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Russell in 1916
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Wittgenstein (second from right), Summer 1920
Logical atomism is a philosophical belief that originated in the early 20th century with the development of analytic philosophy. Its principal exponents were the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, the early work of his Austrian-born pupil and colleague Ludwig Wittgenstein, and his German counterpart Rudolf Carnap.
The theory holds that the world consists of ultimate logical "facts" (or "atoms") that cannot be broken down any further. Having originally propounded this stance in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein rejected it in his later Philosophical Investigations.
The name for this kind of theory was coined in 1918 by Russell in response to what he called "logical holism"—i.e., the belief that the world operates in such a way that no part can be known without the whole being known first. This belief is commonly called monism, and in particular, Russell (and G. E. Moore) were reacting to the absolute idealism dominant then in Britain.
The term was first coined in a 1911 essay by Russell. However, it became widely known only when Russell gave a series of lectures in 1918 entitled "The Philosophy of Logical Atomism". Russell was much influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein, as an introductory note explicitly acknowledges.
Russell and Moore broke themselves free from British Idealism which, for nearly 90 years, had dominated British philosophy. Russell would later recall in "My Mental Development" that "with a sense of escaping from prison, we allowed ourselves to think that grass is green, that the sun and stars would exist if no one was aware of them".
Russell referred to his atomistic doctrine as contrary to the tier "of the people who more or less follow Hegel" (PLA 178).
The first principle of logical atomism is that the World contains "facts". The facts are complex structures consisting of objects ("Particulars"). This he defines as "objects' relations in terms of atomic facts "(PLA 199) is a fact, either from an object with a simple property or from different objects, in relation to each other more easily. In addition, there are judgments ("Beliefs"), which are in a relationship to the facts, and by this relationship either true or false.
According to this theory, even ordinary objects of daily life "are apparently complex entities". According to Russell, words like "this" and "that" are used to denote particulars. In contrast, ordinary names such as "Socrates" actually are definitive descriptions. In the analysis of "Plato talks with his pupils", "Plato" needs to be replaced with something like "the man who was the teacher of Aristotle".
In 1905, Russell had already criticized Alexius Meinong, whose theories led to the paradox of the simultaneous existence and non-existence of fictional objects. This theory of descriptions was crucial to logical atomism, as Russell believed that language mirrored reality.
Differences between Russell's and Wittgenstein's atomism
At the time Russell delivered his lectures on logical atomism, he had lost contact with Wittgenstein. After World War I, Russell met with Wittgenstein again and helped him publish the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Wittgenstein's own version of Logical Atomism.
Although Wittgenstein did not use the expression Logical Atomism, the book espouses most of Russell's logical atomism except for Russell's Theory of Knowledge (T 5.4 and 5.5541). By 1918 Russell had moved away from this position. Nevertheless, the Tractatus differed so fundamentally from the philosophy of Russell that Wittgenstein always believed that Russell misunderstood the work.
The differences relate to many details, but the crucial difference is in a fundamentally different understanding of the task of philosophy. Wittgenstein believed that the task of philosophy was to clean up linguistic mistakes. Russell was ultimately concerned with establishing sound epistemological foundations. Epistemological questions such as how practical knowledge is possible did not interest Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein investigated the "limits of the world" and later on meaning.
For Wittgenstein, metaphysics and ethics were nonsensical, though he did not mean to devalue their importance in life by describing them in this way. Russell, on the other hand, believed that these subjects, particularly ethics, though belonging not to philosophy nor science and of possessing an inferior epistemological foundation, were of certain interest.
Influence and decline
The immediate effect of the Tractatus was enormous, particularly by the reception it received by the Vienna Circle. However, it is now claimed by many contemporary analytic philosophers, that the Vienna Circle misunderstood certain sections of the Tractatus. The indirect effect of the method, however, was perhaps even greater long-term, especially on Logical Positivism. Like Russell, Wittgenstein eventually rejected Logical Atomism. This rejection culminated in the posthumously published book, Philosophical Investigations.
- G. E. Moore
- Logical positivism
- Philosophy of language
- Ordinary language philosophy
- Theory of descriptions
- On Denoting
- Russell B, (1944) "My Mental Development", in Schilpp, Paul Arthur: "The Philosophy of Betrand Russell", New York, Tudor, 1951, pp 3-20
- Russell's Logical Atomism entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Logical atomism at PhilPapers
- Logical atomism at the Indiana Philosophy Ontology Project
- Russell's Metaphysics entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Peter Schulte: Bertrand Russell: Philosophie des Logischen Atomismus
- Kevin Klement: Russell's Logical Atomism
- Ian Proops: Wittgenstein's Logical Atomism
- Jeff Speaks: Russell on logical constructions and logical atomism, McGill University 2004