Logical Positivism is the Soviet Union of Philosophy

Moritz Schlick, founder of the Vienna Circle, murdered by a Nazi

Moritz Schlick, founder of the Vienna Circle, murdered by a Nazi

I was discussing logical positivism with a group recently, and it occurred to me: logical positivism is the philosophical equivalent of the Soviet Union. This claim is not entirely facetious, though also not entirely non-facetious. This post, like many on this blog, is shockingly under-researched and no doubt quite plainly wrong.

(I should clarify that in both cases there should be an ‘etc.’ – the Soviet Union [mainly later but looking also at early figures like Lenin] along with the Stalinist states in China, Europe, Cuba, etc., and logical positivism/logical empiricism and the more general philosophical project emerging therefrom, including many people who would not have called themselves positivists – e.g. Quine, Wittgenstein both late and early, Ryle, the scientific behaviourists, etc.)

So why do I draw this parallel? There are a number of reasons.

Firstly, of course, while one is philosophical and the other political, the latter’s philosophy and the former’s politics align them quite closely. In essence, they largely share a belief in the desirability and feasibility of a socialist future, and a philosophical commitment to science and to naturalism. This is reflected in them having often similar enemies – notably, fascism and organised religion.

Secondly, just as obviously, they both offered bold and hugely ambitious projects for the total reconstitution of society or thought. They both, to be frank, failed in these projects, though their deaths were slow and drawn out, lingering on beyond the effective demise of their original animating enthusiasm.

But there’s more. Look at how they sustained their identifications – who did they define themselves against? It wasn’t primarily the really old, but rather the revolutionary doctrines of the 19th century. The Soviet Union legitimised itself as the enemy of ‘capitalism’, and, at the same time, heaped scorn on ‘bourgeois rights’ and ‘bourgeois democracy’, conveniently allowing it to do away with civil rights and democracy altogether. If one reads, for instance, some of Trotsky’s work, there is a clear emotional animus towards ‘moralism’ and what he calls ‘the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker tendencies’.

Similarly, what the logical positivists hang onto is the idea of distinguishing science and logical analysis (good) from ‘metaphysics’ (bad), and heavily targetted Hegel and various Hegelians as ‘metaphysicians’ – despite Hegel having been, both politically and philosophically, somewhat of a ‘modernist revolutionary’ in his day.

In both cases also, there’s a sort of rejection of their own apparent milieu. Logical positivism was very consciously an anti-philosophical philosophy, concerned to show that what appeared to be grand baffling problems were in fact pseudo-problems, mere confusions about language. And the Bolsheviks were utopian revolutionaries with no patience for questions of ‘the good society’ or ‘justice’ – just as the positivists reduced philosophy to merely analysing the correct use of words and concepts, so they often reduced revolutionary politics to strategy and power, whether the strategy of seizing power or of deploying it.

But what most impressed this parallel upon me was their legacy. In both cases, their failure and eventual collapse has left directionlessness and timidity in place of their over-ambition. It feels as though, to quote Dr.Dre, ‘this is the millenium of aftermath’. Their revolutionary ambitions failed, so let us forget about revolution; compromises, uncertainty, and relativism are the order of the day. Even someone as tame as Dawkins is chided for being ‘too militant’ – and those, like him, who most confidently defy that residual stigma seem to offer nothing new or clearly different from the failed project.

And I have sometimes felt – perhaps justifiably, perhaps not – that the way that logical positivism is taught in many philosophy of religion courses occasionally has the tone of a cautionary tale, an easy-to-criticise image of ‘those who resolutely reject religion’.

If we tried to come up with a symbolic date for when the project had to decisively and publically curb its enthusiasm, we might suggest the 1956 Party Congress and the acceptance, in Carnap’s ‘The Logical Syntax of Language’, of the possibility of multiple alternative ‘basic languages’. If we tried to add a symbolic date for when the project was abandoned with much fanfare, we might suggest the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Quine’s ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’, in both of which the ideological opposition between two sides was overtly demolished.

This isn’t to say that’s there’s any direct connection (I don’t think Quine was actively involved in instigating Perestroika for instance) but that they may have both emerged out of a common zeitgeist, in which certain historical conditions made a certain sort of project seem reasonable and necessary. These conditions were then reflected in currents in both the philosophical and the political spheres.

For me of course the comparison rings true also because of how I position myself in both spheres (maybe that’s the whole reason why it occurred to me). The project was misconceived and botched from the start – we should have no desire to try and ‘repeat it’. But let’s equally not sit stuck in some ‘compromise’ between what was worst in it, and what was worst in what it reacted against. I want to work out how a project equally revolutionary but in a different direction can be generated, that might overwrite the warning messages that have been written onto words like ‘communism’ and ‘radical naturalism’.

One Response to “Logical Positivism is the Soviet Union of Philosophy”

  1. Visarga Says:

    You’re right. As a person who lived my first 14 years of life in communist Eastern Europe I can tell you that we don’t have much “revolutionary zeal”. We’ve heard so much about the “socialist revolution” that we got sick to the stomach. What is happening now in my country is a huge period (20 years) of wandering in circles with no ideology, no sense of improvement, just compromises.

    If you’re gonna think about a society of the future keep in mind the reality of internet as a major factor. The existence of Wikipedia (and Linux), the mere possibility of it, has proven something. It is possible to do away with voting and involve people into a collaborative style of management. People will still fight for their beliefs but a strong ethic of neutrality and common ground has emerged that can compensate.

    Instead, our political discourse is fractured, various parties having their preferred TV stations and newspapers as mouth pieces and their constituencies carefully avoiding to read up the rest of the press.


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