Positivism dispute  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Positivismusstreit is the German word for the positivism dispute, and refers to a well known political-philosophical dispute between the critical rationalists (Karl Popper, Hans Albert) and the Frankfurt School (Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas) in 1961, about the methodology of the social sciences. It grew into a broad discussion within German sociology from 1961 to 1969. The term Positivismusstreit itself is controversial, since it were the Frankfurt School proponents who accused the critical rationalists of being positivists—while the latter considered themselves as opponents of positivism. On the political level, it was a dispute between the "leftist" Frankfurt School proponents supporting revolution, and the allegedly "bourgeois" critical rationalists supporting reform as the method to be preferred to change society.

The debate began in 1961 in Tübingen/Germany at the 'Tagung der deutschen Gesellschaft für Soziologie' (Conference of the German Society of Sociology). The speakers at the conference were invited to discuss the differences between social and natural sciences and the status of values in the social sciences.

In 1963, the debate was heated by Jürgen Habermas in the Festschrift für Adorno. The debate became more intensely critical at the Soziologentag (conference on sociology) in Heidelberg when Herbert Marcuse joined the discussion. A spirited literary debate between Habermas and Hans Albert sprung up and positivism became the centre of the debate.

The participants also discussed the question of whether Popper's and Albert's critical rationalism had exacerbated ethical problems. The Frankfurt School believed this should be impossible, because as a theory of science critical rationalism is seen to be restricted to the field of knowledge.

The famous dispute inspired a collection of essays which were published in 1969. This book was translated into several languages, including English in 1976 (see below). This collection revived the debate and introduced these ideas to a broader audience.

Elements of the dispute

The dispute has its foundation in the Werturteilsstreit in German sociology and economics around the question, whether or not the social sciences is a normative obligatory statement in politics and its measures applied in political actions, and whether or not their measures can be justified scientifically. Consequently the Positivismusstreit is also called the Second Werturteilsstreit (Zweiter Werturteilsstreit).

The precursor of the debate about positivism can be traced back to Max Horkheimer's essay "Der neueste Angriff auf die Metaphysik" published in 1937 that criticizes the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle. The prolonged criticism led to the formation of two camps — on one side we find "Kritischer Rationalismus" advanced by Karl Popper and on the other side there is the "Kritische Theorie" advanced in the Frankfurt School. This view was strengthened by the fact that Popper's main work, Logic of Scientific Discovery, was published in the main book series of the Vienna Circle. Popper, however, considered himself an opponent of positivism, and his main work was a sharp attack on it.

Both camps accept that sociology cannot be without a Werturteil (value judgement) that inevitably influences subsequent conclusions. In critical rationalism the scientific approach should be maintained in sociology and wherever the use of an induction method is not possible it should be avoided. This leads to a sociology having a firm ground in observations and assured deductions that cannot be ignored in politics. For critical rationalism, sociology is best conceived as a set of empirical questions subject to scientific investigation.

Frankfurt School "critical theory," by contrast, denies that sociology can be severed from its "metaphysical" heritage; empirical questions are necessarily rooted in substantive philosophical issues. Drawing on concepts from Hegelian and Marxian traditions, critical theory conceives of society as a concrete Totalität (totality), a social environment in which various "psycho-social agencies" (family, authorities, peers, mass media) shape individual consciousness.

According to the Frankfurt school, it is important to discover the society's fabrics to allow for individuals to overcome from being cornered. Critical rationalism considers this goal to be impossible and any attempts (changing society out of possibly non-scientific deductions) to be dangerous. The Frankfurt school counters critical rationalism as being itself cornered, disallowing itself from asking scientific questions when just some methods are not available. Looking back in history "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but their social existence that determines their consciousness" (Karl Marx). The social existence determines the mindset of scientists as well. All the hypotheses generated by scientists (which would need to be falsified) are limited to this society's thinkable. While critical rationalism provides methods that are supposed to have an influence on society it is this totality that makes the reforms advocated by Popper ineffective for noticeable changes.

Popper, in contrast, held that the Frankfurt school view was historicist ideology failing to see that any attempt to cause a total change of society (i.e., revolution) leads to violence, and that society should better be changed step by step (by reforms) to solve specific problems and abolish specific evils. According to Popper, individuals, including scientists, are free to decide, and are perhaps restricted by their social existence, but not totally determined by it. Changes may then look ineffective and very slow, but will accumulate over time. Popper thinks it is the lesser evil compared to violent revolutions, since such reforms can be undone if they turn out to only make things worse, while revolutions usually lead to lengthy periods of tyranny. Thus, for Popper, the method of reforms should be preferred.

See also

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