“The Absolute enters into, but is itself incapable of, evolution and progress”.
We shall not try to deprive the affirmation of its guise of aphorism: metaphysicians themselves claim that the more nonsensical phrases about abstract concepts as “the Absolute” are, the more faithfully they describe the reality. The previous quote is one of the countless considerations collected in F.H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality, a metaphysics essay published in 1893.
“What are we going to do with that?” is, instead, the question Anglo-Saxon representative of neo-positivism A.J. Ayer asked. What can it possibly mean for anybody to say that “the Absolute” (whatever that may be) “enters into evolution”? How could one ever tell that the Absolute is, or is not, evolving?
THE VIENNA CIRCLE
At the dawn of the XXth century, a very specific branch of contemporary philosophy of science developed at first in Poland and in the Anglo-Saxon countries. It became known as “analytical philosophy”.
The philosophy of science (or epistemology) is the branch of philosophy which is concerned with the critical study of scientific knowledge’s nature and limits. How far can we cover with our knowledge? What can we call knowledge for sure, and what is instead pseudo-knowledge?
Under the emblem of Neo-positivism – the most influential expression of analytical philosophy – the Vienna Circle was born: a cenacle of philosophers and scientists with the purpose of creating, as its homonymous manifesto, a “scientific conception of the world”; that is the unification of science and the boundary line up to which we can trust our knowledge.
What conclusions did they come to?
A SYSTEM OF ACTS
The first step in order to get certain knowledge is critically observing the questions asked and understanding where it is possible to build trustworthy affirmations. Which fields are suitable for reason’s analysis?
“Philosophy, as it is written, is full of questions… which seem to be factual but are not”, Ayer said. Is there a God? What’s the Absolute? Is it right to behave like this? It is impossible to find empirical answers to process rationally: they are pseudo-questions.
Therefore, philosophy is no longer a separate science, but the activity through which we aim to discern factual issues from nonsensical ones. Metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics, and theology are all meaningless subjects: nothing that is said in them can ever be verified.
“… we see in philosophy not a system of cognitions, but a system of acts; philosophy is that activity through which the meaning of statements is revealed or determined.”
M. Schlick, The Turning Point in Philosophy
THE VERIFICATION PRINCIPLE
After having recognized the empirical analysis (that is, of facts) as a method towards certain knowledge and having used philosophy as a tool to remove the disciplines in which this cannot be applied, now all we have to figure out is the criterion to adopt for defining real significant questions, with whom we are supposed to deal and regarding whom it is possible to build trustworthy knowledge.
The answer lies in the verification principle, developed by M. Schlick and resumed in A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic. It states that a sentence is meaningful only if there are certain circumstances in which we, the language users, can agree with its truth, for the truth of a meaningful sentence must correspond with a possible, observable situation.
For example, according to Neo-positivists, “There are aliens on Mars” is meaningful. It deserves and it can be inquired, because we know what it would take to confirm it: an observation or other sign of aliens on Mars.
Neo-positivists are less concerned with whether or not the sentence is true in itself, only whether or not it is meaningful; that is, verifiable.
As Schlick stated:
“The meaning of the presupposition is the method of verification. We know the meaning of the statement if we know the conditions under which the statement is true or false.”
M. Schlick, Meaning and Verification
Iconic Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic represents an effective compendium of Anglo-Saxon Neo-positivism theses.
Its focus on epistemology, combined with the skeptical outlook of the Continental logical positivists, the language-analyzing influence of Wittgenstein, and the certainty of a 25 year old, made it a powerful work.
Following the success of the book, Ayer was once asked what came next. In his usual arrogant way, he replied: “Nothing comes next. Philosophy is over.”
In a similar vein:
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity
Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
By Noemi Manghi