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Logical Positivism and the Function of Reason


Metaphysics as a human enterprise is for ever called upon to vindicate its claim to be entitled “knowledge.” Sometimes the challenge is issued in the name of irritated common sense. Sometimes metaphysics is relegated into insignificance by a supercilious estheticism. Sometimes metaphysics is excommunicated for daring to trespass on the holy domain of religion. Here its death sentence is pronounced by an all-embracing scepticism, and there by the confident faith in the universal adequacy and exclusive validity of the methods of science. The attacks on metaphysics throughout the ages have been so numerous and so severe that one would expect the victim to have expired long ago. Yet the inextinguishable will-to-live exhibited by metaphysics has been as remarkable a phenomenon as the perennial tenacity of her would-be executioners. And although the bells have been tolled many times for metaphysics, she is still able to announce with Mark Twain that the rumours of her demise have been slightly exaggerated. In the long run, history seems to reveal a singular indocility with respect to the arguments of the enemies of metaphysics, and as Gilson has pointed out, one of the lessons to be derived from the study of the history of philosophy is that metaphysics always buries its undertakers.

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page 351 note 1 It is for this reason that the great tradition in the history of philosophy has waged a persistent war against the various forms of metaphysical nominalism. Nominalism is the construing of reality as brute fact. It is the denial that the particular manifests any universal nature or essence to which it is pledged to conform. Nominalism thus implies that any standards set up to criticize the individual cannot be other than arbitrary and conventional, for it denies any reflective function to reason and holds that all knowledge comes by way of the senses and is about particular facts. Nominalism sees in universals only arbitrary names which may be teleologically convenient, but which do not represent necessities in the nature of things. It regards a definition not as an effort to get at the essential nature of a thing, but merely as a resolution to use a conventional symbol in a certain way. As there are no real necessities in things, reason can make no contact with reality, and since reason has no power of rational insight it is limited to its descriptive function and must content itself with rearranging conventional designations. Nominalism, therefore, looks upon reflective inquiries as illegitimate. For if the particular fact alone has reality, then the ideal has no valid claim on the actual, and as a consequence normative or reflective statements have no basis in reality, and descriptive inquiries alone are a propos. Hence from the standpoint of the great tradition in the history of philosophy the nominalist is the advocatus diaboli if not the devil himself. For only if there are universal natures in addition to particular things, only if there are ideals which form part of the grain of reality, and only if the human cognitive faculty has the capacity for apprehending what is not evident to the senses, in short only if reason has the power of “seeing” the necessary in the particular, can reflective inquiries be admitted as genuine.

page 354 note 1 The feeble attempt is sometimes made to justify the proposal on the grounds of its practicality, namely on the grounds that use of the empirical criterion has yielded results in science. But only the employment of antecedent standards of value, all of which according to the positivist are arbitrary, will enable one to decide which results are “results,” for every mode of activity has results of some kind.

page 355 note 1 Erkenntnis, Vol. II, p. 219.

page 356 note 1 The cat is let out of the bag in the following statement: “The term ‘real’ is employed in a clear sense and usually with good reason in daily life and science to designate that which is located in space-time and is a link in the chains of causal relations.” Cf. Feigl H., “Logical Empiricism” in Twentieth Century Philosophy (New York, 1943), edited by Runes D. D., p. 380.

page 356 note 2 Carnap R., Logical Syntax of Language (London, 1937), p. 277.

page 356 note 3 Ibid., p. xiii.

page 356 note 4 Ibid., p. 331.

page 358 note 1 Carnap R., Philosophy and Logical Syntax (London, 1935), p. 17.

page 359 note 1 Aristotle , Nichomachean Ethics (Harvard, 1939), trans, by Rackham H., p. 9.

page 359 note 2 Broad C. D., Examination of McTaggart's Philosophy (Cambridge, 1933), Vol. I, p. lii.

page 359 note 3 Aristotle , The Metaphysics (Heinemann, 1933), trans, by Tredennick Hugh, Vol. I, p. 325.

page 359 note 4 Whitehead A. N., The Function of Reason (Princeton, 1929), p. 34.

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