Contents of
Alternatives to



by Igor Naletov

The internal contradictions of positivism and the growing rift between its concepts and the real scientific development were bound to lead to a profound crisis which will evidently mark the end of this school as an independent philosophical trend, though its traditions and certain achievements in the logic and methodology of science have been adopted by many schools of the modern philosophy of science. Equally inevitable was a more radical, compared with “critical realism”, revision of the notorious positivist demand for “elimination of metaphysics”, i.e. concepts, theories and problems that failed to meet the rigid empirical criterion of verification or falsification. Not only did this demand run counter to the very essence of positivism which has always rested on certain non-empirical postulates. It was also untenable from the viewpoint of the laws, problems and tendencies of scientific cognition as it tended to restrict the scientist’s outlook to the mole’s horizons and kill the very spirit of creative scientific endeavour.

The philosophical platform of positivism despite the periodic revivals of interest in its evolution was bound sooner or later to arouse dissatisfaction among scientists as it deprived them of the stimulating effect of theoretical and philosophical knowledge and shut them off from the wealth of human culture. Discontent with the isolationist concept alienating science from humanitarian and social values was also to be expected and had in fact been predicted, e.g. by the Marxist philosophers, among the intellectuals, particularly in the humanitarian circles. Natural, too, was the antipathy to positivism on the part of various philosophical schools and trends which could never stomach some or all of its tenets.

The storm which had long been gathering over positivism was precipitated by the scientific and technological revolution with its imperative demand for immediate solutions to a number of fundamental problems of scientific, technical and cultural progress, and the decrepit vessel of the philosophy of science was swept over by a powerful wave of general discontent. The critical fervour of different schools has been centring largely around the demand to revive “metaphysics”. Naturally enough, such a revival, as well as the content of metaphysics itself, are receiving widely varying interpretations ensuing from no less widely varying intentions. Idealism, for one, resentful over the hesitating position of positivism between the objective knowledge of the physical world and subjective perceptions is insistent on the unequivocal recognition of the primacy of the mind and consciousness. The scientific community, long deprived by positivism of solid grounds in theoretical investigations is demanding of the “realists” a reliable ontology, a materialistic one at that. The scientists whose interests mainly lie in the sphere of empirical investigations are expressing their grave concern over the theoretical vacuum, partly traceable to the “antropogenic” influence of positivism. All these trends are unanimous in their demand to concentrate on the solution of fundamental philosophical problems and are keenly aware of the inability of traditional philosophy to meet the challenge of natural sciences.

It stands to reason that the concept of constructive revivified metaphysics advanced by such heterogeneous opposition to positivism with its wide diversity of interests and views on the subject-matter of philosophy cannot but be very vague or at least extremely polysemantic. Problems regarded as metaphysical include general scientific and metatheoretical doctrines, the so-called ontology or the general doctrine of being rejected by.positivism, as well as the traditional “eternal” philosophical problems of value, ethical norms, etc. Such an approach will be quite understandable if we take into account the fact that the attempts to revive metaphysics are based on the specific material of the history of science, history of philosophy, ethics, psychology, linguistics, etc. In his Afterword to a collection of articles entitled The Future of Metaphysics one of its exponents Richard McKeon writes: “The future of metaphysics is determined by the controversies of philosophers as well as by the ontology of things or the epistemology of thoughts; and its course is often marked more clearly by suggestive paradoxes than by indubitable certainties.” [1] We need not characterise all the trends of metaphysics, the more so as some of them continuing the line of idealism and religious philosophy have always fed on such problems and the crisis of positivism has simply added fuel to their fire. [2] Far more important to us is the variety of new metaphysics, known as “scientific realism”, which springs up on the ruins of positivist philosophy and pretends to the role of its alternative in the methodology of science.

The name “scientific realism” which is currently used alongside other names, such as “scientific materialism”, “new ontology”, “critical realism” and others is purely conventional, since this school has not yet offered its solutions to the problems of scientific progress, nor defined its objectives or methods of analysis. The name represents what may be termed the nucleus of the programme—the criticism of positivist views on the structure, foundation and future development of scientific knowledge. It is noteworthy, however, that the so-called materialism of the new school proves in some respects to be but a new version of reductionism, whereas its “criticism” is sometimes markedly uncritical and its “newness” often goes back to the concepts of the 19th or even 18th centuries. Vague as it is, the new teaching has evidently revealed so far only one positive feature—recognition of the objective reality as the starting point of scientific cognition. To this can be added its intention to analyse the real process of scientific development and the real history of science rather than to indulge in the invention of speculative schemes based on new metaphysical concepts. It is undoubtedly a sober approach which corresponds to the present level and to the prospects of scientific development.

To be sure, critical attitude to positivism is an important asset of the new school. Its criticism is all the more effective as it exposes the inner contradictions of the philosophy which has in fact been source of the youthful inspiration of practically all modern prominent expounders of scientific realism. Willard Van Orman Quine, Herbert Feigl, Wilfrid Sellars, Mario Bunge and many other contemporary leaders of this trend were under a strong influence of positivist philosophy at least in their early period, even though they did not completely share its views. Understandably, the general crisis of positivism which revealed itself not only in the internal contradictions of the positivist methodological programme but also in the conflict with the general trend of scientific cognition marked a turning point in the attitude towards the ideas of Carnap, Schlick, Reichenbach, Ayer, and other positivists. No less significant is the opposition of scientific realism to critical rationalism which is often considered to be the direct successor of positivist philosophy. One cannot deny, however, the mutual influence of these trends which is manifested, for instance, in that Popper, Feyerabend and others not infrequently identify themselves with the “realists”. True, their statements are not immune from verification.

The “realism” of the new school implies a critical reappraisal of the positivist methodological programme prompted, as has already been pointed out, by the practical needs of the scientific and technological revolution in the late 1940s- early 1950s. This reappraisal has involved almost all the essential points of this programme: the problems of the objectivity of knowledge, causality, determinism, the relationship of matter and consciousness and, to a lesser extent, the problems of the development and structure of science. To be sure, the actual range of problems requiring a different approach in connection with the methodological criticism of positivist philosophy is much broader and extends far beyond the narrow scope of the positivist programme which, in fact, determines the horizon of “scientific realism” and prevents it from opening up broader fields of scientific cognition. We shall consider the attitude of the new trend to these problems later and concentrate now on its interpretation of the scientificity of philosophy and the relationship of philosophy and science, the two main topics of this chapter. The anti-positivist solution of these issues by scientific realism has led, first and foremost, to the revival of ontology.

It is noteworthy that “realism” connects the revival of ontology as a philosophical doctrine of being and as a philosophical explication of the properties, objects and relations of the external world with the recognition of the external world, i.e. the reality which existed prior to and independently of man. Significantly, most of the followers of scientific realism declare themselves “modern materialists”, “exponents of scientific materialism”, etc. But how true are such declarations? Do the claims of scientific realists correspond to the content of their doctrine and its premises to its conclusions?

The new school directs its criticism first and foremost at the extremes of the positivist slogan of struggle against metaphysics under the cover of both verificationism and falsificationism. According to the “realists”, this slogan is untenable for several reasons: first, in everyday practice scientific investigation ignores the facts which contradict theory; second, facts are not primary in scientific cognition, they are born, so to speak, in theoretical diapers; third, theories deal not with the objects of observation, but only with their idealised models; fourth, the verification of a scientific assertion is not, as a rule, a simple consequence of a theory, but rather follows from a theory combined with additional assumptions which must also be tested by experience. Hence, neither verification nor falsification taken separately can provide a satisfactory criterion for establishing the truth of a theory and recognising its scientificity and, consequently, for distinguishing metaphysical statements from true science.

Quine, one of the early opponents of positivism representing the views of the new school, clearly reveals the unsoundness of the main dogmas of the traditional philosophy of science: its belief in the possibility of sharply demarcating the analytical truths independent of empirical facts (i.e. deducible from definitions and therefore tautological by nature) from the synthetic propositions based on empirical facts, and its reduction principle whereby each meaningful assertion can be reduced by purely logical means to basic empirical facts or propositions of the protocol-statement type. He points out that the basic concept of logical positivism which regarded language to be the starting point of analysis was fallacious, since the so-called physical-object language proposed by this school was at variance with its own demand—to be the language of sensually perceptible physical phenomena. Including the notions of a logically developed theory, language incorporated of necessity certain elements of mathematical theories related, for instance, to mathematical logic. The presence of such notions as a class of objects and a class of classes in the concept of logical empiricism was in itself a linguistic indulgence incompatible with the monastic vows of positivism.

Quine admits that ontological problems are unavoidable and emphasises that their formulation can only be sensible and free from contradictions if ontological statements meet the demands of modern logical analysis. The adopted ontology can only be regarded as unambiguous after the confusion resulting from the use of individual terms has been eliminated with the help of Russell’s description theory, quantification methods, etc. According to Quine, the fundamental ontological question can be put as follows: what kind of objects can be considered real if we believe in the truth of a given theory? The criterion of being which is the subject-matter of ontology is no less definite: to be is to be the meaning of the variable. From this it follows that any theory recognises in fact only those objects which can be classified as variables connected with one another in such a way as to confirm the truth of the propositions of the given theory.

Quine as a “realist” declares in favour not only of the existence of objective reality, but also of a possibility to construct scientific ontology, thus overcoming the general anthropocentrism of positivist philosophy. In his opinion, no special philosophical system of knowledge is required for this purpose, since ontology is entirely a product of scientific theory.

Quine contends that our knowledge, on the one hand, maintains contact with the external world through sense perception. Yet it also comprises entities outside sensory experience. Man’s knowledge is predetermined by his sense perception, but different people need not necessarily get identical sensory data under identical conditions. This accounts for a possibility of switching over from the empirical language to the language of theory. It is precisely the intersubjective language which makes it possible, according to Quine, to perceive different empirical facts, i.e. to agree or disagree with the observer’s propositions. “It is this,” writes Quine, “that enables the child to learn when to assent to the observation sentence. And it is this also, intersubjective observability at the time, that qualifies observation sentences as check points for scientific theory. Observation sentences state the evidence, to which all witnesses must accede.” [3]

As distinct from Feyerabend, Quine is ready to go beyond the empirical evidence. Even if two theories are equivalent in terms of empirical evidence, they may be very different. This suggests, according to Quine, that the preference in selecting a true theory is determined by its simplicity rather than by a criterion related to empirical material. Hence, the judgements regarding the truth of a theory can only be passed after the theory has been accepted or rejected. It is only within the framework of the existing conceptual scheme that one can assess the true content of a theory. Consequently, reality as the true content of knowledge is entirely out of the question, except in the language of the adopted conceptual scheme. Quine prefers not to speak of “things-in-themselves” or of some other special philosophical interpretation of a scientific theory. “Reality”, according to Quine, is in fact what we believe to be existing. Therefore he regards science as primary, and epistemology as secondary, or, as he puts it, as science self-applied. Its task, according to Quine, is to show how we know what we ought to know about science.

Quine does not concern himself about the metaphysical status of propositions but is rather interested in what we should do with them. Epistemology, according to Quine, is not something outside science, it is incorporated in our judgement about it. The decision as regards what is existent and what is non-existent depends on the contemporary state of science.

Quine takes special note of Carnap’s well-known attempt to water-down the rigid dogma of radical reductionism by conceding that each proposition taken by itself and isolated from other propositions can be confirmed or disproved as a whole. Yet even this thesis does not seem to him quite satisfactory and he contrasts to it his own version according to which our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body. According to Quine, “total science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience. A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field.” [4] Re-evaluation of some statements entails re-evaluation of others, because of their logical interconnections, but the total field is so undetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice. No particular experiences are linked with any particular statements in the interior of the field, except indirectly through considerations of equilibrium affecting the field as a whole.

If this view is right, reasons Quine further, there is no ground for speaking about the empirical content of an individual statement, particularly if it be a statement at all remote from the experiential periphery of the field. Furthermore, it becomes folly to seek a boundary between synthetic and analytical statements. Any statement can be held true if the theoretical system is subjected to drastic enough adjustments.

Mario Bunge, one of the most influential adherents of “scientific realism” also points out the sketchy character of the positivist concept of the relation of theory to experience. He maintains that the procedure of checking a theory is, generally speaking, far more complex than is suggested by those simplified schemes imposed both by the verification and falsification principles. The task of the philosophy of science is to bring the description of this procedure as close as possible to the scientist’s real work. In one of his articles he writes: “We must start afresh, keeping closer to actual scientific research than to the philosophical [positivist] traditions.” [5] The empirical test alone is far from being sufficient. A scientific theory must be subjected not only to an empirical, but also to a non-empirical test which should have at least three aspects: metatheoretical, intertheoretical and philosophical. The object of the metatheoretical checking of a theory should consist in ascertaining that it is not inwardly contradictory, that its consequences have factual content and that there exists a procedure for a transition from unobservable causes to observable ones. The intertheoretical checking consists in ascertaining that the theory in question is consistent with other theories, already recognised. The purpose of the philosophical checking is to establish to what extent the new theory corresponds to the dominant philosophy. Bunge has no doubts about the need to bring our scientific theories in accord with the dominant philosophical concepts. The world view, according to Bunge, has a direct bearing on the selection of research problems, the formation of hypotheses and the evaluation of ideas and procedures. [6] This correspondence has always been sought for and alleged even if it did not exist, as was the case with the relativist and atomic theories in relation to positivism. The latter circumstance makes it absolutely imperative to check the soundness of the philosophical principles themselves.

According to scientific realism, Popper’s falsification theory is no less contradictory than the verification theory and both of them are equally far removed from the real practice of scientific cognition. Not a single scientist, says Bunge, would like to see his own creation dead. On the contrary, he would do everything possible to make it viable, i.e. to corroborate his theory. A closer look at the process of consolidation of a scientific theory reveals in it two more or less distinct stages. At the first stage, the theory advanced by a scientist gains ground and his colleagues, no less than the author himself, are busy searching for facts to support it. At the second stage, the new theory struggling for existence and for the right to develop comes across phenomena which do not fall within its framework. The theory becomes the object of criticism and the process of the revaluation of facts begins.

A lot of theories highly beneficial to science have won the right to existence without applying to the falsification criterion. There are many methods whereby a theory can be constructed. Theories can adapt themselves to new data which seemed at first “inconvenient”, develop additional and auxiliary hypotheses and, once they reached the necessary level of corroboration, are never discarded at once. “A way of building a scientific theory,” writes Bunge, “is to surround the central hypotheses with well-meaning protectors hoping they will eventually turn out to be true.” [7] There is nothing wrong about protecting a hypothesis by ad hoc hypotheses as long as the latter are in principle independently testable. This method permits building quite a viable hypothetico-deductive system and may ensue in a new crop of experiments, whereas a strict application of Popper’s criterion would nip the whole development in the bud.

After a detailed analysis of the applicability of Popper’s falsification criterion to some important scientific theories Bunge comes to the conclusion that it is useless in the assessment of many general theories such as, for instance, the concept of continuum mechanics, the evolution theory, etc. They can only be tested in combination with additional (ad hoc) hypotheses or specific data pertaining to the components of the systems, their interaction or spatial configuration, etc.

Unlike the lever, simple pendulum and other specific theories which lend themselves to fullscale testing (i.e. to verification and falsification), the field theory or, for instance, the concept of quantum mechanics cannot be subjected to exhaustive testing. In this connection Bunge singles out three types of scientific theories: (1) specific theories, such as particle mechanics or the quantum theory of the Helium atom; (2) generic fully-interpreted theories, such as classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, general relativity, the evolution theory; (3) generic semi-interpreted theories, such as games theory, information theory, field theory, etc. Characterising the third-type theories most of the symbols of which are assigned no factual interpretation, Bunge points out that such theories are particularly valuable in case of insufficient, incomplete knowledge of facts. Emphasising also their extremely general character and empirical untestability, Bunge points out that many such theories seem in fact to qualify as metaphysical ones. From this he makes the conclusion that there is no sharp line of demarcation between science and metaphysics. “Surely,” contends Bunge, “there is a line between wild metaphysics and science—as well as a boundary between exact metaphysics and pseudoscience—but there seems to be no frontier between exact metaphysics and the set of most general (type III) scientific theories: in fact, there is a good deal of overlap.” [8]

Bunge further points out that the term “metaphysics” had different shades of meaning in the history of philosophy and concentrates on two of them. Plain metaphysics, according to Bunge, “ranges from elaborate nonsense through archaic common sense to deep and sophisticated yet outdated good sense.” [9] It is removed too far from modern knowledge. “Kant,” says Bunge, “was certainly right in his day in stressing the difference between science and metaphysics and in claiming that it was impossible to conceive of metaphysics as a science. So were probably the Vienna Circle and Popper—in their own time, that is.” [10] Now, according to Bunge, the situation has radically changed with the appearance of exact ontological theories relevant to science. Conditions are now ripe for the emergence of exact metaphysics which seeks to solve some problems put off by plain metaphysics and strives to keep tune both with formal and factual sciences.

Bunge’s requirements to scientific metaphysics on which he dwells at length deserve special attention. In his opinion, scientific metaphysics should (1) concern itself primarily with the most general properties of reality and real objects, rather than with spiritual objects; (2) it should be a systematic theory or a part thereof rather than expound somebody’s views; (3) it should make use of logic and mathematics; (4) it should expound key philosophical concepts and fundamentals of science; (5) it should contain elements which can be found among the postulates of scientific theories. Scientific metaphysics can itself become a scientific theory as a result of specification or additional conditions for its application. Metatheories, according to Bunge, can also be constructed with the use of elements borrowed from other fields of knowledge, as well as with the help of analogy and extrapolation.

In Bunge’s opinion, all means are good for this purpose. He considers in detail the analysis and synthesis theory as an example of metaphysical theories and maintains that it is growing beyond the bounds of chemistry where it originated. Among metaphysical he also rates the automata theory on the grounds that it can be referred to the “object-medium” system of any type: mechanical, electrical, biological or behavioural.

The author classifies the problems pertaining to the methodological analysis of scientific metaphysics under three categories. The first relates to the form of metaphysical theories, which, in the author’s view, must have a mathematical structure to qualify as exact theories. This structure must be at least algebraic or logical, if not quantitative. The second category of problems is pertinent to the content of metaphysical theories. Here the author points out that scientific metaphysics, unlike factual sciences, is concerned primarily with the world at large. Consequently, the logically possible models of natural processes lie outside its sphere (in Bunge’s opinion, scientific metaphysics includes two systems of theories: universal or multilevel theories and regional theories limited to one integration level. Yet even the most special of metaphysical theories are not specific enough to cover in detail individual objects). Finally, the third category of problems is connected with the testing of metaphysical theories.

Rejecting both the empirical-positivist and Popper’s concepts of the testability of scientific knowledge, Bunge proposes a special criterion of scientificity—the conceptual testability of theories understood as their compatibility with the fundamentals of our prior knowledge. What is more, conceptual testability is but the indispensable condition of scientificity. To qualify as scientific, theories of any type must also meet additional requirements which depend on the nature of the problem being considered. These additional requirements, according to Bunge, are as follows: (1) a hypothesis should be at least indirectly confirmable; (2) a specific theory should include components which are both empirically confirmable and refutable when enriched with empirical data; (3) a generic interpreted theory should be susceptible of becoming a specific theory upon the adjunction of subsidiary assumptions and their interpretation; (4) a generic semi-interpreted theory should be capable of turning into a generic interpreted theory. Bunge avers that conceptual testability jointly with any of the above four conditions constitute necessary and sufficient conditions for a hypothesis or a theory to be called scientific. Hence, testability in the broad sense is in fact the equivalent of scientificity: testable knowledge is scientific and vice versa.

As regards the testability of metaphysical theories the author does not go beyond generalities. A metaphysical theory should be enlightening, as well as capable of being inserted in the nonformal axiomatic background of some scientific theory, i.e. it should be susceptible of becoming a presupposition of theoretical science. To be scientifically valid, metaphysical theories, according to Bunge, should be exact, consistent with scientific knowledge, and capable of clarifying and systematising philosophical concepts (such as event and chance) or principles (such as law and interdependence of integration levels).

As we see, Bunge’s testability concept is patently contradictory. Denying a sharp line of demarcation between metaphysical and generic scientific theories, he nevertheless does not admit that metaphysical theories, unlike scientific ones, do not lend themselves even to a conceptual verification. They cannot be true or false, they can be applicable or non-applicable. They are useful in the sense that they are always motivated and constitute sweeping generalisations of actual or possible specific theories. The theories of this kind are corrigible, but not refutable: they can be improved upon formally (logically or mathematically) or they can be made more complex. In short, theories in scientific metaphysics cannot be refuted, but, on the other hand, they can be confirmed—if not through prediction but at least by showing that they are compatible with a whole family of specific theories or that they take part in the design of viable systems. “Strangely enough,” writes Bunge, “such theories can be adequate and convenient without being true and they can never be falsified: at most they can be shown to be irrelevant or pointless or useless.” [11]

According to Bunge, the theories of the second and third types can raise the level of generalisations and serve as a basis for predictions owing to the introduction of additional specific premises. If that is so, there seems to be no reason why the theories called by him metaphysical cannot be specified in a similar manner. Sure enough, the general systems theory or the theory of integration levels classed by the author as metaphysical cannot give concrete predictions in such fields as, for instance, economics, biology, cybernetics where they have set up, so to speak, their specialised divisions. Yet it is obvious that these theories can provide a basis for some general conclusions which, in turn, enable scientists to make forecasts and inferences of a less general level, and so on. Hence, there is no sharp line of demarcation between metaphysical theories and the theories of the second and third type from the viewpoint of their testability either.

Bunge writes: “While the Vienna Circle rejected metaphysics as the enemy of science (which it was in most cases), and Popper tolerated it for its heuristic value (which it often has), we have come to regard metaphysics as capable of becoming scientific and moreover as constituting, together with logic and semantics, the common part of philosophy and science.” [12] However, contrasting his viewpoint to the positivist concept, Bunge fails to take into account that positivism has qualified as metaphysical not only and even not so much the general theories of science as the most general philosophical principles of materialism and dialectics. That is why any consistent criticism of positivist philosophy must of necessity show the real methodological and worldview significance of these principles for special sciences. Critical as he is of positivism, Bunge undoubtedly makes here an important concession: bridging the gap between science and metaphysics, he disregards the difference between philosophical concepts and the general theories of modern science reducing the former to the latter.

Among the important components of scientific metaphysics Bunge ranks, for instance, the concept of the structural levels of matter. Giving this concept the conventional interpretation reflected in relevant scientific literature Bunge, however, treats it not only as a metaphysical theory, but also as a set of definite epistemological principles. Moreover, he also presents it in a methodological form as a set of conditions which scientific investigation must comply with.

One may ask here if other metaphysical theories too must have both the epistemological and general methodological form. The answer to this question should evidently be in the negative, since the level of generalisation in the concept of the structural levels of matter is much higher than in such “metaphysical theories” as the automata theory or the theory of games. The automata theory cannot provide a basis for the general methodology of science and epistemology. Here Bunge, evidently, eliminates the line of demarcation which does exist—that between special scientific theories and philosophical concepts. However broad the generalisations in such theories as the theory of games, the automata theory and the general theory of systems, all of them remain within the sphere of special sciences, whereas the concept of structural levels has long since become the object of philosophical investigations. Such vagueness in demarcating special sciences and philosophy is by no means accidental. In the context of Bunge’s concept it attests to a tendency to reduce philosophy to the level of metaphysical principles and theories rather than to include metaphysical theories into the system of philosophical knowledge. This becomes even more evident when we acquaint ourselves with Bunge’s attitude towards materialism and dialectics. Substantiating his views on the scientific value of metaphysical theories, Bunge evidently intends to dispel in this way the prejudices of positivism against the so-called metaphysical problems. His efforts, however, go wide of the mark since he deprives materialism and dialectics of their methodological and world-view role in science without any reason whatsoever and ascribes all methodological functions to general theories, such as the automata theory, the general systems theory, etc.

This trend towards the identification of ontology with science is characteristic, with some variations, of many other representatives of “scientific realism”, though some of them attempt to distinguish between philosophical and scientific ontology. [13] “The task of the philosopher,” writes Errol Harris, “is thus two-fold. He must use the evidence provided by the sciences to construct a comprehensive and coherent conception of the universe, and he must examine the methods of scientific investigation and discovery and the process by which the science advances, in order to discern the insignia of reliability that entitle any discipline to be called by the name of knowledge—that is, science.” [14] As a rule, the defence of a scientific theory by “realism” is not based on ontological convictions—rather on the contrary, the reliability of a theory guaranteed by the use of adopted means and methods of scientific investigation can serve as a basis for ascribing ontological existence to its postulates, motions and concepts. Of course, besides the scientific perception of reality by man, there also exists the conventional everyday perception. Wilfrid Sellars, for instance, even writes about a “tragic dualism” of the two antagonistic ways of thinking: the scientific and the manifest. The first makes use of the techniques, methods and language of natural sciences. The second is guided by the common sense and traditional thinking adopted in everyday life. In Sellars’ opinion, the task of philosophy consists in a harmonious integration of these two ways of thinking. Yet in his ontology he shows obvious preference for the paradigms of scientific thinking. For him, the world’s ultimate constituents are primarily the theoretical postulates and principles of science. “Speaking as a philosopher,” he notes, “I am quite prepared to say that the common sense world of physical object in Space and Time is unreal—that is, that there are no such things. Or, to put it less paradoxically, that in the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.” [15]

As we see, “scientific realism”, gradually detaching itself from positivism, step by step shapes its anti-positivist programme aimed at reviving metaphysics. The central point of this programme is the relation of consciousness to the brain— the problem which was completely ignored by the former philosophy of science. Indeed, the development of scientific ontology is impossible without its solution. Positivism has eliminated the consciousness-brain (or psychophysical) problem as patently metaphysical. Thus Carnap wrote: “Are the so-called mental processes really physical processes or not? Are the so-called physical processes really spiritual or not? It seems doubtful whether we can find any theoretical content in such philosophical questions as discussed by monism, dualism and pluralism.” [16]

The attempt to get rid of the psychophysical problem, like of other so-called metaphysical problems, was not and could not be successful — it proved to be yet another delusion of positivism. In point of fact, positivist literature itself gives quite a definite solution to this problem in the monistic spirit of subjective idealism. This solution which has nothing in common with materialist views is plainly stated by Moritz Schlick who writes that “the adjectives ‘physical’ and ‘mental’ formulate only two different representational models” [17], or by Alfred Ayer who tries to substantiate the thesis that statements of mental phenomena and statements of bodily phenomena are two different methods of the classification and interpretation of our experience. The authors of these views are far from asserting the primacy of electromagnetic, thermal, mechanical or other physical processes which underlie psychic phenomena. They do not deal with the phenomena of objective reality—their main intent is to emphasise the unity of science or sciences which study sensory experience or facts entirely different by nature. All they are aiming at is to provide a single description of sense data on psychical processes, on the one hand, and of sense data on the outer world, on the other. They seek reduction within the framework of a theory only and do not turn to the actual processes taking place in the physical world. Consequently, sensory experience remains the origin of all origins, the cause of all causes and the task only consists in harmonising the languages of physics and psychology within the present framework. The sum total of this reduction is bluntly stated by Carl Hempel who contends that psychology is an integral part of physics and even asserts that all sciences have in principle one and the same nature and belong to physics as its branches. [18]

Searching for the ontology of knowledge, “scientific realism”, naturally, could not sidestep the problem of the relation of consciousness and the brain not only as a specific issue directly involved in all the problems being raised by the new trend, but as an independent problem of crucial importance for the very status of scientific ontology. It is not accidental that the branch of “scientific realism” directly concerned with the investigation of this problem has actually turned into a more or less independent school of “scientific materialism”, the name suggesting a definite anti-positivist and anti-idealistic orientation of the new teaching.

Nevertheless, the difference between positivism and “scientific realism” is not infrequently hard to determine, mainly owing to the fact that both schools bear a distinct mark of reductionism. Logical positivism coming out against dualism strives to overcome it by reducing psychic to physical phenomena within the framework of scientific descriptions. The followers of “scientific materialism” are also engaged in reductions with practically the same aim as the positivists— to eliminate dualism. The difference between these two schools consists in that “scientific materialism”, in contrast to positivism, is concerned not with theoretical reductions, but with ontological ones, i.e. it strives to reduce psychic phenomena as such to physical phenomena. It is, in fact, the confusion of these two types of reduction that underlies endless debates in the literature on psychophysical problems.

Positivistic reductionism tends to treat the psychophysical problem within the narrow confines of the concept of unity of scientific knowledge casting aside all its so-called metaphysical aspects. The possibility of reducing the psychic to the physical is based here, and by no means accidentally, on the theory of meaning alone: the description of an object in psychical terms must have the same meaning as its description in physical terms. The proof of the unity, naturally, boils down to the logico-semantic analysis of statements. Logical positivism maintains that psychological statements cannot be directly translated into physical ones. Yet one can speak of them as being identical if they are considered to be just different methods of describing one and the same object. The direct experience of human beings, as well as the experience we sometimes ascribe to some higher animals is identical with certain aspects of nervous processes in the organism. “What is had-in-experience, and (in the case of human beings) knowable by acquaintance, is identical with the object of knowledge by description provided first by moral behavior theory and this is in turn identical with what the science of neuro-physiology describes.” [19] The author of this statement, as we see, does not accentuate physical identity—he emphasises the fact that in the two kinds of knowledge, the knowledge through the realisation of one’s own “raw sensations” and the knowledge by description differing from each other both in the source of information or language and in the method of verification we in fact deal with one and the same object which gives us the right to speak of their identity.

Very characteristic is also Feigl’s pronounced positivistic approach to the problem: he sincerely believes that the identity thesis eliminates any ontological interpretation of the psychophysical problem and thereby abolishes psychophysical dualism.

According to Feigl, the “mental” and the “physical” are identical in that the mental terms, on the one hand, and some neuro-physiological terms, on the other, have similar meanings and, as scientific progress goes on, tend to converge so that their correlation gradually turns into actual identity. Feigl distinguishes between direct sense experience “(raw sensations”) which carries direct knowledge of our mental states, and the experience expressed in some very personal language. All empirical concepts are based entirely on this personal language, since they form “a higher degree of certainty”. [20]

Despite a certain deviation from the positivist paradigm noted by numerous authors, Feigl nevertheless does not desert it completely. The physicalism of his position is, on the whole, far removed from consistent, i.e. dialectical, materialism, though Feigl sometimes notes (hat the term “physical” in the “personal language” denotes an aggregate of molecules whose action produces a sensory impression.

In its solution of the mind-body problem “scientific materialism” (“realism”) seeks to overcome the barrier set up by positivism and find a way to objective reality which is pictured as having its own existence independent of the process of cognition, yet being knowable only through the medium of science. Here the function of reduction is different—it consists in creating a scientific image of the world, ontology, representing the real processes as they actually happen. “Determining whether or not materialism can be true,” writes Jerry Fodor, “is part of understanding the relation between theories in psychology and theories in neurology—a relation that many philosophers believe poses a stumbling block for the doctrine of the unity of science. In particular, it is sometimes maintained that the unity of science requires that it prove possible to ‘reduce’ psychological theories to neurological theories, the model of reduction being provided by the relation between constructs in chemistry and those in physics” [21].

The treatment of the mind-body problem by positivism is also criticised by Australian philosopher J.J. Smart who unequivocally dissociates himself from its dualism. He writes: “In so far as ’after-image’ or ’ache’ is report of a process, it is report of a process that happens to be a brain process. It follows that the thesis does not claim that sensation statements can be translated into statements about brain processes. Nor does it claim that the logic of a sensation statement is the same as that of a brain-process statement. All it claims is that in so far as a sensation statement is a report of something, that something is in fact a brain process. Sensations are nothing over and above brain processes.” [22] Criticising dualism, Smart counterposes to it what he styles as his “materialistic metaphysics”.

According to Smart, every year science provides more and more convincing proof that man is nothing but a psychophysical mechanism. Sooner or later his behaviour will be exhaustively characterised in the corresponding terms. In point of fact, there is nothing in the world besides a complex aggregate of physical particles, protons and electrons, and their interaction, and the only real laws of science are the laws of physics and chemistry.

As we see, unlike former materialism which gravitated towards ontological reductionism, i.e. tended to reduce real psychic and mental processes to physical phenomena, modern “scientific materialism” strives to substitute the knowledge of physical objects for the objects themselves thereby identifying reality with its linguistic image. The difference of the approaches to the mental-physical or mind-body problem on the part of Feigl, on the one hand, and Smart or Sellars, on the other, consists in that the neopositivist faction focuses on this problem in order to discard it as metaphysical by reducing the mental to the physical, whereas “scientific materialism” as a form of “scientific realism” pursues quite a different aim—to translate the descriptive language used to characterise mental processes into the language of science in order to be able to construct a scientific ontology of mental processes. The reductionist approach to the consciousness-brain problem characteristic of “scientific realism” and positivism, the attempts of both schools to reduce all spiritual phenomena exclusively to neuro-physiological processes are largely traceable to their common traditions. The similarity of the “realistic” and positivist views also shows up in their exaggerated emphasis on the analysis of the language used to describe processes in interest. For all that, one ought to distinguish between positivist reductions and the reductions proposed by the “scientific materialists” who sincerely strive for a materialistic solution of the above problem.

It should be noted that in its approach to the mind-body problem aimed at creating a new scientific ontology of mental processes “scientific materialism”, like “scientific realism” in general, makes certain concessions to idealism and cannot be credited with consistency. “scientific realism” as a whole regards the ontology of mental processes and, for that matter, ontology at large as a peculiar projection of scientific knowledge on the outer world, as a certain theoretical assumption which follows of necessity from the adopted system of scientific knowledge. Hence, reality as understood by “realism” is identified with the current scientific picture of the world and even with the language whereby the present or eventually possible reality is described. “The specific input to NPP [new philosophy of physics] should be the whole of physics, past and present, classical and quantal,” writes Bunge. “The corresponding output should be a realistic account (analysis and theory) of actual and optimal research procedures, of conceived and conceivable ideas, of currently pursued and possible goals both in theoretical and experimental physics.” [23]

As we see, “realism” offers no criterion for distinguishing between the really existing objects of science and purely mental, theoretical ones which, consequently, need not necessarily have their analogues in the material world. It proceeds from the conviction that reality outside the language of science, i.e. reality as such, is nonsensical since all true judgements of reality can only be expressed in scientific notions.

According to R. Rorty, the traditional description of psychic and spiritual phenomena in modern culture must also be replaced by scientific description which is to be given priority. All other languages are not only inadequate, they are simply anachronistic, akin to demons and evil spirits. [24] On the face of it, this thesis is directed against phenomenalism and the later views of Wittgenstein who underscored the decisive significance of the analysis of everyday language as a panacea for all unpleasant dilemmas of modern science and advocated the concept of the plurality of languages. Yet it is quite obvious that the language of science reflects primarily the most general or universal properties and links of being and is incapable of conveying the boundless richness of relations in the real world. The deficiencies of scientific knowledge are to be made up for by literature, painting, music, sculpture and other forms of human culture. The underestimation of the humanitarian forms of culture by all “scientific realism” is yet another feature which draws it closer to positivist philosophy. It is not fortuitous that both positivism and “realism” seek to ’ reduce the broad diversity of individual traits to a few rather lean abstractions and show undisguised scepticism regarding the possibility of penetrating the inmost recesses of human heart. “The conceptual framework of persons,” writes Sellars, “is not something that needs to be reconciled with the scientific image, but rather something to be joined to it.” [25]

It should be noted that distinguishing between ontology and objective reality as such calls for analysis of scientific knowledge from the angle of the relation of the objective to the subjective in its content. The accomplishment of this task, in turn, presupposes a comprehensive study of the subject’s role in scientific cognition, of his intellectual possibilities and limitations, merits and demerits, the theoretical heritage and the new concepts and hypotheses, abstractions and assumptions, philosophical and theoretical premises, etc. It is only through such a comprehensive study that one can reveal the objective component of theoretical knowledge and regard it as truly scientific ontology. As to the ontology which is being constructed by scientific realism outside the crucible of philosophical examination, it does not go beyond the generalisation of special knowledge and the extrapolation or even direct ontologisation of current scientific theories.

The example of Bunge, Quine and other representatives of “scientific realism” shows that this school, having made some obvious concessions to idealism, has also failed so far to dissociate itself completely from the idealistic understanding of metaphysics as such. Scientific metaphysics which is identified with ontology by most of the “scientific realists” should in fact be regarded as a sphere of general scientific or metatheoretical research. It lies beyond the limits of theoretical knowledge proper, though its generalisation level is below the level of philosophical laws and principles as understood by dialectical materialism. From the viewpoint of “scientific realism”, the analysis of problems belonging to this sphere does not call for their serious examination either in terms of materialism or dialectics, the latter being in special disfavour with this philosophical school.

It is only natural, therefore, that the ontology thus constructed turns out to be indeed metaphysical, and sometimes in the worst sense of the word at that, as it is not amenable to any critical analysis in terms of either philosophical (dialectical and materialist) or special scientific concepts.

“Scientific realism” makes a very vague distinction between ontological and scientific theoretical problems and this in fact amounts to postulating a new philosophical discipline. “Philosophy, or what appeals to me under that head,” writes Quine, “is continuous with science. It is a wing of science in which aspects of method are examined more deeply, or in a wider perspective than elsewhere. It is also a wing in which the objectives of a science receive more than average scrutiny, and the significance of the results receives special appreciation.” [26]

To sum up, the characteristic features of “scientific realism” are its anti-positivist orientation and persistent search for non-traditional ways in the development of the methodology of science. Life shows, however, that this school has no future as an independent philosophical trend and as a serious alternative to positivism because it proceeds from the incompatibility of materialism and dialectics within a single philosophical doctrine. Assessed in general terms, “scientific realism” represents a certain tendency of the bourgeois philosophy of science to turn from positivism to the objective analysis of scientific knowledge.


[1]  Richard McKeon, “The Future of Metaphysics”, in: The Future of Metaphysics, Ed. by E. Wood, Quadrangle Books, Chicago, 1970, p. 288. [—> main text]

[2]  See, for instance, E. Sprague, Metaphysical Thinking, Oxford University Press, New York, 1978, p. 3. [—> main text]

[3]  W. V. O. Quine, “The Nature of Natural Knowledge”, in: Mind and Language, Ed. by Samuel Guttenplan, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1975, p. 74. [—> main text]

[4]  W. V. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”, Philosophical Review, Vol. 60, No. 1, 1951, pp. 38–39. [—> main text]

[5]  Mario Bunge, “Theory Meets Experience”, in: Mind, Science and History, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1970, p. 164. [—> main text]

[6] Ibid., p. 142. [—> main text]

[7]  Mario Bunge, Method, Model and Matter, D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland, 1973, p. 28. [—> main text]

[8] Ibid., pp. 39–40. [—> main text]

[9] Ibid., p. 145. [—> main text]

[10] Ibid., p. 41. [—> main text]

[11] Ibid., p. 37. [—> main text]

[12]  Mario Bunge, Method, Model and Matter, op. cit., pp. 42–43. [—> main text]

[13]  See, for example, Roy Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science, Hassocks, New Jersey, 1978, pp. 29–30. [—> main text]

[14]  Errol E. Harris, The Foundations of Metaphysics in Science, Humanities Press, New York, 1965, p. 30. [—> main text]

[15]  Wilfrid Sellars, Science, Perception and Reality, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1963, p. 173. [—> main text]

[16]  Rudolf Carnap, “Logical Foundations of the Unity of Science”, in: Readings in Philosophical Analysis, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., New York, 1949, p. 413; see also K. G. Hempel, “The Logical Analysis of Psychology”, in: Readings in Philosophical Analysis, op. cit., p. 380. [—> main text]

[17]  Moritz Schlick, “On the Relation Between Psychological and Physical Concepts”, in: Readings in Philosophical Analysis, op cit., p. 403. [—> main text]

[18]  See Carl G. Hempel, “The Logical Analysis of Psychology”, in: Readings in Philosophical Analysis, op. cit., pp. 378, 382. [—> main text]

[19]  Herbert Feigl, “The ‘Mental’ and the ‘Physical’\thinspace”, in: Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. II, Concepts, Theories, and the Mind-Body Problem, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1958, p. 446. [—> main text]

[20] Ibid., p. 392. [—> main text]

[21]  J. A. Fodor, “Materialism”, in: Materialism and the Mind-Body Problem, Ed. by D. M. Rosenthal, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1971, p. 128. [—> main text]

[22]  J. J. Smart, “Sensations and Brain Processes”, in: Materialism and the Mind-Body Problem, op. cit., p. 56. [—> main text]

[23]  Mario Bunge, Philosophy of Physics, D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland, 1973, p. 12. [—> main text]

[24]  See R. Rorty, “Mind-Body Identity, Privacy and Categories”, in: Materialism and the Mind-Body Problem, op. cit., p. 179. [—> main text]

[25]  Wilfrid Sellars, Science, Perception and Reality, op. cit. p. 40. [—> main text]

[26]  W. V. Quine, “Philosophical Progress in Language Theory”, in: Language, Belief, and Metaphysics, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1970. p. 3. [—> 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. 470 pp.

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

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Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

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