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Postpositivist Scientific Philosophy: Mediating Convergences

Aristotle sees the universe as a scale lying between the two extremes: form without matter is on one end, and matter without form is on the other end. The passage of matter into form must be shown in its various stages in the world of nature. To do this is the object of Aristotle’s physics, or philosophy of nature. It is important to keep in mind that the passage from form to matter within nature is a movement towards ends or purposes. Everything in nature has its end and function, and nothing is without its purpose. Everywhere we find evidences of design and rational plan. No doctrine of physics can ignore the fundamental notions of motion, space, and time. Motion is the passage of matter into form, and it is of four kinds: (1) motion which affects the substance of a thing, particularly its beginning and its ending; (2) motion which brings about changes in quality; (3) motion which brings about changes in quantity, by increasing it and decreasing it; and (4) motion which brings about locomotion, or change of place. Of these the last is the most fundamental and important.

Aristotle rejects the definition of space as the void. Empty space is an impossibility. Hence, too, he disagrees with the view of Plato and the Pythagoreans that the elements are composed of geometrical figures. Space is defined as the limit of the surrounding body towards what is surrounded. Time is defined as the measure of motion in regard to what is earlier and later. It thus depends for its existence upon motion. If there where no change in the universe, there would be no time. Since it is the measuring or counting of motion, it also depends for its existence on a counting mind. If there were no mind to count, there could be no time. As to the infinite divisibility of space and time, and the paradoxes proposed by Zeno, Aristotle argues that space and time are potentially divisible ad infinitum, but are not actually so divided.

After these preliminaries, Aristotle passes to the main subject of physics, the scale of being. The first thing to notice about this scale is that it is a scale of values. What is higher on the scale of being is of more worth, because the principle of form is more advanced in it. Species on this scale are eternally fixed in their place, and cannot evolve over time. The higher items on the scale are also more organized. Further, the lower items are inorganic and the higher are organic. The principle which gives internal organization to the higher or organic items on the scale of being is life, or what he calls the soul of the organism. Even the human soul is nothing but the organization of the body. Plants are the lowest forms of life on the scale, and their souls contain a nutritive element by which it preserves itself. Animals are above plants on the scale, and their souls contain an appetitive feature which allows them to have sensations, desires, and thus gives them the ability to move. The scale of being proceeds from animals to humans. The human soul shares the nutritive element with plants, and the appetitive element with animals, but also has a rational element which is distinctively our own.





Materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter or energy

Idealism is the group of philosophies which assert that reality is fundamentally mental, immaterial.

Postpositivist Scientific Philosophy: Mediating Convergences

George Demetrion

October 2004



Chapter One Introduction: A Postpositivist Option




Insights from Dewey, Popper, and Rescher suggest a broad-based postpositivist philosophy mediating critical space between positivism and constructivism based upon the quest for truth as a regulative ideal within a fallibilistic scientific epistemology. A critical issue in adult literacy education illustrates the viability of postpositivist research design as applicable especially to the social sciences. The object here is less to draw out the subtle distinctions and potential points of conflict between Dewey, Popper, and Rescher, than to highlight some of the ways in which the collective impact of their work contributes toward the shaping of a postpositivist temper.


When a man desires ardently to know the truth, his first effort will be to imagine what the truth can be. He cannot prosecute his pursuit long without finding that imagination unbridled is sure to carry him off track. Yet, nevertheless, it remains true that there is, after all, nothing but imagination that can ever supply him an inkling of truth (Peirce, 1955, p. 43).

If scientific knowledge enables us to estimate more accurately the worth of things as signs, we can afford to exchange a loss of theoretical certitude for a gain in practical judgment. For if we can judge events for indications of other events, we can prepare in all cases for the coming of what is anticipated. In some cases, we can forestall a happening; desiring one event to happen rather than another, we can intentionally set about institution of those changes which our best knowledge tells us to be connected with that which we are after (Dewey, 1929/1988, p. 170).

The quest for a scientific grounding for social science research has been a pervasive theme of 20th century scholarship. While the search for an exacting methodology has marked the century’s efforts in the positivist mode, critical approaches based on other forms of constructing knowledge have also been perennial (Polkinghorne, 1983). This is certainly the case in educational research as reflected in the current Bush administration focus on “scientific (or “evidence”) based educational research” with its penchant for experimental design, consequently, random sampling, as the “gold standard” in the “hierarchy of methods” (Comings, Beder, Bingman, Reder, and Smith, 2003, p. 5). On the scale laid out in Establishing an Evidence-Based Adult Education System, quasi-experimental research comes next. Case study analysis is viewed as the least desirable methodology as it typically “employ(s) only a treatment group and assume(s) that differences among participants are not important or are obvious, since the sample is usually small” (p. 5). Consequently, there is little basis to establish generalized findings that apply from one given situation to another.


A document from the Institute of Education Studies similarly notes that “well-designed and implemented randomized control trials are considered the ‘gold standard’ for evaluating an intervention’s effectiveness, in fields such as medicine, welfare and employment policy and psychology” (U.S. Department of Education, 2003, p. 1), and therefore, also applicable to educational research. In another governmentally supported research paper, a similar analogy to medicine is made, with “treatment” the operative intervention relevant whether of the doctor to the patient or the teacher to the student. On this premise, socio-cultural interpretations of education are eliminated, as is the realm of values, which are viewed as outside the purview of legitimate science. The focus becomes, rather, on the technology of “what works” (Stanovitch & Stanovitch, 2003) in which the litmus test of verifiability stems from such scientific principles as “control, manipulation, and randomization” (p. 11) based on the ideal standard of statistically-valid “meta-analysis” (p. 18).


In certain lab-like environments where independent variables can be tightly controlled, experimental design can be a valuable, and, depending on the nature of the problem under study, an essential instrumentality. The methodology, even according to the more qualifying precepts of quasi-experimental design, is more problematic where variables interact in less than precisely discernable ways. This is particularly the case over regions of research like motivation and the murkier, yet, for the social sciences, the critical arena of consciousness, if one is seeking to understand, rather than simply to report on, the behavior of agents. In these regions evidence pointing to causal attribution may be susceptible to multiple explanations, which may require the “thick” description of case study analysis. In postpositivist design (see below) such areas of subjectivity do not simply collapse into the relativism of constructivism. They remain subject to the rigors of “experimental inquiry” (Peirce, 1955, p. 47) and to the ideal of “versimilitude” (approximation to the truth) (Popper, 1963) even if in a manner that would be difficult, if not impossible or irrelevant to be precisely broken down into statistically discernable categorizations or certain-like truth statements, however provisionally they may be held.


The underlying problem in the positivist quest for certainty is that of reductionism based on foundational sources of scientific analysis that stem from inductionist principles of verification through objective observation of given empirical data, or a priori rational principles of logic. Critics have noted that perception is theory-laden from inception and that both the selection and even the definition of what counts as data is a construct that cannot be accepted simply as given. Additional concerns include the underdetermination of theory by evidence that undercuts high levels of generality allegedly discerned through positivistic methodologies, as well as challenges to claims that analysis can be simply broken down into component parts given the ubiquity of situational contexts in which data is embedded. Critics also point to the centrality of the social dimension of social science research in which “variables” complexly interact in a manner that may be susceptible to multiple causations and interpretations (Phillips and Burbules, 2000, pp. 14-25).


Notwithstanding the sophistication of the various anti-positivist critiques, given the allure of precision as a siren call of those seeking an exacting social science of human behavior, positivism in its several variants has continued to maintain a prominent position in social science research. Still, the criticism persists that the “human factor” cannot be calibrated into some precise equation, even as the counter pulls have sometimes led to a relativism in which science itself is viewed as simply another “metannarative.” Those operating out of the positivist framework remain troubled by the specter of relativism of any methodology that is not rigorously based on modes of analysis that provide the most exacting information possible that can be verifiable through direct observation. The remedy is not a radical embrace of a constructivist alternative, but “to give contextual factors their proper place in investigation” (Pawson & Tilley, 1997, p. 53) while maintaining the ideals of objectivity and regulative truth.


In the current era, a mediating school of research has emerged in what has come to be referred to as postpositivism. This school is defined in the scholarly literature in varying ways, from that of an elaborated and up-to date form of positivism, which might be more accurately referred to as neopositivism (Mertens, 1998) to a sharp critique of scientific rationality itself characterized through the pejorative term “scientism” (Hawkesworth, 1988). Fischer (1998) provides one mediated picture, linking postpositivism with a coherent theory of truth and the realm of practical deliberation in the “anticipat[ion] and draw[ing] out of the multiple interpretations that bear on the explanation of social and political propositions” (p. 20). In this he gravitates toward the cultural axis of the postpositivist research tradition even in his quest for maximum rigor.


Phillips and Burbules (2000) provide a more rigorous definition in linking postpositivsm to the scientific pole of critical analysis. Drawing substantially on Dewey and Popper, Phillips and Burbules (2000) embrace the concept of truth as a “regulative ideal.” For them, the quest for “reliable answers” (p. 2), what Dewey refers to as “warranted assertions,” honed through “rigorous inquiry” (p. 3), and capable of standing up to the test of falsification is both a feasible project for the human sciences and essential if such research is to lead to the progressive resolution of complex social problems. As the authors point out, such “competent inquiries” (Dewey, 1938/1991, p. 16) require both exacting rigor and an adequate accounting of the complexity of the subject matter at hand. In postpostivist design, it is the problem under investigation that determines the methodologies needed for its resolution, which can only be as exacting as allowed for by the topic under consideration (Popper, 1956/1983, pp. 7-8).


This paper seeks to extend the work of Fischer, and Phillips and Burbules through an exploration of three chords of 20th century philosophy congruent with the postpositivist temper: pragmatic functionalism via the experientially premised epistemology of Dewey, Popper’s critical rationalism, and a coherence theory of critical reasoning, articulated by contemporary philosopher Nicholas Rescher (2001). Through this tri-partite analysis several approaches to the postpositivist quest for scientific rigor will be explored, as all three authors reject both positivism and a more relativistic “interpretive” theory of social science that averts the problem of probing into truth as a regulative ideal. Tensions between the scientific and cultural poles of postpositivist philosophy are also examined. Throughout the paper, I draw on a conflicting definitional issue in the field of adult literacy education, my area of specialization (Demetrion, 2004), to illustrate the various perspectives on research highlighted in Dewey, Popper, and Rescher.

Date: 2014-12-21; view: 270

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