I think the positivists came up with the idea that a statement is meaningless if it cannot be proven. But obviously this isn't true: there are a lot of scientific theories that cannot be proven yet, and some theories that may never be able to be proven, so this cannot be true. So is there a better criteria someone came up with or not? Because the claim that a statement is meaningless if it cannot be proven cannot be proven either.

  • This is not the criterion positivists came up with, their criterion of meaningfulness was contribution to making predictions (and even what they classified as "meaningless" could still have meaning in a more broad sense, on their conception, expressing emotions, for example). And no, general meaning turned out to be far too versatile and elusive for any kind of tractable criteria. Even the more restricted problem of demarcating scientific from non-scientific statements remains without a non-controversial solution. – Conifold May 19 at 4:39
  • Your definition of the terms sentence, statement & proposition are likely wrong or poorly defined which is why you think the way you do here. A statement does not have to be either true or false first off. Perhaps you heard that & belived it from math. This is false. Next you claimed something without proof is meaningless which again you are taking from math which is wrong. Axioms & definituons would all be meaningless under your thinking. Meaningless as defined correctly means a statement that ascribes a quality impossible to have would fail to Express something true or false.. – Logikal May 19 at 12:01
  • You might be interested to read this discussion 'According to the major theories of concepts, where do meanings come from?' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/77261/… – CriglCragl May 19 at 13:34
  • Also, a ground-up version of 'true' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/81655/… – CriglCragl May 19 at 15:13
  • what you are referring to is the popular notion of 'theory' and not the scientific definition of 'theory'. Scientific hypotheses are unproven, scientific theories are proven. – Swami Vishwananda May 20 at 4:00

First of all logical positivists criterion for meaningfulness of a propositional statement or hypothesis is called verification principle, thus it's all about empirical verifiability not any form of provability or derivability wished in a complete strong deductive system since provability can be achieved without empirical verification like in logic and math and is regarded as mere semantic language convention (a tool) at best if not meaningless tautology at worst per positivists.

Verificationism, also known as the verification principle or the verifiability criterion of meaning, is the philosophical doctrine which maintains that only statements that are empirically verifiable (i.e. verifiable through the senses) are cognitively meaningful, or else they are truths of logic (tautologies)

As you intuited, this principle itself cannot be empirically verified since many scientific theories and hypotheses cannot be conclusively verified exhaustively, so later Carnap advocated confirmation instead of verification.

Logical positivists within the Vienna Circle recognized quickly that the verifiability criterion was too stringent. Notably, all universal generalizations are empirically unverifiable, such that, under verificationism, vast domains of science and reason, such as scientific hypothesis, would be rendered meaningless... Hahn argued that the verifiability criterion should accede to less-than-conclusive verifiability...

In 1936, Carnap sought a switch from verification to confirmation. Carnap's confirmability criterion (confirmationism) would not require conclusive verification (thus accommodating for universal generalizations) but allow for partial testability to establish "degrees of confirmation" on a probabilistic basis. Carnap never succeeded in formalizing his thesis despite employing abundant logical and mathematical tools for this purpose.

Later Popper's falsificationsim inherited the logical empiricism nature while changed verification or confirmation to his famous falsification.

Karl Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery proposed falsificationism as a criterion under which scientific hypothesis would be tenable. Falsificationism would allow hypotheses expressed as universal generalizations, such as "all swans are white", to be provisionally true until falsified by evidence, in contrast to verificationism under which they would be disqualified immediately as meaningless.

Below is the the summary judgement of falsification within philosophy and science circles from the same reference.

Although Karl Popper's falsificationism has been widely criticized by philosophers, Popper is often praised by many scientists. Verificationists, in contrast, have been likened to economists of the 19th century who took circuitous, protracted measures to refuse refutation of their preconceived principles.

  • What you describe has already been attributed to all sciences before logical positivism. Why would this definition be created by logical positivism when all scientific evidence prior to this required empirical evidence or aka the verification principle. The word proof alone implies there is SOME VERIFICATION involved. Show me a proof without some kind of verification Just to be clear what verification MEANS is that a human must rely on at least one of the famous five senses: sight, smell, touch, taste & listening. There is no science without verification !!! – Logikal May 19 at 12:09
  • @Logikal Thx for your critique. Your common intuition about science makes sense and is similar in spirit as the summary above judging positivists as circuitous, protracted. However, the stake here of verificationism is related to philosophy in general, not science. Positivists holding a Quine-like naturalistic epistemology wanted philosophy subsumed into science with same verification criterion of science (your point above). This would render many traditional metaphysical questions like "Do all existences precede essences (existentialism)?" meaningless since no way to verify such proposition.. – Double Knot May 19 at 17:22
  • I think the view represented Is not complete or accurate. Philosophers know that science is NOT Philosophy & Philosophy is not science. The notion here is about the definition of what is a STATEMENT & how all statements cannot be PROPOSITIONS. Many people today have the poor definition of a proposition is a STATEMENT & these same people hold all STATEMENTS must be either true or false. Hence propositions must be true or false. Meaningful statements can be verified. By meaningful they mean literally & physical in reality. Thus we cannot speak about unicorns as they are not literal. – Logikal May 19 at 17:39
  • The terminology is what is being attacked not whether the verification principle is valid in Philosophy. All statements are NOT propositions is what this amounts to. We also have multiple classifications of STATEMENTS: meaningful & meaningless. Positivists hold all literally meaningful statements are those that Express propositions-- not the other kinds of statements. What is a statement then? A statement can be letters, a word, a signal, an action that communicates something to another human being. It doesn't HAVE TO BE true or false. Thus all statements are not propositions & vice versa. – Logikal May 19 at 17:58
  • @Logikal Of course strictly speaking propositions are just truth-valued formulas requiring interpretation of appropriate statements in a certain natural or formal language for its semantics, and there's confusion in many places. The OP title is mainly concerned about criterion for meaningfulness from positivists POV and beyond, so my answer just addresses this aspect. You're welcome to answer OP from your POV of difference of statements and propositions in general... – Double Knot May 19 at 18:17

If you want to know whether a statement is likely to be meaningful, look at the process that generated the statement. Look at the selection pressure that this process imposes on statements to filter out the "wrong" ones and keep the "right" ones. Is it strong selection pressure, or weak? Is it systematic and impersonal, or informal and social? Is it based in fact or opinion? Do influential parties in the process have a strong reason to lie or exaggerate, and how strongly does the process punish them for doing so?

If the process involves systematic, impersonal, formal, fact-based strong selection of ideas, then statements coming out of that process are more trustworthy. Mathematics, hard sciences, engineering, chess, and sports are areas where if you fail, you fail objectively. Therefore, statements in these fields tend to be more grounded.

If the process involves informal, social, opinion-based, weak selection of ideas, then statements coming out of that process are less trustworthy, and may not be meaningful. Statements made in advertising, political lobbying, entertainment, fashion, and alternative medicine tend to succeed or fail based on whether people subjectively like them, while being fairly detached from hard evidence.

Ultimately, a statement is meaningful if it makes some significant difference to us whether it's true or false, beyond just how we feel about the statement.

  • Does it propose some state of affairs in the physical universe? Then it is meaningful, although sometimes it may be hard to verify, and just because it is meaningful does not make it true.
  • Does it describe some property of a formal, rigorous system, such as mathematics? Then it is meaningful.
  • Can we see how we might translate it into one of the above? Then maybe it is meaningful.
  • Is it so vague that we can't even sketch out how it relates to a physical state of affairs or a formal system? Then perhaps it is not meaningful, or needs more development to become meaningful.

We can ask, of a statement P, "What other propositions would hold as a result of P being true, and what would be the impact of those other propositions being true?"

However, in philosophy we may deal with "precursors" to meaning - statements whose meaning we are still uncertain of. And just because we might not have pinned down the precise meaning yet, does not mean there is none. "X is moral" or "X is conscious" come to mind in this category.


I start from the assumption that it is statements and words that can be said to be meaningful or meaningless.

A statement or a word will be meaningful for anyone who has a meaning in mind to associate to it. Thus, meaningfulness is a personal and subjective fact. Different persons will inevitably disagree as to whether particular statements are meaningful or not. Most conspicuously, the Chinese tend to be able to make sense of statements in Chinese only while the Germans tend to be able to make sense of statements in German only.

There is an interesting distinction between statements and words in this respect. We learn the words with our mother tongue and even when learning a foreign language. Mostly, people have zero problem associating a meaning to most words in the language they know.

While meaning often involves some interaction of the subject with the particular concrete objects referred to by words, this is apparently not a necessary condition at least for words best described as abstract. The concept of God for example shows that we are able to arrive at a meaning through abstraction. Essentially, the concept of God is arrived at as a logical conjunction of predicates whose meaning originally came from concrete objects. In this instance, God is essentially abstracted from humans themselves and understood as a sort of super-human.

The concept of God is also a social construct, but it is clear that individuals can work out their own private menagerie of quirky concepts they may or may not then publicise for the benefit of others, and we can think of philosophers like Hegel and Kant in this respect.

Statements are clearly different from words in terms of their meaning. A meaningful statement first requires that the words it is made of be themselves meaningful as per the above. But, this is not sufficient. It is also necessary that there be no contradiction between the different words involved. Thus, statements need to be logical.

This leads to distinguish between two levels of meaningfulness. First, what I would call "literal meaningfulness", which is obtained once all the words in the statement are meaningful. And then what I would call "semantic meaningfulness" when there is no contradiction between the words involved in the statement. Both levels of meaningfulness are necessary to achieve statement meaningfulness.

Thus, there is no hard connection between meaningfulness and the reality of the world, but there is nonetheless a loose connection with our experience of the world, both as individuals and as a collective. Individuals can make sense of their own personal experience, but the connection to a linguistic community will dramatically increase the number and range of the abstraction we can understand as individuals.

Logical positivism should be seen as essentially an ideological moment in philosophy, a logical absurdity, historically dated, at a time where the conflict between idealism and materialism climaxed.

Common sense is good enough to specify what meaningfulness means to most people. And only common sense is good enough, by logical necessity. And it works. Mankind has survived thousands of years on this basis. Logical positivism should have been debunked as illogical from the start.

This also shows that people can make statements which are illogical, including intellectuals. The reason is that our philosophical views can be quite sprawling and complex, to the point where the absurdity of them is lost to us. We continue to make claims which are absurd until it is pointed out to us that they are absurd. We can contradict ourselves. This implies that our theories are collections of statements, and that at any one time we can only entertain some of these statements, which leaves room for theories or views involving statements that will be individually meaningful but collectively meaningless.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.