Saturday, September 6, 2008

Positivism: Continued Musings

If we take Comte epistemological evolution, nearly all varieties of epistemology are covered except for Plato's recollection hypothesis. Comte's three stages of knowledge are as follows:

1) Theological -revelation
2) Metaphysical - reflection
3) Scientific/Positive - experience or empirical

One might state that the theological stage derives knowledge from a epistemology based on divine revelation of all truth, but only Islam would qualify under such a strict understanding of revelation. For instance, modern Judaism holds at least four models of revelation, all of which are mediated (through prophets for instance). But Rabbinic Judaism also believed that if God had not revealed the Torah to Moses on Sinai, then the Jewish people would have had to extract it from nature. This gives a peculiar empirical twist to revelation. Both Greek philosophy and early Christianity considered reason as a faculty of divine revelation. Though philosophy was considered the handmaiden to theology, reason never was. Initially reason was the touchstone for Christianity, though not reason as the opponents of Socrates, the sophists, contended. Thus revelation characterizes an epistemology that is subjective, derived from an inner light to some extent, but not necessarily irrational or non-rational.

A metaphysical epistemology would believe that knowledge comes from reflection, that is if anything can be known. Here we confront the contemporary constructivist, some post-positivist ideologies, and the ancient sophist in the same venue. It was the sophists that sought to teach the students of Athens that nothing could really be known; it is the constructivist that offers the same relativistic ramblings. Socrates confounded the sophists, stating that although it was true that they knew nothing, it was not accurate that nothing could be known. Socrates's point was that most folks had not considered the validity of their own premises. Constructivism, the heirs of the metaphysical stage, may allow either an irrational or non-rational epistemology. Metaphysics in this model was considered non-sense by logical-positivism.

Finally, scientific or empirical knowledge is the end of the positivist train. When we have reached this stage, and to Comte all men and societies must go through all stages, then we have arrived to positive knowledge, in contrast to natural knowledge (Crotty). In later positivist incarnations, both theological and metaphysical epistemology would be considered non-sense. The Vienna Circle that flourished in Einstein's era rejected all metaphysical or non-empirical knowledge as meaningful. Wittgenstein proposed verification, but Karl Popper went further to propose falsification as the only test for scientific veracity (demarcation). But strictly speaking, Einstein could not be considered a positivist; he said religion and science asked different questions (Mein Weltbilt), and thus requiring methods other than logical analysis (Vienna Circle). Quantum theory also threw a monkey wrench into the works, not to mention the seminal work by Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of the Scientific Revolution (1962). In the musings of current day experts in the philosophy of science, Michael Ruse states that the hypothetical deliberations of faith and the hypothetical deliberations of science are hard to distinguish. That is, the idea of demarcation (Popper) between science and faith are not discernible in their early stages. This brings us back full circle in somewhat parallel to Kegan's concept of systemic thinking, if fully expanded.

The failure of positivism was its belief that the stages of epistemology were linear. It is much more possible that the stages exist simultaneously in the same person, although related to differing context and content. Positivism does leave us with a reality and an ontology that says some things do exist "out there" independent of perception.

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