Modern European Philosophy 12 – Positivism

For this lecture, read Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy, chapters 1 & 2.

Kant Königsberg Monument StatueAs mentioned in the first lecture, the Analytic tradition of Britain and America and the German and French Continental tradition split apart after Kant, the last philosopher embraced by both traditions.  We have recently studied Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger, examining Phenomenology and Existentialism as the origins of the Continental tradition.  Now, we turn to Logical Positivism as the origins of the Analytic tradition.  ‘Positivism’ is a term (originally French, Positivisme) used by Auguste Comte, Henri de Saint-Simon and others to describe their radical pro-science philosophy.  Saint-Simon also coined the term Socialism (Socialisme in the French), the scientific planning of society for the maximum benefit of everyone, a topic we cover in the Social and Political Philosophy class.

Portrait_of_Auguste_ComteClaude_Henri_de_Saint-SimonPositivism, which is sometimes called strong Empiricism or verificationism by supporters, holds that statements which can be scientifically verified are objective, and that all else is subjective opinion.  For Positivists, only science, based in logic and mathematics, can prove statements exclusively true or false, and all other claims of truth, those made in religion, history, art, politics, can be considered mere opinion, unverified superstition, or meaningless nonsense.  This position was originally laid out in France in the 1800s by Comte and Saint-Simon.  In the early 1900s, this developed in Britain into the Logical Positivism of Frege, Russell and early Wittgenstein, the tradition which dominated philosophy in Britain and America in the 1950s.


WWI and the early 1900s was a brutal time for Europe, filled to the brim with new forms of technology, including machine guns, bomber planes, motorized troop transport, chemical weapons, and broadcast propaganda.  Just as Rationalism and Empiricism split on the scientific advancement of the European Enlightenment of the 1600s and 1700s, the Existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre and the Logical Positivism of Frege and Russell split on the negative reaction to the technological problems of World War I and the Great Depression in the early 1900s.

WWI DestructionWhile Existentialists and the Dada artists did not reject science, but rather came to view rationality and technology with suspicion, the Logical Positivists chose to believe in reason and logic, the essence of science, which they believed could lead humanity away from cruelty and domination.  Looking at humanity destroying itself with evolved forms of technology, one could choose whether to blame the passionate assertion of desire or the dispassionate calculation of reason.  One could blame reason for being distant from passion and fulfillment, much as Schopenhauer viewed individuation and Sartre viewed the social role of a waiter.  On the other hand, one could blame passion for being irrational, much as the Logical Positivists who turned to science, logic and verificationism to provide a universal language for scientific facts that humanity could use to be logical and rational.

Huston-SmithAs mentioned with German pessimism, after WWII there was a new surge of interest in German Philosophy in Britain and America, as well as in France, Japan and many other places around the world.  In the sixties, Positivism increasingly came under attack by opponents and critics, who sometimes labeled it ‘scientism, a negative term coined by Huston Smith, the famed scholar of world religions and a friend of Aldous Huxley in the fifties and sixties.  In the next weeks, covering Utilitarianism, Pragmatism, and Philosophy of Science, we will be investigating the opposition between the dogmatic position of Positivism and its many skeptical critics.

Auguste_ComteAuguste Comte (1798 – 1857 CE) is known as one of the first philosophers of science, sociologists, and inauguraters of the term ‘Positivism’ which he also called ‘Positive Philosophy’.  He is also credited with coining the term ‘altruism’ (altruisme in French, from ‘autri’ or ‘other’), selfless behavior as opposed to selfish behavior.  Comte was born just as Napoleon was conquering France in the wake of the French Revolution.  He became a student of and then private secretary to Saint-Simon, who participated in the French Revolution and attempted to use his personal wealth to create a scientific socialist society.  This unfortunately did not work out, and Saint-Simon was imprisoned by Robespierre during the Reign of Terror for using his wealth to influence the revolution.  Comte later broke from Saint-Simon, and became the close friend of John Stuart Mill, founder of Utilitarianism.

General view of positivism comteComte published A General View of Positivism in 1848, just as the German peasant uprisings were being crushed, turning the Germans towards the pessimism of Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard.  Comte was concerned, like Saint-Simon, with salvaging the Rationalism of the French Revolution in the wake of its brutal infighting and deterioration.  In this work, Comte argued that all true knowledge is scientific, and that science would eventually be unified by a common content and method, ironing out all contradiction and variance.  Theory is to be based on the observation of facts, and any theory that is not grounded in observable facts is superstitious metaphysics that cannot be legitimately authoritative.

Comte portraitComte argued, as had Hegel, that history had progressed to his own position in three stages.  While for Hegel, these were Being, Essence and Concept, for Comte history had transitioned from the theological period of medieval Neo-Platonism to the metaphysical period of Descartes and Kant and then finally to the positive period of his own time.  Like Heidegger, Comte hailed the end of metaphysics as the birth of authentic understanding, though the two differed entirely on the issue of objectivity and truth.  Comte believed that science was in the final process of completing itself through the course of history, and that it had began with the ideal certainty of mathematics and would end with the most complex and difficult science, Sociology, which Comte had originally called ‘Social Physics’.

1180 Latin Philosophy Queen of the SciencesAdvancements in Biology of his day convinced him that just as Physics had succeeded beyond mathematics in concreteness and complexity, and as Biology had in turn beyond Physics, Sociology would succeed beyond Biology, giving humanity a positive scientific understanding of society, just as Saint-Simon had originally intended via socialism.  Just as philosophy had been known as “Queen of the Sciences” in the medieval age of Europe, Sociology would become the “Queen Science”, the crown on the head of that which was rooted in mathematics.  Needless to say, Sociology is today still considered a ‘soft’ social science, not ‘hard’ like mathematics and Physics, so the firm grounding Comte predicted for Sociology has not yet come to pass.

Bertrand RussellBertrand Russell (1872-1970 CE) was born into one of the most prominent aristocratic families of Britain, and retained the title ‘Lord’ even when arrested for demonstrating as a pacifist and socialist against the first World War.  Russell distinguished his own Logical Empiricism from that of the earlier British Empiricists (Locke, Hume and Berkeley), arguing that Empiricism had learned to analyze using the method of mathematics and logic and thus arrive at certainty.  Interestingly, this means that Russell saw Empiricism as having become the new true Rationalism, using deduction to verify induction, wedding the two together.  Russell argued against skepticism, Hegelianism and instrumentalism (another name for Utilitarianism, the philosophy of Mill which we will cover next week).  Like Kant, Russell agrees with Hume that all ideas come from experience but refuses to believe that all truth is mere assumption as it can be analyzed objectively.

Logicomix RussellA recent and excellent book on the life of Russell is the graphic novel Logicomix.  As a youth, Russell feared going mad like his uncle, and believed that reason alone would save the world and himself from madness.  As a young boy, he found in Euclid’s geometric proofs what his Grandmother had hoped to give him with strict Christian faith, “delicious” absolute certainty.  Later, when he discovered that Euclid relied on axioms, unproven principles assumed to be true, Russell was deeply disappointed, but later said that this was a defining moment of his life.  He would attempt to completely ground mathematics in deduction from certainty, which for many years he believed the truth table logic of his young associate Wittgenstein would eventually do.

HegelRussell found that mathematicians were all in agreement, afraid to contradict each other but afraid also to ask the deeper philosophical questions about the certainty of mathematics, questions that had to be asked to give mathematics and thus science a firm grounding.  However, when he turned to philosophy to ask the deeper questions, Russell found that the philosophers were all in disagreement, contradicting each other at every turn.  Russell hated contradiction, unlike Hegel whom Russell despised.  Russell took a class on Hegel with G. E. Moore, and both were utterly confused and angered by the needless obscurity and abstraction.  Russell believed that philosophy needed a Euclid, and he would be that Euclid.  After discovering the work of Leibniz and Boole, Russell dedicated himself to being a logician.

russell problems of philosophy

In Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy, he begins by asking:  Is there knowledge so certain that no one can doubt it?  We assume many things are true all day long.  Just as Descartes says that he seems to be sitting by the fire but it could be a deceiving demon or mad scientist (“man of great industry”), Russell says that he seems to be sitting at a desk writing on white sheets of paper with the sun shining outside through the window, that he believes that the sun is a hot ball of gas which will continue to rise as the earth circles it for many, many years to come, and that others who walk into his room see and believe in a world similar to his, and yet all of this can be doubted.

brown rectangular table

Russell says that we can judge with our eyes that a particular thing is a smooth, brown, rectangular, wooden table, we can use words to describe it and others agree with this description, but as soon as we try to be more precise than this we have problems.  An actual table is not uniformly brown, perfectly smooth or absolutely rectangular, and others can view the table in different lights and from different points of view.  While we and others use common sense to simply say the table is brown, it is not simply brown to the painter or to the philosopher.  Appearance and reality are not simply the same, and while the painter looks beyond common sense to study the ways things actually appear, the philosopher looks beyond common sense to study the ways things actually are.


Russell gives the name ‘sense-data’ to the particular sensations we have of colors, textures, shapes, which he says “are immediately known in sensation”, even though ancient Greek skeptics that Descartes and others have discussed would point out that no sensation happens immediately, without any mediation.  Russell actually says that we know the table by way of the sense-data, so the data itself is the immediate medium through which we sense and know things such as the table, but this creates Berkeley and Kant’s problem of the thing-in-itself as entirely unknown and results in idealism, the mind as reality itself.  While Russell equates idealism with a denial of the independent, external world, he says philosophy at least shows us what strange possibilities lurk in typically unexamined tables.


Like Descartes, Russell says that we must try to find “some more or less fixed point from which to start”, and that even if we doubt the independent physical existence of the table we do not doubt the existence of the sense-data as an immediate appearance, what Hume would say is a sense impression that can lead us to habitually assume ideas.  Russell says Descartes invented the valuable method of systematic doubt, but that “I think therefore I am” assumes a stable ‘I’ which is not itself immediately given.  It is the sense-data which are certain, even if they turn out to be dreams and hallucinations that do not correspond to actual existing things, and this is the solid basis on which we can critically investigate knowledge.

Zhuangzi butterfly pine nap

Common sense tells us that tables exist when we leave the room and the sense-data is no longer immediate, and that we all see the same table even as we see it from different points of view.  It seems absurd to think that tables disappear when not seen or that there are as many tables as there are viewers, but philosophy should not fear absurdities.  There seem to be independent, public objects observable to many in common, but this also seems so in a dream when it is not actually real.  We cannot prove the independent existence of our world and the things in it, but we naturally assume this instinctive belief and there is no good reason for rejecting it.

Nietzsche downvote

Russell admits that this argument is weak, but argues that we cannot know anything if we throw out all instinctive belief, and we can use philosophy to separate our stronger instinctive beliefs from weaker instinctive beliefs and beliefs that seem to be instinctive but are not to leave us with a harmonious system of clarified, isolated and identified beliefs without contradictions and clashes between them.  Nietzsche would consider this horribly naive, as would Freud, as neither would assume our instincts are naturally harmonious towards each other, or that a system would help them be so.  Russell argues that if nothing contradicts our beliefs, including our beliefs with themselves, we have the best reasons possible to believe the total is true.

chicken head

Russell argues that if we want to know anything other than the obvious and immediate, we need to gather things in our conceptions into general principles.  We can perceive lightning following thunder again and again, but we must draw a general principle from this if we want to know the relationship between the two.  Russell admits that this creates a problem, the Problem of Induction: If we only know general principles by induction, then how can we know anything for certain?  Russell argues, we must found our understandings in the principle of the uniformity of nature, the object of all science.  He admits, however, that we are never far from the position of the chicken who is sure that nature is uniform and she will continue be fed each day, even the day when her neck will be wrung and she is served as food herself.

Einstein tongueUnfortunately for Russell, he was writing the piece before the work of Einstein, when Newton’s laws of nature were the dominant model of science and physics.  Einstein’s work did much to swing scientists away from the use of the word “law” and toward use of the word “theory” to describe proposed conceptions of the regularities of nature, humanity and the universe.  In spite of this, we can frequently hear scientists and scholars refer to the Laws of Nature.

Bertrand Russell pipeIn another text, The Empiricist Answer to Skepticism, Russell calls out Hegelians and skeptics by name and says we cannot get the sort of independent certainties we want to call facts or laws by their methods.  Russell says that we can “whittle away” at our theories to get to the pure data, the facts without interpretation.  This is similar to the position of Locke, who argued that we can separate the objective and subjective from each other.  Russell has faith in a ‘minimal theory’, and though he concedes to the Hegelians and skeptics that there is always some uncertainty in truth, some room for error, he argues that some data has “independent credibility, seemingly known in itself.  Russell argues that some things must be more than opinion, as opinions can contradict each other but the true fact never contradicts itself or other things, and that we should give the “greatest weight” to that which is most regular and most certain, and in this way form our principles and propositions.


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