Reading a review of Butler's Bodies that matter (Cheah 1996), I stumbled upon a sentence that echoes and embodies many other similar pejorative comments concerning positivism (see here):

This means that a consideration of the material category of sex is as crucial to feminist contestation as gender norms because the former is a materialization of the latter. But by the same token, a theory of sex as a dynamic process of materialization rather than a substance also cautions us against an unquestioning positivist affirmation of sex as a material bedrock for axiological claims.

Definition of positivism:

(1) Cambridge: the belief that knowledge comes from things that can be experienced with the senses or proved by logic

(2) Merriam Webster: a theory that theology and metaphysics are earlier imperfect modes of knowledge and that positive knowledge is based on natural phenomena and their properties and relations as verified by the empirical sciences

(3) Collins: Positivism is a philosophy which accepts only things that can be seen or proved.

(4) Oxford languages: a philosophical system recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and therefore rejecting metaphysics and theism.

(5) APA Dictionary of Psychology : a family of philosophical positions holding that all meaningful propositions must be reducible to sensory experience and observation and thus that all genuine knowledge is to be built on strict adherence to empirical methods of verification.


(1) Side question: With regard to the definition of "positivism", why not using the term "scientific" instead of "positivism", if this what is meant?

(2) Main question: What is the problem with positivism?

Butler, and other people commenting on positivism try to produce knowledge. Science also tries to produce knowledge. So what is the problem with positivism (aka science)?


Cheah, P. (1996). Mattering. Diacritics 26, 108-39.


5 Answers 5


to 1, "why call it positivism":

The positive in Positivism is positive as opposed to normative, not as opposed to negative. A statement is positive if you can make a measurement that would confirm or disconfirm it. "Pigs can fly" is positive. "Pigs ought to fly" is normative. "If pigs flew, more people would self-report contentment and fewer would self-report grief" is positive. "Pigs must fly" is normative. "Pigs that don't fly will explode" is positive.

In its modern sense, Positivism is the position that only statements which are positive all the way down are meaningful. "Pigs can fly", might mean "measurements that fit the pig model allow one to better predict future measurements if you ascribe the ability to fly to the model", but it might also mean "Pigs must have the capacity to fly because flying is intrinsic to pig-ness." Positivism takes only meanings of the first type as meaningful.

Why not use common language when it suffices? I'll skip the speculation, but I observe that if you said "a non-normative assertion of normative claims" people would laugh at you. But if you say instead "an unquestioning positivist affirmation of sex as a material bedrock for axiological claims"... well, one better not laugh. What if one just wasn't clever enough to understand the meaning?

to 2, "what's wrong with positivism?": In addition to RudolfoAP's comment and the link in it, SEP: Logical Empiricism(Issues) has an extended discussion of critiques and counter-arguments.

  • But here I am not sure that "positivism" is understood as either Comte's philosophy or the Vienna Circle's philosophy. (and I don't think that Butler's philosophy is able to solve their respective limitations and flaws anyway)
    – Starckman
    Aug 23 at 8:57
  • This would be a very good answer if the etymology of positive as being against normative rather than against negative were justified with some refs. To add to my comments above, positivism ends up not just against metaphysics but against ethics as well
    – Rushi
    Aug 23 at 9:12
  • Thanks for the observation, but I will keep the statement about opposing falsehood and negatives. AFAIK, normativism is applicable moreover in political/social sciences (in an imperative sense: "X must be Y", as in normative, regulative), but not in a descriptive sense as in scientific positivism ("X is Y"). Normativism is not about subjectivity as some texts point (in such case, the term would be unrelated by far). See fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normativisme (TR: normativism is a theory of law -developed by Hans Kelsen- about a legal system being based on a hierarchy of norms).
    – RodolfoAP
    Aug 23 at 13:47

There are two major issues relating to positivism that make it a large and enticing target for criticism. One is that many topics of interest to humans are not matters of logic or scientific proof, so positivism by definition does not provide a valid context for considering them. The other, related, issue is that positivism effectively denies the validity of much of what is considered to be philosophy, and thus many who consider themselves to be engaged in philosophic efforts are naturally antagonistic towards it.

  • 1
    "many topics of interest to humans" for instance? If see no topic of interest to humans which can not be investigated by science (if you mean love, fear of death, feeling of abandonment, loss of purpose or interest, etc.). Concerning the latter (loss of purpose or interest), science has made major progress in the study and treatment of depression
    – Starckman
    Aug 23 at 12:03
  • Consider politics, for example. It is utterly illogical for the most part- pure tribalism. Consider religion- no room for science there, as it is a pure matter of faith. Consider morals. Consider the gender identity controversy. Etc etc. Aug 23 at 12:24
  • You can 'investigate' all of those subject in a scientific spirit, but you won't resolve anything that way because they are effectively matters of opinion. Aug 23 at 12:25
  • Science investigated political affiliation, and tribal logic a lot, providing many understanding on the subject, therefore helping in solving the relating problems. Same for ethics
    – Starckman
    Aug 23 at 12:47
  • Sorry- in what way has scientific thinking helped 'in solving the relating problems' of politics? Politics is largely characterised by bias, self-interest, mis-representation, bigotry, corruption, etc etc. Scientific thinking is rarely evident in practice. Aug 23 at 13:35

I will answer in two parts.

A) Your description of Cheah's review as being pejorative of positivism is simply untrue. Cheah is not pejorative in the quoted passage. It is instead used as a neutral description of a philosophical perspective which is one of many which cannot support Butler's desired goal of including sexing as both a "natural" and a moral/social phenomenon. There is extensive discussion of the problems with both reductive "naturalism" and with social constructivism and how both enable and embed patriarchal perspectives. Positivism is just used in the passage to describe the limitations of a reductive naturalism relative to feminist thinking. That material reductionism is incompatible with feminist and queer liberation is currently well demonstrated by the recourse to material reductionist approaches to sexing that have been adopted by anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ politics worldwide.

The review notes how Butler seeks to develop a non-constructivist, AND non-reductionist epistemology because of the failures of both approaches to support feminism, and this rejection of "positivism" is about as neutral a rejection as it is possible to make.

B) There are two "problems" with positivism

1a. The first is that as an epistemological claim, positivism is both self-falsified and grossly inadequate. The self-falsification is that epistemological methodologies are tentative and endorsed based on judgment calls, not any kind of "proof". This is exemplified in how the Verification Principle of Logical Positivism is self refuted -- it is not verified, and by asserting it, LP was guilty of endorsing a specific unsupported metaphysical claim -- that all other metaphysics was to be rejected.

1b. In addition to this logical failing, positivism is unable to address most of what matters to us, which is what to value in life, our relationships with other humans, and how to operate in this world. Values cannot be "proven", nor can the existence of other minds. Relationships are so fuzzy that positivists generally dismiss them. and our actions in this world are generally learned thru informal empiricism (not subject to scientific proof), or learned from authority (passed on learning, rather than proven).

2a. If there is opprobrium for positivism, it is primarily due to the Scientism agenda that positivists then engage in. Positivism in most applications leads to an assertion of scientism. See this question for an elaboration on what is wrong with scientism: Has Scientism drastically declined as a worldview in the last 100 years? Scientism has two primary failings, exemplified in the two definitions cited, and it has become the go-to term to condemn those failings -- not "positivism".

2b. As a further answer to your linked question, has condemnation of the failings of "scientism" (note this is a better question than your one on positivism, as positivism is instead generally used neutrally) been weaponized by anti-science ideologues, the answer is a clear yes. Conifold's comments in reply to my question bring this out explicitly.

  • So Butler rejects positivism because it is not useful for her endeavor? Is that a philosophical argument?
    – Starckman
    Aug 29 at 10:47
  • How do you define “positivism”?
    – Starckman
    Aug 29 at 10:50
  • @Starckman -- natural language uses multiple, often related, definitions of most words. The Basics of Philosophy defines positivism here: philosophybasics.com/branch_positivism.html Logical positivism merges science with logic, and treats both as methods to arrive at near certainty -- and based on its period of popularity, LP is also often what is meant by positivism. Cheah uses a different definition, that of material reductionism. I try to understand and respond to the usage others are applying.
    – Dcleve
    Aug 29 at 17:31
  • @Starckman -- Pragmatic useability of ideas is a valid philosophic approach. it is, unfortunately easy for this to overlap with motivated reasoning. Philosophy and reasoning are complex fields and there are a lot of ways to do both, both correctly and incorrectly. The dividing line between correct and incorrect, is not always easily distinguished. I would argue that sometimes motivated reasoning is legitimate, and Butler's choice to do so in the development of feminist thinking fits within the envelope of what is valid, as none of the options she considers are more than speculative.
    – Dcleve
    Aug 29 at 17:37

There's nothing wrong with positivism.

First of all, "positivism" is more of a movement among philosophers than a single position. So it is certainly possible to find specific positions, expressed by positivists, that are problematic. For instance, there are certain problems with verificationism. But this does not mean that "positivism" as a whole is wrong, because there are positivists who do not subscribe to verificationism.

Let's take "positivism" here to be the belief that all knowledge derives from the senses, or from logic. This perspective can be compared to taking things on blind religious faith, or to a community coming to a social consensus independently of logic or the empirical facts.

Some have argued that positivism refutes itself, because positivism itself is a claim that does not derive from the senses or from logic. But, we can certainly empirically observe the results of people acting in accordance with positivism, and compare them to the results of people acting in accordance with blind faith. What we find is that people who form their beliefs based on logic and observation tend to advance the field of science, expanding human knowledge, and people who rely on blind faith, religion, superstition, or other excess insistence on dogma, tend to hold it back. Galileo relied on the evidence of his senses, the Catholic Church relied on dogma. Who was right? The fact that Galileo was right is empirical evidence in favor of positivism. I could go on listing scientific discoveries alongside opposing superstitions or religious beliefs, but I think the point is clear. Empirically, positivism gets results. Blind faith does not.

Some have argued that positivism means one must reject metaphysics and ethics, and we need those fields, therefore positivism is wrong. But not all self-described positivists rejected metaphysics or ethics. We may rather take it as a challenge to ground metaphysics and ethics in logic and observation.

Some have argued that a positivist outlook makes it too difficult to say things about social issues. We might rephrase this: "The facts don't support my agenda!" The problem here is not the facts.

Some have argued that positivists can only speak about what they are certain of from observation, which limits their perspective. But this is more of a caricature of positivism. Taking positivism to be "the belief that all knowledge derives from the senses, or from logic," this perspective is perfectly compatible with speculating on things we are not certain of, as long as we keep in mind that to become more certain we'll eventually have to reduce everything to the senses or logic.


The standard argument against positivism is that it is self-refuting. Let's take your first definition as an example:

the belief that knowledge comes from things that can be experienced with the senses or proved by logic

In other words we have:

  • direct empirical observations as the root level of knowledge, and
  • the logical consequences of those observations as the only legitimate extension of knowledge

If we strictly keep this definitional, all we are doing is defining knowledge in a narrow, limited way, at the cost of excluding a fair number of things that might be considered "knowledge" in other systems, but with the gain that what remains is more secure and solid.

Where positivists get into trouble is when they extend this to a claim that ONLY knowledge created in this way is valid or meaningful or useful. Because THAT is a statement of belief and a statement of value, and is therefore itself neither empirical, nor a direct logical extension of empirical data. As best it is a plausible inference, but plausible inferences are NOT logical proofs.

This, in particular, is the difference between the scientific method and positivism. The scientific method is a certain process of exploring the world and building knowledge. Positivism, loosely defined, is the belief system that centers the scientific method as the only legitimate source of knowledge, and as such, is vulnerable to many of the same arguments it deploys against other belief systems.

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