Logical positivism  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Logical positivism and logical empiricism, which together formed neopositivism, was a movement in Western philosophy that embraced verificationism, an approach that sought to legitimize philosophical discourse on a basis shared with the best examples of empirical sciences. In this theory of knowledge, only statements verifiable either logically or empirically would be cognitively meaningful. Seeking to convert philosophy to this new scientific philosophy was aimed to prevent confusion rooted in unclear language and unverifiable claims. The Berlin Circle and the Vienna Circle propounded logical positivism starting in the late 1920s.

Interpreting Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophy of language, logical positivists identified a verifiability principle or criterion of cognitive meaningfulness. From Bertrand Russell's logicism they sought reduction of mathematics to logic as well as Russell's logical atomism, Ernst Mach's phenomenalism—whereby the mind knows only actual or potential sensory experience, which is the content of all sciences, whether physics or psychology—and Percy Bridgman's musings that others proclaimed as operationalism. Thereby, only the verifiable was scientific and cognitively meaningful, whereas the unverifiable was unscientific, cognitively meaningless "pseudostatements"—metaphysic, emotive, or such—not candidate to further review by philosophers, newly tasked to organize knowledge, not develop new knowledge.

Logical positivism became famed for vigorous scientific antirealism to purge science of talk about nature's unobservable aspects—including causality, mechanism, and principles—although that goal has been exaggerated. Still, talk of such unobservables would be metaphorical—direct observations viewed in the abstract—or at worst metaphysical or emotional. Theoretical laws would be reduced to empirical laws, while theoretical terms would garner meaning from observational terms via correspondence rules. Mathematics of physics would reduce to symbolic logic via logicism, while rational reconstruction would convert ordinary language into standardized equivalents, all networked and united by a logical syntax. A scientific theory would be stated with its method of verification, whereby a logical calculus or empirical operation could verify its falsity or truth.

In the late 1930s, logical positivists fled Germany and Austria for Britain and America. By then, many had replaced Mach's phenomenalism with Neurath's physicalism, and Carnap had sought to replace verification with simply confirmation. With World War II's close in 1945, logical positivism became milder, logical empiricism, led largely by Carl Hempel, in America, who expounded the covering law model of scientific explanation. The logical positivist movement became a major underpinning of analytic philosophy, and dominated Anglosphere philosophy, including philosophy of science, while influencing sciences, into the 1960s. Yet the movement failed to resolve its central problems, and its doctrines were increasingly assaulted, most trenchantly by W V O Quine, Norwood Hanson, Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, and by Carl Hempel.

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