Logical Positivism: Definition, Philosophy & Examples

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

Logical Positivism was a school of philosophy which developed in Austria in the years following World War One. It focused on applying strict logic and empirical observation to describing the world.

What is Logical Positivism

Logical Positivism was a school of philosophy which developed in Austria in the decades between the two World Wars. It was initially developed by a group of thinkers who met in Vienna and who came to be known as the Vienna Circle. Logical Positivist thinkers proposed that philosophy should dismiss any statements or beliefs that were not verifiable or, at least, confirmable by observation or experiment. This became known as the Principal of Verification and was formulated by A. J. Ayer. According to Ayer, a principal only had meaning if it could be logically verified. Therefore, the only statements and ideas that were of any use were those that were based on logic and scientific thought or based on observations of the natural world, i.e. experiments. As such, philosophy had no business engaging in discussions of morality, religious beliefs, and metaphysics, and such avenues were of no meaning because they could not be verified.

Important Thinkers in Logical Positivism

One of the foundational works of Logical Positivism was Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein. In this work, Wittgenstein analyzes the impact of language upon the world. He claims that language provides limits to what we can clearly communicate and that topics such as religion, metaphysics, and morality are impossible to discuss within the limits of language. Although he influenced the members of the Vienna Circle and helped inspire Logical Positivism, Wittgenstein claimed that he was largely misunderstood and was not in agreement with the Circle on many points.

Rudolf Carnapp worked to create a rigorous logical structure to view the world. He sought to use mathematical logic to create a scientific language that allowed one to analyze and communicate truths about the world.

Of the original members of the Vienna Circle, the only one to turn his attention towards issues of morality was Moritz Schlick who argued that the philosophy of ethics was simply the study and description of how a culture viewed human behavior.

C.L. Stevenson, an American philosopher, further applied Logical Positivist ideas to the study of morality and found that moral judgments could have no factual basis whatsoever because they were not verifiable. However, Stevenson argued that despite being unverifiable, moral and ethical statements still carried with them emotional meaning.

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