Science versus Idealism
In Defence of Philosophy against Positivism and Pragmatism

by Maurice Cornforth

Chapter 16
Positivism in Sociology and Politics

Positivism and Sociology

Where this leads when it is applied to the interpretation of the physical sciences I shall examine in the next chapter. Here I shall direct attention to the field of applied semantics in which Chase specialises—the application of semantics in the field of sociology.

Positivism with its semantical theories, as I have indicated, claims to come to the rescue of suffering humanity by teaching us how to avoid "bad language" when speaking of our own affairs. Its prescription is to "search for the referent," and the referents are Adam1, Adam2, Adam3, up to Adam2,000,000,000.

As a matter of fact all these "Adams" are born into a social organisation, whose basis is their social relations of production. "In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will. . . . The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society—the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness." [1] The [end of p. 316] “Adams" participate in families, states, social institutions, social movements, whose activities are the activities of "Adams" in association and are independent of the will and inclinations of particular "Adams."

If, then, we wish to understand social affairs—and particularly if we wish to understand social affairs so as to direct them—we must refer, not only to all the "Adams" and the kind of things which each of them do, but to the economic systems, the classes and class relationships, the institutions, states and so on, which arise out of the social production of the "Adams" and out of their relations of production, to the laws of motion of these products of the associated "Adams" and to what effect they have on the life and activity of the particular "Adams." But for the semantic theories of the positivists, these are all "high order abstractions" and so cannot be "referents"—the "referents "are the particular "Adams," and whatever we say about human affairs must be reduced to statements about Adam1, Adam2, Adam3, up to Adam2,000,000,000.

Here positivism has produced a formula the significance of which is precisely expressed in the old saying, "not to see the wood for the trees." Its application produces remarkable results.

The principles of the application of positivism in sociology were outlined by the late Otto von Neurath in an article in the American International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, entitled Foundations of the Social Sciences.

Neurath inveighs against attempts to describe and explain historical events in terms of high‑order abstractions. For instance, he says, cases of wars and conquests are often described by historians ignorant of semantics in such terms as these: "Forced by its historical mission, the nation started to spread its civilisation." Here, he says, are three well‑nigh meaningless abstractions. The correct account of such an event, Neurath maintains, would be rather as follows: "One human group killed another and destroyed their buildings and books." [2] That is to say, we "search for the referent," and we find that what we are talking about is that members of one group of Adams set on members of another group of Adams, killed them, and destroyed their buildings and books. [end of p. 317]

Here Neurath's criticism of the abstraction about the "historical mission" and "civilisation" seems justified. But why? Not because they are abstractions, but because they are idealist abstractions employed by reactionary historians. Neurath, however, is against abstractions in general, and wishes to replace them by bald statements about the actions of particular men. The outcome is that he is able to say that there are wars in which men kill one another and destroy buildings and books; but he is not able to say why such wars happen, which wars are just and which unjust, how wars are determined by economic factors and class interests, and what part the various human institutions play in them. From the point of view of understanding wars and their causes and how to prevent them, he is as much in the dark with his semantics as the other idealists were with their own abstractions.

The theoretical and practical impotence and absurdity of the conclusions of positivist semantics in sociology are shown even more vividly in the next example Neurath takes of the semantically "correct" formulation of "a sociological principle." This time it concerns the "mission of civilisation," not of one nation to conquer another, but of man to conquer nature. Neurath says we should talk like this: “Milleniums ago, when a swamp and a human group met—the human group vanished, the swamp remained; now the swamp vanishes, the human group remains." [3]

Let us consider this remarkable statement of a "sociological principle." One of the places where today there is a marked tendency for swamps to vanish and human groups to remain is the Soviet Union. This is because the people of the Soviet Union, organised on the basis of socialist planned economy, armed with socialist science and technique, and carrying out their Five‑Year Plan, are systematically draining swamps. On the other hand, as will be discovered by consulting William Vogt, in the United States of America a different process is to be observed. There it has happened that human groups have vanished and dust bowls have remained. But with the aid of semantics it is possible only to formulate "sociological principles" which state what happens to particular collections of "Adams" when they walk into a swamp or find themselves [end of p. 318] living in a dust bowl. It is not possible to analyse the real economic and social determinants of the vanishing of swamps and appearance of dust bowls. This is as much as to say that sociological principles, genuine sociological science, are ruled out by semantics.

After this it is not surprising to find that Neurath ended his inquiry into the "foundations of the social sciences" by likening the present condition of humanity to that of "sailors far out at sea," in a "clumsy vessel" amidst “heavy gales and thundering waves." And he concluded: “The whole business will go on in a way we cannot even anticipate today. That is our fate." [4]

The positivist application of semantics in sociology thus ends in complete theoretical and practical helplessness and bewilderment. For positivism the real processes of social life lie in the "awful depths," and are unknowable, unspeakable and mad. They are unpredictable and unaccountable, and beyond the scope of scientific understanding or rational management.

Neurath's essay on the methods of eliminating abstractions from sociology had the value that it crystallised in a peculiarly absurd form the essential features of the whole positivist philosophy in its application to social questions.

The very essence of the positivist theory of knowledge is that it limits knowledge to particular facts of observation and to the correlations of such facts, and denies the very possibility of knowing the real interconnections and movements in the objective world, independent of man's observations, which underlie and determine those particular facts. And the very essence of the positivist logic is that it rules out all internal, necessary connections between things and events in the objective world and reduces them to the external and accidental coexistences and sequences of particular observed facts.

But where is it that the discovery and tracing out of the real interconnections and movements of things, of their necessary and internal connections, of the objective basis of observed facts and events, is most undesirable and most dangerous from the point of view of the ruling bourgeoisie, of which the positivist theory of knowledge and logic is a philosophical expression? Precisely in the social sphere, in [end of p. 319] the sphere of sociology. In this sphere it becomes most undesirable and most dangerous to prosecute any profound scientific enquiry—for such an enquiry, as Marxism abundantly demonstrates, leads straight to the exposure of capitalist exploitation and its consequences, reveals the laws of development of capitalism and its inevitable decline and fall, and transforms itself into a political programme for the exploited classes to use in the struggle to replace capitalism by socialism.

It is natural, therefore, that the bourgeois sociologists should always have done precisely what the semantical theories of the logical positivists now say they should do—withdraw from the prosecution of such enquiries and limit themselves instead to the study of particular facts and correlations of facts, to the study of the surface appearances of society and not of its basis, contradictions and laws of development.

All this was duly noted by Marx, when he wrote that “vulgar" bourgeois economics "deals with appearances only" and "seeks plausible explanations of the most obtrusive phenomena for bourgeois daily use." [5]

All that the recent positivist philosophers have done is to systematise the old methods of "vulgar" bourgeois sociology into a "new" theory of logic and semantics, thus giving those methods a philosophical sanction and attempting to refurbish them by representing them as the latest outcome of scientific philosophy.

The result of the application of the latest semantic philosophy to the investigation of the "foundations of the social sciences" is a complete failure to throw any new light on the foundations of the social sciences. This was only to be expected. For in its sociological aspect, that philosophy is merely a new‑fangled expression of the methods which the vulgar bourgeois sociologists have been employing for the past hundred years.


1  Marx: Critique of Political Economy, Preface. [—> main text]

2  Neurath: Foundations of the Social Sciences, p. 7. [—> main text]

3  O. Neurath: Foundations of the Social Sciences, p. 20. [—> main text]

4  O. Neurath: Foundations of the Social Sciences, p. 47. [—> main text]

5  Marx: Capital, Vol. I, ch. 1,  section 4, footnote. [—> main text]

SOURCE: Cornforth, Maurice [Campbell]. Science versus Idealism: In Defence of Philosophy against Positivism and Pragmatism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1975. Reprint of the 1962 ed. published by International Publishers, New York. 463 pp. Original edition 1955. Based on Science versus Idealism (1946) and In Defence of Philosophy (1950). Chapter 16: Positivism in Sociology and Politics, section "Positivism and Sociology," pp. 316-320. Footnotes have been converted into endnotes and renumbered for ease of reference.

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