Logical positivism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q061-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 29, 2023, from

4. The Vienna Circle

Otto Neurath, Hans Hahn, and the physicist Philipp Frank initiated a discussion group in Vienna, beginning in 1907, in which they considered a combination of Machian empiricism with Poincaré’s new insights into the conventional character of physical geometry. Deeply impressed by Schlick’s work on relativity theory, they arranged (apparently with Einstein’s help) to bring Schlick to the University of Vienna in 1922 to take over the Chair in Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences previously held by Mach. What we now know as the Vienna Circle quickly took shape. Reichenbach, who had become acquainted with Carnap through their common interest in relativity, introduced him to Schlick in 1924. In 1925 Carnap lectured to the Circle in Vienna on his new ‘constitutional theory of experience’ and became assistant professor under Schlick in 1926. The Circle then engaged in intensive discussions of Carnap’s epistemology and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Wittgenstein’s view that all propositions are truth-functions of ‘elementary propositions’ was combined with Carnap ’s constitution of scientific concepts from a basis of ‘elementary experiences’ so as to create a new, logically rigorous form of empiricism according to which all meaningful – scientific – propositions are reducible to propositions about immediately given experience. And this was articulated as the ‘official’ philosophy of the Vienna Circle in the famous manifesto Wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung in 1929.

Neurath was the driving force in thus turning the Vienna Circle into a public philosophical movement. Trained in economics and the social sciences, Neurath was extremely active politically as a scientific neo-Marxist. In particular, he took the community of natural scientists as the model for a rationally organized human society, and, on this basis, he advocated a reorganization of both intellectual and social life from which all non-rational, ‘metaphysical’ elements would be definitively purged. In this sense, Neurath saw the philosophical work of the Vienna Circle as a reflection of the wider movement for a neue Sachlichkeit then current in Weimar culture – as typified, for example, by the Dessau Bauhaus. As in the wider culture, this movement stood in philosophy for a rejection of individualism in favour of the cooperative, piecemeal, and ‘technological’ approach to problems exemplified in the sciences, and it was therefore particularly hostile to what was perceived as a return to the metaphysical system-building of post-Kantian idealism by influential German philosophers such as Martin Heidegger. Carnap was especially sympathetic to Neurath’s broader philosophical-political vision and clearly expresses this vision in the Preface to the Aufbau. Schlick, by contrast, preferred a more individualistic model of philosophy and resisted the idea of a ‘movement’.

This divergence between a ‘left wing’ and a ‘right wing’ of the Circle emerged in the sphere of epistemology in a debate over ‘protocol-sentences’ in the years 1930–4. At issue was the status of the basic propositions or protocols in which the results of scientific observation are recorded. It had initially appeared, in Carnap’s constitutional system of the Aufbau, that such propositions must express private, subjective sense-experience. For Neurath, however, this view was inconsistent with the publicity and intersubjectivity required by science. He therefore advocated a more naturalistic conception of protocols as sentences accepted by the scientific community as recording the results of observation at a given time (see Naturalized philosophy of science). These sentences must thus be expressible within the public and ‘physicalistic’ language of unified science and hence, like all other sentences, are in principle revisable. Schlick was deeply shocked by Neurath’s view – which he took to represent an abandonment of empiricism in favour of the coherence theory of truth (see Truth, coherence, theory of). Carnap attempted, in typical fashion, to mediate the dispute: at issue was simply a choice between two different languages in which to formulate or rationally reconstruct the results of unified science. Although Neurath’s thoroughly intersubjective ‘physicalistic’ language (where, as Karl Popper emphasized especially, every sentence is revisable) was clearly preferable on pragmatic grounds, Carnap held that this choice – like every other choice of formal language – is in the end conventional (see Popper, K.R. §3). Empiricism, in Carnap’s hands, is itself framed by conventional and hence non-empirical choices (see Vienna Circle).

Citing this article:
Friedman, Michael. The Vienna Circle. Logical positivism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q061-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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