U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"Positivism": A Bleg

A Word of Many Meanings

One of the bêtes noires of Leo Strauss and his students is “positivism.”  The term appears frequently in Strauss’s own (English-language) writings of the 1950s and beyond.  For example, Strauss’s essay “The Liberalism of Classical Political Philosophy,” which originally appeared in 1959 in The Review of Metaphysics and was later published as Chapter 3 of Liberalism Ancient and Modern (1968), begins with a polemic against “positivism”:

Classical political philosophy–the political philosophy originated by Socrates and elaborated by Plato and by Aristotle–is today generally rejected as obsolete. The difference between, not to say the mutual incompatibility of, the two grounds on which it is rejected corresponds to the difference between the two schools of thought which predominate in our age, namely, positivism and existentialism. Positivism rejects classical political philosophy with a view to its mode as unscientific and with a view to its substance as undemocratic. There is a tension between these grounds, for, according to positivism, science is incapable of validating any value judgment and therefore science can never reject a doctrine because it is undemocratic. But “the heart has its reasons which reason does not know,” and not indeed positivism but many positivists possess a heart. Moreover there is an affinity between present day positivism and sympathy for a certain kind of democracy; that affinity is due to the broad, not merely methodological, context out of which positivism emerged or to the hidden premises of positivism which positivism is unable to articulate because it is constitutionally unable to conceive of itself as a problem. Positivism may be said to be more dogmatic than any other position of which we have records.

Strauss’s identification of positivism and existentialism as “the two schools of thought which predominate in our age” may have been something of an exaggeration, but was, at the time in which he wrote these words in the late 1950s, at least grounded in intellectual reality.  “Positivism” was a powerful, positive word in the American academy at the time, though it often meant different things in different intellectual places, from social scientists’ adherence to certain empirical approaches to its use by early analytic philosophers, for whom the Vienna Circle’s logical positivism was very important. In the context of legal scholarship, “positivism” has yet another set of connotations.

Today, Strauss’s critique of positivism remains vitally important for younger thinkers in the Straussian vein.  For example, Nasser Behnegar’s Leo Strauss, Max Weber, and the Scientific Study of Politics (2005) is largely a recapitulation of Strauss’s critique of positivism.

But what exactly do Strauss and his followers mean by positivism?

Political scientist Stanley Rothman, an early critic of Strauss and his school of thought, noted in 1962 that Strauss “never really defines with any precision” what he means by the label “positivist.”*

And, as even some Straussians note, today the term “positivism,” if it appears at all in American academic writing, tends to be a pejorative.** For example, “positivism” is the charge leveled against Sam Harris by Jackson Lears in a recent, scathing Nation review.***  And logical positivism, once a dominant view in philosophy of science, is in the words of John Passmore, “dead, or as dead as a philosophical movement ever becomes.”****

But while it’s clear that positivism’s fortunes were up in the 1950s and down half a century later,  the diversity of meanings attached to the term makes its history more difficult to grasp.

The term “positivism” was coined by the 19th-century French philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte.  The social scientific usages of “positivism” in the 20th century seem to be in many ways direct descendents of Comte’s thought. But the stream of ideas that led to the Vienna Circle’s logical positivism is usually seen as flowing from the philosophical work of Ernst Mach.*****

So here’s the bleg: does anyone know of any fairly comprehensive treatment of the history of the term “positivism” in its various national and disciplinary contexts?

My hunch is that the role of positivism in Strauss’s mature works of the 1950s and ’60s has something to do with his international intellectual biography. His education took place in the early interwar period in German intellectual circles that had just finished beating back Machian positivism and were then battling the emergent logical positivism of the Vienna Circle. Strauss arrived in the quite different intellectual context of the U.S. in the late 1930s and took some years establishing himself as  a major intellectual figure in his adoptive country.  Strauss may well have recognized the ascendent positivism of the post-World War II American academy as an old, familiar foe.  But was it, in fact, the same opponent?
* Stanley Rothman, “The Revival of Classical Political Philosophy: A Critique,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 56, No. 2 (Jun., 1962), 350.

** Strauss student Thomas Pangle in Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy (Johns Hopkins, 2006) notes that “positivism” is currently out of fashion…though the thought is relegated to a footnote (pp. 135-6).

*** I thank Andrew Hartman for pointing me in the direction of this review in a post on this blog

**** Quoted in the Wikipedia entry on logical positivism

***** Mach’s positivism and its relationship to the later logical positivism of the Vienna Circle is nicely covered in Edward Sidelsky’s fascinating intellectual biography of Strauss’s Doktorvater, Ernst Cassirer, who was himself a significant critic of logical positivism.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I had to address this question for my ALM thesis (obviously, not an especially big project). My adviser didn’t mention Strauss but recommended Leszek Kolakowski’s book on positivism into the twentieth century (which contradicted the history of philosophy I’d studied as an undergraduate but may well be useful, and is certainly comprehensive).

    My thesis was on a public intellectual type figure from the turn of the century who, like Strauss, was a central European liberal Zionist (Max Nordau), and who wrote a fair amount on the interactions between science and public life. I argued that he was certainly a positivist in the Comtean sense but not in the modern pejorative sense. (For Nordau, basically, the science of previous generations is the “posivistic” common sense of today, and thus there is progress in knowledge.) But it’s interesting that the democratic political implications of his Comtean positivism seem in line with parts of what Strauss says in the passage above.

  2. there is a new, 2 volume, biography of Comte (or maybe the 2nd volume just came out?).

    in terms of the US in the 1950s, my sense would be that positivism as a positively connoted term would be strongly associated with sociology. Parsons and others adopted, for instance, Durkheim, understood as an inheritor of Comte’s program of positivism (sociology, also Comte’s word, after all).

    Now, I don’t know as much as I should about Mach, or about the logical positivists, but my strong sense is that what is being discussed here is something very different. this is a neo-Kantian, or post-neo-kantian, reassertion of the validity of science as rationality in the world (but tracing its limits). these people were all, i think, extremely skeptical about the project of a scientific sociology–or anyway, science meant something else for them. Comte was also, after all, someone who wrote a great deal about what we would now call epistemological issues, and this is maybe how the term came into the german context–but i’m not that well informed about this.

    there is a great big new 8 volume (or something) history of continental philosophy, edited by alan schrift, that has some very decent essays discussing neokantianism and the later 19th-century academic context, and might well have some useful references for you–not sure if there’s anything specifically on positivism, but my strong suspicion is that it will be only slightly easier to find a history of this than it would be to find a history of, say, idealism.

  3. ah! I thought i’d posted. i think the word is extremely vague. in the US context, it’s about sociology, i think, which is a different Comtean lineage than the kind of positivism, i suspect, that Mach represents. possibly useful would be the new Schrift ed. History of Continental Philosophy (8 volumes!). there are some good essays there on neo-Kantianism, which is going to be crucial for any question about logical positivism and other ‘reductions’ of the philosophical problem. the essays all have bibliographic sections–so a relatively quick flip through might do the trick.

    kolakowski! very interesting.

  4. Milton Friedman’s big theoretical statement was “Essays on Positive Economics”, and the Introduction is worth reading as a horrible example. In Amartya Sen’s “Rationality and Freedom,” you have discussions of Lionel Robbins, who brought a kind of positivism-behaviorism into economics. This approach in economics became domninant and its hold is only being broken now.

    This kind of positivism is philosophical in origin but has its own life. As I understand, it means studying human affairs as an object or process, from the outside, without taking subjectivity, consciousness, normative thinking, or metaphysics into account in any way. It was defined in opposition to the old humanistic “world view” social scientists and philosophers, Marxist and otherwise.

    This kind of positivism disappeared from philosophy but still continued in social science, I believe. What succeeded it in philosophy was much different but still pretty positivistic in a broad sense.

    The broad sense is something like “Everything non-scientific should be made scientific, or at least science-like; if there are scientific and non-scientific discussions of the same topic, the scientific discussion is always better; in general, if people made decisions more scientifically, the world would be a better place; science solves problems, and philosophy just mumbles around about them”.

  5. 1) I did not know (at least I’m pretty sure I didn’t) that Strauss was a Cassirer student. That tree must have grown on hill, because the apple did roll pretty far away.

    2) Reading this, I can’t help wondering if the “Moneyball” approach to baseball isn’t a form of scientism or positivism, at least in the hands of its most zealous proselytizers.

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