*  ESSAY *

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 Positivism 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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