Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Doing Logic with a Hammer: Wittgenstein's Tractatus and the Polemics of Logical Positivism

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Doing Logic with a Hammer: Wittgenstein's Tractatus and the Polemics of Logical Positivism

Article excerpt

I. The Manifestos of the Vienna Circle

How does one start an avant-garde movement? First one needs a group of people ready to subsume their differences in the name of a common cause. Second, this cause must aspire to a fundamental, revolutionary change, a new departure, a utopian promise. And third, the new movement must be inaugurated in some form of public event and through the distribution of a collective statement, usually written anonymously, in the form of a manifesto. The genre of the manifesto crystallizes the most central features of early twentieth-century avant-gardism: utopian fervor, exaggerated claims, condensed slogans, a shrill tone, and demands for revolutionary action.1 Fuelled by the rapid translation and distribution of the Communist Manifesto, which helped create the manifesto as a genre, avant-garde manifestos such as those of Futurism and Surrealism proliferated with breath-taking speed in the early twentieth-century and quickly became the dominant genre of modernism, drawing everything from art to politics into its vortex.2

One example of this wider impact of the manifesto is a group of philosophers and scientists commonly known as the Vienna Circle.3 Although this circle was primarily concerned with a technical form of philosophy, it conforms to the features outlined above: it was founded through a collective manifesto that called for a radical movement of which the Circle was to be the vanguard. If the collectivist and polemical features of the Vienna Circle are acknowledged at all, they have been seen as external to its philosophical problems, as features interesting from the point of view of biography or sociology but not from the point of view of philosophy. It is this assumption that I seek to challenge in this paper, arguing that the participation of the Vienna Circle in the polemics of modernist and avant-garde movements and their manifestos can be traced into the center of its philosophical project, effecting what organs of publication it chose, how it defined its own aspirations, and finally how it conceived of the form of philosophical writing.4

The manifestos that inaugurated the Vienna Circle conform exactly to the rhetoric, tone, and function of avant-garde and socialist manifestos including the most classical of all classical manifestos, Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto. Where Marx and Engels start by evoking the "reactionary forces" of church and state, the manifesto of the Circle evokes the reactionary forces of theology, metaphysics, astrology; and while the Communist Manifesto demands the unification of proletarians in the battle against capitalism, the Circle's manifesto calls for the unification of all scientistically thinking people.5 The first manifesto of the Vienna Circle is driven by a sense of crisis that characterizes all manifestos. Addressing itself "To all Friends of the Scientific World View!" this manifesto begins with the exclamation, "We live at a critical intellectual moment!" and raises the specter of a newly dominant metaphysical and theological thinking which must be defeated at all cost.6 Calling for a battle against metaphysics, it pleads that "No one exclude themselves" from this pressing endeavor. The tone is one of intense urgency: it is high time that action be taken against the forces of metaphysics. This urgency is a question of philosophy, but it also has a social and political valence. The new school presents itself as a "modern" way of thinking that transforms public and private life as much as the practice of philosophy. This manifesto of the "scientistic world view" has fully absorbed the language of the socialist and the avant-garde manifesto, including its revolutionary rhetoric, its high concentration of exclamation marks, and its use of bold letters and caps that underline central slogans and demands. In addition, like many avant-garde manifestos, this text appeared not in a journal but rather as a leaflet distributed at the foundational event of the Vienna Circle. …

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