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Is Philosophy Possible? A Study of Logical Positivism1


The present situation in philosophy is paradoxical. On the one hand, thinking men and women all over the world are exclaiming that, while science has made sufficient advance to satisfy all our material needs, what we most need, and must find if we are not to suffer shipwreck, is a new sense of values, a new religious awakening and a new orientation towards life, in short a new philosophy. On the other hand, many professional philosophers are coming to hold the view that philosophy has had its day, or rather that it never in any proper sense had its day, because it is not a rational enterprise but a mistake, an illusion, a farrago of nonsense, “a muddle arising out of the complexities of language.” A new inquiry which goes by the name of Analysis and resembles logic more closely than any other existing discipline is at once to give the quietus to philosophy and to reign in its stead. The modern philosopher cries, with Faustus, “Sweet Analytickes! 'tis thou hast ravished me.” I will not prejudice your minds at the outset by recalling where the study of analysis led the Doctor of Wurtemburg.

Those who are thus forthrightly sceptical about philosophy and group themselves under the aegis of analysis are themselves divided into a number of sects. One and all, however, are relentless in exposing the weaknesses of philosophy, zealous in proselytizing and deadly in expounding their new technique which combines scholastic subtlety with modern scientific realism. They represent in fact a modern scholasticism loosely grouped round the dogma: “We pursue logical analysis, but not philosophy,” though, by a curious paradox which demands scrutiny, some of them say: “Philosophy is analysis.”

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page 26 note 1 Hazlitt : Collected Works (ed. Howe ), Vol. II, pp. 283–4.

page 26 note 2 Again Hazlitt, who regarded himself to the end of his days as primarily a metaphysician.

page 28 note 1 Hume: An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Section XII, Part III.

page 30 note 1 “We strive for order and clarity, reject all dim vistas and fathomless depths.” Die Wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung. Kreis Der Wiener. (Vienna, 1929.)

page 30 note 2 Commonplace Book, rechristened Philosophical Commentaries, ed. Luce A. A., page 113, entry no. 354.

page 32 note 1 “Metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct.” Bradley F. H.: Appearance and Reality, p. xiv.

page 38 note 1 Russell points this out in an article on Logical Positivism in the first number of a journal Polemic, page ii, and adds: “I agree that many questions have turned out to be linguistic although they were not formerly so regarded, but I think this is not so often true as many logical positivists suppose.”

page 38 note 2 The view is not new. “You masters of logic ought to know (logic is nothing more than a knowledge of words, as the Greek etymon implies) that all words are no more to be taken in a literal sense at all times than a promise given to a tailor. When I expressed an apprehension that you were mortally offended, I meant no more than by the application of a certain formula of efficacious words, which had done in similar cases before, to rouse a sense of decency in you, and a remembrance of what was due to me! You masters of logic should advert to this phenomenon in human speech, before you arraign the usage of us dramatic geniuses.” Charles Lamb, in a letter to Thomas Manning, of February, 1801. Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed. Lucas E. V., 1935, Vol. I, page 249.

page 39 note 1 It is important to remember that there is a wide and a narrow use of the term “verifiable.” In the wide sense, in which it means “capable of being supported or weakened by evidence,” the principle of verifiability is true and is itself verifiable: in the narrow sense which the logical positivists give to it, in which it means “having its whole meaning in data of the senses,” it is not, and the paradox arises.

page 40 note 1 By MrFarrell B. A. in his articles “An Appraisal of Therapeutic Positivism” in Mind, Vol. LV (1946), pp. 2548 and 133150.

page 41 note 1 Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed. Lucas E. V., Vol. II, p. 90.

page 42 note 1 See an article entitled “Philosophical Perplexity,” by John Wisdom Aristotelian Society Proceedings, 19361937, p. 73.

page 42 note 1 B. A. Farrell, op. cit.

page 43 note 1 It is sometimes urged by the critics of the Neo-scholastics that Scholasticism is not entitled to be called philosophy, since it accepts the existence of God on the authority of revelation. The Scholastic answer, if I understand it rightly, is that one of the planks in its philosophy is that revelation is one avenue to knowledge. The defence is complete. To believe what is revealed is natural disposition: to believe that what is revealed merits belief is philosophy. Whether the natural disposition is right, or the philosophy good, is another matter.

page 48 note 1 Boethius: Philosophiae Consolatio, Book IV, Prose i.

1 An Inaugural Lecture delivered on April 30th, 1946, under the title “Scepticism and Analysis,” from the Chair of Philosophy in the Durham Division of the University of Durham.

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