Were The Logical Positivists The ‘New Atheists’ of Their Day?

As I have learned over the course of studying philosophy to some degree in the past two years, each generation of thinkers (philosophers, scientists, artists) has owned a community inclined to reject the supernatural. Socrates, whose trial included indictments for blasphemy, Spinoza, who had to go on the run owing to a similar charge, Nietzsche’s maxim that ‘God Is Dead’ and Russell’s ‘Why I Am Not A Christian’ are all textbook examples.  In 1920’s Europe, a new fashion in philosophy emerged, the composers of which became known collectively as the ‘Vienna Circle’. Influenced by writers in the analytic tradition like Frege, Schlick and the earlier Kant (that is, philosophical enquiry concerned with logical and mathematical substance rather than metaphysics) , a group consisting of notables like Moore, Carnap, Schlick, Russell, Wittgenstein and A.J. Ayer would hold regular meetings to discuss the metaphysical and logical issues of the time.

Following the publication of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’ in 1921, in which he claimed to have solved the fundamental problems of philosophy by showing the relationship between language and the world and the limits of it, a newly assembled band of thinkers known as the ‘Logical Positivists’ began to assert their dominance in the philosophical dialectic. The intentions of the logical positivists and the Vienna Circle are perhaps more obvious now than they were at the time. Beginning with the study of language, Wittgenstein established that only statements (propositions) which could be broken down into elementary propositions reflecting the reality of the world contained any meaning. The logical structure of language reflected the logical structure of the ‘state of affairs’ present in the world. Any discussion of ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics and religion were therefore rendered meaningless. Those of us who study philosophy might have felt this all along, but this was a significant shift in thought amongst the hangover of ‘transcendental’ idealism (the theological noise of the likes of Bishop Berkeley), which was so dominant in the late 18th Century.

The logical positivists took Wittgenstein’s thesis (and perhaps slightly misinterpreted it), turning it into a condensed version known as the verification principle, which states that ‘a sentence has literal meaning if and only if the proposition it expressed was either analytic or empirically verifiable’[1] (i.e., it is a mathematical or logical truth, or a tautology, or a statement which could be proved by analysing the external world). The logical positivists were well aware of the weight of public consideration that was placed in religion/the supernatural in post-Victorian Britain, and it seems as though they were determined put an intellectual, scientific muzzle on such talk. (Although the position of logical positivists could only be described at most as ‘agnostic’. Just as one cannot utter a meaningful statement about the existence of a creator, the assertion that there is not is equally nonsensical, ‘since it is only a significant proposition that can be significantly contradicted’). A.J. Ayer, whom I have just quoted, and Bertrand Russell, who took the religious question further than Ayer in claiming that the logical step was to positively affirm god’s non-existence, were both atheists and their work radiates a clear notion of common sense. This is partly why they are so well known outside of philosophical circles. Religious claims are not A Priori or analytic, nor can the god hypothesis be empirically verifiable (though one must be careful in declaring this to be impossible in the future, owing to the problem of induction), ergo, the topic is meaningless to even discuss. This was an interesting attempt to approach the religious question in the context of language, regardless of whether its merits remain substantial today.

The so-called ‘new atheists’ are making similar claims through their work, with the inclusion of modern discussions regarding the actual consequences of religion in the world at present. Whilst metaphysical and scientific questions on the topic are not disregarded – Richard Dawkins extrapolates nicely the scientific claims of religion in The God Delusion (2006), partly by invoking Russell’s ‘teapot’ analogy – the issues of globalization, modern warfare and the gradual evolution of technology are brought helpfully into the debate, to create an up-to-date, substantial account of the way in which religions operate today.  I have claimed before this is a false tag because there is nothing remotely ‘new’ about repudiating the supernatural; this claim is supported by the existence of the thinkers I named at the beginning of this essay, and by the claims of the logical positivists.

Were they the ‘new atheists’ of their era? Perhaps so, but they approached the issue from a radically different perspective to the current era of sceptics and free-thinkers.  The zeitgeist of the logical positivists was possibly a reaction to the culturally conservative values of Christianity in Northern Europe at the time (Nietzsche was certainly fully aware of this, especially regarding his own doctrines); indeed, I am reminded of the story told by Richard Dawkins about ‘Freddie’ Ayer’s admission to saying ‘Grace’ at the dinner table whilst he was non-religious, who responded by saying ‘I won’t utter falsehoods, but I have no objection to uttering meaningless statements’. This in a nutshell sums up the attitude of the logical positivists.

The existence of such periods of unbelief in the intellectual discourse of each generation shows how false, shady and lazy the tag really is; those who invoke it usually have a particular, peculiar way of thinking, which I am inclined to address in the next section.

As a side note, below is a fascinating interview with A.J. Ayer conducted by Bryan Magee. They don’t make them like this anymore.


[1] Ayer, A.J., Language, Truth and Logic, First Published in 1936.

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