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Positivist Thinking

Positivist Thinking

In the 1920s and 30s, a group of philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians – most prominently Rudolf Carnap, Moritz Schlick, and Otto Neurath – began meeting on campus at the University of Vienna. This period was marked both by genuine crisis – with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Austria’s imminent takeover by the far-right – and real cause for progressives, like Carnap and his friends, to hope: Vienna during this period was controlled by the Social Democrats, whose pioneering experiment in democratic socialist government became known as "Red Vienna."

At this point, Vienna – also home to Freud, Wittgenstein, Schoenberg, and Adolf Loos – was the intellectual and artistic capital of the world. And the Vienna Circle, Carnap et al came to be known, at the very least managed to keep up the pace. Inspired by recent developments in the physical and formal sciences, the Vienna Circle developed a philosophy called “logical positivism” or ‘“logical empiricism,” which attempted to put both philosophy and science on solid, empirical foundations – eliminating the sort of grand, obscure metaphysics associated with classical German philosophers such as Hegel. 

The Vienna Circle turned out to be very influential: it indelibly shaped the development of Anglo-American analytic philosophy via its appropriation by the Circle’s disciple A.J. Ayer, and this influence only intensified after the largely Jewish and/or socialist Circle were forced to flee their homeland following the rise of Hitler. But nowadays, the Vienna Circle is typically dismissed as a failed experiment. Logical positivism hinged on what its adherents called the “verification principle” – the idea that only two sorts of statements are meaningful: statements that can be verified empirically through the senses, and statements that are tautologies (true by definition). Thus, the sorts of statements one might associate with theology (“God is all-knowing and all-loving”) or metaphysics (“The whole is the true”) can be dismissed as nonsense – as can, of course, actual nonsense (such as Lewis Carroll’s “All mimsy were the borogroves”). 

But for a long time now, the prevailing view about verificationism is that it has been comprehensively debunked. The verification principle relies on a hard distinction between synthetic (empirical) and analytic (logical) truths. And in a 1951 paper, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” the American philosopher W.V.O. Quine, a sometime associate of the Vienna Circle, argued convincingly that such a distinction cannot be maintained: because ultimately the truths of logic are grounded in our sensory experience of the world as well. And so, in Anglo-American philosophy after Quine, logical positivism was largely abandoned. 

Liam Bright: The Last Positivist 

So given all this I was surprised, a couple of weeks ago, to read in an interview between the Bloomberg writer Noah Smith and Liam Bright – Leverhulme Prize-winning Associate Professor in Philosophy at the London School of Economics, and one of the few professional philosophers openly committed to the logical positivist project – that verificationism might be just what we need to help us combat conspiracy theories. 

“What the logical positivists,” Bright claims, “can help us think about is [...] avoiding being deceived by propaganda and obfuscatory jargon.” Here is his explanation of this point in full: 

"Very often what those who wish us to take indefensible courses of action do is play upon our emotions by issuing suggestive phrases that predictably give rise to certain sentiments, but fail to actually be verifiable so cannot be subject to serious challenge or examination. Some examples of this are overt - enigmatic Q drops that often don't quite say anything that might be checked against reality in any conclusive manner...Other examples of this are less often flagged as troubling because they are the normal rhetoric of politics, but in my opinion are just as bad - such as when people defend American imperialism with fine phrases like "America, despite our recent stumbles, still has the DNA of freedom and individual dignity, and can advance these values in the face of a Chinese state" that surely would never admit of serious confirmation. Thinking about how strategic use of unverifiable claims helps propagandists is a project the logical positivists began, and we would do well to continue.”

Reading this, I thought that this is really interesting, but surely it can’t possibly be true? Aside from the well-documented problems with the verification principle, if verificationism helps us down Q drops, but also requires telling people that their favourite theology, political slogan or grand metaphysics is meaningless, doesn’t this just mean that the cure is worse than the disease? Verificationism tells us that lots of things are nonsense – but surely they aren’t all, therefore, nonsensical? Isn’t invoking verificationism just more likely to alienate the sort of person who’s drawn to anti-vaxx conspiracy theories or flat earthism? So I got in contact with Liam myself, to ask him to clear some of this stuff up. 

Me: Hi Liam! So, is the idea that verificationism can help us deal with propaganda and conspiracy theories something that was explicit in the work of the early Logical Positivists? Or is it something people like you and Christoph Limbeck have reconstructed? 

LIAM: It’s explicit in a number of lectures Carnap gave, but he didn’t publish those as essays, so we largely only have other people’s notes. It’s clearly something Carnap thought about a lot – but he never published on it for some reason. Neurath wrote about it, but he usually just sort of just asserted it. Neurath would frequently just say that the down-to-earth perspective of empiricism is the perspective of the proletariat. High-falutin’ metaphysics, that’s how the obscurantists try to get ya! Neurath thought empiricism could help bring about solidarity, for instance by building communication with someone who doesn’t share a cultural background with you – particularly in the context of trying to get stuff done. 

As for why they believed it… I would break it down into two spheres: technical science, and the popular sphere (this is my distinction, not theirs, but I think they would agree with it). I think that a lot of the way technical science – economics is a classic case – is used to obscure and provide apologetics for the status quo, relies on the fact that what is being claimed is not immediately available for empirical check or verification. As soon as you try to bring the terms of these disciplines into reality, people will just make excuses about why this shouldn’t be done. So you’ll get defences of, for example, the efficiency of free markets. And if you look at what they mean by ‘free markets’ in the models they’re using, they’re making true claims. But the trick is to equate this with the observable thing we see around us, and if you ask “why is this thing [the model] that thing [the real-world market]?” then you get hand-waving moves to resist the empirical test. 

On the everyday side, and this is the role Carnap would emphasize more in his public lectures… the way propagandists often work is to deliberately obscure what is concretely at stake, by means of saying things which lack any direct, easy way of testing them, which have a pleasant effect but no clear testable consequences. So, for instance during the war in Iraq, there was all this talk of “freedom” and “security” or whatever. But in concrete practice, what it meant was: we need you to fund and support the carpet-bombing of civilians to help us set up a proxy government which will funnel resources to a bunch of private contractors, and we’ll call that system “democracy.” 

Now in the German-speaking world in the mid-20th century, you wouldn’t have said that, you’d have said something like: “our duty to the state is expressive of our being as a culture”. The metaphysics of liberal capitalism isn’t the same as that of German fascism, but it's playing a similar role. 

ME: This actually sounds a lot like critical theory as Max Horkheimer describes it in “Traditional and Critical Theory.” He’s also trying to get official science to reflect on its own foundations, and for people to reflect on the foundations of their own beliefs.  

LIAM: There’s actually some history there! Neurath and Carnap and Hans Hahn, and I think Philip Frank as well… actually reached out to the Frankfurt School because they saw them as natural allies. So the positivists also saw this connection. But it all fell apart, if you believe the account Thomas Uebel and John O’Neill give, it all fell apart for very petty personal reasons, not deep philosophical ones, they just didn’t like each other. 

One thing the logical positivists do try and do is say, there’s a bunch of choice points you’ll face when forming a scientific theory of the world, which ultimately will be determined by what you’re trying to do in the world. And personally, they typically wanted to settle these choice points by making the choices that will further their emancipatory goals. But where they diverge from the Frankfurt School is, they think that one-way propagandists work is by obscuring that these things are choice points, by saying that History or Reason compels you to make the choice one way or the other.  

ME: As a weapon against propaganda, and against bad science, the verification principle seems really useful. But is it just too powerful – does it end up calling too many things meaningless?  

LIAM: I’m going to give what I think is their answer. I think it’s an open question whether or not it's true. You can see letters between Carnap and Popper where Carnap expresses something like this view. They acknowledge the need [for metaphysical and theological expression], but they think there are better ways of serving them, through art. The positivists were big fans of Bauhaus architecture for example. 

Carnap has this famous line where he describes metaphysicians as “musicians without musical talent.” By contrast he praises Nietzsche, because Nietzsche wrote works like Thus Spoke Zarathustra where they express something deep but in the form of a parable – so fulfilling the same need as the metaphysician, without misrepresenting itself as describing a suprasensible reality which can tell you why you ought to behave how the metaphysician wants you to behave. 

ME: Thanks Liam! [in reality we waffled on about Heidegger and the Frankfurt School for like fifteen more minutes after this, but you get the idea]. 

So, what should we make of all this? I suppose, having spoken to Liam, that my take on verificationism is as follows. Most of the established critiques of verificationism revolve around its appropriateness (or otherwise) as a theory of meaning. As a theory of meaning, verificationism is, to my mind, pretty obviously inadequate – the hard analytic/synthetic distinction it assumes doesn’t work, and it renders lots of non-nonsensical things as nonsense. But that doesn’t mean that the verification principle isn’t also sometimes a useful tool, which we can use when analyzing certain statements (just because a screwdriver can’t build a house by itself, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth including in your toolbox). 

In particular, the verification principle seems like it’s an interesting tool to apply when you’re suspicious of something – when you think things don’t quite add up (like the government’s account of why we need to go to war with Iraq, to borrow one of Liam’s examples). One problem with conspiratorial thinking is that – while often motivated by a critical instinct which is fundamentally laudable – the conspiracy theorist is typically not (although perhaps only to the extent that everyone else in general also is not) the sort of person who, as yet, knows how to think properly. Thus conspiratorial thinking often assumes nonsense epistemic principles like Jim Garrison’s time and propinquity – the idea, pioneered by the godfather of Kennedy Assassination conspiracies, that we can get to the truth by mapping how (for instance) two individuals are secretly linked by having been in the same place at the same time (the Pepe Silvia way of understanding reality).  

A verificationist might still have been led to question, for instance, whether the Warren Commission had provided enough evidence to confirm the thesis that Oswald acted alone – but they would not then be led to replace the unconfirmable nonsense of elites, with some different, even less well-founded nonsense of their own. Conspiracy, in other words, goes wrong when it yields credulity – the tools we need are ones that help us break credulity’s spell.

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