Postmodernism: Overreacting to Positivism

October 1992By Gary Mar

Gary Mar is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Dear Carnap, Dear Van. The Quine-Carnap Correspondence and Related Work.  By W.V. Quine and Rudolf Carnap. Edited by Richard Creath. University of California Press. 484 pages. $34.95.

Beyond Analytic Philosophy: Doing Justice to What We Know.  By Hao Wang. MIT Press. 273 pages. $9.95.

Science and Relativism: Some Key Controversies in the Phi­losophy of Science.  By Larry Laudan. University of Chicago Press. 180 pages. $12.95.

“Carnap, more than any­one else was the embodiment of logical positivism, logical empiricism, the Vienna Circle,” wrote Quine in his 1970 tribute to Carnap. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1933, Quine traveled to Prague to meet Carnap. Al­though Quine became Carnap’s disciple for six years, unre­solved philosophical disagreements culminated 20 years later in Quine’s celebrated es­say “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” which is often touted as the single most effective work in toppling the pillars of the Viennese palace. In the 1920s the Vienna Circle had set the philosophic tone for the first half of the century. In the 1950s Quine, assimilating Carnap’s ideas with American pragmatism, set much of the agenda for analytic philosophy during the second half of the century.

It is easy, with hindsight, to belittle the legacy of logical positivism. It is not so easy to get an unbiased view of its history. One reason to do so is that much of contemporary philosophy has been molded by excessive reactions to a historical caricature.

The most widely retold tale goes something like this: Logical positivism was a doc­trine originally articulated by Schlick, Carnap, Neurath, and other members of the Vienna Circle who attempted to inter­pret knowledge in terms of the Verificationist Theory of Mean­ing (VTM). According to the VTM, all cognitively meaning­ful sentences are either analytic (true or false by virtue of the meanings of the terms involv­ed) or empirically verifiable. From this radically empiricist doctrine arose the notorious anti-metaphysical attitude of logical positivism: Metaphysical statements such as “God ex­ists” can be dismissed as “pseudo-sentences” void of all cognitive content. Unfortunate­ly, the logical positivists some­how failed to realize that the VTM was itself neither analytic nor empirically verifiable, and so meaningless by their own standards. Then, so the story goes, in the early 1960s, posi­tivism was overthrown by “post-positivist” philosophy of science. Thomas Kuhn’s influential Structure of Scientific Revolutions rendered problemat­ic — beyond hope of redemp­tion — such notions as prog­ress, objectivity, and rationality.

This simplistic and mis­leading account has recently been refuted by scholars. Dear Carnap, Dear Van contributes to that scholarly refutation.

What emerges from the Carnap-Quine correspondence is a remarkable record of phil­osophic controversies surround­ing analytic philosophy and a portrait of an enduring friend­ship. In the earliest exchange of letters we can see in seminal form Quine’s dramatic depar­tures from logical positivism — such as opposition to inten­sional logic. In a 1938 letter Quine admonished: “I proceed to inveigh against your recent intensional propensities…. I fear your principle of tolerance may finally lead you even to tolerate Hitler.” To which Carnap gave this uncharacteristi­cally spirited reply: “Your sermon against my sin of intensionality has made a great impression on me. But I may say as an apology, I do not indulge in this vice generally and thoroughly…. Although we usually do not like to apply intensional languages, never­theless we cannot help analyz­ing them. What would you think of an entomologist who refused to investigate fleas and lice because he dislikes them?”

Logical positivism was, in fact, not a monolithic view en­capsulated in the VTM. Al­though it presented a unified front, there was a wide diver­gence of views within the Circle itself. After briefly flirt­ing with the VTM, Carnap, with characteristic honesty, an­nounced its failure.

Hao Wang, in Beyond Analytic Philosophy, complains that “both Carnap and Quine have inadequate conceptions of logic….” Ironically, analytic empiricism, in the sense of Carnap or Quine, Wang argues, cannot give an adequate account of mathematics and logic. Given the view that mathematics is reducible to logic (logicism) and that all log­ical truths are analytic (analy­ticity), and that analytic propo­sitions are true by convention and so void of content (con­ventionalism), it follows that mathematical knowledge, as Bertrand Russell once put it, “is all of the same nature as the ‘great truth’ that there are three feet in a yard.” Carnap, in his intellectual autobiogra­phy, celebrated this conse­quence as a major “insight” of logical positivism. Wang demurs, drawing on the insights of Kurt Goedel. (Although Goedel attended meetings of the Circle, his philosophy of mathematics was more Plato­nist than positivist.) According to Wang, more fundamental than the two dogmas that separated Quine and Carnap is their analytic empiricism which blinds them to the autonomy of conceptual knowledge.

Laudan’s Science and Rela­tivism is written with the aim of “setting the exegetical record straight” concerning post-posi­tivist philosophy of science. “My larger target,” writes Lau­dan, “is those contemporaries who — in repeated acts of wish-fulfillment — have ap­propriated conclusions from philosophy of science and put them to work in aid of a varie­ty of social cum political causes for which those conclusions are ill adapted.” The currently popular forms of epistemic relativism, argues Laudan, “de­rive scant support from a clearheaded understanding of the contemporary state of the art in philosophy of science.”

Won’t the Humpty Dump­ty of postmodernist relativism, propped up by the discredited philosophy of science of the 1960s, eventually fall of its own accord? Against such a hope, Laudan cites a confer­ence announcement (ironically sponsored by the Nobel Foun­dation) whose theme was “The End of Science?”: “As we study our world today, there is an uneasy feeling that we have come to the end of science, that science, as a unified, uni­versal, objective endeavor, is over…. We have begun to think of science as a more sub­jective and relativistic project, operating out of social attitudes and ideologies — Marxism and feminism, for example.” Unfor­tunately, the echoes of such unthinking postmodernist mumbling can frequently be heard today in the halls of academia.

Back to October 1992 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
Be the first to comment on this note!