Thursday, March 8, 2007

Karl Popper vs. logical positivists!

I got into a long discussion with a rather nice fellow over at No God Blog, rainbows4dinosaurs. He mentioned one of my favorite things, falsifiability. That's not even irony! To the extent I possess an education, it's actually in philosophy of science and history of science, so it's a very interesting subject to me - how this idea has shaped science and thinking in general, and how society shapes the creation of ideas.

The idea of falsifiability doesn't bother me at all, but there's an interesting way that Popper's scientific philosophy got to be so important to the world.

Karl Popper, like a lot of philosophers of science at the time, was Austrian. However, the Vienna philosophers were massively logical positivist. Indeed, continental philosophy of science at the time was dominated by logical positivists during the first third of the 2oth century. Popper's ideas weren't getting any love from the Vienna Circle.

Then something big happened. The power of Nazi Germany started to rise, and with it came a powerful anti-intellectualism. The logical positivists were, as a group, very much scientific materialists. In 1936, the leader of the Vienna circle of logical positivists was Moritz Schlick and as he was coming to class one day, a former student of his, Johann Nelböck, shot and killed Schlick.

Nelböck was convicted but was paroled after only two years when the Nazis took over. Subsequently he became a good little Nazi.

You see, Schlick had spoken good of Jews, and he was an intellectual, and in conversation he had been oppposed to Hitler (even before Hitler started annexing places and ramping up for open war). So, Johann Nelböck blew him away.

This had a profound effect on logical positivists. Many fled to America or Great Britain (including Karl Popper, I should note). Some stayed behind. They tended to die, both in Austria and Germany (such as Kurt Grelling who died in Auszwitch or, perhaps, in transport to Auszwitch).

What does this have to do with falsifiability?! I'm getting there, I promise.

In Austria, Popper was surrounded by logical positivists. They had their own criteria for the validity of science, verificationism, and Popper couldn't get much traction in that crowd. However, in New Zealand and then England, the Angl0-American philosophers took to him much more than they warmed to the logical positivists. During this time, however, logical positivists were scattered and socially isolated. There were no proponents of verificationism to challenge Popper's falsifiability criteria (or to note that verificationism functionally included falsifiability) because some of them had been murdered by the Nazis and the rest had been flung to the far corners of the world. Logical positivism, until quite recently, was thought dead. Into that void, Popper was able to place his own philosophy.

This isn't to blame Popper for this. Far from it. I like Popper, even as I like Hempel and Carnap. No, no. I'm blame the Nazis.

This also gives me pause to consider how knowledge gets shaped and formed. In the inter-war period, logical positivism was high and Popperism was low. Because of purely political events unrelated to the relative merit of logical positivism vs. Popper the first was suppressed and the second was enhanced. It's part of the reason I strongly believe that the development of ideas is shaped, strongly, by the surrounding culture and events in the world. Logical positivism wasn't discarded because people found it silly or wrong - it was discarded because one of it's key leaders was murdered causing a mass exodus of logical positivists away from their homes, and those that stayed were persecuted, occasionally to their deaths. It was murdered.

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Anonymous said...

I've heard that Schlick slept with Nelböck's wife. That might have played a role in Nelböck's actions, if true.

March 12, 2007 8:45 AM  
Chris Bradley said...

I hadn't heard that, but it would change things, wouldn't it? Do you remember where you heard that? Not that I don't believe you, mysterious stranger, and it doesn't particularly damage my hypothesis that the fascists destroyed logical positivism, but I'd like to see for myself.

March 12, 2007 10:08 AM  
Graytooth said...

well, i'm not the mysterious stranger, (in fact, i'm jason) but i happened upon your blog whilst curiously searching out why nelbock killed schlick and saw this, it seems to be underreported, atleast from my cursory perusal of google.

"Schlick had failed Nelböck in his class and slept with Nelböck's wife."

here's a link:

May 8, 2007 10:03 PM  
Graytooth said...

May 8, 2007 10:05 PM  
Graytooth said...

or do a google search for
Johann Nelböck

and it's the third or fourth hit down. you'll see it.


May 8, 2007 10:07 PM  
Graytooth said...

obviously i don't know how to post long links on these comment thingies.

May 8, 2007 10:07 PM  

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