The philosophy of the Vienna Circle is usually referred to as "Logical Empiricism" (see below for
other designations). The main features may be characterized as follows:
The circle dissolved under political pressure (and tragic incidents) after 1936. Many of the memebers
imigrated into the US. Here the pragmatism (Ch.S.Peirce, W. James, J. Dewey) provided a basis for
a very positive reception. Thus the former members of the Vienna Circle together with their pupils
(H. Putnam, W. Salmon, R. Jeffrey, A. Grünbaum, N. Rescher, P. Suppes and many more) had enormous
impact on the philosphy of the 20th century (even more than they would have had in old Europe!).
The philsophy of the Vienna Circle can be viewed as one of the roots of the analytic philsophy.
- Only empirical or logical judgments were accepted. In particular Kant's "synthetic judgments
apriori" were denied. Any "transcendental" way to gain knowledge was questioned. This led to:
- a vigorous denial of "metaphysics" - this term being understood in the broadest sense. Here not
only the validity of the answers but the very meaning of most questions was questioned. Carnap coined
the term "Scheinproblem" ("pseudo problem" or "virtual problem") for most of the classical
- According to the Vienna Circle, philosphy can not add to the actual and factual knowledge - this
is the job of science (say, physics, chemistry or economics). The function of philosphy was
restricted to a (linguistic or logical) analysis of the statements made by those scientists. And
- Philosophy was understood as a "scientific" (here "wissenschaftlich", not "naturwissenschaftlich")
enterprise in having rational standards and being pursued by a "scientific community". E.g. the
discussions inside the Vienna Circle led to a constant development and change of the positions.
This needs to be contrasted with the rather common practice in philosophy that one person builds
an all-embracing system.
Careful historians distinguish between four different phases in the history of the
Vienna Circle. I follow Koppelberg (1987):
- 1907-1914: Philipp Frank, Hans Hahn and Otto Neurath meet for the discussion
of scientific and philosophical topics. This is the so-called first Vienna Circle.
Here a systematic (and also historical) study of science under the influence of
Mach, Poincare and Duhem is pursued. This group develops a "conventionalistic
empiricism" (Koppelberg 1987, p.50).
- 1918-1924: discusion round under the informal direction of Hans Hahn. The
mathematician Hahn (by the way the supervisor of kurt Gödels PhD in 1930) brings
foundational questions of mathematics and logic into the focus. Wittgenstein's
publication of the Tractatus logico philosophicus falls into this time (1921).
In 1922 he uses his influence to support Schlick's appointment to the chair of
"Philosophie der induktiven Wissenschaften".
- 1924-1928: so-called non-public phase of the Vienna Circle. Regular thursday
meetings under the direction of Moritz Schlick. Selected members meet also with
- 1928-1938: so-called public phase of the Vienna Circle. Starting from the
foundation of the "Verein Ernst Mach" and the publication of the manifest
Der Wiener Kreis" (1929). The later coins also the name. Since 1926 Rudolf Carnap
lectures in Vienna (in 1935 he was appointed professor in Prague). Carnap
is strongly influenced by Frege, Russel and Wittgenstein. After the murderer
of Schlick in 1936 the circle suffers a tragic loss. Until 1938 the circle continues
some activity under the direction of Waisman before it finally dissolves.
Logical Positivism vs. Logical Empiricism
The philosophy of the Vienna circle goes by many names: neo positivism, logical
empirism (or empiricism?), neo empirism, logical positivism etc.pp. Evidently
it had something to do with empiricism/positivism but was "newer" and "more logical".
The labeling is certainly only insofar important as it actually helps to see the roots
and the goals of the enterprise. In the Anglo-Saxon countries the name "Logical
Positivism" is widespread since in 1931 Blumberg and Feigl made the philosophy known
under this heading (Koppelberg 1987, p.311). However, past 1931 this name was more and
more abandoned by the members of the circle in favor of "Logischer Empirismus".
Koppelberg (1987, p. 311) quotes from a letter by Neurath (to Carnap):
"Bitte nicht "Positivismus" sagen. Ich las wieder mal Comtes Werk. Und obgleich ich es
gegen zu viel Beschimpfung schützen muss, es graust einen oft...Ich werde ihn bei
"Einheitswissenschaft" schon nennen - aber "Positivismus"...oh weh." Den Haag, 9th of
In 1937 Neurath, while being in Mexico, reports to Carnap that he always has to explain
that their philosophy is not "positivistic" in the conventional sense and he suggests
the name "wissenschaftlicher Empirismus" (scientific empiricism) "when the overall
historical line is meant".
Interestingly the name "logical empiricism" can be used to illustrate a tension
within the circle regarding the emphasis of their work. Roughly, Neurath is the one
who puts the emphasis on "empiricism" while Carnap on the "logical".
"Du legst das Hauptgewicht auf Empirismus der Hahn-Neurath-Frank Gruppe; ich würde es
mehr auf die logischen Probleme legen, die im Anschluss an Russel und Wittgenstein
diskutiert wurden. Empiristische Leute gab und gibt es viele; für den Wiener Kreis ist
die logische Analyse hauptsächlich charakteristisch." (Carnap to Neurath, Prague 15th
of May 1935, quoted from Koppelberg 1987, p.53)
"Ein trefflicher logischer Ausschnitt ist Dir so wertvoll, dass du hundert Sünden
gegen den Empirismus zu verzeihen bereit bist." (Neurath to Carnap, The Hague 14th
of March 1935, quoted from Koppelberg 1987, p.53)
The Meaning Criteria
Stegmüller (1969, p.422ff) notes the rarely appreciated fact, that the
anti-metaphysical position of the Vienna Circle and their positive work in several areas
can and should be clearly distinguished. One may easily question e.g. the "empirical
meaning criteria" as a way to distinguish proper terms ("Begriffe") and still benefit
form many detailed logical and linguistic analyses of the Circle! Agreed, the vigorous
polemics of the early Vienna Circle against "metaphysics" has it made difficult to find
this middle ground.
Koppelberg, D. (1987), "Die Aufhebung der analytischen Philsophie", Suhrkamp: Frankfurt.
Stegmüller, W. (1969), "Hauptströmungen der Gegenwartsphilosophie", 4. Auflage, Kröner: Stuttgart.
Schlick, M. (1930), "Die Wende der Philosophie" , Erkenntnis 1.
Stegmüller, W. (1971), "Nachruf auf Rudolf Carnap", Journal for General Philosophy of Science, Vol. 2, No. 1.
Zilsel, E. (1937), "Moritz
Schlick", Die Naturwissenschaften, 25. Jahrgang Heft 11.
Other internet resources
Following the link "Öserreichische Philosophie" leads to the unpublished essay "Das Werden des Wiener Kreises und die
Zukunft des Empirismus" by Otto Neurth
An article on the "Wiener Kreis"
from the AEIOU project
A link which contains the article "Die
Wende der Philosophie (M. Schlick 1930) and material related to his assissination
Some background and bio's of Vienna Circle members collected by Timm Lampert can be found
here (PDF, German)
An essay on the Wiener Kreis
by Peter Kampits
A carefully made site on logical positivsim by Mauro Murzi.
It includes links to original texts etc.
A link collection devoted to
A little piece on Neurath's physicalism
The course material of the WTWG institute in Bern on
Klassische Texte der Wissenschaftstheorie (contains Poincare, Carnap, Quine, Kuhn, Hempel and others)
"The Genesis of the Concept of Physical Law", by Edgar Zilsel (1942)
"Problems of Empiricism", by Edgar Zilsel (1941)
Classic articles online (including for example the two Zilsel pieces above)