Is metaphysics just a bunch of nonsense? Is it okay to believe something you could never prove? Could logic be a solution to the world’s problems? This week on Philosophy Talk, we’re thinking about the Vienna Circle, a group of Austrian philosophers from the 1920s who debated these questions.
What Is It
The Vienna Circle was a group of early twentieth-century philosophers, mathematicians, logicians, and scientists, best known for developing the theory of scientific knowledge called logical positivism. Although positivism as a project has been largely abandoned, the group's ideas continue to have profound influence on contemporary philosophy of science. So what philosophical theories were proposed by the Vienna Circle? How might the socio-political circumstances of their time have shaped their radical ideas? And how did their ideas aim to shape politics? Josh and Ray ask David Edmonds from the University of Oxford, author of The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle.
Is it okay to believe something you could never prove? Could logic be a solution to the world’s problems? Ray explains how the philosophers in the Vienna Circle believed that science and logic were the best tools for understanding the world, and that meaningful claims must be able to be verified through experiments. Josh protests that a lack of proof doesn’t make certain positions meaningless, such as when considering the existence of God. He mentions that mathematical principles that are true by definition can’t be verified, but Ray argues that the philosophers in the Vienna Circle thought that truth could be relative.
The philosophers welcome David Edmonds, Distinguished Research Fellow at the Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, to the show. In response to Ray’s question about why many members of the Vienna Circle left Europe to escape the Nazis, David explains how many of them were Jewish and opposed to the metaphysical positions held by the Nazis. Despite their similarities, the members ranged in their political positions. Josh thinks the Vienna Circle’s way of thinking might be helpful in our current age of fake news and post-truth, and David agrees that it would be helpful to have increased accountability and scrutiny of the claims that people make.
In the last segment of the show, Josh, Ray, and David discuss laws of nature and the women in the Vienna Circle. Josh wonders if the circle would have developed political opinions had it continued longer, but David thinks they wouldn't have, given the controversy around one political manifesto they published. Ray asks for one lesson to carry forward from the Vienna Circle’s way of thinking, and David emphasizes the importance of clarity and expressing arguments in ways that people can understand.
Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 3:53) → Holly J. McDede provides a brief history on the conception of the Vienna Circle and the challenges they faced.
- From the Community (Seek to 43:59) → Dan grapples with whether his vegan friend is being inconsistent by feeding her dog animal-based food.
Is metaphysics just a bunch of nonsense?
Is it okay to believe something you could never prove?
Could logic be a solution to the world's problems?