philosophy of science based on the view that information derived from scientific observation is the exclusive source of all authoritative knowledge
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Positivism is a philosophy developed by Auguste Comte (widely regarded as the first true sociologist) in the middle of the 19th century that stated that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method.

The error in positivism is that it takes as its standard of truth the contingently given division of labor, … and allows no theory that could reveal the division of labor to be itself derivative and mediated and thus strip it of its false authority. ~ Theodor Adorno
What is rational is real; and what is real is rational. ~ Hegel
On the one hand, 'positive' means what is given, is postulated, is there—as when we speak of positivism as the philosophy that sticks to the facts. But, equally, 'positive' also refers to the good, the approvable, in a certain sense, the ideal. And I imagine that this semantic constellation expresses with precision what countless people actually feel to be the case. ~ Theodor Adorno

Quotes edit

Alphabetized by author
  • The departmentalization of mind is a means of abolishing mind where it is not exercised ex officio, under contract.
  • The error in positivism is that it takes as its standard of truth the contingently given division of labor, that between the science and social praxis as well as that within science itself, and allows no theory that could reveal the division of labor to be itself derivative and mediated and thus strip it of its false authority.
    • Theodor Adorno, “Why still philosophy?” Critical Models (1998), p. 10.
  • Underlying the concept of positivity is the conviction that the positive is intrinsically positive in itself, without anyone pausing to ask what is to be regarded as positive. ... It is significant and really quite interesting that the term 'positive' actually contains this ambivalence. On the one hand, 'positive' means what is given, is postulated, is there—as when we speak of positivism as the philosophy that sticks to the facts. But, equally, 'positive' also refers to the good, the approvable, in a certain sense, the ideal. And I imagine that this semantic constellation expresses with precision what countless people actually feel to be the case.
    • Theodor Adorno, Lectures on Negative Dialectics (1965-66), translated by Rodney Livingstone (Polity Press: 2008), p. 18
  • The restriction of rationality to the use of means which is legitimized by this view [positivism], entails that the other aspect of the practical problematic, the realm of ends, falls prey to pure decisionism, the whim of mere decisions not reflected upon by reason. The decisionism of unreflected, arbitrary decisions in the realm of practice corresponds to the positivism implied by the restriction to pure value-free theories in the realm of cognition.
    • Hans Albert, “The Myth of Total Reason,” The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology (1969), p. 165.
  • The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning. And truth and meaning are not the same. The basic fallacy, taking precedence over all specific metaphysical fallacies, is to interpret meaning on the model of truth.
  • The simple-minded positivism that believes it has found a firm ground of certainty if it only excludes all mental phenomena from consideration and holds fast to observable facts.
  • Positivism and ordinary language analysis … repel students who come with the humanizing questions. Professors of these schools simply would not and could not talk about anything important, and they themselves do not represent a philosophic life for the students.
    • Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: 1988), p. 378.
  • Whatever the deity which satisfied Arnold's personal experience may have been, the religion which he gives us in Literature and Dogma and God and the Bible is neither Deism nor bare Pan-Deism, but a diluted Positivism. As an ethical system it is in theory admirable, but its positive value is in the highest degree questionable. Pascal's judgment upon the God who emerged from the philosophical investigations of Rene Descartes was that He was a God who was unnecessary. And one may with even greater truth say that the man who is able to receive and live by the religion which Arnold offers him is no longer in need of its help and stimulus. To be able to appreciate an ethical idealism a man must himself be already an ethical idealist.
  • If the positivist model of scientific knowledge is false, does it mean that the only cure is a thoroughgoing relativism? For the record, positivism is not the only game in town in the natural or social sciences. It is not the only conception of science. Marx's critique of bourgeois philosophy, political economy, and utopian socialism is the first stage leading to the affirmation of a dialectical materialist conception of science. Marx's rejection of empiricism, as the epistemological basis for science, is fundamentally a discarding of the empiricist premise—that science is exclusively descriptive and devoid of prescriptive tasks. The concepts of exploitation, class struggle, and the theory of reification, for example, possess both a descriptive and normative (critical) aspect for Marx. After all, Marx made it very plain: Capital is A Critique of Political Economy. Hence, Hume's fork has no place at a Marxist dinner table.
    • Stephen C. Ferguson, Philosophy of African American Studies: Nothing Left of Blackness (2015), p. 175
  • Two aspects of this older positivist view ... lack validity and impede understanding: ... the notion of a timeless scientific method based on rigorously objective observation and logic, and ... that earlier systems were either theory-free or theory-poor because explanation can only follow accurate description.
    • Stephen Jay Gould, "The First Unmasking of Nature," Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History (1995)
  • If what we regard as real depends on our theory, how can we make reality the basis of our philosophy? I would say that I am a realist in the sense that I think there is a universe out there waiting to be investigated and understood. I regard the solipsist position that everything is the creation of our imagination as a waste of time. No one acts on that basis. But we cannot distinguish what is real about the universe without a theory. I therefore take the view, which has been described as simple-minded or naive, that a theory of physics is just a mathematical model that we use to describe the results of observations. A theory is a good theory if it is an elegant model, if it describes a wide class of observations, and if it predicts the results of new observations. Beyond that, it makes no sense to ask if it corresponds to reality, because we do not know what reality is independent of a theory. This view of scientific theories may make me an instrumentalist or a positivist --- as I have said above, I have been called both. The person who called me a positivist went on to add that everyone knew that positivism was out of date --- another case of refutation by denigration. It may indeed be out of date in that it was yesterday's intellectual fad, but the positivist position I have outlined seems the only possible one for someone who is seeking new laws, and new ways, to describe the universe. It is no good appealing to reality because we don't have a model-independent concept of reality.
  • Then philosophy was supposed to be the handmaiden of theology, humbly accepting its achievements, and asked to bring them into a clean logical order and present them in a plausible, conceptually demonstrable context. Now, philosophy is supposed to be the handmaiden of the other sciences. … Its task is to demonstrate the methods of the sciences.
  • Was vernünftig ist, das ist Wirklich; und was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig.
  • In many places, above all in the Anglo-Saxon countries, logistics is today considered the only possible form of strict philosophy, because its result and procedures yield an assured profit for the construction of the technological universe. In America and elsewhere, logistics as the only proper philosophy of the future is thus beginning today to seize power over the intellectual world.
    • Martin Heidegger, What is Called Thinking, J. Glenn Gray, trans. (New York: Harper, 1968), p. 21.
  • Bourgeois society is ruled by equivalence. It makes dissimilar things comparable by reducing them to abstract quantities. For the Enlightenment, anything which cannot be resolved into numbers, and ultimately into one, is illusion; modern positivism consigns it to poetry.
  • With the clean separation between science and poetry the division of labor which science had helped to establish was extended to language. For science the word is first of all a sign; it is then distributed among the various arts as sound, image, or word proper, but its unity can never be restored by the addition of these arts, be synaesthesia or total art. As sign, language must resign itself to calculation and, to know nature, must renounce the claim to resemble it. As image it must resign itself to being a likeness and, to be entirely nature, must renounce the claim to know it.
  • The metaphysical apologia at least betrayed the injustice of the established order through the incongruence of concept and reality. The impartiality of scientific language deprived what was powerless of the strength to make itself heard and merely provided the existing order with a neutral sign for itself. Such neutrality is more metaphysical than metaphysics.
  • For positivism, which has assumed the judicial office of enlightened reason, to speculate about intelligible worlds is no longer merely forbidden but senseless prattle. Positivism—fortunately for it—does not need to be atheistic, since objectified thought cannot even pose the question of the existence of God. The positivist censor turns a blind eye to official worship, as a special, knowledge-free zone of social activity, just as willingly as to art—but never to denial, even when it has a claim to be knowledge. For the scientific temper, any deviation of thought from the business of manipulating the actual, any stepping outside the jurisdiction of existence, is no less senseless and self-destructive than it would be for the magician to step outside the magic circle drawn for his incantation; and in both cases violation of the taboo carries a heavy price for the offender.
  • If organized science had completely yielded to the Nordic requirements, and had accordingly crystallized a consistent methodology, positivism would eventually have had to accept it, just as elsewhere it has accepted the patterns of empirical sociology shaped by administrative needs and conventional restrictions.
  • How is it possible to determine what justly may be called science and truth, if the determination itself presupposes the methods of achieving scientific truth? The same vicious circle is involved in any justification of scientific method by the observation of science. … Doubtless the logical fallacy at the very root of the positivist attitude merely betrays its worship of institutionalized science. … If science is to be the authority that stands firm against obscurantism, … philosophy must formulate the concept of science in a way that expresses human resistance to the threatening relapse into mythology and madness, rather than further such a relapse by formalizing science and conforming it to the requirements of the existing practice.
  • The positivist command to conform to facts and common sense instead of to utopian ideas is not so different from the call to obey reality as interpreted by religious institutions, which after all are facts too.
  • One voice in the Great Conversation itself announces this modern point of view. In the closing paragraph of his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume writes: "When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume … let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion." …the positivists of our own day, would commit to burning or, what is the same, to dismissal from serious consideration... Those books... argue the case against the kind of positivism that asserts that everything except mathematics and experimental science is sophistry and illusion. ...The Great Conversation... contains both sides of the issue...
  • All of this positive [knowledge] fails to express the state of the knowing subject in existence, hence it pertains to a fictive objective subject, and to mistake oneself for such a subject is to be fooled and remain fooled.
  • The radical empiricist onslaught … provides the methodological justification for the debunking of the mind by the intellectuals—a positivism which, in its denial of the transcending elements of Reason, forms the academic counterpart of the socially required behavior.
  • Der Hautausschlag ist so positiv als die Haut.
    • The pimple is as positive as the skin.
      • Karl Marx, “The philosophical manifesto of the historical school of law” (1842), Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, L. Easton, ed. (1967), p. 99.
  • The intellectual origins of literary theory in Europe were, I think it is accurate to say, insurrectionary. The traditional university, the hegemony of determinism and positivism, the reification of ideological bourgeois “humanism,” the rigid barriers between academic specialties: it was powerful responses to all these that linked together such influential progenitors of today’s literary theorist as Saussure, Lukács, Bataille, Lévi-Strauss, Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx. Theory proposed itself as a synthesis overriding the petty fiefdoms within the world of intellectual production, and it was manifestly to be hoped as a result that all the domains of human activity could be seen, and lived, as a unity.
    • Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), pp. 3-4.
  • The great shift … is the movement away from the value-laden languages of … the “humanities,” and toward the ostensibly value-neutral languages of the “sciences.” This attempt to escape from, or to deny, valuation is … especially important in psychology … and the so-called social sciences. Indeed, one could go so far as to say that the specialized languages of these disciplines serve virtually no other purpose than to conceal valuation behind an ostensibly scientific and therefore nonvaluational semantic screen.
  • Despite its value to Einstein and Heisenberg, positivism has done as much harm as good. But, unlike the mechanical worldview, positivism has preserved its heroic aura, so that it survives to do damage in the future.
  • Where then does this radical attack on the objectivity of scientific knowledge come from? One source I think is the old bugbear of positivism, this time applied to the study of science itself. If one refuses to talk about anything that is not directly observed, then quantum field theories or principles of symmetry or more generally laws of nature cannot be taken seriously. What philosophers and sociologists and anthropologists can study is the actual behavior of real scientists, and this behavior never follows any simple description in terms of rules of inference. But scientists have the direct experience of scientific theories as desired yet elusive goals, and they become convinced of the reality of these theories.

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