The Vienna Circle -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

The Vienna Circle

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After the First World War, a group called the Vienna Circle, led by Rudolph Carnap, with a flourish of trumpets, launched the school of logical empiricism, announcing to the world that "philosophy must be scientific." This has been the battle-cry of logical positivism ever since. It is alleged that this brand of philosophy is entitled to what amounts to a monopoly of the "scientific method."

All other philosophies, past and present, are sternly required to submit to the terms of the self-proclaimed philosophy of science, and, if they do not conform to its tenets, they are instantly declared to be unscientific, or even worse, metaphysical, and are cast into the outer darkness. Here, amidst wailing and gnashing of teeth, they can rub shoulders with the likes of Marx, Hegel, Freud, Aristotle, Spinoza, Saint Augustine, and all the host of obdurate metaphysicians, condemned for all eternity by the Supreme Wisdom of The Philosophy of Science.

Carnap started with perception (The Logical Structure of the World, 1928), then turned to semantics (The Logical Syntax of Language, 1934), and ended up with logic (Meaning and Necessity, 1947).

Ludwig Wittgenstein published his Tracticus Logico-Philosophicus in 1922, with the laudable intention of arriving at "clear thinking," (the clear assumption being that human beings were unable to think clearly before). But we have already had occasion to point out that one of the hallmarks of this tendency is its remarkable humility.

The basic ideas are as follows:

1) All meaningful discourse consists either of a) the formal sentences of logic and mathematics, or b) the factual propositions of the special sciences.
2) Any assertion that claims to be factual has meaning only if it is possible to say how it might be verified.
3) "Metaphysical" assertions, coming under neither of these classes are meaningless.
4) All statements about moral, aesthetic, or religious values are scientifically unverifiable, and therefore meaningless.

Thus, in a couple of lines, we effortlessly dispose of two thousands years of human thought. If it does not fit into the narrow straitjacket of the rules of logical positivism, it is declared to be neither right nor wrong, but simply meaningless. Compared to this, all the battles of Julius Caesar and Napoleon are just child’s play. God and the devil, dialectical materialism, psycho-analysis, the writings of Plato and Aristotle, of Spinoza, the Bible, the Koran and the Torah are dismissed, with no trouble at all.

After the rise of Hitler, Carnap and his collaborators moved to the USA, where their ideas were influential. But everywhere, the different brands of logical positivism have led to a blind alley. Bertrand Russell started with logic, then turned to problems of perception, and finally ended up with semantics, a barren playing with words and symbols.

The declared intention was to purge philosophy of Metaphysics in general. But the way to a very warm place is paved with good intentions! What was so cavalierly ejected by the tradesman’s entrance immediately flew back in through the window. Instead of combating idealist metaphysics fairly and squarely (which can only be done by adopting a consistent materialist standpoint, the only really scientific methodology), they resorted to a kind of philosophical subterfuge. "We cannot know, so we should not ask," ("the question has no meaning"). At best, this leads to agnosticism, shamefaced, inconsistent materialism. At worst, it leads straight into the morass of subjective idealism.

The first thing that strikes one here is the extreme poverty of thought, the narrow formalism, the absence of real content, the intellectual cowardice of this whole outlook. Do we really have to remind ourselves that all the advances of human thought, and especially of science, were made by great thinkers who were spurred on by the challenge of the unknown, who were not afraid to ask questions which could not be answered at that moment in time. How could the brilliant theories of the Greek atomists be "empirically verified" with the technology available at the time? We can imagine the ancient Greek counterparts of these philosophers of science scoffing at the "meaningless metaphysics" of Democritus and Epicurus!

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