McEvoy writes in his provocative "Positives and negatives of 'positivism':
"A large part of W[itters]'s story is, however, how his philosophy has been
repeatedly hijacked by academic philosophers inclined to anti-metaphysical
positivism. Of course, the term 'positivism' has an almost laughable history,
and some might argue it is unhelpful a term."
I think it was once popular in France with Comte and his followers.
Twentieth-century philosophers wanted to distinguish THEIR type of positivism
from Comte's, by prefacing it with the adjective "logical" (as in Ayer's
classic compilation, "Logical Positivism").
"Yet we can characterise the modern problems of philosophy in terms of struggle
between forms of 'positivism' [empiricism, logical positivism, versions of
linguistic positvism, functionalism] and anti-positivism."
-- which is, anti-positivism, that is -- different from 'negativism'. I think
Comte's motivation behind _his_ 'positivism' rested on the idea of progress.
"It may be said that the 'Linguistic Turn' in philosophy was much less radical
than it might appear in that, in most hands, it consisted in replacing an
untenable form of 'Logical Positivism,' which, anyway, was predicated on a
linguistic thesis as to how verifiability provided a criterion of sense] with a
more diffuse but also untenable form of 'Linguistic Positivism' [predicated on
the explicit or implicit assumption that standards of correct use of language
also provide correct markers of what makes sense in terms of any metaphysical
Mundle, a Welsh philosopher, has a nice Clarendon, "Critique of linguistic
philosophy". I disagree with the label 'linguistic positivism'. If we are
referring to the mis-called "Oxford school of ordinary philosophy," there was
such a variety of views -- P. F. Strawson, J. L. Austin, H. P. Grice, R. M.
Hare, J. O. Urmson, to name a few -- that it would be unfair to characterise
them as _sharing_ a view. If we focus as we should on Austin (the senior of
them all), ONE thesis that was possibly shared was some respect for 'ordinary
language,' as spoken in Oxford by philosophy dons -- which is never _that_
ordinary, you know. I would place Ryle in a different category, although he is
often labelled as an 'ordinary language philosopher', and even of the Oxford
school, but since he never attended a Saturday morning meeting led by Austin,
he doesn't count.
"My suggestion is that both W[itters] and P[opper] are anti-positivists.
However, they have been frequently interpreted in a positivistic way - partly
because a core of their thinking seeks to achieve what many philosophers think
can only be achieved by a form of positivism. A useful starting point is Kant's
question "What is metaphysics?" The tendency of positivism is to deny that
metaphysics has any real subject-matter e.g. to treat its apparent
subject-matter as reducible to some form of factual discourse such as 'natural
science' [this was the thesis of the Logical Positivists] or the facts of human
discourse generally [this is the thesis of 'Linguistic Positivism']."
This was Heidegger's question, too! Alas, his answer includes proposition like
"The nothing noths," which did not help. In Oxford, it was _Aristotle_'s view
of metaphysics that was only seriously considered. Although it is true that, in
fairness to Oxford tutees, P. F. Strawson dedicated a whole term to Kant's
metaphysics (he entitled his lectures, "The bounds of sense," translating
Kantian jargon into ordinary language, almost.
"The pretensions and exaggerations of much metaphysical speculation almost
inevitably produce a reaction in a positivist direction: Kant's view was that
what philosophy needs to do is clamp down on empty highflown metaphysical
speculation but without painting its own legitimate activities into a corner so
tight that it becomes negligble or non-existent. Kant believed the problem is
that there is great depth to our universe in terms of correctly understanding
it (metaphysically) but also great limits on our ability to penetrate into
these depths. In Popper's view, Kant was right was about this. I think
Wittgenstein also was profoundly Kantian in these terms (though the evidence is
more equivocal) - in W's view the depths were not illusory, what was illusory
was the sense of our attempts to express these depths in language."
Well, in Oxford, defining 'metaphysics' became a sport -- notably led by D. F.
Pears, who organised a whole "Third programme" (BBC) lecture to "Metaphysics"
(later published by Macmillan). Among the contributors was H. P. Grice. The
Macmillan volume pays tribute to many more metaphysicians than Aristotle and
Kant -- there is a delightful fragment on Collingwood's views on metaphysics as
presuppositions, for example. Years earlier, J. O. Urmson had tried to make it
clear to an Oxford audience what the _metaphysics_ of, say, the early Witters,
was, in "Philosophical Analysis: its development between the two worlds."
Urmson notes that one postulate of this metaphysics was that the world is all
that is the case. He gives an example:
i. Paul took off his trousers and went to bed.
ii. Paul went to bed and took off his trousers.
In a positivistic metaphysics, of course, "p & q" and "q & p" describe the same
'molecular' picture. If it is the case that (i), it is the case that (ii), and
vice versa. The last part of Urmson's treatise (as also the last part of G. J.
Warnock, "English philosophy in the twentieth century") ends with a summary of
Strawson's view in "Introduction to Logical Theory," which may be seen as
anti-positivistic. For Strawson argued that the logical ampersand and the
ordinary English conjunction 'and' trigger different implicatures (not his
word), and should be categorised independently. Oddly, Strawson does not give
an early example by Ryle on this:
iii. Paul took a pill and died.
iv. Paul died and took a pill.
In the "metaphysics" of the "Tractatus", (iii) and (iv) are indeed equivalent
(vide Black's brilliant companion -- to the Tractatus that is -- not on his
journey to Alaska).
"Agassi once suggested that the divisions between Wittgensteinians and
Popperians are due to them both contesting the legacy of Bertrand Russell; but
I would suggest it is much more accurate that the divisions between
Wittgenstein and Popper have very little do with the legacy of Russell and
almost everything to do with the legacy of Kant."
Well, while Grice did give the Immanuel Kant lectures at Stanford (for some
reason -- who instituted them there, and why?), one of his favourite
"Definite descriptions in Russell and in the vernacular."
Russell was paradeigmatic of the Oxonian approach just because Strawson had
dared challenge his (Russell's) account of 'the' in "On referring", getting the
appropriate retort ("Mr. Strawson on referring", by Russell, repr. in his
Essays in Analysis). This shows, by the way, that the Oxford atmosphere was
uniform. We have Strawson criticising Russell's metaphysics, but Grice coming
to the rescue!
McEvoy: "This kind of 'depth'-Kantianism - the kind where Kant could assert
that the universe consists of 'noumena' that are fundamentally unknowable -
provokes much resistance on many grounds: it seems to grossly exaggerate the
unknowability of reality and it seems to posit a depth so unknowable that we
might just as well be sceptical of there being any such depth as be sceptical
of our capacity to know. There is little doubt that the feeling or belief that
'we know a lot' is much more intuitive and acceptable to many than the view
that 'we know nothing for certain and very little otherwise'. Many cultural and
historical developments favour epistemic self-belief and optimism, and work
against the view that reality is much 'deeper' than our knowledge of it. Those
resistant to the this idea of 'metaphysical depth' are, in my guesstimate, in
the majority among academic philosophers - the depths that some acknowledge
tend only to be of quite a shallow kind [e.g. Strawson's reading of Kant]"
-- hey, it was just a compilation of lectures for Oxonians, and "only the poor
learn at Oxford," as Arnold would complan ("Oxford Dictionary of Quotations").
Plus, he (Strawson) knew that Methuen (his publisher) would publish anything he
would offer them!
But Strawson's "Bounds of Sense" at least left a mark on C. A. B. Peacocke's
later reflections on the limits of intelligibility (which is what 'bounds of
sense' means, anyway).
"and in some there is really no depth to anything at all [e,g. A.J. Ayer's
reworking of Humean 'positivism']. Against this kind of background, Popper's
theory of "World 3" is hardly taken seriously by most philosophers even though
it is a far more serious and profound idea that any they will ever publish: it
is far too 'metaphysical' and implies that there is a metaphysical depth to the
universe beyond the interaction of human minds and bodies. Can metaphysical
'depth' be demonstrated? Not conclusively. Can it be argued for cogently? The
most cogent set of arguments demonstrating metaphysical 'depth' given by any
modern philosopher in the Anglo-American sphere [so I exclude Heidegger here]
are those from Popper, yet this aspect of Popper's work - its most 'profound'
aspect - is the least known and understood by the educated public."
Perhaps partly to blame here is Chomsky. He, not a philosopher, turned into
fashionable labels things like 'deep' and 'surface' -- (as in 'deep structure'
and 'surface structure'). It is true that Witters had spoken of "Depth
grammar". But in general, it is true, the analytic variety of philosophers
prefer to just waddle in the shallow berths of the seas of language (to echo
both H. P. Grice and Kripke -- "Naming and Necessity", analysing, "Socrates was
"The educated public mostly know of a Popper whose main theses lend themselves
to a 'positivistic' outlook: e.g. that 'science is established by a criterion
of falsifiability' - whereas Popper's profound claims are anti-positivistic:
that science is not 'established' at all in the terms usually assumed, that
empirical falsifiability equates with testability in scientific terms but not
proof, that this (properly understood) helps clarify the line between science
and metaphysics, that science is located within metaphysical research
programmes, and that a "tottering old metaphysician" like himself can throw
critical light on science and knowledge generally by work that is unabashedly
Pity he spent more time with criticising Plato than reading Aristotle's
monumental work on "metaphysics". For the Oxonian, metaphysics can be roughly
be divided in two branches: ontology proper, and 'eschatology', or the study of
category barriers (as when we proceed by analogical reasoning). The 'ontology'
is deemed by the Oxonian to be reflected in the categorical structure of
language (Greek, English). Grice was so optimistic about the continuity between
Aristotle and Oxford that he speaks of the "Athenian dialectic" and the
"Oxonian dialectic" as being more or less on the same target: to explain 'ta
legomena' (what most people say -- 'hoi polloi').
It is true that, "at the end of the day," Grice's favourite philosopher was not
Aristotle, but Kantotle (vide J. F. Bennett, "In the tradition of Kantotle,"
Times Literary Supplement -- a review of P. G. R. I. C. E., philosophical
grounds of rationality: intentions, categories, ends).
"The strain of thought found in most Wittgensteinians or students of
Wittengenstein also contains a 'positivistic' hostility to metaphysics that is
not, in my view, a hostility found in Wittegenstein - what W was hostile to was
not metaphysics but metaphysical talk (which descends typically into nonsense
in W's view)."
As when we say,
"A horse looks like a horse"
which presupposes the deeper metaphysical (eschatological) question: what is
the conceptual analyses of 'similarity' and 'identity'.
"Yet many of his students interpret W as if W intended and succeeded in
dismantling the supposed depths of metaphysics - whereas, I suggest, the
correct interpretation is that W never intended anything like this but instead
intended to dismantle the supposed depths of 'metaphysical talk'."
A bit like letting the fly out of the fly-bottle.
"These various remarks may lead us back to explore the fundamental questions:
is there genuine metaphysical subject-matter, has its depths, and what may we
do to tackle these issues?"
Well, when Grice was compiling his "Studies in the Way of Words," he managed to
talk 'metaphysics'. He entitled Part II "Semantics and Metaphysics", which was
provocative (most were expecting something like "Pragmatics"). And he further
managed to include his latest metaphysical reflection where he defines this
much needed new branch of metaphysics, 'eschatology' ('philosophical
eschatology,' he calls it, to distinguish from the more common 'theological'
one). One of his favourite unpublications, to boot, was, "From Genesis to
Revelations, being an examination on a new discourse for metaphysics."