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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


SCHLICK

(1882 — 1936)

 

LOGICAL POSITIVISM/ CRITICAL REALISM

Moritz Schlick was born in Berlin and studied physics at the Universities of Heidelberg, Lausanne, and Berlin — from which he gained his Ph.D in 1904 (his supervisor being Max Planck). He then pursued further studies in the natural sciences at Göttingen and again at Heidelberg and Berlin. He started his teaching career as lecturer in 1911 at Rostock, and after a year at Kiel he was appointed professor of the philosophy of the inductive sciences at Vienna in 1922. He there became the leading figure in the 'Vienna Circle' of positivist philosophers and scientists, and wrote prolifically in both fields. Apart from a brief period at Stanford he remained at Vienna until his untimely death at the hands of a mentally disturbed student.

 

KNOWLEDGE

[1] Schlick's epistemology was grounded in the distinction between necessary and empirical propositions. In his early period [see General Theory of Knowledge] he criticized two key theses:

(1) He rejected the possibility of synthetic a priori judgements, largely because of the incorporation of Newtonian physics within the more embracing (and arguably more correct) theory of relativity. Influenced by contemporary suggestions that general laws of nature might be regarded as analytic or conventional judgements, Schlick accordingly returned to the clear traditional distinction between logically necessary propositions as analytic and a priori and contingent empirical propositions, which are synthetic and a posteriori ['Is there a Factual A Priori?']. (However, he allowed that there might be a place for necessary but synthetic propositions in logic and mathematics, though not in their application to the empirical world) [a].

(2) He disagreed with any search for incontrovertible 'foundations' of knowledge. [See General Theory of Knowledge.] Instead he argued in favour of a reliance of 'scientific' investigations of the phenomenal world — on propositions purporting to describe reality and which were to be accepted until they had been shown to be false [b]. Knowledge for Schlick was essentially knowledge of 'sameness' — of sense data, memory images, or conceptual structures, ordered mathematically, as when we know something as being something else (for example, that a cat is a mammal). Knowledge thus comes to be of relations between phenomena and not their content. Rejecting idealism Schlick called his position 'critical realism' [c]. Schlick subsequently changed his views [see 'The Foundations of Knowledge']. Philosophy was no longer to be regarded as a search for knowledge; it is not a 'science'. Instead, he said, its function was essentially one of logical analysis — to investigate and attain an understanding of what is involved when we say we have knowledge in a variety of fields [d].

 

PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGE

[2] Schlick was interested in the question how language is used to articulate 'science' or knowledge. Initially [General Theory of Knowledge] he was concerned with the meaning of propositions — which he defined as sentences (composed of written and spoken symbols) together with the logical and linguistic rules for their use. It is as a result of our failing to attend to these rules (as when we sometimes illegitimately formulate sentences in subject-predicate terms) that philosophical errors arise. Violations of linguistic rules occurs also in metaphysics when attempts are made to know the content of phenomena instead of confining attention to relations between them [a].

After he had changed his views about the nature of the philosophical enterprise he became interested in the different ways one could talk about the world. This approach allowed a resolution of the conflict between idealism and realism: it was no longer a 'factual' issue. Likewise he considered it a matter of convenience whether we should regard the data of science — particles, waves, and so on — as 'real' or 'unreal' ['Causality in Contemporary Physics'], and whether we should consider the human organism in mental or in physical terms (though he later adopted a more 'neutral monist' position) [b]. And he came to regard philosophy more generally as the activity of seeking the meanings of the units out of which language is constructed. These rules would, he thought, lead to 'deictic' definitions, that is, where the propositions are determined by reference to the context of their utterance 'Facts and Propositions']. He sought now to show that it was through our ignoring the different contexts and thus different rule systems governing the use of ambiguous expressions that philosophical problems arise. At this stage Schlick seemed to think it is sentences rather than propositions that have meaning — this being given by the rules for use [especially 'Meaning and Verification'] [c]. His criterion for meaning was verifiability. Having identified the rules, one can interpret the sentences in order to discover whether they are meaningful, that is, whether there are circumstances or facts which would make them true or false. In his earlier period verifiability was understood in terms of the relating of rules to empirical data by means of a process of reduction. He later appealed to the idea of 'basic' sentences as containing the ostensively definable observational terms (such as 'this', 'here', 'now', 'of this kind' and so on),and which he called 'constatations' or 'confirmations' (Konstatierungen) ['Foundations of Knowledge'][d]. Those sentences which are in principle unverifiable — for which there are no confirmation procedures — are meaningless. Either they violate the rules of use — the 'logical grammar', or they are being made to operate in the absence of rules altogether. As examples of meaningless propositions Schlick gave self-contradictory assertions and metaphysical utterances [e]. To deal with the objection that verifiability by experience is essentially subjective — being grounded in one's own mental states, Schlick distinguished between the 'content' of experience and 'structural relations' between an individual's experiences [f]. While the former are lived through and private to each person, the latter are identical for all individuals, and are the basis for objective scientific knowledge articulated mathematically.

 

ETHICS

[3] [See Problems of Ethics.] Consistently with his acceptance of the verifiability criterion, Schlick rejected as meaningless abstract ethical propositions supposedly about absolute ideals, duties, obligations. Instead he advocated an ethics grounded in the human quest for the maximization of happiness — in principle empirically testable. He was not, however, thinking of a crude hedonism but of the realization of the quiet joy we experience when we perform actions for their own sake [a].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Having rejected 'fundamentalist' approaches to knowledge, Schlick came to think of philosophy as an investigation into what knowing in various fields involves, and more particularly to be an examination of the various linguistic structures through which knowledge is expressed. The practice of philosophy therefore becomes a search for 'meanings', which Schlick the logical positivist defined by reference to the verifiability criterion. Most of the standard objections to his thesis centre on the notion of verification. What is the logical status of the principle itself? Is it verifiable, and if not how can it be meaningful? Is the criterion of meaningfulness perhaps too narrow? Some critics have argued that he seems to have committed himself to an antirealist position. Schlick's attempt to solve the problem of the alleged subjectivity of empirical verifiability by distinguishing between 'private' contents and 'public' real structural relations has also been questioned as entailing metaphysical assumptions which are therefore not strictly meaningful and fail to provide proper knowledge. A further objection has been made that there is an unresolved tension in Schlick's account of meaning in that he seems to appeal to a 'use' theory as well as to verifiability.

 

READING

Schlick: [of many books and articles] Allgemeine Erkenntnislehre (1918) (General Theory of Knowledge, trans. by A. E. Blumberg and H. Feigl); Fragen der Ethik (1930) (Problems of Ethics, trans. D. Rynin); 'Die Kausalitt in der gegenwrtigen Physik' (1931) ('Causality in Contemporary Physics', trans. D. Rynin in British Journal for the Philosophy of Science); 'ber das Fundament der Erkenntnis' (1934) ('On the Foundations of Knowledge', trans. D. Rynin) — these two articles are reprinted in Gesammelte Aufstze 1926-36 (1938) (Collected Papers); 'Facts and Propositions' (1935) (in Philosophy and Analysis); 'Meaning and Verification' (1936) — in Gesammelte Aufstze; see also: 'Gibt es ein materiales Apriori?' (1930) ('Is there a Factual A priori?', trans. W. Sellars in H. Feigl and W. Sellars (eds), Readings in Philosophical Analysis). Most of the translated essays from Gesammelte Aufstze are in A. J. Ayer (ed.), Logical Positivism.

Study

There is no full-length study in English of Schlick's philosophy, but see:

K. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (passim)

Collections of essays

B. McGuinness (ed.), Moritz Schlick.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Schlick

 

[1a] Acceptance of analytic-synthetic distinction; qualified rejection of synthetic a priori

   Kant

   Quine

Ayer

[1a 1b]

[1b]

[1a]

 

[1b; cf. 2b] Critique of epistemological foundationalism; relies on scientific investigation of phenomena until proved false

   Descartes

   Husserl

   Russell

   Carnap

   Popper

[1b 2a ]

[2c d]

[2b]

[3a]

[1a]

 

[1c; cf. 2b f] Knowledge is of 'sameness' (sense-data, conceptual structures, etc.) — relations between phenomena and not content; 'critical realism' — rejection of idealism

   Russell

Carnap

Ayer

[3b]

[4b]

[2a]

 

[1d] [Later] philosophy not a 'science' but logical analysis of propositions of different fields of knowledge

   Wittgenstein

   Carnap

Ayer

[2b 3c]

[1c 2a]

[1e]

 

[2a; cf. 2c e] Meanings of propositions — sentences and rules of use; philosophical problems through rule violation

   Russell

   Wittgenstein

   Carnap

Ayer

[1d]

[3a]

[1b]

[1e]

 

[2b] Different ways of talking about world (realism-idealism, 'mental'-'physical', etc — but later neutral monism)

   Russell

   Wittgenstein

   Carnap

   Ryle

Ayer

[2d 2f]

[3c]

[1b 2a]

[1b]

[2a 3b]

 

[2c; cf. 2a] Philosophy as analysis of meanings; rules for use, contexts and philosophical error

   Wittgenstein

Ayer

[2a 3c]

[1e]

 

[2d; cf. 1b] Meaning of sentences: verifiability criterion (reduction and rules); [later] in terms of 'confirmations'

   Russell

   Wittgenstein

   Carnap

   Popper

Ayer

[1j]

[3a]

[1a 3a]

[1e]

[1b d 2b]

 

[2e; cf. 2a] Sentences meaningless where no confirmation procedures (violation of logical grammar, etc.)

   Russell

   Wittgenstein

   Carnap

Ayer

[2e]

[3a]

[1b 3a]

[1a 3a]

 

[2f; cf. 1c] Distinction between content of experience and structured relations Carnap [4b]

 

[3a] Abstract ethical statements (ideals, duties) meaningless; ethics — maximization of happiness (not hedonistic; actions done for own sake)

   Kant

   Mill

   Russell

   Ayer

[6a-e]

[3f]

[4b c]

[5a]