The positivism dispute (German: Positivismusstreit) was a political-philosophical dispute between the critical rationalists (Karl Popper, Hans Albert) and the Frankfurt School (Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas) in 1961, about the methodology of the social sciences. It grew into a broad discussion within German sociology from 1961 to 1969. The naming itself is controversial, since it was the Frankfurt School proponents who accused the critical rationalists of being positivists—while the latter considered themselves to be opponents of positivism. On the political level, it was a dispute between the leftist Frankfurt School proponents supporting revolution, and the allegedly bourgeois critical rationalists supporting reform as the method to be preferred to change society.
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The debate began in 1961 in Tübingen, West Germany at the Conference of the German Society of Sociology. The speakers at the conference were invited to discuss the differences between social and natural sciences and the status of values in the social sciences.
In 1963, the debate was heated by Jürgen Habermas in the Festschrift für Adorno (writings in honour of Adorno). The debate became more intensely critical at the Sociology Day in Heidelberg when Herbert Marcuse joined the discussion. A spirited literary debate between Habermas and Hans Albert sprung up and positivism became the centre of the debate.
The participants also discussed the question of whether Popper's and Albert's critical rationalism had exacerbated ethical problems. The Frankfurt School believed this should be impossible, because as a theory of science critical rationalism is seen to be restricted to the field of knowledge.
The famous dispute inspired a collection of essays which were published in 1969. This book was translated into several languages, including English in 1976 (see below). This collection revived the debate and introduced these ideas to a broader audience.
Elements of the dispute
The dispute has its foundation in the value judgment dispute (Werturteilsstreit) in German sociology and economics around the question of whether or not the statements from various social sciences are normative and obligatory in politics, and whether or not their measures can be justified scientifically and be applied in political actions. Consequently, the positivism dispute is also called the Second Werturteilsstreit.
The precursor of the debate about positivism can be traced back to Max Horkheimer's essay "Der neueste Angriff auf die Metaphysik" ("The Latest Attack on Metaphysics") published in 1937 that criticizes the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle. The prolonged criticism of positivism led to the formation of two camps: on one side we find "critical rationalism" advanced by Karl Popper and on the other side there is the "critical theory" advanced in the Frankfurt School. This view was strengthened by the fact that Popper's main work, Logic of Scientific Discovery, was published in the main book series of the Vienna Circle. Popper, however, considered himself an opponent of positivism, and his main work was a sharp attack on it.
Both camps accept that sociology cannot avoid a value judgement that inevitably influences subsequent conclusions. In critical rationalism the scientific approach should be maintained in sociology and wherever the use of an induction method is not possible it should be avoided. This leads to a sociology having a firm ground in observations and assured deductions that cannot be ignored in politics. For critical rationalism, sociology is best conceived as a set of empirical questions subject to scientific investigation.
Frankfurt School "critical theory," by contrast, denies that sociology can be severed from its "metaphysical" heritage; empirical questions are necessarily rooted in substantive philosophical issues. Drawing on concepts from Hegelian and Marxian traditions, critical theory conceives society as a concrete totality, a social environment, e.g. family, authorities, peers or mass media shape individual consciousness. According to the Frankfurt school, it is important to discover the society's fabrics to allow for individuals to overcome being cornered. Critical rationalism considers this goal to be impossible and any attempts (changing society out of possibly non-scientific deductions) to be dangerous. The Frankfurt school counters critical rationalism as being itself cornered, disallowing itself from asking scientific questions when just some methods are not available. Looking back in history "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but their social existence that determines their consciousness" (Karl Marx). The social existence determines the mindset of scientists as well. All the hypotheses generated by scientists (which would need to be falsified) are limited to this society's thinkable. While critical rationalism provides methods that are supposed to have an influence on society it is this totality that makes the reforms advocated by Popper ineffective for noticeable changes.
Popper, in contrast, held that the Frankfurt school view was historicist ideology failing to see that any attempt to cause a total change of society (i.e., revolution) leads to violence, and that society should better be changed step by step (by reforms) to solve specific problems and abolish specific evils. According to Popper, individuals, including scientists, are free to decide, and are perhaps restricted by their social existence, but not totally determined by it. Changes may then look ineffective and very slow, but will accumulate over time. Popper thinks it is the lesser evil compared to violent revolutions, since such reforms can be undone if they turn out to only make things worse, while revolutions usually lead to lengthy periods of tyranny. Thus, for Popper, the method of reforms should be preferred.
Notes and references
- Critical theorists used the term "positivism" as an encompassing term to refer to various philosophical schools that they thought had been founded on the same methodological basis; these schools included the Vienna Circle, logical positivism, realism, and logical atomism (see Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (eds), The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Continuum, 1978, p. 373).
- Adorno, Albert, Dahrendorf, Habermas, Pilot und Popper, The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, Heinemann London 1976 and Harper Torchbook 1976.
- Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests (original: Erkenntnis und Interesse, 1968).
- Habermas, Technology and Science as Ideology (original: Technik und Wissenschaft als „Ideologie“, 1968).
- Helmut F. Spinner, Popper und die Politik. Berlin (Dietz), 1978.
- Strubenhoff, Marius, 'The Positivism Dispute in German Sociology, 1954-1970', History of European Ideas 44 (2018).
- Dahms, H.-J., Positivismusstreit. Die Auseinandersetzungen der Frankfurter Schule mit dem logischen Positivismus, dem amerikanischen Pragmatismus und dem kritischen Rationalismus, Frankfurt a.M. (Suhrkamp), 1994.
- Find further literature in the German "Study Guide to Hans Albert".