Review of Achinstein and Baker’s The Legacy of Logical Positivism

by John M. Frame

[eds. Peter Achinstein and Stephen F. Barker: The Legacy of Logical Positivism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1969. Published in Westminster Theological Journal 34:2 (May, 1972), 199-201. Used by permission.]


Of all the philosophical approaches which have been loosely grouped together under the label “analytic philosophy,” logical positivism is perhaps the easiest for non-philosophers and beginning philosophers to understand. In its classical phase, the logical positivist ideology was structured around a few fairly straightforward theses: the analytic/synthetic distinction, the tautological character of logic and mathematics, the verification criterion of meaning, the elimination of metaphysics, the unity of science, and the reducibility of all science to physics. Over the years, these theses have been considerably modified, and others have been added (particularly a concept of the relation between “theoretical” and “observational” language in science), but to this day most discussions of the movement begin with the simple theses and go on from there.

The volume before us shares that kind of simplicity. The same themes keep recurring. Three of the ten essays are devoted largely to the theoretical/observational distinction, and three others devote considerable space to it. The other familiar themes receive frequent treatment also. A reading of this book should make one clear about the nature of the problems, even if he can’t accept the answers given. Further, there is little use of symbolic logic, and (especially in the essays of Feigl, Toulmin, and Hempel) there is valuable historical background given. There is no

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reason, therefore, why, e.g., a theologically trained reader could not make use of this book.

And there are many reasons why he should. The writers of these essays are first rate: Feigl and Hempel were among the original positivists and are still doing respected work in a generally positivistic tradition, and the other authors include some of the movement’s most distinguished critics. Furthermore, there are reasons for theologians to study logical positivism, apart from the general values of studying analytic philosophy on which I have commented elsewhere. Surely in our day it is important to come to grips with science, to develop an understanding of its structure from a Christian point of view. Of all the secular philosophies, none has expended more concentrated effort on analyzing scientific method than has logical positivism. And what of theology itself? Is theology a scientific or “theoretical” discipline in some sense? If so, how are its “theories” to be compared with those of the other sciences? If not, why not? If theology develops theories “on the basis of” the “data” of Scripture, what is the precise relation between the theory and the data? Is exegesis without presuppositions possible? Or do theological theories inevitably control what counts as legitimate exegesis? Or is there some relationship between “observations” and “theory” which avoids these two extremes? I must say that on such issues I get more help from the clarity of the positivists, for all their patent anti-Christian bias, than from the rather murky formulations of professing Christian philosophers. Not that I am inclined to accept the positivists’ conclusions, or even their formulation of the problems as decisive; but their incisiveness is a genuine stimulus to one’s own thinking. (Unbelieving philosophers are bad because of sin, but not necessarily stupid.)

In a review of this length, no real critical analysis of a book like this is possible, but a general impression may be registered. That impression is one of surprise at finding how solidly logical positivism is rooted in the concerns of traditional philosophy. Why surprise? It is because the early positivist manifestoes were issued in an apocalyptic spirit: logical positivism was to be the end of all philosophy as traditionally understood; it was to rid us of all “distinctively philosophical” problems at once; it was to remake philosophy into a meta-science. Yet as the years go by (and this book is only one example), the positivists are coming to look more and more like the philosophers before them, and not least in their apocalyptic.

For instance, in our volume Putnam finds an inconsistency between the positivists’ “idealistic” notion of fact and their “materialistic” concept of mind. Shapere finds that the positivists’ theory/observation dichotomy is

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essentially the impressions/ideas schema of Hume, with modifications. Toulmin argues that the positivists’ main deficiency was that they failed to show how a purely analytic, tautological, formal system can have any application to purely synthetic, empirical, a posteriori statements by which we communicate about the real world; or (a broader problem): the positivists failed to show how language can be “connected with” the world in any sense. But is this not a very old philosophical problem—the problem of “laws and facts,” of “one and many”?

Toulmin shows how Wittgenstein chose a Kantian solution to the problem: the connection between language and the world is to be found, not in a theoretical, logical relation, but in the concrete, practical decisions of human beings to use language in a certain way. Toulmin himself feels that we should go beyond Wittgenstein to determine what rules of usage have grown up in our particular culture and hence to determine what can and cannot “be said.” But alas! How can a neutral historical, psychological, or sociological study such as Toulmin proposes yield binding linguistic norms? Whose “use” of language is the normative use? Wittgenstein failed to answer this question, and I feel Toulmin will too. Unless the God of Scripture exists, the God who speaks, first to himself and then clearly to men, no answer to this question can be given at all.

Logical positivism, therefore, is in the final analysis just another of many philosophical attempts to achieve an integration of fact and meaning without a surrender of human autonomy. Not even the utmost in intellectual clarity and incisiveness can achieve such a goal. But the positivists’ failure to achieve it does not in itself call their clarity, incisiveness—and hence helpfulness—into doubt.

John M. Frame
Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia