Positivism — The Epistemological Challenge -- By: E. Herbert Nygren

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 04:0 (NA 1971)
Article: Positivism — The Epistemological Challenge
Author: E. Herbert Nygren

Positivism — The Epistemological Challenge

E. Herbert Nygren

The investigation into the origin and the nature of knowledge has its roots in the earliest writings of the ancient philosophers of Greece. The epistemological controversy between empiricism, always pointing to sense perception as the origin of ideas, and rationalism, always insisting that the mind contributes ideas not derived from sensory experience, can be traced at least as far back as the Grecian Academy six centuries before Christ. Plato taught that reason can attain to the immutable, that the ideas of men are related to actually existing ideas which ultimately were not material or dependent upon sensory perception. Rene Descartes was later to comment: “I was delighted with mathematics because of the certainty of its demonstration and the evidence of its reasoning.”1 He concluded that whatever else one can doubt, one cannot doubt his process of doubt.

Empiricism, on the other hand, had its roots more firmly fixed in the Aristotelian emphasis upon the sensory perception of the singular datum, rather than upon the universal idea. One can go back even prior to Aristotle and find in the writings of Democritus (5th century B.C.) a teaching that ultimate reality is to be found in one’s sense experience. This reality, he taught, consisted of atoms moving in all directions in a void. These atoms, in turn, were believed irreductible, indivisible, and quantitatively characterized. They were neither created nor could they be destroyed. Two centuries later, Epicurus was to adopt and expand that Democratean cosmology of infinite atoms in an infinite void. He was convinced that the universe was not from nothing, but was at all times a transfer of preexisting material. Man was construed to be just another product of natural sources with life simply the span bounded by birth and death.

This method for the attainment of knowledge reached a climax in the writings of David Hume, who radicalized sensory experience as the one source of human awareness. He insisted that the origin of all ideas was in sense perception. The mind, he was forced to conclude, was no more than a collection of perceptions. Auguste Comte, the nineteenth century writer of Positive Philosophy, was to systematize the implications of empiricism. He felt that he must reject all prior philosophy. He envisioned men passing through three stages: theological, metaphysical, and scientific. These he analogized by calling them respectively childhood, adolesence, and adulthood. In the theological stage, man explained the unknown as acts of fictitious beings, whose existence could not be confirmed. In the metaphysical stage, personalized agencies were abandoned in favor of essences, substances, a prio...

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