[T]he logical empiricists can be interpreted as engaged in a project of voluntarist racial eliminativism. They did not take themselves to have an in principle argument against racial categorisation of human beings. Their frequent references to biological racial categorisation make it clear that they thought this was something you could coherently do, and it would be inconsistent with their version of conventionalism to argue that one is cognitively mistaken to use an empirically meaningful categorisation scheme. Hence, while the position I am attributing to them is similar to the position that racial taxonomic terms are simply meaningless, it is not quite that – it is not that they thought there was no empirically meaningful way that one could make sense of human racial taxonomy. Rather, it was that they thought one ought not use these terms....As such they adopted a policy of refusing to endorse any instances of racial categories being used as part of empirical explanations, and discouraging racial explanation by rhetorical means.--Liam Kofi Bright (2017) "Logical empiricists on race" Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Liam Kofi Bright reminded me of his paper in response to my post on the method of composite portraiture (which traces back to Galton). [I leave aside here to what degree Bright's paper fits that method.] In his paper he diagnoses a taboo within logical empiricism against (biological) racial explanations of social affairs. The taboo is maintained by an act of self-legislation in the adoption of certain conceptual frameworks (and methods) and a rhetorical-polemical attitude against those that used alternative conceptual frameworks (that included racial explanations). What makes taboos interesting is that, in order to be effective, they require self-command and group discipline/loyalty, that is, esprit des corps. This is possible when a group is reasonably small, shares an important aim, and has a way of controlling entry. Bright does not address the maintenance of the taboo, but in the sentences I skipped, Bright suggests that it is their (i.e., the logical empiricists') shared "political projects" and moral commitments, which are 'external' or 'optative' to the adopted framework that sustains the taboo (a word he does not use), undoubtedly facilitated by informal communication (when they were in the same place) and small numbers. Because Bright reads the logical empiricists in a Kantianizing fashion (with relativized a priori), we may remind ourselves that they are not the first to legislate a taboo within philosophy: in Kant's Die Metaphysik der Sitten, Kant (recall) limits -- as (ahh) Slavoj Žižek point out -- the possible philosophical role of history (as a form of inquiry) into the origin of a legitimate authority on practical grounds.
In his essay, Bright explicitly recognizes that the taboo (racial explanation) is maintained not because using it is meaningless. That is to say, the logical empiricists have not shown that using racial explanation is false. One need not be Freud to recognize one does not need taboos on the evidently false. But it also does not follow that the logical empiricists thought the taboo was hiding the truth. (If anything, using a taboo to hide the truth is self-defeating because one will generate contradictions, internal tensions, etc.) Rather, it's clear that they thought that regardless of the scientific status of racial explanation, there is always a non-trivial risk these get mingled with immoral/inhumane political aims. That is, the members of the Vienna Circle are (recall) engaged in responsible speech because they recognize what we call the inductive risks of legitimizing racial explanations. The polemic with Heidegger centers, in part, on their recognition that his way of philosophizing has noxious consequences (recall Glymour). Taboos can be efficient in preventing the predictable downstream costs and energy of combating the pernicious effects of the damage done by racial explanation (in the service of racial hierarchy, social exclusion, eugenic programs, etc.).
Bright is clear that the logical empiricists engaged in polemical rhetoric against those that violated their taboo. This is significant for two reasons: first, they attempted to impose their internal compact on others (who had not contracted into their program). That is, there is something imperialist to demand from others that they abide by your self-imposed taboo. Second, we can discern here strategies that became all too familiar in their students and heirs in later generations of analytical philosophy; an excessive willingness to use rhetorical means in combating opposing schools.
Given the political moment -- with racial subordination and elimination a live possibility -- it is easy to forgive the logical empiricists willingness to aim to impose their taboo with rhetorical means on others. They were were part of a struggle in which the racialist explanation loving sides were quite willing to support racial hierarchy, and worse. But most of the subsequent academic struggles their students engaged in are not like this; being wrong about when to discusses semantic composition or modal metaphysics does not lead to racial elimination.*
As an extensive aside, Bright recognizes a problematic exception to his argument: Neurath's translation (in 1910 with his first wife Anna Schapire-Neurath) of Galton's work on eugenics, Hereditary genius.** (Speaking of taboos, Neurath's translation goes unmentioned in the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Neurath!) Now, Bright could have said that in 1910 logical empiricism did not exist yet and that circumstances between 1910 and, say, the 1930s were different (the founding of the Vienna Circle can be dated to 1928 or so). This would also explain Neurath's apparent change of heart later. This is not Bright's strategy (perhaps because he also quotes from the relatively early (1921) Anti-Spengler.) With a nod to Thomas Uebel's contextual analysis and, more important, the writings of W.E. Du Bois, Bright remarks that a defense of racial breeding need not be a defense of white supremacy. And, undoubtedly, there is logical space between the can wish to breed for all kinds of characteristic without wishing for a racialized polity. And, in fact, in 1910 eugenics was part of a progressive, scientific gospel that influenced all kinds of policies and scientific projects not all of them pertaining to race (see Tim Leonard's book).
Even so, it is worth noting that by 1910, Galton's Heriditary Genius, was an old book (first published in 1869); it draws on Darwin's ideas, but by 1910 was certainly not cutting edge in its science. It has, in fact, a chapter, "The Comparative Worth of Different Races" which is as bad as it sounds.*** Galton, who was the leading statistician of his age, concludes "that the average intellectual standard of the negro race is some two grades below our own [Anglo-Saxon]." (In the hierarchy, the negro is still a grade above the "Australian type.") A satirist may note that Galton is, in fact, willing to acknowledge that there were better races than his own, for he remarks that "the average ability of the [long vanished!] Athenian race is, on the lowest possible estimate, very nearly two grades higher than our own." But Galton takes this to be an argument for racial purity because the Athenians allowed too much interbreeding!+ So, Galton's Heriditary Genius clearly embraces the existence of racial hierarchies (and these are not incidentally connected to British empire). But, interestingly enough (and I suspect this may have had some appeal to young Neurath), unlike many German eugenic tracts, Heriditary Genius is not antisemitic. While the Jews are not formerly classified in the racial hierarchy (due to lack of statistical evidence), most of the references to Jews in it are favorable.
Let me return to Bright's article. He establishes the existence of a philosophical taboo in (what I'll call) a highly polarized political context. Bright does not take a stance on the strategy he describes. But I am inclined to think that sometimes such taboos are necessary and useful and that the logical empiricists are in this, and in so many other ways, worth emulating. The opposing camps were part of a larger Kulturkampf where there was a genuine risk that bullets (and worse) would settle the true about racial hierarchy [to be precise: bullets can't settle the truth]. In the context of such high degree of polarization, the voluntary enforcement of taboos can serve a valuable function. They save and harness intellectual resources, they prevent unnecessary mingling of meaningful ideas with awful political and ethical policies, and they prevent the ambitious young from being tempted down unwise and immoral paths.
Of course, the rhetorical and professional enforcement of a taboo comes with a two-fold cost. First, as we have seen, the very success of the strategy may encourage imitation of certain, imperialist behaviors (involving less dangerous topics) in less existentially polarized contexts. Second, the existence of a taboo is also a temptation for the unscrupulous and ambitious young who find themselves born in later times. They may well think that there are low-hanging fruits which will advance the cause of knowledge (and their career). Sometimes these unwise are lucky and they live in quiet times and their greedy, rashness has no downside.