What is Analytic Philosophy (Logical Positivism)? - AJ Ayer and FC Copleston Debate on the BBC (June 13th, 1949) - Part I of IX

By Stephen Alexander Beach 
(2268 Words)

Defining What Logical Positivism Is
The debate between the Analytic philosopher, AJ Ayer, and the Catholic priest and historian of philosophy, FC Copleston, begins with an attempt to understand what Logical Positivism considers itself to be, what constitutes "philosophy", and what falls under the realm of metaphysics, if anything at all, that cannot be included in the physical sciences. 

Ayer is one of the most ardent critics of traditional metaphysics and states very clearly that he considers it to create "meaningless" statements. For Ayer, there are only two functions which can be considered "philosophical". First, philosophy can deal in statements of formal logic. So this would be where a symbol system is created by man in which the symbols have inherent relations to one another. And so philosophy would be something like adjudicating the use of the symbols system, verifying its logical connection when arguments are made. An example would be like a computer programming language logic. Philosophy would to say whether correct statements were made in that language. Second, Ayer claims that philosophy helps clarify concepts within science. In a sense the second meaning is an example of the first, but the difference is that science, he says, deals in observable facts about the world. And so philosophy is a type of servant to science, helping any unclear points to be better understood. Again, though, it is more of a tool of language than anything. 

Implicit in Ayer's formulation is the rejection of any reality that is not observable by the senses. And so all that exists is science, and man made logic systems. Copleston responds by pointing out that making a view of the world in which only the physical exists, and thus philosophy is only a language tool, is itself to create a traditional philosophy ... because it is a belief system about the nature of reality. Thus, Ayer's formulation of the nature of philosophy is contradictory with itself. 
Father F.C. Copleston

Ayer doesn't not really respond to Copleston's claim, but doubles down by saying that traditional metaphysics is "meaningless", and that philosophy is only a language tool. He does ask Copleston what is being left out of this formulation that Copleston would claim metaphysics "studies". Here Copleston responds by saying that metaphysics picks up the understanding of reality where the physical sciences leave off, whether that is exploring the reality of universal forms in our understanding of the identity of things, to pursuing the ultimate causes and principles which are responsible for the universe and which may transcend scientific exploration because they go beyond the physical. Hence, metaphysics also employing different methods at arriving at truth. It is open to rational deduction even if it goes beyond empirical observation. 

Ayer then rejects any Transcendent realm because, as he has stated, he only considers real that which is a formally valid symbol system or that which is observable and verifiable by science as true or false. Science cannot test the metaphysical with its methods, and so as Ayer says that it doesn't deal with anything people would find meaningful anyway. [Here I am beginning to understand why the word "positivism" is used. It seems to me that it is trying to emphasize that is concerns that which can be positively affirmed with science, not what might transcend science. I could be wrong though.] Copleston then responds by saying that philosophy, casting a wider net of truth, can point out the limitations inherent in defining reality by solely physical realities. 

Again, Ayer, given his already stated axioms, does not really engage with what Copleston is saying, in my opinion, but rather reinterprets Copleston's statement according to his own views. Thus, he says that "limits of science" can only refer to the limits we experience as we discover new things in science. Hence, the 19th century broke the limits of science of the 18th century, for example. Copleston, again, points out that that is not what he meant. He then gives an example to make his point. Basically he points out that reality may be way more expansive than what the scientific method can know of it. And in limiting ourselves to the scientific method we are going to come to absurd conclusions, such as if only different scientists decided to say "what a human being is". The biochemist would say one thing, the psychologist another thing, etc ... yet each scientific discipline would be missing the whole picture. All of them are beholden to the scientific principle of determinism, for example, and so none of them could treat of the human reality of free will. A reality of the human person was categorically left out. 

A Few Personal Thoughts
I simply want to add here that, Ayer, so far in the debate, has simply stated his axioms of belief that nothing exists which is not scientifically testable. He then just doubles down in interpreting Copleston's words in light of that. He does not seek to justify why one should accept his starting axioms as a Positivist. He only says that everything else is "meaningless" and "no one would care about anything else". It is clear that Logical Positivism is itself a type of traditional belief system, despite its denial of that point. If I am in a room and I draw a circle on the floor and I say that nothing is to be explored in the room beyond that circle because nothing exists beyond the circle ... this itself is a belief, and certainly could be a wrong belief. 

Transcript of the Debate, Part I of IX
Ayer: 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 kind 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 statement 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 descriptions 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, 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 analyze 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 these 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 philosophy - that's the point at which I should disagree with him. And so would many other philosophers disagree - especially on 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. 
AJ Ayer

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 ceiling 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 a metaphysical angle. The problem of universals, for instance, is a metaphysical problem. I say that metaphysical philosophy begins, in 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.

Ayer: 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 realm - the realm which you describe as the 'transcendent' - then I think I cease to follow you. And I think I can explain why I cease to follow 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 you so-called transcendent statements is that their truth or falsehood doesn't, it seems to me, make the slightest difference to anything that any one experiences. 

Copleston: I 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: No, I didn't mean that at all. Perhaps I can illustrate 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. 1


Part II will be continued in the next post in this series ... 

1 - Transcript taken from "A Modern Introduction to Philosophy: Readings from Classical and Contemporary Sources" Edited by Paul Edwards and Arthur Pap. New York: The Free Press.