N.T. Wright’s The New Testament And The People of God, devotes chapter 2 to a brief introduction to some of the epistemological challenges facing study of the New Testament. He described positivism in this way:
“The positivist believes that there are some things at least about which we can have definite knowledge. There are some things that are simply ‘objectively’ true, that is, some things about which we can have, and actually do have, solid and unquestionable knowledge. These are things which can be tested ’empirically’, that is, by observing, measuring, etc. within the physical world. Taking this to its logical conclusion, things that cannot be tested in this way cannot be spoken of without talking some kind of nonsense.” (pages 32-33)
The positivists position was what I was spoon-fed throughout my entire time as a Psychology student. Positivism is key to the research methods of modern psychology, as well as the work of great sociologists such as Émile Durkheim. Positivism is everywhere, and it was what I believed.
It took the teaching of Kyriacos Markides, one of my Sociology professors at the University of Maine, to show the error of my reductionistic ways. My view of knowledge acquisition via strictly empirical method seemed silly after taking his class on the sociology of religion. We discussed how the social sciences in the western world are still operating under a paradigm that is well over two-hundred years old. This paradigm has not even began to incorporate recent knowledge from fields like quantum physics as well as others branches of science. Knowledge that may show that there is far more to the universe than we can ever observe empirically. Knowledge that transcends our feeble human scientific posturing. Knowledge that comes from the Almighty?
I do not mean that the scientific method is without merit. Empirical observation certainly has its place. However it is taken much to far, when entire areas of study are written off as mere conjecture, simply because empirical observation is difficult or impossible.
I would be interested to hear how the positivist mindset has affected you in your respective fields.
Positivism demands too narrow a definition of knowledge. Why is it that to “know” something the knowledge must be absolute? I think this is the error of much of western thought. It demands we rest assure only of those things that are “scientifically verifiable” while remaining skeptic about everything else. Thankfully human knowledge can affirm more than this otherwise living would be dreadful.
And to answer your last question, I think Wright’s address is wonderful because it is partially in the field where I plan on studying. I love how so many NT scholars are so confident of their historical reconstructions. It is baffling. From Borg to Crossan to others, there is this idea that we can reconstruct how things “really” happened (e.g. The laughable ‘Jesus Seminary’). Good luck!
So is this “positivism” idea the kind that tries to paint as many things as “black and white” as possible? As in, does it strive for simple rather than complex?
If so, I feel as though I spent my first four or five years of being a Christian under this guise; this general mentality that “this is how it is” while hardly ever questioning anything. Assuming this is what Wright was getting at, I feel like it almost made the Bible (and Christianity as a whole) seem fairy-tale like.
@Jeremy: As concerns historical reconstruction, for example, positivism would assert that with the right historiographical methodology we can determine what “really happened” for sure. It is an attempt to spread so-called “scientific surety” to other fields of knowledge. So yes, in some sense there is a “black and white” nature to it, but more so it is an epistemological confidence that the only thing preventing one from really “grasping” the truth is a particular method that hasn’t been used to its full potential.
Hm, okay, I think I’m tracking with you. But does a positivist believe, then, that once this particular method is used to its full potential we’ll be able to fully grasp what “really happened”? Seems like a long road to travel…
As far as theologians who trounce positivism, T. F. Torrance is someone who fits that bill. You should check out his Ground and Grammar of Theology and Theological Science. He appropriates Einstienian metaphysics in the way that he proceeds in his “Theological Science.”
@Jeremy: Exactly! But if you take a look at something like the first and second quest for the “historical Jesus” this is exactly the motivation! It is a long road.
@ Brian: You are correct! It is much too narrow a definition. You can’t shoehorn everything into the scientific method. And If you do try, it will be quite the mess.
@ Jeremy: There are plenty of Christians that go through those same issues when they are new believers. Many people do begin to question certain ideas as time goes by. It is unfortunate that some never move past the dogmatic without understanding stage.
@Bobby: Thanks for the tip! I will be sure to check out T. F. Torrance soon.
@Joshua, good! Happy studies at Western 🙂 !
Great post! What gets me about positivism is that its definition cannot be tested empirically. So does that mean we should relegate it to the trash bin of “nonsense”? It seems so. I find those who say that there isn’t an objective meaning of a text to fall prey to the same problem.
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