The Vienna Circle opposed to metaphysics.

This is exposed in depth in Carnape's paper "'Überwindung der Metaphysik durch Logische Analyse der Sprache' in Erkenntnis, vol. 2, 1932 (English translation 'The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language' in Sarkar, Sahotra, ed., Logical empiricism at its peak: Schlick, Carnap, and Neurath, New York : Garland Pub., 1996, pp. 10–31)."

But I am not really sure about what they are "targeting" here precisely. I suppose it is the continental philosophy, starting from Hegel, going through phenomenology, but I am not sure. It could also include the continental rationalist philosophy (with Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz). Finally, it could also include idealism, with Plato, and German idealism).

(1) What is the metaphysics they opposed to? Metaphysics is very lose term: "It is not easy to say what metaphysics is." (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

(2) Which branches of metaphysics, which authors were they particularly thinking about when opposing metaphysics? Carnape's article mentions Hegel, but that's it.

  • 3
    Apparently, you haven't finished reading. Carnap explicitly mentions Descartes and Nietzsche, and has a whole section on Heidegger's phrase "nothingness nothings". A footnote reads:"We could just as well have selected passages from any other of the numerous metaphysicians of the present or of the past." Positivists were not modern politicians to "target" specific opponents under the guise of generalistic phrasing. They did, in fact, oppose any speculation about what is that is not empirically verifiable. The latter was left to science and philosophy was to be confined to methodology.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 5:49
  • @Conifold So the Vienna Circle opposed continental rationalism (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz), idealism (Plato and German idealism), and what will become continental philosophy, so the seeds of existentialism with Nietzsche, phenomenology with Husserl, and I guess postmodernism, etc.
    – Starckman
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 6:12
  • No, they did not oppose any particular lists, nor everything in the writings of those thinkers. Only metaphysical aspects, as detected by their verification criterion, anywhere, their fellow analytic philosophers included. Verificationism was later walked back after heavy criticism, and post-positivists were much more accepting of metaphysics as a philosophical activity.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 6:34
  • 1
    See e.g. R,Carnap, The Rejection of Metaphysics (1934): "We will call metaphysical all those propositions which claim to represent knowledge about something which is over or beyond all experience, e.g. about the real Essence of things, about Things-in-themselves, the Absolute, and such like. [...] To metaphysics (in our sense of the word) belong the principal doctrines of Spinoza, Schelling, Hegel, and—to give at least one name of the present time—Bergson." Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 7:29
  • @Starckman I think again it is more useful to not work at the level of labels but engage with the substance of the positivists position, as explained by Conifold: "they did oppose any speculation about what is that is not empirically verifiable".
    – Frank
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 17:11

1 Answer 1


The logical positivists led by Carnap led the charge against metaphysics and ultimately failed. From the IEP article on Carnap:

He asserted that many philosophical problems are indeed pseudo-problems, the outcome of a misuse of language. Some of them can be resolved when we recognize that they are not expressing matters of fact, but rather concern the choice between different linguistic frameworks. Thus the logical analysis of language becomes the principal instrument in resolving philosophical problems. Since ordinary language is ambiguous, Carnap asserted the necessity of studying philosophical issues in artificial languages, which are governed by the rules of logic and mathematics. In such languages, he dealt with the problems of the meaning of a statement, the different interpretations of probability, the nature of explanation, and the distinctions between analytic and synthetic, a priori and a posteriori, and necessary and contingent statements.

On the surface, there seems to be a clear distinction between statements regarding, say, the arguments of physicists who debate and explore questions of mass, matter, and energy, and those of say, theologians debating angels dancing on the head of pin. Matter, for instance, even though it is beyond direct observation is open to operational definition, where as angels are not. This is because, to a positivist of any flavor, a posteriori that express empirical truths based on objective empirical evidence are held supreme. Thus, Carnap the ontologist was attempting to further realism by defending just what existential quantification entails. He noted that some questions are internal and others are external. External questions revolve around publicly available information such as 'how many legs does an ant have?' versus internal questions like 'what exactly is the nature of the material?'. Carnap maintained that the internal and external referred to the framework of language, and that questions that were internal were pseudoquestions, not proper questions, on the basis of his belief about the analytic-synthetic divide, an idea later challenged by Quine in his Two Dogmas.

This view, that linguistic frameworks were at the center of the debate of what was scientific and what was metaphysical was a furtherance of the linguistic turn, because it chiefly asserted that philosophical discourse was best grounded as an understanding of language, thus continuing the Fregean obsession with meaning grounded in truth as a means of determining semantics. Thus, the logical positivists as a whole asserted that metaphysics was essentially the use of language that ultimately provided meaningless statments, since meaning was rooted in the correspondent theory of truth, that is with a reflection of the state of affairs in the physical world. Internal questions, in this picture, are therefore meaningless because they don't correspond to states of affairs at all. This is called today deflationary ontology because it essentially attempts to eliminate many abstract objects.

What Carnap and others then attempted to do is say that external questions start with observable statements, that is empirical statements that are vested in the senses. However, there are abstractions present in science, and those abstractions may be part of theoretical statements, hence embracing a duality. Then based on observation and theoretical statements in conjunction with correspondence rules, it should be possible to sort out the meaningless metaphysics from the scientific statements. This system was called Ramsey sentences which was a model of how the scientist should be able to discriminate in theory observation statements based on explicit definitions. Thus, a scientist could look at the semantics of a statement and determined where it fit in these classes of statement types. Ultimately, this program failed because it was asserted and then accepted that even perception itself is theory-laden, and therefore the line between internal and external, just like the line between analytical and synthetic propositions is ultimately blurred. Down the road, the ordinary language philosophers, who accepted the inevitability of metaphysical discourse, continued the tradition at looking at "non-ordinary" uses of language which is not an attack on jargon, but rather how some philosophers, such as Hegel, use ordinary language in extraordinary ways which ultimately causes confusion, a belief shared with the logical positivists.

  • "Thus, Carnap the ontologist was attempting to further realism by defending just what existential quantification entails." So the Vienna Circle is opposing realism to idealism and mysticism, right? This is one important feature of this movement?
    – Starckman
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 10:23
  • To further realism means to maintain a defense of it against idealism mainly. Mysticism isn't taken seriously by scientists as a general rule. Michael Dummett was a proponent of the term 'anti-realism' for anything that isn't realism. Scientists are a big fan, whether they know it or not, of positivism as Comte put forth because it is rooted in the thinking of empiricism. That's why scientists love empirical methods and empirical evidence.
    – J D
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 16:56
  • I personally agree with your statements, but
    – Starckman
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 7:36
  • “ To further realism means to maintain a defense of it against idealism mainly. ” It is said that realism is opposed to anti-realism, not idealism, see here philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/96738/…
    – Starckman
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 7:38
  • “That's why scientists love empirical methods and empirical evidence.” It is said that empiricism has little to see with the scientific method, see here philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/96493/…
    – Starckman
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 7:40

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .