Logical positivism, later called logical empiricism, was a school of analytic philosophy famously connected with the Vienna circle and with a significant following up until the 1950's.

What were the main criticisms that were articulated to refute logical positivism, who articulated them, and why were they so successful in displacing the movement from its previous stature?

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    SEP has a wonderful article on the Vienna Circle which goes through major doctrines and their criticisms; in particular I would recommend this subsection which places the various responses to the Vienna Circle in a wider historical context -- plato.stanford.edu/entries/vienna-circle/#VieCirHis – Joseph Weissman Aug 28 '11 at 16:42
  • Though logical positivism is often said to have been 'killed' or 'refuted', it's sort of like saying that Newtonian mechanics is wrong (in that it was superseded by the 'correct' theory of relativity, but really is still an extremely useful approximation to the later theory). – Mitch Aug 28 '11 at 21:08
  • @Mitch Newtonian mechanics is unlike LP in that refutations have been offered for LP which have seemed to many to be definitive. – adrianos Jan 6 '12 at 11:13
  • @Mitch Newtonian mechanics predicts things in a useful way. Logical Positivism does not provide anything helpful. One does not have to believe logic is the underpinning of all reality in order to use logic, or to prefer it. So the theory itself does not introduce any useful perspective. It is just obsessive overstatement of the obvious to a degree it is no longer true. – user9166 Nov 30 '18 at 22:45

Though Popper's critique of the inductive nature of the verification principle was influential, it is the related arguments of Reichenbach, Quine, Hempel, Sellars which most definitively refute verificationism in its Logical Positivist form. Reichenbach, Quine (in Two Dogmas of Empiricism) and Sellars (in Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind) point out in similar ways that there is no way to semantically separate sentences about sense experience from other sentences, a distinction upon which LP rested in its attempt to show that all sentences could be reduced to a formal language about sense experience. Hempel focussed on the fact that the verification principle was not itself verifiable. Some of the key Logical Positivists themselves, including Carnap, seem to have anticipated these problems to some extent.

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    Hempel's criticism is mentally challenged, and I won't deal with it. The more valid criticism is the one of Reichenbach and Quine, that sentences regarding sense-impressions are not easy to separate from other sentences. But this is not quite true, as it is possible to frame it in another way where the problem doesn't arise: namely you can make formal sentences (systems, i.e. computational models) predict sense experience, and reject the systems which fail, accept the ones that succeed, and declare two equivalent when they make the same predictions. Equivalence is the important thing. – Ron Maimon Dec 12 '13 at 1:56
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    The statement that "system A is equivalent to system B if A and B predict the same sense impressions" does not require to isolate sense impressions to form system A or system B, it just makes an identity between the systems when their sense predictions coincide, so that the systems can refer to all sorts of concepts, you just don't assign objective truth to these concepts unless there is some difference in a prediction, and in this case, the observations determine which. Further, there is Occam's razor here, in that you generally prefer the simplest deductive system. – Ron Maimon Dec 12 '13 at 1:58
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    @RonMaimon I find Hempel's criticism very convincing, I think others do too. On your proposal to have systems which predict or fail to predict sense experience, you seem to assume - just as LP did - that there is a way to identify sentences that are about sense experience and so isolate them from the rest. But this is just what is being rejected by the critics of LP. There are no protocol sentences - or, if there were, there would be no formal way to apply them to experience. – adrianos Dec 14 '13 at 17:22
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    Quine: '[Carnap's system] provides no indication, not even the sketchiest, of how a statement of the form 'Quality q is at x; y; z; t' could ever be translated into Carnap's initial language of sense data and logic. The connective 'is at' remains an added undefined connective; the canons counsel us in its use but not in its elimination.' – adrianos Dec 14 '13 at 17:29
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    I understand Hempel's criticism better after your explanation, thanks. That theories can predict or fail to predict sense experience is just true, as I can program a computer to do this: evolve codes to predict properties of pixels on the camera attached to it, and if it matches the prediction, it matches the prediction, and if not, no. When you can program a computer to do it, there should be little debate on whether it is possible in principle. But the question you ask about "how do I know whether a bit is coming from sensory data or from internal computation" is valid... – Ron Maimon Dec 14 '13 at 20:21

The main element of logical positivism was verificationism. This led to the attitude, that only propositions proven by verification are worth to discuss in philosophy. So metaphysics and ontology had to be ignored according to Vienna circle as they cannot be proved by objective methods.

The problem with this view, articulated mainly by Karl Popper, was that for verification of a proposition, one needs absolute truths on which he can base the verification. This is known as the Münchhausen Trilemma. Popper as founder of falsificationism in his critical rationalism, a kind of historic fallibilism, stated that there is nothing we can be 100% sure about, there is ALWAYS the chance of being wrong. We can only falsify current knowledge and develop more exact, consistent and coherent theories. This is the current paradigma believed by most natural scientists.

I foundy only a german diagram of this famous trilemma, use translation if it is not self-explaining


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    The trilemma plays a very tiny role in Popper's critique of logical positivism. You have also misunderstood what is meant by falsificationism, which has very little to do with falibilism. Rather, the possibility of falsification is a criterion for the demarcation of science. – adrianos Jan 6 '12 at 10:48
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    @adrianos I disagree, while I admit you better call falsificationism historically a scientific method, it's obvious that Poppers elaboration of this concept is based on epistemological views of fallibilism (which covered at this time more the logical side of epistemology, not the practical scientific ones). But the result is the same, we have no absolut truths from a epistemological point of view, and todays scholars try to falsify "proven" theories to enlarge our knowledge, the historic link between both terms is pretty obvious to me. – Hauser Jan 6 '12 at 16:17
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    I think @adrianos is right in his comment. Also, all logical positivists were fallibilists, most of them however rejected the claims of Popper's falsificationism, i.e. 1) corroboration cannot rationally lead to more confidence in the theory being tested; 2) falsification is definitive (in opposition to verification). – DBK Mar 9 '12 at 19:05
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    Addendum: to imply that verificationism is about "there is NO chance of being wrong" (or something like that) is a caricature at best. Further: I don't know of any logical empiricist who would have claimed that conclusive verification is possible. Indeed, Moritz Schlick claimed in its most radical verificationist phase that because of this impossibility general laws are not proper statements, but statement-schemata from which meaningful statements can be derived. – DBK Mar 9 '12 at 19:31

The nature of knowledge is different, hence, the tools to verify the knowledge are different. First, this paradigm overstated the notion of verification. Second, it failed to take into account that there are spheres which may not be proven in a scientific way.

Science has a better alternative position. Science does not deal with any notion that can not be scientifically tested. This way, its neutrality towards Metaphysics remains an important contour for its large-scale acceptance even in traditional societies.

On the contrary, Logical Positivism was aggressive and rejectionist and saw attacks on its own since no knowledge, human knowledge, is perfect. It has to go through a constant process of revision. This way an alternative discourse of what things are and how they should be and should not be failed miserably in attracting large subscribers.

  • I made some edits which you may roll back or continue editing. Welcome to this SE! – Frank Hubeny Nov 30 '18 at 15:37

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