Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

"Science Organized": Positivism and the Metaphysical Club, 1865-1875

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

"Science Organized": Positivism and the Metaphysical Club, 1865-1875

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

"Positivist" is a tricky word. When a scientific approach is called positivist today, what is usually meant is that it attempts to understand minds, humans, or societies using methods from the natural sciences, purporting to maintain a strict value-neutrality.1 Calling someone a positivist in philosophy, in contrast, evokes a vague sense that the person is for science and against metaphysics; but this on its own tells you almost nothing. How are we to identify particular claims as metaphysical? Different positivists will give different answers. What Anthony Giddens wrote in 1974 is still true: "the word 'positivist,' like the word 'bourgeois' has become more of a derogatory epithet than a useful descriptive concept."2

One of the reasons for the vagueness of the term "positivist" is the sheer diversity of historical figures who have called themselves or been called positivists. Historians of philosophy, with few exceptions, have not attended to this diversity, focusing primarily on Auguste Comte, Ernst Mach, and those connected with the Vienna Circle. This paper turns instead to several non-canonical positivist philosophers-Chauncey Wright, John Fiske, and Francis Ellingwood Abbot-and the work they produced from 1865 to 1875. These marginal figures in the history of positivism should be of interest to philosophers for two reasons: First, they were involved in the early 1870s with the "Metaphysical Club" of Cambridge, Massachusetts, famous as "the birthplace of pragmatism."3 Second, these thinkers engaged in discussions of the relationship between science and philosophy that foreshadowed those of the Vienna Circle over a half-century later. Positivists, pragmatists, and logical positivists alike had to tackle the question that haunts all philosophers committed to the unique importance of scientific inquiry in human knowledge-making (including naturalists today): what is left for philosophy to do, with so many of its traditional domains colonized by science and so many of its traditional questions dismissed as metaphysical, nonsensical, or useless? I will show in this paper that one answer given to this question by the positivists who participated in the Metaphysical Club was that the job of philosophy is to organize or unify the sciences, though they disagreed about the nature of this unification. As Fiske put it, "positive philosophy is science organized."4

Wright, Fiske, and Abbot have not been completely ignored. There are intellectual biographies of all three, and historians of pragmatism such as Bruce Kuklick have discussed their views in some detail. Fiske and Abbot make appearances in Charles Cashdollar's magisterial history of positivism and theology in the nineteenth century.5 In this paper I add to these discussions in two ways. First, rather than emphasizing the biographies of Fiske, Wright, and Abbot, I investigate the understanding of positivism that they shared. For instance, all three rejected the identification of positivism with the views of Comte. Second, I explore a series of neglected sources that expand our picture of what positivism meant to the philosophers of the Metaphysical Club: Fiske's lectures on positivism published in The World, key passages of which never appeared in his book Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy; book reviews by Wright not collected in Philosophical Discussions; and sections of correspondence redacted in Letters of Chauncey Wright.

The paper has two parts. In the first, I argue that positivism had by the 1860s become a "big tent" for thinkers opposed to traditional philosophical approaches and in favor of scientific methods across a range of fields. At the time, "positivism" was often used broadly to refer to what was seen as the perspective of modern science: claims about the world should be based on analyses of phenomena, without speculation about anything beyond those phenomena. Positivism in this sense was a philosophy that Fiske, Wright, Abbot, and others could support despite their opposition to many of Comte's more specific doctrines. …

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