Book Review

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Where Lies Truth?  Positivism as the Triumph

of Method over Meaning and Postmodernism as a Bigotry of the Self

Bruce Mazlish, The Uncertain Sciences (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007).

What do you think of the chief philosophers of our gymnasium, who with the stubbornness of a viper, did not want to see the planets . . . ?  In truth, just as he [Odysseus] closed his ears, so they closed their eyes against the light of the truth.  That is monstrous, but it does not astonish me.  For men of this kind think that philosophy is a book, like the Aenid or the Odyssey and that truth is to be sought not in the world and in nature, but in the comparison of texts (as they call it).1

In Misogyny, Jack Holland identifies an authoritarian male preference for pursuits of the mind in opposition to the distractions of the female body in a mind-body dichotomy as a cause for the longstanding and brutal stigmatization of women.2  Also following Plato, conservative theorist Richard Weaver prefers a “metaphysical dream,” where truth lies, and which judges all other knowledge; from this, he derives his “tyrannizing image” at the center of every culture3 which

commands all things, and . . . is open to imaginative but not logical discovery.  It is a focus of value, a law of relationships, an inspiriting vision.  By its nature it sets up rankings and orders; to be near it is to be higher; to be far from it in the sense of not feeling its attraction is to be lower.4

George Lakoff, too, recognized a conservative bias favoring a central set of ideas or values in a metaphor he named as “moral purity”—an essential cultural norm—as supreme and intolerant of multiculturalism.5  So when postmodernists challenge objectivity, they place perception over the objective; when they claim that theory precedes the physical world,6 they shift a locus of understanding from that which is shared among a community to that which is within themselves.  There is cause for alarm that they somehow stigmatize someone, but it is not clear whom, or how.

Bruce Mazlish completes the circle in an historically-based rethinking of scientific method that aims to resolve a dilemma of epistemology in the human sciences and identifies two main visions of truth, the positivist, originating in the natural sciences, and the hermeneutic, originating in the human.  His sweep is grand, beginning with a distinction that becomes important between natural science and human science.  To suggest that natural sciences like physics and chemistry are “cold and calculating, instead of being part of human creativity,” distinguishes them from human sciences, and thus to separate humans from nature, as “somehow a special creation.”7  And yet, this is how we begin, with “the assumption . . . that the two kinds of sciences dealt with radically different phenomena and required radically different methods.”8  But the pull of objectivity is powerful and Mazlish leads us from a thought experiment about a “Martian” scientist who “discovers . . . that human phenomena – the messy details of rules and rituals, belief systems and social practices – are filled with ambiguity and, worst of all, with meanings that pose problems for an imagined objective observer.”9  Human experience, Mazlish is telling us, is impossible to understand objectively; it must be interpreted.10  This inescapable subjectivity is the beginning of the difficulty with positivism.

As Europeans explored the world and confronted humans in other lands as “others,” treating “the Other as [their] object while declining to put [themselves] in the reverse position,”11 Mazlish will argue for an expanding consciousness that also contradicts a postmodernist preeminence of what one already believes.  It will not be enough to see ourselves as others see us;12 by shifting the center away from ourselves—as when bipedalism allowed humans to gaze upwards and see stars,13 as when Copernicus moved the center of the universe away from the Earth,14 and as when colonial administrators recognized that they “needed to understand the intentions of the Others whom they ruled,” compelling anthropologists learn other perspectives15—and finally when we understand that there is no “center,”16 we inevitably broaden our own horizons, taking in ever greater portions of a universe of experience and it is then that we become “perspectival man.”17

Mazlish leads us through a history of positivism that seeks to reconcile the Cartesian, Galilean approaches of mathematics and deduction with Francis Bacon’s approaches of observation and experimentation with Auguste Comte’s view that each science would require its own method to John Locke’s trust in the senses, in statistics, and in a single scientific method applicable to all sciences including the human sciences.  A naïve positivism emerges with a triumph of a unitary method over understanding and even over result.18  We are to believe—apparently on faith—that not only does an objective reality exist, and not only can it be accurately perceived (or interpreted19), but that it must be accurately described.  But while we have no methodological means for dealing with value judgments or authoritarian edicts,20 this method is applicable even to studies that involve human culture.

Mazlish then examines the human species itself and argues that hunter-gatherers are not like “modern” humans; they are human, and yet they are different.  For humans, Mazlish argues, cultural evolution must be recognized on a similar footing with physical evolution21 and we must account for a “shift in the balance between unlearned, genetically determined forms of conduct and learned forms,” the latter being transmitted through symbols, which he understands “to represent the world, physical and social.”  Assuming that a physical existence lies beyond our senses, Mazlish argues that humans could not have survived “if human orientations to reality were fundamentally flawed and their communications full of misunderstandings,”22 but nonetheless that our species has “deep flaws in its view of reality or in the appropriateness of its symbols.”23  It is this flawed perception and this flawed symbol-using capacity that we rely upon in our understanding of the world, and while Mazlish does not make this clear, it is perhaps this that leads to his view of emergent phenomena in which a consequent whole of physical, social, or consciousness systems can not be foreseen from even a complete knowledge of the components in those systems.24  This constitutes yet another attack on positivism, which would expect to yield generalizable results from studies of representative samples.  The issue of madness raises questions as well about a hermeneutic approach, and specifically forms an attack on what I shall assert is its locus of understanding within an individual in postmodernism.25  Mazlish appears to risk at least overgeneralization when he writes that “what [primitive societies] have not had is a developed consciousness, which would allow them to conceive of alternatives to their established beliefs,”26 yet if we consider the perspective of conservatives with which I began this review, we might make a form of this claim even of some people in putatively developed societies.

Mazlish next turns to hermeneutics, returning to a claim that the human sciences are inescapably different from natural sciences.  “[Giambattista] Vico argued for what is now known as hermeneutic rather than positive knowledge” in the human sciences, an interpretive method, known by, used, but not favored by the ancient Greeks who (Plato among them) preferred rationality, and finally coming into its own with Biblical studies, and then beginning in 1819, into general studies of the human psyche.  The word derives from the name of the Greek God Hermes, a messenger; hermeneutics thus relies on a mediation between the source of a message and its receiver, originally between gods and humans, and later between the other and the self, each in its own context.  These contexts must be negotiated; understanding arises from an exchange of perspectives that lead to an understanding of the whole of a communication which in turn leads to an understanding of each of its components.27  This process of understanding, “a continuous shuffling back and forth between text and context,” is the hermeneutic circle.28

This in turn raises the question of representing an author’s intent within a text.  Mazlish pauses only briefly here, considering the possibility of understanding an author better than (s)he understands him or herself, by understanding, first from a different perspective within a social matrix and a culture, which themselves are semiotically interpreted, and second, from an attempt to perceive a disguised “truer reality,” the context within which the author produced a message.29  “A latent danger,” Mazlish writes, “is that such an approach can also go to the extreme of ignoring the author’s intentions entirely,”30 a danger that postmodernists intentionally disregard.31

Of postmodernism, Mazlish writes,

For most postmodernists, everything is a text: books, incarceration practices, scientific findings.  Postmodernism appears to restrict itself, in fact, to a discourse about discourses (although these, admittedly, are about practices).  Interpretation reigns supreme, and none can derive from a central, ordering perspective.  Everything becomes a matter of extreme hermeneutics.32

Yet when Mazlish acknowledges that postmodernism “verges on interpretive nihilism,” and, parenthetically, that “texts for postmodernists, too, must be read as if without an author,”33 messages become what their receivers think they are; a center reappears within the receiver of each message, and we return to a locus more narrow even than that which Mazlish attributed to “primitive societies.”  We speak now not even of a small society’s established beliefs,34 but those of an individual.  Rather than a ritual view of communication which James Carey damns as “directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs,”35 we have the maintenance of the individual in time, not learning, but the reaffirmation of what the self already believes.  I believe it is of postmodernists Mazlish writes in his concluding chapter, “We are drawn into the narcissistic pool by words, by our fixation on our own discourse.  Our symbol-making ability turns upon itself, losing all contact with the external environment for which it has been adaptively devised.”36

With the challenges of madness37 and of “differentiat[ing] a true from a false interpretation, a better from an inferior one,”38 Mazlish concludes of hermeneutics that “some form of public verification seems an essential part of any claim to science, natural or human;” he appeals to “the best features of positivism . . . even in those sciences that are mainly hermeneutical in nature.”39  Because perspectives and interpretations vary, he seeks “the accumulation of more and more interpretations,”40 from which we can ultimately draw causal explanations.41  We should be alert to unintended consequences and to emergent phenomena.  We must understand humans as humans, not as robots subject to positivist manipulation.42  We must understand “that any law in the social sciences is part of a process including prescriptions that fosters change, which may then create new conditions in which that law no longer effectively applies.”43  We should have witnesses, not to replicate experiments or to compare observations, but who are scientists “able to weigh evidence and reason well, even if not about specific technical details, as a preliminary basis for being willing to be persuaded by evidence and theory,”44 but Mazlish does not make clear what the difference is between what he proposes and the current practice of publishing in peer-reviewed journals.  He only distinguishes these witnesses from their positivist counterparts in that, if I may so call them, hermeneutic witnesses in their own contexts “seek[] along with others to be rational and to strive for as much objectivity as is humanly possible.”45  They would be members of a scientific community, committed to “an agreement to think and discourse according to the rules of scientific method,”46 but not the unitary method of naïve positivism.47  This method “must adapt itself to the materials being studied and not be seen as a mold to be imposed on all phenomena.”48  And truth is not just the product of consensus, but of a “rational consensus” of these witnesses.49  We cannot neglect that “communication is necessarily unclear and is impeded or enriched by problems inherent in language.”50  We must recognize that “humanity is at least slightly mad, much given to fantasy, subject to erratic bouts of anxiety, and mainly irrational in behavior and thought.  Reason is a straw, or at best a thin plank, stretched across the abyss of human existence.”  Mazlish acknowledges that this community inevitably will fall far short of what he labels the Habermasian ideal; it neglects desire and passion.  “But it may be the best we have.”51  Finally, Mazlish writes that as important as scientific method may be, it is not the only path to truth.  Historical consciousness includes the arts, myth, and religion,52 and progress expands our consciousness, making us quite a different people from those even of not so recent past.53  It is in this consciousness, that he finds truth.

1Galileo, letter to Johannes Kepler, quoted in Hans Blumenberg, The Genesis of the Copernican World, trans. Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1987), 658, quoted in Mazlish, Uncertain Sciences, 100.

2Jack Holland, Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006).

3Sonja K. Foss, Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp, Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric, 3rd Ed. (Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2002), 160-162.

4Richard Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1964), 12, quoted in Foss, Foss, and Trapp, Cultural Perspectives, 162.

5George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, 2nd Ed. (University of Chicago, 2002), 92-93, 170, 228.

6Isaac Catt, lecture, Fall 2007, CSU East Bay, Hayward, CA.

7Mazlish, Uncertain Sciences, 11.

8Ibid., 12.

9Ibid., 14-15.

10Ibid., 25.

11Ibid., 29.

12Ibid., 31.

13Ibid., 77.

14Ibid., 103.

15Ibid., 105.


17Ibid., 225.

18Ibid., 55-62.

19Ibid., 95-96.

20Ibid., 37-65.

21Ibid., 67-71.

22Ibid., 72.

23Ibid., 73.  Mazlish’s point stands even if his evidence may be flawed.  He claims that “at any one time in developed societies (where such figures are compiled), 10 percent of the population is in mental asylums, and at least one out of four members of the society will experience a nervous breakdown requiring treatment during the course of his or her life,” but he offers no citation to support this claim (Ibid.).  I found no statistics on asylum occupancy or “nervous breakdowns,” but the United States Surgeon General reports that 15% of the US population uses mental health services in any year and that 28% have diagnosable mental or substance abuse disorders (Surgeon General, “Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General,” US Public Health Service, (accessed November 8, 2008)).

24Mazlish, Uncertain Sciences, 73-75.

25Ibid., 107-109.

26Ibid., 77.

27Ibid., 84, 89-91.

28Ibid., 91.

29Ibid., 95, 97, 101.

30Ibid., 95.

31Ibid., 106; and Gary P. Radford, On The Philosophy of Communication (Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005), 133-153.

32Mazlish, Uncertain Sciences, 106.


34Ibid., 77.

35James W. Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (New York: Routledge, 1992).

36Mazlish, Uncertain Sciences, 229.

37Ibid., 107-109.

38Ibid., 121.

39Ibid., 127.


41Ibid., 128.

42Ibid., 176-187.

43Ibid., 189.

44Ibid., 192.

45Ibid., 194.

46Ibid., 195.

47Ibid., 55-62.

48Ibid., 195-196.

49Ibid., 197.

50Ibid., 214.

51Ibid., 198.

52Ibid., 216.

53Ibid., 217-218, 229.

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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