As far as I know the Vienna Circle was very relevant to science in the twentieth century. Why? What was the importance of the members' philosophy in science? Would science be too different from what it is today if it weren't for them? (I know these kinds of question are quite tricky; a comment is enough)

  • $\begingroup$ It is hard to say that Vienna Circle despite his effort "to reconceptualize empiricism by means of their interpretation of then [1930's] recent advances in the physical and formal sciences" had a significant impact on "real" scientific practice. Its main contibution was on "contemporary philosophy of empirical and formal science". $\endgroup$ Dec 20, 2014 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ @MauroALLEGRANZA could you elaborate in an answer? $\endgroup$
    – hjhjhj57
    Dec 21, 2014 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ I do not agree that VC "was very relevant to science in the twentieth century"; it was very relevant for philosophy of science in particular and philosophy in general, but I'm not able to remind of a significant discovery/theory in XX Century that we can state is due to some purported "application" of methodological principles related to VC. Also B.F.Skineer's radical behaviorism was influenced by Watson's work, developed before the '30s. $\endgroup$ Dec 22, 2014 at 10:47

2 Answers 2


The Vienna circle, and more broadly logical positivism that it promoted, was the key link connecting philosophy of classical physics in 19-th century, positivism and neo-Kantianism of the Marburg school, to the modern philosophy of science post the discoveries of relativity theory and quantum mechanics. There is a direct line of tradition from Kant, Mach and Cassirer, through Carnap, the most prominent figure of the circle, to Quine, Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend and Lakatos. Logical positivists were among the first to meet the philosophical challenges presented by the fundamental changes in physics at the turn of the 20-th century, and revise the conceptual framework inherited from their classical predecessors. Friedman's book gives a detailed account of the Vienna circle's ideas, their genesis and interaction with the science of the day.

Perhaps, the most direct influence of the Vienna circle on science proper was in shaping the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Both Bohr and Heisenberg were personally acquainted with the circle members in 1920-s, and incorporated verificationism, one of the central tenets of the logical positivism, into their interpretation. Verificationism asserts that empirically unverifiable statements are meaningless, and questions concerning them are pointless. This was Bohr's main line of defence against Einstein's criticisms of quantum mechanical "incompleteness". Another direct contribution, to formal semantics, came from the related focus of logical positivists on the logical analysis of language.

The development of falsificationism by Popper since 1930s, Quine's criticism of verificationism in Two Dogmas of Empiricism in 1950s, Kuhn's historical analysis of paradigm changes in science in 1960s, etc., undermined the fundamental positions of logical positivists. Although the original doctrines of the Vienna circle in philosophy of science are rarely defended today what came to replace them emerged in no small part from interaction with and revision of their ideas. Carnap himself was instrumental in publishing Kuhn's book about scientific revolutions, and saw the historical aspect of paradigms as an important addition to his own work on analysis of scientific language.

But perhaps the circle exerted its greatest influence by osmosis. It was founded in 1922 by Moritz Schlick and officially functioned until 1936, other prominent figures included aforementioned Carnap, Neurath, Hahn (of the Hahn-Banach theorem) and Menger. However many others, Popper, Quine, Reidemeister, Gödel, Tarski, etc. were either associated or actively interacted with the circle at various times. At the time the circle was almost a lone proponent of a rationalist approach to philosophy and science in Europe increasingly dominated by anti-intellectual trends. After the spread of Nazism several key members of the circle emigrated to the United States, where their ideas found far more favorable reception.

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    $\begingroup$ ``At the time the circle was almost a lone proponent of a rationalist approach to philosophy and science in Europe increasingly dominated by anti-intellectual trends.". This is almost true-- if you discount the Lvov-Warsaw school, plato.stanford.edu/entries/lvov-warsaw $\endgroup$ Jan 24, 2017 at 2:35
  • $\begingroup$ @MargaretFriedland Good point. Of course, there were also some old school intellectuals left, like Husserl, Cassirer, and even Freud, ironically, but at a time when younger minds were increasingly seduced by Heidegger (or worse) Vienna and Lvov-Warsaw stand out as philosophical youth magnets. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Jan 24, 2017 at 2:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Conifold: It's a little strange calling Heidegger 'anti-intellectual', though. He wasn't hostile to science, for one thing. He just approaches it in a completely different way from Popper, Kuhn, and all the rest, i.e. in a historicizing way (if I may call it that), taking into account that physics originated with the Presocratics, and was made into a separate subject by Aristotle. There is something to be said for Heidegger's view that a sound view of what science is and what its place in society should be needs to take this into account. $\endgroup$
    – R.P.
    Jan 24, 2017 at 17:06

The Vienna Circle consisted of two economists - namely the Menger's (among many other heavily credentialed geniuses). They were influential in the social sciences, namely those that apply game theory. The son even started his investigation with an exploration as to the success of mathematics in explaining economics from a purely rational point of view. That sounds like the beginnings of philosophical questioning to me! After all, one can easily trade out economics for any other field in which game theory can potentially be applied in such a questioning to obtain a philosophical question - namely how much can game theory apply to the world?

But then, it should come as no surprise that when new fields are forged in the sciences there is new history for philosophers to question and contemplate.

"Philosophy of science without history of science is empty; history of science without philosophy of science is blind." -Imre Lakatos

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    $\begingroup$ The circle included more philosophers and mathematicians than economists, and economics was not really central to its agenda. In fact, Menger wanted to be known only as "sympathetic associate". $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Dec 25, 2014 at 9:41
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    $\begingroup$ Although economics wasn't central to the agenda at the time, as economics at that time wasn't considered fully as a science alongside the "harder" sciences that apply the language of mathematics, I used it as an example of one way in which it influenced philosophy of science - by the creation of a new field, and with it, new history. Your last sentence is quite interesting however! $\endgroup$ Dec 26, 2014 at 3:29

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