Logical positivism debunked (1): The philosophy that cannot even prove that its own statements have a “meaning”

“Logical positivism: all statements that can’t be empirically verified are meaningless.” That sounds typically logical positivists. But one has to wonder how stupid these people were. The third volume of Robinson Crusoe 1719 appeared with this map of Cruosoe’s island. Has this map been empirically verified? No, and still it tells us what we would find where if we were on this Island.

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, vol. 3, map

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, vol. 3, map

Do these maps, taken from Wikipedia make sense? Yes, all three of them, though only one of them is empirically verifiable, the other two are conjectures.

And this beautiful one?


It makes sense — not because we know that Portugal and Canada have a common border but because we know what would be the case if things were as described on this map.

Any statement makes sense to the extent to which it informs us about a situation we would note as “the case” if it were correct — which does not mean that it actually is correct.

Wittgenstein says it in his Tractatus (1922) with all clarity:

4.024 To understand a proposition means to know what is the case, if it is true.
(One can therefore understand it without knowing whether it is true or not.)

See it from the other side: A sentence remains without meaning if it does not give me an idea of the situation I could verify with this statement.

The new wording does not improve the link between the two thoughts. “Response to logical positivism: you can’t empirically verify that claim…” – Hm, yes, I cannot “empirically verify” that the statement “there is lubuguda in the blagodoga” does not make sense to me. It just does not because I can’t say what is meant with the elements lubuguda and blagodoga; I can consequently not tell what is supposed to be the case if that was true.

And can I empirically verify Wittgenstein’s statement above? Well, yes, somehow but not really. We take this statement for granted hundreds of times a day. We use navigation tools under the premise that they tell us something about the world. We assume they have been constructed in order to depict our geographical environment. I can use the map before I have verified it. Neither do I first check the fridge if my girlfriend, standing in front of that fridge, gives me a call that we have run out of butter. To say it with Wittgenstein: I “know what is the case, if her statement is true — our fridge will in this case lack a piece of butter and I might be well advised to buy one on my way home.) We use cameras in all kinds of situations because we have seen that we can actually use them to make pictures of the reality we see. Wittgenstein tells us (somewhat tongue in cheek) how we realise that a picture can actually serve as a picture of the world as we perceive it. The margins of the picture meet the surrounding reality (while the picture itself is covering what it represents):

2.151 The form of representation is the possibility that the things are combined with one another as are the elements of the picture.

2.1511 Thus the picture is linked with reality; it reaches up to it.

2.1512 It is like a scale applied to reality.

2.15121 Only the outermost points of the dividing lines touch the object to be measured.

2.1513 According to this view the representing relation which makes it a picture, also belongs to the picture.

René Magritte put this weird illustration of these lines between the pages of his edition of the Tractatus in 1933:

René Magritte, La condition humaine, 1933

René Magritte, La condition humaine (1933)

If we see a picture we translate it into hundreds of statements about situations that must be the case if this picture is true. This becomes clearer if we take a look at a picture that has been manipulated or if we compare a picture of an older situation with the present reality. “This is an old picture — just look at these details…” — and what follows will be a series of statements if necessary about the situation according to individual pixels.

Does Wittgenstein give an empirical proof of how statements work? No. He says that the picture itself can never tell you whether and to what extent it is true. You as part of this world realise how maps, cameras, microphones and statements in languages are used in order to state facts.

Become a Marxist-Leninist-Materialist or turn religious if you are looking for a worldview that says that its own premises contain the proof.

What is surprising about logical positivism as outlined by Wittgenstein, is that any representation – whether picture, sound recording or text – should make sense only to the extent to which we can split it into individual statements about what is the case according to the information we get. What is even more surprising is the claim that we can depict the entire world (as far as we experience it) in a series of statements of facts.

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About Olaf Simons

*1961, Neumünster, Germany, historian, working on early modern science a the Gotha Research Centre.

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