The Reception of German Scientific Philosophy in North America: 1930–1962

  • Graham Solomon
Part of the The Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science book series (WONS, volume 65)


It is quite widely believed that something like a consensus in North American philosophy of science2 existed in the period roughly covering 1930 to 1960. I choose 1930 because it dates the beginning of publication of the journal Erkenntnis (edited initially by Reichenbach and Carnap), and opens a decade of something like editorial control over major work in philosophy of science and related fields. Think in this connection of the two series, “Schriften zur Wissenschaftlichen Weltauffassung” (edited by Philipp Frank and Moritz Schlick), and “Einheitswissenshaft” (edited initially by Otto Neurath, Carnap, Frank, and Hans Hahn). The first of a number of major conferences in analytic philosophy of science was held in Paris in 1935. In 1938 the publication of the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science began, under the initiative of Neurath, with Carnap and Charles Morris as associate editors. I note with interest that the founding editor ofPhilosophy of Science, William Malisoff, was also a member of the Advisory Committee of the Encyclopedia. Philosophy of Science began publication in January 1934; the lead article, “On the Character of Philosophic Problems”, is Malisoff’ translation of Carnap’s essay originally written in German. All of the developments just outlined took place within what we now regard as the discipline of analytic philosophy. The tool of philosophy is the new and more powerful logic of Russell and Whitehead, Frege, Boole and DeMorgan.


Analytic Philosophy Scientific Revolution Logical Empiricism International Encyclopedia Sentential Theory 
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  1. 2.
    Although I will use the phrase ‘philosophy of science’, it is not to be understood in any of its more recent meanings, whatever they may be. The philosophers of science I will be discussing all subscribed to the scientific philosophy, in something like the sense given to that position in Hans Reichenbach’s The Rise of Scientific Philosophy. The scientific philosophy stands in opposition to other philosophies, whether or not they are philosophies of science. Here is a brief statement of the character of scientific philosophy from Reichenbach’s book (p. 308): There is a body of philosophical knowledge. Philosophy is no longer the story of men who attempted in vain to “say the unsayable” in pictures or verbose constructions of pseudological form. Philosophy is logical analysis of all forms of human thought; what it has to say can be stated in comprehensible terms, and there is nothing “unsayable” to which it has to capitulate. Philosophy is scientific in its method; it gathers results accessible to demonstration and assented to by those who are sufficiently trained in logic and science. If it still includes unsolved problems subject to controversy, there is good hope that they will be solved by the same methods as those which, for other problems, have led to solutions commonly accepted today.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Neurath’s introduction to this work distinguishes between the cooperative empirical synthesis that results in the never-completed encyclopedia, and that “metaphysical comprehensiveness” that results in completed idiosyncratic systems.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Scheffler’s critique, successful or not, introduced an unfortunate understanding of these philosophers. Carnap wrote an accepting review of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. From the beginning, those who worked on the Encyclopedia counted Kuhn as one of their own. For more on Scheffler see note 9 below.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Quine had demonstrated in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”, read by us with almost religious awe, that all was not well with the analytic/synthetic distinction. It was a sign of the times that one could not get a Ph.D. in philosophy from a first-rate American university without producing one’s own explication of the notion of analyticity.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Compare Carnap’s characterization ofphilosophy with that of Reichenbach quoted in note 2 above.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Parallel developments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (especially dependent upon Hegel’s idealism) displayed the absorption of philosophy into the history of philosophy. Carnap, Reichenbach, and perhaps most especially my teacher, Nelson Goodman, had no patience with those who worked in the history ofphilosophy. These orthodox logical empiricists would not have understood that history and philosophy of science or Wissenschaftstheorie are perfectly legitimate academic subject matters. But of course it was Kuhn’s theory of the history of science and Feyerabend’s ideas about the dialectical development of science that were to spearhead the new developments that replaced the sterility of a too-restrictive logical analysis of science with a more robust kind of understanding of science. It is to be regretted, however, that for many Kuhn and Feyerabend came to symbolize the utter subjectivity of all cognitive decisions, and the relativity of social (including academic and scientific) communities. Their work deserved a better reward.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    In 1954, Philipp Frank gave a lecture for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston. In the audience, seated side-by-side, were Tom Kuhn and Adolf Grünbaum. Frank was discussing change in science, progress in science. He stated that if one really wants to understand scientific progress, one should consider the example of a woman buying a dress. (These were more generous times-political correctness meant something quite different in 1954 than it does now. Senator McCarthy was finding communists everywhere.) The woman will look for a dress that fits properly the changes in her body that have taken place since the last dress was purchased, hopefully at the same time not distorting the good fit of other parts of her body. Thus there are two primary considerations: the dress must fit better than older ones in places that matter, and there must be a better overall fit. Of course some good fit might be lost in attempting to satisfy the second consideration. So also in science we look for satisfaction of the two considerations, now applied to theories. Often a newly accepted theory has lost some of the explanatory power of its earlier rival. Examples are plentiful. The loss of explanatory power of a theory is now widely referred to as ‘Kuhn loss’. Years later, shortly before his death, Adolf reminded Tom of Frank’s remarks. Tom Kuhn was shocked. It is Adolf’s view that Tom had absorbed the lesson offered by Frank, had repressed conscious memory of it, and had, by some mental trickery, called it into consciousness as his own idea. But now we know the truth: one of the fathers of the scientific philosophy actually wrote Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Here is Scheffler’s statement of the outcome of Kuhn’s ideas in Structure: But now see how far we have come from the standard view [what I have been calling the orthodox or received view]. Independent and public controls are no more, communication has failed, the common universe of things is a delusion, reality itself is made by the scientist rather than discovered by him. In place of a community of rational men following objective procedures in the pursuit of truth, we have a set of isolated monads, within each one of which belief forms without systematic constraints. I cannot myself, believe that this bleak picture, representing an extravagant idealism, is true. In fact, it seems to me a reductio ad absurdum of the reasonings from which it flows. All that was needed was that professors of deconstruction came to accept what Scheffler rejected. Both philosophy of science and science itself were served with the notice that they had become redundant.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    It is important to reflect on the fact that although the founders of the orthodoxy were trained, in the first instance, as scientists, and spent most of their early professional lives in the environment of scientists, when they came to the United States they were immediately absorbed into departments of philosophy. As time went by, more and more philosophers of science had little or no training in science.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    Again Carl Hempel comes to mind as the best representative of the intellectual integrity of logical empiricists. Just recall his work on changes in the empiricist meaning criterion, and his more recent efforts to modify the H-D model of explanation and to locate criteria ofrationality at work in the activities of scientists.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    There are signs of a modest revival, resulting from a more sensitive recognition of the merits of early logical positivism. The work of Michael Friedman leads the way.Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    There is evidence that Maxwell’s work in science consciously employed elements of Whewell’s methodology; Darwin’s copy of Whewell’s Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences is richly annotated.Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    Recall that Scheffler refers to Kuhn’s view as an ‘extravagant idealism’ . The old dialectical clashes may become subdued; they never completely disappear.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    Including Ernst Cassirer, who with his fellow neo-Kantians in Marburg was the first to recognize that Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft is a work in philosophy of science. We have only recently begun to appreciate how powerful the influence of that book has been on later scientists and philosophers of science.Google Scholar
  15. 16.
    I am deliberately eliminating Popperianism from consideration. Popper’s historical position is ambiguous. His falsificationism produced a legion of loyal followers, most of them opposed to the views of the major orthodox figures. On the other hand, Popper is the strongest advocate of the view that the logic of science is hypothetico-deductive, and from this point of view can perhaps be included amongst the orthodox. Only ‘perhaps’ . His insistence that the logic of science is exclusively deductive, and that therefore there is no induction, does not sit well with the prevailing orthodoxy.Google Scholar
  16. 17.
    I cannot resist the personal note that after graduation from the University of Pennsylvania my first offer of employment came, not from a college or university, but from the Burroughs Adding Machine Company in Philadelphia. The post they envisaged would not have involved me in the mathematics of computers, a move that would have delayed development of the great Philadelphia mainframe almost indefinitely, but was one in which I would have spent my time trying to persuade the U. S. military of the great promise of computers. In effect, I would have been propagandizing on behalfGoogle Scholar
  17. 18.
    ‘Platform,’ in its use in ordinary English, is a list of political or ideological commitments. For these despisers of idealism, there is no sharp line that divides ideology and philosophy. On all fronts, the victory for naturalism is thought to be a forgone conclusion. It is to be noted that seventeen philosophers signed themselves as authors of this platform. Such mutual agreement is surely rare in philosophy. In politics, however, one counts votes.Google Scholar
  18. 19.
    In an article anthologized in one of the Biblical texts of logical empiricism — Readings in Philosophical Analysis — Herbert Feigl refers to William James’s distinction between the tough-minded and the tender-minded, listing among the former empiricists, skeptics, naturalists, positivists and pragmatists, and among the latter, speculative metaphysicians, intuitionists, rationalists and absolute idealists. Would that it were all that simple! It is to be regretted that Feigl and other tough-minded empiricists did not live long enough to witness Nicholas Rescher’s attempt systematically to consolidate the gains made by pragmatism, realism, and idealism, all in the context of acceptance of the epistemic priority of science, and all worked out with scrupulous attention to the canonical demands of good analytic philosophy.Google Scholar
  19. 20.
    I apologize for use of this term, which in normal usage, has a pejorative sense: Science can answer all of our questions — out with religion, out with metaphysics, out with all forms of irrationality. What I intend the word to denote, in this context, is natural science as the best-confirmed source of reliable knowledge.Google Scholar
  20. 21.
    It is of great interest to note that existentialist-inspired ideas only came much later to North America, and they arrived, not because of matured philosophical interest in ‘Continental’ philosophy, but because of the efforts, largely anti-scientific in nature, of religious thinkers and literary critics. The ‘postmodern’ revolt has created conferences proclaiming the death of science, and we are encouraged not to become mourners.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Graham Solomon
    • 1
  1. 1.Wilfrid Laurier UniversityWaterlooCanada

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