Logical Empiricism and the Philosophy of Biology in the 1940s and 1950s

Sahotra Sarkar

University of Texas at Austin

Critics and historians of logical empiricism often take it for granted that the movement ignored details of the special sciences in its alleged deification of modern physics. In particular, in the case of biology, Wolters (e.g., 1999) has argued that, not only did the logical empiricists not pay adequate attention to the life sciences but, also, when they did, they focused on largely irrelevant problems such as those of holism and mechanism. The purpose of this paper is to challenge both claims in this thesis. Hofer (2002) has already focused on the contacts between the logical empiricists, especially Philipp Frank, and Ludwig von Bertalannfy in the 1930s. This paper focuses on the 1940s and, especially, the 1950s when molecular biology emerged and permanently transformed the life sciences. The critical figures are J.H. Woodger and Ernest Nagel. While the former was never formally associated with the logical empiricists, the tenor of his work including his operationalism and attempts to develop biology axiomatically, places him intellectually within the tradition in scientific epistemology initiated by logical empiricism. Both Woodger and Nagel focused on the debate between reductionism/mechanism and holism/ emergentism/organicism. They chose that focus because it was central to theoretical thinking in biology from the 1920s till the 1950s until the advent of molecular biology was typically interpreted as having decided the issue in favor of the mechanists/reductionists (Sarkar 1998). The debate within biology in the 1930s and 1940s placed figures such as J. S. Haldane, J. Needham, and E. S. Russell on the side of holism/emergentism/organicism with the mechanists/reductionists being represented by L. Hogben, D’Arcy Thompson, and others. Woodger sided with the emergentists; Nagel provided critical support to the reductionists. Thus, not only were major logical empiricist figures aware of the most salient theoretical debates within biology at that time, they chose to intervene in that debate. In fact, a divorce from biology was more characterist of the post-positivist philosophy of science of the 1960s (with D. Hull and K. Schaffner being exceptions) than of logical empiricism in its heyday.