Logical Positivism Definition
Logical positivism, also called logical empiricism, was an early 20th-century philosophical movement that held that a statement was meaningful only if it could be verified or confirmed through experience. Logical positivism relied exclusively on observable events for knowledge about the world, and therefore considered non-observable events to be basically meaningless. In other words, the only truth is what science can prove.
History, Problems, and Modern Significance of Logical Positivism
A. E. Blumberg and Herbert Feigl coined the term logical positivism in 1931 to describe the philosophical principles of the Vienna Circle, a group of European scholars. Logical positivists rejected philosophical inquiries on the grounds that there was no possible way of verifying them in experience. For example, the statement “abortion is wrong” reflects a person’s disapproval of abortion, or attempts to convince others to also disapprove of abortion. In either case, the statement itself does not convey any direct information about the existence or nature of abortion, and is therefore (according to logical positivism) meaningless (e.g., what you think about abortion does not really matter because it is just your opinion). Logical positivists consequently proposed science to be the source for all knowledge about the world because science is grounded in concrete experience and publicly observable events (unlike, for instance, observations gained from introspection). If propositions were inextricably tied to science, logical positivists argued, they could not be too far from the truth.
Logical positivism collapsed in the 1940s, largely because of the sharpness of its inevitably created yes-or-no dichotomies: Either a statement is verifiable or it is not, either a statement is scientific or unscientific. Ironically, this created severe problems because such statements themselves cannot be conclusively verified. Moreover, basing all conclusions on directly observable data creates problems as well. For example, a person with a headache might complain of pain, lie down, or take aspirin. However, someone faking a headache might objectively exhibit the same overt symptoms. A pure reliance on the observable data would presumably lead to the errant conclusion that both people have headaches, when only one actually does.
Problems notwithstanding, logical positivism has nonetheless left its mark on psychology. The behaviorists in particular quite enthusiastically adopted the premise that scientists should study behavior rather than thought. Most importantly, logical positivism helped endow psychology with the enduring sentiment that one can transform complex propositions about cognitive phenomena into scientifically testable hypotheses about overt behavior and do so in a way that other researchers—and ideally the general public—can clearly understand the results.
- Passmore, J. (1967). Logical positivism. In P. Edwards (Ed.), The encyclopedia of philosophy (Vol. 5, pp. 52-57). New York: Macmillan.