Verifiability as a Theory of MeaningJune 27, 2021
We have mentioned Schlick’s work called “Positivism and Realism”, which is accepted as a kind of declaration of logical positivism. Schlick begins this work by analyzing the crisis of positivism.
It discusses what qualifies positivism as the basis for overcoming the said crisis. First of all, positivism is determined by its opposition to metaphysics. However, this is not a good enough definition. Because he defines positivism with its opposite. Some distinguish positivism from metaphysical realism. As the justification for this, they show that positivism is based on the “given” in experience. Schlick also does not take this approach. Because this approach itself is essentially metaphysical. This approach brings positivism closer to a kind of idealism. So how should a way out be found? At this point, Schlick takes a more radical step and opens the concept of “reality” to discussion. What do we mean when we use the term reality? Can we understand what we are talking about? In other words, can we say that discussions about reality make sense from the very beginning?
As can be seen, Schlick moves the discussion from a discussion between metaphysical positions to a discussion of meaning, which perhaps reveals the essence of logical positivism’s attitude towards philosophical problems. Schlick asks what determines whether the topic being discussed is meaningful or not:
In general, when do we make sure that the meaning of a question is clear to us? Obviously, if and only if we can fully articulate the terms that would enable us to answer the question in the affirmative or, depending on the situation, in the negative. When we state these terms, and with that alone, the meaning of a question can be defined.
The meaning of a proposition, obviously, consists only in that, in stating certain states of affairs. Of course, the proposition itself can already reveal these cases of fact. This is true, but the proposition expresses the fact states in question only to the person who understands the proposition. But when do I understand a proposition? When do I understand the meaning of the words present in that proposition? These can be explained by definition. But in definitions, new words appear whose meanings cannot be described by means of propositions, which must be stated directly: the meaning of a word must ultimately be shown, given. This is done by an act of positing, pointing, and the signified must be given, otherwise I cannot refer to it (“Positivism and Realism”, p.86 – 87).
According to Schlick, this method is valid in determining the meanings of words. For Schlick this is so obvious that it cannot even be called a theory. On the other hand, if this understanding of meaning is accepted, it will have radical consequences. In order for a proposition to be meaningful, it requires, in principle, the conditions for its verification to be determined. What if we cannot give the conditions for a proposition to be verified? In this case, we have to accept that the proposition in question is meaningless.
Schlick discusses the consequences of this understanding of meaning with different examples. One example is the claim that there is an unobservable force acting at the center of a subatomic particle (an electron) but outside the particle. The conditions under which such a claim is true or false cannot be stated. When someone makes such a proposition, they are saying something meaningless. Schlick chooses another example based on the theory of relativity. As it is known, the understanding of physics based on relativity rejects an absolute understanding of space. Suppose someone is talking about the existence of absolute space. Can we state the conditions under which this proposition can be verified? No, we can’t. In this case, we cannot say that the proposition in question is meaningful.
Another example that Schlick considers is the case of the systematic reversal of the color spectrum, which Peirce also discussed earlier. Such a situation does not make any difference in observable behavior. In this case, it would not be meaningful to suggest that two different people have two different and symmetrically displaced color spectrums.
Schlick continues his discussion with examples from philosophy. Descartes’ “I exist” or “There are mental contents.” It considers the propositions and argues that the conditions in which such a proposition is not true cannot be considered. These propositions, whose truth conditions cannot be given, must therefore be considered meaningless. Finally, Schlick enters into a discussion on the term “being,” and “There is a reality beyond our experience.” Discusses whether a proposition is meaningful or not. Following the same line of thought, he says that such a proposition can neither be verified nor falsified. Therefore, propositions containing metaphysical claims about reality are also meaningless. Why do philosophers continue to express these propositions even though they are meaningless? If someone gets up and these propositions make sense.