Nebraska Academy of Sciences


Date of this Version



Published in Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences, Volume 3 (1976).


Copyright 1976 by author(s).


Scholars of the history of the philosophy of science take it pretty much for granted that the scientist Ernst Mach had created much of the initial thrust if not many of the central principles of logical positivism. And for the most part they are quite right in thinking so. Although, as Toulmin aptly put it, 'Mach himself was never a "logical" positivist,' Mach's radically empiricistic and anti-metaphysical orientation was sufficient to justify the feelings of indebtedness most early logical positivists had for him. Indeed, the first manifesto of the so-called "Vienna Circle" of logical positivists was published by the Viennese Ernst Mach Society, a group headed by Moritz Schlick, the acknowledged founder of logical positivism. This manifesto announced that the Vienna Circle, in seeking 'to eliminate metaphysical problems and assertions as meaningless as well as to clarify the meanings of concepts and sentences of empirical science by showing their immediately observable content ... continues the endeavors initiated by Ernst Mach.'

Some of the central principles of logical positivism, such as the doctrine of the unity of science, are easy to extract from Mach's written works. But Mach was a little more cautious about stating anything quite as bold as the principle with which we will now be primarily concerned, namely, the Principle of Verification. In its fullest generality, the Principle of Verification is the principle that a statement or proposition is meaningful if, and only if, it is either analytically true or empirically verifiable. (The analytically true ones, thought of as true come what may, are thus verified by any evidence whatsoever.) While Mach is certainly responsible for less extreme statements about the merits of empirical verification, he primarily regarded himself as a scientist trying to cleanse science of metaphysical muddles, and not as a philosopher trying to demarcate the whole realm of meaningful statements or propositions. It is one thing to say that metaphysical statements are physically meaningless, and quite another thing to say that they are meaningless simpliciter. As the rising philosopher Corbin Fowler has pointed out, 'Physical propositions are meaningless from a metaphysical point of view.'

Throughout Mach's works, one gets the impression that Mach had intended only to keep metaphysical considerations out of science. Apparently he didn't care very much whether or not metaphysical considerations had a meaningful place outside of science. Rather, he had declared 'I do not share the Kantian point of view, in fact, occupy no metaphysical point of view, not even that of Berkeley.' If we respect this declaration, we must regard Mach's hostile attitude toward metaphysics as a scientist's attitude, and not as a philosopher's doctrine about what is wrong with metaphysics per se. Mach never attacked metaphysics on the presumption that whatever is unempirical or unscientific must be meaningless in all contexts, but only on the presumption that metaphysical considerations are alien to the central character of empirical science. The tenet that dominates Mach's discussions of this character is that 'Economy of communication and of apprehension is of the very essence of science.' Thus, scientific laws are merely highly economical means of describing and communicating our sensory experiences. (Since sensory experiences can be sorted out in any of various ways, Mach argued that the compartmentalization of sciences into various special sciences is arbitrary. Hence his doctrine of the unity of science.)