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The Vienna Circle was a group of philosophers and scientists who met between the two World Wars to outline a paradigm called Logical Positivism, which sought to place philosophy on a scientific foundation. Logical Positivism asserted that “only statements verifiable through direct observation or logical proof are meaningful in terms of conveying truth value, information, or factual content.”1

For members of the Vienna Circle, the shining example of empirical science was physics, including Einstein’s general theory of relativity that was revolutionizing knowledge of the physical world. Darwin’s theory of evolution was little discussed, in part because it did not fit the same model of scientific inquiry2 and in part because it hadn’t yet coalesced into what became known as the Modern Synthesis in the 1940s.3 An excellent book on the history and philosophy of the Vienna Circle is David Edmonds’ The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle.

Although the Vienna Circle didn’t pay much attention to Darwin, a Darwin-inspired philosophy called Pragmatism emerged in America at the dawn of the 20th century, which is described in Louis Menand’s excellent book The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. The first pragmatists included Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, and William James. They were soon to be joined by the likes of John Dewey, who translated the philosophy into practice.

Why are there periods of exceptional creativity in certain times and places? The words “circle” and “club” provide a hint to the answer to this question. According to David Edmonds, the intellectual foment of the Vienna Circle did not take place within the halls of universities. Instead, it took place in informal circles of people who met in public places such as the coffee houses that abounded in the city of Vienna. These circles had an identity and purpose, but they were also richly intermixed with other circles, allowing for the wider circulation of ideas. The informal gatherings that the Pragmatists described as clubs were much the same.

For all their creativity, these two movements can also be described as nascent. They started something important but by no means provided the final word. Also, these two movements were hugely consequential. They were oriented toward action in the world, not cloistered academic debate.

Fast-forwarding to the present, our current moment of history is every bit as formative as a century ago. While Darwin’s theory of evolution has proven its explanatory scope for the study of genetic evolution, the study of human cultural evolution is only now catching up. Entire disciplines, such as economics, are still based primarily on physics when they need to be based on the Darwinian triad of variation, selection, and replication at multiple scales and contexts.4

Turning to the discipline of philosophy, every branch (e.g., Metaphysics, Aesthetics, Epistemology, Ethics, Politics) needs to become informed by evolution and this is starting to happen–but not nearly fast enough! The statement “Nothing in philosophy makes sense except in the light of evolution” (borrowing from the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s famous dictum for biology),5 would be dumbfounding for most philosophers and hotly contested by many. In every university philosophy department in the world, there is no more than a tiny fraction of professors who have adopted an evolutionary perspective and their approach is treated as one of many perspectives rather than an overarching worldview. Finally, to a large extent, the academic discipline of philosophy has become cloistered inside the Ivory Tower and is not oriented toward action in the world.

What’s needed is a modern framework for “completing the Darwinian revolution”6 for philosophy and all other human-related disciplines, which emulates the coffee houses of Vienna and intellectual salons of America at the turn of the 20th century. Groups need to form that have a strong identity and purpose, along with the appropriate structure for getting things done, but that also freely exchange with other groups. Modern evolutionary science can even assist in constructing such a multi-group population structure for rapid conscious cultural evolution, to use some of its own terminologies.

The internet provides the means for such a population structure to form at a global scale, as we have learned from the Covid pandemic. Online meetings are already called Cafes, so only a little additional structuring is needed for them to address foundational issues in a cumulative fashion. 

Earlier this year, Prosocial World launched an initiative along these lines called the Prosocial Commons. Over 130 people joined and formed into groups based on shared interests. Using the tools developed by PW for creating cooperative and adaptable groups of all sorts, the PC groups refined their own sense of identity and purpose, learned about the core design principles for effective governance, and set goals to be carried out over a 12-week “generation” of activity, with cumulative progress over multiple generations in mind. This multi-group population structure is intended to strike the right balance between within- and between-group interactions, which made the Logical Positivist and Pragmatist movements so catalytic and impactful.7

One of these groups, which was initiated by the co-authors of this article, is called the Evolutionary Philosophy Circle (EPC) and is explicitly modeled after the Vienna Circle. In contrast to university philosophy departments, the EPC is in a position to envision the entire discipline of philosophy from an overarching evolutionary perspective. The circle is also in a position to return to philosophy’s roots of providing a guide for living in all walks of life, rather than being cloistered inside the Ivory Tower.8

If this sounds grandiose, the formation of the EPC was actually very humble. We extended an invitation to other members of the PC and more generally through our social networks. The invitation outlined the purpose of the group and specified a commitment to attend one meeting per week and an hour of preparation between meetings for the 12-week generation of activity so that useful work can be accomplished. This is part of the structuring that PW provides to avoid the uneven distribution of effort that plagues so many group endeavors.

As you might imagine, many people declined our invitation, typically praising the concept but declaring themselves too busy. Yet, enough people accepted our invitation to provide a quorum. These members include a mix of academic philosophers with university positions, people with serious interest and expertise in philosophy who work outside of university settings, and people who regard themselves primarily as eager learners. That said, when it comes to the broad purview of the EPC, including its pragmatic focus, everyone is in a position to act in the capacities of both a learner and a teacher.

Midway through the first generation of activity, the EPC has already made progress that can be shared worldwide. Here is a list of recorded events that have already taken place and future events open to the public. These events, along with supporting material that is being assembled, begin to outline what a comprehensive evolutionary philosophy would look like.

The EPC is designed to grow and differentiate into subgroups based on the interests of its members. The EPC is also integrated with other PC groups on topics such as the Arts and Economics/Business from an evolutionary perspective. If you wish to join this bold experiment in multilevel conscious cultural evolution, then please email hello@prosocial.world with a brief description of your background and interests.

Recorded EPC Events

Future EPC Events

Tuesdays at Noon EDT

https://prosocial-world.zoom.us/j/87124872000?pwd=VkNrcjFmTFFxUXNNdUt1SzdCSktnZz09#success

  • June 7 — Art and Evolution with Nathalie Gontier
  • June 14 — Cultural Replicators and the Future of Epistemology with Andy Norman
  • June 21 — An Evolutionary perspective on Morality, Religion, and Spirituality with David Sloan Wilson
  • June 28 — An Open Discussion on the Science of Evolution (Following the format of Andy Norman’s “Examined Lives” meetings.)
  • July 5 — Evolution and the Social Sciences: Understanding Organisations and Institutions as Major Transitions with JW Stoelhorst
  • July 12 — Revisiting to discuss our “Shared Identity and Purpose” with 5-minute (or so) speed talks encouraged from everyone to share what they now think evolutionary philosophy means to them and what we can do as a circle.

References:

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logical_positivism

[2] Hull, D. (1973). Darwin and his Critics. Chicago University Press.

[3] Provine, W. P. (2001). The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics. University of Chicago Press.

[4] Snower, D., & Wilson, D. S. (2022). Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Economics. Economics as an Evolutionary Science Discussion Paper.

[5] Dobzhansky, T. (1973). Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. American Biology Teacher, 35, 125–129.

[6] Wilson, D. S. (2019). This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. Pantheon/Random House.

[7] Please visit Ed Gibney’s Evolutionary Philosophy Blog for his perspective on Prosocial World and the Prosocial Commons.

[8] Andy Norman’s Cognitive Immunology Research Collaborative (CIRCE) illustrates the practical relevance of a view of epistemology informed by evolution.

Published On: June 7, 2022

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is president of Prosocial World and SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, through Prosocial World and in his own research and writing.  A complete archive of his work is available at www.David SloanWilson.world. His most recent books include his first novel, Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III, and a memoir, A Life Informed by Evolution.

Ed Gibney

Ed Gibney

Ed Gibney is a writer and philosopher. His first novel, Draining the Swamp, explores political philosophy through a bureaucratic fable, and his next book imagines the impact of life extension technologies on society. He blogs at evphil.com.

Andy Norman

Andy Norman

Andy Norman works at reviving the forgotten virtue of wisdom. He teaches philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University and writes about the philosophical foundations of humanist values. He’s published on topics ranging from the evolutionary origins of human reasoning to the architecture of knowledge systems. His work has appeared in Free Inquiry, The Humanist, Biology and Philosophy, Philosophical Quarterly, History and Theory, and Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.

One Comment

  • Mark Sloan says:

    I am encouraged to hear about your progress with Prosocial Commons. In particular, the topics you are covering in the Evolutionary Philosophy Circle hit right at the sweet spot of my interests.
    However, while ready to defend “Nothing in moral philosophy makes sense except in the light of evolution”, I am hesitant to more broadly include all of philosophy.
    And could science ever tell us what our goals and values ‘ought’ to be? I don’t see how, but am ready to hear arguments. That said, what science can tell us about morality as cooperation arguably provides an objective moral reference useful for resolving perhaps most disputes about what moral norms will be enforced in a culture.
    It is great that a group is pursuing such important questions from an evolutionary perspective.

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