[Marxism] What is wrong with positivism?

Jeff Rubard jeffrubard at gmail.com
Sat Aug 4 10:43:45 MDT 2007


> Sayan Bhattacharyya said:
> Very interesting. So, would something like, say, game theory be
> considered "positivist" (in Adorno's usage of the term, i.e. in the
> "so-called" sense)?
>
> I'm asking because while payoffs in game theory are based on
> "methodological individualism", I suppose,  game theory does also
> admit of conceptualizing  the behavior of groups or ensembles (which
> we might think of "classes") and (emergent) relations between such
> ensembles.



Undoubtedly Adorno would find game theory unacceptable, although
I don't think one is obligated to follow him in that: but the general
outlines of his critique of positivism are really quite orthodox, and
worth considering even if his cultural criticism doesn't appeal.
As for methodological individualism, it is really a pretty slippery
term. It seems you know more about game theory than I do, but
I just found and read a Jon Elster essay about methodological
individualism, game theory, and Marx and I think that his way
at least of combining the three is pretty suspect.

Firstly, I don't think that Elster really means by "methodological
individualism" what it would mean in the mouth of, say,
George Homans: most people who assent to it as a principle
mean to exclude all Marx-inspired theory from consideration.
Secondly, it is not nearly "trivially true", as Elster puts it.
The course of history presents us with many collectivities
to which people ascribe properties they are not conceptualizing
in terms of individuals, and the Marxist appeal to classes
instead of "the eternal nation" is at least as coherent a
conception. And although thinking that there are not in a
meaningful sense persons and their individual attitudes
is not a form of skepticism I have ever been tempted by,
I don't think that asserting the contrary can really be all that
is meant by MI.

As for "emergent properties of ensembles", I am again skeptical
that this can be included in methodological individualism as
it is commonly conceived. MI is a *reductive* program: that
means that "macrolevel" properties of collectivities are
conceptualized as rigorously, systematically based on
"microlevel" agent perspectives and choices. Due to this,
The sense in which there could then be collective intentions
or  tendencies on the part of something more abstract
(like "capital", to use Elster's example) is a fairly attenuated one
when compared to Marx's own thought, I think.

Jeff Rubard



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