Eugene F. Miller
Positivism, Historicism, and Political Inquiry
American Political Science Review
Volume 66, Issue 3
Sept. 1972, 796-817
Historicism has developed into an intellectual force of extraordinary significance; it epitomizes our Weltanschauung (world view). The historicist principle not only organizes, like an invisible hand, the work of the cultural sciences (Geisteswissenschaften), but also permeates everyday thinking.
Karl Mannheim 1
Recent controversy in American political science about
the nature of political inquiry reflects an older and deeper conflict at the
level of epistemology between rival theories of knowledge. It is generally recognized that the
“behavioral revolution” brought into ascendancy an approach to political inquiry
whose epistemological roots lie in positivism and, ultimately, in classical
British empiricism. In the 1950s
and early 1960s the major theoretical opposition to behavioralism came from
writers whose own views about the nature of human knowledge were more or less in
agreement with the epistemological tradition deriving from Plato and Aristotle.
But what of the opposition to
behavioralism that developed in the late 1960s, producing what David Easton has
called “the post-behavioral revolution”? 2 Does it give expression to an
epistemological position that opposes modern empiricism?
The importance of a theory of knowledge within the
discipline of political science does not always correspond to its importance at
the time in the broader field of philosophy. It is fair to say that the political
scientists who fashioned the behavioral approach vastly overestimated the
standing of logical positivism or logical empiricism both in philosophy
generally and in the philosophy of science in particular. By 1950, positivism was virtually
dead as a philosophical movement.
It had come under strong attack even in the philosophy of science. The leading theory of knowledge by this
time was one whose foundations lie in the work of Kant and Hegel or, more
precisely, in the radicalization of the Hegelian tradition which occurred in the
latter half of the nineteenth century. The transformation of Hegelianism led to
a distinctive conception both of the world and of human knowledge. The world, or nature, came to be
understood in terms of flux, change, or becoming rather than fixity, permanence,
or being. Knowledge was now
conceived in terms of creation rather than discovery. Worldviews and theories were seen as
individual or social creations, which are shaped decisively by subrational
forces. It was denied that the
human mind can grasp the character of “reality” or “nature” in any final,
objective, or absolute way. The
position which I have described was developed comprehensively by Friedrich
Nietzsche in the 1800s. Yet a
number of other thinkers at that time and in the decades that followed came to
similar conclusions, often independently of the influence of Nietzsche or of
each other. This position was
expressed in a distinctively American idiom in the pragmatist movement,
particularly by John Dewey and George Herbert Mead. 3
It was developed in
*This is a revised version of a paper presented at the 1970 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association.
1. Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, ed. Paul Kecskemeti (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952), p. 84. The lengthy essay from which this quotation is taken is entitled “Historicism.”
2. “The New Revolution in Political Science,” American Political Science Review, 63 (December, 1969), 1051-1061. This address is reprinted in David Easton, The Political System, 2nd ed. (New York: Knopf, 1971), pp. 323-348.
3. For recent discussions of the development of American pragmatism from Peirce to Mead, see H. S. Thayer, Meaning and Action (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968) and Charles Morris, The Pragmatic Movement in American Philosophy (New York: Braziller, 1970). For Dewey, see especially his Reconstruction in Philosophy (New York: New American Library, 1950), Logic:The Theory of Inquiry (New York: Henry Holt, 1938), and The Quest for Certainty (New York: Capricorn Books, 1960). For discussions of Dewey’s theory of knowledge which bring out its relativistic aspects, see particularly the essays by John Herman Randall, Bertrand Russell, and Arthur E. Murphy in The Philosophy of John Dewey, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp (Evanston: Northwestern University, 1939). This volume also contains an interesting rejoinder by Dewey. A valuable collection of Mead’s writings is contained in Anselm M. Strauss, ed., The Social Psychologv of George Herbert Mead (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956). See also John W. Petras, ed., George Herbert Mead: Essays in his Social Philosophy (New York: Teachers’ College Press, 1968).
Wittgenstein. 4 In
This new theory of knowledge had a profound influence on
American historians after the turn of the century, especially on those who wrote
about the history of political theory.
I wish to examine the recent debate about the nature of
political inquiry in light of the deeper conflict in epistemology, now almost a
century old, between positivism and its principal foe. A major difficulty in this undertaking is
to decide on a name for the relativistic theory of knowledge that stands in
opposition to positivism. Among the
terms that might be applied to it are “perspectivism,” “subjectivism,”
“relativism,” and “instrumentalism.” I shall employ the more widely-used term
“historicism,” which grows out of German epistemological debate. The term “historicism” has been given a
variety of meanings since it became a part of German academic debate late in the
nineteenth century. Friedrich Hayek
and Karl Popper have used it primarily in a methodological sense to
denote the view that the main task of the social scientist is to discover the
laws by which whole societies develop and, on the basis of these laws of
historical development, to make predictions about the future. A few years earlier the historian
Friedrich Meinecke, in a work entitled Die Entstehung des Historismus
(1936), had used the term in referring to the emphasis, originating with
certain eighteenth-century writers, on the singular or unique character of all
historical phenomena. I shall be
using the term in an epistemological sense to denote the view that all human
knowledge is essentially relative to time and place. This seems to have been the principal
meaning of the term since the great debate about historicism in
Historicism is a far more potent and pervasive force
today than a half-century ago when
2. Schiller’s position is discussed in Thayer, Meaning and Action, pp. 273-303. For Collingwood, see especially An Autobiography (London: Oxford University Press, 1939) and The Idea of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951). Collingwood’s historicism is treated by Leo Strauss, “On Collingwood’s Philosophy of History,” Review of Metaphysics, 5 (June, 1952), 559-5 86. I discuss Wittgenstein later in this essay.
3. Of importance here are Bergson’s views on intelligence and intuition as approaches to knowledge of reality. See Bergson’s Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell (New York: Henry Holt, 1913), pp. 98-185. Bergson’s theory of knowledge is treated by Jacques Maritain, Bergsonian Philosophy and Thomism, trans. Mabelle L. Andison (New York: Philosophical Library, 1955) and by William James, “Bergson and his Critique of Intellectualism,” in A Pluralistic Universe (New York: Longmans, 1909), pp. 225-273. For Bergson’s relation to James and American Pragmatism, see Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James (Boston: Little, Brown, 1936), II, 599-636. For Sartre, see especially Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956). For Merleau-Ponty’s theory of knowledge, see especially The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Cohn Smith (New York: Humanities Press, 1962) and Signs, trans. Richard C. McCleary (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964). See also Thomas Langan, Merleau-Ponty’s Critique of Reason (New Haven: Yale Press, 1966) and Albert Rabil, Jr., Merleau-Ponty: Existentialist of the Social World (New York: Columbia Press, 1967). engthy discussions of both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, along with bibliographies, are contained in Herbert Spiegelberg, The Phenomnenological Movement, 2 vols.; 2nd. ed. (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1969).
4. See “The Decline of Modern Political Theory,” Journal of Politics, 13 (February, 1951), 36-58; and The Political System (New York: Knopf, 1953).
7. For a concise discussion of the history of this term, along with a useful bibliography, see Maurice Mandelbaum, “Historicism,” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan and The Free Press, 1967), IV, 22-25. See also Mandelbaum’s The Problem of Historical Knowledge (New York: Harper and Row, 1967) and Ludwig Landgrebe, Major Problems in Contemporary European Philosophy, trans. Kurt F. Reinhardt (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1966).
cause of its very pervasiveness, than it was in
The philosophers who belong to the positivist tradition
have shared a deep admiration for modern empirical science and a desire to serve
its advancement. Their theories of
knowledge are designed to support the method of modern science or at least to
conform to it. If we go back to
Hume, who was identified later by positivists as the chief precursor of their
movement, we find that his analysis of human understanding was intended both as
an application of the new experimental method of Bacon and
It is helpful to begin a reconstruction of positivist epistemology by considering the view of modern science that emerges in the positivist literature. One commonly finds a distinction between the empirical sciences and the nonempirical disciplines of logic and pure mathematics. The empirical sciences are distinguished by their effort to formulate in general terms the conditions under which events occur in the world. These general principles will serve as the basis for explanation and prediction. The concepts, laws, and theories of empirical science are said to be different from those of other accounts of the world, such as metaphysics, because they conform to the world as men can know it from observation. Scientific statements are tested by empirical evidence, that is, by the facts of experience as they are accessible to all competent observers. Inasmuch as scientific principles have an objective basis in sensory experience, they can be true independently of time, place, and circumstance, although they are always subject to revision in light of subsequent experience.
Given this view of science, the critical task for a positivist epistemology is to uphold the assumption that our generalizations about the external world are reliable if and only if they are constructed from or tested by the raw material of experience. Accordingly, positivists have typically argued that perception makes us directly aware of something “given,” something which has not yet been affected by our judgments. Furthermore, these given data are taken (individually or in combination) to represent the facts of the external world. Positivists would come to disagree as to just what is given in experience, e.g., private sense-data or representations of the objects and events of common sense, but they would largely agree that we directly perceive something, some particulars, prior to our conceptualization and reasoning. These data serve as the ingredients of reasoning without being essentially transformed by it. Our general notions or concepts are abstracted or constructed from these primitive and unconceptualized data. This epistemological viewpoint asserts further that the human mind, when it operates normally or naturally, perceives the same things in the same way regardless of time and place. It is for this reason that knowledge based on experience has an “objectivity” that no other claims to knowledge can possess. In order to be meaningful, our statements about the external world must be tested against the data of experience. This requirement is embodied, for example, in the famous “verifiability principle” of logical positivism, which holds, in its loosest form, that no statement is factually meaningful unless it can, at least in principle, be shown to be true or false, or rendered probable, by reference to empirical observation. 8
8. An examination of the epistemological foundations of positivism and its conception of science should begin with classical British empiricism, especially with Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. I discuss Hume’s importance for positivistic approaches to the study of man and society in “Hume’s Contribution to Behavioral Science,” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 7 (April, 1971), 154-168. The development of logical positivism out of the logical atomism of Russell and Wittgenstein is discussed by J. 0. Urmson, Philosophical Analysis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956). A primary source for the epistemological foundations of logical positivism is Moritz Schlick’s Allgemeine Erkenntnislehre (Berlin: J. Springer, 1918). This work and subsequent epistemological developments in the positivist movement are discussed by A. J. Ayer in his “Introduction” to Logical Positivism (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1959) and by Herbert Feigl, “The Origin and Spirit of Logical Positivism,” in Peter Achinstein and Stephen F. Barker, eds., The Legacy of Logical Positivism (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1969), pp. 3-24. For Rudolf Carnap’s development from the time of his early work, Der logische Aufbau der Welt (Berlin: Weltkreis Verlag, 1928), see [the various essays in Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1963). There are selections from Carnap in Ayer’s Logical Positivismn. Ayer, a student of Schlick and Carnap, deals with epistemological issues in Language, Truth, and Logic (New York: Dover, 1952), The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge (London: Macmillan, 1940), and The Problem of Knowledge (London: Macmillan, 1956). For general accounts, see Victor Kraft, The Vienna Circle, trans. Arthur Pap (New York: Philosophical Library, 1953) and Joergen Joergensen, The Development of Logical Empiricism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951). Recent works in the philosophy of science that stand in the positivist tradition include Ernest Nagel, The Structure of Science (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1961), and Carl Hempel, Aspects of Scientific Explanation (New York: Free Press, 1965).]
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Whereas positivism grows out of classical British
empiricism, historicism stems from the revolution in philosophy that was
initiated by Kant and carried forward in the nineteenth century by such German
thinkers as Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. Historicism, as it emerged in
9. For the position of Dilthey and his school in German philosophy in the early decades of this century, see Werner Brock, An Introduction to Contemporaryy German Philosophy (Cambridge, University Press, 1935). Only a few of Dilthey’s writings, collected in twelve volumes as Gesammimelte Schniften (Stuttgart and Göttengen: Teubner, 1957-1960), have been translated into English. For useful accounts of Dilthey’s thought, see, in addition to the aforementioned works by Mandelbaum and Brock, H. P. Rickman, ed., Pattern and Meaning in History (New York: Harper, 1962); H. A. Hodges, Wilhelm Dilthey: An introduction (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1944); and H. A. Hodges, The Philosophy of Wilhelm Dilthey (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952). Karl Löwith treats Dilthey’s relationship to the Hegelian tradition and his differences from Hegel in From Hegel to Nietzsche, trans. David E. Green (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), pp. 60-65, 120-127.
The writings of Oswald Spengler may be considered in this context. Though not of Dilthey’s school, Spengler depicts culture and thought as manifestations of ‘life’ and gives to one of his own works, Der Mensch und die Technik (München: Beck, 1931), the subtitle: “Beitrag zu einer Philosophie des Lebens.” This work is translated by Charles Francis Atkinson as Man and Technics:A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life (New York: Knopf, 1932). We learn from Spengler’s correspondence that his work was admired by such members of Dilthey’s school as George Misch and Ortega y Gasset. See Letters of Oswald Spengler: 1913- 1936, trans. and ed. by Arthur Helps (New York: Knopf, 1966), pp. 67-68, 72-74, 102, 194-195, 198-199, 317. Spengler popularized important ideas of Nietzsche, such as the will to power and the relativity of truth. He held that there are no eternal truths, even in mathematics. Every philosophy is an expression of the spirit of its age. See especially the Introduction to The Decline of the West, trans. Charles Francis Atkinson, 2 vols. (New York: Knopf, 1926-1928). The first volume of this work, whose German title is Der Untergang des Abendlandes, appeared in 1918. It was awarded a prize by the Nietzsche Archive in 1919. In 1924, Spengler delivered an address at the Nietzsche Archive commemorating Nietzsche’s eightieth birthday. This address, entitled “Nietzsche and his Century,” is contained in Oswald Spengler, Selected Essays, trans. Donald 0. White (Chicago: Regnery, 1967), pp. 179-197. Useful appraisals of Spengler’s work are presented by H. Stuart Hughes, Oswald Spengler: A Critical Estimate (New York: Scribner’s, 1952) and Anton M. Koktanek, Oswald Spengler in Semen Zeit (Mbnchen: Beck, 1968).
10. For Cassirer’s theory of knowledge, see The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, trans. Ralph Manheim, 3 vols. (New Haven: Yale Press, 1953-1957) and The Problem of Knowledge, trans. William H. Woglom and Charles W. Hendel (New Haven: Yale Press, 1950). Useful essays on Cassirer, along with a full bibliography of his voluminous writings up to 1946, are contained in Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer (Evanston: The Library of Living Philosophers, 1949). Of particular interest in connection with our present problem are the essays by Helmut Kuhn, Fritz Kaufmann, and David Bidney.
11. Husserl’s critique of Dilthey’s historicism is contained in his work entitled “Philosophy as a Rigorous Science,” which is reprinted in Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy, ed Quentin Lauer (New York: Harper and Row, 1965). For the historicist tendencies in Husserl’s own work, see, in addition to [the works cited in Stanley Rosen’s Nihilism (New Haven: Yale Press, 1969), pp. 103-104, the following sources: Jacob Klein, “Phenomenology and the History of Science,” in Philosophical Essays in Memory of Edmund Husserl, ed. Marvin Farber (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968), pp. 143-163; and Robert Welsh Jordan, “Husserl’s Phenomenology as an ‘Historical’ Science,” Social Research, 35 (Summer, 1968), 245-259. The first volume of Spiegelberg’s The Phenomenological Movement contains a detailed discussion of Husserl and Heidegger along with extensive bibliographies. For Heidegger, see especially Being and Time, trans. John MacQuarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper, 1962). The issue of The Southern Journal of Philosophy for Winter, 1970 (Vol. 8, No. 4) is devoted entirely to analyses of Heidegger’s thought by leading scholars. Heidegger’s historicism is treated as such by Helmut Kuhn, Encounter with Nothingness (Hinsdale, Ill.: Henry Regnery, 1949) and Stanley Rosen, Nihilism. See also P. Christopher Smith, “Heldegger’s Critique of Absolute Knowledge,” The New Scholasticism, 45 (Winter, 1971), 56-86.]
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Historicism, as a theory of knowledge, typically contradicts positivism at the following points:
(1) No direct awareness of pure sense-data. Positivism has tended to assume that the data of sensation are present to consciousness in their original or pure form and that these data correspond in some manner to the facts of the external world. Experience is prior to concepts and theories or, in the language of Hume, impressions are prior to ideas. Sense-data are the “given” from which concepts are abstracted and by which theories are tested. It is assumed that we can reach an unbiased view of nature by adhering to experience. Historicism, by contrast, is distinctively Kantian in its interpretation of sense perception. Kant had argued that sense-data are inaccessible to consciousness in their original or pure state. We apprehend them only as unified and structured by a priori principles or categories of the mind. Historicism agrees with Kant that the mind is an active and creative agent in the process of cognition and not merely a passive recipient or register of sensations. The experience of which we are aware has already been selected and shaped by the mind itself. We cannot assess our fundamental concepts by working our way back to pure experience because these concepts are already presupposed in experience as it presents itself to consciousness. By the same token, we can never determine if the mysterious source of our experience corresponds to our picture of the objective world. For reasons that will emerge presently, the data of experience are assumed to undergo a somewhat greater transformation in our reflections about man and society than in our reflections about the physical world.
(2)The historicity of the human mind. In holding that our perceptions are known to us only as transformed by the mind, historicism takes the side of Kant against empiricism. Yet Kant was not an historicist. He agreed with Hume that the principles of the understanding are natural, i.e., that they are constant from one epoch or society to another. Historicism follows Hegel in asserting that the very ordering principles or categories of the mind have varied with the succession of epochs and cultures. Historical inquiry discloses that there is no single view of the objective world but instead a variety of perspectives or worldviews. Hegel had understood this diversity in terms of the working out of an internal logic of reason. Later historicists have preferred to explain it in terms of the adjustment of men and groups to life under different historical and social conditions. Each epoch or culture develops a characteristic view of the world in its totality; and essential differences will be found from one epoch or culture to another in the presuppositions, values, and categories upon which cognition is based. Historicists have disagreed as to whether all thought and perception within a given society must conform to the prevailing worldview or whether creative individuals can free themselves from prevailing assumptions and project an independent view of reality. There is agreement, however, that all knowledge is perspectival in character and arises not so much from discovery of the real character of nature as from social or individual creation.
(3) The relativity of truth. Philosophical or scientific inquiry was traditionally understood as a quest for truth, for final and definitive insight, about the nature of the whole of which man is a part or at least about the nature of man himself. By insisting on the historicity of the human mind, historicism calls into question the very possibility of knowledge that is true or “objective” in the sense of grasping nature as it really is. Whatever “truth” might mean for historicism, it cannot mean the congruence in some sense of thoughts and things. If the experience by which we interpret the world and ourselves enters consciousness only after its transformation by presuppositions or categories of thought which are themselves essentially variable and arbitrary, then all claims to absolute knowledge must be regarded as baseless in principle. Writers in the historicist tradition have found different ways of dealing with the epistemological relativism that is inherent in their position. Hegel and Marx attempted to avoid relativism by teaching that the succession of historical epochs reflects a necessary development toward a final epoch, whose viewpoint
will represent a true account of the historical process as a whole. Since Nietzsche, however, historicists have generally denied that the succession of cultures reflects an inner necessity or rationality. They have largely agreed with Nietzsche that the modern epoch is distinguished not by the finality or absoluteness of its view of man and the world but rather by its insight into the essential relativity of all such worldviews. If any final truth is to be admitted, it is the principle that no final truths about the nature of things are possible. There is no possibility of a supratemporal truth which can be grasped from above the historical stream.
It is clear that historicism challenges the claims that
positivism has advanced on behalf of modern science, but the full extent of that
challenge has only recently become evident. American pragmatism represented itself as
favorable to the advancement of natural and social science; while early German
historicism, though strongly opposed to the effort of positivists to impose the
method of natural science on the human studies (Geisteswissenschaften)
typically conceded that the scientific method is authoritative in the study
of natural phenomena. Historicists
such as Dilthey and
The early historicists separated the natural sciences from the human studies in speaking of the relativity of knowledge, but one could argue on historicist grounds that any application of the scientific method, even in the area of natural science, must be relative to the scientist’s perspective or worldview. One might thus hold that even the theories and interpretations of natural science rest on presuppositions about man and the world that are historically variable and, in the final analysis, arbitrary and irrational. As we shall now see, this reinterpretation of natural science in accordance with historicist principles has been in progress in the philosophy of science for more than a decade.