Positive Thinking

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

The “Vienna Circle” was the self-chosen designation for a group of philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians, some three dozen in all, who came together in the mid-1920s with the ambition of purging philosophy of metaphysics and making it into the handmaiden of science. Every other Thursday evening, its members would convene in a dingy street-level lecture room at the University of Vienna to argue about how to do this. They took their inspiration from Albert Einstein, whose theory of relativity seemed to have transformed the conceptual basis of science, and from Bertrand Russell, from whom they absorbed the lesson that the essence of philosophy was logic. But the most potent influence on them was their relatively youthful contemporary Ludwig Wittgenstein, who—though he never deigned to join the circle or even attend one of its regular meetings—exerted a godlike and violently polarizing effect on its members.

The Vienna Circle organized itself with the fervor of a political movement, issuing manifestos, holding international congresses, and engaging in public outreach. Its members were united by their implacable hostility to traditional German idealism—including theology, which put them at odds with the clerical reactionary government that held power in Austria between the world wars. The circle’s scientifically rooted atheism and its rejection of religiously based ethics led to charges that it was corrupting the youth of Vienna. In 1936, its leader, Moritz Schlick, was shot to death by a deranged student on the steps of the University of Vienna’s main entrance. Two years later came the Anschluss. By that time most of its members had fled the city, the more prominent among them making their way to England and the United States.

This diaspora helped spread the philosophy of the Vienna Circle, which it called “logical positivism.” So did the publication in 1936 of Language, Truth and Logic, a lucid précis of the new philosophy by the then twenty-five-year-old A.J. Ayer, who had briefly attended meetings of the Vienna Circle during a honeymoon stay in the city. (It was Isaiah Berlin who prodded Ayer into writing the book, which proved to be enormously influential.) Over the next couple of decades, logical positivism became a main strand in the development of philosophy in the English-speaking world.

Today logical positivism has a whiff of the ridiculous about it. It conjures up a priggishly narrow-minded style of philosophy—scientistic, hair-splitting, at once arrogant and naive. Part of the problem is “positivism,” whose meaning has always been a bit elusive (rather like “hermeneutics”). The word was taken into English from the French positivisme, coined by Auguste Comte for his empiricist philosophy and his secular church of reason, l’église positiviste. In its primary sense, positivism connotes an emphasis on “positive” facts—i.e., observable ones—and their relations. But it has also been used, by George Eliot and other nineteenth-century writers, to mean “peremptoriness” or “certainty,” which are not attractive intellectual traits.

It was a pair of lesser…

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