I am an M.D. writing a book titled, Physicians: Artists and Science.One chapter is devoted to the
cascade of thinking which lead to positivism. Until the last decade, most medical school teachers
were interested in teaching their students only science. We were taught to treat the objective disease
state of the patient. Subjective feelings were considered difficult to deal with and to use Wittgenstein's
phrase, we "ignored them."
What did the logical positivists think about the value of the arts and feelings? If only science could get
at truth, were feelings and the arts relegated to the side lines?
A new breed of positivist is EO Wilson, who makes a plea for science to explain feelings via
neurobiology but at the same time to honor feelings and the arts for the vital role they play for
I keep hesitating about answering your question, for two reasons. First, positivism is not really one of
my interests, and it is pretty dead these days anyway. Second, I'm not sure that your teachings were
"positivist". But I feel that your concerns need to be addressed by someone not a positivist who
nonetheless highly values science, because so many people view science as "only science", as
"ignoring" the subjective. Look at e. e. cummings' poem, ending something like "scientists who teach
10000 stars how not to dance". I think that this is a terribleattitude towards science, and utterly
inaccurateas an explanation and depiction of the motivations of scientists and indeed the content of
science. We are so inundated by Frankensteins... in literature, the movies, etc... that most people
grow up at least suspicious of science and scientists.
Ok, enough rant. First, as far as positivism goes, Frege, Carnap, et al did not of course dismiss the
emotions. They were German intellectuals, highly educated in the arts. They were reacting against
what they saw as poor science and philosophy, which was, they thought (probably correctly)
anti-science, anti-rational thinking (you might read some Husserl on science sometime... I like
Husserl, by and large, as a psychologist, but as a philosopher... he does not consider science a valid
means of reaching truths — "scientific" truths are not ultimate for him) and which resulted, in the case
of the introspectionists, in overly relying on subjectivity and intuition, so that differences could not be
resolved except by, effectively, shouting-matches between opponents. What the early positivists were
doing was an attempt to counter this. Unfortunately, in the persons of, say, Watson and Skinner in
this country, it got taken too far. There are, certainly, still people who regard "behavior" as the only
means of obtaining data... all I can say is that they are sadly out of touch with current thinking.
Chomsky killed Skinner (in part by showing that the latter's notion of behavior was extremely limited),
and at this point, the problem, in my opinion, is that too much post-modernism has actually swung the
pendulum back to beforethe positivists (I shudder at Rorty's position, for example — truth is relative
(although he is, by all accounts, exemplary as a person)).
So when you say that teachers taught "only science" and that students were taught to ignore feelings,
all I can say is that those teachers had a profound misconception of science. My favorite philosopher
of science right now is P. Kitcher, and in "The advancement of science" you will find a much broader
conception of science both as praxis and as content than what you were taught was science. In fact,
he refers to that latter conception as "The Legend", and it went out in the early part of the last century.
I guess they didn't hear about that in med school. I'm not going to write another essay on "what is
science", but researching feelings, employing introspection, even using feelings, are all definitely
within science's compass.
Now, it is certainly easierto ignore feelings, and to teach "just the facts" (whatever that means) — the
facts, I guess, as limited to medical texts and lectures — sure. And also, while (and I'd like to
emphasizethis) there is quite a bitof research into feelings, how to deal with them, what they are,
etc., etc., a lot of that is in what is called "clinical psychology", and this is, because of holdovers from
positivism and behaviorism, especiallyin this country, regarded as "fuzzy" data. Well, a great deal of
it is. But all I can say is that the stuff is there, libraries of it, available to anyone who wants to dive into
it, and yes a lot of it is poorly researched, and a lot is not... and gee gosh, more work is needed,
surprise, surprise. But it is most emphatically not the case that science has neglected this area,
although medical schools may, unfortunately.
And so, by and large, I'm surprised you term Wilson a "positivist". Does he think of himself in those
terms? I doubt it. Again Frankenstein rears his head... just because he employs data in genetics and
biology to talk about human beings, and about feelings, does that mean one should, or that he
advocates, "reducing" feelings to that, or neglecting feelings? Of course not. The question of what
"explanation" means here is a critical one. To "explain" feelings as having arisen through various
adaptations to our environments is not to reduce them to behavior.
I think, on the contrary, that any information whatsoever that enriches our knowledge of ourselves,
from whatever source, even if that source, in the case of evolutionary biology, for example, seems
odious to some, is valuable. In fact the very nature of our strong reaction to it, and that this type of
knowledge causes us to question our most cherished beliefs, makes it, to my mind, the more valuable
Steven Ravett Brown