Positivism III. Immediacy and Particularity

In this blog we shall look briefly at the transition from rational idealism to positivism and then consider carefully the founding principle of positivism, which declares its reliance on science to the exclusion of other modes of thinking. I shall introduce a counter-argument to positivism, based neither on idealism nor on rationalism, but rather on a sufficient recognition of the experience of immediacy and particularity in GSOT.

In the middle of the 19th century rational idealism began to totter and give way first to pragmatism, then to logical positivism. Charles Peirce (the founder of pragmatism, not a positivist) described the shift away from Descartes and other rationalists in this way:

[A mere] formalism appears in the Cartesian criterion, which amounts to this: “Whatever I am clearly convinced of, is true.” If I were really convinced, I should have done with reasoning, and should require no test of certainty. But thus to make single individuals absolute judges of truth is most pernicious. The result is that metaphysicians will all agree that metaphysics has reached a pitch of certainty far beyond that of the physical sciences; – only they can agree upon nothing else.  In the sciences in which men come to agreement, when a theory has been broached, it is considered to be on probation until this agreement is reached. After it is reached, the question of certainty becomes an idle one, because there is no one left who doubts it. We individually cannot reasonably hope to attain the ultimate philosophy which we pursue; we can only seek it, therefore, for the community of philosophers. Hence, if disciplined and candid minds carefully examine a theory and refuse to accept it, this ought to create doubts in the mind of the author of the theory himself.[1]

Here is Peirce’s key point: Science seeks the agreement of any and all “disciplined and candid” observers. No single observer or experimentalist is uniquely privileged. The experience of confirming scientific truth must be transferable and reproducible by any one suitably educated and trained for the specific task.

Positivist thinkers continue to follow this path. Echoes of Peirce appear in a 2000 paper on philosophical naturalism:  “public, sharable, empirical evidence… concerning which all qualified inquirers agree… intersubjective, verifiable, empirical data… common empirical experience… universally applicable methods… clear consensus.”[2]

Who would disagree with these ideas as part of the methodology of science? Not only scientists, but all of us depend on empirically verifiable relations as we eat and drink, clothe ourselves, seek shelter, earn money and goods or somehow acquire them, treat and prevent diseases, and generally act to sustain our physical needs for life on earth. We are all materialists and positivists to a large degree.

As a philosophy, however, positivism– or materialism, or naturalism – goes further. It fundamentally places a restriction upon what can be regarded as real and true. The starting point of positivism is this claim:

Among all hypothetical objects, events, and relationships, only those which stand up to scientific testing are real.

By scientific testing is meant reproducible experimentation or observation by any person sufficiently trained in the discipline of interest.

One must recognize that to accept this rule implies accepting at least one relationship not testable by science. It is, of course, the rule itself, which describes a relation between reality and science. The claim is axiomatic rather than scientific. It might be just a little embarrassing to realize that the starting point of positivism is unscientific. Embarrassing, but not fatal – one has to begin somewhere, and perhaps the principle is philosophically sound, though unscientific.

Pure logic is unpersuasive. Evaluation of the founding claim of positivism should be sought in experience. Is there empirical evidence for something undeniably real, but not scientific? If so, then the axiom underlying positivism and materialism will be overthrown. That reality, I propose, can be found in the immediacy and in the particularity of time, place, and person.

In the midst of experience, two voices speak. One voice says that reality is what endures and is potentially known to all. No, says the other, what is most real happens now, here, and to me or us – at a particular moment, in a particular spot, and to a particular person or group of persons.

Can we not listen to both voices? My answer is that indeed we can, and perhaps you will agree. Science does not recognize immediacy and particularity, and yet we meet them in GSOT.

I cannot be a positivist, because I think that immediate and particular reality, which is unscientific, is as valid as enduring and common reality. The former is unscientific because it does not last long enough to allow reproducible testing and because its appearance is not transferable to any interested and capable observer.

Oh – let me stop just a moment and acknowledge this: “Immediacy” and “particularity” seem to represent here general, enduring objects of observation – almost Platonic forms, when in fact the words expressly oppose generality, duration, broad applicability. Is the argument, therefore, invalid from the start? You are free to think that it is. These words won’t be held fast; they slip through the fingers like water. Neither you nor I can construct universal theories from them.

What is universal can never be humble. But it does not follow that what is particular, though it bear the humility of “less than all,” must be small and weak.

Immediacy and particularity are alive, on the wing, and won’t be pinned for display like bugs in a seventh grade science project. Positivists too long, we may find it difficult to talk coherently about such elusive concepts. We need a new taxonomy of ideas.

In the next blog, I shall attempt to illustrate immediacy and particularity from my own experience. In two additional blogs, we will look at the unsuccessful attempts of prominent and not-so-prominent positivists to erase such thoughts from human life.


Next post: Positivism IV. The Structure of Play

Previous post: Positivism II. Free to Choose

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[1] Peirce, C.S., Some consequences of four incapacities. Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 1868; 2:140-157.  Reproduced in Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings, ed. Wiener, P.P. Dover, New York, 1958.

[2] Forrest, B.  Methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism: clarifying the connection. Philo 2000; 3: 7-29, accessed at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/barbara_forrest/naturalism.html on 12/24/10.  Two of the phrases appearing here are quoted by Forrest from Sidney Hook.

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