“Why aren’t there any logical atomists around anymore?”

We have another r/AskPhilosophy question today! (Thanks to fellow moderator /u/ADefiniteDescription for the tag that brought it to my attention.) Reddit user RepresentativePop asks:

This is something that struck me recently, but I have no idea why it’s true. If you ask me to name any logical atomists, I would have to start naming people from a hundred years ago (Russell, early Wittgenstein, arguably Moore etc.). But I could name you several German idealists just in my department.

Now that I think about it, one of the first things I remember learning about logical atomists was that there weren’t really any around today (at least, that’s what my professor said).

I may have missed the metaphysical bandwagon here, but was there some devastating critique of logical atomism that blew it to smithereens? Was it because of something in the Investigations? What happened?

Let me first contradict what this professor referred to said: there are logical atomists around today, even in academic philosophy. I am one (I have the Twitter handle to prove it!). So are the following three people, among others:

  • Gülberk Koc Maclean

  • Gregory Landini

  • Peter Simons

That doesn’t mean what this professor said is groundless: there is still a widespread belief that logical atomism was refuted years ago.

That raises a second point: logical atomism is contested ground. None of the people identified as logical atomists above agree precisely on what the view is, and on how it should be best understood. There are shared commitments, to be sure, but we disagree on the details.

Indeed, it is not even clear among past figures who should be counted as a logical atomist. Russell used the phrase. Wittgenstein never did, despite the widespread view that Russell and Wittgenstein are the ‘canonical’ logical atomists: their logical atomisms each get a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article. (For what it is worth, my view is that taking Wittgenstein as a logical atomist, especially in the Tractatus, is highly misleading. If anything, his logical atomism occurs in the 1913 (Russell) Notes, before the introduction of showing and the view that logic consists of tautologies in the 1914 (Moore) Notes.)

That raises a third point, which is what was really being asked: the story about what happened is complicated. I wrote my thesis on logical atomism (abstract here), and there are still elements of the story that I am piecing together. But here is a narrative that fits the data that I have found so far.

Logical atomism is widely understood as a kind of search for acquaintance-complexes, that is, for complexes composed entirely of constituents with which we have acquaintance. Acquaintance here is understood as just a relation of awareness between a subject and some thing, like an object or a perceptible fact. So-understood, logical atomists aim to make their metaphysical and philosophical language match, mirror, or otherwise show the logical structure of the facts in the world. There is also an implicit reduction program here: one wants to trace all empirical knowledge back to sentences of this ideal language, most of which will be truth-functional combinations of atomic sentences that are made true, when they are true, by atomic facts.

Now that program has been widely discredited by arguments on various fronts against the doctrine of acquaintance. It was also sometimes subsumed under the more easily refuted logical positivist verificationist doctrine of meaning, partly because logical positivists like Carnap were such fans of logical atomism.

The idea of a philosophically ideal language was also partly discredited by arguments on various fronts to the effect that no such language was possible, practicable, or even desirable. One such front is the color exclusion problem that Wittgenstein wrestled with but could not solve (but see the abstract of Sarah Moss’s article on the problem—not everyone thinks it is insuperable). Another front is that some folks, notably Wittgenstein and other philosophers, like Ryle, Stebbing, Wisdom, and others criticized the program of analysis into an ideal language for one reason or another.

So logical atomism, understood in the standard way as the search for acquaintance-complexes, has many issues. But there are other interpretations: many people understand logical atomism as the view that the only facts in the world are atomic facts, and the truth conditions of all other sentences can be given using truth-functional combinations of such facts. Others see logical atomism as a program for doing metaphysics in which logical categories should mirror the metaphysical categories that there are. Still others see logical atomism as a kind of logical research program, with various disagreements over the details.

To add a coda: there are serious problems with the standard interpretation of logical atomism that have been discussed recently in the scholarly literature. I know because (full disclosure) I co-edited this collection of essays in which that interpretation is severely criticized.

So, in answer to the question, “Why aren’t there any logical atomists around anymore?” The answer is, “There are.”

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