Contents of
Alternatives to


by Igor Naletov

The scientific and technological revolution which started in the mid-20th century has proved to be a serious test not only for many scientific theories, but also for a number of philosophical ideas, concepts and even major trends. It affected, first and foremost, those philosophical schools which were, or claimed to be, connected with natural science. The global nature of many scientific problems, the high level of theoretical abstractions, the wide scope of generalisations and the deep differentiation and integration of scientific knowledge enhanced by the scientific and technological revolution have increased the progressive scientists’ concern about the ethical aspects and humanistic orientation of research and sharpened their sense of social responsibility for the destinies of mankind. The acceleration of scientific and technical progress has intensified their natural interest in the latest achievements of philosophical thought and emphasised the need for a genuinely scientific philosophical theory that would make it possible to comprehend concrete scientific problems in a broad theoretical, methodological and social context and provide a key to the most crucial issues of our time.

It is not fortuitous, therefore, that of all the major philosophical trends and schools those related more or less closely to science and representing it in some form or other were the first to weather the storm. And no wonder that positivism and dialectical materialism, the two teachings that have always professed their adherence to science, recognised its great mission and expressed their readiness to serve its lofty ideals turned out, as it were, to be the two poles of attraction for increasingly theory-minded natural scientists.

Which of the two philosophical schools will be able to pass through the crucible of time and provide reliable guidance for creative thought in the epoch of scientific and technological revolution? The author of this book undertakes to answer this crucial question and to substantiate the answer to the extent a task of such dimensions is accomplishable within the scope of a single monograph.

Many Soviet and foreign philosophers believe that contemporary positivism, despite its professed adherence to scientific thinking, is undergoing a deep ideological crisis because of an obvious and ever growing rift between its methodological programme and the tasks, tendencies and principles of modern science. The nature of this crisis sharpened by the scientific and technological revolution deserves special attention, the more so as there is a glaring contradiction between the actual results of the evolution of positivism and its professed goals, between its pretentious claims and the real contribution to scientific progress.

Speaking of positivism and its crisis, we shall mainly concentrate on the third stage of this philosophy known as logical positivism and often referred to as logical empiricism or analytical philosophy, and make occasional digressions to the previous stages in order to trace certain current concepts to their sources.

Positivism as a philosophical trend is known to derive from radical empiricism which is one of the pillars of this teaching in all its forms. According to the programme of logical positivism elaborated by the Vienna circle science begins; with the observation of similarities and differences between phenomena, i.e. with the observation of -single facts. Established facts provide a basis for initial empirical generalisations which, after an additional study of separate phenomena and events, are transformed into broader generalisations. Universality of statements can only be attained at a theoretical level and such universal truths are regarded as empirical laws constituting the basis and the core of all theoretical knowledge. The development of science thus consists in the progressive expansion of empirical generalisations, and inductive conclusion turns out to be the main instrument of such development. Expressing the concept of empiricism in a concise logical form, Rudolf Carnap, one of the leaders of logical positivism, wrote: “... science begins with direct observations of single facts. Nothing else is observable. Certainly a regularity is not directly observable. It is only when many

observations are compared with one another that regularities are discovered.” [1]

The rapid development of fundamental research in the 20th century has clearly shown the untenability of logical positivism based on radical empiricism. As a matter of fact, the entire history of modern science, starting from the development of the quantum theory and the theory of relativity and ending with cybernetics, is a repudiation of the tenet of empiricism. It is not accidental that most contemporary philosophers of science reject the reduction of theoretical knowledge to empirical knowledge. They believe that knowledge does not begin with observations and sensual experience, since observation is always preceded or attended by theoretical concepts. Yet this general premise is still a long way from regular criticism of empiricism as the core of positivist philosophy, as well as from a comprehensive theory of scientific knowledge and its consistent substantiation. The actual relationship and unity of the empirical and the theoretical in scientific cognition, their concrete interaction in the history and logic of science, the passage from lower to higher levels call for a detailed investigation. Nevertheless, the development of the entire Western philosophy of science in the 1960s and 1970s is keynoted by a revision of the programme of radical empiricism found to be untenable both methodologically and theoretically. And this is a very grave symptom of an ideological crisis of this philosophy.

Another sign of the predicament of the philosophy of science which follows in the wake of positivist traditions is a drastic change in its attitude towards “metaphysics”. The struggle against “metaphysics” and the attempts to oust it from science and philosophy have had both positive and negative aspects. The positive effect of the campaign against metaphysics which was a characteristic feature of early positivism consisted in its opposition to the traditional speculative, particularly religious and idealistic, philosophy which showed little interest in concrete problems of scientific cognition and practical life. On the other hand, positivists rejected as “metaphysical” practically all most general and, in essence, traditional problems of philosophy as unrelated to science. These included the problems of objectivity, necessity, causality, essence, etc. Such problems, according to positivists, went beyond the limits of experience, did not accord with the basic tenets and criteria of empiricism and were therefore declared speculative, senseless, non-scientific, etc.

Unlike most pre-positivist critics of the so-called metaphysics who were not opposed to a philosophical theory dealing with traditional problems in one or another form, positivism rejects “metaphysics” in principle both as a method and a specific field of knowledge and declares all its problems to be irrational by nature. The negative attitude towards traditional philosophy is regarded by positivists themselves as a characteristic feature of their concept and as one of its fundamental principles. “If one wishes to characterize every view which denies the possibility of metaphysics as positivistic,” wrote Schlick, “this is quite unobjectionable, as a mere definition, and I should in this sense call myself a strict positivist.” [2]

In order to overcome “metaphysics”, logical positivism advanced an extensive programme providing for a logical restructuring of the whole edifice of science in order to standardise the language of science, clear up its logical structure, identify the basic elements of knowledge and reduce all the other concepts and propositions of science to these elements. These tasks, according to the exponents of the new theory, were to be accomplished through the agency of mathematical logic. At this stage the so-called philosophy of science posed as the logic of science, claiming to give the anatomy of science with the help of mathematical logic.

Yet all attempts by positivism to become a pure methodology were doomed to failure. In substantiating the platform of the philosophy of science positivism could not but proceed from a set of definite philosophical principles, i.e. from a new “metaphysics” of science. This “metaphysics” with its idealistic and anti-democratic premises gave a distorted picture of the world in. which the existence of the object was made conditional on its sensual perception by the subject, the reality was construed as an aggregate of elementary facts, etc.

One of the symptoms of the current crisis of positivism consists in that the exponents of the philosophy of science have renounced yet another tenet of their teaching and are turning their eyes to what they call metaphysics. Proposals are even made to start developing a new metaphysics on a more or less regular basis. The concept of metaphysics, however, is extremely broad and sometimes reflects a stable interest in the problems of materialism and dialectics. The attempts to solve such problems, though far from being consistent, testify to a search for a new methodological basis and a new system of values.

Hebert Feigl, for instance, defends the scientific status of such “metaphysical” problems as the relationship between consciousness and the brain. Mario Bunge believes that the main task of the new “metaphysics” is the construction of scientific ontology. Marx Wartofsky writes that “metaphysics represents the most general method of articulating, in critical and systematic form, the alternative conceptual frameworks within which theoretical understanding becomes possible. The heuristic force of metaphysics lies in its closeness to our primary modes of understanding and explaining (by means of the story, the re-enactment of nature in dramatic form).” [3] Recognising the methodological (and even the heuristic) role of metaphysics, Wartofsky, however, fails to give a clear idea of its content. Despite the obvious tendency towards a more realistic approach to the structure of scientific knowledge, to general philosophical principles and categories and to their role in the development of science, it is already clear that the philosophy of science remains and will evidently remain loyal to some basic traditions laid down by the classics of positivism, focusing on the problems of the logic of scientific cognition, the language of science and special problems of the methodology of science, natural science in the first place. Deviating from some dogmas of positivism, it does not relinquish its claim to the title of the “philosophy of science”, thus determining the sphere of its interest. In our subsequent discourse we shall use this name too, inasmuch as it is associated with Western, particularly Anglo-American philosophy.

It will also be in place here to define our attitude to the term “metaphysics” which will be frequently used in the subsequent text. Though it has acquired a positive sense in anti-positivist literature, being almost synonymous to general philosophical problems, we shall abstain from equating these notions and use the term strictly in the sense it has in the context of the philosophical doctrines under consideration—negative in positivist philosophy, positive in the concepts of “scientific realism”, etc. Each of these doctrines will be treated separately and the reader will have no difficulty in identifying the context in which the term is used thus making the inverted commas unnecessary. As regards the methodological problems discussed in the book, we shall call them all philosophical, distinguishing each time between their specific types, such as theoretical, philosophical-methodological, ontological, epistemological, logical and others.

In the already extensive critical literature on positivism the most controversial problems appear to be those connected with the relationship between theory and sensory experience, the attitude to metaphysics, and the objectivity of knowledge. The concepts of causality and determinism, by contrast, have been relegated to a secondary plan and are usually discussed as separate issues independent of other basic problems, though the most prominent exponents of positivism have always, at all the stages of its evolution, focused their attention on causality, the nature of scientific laws and scientific explanation. There is no doubt that their views on these problems should be critically reappraised.

Besides, the problems of causality and determinism are obviously linked with a number of general epistemological and methodological issues and influenced by radical empiricism, reductionism, induction logic, etc. One or another solution of these general issues—and such solutions, despite the downright rejection or dodging of metaphysics, could never be avoided—has had a direct bearing on the concepts of causality and scientific law. Conversely, any interpretation of the concepts of causality and determinism could not but affect the general conclusions of the theory of knowledge and the positivist methodology of science.

Similarly, the negative attitude towards “metaphysics” has predetermined the rejection of causality and determinism as pseudo-problems. In turn, the positivist interpretation of causality was partly accountable for the negative attitude of positivism in general and logical positivism in particular to general philosophical (metaphysical) problems.

In a lecture delivered at Oxford in 1958, Friedrich Waismann, one of the pillars of positivism, referred to 1927 as the year of the funeral of causality [4]. Explaining the title of his lecture “The Decline and Fall of Causality”, Waismann contended that the collapse of the principle of causality was not unexpected as it had been prepared by a long period of its general recognition. According to Waismann, this recognition dated back to the 18th century, i.e. to the Laplatian concept of determinism which inspired scientists with a hope that the location of all possible systems in space and time, as well as their physical state could be accurately predicted given the knowledge of their initial state. Laplace, in Waismann’s opinion, became the exponent of the principle of causal determinism which had prevailed for more than a century and a half as an ideal of scientific explanation. For all the power of human intellect, however, such an ideal was unattainable even in the realm of classical mechanics which was greatly indebted to Laplace. It was called in question as soon as scientists found it impossible to measure physical values with ideal accuracy implicit in the Laplatian doctrine. The concept of causality was bound to collapse as was the Laplatian ideal of scientific knowledge. According to Waismann, causality was dealt a final blow in 1927 by Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty as it dismissed completely the possibility of any prediction of events on the subatom level.

Western philosophers were not slow to attack Waismann’s views, yet even in the 1960s most of his opponents stood but for a limited rehabilitation of the principle of causality. Of late, the criticism of positivist views regarding causality and determinism has become. sharper, broader and more elaborate. The opposing concepts, inconsistent as they are, tend to restore causality to some of its methodological and theoretical rights. Nevertheless, it is still hard to say which path the philosophy of science will follow in treating these issues.

There is no doubt that logical positivism can be credited with posing a number of interesting scientific problems. No less obvious is the contribution made by its outstanding representatives to the development of the logic of scientific cognition, the investigation of some specific problems of the language of science, etc. There is no denying the fact that this school has helped science to get rid of fruitless speculations and dogmatism. We do not focus on the deserts of logical positivism deliberately since our interest lies not so much in positivism per se as in the lessons that could be learned from the analysis of its weaknesses, limitations and errors.

The sharp criticism of the positivist methodology is not the only obvious symptom of its current crisis. Using Thomas Kuhn’s terminology and his approach to the analysis of crisis situations in sciences, one should attach special significance to the emergence, within the framework of the contemporary philosophy of science, of a multitude of rival concepts which go far beyond a critical revision of certain aspects of the positivist methodology of science and lay claim to a new methodological paradigm. In point of fact, they strive to develop a more or less complete methodological alternative to positivism and work out a philosophical programme defying positivism on all or nearly all key issues.

Such alternative programmes are represented by “critical rationalism” (Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, Paul Feyerabend), “scientific (or critical) realism” (Wilfrid Sellars, J. Smart, Mario Bunge), “historical trend” (Tomas Kuhn, Joseph Agassi, Stephen Toulmin) and other, perhaps less influential, schools of the contemporary philosophy of science in the West.

Which course will the philosophy of science follow, what new theory, if any, is likely to emerge as a result of the present crisis? To answer these crucial questions one ought to find out, first and foremost, the real relationship between the above-mentioned schools and positivist philosophy, i.e. the depth of division between them, the existing traditional and conceptual links, the ability of these schools to solve the topical methodological and theoretical problems of contemporary science and the adequacy of the proposed solutions from the viewpoint of scientific and technical progress.

The crisis of positivism has been brought about not only by the internal contradictions of its platform, but also by the inadequacy of its understanding of the real nature of scientific investigation, of the laws and history of scientific knowledge. We shall not concentrate therefore on the issues that preoccupied positivism at different stages of its evolution, but give our main attention to the most general, fundamental problems connected with the world outlook and methodology which are in the focus of attention of scientists, philosophers and practical workers at the present time. What we mean is the relationship between philosophy and natural science, the nature of scientific knowledge, the objective content of notions and theories, i.e. their relation to the “outside” world, the role of the subject in the construction of scientific theories, the reliability and verifiability of scientific concepts, the role of the principles of causality and determinism in research, etc.

The fact that throughout its entire history positivism has either been ignoring some of these problems altogether or trying to dismiss them as irrelevant to scientific investigation is, in fact, of little consequence. Willy-nilly, all masterminds of positivism, starting with Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer and ending with Rudolf Carnap and Alfred Ayer, were compelled to come to grips with them. What is more, it is these fundamental problems and not the specifically positivist issues such as the logical structure of statements, the meaning of reduction, the structure of explanation, etc. that proved to be the main battlefield where the fate of positivism as a philosophical teaching was decided.

It should be noted that the above problems will be considered in this book not as separate subjects divorced from one another and from other problems, but in their logical connection with other problems and always in the context of the methodology of scientific knowledge. For instance, the solution of the problem of the source of knowledge predetermines, to a certain extent, the solution of the problem of causality or the relationship of the philosophy to science. Conversely, the solution of the problem of causality will influence the specific form of the analysis of epistemological problems. Hence, we shall try to deal not with some random distinctions and features of this or that school or some peculiarities in the interpretation of a problem by different thinkers, but with a more or less connected system of their basic principles. We shall focus, therefore, either on the essential common features in the philosophical concepts of different representatives of one and the same school or, on the contrary, on the basic differences in the views of the adherents of different schools. Understandably, some specific features of different philosophical trends and some peculiarities in the views of their representatives will be, of necessity, left out of account.

The controversy over the fundamental problems of philosophical methodology is highly instructive as it highlights their contemporary significance. Thus, the attitude to science on the part of the exponents of positivism is a logical consequence of their absolutisation of the empirical methods of cognition, whereas the attitude to science of “critical rationalists” stems from their interpretation of the verification problems. “Scientific realism” as a philosophical trend regards science as practically the only source of material for philosophical analysis and for any concepts of the world. The conflict of opinions reveals weaknesses in each of the above philosophical teachings, shows how they distort the actual process of cognition and exposes their prognostication errors.

The present-day significance of the problem of causality, too, becomes more apparent if we, on the one hand, find out the reason for the negative attitude to it on the part of the positivists and, on the other hand, show its revival in “critical rationalism” as expounded by Popper who displays special interest in the forms of theoretical explanation and in the deductive models of the process of cognition. Highly instructive is also the collision between the concept of causality rehabilitated and revised by “scientific realism” in the spirit of materialism and the logical concept characteristic of the positivist approach inasmuch as this collision highlights the specific demands of contemporary science on the means of a theoretical causal explanation and prognostication and reveals the very essence of the principle of causality.

It would be impossible to define the prospects of the methodology of scientific cognition without considering the confrontation between positivism and Marxist-Leninist philosophy. The history of “critical rationalism”, “scientific realism” and other new trends in the philosophy of science runs into several decades at most, whereas the ideological struggle between Marxism and positivism dates from the mid-19th century and is in fact as old as Marxist philosophy itself. Important as they are, the old-time philosophical battles will not command our attention, since our chief interest lies, as has already been indicated, in a comparative analysis of the dialectical-materialist methodology and post-positivism [5].

As regards the problems which will be considered in the light of dialectical materialism, the author has not set himself the task of expounding in a systematic form the commonly known Marxist concepts or the views of the classics of Marxism-Leninism on these issues. Proceeding from the basic principles of their solution known from Marxist literature the author has attempted to reveal their topical aspects and new forms of interpretation and solution in accordance with the latest scientific data and new philosophical tasks posed by the scientific and technological revolution. The book, therefore, does not pretend to an exposition of any set of truths, but rather underscores the need for a further investigation of the problems of interest from the methodological positions which the author believes to be the most fruitful and promising. It is the author’s conviction that the mutual understanding of philosophers investigating the methodology of scientific cognition is more and more becoming a reality.


[1]  Rudolf Carnap, Philosophical Foundations of Physics, Basic Books, Inc., Publishers New York, 1966, p. 6. [—> main text]

[2]  Moritz Schlick, “Positivism and Realism”, in: Logical Positivism, Ed. by A. J. Ayer, The Free Press, Glencoe, Ill., 1960, p. 83. [—> main text]

[3]  M. Wartofsky, “Metaphysics as Heuristic for Science”, in: Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. III, Dordrecht, 1967, p. 123. [—> main text]

[4]  See A. C. Crombie, Turning Points in Physics, North-Holland Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1960, pp. 84–154. [—> main text]

[5]  We shall sometimes use this term to denote all modern schools of the philosophy of science merely to save space, without implying that they form a single homogeneous whole. [—> main text]

Contents of
Alternatives to

SOURCE: Naletov, Igor [Naletov, I. Z. (Igor´ Zinov´evich)]; translated from the Russian by Vladimir Stankevich. Alternatives to Positivism. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1984. 470 pp.

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Sign Registry View Registry
Sign Registry View Registry

Uploaded 23 July 2005

Site ©1999-2005 Ralph Dumain