Studia Historica Septentrionalia 73


Ilkka Niiniluoto, Eino Kaila’s Critique of Metaphysics

Eino Kaila’s (1890–1958) philosophical passion was to solve the riddle of reality. He admired the exactness of the method of the Vienna Circle but used “logical empiricism” as a critical tool in developing his world view. Since philosophy is “the alpha and omega of science”, he argued that philosophical reflection has to be based upon the results of the best current work in physics, biology, and psychology.

Throughout his long career, Kaila was a consistent critic of metaphysics. In his early work of the 1910’s, he attacked both superficial naturalist worldviews and idealist speculation. Around 1920 he criticized vitalist explanations in biology and psychology but accepted the reality of atoms in opposition to Mach’s positivism. In 1926 Kaila characterized metaphysics as an emotional attempt to make reality familiar to us. He formulated a “Principle of Observability” or Testability, requiring that all statements about reality imply something definite about experience as a ground for their truth or probability. In particular, according to “critical realism”, the hypothesis about the existence of mind-independent reality is highly probable given the success of scientific theories in predicting observable phenomena.

During the 1930’s Kaila did not accept Schlick’s Principle of Verification, since he wished to defend a realist view of the laws of nature, or “invariances”. In his hierarchical conception of reality, Kaila adopted from Carnap’s constitution system the “Thesis of Translatability” by requiring that higher-level objects be viewed as invariances of lower level objects. In 1939 he still defended the Thesis of Translatability but allowed that for idealized theories it should be applied to the theory as a whole. Kaila admitted that, literally taken, the controversy between phenomenalist and realist physics was a metaphysical pseudoproblem but that there was still something correct in realism. This conclusion was sustained when Kaila gave up Translatability in the 1950s.

In the 1940’s Kaila explained metaphysical systems as “wishful dreams and mental insurance institutions”. He added that they can be put to a pragmatic test according to their consequences in action. In his last unfinished manuscript Kaila criticized metaphysics as a form of “slurring” but acknowledged that sometimes “dusky” thinking can yield brilliant hunches in an area without articulated concepts. His example of this idea was the “field thinking” among romantic philosophers of nature (Hegel, Snellman), which anticipated holistic theories in quantum theory, biological systems theory, and Gestalt psychology.

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