Empiricism at the Crossroads
The Vienna Circle's Protocol-Sentence Debate
How can we understand empirical evidence? This was the topic of the Vienna Circle's protocol-sentence debate, which in its main thrust lasted from 1929 to 1936 and ended with the three major disputants still at odds. Contrary to recent legend, none of the leading Vienna Circle theorists were foundationalist empiricists in any traditional style.
The one who came closest, Moritz Schlick, pursued a highly individualistic course that sought to satisfy empiricism's concern with the reliability of its basic data by showing parts of everyday discourse to be securely grounded in our 'form of life'. For Rudolf Carnap, empiricism meant developing logico-linguistic frameworks that allowed the clear exhibition of the responsiveness of statements formulated within them to intersubjectively available evidence.
Otto Neurath's conception of empiricism was built upon a theory of fallible acceptance conditions for scientific testimony. His program of unified science comprised not only the various first-order empirical and formal sciences but also their metatheory, which employed tools borrowed from the formal or the empirical sciences and applied them to science itself.
"The famous protocol-sentence debate within theVienna Circle is one of the key episodes in the development of logical empiricism—and thus one of the key episodes in the development of twentieth-century philosophy. Uebel's book is by far the best treatment of this debate available and as such it is required reading for all students of modern philosophical thought."
—Michael Friedman, author of A Parting of the Ways
"Tom Uebel reminds us that there was less dogma and more diversity within the tradition of logical empiricism than legend would have us believe. With subtlety, sophistication, and a rich historical texture, Empiricism at the Crossroads brings back to life the most important debate within the Vienna Circle, the debate that, more than any other, shaped the development of the twentieth century's most influential movement in the philosophy of science. Uebel shows that the anti-foundationalism of the Vienna Circle's left wing—Neurath, Hahn, and Frank—is of enduring relevance to contemporary philosophy."
—Don Howard, author of Einstein
Thomas Uebel is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Manchester. He is the author of Overcoming Logical Positivism from Within (1992), and Vernunftkritik und Wissenschaft (2000). He also edited or co-edited Rediscovering the Forgotten Vienna Circle (1991), Otto Neurath's Economic Writings: Selections 1904–1945, and Der Wiener Kreis (2006).