[The school of thought known as ‘logical positivism’ originated in Vienna between the two world wars. The Vienna Circle, as it was called, was a group of mainly scientists and mathematicians who tackled the problems of philosophy with a massive emphasis on logic and the methods of science. The result was the famous—or infamous—Verification Principle. According to this principle for a statement to be meaningful it had either to be analytic (eg. all quadrupeds have four legs), or it had to be empirically verifiable (eg. there are fish in the sea). From this it followed that all metaphysical statements and judgements of value were meaningless or purely subjective, and therefore of no intellectual significance. A. J. Ayer—see youtube video below—introduced this school of thought to the English-speaking world in 1936 with the publication of his book Language, Truth and Logic. Its full impact, however, was not felt until after the war, and then it became all the rage at Oxford for about fifteen years until it collapsed rather suddenly for reasons which are touched on below. Dismissive of the Western philosophical tradition which it claimed to supplant, logical positivism was dismissed in its turn, but remains as one of history’s sterling examples of pseudo-philosophy, and a permanent reminder to future philosophers of the limitations of the analytic approach.]
Rather like Marxism, logical positivism had seductive appeal and therefore an enormous vogue because it was clear-cut, easy to grasp, and provided all the answers. Like Marxism too, it constituted a ready-to-hand instrument of intellectual terrorism. At the university in which I arrived as a freshman in 1949 there were many who prided themselves on their mastery of it for this purpose. Almost regardless of what anyone said to them on any subject they would run him through with a ‘How would you go about verifying that statement?’ Clever young people were exhilarated by the sense of mastery this gave them. A lot of excited discussion took place on the basis of it—and to give it its due it did have the effect of clearing away a great deal of woolly thinking, and of giving people an altogether new alertness to the logical status of what it was they were saying. However, the more it itself was subjected to critical examination, the more trouble it ran into. The Verification Principle was neither analytic nor empirically verifiable, and therefore, according to its own criterion, it was meaningless. Furthermore, philosophical statements generally tended to be of this kind, neither analytic nor empirically verifiable, so the Verification Principle had the effect of outlawing more or less the whole of philosophy apart from logic. Once people ceased to be cowed they stopped agreeing that value judgments such as ‘Toscanini was a better orchestral conductor than Edward Heath’ were empty of cognitive significance, or that statements about events in the past turned out on analysis to be statements about the presently available evidence for their having occurred. People began to realize that this glittering new scalpel was, in one operation after another, killing the patient. In every case it destroyed too much. There was a period in which several of the cleverest philosophers became reluctant to say anything at all, because almost nothing that might be deemed to be worth saying was, unless it was factually provable, permissible.
Bryan Magee (from Confessions of a Philosopher, 1997)
[In 1978 Bryan Magee interviewed A. J. Ayer on his television series, Men of Ideas. In the following excerpt from that interview Ayer admitted that logical positivism suffered from the defect that “nearly all of it was false,” as you may hear for yourself by clicking HERE and starting 6:25 minutes in. The reader may discern, however, that Ayer remained unrepentant about the analytic approach and its war on metaphysics.]
MAGEE: Now logical positivism must have had actually some real defects. What do you now in retrospect think the main shortcomings of the movement were.
AYER: I suppose the greatest defect...is that nearly all of it was false. (hearty laughter from the two of them)
MAGEE: I think you need to say a little more about that.
AYER: Perhaps that’s being too harsh on it. I still want to say that it was true in spirit in a way, that the attitude was right. But if one goes for the details, first of all the verification principle never got itself properly formulated. I tried several times and it always let in either too little or too much, and to this day it hasn’t received a properly logically precise formulation. Then, the reductionism just doesn’t work. You can’t reduce statements, even ordinary simple statements about cigarette cases and glasses and ashtrays, to statements about sense data, let alone more abstract statements of science...If you go in detail very, very little survives. What survives is the general rightness of the approach.