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LATER POSITIVISM: THE VIENNA CIRCLE

Positivism has taken some interesting turns. Ernst Mach (1838-1916), an Austrian physicist, took an arch-empiricist stance further than even Hume might have done himself: If you could not verify something, Mach insisted, you should question its existence. If you can’t see it, it isn’t there. This stance led Mach to reject the atomic theory of physics because, at the time, atoms could not be seen.

Discussion of Mach’s ideas was the basis of a seminar group that met in Vienna and Berlin during the 1920s and 1930s. The group, composed of mathematicians, philosophers, and physicists, came to be known as the Vienna Circle of logical positivists. They were also known as logical empiricists, and when social scientists today discuss positivism, it is often this particular brand that they have in mind (see Mach 1976).

The term logical empiricism better reflects the philosophy of knowledge of the members of the Vienna Circle than does logical positivism. Unfortunately, Herbert Feigl and Albert Blumberg used ‘‘logical positivism” in the title of their 1931 article in the Journal of Philosophy in which they laid out the program of their movement, and the name “positivism” stuck—again (L. D. Smith 1986).

The fundamental principles of the Vienna Circle were that knowledge is based on experience and that metaphysical explanations of phenomena were incompatible with science. Science and philosophy, they said, should attempt to answer only scientifically answerable questions. A question like ‘‘Was Mozart or Brahms the better composer?’’ can only be addressed by metaphysics and should be left to artists.

In fact, the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle did not see art—painting, sculpture, poetry, music, literature, and literary criticism—as being in conflict with science. The arts, they said, allow people to express personal visions and emotions and are legitimate unto themselves. Because poets do not claim that their ideas are testable expressions of reality, their ideas can be judged on their own merits as either evocative and insightful, or not. Therefore, any source of wisdom (like poetry) that generates ideas, and science, which tests ideas, are mutually supportive and compatible (Feigl 1980).

I find this eminently sensible. Sometimes, when I read a really great line of poetry, like Robert Frost’s line from The Mending Wall, ‘‘Good fences make good neighbors,’’ I think ‘‘How could I test that? Do good fences always make good neighbors?’’ When sheepherd- ers fenced off grazing lands across the western United States in the 19th century, keeping cattle out of certain regions, it started range wars.

Listen to what Frost had to say about this in the same poem: ‘‘Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offence.’’ The way I see it, the search for understanding is a human activity, no matter who does it and no matter what epistemological assumptions they follow.

Understanding begins with questions and with ideas about how things work. When do fences make good neighbors? Why do women earn less, on average, for the same work as men in most industrialized countries? Why is Barbados’s birthrate falling faster than Saudi

Arabia’s? Why is there such a high rate of alcoholism on Native American reservations? Why do nation states, from Italy to Kenya, almost universally discourage people from maintaining minority languages? Why do public housing programs often wind up as slums? If advertising can get children hooked on cigarettes, why is public service advertising so ineffective in lowering the incidence of high-risk sex among adolescents?

 
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