Positivism (or, Ernst Mach-style positivism) works like this - you can only know what you observe. Therefore, you should only make scientific judgements off of observable quantities. Any theory that deals with a quantity that has not yet been observed is therefore invalid.

Makes enough sense. So why is positivism so reviled in the scientific community?

After all, one of Mach's disciples, Albert Einstein, used the idea of positivism in the special theory of relativity; he proved that you could not say that two events are simultaneous, because no measurement could be made that would provide the same result for all observers. So the person considered to be the smartest man in recent times was a positivist; again, why the badmouthing?

Because even Einstien said that positivism was a good tool, but a very, very bad, no-good philosophy. Use it as a tool, and see Heisenberg create the probabilistic interpretation (or Copenhagen interpretation) of quantum mechanics, where only observable quantities are used. Use it as a philosophy, and Heisenberg discards quantum mechanics entirely, because he didn't yet have the tools to see separate atoms, or electrons, or anything that quantum mechanics dealt with. But previous theories predicted those particles, and all experiments seemed to say that they existed, so they were used in further theories, and physics advanced.

Two guys named Thomson and Kaufmann do experiments on cathode ray tubes; after much bending of the cathode rays, they come up with the electric charge and mass of the ray. But Kaufmann, the positivist, who had a more accurate reading, reported it as the ray having a certain ratio of electric charge to mass. Thomson decides that he's discovered a new particle, even though he can't observe it; he begins more research, seeing the same charge and mass elsewhere, and soon, he's known as J. J. Thomson, the man who discovered the electron.

I guess the main point here is that there's gold to be panned from assumptions. And, besides, how can you say that what you 'observe' is, in fact, what is there? Kaufmann assumed the theories behind the working of the cathode ray were correct, and measured a visual spot on a screen; a true positivist would have only accepted that there was a bright spot on the screen in front of him, since that was all that could be directly measured by observation. Ceci n'est pas une node, indeed.

Seriously, visit Ceci n'est pas une node, if you didn't quite get the last part... I know it's unclear.

Proofread this! let me know if I got something wrong! I had to figure this out from scientific papers...

If you'll forgive me, I'm going to go drink observable quantities of alcohol now.

See also : Logical Positivism. I spend most of my noding hours treading over ground that my forebear, Pedro, has already treaded...

Positivism is also applied to politics, or, as some folks other than I tend to call it, political science. Positivists, in this field, are those who make statements based on observations, and form hypotheses which are then tested using observational techniques (since the Geneva Convention forbids experimentation in this area). They are distinct from, say, Normative folks, who practice politics by describing what should be rather than what is.

Personally, I think that to call political science a science is a dangerous trivialization of the field, and introduces all sorts of baggage which is not useful in most cases and downright harmful in others. Some political scientists I know argue that political science is an 'observational hard science' in much the same way astronomy is, since experimentation is impractical to the point of impossibility, and only observation can be used to form and test hypotheses. However, I believe this to be a fundamentally flawed comparison for one central reason: astronomy is based on logical primitives which are readily verified through practical experimentation - Newtonian physics, gravity, constants such as the speed of light, and even relativity. The relationship of these testable 'primitives' of theory to the observations made in astronomy can be directly proven through application of simple scaling. No-one has ever managed to convince me, at least, that there are behavior patterns which humans follow in individual cases (or groups follow, or whatever) which are testable which can be scaled up to explain the interaction of groups such as nations, states, decisionmakers, etc. etc. There is a branch of political thought which attempts to explain international and intergroup dynamics using the experimentally-verified psychology of the human mind; however, their models tend to fail fairly spectacularly when used in attempts at prediction.

Historical Positivism

"A proposition is a picture of reality. A proposition is a model of reality as we think it to be." (Wittgenstein 4.01)

French Socialist Positivism:
Positivism was born as the bastard child of scientific rationality and utopian socialism. The early French socialist Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, developed the philosophy which was to become, in his words, the "new social order". Though some of Saint-Simon's ideas aren't merely a hop, skip, and a jump away from positivism's current status—he claimed, for instance, that his system should be governed by an elitist hierarchy of society's most "competent" members—he did introduce the "positive" approach to science. In efforts to solve sociological dilemmas, he relied on reason and the laws of the physical sciences, shifting away from dubious social panaceas such as superstition and nebulous intuition. Early positivists, influenced by Saint-Simon, analyzed human history in efforts to discover laws of social science that would enable them to predict the flow of society. They dichotomized history into organic periods—periods of growth—and critical periods—periods of change. With such methodical analysis, they arguably became the first sociologists.

Auguste Comte, Saint-Simon's protégé, expanded upon his teacher's system, partitioning history into three chronological, progressive stages:

  1. theological stage: Society accounts for its unknowns through the enlistment of the supernatural. In this stage the phenomenon of, say, a lightning bolt would be explained as the wrath of Zeus, and a pox might be the handiwork of a shady band of lascivious, flesh-eating imps.

  2. metaphysical stage: A society in the metaphysical stage has advanced enough that it no longer constructs weak bastions of superstition to mask its ignorance. However, the unknown is still the unknown, and society can provide no answers but only resign itself to "intellectual anarchy" and "dogmatic chaos".

  3. positive era: Comte claimed that society was right on the brink of the positive era. The only hang-up left to deal with—tiny really—was well...implementing his rigid, hierarchical, science-based government, and superseding current religion with a new, secular "Religion of Humanity" that emphasized universal philanthropy. Piece o' cake, right?

Comte's philosophy failed to reform society drastically simply because it was too idealistic, unrealistically calling for a merger of science and morality and government, not to mention a class upheaval. After his death in 1857, a schism arose among the positivists, and the influence of the philosophy was diminished for upwards of half a century.

Logical Positivism:
Positivism made its reappearance under the title 'logical positivism', which was the first stage of linguistic philosophy. Logical positivism arose during the 1920's mainly in two universities: the University of Vienna in Austria (in a group called the Vienna Circle) and England's Cambridge University. It rose as a reaction against the German idealism that, to many people, appeared to be fostering irrationality in continental politics.

The logical positivists borrowed from the early positivists the desire to unify all science under a framework of physical laws, as well as the methodical, scientific mindset for analyzing the world and gaining knowledge. Additionally, they incorporated David Hume's argument that there are only two types of propositions: (1) logical and mathematical propositions (Hume's propositions dealing with "relations of ideas"), and (2) commonsense and scientific propositions (Hume's propositions dealing with "matters of fact"). Therefore, they said, the only knowledge people can have is logical, mathematical, or scientific. This claim, along with linguistic arguments adopted from Ludwig Wittgenstein's influential Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, gave rise to the positivists' famous verifiability principle or test, to which they subjected metaphysics in efforts to smash it apart.

The verifiability test, the positivists claimed, would determine whether statements were meaningful or not by judging whether they were factual. In order to be judged factual, a statement had to, at least in principle, be empirically verifiable. However, no metaphysical statement would pass the test because no metaphysical statement can be directly tested. Consequently, all such statements—even basic ethical questions such as "Is rape wrong?"—were deemed meaningless and destroyed. Positivists sidestepped this ethical limbo by developing what was known as the emotive theory of ethics, which claimed that ethical statements are "noncognitive"—not conveying knowledge (and therefore not subject to the verifiability test) but merely expressive of our emotions and feelings.

Even so, logical positivism met its demise soon after it was born, mainly because its verifiability principle failed to pass its own test! This rather embarrassing flaw, coupled with the breakup of the Vienna Circle (its Jewish members were forced to flee from Hitler's National Socialism), halted positivism's momentum. By the end of World War II, it completely disintegrated...much to the delight of the budding existentialists, who bade it farewell with cries of Good riddance!

Contemporary Positivism

"'Positivism' refers to a programme of unifying all empirical enquiry on the supposed foundation of the method of natural science, particularly physics. If an enquiry cannot in principle be conducted in a factual, objectivist manner that attempts to uncover the laws governing phenomena, then supposedly it cannot rightly be called a science, or a potential science, and so its findings do not have the status of genuine knowledge. A sharp demarcation is drawn between knowledge and belief." (Lloyd p.72)

Modern-day scientific positivism is, at its base, a rejection of metaphysics. Positivists claim that metaphysical questions such as "What is real?" are meaningless because no person maintains an objective position against which to judge any answers given. After all, even the most 'objective', unbiased scientist still can ultimately only reduce his theories to observed patterns about the sense impressions he and others have experienced—and this wee realization tosses an objective knowledge of reality hopelessly out of reach.

Since our reliance on sensory experiences is our only means of analyzing the external world, our conception of 'reality' can be no more precise than received sensory data. And if that's the case, who's to say that our sense impressions really do reflect reality? Hume wreaked havoc among philosophers and scientists by asking just this question, "How do you know?" Answer the positivists: Well, uh, we won't—can'tknow anything. We can only hope to pattern scientific theories after the phenomena we observe and thus gain some dim sense of reality. But this 'reality' is, at best, something muted and dependent on our senses. It is our way of observing our way of observing the world, not the world itself.

Stephen Hawking elaborates:

"According to this way of thinking, a scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make. A good theory will describe a large range of phenomena on the basis of a few simple postulates and will make definite predictions that can be tested. If the predictions agree with the observations, the theory survives that test, though it can never be proved to be correct. On the other hand, if the observations disagree with the predictions, one has to discard or modify the theory.... If one takes the positivist position, as I do, one cannot say what time [or anything else] actually is. All one can do is describe what has been found to be a very good mathematical model for time and say what predictions it makes." (p.31)

Well that's positivism in a nutshell. It has received criticism for purportedly stifling the creative drive by bogging everything down with demands for empirical tests. And some people just plain think it's duller than ditchwater. Nevertheless, many scientists who have contributed to such fields as string theory and black holes subscribe to positivist philosophy and contend it's useful.

...And if Stephen Hawking likes it, well then you'd best be liking it too, muthafucka.

His full name was Isidore-Auguste-Marie-François-Xavier Comte. Imagine having to bubble that shit in on your 19th-century SAT's.

Hawking, Stephen. The Universe in a Nutshell. New York: Bantam Books, 2001.
Lavine, T.Z. From Socrates to Sartre: the Philosophic Quest. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.
Lloyd, Christopher. The Structures of History. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993. "Utilitarianism, Early Socialism, and Positivism". http://library.thinkquest.org/3376/Genktk3.htm
Sauvage, George M. "Positivism." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XII. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12312c.htm. May 18, 2002.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. U.S.: Routledge, 2001.

Pos"i*tiv*ism (?), n.

A system of philosophy originated by M. Auguste Comte, which deals only with positives. It excludes from philosophy everything but the natural phenomena or properties of knowable things, together with their invariable relations of coexistence and succession, as occurring in time and space. Such relations are denominated laws, which are to be discovered by observation, experiment, and comparison. This philosophy holds all inquiry into causes, both efficient and final, to be useless and unprofitable.


© Webster 1913.

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