The Anatomy of Ideas II

Neopositivism

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Unlike Aristotle and Ayn Rand, who conceptualize logic as the method of non-contradictory integration of the information provided by the senses, Kant views it as something essentially internal. By rejecting Man’s mind’s ability to perceive the world, Kant conceptualizes logic as a purely internal, a priori process, through which phenomena are interpreted by innate mental structures, thus creating concepts.

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For The New Intellectual, Ayn Rand, 1961 p. 30.
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The primacy of existence is an idea formulated by Ayn Rand, according to which the universe exists independently from any consciousness. It’s alternative is the primacy of consciousness, which is the belief that a consciousness is what gives rise to existence - whether it is a supernatural one, like that of the Christian god, a collective one, like Hegel’s Spirit, or each person’s own consciousness, like the post-modernists believe.
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Politics, in this particular context, means Political Philosophy, i.e. the discussion of political ideals. Political Science, defined as the identification of verifiable, mechanistic cause and effect relationships is not ruled out by Logical Positivism.
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Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Ayn Rand, 1966, p.145

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 "If his grasp is non-contradictory, then even if the scope of his knowledge is modest and the content of his concepts is primitive, it will not contradict the content of the same concepts in the mind of the most advanced scientists"Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Ayn Rand, 1979, p.43

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The very concept of a scientific community is a flawed one. Every individual has the ability to integrate concepts, and thus achieve knowledge. A scientist is merely a person who explores that ability to its full extent, making it his job to understand a particular aspect of existence. What makes one a scientist is the consistent use of logic, and not the fact that one belongs to a particular organization. Positions in academia, and publications in peer-reviewed journals are desirable tools in the advancement of science to the extent that they promote the use of logic - not as a primary.
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    Classical Positivism - which we compared with Objectivism in a previous article - has had a great influence on the way we think, from its specific influence on the social sciences to its broader influence on how people conceptualize ideas like “impartiality” and “objectivity”. However, although the works of authors like Auguste Comte (1798 - 1857) and Émile Durkheim (1858 - 1917) are, unfortunately, still taught in social science courses, mainstream academic thought now follows the guidelines set forth by their intellectual offspring.

    In this article - the second one in the Anatomy of Ideas series - we will take a somewhat unconventional route. Instead of breaking down its premises on the major branches of philosophy, I found it best to focus on the historical evolution of Positivism, starting with the decline of Comte’s Positivism, going through the origin and principles of the Logical Positivism of Hans Reichenbach (1891 - 1953) and Rudolf Carnap (1891 - 1970), all the way to the critique and subsequent replacement of Logical Positivism with the Post-Positivism of authors like Thomas Kuhn (1922 - 1996) and Karl Popper (1902 - 1994). I will discuss the similarities and diferences between these two philosophical movements, so as to show that, although historically opposed to each other, they are merely different versions of the same underlying idea. After establishing the essence of modern Positivism, I will analyze it using Ayn Rand’s Objectivism as a basis, and illustrate its effects on modern thought with some examples of its practical application in the special sciences - specifically, Economics and Law.

    To understand the processes that led to the evolution of Classical Positivism into Post-Positivism, one first needs to understand the metaphysical and epistemological basis of Immanuel Kant’s (1724 - 1804) philosophy. Kant was a German author, responsible for the creation of Transcendental Idealism, and the analytic-synthetic dichotomy. The author argues that there is an essential difference between things-in-themselves (noumena) and things-as-they-are-perceived (phenomena). To Kant, the fact that our consciousness has an identity - that is, the fact that perceiving is perceiving in a specific way - implies that we are unable to really perceive an existent.

    The metaphysical duality proposed by Kant between things as they really are and things as they can be perceived, leads to his analytic-synthetic dichotomy in the realm of epistemology, which states that there are two different types of propositions. Analytic propositions are those in which the predicate is contained in the subject (e.g. all ice is solid - ice is, by definition, water in solid form) while synthetic propositions are those that convey an observation of the word (e.g. that piece of ice is on the table).

    To Kant, analytic statements are necessary, that is, valid in any and every possible situation, and can be validated a priori, through logic, without the need for empirical observation. On the other hand, synthetic propositions are merely contingent, that is, possible, but not necessary, as they might always be contradicted by a future observation. In this way, Kant divides human knowledge between word-games without much practical value on one side, and useful facts about which one can merely speculate, but never really know, on the other. Kant also talked about synthetic a priori knowledge - facts about the world which are known without the need for observation - which are the link between his epistemology and ethics. However, since the positivists rejected that idea, I will discuss it in another article.

    One could spend thousands of pages talking solely about the absurdities of Kant’s theories and the consequences that a priori thinking, the noumena-phenomena dichotomy and its consequence, the analytic-synthetic (necessary-contingent) dichotomy has in his ethics, politics and esthetics. Ayn Rand herself talks about Kant as “the man who… closed the door of philosophy to reason”.  To  properly understand the evolution of Positivism, however, one needs only to have these fundamentals in mind.

The Fall of Classical Positivism

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    The decline of Classical Positivism must not be thought of as a series of objective and impartial debates, throughout which the school of thought’s many flaws were exposed, analyzed and resolved by means of a cohesive critique. Instead, it was a dispute between two essentially irrational worldviews. On one side, there was the rejection of high abstractions and the normative field of analysis, and the quest for simple recurring relations between phenomena by the positivists; on the other, there was the Verstehen, the interpretative sociology of Max Weber (1864 - 1920) and Georg Simmel (1858 - 1918) that, going in the opposite direction of the positivists, dealt almost exclusively in high abstractions, largely rejecting empirical analysis.

    Weber was the greatest exponent of anti-positivism and, without a doubt, its most brilliant proponent. His rejection to Positivism’s collectivism and to its belief that society can be understood through mechanistic relationships was revolutionary for its time, and his methodological individualism was essential to Ludwig von Mises’s (1881 - 1973) methodology in the field of Economics. Despite his many merits, Weber explicitly adopted Kantian philosophy, which led to grave mistakes in his theory, such as the belief in a necessary historical movement towards a more rational society.

    If Weber is the rational extreme of the rejection of Classical Positivism, Georg Simmel is the other side of the same Kantian coin. Although sharing his rejection of Positivism, Simmel also rejected Weber’s individualism, considering the individual to be irrelevant to social analysis. Influenced by G. W. F. Hegel (1770 - 1831), the author also adopted a dialectical view of the world, conceptualizing society as a melting pot of superimposed ideological conflicts, the resolutions of which led to historical progress.

    Their criticism to Positivism was not on account of its collectivism or the authoritarian nature of the measures proposed by the likes of Comte and Durkheim - Weber, Simmel and several other anti-positivists espoused equally authoritarian ideas. Their critiques were also not aimed at the irrational nature of positivist theory, seeing as the authors of the Verstehen shared beliefs that were as irrational as those of the positivists. What was, then, the main reason for their criticism?

    Despite the many disagreements between Classical Positivism and Objectivism, they both share an Aristotelian basis. Both philosophies saw reality as having primacy over consciousness   - and that reality could be known by man through observation. The Kantian philosophy adopted by its critics, which became increasingly popular during the 19th and 20th centuries, rejects this view of the world. They viewed the world, instead, as something that is not accessible to Man, who could only analyze the subjective creations of his own mind. The decline of Classical Positivism did not take place because of its many flaws, but instead because of what was good about it. The rise of Kantian thought meant the fall of Positivism, and its belief in a reality that was independent of consciousness.

Logical Positivism

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    In the decade of 1920, Positivism went through a rebirth of sorts, in both Austria and Germany independently, through the work of authors like Moritz Schlick (1882 - 1936), Otto Neurath (1882 - 1945), Rudolf Carnap (1891 - 1970) and Hans Reichenbach (1891 - 1953). Logical Positivism, as the movement got to be known, adopted a metaphysics and epistemology that were Kantian in nature - through the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 - 1951) - while maintaining Positivism’s essential rejection of the normative realm of analysis, and its focus on concrete-bound empiricism.

    Despite their differences and internal disputes, logical positivists shared the adoption of Kant’s analytic-synthetic dichotomy, while rejecting his idea of synthetic a priori propositions. In practice, that meant that they rejected the idea that it is possible to know reality, although that did not stop them from dividing propositions between those that had cognitive value and those that did not.

    Adopting Ernst Mach’s (1838 - 1916) phenomenalism, according to which it is not possible to know reality as it is, but it is possible to formulate models and scientific laws that simplify the complex aspects of reality as it is perceived by our senses, the logical positivists established the standard of verifiability. To them, a scientific theory must propose a means through which it can be verified, through either logical calculation or specific empiric observations. If that was not so, it would not be a theory with cognitive value, but simply an emotional statement.

    Since fields of study such as Ethics, Politics   and Esthetics were not considered to have a clear standard of verifiability by calculation or observation, they were considered as merely consisting of subjective, emotional propositions. To the logical positivists, it makes no sense to talk about right and wrong - or beautiful and ugly - for these subjects are merely a matter of personal opinion, and there isn’t an objective standard that can solve conflicts between two subjective opinions.

    Although Rand rejected abstractions that could not be traced back to perceptual information, Objectivism objects to the principle of verifiability as formulated by the positivists, as well as the ethical and esthetic relativism that comes as consequence of it. To Ayn Rand, knowledge is created by the integration of perceptual information into concepts, as well as the integration of specific knowledge into broader systems of knowledge. Instead of the principle of verifiability, Rand adopts logic, defined as the non-contradictory integration of one’s observations of existence. An intellectual construct is valid if it is created based on observations of reality; does not possess any internal contradictions; does not contradict any prior knowledge (if it does, at least one of the two is wrong); and is not contradicted by perceptual information. This is valid for each and every science, from Physics to Esthetics.

    In the opposite direction of Positivism’s relativism, Rand identifies Ethics, Politics and Esthetics for what they are: sciences. Her ethics consists of identifying, through the non-contradictory integration of perceptual information, the nature of Man and the principles that are common to every action that is in accordance with that nature. Her politics consists in identifying the ways in which individuals can interact with one another, according to Man’s observable nature, and the necessary consequences of those different forms of interaction. Her esthetics consists of identifying art for what it is - a selective recreation of reality according to the artists metaphysical value-judgements - and identifying the principles common to different works of art, their meaning and implications. All of that is done with extreme epistemic rigor, following the principle of non-contradiction; her ethics, for example, does not have any internal contradictions; does not contradict other fields of study, like Biology or Politics, and can ultimately be reduced to perceptual experience.

    The adoption of the verifiability principle, instead of the method of logic, relegates several objective sciences to the level of subjective discussion, incompatible with scientific standards of objectivity. Some of the logical positivists - specially Otto Neurath - became aware of that problem, and attempted to bring some flexibility to the concept of “cognitive meaning”. Despite the flaws already inherent to the principle of verifiability, his attempts at a solution made positivist epistemology even worse. According to Neurath, the truth is not to be found in that which is verifiable, but in that which is publicly observable, replacing a criterion that, although flawed, was an individual one, by a collectivist standard of validation. This idea would have a considerable influence in the next evolution of Positivism.

The Post-Positivist Critique

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   “In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic  principles, it is the more consistent one who wins.”

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    This quote by Ayn Rand perfectly illustrates the process that led Logical Positivism to be replaced by Post-Positivism. Logical positivism, with all its epistemological flaws, and its rejection of normative analysis, still argued for an individual standard of validation; a clear, albeit narrow, division between true and false - between that which had “cognitive meaning” and that which had only “emotional meaning”. Most importantly, it held that it was possible to arrive at some form of truth in a somewhat objective manner. The Kantian philosophical basis adopted by those authors, however, was not compatible with their claims about knowledge and reality, and that incompatibility gave rise to the criticism of authors like Karl Popper (1902 - 1994) and Thomas Kuhn (1922 - 1996).

    Karl Popper, wrongly considered by many modern intellectuals to be the father of the scientific method, pointed out a clear flaw in the epistemology of Logical Positivism: the proposition that only empirically verifiable propositions had cognitive meaning was not, itself, a verifiable proposition. Popper takes Kant’s rejection of intellectual integration to its inevitable conclusion, claiming that it is not possible to generalize observations and, therefore, not possible to achieve any sort of objective truth. Replacing the “truth” of a statement with its “usefulness” as the primary epistemological standard, Popper argued that scientific progress consists of the constant substitution of “provisional truths” that were proven false by new, falsifiable “truths” that were yet to be proven false. Verifiability was replaced by falsifiability.

    Thomas Kuhn, another major proponent of Post-Positivism, goes beyond Popper in his denial of objective truth, rejecting the idea of a gradual, non-contradictory development of knowledge in scientific progress. To Kuhn, scientific paradigms are not tools that facilitate one’s understanding of reality, but primarily tools that motivate action. Since they do not possess a direct relationship to reality, scientific models are doomed, throughout the progress of science, to hit points of complete incompatibility between the dominant model and a new, more useful one - although not one that is any closer to the truth. The idea that it is possible to build models that are increasingly more precise on top of models that are also correct, but more primitive, is considered to be an illusion. 

    One can divide the Objectivist critique to Post-Positivism in three essential aspects: the rejection of the idea of truth, pragmatism and collectivism. The first aspect is made evident by Popper’s idea of falsifiability, as well as by Kuhn’s idea of shifting paradigms. To Rand, it does not matter whether a statement is falsifiable or not, but whether or not it is true, and that is defined by that idea’s relationship to existence - from an epistemological perspective, by the means through which that information is obtained. The idea of truth clashes with Kuhn’s necessary paradigm shifts. If a scientific model is true, i.e. corresponds to the facts of existence, it will never be incompatible with another true model,   even if one is more precise than the other. If two models are incompatible with each other, at least one of them is false.

    Both the notion of falsifiability as the standard of validation, as the idea of a necessary shift in paradigms are consequences of the Kantian rejection of the possibility of perceiving reality. However, instead of turning to introspection and subjectivism, as Kant did, the post-positivists adopt pragmatism as their standard. In the spirit of Comte, who believed that Man should be content in perceiving stable relations between different phenomena, the post-positivists advocate that one should be content with formulating “useful” models to guide one’s actions. In doing so, they disregard the fact that in order to consider a model useful, a person has to consider the proposition “this model is useful” to be true. To Rand, a scientific model is useful precisely because, and to the extent that it is true - the two things cannot be dissociated from one another.

    The idea that the usefulness of models is something detached from its correspondence to the facts of reality is, at the same time, the basis of post-positivist epistemology, and it’s most dangerous aspect. If the standard is the usefulness of a model, and not its correspondence to actual facts, then reality ceases to be the final judge of scientific progress, and the people to whom the model might, or not, be “useful” take its place. That is the way in which Post-Positivism’s pragmatism gives rise to its collectivism.

    When one adopts the truth of a scientific model as the standard with which to judge that model, it is always possible that an individual is right about something that goes against the established consensus - either of society at large, or of the “scientific community”.  The way in which this individual can prove the truth of its idea is by demonstrating its link to reality through empiric observation and carefully formulated logical steps. The proper (though not perfect) way to demonstrate it in a social setting is by means of the market, by turning it into a product - whether it is an industrial process, an academic treatise or a work of art - and having its material success as evidence of his intellectual success. Post-positivists propose the exact opposite of that idea, by focusing on the collective aspect of scientific progress, to the detriment of the innovative individual. The consequence of that is a bureaucratic view, according to which the best way to demonstrate the truth of an idea in a social setting is to subject it to the judgement of one’s so called “peers” - ignoring the fact that, if an idea is both true and revolutionary, its creator probably has no peers.

Practical Problems: Economics and Law

    It is important to thoroughly go over the essential aspects of an intellectual movement to fully understand its scope and the consequences of adopting its premises, but the mere analysis of its primary premisses is rarely ever enough to comprehend the full extent of its influence. Post-Positivism permeates academia, and deeply influences our lives to the extent that academia itself does, in several noteworthy areas, from Psychology, to Physics to Art. Due to the limited time and space we have, I will deal in this article only with its consequences in Economics and Law - sciences in which we can find several clear examples of Post-Positivism’s influence, and its concrete consequences.

    It is not hard to see that most modern economists do not seem to have a single clue about what they are doing. Roberto Campos, one of the few competent economists in the history of my home country of Brazil, has a famous saying that encapsulates the nature most economists’ work:

There are three ways in which a man can know ruin. The fastest one is through gambling; the most pleasant one is through women; the most certain one is by following the advices of an economist

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The Neoclassical Synthesis was an intellectual movement from the 1960s led by economists such as John Hicks (1904 - 1989) and Paul Samuelson (1915 - 2009), that integrated Neoclassical supply-oriented economics with Keynesian demand-oriented thought under a positivist philosophical basis. The synthesis resulted in the now famous IS-LM models of macroeconomics. 

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The New Neoclassical Synthesis is a recent intellectual movement formalized by Marvin Goodfriend (1950) and Robert King (1951) in 1997, that aimed to integrate Real Business Cycle theory with New Keynesian Economics under the same positivist philosophical basis of the first synthesis. The resulting theory is what is now considered mainstream economic thought, so much so that despite the failure of his 2008 predictions on inflation, Goodfriend was nominated for the Federal Reserve Board of Governors by Donald Trump in 2017.

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For more information on the negative influence of German thought in American culture, see Leonard Peikoff's The Ominous Parallels.

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    This state of affairs is not a mere coincidence, nor is this recurring failure an intrinsic aspect of Economics as a science. Mainstream Economics, largely taught in universities to the detriment of authors like Carl Menger (1840 - 1921), Friedrich Hayek (1899 - 1992) and Antal Fekete (1932) has, as its philosophic roots, post-positivist doctrine. The history of mainstream economic thought consists of a series of Kuhn-like paradigm shifts, with several empirical models formulated with little to none logical cohesion being put to the test, failing in its predictions, and being replaced by new models with superficial changes, whilst maintaining the same fundamental principles.

    When the predictions of Keynesian economists failed, they were replaced by the theory that resulted from the Neoclassical Synthesis.   When its predictions failed, their models were replaced by those of the New Keynesians who, in turn, failed and gave rise to a new Neoclassical Synthesis.  Meanwhile, authors that focused on logical rigor, solid philosophic fundamentals and a reliable predictive power - like those of the Austrian and New Austrian Schools of Economics - go largely ignored, because their theories are based on self-evident axioms and their corollaries, and thus are not falsifiable. Meanwhile, the average person pays the price for “scientific progress”, while remaining a hostage to dishonest currency and several economic regulations (as we’ve discussed in more depth in a previous article).

    In Law, a field in which the abstract realm is arguably further removed from the concrete, the situation is even more dire. With rare exceptions, courses in Law focus increasingly less on the idea of Justice, or on the best ways in which to maintain the rights of the individual, instead abiding by their underlying positivist philosophy and focusing on the social processes involved in the formulation of laws and public policy. Legal Positivism, a school of thought that is hegemonic in most European and Latin-American countries, and is consistently gaining traction in the United States, is based on the rejection of the idea of a just law, considered to be something unreal, unattainable, or merely irrelevant to the scientific study of Law. It focuses instead on the processes that give rise to legislation, and in the hierarchy between different legal documents. 

    While older versions of Legal Positivism, like Jeremy Bentham’s (1748 - 1832) sovereign-based law and Hans Kelsen’s (1881 - 1973) “pure” legal theory are mainly studied as history, authors like H. L. A. Hart (1907 - 1992) and his student Joseph Raz (1939), who openly attempt to dissociate law from morality and focus exclusively on describing the processes through which law is made and enforced, are still cornerstones for the majority of courses in Law. Much like in the field of economics, in which neoclassical and neokeynesian theories are presented as the major alternative views despite being two different approaches to positivist theory, the authors presented in Law schools as the counterpoint to Hart and Raz are usually the likes of John Rawls (1921 - 2002) and Ronald Dworkin (1931 - 2013) - two authors that viewed law as something based exclusively on a subjective “social consensus”, and not in the objective nature of Man.

    While the USA has a political and legal system that is essentially based around an idea of objective justice, it is slowly but surely drifting towards one that is based around the majority’s will. The Anglo-Saxon tradition in Law and Politics is one of recognizing reality as something objective and understandable, focusing on discovering the proper laws, and formulating mechanisms of checks and balances so that these laws can be maintained over time. The principles which it has consistently imported from German thought,    whether in the form of Pragmatism - which will be the subject of the next article in this series - or in the form of Positivism, considers objective reality to be something one cannot reach, and settles for the formulation of “useful”, “dynamic” social processes so that the majority can reach some sort of subjective consensus.

    One set of principle results in an economic system based on private property, with money as tool with which the individual can store value regardless of his position in society, while the other one results in fraudulent currencies, and cyclical economic crisis. One set of principles leads society to enshrine its laws because of the fact that they are just, while the other leads it to enshrine its judges and politicians on account of their power. With their nature and consequences made clear, it is up to the reader to judge those principles for himself.