Philosophy Word of the Day – Logical Positivism

AJ Ayer
Image by Pickersgill Reef via Flickr

Twentieth-century philosophical movement that used a strict principle of verifiability to reject as meaningless the non-empirical statements of metaphysics, theology, and ethics. Under the influence of Hume, Russell, and the early Wittgenstein, the logical positivists regarded as meaningful only statements reporting empirical observations, taken together with the tautologies of logic and mathematics. Prominent logical positivists included members of the Vienna Circle and Ayer.

(Via Philosophy Pages)

Early critics of logical positivism said that its fundamental tenets could not themselves be formulated in a way that was clearly consistent. The verifiability criterion of meaning did not seem verifiable; but neither was it simply a logical tautology, since it had implications for the practice of science and the empirical truth of other statements. This presented severe problems for the logical consistency of the theory. Another problem was that, while positive existential claims (“there is at least one human being”) and negative universal claims (“not all ravens are black”) allow for clear methods of verification (find a human or a non-black raven), negative existential claims and positive universal claims do not allow for verification.

(Via Wikipedia)

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4 thoughts on “Philosophy Word of the Day – Logical Positivism

  1. Thanks Chris.
    Quine has an interesting two-pronged attack on analyticity. His first and oft-ignored criticism is that there is no non-circular definition of ‘analytic’. His second more potent argument is against our stubbornness to let go of certain statements. In other words, we should have in our possession no proposition we wouldn’t be willing to give up in the face of good evidence.

    I don’t agree with him that analytic truths are necessary truths, just because the former is a semantic category and the latter metaphysical. So in theory you could believe in a posteriori analytic statements. Saul Kripke and Alvin Plantinga have done interesting work in these fields.

    • Thanks for the good info, Josh. If you feel inspired and inclined, I’d welcome a guest post from you sometime. I’m trying to do that more often because it keeps things interesting. If you’re interested, you can write me at

  2. I’ve been interested in the logical positivists for a while, but their defense of the analytic/synthetic distinction is probably right, in my opinion. Have you read the criticism of logical positivism by Quine in his Two Dogmas of Empiricism?

    • Hi Josh,

      I like your blog, by the way. I did a bit of reading on Quine and his criticism of the analytic-synthetic distinction. I haven’t really thought this through, but I feel some sympathy for Quine’s criticism. Something that’s always puzzled me is how one can gain knowledge of concepts without having some experience of the world. I think I believe that “all bachelors are unmarried males” (an analytic statement) because I’ve acquired beliefs about those concepts through my lived experience in the world. I think this is what Quine was talking about when referred to “collateral information.” There may be some way to avoid this necessity of experiencing the world (or some world) to understand concepts, but I don’t see it at first glance. But, admittedly, I haven’t done a lot of reading on this topic.
      Thanks for the thought-provoking question!

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