Saturday, January 08, 2005

Nietzsche and The Appeal of the Verifiability Principle

Marcus over at A Green Conservatism asks:

Has anyone ever seen an argument - or even a plea - in favor of the verification principle? I mean, beyond anything that just goes, "Hey. Now this is cool. We can bash the ethicists, metaphysicians, and theologians quite thoroughly with this."

As a preliminary stab at an answer, consider the Nietzsche quotation that Richard von Mises uses for the motto of his book Positivism (Harvard University Press, 1951, p. xii):

. . . die kleinen, unscheinbaren vorsichtigen Wahrheiten, welche mit strenger Methode gefunden werden, hoeher zu schaetzen als jene weiten, schwebenden, umschleiernden Allgemeinheiten, nach denen das Beduerfnis religoeser oder kuenstlerischer Zeitalter greift.

. . . to value more highly the little, unpretentious, cautious truths, arrived at by rigorous methods, than those vast, floating, veiling generalities for which the yearnings of a religious or artistic era reach.

A plea for the Verifiability Principle might just consist of an invocation of the above value judgment: precise, verifiable knowledge about matters of empirical fact is of higher value than
broad and uncertain theories about ultimates like God and the soul.

Of course, no metaphysician shares this value judgment -- a judgment which, nota bene, must be merely subjective on good positivist principles -- and will hasten to point out that the Principle is self-vitiating in that it implies its own lack of cognitive significance. (Exercise for the reader: 'verify' that for yourself.)

Of course, Hume, whose famous Fork is a conceptual precursor of the VP, faces a similar difficulty: What is the epistemological status of the principle that every significant idea derives from a sensory impression? Does that express a matter of empirical fact? No. A mere relation of ideas? No.

Then consign it to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion!