Logical Positivism – Carnap

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.


Rudolf Carnap (1891 - 1970)


Carnap was the glue that held the Circle together. He was often the one man in the middle of the group’s arguments trying find the common threads that united all of their theories. He studied physics at the University of Jena but devoted time to unlocking Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. He was also one of the few students to be under the tutelage of Gottlob Frege, who would be a large influence on the foundations of Logical Positivism.

His first great work Der Logische Aufbau der Welt (The Logical Structure of the World) is touted by a pamphlet published by Neurath, Hahn, and Carnap Wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung: Der Wiener Kreis (1929; Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle) as the spark that set the Logical Positivist fire alight. The Aufbau was an attempt to define all the concepts and objects of experience in a formal and structured way.


The work that truly defined Logical Postivism is the Logical syntax of Language published in 1934. This book was a direct response to the Tractatus, in particular Wittgenstein’s belief that in order to avoid all the myriad miss-interpretation found in philosophical disputes there needed to be created a language based purely on structural features – logical syntax. Wittgenstein believed propositions show logical form, but not have a logical form themselves. Carnap disagreed, stating “A theory, a rule, a definition, or the like is to be called formal when no reference is made in it either to the meaning of the symbols ... or to the sense of the expressions ... but simply and solely to the kinds and order of the symbols from which the expressions are constructed”  He then sets up a structured logical language and uses problems from physics and mathematics to tests the power of it and show how the analysis of logical syntax could replace ambiguous philosophical arguments.


As an ardent pacifist and committed socialist Carnap escaped from his Professorship of German Language in Prague as the third Reich was closing in and fled to the U.S. in 1935. He settled there becoming a professor at the University of Chicago and becoming a naturalised citizen in 1941. Carnap’s lasting legacy in logical Positivism and philosophy in general was his systematic analysis of structure and developments in the language of logic, the use of which he noted “... demands the cooperation of many minds”.