Positivism VI. Less Than All

The antidote to positivism derives from a sufficient recognition of immediacy/particularity – Heidegger’s dasein – in our lives. This recognition is not merely an apprehension of location in space, a sense of passing time, and a private theatre of conscious unspoken thought, though it includes all of these. It is also a nexus in the web of human and nonhuman relationships, an urge to spin new domains in the web, and a wandering path through various narratives that you or I or we together trace as we scamper across it.

In the last blog we saw how one of the most consistent positivists of the late 20th century, Daniel Dennett, while absorbed in objectively explaining consciousness, made a slip and testified to dasein.

It takes a bold positivist to predict that the first- and second-person pronouns – I, me, you, we – will someday disappear from our common speech. Yet that is a reasonable and logical conclusion if one begins with the starting point of positivism – that the only valid meaning is that which can be tested in a publically verifiable manner. The personal pronouns testify to dasein whenever they are used. I heard Dennett predict their demise in the Houston seminar, but I have not thus far found it in his books.

Rudolf Carnap was a positivist before Dennett was born, a member of the Vienna Circle who emigrated and joined the University of Chicago before World War II. Carnap denies particularity and drops the first person pronoun “I” in this comment aimed at refuting Descartes –

What follows from “I am a European” is not “I exist,” but “a European exists.”  What follows from “I think” is not “I am” but “there exists something that thinks.”[1]

Yet even Carnap could not remain in the ether of totally objective thought for long. He ended the same eloquent 1932 essay on “The Elimination of Metaphysics…” with a somewhat obscure section on metaphysics as an expression of the attitude of a person towards life. That section wavers in its focus on publically testable hypotheses and in its selective nihilism for everything else. In 1957 he added an explanatory note –

Today we distinguish various kinds of meaning, in particular cognitive (designative, referential) meaning on the one hand, and non-cognitive (expressive) meaning components, e.g. emotive and motivative, on the other….  The thesis that the sentences of metaphysics are meaningless, is thus to be understood in the sense that they have no cognitive meaning, no assertive content. The obvious psychological fact that they have expressive meaning is thereby not denied….[2]

Carnap calls it “emotive” and “non-cognitive” meaning because he lacks a developed language for thinking about it, a language that perhaps all of us lack. What he calls “expressive meaning” I am calling immediacy and particularity. I have already referred to the difficulty of using these words.

Yet Carnap’s term, non-cognitive meaning, is simply an oxymoron. He chose to make publicly verifiable sentences the centerpiece of his logical positivism. Let’s ask: If Carnap’s non-cognitive, expressive, emotive meaning is motivative, did it motivate his decision to focus squarely on cognitive meaning? Then what comes first? Cognitive meaning? Or expressive meaning, which motivates it? His choice to discuss the former in powerful detail and consign the latter to an apologetic note makes no sense at all.

The fact is that nobody is really a hard materialist or positivist. That is to say, nobody evaluates scientifically every aspect of his or her life before making choices and acting upon them. But younger, more naïve materialists sometimes try to do it.

Halfway through a delightful dinner in the company of such a person, I asked how a materialist could act freely. My companion stopped and stared blankly, and appeared to be uncomfortable. For five seconds he neither ate nor spoke, as if he required an evolutionary consultation to pick up a bite or comment on its flavor.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­I find positivism wrong because

  • it describes the sensations and responses of any particular moment, place, and person or persons as having a categorically lesser reality than what endures and is repeatedly, anonymously observed,
  • it consigns the personal stories of our lives also to an inferior class of reality,
  • it sits clueless when confronted with the persistence of first- and second-person pronouns – I, me, you, we, us – in our common speech, and
  • it cannot claim complete adherence by even the most avid, brilliant positivist thinkers.

I find positivism wrong. This conclusion is not an objective one, as it begins with the word “I.” But the world in which I live is not an objective world. Why? Dasein. Because I live here in this world. We can assert that every sentence whatsoever is a first-person sentence. Most are plural first-person and have a complex history, as others have pointed out. Since every sentence is first-person and falls short of complete objectivity and universality, there is always room to disagree. I do not, and we should not, presume to speak for everyone.

I find the little words I, me, you, we, and us to be profoundly meaningful. The positivists might say that these words do not connect with science, but they are simply short-sighted. There is an almost-universal We consisting of any and all “disciplined and candid minds” in Peirce’s terms. By participating in that group, you and I can do science and gain its rewards. But GSOT extends well beyond what can be shown scientifically. Much of the intrigue and bliss in life on this earth occurs in groups where we means “less than all,” in which you and I may participate, and also among such groups interacting with each other.

A GSOT that celebrates the strangeness of particular existence, appreciates personal stories, and recognizes the little words I, me, you, we, us will give rise to a philosophy that can approach some of the most meaningful questions of life, such as

Is love the greatest thing?

Does whatever created us care about us?

Is life worth living?

Are we having fun?

Would you, like the younger Rudolf Carnap, consider these questions non-cognitive? Or like the older, reconsider? Are the only valid answers those derived from an evolutionary understanding? I think not. That is why I am not a positivist.

In 2016 we recognize that positivism and materialism are overly restrictive. In their time, acting as correctives to the excessive speculation of rational idealism, they served a useful role. Today we seek a broader view of GSOT. The natural universe can be viewed as a collection of objects, but humans cannot be viewed in such a restricted manner, solely as objects.

Most specifically, I cannot view myself solely as an object. You can answer for yourself. If you agree, a new thing is born – a limited we. The next question is “Are we having fun?”


Next post: Fundamentalism I. Better than Nothing

Previous post: Positivism V. Nothing There, the Mind of a Frog

Searching for GSOT outline: Home


[1] Carnap, R., translated by Pap, A.  “The elimination of metaphysics through logical analysis of language” in Ayer, A.J.  Logical Positivism, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1959, p.74.

[2] Ibid., pp. 80-81.


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