The Scientific Conception of the World

In their paper, “The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle,” Rudolf Carnap, Hans Hahn, and Otto Neurath put forward their philosophical project, which can be described, in a phrase, as “anti-metaphysical factual research” (87). Over the course of the paper they will explain each component and the commitments undergirding this phrase, align themselves with other thinkers, and draw out the “main strands” that have contributed to their position (88). From my own position as a reader, I first approached this text with a significant amount of skepticism but was surprised to find this manifesto of the Vienna Circle to be pleasantly chimerical, fusing a wide variety of perspectives and disciplines into an improbable, impossible beast. Indeed, having only been presented with critical assessments of the Vienna Circle offered in hindsight, this early text exceeds the schematic representations of its authors by its detractors; it is a wonderfully strange historical artefact, as problematic as it is ambitious, and certainly worthy of assessment and engagement, even by those in the Continental tradition of literary theory such as myself.

The authors begin by positioning themselves against “metaphysical” and “theologizing thought,” taking up instead the “opposite spirit of enlightenment and anti-metaphysical factual research” (86-87). It is their goal to detail the historical roots of this “opposite spirit,” and so to establish a vanguard, as it were, of this new school. This vanguard includes “all branches of empirical science,” which are concerned with articulating a “scientific conception of the world” (87). They locate such “anti-metaphysical endeavours especially in England,” in the work of Russell and Whitehead, and in the U.S.A. in the work of William James (87). But for the authors, their particular school springs from the “suitable ground” of Vienna, and its “liberalism” that shaped the “second half of the nineteenth century” (87). Included in the “liberalism” of Vienna is its commitment to the “enlightenment,” and the subsidiary commitments of “empiricism,” “utilitarianism,” and “free trade” (87). The Vienna Circle is not, therefore, only concerned with logic, but with epistemology and science more broadly (empiricism), ethics (utilitarianism), and economics (free trade). This holistic set of commitments can be seen in their praise for the “scientifically oriented people’s education” undertaken in Vienna, and the “anti-metaphysical attitude and materialist conception of history” promulgated therein (87).

It is here, in this milieu, that the authors locate the patriarch of their society, Ernst Mach. In his thought the authors see the condensation of these various commitments of Viennese liberalism, manifested through some further, more concrete commitments: his “intent [to] cleans[e] empirical science ... of metaphysical notions,” “his critique of absolute space,” “his struggle against the metaphysics of the thing-in-itself and of the concept of substance,” and his “construction of scientific concepts from ultimate elements, namely sense data” (87). Ludwig Boltzmann, who took up after Mach his chair of the “philosophy of the inductive sciences,” would perpetuate these commitments in the physical sciences (87). In the same period, Franz Brentano would make similar moves in the realm of logic, working towards a “rigorous new foundation of logic” through scholastic and Liebnizian logic, and eschewing “Kant and the idealist system-builders” (87). Alois Höfler would then take Brentano’s logical work and bring it into conversation with Mach’s and Boltzmann’s work in physics (87).

The authors identify several other minor figures before moving to identify allegiances with other disciplines; two in particular stand out to the twenty-first century reader: “Marxist theory” and “Freudian psychoanalysis” (88, 90). Both exemplify, to the authors, the “spirit of a scientific conception of the world,” though today most political scientists and psychologists would be loath to recognize the “scientific” status of either school. Along with Marxism and Freudianism, the authors identify “Poincaré’s conventionalism” and “Duhem’s conception of the aim and structure of physical theories” as further allies (88). To put these disparate thinkers and their perspectives in a singular frame, the positivists find in each the dispelling of illusion—economic, psychological, linguistic, physical—so bolstering their commitment to the scientific conception of the world as a holistic paradigm of thought. To fill out their union they cite numerous other thinkers and movements: Hume, Comte, Mill, Bentham, Feuerbach, Riemann, Einstein, Hilbert, Peano, Frege, Wittgenstein, and Epicurus (and these just a selection) (88). The naming of these figures allows the authors to trace the “main strands from the history of science and philosophy” that culminated in their own total system. They especially pride themselves that, in the smaller sphere of the Vienna Circle, which “gathered” around Moritz Schlick, the dedicatee of their paper, there were no “so-called ‘pure’ philosopher[s]” to be found (88). Their “position” is “not only free from metaphysics,” or so they contend, “but opposed to metaphysics” (88). My use of commitments, above, in reference to their Viennese enlightenment, rather than their own naïve use of “ideas” (87), should be now quite clear; we encounter a matter for Hume’s Law: various findings in various schools (what is) lead the authors to make certain claims (what ought to be).

What we encounter, then, is not just a project for science but for moral bearing in the world. The authors desire “a new organization of economic and social relations,” the “unification of mankind,” and “a reform of school and education” (88). All these “show an inner link with the scientific world-conception,” and indeed, in their commitment to this conception the illusions and superstitions of metaphysics and theology will be dispelled, and their new moral project will be brought about. This project is “trying to make contact with the living movements of the present,” is intended to benefit “the daily life of all those who in some way join in working at the conscious reshaping of life,” and is carried out by a “collective” (89). Gone are those “system-builders” mentioned above, gone are confusions and conflicts: a “neutral” and “total system” will produce a “unified” and ahistorical body (89). The mystical is repudiated, “dark depths and unfathomable depths rejected” (89). For Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath, “there are no “depths”; there is surface everywhere ... Everything is accessible to man; and man is the measure of all things” (89). Here is their Sophistical and Epicurean allegiance, which is an allegiance to “earthly being,” to the “here and now” (89). And this whole moral project, all of its commitments, is given a singular “method”: “logical analysis,” to be pursued in the “psychological,” “sociological,” and “logical” domains (89). Here the link between Marx, Freud, and Russell and Wittgenstein is made explicit, and the “systems of German idealism” and “modern apriorism” expunged (89). “For us, something is ‘real’ through being incorporated into the total structure of experience,”; the “scientific world-conception” is thus “empiricist and positivist,” and is “marked” by the method of “logical analysis” (90-91).

But here, in making the finishing strokes of their masterpiece, the authors expose their fatal flaw:

Since the meaning of every statement of science must be statable by reduction to a statement about the given, likewise the meaning of any concept, whatever branch of science it may belong to, must be statable by step-wise reduction to other concepts, down to the concepts of the lowest level which refer directly to the given. If such an analysis were carried through for all concepts, they would thus be ordered into a reductive system, a “constitutive system”. Investigations towards such a constitutive system, the “constitutive theory”, thus form the framework within which logical analysis is applied by the scientific world-conception ... Investigations into constitutive theory show that the lowest layers of the constitutive system contain concepts of the experience and qualities of the individual psyche; in the layer above are physical objects; from these are constituted other minds and lastly the objects of social science ... With the proof of the possibility and the outline of the shape of the total system of concepts, the relation of all statements to the given and with it the general structure of unified science become recognizable. (91)

Through studies within the framework of this “constitutive theory” the authors think that the “content of the common knowledge of men presents itself” (91), and they proceed to discuss the various “Fields of Problems” that can be reframed in this way: “arithmetic,” “physics,” “geometry,” “biology,” “psychology,” and the “social sciences” (91ff.). Each field must be purified, “cleansed,” of its “metaphysical admixtures” (92). And yet all of this, this ritualistic expurgation, is predicated on a given. And what is this given? It is the foundation of the “reductive system,” the “lowest layer[],” that of “experience” and the “individual psyche”; “all statements” are related to this given (91). It is the ahistorical and prelinguistic unity of perception, and therefore a universal human capacity; it is the possibility of experience, and therefore the possibility of empirical science and “genuine knowledge” (94)—nothing less than Brentano’s concept of intentionality, which Husserl would take and develop in his early phenomenological studies, and which Derrida would deconstruct in Voice and Phenomenon (1967).

There is much more to be said of Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath’s paper. Their treatments of the “tautological” foundation of arithmetic (92), of “field theory” and relativity in physics and geometry (92, 93), of behaviour in psychology (94), and of particularity in history and economics (94), are worth pursuing. But insofar as their whole “constitutive theory” relies on the given of experience to which all other statements are related, and this given certainly derives from Brentano’s logical work, we cannot ignore Derrida’s critique of this very concept as it was developed by Husserl. Though I do not have the space here, I hope a brief comment will suffice. Derrida’s argument centers on Husserl’s differentiation between two senses of signification: expression and indication. These are distinguished as immediate and mediate, respectively, allowing Husserl to ground his understanding of the interior monologue, which is the pure understanding of thought and experience, on the immediacy of expression. But Derrida demonstrates that expression is not primary, but that the mediacy of indication is originary, that there is a spacing, a gap, a hiatus, that potentiates understanding and articulation. The “given” is split, separated from itself; it is not punctual but spread, dispersed, displaced. It is never present or available to itself. The acultural, ahistorical, asocial unity of the scientific world-conception cannot be obtained on such a ground, therefore, because the ground in question does not exist. The given is not pure, simple, or symmetrical; it is heterogeneous, complex, and asymmetric—a saturated and articulated ground. Such a contention does not mean that we do away with all the higher “layers” of which Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath speak, but rather that we must radically reconceive of the constitutive frame on the basis given us by Derrida. In fact, what Derrida allows us to expose is the hidden transcendentality, the hidden ideality or ideology of the Vienna Circle, which is nothing other than a mythology raising their own purified intellection to the hallowed position of the untouchable and irreproachable transcendental signified.

Works Cited

Carnap, Rudolf, Hans Hahn, and Otto Neurath. “The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle.” Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition, edited by Robert C. Scharff and Val Dusek, Blackwell Publishing, 2003, pp. 86-95.

Derrida, Jacques. Voice and Phenomenon: Introduction to the Problem of the Sign in Husserl’s Phenomenology. 1967. Translated by Leonard Lawlor, Northwestern University Press, 2011.

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