The positivism strawman

I have been burning my summer leave by giving finishing touches to an essay on research methodology (because of an impending deadline). I had now the occasion to read, for the first time, the qualitative research classic Naturalistic Inquiry by Yvonna S. Lincoln and Egon G. Guba (SAGE 1985). It brought to my mind a puzzle I have been trying to solve for years: authors who defend qualitative research (or constructivist research, or critical theory, or whatever in each case it is) typically frame their discussion by defining a “positivist” way of doing research, arguing against it, and then bringing their own (post-positivist, or anti-positivist) alternative. Lincoln and Guba do that in many of their writings, but they are not alone in this.

Except! The positivism that they talk about does not exist, and never has.

Historically, there were two positivisms. The first was the political philosophy of Auguste Comte, which was not primarily a theory of research or of science. The second was the logical positivism of the early 20th Century, inspired by the young Wittgenstein and developed by the Vienna Circle. Logical positivists advocated a radical reassessment of philosophy and science: only propositions that can be proven mathematically or verified empirically are meaningful; everything else is literal nonsense (not just false but meaningless). It is widely held that logical positivism died in its own impossibility; certainly I know of no current philosopher of science who advocates verification as a criterion of meaning.

In their writings about positivism, Lincoln and Guba typically assert that positivism believes in objective reality, that there is a reality which is common to all accessible by the senses. But while Comte may have believed this, the logical positivists never did: for them, any claim about the nature of reality, including the claim of objective reality Lincoln and Guba ascribe to positivists, was unprovable and unverifiable and thus nonsense.

Further, I know of no practicing scientist who self-identifies as positivist. (Feel free to comment if you are one.)

I was also struck by how Lincoln and Guba never cite the primary sources. In their discussion of positivism, they do not engage with e.g. Comte, Ayer, or Carnap. To their credit, they do cite a lot of secondary sources (generally critical ones), but one wonders how much of a broken telephone effect there is in it.

What Lincoln and Guba are arguing against is not positivism but naïvete. The attitudes they ascribe to positivism are typical of scientists who have had methodological training and acquired research experience but have never studied philosophy in earnest.

For an interesting take on the misuse of the “positivist” label as a bogeyman, see Jim Mackenzie’s “Positivism and Constructivism, Truth and ‘Truth’”, Educational Philosophy and Theory 43(5), 534-546, 2011 (paywalled).

One thought on “The positivism strawman

  1. I am no longer a practicing scientist (more’s the pity) but I have always found that efforts to refute the logical positivism or empirism in each case contain some obscure and untenable metaphysic premises. If there is a sure way to obstruct or hamper one’s own scientific progress, it is to mix up with metaphysics, especially with the german brand of it. Can you think of the steinerians without a shudder? Maybe Eino Kaila did not always get it right, but instead of smugly criticising him with the benefit of hindsight we should carry on his work.

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