Notes on the History of Positivist Philosophy
Overview
Positivist philosophy in its broadest sense is a general tendency in philosophy which embraces aspects of the thought of many philosophers including Humean scepticism, the work of Comte (who coined the term), elements of utilitarianism and pragmatism, and logical positivism.
Kolakowski decribes positivism as "a collection of rules and evaluative criteria referring to human knowledge" which tells us what kinds of proposition might count as knowledge of the world and gives norms for what questions are meaningful.

Four features enumerated by Kolakowski as characteristic of positivism: phenomenalism, nominalism, status of value judgements, unity of science. However, Carnap's logical positivism is neither phenomenalistic nor nominalistic.
Other features which may be present, such as empiricism, scepticism, semantic doctrines (verification, utility, pragmatics), methodology for science and philosophy, foundationalisms.
Scepticism has a long history.
The views of some late medieval philosophers may be said to have elements of positivism in them, and contributed towards the separation of scientific knowledge from metaphysics and a separation of secular from ecclesiastical matters.
According to Kolakowski, "the Enlightenment had a positivism all of its own".
Hume scores well on all of Kolakowski's key features and is therefore considered the first full blooded positivist.
Comte is the founding father of positivism, the first to deliberately formulate a positivist philosophy and the person who gave the position its name.
My notes on the book by Leszek Kolakowski.
Key Elements of Positivism
Kolakowski decribes positivism as "a collection of rules and evaluative criteria referring to human knowledge" which tells us what kinds of proposition might count as knowledge of the world and gives norms for what questions are meaningful.

Four features enumerated by Kolakowski as characteristic of positivism: phenomenalism, nominalism, status of value judgements, unity of science. However, Carnap's logical positivism is neither phenomenalistic nor nominalistic.
According to Kolakowski
phenomenalism
There is no real difference between 'essence' and 'phenomenon'.
nominalism
"every abstract science is a method of abbreviating the recording of experiences and gives us no extra, independent knowledge in the sense that, via its abstractions, it opens access to empirically inaccessible domains of reality"
the denial that value judgements and normative statements can be knowledge
An example of this is Hume's denial that one can derive an "ought" from an "is".
the unity of science
A belief in the essential unity of scientific method. Exactly in what that unity consists seems a bit variable.
Carnap's Logical Positivism
Phenomenalism
Carnap's principle of tolerance is the best known feature of his philosophy which tells us that phenomenalistic language had no special status for him. On the other hand, he probably would not assent to the denial of Kolakowski's notion of phenomenalism.
Nominalism
Carnap had a liberal attitude towards ontology insofar as ontology is reflected in what he called "internal questions". So he admitted not only phenomenalistic, but physical, theoretical and abstract ontologise. However, once again, it is doubtful that he would assent to the denial of Kolakowski's conception of nominalism.
Metaphysics
I believe that both "phenomenalism" and "nominalism" as defined by Kolakowski would be regarded by Carnap as metaphysical claims, and consequently Carnap would consider them to have no cognitive meaning and to be neither true nor false.
Values
In his later years Carnap retreated from claims about meaninglessness, and talked instead of a lack of "cognitive content". It should be possible for a positivist to maintain that there is a difference between purely descriptive and evaluative language which respects the importance of both.
Metaphysical Positivism
Beyond Kolakowski and Carnap
Carnap may be said to have liberalised positivism, particularly in relation to his conception of metaphysics. However, his enthusiastic proscription of metaphysics is much better known than his rather narrow account of what metaphysics is, and his positivism may appear to be more narrow and anti-philosophical than it really is. Nevertheless, there is further scope for "improvements" to positivism which moderate some of the doctrines while retaining the fundamental character. These suggest an account of what constitute the key elements of positivism which differs significantly from Kolakowski's.
Ontology
I would suggest that absolute ontological claims might be dispensed with in favour of considering ontology to be relative to language or context.
Metaphysics
The word metaphysics can be used for empirical or logical claims, even by a positivist. What Carnap proscribed as metaphysics was either the supposed synthetic/a priori or nonsense. The former is almost by definition, so the apparent conflict with Kripke may be seen to be verbal.
Positive Science
The idea that science should consist merely in abbreviation of claims about experimental observations can be retained if it is appropriately explicated (though perhaps some other way of stating it might be preferable). A scientific law is not such an abbreviation, since it speaks not only of observed cases but ones which have not been observed. Conformance is obtained by not asserting such laws, but instead treating science as providing abstract models of aspects of reality, which it is not appropriate to assert as true or deny as false. Instead, the scientist might describe the empirical data obtained to evaluate the model. It is not necessary to know whether a law is true of false, it is better to know with what degree of fidelity it models the relevant parts of the real world, or under what circumstances it has approximated reality to a certain degree.
Other Aspects of Positivism
Other features which may be present, such as empiricism, scepticism, semantic doctrines (verification, utility, pragmatics), methodology for science and philosophy, foundationalisms.
Empiricism
Its worth noting that positivism is closely related to empiricism, most positivists are also empiricists. David Hume is for example, considered an arch positivist, though John Locke is not.
Skepticisms
Though falling short of pyrrhonean extremes positivists are usually of a sceptical tenor and show moderate to strong scepticism in respect of ontology, meaning and truth. In respect of ontology positivism therefore tends to be nominalistic. In respect of meaning positivists are likely to condemn large areas of philosophy and also parts of science as meaningless. In respect of truth, they will demand new standards of rigour in establishing conjectures.
Positive Method
The sceptical tenor of positivism is usually countered by positive doctrines on how meaning can be made clear, and conclusions can be firmly established. Positivist philosophy therefore often includes scientific methodology, and this is usually normative rather than descriptive, i.e. it describes how science and philosophy should be conducted rather than how they are conducted. Positivists are likely also to advocate the application of scientific method in philosophy, though they may differ on what kind of method is appropriate. Sometimes, as in the case of Hume they advocate that philosophers adopt the methods of empirical science. Sometimes, as in the case of logical positivism, they advocate that philosophy adopt the methods of the a priori sciences (mathematics and logic).
Kinds of Knowledge
It is usual for positivists to distinguish between a priori, analytic, necessary propositions and a posteriori (or empirical), synthetic, and contingent propositions, sometimes holding that these three dichotomies are coextensive. These may also be said to be exhaustive of the realm of true knowledge and to exclude value judgements, ethics, aesthetics.
Foundationalisms
Positivists are typically also empiricists, holding that our knowledge of empirical truths comes through (or is founded in) our senses, and that a priori knowledge is derived from some some kernel of primitive logical truths (e.g. follows from the law of contradiction). These doctrines may be called foundationalism in respect of factual and logical truth respectively.
Conventionalism
Conventionalist's doctrines asserting that certain kinds of propositions are true in virtue of conventions are often found in positivist philosophy. The most common is the view that statements which are logically true are true as a result of the linguistic conventions which determine the meaning of sentences in the language.
The Unity of Science
Normative scientific methodology is naturally accompanied by conviction of the essential unity of science. This is present, for example, both in Comte conception of Positive Science and in the Unity of Science movement spawned in the twentieth century by logical positivism. The unity of science may be considered to consist in its being reducible to physics.
Utility and Pragmatics
The sceptical element of positivist though concerns not merely meaning and truth but also utility. The attempt to give criteria for meaning may become connected with questions of utility or pragmatics, and hence utilitarian or pragmatic philosophers may be considered to fall within the broad sweep of positivist thought. However, the positivist distinction between empirical facts and value statements may be lost in utilitarian or pragmatic theories of meaning or truth.
Historical Notes on Scepticism
Scepticism has a long history.
Introduction to Sceptical Thought
Ancient and modern scepticism in a nutshell.
Pre-Socratic Scepticism
There was a great deal of sceptical thought in ancient Greece before scepticism became a self conscious philosophical stance. Here are one or two examples.
Socrates and Plato
Socrates and Plato contributed some significant elements to the development of sceptical thought, without themselves being full-blooded sceptics.
Greek Scepticism Proper
Scepticism proper may be considered as falling into four principle stages, the practical scepticism of Pyrrho of Elis, academic scepticism, pyrrhonean scepticism, and empiric scepticism.
Academic Scepticism
Academic scepticism is that of Plato's academy and occurs in several phases.
Pyrrhonean Scepticism
A pyrrhonean sceptic is one whose doubts are universal and who therefore makes no claims to knowledge.
Scepticism before the Enlightenment
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from the beginning of the reformation to the dawn of the enlightenment, pyrrhonean scepticism was a significant influence on European philosophy.
Positivist philosophy in its broadest sense is a general tendency in philosophy which embraces aspects of the thought of many philosophers including Humean scepticism, the work of Comte (who coined the term), elements of utilitarianism and pragmatism, and logical positivism.
Medieval Precursors
The views of some late medieval philosophers may be said to have elements of positivism in them, and contributed towards the separation of scientific knowledge from metaphysics and a separation of secular from ecclesiastical matters.
Roger Bacon

Roger Bacon is relevant both for his sweeping scepticism about the received wisdom of his day and for his advocacy of experimental method.

He identified four causes of ignorance:

  1. the example of frail and unsuited authority
  2. the influence of custom
  3. the opinion of the unlearned crowd (which appears to have included all his contemporaries)
  4. the concealment of one's ignorance in a display of apparent wisdom

He believed that the only reliable ways of attaining knowledge were through experiment and geometric deduction, and had almost utopian conceptions of what might be achieved if these methods were universally adopted.

William of Occam

Immortalised by the nominalistic principle known as "Occam's razor":

we are to include in our conception of the world only so much as the irrefutable testimony of experience obliges us to

This was an anti-metaphysical doctrine opposing the over-inflated ontology of scholastic metaphysics. Occam separated out the domain of science, which was to be based on observation, from that of faith, which addressed matters inaccessible to observation or demonstration. He considered religious truths to be based on faith, their demonstration through natural theology or metaphysics was impossible and unnecessary. This contributed to the separation of secular matters of all kinds (not merely science) from the influence of the church.

The Paris Nominalists

The most radically positivistic medieval philosophy was advanced by the Paris nominalists, notably Jean de Miercourt and Nicholas d'Autrecourt who affirmed that all knowledge was either logical knowledge reducible to the principle of contradiction, or an account of the facts of immediate experience. This extends to a radical phenomenalism, the concept of substance being regarded as superfluous.

Precursors in the Enlightenment
According to Kolakowski, "the Enlightenment had a positivism all of its own".
Introduction

"an attempt to view mankind in its natural, thisworldly, physical and social environment, an attempt to minimise differences among men by a sensationalist theory of knowledge, (every human being comes into the world a tabula rasa 'blank slate'), an attempt to project a life in time freed of chimerical 'wrestling with God', designed to improve the concrete conditions of human existence, to speed up the accumulation of knowledge, to do away with prejudice and barren speculation."
Kolakowski1972 p58

The principle element of the Enlightenment is not so much any systematic thoroughgoing scepticism but the strengthening confidence in reason as opposed to faith in worldly matters. The dogmatic disputes between different Christian sects, often leading to persecution, was provocation to scepticism, and the scientific attitude displaced previous more metaphysical approaches to understanding the world.

D'Alembert

A good representative pre-positivist is the mathematician and philosopher D'Alembert.

He sought to eliminate from both science and philosophy (including ethics) the theological and metaphysical.

David Hume
Hume scores well on all of Kolakowski's key features and is therefore considered the first full blooded positivist.
Humean Scepticism
In modern times ("modern" philosophy is usually considered to have begun with Descartes) the most extreme scepticism has been attributed to David Hume. I will summarise it, as best I understand it, in three tiers.

In its most basic and pervasive form Hume's scepticism is connected with his distinction between "relations between ideas" and "matters of fact" (a precursor of Kant's analytic/synthetic distinction). For Hume, only the former (among which are the propositions of mathematics) are intuitively or demonstratively certain, and the contrary of any matter of fact is possible.

The second "tier" adds a caveat to his observation that our knowledge of matters of fact is probable rather than demonstrative. And it is that even if softened to judgements of probability, they remain indemonstrable.

The final tier is that, even though "relations between ideas" may be demonstrable, there remains room for doubt about the truth of them.

Auguste Comte
Comte is the founding father of positivism, the first to deliberately formulate a positivist philosophy and the person who gave the position its name.


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