Anti-Positivism

November 3, 2009

More thinking out loud, brought to you by the presentation I’ll be giving Wednesday night:

The great insight of anti-positivism is that language is loaded. Every word a person chooses is laden with meaning, whether a person knows it or not, but the idea of language doesn’t just extend verbally. Our non-verbal cues, even our frames of reference are all part of a cultural language, specific and local, that everyone is immersed in from birth. Wittgenstein makes use of this fact, arguing that reality is grasped only through language; in effect, language creates reality.

Every culture’s “language”– I’ll use the quotes here to emphasize that this is not necessarily verbal– is made up of constitutive rules that help those within the language to make sense of things. Again, these are constitutive rules, not regulative ones. The difference? An example given in lecture concerned chess. If the rules of chess were changed a little the game would no longer be chess. In this case the rules create the very thing they govern. So it is with language; the rules of any given language also create the language. A regulative rule exists above and beyond the things it governs.

I use правда-истина as an example: in Russian, these words mean different things, and are separate concepts in the Russian mind; in English these are two words for “truth.”

How does this relate to positivism, given that this is ostensibly about interpretivist, anti-positivist views? Positivism, and the framework it derives from– naturalism and empiricism– are part of a language, that of the Western world post-enlightenment. The positivist desire to spread this language and impose it on all matters of life is pretty much the definition of ethnocentrism. So against the positivist view, interpretivists offer the idea that science is only one way of understanding reality, and that all of the ways of understanding have to be interpreted. Each of these interpretations is done within a language, and is necessarily subject to the boundaries of that language. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but something to be aware of.

In all honesty, the positivist view of science is a fairly novel one in human history, one that definitely has its uses. Anyone applying it must also take into consideration the baggage that comes along with its use and decide whether or not a particular situation is set up to use a positivist approach. An interpretivist would argue that a positivist, empiricist approach is just one tool in the box to be used to understand any given culture, and that even the results of positivist research must be interpreted and situated within the broader context of the language studied.

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One Response to “Anti-Positivism”

  1. Mom said

    I read a good book on different “languages” spoken by people from, basically, the same area. Different socio-economic conditions, ethnic traditions, and future mindsets based on what has happened in the past. It’s called “Ways with Words,” by Shirley Brice Heath. It was so good that I read the whole book, even though we didn’t have to do so. It’s very enlightening, and is written from the standpoint of an ethnographer and social historian. I think you’d like it, and you could definitely use it in your studies. Let me know if you want me to send it to you.

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