1 English analytic philosophy and the Vienna Circle

At the turn of the century GE Moore and Bertrand Russell were engaged in a rebellion against the dominant philosophy of the late British Empire. As young men they were influenced by an English Hegelianism that identified the Empire with the progression of reason first characterised by Hegel. In British universities TH Green, Edward Caird and others made the Hegelian ideal of universal progress the orthodoxy.

Moore and Russell had good reason to doubt the happy identification of the Hegelian idea of progress with the forward march of the British Empire. Both were sympathetic towards the revolts against that Empire in Ireland and Southern Africa. Later both would act for the anti-conscription fellowship and campaign for a negotiated peace in the Great War. Russell had also visited and reported upon the Social Democratic movement of working class revolutionaries in Germany. The fact that they had adapted the Hegelian ideal to their own vision of progress was perhaps another reason why this became unattractive to Russell.

Russell and Moore were both were part of that non-conformist tradition of English liberalism that aggregated at Cambridge University because of the religious bar operating at Oxford at that time. At Cambridge they began to develop an alternative to the mainstream views of their professors in a debating society called 'the Apostles', that included such people as JM Keynes, Leonard Woolf and Lytton Strachey (and, briefly, Ludwig Wittgenstein).

In that heady atmosphere of genteel rebellion Moore first divorced the idea of change from progress. Influenced by the findings of Sidgwick in his History of Ethics, and by the anthropologist JG Frazer, Moore was impressed by the variability of ethical outlooks. He criticised the utilitarian philosophy that had held sway in England as much as the Hegelian for what he called the 'naturalistic fallacy': that ideas of the good can appeal to a natural or objective foundation. Rather, he thought, what is good at any point in time expresses an attitude of the subject. (Principia Ethica, 1903)

Moore's somewhat relativistic outlook appealed to the amoralism of those English intellectuals who were struggling to escape the repressive, and increasingly perverse moralism of Victorian England. For the Fabian administrator Woolf and the writer Strachey, this was a programme that would set them free from the Shibboleths of the Victorian Age. For the economist Keynes, this was an outlook that made it possible to avoid the increasingly sterile dogma of laisser faire economics.

Eschewing moral or natural foundations to the good and the true these analytic philosophers sought to moor their system instead upon logic alone. Bertrand Russell embarked upon an extraordinary project to formalise the foundations of mathematics from a set of logical axioms. Russell had taken up an approach of the German mathematician Gottlob Frege, creating a link between the school of English analytic philosophy and the German and Austrian school of 'logical positivism'.

Like Russell, Frege was concerned to insulate logic from ambiguity, and especially from contradiction - which had played so large, and apparently so destructive a part in Hegel's system. Frege felt that logic had to be rescued from the ambiguities of language, and framed instead in the algebraic symbols that he developed as his Concept Script. Frege's symbolic logic was the model for Russell's magnum opus the Principles of Mathematics (1902) and its follow up Principia Mathematica (1910), which attempted to lay out the foundations (or principles) of Mathematics in a wholly logical form.

Russell's work was particularly interesting to a group of scientifically minded philosophers working in Vienna under the loose leadership of Moritz Schlick, Otto Neurath and Rudolf Carnap. These were called either the 'Vienna Circle', or logical positivists. There particular interest was to clarify scientific method with paralleled the concerns of the English Analytic philosophers. The Vienna Circle influenced many thinkers including Karl Popper (though he rowed with them) and the economist Ludwig von Mises who was later to inspire the free market champion Friedrich Hayek.

It is not difficult in retrospect to see a conservative impulse at work between the logical positivists in Vienna and the analytic philosophers in Cambridge. All of these thinkers were troubled by the more exotic leaps of thought that were taking place in Europe. The nationalist currents in German and British philosophy struck them as romantic, ambiguous and potentially irrational. In particular the developments in German historical thinking (the neo-Kantian or South German Historical school inspired by Ranke, Dilthey, Windelband and Rickert) and philology seemed to be subordinating objectivity to sentimental concerns of national pride.

The collective entities of peoples and nations were especially suspect to the Vienna Circle. With the individual standpoint of the scientific observer as a model, these collective subjects looked like the delusions fostered by demagogues. The scientific model of the individual observer married with the methodological individualism of the free market economics espoused by Popper, von Mises and Hayek. The reaction against language, in favour of a notational logic can be seen as an attempt to avoid the politicisation of language under the impact of nationalist-inspired philology. Similarly abjuring historical investigation in favour of the natural scientific model of inquiry was a way of avoiding the ambiguities of the Geisteswissenschaft or 'science of the spirit'.

These were perhaps laudable aims. However, the plan to create an oasis of reason in a sea of irrationality was flawed. First the logical positivists and analytical philosophers had given up too much to unreason. Language, history and even sociology were seen as potentially corrupting fields of investigation - as though all these arenas of human endeavour were lost forever to irrationality. Logic and the natural sciences were erected into a redoubt against the irrational. But it was foolish to think that reason could survive alongside unreason but somehow be insulated from it and sustain its purity. A neurotic desire to excise all contradiction and ambiguity created an increasingly sterile and rigid philosophy that would eventually shatter under the pressure of new ideas and old conundrums.

In the first instance it was Russell's attempt to found mathematics that ran into trouble. Russell was frustrated by his inability to solve a paradox (Richard's paradox) that seemed to arise out of his theory of number sets. If mathematics was to be put on a wholly logical foundation then it was unthinkable that a paradox in the heart of the system should find no solution. Russell laboured away without success and though many people claimed to have found a solution (Frege and Wittgenstein to name but two) none was wholly convincing. Russell was distraught and mentally exhausted by his labours. This was a failure that seemed to call the entire project of logically founding the natural sciences into question. Years later the mathematician Kurt Goedel proved that it was impossible for a coherent number system to be derived from axioms that were contained within it.

It was Russell's brilliant pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein who was most marked by the limitations of the logical positivist programme. Wittgenstein's first book the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) was a near-perfect expression of the programme of logical positivism and gained a wider audience even than Russell's Principia. Written with great economy the Tractatus advances to the limits of understanding to demarcate real knowledge, described through an extended version of Frege's truth tables, from the kind of specious nonsense that was characteristic of loose or metaphysical thinking. In passing Wittgenstein dismisses Russell's paradox of classes as a category error, that can be repaired by adjusting the terms. The closing sentence 'what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence' sums up the common programme of logical positivism and analytic philosophy.

However, Wittgenstein's second major work, the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations reversed many of the assessments of the Tractatus. In the lectures and papers that rehearsed the themes of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein expressed a dissatisfaction with the principles of logical positivism and with his own expression of them. Wittgenstein argued that there could be no private languages - ruling out the turn towards symbolic logic that was so important to Russell and Frege. The notational logic and truth tables developed by Russell and Frege seemed to him to be an artificial solution that satisfied their practitioners but could mean little to other people.

Wittgenstein makes a pointed redefinition of truth from one of correspondence to objective fact, to one of agreement between persons. Truth became a product of a particular 'language game', something that was contextual, conventional and relative. Russell heckled Wittgenstein's lectures, denouncing his former star pupil for selling out. AJ Ayer, who took up the mantle of logical positivism after Russell registered his disagreement with this departure. But Wittgenstein's reversal became the model for the future development of analytic philosophy, as JL Austin, PF Strawson and others embraced the 'linguistic turn' that Wittgenstein had made. Sadly, the one element of the earlier positivist approach that was retained was a philistine hostility to theoretical speculation, that Perry Anderson described as England's 'parish-pump positivism'.

Developments in the philosophy of science that was being developed by the Vienna Circle also took a peculiar turn. In the wake of the second world war, Otto Neurath and Rudolf Carnap, now resident in the US had initiated an Encyclopaedia of the Unified Sciences. It was a project thoroughly in keeping with the logical positivists' view that philosophy was to serve the role of under-labourer to the sciences, working only to clarify issues for natural science. Already Karl Popper had published his influential Logic of Scientific Discoveries which argued for a pointedly sceptical and self-critical model of natural science. According to Popper, true science seeks to disprove its hypotheses, rather than to prove them. It was a self-confident assertion of scientific objectivity.

Carnap engaged Thomas Kuhn to write a volume for the International Encyclopaedia of the Unified Sciences - a project initiated by Otto Neurath. The result was The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. While Popper's idealised model of scientific discovery seemed to hold in the abstract, the real history of science worked quite differently. Kuhn found that scientific enquiry was a lot more context-specific than Popper described, and drew upon the social sciences - the work was prepared at the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Behavioural Sciences - rather than logic, to explain scientific 'truth claims'. In particular he showed that the incremental theories and discoveries operated as part of a larger paradigm of how the physical world was. Using the example of the overthrow of the Ptolemaic model of the universe, Kuhn showed that far from selflessly and dispassionately trying to disprove their favoured theories, the community of scientists were more likely to be partisan in their defence of an accepted view point. Change only came with the overthrow of the orthodoxy.

The disturbing aspect of Kuhn's model was that it shifted attention from a correspondence theory of the truth. Now it appeared that 'proof' meant the assent of your peers - a close parallel to the 'linguistic turn' taken by Wittgenstein. Of course it was no part of Kuhn's ambitions to call natural science into question, but he had undermined the basic idea of scientific progress. On Popper's model there would always be an incremental uncovering of more an more of the facts about the natural world. But that idea of a progressive advance of greater and greater understanding was precisely what was undermined by Kuhn's idea of scientific paradigms. If truth was paradigm specific then there was no possibility of judging one era's science more or less advanced than another's. Kuhn's friend and colleague Paul Feyerabend especially embraced this programme of anti-science, openly celebrating scientific relativism.

American pragmatists