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by Igor Naletov

There is hardly any trend or school in Western philosophy that could compare with positivism in the depth and durability of its influence on society, particularly on intellectuals. Since the first half of the 19th century positivism has suffered many ups and downs and the interest in this teaching has alternately risen and subsided. Its founders have had the greatest of triumphs a thinker can dream of and sunk to the depths of the bitterest humiliation and derision that may fall to the lot of an unlucky philosopher. The powerful grip of positivist philosophy on intellectuals' minds and the periodic tides of its universal popularity can only be accounted for by its sincere devotion to, even worship of, science.

However biting today's remarks about the destiny of positivism as a philosophical trend, one can hardly question the sincerity of its intentions to enter into a firm and durable alliance with science. Born in the atmosphere of universal ecstasies over the successes of the natural sciences, positivism has preserved till nowadays its romantic faith in the power of experimental investigation, its appeal for realism in cognition and genuine interest in the scientific analysis of everyday experience and language. In the light of contemporary science and philosophy which have gone far ahead in the understanding of the laws of scientific cognition and the effectiveness of the interaction of natural and social sciences a number of its concepts appear now to be naive and sometimes even ill‑matched, the more so as positivism, like any other philosophical trend, assumed different forms in the works of its exponents: John S. Mill earnestly strove for accurate applied knowledge without realising the fatal narrowness of his concept of such knowledge restricted within the bounds of the bourgeois world outlook and system of values; Bertrand Russell hoped to find strict logical rules for solving philosophical problems, including those in the sphere of ethics; Rudolf Carnap made persistent attempts to resolve the growing contradictions inherited from the previous forms of positivism.

In positivism, like in many other philosophical schools, one should always distinguish between the ideas of the classics and their followers. The former, representing progressive tendencies in science, can usually be identified, first and foremost, by their profound devotion to the goddess of philosophy and, alas, by sometimes no less profound delusions. Unlike the wholehearted founders of positivism, their numerous mediocre imitators lack the necessary critical spirit of trailblazers in science and, instead of exploiting the success of their forerunners and rising to a higher level, fall to aggravating their shortcomings and debasing their fruitful ideas,

For all the delusions of the founders of positivism we cannot but pay tribute to the noble endeavours of such outstanding scholars of their time, scientists in the proper sense of the word as Bertrand Russell, Rudolf Carnap and Ludwig Wittgenstein who did everything possible to bring closer together science and philosophy even at the expense of their personal self‑disparagement. Indeed, there is something unnatural about a professional philosopher contending for self‑destruction of philosophy, its abrogation and dissolution in "positive" scientific knowledge. People usually regard this either as cunning, or as reprehensible folly, and are apt to overlook the possibility of the scientist's utter selflessness in the service of his goddess which goes hand in hand with modesty and complete indifference to scientific degrees, honorary academic titles, priority and material benefits. Such selflessness may induce a true scientist of outstanding erudition and talent to be content with the role of a humble clerk in attendance on an endless flow of scientific papers the meaning of which will always remain unknown to him. His devotion to science may even cause him to assume voluntarily the function of a cleaner of scientific Augean stables and become, so to speak, a scientific scavenger.

In the 1830s, when German classical philosophy with its pledges to explain nature by itself, to penetrate the very core of the universe and establish eternal control over its mechanism seemed to be at the summit of glory, the challenge of young positivism and its promise to rid science of quackery, whoever the genius behind it, came as a gust of fresh wind and deserved every respect and recognition. Positivism was indeed a tree planted for the benefit of science and intended to promote its greatness and glory—however bitter the fruit that was eventually born by it.

The rapid development of experimental science in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the natural attraction held out to scientists by the empirical methods of research gave rise to an illusion that all problems of natural science and social development could be solved exclusively by empirical means and that the techniques used in the natural sciences should be broadly applied to social research. Practicism and utilitarianism characteristic of the way of life in the developing capitalist countries of Western Europe—Britain, France, later Germany and still later the USA—gradually became a standard of scientific thinking. Referring to this feature in early positivism in the first half of the 19th century one of its founders, Herbert Spencer, said that the wish to possess a "practical science" which could serve the needs of life was so strong that the interest in scientific investigation not directly applicable to practical activities seemed ridiculous. Enthusiasm over the new methods of scientific investigation, naturally, went side by side with growing scepticism towards the knowledge which did not conform to everyday experience, could not be obtained within the framework of the empirical approach or had no direct practical application.

Nevertheless, the ideology of positivism contributed to some extent to the development of natural science, particularly experimental investigations, and helped science to free itself from the fetters of the religious world outlook and various speculative doctrines and artificial, not infrequently mystic, concepts and theories. Positivism as an embodiment of this tendency has served as a good purgative. In the 1830s, while still in its cradle, positivism came out with a demand to oust idealistic philosophers from science and subjected idealism and religion to sharp criticism regarding them both a product of the mythological stage in the development of human spirit. According to the positivists, metaphysics had very much in common with theology and differed from it in form only. Both of them represented different systems of world outlook and, as such, were outside the limits of scientific knowledge. Auguste Comte, another founder of positivism, repeatedly stressed the affinity and, in some important, aspects, even the identity of the theological and metaphysical methods of thinking.  In his opinion, the basic distinction of metaphysical concepts consisted in regarding phenomena as being independent of their carriers, and in attributing independent existence to the properties of each substance. He considered it immaterial whether these personified abstractions were later turned into souls or fluids. They came from one and the same source and were the inevitable result of the method of studying the nature of things which was characteristic in every respect of the infancy of human mind. This method, according to Comte, inspired originally the idea of gods which were transformed later into souls and finally into imaginary fluids.

Comte rejects metaphysics, i.e. everything that goes outside the limits of science (religion, mysticism, idealism, materialism, dialectics, etc.) and proclaims the ideal of positive knowledge and, accordingly, a new philosophy. Yet metaphysics, according to Comte, is not entirely identical with religious thinking. Moreover, it prepares mankind for a transition to scientific thinking. A metaphysical thought is, so to speak, an intermediary between the theological and the scientific ways of thinking and performs simultaneously a critical function in relation to science. Owing to imagination which prevails in metaphysical thinking over observation, the thought becomes broader and is prepared unostentatiously for truly scientific work. According to Comte, another contribution of metaphysics to the emergence of positive science consisted in that it performed the vitally important function of theory until the mind was able to develop it on the basis of observations.

Philosophy in its traditional guise is identical with metaphysics. Its existence can only be justified as long as science is unable to solve certain general problems. Hence, philosophy is only destined to pave the way for science and ceases to exist as soon as science takes over. It is only within this brief lifespan, measured off by history, that philosophy contributes to the emergence of science. Its cognitive value is limited to the preliminary formulation of problems. The social task of philosophy consists in attracting the attention of the broad masses, even amateurs in different fields, to these problems, but their solution should be the concern of the positive sciences and narrow specialists.

Despite the long evolution of positivist philosophy, this understanding of science and of the relationship of science to metaphysics was shared by all exponents of positivism. The problem of demarcation between science and metaphysics, in some periods just implied, in others posed sharply and uncompromisingly, was one of the key issues in the programme of positivism at all its stages and even the main driving force of its development.

In the 1920s, logical positivism, starting from the investigations of the Vienna Circle, continued its struggle against "metaphysics" from the positions of empiricism, though less radical than that of Auguste Comte, John S. Mill, Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius. According to the principle of verification first defined by Moritz Schlick [1] and further generalised by Ludwig Wittgenstein [2] the truth of every scientific statement must be ascertained by comparing it directly with the evidence of the senses.

In a later version Alfred Ayer described this principle as follows: "The criterion which we use to test the genuineness of apparent statements of fact is the criterion of verifiability. We say that a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express—that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false. If, on the other hand, the putative proposition is of such a character that the assumption of its truth, or falsehood, is consistent with any assumption whatsoever concerning the nature of his future experience, then, as far as he is concerned, it is, if not a tautology, a mere pseudo‑proposition. The sentence expressing it may be emotionally significant to him; but it is not literally significant. And with regard to questions the procedure is the same. We enquire in every case what observations would lead us to answer the question, one way or the other; and if none can be discovered, we must conclude that the sentence under consideration does not, as far as we are concerned, express a genuine question, however strongly its grammatical appearance may suggest that it does." [3]

Hence, empirical verification was assigned a function which went far beyond its possibilities—to appraise the truth‑value of all statements without exception. As compared wilh the previous forms of positivism, the new element here (actually borrowed from Kant) was the division of all statements into two types: analytical and synthetic. Analytical statements were regarded as tautological or identical, similar to those often used in mathematics and mathematical logic. Synthetic statements were regarded as object judgements characteristic of empirical, factual sciences and claimed to be the only statements which carried any new information.

Regarding the first two types of statements as being of some scientific significance, logical positivism not only denies all other statements any scientific, value, but considers them simply senseless. If one or another statement does not lend itself to direct verification, it must at least be reducible by logical means, as a theoretical, non‑analytical statement, to a corresponding basic or protocol statement which can be confirmed by direct observation. Statements which are neither analytical nor synthetic are meaningless and subject to elimination from the language of science as metaphysical.

The narrowness of the verification criterion induced the positivists to make repeated attempts at its modification. The watered‑down (for instance, Ayer's) version of this criterion admits of both full and partial verification of statements, i.e. of their partial confirmation by empirical data. A theory was needed, however, which being itself in agreement with this criterion, would define more accurately the notion of confirmation, on the one hand, and correspond to the general programme of positivism (construction of the logical language of science) and to the traditions of empiricism, on the other hand.

A most significant attempt to develop such a theory was Carnap's inductive logic expounded by him in Logical Foundations of Probability [4] and in The Continuum of Inductive Methods, [5] and then, in an enlarged and elaborated form, in A Basic System of Inductive Logic. [6]  A characteristic feature of both versions of his system consisted, first and foremost, in that the logical probability of the meaningfulness of universal generalisations was recognised to equal zero and that there existed a theoretically neutral language of observations. Out of the three phases of inductive inference—the selection of the language, the selection of the statements of this language and the assessment of the degree of confirmation of a given statement by other statements—Carnap focused on none other than the appraisal of the probability of statements relative to the results of the observation (empirical data).

As we see, in Carnap's inductive logic the traditional problem of induction undergoes a considerable transformation. The main task of an inductive conclusion is regarded to be the formulation of a probabilistic prognostication of a particular event rather than of a universal assertion. Induction for Carnap is practically any non‑deductive conclusion and, primarily, a metalinguistic statement establishing, on the basis of experimental data, a definite degree of confirmability of a hypothesis. Consequently, Carnap expands the volume of the traditional concept of induction, on the one hand, and, on the other, eliminates the problem of confirmation of universal assertions, i.e. laws, from its content.

According to Carnap, universal laws appear to be senseless from the viewpoint of the verification principle and inconfirmable in inductive logic. In point of fact, universal statements are useless: no one, in Carnap's opinion, will make a stand for the universality of this or that theory in any part of the universe. All a scientist or a practical worker may want is a hope that the next test will confirm his hypothesis. The logical evolution of Carnap's views brought him later to an admission that a shift in emphasis from confirmation to decision‑making in the analysis of inductive logic's problems would provide even a more radical method of ousting universal laws as the last remnants of metaphysics in science. Such a shift would indeed free science from universal laws replacing them with specific hypotheses. Finally, in the Foreword to the 2nd edition of Logical Foundations of Probability (1962), Carnap altogether avoids mentioning the "degree of confirmability" in connection with the assessment of inductive probability and prefers to speak of the significance of inductive logic for the theory of solutions only (and not for the theory of confirmation). This looks like the end of the last hope to construct the methodology of science on a strictly logical foundation.

The failure to solve this problem cannot but tell on the prospects of the programme of empiricism, since it affects the two most important and interconnected premises of positivist philosophy. A question is bound to arise: are the principles of Carnap's inductive logic purported to be helpful in the solution of the main task of logical empiricism compatible with the principles of empiricism itself?

It has already been pointed out that Carnap's inductive logic was focused on the evaluation of the degree of confirmation of hypotheses. It proceeded from the assumption that the statements concerning such confirmations by empirical data were the result of metalinguistic analysis and, as such, analytical statements. Carnap emphasised that his inductive logic excluded any a priori synthetic principles and not only remained loyal to empiricism but even in some respects corrected its shortcomings, thereby strengthening its positions.

The principle of induction, as formulated by Carnap, was based on the assumption that the experimental data testified to a very high degree of probability of the world's uniformity. Since the probability in the formulation of this principle was logical by nature, the statement as such was analytically true. Its truth was not necessarily conditioned by the truth of the principle of induction—it was sufficient to know that this principle was probable. The contradiction inherent in this proposition consisted in that the principle of induction itself was assigned a role of the foundation of logic and, consequently, its analytical truth value could not be deduced from the very same logic, but was to be established within the framework of a more general logical system.

All attempts made before Carnap to develop the logic of inductive conclusion pivoted, as it were, on the principle of the uniformity of nature which lay at the root of the principle of induction. Yet this latter principle is ontological rather than logical and cannot be obtained through inductive generalisation. According to Kant, it could have been classified with good reason as an a priori synthetic generalisation. Carnap, as we see, could not avoid this ill‑fated dilemma either and had to make his choice between an a priori synthetic generalisation and an ontological statement (in the spirit of materialism). A detective story writer skilled at stock phrases could have summed up the situation in these words: "The fateful shadow of metaphysics has again crossed his path."

It was not fortuitous that Carnap, seeking later to provide a rational substantiation for induction, pointed out that the axioms of inductive logic could only rest on a priori statements and argued that inductive logic as such could be constructed in a formal way. Yet inductive probability could only be justified in the context of the theory or solutions where the concept of probability is linked with utility and rational action. [7] The search for a non‑inductive foundation of inductive logic as a form of scientific cognition brought Carnap in the end to the understanding of probability as a reasonable degree of faith. As a result, the theory of induction turned out to be built on the sand of intuitive and subjective propositions. Each of the paths tried by Carnap in his attempts to substantiate induction on the basis of empiricism led him beyond its limits right into the arms of metaphysics.

It is noteworthy that logical positivism seeks to reinforce empiricism in its drive against metaphysics by a logical analysis of the structure of knowledge. For all the internal contradictions of Carnap's version of logical positivism, it turned out to be the most successful of all, as it revealed one of the main trends in the development of positivism and displayed a characteristic, feature of its understanding of the subject‑matter of philosophy. Significantly, both the adherents and opponents of Carnap's theory often call it "logical empiricism". The search for new ways in the struggle against metaphysics was by no means accidental. Already in the 19th century the development of theoretical sciences revealed the narrowness and inadequacy of the empiricist programme for the revision and restructuring of science which had been advanced by early positivism. It became clear even in that period that the programme of struggle against metaphysics ran counter to the interests of science and hampered the development of theoretical investigation. The theory of the atomic structure of matter, quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity provided ample proof that empiricism as a philosophical and methodological programme was useless and even detrimental to scientific progress.

The rapid development of logico‑mathematical studies in that period seemed to indicate an attractive and promising way out of the difficult situation—to treat a theory as an aggregate of logically interconnected facts. That anti‑metaphysical line was started by Russell and then developed by Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico‑Philosophicus into an elaborate theory followed by their successors.

Russell did not yet shun many traditional philosophical problems which he hoped to solve through the agency of strict rules of mathematical logic. His failure on this path caused Wittgenstein to take a more uncompromising position—not only to divorce science from metaphysics, but also to throw the latter overboard as senseless mysticism. The centuries‑old controversy over certain philosophical problems pertaining to the world outlook was viewed by him either as a result, of violation of the elementary rules of logic, or as a linguistic confusion. Alfred J. Ayer, one of the contemporary followers of these ideas, keeping his allegiance to more or less orthodox logical positivism writes: "We may accordingly define a metaphysical sentence as a sentence which purports to express a genuine proposition, but does, in fact, express neither a tautology nor an empirical hypothesis. And as tautologies and empirical hypotheses form the entire class of significant propositions, we are justified in concluding that all metaphysical assertions are nonsensical." [8] According to Ayer, the typical examples of metaphysical assertions are those underlying the problems of the reality of experience, the unity of the world, the nature of "true reality" as distinct from sensory experience, etc.

Richard von Mises who regarded his own position relative to traditional philosophy as the most conciliatory among the neo‑positivists, was also of the opinion that metaphysics constituted the sphere of pre‑scientific propositions and was not entirely devoid of future as people would always ask questions extending beyond the limits of scientific knowledge. Even in new fields of research, while the adequate scientific language was still nonexistent and the main linguistic rules and logical forms were not yet known, new questions going beyond the familiar ground were bound to be at first non‑scientific, i.e. metaphysical. To become truly scientific, new concepts must get a footing in their field, merge with the formal systems adopted earlier and develop full ability to communicate, so to speak with other fields of scientific knowledge.

Clearly, this contraposition of scientific and non‑scientific or metaphysical knowledge is rooted in a peculiar understanding of the ideal of scientific knowledge. This ideal, according to positivism, is represented by empirical science with its principle of empirical verification of any assertion. To become scientific, a proposition must pass through the purgatory of sense‑perceptions which alone are capable of providing direct. really verifiable and really objective knowledge.

Metaphysics as a specific set of traditional philosophical problems derives, according to positivisin, from the recognition of some unique reality which does not lend itself to scientific cognition and can only be apprehended with the help of the metaphysical, speculative faculties of the mind. "A more ambitious conception of metaphysics is one that places it in competition with the natural sciences," says Ayer. "The suggestion is that the sciences deal only with appearances: the metaphysician penetrates to the underlying reality." [9] All positivists irrespective of the school to which they belong hold that traditional philosophy postulates the existence of some transcendental reality which is different from and independent of the sensual world, but which determines its main features.

The pretension to know something beyond possible experience presupposes the existence of an extraempirical source of knowledge. The only method whereby metaphysical philosophers obtain their truths can be the method of a priori speculative reflection. For instance, Russell considered that one of the essential features of the classical tradition in philosophy consisted in a conviction that a priori reflection alone was capable of penetrating the mysteries of the universe. Nothing but an a priori method was capable of proving that reality was different from what appeared to direct observation. Emphasising that the a priori principle was the essence of traditional philosophy, Mises wrote: "As soon as one speaks of reaching beyond experience and of the disclosure of the true core, one appeals to the existence of extraempirical sources of knowledge. In spite of all their many differences, such theories as Husserl's 'Wesensschau' and Plato's 'doctrine of ideas', Spinoza's 'knowledge through apprehending insight', Kant's 'a priori' and Schopenhauer's transempirical metaphysics, . . . are things of a similar kind." [10] This stand, despite certain modifications in different forms of positivist philosophy has not changed till nowadays. There is nothing, asserts Ayer, that cannot be expressed in the language of observations, and everything beyond these limits is of a mystic nature. In point of fact, however, along with mystic entities Ayer throws overboard everything that cannot be perceived by senses.

According to positivism, the unscientific character of metaphysics springs from its worldview function or, more precisely, from its social orientation and claim to disclose the essence of the world, as well as from the fact that its propositions are based on convictions. On these grounds metaphysics is regarded as a false projection of subjective human qualities and emotions on knowledge and on the world in general. The possibility of a scientific world outlook is dismissed altogether, since scientific theories, according to Positivism, cannot give answers to questions pertaining to world views.

The positivists maintain that metaphysics meets man's psychological need for understanding the world as a whole and his place in the world, and is called to life by the fateful questions as to the meaning of human life, moral responsibility, and human values. Yet science is unable to tackle these questions as they cannot he answered on the grounds of empirico‑mathematical investigation which is regarded by positivism as the only form of scientific knowledge. These questions, according to the positivists, will always remain the objects of unscientific methods of comprehension. Man is entitled to use any means to express his world views, including the least suitable one, i.e. metaphysics, but in that case he should not claim it to be what it is not and will never become—a science, a system of knowledge. Carnap regards metaphysics not as actual knowledge , but rather as poetry giving but an illusion of knowledge.

The world‑view character of philosophy is considered by positivism as the main cause of its incompatibility with science. Justly underlining the inseparable ties between the world view, on the one hand, and ideology and politics, on the other, the positivists come to the conclusion that no problems relating to nature, society and cognition can be solved by philosophy (metaphysics) on a scientific, basis for the simple reason that these problems are treated in the broad context of the world outlook and their solution depends, in the final analysis, on the views and ideological stand of the philosopher. "The desire to arrive at practically useful answers (predictions) in the most difficult and most general questions of life," says Mises, "leads to the construction of systems of metaphysical propositions." [11]

Ambitious and noble were the aspirations of positivism which set out to free philosophy from the fetters of religious and idealistic dogmas. The 20th century seemed to have been destined to become the age of triumph or positivist philosophy. Indeed, it, has started with fundamental scientific, discoveries and its closing decades are marked by a profound revolution in the entire system of scientific knowledge, technology and social relations which are being successfully restructured on truly rational and scientific principles. Ironically, however, this century has also borne witness to the decline and fall of the philosophy that has made science its fetish.

Dramatic as it may be, the situation is not likely to rouse our emotions unless we perceive a human drama behind the ideological vicissitudes. In point of fact, the reverses of fortune in the realm of ideas are never divorced from the destinies of human beings and usually entail a drama of a whole galaxy of outstanding personalities, who believed in the viability of the principles they had advanced and did everything possible to defend and elaborate them. One can hardly blame any one of them personally for the long and, alas, futile wanderings in the labyrinths of methodology. If only it were a matter of personal fallacies, mankind would have long ago found a way to avoid them.

Yet the bitterest irony consisted, perhaps, in that positivism, whose credo was service to science, failed to find a common language with its master for any appreciable length of time. True, there were periods when positivism was in vogue. Its shares went up at the turn of the 20th century with the discoveries of the complex structure of the atom and of the electromagnetic field. Hopes also soared in the 1920s which were marked by the successful development of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. Another spell of good luck came with the intensive investigations into the problems of linguistics and psychology in the 1930s and 1940s. Finally, the last boom was connected with the rapid development of cybernetics and genetics, neurophysiology and psychophysiology.

The philosophy of science has been favourably commented upon and can even boast of the homage paid to it by Henri Poincar6, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Jacques Monod. Yet it is also known that the heights of their mutual sympathies invariably coincided with the periods of abrupt breakdown of old fundamental theories rather than with constructive periods in the history of science. Once a crisis in science comes to an end and the gulfs are bridged, the philosophy of science in its logico‑empirical version would inevitably reveal its inability to offer a positive programme for scientific, technological or social progress. Each new upswing of theoretical thought was a sure sign of approaching depression in positivist philosophy. Yesterday's followers and adherents of positivism would promptly turn away from the "friends of science" and the short‑lived mutual understanding would give place to even a more profound and lasting mutual distrust than before. These tides remind one of something like intermittent fever in Western science, and the blame for it can hardly be put on any particular individual. The disease must evidently be traced to a source other than the human qualities of each separate thinker—be he great or mediocre, honest or hypocritical, egoistic or unselfish. It proved to be contagious for altruist Einstein and misanthrope Heisenberg, great Bohr and mediocre Paul Volkmann [12]. The true cause of the illness lies not in the merits or demerits of individuals. outstanding or at least interesting as they are, but in the conditions of contemporary society.

The role of social conditions in the emergence and development of positivism is a separate subject that lies outside the scope of this work. Here I shall confine myself to discussing the general laws and tendencies of scientific cognition which provide, as it were, an epistemological background of the developing ideological drama. Paradoxical as it may seem, this drama is contained in embryo in the basic tenet of positivism determining its attitude to science. It is precisely the glorification of science and the disparagement of philosophy that did positivism an ill turn accounting for the scepticism and even for the downright denial of the value of scientific cognition that are characteristic of positivist works. How did the extremes meet? To answer this question, let us turn once again to the positive platform of the philosophy of science.

Rejecting traditional philosophy as unscientific and metaphysical and using many other disparaging epithets to belittle its role, positivism has never denied the need for philosophy in general. On the contrary, the exponents of positivism have underscored the significance of a new, scientific philosophy which was called a "philosophy of science" and given it many other no less pretentious titles. What was the real meaning of their contentions?

Philosophy as a theory of the most general and essential laws of being was eliminated by Comte in favour of some universal system of scientific knowledge. All scientific knowledge, according to Comte, can only be obtained by special sciences through observation, experiment, description and generalisation with the help of broadly used mathematical means. There can be no specifically philosophic understanding of nature different from that ensured by the natural sciences. Whatever the particular distinctions in the understanding of the subject matter of positivist philosophy revealed by different representatives of the "first" form of positivism, there is every reason to assert that their views are in the main identical: new philosophy has in fact nothing in common with old metaphysics and does not basically differ from other "positive" sciences: both the positive sciences and scientific philosophy are absolutely neutral in the metaphysical sense, i.e. in relation to materialism and idealism. The main object of a philosophical investigation is science, its concepts and method. The methods of "philosophical" investigations are also borrowed directly from science. In short, science is its own philosophy. It is these ideas, developed and elaborated during the evolution of positivism that underlie its understanding of the subject matter of philosophy.

Just. like the rapid development of special sciences and the strengthening of their experimental base in the 18th century gave the early positivists occasion to contend that scientific investigation should substitute for philosophic cognition of the world, so the development of biology and psychological sciences was in the late 19th century interpreted by Machism as the elimination of metaphysics from the studies of man's cognitive activities in favour of a scientific theory of knowledge. This idea was clearly expressed by Mach's follower and commentator V. V. Lesevich, one of the first Russian positivists: "What will remain of philosophy after the theory of knowledge, too, gains the status of a separate and independent science?" he asks and proceeds as follows: "When psychology, thanks to its successes, rose to a truly scientific level, no fragment was left of the old all‑embracing and undivided science, philosophy, which could be said to possess the property of universal and comprehensive knowledge: its place was taken up by a number of separate independent sciences, and philosophy in the old sense of the word disappeared." [13]

The achievements of biology and psychology in the study of man, his psychical and cognitive activity were interpreted by the "second" form of positivism as the emergence of a scientific theory of knowledge opposing traditional epistemology as unscientific metaphysics. Machism, like classical positivism, made the concepts and methods of special sciences the object of philosophy which, consequently, was to be metascientific by nature. According to Mach, a philosopher differs from a natural scientist in that the former has to deal with a broader range of facts. Justly stressing the need for a broad approach to philosophical matters, Mach maintains, in full agreement with the positivist principles, that it is achieved not through the generalisation of the process of cognition in philosophical categories and its interpretation on the basis of a definite world view and methodology, but with the help of some new specialised science which would study knowledge with the use of special scientific means of investigation. Such means, according to Mach, could best be borrowed from biology and psychology, since it was precisely these disciplines that studied man as the subject of cognition and could provide a reliable basis for the understanding of his cognitive activity.

The most explicit presentation of the positivist concept of the relationship between science and philosophy can be found in the works of Schlick, Carnap, Wittgenstein and other members of the Vienna Circle which is usually associated with the emergence of logical positivism. The representatives of the new trend fully agreed with their predecessors in that scientific philosophy was an immanent product of the development of science, that philosophy should give up metaphysical problems if it was to be promoted to a rank of science and that it should got both its object of inquiry and its method from science itself. According to neopositivists, the only reason why philosophy had been unable to become scientific for a long period consisted in the insufficient development of science itself which could not provide the necessary means for philosophy to fulfil its metascientific functions. The emergence of "scientific" philosophy at the present stage of the evolution of science was a result of the development of mathematical logic which devised the technical means for the analysis of science. The initial methodological models developed within the framework or positivism were in fact nothing but the application of the ready‑made body of mathematical. logic borrowed from Principia Matematica by Russell and Whitehead to the logical development of some hypothetical system of  "ideal scientific knowledge".

Logical positivism was a full‑scale realisation of the analytical tendency in the understanding of "scientific" philosophy. Yet unlike Mill and Mach, who initiated this tendency, logical positivism. did not regard philosophy as a theory dealing with the principles of the classification of sciences, the system of laws common to all sciences and with cognition as such (interpreted in terms of either inductive logic or the psychology of cognition), but as an instrument for the analysis of science. This approach reduced philosophy to a scientific system of actions, a kind of analytical activity. Wittgenstein's thesis that "philosophy is not a theory but an activity" [14] became the banner of an influential trend in analytical philosophy. "The great contemporary turning point," wrote Schlick, "is characterised by the fact that we see in philosophy not a system of cognitions, but a system of acts." [15] The attempts of the earlier positivists to construct scientific philosophy as a theory are regarded by neopositivists as a relapse of old metaphysics.

In view of the growing proportion of highly specific logico‑methodological problems in scientific investigations, logical positivism demanded that methodology should be completely independent of philosophy and that a new "pure" methodology, free from any presuppositions should be developed that would banish philosophical epistemology together with other philosophical worldview elements from genuine science. According to the logical positivists, the "reflection upon scientific knowledge", hitherto the domain of philosophy, turns into a special field of concrete scientific investigation. In this respect the only distinction of logical positivism from other forms of positivist philosophy consists in that it turns into an absolute the logico‑methodological analysis of knowledge instead of empirical science in general and psychology and biology in particular. Logical positivism regards the use of accurate logico‑methodological means in the investigation of the structure of scientific knowledge as a "scientific" method of the formulation and solution of philosophical problems. The emphasis on logic as ;in instrument of philosophical research is the keynote of the latest stage in the realization of the principal aim of positivist philosophy, viz. discarding traditional philosophical problems and substituting formal‑logical and linguistic methods of analysis for the philosophical approach to science.

It should be noted that positivism denouncing the so‑called extrascientific metaphysics is in effect carrying out a programme based on entirely "extrascientific" principles. It is wrong to take for granted the assertions of the positivists that their philosophy is free from metaphysics as the premises of positivism, unlike those of other forms of philosophy, are allegedly self‑evident. Positivism is shy of declaring and exposing to analysis the postulates underlying the entire system of its arguments.

The metaphysical content of the philosophy of science is admitted retrospectively by the positivists themselves. It has become a peculiar tradition with the positivist philosophers to accuse their predecessors of metaphysicism, inconsistency in the struggle with metaphysics, various concessions to metaphysics and deviations from the principle of "neutrality" in philosophy. Spencer reproached Comte for concessions to metaphysics, the Machists are advancing similar charges against both of them. As regards the neo‑positivists, they are laying claims to a final break with metaphysics which allegedly has never been banished completely from the writings of all positivist philosophers. Defending the concept of phenomenalistic analysis, Gustav Bergman reproaches physicalists for their inclination to metaphysics, which term, as it transpires, he applies to some of their materialistic statements. Even within logical positivism itself the palm of the most consistent fighter against metaphysics is claimed now by one, now by another of its representatives.

It will be shown later that despite all attempts of positivism to discard such problems as the relation of man to being, consciousness to matter, interdependence of space, time and movement, causality, the nature of contradictions, etc. it is in fact unable to ignore them altogether and has to tackle them in one way or another, often in a disguised form. Moreover, the more persistent the attempts of each new generation of positivist philosophers to dismiss the above problems as metaphysical and nonsensical, the more obvious their importance for science and philosophy. All positivist theories invariably started from some sort of denunciation—be it the denunciation of metaphysics, idealism, dualism or materialism. Yet all their criticism designed to clear the way for the new "scientific" methodology always contains in a hidden form some positive, assertory elements.

The metaphysics of positivism is all the more dangerous as it is concealed behind loud phrases about the need to fight it and rid science of the cobweb of the past. The oversimplified idea of scientific knowledge and the disregard of its hierarchical multilayer structure, as well as the primitive understanding of the nature of the scientific reflection of the world that leaves no room for the throbbing thought proved detrimental to positivism even in its self‑evaluation and prevented it from understanding the hidden purpose of its own dogmas. Not only did positivism fail to uncover its social face and state its social aims, it proved unable even to define its place in the general process of cognition. The hidden part of the positivist programme, its basic general postulates covered up by loud and pretentious declarations have never been brought to light for open examination. Yet for the purpose of this analysis it is advisable that acquaintance he made of these ghosts of metaphysics kept from the public eye in the backyard.

A curious paradox with the positivist philosophy, besides its unhappy relations with science, consists in that in its struggle against metaphysics (which happened to be now the speculations of German classical philosophy, now the philosophical principles of classical science, i.e. mechanistic materialism, now Freudism, now dialectical materialism which has synthesised the most valuable achievements of progressive philosophical thought), positivism at all the stages of its evolution has invariably found itself in a snare of metaphysical concepts, sometimes not a bit more elaborate than those of the 18th‑century materialism or Hegel's idealistic dialectics.

Incidentally, the metaphysical fallacies of German classical philosophy and the Enlighteners' materialism have at least the justification that their speculativeness was partly a result of the immaturity of science and social relations ruling out the possibility of the profound, truly scientific understanding of the laws and tendencies of social development. But can there be any justification for positivism wallowing in metaphys­ics and idealism at our time when philosophy became a branch of science way back in the mid­dle of the 19th century, when the problem of the relationship between philosophy and special sciences has been successfully solved and they have developed their own powerful means of theoretical investigation?

If Minerva's night‑flying owl had ventured to make its appearance in broad daylight, it would have inevitably struck against various obstacles and could have hardly become the ancient symbol of wisdom. Positivism, unlike the mythological bird, has appeared too late to win the scientists' faith for long and become the foundation of scientific knowledge. It has never, even in the days of its so‑called triumphs, been able to overcome the somewhat ironic attitude of the scientists to most of its claims.

Positivism combines in itself the belated faith in empirical science which was the foundation of the industrial power of capitalism in the 18th century with the youthful illusions of its ideologists that the prosperity of capitalist society was inseparable from scientific progress. Yet it is already infected with early scepticism in the anticipation of its inevitable decline and does not believe either in science, industry or in human values. The metaphysical principles making the foundation of positivist philosophy are similar to those metaphysical doctrines which were characteristic of both the 19th‑century's idealistic philosophy and mechanistic materialism. How can they tally with the latest versions of positivism, with its refined "logic of scientific discovery", "semantic philosophy", pseudo‑scientific terms such as "explication", "denotation", "verification" and the like?

The rejection by positivism of such traditional philosophical problems as the relationship of consciousness to being, spirit to nature is by no means tantamount to the rejection of idealistic and materialistic metaphysics. Just like in the case of Machism which claimed to rise above the antithesis between materialism and idealism with the help of "neutral world elements", "introjection", "the principal coordination", "economy of thought", it simply means that the only object of scientific investigation is, according to positivism, the scientists' sensory experience, which allegedly does not represent any metaphysical, transcendental reality. The true significance of the empirical theory of verification advanced by neo‑positivism consisted in that its adherents, despite all their anti‑metaphysical declarations, were forced in the end to revert to the traditional, essentially metaphysical, problem of philosophy—that of the basic, ultimate elements of knowledge. Instead of the objective reality the title "absolute" was conferred on sensations. According to the positivists, man's activity proceeds not in real space and time, but within the narrow confines of logical formulae binding the sensory experience. Man is incapable of breaking out of the jail built by positivist philosophers.

The mystification of the relation of knowledge to reality is characteristic of all idealistic philosophy which regards the world as the materialisation of an ideal form, as logic incarnate represented in language. Carnap, like Berkeley, Hume and any other subjective idealist, puts the true relation of knowledge to objective reality upside down. He starts his analysis not from objective reality, but from the logical structure of the language as it exists today, i.e. the language which has already taken a definite shape and is no longer a living organism. In other words, the accumulated factual material represented in the modern language is the eternal truth—not relative, inaccurate, approximate, but Her Majesty Reality personified. To be intelligible, reality must have the same parameters as the logical structure of language. Man cannot go beyond the facts arranged in accordance with the logical structure of language. Such transcendence would call for a truly mystic ability to abandon the sphere of language and intellect.

According to Ayer, for instance, the world is a “logical structure" made up of sensations, which, in his modernised parlance, are called "sensuous content”. Since the "sensuous content” is inseparable from the forms in which it is expressed, we are unable to pass beyond the bounds of even our statements of sensations. Ayer does not deny the existence of material objects, yet such existence, in his opinion, cannot be proved with the same certainty as the existence of sensuous images.

In the positivist picture of the world, like in a frequently staged play, the action always follows one and the same pattern set by the producer: subject to change are only the actors, i.e. concrete facts. Not only do the present logical schemes substitute for real relations between objects which are infinitely richer, more complex and contradictory than their logical counterparts; no less important is the fact that such schemes turn out to be even more speculative than the natural­ philosophical doctrines of the 18th century, except that they take into account some results of the scientific progress during the past two centuries. In other words, the artificial positivist schemes ignore the crucial fact that the logical links and relations are by no means identical with the real ones.

Positivism sees its main task in binding together the ultimate elements of scientific knowledge rather than in searching for them. Nevertheless, such elements do have to be defined, if only vaguely. The more resolute the opposition of positivism to objective reality as something that stands behind the "elements" and is different from them, the more it turns these elements into the "absolute source" of knowledge. By the ultimate elements of knowledge logical positivism understands "facts". For all the ambiguity of this term which can denote both the fragments of objective reality and events registered by language, the so‑called facts are turned into an absolute similar to Mach's "neutral world elements" or Berkeley's sensations. The certitude of these original sources of knowledge does not need any further confirmation—it is self‑evident. All other structures of knowledge rest on this solid foundation given directly in experience.

Wittgenstein's selected propositions such as "the world is all that has place", "the world is an aggregate of facts, but not things", the "atom fact is the connection of objects (things)", "objects make the substance of the world and therefore cannot be composite", are in fact nothing but vaguely defined ontology not much different from that of Hume or Berkeley: it is the ontology of "atom events" given in sensations. The only difference consists, perhaps, in that in the ontology of the classics the atoms are connected by association, through the agency of mental links, whereas in logical positivism the connection must be purely logical.

Positivism takes for granted Hume's doctrine that the laws of science do not mean anything but habitual concomitance of events (conjunction of facts) and sets itself the task of showing the soundness of this. It has also borrowed the empiricist concept of "observation" as a simple self‑evident act which only calls for distinguishing the observation of objects from the observation of their properties. Observation is not only the initial, but also the final point of cognition, since the only method of the verification of knowledge is also observation.

Hence, it would not be correct to regard the positivist doctrine as free from any ontology. Recognising that observation represents something that exists independent of man and his consciousness, positivism projects outside the result of observation. The positivist philosopher's world appears to be made up of separate, unconnected objects united only by some kind of affinity which, incidentally, is taken for granted and requires no explanation. These logically independent and empirically indifferent facts are joined with one another solely through the relation of similarity, just as distinctions are the only form of their separation.

Consequently, each object can change without affecting the properties of other objects or can remain immutable despite the existing alternatives. This, however, is not the premise, but rather the conclusion following from the logical independence of statements of facts. In Ayer's doctrine all facts are particular or represent conjunctions of separate events so that any generalisation of such facts can only be purely formal. Causality has no other empirical basis than permanent conjunction since, according to Ayer, there can be no obvious links between them. Hence, relations between facts can only be external. Even if one speaks of "internal relations", the phrase can only mean a combination of simple elements as component parts of larger objects. Ayer avers that even if the process of identifying an element in the system carries some reference to other elements, there will be no two elements of which it can be said that they are necessarily related, and this is as much as Hume's argument requires.

Hence, the obvious paradox consists in that positivism, despite its own declarations about the need to overcome metaphysics and free philosophy from myths and utopias remains itself metaphysical and even a mythological system substituting speculative logical schemes both for objective reality and for the real processes of cognition.

Advocating a strictly scientific approach to knowledge and demanding the elimination of all a priori propositions from scientific analysis, the positivists proceed from a very definite system of values which were established way back in the ideological battles with scholastic metaphysics. We shall yet have not one opportunity to see that positivism, even in its latest forms, has not been averse to the classical tradition in philosophy and in science in general. On the contrary, it has proved its strong affinity, remote in time but not in spirit, for this tradition, attempting to reconcile Locke's and Hume's views, incompatible in many respects as they are.

The inherent metaphysics of positivist philosophy, incapable of critical self‑analysis, combines in itself some characteristic features of 18th‑century natural philosophy and mechanistic materialism manifesting themselves in the irresistible urge of positivism towards formal simplicity, rigidity and completeness of scientific knowledge, with the principles of Hume's and Berkeley's subjective‑idealistic philosophy underlying the positivist absolutisation of empirical facts regarded as the only source of self‑evident certitude and the true foundation of scientific knowledge. Indeed, beware of metaphysics!

The widely advertised neutrality of positivist philosophy is in fact nothing but a philosophical eclecticism leading inevitably to idealism, just as the proclaimed freedom from metaphysics is nothing but a smokescreen for more subtle metaphysics. Lucien Sève has justly observed that "positivism is a typical form of the decline of metaphysics which has not yet managed to find its way to “scientific materialism". [16] It stands to reason that the inner contradictions of positivism inherent in its basic dogmas, let alone the contradictions between the premises and conclusions, could not but lead positivism from one crisis to another and stimulated its attempts to find a way out with the help of one or another stopgap theory. The philosophy of science was bound in the end to reject the positivist programme of struggle against metaphysics and give up attempts to discard all general problems pertaining to being, nature, society and thinking. It is not surprising, therefore, that the tendency towards the revival of "metaphysics" has at last prevailed in the philosophy of science itself.


[1] Moritz Schlick, Allgemeine Erkenntnislehre, Springer, Berlin, 1925. [—> main text]

[2] See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico‑Philosophicus, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., London, 1949, p. 77. [—> main text]

[3] A. J. Ayer "The Elimination of Metaphysics", in: Philosophy Matters, Ed. by A. J. Lisska, Charles E. Merril Publishing Comp., Columbia, Toronto, London, Sydney, 1977, p. 236. [—> main text]

[4] Rudolf Carnap, Logical Foundations of Probability, Chicago, 1951. [—> main text]

[5] Rudolf Carnap, The Continuum of Inductive Methods, Chicago, 1952. [—> main text]

[6] Rudolf Carnap, "A Basic System of Inductive Logic", in: Studies in Inductive Logic and Probability, Ed. by R. Carnap and R. Jeffrey, Berkeley, 1971. [—> main text]

[7] See Rudolf Carnap, "Inductive Logic and Rational Decisions", in: Studies in Inductive Logic and Probability, op. cit., pp. 5‑31. [—> main text]

[8] A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth and, Logic Penguin Books, Ltd., Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1978, p. 56. [—> main text]

[9]  A. Ayer, The Central Questions of Philosophy, London, 1973, p. 4. [—> main text]

[10] Richard von Mises, Positivism. A Study in Human Understanding, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1951, p. 277. [—> main text]

[11] Richard von Mises, op. cit., p. 370. [—> main text]

[12] Paul Volkmann (1856‑1938) was a professor of theoretical physics in Königsberg and wrote several philosophical works. [—> main text]

[13] V. V. Lesevich, Collected Works, Vol. 2, Moscow, 1915, pp 7‑8 (in Russian). [—> main text]

[14] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico‑Philosophicus, op. cit., p. 77. [—> main text]

[15] M. Schlick, "The Turning Point in Philosophy'', in: Logical Positivism, Ed. by A. J. Ayer, The Free Press Glencoe, Illinois, 1959, p. 56. [—> main text]

[16] L. Sève, La philosophie française contemporaine, Editions sociales, Paris, 1962, p. 294. [—> main text]

Contents of
Alternatives to

SOURCE: Naletov, Igor [Naletov, I. Z. (Igor´ Zinov´evich)]; translated from the Russian by Vladimir Stankevich. Alternatives to Positivism, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1984), Chapter One: Between Science and Metaphysics, section 1: Metaphysics and Anti‑Metaphysics of Positivism, pp. 23-58.

Note: The footnotes have been turned into endnotes and renumbered for facility of reference. — R. Dumain

Alternatives to Positivism: Contents

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