Agreement is Not Required

The last blog presented our 2nd rule for GSOT and philosophy, as follows:

The overarching viewpoint is not allowed.

This rule has a corollary, almost as short as the rule itself:

Agreement may be good, but is not required.

To require agreement presupposes an overarching viewpoint. If the overarching viewpoint is not allowed, then the edifice by which agreement is required collapses. Continue reading “Agreement is Not Required”


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.


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

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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.

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.


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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 on 12/24/10.  Two of the phrases appearing here are quoted by Forrest from Sidney Hook.