Coming from a natural science viewpoint, I find that logical positivism is much more important for scientific research than is critical theory.

I've read the critics/flaws of logical positivism, and while I think some of them are valid (e.g. Quine), these are only minor deficiencies. On the other hand, I have not found anything critical theory has ever provided for the advancement of scientific knowledge.

Can somebody point to discoveries / methodologies put forward by proponents of critical theory which are clearly superior to logical positivism? From my current viewpoint it seems that logical positivism is the school of thought which yielded all the progress in the natural science and technology today, while critical theory is more of a programmatic ideology.

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    Why are you contrasting logical positivism with critical theory? Do you take the latter to be some sort of an alternative to the former?
    – E...
    Commented May 13, 2019 at 21:14
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    @Eliran Indeed. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Commented May 13, 2019 at 21:17
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    Logical positivism certainly yielded none of the progress in natural sciences, nor did positivists ever have such an ambition. They sought to give a philosophical account (cleaned up, idealized version) of how scientists work. Their account turned out to be so off that most philosophers of science abandoned positivism after 1960-s. Critical theory is aimed at social sciences rather than natural ones, so it is largely moot. The currently most popular version of what replaced positivism is probably scientific structuralism.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 13, 2019 at 21:30
  • @Conifold. So it would be correct to say the logical positivism laid the foundation of how science works? Could you point at some accomplishments by Critical Theory? I honestly could not find any... Commented May 14, 2019 at 8:41
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    No. It would be correct to say that positivists attempted to develop a theory of the methodology of science (mostly of physics and mathematics), unsuccessfully. But more successful theories that came in its wake in academia were influenced by it. Critical theory (I assume you mean the Frankfurt school) is a post-Marxist mix of a philosophical theory of society with a movement to promote social change. Your comparison of the two is a bit bizarre. But they (e.g. Habermas), did influence a different side of academia, particularly socio-economic, communication, and law studies.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 14, 2019 at 9:00

3 Answers 3


Ted Wrigley's response is an excellent characterization of the historical and ontological differences between the two philosophical movements you invoke in your question. Both movements are characterizations of the tensions which might be viewed in a Hegelian dialectical lens: rational and empiricism, analytical and continental philosophy, objectivity and subjectivity, etc.

Both the Berlin and Vienna Circles did a lot to advance the state of knowledge about the philosophy of science. Carl Hempel, for example, in his Aspects of Scientific Explanation particularly with his Deductive-Nomological model attempted to create a rigorous philosophical basis to clarify aspects of the philosophy of science like what is scientific explanation and how it relates to more developed practices in science such as the use of intuition, deduction, induction, and abduction. Logical Positivism can be viewed as part of a greater arc throughout history to demand certainty in inference which goes back to at least Aristotle and emerged as a symbolic concern in the 1960's in modal logic.

The Greek philosophers including the Presocratics were interested in correspondent, coherent, and pragmatic aspects of truth from the beginning. Euclid is celebrated because the axiomatic method extends certainty to reason. The Scholastics sought it, and by the time science developed and matured, so too did the scientists who are empiricists by nature, who look to use rationalist techniques, to increase the certainty of what is often thought of as an inductive process: the scientific methods. So Logical Positivism sought to separate meaningful scientific discourse from metaphysical speculation and sought to do so with a program that examined the foundations of reasoning in science, to attempt to characterize it in the language of mathematics and logic in order to subject it to analytical rigor.

According to Borchert's entry on Logical Positivism, Ernst Mach rejected the label philosopher, and that Rudolph Carnap wanted to reject all philosophical questions including those of ethics and epistemology citing a hostility between German idealism and science. In fact, the article says that the positivists rejected ethical and metaphysical assertions as mere emotional associations devoid of ontological information entirely.

Critical theories on the other hand are not concerned with the certainty in science at all. The Frankfurt School explored themes regarding society and its transformation, and was interested in the social origins and practices of reason, capitalism, and political equality. Where as the positivists of the day were driving towards greater objectivity, critical theorists were interested in subjectivity and intersubjectivity and explored phenomenological themes.

Again, according to Borchert's entry on critical theory, the two generations of critical theorists beginning with Max Horkheimer look to Kant, Hegel, Weber, and Freud as a "renewal of Marxism" noting the original program was a "version of Karl Marx's Aufhebung of philosophy". In fact, they presumed that they were struggling for a better world by critically examining "instrumental rationality" which served as a "core of domination" paralyzing positive social change.

Think of for instance, of the attempts of the Nazis to "prove" scientifically their racial superiority. While positivists would have rejected these conclusions as not meeting the analytical criteria of science, critical theorists would have approached scientific racism from a perspective recognizing how the institutions of science which supported these conclusions were transparently engaged in political struggles of the Bourgeoisie to oppress the Proletariat from within a Marxist framework. (And on this point, the rejection of scientific racism as non-scientific, the two schools agreed.)

Can somebody point to discoveries / methodologies put forward by proponents of critical theory which are clearly superior to logical positivism? From my current viewpoint it seems that logical positivism is the school of thought which yielded all the progress in the natural science and technology today, while critical theory is more of a programmatic ideology.

As with the other commentators here, I think your question is framed in a way to expose your lack of familiarity of both schools. Both critical theorists and logical positivists proper failed in their direct mission, and fell by the wayside as philosophies. But both schools also influenced the next generation of thinkers of the last 50 years. It's hard to compare a methodology that purports to reach objective, positive truth that rejects ethics as meaningful with one that is normative and is concerned primarily about the ethical implications of a political power structure defining objectivity to its political advantage. Pursuing "what is", and "what should be", after all are two very different goals, and in a sense neither is prima facie more important than the other.

EDIT 2019-08-31

Could you include a passage about the positivism dispute? Is it true that critical rationalists wanted to improve society stepwise while Critical Theory argued that this is not possible and demanded a radical revolution of society? This is the main point I have problem with Critical Theory denying that methods of science should be used to improve upon society.

The following is drawn from Richard Kearney's Modern Movements in European Philosophy. My biases are more analytically empirical than continental, but here's my response:

Technocracy and positive sciences began to become popular in European philosophy in the 20th century and threatened to reorient human meaning in life as well as aid oppression threatening the perspectives of those who advocate a worldview on the basis of Hegelian and Marxist thinking because positivism in general advocates an objective and neutral analysis and claims that critical examination of social situations is meaningless. Totalitarian and authoritarian governments who had been responsible for two global wars championed empiricist approaches to philosophy as reductionist approaches that manifest an ignorance of ulterior human, structural, and historical facts which actually are the determinants of meaning. Hence, critical theory alongside other anti-positivist continental philosophies like phenomenology and structuralism sought to expose the illusion of neutrality and the harms of attacking metaphysicality as meaningless, both key precepts logical positivism in particular advocated. (p. 2)

Critical theory approached this problem by appealing to Hegelian and humanist Marxism particularly in the Frankfurt School where the importance of philosophy as an activity was defended as being important to defend the ultimate, universal meaning of our world by defending the importance of political and historical analysis of all things. The fusion of Hegel and Marx was to overcome Marx's "narrow economic determinism" (p. 4) which itself dehumanized. One of the leading proponents of this approach and cofounder of the School was Herbert Marcuse who seized on the 1932 publication of Marx's 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts to show Marx had gone beyond the views of orthodox 'scientific' Marxists and lent to an important tension between Marxism and the Hegelian dialectical and German Idealism. Labor was reinterpreted not just a concrete practice, but also a form of understanding and development of critical consciousness necessary for overcoming mechanistic economic exploitation. Dialectical humanist Marxism was further developed by Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, and Juergen Habermas. (pgs. 4-5)

Marcuse criticized positivism as "rationalized irrationalism" since denying the Marx-Hegelian perspective was tantamount to condoning the oppression by conforming to the imperative to think uncritically, and maintained that positivism was complicit in authoritarianism (which he saw as a transformation of capitalism in regards to control from the public to state spheres). Positivism in essence aided authoritarianism by replacing "critical rationality with technological rationality" and excluded the possibility of philosophical consciousness required to enable a revolution. In fact, neo-positivism was in fact reactionary in its rejection of the metaphysical, poetic, and dramatic. The language of positivism sought to "mystify the terms of ordinary language by leaving them in the repressive context of the established universe of discourse" and "curbs the capacity for change". (pgs. 212-213)

In the sake of brevity, I'll make the following assertions given not only the paraphrases above, but a wider reading of the material. You have two issues at hand:

  1. The nature of the dispute with an interpretation of science consistent with logical positivism.
    1. The nature of the dispute between two interpretations of Marxism regarding a gradualist and punctuated approach to overcoming economic repression of the proletariat.

On the first question, it depends on your definition of 'science'. Of course, by modern analytical standards, science is no longer divorced from our emotional and irrational impulses. Demasio have essentially used science to show that science can not be truly objective, at least as the logical positivists proclaimed. In this sense, critical theory has been validated. As long as their is economic disparity in the world, a critical theorist would maintain that everyone who participates in very narrowly built version of science entrenched in dominant political ideologies of economic control is in essence disregarding their ethical duty to emancipate the proletariat. Of course, where critical theory seems to have failed is accommodating for the fact that science, technology, and capitalism as practices have lifted billions out of poverty. And the critical theory interpretation of capitalism itself rests on philosophies that are old, and may not adequately capture the modern nature and understanding of capitalism. Norwegian state capitalism would be an obvious example of modern egalitarian power structures.

As far as the divide in how best to achieve the elimination of economic repression inherent in capitalism, critical rationality and critical theory are not at odds, since the former is a type (as far as my brief reading of it is concerned) of the later, but rather critical rationality is at odds with scientific Marxism and it's doctrine of economic determinism which ultimately degenerates into a pragmatic ideological form of social oppression itself. This is why Marcuse and the Frankfurt school advocated not becoming involved in politics, because politics bends the critical theorists mind from the long-term theoretical potential to the short-term practical gain ultimately leading to a degeneration of practice. Marcuse was highly critical of the Soviet Union and Stalin precisely because the practice of Soviet communism wasn't communism at all, but rather absolute totalitarianism. In this way, any efforts to compromise or attempt to gradually create communism would fundamentally corrupt the process. George Orwell, too, made this observation in Animal Farm when the pigs ousted the farmers and became the new oppressors of the rest of the animals.

  • Could you include a passage about the positivism dispute? Is it true that critical rationalists wanted to improve society stepwise while Critical Theory argued that this is not possible and demanded a radical revolution of society? This is the main point I have problem with Critical Theory denying that methods of science should be used to improve upon society... Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 13:27
  • @CuriousIndeed I'll poke around and see what I can do today.
    – J D
    Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 14:15
  • @CuriousIndeed I've edited the answer to include a response to your adjunct questions.
    – J D
    Commented Aug 31, 2019 at 17:48
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    Thank you. I like your answer the best because you reflect very well on the historical development, core issues and you have plenty of sources. I learnt a lot from all the answers but the most from yours. The bounty goes to you... Commented Sep 1, 2019 at 10:12

I'm afraid this question misconstrues the nature of Logical Positivism and its relationship to the sciences and philosophy. Logical Positivism did not yield "all the progress in the natural science and technology," and was never intended to do so. Historically speaking, it's the other way around: Logical Positivism observed the progress that is consistently made in the natural sciences and technologies and tried to rebuild philosophy in that image. The goal of LP was to eliminate metaphysical thinking and develop a mathematics-based logic that could supplement and systematize empirical research paradigms.

Really, logical positivism is the culmination of the bitter rationalist/empiricist divide of the century before. Rationalism was a largely Continental (primarily German and French) approach to philosophy, holding that the proper philosophical method involved introspection and the development of intuitive concepts; empiricism (primarily Anglophone philosophy) held that philosophy should find its basis in sense experience. By Bertrand Russell's time — the height of the Logical Positivist movement — that divide had become so intractable that anything even remotely introspective was rejected out of hand. And so we ended up at Wittgenstein's famous claim:

The right method of philosophy would be this. To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. [Tractatus 6.53]

From there we went on to thinkers like Karl Popper and B.F. Skinner, who tried to construct a philosophy of science in terms of this hard-line empiricist worldview, with limited success. The claim that philosophy produced these scientific advancements is an a posteriori move meant to provide foundation for the philosophy; it does not reflect the actual philosophical development.

Critical theory, by contrast, comes largely from Continental (rationalist) philosophy, and has concerned itself more with social, human concerns, not the epistemological and ontological focus of empiricism. Critical theory always has a moral edge, something that's largely absent from analytical philosophy. Critical theory and its predecessors have been responsible for social justice movements (like the feminist and racial equality movements), and has been a fruitful tool for understanding some of the more noxious elements of human social life; it even dovetails nicely with certain sciences (like climate science, as it confronts cultural resistance to global warming concepts, or evolution as it confronts religious obstructions). To say that critical theory has done nothing for "the advancement of scientific knowledge" is both factually untrue and a straw-man argument. Much of the modern work in the philosophy of science (from Kuhn onward) draws increasingly heavily on social interrelations instead of purely empirical concerns, and the broad reach of technology in modern society means that science and technology can no longer be effectively isolated from social and cultural forces. An iPhone isn't just a triumph of science and engineering; it is a profound social force that has a huge impact on the lives and well-being of millions.

  • Could you elaborate on the iPhone example? I see that an iPhone has huge impact on social interactions. But how exactly has critical theory helped the development of an iPhone? Could you pinpoint critical theory methodology which facilitated this development? Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 20:49
  • Critical theory would not help with the development of the iPhone (except indirectly, perhaps). Critical theory would deal with the social (human) impact of iPhone on society, culture, and the world. We already have a running dialog in the US about the dangers of social media in a democratic regime (disinformation, propaganda, source control, demagoguery). Social scientists and critical theorists will be addressing that issue, not computer scientists or physicists. Your focus is overly narrow. Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 21:42
  • I'm not saying that social science is useless per se. Obviously technology has an impact on social interactions and it can be scientifically studied by the social sciences. On the other hand critical theory (Frankfurt school) states that society needs to be changed as a whole - denying that a step-wise improvement of society is possible. (see the link above I provided en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…) If we look how society has evolved this core element of critical theory is clearly wrong. Commented Aug 27, 2019 at 18:13
  • Furthermore if we suppose that critical theory is correct and we cannot improve society stepwise how could critical theory then improve society without changing either a) society as a whole b) its core elements...I find this pretty contradictory.. Commented Aug 27, 2019 at 18:24
  • Comments are not meant for extended discussions. The Frankfurt school is just one element of critical theory (and an early one at that), and they are historically correct to point out that most social change occurs by revolution, not evolution. They don't preclude the possibility of gradual social change, it just hasn't really happened (except in the sense of unconscious cultural drift). I'm not sure what you mean when you say you find the idea that society can be changed contradictory, except to note that you seem fixed on the idea that CT is useless. Not much I can say to that. Commented Aug 27, 2019 at 19:40

This answer is really over simplified, but other answers have ample detail. I want to give you a bitesize version of why this question is slightly wrong headed, and that the two examples in question aren't the best for whatever might be your underlying concern. I'll then suggest a better comparison.

The two can't be compared. Logical Positivism was an epistemology and philosophy of language which demarcated "meaningful" and "meaningless" statements based on whether they were either scientific, or deductive, claims. It failed because the conditions could never be specified adequately, and the proliferation of modal logics and other developments birthed a new era of metaphysical work, and new theories of language gave us plenty of ways to talk about ethics and the like.

Critical theory is a social theory based around exploring inequality, oppression, subjectivity and other such themes. It doesn't have much to say at all about science, on its own terms. If it treads on science's toes, it'll be due to things like trying to analyse the historical bias that led to the scientific method, the gender and race of scientists and how that might bias a view of reality, and rejection of sicentific truth itgets in the way of social justice, and other such themes. You either buy that kind of stuff or you don't, but it's not going to give you a solid grounding for the scientific method or a theory of rational/empirical discovery.

I think a broader, and more accurate comparison to (what i think are) your concerns: the analytic philosophy that grew in the wake of logical positivism's death, and those areas of continental philosophy that express scepticism over the morality, accuracy, and universality of mathematical, philosophical and scientific thought. Do these areas make contributions to the scientific method, or to knowledge relevant to scientific areas, compared to analytic philosophy? The answer is decidedly no. But then again, they're trying to undermine all that stuff anyway.

  • "The answer is decidedly no. But then again, they're trying to undermine all that stuff anyway. " That's what I thought when talking to several colleagues of the social sciences. Always proclaiming that logical positivism does not work. Well it may not be the best framework to find truth, but BECAUSE it entails the scientific method its still one of the most fruitful frameworks. Just look what physics, chemistry & electrical engineering accomplished in the last 2 centuries and compare this to the vague notion of social injustice which basically is all Critical Theory has ever accomplished... Commented Aug 31, 2019 at 7:30
  • ...its not wrong, but its just stating the obvious without any clear guidance as how to improve upon society. Furthermore if the wiki article on positivsm dispute is correct even hindering upon gradual improvements of society because of the requirement of radical change by Critical Theorist. Commented Aug 31, 2019 at 7:33
  • I'm actually inclined to agree with your opinions generally, but this site isn't the place for that. All I can tell you is that you have a serious misunderstanding of the historical time frame, scope and purpose of Logical Positivism. You're probably talking about Analytic philosophy more generally. Consider Logical Positivism in philosophy as something akin to Newton's theory of gravity in physics: a good start, but as it turns out, wrong. Commented Aug 31, 2019 at 21:28

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