Logical Positivism – Wittgenstein

In a series of articles I will be forming a bite size guide to the philosophical composition known as Logical Positivism.


Logical positivism was a school of thought that appeared in Vienna in the 1920’s. It was centred around the discussions of a group of philosophers known as the Vienna Circle. They discussed logic, mathematics, language and had a great distaste of metaphysics. They claimed that true knowledge was gained through sense experience and reason alone. Influenced by advances in modern science, logical positivists sought to apply the scientific paradigm to philosophy and show metaphysics to be meaningless.


Ludwig Wittgenstein (26/4/1889 – 29/4/1951)

Many regard Wittgenstein as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. His tutor and colleague Betrand Russell described him as “... perhaps the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense and domineering”. He contributed to every field of philosophy, and also designed houses.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

His book the Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus was a key influence on the members of the fledging Vienna Circle when published in 1921. After reading it Moritz Schlick wrote to Wittgenstein asking for more copies of it, stating “... there are a number of people here – I am one myself – who are convinced of the importance and correctness of your fundamental ideas and who feel a strong desire to play some part in making your views more widely known”. Schlick later invited Wittgenstein to discuss his ideas with the circle, and in the process expanded on his ideas to the point of Wittgenstein’s rejection of the circle, believing they had completely miss-interpreted the Tractaus.

The book is written in short numbered points following on from each other. It opens in media res with the ominous statement “The world is all that is the case”. He goes on to expand this point, developing the idea that the world is made up of facts not things. What can be said and shown about these facts goes into creating logical space, our mental representation of the world. He creates the tool of the truth-table, an easy way to see the truth-functionality of various propositions and their connectives. After delineating the forms of truth functions and propositions he concludes “What we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence


These two short points, and everything contained between them, inspired the Vienna Circle’s rigorous use of logic in the clarification of thought and their disdain for metaphysics. Misunderstandings of key passages sparked mass debate within the circle, and ultimately inside Wittgenstein himself. By the time he had settled down at Cambridge receiving his Ph.D based on the back of the Tractatus, he stopped meeting with the Logical Positivists. He came to gradually reject almost everything in the Tractatus, to the point of rejecting the reductionism so favoured by the Circle with his last work Philosophical Investigations, published two years after his death in 1953.