PHIL 4150: Analytic Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday October 30, 2012



[5.5.] Objections to Logical Positivism and the Verification Principle.


The Verification Principle is no longer accepted by the vast majority of philosophers (perhaps not by anyone at all). Here are three of the criticisms that helped kill logical positivism:



1. The Verification Principle does not meet the Logical Positivists’ own standard of meaningfulness.


Recall that the positivists recognized only two types of statement with cognitive meaning:

·         analytic a priori: have logical meaning (statements of mathematics and logic)

·         synthetic a posteriori: have empirical meaning (statements of science, history, empirical common-sense…)


The Verification Principle says: “A sentence S is empirically meaningful if and only if S is verifiable by experience, i.e., can shown to be true or false by means of the senses.”


The Principle itself is not synthetic a posteriori, since it cannot be shown to be true or false by means of the senses; so it is not empirically meaningful.


Further, the Principle is not analytic a priori, since it is not logically true (or false); so it does not have logical meaning.


So according to this criticism, on the standards accepted by Ayer, as well as by the Vienna Circle, the Verification Principle itself lacks cognitive meaning.



2. Popper’s falsificationism.


Sir Karl Popper (Austrian, 1902-1994)[1]

·         philosopher of science, political philosopher

·         as a young man, Popper was in Vienna during the 1920s and 30s, the heyday of the Vienna Circle, but never broke into that group of older (and at that time more successful) philosophers


Popper criticized the Vienna Circle for placing too much emphasis on the possibility of showing empirical claims to be true. He developed an influential view of science called falsificationism:


falsificationism (df.): scientific theories cannot be shown to be true; they can only be shown to be false.


Popper argued that no general statement (e.g., “all emeralds are green”; “all crows are black”) can be verified, no matter how many individual observations scientists make. They might observe thousands, even millions, of green emeralds, but that does not rule out the possibility that the next emerald they observe will be a different color; and they might see any number of black crows, but it will still remain possible that some crow examined in the future will be non-black.


However, general statements can be falsified. For example, if we discover an emerald that is not green, then we have falsified the claim that all emeralds are green.


On Popper’s view, science is really interested in falsifying theories rather than in verifying them. Hypotheses are generated and rigorously tested. The ones that fail are rejected, but we hold on to the ones that continually pass the test. Science is self-correcting; it gives us a series of conjectures that we have no reason to accept right off the bat. All are subject to falsification.


According to Popper, the difference between real sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.) and pseudo-sciences (which on his view included astrology, Freudian psychoanalysis, and Karl Marx’s account of history) is that pseudo-sciences make claims that cannot be falsified: their claims are always compatible with all possible observational evidence.


Popper was very influential. Nevertheless, his idea of falsification was eventually rejected by most philosophers of science. However, his concept of science as self-correcting is still popular.



3. Quine’s rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction.


The logical positivists assumed that there is a genuine distinction between analytic statements and synthetic statements.


In “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951), one of the most famous and widely-discussed works in the history of analytic philosophy,[3] W. V. O. Quine (a friend and student of the Logical Positivist Rudolf Carnap) launched an attack on logical positivism. Part of his attack was a rejection of “the dogma” that there is a genuine distinction between the analytic and the synthetic.


We will begin examining Quine’s views soon.



[5.6.] The Later Wittgenstein.


A reminder of a few facts about Wittgenstein’s later life…

·         Wittgenstein’s interactions with the Vienna Circle during the 1920s inspired him to return to philosophy. In 1929, he moved back to Cambridge as a research student. He submitted the Tractatus (which had already gained an international reputation) as a doctoral dissertation and was awarded the Ph.D.

·         He gave seminars at Cambridge through the 1930s and 40s, developing his later philosophy. This involved a rejection of his earlier work, as well as of traditional philosophy as a whole.

·         What is now called The Blue Book (excerpted in your textbook at pp.567-577) was dictated by Wittgenstein to his students during 1933-34. He dictated what is now called The Brown Book (excerpted at pp.577-581) to two students during 1934-35. He had a small number of copies of each made and loaned them out only to close friends and students. But people made copies of them, and those copies proliferated. The earlier notes were bound in blue wrappers, the later notes in brown wrappers (hence the titles they were eventually given).

·         In 1935, he returned to his hut in Norway for about a year. There he began work on another book, Philosophical Investigations, of which The Brown Book was an early draft.

·         He returned to Cambridge in 1937, and two years later was made Professor of Philosophy. But then WWII began, and (having already become a British citizen) he served as a medical orderly.

·         After the war, he returned to teaching, but only for a couple of years. He then moved to Ireland, and there he completed Philosophical Investigations in 1948, but refused to publish it; he did, however, give permission for it to be published after he died.

·         He died in England in 1951, from cancer, and Philosophical Investigations was published in 1953.



[5.6.1.] Anti-Essentialism.


One of the most important elements of the Blue Book and of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is the following criticism of the method of philosophical inquiry that previous philosophers have tended to use:


The idea that in order to get clear about the meaning of a general term one had to find the common element in all its applications has shackled philosophical investigation; for it has not only led to no result, but also made the philosopher dismiss as irrelevant the concrete cases, which alone could have helped him understand the usage of the general term. (577, emphases added)


As an illustration of the tendency to do this, he cites Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus, in which Socrates is trying to discover the definition of knowledge.


            Socrates. … So, speak out well and boldly, and tell us what you think knowledge is. …

Theaetetus. … I think that knowledge is whatever one might learn from Theodorus, such as geometry and the subjects you mentioned a moment ago. The shoemaker’s art, and the arts of all the other workmen, these also, one and all, are knowledge.

Soc. My friend, you were asked for one simple thing, and you have generously and lavishly given a great variety of things.

Theae. How is that? What do you mean, Socrates?

So. Nothing at all perhaps. Yet I shall try to explain. When you mention cobbling, do you mean anything but a knowledge of the way to make shoes?

Theae. No.

So. And carpentry, is it anything but a knowledge of the way to make articles of wood?

Theae. Nothing.

So. In each case you emphasize the thing of which the art is the knowledge?

Theae. Yes.

So. But, Theaetetus, that is not the question. We do not want to find out of what each art is the knowledge, or how many arts and sciences there are. We wish not to count the kinds of knowledge but to know what knowledge itself is. … (Theaetetus 146d-e; trans. S. W. Dyde)


Many of Plato’s dialogues have Socrates pursuing the answers to questions like “What is knowledge?”, “What is piety?”, “What is justice?”, and “What is love?” And many philosophers after Plato have conducted philosophical inquiry in this same way.


Behind each of these questions “What is x?” is the assumption that (a) there is some one thing that every example of x has in common and that only examples of x have in common, and (b) the point of the question is to uncover exactly what that one thing is.


We might call this view essentialism about philosophical concepts:


essentialism (df.): there is a single thing (perhaps a property) that all and only examples of x have in common and without which those things would not be examples of x (this thing/property is the essence of x).


So what Socrates was doing in questioning Theaetetus was searching for the essence of knowledge: the one thing/property that all and only examples of knowledge have in common and because of which they are examples of knowledge.


The later Wittgenstein seems to be rejecting essentialism, not only about philosophical concepts but (perhaps) about all concepts.[4]


The following passage from the Blue Book illustrates anti-essentialism about a very mundane thing: expecting someone to show up for tea:


What happens if from 4 till 4.30 A expects B to come to his room? In one sense in which the phrase “to expect something from 4 to 4.30” is used it certainly does not refer to one process or state of mind going on throughout that interval, but to a great many different activities and states of mind. If for instance I expect B to come to tea, what happens may be this: At four o'clock I look at my diary and see the name “B” against to-day's date; I prepare tea for two; I think for a some moment “does B smoke?” and put out cigarettes; towards 4.30 I begin to feel impatient; I imagine B as he will look when he comes into my room. All this is called “expecting B from 4 to 4.30”. And there are endless variations to this process which we all describe by the same expression. If one asks what the different processes of expecting someone to tea have in common, the answer is that there no single feature in common to all of them, though there are many common features overlapping. These cases of expectation form a family; they have family likenesses which are not clearly defined. (The Blue and Brown Books, p.20; not in the excerpt that appears in your textbook but following very shortly after that excerpted passage in the original)


The point is that there are very many different ways to except someone to show up for tea, and there is no “essence” of expecting someone to show up for tea that all of those different ways must have in common. Instead, different examples of expecting someone to show up for tea have what Wittgenstein characterizes as a family resemblance.



Stopping point for Tuesday October 30.  For next time,

·         no new reading (I will soon update the reading schedule accordingly; the reading originally scheduled for next time will be shifted to next Tuesday).

·         the mandatory draft of your term paper is due




[1] For more on Popper, see Stephen Thornton, “Karl Popper”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

[3] This is your reading for one week from today. A search of Google reveals more than 42,000 hits for “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” See for online version of this article; this document notes the differences between the original version and a later version, and it is searchable with the search function of your web browser.


[4] This is the standard interpretation of the later Wittgenstein, but there are others. See for example Sorin Bangu, “Later Wittgenstein on Essentialism, Family Resemblance and Philosophical Method,” Metaphysica 6 (2), pp.53-73, 2005, URL = <>.

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