Positivism: What is it? Who cares?

Positivism was a concept I encountered in grad school. It’s defined as a philosophical system that holds that every rationally justifiable assertion can be scientifically verified or is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and that therefore rejects metaphysics and theism.

In most academic fields, positivism is ostensibly extinct, having been replaced by post positivism. An academic who does survey research likely subscribes to post positivism in order to justify projecting the findings of his or her studied sample size to a similar population. The underlying assumption being that knowledge can be generalized. In the example of survey research, one would take whatever findings their sample size provides them and then project that on to other populations, despite having never studied them directly.

Post positivism and statistical significance, however flawed, affords social scientists this ability.

It’s important to note however that with positivism this knowledge generalization is taken to the extreme, stating that knowledge can be generalized universally. Despite being disregarded in academia, for some, positivism isn’t that far of a logical leap. An example may be that many claim carbon is needed for life. This bit of knowledge could be logically defended because life as we know it requires carbon. Of course, the universe is immense – perhaps infinite, and with this scale comes an equally staggering amount of possibilities for life. So where am I going with this? Well, now that I’ve described positivism, I’d challenge you to look for similar positivist lines of thinking. I don’t think you’ll have to look too far.

The obvious example, to me at least, is the news media. In general, I avoid politics. It’s of nominal interest to me and I find little good in considering or debating political topics in any length via any venue. However to speak in general about the news media, I think it is replete with positivist logic. Is this a bad thing? In some cases, no of course not – “Capital T” truth does exist but only to a certain extent, based on context. Take morality for example, a strong argument can be made morality is both socially constructed by experiences and by genetics. Author David Foster Wallace in his short story Good Old Neon discusses the story’s main character’s suicide (a character loosely disguised as Wallace himself who did indeed commit suicide) as a drawn out process that required a deep reversal of his hard-wired code:

“Suicide runs so counter to so many hardwired instincts and drives that nobody in his right mind goes through with it without going through a great deal of internal back-and-forth, intervals of almost changing your mind.”

Wallace perfectly describes how humans possess a hard-coded need to live and I see this as a salient example of why positivism could stick around. Something different than this, what I will label “everyday positivism,” is another thing entirely. I refer to it as everyday positivism because it’s part of the never-ending news cycle. It’s built into the media’s business model of giving you what you want, confirming your beliefs, eliminating the uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance. I find it, well, basically annoying, egotistical, dangerous.

That financial wizard who says with absolute certainty they understand why oil prices went down or the cable news personality who knows exactly what is right for you or what you should be afraid of next. “Everyday positivism” hurts my brain and the acceptance of it by the audience I find frightening.

I hope I do not suffer in this alone.

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