Logical Positivism

As a defense against the Witch-doctory of Hegel, who claimed universal omniscience, the scientist was offered the combined neo-mystic Witch-doctory and Attila-ism of the Logical Positivists. They assured him that such concepts as metaphysics or existence or reality or thing or matter or mind are meaningless—let the mystics care whether they exist or not, a scientist does not have to know it; the task of theoretical science is the manipulation of symbols, and scientists are the special elite whose symbols have the magic power of making reality conform to their will (“matter is that which fits mathematical equations”). Knowledge, they said, consists, not of facts, but of words, words unrelated to objects, words of an arbitrary social convention, as an irreducible primary; thus knowledge is merely a matter of manipulating language. The job of scientists, they said, is not the study of reality, but the creation of arbitrary constructs by means of arbitrary sounds, and any construct is as valid as another, since the criterion of validity is only “convenience” and the definition of science is “that which the scientists do.” But this omnipotent power, surpassing the dreams of ancient numerologists or of medieval alchemists, was granted to the scientist by philosophical Attila-ism on two conditions: a. that he never claim certainty for his knowledge, since certainty is unknown to man, and that he claim, instead, “percentages of probability,” not troubling himself with such questions as how one calculates percentages of the unknowable; b. that he claim as absolute knowledge the proposition that all values lie outside the sphere of science, that reason is impotent to deal with morality, that moral values are a matter of subjective choice, dictated by one’s feelings, not one’s mind.

Ever since Kant divorced reason from reality, his intellectual descendants have been diligently widening the breach. In the name of reason, Pragmatism established a range-of-the-moment view as an enlightened perspective on life, context-dropping as a rule of epistemology, expediency as a principle of morality, and collective subjectivism as a substitute for metaphysics. Logical Positivism carried it farther and, in the name of reason, elevated the immemorial psycho-epistemology of shyster-lawyers to the status of a scientific epistemological system—by proclaiming that knowledge consists of linguistic manipulations.

If [the student “rebels”] “seem unable to formulate or sustain a systematized political theory of society,” yet shriek with moral righteousness that they propose to achieve their social goals by physical force—hasn’t Logical Positivism taught them that ethical propositions have no cognitive meaning and are merely a report on one’s feelings or the equivalent of emotional ejaculations? If they are savagely blind to everything but the immediate moment—hasn’t Logical Positivism taught them that nothing else can be claimed with certainty to exist?

Logical Positivism declares that “reality,” “identity,” “existence,” “mind” are meaningless terms, that man can be certain of nothing but the sensory perceptions of the immediate moment . . . it declares that the meaning of the proposition: “Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo” is your walk to the library where you read it in a book.

Copyright © 1986 by Harry Binswanger. Introduction copyright © 1986 by Leonard Peikoff. All rights reserved. For information address New American Library.


Excerpts from The Ominous Parallels, by Leonard Peikoff. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted with permission of Stein and Day Publishers. Excerpts from The Romantic Manifesto, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1971, by The Objectivist. Reprinted with permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. Excerpts from Atlas Shrugged, copyright © 1957 by Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, copyright © 1943 by Ayn Rand, and For the New Intellectual, copyright © 1961 by Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff, Executor, Estate of Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from “The Philosophy of Objectivism” lecture series. Copyright © 1976 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted by permission. Excerpts from Alvin Toffler’s interview with Ayn Rand, which first appeared in Playboy magazine. Copyright © 1964. Reprinted by permission of Alvin Toffler. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.