The cost of positivism in the 20th century

Toby Huff in Max Weber and the Methodology of the Social Scienes (Transaction Books, 1984) suggested that the philosophy of science that Weber was reading read at the turn of the century was in better shape than the positivism that took off later under the inspiration of Mach, Wittgenstein and Russell. This means that the philosophy of science went backwards under the influence of positivism.

Question 1. Would the world be any worse off if the complete corpus of writing on Logical Postitivism and Logical Empiricism disappeared in a puff of smoke? In other words, what novel, robust and helpful ideas emerged from that prolonged effort?

Question 2. What was the dollar cost of that enterprise (salaries, on costs, travel, publications, etc etc)?

Question 3. What was the opportunity cost – the value of other work that might have been done instead?

Is this too hard on the positivists? Someone suggested that it was a great service to remind people of the importance of logic and evidence. But how many scientists needed to be told that?

The devil was in the details of the way that evidence was supposed to be used, either for verification or for assigning a numerical probability to theories. The Carnap program to assign objective probabilities never worked and the Bayesian quest for subjective probabilities appears to be on the same track.

What about the need to tame the proliferation of metaphysical nonsense? How did positivism propose to achieve that? The verification criterion of meaning never worked, it may have been finally give up but it seems that the search for a criterion of “cognitively significant” utterances continues to the present day.

The late Liam Hudson wrote some interesting comments on psychology of the “rat and pigeon” variety which could be applied to some of the strands of mainstream economics. He warned that the pursuit of any really new (and desirable) conception of psychology would be met with fierce resistance in the profession. To the extent the venture was successful it would result in a substantial redistribution of effort.

“Activities now seen as significant will appear trivial, and vice versa.”

One of the things that has created huge problems for this kind of re-thinking is the deeply rooted distrust of ‘highfalutin’ theory and especially metaphysics in the mainstream of science and in the dominant schools of the philosophy of science. This contempt for metaphysics can be found in Hume’s advice to “commit it to the flames” and it has come down to us in the line of thought that is often called British empiricism even though its strongest expression appeared in the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle. Alfred Ayer brought logical positivism back to England and he launched it in the English-speaking world with his book “Language Truth and Logic”. This made no impression before WWII but it caught a wave of iconoclasm among the host of new students who flooded the universities after the war. The movement began to spread beyond Europe in the late 1930s as the members of the Vienna Circle, many of them Jewish, fled for their lives. In was promoted with great zeal in the United States, led by Carnap and Hempel, under the revised brand name “Logical Empiricism”.

Manning Clarke, the Australian historian, recorded the flavour of encountering the crusading spirit of the positivists, round about 1940.

The first time I sat down in the ‘caf’ at Melbourne University I asked politely ‘Would you please pass the salt?’ My neighbour, a gifted woman, looked at me with the eye of the saved for the damned and said. ‘I don’t know what you mean.’ I decided to listen to what was going on. In the ensuing weeks I picked up a new vocabulary. I often heard the word ‘tautology’: that, I gathered, was a sin against the Holy Ghost. I heard the phrase ‘non sequitur’. I was often asked: ‘Is that a verifiable proposition?’

In a similar vein Priestley wrote in Literature and Western Man.

The dismissal of metaphysics as mere fancy, ethics as a waste of words, left a vacuum, not to be filled by philosophy reduced to a narrow edge and its ally, science. It may be objected that logical positivism is highly technical and difficult, not for the general public. But any doctrine – and especially one that is new, original, and as irreverent and ruthlessly intolerant as any undergraduate would wish it to be – cannot be brilliantly expounded to some of the brightest young men in twenty or thirty universities without having some effect both inside and outside those universities. A certain atmosphere was created…that seemed to narrow and chill the mind.

There are at least two problems with the verification principle: first, many scientific propositions, such as universal laws in the form “all ravens are black” cannot be strictly verified (we can never observe all the ravens in the universe) and so are strictly meaningless according to the verification principle.

Secondly, a whole array of important principles, topics, theories and discourses were thrown into the bin of “meaningless nonsense”. In this bin we find ethical, moral and political principles, that is, the principles that determine the way we live our lives and attempt to organise our social and political arrangements. We also find the principles of method or (in more learned language) “methodology” the spoken and unspoken maxims of procedure and protocol in scholarship and research. And we also find, at a deeper level, the metaphors, themes and presuppositions which dictate the questions that we ask about our subject matter and what sort of theories and explanations are acceptable as possible answers to those questions.

Clearly, civilised life and progressive research are unlikely to prosper if all the above matters are ruled out of court as “meaningless”. Most people did not adopt the tenets of positivism and the positivists themselves had to find some way around their own doctrines. However, anyone who tried to obtain sustenance from what was supposed to be the latest in rigorous philosophical thinking could only be confused and frustrated, in precise ratio to their efforts to make sense out of the doctrines of the positivists.

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Nicholas Gruen
14 years ago

Thanks for a lovely post Rafe. Makes me wonder why you’re such a one trick pony when it comes to concrete political doctrines ;)

I always think of Logical Positivism as the philosophical equivalent of the Titanic. It was launched with great fanfare as unsinkable and promptly sank on its maiden voyage.

Although you are right that in a doctrinal sense LP is a souped up version of Hume’s fork, I think Hume was on the side of the angels whereas LP was simply a regression. Hume was fighting the forces of religious obscurantism and forging a genuinely post Christian world.

Of course LPers saw themselves as doing the same thing against foes like Freudianism and Marxism, but that’s a very different kettle of fish. You can say that those ideas were like a religion and had a sense of revealed truth about them. They certainly had defences against their enemies that were like that – repression and false consciousness. But any school of thinking with aspirations on the scale of those schools will have such things – the free market and socialist mindsets have the same “they would say that” mechanisms and they’re used with irresponsible abandon by fellow travellers.

But Freudianism and Marxisim were clearly offered in some sense in a scientific spirit – as orientations and bodies of thinking that were an emanation of reason not of revelation and offered themselves as in principle capable of being developed, refined, critiqued and reformed by the ongoing application of reason.

LP represented an attempt to pull philosophical rank on these systems and was in that sense misguided from the start. It wasn’t misguided of Hume as he was on a constructive quest. And he was pre-Hegelian. LPers were post-Hegelian and dealt with their Hegelian inheritance with petulance towards Hegel and their foes, rather than to try to understand what he was on about and what he’d shown (principally in this context the inevitability of metaphysics).

I include Popper in this criticism. Even though in a strictly doctrinal sense he was an anti-positivist and much more meticulous in addressing the problems of bringing off the demarcation project (which of course he failed to do), he was what I’d call a temperamental positivist – he was trying to do what the LPers were trying to do only with a few more builkheads in the hold to stop the ship going down on striking its first iceberg. You might even be prepared to accept that, considering Popper’s ridiculous chapter on Hegel the bad guy in the Open Society and its Enemies.

As someone who doesn’t maintain a close reading of the area, I’ve never really understood what all the fuss about Popper’s epistemology and philosophy of science was all about given that the pragmatists had got there via a sounder route by the time Charles Sanders Pierce started writing up his own philosophy of science – when was it around the 1870s? It was certainly before Popper was born.

14 years ago

“Is this too hard on the positivists? Someone suggested that it was a great service to remind people of the importance of logic and evidence. But how many scientists needed to be told that?”
I would think that answer to that, at least in psychology, is probably most. If I remember correctly, Jerry Fodor argues somewhere (“the mind doesn’t work that way”?) that despite great philosophical arguments about various topics like models, getting evidence to “prove” models, model falsification, scientifically reasonable ways to identify separable mental processes etc., the majority of people in psychology basically use “abduction” (i.e., say whatever happens to seem right to them without thinking about how they arrived at the conclusion) when trying to understand problems (I think this term comes from Pierce initially, although I’ll admit to not having read it).
If I looked at our PhD students, for example, that would probably be 100% of them where this might be important (and they’re not unusual compared to anywhere I’ve worked). That of course isn’t in the least bit surprising, since philosophy of science isn’t taught in many courses any more, and most of them are very unlikely to read anything about it. This is why many are caught up in trying to prove something they have thought about, and very few realize that falsification is a better way to go. This is made worse in psychology, because the statistics typically used means that people are often searching around for p values less than a certain amount to show some effect or another happens to exist, so the game for many isn’t model testing or even model falsification (just getting them to think about models means you’ve got somewhere), it’s trying to prove some effect exists.

14 years ago

I think one of the big problems is that if you got a group of people together that didn’t know anything about the philosophy of science but were interested in models of things, then the most common default position is what I’ll just call a naive positivism — so you end up with people wandering around trying to find underlying constructs for their data so they can construct a theory from it and then they try and find evidence for those constructs. So they think the way to show their model is better than another (if they’ve managed to actually make it to two models), is by finding evidence for their model (often just quantitative). I think things like falsification (and more complex ideas like the falsification of parts of a theory and so on), are not the general default position of most people.