POSITIVISM, POST-POSITIVISM AND POSTMODERNISM
Fierce attacks on modernism by postmodernists reawakened an interest in positivist modernism both inside and outside academic circles. This interest is still alive in spite of the fact that some philosophers claim that today we are living already in a post-post-modern era. A fundamental question looms large: are postmodernists right when they claim that postmodern thinking is radically different from the modern one, of which positive (or positivist) thinking is a paradigmatic case? When examining this issue it is advisable to start from the brief analysis of the causes which led to disintegration of the latest form of positivism which, a bit paradoxically, was likely closest to the philosophy of the originator of the movement, namely that of David Hume. By this latest form I mean, of course, logical positivism. (Not everyone would agree that precisely Hume and not Auguste Comte was the originator of positivism but I do not intend to discuss this issue here.)
Logical positivism as a distinct and integrated type of philosophy actually ceased to exist more or less three decades ago. According to the common wisdom it started to fell apart under criticism of W.V. Quine and Karl Popper. Their attacks on the fundamental principles of positivism were followed by later ones coming from different quarters and assailing positivism on different lines. Allegedly the most important, deadly blow was received by positivism in the early sixties, namely the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn 1962). The book was not conceived by its author as a critique of logical positivism per se. His aim was to explain how science develops, and specifically how and why scientific revolutions occur. Logical positivism, Kuhn seemingly thought, was not interested in the subject. Therefore he did not feel obliged to take a direct critical stance toward its theories and conceptions. However, publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions performed in fact a fateful role in the history of logical positivism, contributing tremendously to the decline in its popularity. It turned the majority of young philosophers of science from the kind of philosophy of science logical positivists practiced to a rather different kind of research. The so-called historical school of philosophy of science emerged, and by the seventies it had already prevailed over the logical school inspired by the ideas and exemplars of logical positivism.
As at least some readers likely know, the basic idea of Kuhn’s book is as follows: there are two phases in the development of science: the normal phase when scientists engage themselves in "puzzle solving", i.e. in rather routine activity on the basis and in the confines of an accepted paradigm, and the revolutionary phase when an old paradigm faces multiple problems of various character and is replaced by a new one. Paradigms include, among other things, certain generalizations and theoretical principles which are not subject to change in the normal phase of scientific development (although empirical facts may, seemingly, contradict them). Secondly, scientific revolutions occur when previously accepted paradigms are changed for various reasons only some of which may be classified as empirical. One important non-empirical reason is change in the predominating metaphysical ideas shared (at least to some degree) by the scientific community. Thirdly, different paradigms are incommensurable; they are different world conceptions that cannot be compared with each other. To be more exact, a scientific statement formulated in terms of one paradigm cannot be translated (as a rule) into a statement of another paradigm.
The picture of science presented by Kuhn in a rather convincing and detailed way differed, greatly, at least at first glance, from that of the logical positivists. The latter were interested in the synchronic analysis of scientific knowledge. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and in his later works (among which it is necessary to mention at least The Essential Tension published in 1977), Kuhn, to the contrary, engages himself in inquiry of a profoundly diachronic character. The sort of analysis that logical positivists were interested in was logical analysis. Kuhn’s analysis is rather an historical one, and he does not use any technical logical instruments whatever. The research logical positivists were engaged in and especially its results had, at least partly, a normative, prescriptive character. The criterion of empirical significance was a rule specifying the requirements sentences must meet in order to be considered as scientific sentences. The change of the word "rule" into "proposal" in mature logical positivism did not matter: logical positivists were interested in rational reconstruction of concepts, theories, and arguments but not in the empirical description of actual scientific practice. Kuhn, on the other hand, seemed to be interested only in the description and explanation of how science actually functions and develops and not in the prescription as to how one must do scientific research.
The whole flock of fledgling philosophers of science faced in the sixties an alternative - to continue Carnap’s complicated and intricate work on the logic of science or to engage in research aimed at understanding how the great scientific revolutions which result in changes in the scientific conception of the world take place. The prevailing majority chose the latter.
This line of research was not only more exciting. It did not require systematic, cumbersome, and sometimes dull logical training. Carnap was a notably technical and not a passionate writer at all. Kuhn, on the contrary, was very adept at telling his story - it seemed that not much grueling preparation was needed to continue it. He also did his best to persuade his readers that the normal science (and at least some of them were inclined to include under this term normal philosophy of science as well) is a rather simple affair. Thus there is nothing strange about the fact that soon after the publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Kuhn became a hero. Carnap died, unfortunately, in 1970.
The most important of Carnap’s books on the philosophy of science is, without doubt, Logical Foundations of Probability. I do not know exactly how many students of philosophy have read this voluminous (although from a logical point of view not very complicated) opus. Yet I dare estimate that it had at least one hundred times fewer readers than Kuhn’s 1962 book. Thus Kuhn’s "victory" over Carnap was rather easy: he commanded overwhelming forces.
But were they competitors after all? One could maintain that they competed at least for readers, although I would disagree. Carnap, it seems, was not very interested in his own popularity. But did they compete as philosophers? Did Kuhn say (not to mention prove) something antithetical to Carnap’s philosophical views? I have serious doubts. But let us begin with some minor perplexities.
The first, 1962 edition (the second, revised edition followed in 1970) of Kuhn’s famous book was published in a series initiated by logical positivists, namely in the "International Encyclopedia of Unified Science". In it, Kuhn claimed that great scientific revolutions embrace almost all of science or have at least a very wide sphere of influence. Thus Kuhn’s work was rather amenable to the ideas of the unified science movement, although it was a little ambiguous on the possibility of radical changes taking place in different sciences at different times. Nevertheless, the willingness of the logical positivists to cooperate with their archenemy - as some authors regard Kuhn today - is a bit puzzling. Yet much more perplexing for Kuhn’s adherents must be another, not very well known fact: Carnap’s positive attitude towards The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (see Reisch 1991).
These strange facts may be explained, however, on the basis of the supposition that Carnap apprehended the closeness of his and Kuhn’s views or, to be more exact, the possibility of translation of the most important of Kuhn’s notions into his, Carnap’s, language. To show how it is possible to express Kuhn’s ideas in Carnap’s language it is necessary to recall Carnap’s views on linguistic frameworks and scientific theories. A linguistic framework is characterized by Carnap by means of syntactic, semantic, and methodological rules. It is important to remember that according to the (logical) principle of tolerance, which was initially formulated by Carnap (1934) as a syntactic principle, but was later extended by him to cover semantics as well, we choose our linguistic frameworks freely on the basis of conventional, pragmatic considerations. Moreover, we are free to change them when we feel that it is advisable.
Every scientific theory is formulated in one or another linguistic framework. Because Carnap divides the language of scientific theory into two parts: observation language and theoretical language, he distinguishes theoretical postulates T containing theoretical descriptive terms only, and correspondence rules C containing terms from both parts of language, that is, both theoretical and observational.
Theoretical terms get their meaning, according to the later Carnap, not only through correspondence rules but through theoretical postulates as well, because not every theoretical term is connected with empirical language directly. Carnap emphasizes that unlike empirical generalizations "the very meaning of the theoretical terms is dependent on postulates" (Carnap 1968, p. 148). Thus Irzik and Grunberg are perfectly right in claiming that (the later) Carnap is a semantic holist subscribing to the doctrine "that the theoretical postulates of a theory contribute to the meaning of theoretical terms occurring in them and that a change in the theoretical postulates results in a change in meaning" (Irzik & Grunberg 1995, p. 289).
From Carnap’s semantic holism (which he shares with Quine and Kuhn) there follows the thesis of the semantic incommensurability of theories or, which is the same, of the untranslatability of some sentences of one theory into sentences of another theory. Carnap’s semantic holism finds its clearest expression in his publications of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet it is clear that he held it already in 1936. In "Truth and Confirmation" Carnap stressed that many statements of modern physics cannot be translated into statements of classical physics because these statements presuppose different forms of language or, as he would say later, different linguistic frameworks (cf. Carnap 1936, p. 126). This means that Carnap was a semantic holist already then.
Now we may come back to Kuhn’s main points. In Carnap’s language, scientific revolutions occur when the rules of the linguistic framework of a theory or its theoretical postulates suffer change. The normal phase in the development of science takes place when the meaning rules and postulates remain intact but the truth-values of statements that are not fixed by them are changed or added. It is also clear that the addition of some new correspondence rules does not involve drastic change. Calling changes of meaning rules and postulates changes of the first kind, and changes in truth values and the addition of new correspondence rules changes of the second kind, Carnap wrote: "A change of the first kind constitutes a radical alteration, sometimes a revolution, and it occurs only at certain historically decisive points in the development of science. On the other hand, changes of the second kind occur every minute. A change of the first kind constitutes, strictly speaking, a transition from a language Ln to a new language Ln+1" (Carnap 1963, p. 921). I would like to emphasize that these words were written before Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions appeared (the publication of Schilpp’s volume on Carnap was unduly delayed for a decade). Moreover, Carnap spoke about "radical revolutions in the system of science" in some of his works published in the fifties (cf. Carnap 1956, p. 51).
Thus according to Carnap, scientific revolutions occur when syntactical, semantical and methodological rules are replaced by new ones. There may be many different pragmatic reasons to change them. The encounter of some new empirical facts is not the main reason to change the rules, because the simpler way to accommodate them is to change the truth-values of the sentences not determined by these rules. Carnap leaves open the question whether new metaphysical ideas may influence our decision to change our rules, but does not explicitly exclude in his later works such a possibility. And from what has been said above, it must be clear that different theories may be incommensurable in the same sense that Kuhn’s paradigms are.
Thus we must conclude that, in the fundamental theses Kuhn did not say much Carnap had not known (and written) before. Postpositivist philosophy of science mainly owes the fame of being a revolution in philosophy of science to insufficient knowledge of previous, positivist conceptions or to their misinterpretation. Of course, postpositivists introduced some new ideas, made new emphases and came to their conclusions mostly independent of the positivists, but it is certainly wrong to claim that logical positivism envisaged the growth of knowledge only as an accumulation of new empirical facts and possessed no theoretical conception of scientific revolution.
In the first glory years of post-positivist philosophy of science one of its representatives (whose name I have forgotten) publicly asked a rhetorical question about logical empiricism’s philosophy of science: how was it possible that competent researchers (including those active in the natural sciences) maintained such strange views concerning the nature of scientific inquiry. It is an irony of fate that nowadays an opposite question looms large: "Why has the logical positivist movement been misunderstood so badly?" (Irzik & Grunberg 1995, p. 305).
The simplest answer to the last question is as follows: it has not been studied deeply enough. Its rivals managed to change the way of doing philosophy of science because the new paradigm seemed more promising, less technical, and closer to the actual practice and history of science. And neither Kuhn nor Carnap claimed that to change the old paradigm it is necessary to show that the old one is wrong or incorrect. Both Kuhn and Carnap could explain the changes philosophy of science suffered in the same pragmatic terms in which they could explain changes taking place in science itself.
Post-positivism did not show and even did not have the intention to show that positivism was "wrong". The sixties, however, witnessed the outset of developments in philosophy more ambitious than post-positivism. They were wider in scope and aimed not specifically at positivist philosophy of science, or positivism in general, but at an almost all of modern philosophy. The aim of the rising wave of criticism was even wider. Modernism as such came under attack. The way of apprehending the world and expressing itself in a way allegedly diametrically opposed to that of modernism has become known as postmodernism.
Postmodernism assimilated post-positivism by claiming that Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend and other post-positivists are clear-cut postmodernists. Because of these developments, the term post-positivism, widely used from late sixties until the early eighties gradually fell out of fashion. One of the flaws of this notion was its lack of precise meaning since the prefix "post" added to "positivism" suggested the posteriority of post-positivism in relation to positivism, but left open the question as to whether post-positivism is inclusive of all philosophy of science practiced on the basis of non-positivist principles following the decline of positivism or, rather, only the historical school centered around Kuhn (its boundaries being rather blurry also). Of course, the same kind of critique may be directed towards the notion of postmodernism. Its meaning is vague, and there is no doubt that it is applied to different and not very coherent attitudes and orientations.
The notion of postmodernism is ambivalent for many reasons. First of all, it was used primarily to describe some new developments in the arts, especially in architecture. Later its meaning was extended to indicate the direction of recent cultural changes in general, and only subsequently was the term used as the name of a philosophical movement closely connected with the said developments in the arts but having (or at least avidly seeking) its own intellectual roots. Yet the philosophical character of the works of the representatives of this movement such as Jean Lyotard or Jean Baudrillard is often questioned, especially in the area where Anglo-American philosophy is prevalent. Its representatives are regarded by many "modernists" as cultural and literary critics, rather than as philosophers. Against the background of philosophy shaped mainly by the analytic tradition, they certainly do look like impostors, or at least outsiders. Both in the United States and the United Kingdom university departments of English show, as a rule, much more interest in postmodernism than do departments of philosophy. When referring to fellow Americans who defected to the postmodernist camp after making their names as analytic (or at least as post-analytic) philosophers, some of their colleagues prefer to call them "the new pragmatists" and not "postmodernists". The title "romantic pragmatist" is reserved, it seems, specifically for Richard Rorty (see Nevo 1995).
Rorty indeed tries to connect the ideas other postmodernists (predominantly French) have put forward with the tradition of pragmatism. Continental representatives of the movement owe, however, more to Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger. It is quite natural that thinkers drawing on such different sources face tremendous problems in developing a more or less determinate philosophical point of view, not to mention a coherent doctrine.
In fact, postmodernists deny both the possibility and the desirability of an integral postmodernist philosophy. Notwithstanding this fact, there are some positive principles many postmodernists share. The main unifying principle is, however, a negative one - their opposition to modernism and modernity as an era shaped by manifestations of modernism in the arts, science, philosophy, and politics. As to the question of what modernism is, postmodernists give, however, different answers. Although one may think that the determination of chronological boundaries of modernism is a simpler task than the definition of its guiding principles, one encounters a wide disarray of opinions as to the beginning of the era of modernity. Some postmodernists go back to Socrates and Plato, others start with Descartes.
There is a much greater degree of consensus regarding the end of modernity and the dawn of postmodernity. The majority of postmodernist agree that the sought-for date is the end of the 1960s, and as far as I know nobody has claimed that postmodernity started earlier than 1875. Quite often 1968 is invoked as the thunderous rupture between two eras. One event postmodernists have in mind is, of course, the Student Revolt. In fact, postmodernism grew out of the protest against entrenched values and practices of the new ancien régime. To quite a significant degree, this protest was inspired by Marxist and neo-Marxist ideas.
"A key date here", writes Thomas Docherty in his introduction to one of the best readers on postmodernism, "is, of course, 1968. The seeming availability of a revolution which brought workers and intellectuals together all across Europe represented a high point for a specific kind of Marxist theoretical practice. But when these revolutions failed, many began, at precisely that moment, to rethink their commitment to the fundamental premises of Marxist theory... For many, Marxism now began to appear as part of the problem, especially in its assumption of the desirability of human mastery over nature" (Docherty 1993, p. 4).
Almost all the thinkers (at least the French and German ones) regarded as representative of postmodernism had rather close ties to Marxism, therefore the failure in 1968, both in Paris and Prague was perceived by them as an epoch-making event. That does not mean that after 1968 they rejected Marxism altogether; some Marxist or neo-Marxist ideas still play an important role in their writings. Many of them clearly draw on the Gramscian conception of hegemony in which the orthodox Marxist doctrine of class-hegemony is reconsidered by the means of examining other kinds of hegemony and oppression. The espousal of all possible sources and forms of domination and exploitation from sexual to intellectual is very characteristic of postmodernism and clearly indicates its origin.
Although postmodernism as a philosophy is extremely, if not impossibly diverse, and its different representatives stress sometimes radically different issues, the notion of postmodernism has one important logical advantage over that of post-positivism. I have in mind the fact that there is something like a standard definition of postmodernism which is widely although not universally referred to. It was laid down by Jean Lyotard in his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge published in 1979. This book performed an important role in consolidating the postmodernist movement. In it Lyotard defines the notion postmodern in negative terms juxtaposing it with the notion modern which he regards primarily as a characteristic of a certain state of science. At the same time, changes taking place in science and transferring it from a modern to a postmodern state are tied by him to altering rules of the game in other domains of culture. These changes are explained in terms of the crisis of narratives.
"Science", Lyotard claims, "has always been in conflict with narratives. Judged by the yardstick of science, the majority of them prove to be fables. But to the extent that science does not restrict itself to stating useful regularities and seeks the truth, it is obliged to legitimate the rules of its own game. It then produces a discourse of legitimation with respect to its own status, a discourse called philosophy. I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectic of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth. For example, the rule of consensus between the sender and addressee of a statement with truth-value is deemed acceptable if it is cast in terms of possible unanimity between rational minds: this is the Enlightenment narrative, in which the hero of knowledge works toward a good ethico-political end - universal peace... Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta-narratives" (Lyotard 1979, p. 71-72).
This incredulity is based on the belief that there are many language games leading to knowledge, not just a single one. The game characteristic of modern science was based on principles of commensurability, determinacy, and efficiency. The last principle, that of efficiency, was especially important for the legitimation both of scientific truth and of social institutions. Lyotard emphasizes that application of the criterion of performance-efficiency inevitably entails a certain degree of terror: "be operational (that is commensurable) or disappear".
Opposing Juergen Habermas, Lyotard does not think that postmodern knowledge must seek consensus through discussion. Consensus is incompatible with the heterogeneity of language games. Moreover, consensus, even regarded as a purely regulative principle, produces intellectual terror. All postmodernists agree with Michel Foucault that knowledge is power, which at present exceeds traditional kinds of power - economic, political, or military. Hence intellectual terror is the most insidious and baleful brand of oppression.
Contrary to knowledge based on consensus, "postmodern knowledge", Lyotard claims, "is not simply a tool of the authorities; it refines our sensibility to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable" (Lyotard 1979, p. 73]. In a different context, Baudrillard echoes the words of Lyotard: he denounces "the delirious dream of reunifying the world under a unitary principle" and the "mythic imperative of rationality" (Baudrillard 1976, p. 141).
Kuhn’s concept of a paradigm is widely used in postmodernist writings, and they regard him as one of the main exponents of postmodernist thought. The use of the concept of paradigm reflects the belief that the mind’s nature is essentially interpretative. In principle, different paradigms are regarded as being of equal standing. But because postmodernism constitutes itself by opposing the single (so postmodernists claim) paradigm of modernity which is denounced as the worst conceivable, postmodernism produces in fact a (meta)paradigm of the postmodern mind featuring main traits of different postmodernist paradigms. Historians of ideas have, it seems, no difficulty in grasping this Postmodern Paradigm. Admitting that "The postmodern paradigm is by its nature fundamentally subversive of all paradigms, for its core is the awareness of reality as being at once multiple, local and without demonstrable foundation", Richard Tarnas, nevertheless, is able to indicate some widely shared principles comprising the backbone of this paradigm.
There is an appreciation of the plasticity and constant change of reality and knowledge, a stress on the priority of concrete experience over fixed abstract principles, and a conviction that no single a priori thought system should govern belief or investigation. It is recognized that human knowledge is subjectively determined by a multitude of factors; that objective essences, or things-in-themselves are neither accessible nor positable; and that the value of all truths and assumptions must be continually subjected to direct testing. The critical search for truth is constrained to be tolerant of ambiguity and pluralism, and its outcome will necessarily be knowledge that is relative and fallible rather than absolute and certain" (Tarnas 1991, p. 401; 395-396).
I will call postmodernism characterized by these words a moderate postmodernism. A radical form of postmodernism rejects any attempt to seek cognitive unity, coherence, comprehensiveness and even simple understanding based on shared meanings. Radical postmodernism is, without any doubt, a new meta-narrative claiming that there are no general intersubjective truths. Because it maintains by this very claim at least one such truth, it is self-refuting in the same sense as is radical skepticism. Hence, from an epistemological point of view it is not very interesting, however entertaining and invigorating making such claims may be.
POSITIVISM AND POSTMODERNISM
Neither Lyotard nor Baudrillard advocate radical postmodernism. However, Jacques Derrida’s deconstructivism is very close to it. There is a real danger that the juggernaut of deconstruction, decentering, deferral, dissemination, difference, demystification, and dispersion, may indeed lead eventually to disappearance and death, not only of the last traces of the knowledge itself, but even of the weakest wish to know anything beyond the interminable play of incoherent "intellectual" images and ideas: scholarship-as-music-video.
Recriminations of a similar kind cannot be held against moderate postmodernism. It opposes not knowledge as such but a specific form of knowledge and specific principles of construction, justification, interpretation, and use of knowledge. Postmodernism quite often counterposes itself to the Enlightenment and its conception of human knowledge. However, when postmodernists attack some specific epistemological principles, they attribute them usually not to Voltaire or Kant but to positivism. Positivism is regarded by them as a demon-seed of the Enlightenment project. And since positivism is more "modern" in the chronological sense of the word, it is a favorite object of postmodernist attacks. Positivism (with an interesting exception, namely Hume) is regarded by them as an embodiment of everything that is the worst in the Spirit of the Enlightenment: its emphasis on wholeness, unity, unequivocalness of knowledge and its use of knowledge as means to achieve social progress. And of course, its foundationalism, its belief in the existence of the ultimate grounds of knowledge ensuring its firmness and truthfulness. Foundationalism is regarded by postmodernists as the last source of all oppression, included that in the name of social progress.
There is no doubt that in many of its incarnations postmodernism differs from positivism. As one of the most influential theoreticians of postmodernism Ihab Hassan correctly claims, "as an artistic, philosophical, and social phenomenon, postmodernism veers toward open, playful, optative, provisional (open in time as well as in structure or space), disjunctive or indeterminate forms, a discourse of ironies and fragments, a "white ideology" of absences and fractures, a desire of diffractions and invocation of complex, articulate silences" (Hassan 1987, p. 283). However a closer look into the epistemological principles of (moderate) postmodernism reveals that many principles regarded by postmodernism as constitutive of its own philosophy are shared by it with positivism.
The exposure of "the obsolescence of the meta-narrative apparatus of legitimation" and the rise of postmodernism is tied by Lyotard directly to the crisis of metaphysical philosophy (cf. Lyotard 1979, p. 72). Postmodernism is overtly anti-metaphysical, and at least in this important aspect, rather continues the positivist tradition than negates it. Postmodernism shares with positivism and, especially logical positivism, some other epistemological features including those it pretends to be anti-positivist and, first of all, relativism and fallibilism. It equates knowledge with power, but in this respect it does not seem original at all. Of course, a postmodernist would claim that whereas positivists regard knowledge as a source of power, they treat it as power itself. However, I do not regard the difference between the two views as substantial.
The claim that postmodernism, contrary to modernism and thus to positivism also, is anti-foundationalist is already a tired and tattered cliché. This claim has at least two different versions depending on the interpretation of the term anti-foundationalism. According to the first version, the characteristics "foundational" and "anti-foundational" are treated as attributes of epistemology. Thus postmodernist epistemology is anti-foundational because it denies that knowledge rests on indubitable foundations. Taking a critical stance toward positivism, postmodernism implies that positivists believe in such foundations: they must be indubitable because of their purely experiential character. This allegation is not true. Some positivist thinkers, e.g. Schlick, have searched for the firm foundations of knowledge indeed, but neither Comte nor (from the early thirties) Carnap and logical positivists in general supported the foundationalist point of view.
In the second version postmodernism is claimed as being anti-foundational because it renounces "the view that casts philosophy in the role of founding discourse vis-a-vis social criticism. That ‘modern’ conception gives way to a ‘postmodern’ one in which criticism floats free of any universalist theoretic ground" (Fraser & Nicholson 1988, p. 416-417). It seems that these authors convey rather exactly the meaning of Lyotard’s words that postmodernism rejects grand narratives (or meta-narratives).
Positivism was a prominent part of the great Enlightenment meta-narrative of progress, reason, and freedom indeed. I do not think that it should be shamefaced of this. Moreover, I have serious doubts that postmodernist social criticism "floats free of any universalist theoretic ground". Anti-foundational epistemology in conjunction with the thesis that intellectual rigorism amounts to oppression provides a perfect universalist theoretical ground for social criticism. Without such a ground postmodernism would lose its coherence (weak as it is) and any philosophical interest, because it would fall into a loose bunch of voices of discontent coming from diverse not very influential social groups. Postmodernism counterpoises itself with positivism (and modernism in general) by renouncing its optimism and progressivism. Indeed, positivism is a rather optimistic and progressivist philosophy.
On the other hand, it is not difficult to see that postmodernism is not a pessimist philosophy at all. Most often it presents itself as a liberation movement both in the intellectual and social meaning of the word. Postmodernists seek to improve the human condition, to foster liberty and solidarity; hence they may be perfectly regarded as (a bit anarchical) progressivists. In postmodernist literature one may even find an amazing analogy to Comte’s law of the three stages. In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity regarded by some adherents of postmodernism as something like Holy Writ, Richard Rorty writes:
I can crudely sum up the story which historians like Blumenberg tell by saying that once upon a time we felt a need to worship something which lay beyond the visible world. Beginning in the seventeenth century we tried to substitute a love of truth for love of God, treating the world described by science as a quasi divinity. Beginning at the end of the eighteenth century we tried to substitute a love of ourselves for a love of scientific truth, a worship of our own deep spiritual nature, treated as one more quasi divinity.
The line of thought common to Blumenberg, Nietzsche, Freud, and Davidson suggests that we try to get to the point where we no longer worship anything, where we treat everything - our language, our conscience, our community - as a product of time and chance (Rorty 1989, p. 22).
Positivism was infused and informed with contingency and solidarity. Irony, perhaps, was in short supply, although sometimes it sparkled: Carnap’s characterization of metaphysicians as poor musicians comes to mind. And I have no doubt that positivists would look at postmodernists and their efforts to present themselves (for which time in the history of philosophy?) as revolutionaries with really a great degree of irony. Especially when reading Rorty’s words that these "revolutionaries", these "strong philosophers" at the end of twentieth century "are interested in dissolving inherited problems rather than solving them" (Rorty 1989, p. 20).
There is no reason to regard postmodernism as a revolution in philosophy which overcame all modernist philosophies, positivism included. Ernesto Laclau is right when claiming that "Postmodernity does not imply change in the values of Enlightenment modernity, but rather a particular weakening of their absolutist character" (Laclau 1988, p. 332). I would add to this that positivism, and especially logical positivism, weakened them to a great degree by means of undermining the belief in absolute truths and demonstrable values, and not much reasonable work in this area has been left to postmodernists.
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