Vienna Circle

Despite its prominent position in the rich, if fragile, intellectual culture of inter-war Vienna and most likely due to its radical doctrines, the Vienna Circle found itself virtually isolated in most of German speaking philosophy. The one exception was its contact and cooperation with the Berlin Society for Empirical (later: Scientific) Philosophy (the other point of origin of logical empiricism). The members of the Berlin Society sported a broadly similar outlook and included, besides the philosopher Hans Reichenbach, the logicians Kurt Grelling and Walter Dubislav, the psychologist Kurt Lewin, the surgeon Friedrich Kraus and the mathematician Richard von Mises. (Its leading members Reichenbach, Grelling and Dubislav were listed in the Circle’s manifesto as sympathisers.) At the same time, members of the Vienna Circle also engaged directly, if selectively, with the Warsaw logicians (Tarski visited Vienna in 1930, Carnap later that year visited Warsaw and Tarski returned to Vienna in 1935). Probably partly because of its firebrand reputation, the Circle attracted also a series of visiting younger researchers and students including Carl Gustav Hempel from Berlin, Hasso Härlen from Stuttgart, Ludovico Geymonat from Italy, Jørgen Jørgensen, Eino Kaila, Arne Naess and Ake Petzall from Scandinavia, A.J. Ayer from the UK, Albert Blumberg, Charles Morris, Ernest Nagel and W.V.O. Quine from the USA, H.A. Lindemann from Argentina and Tscha Hung from China. (The reports and recollections of these former visitors—e.g. Nagel 1936—are of interest in complementing the Circle’s in-house histories and recollections which start with the unofficial manifesto—Carnap, Hahn and Neurath 1929—and extend through Neurath 1936, Frank 1941, 1949a and Feigl 1943 to the memoirs by Carnap 1963, Feigl 1969a, 1969b, Bergmann 1987, Menger 1994.)

Never heard of that danish guy. A Google search revealed this:,_jura_og_politik/Filosofi/Filosofi_og_filosoffer_-_1900-t./Filosoffer_1900-t._-_Norden_-_biografier/J%C3%B8rgen_J%C3%B8rgensen. He is somewhat cool. I dislike his communist ideas, obviously, but at least he is more interesting than Kierkegaard.

The synthetic statements of the empirical sciences meanwhile were held to be cognitively
meaningful if and only if they were empirically testable in some sense. They derived their
justification as knowledge claims from successful tests. Here the Circle appealed to a meaning
criterion the correct formulation of which was problematical and much debated (and will be
discussed in greater detail in section 3.1 below). Roughly, if synthetic statements failed testability in
principle they were considered to be cognitively meaningless and to give rise only to pseudo-
problems. No third category of significance besides that of a priori analytical and a posteriori
synthetic statements was admitted: in particular, Kant’s synthetic a priori was banned as having
been refuted by the progress of science itself. (The theory of relativity showed what had been held
to be an example of the synthetic a priori, namely Euclidean geometry, to be false as the geometry
of physical space.) Thus the Circle rejected the knowledge claims of metaphysics as being neither
analytic and a priori nor empirical and synthetic. (On related but different grounds, they also
rejected the knowledge claims of normative ethics: whereas conditional norms could be grounded in
means-ends relations, unconditional norms remained unprovable in empirical terms and so
depended crucially on the disputed substantive a priori intuition.)

I like this idea. I generally prefer to talk about cost/benefit analyses with stated goals instead of using moral language. See also Joshua D. Greene’s dissertation about this.

Given their empiricism, all of the members of the Vienna Circle also called into question the principled separation of the natural and the human sciences. They were happy enough to admit to differences in their object domains, but denied the categorical difference in both their overarching methodologies and ultimate goals in inquiry, which the historicist tradition in the still only emerging social sciences and the idealist tradition in philosophy insisted on. The Circle’s own methodologically monist position was sometimes represented under the heading of “unified science”. Precisely how such a unification of the sciences was to be effected or understood remained a matter for further discussion (see section 3.3 below).

I agree with this. There is no principled distinction between natural and social sciences. Only matters of degree and areas of study, and even those overlap.

As noted, the Vienna Circle did not last long: its philosophical revolution came at a cost. Yet what
was so socially, indeed politically, explosive about what appears on first sight to be a particularly
arid, if not astringent, doctrine of specialist scientific knowledge? To a large part, precisely what
made it so controversial philosophically: its claim to refute opponents not by proving their
statements to be false but by showing them to be (cognitively) meaningless. Whatever the niceties
of their philosophical argument here, the socio-political impact of the Vienna Circle’s philosophies
of science was obvious and profound. All of them opposed the increasing groundswell of radically
mistaken, indeed irrational, ways of thinking about thought and its place in the world. In their time
and place, the mere demand that public discourse be perspicuous, in particular, that reasoning be
valid and premises true—a demand implicit in their general ideal of reason—placed them in the
middle of crucial socio-political struggles. Some members and sympathisers of the Circle also
actively opposed the then increasingly popular völkisch supra-individual holism in social science as
a dangerous intellectual aberration. Not only did such ideas support racism and fascism in politics,
but such ideas themselves were supported only by radically mistaken arguments concerning the
nature and explanation of organic and unorganic matter. So the first thing that made all of the
Vienna Circle philosophies politically relevant was the contingent fact that in their day much
political discourse exhibited striking epistemic deficits. That some of the members of the Circle
went, without logical blunders, still further by arguing that socio-political considerations can play a
legitimate role in some instances of theory choice due to underdetermination is yet another matter.
Here this particular issue (see references at the end of section 2.1 above), as well as the general
topic of the Circle’s embedding in modernism and the discourse of modernity (see Putnam 1981b
for a reductionist, Galison 1990 for a foundationalist, Uebel 1996 for a constructivist reading of
their modernism), will not be pursued further.


This also reminds me of the good book The March of Unreason. Written by a politician!

In the first place, this liberalization meant the accommodation of universally quantified statements
and the return, as it were, to salient aspects of Carnap’s 1928 conception. Everybody had noted that
the Wittgensteinian verificationist criterion rendered universally quantified statements meaningless.
Schlick (1931) thus followed Wittgenstein’s own suggestion to treat them instead as representing
rules for the formation of verifiable singular statements. (His abandonment of conclusive
verifiability is indicated only in Schlick 1936a.) By contrast, Hahn (1933, drawn from lectures in
1932) pointed out that hypotheses should be counted as properly meaningful as well and that the
criterion be weakened to allow for less than conclusive verifiability. But other elements played into
this liberalization as well. One that began to do so soon was the recognition of the problem of the
irreducibility of disposition terms to observation terms (more on this presently). A third element was
that disagreement arose as to whether the in-principle verifiability or support turned on what was
merely logically possible or on what was nomologically possible, as a matter of physical law etc. A
fourth element, finally, was that differences emerged as to whether the criterion of significance was
to apply to all languages or whether it was to apply primarily to constructed, formal languages.
Schlick retained the focus on logical possibility and natural languages throughout, but Carnap had
firmly settled his focus on nomological possibility and constructed languages by the mid-thirties.
Concerned with natural language, Schlick (1932, 1936a) deemed all statements meaningful for
which it was logically possible to conceive of a procedure of verification; concerned with
constructed languages only, Carnap (1936–37) deemed meaningful only statements for whom it was
nomologically possible to conceive of a procedure of confirmation of disconfirmation.

This distinction between logical and nomological possibility inre. verificationism i have encountered before. I know a fysicist who endorses verificationism. We have been discussing various problems for this view. His view has implications regarding quantum mechanics that i don’t like.

First, black holes have only 3 independent fysical properties according to standard theory: mass, charge, and angular momentum. However, how does one measure a black hole’s charge? Is it fysically possible? My idea was that it wasn’t, and thus his verificationist ideas imply that a specific part of standard theory about black holes is not just wrong, but meaningless. However, it seems that my proposed counter-example doesn’t work.

Second, another area of trouble is the future and the past. Sentences about the future and the past, are they fysically possible to verify? It seems not. If so, then it follows that all such sentences are meaningless. My fysicist friend sort of wants to buy the bullet here and go with that. I consider it a strong reason to not accept this particular kind of verificationism. The discussion then becomes complicated due to the possible truth of causal indeterminism. Future discussions await! (or maybe that sentence is just meaningless gibberish!)

Also, i consider the traditional view of laws of nature as confused, and agree with Norman Swartz about this.

Logical Empiricism

Richard von Mises (1883–1953)
Born in what is now the Ukraine, Richard von Mises is the brother of the economic and
political theorist Ludwig von Mises. Richard was a polymath who ranged over fields as
diverse as mathematics, aerodynamics, philosophy, and Rilke’s poetry. He finished his
doctorate in Vienna. He was simultaneously active in Berlin, where he was one of the
developers of the frequency theory of probability along with Reichenbach, and in Vienna,
where he participated in various discussion groups that constituted the Vienna Circle.
Eventually it was necessary to escape, first to Turkey, and eventually to MIT and Harvard.

Another polymath that i hadn’t heard about before.

Hilary Putnam (1926–)
This American philosopher of science, mathematics, mind and language earned his doctorate
under Reichenbach at UCLA and subsequently taught at Princeton, MIT, and Harvard. He was
originally a metaphysical realist, but then argued forcefully against it. He has continued the
pragmatist tradition and been politically active, especially in the 1960s and 70s.

I keep thinking this is a woman. Apparently, however, the female version of this name is spelled with 2 L’s according to Wiki:

Hilary or Hillary is a given and family name, derived from the Latin hilarius meaning “cheerful”, from hilaris, “cheerful, merry”[1] which comes from the Greek ἱλαρός (hilaros), “cheerful, merry”,[2] which in turn comes from ἵλαος (hilaos), “propitious, gracious”.[3] Historically (in America), the spelling Hilary has generally been used for men and Hillary for women, though there are exceptions, some of which are noted below. In modern times it has drastically declined in popularity as a name for men. Ilaria is the popular Italian and Spanish form. Ilariana and Ylariana (/aɪˌlɑːriˈɑːnə/ eye-LAH–ree-AH-nə) are two very rare feminine variants of the name.

It also reminds me that i really shud get around to reading his famous paper:



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