A Critical Examination of, & Response to the Philosophy & Methodology of Positivism.

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This paper intends to achieve several outcomes. First it will examine the positivistic paradigm, define it, elucidate its methodology, and examine its philosophical assumptions. The paper will then conclude with a critical response to positivism through a brief analysis of its philosophical and methodological underpinnings.

SECTION A – The Philosophical Assumptions of Positivism

Positivism is a philosophical theory that was once held though it enjoys little acceptance today among philosophers of science (Craig, 2011). It has its historical roots in the 3rd century thinker Sextus Empiricus and was later revived by the likes of Auguste Comte (1798–1857) and Georg Lichtenberg (1742-1799). The Enlightenment of the 18th century undoubtedly had a major role in positivism’s development due to the fact that notable Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume and others emphasized the use of reason above all else, and relegated the likes of metaphysics, religious belief, belief in God and the supernatural into the realm of superstition. The naturalistic philosopher Bertrand Russell, who developed a philosophy akin to Comte, was particularly positivistic in epistemic outlook believing that knowledge ought to be “attained by scientific means; and what science cannot discover, man cannot know” (Russell, 1935: 243). Positivism as a methodological paradigm, however, enjoys more representation among researchers. A paradigm is best defined as a framework by which one understands the world; according to Bryman a paradigm is a “cluster of beliefs and dictates which for scientists in a particular discipline influences what should be studied, how research should be done, how results should be interpreted…” (Bryman, 1988: 4).

Positivists have a strict methodology about how one should acquire knowledge. On positivism, data must only be derived from our senses through reason and logic (Creath, 2017). This led to the positivists arguing that the only knowledge worthwhile was a posteriori knowledge as opposed to a priori knowledge (Russell, 2007). Whereas the latter form can be derived independent of mathematics, science, and reason, the former depends on empirical verification, hence the significance that the scientific enterprise plays in the positivist’s overall framework. The latter type of knowledge, according to the positivist, is little more than metaphysical speculation. Thus, for the researcher, data collection must be objective and preferably collected via observational and quantitative means (Kasim, Alexander & Hudson, 2008: 4). The researcher herself, and the subjective feelings and interests of the participants of a study, are largely irrelevant and therefore to be independent to the actual study; the researcher ought to have as little interaction with her participants as possible with the hope that one’s research should be objective and not be influenced by one’s own subjectivities (Wilson, 2010: 15-16). Thus, the clear tendency to elevate reason over and above emotion. Objective facts are essentially what are deemed most valuable by this philosophical and methodological approach.

There are several principles inherent to a positivistic approach (Bullock & Trombley, 1999: 669-737). Most important of these is that research must aim to explain and predict. Scientific determinism was thus a significant feature for positivists given that science was based on the assumption that phenomena A causes B under certain circumstances. Secondly, the research ought to be empirically observable via the human senses, hence the value of empiricism which, since science specializes in uncovering empirical facts about the physical universe, suggests that science can be objective and is the finest way for pursuing objectivity. That scientists used the scientific method was particularly attractive to positivists. This method allowed for data to be sampled, measured, and analyzed which, in turn, assisted in reaching conclusions that would take the form of hypotheses and, better yet, theories. According to prominent theologian and biophysicist Alister McGrath, “Science is all about observing the world. The movement known as Logical Positivism took the view that this was all that could be done. Science was basically about accumulating uninterpreted observations of the world and developing general summaries of these observations” (Chab, 2017).

Ontologically speaking, the way positivists see the world is as a stable external reality; a concept of reality they assume (Hudson & Ozanne, 1988: 508-521). According to Hilary Collins, a proficient research methods teacher at Euromed (France), positivists have an “atomistic, ontological view of the world as comprising discrete, observable elements and events that interact in an observable, determined and regular manner” (Collins, 2010: 38). It is therefore clear that positivists are objective realists. They believe, for example, that the external world really exists as opposed to it being a highly persuasive illusion brought on by one’s own imagination. Now, it would be hard to imagine positivism, both as a philosophy and methodology, having any credibility should the external world of physical objects not exist. Nonetheless, when it comes to regularity in the universe, positivism, and likely all of us for that matter, would run into insurmountable problems should the universe not obey the laws of nature. However, it is quite evident that the universe does obey regularity. Professor and cosmologist Paul Davies remarks that this faith based assumption is one that “a scientist could not function” without (Overbye, 2007). Without science, positivism, both philosophically and methodologically, loses its potency, and without order and regularly in nature, science cannot function. Thus, because there is an objective external reality to be discovered, a reality that exists independent of the researcher’s own beliefs and perspectives, the positivist is quite capable of exploring and explaining it via the acquisition of knowledge through controlled, structural approaches.

Positivism is also married to reductionism, as I will make plainer shortly. Reductionism is when “processes are reducible to physiological, physical or chemical events” (Bullock & Trombley, 1999: 669–737). In biology a positivist would break down organisms into physical systems. Similarly, in sociology the positivist would reduce phenomena to relationships between individuals. Thus, a positivist reduces phenomenon to the simplest elements from which hypotheses can be formulated (Dudovskiy, 2017).

SECTION B – A Personal Response to Positivism: Agreements & Disagreements.

My agreement and disagreement concerns positivism’s philosophical assumptions as well as its methodology. We shall examine both.

Ontologically, like the positivist, I am an objective realist (Bishop, 2017). I find my experience of the external world undeniable, and I concur with John Locke (1632-1704), as well as some 81% of western philosophers (PhilPapers, 2017), that though we cannot empirically prove the external world without arguing in a circle, we are warranted in accepting its existence based on our sensory experience (Uzgalis, 2017). Philosophers tend to define such as a properly basic belief, a belief that we are warranted to hold to in the absence of a defeater simply because of our overwhelming human experience (Craig, 2016).

Now, this is important because it means that the scientific enterprise, much beloved by positivists, isn’t an illusion. I hardly imagine that scientists would like to learn that what they perceive their science to be and the achievements they have reaped as a result of their efforts are nothing more than a figment of their imaginations. Thus, though there are significant questions pertaining to the philosophy of science concerning the epistemic limitations of the scientific enterprise (I have in mind Thomas Khun’s paradigmatic shifts), I largely, as a scientific realist, believe that science works. I therefore find much value in positivism given that it is constructed upon a practical methodology that produces results. Thus, as a theological rationalist, one who prioritizes reason and evidence, especially empirical evidence, as avenues for shaping my theological, philosophical beliefs; I tend to enjoy the positivist’s methodology and philosophy.

However, the positivist and I part ways because I cannot embrace its reductionist philosophy. It is because of positivism’s total rejection of metaphysics that philosopher William Craig says resulted in “its demise among philosophers 50 years ago” (Craig, 2011). However, a contemporary form of it, commonly referred to as “scientism,” is popularly embraced by a growing number of contemporary scientists. Scientism effectively argues that we shouldn’t believe what cannot be scientifically proven (Craig, 2011). Thus, anything outside of empirical science is irrational and/or unwarranted to hold to, a position I’ve argued against (Bishop, 2016). This is exactly what positivists had believed philosophically, namely, that we cannot know anything outside of our five senses.

However, I reject its philosophy because of its obvious inconsistencies. The positivist’s claim that “we should believe what cannot be scientifically proven” is itself an empirically unverifiable claim; it is a philosophical statement about science. Scientism thus defeats itself (Craig, 2011). Also refer back to Russell’s statement that “what science cannot discover, man cannot know.” This is naive and Russell ought to have known better for there are many empirically unverifiable metaphysical facts about the world that we believe we are rational to accept. Some of these are that the external world exists, that there are objective moral facts, that others minds existence other than my own, and so on. As far as I know of Russell, he believed in the external world, but given his reductionist, scientistic philosophy he ought to doubt that, among other things, himself. Obviously he didn’t which only demonstrates the logical incoherence of positivism and its contemporary breed of scientism.

When it comes down to actual research there are several pros and cons worth considering should one decide to reject or employ a positivistic methodology. For example, a positivistic methodology scores high in quantitative research. Given its attempt at objectivity, this methodology can obtain trustworthy research via its structure, namely its rules (researcher detachment, removal of subjectivities, objective pursuit etc.). However, this comes to the expense of qualitative research which, for the positivist, lacks an objective, scientific approach to the research process given its emphasis on small scale samples and subjectivities (Houghton, 2011). This latter fact would suggest that the positivist lacks what one might call the “human factor.” By this I mean the positivist’s disregarding of a participant’s emotions and feelings which, for many researchers, are very important factors to consider. For many researchers it is evident that when studying human behaviour one can’t divorce behaviour from emotional responses as positivism demands (McLaughlin, 2003). A positivistic framework also assumes that researchers can be fully objective, which is naive given that all people are influenced by their cultural milieus, values, and so on. For example, as some interpretivist’s have argued, for the acquisition of research somebody has to draw up structured questionnaires and surveys; the obvious concern then is that a researcher, possessing bias him/herself, will employ some kind of selection bias in which s/he selects certain questions to be asked (Palinkas et al., 2015: 533-544; Pannucci & Wilkins, 2010: 619-625). There is also no guarantee for the positivist that disregarding of emotions will occur throughout his or her research study which suggests that it might be difficult to consistently apply a positivistic methodology.

Moreover, positivists prefer bigger numbers from quantitative research of which can be inputted into graphs and charts (Brett, 1994: 47-59). Doing so is helpful in the sense that researchers can deduce and draw correlations and comparisons which assist in one’s attempt to understand how certain things influence one another. Though this is undoubtedly helpful it can also come as a disadvantage. For one, the bigger the research sample the more costly the research process might be. It is also far more time consuming given that not only must the data be acquired but it must also be sifted through so that generalizations and deductions can be made from the results (Bell, 2004: 197).

Closing Thoughts

So, would I use a positivistic methodology in research? It would fully depend on the nature of the research. There are areas which one might prefer a qualitative means of data acquisition, for example, talking to a trauma survivor in a face-to-face interview (McLeod, 2008). Quantitative research, as made plain already, emphasizes bigger scale data acquisition in which subjectivities are neglected intentionally. Yet, at the same time I would distance myself from a positivistic philosophy. Thus, a caveat must be forthcoming in this regard as it is quite easy to jump from a simple methodology into a philosophy.

[Words: 1918]


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2 responses to “A Critical Examination of, & Response to the Philosophy & Methodology of Positivism.

  1. Pingback: A Critical Examination of, & Response to the Philosophy & Methodology of Positivism. — James Bishop’s Theological Rationalism | Team OCC·

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