Analytic Philosophy

The Vienna Circle

What was Otto Neurath’s main philosophical contribution?

First, Neurath thought that the only connection between language and reality was metaphorical, and he believed that, at best, language and world “coincide” only because reality is all previously verified sentences. This required a “coherence theory of truth” for each individual sentence: a sentence is true if it coheres with already verified sentences. Only the entire language system can be verified. Neurath famously wrote:

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.

Second, Neurath did not think that phenomenalism could provide a valid foundation for scientific language because sense data are subjective. His alternative was to propose that mathematical physics be used for objective descriptions, a doctrine known as physicalism. Furthermore, language itself could be described in the language of mathematical physics because it is material, constituted by sounds and graphic symbols.


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