I have some confusion on positive vs. normative.

I am under the impression that a positive claim is a claim regarding a state of reality, while a normative claim is one of a value judgment on reality.

However, I have gotten some disagreement from someone who thinks that a positive statement requires falsifiability. Thus, any statement which cannot be falsified is by definition (according to him) a normative claim.

It seems to me that that's confusing "positive statement" with "positivism"--and misusing normative.

Am I wrong? I've never seen falsification as a requirement of a positive statement--merely that it point to an objective reality.

The person I'm talking with has referenced Popper and the positivists--but I don't think that makes his point regarding the term "positive statement" and its relation to "normative statements", and everything I've ever seen has talked about positive statements in terms of truth value, not in terms of falsification.

  • Some related Wikipedia entries: 1, 2, 3, 4. Now have a look at 3. The second paragraph talks about "operationally meaningful". Click on it, et voilà, you end up at "Falsifiability"! :)
    – user3164
    Oct 28, 2013 at 7:25
  • I think you're right and your interlocutor is wrong. As regards his/her misuse of the word 'normative', I think it's just a consequence of his/her belief (is it justified? I don't know!) that what he/she calls 'positive' and 'normative' are mutually exclusive and exhaustive. Oct 28, 2013 at 7:54

3 Answers 3


You are not wrong in your general response. The word "positive" is not generally used this way by philosophers of science, and was rarely used that way even by most positivists. The positivists also did not think of it as requiring falsifiability. One could, following Popper, argue that claims which are substantive not only must be derived from observation statements but also must be falsifiable, but that requires some argumentation. It is, that is to say, not a point you get for free just by using the word "positive." It's also not the case that any claim which cannot be falsified is a normative claim. "Normative" generally means "involving evaluation or prescription." One could go further, but certainly a tautology like "I am under arrest or not under arrest," is not falsifiable, and also descriptive, rather than normative.

One clarification: positivists also did not think of positive statements as "pointing to an objective reality." Positivists deny the meaningfulness of talk about objective reality over and above what is contained in observation sentences or other "positive sentences."

My speculation about your interlocutor is that he has read some of AJ Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic and his attack on the cognitive-meaningfulness of normative statements like "stealing is wrong." But even from that position the inverse does not follow, that all unfalsifiable statements are normative.

  • For clarity's sake, the statement that was claimed to be normative due to its unfalsifiability was "God exists". I was saying that is a positive claim--and that all statements which refer to a state of being/existence would be positive claims. He claimed that because it was unfalsifiable, it was by definition normative. I appreciate your answer--assuming that I am correct and that it is a positive claim, is there a way I could respond that would demonstrate to him that he is incorrect in a way that he would accept, as he and I seem to be disagreeing on definitions?
    – user4650
    Oct 28, 2013 at 18:33
  • (Well-expressed question!) I guess I would ask what he means by "normative." If he means "evaluative" or having to do with goodness/badness, then you could offer as a counter-example a statement like the tautology I mention above which is not evaluative. If he's using the word normative in a different way, you'd want to know what that is to respond. Oct 31, 2013 at 15:44

Your friend is confused about a few things, at least based on how you reported them, and incorrect about the claim that every non-"positive statement" is therefore a normative statement.

The basic problem is that the terms used in the discussion are not jointly exhaustive in their domain of application. (Two sets are jointly exhaustive iff everything must belong to one or the other.) So, given two sets A and B, one cannot derive that an element is in B, just because it is not in A.

  1. A terminological point: Contrasting the term "positive statement" to "normative statement" is a bit awkward. The contrasting notions are usually "descriptive" vs. "prescriptive" or "normative" statements. There are, after all, descriptive statements that negate something. (You specified in a comment that the statement under discussion is "God exists", so I guess the attribution "positive" comes from that context, as it (mis)used in the deism/atheism folk-debate to argue about burden of proof and similar things.)

  2. More importantly, a descriptive (positive or negative) statement is not necessarily an empirical statement (what I think you mean by a "claim regarding a state of reality"). Think of the statement "The number 5 is odd". To give a charitable reading, however, let's take your

    impression that a positive claim is a claim regarding a state of reality

    as a limiting definition. Then, the claim that "a positive statement requires falsifiability" is the claim that an empirical statement is necessarily falsifiable – which is a basic claim of Popper's epistemology and was shared by most, if not all members of the Vienna Circle.

  3. Regarding your friend's claim that

    any statement which cannot be falsified is by definition a normative claim

    Well, any claim can be correct "by (using a convenient) definition". If she defines falsifiable and normative statements to be jointly exhaustive, then she is correct.

    The question is if the definition used is useful for ends other then qualifying a statement as such. Supposing that by "cannot be falsified" she means "a non-empirical statement", this is clearly incorrect.

    Remember (2) and you can show this to be a non-sequitur: How would she classify the statement "The number 5 is odd"? Supposing she agrees that this is not a falsifiable claim, she would have to come to the conclusion that by asserting that statement one is really claiming that "the number 5 ought to be odd"… I think she would concede that "positive statements" in mathematics cannot be understood like this and, therefore, that there are "positive statements" that are non-falsifiable.

  4. Please note that even by changing the claim in (3) to include larger classes of statements, the claim remains incorrect. Change (3) to cover all truth-apt statements as you do - such that all non-truth-apt statements are normative - and it still doesn't work. For there are a lot of non-truth-apt statements that still aren't normative statement. Think of wishes, congratulations, oaths and other so-called speech acts.


No, falsification is not required for a statement to describe objective reality (vs. objective morality). You want to look at Michael Polanyi's 1974 Personal Knowledge. On pages 43-48, he talks about crystallography, and how it is an unfalsifiable theory which is nonetheless empirically useful.

The principle of crystal symmetry was discovered by assuming that crystals contained only six elementary symmetries (mirroring, inversion, twofold, threefold, fourfold and sixfold rotations). From this it was concluded that the 32 possible combinations of these six elementary symmetries represented all distinct kinds of crystal symmetry.

The only sharp distinction laid down by this theory is that between the 32 classes of symmetry. They are distinct forms of a certain kind of order.


We may now turn to the question, on what principles our acceptance of crystallographic theory rests.


A classification is significant if it tells us a great deal about an object once this is identified as belonging to one of its classes. Such a system may be said to classify objects according to their distinctive nature. [...] Yet this system was supremely vindicated, as was the geometrical theory of crystals in general, by its classificatory functions. [...]

Here stands revealed a system of knowledge of immense value for the understanding of experience, to which the conception of falsifiability seems altogether inapplicable. Facts which are not described by the theory create no difficulty for the theory, for it regards them as irrelevant to itself. Such a theory functions as a comprehensive idiom which consolidates that experience to which it is apposite and leaves unheeded whatever is not comprehended by it. (44-47)

Contrast this to the following from Karl Popper's 1934 The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Karl Popper developed falsificationism.

In this formulation we see that natural laws might be compared to 'proscriptions' or 'prohibitions'. They do not assert that something exists or is the case; they deny it. They insist on teh non-existence of certain things or states of affairs, proscribing or prohibiting, as it were, these things or states of affairs: they rule them out. And it is precisely because they do this that they are falsifiable. If we accept as true one singular statement which, as it were, infringes the prohibition by asserting the existence of a thing (or the occurrence of an event) ruled out by the law, then the law is refuted. (48)

Popper talks a bit about axiomatic systems (e.g. p53), but for now I'll stop short of providing full Popperian reasoning for the folks who would give a 'Yes' answer.

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