Logical positivism is a philosophy that hears incomprehensibility in most of what we say. Having been once celebrated, it now lives a silent life, forming the unconscious of many philosophers and thinkers. Its rhetoric can now be seen in the New Atheist literature. Whether such philosophy is tenable is the question we shall endeavour to answer in this post.
So what about positivism? Positivism does have its positives. It is a philosophy that gives us a clarity; since, it mainly focuses on how words are used. Vague sentences are clarified by a rigorous analysis of language. This clarity provides certainty in a field strewn with the uncertain. That is the charm of positivism. And its weakness too.
I once read this sentence: “I have less than nothing”. Based on positivism, I regarded the sentence to be meaningless. How can you have a quantity for the absence of something? For two weeks, I walked on the streets baffled by the incomprehensibility people utter. Then I checked my bank account. It then hit me that a person could indeed have less than nothing in his bank account. He could be in debt. His account could have a negative figure. The literal reading of the sentence “I have less than nothing” does not do justice to the real world.
In Heidegger’s Confusion (2004), Paul Edwards criticises Heidegger’s claim that everyone dies alone. Edward points out that some people die with others next to them. He further said that Heidegger’s claim is incomprehensible. Edwards, of course, is a good prose stylist and hilarious. Yet his criticism seems shallow. “Everyone dies alone” points to the existential fact that when you die, no one is experiencing your death with you. Your death experience, the most momentous experience in your life, cannot be shared. When you die, your friends cannot accompany you. Nor your family. This is the point of Heidegger’s claim. When a cancer patient, on the verge of death, looks around the hospital ward, he realises that he is going somewhere by himself. To say that people do not experience this feeling of loneliness in death is to deny a fact of reality.
To understand a statement that is made from within a system of philosophy, it is important to understand the system of philosophy as a whole. To isolate a statement from the philosophical system it is embedded in is tantamount to taking a phrase out of context then analysing its meaning. Positivism sees no point, and has no patience, in looking at the entirety of a philosophical system. It is too hard, takes time, and requires imagination and empathy in equal measure. Taoism speaks of immortality. When I first encountered this I thought, “what tosh!”. After reading extensively on Taoism I realised that Taoists defined immortality in ways different to how we usually do. When we say someone is immortal, we mean he cannot die physically. When Taoists say someone is immortal, they mean he cannot die emotionally. In other words, an immortal man is one who doesn’t suffer the cycle of desire and depression. The immortality Taoists speak of is an emotional invulnerability.
Human psychology is an area positivists have a problem with. Humans speak in ways that are contradictory, in ways that are hyperbolic, in ways that are nonsensical, yet, in ways that have their own peculiar logic that imparts meaning. “He is the man I hate the most, and man I love the most,” is a statement that is contradictory. Positivists would easily dismiss it as tosh. But clearly this statement does have a meaning. It shows us the love-hate relationship this woman has to that man. It shows us that the speaker has only extreme views in this issue.
For many years positivist philosophers were content with saying the word ‘God’ did not make sense. In our current time Richard Dawkins says God is a flying spaghetti monster. If ‘God’ does not make sense, then the phrase “God does not exist” does not make sense; hence, atheism does not make sense. If by God we can imagine a flying spaghetti monster, then we can imagine it is not a flying spaghetti monster; thus, New Atheists and theists will be talking about different entities.
By highlighting the flaws in positivism, I am not suggesting that all phrase or sentence are intelligible. I am not saying that we should not dismiss statements that are incomprehensible. I am saying that before saying some utterance that makes no sense, we should study it and reflect upon it. Is this statement part of a myth? Then why judge it incomprehensible when we are able to discern some historical fact behind it? Is this statement a Freudian slip? Then why analyze it from a literal perspective?
Language is a stream as bottomless as the sea. Positivism regards the stream to be shallow. Once we go beyond the artificial stream bed we will notice a far richer experience from language than positivists dreamed of.