to express!

Here again, we see how all the riches of philosophy are reduced to a few desiccated crumbs. Without for a moment denying the importance of the study of language and meaning as a specialised branch of science and philosophy, to attempt to reduce everything to this is frankly absurd. This empty and arid philosophy was followed in the USA by Gilbert Ryle, J. L. Austin, P. F. Strawson and others.

The only "innovation" here in comparison to Mach is the introduction of the linguistic dimension. This does not signify any real advance, but merely pushes the whole argument one step further away from reality. Instead of asking whether a given idea is correct or not (that is to say, whether it reflects objective reality) we are only allowed to ask whether a given statement is meaningful or not. And how do we know whether we are saying something "meaningful"? By the definitions arbitrarily invented by the logical positivists themselves! This is like playing a game of football, where the rules state that only the other team is allowed to score goals, or, more accurately, make up the rules as they go along. It reminds one of the logic of Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland: "When I use a word it means just what I choose to mean—neither more nor less."

All statements must be empirically verifiable (the "principle of verification"). Thus, expressions like "God exists" are meaningless, because they can neither be proved or disproved. The same is said of most of the great central problems of philosophy, including the struggle between idealism and materialism. These are declared to be "non-problems." And, as in the rules of cricket, "the umpire’s decision is final." Thus we dispose of the whole history of philosophy, without even removing our carpet slippers!

"But wait a minute!" comes a shout from the back of the lecture-hall. "Haven’t you forgotten something? It’s all very well disposing of God, Karl Marx and a few other notorious trouble-makers. But what about the eternal truths of mathematics? How on earth can we empirically verify Euclid’s geometry? We all know that the axioms of mathematics are not proven, but have to be taken on trust. And things are just as bad with logic itself! How do we empirically verify the law of identity, when quantum mechanics seems to prove something altogether different?"

At this precise moment, the neo-positivist lecturer looks at his watch, and decides it is time for lunch. He cannot very well answer his na•ve student, because the so-called truths of mathematics and formal logic cannot be empirically verified at all. They are what is known in the trade as a priori (from the Latin, meaning "from the beginning"). They are simply taken to be true at the outset. Thus, if we are to be consistent, not only Marx and Freud have failed the principle of verification, but Pythagoras and Euclid also. All should be renounced as pernicious metaphysicians, deceiving us with their unverifiable nonsense. So not only dialectical materialism ends up on the scrap-heap, but the whole of mathematics and formal logic as well!

Here the Tracticus hastens to the rescue with a barely-hidden trick. As in the kind of insurance policies sold by some of the less reputable salesmen to gullible clients, you have to read the small print, which contains an escape-clause: the truths of mathematics are declared to be "analytic" (a term filched from Kant). They are true, but tautologies (truisms) like the sentence "all bachelors are unmarried." They are conventional truths which underlie the use of the symbols involved. Make whatever sense you can of this!

What it really means is that, when faced with the insoluble contradictions of their own arguments, these "practical," "commonsensical," "scientific" gentlemen do not hesitate to resort to blatant trickery to cover their backsides. And all because of a dogmatic insistence that all truths must be derived from empirical knowledge! To which a dialectical materialist would reply, "Yes, but only in the last analysis." The history of thought is a very long one, and has acquired a life and logic all of its own, like the broomstick of the sorcerer’s apprentice.

The laws of formal logic, like those of dialectics, are abstractions which are ultimately derived from nature. But, having once arrived at these important generalisations, is it really necessary for every generation, or individual, to rediscover them by trial and error ("empirically")? Do we need to re-invent the wheel? If the answer is no, then we must accept that not all knowledge is derived directly from experience; that the historically evolved forms of thought not only have a role to play, but a most important one. The only question we have to ask is whether these forms of thought (dialectics, formal logic) adequately reflect the objective world or not. Of course, if, like the philosophers of science, we have problems deciding whether the objective world is out there or not, then the whole thing gets a bit awkward.

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