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Why Did the Frankfurt School Misunderstand Logical Positivism?

by guest contributor Carl Sachs

By Carl Sachs

There is no need for protracted discussion as to whether or not the Frankfurt School theorists – predominantly Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse – misunderstood logical positivism in general and the Vienna Circle in particular. Recent scholarship on the Vienna Circle, and especially on Rudolf Carnap’s work in the 1920s and 1930s, shows that Carnap and other Vienna Circle philosophers in this time did not conform to the Frankfurt School characterization of them.[1] The question that remains is, why did the Frankfurt School misunderstand logical positivism? Was this misunderstanding avoidable or was it somehow a necessary corollary of Frankfurt School commitments? And how does this misunderstanding bear on their divergent attitudes towards metaphysics: metaphysics as an obstacle to be overcome (the Vienna Circle) or as the promise of a better world (the Frankfurt School)?

I will argue that in one crucial sense, the Frankfurt School interpretation was not only regrettable but avoidable. It consisted of the assumption that logical positivism was an attempt to carry out epistemology in a recognizably traditional sense. The project of epistemology, as the Frankfurt School understood it, was to show how knowledge is possible for rational finite subjects, and thus how rational finite subjects can cognize objects. According to this conception, epistemology without the subject is not epistemology at all. If one reads the Vienna Circle as fundamentally concerned with the explication of objectivity, which they carried out in purely formal terms so that nothing ‘subjective’ entered into the conception of objectivity, then it is indeed tempting to think that the Vienna Circle was attempting epistemology without the subject. If that were the case, then it is not too difficult to see how Horkheimer might find an affinity (though no more than that) between the project of the Vienna Circle and the nightmare of triumphant fascistic capitalism, in which everything unique and individual is canceled out.

However, this affinity between logical positivism and fascism rests on a profound misunderstanding of the Vienna Circle: that they were even attempting to carry out epistemology. They were not. The commitment to the unity of science, the explication of a purely formal conception of objectivity, and the use of mathematical logic to do so are not epistemological projects.[2] The Vienna Circle was, in its way, as opposed to epistemology as it was to metaphysics. Their project was not to explain how rational finite subjects can cognize objects but to exhibit a purely formal or structural conception of objectivity sufficient to demonstrate the unity of all sciences. To say that they were committed to a purely formal or structural conception of objectivity is to say that they wanted to use the tools of mathematical logic to show how all the sciences fit together in a purely formal way. They were not interested in answering traditional epistemological questions such as those of Descartes (“is knowledge possible?”) or Kant (“how is knowledge possible?”) or even Kant’s naturalistic successors who investigated the biological, psychological, and sociological processes that underpin the production of knowledge. Since they were not trying to do epistemology – neither rationalistic nor naturalistic – they should not be judged for having produced a bad one. (To be sure, Horkheimer adds that while science may be able to do without the subject, social critique cannot. In this he is perfectly correct. But an Otto Neurath or a Carnap could ably respond that this means only that social critique is not part of the sciences, and it is difficult to see how a Horkheimer or an Adorno could disagree.)

Up to this point, I have focused on why the Frankfurters misread the Viennese with regard to epistemology. However, there is a more profound and more correctly located disagreement between the Frankfurters and the Viennese, which concerns the pragmatic usefulness of metaphysics for social critique. The Viennese hostility to metaphysics is well-known but sometimes misunderstood. On the most common reading, the Vienna Circle objected to metaphysics because of their commitment to the verificationist theory of meaning: a statement is meaningful only if one can specify the experiential conditions under which that statement could be verified (with logic and mathematics being exempt from this requirement because they are ‘analytic’ as distinct from ‘synthetic’ statements: they are true ‘by meaning alone’ or ‘by convention’). Since no possible experience could verify the truth or falsity of metaphysical claims such as “we have free will” or “we will see our loved ones in another existence after death,” those claims are meaningless. However, the verifiability criterion of meaning is not what really motivates the Viennese hostility to metaphysics. For one thing, the Vienna Circle was united in its opposition to metaphysics but the verifiability criterion was hotly debated within the Circle. The real objection to metaphysics was that metaphysics was useless. The speculative metaphysical systems such as those of Henri Bergson or German Idealism were useless for science because they could not satisfy the formal conditions of objectivity. In historical terms, the problem was that one could not translate Hegel into Gottlob Frege, the “old logic” into “the new”.

The Frankfurters, and especially Adorno and Marcuse, were Hegelian-Marxists, where ‘Marxist’ is intended as a modifier of ‘Hegelian.’ That is, they on the one hand found in Hegel a profound resolution of Western epistemological and metaphysical problems, which on the other hand had to be transposed into concrete material terms for their truth-value to become fully actualized. In this they were ably preceded by Gyorgy Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness, which demonstrated how the history of epistemology could be understood as a mystified or disguised form of the history of class antagonisms.

What Adorno and Horkheimer undertook in their work is a continuation of Lukacs’s project but revised to consider both changes in political-economic conditions with the emergence of what was optimistically called Spätkapitalismus together with then-new epistemological positions that Lukacs did not and could not have considered: phenomenology and logical positivism. Adorno undertook this critique against phenomenology in Zur Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie (known in English as Against Epistemology) written in Oxford 1934-37, ostensibly under Gilbert Ryle, but not published until 1956. Horkheimer follows suit in “The Latest Attack on Metaphysics” (1937). But whereas Adorno argues that Husserlian phenomenology embodies contradictions because it expresses, at an intellectual level, the contradictions of bourgeois society, Horkheimer levels a quite different accusation against positivism. The problem with positivism is not that it contains contradictions about how the rational subject could cognize objects but that it disposes with rational subjectivity altogether. In this regard, Horkheimer sees it as prefiguring the rise of post-bourgeois capitalist society: fascism.

The precise reason for this opprobrium is difficult to discern. But at a philosophical level, and with much historical distance, this much can safely be said: for the Frankfurt School, following Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin, the truth-content of German Idealism had to be interpreted allegorically as the hope for a truly rational society: one in which concrete social relations were embodiments of what Wilfrid Sellars calls “the space of reasons.” The space of reasons is a space of community and cooperation, because the very nature of reasoning is that it is a collective project: it is not just the means-ends reasoning of what I should do (e.g. to maximize my own welfare or return-on-investment) but what we as a group can agree upon as to what we should do. A rational society would not only be without the irrationality and short-sightedness of contemporary neoliberalism; it would be a post-capitalist society in which cooperation, rather than competition, is the underlying logic of all institutions and the social practices supported by them.

The Viennese shared this dream to a considerable extent – Carnap and Neurath, at least, were open about their socialism. But for them, metaphysics as such was like religion for Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud – an obstacle to human flourishing, freedom, and happiness. Hence, they saw no point in undertaking a strategic recovery of its truth-content or interpreting it allegorically as the promise of utopia – and worse, it is not clear what room there would be in their philosophy of language for interpretation, allegory, and metaphor. The Circle’s philosophy of language is tailored to meet the needs of their anti-metaphysical logico-scientific philosophy: a formal semantics of declarative assertions.

To say that the Circle was concerned with the formal semantics of declarative assertions is to imply two things. First, it is to focus the attention on assertions or declaratives as a distinct kind of speech act. As Kukla and Lance put it, assertions are “agent-neutral” in both their “input” and “output”: an assertion can be said to anyone by anyone. The Viennese were perfectly right to focus on declarative assertions for their project: the form and content of a scientific explanation, viewed in semantic terms, is declarative assertions. For this reason, agent-neutrality – a neglect of subjectivity – was built into the Circle from the outset. To say that it was concerned with the formal semantics of such assertions is to say, secondly, that it used the tools of mathematical or symbolic logic – the work of Frege and Bertrand Russell and Alfred N. Whitehead – to represent declarative assertions and the structural relations between them.

This is not to deny that the Viennese were concerned with the basis of science in experience or the distinction between analytic and synthetic truths – far from it. It is to say only that their interest in logical analysis – explication via symbolic logic – led them to conceptualize the distinction between synthetic statements as truths of mathematical logic together with sensory qualities (though in the Aufbau Carnap attempts to describe even sensory qualities themselves in purely formal terms).

The resulting philosophy of language, shaped for the purpose of a formal semantics of declarative assertions, had no room to accommodate an allegorical interpretation of Absolute Spirit as a utopian rational society. To this extent, the Frankfurters were perfectly correct to say that their kind of project was impossible within the framework of the Viennese. However, the Frankfurters did not see that their project was compatible with that of the Viennese: that there is no reason why a purely formal explication of objectivity should interfere with a diagnosis and critique of social pathologies of rational subjectivity and intersubjectivity. But why did they think that it was? The reason why the Frankfurters thought their project was incompatible with the Viennese project is that they thought the Viennese were trying to do epistemology without the subject. This was the combination of the true belief that the Viennese project had no room for the subject and the false belief that the Viennese project was an attempt at epistemology. It would be more accurate to say that the Viennese project was as anti-epistemological as it was anti-metaphysical: they were no more concerned with rational subjectivity than they were with absolute reality in a metaphysical sense. This lack of mutual understanding between the Viennese and the Frankfurters is one of the great tragedies of 20th-century philosophy.

[1] For the Frankfurt School misunderstanding of the Vienna Circle, see O’Neill and Uebel (2004) and Vrahimis (2020). Vrahimis stresses that Horkheimer’s critique of positivism is based on Adorno’s critique of Husserl’s phenomenology. This requires the assumption that logical positivism is the successor to phenomenology. However, Stone (2006) argues that Carnap saw in Husserl’s phenomenology an attempt to rehabilitate the kind of comprehensive metaphysics that Kant prohibited. On this reading, logical positivism should be seen as a break with phenomenology, not a continuation of it. Perhaps the logical positivists nevertheless retain what was problematic (by Adorno’s lights) with Husserlian phenomenology, but Horkheimer does not demonstrate this – he assumes it. For the reading of the logical positivists that informs this essay, see footnote 2.

[2] The reading of the Vienna Circle as rejecting traditional epistemology is based on Friedmann (1987) and Uebel (1996). Friedmann emphasizes that the Aufbau depends on a formal conception of objectivity, not phenomenalism: “Scientific objectivity, according to Carnap, requires precisely such a unified system of purely structural definite descriptions; a phenomenalistic reduction of all concepts to the given is in no way essential” (530). Likewise, Uebel argues that Carnap’s project consisted of “trying to make intelligible – or ‘explicate’, as he would later put matters – the idea of objectivity that underlies scientific practice. Scientific objectivity was reconstructed as intersubjective agreement rendered possible and systematic by the structure and logical form of the linguistic medium of knowledge claims” (p. 424).

Carl Sachs is associate professor of philosophy at Marymount University. His books include Intentionality and the Myths of the Given (Routledge 2014) and Pragmatism in Transition (co-edited with Pete Olen; Palgrave 2017). He has published on neopragmatism, the Frankfurt School, and phenomenology.


Featured Image: Symbol from Otto Neurath’s visual Isotype language. Designed by Gerd Arntz, via Gerd Arntz Web Archive.

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