The Flight from Positivism

Before the intellectual and political upheavals of the Sixties, many practitioners of the social disciplines had begun to convince themselves that they were well on the way to establishing a genuinely “scientific” method for the study of social life. But since that time, as the English sociologist Anthony Giddens has remarked, it has come to be widely agreed that “those who still wait for a Newton” of the social sciences “are not only waiting for a train that won’t arrive, they’re in the wrong station altogether.” The main aim of Professor Richard J. Bernstein’s survey The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory is to chart the course of this progressive disenchantment, and to ask whether it ought to be characterized as an intellectual advance or merely a failure of nerve.

Bernstein begins with what he calls “mainstream social science,” outlining the elements of the “scientific” orthodoxy which has recently been so widely repudiated. Such distinguished mainstream theorists as Robert K. Merton and Ernest Nagel took the subject matter of the social disciplines to be a realm of objective social facts. These were generally held to be logically separate from the values of the researcher, and capable of being investigated and described in a wholly neutral way. This empiricist assumption was often combined with emotivism, the doctrine which holds that all statements of value are reducible to expressions of emotion, and are thus devoid of any cognitive content. The outcome of linking these two beliefs was that the normative study of social and political principles was left for dead, while the white-coated social scientist was encouraged to get on with the accumulation of more and more facts.

The other central feature of the mainstream outlook was an account of the logic of explanation, one which embodied two of the most cherished theses of positivism. All explanations were held to be deductive in form: a puzzling fact was said to be explained if and only if it could be shown to follow from a known natural law. And the business of explanation was taken to be isomorphic with prediction: once a law was found to “cover” a particular fact, it could equally well be used to predict its recurrence.

Drawing on the work of Merton, Nagel, and others, Bernstein elaborates this vision of “empirical theory” in an opening chapter of great lucidity and fair-mindedness. The only quarrel one might have with it is that the influence of these assumptions, even in the course of the Fifties and Sixties, is perhaps overestimated. It is true that Bernstein quotes some fine dissenting judgments from Sheldon Wolin and Isaiah Berlin, both refusing to be bullied into agreeing that moral and political choices no longer formed a proper subject of rational debate. But he could have added that a similar commitment to normative political theory was also kept alive, even in the heyday of positivism, by two major schools of Anglo-American political thought. In England Michael Oakeshott and his followers continued to vindicate …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.