Positivism describes a process to discover and authenticate knowledge (within reality) via the scientific method, which examines and then verifies (it’s positive). There is an initial hypothesis: this is a folded piece of paper, all swans are white, democracies start wars, etc., and then verification would validate or invalidate the hypothesis. Knowledge, in this manner, forms—and there is something for scientists to teach.
In order for this scientific method to move forward, we have come to know six basic understandings of positivism. They are: unified science (created an ideology of a one-layered world, reality may be reduced to physics), empiricism (knowledge gained through mental or physical experimentation), objectivism (uninvolved observer), value freedom (no normative value is placed on the object of study), instrumentalism (observing it as a thing in the world), and technicism (value methods over results) (PSS, 13-14). Positivism took root in western philosophy in the 18th century and decayed in the winters and sprang in the summers of the 20th century.
Positivism has had a formative influence on the social sciences, and sometimes it has held a powerful grip on the scientific imagination. Durkheim explored the state of the group mind and noticed a variation between the group atmosphere and that of the individual once alone (Readings, 436). The collection of emotions (perhaps a spirit) was a phenomenon, a force, of “external coercion” (437). Durkheim thus created the study of sociology (437). Here, the sociologists may study the “ways of existing” and “ways of acting” as reciprocals: the external force may create a social society and the laws of government may reflect the laws of the external force. Individuals that value the social norms N, P, and R might very well move to the city that prioritizes the norms N, P, and R. At the time of his writing, the issue of salience was “for sociology… to pass from the subjective stage… to the objective” (439). It attempted to do so though positivism—and it was frustrated.
Otto Neurath illuminated standard practices of positivism when he wrote, “In science there are no ‘depths’; there is surface everywhere” (PSS, 31). His analysis of scientific inquiry explained “knowledge is only from experience,” perhaps because he imagined that it was necessary to create a horizon to hold legitimate science (33). Additionally, the positivist manifestations of science are witnessed through logical analysis (33). Neurath furthered that applying logical analysis to empirical research makes it capable of enabling a reductive system, or “constitutive system” (33). This would reveal the “concepts of the experience and qualities of the individual psyche…” However, if knowledge F is known by actor O, but unknown to actor X, then wouldn’t actor X be empirically exploring with an incomplete ontological magnifying glass (or telescope), so to speak? Here, the complexity of positivism unravels and frustrates scientists; since the knowledge known by actor O (1) actually existed before actor X became aware of its existence and (2) existed before all actors were aware of it!
Additional theorists huddled under the historical umbrella of positivism include Hempel, Nagel, Carnap, and Parsons. Hempel argued that the scientific method via logical empiricism within the physical sciences transcended as appropriate methodology for the social sciences (PSS 38). Nagel agreed with Hempel regarding the social sciences’ proper use of the scientific method, and found that the social sciences “possess no wide-ranging systems of explanations” without it (40). So the analysis attempts to transform the unknown knowledge to known knowledge—to establish a fact.
Verifiability was often associated with inductive reasoning. Within this matrix of positivism, logical-inductive reasoning (every swan according to my eyes is white, therefore, all swans are white) is to be a viable method to explain and discover knowledge. Carnap urged that verification comes in degrees, “that no absolute verification but only gradual confirmation is possible… it’s a probability” (PSS, 50).
However, many of the former theorists turned positivism into a whole piece of Swiss cheese—after nibbling on it too. Many tried to defend pathways to knowledge that recognized the designed positivist framework. But positivism does not provide for many explanations of knowledge; such as existentialism, historical-cultural configurations, or powerful actors with hidden motives (just think of Hitler or Stalin). The grip of positivism upon the social scientist’s imagination, however, continued.
And the nibbling away at the Swiss cheese continued too. Popper argued that knowledge must be “falsifiable,” or, “Not all swans are white” (PSS, 20). This actually took a bite out of positivism because it nearly took apart inductive theory completely; because once you prove that all swans might not be white (such as observing an anomalous black swan), then skepticism engulfs all other inductive possibilities. A particular instance might not lead to B—ever. Henceforth, the unraveling of doubt destroys the inductive Rubicon—a withering away of explanans. For instance, a falsifiable statement: democracies do not start wars. And the evidence?
Kincaid wrote with minimal vituperation at the end of the twentieth century, “positivist assumptions still distort how philosophers think about the social sciences” (Readings, 111). Was positivism such a force to distort future scholars? Making something falsifiable was quite different from making something verifiable, since Popper demanded that falsifiable statements are the pathway to the empirical (45). Herein we have a flattering deductive logic that “presupposes no inductive reference” (46). So this was intended to be a positivist model, whereas positivism was replaced by positivism.
Perhaps the most bitingly persuasive criticism of positivism is that positivism attempted to be the sole method to determine the attributes or make-up of knowledge. More than that, its methodology faulted here and there, which caused an earthquake of dejection. For example, Roth stated, “Positivism attempted to legislate…a general criterion of what could count as knowledge… it ceased to be a viable research program… its methods were inadequate and inappropriate to characterize scientific explanation… the problems are irremediable” (Readings, 703). Perhaps anything that tries to be everything will always be rejected over time—like we witnessed during the beginnings of rational choice.
At positivism’s defense, one should see the player who denies that there is an absolute truth, who would argue that “all swans are white is a truthful generalization, and useful for language and society.” Kincaid argued that “Laws, explanation and confirmation go hand in hand” (Readings, 111). And so it was that all of the positivist theorists defended the core of the scientific method as useful to the acquisition of knowledge within the social sciences. Unremittingly, the exercise of hypothesis to verification was unlikely to be repeated continuously in the fields of social science—for politics is like surfing; you never catch the same wave. For politics is like climate—there is always change.
So what does it matter to the scientific community that: one piece of paper is folded, there exists one black swan, or that there is a democracy on earth that starts many wars? Well, it matters as a verifiable fact, but positivism does not offer the scientist of social scientific frameworks many of the necessary tools to complete his or her job to date. We must transcend positivism.
For example, you don’t try to label whether or not a government is responsible by how it balances its budget (thank God), because that ignores a plethora of moral questions / historical components; thus, how can we affirm positivism’s path of empirical application even though parsimony excludes variables / anomalies, etc.? Can positivism be applied robustly to external political languages—or; exogenous structures utilized in political behavior endogenously?
What is truth but the delusions we agree upon? And even if we were to recognize the accumulation of truth, of what relationship would it have with social external forces? Could this be manifested in actions by individuals, communities and/or governments? For example, are actions by one’s government attributable to the community of citizens—of democratic congruence? Or, if a government informally executed a foreign war without the consent of the denizens, then is it because of a particular external force—say, authoritarianism? Indeed, do the people need to be protected—from themselves—in a republic?
Alas, remembering Wittgenstein, “The individual words of this language are to refer to what can only be known to the person speaking… another person cannot understand the language” (PSS 69). Now the social scientist may eat the remaining Swiss cheese and say that there never was a piece of Swiss cheese! But not to worry, social scientists have much more food at the table.
Millennium 3 social scientists’ need an ontological description in order to comprehend possible positive futures—to recognize differentiating external forces integrated via agency into institutions and behavior. Perhaps to recognize languages as external forces and to study them is to study what the languages (i.e. liberalism, republicanism, authoritarianism) advocate, admonish and hold constant. Certainly, the definitions of freedom are quite different within the constructs of different political languages.
The tools needed to assess reality, as it exists today, are only now becoming invented. Humbly, I would suggest that social scientists begin with (1) reality exists, and (2) the daily interactions of humans create a global action / reality. Regarding the “truthiness” of rule one: (positively) the sun is actually a ball of fire and it does heat the Earth. With respect to the “truthiness” of rule two: (positively) a drone strike in country P authorized by country U killed X civilians on Earth at Z time. This is a slice of our reality; however, if followed—it shall provide depth.
For greater analysis, governments (or scientists) could cause an avalanche of knowledge if (1) they kept multifarious statistics regarding reality (as it exists), (2) freedom of information transferred globally as a norm; institutionally, and (3) social scientists completed their homework. Like, what are the positive ramifications of executive drone strikes in foreign countries without the consent of the people, or, the other governments? What part of chaos is activated? What part of security manifests?
Reality is not so elusive—rather studied by too few—and the vast amount of knowledge within reality remains hidden. Social scientists must focus on reality—and more positive tools will become available.