Monday, July 9, 2018

"Positivism", "German idealism" and method in the humanities (and sciences) [#DH]

So, what is positivism?

Simon During @SimonDuring
what is positivism for you?
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Ted Underwood @Ted_Underwood
Beyond simply "a term invented by Comte," I think it might be fair to use it to describe epistemologies that claim experimental investigation produce certainty ("positive knowledge"), and that insist on its utterly value-free, objective character.

But I think the emphasis on certainty was never broadly shared. Even in the 19c, many scientists emphasized the tentative character of experimental inquiry, and that emphasis has only grown with the rising importance of statistics, which is +

often called "the science of uncertainty." Statistical models tend to be probabilistic rather than deterministic, and Bayesian models are avowedly subjective (founded on priors) rather than objective. So "positivist" seems to me 200 yrs out of date.

In practice, I think a lot of ppl use "positivist" to mean "anyone who doesn't accept Dilthey's premise of a firm divide between natural and human sciences." But the right term for that, imho, is "someone who disagrees with Wilhelm Dilthey"! ;)

The guiding slogan for contemporary quant. social science is George Box: "All models are wrong." That's as remote in spirit from Comte's emphasis on positive verifiability as Comte was from Francis Bacon. In fact, it would make more sense to call us all Baconians.

The varieties of positivism

Scott Enderle @scottenderle
I used to think there was a wrong and a right way to use "positivism," but adopted a policy of clemency towards abusers. Then I learned the definition of "legal positivism" and decided the whole issue is confused beyond redemption.

Ted Underwood @Ted_Underwood
I suspect philosophical definitions are mostly retconned. It is in practice just one of those words like "determined : stubborn : pigheaded." People write "scientific" or "empirical"—think to themselves "but that sounds good"—then scratch it out and write "positivist."

chad wellmon @cwellmon
For what it’s worth: but in my research, reading, thinking about orders of knowledge in 19C Germany, I have never encountered a non-polemical use of “positivism.” It’s has no epistemic content. Just a rhetorical force. At times it just meant: not French or not-natural science.

Simon During @SimonDuring
I am not sure that is true of either Comte or later of Carnap, Ayers, Schlick etc or indeed of those who call themselves “legal posivists” whenever that term began to be used (I dont think Austin himself uses it?.)...(but of course all philosophy is polemical too....)

chad wellmon @cwellmon
True. I'm talking strictly 19C German context. (wrt to Ted's mention of Dilthey)

Ted Underwood @Ted_Underwood
But I think in practice Chad's description holds for most contemporary uses of the word I encounter in the wild. It's very rare that I'm able to infer a coherent philosophical definition, and very common for the word to mean "empiricist, but, you know, in a closed-minded way."

Simon During @SimonDuring
yes I think that’s right...strange how little people like being called positivist....after all an emphasis on what can be empirically verified aint all bad, is it?


Christopher Green @histochristo
Replying to @Ted_Underwood
So, would you say, then that the "logical positivists" were only positivist for the early, short period in which they believed in verification, and should be called "logical empiricists" (or some such) from the moment they moved to "partial verification," "confirmation," etc.?

Ted Underwood @Ted_Underwood
No; ppl who are really writing the history of 20c philosophy can use words however they like! ;) But most uses of the word I encounter are not really in that context. They have less to do with Comte or Ayer than with the writer's need for a negative version of "empirical."

But the ghosts of Comte and Ayer hover somewhere over the word—like Ben Kenobi—helping to make everything deeply confusing. So I would say, writers who want to use the word simply need to indicate what they want it to mean. There's not a shared consensus.

Christopher Green @histochristo
So your concern is more with the Frankfurters calling their debate with Popper "the positivist dispute" than with how the Vienna and Berlin gangs are properly characterized?

Ted Underwood @Ted_Underwood
Yes! And with the legions who have followed the Frankfurters in using the word even more vaguely to signal disapprobation.

Of course, there's more, because that's how the Twitterverse is.

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