Reconsidering Logical Positivism: The Question of Power.

There is much that is useful to be learned from a study of intellectual history. Take, say, the question of positivism and its relation to systems of power, both political and economic. Michael Friedman wrote a great book on logical positivism, Reconsidering Logical Positivism, from an abstract philosophical perspective, but one thing that we can, and ought, reconsider regarding logical positivism is its relationship with power.

My view regarding positivism is not fashionable. The fashionable view is that positivism is inherently reactionary, that is that positivism and systems of control and domination, must necessarily go together. I don’t think this is correct, and I say this as a rationalist not an empiricist or positivist.

Consider positivism’s relation to the state. Prior to the Second World War positivism had quite a problematical relationship with the state, especially in the German speaking lands, because it was associated with the internationalism of the Left. Positivism and fascism did not go together. However, after the Second World War, it is said, correctly, that positivism came to be closely associated with the development of the national security state in the United States, and its associated technocratic elite.

Positivism’s historical relationship with the state is more nuanced than we usually suppose.

Consider positivism and capitalism. Here too we associate positivism with the capitalist order, especially its neoliberal variant given its grounding in neoclassical economic theory with its scientific pretensions, which comes from the distinction drawn between “positive” economics and “normative” economics due to Milton Friedman.

However, Friedrich Hayek, who significantly unlike Friedman, straddled the divide between the pre and post war order, was not a positivist and never really became one even after the war. Hayek was a key figure of the socialist calculation debate, and his position on knowledge and society was formed during that period, and for him positivism was associated with socialism because of its perceived emphasis on reasoned planning as the economic basis of society. Hayek, unlike Friedman, formulated his views when positivism was associated with the Left.

This history suggests to us that there is not something inherent in reason that makes positivism reactionary, rather that some conscious distortion of it can have reactionary effects.

What could that distortion be? One that readily comes to mind is the distinction between fact and value. The logical positivists claimed a rich philosophical pedigree, but surely the two dominant figures were Hume and Mach. From Hume, among other things, they took the fact-value distinction. Naturalistic or scientific inquiry cannot ground the choice or selection of values. In the post war period that distinction was distorted so that it became the view that there is no role for the normative in intellectual inquiry tout court.

However, prior to the war Rudolf Carnap, Bertrand Russell and others, were very much motivated by values and those were the type of humanistic values that we associate with the Enlightenment. That is why they were of the Left, especially during a period when extreme nationalism and fascism was on the rise, and they both took those values with them to the post war era which saw them both oppose the Vietnam War, a war planned and managed by the new breed of post war positivists.

I would disagree with the emphasis, drawing from Saint Simon an early socialist and devotee of Comte’s positivism, that the pre-war logical positivists placed on economic planning in a socialist or social democratic by a technocratic elite. From Saint-Simon we get “scientific socialism,” but I am more interested in the other branch of socialist thinking that arises from Fourier, which is libertarian. That said, this is a difference of value and in no way does it necessarily follow from the fact-value distinction.

The post war positivists associated with the national security state, and now neoliberalism, took on different values. The planning by a technocratic elite was still there, but the key difference was that this was to be done in the interests of the prevailing centres of power. This is easily achieved when you distort the fact-value distinction to dismiss questions of value entirely. How this was done with respect to nuclear deterrence theory, rational choice theory, international relations theory, economic theory and so on can be discussed in detail but that is certainly not a job for this wee little website.

One thing that ought to be said is that the commitment to the is or fact side of the fact-value or is-ought distinction is very thin among the post war positivists. Consider neoclassical economics, which has little bearing on the facts as graphically demonstrated by the global financial crisis, even though such demonstration was hardly necessary so late in the piece. Despite the empirical vacuity of neoclassical theory the dogma is religiously upheld. Whatever positivist neoclassical economists might say about the verification theory of meaning, and whatever we might think of verificationism in the abstract, the values of our positivists show that they aren’t really positivists. If you hold the market to be a God then you can’t be a positivist.

Their values, of service to power and privilege, overshadows all other considerations including the valued commitment to empirical verifiability.

In closing I should say that the positivism as the source of our troubles view, dominant in constructivist approaches to philosophy, is not a sound basis upon which to base an emancipatory politics. Post positivist philosophy is often presented as politics with an emancipatory intent, but this does not necessarily follow either. If one adopts this view it is possible to see positivist epistemology as somehow constructing the world, for example realist international relations constructs power politics or neoclassical economic theory constructs globalisation, when what really counts here is the social and institutional structure of society.

Those structures will use any doctrine, will distort any doctrine, and that by an imaginative and creative intellectual class, which is really good at this, in order to serve their interests. Politics with an emancipatory intent must engage in ideological and philosophical critique, yes, but this should not be confused with the act of emancipation itself. That requires political and social action directed toward the structural and institutional basis of society, and that can’t be done without some instrumental rationality a rare species of commodity amongst the contemporary Left.