The notion that scientific theories must be tested experimentally is fundamental to the doctrine of positivism, which also requires that theories must always deal with quantities that are observable.

But Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Laureate and one of the greatest living physicists, asserts that "positivism has done as much harm as good". To make this point, which he develops at length in his excellent book "Dreams of a Final Theory", he argues that it was positivism that kept a number of scientists from believing in atoms, in electrons and much later in quarks.

Weinberg supports his claim with a comparison of two scientists. The British physicist J.J. Thomson is credited with the discovery of the electron, but Walter Kaufman in Germany performed the same experiment independently at the same time, and even managed a more precise measurement of the electron's properties. While Thomson reported the discovery of a new particle, which he named the electron, Kaufman merely reported the phenomenon he had observed (the bending of cathode rays). Exercising a positivist's restraint, he did not assume it corresponded to a new particle.

The harm caused by a positivist approach, in Weinberg's view, is this: unless one is willing to make - and believe - a hypothesis based on the limited information available, there tends to be a lack of direction in one's subsequent research. Only if one makes a conjecture about what is happening, defying positivism at least temporarily, is one motivated to perform experiments that can confirm or deny the conjecture.

Should we take positivism seriously/ or can it be a guiding principle ??

  • There needs to be an answerable question in the post, not a discussion topic. "Any comment" is off-topic here.
    – Conifold
    Aug 11 at 8:51
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    Wikipedia says the positivist claim was "while atoms might be a useful abstraction for predicting how elements react, they do not reflect concrete reality" (although I'd probably say "do not necessarily" or "might not" reflect). That doesn't seem all that unreasonable. I might even go one step further and say much of science is "useful abstractions for prediction", rather than necessarily concrete reality. From there, we look for further evidence to try to demonstrate or disprove it (which we did). And if you only try to test hypotheses you already believe, you'd make a terrible scientist.
    – NotThatGuy
    Aug 11 at 15:12
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    @gs No, they don't. Computers work on the basis of measured macroscopic properties of materials. They are not designed on the basis of particle theory. Aug 11 at 21:54
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    @ChristianHennig science is composed of numerous knowledges at least in the colloquial sense and in philosophy the definition of knowledge as justified true belief following Plato is still very popular if not the most. Ergo the belief forming about any propositional truth bearer construct contributes to and dynamically constitutes science even you don't take such justified belief (ie, scientific knowledge) as real ontologically... Aug 12 at 21:27
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    Verificational positivism is naturally serious and important for people in most empirical affairs apparently, as people are skeptical about heard claims and assertions due to distrust in general. And your quote just mentions positivism has done as much harm as good even in search of extremely hidden or abstract singular truths which doesn't logically imply not taking it seriously, it just insinuates in facing such extremely challenging truth search scenario if said truth really exists, positivism may not be useful as a principle any longer thus not a universal principle as hoped... Aug 14 at 22:36

3 Answers 3


Positivism is characterized by two key elements:

On one hand, positivism is the formal expression of knowledge in positive form (that is, in the form of affirmations: X is...), the opposite being expression in negative form (X is not...)(there is no "negativist" school). The positive form is associated with truth (which should not be evident, think on it), and with knowledge. That is, positivism takes for granted the association of knowledge with truth and affirmation. Evidently, the positive form carries a load of truth, and therefore of logic. Remember that logic is the formal set of rules that describe the reason. Logical consistency is critical for positivism.

On the other, positivism is a school of thought that targets empirical truth. The scientific method is consistent with such principle, and determine the rules of knowledge development. A key feature of the scientific method is objectivity.

A problem that raises here is this: as objectivity increases, and without proper consideration of the subjective impact on the development of knowledge, subjectivity decreases. Total objectivity implies the complete dismissal of the subject. So, the positivist strategy targets the physical dimension, excluding all metaphysical aspects.

In any case, the idea of dismissing metaphysics, which is commonly perceived as a pseudo-science, seems excellent (which should not be evident, think on it).

To my knowledge, the only one who addressed this problem from the roots is Immanuel Kant. The greatest Kantian contribution to philosophy is the idea that the subject defines the object* (an earthquake for Positivism, luckily scientists don't read philosophy)(before him, the absolute truth of the object was indubitable). So, instead of changing the positivist approach in the task of knowledge development, he proposed to raise metaphysics to the level of science. His Critique of Pure Reason sets the agenda for such task. However, I am not aware of other philosophers who have taken the reins of the problem and addressed it. I personally am working on a related task: formal metaphysics, which is far from finishing.

In any case, there's no way out. Any other alternative to positivism implies taking metaphysical elements into consideration, and probably losing the solid advantages of positivism. Such approach would imply introducing metaphysical facts without any previous formalization of the discipline. The best option seems to look for a theory that could sustain a formal expression of metaphysics.

* Typically called the Copernican Revolution: for Kant, the subject defines the object, while previously, it was considered that the subject was a passive observer of the object.


First, let's note some facts:

  1. Positivism is a historical school of thought. Strictly speaking there aren't positivists any more. In Comte's thinking, we find an emphasis on the empirical moderated by reason. Logical empiricism and positivism were schools of thinking that again attempted to raise this priority in philosophy above intuition and introspection. They are also historical schools of thinking.
  2. Today, most professional philosophers consider science and empirical awareness important. I'd be surprised to hear of a professional philosopher advocate against the positivist insistence on sensory experience as a check against the excesses of thinking. Falibilism is popular view among professional epistemologists on account that it is aligned with the idea that thought divorced from experience of the world is vulnerable.

So, positivism as a historical form is excessive. To reject intuition and introspection as epistemological sources is indefensible. The logical positivists tried to rehabilitate this approach, and then later rebranded themselves as logical empiricists, but failed by 1960's. And why did they fail? Because the notion that there is a some absolutist and objective logical framework that somehow secures thought and observation against the vagaries of intuition, introspection, and individual experience does not exist. This is a point raised by Sellars and called Myth of the Given. From WP:

Sellars's most famous work is "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind" (1956).[14] In it, he criticizes the view that knowledge of what we perceive can be independent of the conceptual processes which result in perception. He named this "The Myth of the Given," attributing it to sense-data theories of knowledge.

So, today, in a post-positivism world (intended to characterize positivism as an incomplete approach to knowledge), a positivist approach to knowledge should be taken seriously, investigated, and used, but done so with an understanding that it must make peace with the fact that concepts cannot be constrained by the scientific method alone.


I think RudolfoAP's answer is good, but one can make a more terse statement that might also be useful:

The positivist has no problem with the statement x is a kind of y; he just believes that it is identical to the statements x can be successfully modeled using a model with character y and if you measure a set of measurements {x_i}, you can predict subsequent set of measurements {x_j} using the y model.

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