"The term positivism now functions more as a polemical epithet than as a designation for a distinct philosophical movement. Even leaving aside the positive philosophy of Saint-Simon and Comte, the evolutionary positivism of Spencer and Haeckel, and the phenomenalism of Mach and Avenarius and concentrating on the 'logical positivism' of the Vienna circle and its descendants, it is difficult to specify a common ‘positivist’ perspective. The subsequent development of the more or less unified program of the original members of the circle has led to its disintegration as a distance philosophical movement. This is not to say that logical positivism has disappeared without a trace; on the contrary, it has been absorbed into such influential traditions as empiricism, pragmatism, and linguistic analysis. The net result is that the 'legacy of logical positivism'—a legacy of convictions and attitudes, problems and techniques, concepts, and theories—pervades contemporary thought. Methodological positions are most easily identified, because they so identify themselves, with respect to this legacy, pro or con. For our purposes it will be sufficient to indicate a few of the central positivist tenets regarding the nature of social inquiry.
The striking developments in the systematic study of the human world—from historiography and philology to sociology and anthropology—that took place in the course of the nineteenth century were generally viewed against the background of the established natural sciences. One or the other of these was usually taken as a paradigm of scientificity and a standard against which progress in the human sciences was to be measured. This perspective is also characteristic of the logical positivism of the twentieth century. The original members of the Vienna circle were, for the most part, neither social scientists nor pure philosophers but 'had devoted a large part of their academic studies, often including their doctoral work, to logic and mathematics, to physics, or to a combination of these subjects.'1 It was then quite natural that their attention was focused for the most part on logic, the foundations of mathematics, and the methodology of the physical sciences and that they paid comparatively little attention to the social sciences. While the focus of neopositivism gradually expanded to include the latter, the original commitment to the paradigmatic status of the 'exact' sciences remained firm. The characteristic tenets of its approach to social inquiry derive from this commitment.2 These include:
The unity of scientific method: despite differences in the specific concepts and techniques proper to diverse domains of inquiry, the methodological procedures of natural science are applicable to the sciences of man; the logic of inquiry is in both cases the same.
More particularly the goals of inquiry—explanation and prediction—are identical, as is the form in which they are realized: the subsumption of individual cases under hypothetically proposed general laws. Scientific investigation, whether of social or nonsocial phenomena, aims at the discovery of lawlike generalizations that can function as premises in deductive explanations and predictions. An event is explained by showing that it occurred in accordance with certain laws of nature as a result of certain particular circumstances. If the laws and circumstances are known, an event can be predicted by employing the same deductive form of argument.
The relation of theory to practice is primarily technical. If the appropriate general laws are known and the relevant initial conditions are manipulable, we can produce a desired state of affairs, natural or social. But the question of which states of affairs are to be produced cannot be scientifically resolved. It is ultimately a matter of decision for no 'ought' can be derived from an 'is,' no 'value' from a 'fact.' Scientific inquiry is itself 'value-free'; it strives only for objective (intersubjectively testable) value-neutral results.
The hallmark of scientific knowledge is precisely its testability (in principle). To test a hypothesis, we apply deductive logic to derive singular observation statements whose falsehood would refute it. Thus the empirical basis of science is composed of observation statements (that is, statements referring to publicly observable objects or events) that can be said either to report perceptual experiences or, at least, to be motivated by them.
In recent years the applicability of these tenets to social inquiry has once again become a subject of controversy. And questions concerning the nature and role of interpretive understanding have proved to be of fundamental importance at every point in these epistemological and methodological debates. Those who argue for the distinctiveness of the social from the natural sciences—whether in respect to the existence of general laws, the nature of explanation, the relation to values, the access to data—typically base their arguments on the necessity of social inquiry of procedures designed to grasp the meaning of social phenomena. Conversely those defending the methodological unity of the sciences typically give a rather low estimate of the importance of Verstehen for the logic of the social sciences. It is either rejected as unscientific or prescientific or analyzed as a 'heuristic device,' which, although useful, belongs in the anteroom of science proper, that is, to the 'context' of discovery,’ not to the 'context of validation'" (McCarthy 1994:137-139).
1994 The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
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