Scientific Positivism

Heisenberg-method-of-observationPositivism became immensely influential in all the fields of academic studies — in the natural sciences, the humanities and in a new field of sciences which Comte himself established under the new heading of sociology.

There is more than one reason why the term “positivism” gained such an attraction. Most important probably: Comte’s theory of knowledge appeared as an elegant maneuver between the claims of 17th- and 18th-century (British) empiricists and late 18th-century (German) idealists – a maneuver that would succeed without falling into the abyss of French radical materialism or into the dogmas of its modern successor, Marxist-Communist materialism.

Idealists had hinted at a major problem empiricists could not solve: Philosophers who claimed that we get all our knowledge through the senses, had to concede that we can in this case by definition never deal with reality itself, with “things themselves” as Kant put it. We are dealing with sensations and the entire idea of external objects that create these sensations rests on further ideas which we employ from elsewhere. Idealists were almost Platonists in this respect. They were otherwise Aristotelians, fond of a logic of categories. Kant had systematised this movement with a clearer discussion of a-priori knowledge, of knowledge used independently of all our sensations, in order to process them.

Materialists discredited all these idealist caveats as nothing but religious attempts that led us away from the fundamental reality of the material world which created both our minds and our sensations. Idealists would always sooner or later speak of God in order to stabilise their abstruse world view. Radical French 18th-century materialists had pleaded against God and the soul. All that was was matter. We had to explore matter. Epistemologically this was problematic as it created a substance beyond our reach – a substance we could only postulate dogmatically. Research that adopted the materialist stance was soon bound to the dogmatic stance – the central problem of 20th-century research in Eastern bloc countries.

Poincare-on-factsPositivism shifted the focus from ideas, sensations, and matter to facts as the central objects which the sciences had to produce and to handle. The shift is at first sight an empty move, for what is a fact? The new questions are, however, fruitful: When exactly do we want to speak of a fact (rather than of a hypothesis)? The verification of facts becomes an issue here, linking facts to empirical observation. Facts have, at the same time, the form of scientific statements and this is the new bridge into the idealist camp. We require concepts in order to state facts. Facts can be accumulated, but this is not yet science. We have to organise facts in models and theories, and this is the new freedom positivism hinted at: a freedom to think of the best models, no matter whether we like them or not. Facts are at the same time inherently anti-metaphysical. Comte demanded a fundamental turn to get away from the search of last causes. The new sciences would refocus their explorations on the regularities we can undeniably observe in experiments. Our natural laws describe these regularities. They do not tell us that things have to happen because of these laws; they tell us that they do happen under certain conditions, and that is all we need in order to forecast events with scientific accuracy. Our scientific explanations create theories and models and their truth is under all these premises only “relative”. This is, so Comte, “the only absolute truth” we have, “that all our knowledge is relative”, a construct suiting our observations and our needs to handle these observations. New research can force us to arrive at a new understanding of anything whatsoever. Even the truth of gravitation will eventually be relative, superseded by new and more refined models:

It must be understood that I advocate simply a suspension of judgment where there is no ground for either affirmation or denial. I merely desire to keep in view that all our positive knowledge is relative; and, in my dread of our resting in notions of anything absolute, I would venture to say that I can conceive of such a thing as even our theory of gravitation being hereafter superseded. I do not think it probable; and the fact will ever remain that it answers completely to our present needs. It sustains us, up to the last point of precision that we can attain. If a future generation should reach a greater, and feel, in consequence, a need to construct a new law of gravitation, it will be as true as it now is that the Newtonian theory is, in the midst of inevitable variations, stable enough to give steadiness and confidence to our understandings. It will appear hereafter how inestimable this theory is in the interpretation of the phenomena of the interior of our system. We already see how much we owe to it, apart from all specific knowledge which it has given us, in the advancement of our philosophical progress, and of the general education of human reason. Descartes could not rise to a mechanical conception of general phenomena without occupying himself with a baseless hypothesis about their mode of production. This was, doubtless, a necessary process of transition from the old notions of the absolute to the positive view; but too long a continuance in this stage would have seriously impeded human progress. The Newtonian discovery set us forward in the true positive direction. It retains Descartes’ fundamental idea of a Mechanism, but casts aside all inquiry into its origin and mode of production. It shows practically how, without attempting to penetrate into the essence of phenomena, we may connect and assimilate them, so as to attain, with precision and certainty, the true end of our studies,—that exact prevision of events which à priori conceptions are necessarily unable to supply.

The materialist camp was shocked by this show of “bourgeois relativism”. Their world of material atoms was, so Comte’s, nothing but a model. Causality was a thing the scientist would not state. It is enough, so Comte, that we can state the regularity of observation. We create “metaphysical” statements as soon as we say that things have to happen – so Comte together with Ernst Mach and with Wittgenstein far later.

The suspensions of final answers was a breakthrough, a liberation of scientific research. The idea that all human knowledge could be only “relatively” true was at the same time a social turn in the humanities, a turn towards a new understanding of knowledge and of the sciences as social constructs which we create in order to serve our needs as societies. Comte was influential in the natural sciences: He paved the way into the sphere of modern theoretical physics. He created an entirely new field of social sciences under the heading of sociology focusing now on societies as they develop. He was on both accounts finally influential in the humanities with his readiness to bring all this into a historical perspective – into a conclusive history of mankind that led from primitive and religious societies towards modern societies based on scientific knowledge.

Scientific positivism was immediately critical of scientism

Carnap-superficiality-of-sciencePositivism is often criticised as a form of “blind” and primitive “scientism”. The scientist become the new god. This is problematic in more than one way. Comte and the sciences became a story of immense tensions. The young Comte had swallowed scientific research of his days. The Comte of the 1840s and 1850s stopped reading and became increasingly critical of the entire scientific project as it developed. He assumed that his religion of humanity could heal our societies and he predicted that we could do without hospitals once we understood the psychological roots of all our (allegedly) clinical. Comte was ready to promote limitations of research: All research should help us to solve the problems of mankind; he was basically disinterested in solving so called last questions. These questions enjoyed a theological importance he was ready to dismiss as such.

19th-century science was, in turn, ready to dismiss Comte as a philosopher who was brilliant in his young days but who turned abstruse, moralistic and religious in the course of the 1840s.

Scientism, the idea that science could be the solutions to all the problems on Earth, did not become the essence of positivist research in this development. Soviet Science and National-Socialist science of the 20th century became the advocates of modern Scientism and of societies that succumbed to the dictates of a new elite of scientists who would tell us how to live. Positivism was seen in both camps as an enemy that fueled debates about the relativity of models, the relativity of explanations, and the limitations of knowledge. Logical positivism was one of the “bourgeois fruits”. The glory of the future is found in Stalinist and Nazi propaganda and among capitalist lobbyists – not among scientists from Ernst Mach and Albert Einstein to Stephen Hawkins who would constantly warn of the dangers of unbridled research.

The late 19th-century revolution of theoretical physics

Physicists adopted the central tenets of Comte’s positivism in new philosophical reflections at the end of the 19th century. Heinrich Hertz and Ernst Mach played with the options of reinterpreting present experimental physics as a field dealing with nothing but theoretical models of the world. Mach went far with that thought and considered in a visual image how we personally created the most essential yet far reaching models of this world in interpretations of our (presumably) most intimate sensual data. In his Analysis of Sensations he offers the wonderful perspective on the world as he can see it (to make things easier) through only one of his eyes.

Ernst Mach, Analyse der Empfindungen, p.15
Ernst Mach, Analyse der Empfindungen, p.15

How do we make sense of this picture? How do we know that we are not dreaming? How do we know that parts of this picture belong to “us” (such as “our” arm)? How do we know that other parts (like the widow in the background) belong to the “external” world?

Mach’s central answer was simple and radical: We do not know the answers to any of these questions in the classical sense of knowing. The point is rather that we have perceptions and that we interpret them. Things are “as if”. If I move “my” arm I see something moving and have a number of tactile sensations associated. It is my interpretation of these combined sensations that the arm belongs to “me” in a sense the window does not.

Science, so Mach, is a massive collective interpretation of data and should not claim to be anything else. Good interpretations are simple and operable, they are “economically” organized, in that they do not include agents and essences of which we do not have any data and which we do not need in predictions of how these things behave. Scientists should focus on the interpretation of data. Questions such as “does God exist?” become under this premise imaginary problems, “Scheinprobleme”. Comte stood again somewhere in the background: He had dismissed the entire debate of atheism as not fruitful and essentially metaphysical. We do not have facts to raise such a debate.

Albert Einstein. 1921
Albert Einstein, 1921

Ernst Mach stood with his considerations (he rather avoided the term “positivism” that began to smell of Comte’s desire to establish a secular church) at the turning point of a development of thought which Comte can still be said to have triggered. He had focused on logic and mathematics as sciences that were designed to handle data. Materialists had hardly known how to integrate these fields of thought. Comte had declared that all our knowledge was merely relative. Even Newton’s theory of gravitation would be sooner or later turned into a relative truth, so Comte’s prediction – a prediction that was about to come true at the turn into the 20th century, when Comte (who himself had not been a leading scientist at his time), was no longer an author modern scientists or philosophers would read.

Albert Einstein eventually thanked Mach for his thoughts. They had opened him the road towards entirely different and innovative counterintuitive interpretations of data. If it is easier to explain certain phenomena with the help of a fourth dimension in our computations, then why should we not use such a dimension as a working premise? The idea of useful interpretations of data supplanted the idea oh the world as we experience it and of the world as a refelction of our ideas.

Scentific positivism today

Stephen Hawking (center) enjoys zero gravity during a flight aboard a modified Boeing 727 aircraft. At the celebration of his 65th birthday on January 8, 2007, Hawking announced his plans for a zero-gravity flight to prepare for a sub-orbital space flight in 2009 on Virgin Galactic's space Service, 2007-04-26. Wikimedia Commons
Stephen Hawking (center) enjoys zero gravity during a flight aboard a modified Boeing 727 aircraft. At the celebration of his 65th birthday on January 8, 2007, Hawking announced his plans for a zero-gravity flight to prepare for a sub-orbital space flight in 2009 on Virgin Galactic’s space Service, 2007-04-26. Wikimedia Commons

In recent years scientists like Stephen Hawking stood out among those who advocated the very term positivism. In The Universe in a Nutshell (p. 31) Hawking writes:

Any sound scientific theory, whether of time or of any other concept, should in my opinion be based on the most workable philosophy of science: the positivist approach put forward by Karl Popper and others. According to this way of thinking, a scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make. A good theory will describe a large range of phenomena on the basis of a few simple postulates and will make definite predictions that can be tested […] If one takes the positivist position, as I do, one cannot say what time actually is. All one can do is describe what has been found to be a very good mathematical model for time and say what predictions it makes.

The Popper reference is slightly intriguing. But work as it is done in experimental physics and astrophysics has gone far beyond traditional empiricism. We are constructing models to handle the complex data we win in experiments that do no longer allow a human observer, an eye witness. Modern sciences can be said to have embraced the concept of constructs of knowledge up to a point where it is no longer necessary to speak of positivism and its basic premises.



  • Richard von Mises. Positivism: A Study In Human Understanding. Harvard University Press. Cambridge; Massachusetts: 1951.


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