The Verification Criterion and its Desirability
“The greatest defect of Logical Positivism is that nearly all of it was false” (Parkinson and Stuart). The rise and fall of Logical Positivism as a system of thought is summed up in the context of this statement by A.J. Ayer. Once one of the world’s foremost positivists, his striking indictment reflects both its once deep appeal as well as its fall in stature. This essay will explore Logical Positivism and its near synonymous concept, the Verification Criterion of Meaning, as well as provide an argument for the criterion’s adoption.
In the early 20th century, philosophy was on the brink of a linguistic turn. Revolutions in scientific understanding had taken questions that had once been philosophical into the empirical realm. Meanwhile, empiricists such as David Hume had laid the groundwork by arguing both that knowledge is derived empirically or analytically as well as by arguing that non-empirical disciplines such as much of metaphysics had no place in philosophy. Urged on by the ideas of Wittengstein and the Vienna Circle of logicians around Carnap, a powerful movement emerged from Austria and Germany arguing that the role of philosophy was or ought to be the clarification and precision of language used by science, not trying to use reason to back up the vague speculative claims so beloved by many Continental philosophers. Indeed, they came to believe that every problem of philosophy would be solved, one by one, via this new system (Ray).
The Verification Criterion is the lynchpin of this entire philosophical movement. It has many formulations, but the simplest is that any proposition which cannot possibly be verified is meaningless. An example of such a non-verifiable statement that Ayer uses is “the Absolute enters into, but is itself incapable of, evolution and progress” (Ayer 49). As such, large chunks of metaphysics (and to positivists, ethics as well) cannot possibly be meaningful statements. The original positivists contended that by eliminating such meaningless propositions, all of the seemingly complex problems of philosophy would vanish. Here the term meaningless does not imply a lack of rhetorical or emotive information communication, but instead an absence of truth value or ability to apply the statements to reality. It accomplished the linguistic turn by subtly grounding the problems of philosophy in semantics.
As time has gone on, challenges raised have produced more specific formulations of Verification. Does statements we cannot currently verify survive the criterion? What if one argues that we can’t really prove any statement true for certain? What does meaning mean in this context? Strong Verification and Weak Verification emerged, where Weak Verification referred to a version of verification where all that is required for a statement to be meaningful is for any kind of observation to produce information that might help ascertain the truth value of a statement. Weak Verification also helps with the problem of universal statements, where strong verification would require proving a statement in an infinite, and thus impossible, number of circumstances (Ayer). Because of the vulnerability of Strong Verification, this paper is explicitly advocating for a position inclined towards Weak verification.
Issues defining meaning forces defenders to adopt the Analytic/Synthetic distinction in order to explain the sentences that could emerge from the Verification Criterion. However, these same distinctions later helped bring about the decline of Positivism, by opening it to attacks against this distinction by Quine. The Verification Criterion itself played a key role in the decline of Positivism. As time went on, many noted that it wasn’t clear that the Verification Criterion satisfied its own Criteria. It was not clear that it is analytic, and it was explicitly designed to be non-empirical and thus non-synthetic. In fact, even if it was analytic, then it would leave it in the unfortunate position of being a tautology (Creath). This self-refutation attack motivated remaining positivists to further refine the Criterion in ways such as “the meaning of a sentence is its verification conditions”. It also represents the key charge that any defender of Verification must answer. Attacks such as these brought about the fall of Verificationism as a dominant force in philosophy.
And yet, there remains a power to the Verification Criterion that validates its adoption. The same power that made it so appealing to the logical positivists. For many, the task of producing a philosophical system, with its minutia is quite complex. It requires numerous postulates and angles of inquiry. The fundamental strength of the Verification Criterion is simplicity. It is easy to understand, a simple test to apply, eliminates many of the thorniest issues of philosophy, and acts as a load bearer for an entire philosophical system. To call it “easy” may appear as damning praise, but it’s a very valid reason for adoption. It is not merely economical but also parsimonious. Provided that it can be justified, it eliminates many of the other postulates that are required and leaves a philosophical system open to attack.
A second consideration that works in favor of adoption is that it accomplishes one of the key goals of modern analytic philosophy by its nature. That is that it helps rationalize the system of thought and inquiry that happens outside of empirical science on a pragmatic level. It cuts the noise, and allows for coherent arguments for what separates science from metaphysics and pseudoscience in a way that is agreeable to modern experience. As important as what Verification aligns philosophical language with is what is thrown out. Broad swathes of philosophy including aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, ontology, and theology are left on the cutting room floor, including notions like Existentialism, Hegelianism, and the collective works of many of Europe’s most prominent successors to Kant.
However, the previous two arguments merely prove that the Verification Criterion has great utility. Indeed, that is the reason it was ever adopted in the first place. The fact that it’s proponents were even capable of earnestly discussing the idea of “solving” philosophy is a representation to the degree that the Criterion is capable of simplifying and rationalizing seemingly intractable problems. What any modern defender of verification needs to accomplish is not demonstrate its use, but it’s resilience to external attack. Here too, I believe that the defenders of Verification have more tools at their disposal then many believe.
The charge that Verification is self-refuting has been answered before in a number of ways. A simple way is to accept that it is actually a tautology, but then to subsequently argue that it is a non-trivial one and thus has relevance as an analytic principle. A second is to argue that the Verification Criterion is neither synthetic nor analytic but is instead a component of a meta-language that is outside of its own scope. Indeed, this was the defense of Carnap against charges of self-refutation (Creath). The first argument weakens the scope of verification and the second requires an entire length explanation on the nature of this meta-language, but both are at least plausible solutions to the self-refutation problem.
A proponent of Verification can also defend themselves against the charge that there is no formulation of Verification that is truly palatable by not making a strong stand on any of the current definitions. It is not a fatal problem for a Verificationist to admit that no perfect definition has yet emerged that allows for a solution to problems such as the one posed by universals. Instead, a Verificationist can appeal to the drive in analytic circles to produce some kind of system that removes metaphysics from discourse to make the claim that there is some type of instinctual drive to Verification that demonstrates that the principle has inherent value even in the absence of a perfect definition. This can, but doesn’t have to be followed, with the assertion that a working definition will inevitably emerge even if it doesn’t currently exist, just because if Verification were truly as broken as its detractors insist, it wouldn’t keep re-emerging in vague ways in other systems.
In conclusion, the Verification Criterion and the larger Logical Positivist project has an important but infamous place in the history of philosophy and scientific language. It represents an almost fabled solution to the persistent presence of complexities that make discourse so challenging. And yet, it remains reviled by many for its difficulties handling its own implications. Yet, there is still a power to Verification, one that makes it possibly quite worthwhile to adopt.