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The Fatal Flaws in Positivism

The Fatal Flaws In Positivism

As a consequence [of positivist assumptions], all propositions concerning facts will be promoted to the dignity of science, regardless of their relevance, as long as they result from a correct use of method. Since the ocean of facts is infinite, a prodigious expansion of science in the sociological sense becomes possible, giving employment to scientistic technicians and leading to the fantastic accumulation of irrelevant knowledge through huge “research projects” whose most interesting feature is the quantifiable expense that has gone into their production. The temptation is great to look more closely at these luxury flowers of late positivism and to add a few reflections on the garden of Academus in which they grow; but theoretical asceticism will not allow such horticultural pleasures.

The present concern is with the principle that all facts are equal—as on occasion it has been formulated—if they are methodically ascertained. This equality of facts is independent of the method used in the special case. The accumulation of irrelevant facts does not require the application of statistical methods; it may quite as well occur under the pretext of critical methods in political history, description of institutions, history of ideas, or in the various branches of philology. The accumulation of theoretically undigested, and perhaps undigestible, facts, the excrescence for which the Germans have coined the term Materialhuberei, thus, is the first of the manifestations of positivism; and because of its pervasiveness, it is of much greater importance than such attractive oddities as the “unified science.”

The accumulation of irrelevant facts, however, is inextricably interwoven with other phenomena. Major research enterprises that contain nothing but irrelevant materials are rare, indeed, if they exist at all. Even the worst instance will contain a page here and there of relevant analysis, and there may be grains of gold buried in them that wait for accidental discovery by a scholar who recognizes their value. For the phenomenon of positivism occurs in a civilization with theoretical traditions; and a case of complete irrelevance is practically impossible because, under environmental pressure, the most bulky and worthless collection of materials must hang on a thread, however thin, that connects it with the tradition.

Even the staunchest positivist will find it difficult to write a completely worthless book about American constitutional law as long as with any conscientiousness he follows the lines of reasoning and precedents indicated by the decisions of the Supreme Court; even though the book be a dry reportage, and not relate the reasoning of the judges (who are not always the best of theorists) to a critical theory of politics and law, the material will compel submission at least to its own system of relevance.

Using Defective Theoretical Principles

Much deeper than by the easily recognizable accumulation of trivialities has science been destroyed by the second manifestation of positivism, that is, by the operation on relevant materials under defective theoretical principles. Highly respectable scholars have invested an immense erudition into the digestion of historical materials, and their effort has gone largely to waste because their principles of selection and interpretation had no proper theoretical foundation but derived from the Zeitgeist, political preferences, or personal idiosyncrasies. Into this class belong the histories of Greek philosophy that from their sources primarily extracted a “contribution” to the foundation of Western science; the treatises on Plato that discovered in him a precursor of Neo-Kantian logic or, according to the political fashions of the time, a constitutionalist, a Utopian, a socialist, or a Fascist.

There are also the histories of political ideas that defined politics in terms of Western constitutionalism and then were unable to discover much political theory in the Middle Ages; or the other variant that discovered in the Middle Ages a good deal of “contribution” to constitutional doctrine but completely ignored the block of political sectarian movements that culminated in the Reformation; or a giant enterprise like Gierke’s Genossenschaftsrecht that was badly vitiated by its author’s conviction that the history of political and legal thought was providentially moving toward its climax in his own theory of the Realperson.

In cases of this class the damage is not due to an accumulation of worthless materials; on the contrary, the treatises of this type quite frequently are still indispensable because of their reliable informations concerning facts (bibliographical references, critical establishment of texts, etc.). The damage is rather done through interpretation. The content of a source may be reported correctly as far as it goes, and nevertheless the report may create an entirely false picture because essential parts are omitted. And they are omitted because the uncritical principles of interpretation do not permit recognizing them as essential. Uncritical opinion, private or public ( doxa in the Platonic sense), cannot substitute for theory in science.

The Shift from Theory to Method

The third manifestation of positivism was the development of methodology, especially in the half-century from 1870 to 1920. The movement was distinctly a phase of positivism in so far as the perversion of relevance, through the shift from theory to method, was the very principle by which it lived. At the same time, however, it was instrumental in overcoming positivism because it generalized the relevance of method and thereby regained the understanding of the specific adequacy of different methods for different sciences.

Thinkers like Husserl or Cassirer, for instance, were still positivists of the Comtean persuasion with regard to their philosophy of history; but Husserl’s critique of psychologism and Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms were important steps toward the restoration of theoretical relevance. The movement as a whole, therefore, is far too complex to admit of generalizations without careful and extensive qualifications.

Value Judgments and Fact Judgments

Only one problem can, and must, be selected because it has a specific bearing on the destruction of science, that is, the attempt at making political science (and the social sciences in general) “objective” through a methodologically rigorous exclusion of all “value-judgments.” In order to arrive at clarity about the issue, it must first of all be realized that the terms “value-judgment” and “value-free” science were not part of the philosophical vocabulary before the second half of the nineteenth century.

The notion of a value-judgment (Werturteil) is meaningless in itself; it gains its meaning from a situation in which it is opposed to judgments concerning facts (Tatsachenurteile).  And this situation was created through the positivistic conceit that only propositions concerning facts of the phenomenal world were “objective,” while judgments concerning the right order of soul and society were “subjective.”

Only propositions of the first type could be considered “scientific,” while propositions of the second type expressed personal preferences and decisions, incapable of critical verification and therefore devoid of objective validity. This classification made sense only if the positivistic dogma was accepted on principle; and it could be accepted only by thinkers who did not master the classic and Christian science of man.

For neither classic nor Christian ethics and politics contain “value-judgments” but elaborate, empirically and critically, the problems of order that derive from philosophical anthropology as part of a general ontology. Only when ontology as a science was lost, and when consequently ethics and politics could no longer be understood as sciences of the order in which human nature reaches its maximal actualization, was it possible for this realm of knowledge to become suspect as a field of subjective, uncritical opinion.


This excerpt is from Modernity Without Restraint: The Political Religions, The New Science of Politics, Politics, Science, and Gnosticism (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 5) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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