The Philosophical Critique of Science
and the Neopositivist Critique of Philosophy
in the Weimar Republic

by Helmut Dubiel

Horkheimer takes the unmediated coexistence of philosophical speculation and theory‑blind empiricism, deplored in his inaugural address as symptomatic of the situation of contemporary sociology, to be simply one example of a general dissociation of philosophy from the specialized sciences. Horkheimer finds his view confirmed in the philosophical critique of science in the 1920s and in the contemporary form and philosophical justification of science. He maintains that the last years of the Weimar Republic were characterized by the Institute's relationship to empirical‑analytical science, which took the form of two divergent, extreme, and mutually exclusive positions. One position (Lebensphilosophie, romantic spiritualism, materialist and existentialist phenomenology), consists in the philosophical discrediting of all formal academic knowledge. The other position, radically opposed to the first, is neopositivism, which recognizes the dominant form of empirical, scientific knowledge at any given time as the single source of truth.

(a) Ludwig Klages, Oswald Spengler, Max Scheler, Martin Heidegger, and other philosophers of the 1920s were united in their skepticism of the claim of empirical‑analytical science to possess some kind of orienting power for social or biographical‑existential reality. Klages's book, with its revealing tide Der Geist als Widersacher der Seele [The mind as a hindrance to the soul] (1931), attempts to reinstate inferior forms of knowledge represented by magic and superstition; the author maintains that they provide a higher capacity for human orientation than does scientific knowledge. Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918) was one of the central texts for the conservative intelligentsia within the humanities until the advent of the Third Reich; human understanding, Spengler maintains, "deadens insofar as it knows." Spengler recommends replacing scientific knowledge with prescientific intuition. He maintains that a high valuation of science is characteristic of regressive, "overly cultivated" cultures; that world views seeking to provide themselves with a scientific foundation characterize cultural decline; and that socialism as a "scientific Weltanschauung" ushers in the end of Western civilization. In his wartime writings, Max Scheler criticized the Anglo‑Saxon tradition of science from the perspective of Lebensphilosophie. His postwar philosophical writings have certainly enriched the special sciences, in such areas as the psychological theory of experience, the sociology of knowledge, and anthropology, yet his postwar metaphysics remained captive to the idea of "life": As the sole ontological reality, it resists a priori its apprehension through the specialized sciences. In his book of 1929, Der Mensch im Zeitalter des Ausgleichs [Man in the age of adjustment], Max Scheler interpreted the irrational tendencies of the time as a reaction "against the excessive intellectuality of our fathers" (1929: 45). Heidegger's existential analysis of Dasein in Being and Time (1927) is marked by a disdain of scientific knowledge. His Existenzphilosophie (as well as that of Jaspers) claims that the fundamental ontological structures that it identifies as its philosophical object have primacy over the empirical research of the specialized sciences. For Heidegger, too, scientific knowledge (though not technical knowledge) has no orienting value for either society or the individual.

In Horkheimer's "Remarks on Science and Crisis" (1932), in which he discusses the Weimar Republic's politically significant identity crisis, the antiscientific positions mentioned above flow together to form a cultural syndrome:

The causes of the present crisis are concealed in part because precisely those forces that work toward a better organization of the human situation—above all, rational scientific thought itself—are made responsible for the crisis. There are those who would allow the growth and cultivation of reason to recede behind "spiritual" development; there are those who would discredit critical understanding, to the extent it is not needed by industry, as the decisive source of authority. The doctrine that human reason is an instrument valuable only for the goals of daily life, that it should remain silent on the great problems, that it should clear the field for the more substantial forces of the soul—such a doctrine distracts from a theoretical treatment of society as a whole. The struggle of modern metaphysics against scientism reflects in part these broad social movements. (1932a:2; 1972b:4)

(b) The strict alternative to Lebensphilosophie's critique of empirical science is the tradition of positivism or empiricism. Such names usually characterize the epistemological generalization of the modern, natural-scientific ideal of knowledge, particularly as represented in the philosophies of Hume and the French Encyclopedists. The rise of this modern formulated ideal of knowledge coincides with the formation of bourgeois society; it characteristically supports all judgments in methodically controlled sense experience and sharply rejects all metaphysics. According to this ideal of knowledge, the propositions of theology, aesthetics, ethics, and politics are "incapable of truth." Modern natural science originates in part in confrontation with the metaphysical pretensions of scholastic theology. Horkheimer maintains that the philosophical self‑reflection of modern natural science is characterized by an ahistorical adherence to this adversarial posture toward medieval theology:

The task, unconcerned with extrascientific considerations, of registering facts and determining the regularities existing between them, was originally formulated as a partial goal of the process of bourgeois emancipation in critical confrontation with the scholastic impediments to inquiry. But by the second half of the nineteenth century this definition had already lost is progressive meaning; indeed, it limited science to the registration, classification, and generalization of decisions, making no distinctions between the insignificant and the essential. (1932a:3; 1972b:5)

The positivist ideal of knowledge—which Horkheimer identified as the ideological self‑consciousness of scientific inquiry oriented toward the natural sciences and splintered into various disciplines—was renewed and more radically formulated by the Vienna Circle and logical positivism. This epistemological orientation (also characterized as neopositivist) is distinguished from the earlier form of positivism particularly by its reflection upon the logical and analytical‑linguistic conditions for the observation and description of natural processes. it made concrete, and formulated more sharply, the older positivist critique of metaphysics: All propositions can be discredited as "metaphysical" that fail to satisfy the restrictive conditions for verification by means of a physicalist language of observation. Accordingly, there is no such thing as the human sciences, and philosophy can continue solely as the study of the logic of our language; philosophy is now nothing more than the reflective form of the natural‑scientific formation of concepts. Within a science unified by physicalist language, philosophy no longer enjoys the status of an independent discipline. The theories of the early Wittgenstein, of Carnap, Russell, Reichenbach, Schlick, and others, have no theoretical standard or principle that goes beyond physicalist language:

Empiricism denies that thought can evaluate observations and the way in which science combines them. It assigns supreme intellectual authority to accredited science, the given structure and methods of which are reconciled with the status quo. For the empiricist, science is a mere apparatus for arrangement and rearrangement of the facts, regardless of which particular one it selects from among the infinity of facts; it is as if the acts of selection, description, recognition, and combination were, in this society, free of interpretation and orientation. (Horkheimer 1937a:15; 1972b:144‑145)

SOURCE: Dubiel, Helmut. Theory and Politics: Studies in the Development of Critical Theory, translated by Benjamin Gregg, with an introduction by Martin Jay (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), first section of section (The Program in the Context of the History of Science) of Part II, pp. 133-136.

Note: This book is a must for anyone interested in the political and theoretical perspective, scientific and interdisciplinary nature, and development of the Frankfurt School from 1930 to 1945.

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Theodor W. Adorno Study Guide

The Philosophy of Theory and Practice: Selected Bibliography

Ideology Study Guide

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