Brief Philosophy overview: the standard story and some counter-hegemonic asides

Part 2: Logical Empiricism (a.k.a. Logical Positivism)

I. Pre-Vienna circle: Bertrand Russell (1872 - d.1970)

    1. Interested in reflexivity (aka recursion, self-reference), which has long history, and continues to haunt Social Studies of Science today:

        a. 6th Cent BCE: Epimenides the Cretan says "All Cretans are liars." This statement, because it was uttered by a Cretan, is true if and only if it is false. (More precisely, it would have to be "I always lie").

        b. The barber of Seville paradox: The Barber of Seville shaves all the men of Seville, except those who shave themselves. Does the Barber shave himself?

        c. Russell then translates to set theory: If R is the set of all sets which don't contain themselves, does R contain itself? If it does then it doesn't and vice versa. Russell wrote this to mathematician Frege in 1902; it destroyed Frege's hope creating consistent foundations of mathematics through logic.

        d.  Russell works with Alfred Whitehead to solve the paradox via "type theory," they publish three volumes of Principia Mathematica (1910-1913). Whitehead goes on to invent "process philosophy;" metaphysics of reality as processes rather than objects, verbs rather than nouns.

     2. Interested in logic as critique of authoritarian romanticism linked to war and nationalist sentiments. In 1918 published

Proposed Roads To Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism and Syndicalism

Dedicated to anti-war protest throughout his life, appointment at City College in NYC revoked for this reason. Used semiphore symbols for ND (Nuclear Disarmament) to invent the peace symbol.

3. His student, Ludwig Wittgenstein goes on to become a founder of logical positivism, writing Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). Wittgenstein later recants (Russell heckles his lectures!), and together with J.L. Austin founds Ordinary Language Philosophy.


II Vienna Circle

1920s group of philosophers in Vienna including Moritz Schlick, Otto Neurath, Rudolf Carnap, A.J. Ayer. Influenced by Russell, although in opposition to his socialist tendencies. Elimination of metaphysics is primary goal, e.g. using langauge of "sense-data," demanding that all meaningful statements have truth value that can be impacted by empirical observation.  Agreed with Hume that "inductive inferences are never deductively valid"--that is, Kant was wrong, science can only progress with uncertainty.


Schlick founded the concept of "rational reconstruction" of science, but was killed by an angry graduate student. Let that be a lesson to us all. Many left Vienna when Nazism rose to power.


The mathematical component of logical positivism was demolished by Kurt Godel, via Godel's theorem, an extension of Russell's paradox.


Others left via philosophy, such as V.W. Quine. In agreement with Pierre Duhem, Quine developed a theory of ontological relativism: for any empirical evidence, there will always be many theories able to account for it, and any theory can be modified, thus evidence cannot ultimately verify a theory. .He maintained that while he believed in science as a "lay scientist" he was a relativist when it came to its epistemological status.


Karl Popper also broke with the positivists over the issue of verification, but unlike Quine he believed in falsifiability.


Rudolph Carnap stuck with logical positivism to the end, but made the mistake of asking historian Thomas Kuhn to write an entry for his  International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. Had Kuhn developed his work on his own he would likely have made it large, complex and obscure, but writing for the encyclopedia forced him to make it shorter, and its popularity spelled an enormous challenge to logical positivism.

Along with some lesser-knows (Fleck, Manheim, Vygotsky) Kuhn marks the start of STS