I am not a Logical Positivist

On the charge that I am simply regurgitating logical positivism, I plead ‘not guilty’. Logical positivism succumbed to ‘death by a thousand qualifications’ because it attempted to sharply define semantic meaningfulness (including the analytic-synthetic distinction), a project that proved impossible.  I was careful to avoid that mistake in my book, which was an extended version of a peer-reviewed philosophy paper (http://commons.pacificu.edu/eip/vol13/iss1/4/). If I had been simply channelling logical positivism, I’m sure the reviewers would have picked that up. Instead of defining semantic meaningfulness, I gave a relatively non-contentious example of semantically indeterminate ‘discourse’ (the ‘language’ of the tribe in Chapter 2), then argued that the features which made that discourse semantically indeterminate also apply to philosophy. I did briefly mention that the tribe’s ‘language’ lacked semantics, but this was not an attempt to draw a sharp distinction between semantics and pragmatics. After all, instrumental music lacks semantics (in the linguistic sense that includes indexicality and generativity, etc) but could be said to have some pragmatics. The distinction still holds, albeit not in the artificial way defined by the logical positivists.

I am not arguing for a sharp distinction between meaningful and meaningless discourse (as in logical positivism). Rather, I am positing a phenomenon of ‘creeping semantic vacuity’, where the semantic meaningfulness of a non-instrumental discourse becomes increasingly indeterminate as the length of the discourse increases. Although philosophy (in general) is one of its purest examples, creeping semantic vacuity is not a phenomenon unique to that discipline (and its corollaries in the purely discursive parts of cultural, literary, social, critical or political theory). The same phenomenon is found in the more esoteric religious or ‘spiritual’ discourses; and quite possibly, even in the more theoretical branches of science (for example, string theory in quantum physics). Nor is this a phenomenon that I can take credit for identifying, it is one that has been intuitively acknowledged for hundreds (if not thousands) of years; under such labels as ‘ivory tower syndrome’ and ‘scholasticism’. Arthur Brittan made broadly similar charges against social theory in his paper ‘Sociology as a Private Language’ in Poetics Today (1983).

About the author

Ben Gibran is a writer with an interest in the theory and social science of communication. His work has been published in Journal of Publishing, Publishing Research Quarterly, The Philosopher and Essays in Philosophy, as well as online and in newsprint. He is the author of Why Philosophy Fails: A View From Social Psychology and The DIY Prison: Why Cults Work.