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Logical Positivism - A Debate Between Ayer and Copleston

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Paul Edwards

Readings from Classical and Contemporary SourcesRevised Edition









Logical Positivism-A


A. J . Ayer and F. C. Copleston

Metaphysics, Analytic Philosophy and Science

YER: WELL, FATHER COPLESTON, you've asked me to summarize Logical Positivism for you and it's not very easy. For one thing, as I understand it, Logical Positivism is not a system of philosophy. It consists rather in a certain technique-a certain kmd of attitude towards philosophic problems. Thus, one thing which those of us who are called logical positivists tend to have in common is that we deny the possibility of philosophy as a speculative discipline. We should say that if philosophy was to be a branch of knowledge, as distinct from the sciences, it would have to consist in logic or in some form of analysis, and our reason for this would be somewhat as follows. We maintain that you can divide propositions into two classes, formal and empirical. Formal propositions, like those of logic and mathematics, depend for their validity on the conventions of a symbol system. Empirical propositions, on the other hand, are statements of actual or possible observation, or hypotheses, from which such statements can be logically derived; and it is they that constitute science in so far as science isn't purely mathematical. Now our contention is that this exhausts the field of what may be called speculative knowledge. Consequently we reject metaphysics, if this be understood, as I think it commonly has been, as an attempt to gain knowledge about the world by non-scientific means. In as much as metaphysical statements are not testable by observation, we hold they are not descriptive of anything. And from this we should conclude that if philosophy is to be a cognitive activity it must be purely critical. It would take the form of trying to elucidate the concepts that were used in science or mathematics or in everyday language. COPLESTON: Well, Professor Ayer, I can quite understand, of course,


[This debate took place on the Third Program of the British Broadcasting Corporation on June 13. 1949. It is here published for the first time with the kind permission of ProfesSoI Ayer and Father C0~1eston.j

philosophers confining themselves to logical analysis if they wish to do so, and I shouldn't dream of denying or of belittling in any way its utility: I think it's obviously an extremely useful thing to do to analyse and clarify the concepts used in science. In everyday life, too, there are many terms used that practically have taken on an emotional connotation-"progressive" or "reactionary" or "freedom" or "the modern mind": -to make clear to people what's meant or what they mean by those terms, or the various possible meanings, is a very useful thing. But if the Logical Positivist means that logical analysis is the only function of philosophyi . that's the point at which I should disagree with hm And so would many other philosophers disagree~especiallyon the Continent. Don't you think that by saying what philosophy is, one presupposes a philosophy, or takes up a position as a philosopher? For example, if one divides significant propositions into two classes, namely, purely formal propositions and statements of observation, one is adopting a philosophical position: one is claiming that there are no necessary propositions which are not purely formal. Moreover, to claim that metaphysical propositions, to be significant, should be verifiable as scientific hypotheses are verifiable is to claim that metaphysics, to be significant, should not be metaphysics. AYER:Yes, I agree that my position is philosophical, but not that it is metaphysical, as I hope to show later. To say what philosophy is, is certainly a philosophical act, but by this I mean that it is itself a question of philosophical analysis. We have to decide, among other things, what it is that we are going to call "philosophy" and I have given you my answer. It is not, perhaps, an obvious answer but it at least has the merit that it rescues philosophical statements from becoming either meaningless or trivial. But I don't suppose that we want to quarrel about how we're going to use a word, so much as to discuss the points underlying what you've just said. You would hold, I gather, that in the account I gave of the possible fields of knowledge something was left out. COPLESTON: Yes. AYER:And that which is left out is what people called philosophers might well be expected to study? COPLESTON: Yes, I should hold that philosophy, at any rate metaphysical philosophy, begins, in a sense, where science leaves off. In my personal opinion, one of the chief functions of metaphysics is to open the mind to the Transcendent-to remove the ceilmg of the room, as it were, the room being the world as amenable to scientific handling and investigation. But this is not to say that the metaphysician is simply concerned with the Transcendent. Phenomena themselves (objects of what you would probably call "experience") can be considered from the metaphysical angle. The problem of universals, for instance, is a metaphysical problem. I say that metaphysical philosophy begins, m a sense, where science leaves off, because I do not mean to imply that the metaphysician cannot begin until science has finished its work. If this were so, the metaphysician would be quite unable to start. I mean that he asks other






questions than those asked by the scientist and pursues a different method. AVER: To say that philosophy begins where science leaves off is perfectly all right if you mean that the philosopher takes the results of the scientist, analyses them, shows the logical connection of one proposition with another, and so on. But if you say that it leaps into a quite different I think realm-the realm which you describe as the "transcendent"-then I cease to follow you. And I thmk I can explain why I cease to foilow you. I hold a principle, known as the principle of verification, according to which a statement intended to be a statement of fact is meaningful only if it's either formally valid, or some kind of observation is relevant to its truth or falsehood. My difficulty with your so-called transcendent statements is that their truth or falsehood doesn't, it seems to me, make the slightest differenceto anything that any one experiences. I COPLESTON: don't care for the phrase "transcendent statement." I think myself that some positive descriptive statements about the Transcendent are possible; but, leaving that out of account, I think that one of the possible functions of the philosopher (a function which you presumably exclude) is to reveal the limits of science as a complete and exhaustive description and analysis of reality. AYER:Limits of science? You see I can quite well understand your saying that science is limited if you mean only that many more things may be discovered. You may say, for example, that the physics of the seventeenth century was limited in so far as physicists of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries have gone very much further. COPLESTON: I didn't mean that at all. Perhaps I can illustrate No, what I mean in reference to anthropology. The biochemist can describe Man within his own terms of reference and up to a certain extent. But, although biochemistry may doubtless continue to advance, I see no reason to suppose that the biochemist will be able to give an exhaustive analysis of Man. The psychologist certainly would not think so. Now, one of the possible functions of a philosopher is to show how all these scientific analyses of man-the analyses of the biochemist, the empirical psychologist and so on-are unable to achieve the exhaustive analysis of the individual human being. Karl Jaspers, for example, would maintain that Man as free, i.e. precisely as free, cannot be adequately handled by any scientist who presupposes the applicability of the principle of deterministic causality and conducts his investigations with that presupposition in mind. I am not a follower of Karl Jaspers; but I think that to call attention to what he calls Existenz is a legitimate philosophical procedure.

Metaphysical and Scientific ExplanationAVER:I do not see that you can know a priori that human bebaviour is inexplicable. The most you can say is that our present stock of psychological hypotheses isn't adequate to explain certain features of it: and

you may very well be right. But what more is required is better psycbological investigation. We need to form new theories and test the theories by further observation, which is again the method of science. It seems to me that all you've said, when you've talked of the limits of science, is simply that a given science may not explain things, or explain as much as you would like to see explained. But that, which to me seems to be perfectly acceptable, is only a historical statement about a point which science has reached at a given stage. It doesn't show that there's room for a quite different kmd of discipline, and you haven't made clear to me what that different kind of discipline which you reserve for the philosopher is supposed to be, COPLESTON: Well, I think that one of the possible functions of the philosopher is to consider what is sometimes called the non-empirical or intelligible self. There is an obvious objection, from your point of view, against the phrase "nou-empirical self"; but I would like to turn to metaphysics in general. The scientists can describe various particular aspects of things,

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