Positivism IV. The Structure of Play

We have looked at the historical context of positivism and considered in some detail its founding principle. I contend that positivism is an incomplete philosophy and therefore false in its claims. Because of its exclusive dependence on science, positivism fails to recognize the experience of immediacy and particularity in our lives. Thus far, however, “immediacy and particularity” are only words with minimal content. We need to flesh them out to understand their impact.

I shall illustrate immediacy/particularity in 4 ways – 2 here and 2 to follow.  The first will be the consciousness of thoughts, including time, person, and place, that you or I experience at any given moment.  Second, the adherence to personal relationships and narratives that you or I may hold.  Third, the persistence of first- and second-person pronouns – I, me, you, we – in our common speech.  Fourth, the recognition that even the most diehard advocates of positivism, because of particularity, fail to achieve a position of complete objectivity.

Let me try to describe, beginning with the present moment, a trail of consciousness including memories evoked by the situation at hand. In writing this piece I have chosen among some alternatives for a Saturday afternoon in November. I could be writing a scientific paper or following a football game. I grew up imbued with science. When I was young, my physiologist father took me to his laboratory at the medical school to show me how he did experiments on blood pressure regulation. He used an old oscilloscope at home to develop instruments to measure oxygen in blood and gas. Later when he needed to replace it, he bought a Heathkit for me to assemble, and I did it. Pure joy when the first sine wave flashed across the screen! Life was not all work. I remember the family sitting near the radio listening to Ole Miss football. When I was eleven, we won the mythical national championship, and I was hooked. Today as I begin to write, Ole Miss is playing Alabama. I could track it on the internet, but I’m committed to recording these thoughts.

Stream of consciousness, with its flood of sense impressions, memories, and flights of fancy, can be difficult to communicate. It consists of unscientific personal narrative, but does that make it unreal?

Positivism occupies a strong position, and something more than vague consciousness of immediacy and particularity will be needed to dispel it. We need statements. The principle of positivism will be contradicted if I can find at least one clear statement that makes sense, but is not testable scientifically.

Consider this one:

I love Susan, Julia, Cheryl, Morgan, Thomas, and Percy.

The individuals named here are my wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, son, and two grandsons.[1] Evolution might explain love as a feeling among humans that promotes survival of the species. But love as a universal concept is void; real love adheres to a particular subject and object. (And even the last clause suffers the problem of generalizing what cannot be generalized.) Thus evolution and neuroscience do not provide evidence for my love as a particular person for these particular people. Only I can do that. If you agree with me, please let agreement spring from your own story and not from universals.

Parents have to guide their children, while grandparents can take time just to watch. One day when Thomas was 16 months old and walking was still new for him, he made up a game as I busied myself with weeding the front beds. He would carefully step up the 4-inch incline of a raised bed between two shrubs, turn, lift one foot, and scamper down excitedly, and repeat the sequence over and over again. Percy is different. He runs after tennis balls that I throw, picks up two, runs back, and tosses them at me from a foot away…over and over again.

Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote about the ontological significance of scenes like these –

…the to-and-fro motion of play follows of itself.  It is part of play that the movement is not only without goal or purpose but also without effort….  The structure of play absorbs the player into itself, and thus frees him from the burden of taking the initiative, which constitutes the actual strain of existence.  This is also seen in the spontaneous tendency to repetition that emerges….[2]

Could it be that the games of little children engage the profoundest reality? Later as adults we find the same to-and-fro rhythm when we play music, the same back and forth movement when we play sports. Music, of course, can be analyzed objectively on paper, taught as a collection of skills and ideas, or engaged as a career, but we experience music only by playing or listening in the moment. Likewise, much of the appeal of sports rests in striving or cheering for an outcome of personal interest not yet known, but one that will come in a circumscribed period of time.

Over longer duration we develop multiple narratives of personal, family, and community life.[3] The little ones grow up and make their way in the world, the same whose bottoms we wiped, whose tears we dried, and whose hopes we made our own. In a broader perspective, we encounter, absorb, and seek to augment the culture of our community in this era.  I submit that the terms “our own” and “our community” are inseparable from the realities of narrative and culture.

Ole Miss 10, Alabama 23. The boys from the iron hills have prevailed again.[4]

You can’t be a positivist and an Ole Miss football fan these days. You have to dream some.


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[1] Just to preserve a bit of privacy, I have used the names that “Thomas” gave to himself and his little brother.

[2] Hans-Georg Gadamer.  Truth and Method.  Continuum, London, 1975, p.105.

[3] Whether we write the narratives or merely develop them and whether these are different are questions for another day.

[4] Written in 2010.


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