How Positivism

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En setiembre de 2004 el profesor  Philip Mirowski dictó dos cursos en la Universidad de la República (Montevideo, Uruguay) en las Facultades de Ciencias Económicas y de Ciencias Sociales. El texto siguiente pertenece al segundo de ellos y, por su importancia, es publicado en Galileo.


How Positivism Made Pact with the Postwar Social Sciences in America


 This paper based upon a paper that appeared in Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, XXX. It is part of a much larger project on the joint constitution of the social and natural sciences in America, and has benefited from extensive discussions with Tom Uebel, Don Howard, and Wade Hands; I would also like to thank George Steinmetz, Sonia Amadae, Andres Rius, and the participants of the Science, Technology, Society and the State Seminar at the University of Chicago. Please direct all correspondence to: Philip Mirowski, 400 Decio Hall, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, 46556.

Back in the 1970s, when I was a graduate student in economics, “positivism” was considered a term of opprobrium, both amongst economists and philosophers of science. No one would admit to ever having been an adherent of the doctrine, although no one could manage to be very clear about what it encompassed, either. Sometimes, hostility to positivism was conflated with opposition to ‘scientism’ as well, although if the former was vague in outlines, the latter was positively opaque. Now that in the new century we are experiencing a strange revival of fondness for the original Logical Positivists,[1] perhaps the time has arrived to revisit the relationship between positivism and the social sciences, and as George Steinmetz puts it, “explore the intimacies between positivism and the disciplines in different times and places.”

I wish to take a position diametrically opposed to that of Lawson (this volume): I think it can be demonstrated that positivism and the rise to dominance of the neoclassical orthodoxy in economics in America were so intimately linked as to be scandalous, particularly if we acknowledge their common descent from the wartime innovation of Operations Research [OR]. I have made the case for the first leg or the OR saga, that of neoclassical economics in (Mirowski, 2002); in the interests of concision I will not recapitulate that argument here. In this chapter I will proceed to document the other leg of the argument: that once Logical Positivism came to America, it was co-opted to serve as apologetics for a whole range of social theories growing out of Operations Research, but more importantly, also to foster a new definition of “science” which would then inform and reinforce the transformation of the academic social sciences growing out of their wartime experiences. One reason I differ so starkly from Lawson is that this turns out to be concertedly an American story, at least for the first three postwar decades; a British perspective would inevitably miss it, precisely because Operations Research did not assume the same format and topics in Britain. Furthermore, it happened that British Positivism diverged fairly dramatically from its American counterpart, because it was to America that the key representatives of the Viennese Circle emigrated: the Brits got Wittgenstein and Freddie Ayer instead. Another source of our disagreement is that I view the positivist-economist axis not as an abstract proposition in epistemology or ontology, but rather an historical fact. Only when that is adequately acknowledged, can we begin to explore the subsequent legacy of positivism for the evolution of contemporary economics (or politics, or psychology, or…).

The rise of positivism in America is above all a political story: one in which a cadre of socialist-inclined individuals escaped from Nazi persecution only to become cheerleaders for their adopted homeland, innovating a new rationale for the success of its policies. Because they were philosophers of science, they came up with a portrayal of science which ‘explained’ what had gone awry in the homelands of their youth. In a nutshell, their European counterparts had forsaken their base camps on the “icy slopes of logic” for the treacherous valleys of metaphysics and superstition, and this had corrupted what had previously been the font of all social progress. If legitimate science, which transcended all social determination, had been left to its own devices, and then if the rabble had pledged their troth to the scientifically trained, rather than failed artists and religious enthusiasts, then the conflagration which had swallowed up Europe would have been avoided.[2] The grand irony of this story is that, just as science funding and management was being transferred from the corporate sector to the military to an unprecedented degree in their adopted homeland, the Positivists were singing the praises of a science which was self-contained and unsullied by social considerations. And to top it off, they resorted to the terminology and formalisms of the social theory most concertedly individualist and a-social in its construction, viz, neoclassical decision theory. 

The coexistence of this bizarre conviction that science at its best was somehow a-social, both in its internal operation and in its external relations with the culture within which it was situated, juxtaposed with the demonstrable fact that very specific policies concerning the viability of particular social structures of science were being deployed in its day-to-day defense, constitutes the primary topic of the present paper. Philosophers are perhaps fed up with sociologists chiming in with the mantra that ‘science is social’; here it will be conceded that there is no need for further repetition of that rallying cry at this late date. Rather, we are concerned to explore how it was that science came to be portrayed by philosophers as a-social and autarkic and value-free in America in the middle of the 20th century. It so happens that this narrative is intimately intertwined with two other strands of discourse, namely, ones that track attitudes towards the health of “democracy” in America and ones that describe the alliances between pragmatism and logical positivism and respective brands of social theory. Of necessity, this must be an historical inquiry, and thus we find that a few historians have cleared a path for exploration of this issue.[3] But we should prefer this to be regarded as an exercise in the social epistemology of the relationship of science to society. It will be argued that certain configurations of science organization, in conjunction with certain widely accepted images of society, have given rise to very specific orthodoxies in the philosophy of science as well as orthodoxies in social science: these represent the scientific dimensions of social knowledge.

There have been (at least) three distinct positions regarding the relationship of science to society dominant in the American philosophy profession in the 20th century. For the purposes of exposition in the schematization in Table I we shall identify each with a representative agent, viz., John Dewey, Hans Reichenbach and Philip Kitcher; however, in this chapter, due to space constraints, we will restrict our examination to the first two protagonists. This personalization of categories undoubtedly constitutes a misrepresentation of communally shared beliefs in their respective eras, but that should be regarded merely as a provisional point of departure in what will eventually become a larger research project. Characterization of the Pragmatists or the Positivists, even if restricted to America, requires extensive differentiation of the relevant players.  Consequently the dominant philosophical stance of the time should not be directly attributed to the actual charismatic protagonists named Dewey, Reichenbach and Kitcher; rather, they should be first characterizations of a set of working beliefs related to the actual social structures of science dominant within those epochs. In particular, in this paper we shall seek to relate their philosophical pronouncements to the types of environments in which scientific research was being prosecuted, the types of social theories widely prevalent in their eras, and last but not least, the conundrum of the role of the philosopher in those respective regimes. The variables that we shall touch upon in our account are summarized below in Table I:





Table I: Three Regimes[4] and their Philosophies


Time period     WWI to 1940            1940-80                   1980-present


Science organization          Foundations’                      Cold War               Global privatization

managers:               program officers                military officers                  corporate officers


Prime location:                  corporate lab                      research univs.                  industry hybrids


Philos. orthodoxy:            Pragmatism             logical empiricism social epistemology



philosopher                        John Dewey                       Hans Reichenbach           Philip Kitcher


social theory                      Institutionalism                  decision theory                  game theory/

                                   Historicism              operations research         neoclassical econ.


science exists for:            communal welfare unimpeachable truth        valuable information


society is:                a democratic nation          rational individual  a marketplace of

                                                                      multiplied                 ideas


challenge                 national inferiority military dominance           industrial control


the enemy               ignorance                error                          inefficiency





The correlation of regimes of science organization with contrasting philosophical accounts of the relationship of science to society is intended to raise the troubling question: just how effectively have philosophers been able to train their analytical skills upon the complex of problems called ‘social dimensions of science’? Were structural obstacles hampering their comprehension of the interplay of such vexing binaries as the connection of science to democracy, the mutual conditioning of science and the economy, the contrast of the natural to the social, the impact of educational formats upon the flourishing of science, and the impact of science on the constitution of communal aspirations of its clients?  And finally, what do these distinctions imply for the self-understanding of the structure and conduct of the postwar American social sciences?

1. Dewey’s Philosophy for the Masses

The notion of a complete separation of science from the social environment is a fallacy which encourages irresponsibility on the part of scientists regarding the social consequences of their work. (Dewey, 1985, p.483)

For most people, “science is a mystery in the hands of initiates who have become adepts in virtue of following ritualistic ceremonies from which the profane are excluded.” (Dewey, 1927, p.164)


Our contemporaries may not generally regard John Dewey as a philosopher of science in good standing, but nevertheless, that was perhaps the most important facet of his reputation in the first three decades of the 20th century. Dewey was not only the best-known Pragmatist philosopher of his era, but he was also a public intellectual, seeking to make philosophy speak to the most insistent and pressing problems of the general public. Louis Mumford perceptively summed up his crusade as opposition to leisure-class notions of thinking, struggling to replace them with flexible, nondogmatic and democratic modes of thought. In this quest, his characterization of “science” played a pivotal role. In the early 20th century, it was a trite commonplace to assert that science had liberated humanity from earlier metaphysical, primarily theological, fetters; what made Dewey distinct from run-of-the-mill science idolaters was that he realized that contemporary practices of science had rendered any such emancipatory promise not only feeble but deeply implausible, and that if left unchecked, the corruption of this particular ideal would spread to other, even more important cultural values.

To understand Dewey’s reasoning, it is important to first appreciate that science as pursued in pre-Depression America was a very different phenomenon than what we now conceive of as the conventional process and settings of scientific research.[5] Very little support for scientific research was provided by government funds a century ago, and most colleges were not set up to promote scientific research. American higher education was largely patterned upon the liberal education model, providing a generalist moral curriculum to a small proportion of the population not oriented towards vocational training. Indeed, most individuals who sought advanced academic training in the natural sciences had to go abroad, primarily to the German universities, then deemed the best in the world. Outside of a handful of universities, most scientific research was funded by and prosecuted under the auspices of large corporations. Behemoths such as General Electric, duPont, American Telephone and Telegraph, and Eastman Kodak employed the vast majority of scientifically trained personnel in the USA, and even supported a few Nobel Prize winners. The motives for this configuration of privatized science had more to do with the fin de siècle merger wave, antitrust policies and the need for routine in-house testing capabilities in the newer science-based industries, than it had to do with far-sighted innovation policies or benevolent intentions towards the general welfare. Even the funding of the miniscule sphere of academic research into science was conducted on terms dictated by the industrial behemoths. The vast wealth amassed by families such as the Carnegies and the Rockefellers were partially diverted into eponymous foundations in order to “give back” something to the nation that had made them wealthy. Although the entire raison d’être of the foundations was to fund research which was not dictated by the exigencies of the pursuit of profit, these nominally eleemosynary institutions were still run by men whose backgrounds were in corporate bureaucracies, and therefore the very criteria of research funding did not escape the stamp of corporate imperative. For instance, a few favored private (not state-sponsored) universities were encouraged to nurture the role of academic entrepreneur, mimicking the captains of industry whom had provided their seed capital. Grants became patterned upon the business instrument of contracts rather than the previous template of handouts for poor relief. Applications forms, progress reports, bureaucratic peer evaluation and the other trappings of the hierarchical M-form corporation were inserted into research protocols.[6]

The corporate sway over science bore many other consequences for public attitudes towards science, and scientists’ attitudes towards the public. For instance, we now tend to forget that the first formal initiative aimed at shaping the “public understanding of science” dated from the 1920s, with the Scripps Newspaper Service instituting its Science Service in 1921 (Tobey, 1971, p.67). The fact that the bulk of scientifically trained personnel were employed by corporations also was a major conditioning factor behind the cultural fascination with the newly professionalized engineers as a putatively progressive political force in the 1920s. In the popular press, scientific theories were being persistently dragooned into service to justify various forms of elitism, from Social Darwinism to Technocracy to rehashes of the variational principles found in mechanics as grand theories of Natural efficiency. The ambitions of many scientists/engineers to assume credit for the progress of America provoked a reaction in the form of questioning the baleful influence of scientists on their social surroundings.[7] The supposed meritocratic character of science was often parlayed into anti-egalitarian precepts and corporate boosterism; for instance, Robert Millikan told a Chicago audience in 1919, “It is probable that the total possibilities of improvement of conditions through distribution are very limited, while possibilities of improvement through increases of production are incalculable” (quoted in Tobey, 1971, pp.182-3).

This pervasive corporate character of early 20th century American science was the looming backdrop to Dewey’s distress over the relationship of science to society. Science as then practiced constituted a problem because of the way it had been imperfectly integrated into the social fabric. As he wrote, “the concept that natural science somehow sets a limit to freedom, subjecting men to fixed necessities, is not an intrinsic product of science... [but] a reflex of the social conditions under which science is applied so as to reach only a pecuniary function” (1984, p.105). Dewey suspected that that the bureaucratic/ industrial location of the scientist was a prime reason for the encapsulation of the scientific method within the cult of the expert, erecting an artificial barrier between science and society. He bemoaned the phenomenon that, “the idea of experts is substituted for that of philosophers, since philosophy has become something of a joke, while the... expert in operation is rendered familiar and congenial by the rise of the physical sciences and by the conduct of industry” (1927, p.205). Philosophers bore some of the responsibility for this sorry state of affairs, because, “The philosopher’s idea of a complete separation of the mind and the body is realized in thousands of industrial workers” (1984, p.104). How one thought about the process of thinking was shaped by the social structures which enabled the activity of thought. As he wrote in Experience and Nature:

the ulterior problem of thought is to make thought prevail in experience, not just the results of thought by imposing them upon others, but the active process of thinking. The ultimate contradiction in the classic and genteel tradition is that while it made thought universal and necessary and the culminating good of nature, it was content to leave its distribution among men a thing of accident, dependent upon birth, economic and civil status. Consistent as well as humane thought will be aware of the hateful irony of a philosophy which is indifferent to the conditions that determine the occurrence of reason while it asserts the ultimacy and universality of reason. (1981, p.99)

 In retrospect, we can appreciate that Dewey was casting about for a role for the philosopher within the Jazz Age American system of science. Dewey’s alternative to the prevailing cult of the expert was to imagine a different sort of science, a science dedicated to the promotion of communal intelligence, a generic ‘experimental’ method that would be made available to all members of the community as a part of their birthright. Pragmatic knowledge of nature would shade imperceptibly into useful knowledge concerning regularities of communal behavior. In order to counter the corporatist and elitist connotations of science rife in his era, Dewey made a conceptual move that will reverberate down through the remainder of our narrative. Throughout his later career, Dewey concertedly and repeatedly blurred the definitions of “democracy” and “science” prevalent in his lifetime, so that he could conflate the two and provide an counterweight to the forces dragging science away from its liberal and liberationist potential. As he insisted, “democracy is not an alternative to other principles of associated life. It is the idea of community life itself” (1927, p.148.) And from the obverse side, he saw himself, “raising the question of what science can do in making a different sort of world and society. Such a science would be the opposite pole to science conceived merely as a means to special industrial ends” (1984, p.107).

The yoking together of science and democracy was not such an obvious winning combination in the early 20th century context; it had yet to attain its subsequent unassailable American status commensurate with Mom and apple pie. Indeed, Dewey’s book The Public and its Problems was a response to an intellectual current which framed the duo as incompatible in structure and content.[8] As we have observed, a common form of ‘naturalism’ was regularly being used for nativist, racist, anti-egalitarian and conservative ends. But perhaps more disturbing, the spread of empiricist protocols to the newly established academic social sciences were producing observations that suggested conventional understandings of democracy were a sham. Political scientists were demonstrating that the United States government was not at all run by the people for the commonweal, but by a small handful of insiders for their own power and enrichment. Legal realists were documenting that judicial decisions were neither impartial nor logical, but rather the product of powerful interests. Psychologists were demonstrating that the voters were largely irrational and easily swayed by those who controlled the corporate media, particularly newspapers and the new-fangled radio. The sum total of this research portrayed a populace so easily manipulated and exploited that an expanded franchise and enhanced participation in the political process was widely regarded as dangerous, if not foolhardy; the democratic election of fascist parties in Europe only reinforced that impression. Not only was science perceived as intrinsically undemocratic; science when applied to society was uncovering the dark side of democracy. Perhaps there were some stones better left unturned.

Another Jazz Age trend that is oftentimes forgotten today is that there existed a fair degree of academic opposition to the idea that there was or could be a generic ‘science’ which would apply equally to Nature and Society. High-profile figures such as Frank Knight in economics and Pitrim Sorokin in sociology were arguing that the natural sciences (and especially physics) provided misleading paradigms for theory in the social sciences, and were citing German philosophical theses that nothing like the ‘laws’ of physics could be discovered when the subject was society. A general inclination towards evolutionary arguments was being deployed as explanations why there were no absolutes in human experience, and to argue in favor of the essential plasticity of human nature. But this opened the door to the cynical manipulation of the masses by experts. The major opponents to this ‘relativist’ threat in social science were theological, and in particular Catholic, academics who sought to reassert the centrality of values through reimposition of theological absolutes (Purcell, 1973, chap.10). These were not the sort of people Dewey could see himself forging alliances with, and therefore, he was driven to find a ‘third way’ to relegitimize science and democracy.

Dewey’s pathway out of the impasse was to insist that science would cease to undermine liberal democracy and that the corporate sway over science would be progressively diminished if and only if we came to regard science and democracy as inseparable parts of the same communal activity; that is, [a] the practice of democracy would come to resemble science at its best, which was procedurally non-dogmatic and experimental; and [b] more science would be reorganized and conducted in the communal democratic interest. It will prove important for us to get the subtleties of Dewey’s equation of science and democracy correct, because it would very rapidly become corrupted into something very different in World War II, especially under the auspices of Robert Merton and Michael Polanyi and James Conant, something which Dewey personally would have regarded as pernicious, and something which is sometimes mistakenly attributed to Dewey. In World War II, under the imperatives of wartime mobilization of science, the separate, autarkic and self-governing scientific community began to be held up as the icon of what a democratic community could aspire to be, in the guise of an ideal “republic of science”. In this construction, scientists did lay claim to an esoteric expertise in generic rationality inaccessible to (or at least rare for) the common layperson. Dewey could never have been a proponent of this position for a number of reasons, but primarily because the corporate organization of science then dominant could never have been plausibly be portrayed as self-governing in that era;  nor, for that matter, could scientific rationality plausibly have been pictured as politically ‘free’ from corporate imperatives. The separate constitution of the scientific community as a social formation was not yet a conceptual possibility. That could only become conceivable after the war.

Dewey’s reconciliation of science and democracy did not come as a bolt from the blue, but was built up from resources available to him in the 1920s. Philosophy of science was just one component of theories of the social in that era, and not something notionally apart or distinct from them. Economics and psychology were other key components of the conflationist scheme. In Dewey’s case, he left numerous clues that he had made implicit pact with the Institutionalist school of economics and the “habit” school of social psychology, both very active traditions in the contemporary American context.[9] His position bore a number of striking resemblances in particular with the writings of the Institutionalist Thorstein Veblen, one of the very few authors whom he regularly cites (1984, p.102; Westerbrook, 1991, p.310). The pediment of their shared themes was that metaphysics has operated in the past to reinforce existing class relationships in society; hence Dewey united in opposition with Veblen to “leisure class thinking,” first described in the Theory of the Leisure Class. Another was that the “individual” self is constantly under reconstruction in modern society, and therefore the older “individualist” orientation of both epistemology and social science stood as a major obstacle to the constitution of his ideal science. The text Individualism Old and New is primarily one long argument against the classical economic elevation of the ‘natural’ individual as the basis for understanding society:

[T] the chief obstacle to the creation of a type of individual... in whom sociability is one with cooperation in all regular human associations is the persistence of that feature of the earlier individualism which defines industry and commerce by ideas of private pecuniary profit. (1984, p.84)

For Dewey, it was not that the average citizen was woefully ‘irrational’; rather, it was the received portrait of rationality that had led the social scientists astray. In Dewey’s system this implied the rejection of classical Utilitarianism, and consequently, of neoclassical economics:

The idea that there is something inherently ‘natural’ and answerable to ‘natural law’ in the working of economic forces, in contrast with the man-made artificiality of political institutions. The idea of a natural individual in his isolation possessed of fully-fledged wants... and of a ready-made faculty of foresight and prudent calculation is as much a fiction in psychology as the picture of the individual in possession of antecedent political rights is in politics. (p.102)

Veblen famously asked “Why is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science?”; Dewey wanted to equate an evolutionary approach with what he considered to be the “experimental method.” Yet this did not mean mimicking the actual quotidian procedures of the physical scientists, as he repeatedly insisted:

When we say that thinking and beliefs should be experimental, not absolutistic, we have then in mind a certain logic of method, not, primarily, the carrying on of experimentation like that of laboratories. (1927, p.202)  What purports to be experiment in the social field is very different from experiment in natural science. (1939, p.65)


Thus, by seeking to equate ‘good science’ with democracy, Dewey was definitely not appealing to any theories of natural science to underpin theories of democracy: he was no friend of any social physics. His version of pragmatism led him to deflect attention from the ends and content of science, and towards the means through which science was purportedly conducted. Thus he leaned heavily upon the Institutionalist rejection of “natural law” theories of the nature of humanity in order to prevent misunderstanding of what he intended by a scientific democracy. Dewey’s commitments to certain particular social theories were substantively more fervent than have been noticed by later commentators. This is significant, because incipient revolutions in social theory would have direct implications for the plausibility of Dewey’s philosophical theses for his later audiences.

Even writers deeply sympathetic to Dewey’s project have been forced to admit that his matchmaking activities between science and democracy subsequently proved practically barren, a most unhappy prognosis for a pragmatist philosopher. Long passages of clotted prose never led to any practical political programs. “He appeared to have given little thought to the problems and possibilities of participatory government... Dewey had surprisingly little to say about democratic citizenship” (Westbrook, 1991, p.317). Politics, one of his trademark concerns, ended up a lingering embarrassment, rather like a cynical guest at a patriotic gathering. As he wrote, “It is not the business of political philosophy and science to determine what the state in general should or must be” (1927, p.34). More germane to our present concerns, he also made no suggestions as to how scientists could be unshackled from their lab benches in major corporations, much less the imperative of the profit motive; there was no serious consideration of how science was to be paid for at all. One got the impression those questions would be in the nature of details to be worked out in the distant future when, believe it or not, the captains of industry would grow bored and would relinquish their ownership of ‘machine production’ to socialized entities “so that they may devote their energies to affairs which involve more novelty, variation and opportunities for gain” (1927, p.61). And yet, Dewey also seemed to argue that America had the best chance of realizing his vague ideal of democracy as science, raising the bar for human excellence relative to the older, richer, but metaphysically lumbered cultures of Europe, producing a moral and intellectual advance in the career of mankind as a whole. This pie-in-the-sky aspect of Dewey’s thought illustrates the fact that his popularity was frequently more directly attributable to his quest for a non-Marxian lowest common denominator of politics and economics which could attract the allegiance of the broadest array of American left-leaning intellectuals (Purcell, 1973, p.202), than it was to any specific reform agenda.[10]

Yet however toothless and nonspecific his reform program turned out to be in practice, it nonetheless proved to be untenable from World War II onwards, and furthermore, it unintentionally provided the major resource for certain more pointed and virulent doctrines on the social relations of science developed in America in the postwar period. In a subsequent degradation of his program for the conflation of science and democracy, university-accredited scientists came to be said to conduct their activities within an ideal democracy—namely, Merton’s “norms” of universalism, communism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. No longer was democracy-in-the-making deemed a legitimate aspiration for the scientific community at large; instead, it became ossified as the esoteric virtue of the adept within the cloistered monastery of the newly re-engineered American research university. Rationality was increasingly deployed as a logical abstraction, the dogmatic preserve of the expert. These cloistered elect were explicitly absolved of all responsibility for the state of the larger society and its political aspirations. Indeed, this is what Conant and Weaver meant by their championing of “Free Science”. And, in a twisted non sequitur, since America was putatively a democracy, it naturally acceded to the position of premier bastion of legitimate science, in comparison with a decadent and totalitarian Europe. Dewey’s pragmatic stress on means over ends became transmuted into the elevation of pure science over application; Dewey’s critique of corporate science became twisted into a denial of any relevance of economic support to the conduct of science; Dewey’s advocacy of a pragmatic logic of inquiry became the reification of a language of science of almost mystical powers, namely, formal logic and mathematical axiomatization (Reichenbach, 1938, p.49).

We should not be understood as claiming that Robert Merton or anyone else intended this rout. Rather, in World War II and after, the social organization of science had been re-engineered from the ground up, as had the universities and, to a lesser extent, the government. The science/industry partnership so inveighed against by Dewey was being replaced with a science/military partnership: Science had become betrothed to the State, but not in any way Dewey had imagined. Further, philosophers had learned in the interim a different way to make themselves useful. The world that had been the reference point of Dewey’s philosophy no longer existed, so it was a foregone conclusion that Dewey’s account of the social relations of science could no longer resonate with either the scientists themselves, a newer generation of philosophers, or with the broader public.


2. Reichenbach’s Philosophy for the Operations Researcher

No human being is completely rational, i.e., makes decisions strictly according to the balance of probabilities and valuations. The decision may depend on emotional factors, which vary from moment to moment, such as an ‘itch to fight’, or inversely, an indolence to the challenge of reason. If a decision is made not by one person but by a body of persons, such as a government, there are further random factors to be envisaged....the tiredness or sickness of leaders; the inertia of bureaucracy; the pleading of voices of people frightened by the horrors of war, constitute factors which may deter from a decision for war. All these factors are random factors; their effects are unpredictable and may extend in a positive or negative direction. (Reichenbach, 1949, p.9)


The philosopher James Robert Brown has written: “One of the travesties of current science studies debates is the branding of the positivists as political reactionaries... Dealing with political issues meant as much or more to Neurath, Carnap, Frank and Hahn as coming to grips with science for its own sake” (2001, p.54). There is no doubt that politics mattered for the logical empiricist movement; but the rather imprecise characterizations of the actual history which are exemplified by comments such as the above are yet another symptom of the weaknesses of contemporary philosophers in their quest to pronounce upon the ‘social dimensions of science’. In this particular instance, the choice of relevant representatives of the positivist movement is more than a little misleading: with the exception of Carnap, none played much of a role in the professionalization of academic philosophy of science in the American context.[11] There is also the unfortunate tendency to think that, just because someone has identified himself as some species of ‘socialist’, then that immediately absolves them from any accusations of reactionary political activity.[12]  For the reasons we shall outline below, it will prove rather too hasty to hew to the conviction that, “Logical positivism was a casualty of the cold war, not one of its villains” (Reisch, 2002, p.391).

The predominant fact about American science at mid-century was the assumption of its funding and organization by the military during World War II, establishing a novel regime of science management which lasted well into the 1980s.[13] As one can readily appreciate, this opened up a Pandora’s Box of problems for the relationship of science to society in general and democracy in particular, problems that the various constituencies identified in this narrative were anxious to address. Scientists recruited to the war effort were quick to realize that their newfound largesse came freighted with dangers and responsibilities. One response in Britain was the previously mentioned “Social Planning of Science” movement of Patrick Blackett and J.D. Bernal, which provoked a hostile response by Michael Polanyi, Friedrich von Hayek and others (McGuckin, 1984). The latter conceived of their crusade as broadly ‘anti-positivist’, in that Otto Neurath was a prime target of their disdain (Uebel, 2000a). This dispute was closely related to another, which also tended to draw upon Viennese intellectual resources, namely, the ‘socialist calculation controversy’, of which Otto Neurath was again a major protagonist. While some modern philosophers are sometimes quick to point to Neurath as someone attuned to our fin de siècle conundrums, it should be remembered that he bore little relevance for those weathering the seachange in science regimes in postwar America. Denunciations of ambitions for the planning of science for social ends, such as those mooted by Neurath, were the stock in trade of Vannevar Bush, James Conant and Warren Weaver; but ironically, these were the primary protagonists in the wartime mobilization of science in America, the very people assigning the research tasks and cutting the checks. Indeed, when the first refugees from the Vienna Circle such as Carnap and Reichenbach were seeking to find their footing in their newfound home, it was Weaver to whom they first turned to for support.[14]

 While public figures such as John Dewey had been talking about the social planning of science in a vague way before the war, the prospect of government direction of scientific research had abruptly become a much more tangible prospect in the US with the advent of the MIT Radiation Lab, the Manhattan Project, and a host of lesser mobilizations. The programs of science mobilization in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany also had to be somehow distinguished from what was going on in America, if only to soothe anxieties about the global corruption of science and maintenance of the real source of American exceptionalism. It was the very palpability of a model for ‘socialist’ planning provided by military mobilization – an important theme in Neurath’s writings (Cartwright et al, 1996, pp.14-18) -- which called forth a response to the perceived dangers of the reorganization of the social relations of science then in progress. And then, we must never forget, after 1945 there lurked the vexed issue of the relationship of a democracy to the production and use of the Bomb. Philosophers were a little slow off the mark to respond to these controversies; but they soon took their cue from some natural and social scientists who had to come to rapid accommodation with the gales of change buffeting them from all sides.

It was these wartime-induced anxieties that prompted the first real appearance of the conceptual innovation of a free-floating “scientific community” which purportedly subsisted autonomously from the larger culture in which it was situated. Some scholars have argued that such a notion was not seriously entertained prior to the writings of Michael Polanyi (Jacobs, 2002); others credit Merton. This, as we have already hinted in the previous section, was the key innovation that utterly transformed the terms of debate concerning the relationship of science to society. Yet the watershed was not simply conceptual; it was anchored in unprecedented innovations of social identities for scientists in wartime. When scientists were recruited into the military during World War II, they were very much concerned to differentiate themselves from the mass of conscripted manpower, but also exercise a fair amount of discretion in the deployment of their expertise. What began as scientists serving as glorified troubleshooters for the creation and deployment of new weapons systems such as radar and the atomic bomb was transformed by the scientists themselves into a never-before permitted institutional adjunct to the military, namely, as cadres of experts in a generic ‘scientific method’ whose remit was to assist in the generation of rational strategy and tactics for battle. These scientists were frequently contemptuous of tradition or ‘conventional’ military doctrine that they encountered, and sought to replace it with what they regarded as ‘empirical’ methods. In practice, much of this methodological innovation consisted in the imposition of physical models, especially those adapted from thermodynamics and mechanics, upon abstract agglomerations of men and machines. Because the quantum physics and nuclear cross-sections so bound up with the radar and atomic weapons that occupied their attentions were so dependent upon stochastic formalisms, facility with probability theory tended to be a hallmark of their models.  This “profession”, which did not even exist before WWII, grew rapidly during the war, and came to be known in the USA as “Operations Research” or OR.

While it would be impossible to adequately summarize the scope and content of OR in the space of this paper, it will be indispensable to appreciate that OR was a practical response to the problems and paradoxes of the military planning and organization of science in mid-century.[15] Physicists such as Patrick Blackett, Philip Morse, George Gamow, and Ivan Getting,  as well as mathematicians such as John von Neumann and Richard Bellman and their comrades wanted to enjoy the military largesse but maintain a fair amount of latitude in evading direct control by the military. Indeed, they believed that they were far smarter than your average lieutenant colonel, and should be allowed to run things as they saw fit; in effect, they wanted to exist simultaneously within but apart from the military chain of command. They wanted to be paid by the military but not really be in the military; as physicists, they wanted to do social research for the military but not become confused with social scientists; they wanted to tell others what to do, but not be held responsible for the commands given. After the war, they wanted to return to their university posts without having to relinquish their lucrative military ties. To be granted these extraordinary dispensations, they had to innovate new roles that embodied this delicate amalgam of engagement and aloofness. The construct of the “operations researcher” was the professional device which fostered the reconciliation of these conflicting demands; significantly for our present concerns, it also became the empirical template for the idea of a free-floating ‘scientific community,’ distinguished by its possession of a special expertise rooted in a generic ‘scientific method’, subsisting with a fair degree of autonomy within but apart from a larger social community. OR was the anvil upon which the postwar relationship between scientists and the American state was hammered out; once successful, the blade was then turned to carve out a new model of society that could be amenable to the rapprochement of science and the military. OR provided much of the metallic durability and intellectual firepower for postwar American social sciences like decision theory, organization theory, management theory and neoclassical economics; but it also provided the framework for Cold War philosophy of science.

I do not intend this thesis as to be regarded as trafficking in vague ‘influences’ and murky insinuations about science tainted by military dollars. I am instead pointing out that the professionalization of American philosophy of science in the immediate postwar era grew directly out of the soil of Operations Research; that major figures of the logical empiricist movement in America served their country in dual capacities as operations researchers; that the editors of the flagship journal Philosophy of Science in the critical transition period, C. West Churchman (1951-9) and Richard Rudner (1960-75), were better known as operations researchers; that philosophers of science were employed at major OR research centers such as RAND (a fact discussed below). Much of the content of so-called ‘analytical philosophy’ in that period, ranging from its disdainful attitudes towards surrounding disciplines (not to mention its own history) to its preferred mathematical formalisms, is easily recognizable in its family resemblance to the contemporary subsets of OR known as decision theory and formal computational logic. The fascination with physics as the first science among equals reprised the historical fact that OR was first instituted by physicists for the protection and promotion of physics; the presumption that one could proceed to formalize the behavior of rational empirical man innocent of any familiarity with or acknowledgment of the social sciences which supposedly were already concerned with them was also an echo of the credo of the operations researcher.[16] The conviction that prior practitioners simply did not sufficiently appreciate ‘the facts’ was the complaint most frequently launched by operations researchers against their military patrons. The roots of postwar American philosophy of science in OR is the smoking gun that critics of the thesis (Hudelson & Evans, 2003) that the Cold War shaped the philosophy profession have been insisting did not exist.

Rather than try and document these generalizations for an entire generation, we shall here be reduced to settle for a brief account of a representative figure of this movement, Hans Reichenbach. Reichenbach’s career began in Stuttgart and then the Berlin Circle for empirical philosophy, where he had garnished a reputation as a socialist radical. Indeed, a certain political intolerance makes its appearance in his earliest writings:

Socialism not only teaches us a new form of society, but also shows us the way to reach it. It starts from the idea that we cannot sit and wait until mankind as a whole undergoes a rational awakening and introduces socialism of its own free will, as the rational form of society; instead we must exploit the economic development of present-day society in such a way that socialism will be forcibly introduced rather sooner. (1978, I, p.149)

 The rise of the National Socialists and the Race Laws of 1933 forced him out of Berlin and into exile in Turkey for five years, after which he managed to get an appointment at UCLA in 1938. Reichenbach’s tribulations did not end there, for he had to suffer the indignity of house arrest as an “enemy alien” during a portion of WWII. Nevertheless, Reichenbach did ultimately flourish in Southern California until his death in 1953.  Along with Rudolf Carnap’s appointment at the University of Chicago in 1936, and Herbert Feigl’s move to Iowa in 1931, his professorship was conceded to be one of the pivotal outposts for the promulgation of logical positivism throughout the American landscape (Giere, 1996).

Reichenbach’s positivism, as is well known, began with detailed examinations of recent theoretical developments in physics for the purpose of drawing out epistemological lessons. While he sought to derive anti-Kantian morals from the theory of relativity and uncover anomalies for standard ideas of causality from contemporary interpretations of quantum mechanics, he also was an advocate of some larger themes which bore relevance for the “defense” of science against those he deemed its detractors. For instance, he thought that one task of the philosophy of science was to provide criteria for the distinction between propositions that might be deemed conventional and those which were incorrigibly empirical in the language of physics. In Experience and Prediction, he divided knowledge up into those propositions which were governed by the ideal of truth, which were the province of logic, and those which were motivated by “volitional resolutions”, which he called conventions. Conventions often masqueraded as logical statements, but in fact were nothing more than bald “decisions” in Reichenbach’s lexicon. “Decisions” were neither true nor false, but nevertheless the philosopher could offer advice concerning their efficacy by, among other things, pointing out whether they were consistent with one another (1938, pp.9-13). Those familiar with “decision theory” in OR will recognize their discipline in embryo here in 1930s logical positivism.[17]

Whereas one might characterize the program of the ‘Left Wing’ of Logical Positivism as an attempt to integrate scientists more closely with each other and with society, Reichenbach early on (even before his emigration to America) conceived of the program as more aloof; for instance, he did not subscribe to Neurath’s “Unity of Science” movement:

The word Unity of science does not at all express what we want. It is unfortunate enough that this term has been used for the Encyclopaedia, but it should by no means be used for the journal. … The unity of science is not our program, but a special thesis maintained by some among us, or even by all of us if the term is sufficiently widely interpreted. As a program it would mean: calling all men of science together to cooperate for their special purposes, for instance summoning the biologists to use physical measurements, or the physicists to consider the physics of the human body. Now such a program though perhaps desirable is certainly out of our intentions and out of our reach. If we invite men of science to cooperate this is always in the special purpose to discuss the foundations of knowledge. Thus what characterizes our program is the study of the foundation of knowledge, and not the cooperation of all men of science; the latter will always be nothing but a means to our purpose, and we even would not hesitate to declare that sometimes the analysis of the foundations is better made by specialists than by the scientists themselves. [18]


 Reichenbach never passed up an opportunity to vent his distaste for traditional wisdom, which he associated with the conventional character of certain epistemological precepts; and was unapologetic about his contempt for history. Another task he undertook was the demonstration of the ‘fact’ that physics had managed to solve the problem of induction, largely by means of formal models of statistical inference.[19] Perusal of his later popular works, such as the Rise of a Scientific Philosophy, shows that these projects melded imperceptibly into a defense of science as having stood stalwart and incorruptible, arrayed against Marxism  (eg., 1953, pp. 71-2) and Fascism; not such an unusual conviction for one who had endured the types of persecution which he had suffered. It is noteworthy that the way in which Reichenbach went about this project was to posit the existence of a formal logic not readily accessible to the general public, conceived as a ‘language’ that served to inoculate the scientific elect against the irrationality that plagued many nations in the 1930s and 1940s. Science, he maintained, was situated beyond dispute by the layman; and the only people who could really appreciate this immunity were those who had taken the trouble to have immersed themselves in the technicalities of physics and mathematical logic: “technicalities, not dialectic, is the instrument of modern philosophy” (1978, p.253). This was also the program of Carnap, the other major emigré representative of Logical Positivism in America: “It is the task of logic and mathematics within the total system of knowledge to supply the forms of concepts, statements and inference, forms which are then applicable everywhere, hence also to non-logical knowledge” (1963, p.12).

The retreat to technicalities did not altogether banish any consideration of older themes of the relationship of science to democracy, those troublesome holdovers from the earlier Pragmatist tradition. In Rise, Reichenbach portrays the scientist as governed by an algorithmic logic, but by contrast the general populace as governed by ‘volitions’, which he then proceeded to equate with ‘preferences’.[20] Although he does not make much of it, this move signals his implicit endorsement of the type of social theory that starts with given individual preferences of convenient properties, such as that found in neoclassical economics.[21] Logic is subject to codification by the philosopher, but “it is therefore irrelevant where volitions come from, and we do not ask... whether we are conditioned to our volitions by the milieu in which we grew up” (1953, p.282). We are then informed that “moral volitional decisions on the part of the speaker” (p.291), and from this he concludes that “Science tells us what is, but not what should be”.

 Curiously, the first time that democracy is mentioned by Reichenbach is with respect to the precept that, “everybody is entitled to set up his own moral imperatives and demand that everyone else follow these imperatives” (p.295), which constitutes his working definition of democracy. Conflict is to be expected amongst the laity, because all they do is blindly try and thrust their inexplicable and incompatible desires and volitions upon one another. Scientists qua scientists had managed to avoid all that (and corruption by Fascists, etc...) by conforming to the dictates of a logic of empirical evidence, and therefore were located in a space situated outside of the democratic sphere. Note well that science is not portrayed as an arena for the democratic hashing out of workable ethics and values, because science is not conceived as a part of society at all. As Reichenbach put it bluntly, “Science is its own master and recognizes no authority beyond its confines” (1953, p.214). Dewey had effectively been banished. But by then, so had any encompassing notion of democracy.

Reichenbach was not afraid to upbraid Dewey directly for not maintaining adequate separation of science from society in his famous essay in the Schlipp volume on Dewey’s philosophy. Although as to be expected Reichenbach berated Dewey for his lack of ‘technique’ (“philosophic analysis of modern science cannot be achieved without a profound study of mathematical methods”), it is important to observe that he also backhandedly acknowledged a major source of their difference came in how they approached the social implications of their respective philosophies. In a most dubious rhetorical move, Reichenbach tried to make it appear that he, and not Dewey, was the standard bearer of a solid intellectual basis for the advocacy of socialism:

There are ethical systems which for instance consider the idea that private property is sacrosanct as a demonstrable truth in the same sense it is demonstrable that private property is destructible by fire. It is the danger of pragmatism that its theory of reality is made to order for ethical theories of this type, although the pragmatists themselves may not intend these implications. (1989, p.180)


The Popperians were among the first to flag this sort of argumentation as illegitimately stacking the deck against democracy and free inquiry. For them, “democracy requires a view of rationality that permits dissent, and inductive logic forbids it” (Agassi, 1995, p.158). The situation was even more indefensible once one finally realized that the positivists could never really settle upon the unique inductive formalism which supposedly governed the scientists’ activities: in that situation, the positivists had failed in providing anything approaching a logical criterion which would demarcate the scientist from any other political actor.

Although [the positivists] have not found the right inductive rule,[22] they know that it should justify established scientific opinion, and so they demand that everyone follow this still-not-known rule of induction and endorse received scientific opinion under pain of being branded irrational. (Agassi, 1995, p.158)


The other place in which Reichenbach drove home his separation of science from society was in his infamous distinction between a context of discovery and a context of justification, which first appeared in his Experience and Nature (1938, pp.6-7). He wrote there that “epistemology is only occupied in constructing the context of justification”, but curiously enough for a topic relegated to the category of the descriptive tasks of epistemology, the philosopher would not recover the actual social modes of argumentation and reason, but rather a “rational reconstruction” of what should have been said according to the canons of the philosopher. Not only was a wedge being driven between philosophy and sociology, but another was driven between the actual prosecution of science and its supposed logical structure (1938, p.381). As has frequently been noted, it was a convenient immunization stratagem for the logical positivists to prevent their theory of the scientific method from ever being falsified with data from the history of actual scientific inquiry: “all this is a logical reconstruction. It was never intended to be an account of the origin and development of scientific theories” (Feigl, 1969, p.17). But it was also much more than that. In Rise of Scientific Philosophy, Reichenbach tied adherence to the distinction to the very legitimacy of a logic of inductive inference. There he admits that induction could never help the scientist find a new theory (a point made much more cogently by the pragmatist C.S. Peirce), but could only used to evaluate it after the fact. “The act of discovery escapes logical analysis... But it is not the logician’s task to account for scientific discoveries... logic is concerned only with the context of justification” (1953, p.231). Developments categorized as falling within the context of discovery were placed upon the same epistemic plane as ‘volitions’: one did not ask where they came from. This policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” proved extremely awkward for his philosophical system, since it threatened to situate a major component of what everyone else thought of as science, namely, its capacity to generate novel explanations of phenomena, stranded outside of the cloistered ideal community of scientists, and leave it mired in the irrational bog of “society”. Nevertheless, it would prove indispensable for his political program. It was almost as though the later Reichenbach was so driven to erect impermeable floodgates between science and society that he was willing to risk the interior of his citadel providing shelter for the diminished scientific status quo as containing a few ‘reputable’ physicists and hardly anyone else. Insofar as any of the Geisteswissenschaften sought similar scientific status, they too built their own impregnable proud tower, situated beyond profane time and space.

Perhaps it commits the Whig fallacy, but it now seems a bit difficult to understand why anyone would find this version of ‘positivism’ compelling on its face.[23] The answer tendered in this paper is that the explanation must be sought in the pact which postwar American philosophy of science made with Operations Research. Put bluntly, it was no accident that so very much of Reichenbach’s later philosophy resembled the attitudes and content characteristic of postwar OR, because for a short while, they were actually one and the same. The idolization of physics, the contempt for tradition, the insistence upon a generic ‘scientific method’ based on logic and probability and indifferently portable to any subject or discipline, the crusading stance as rooting out ‘error’ which besets the masses, the role of the philosopher as a consultant therapist for decision theory, the postulation of a closed corporate priesthood who possessed sole control of these esoteric methods, the suggestion that the problem of induction had been dissolved by statistical algorithms, the conflation of mathematical prowess with intellectual virtue, and the assertion that the advice provided was pitched somewhere beyond ethics or morality, were all hallmarks of American OR. Operations Research had began as a negotiation to create a separate social identity for scientists operating in a semi-autonomous capacity within the military; postwar logical positivism ended up as an ideology of science in general as a virtual community separate and autonomous from the social system as a whole.

The symbiotic pact between OR and logical positivist philosophy of science would not have flourished if it did not take root in fertile ground. There were a number of circumstances specific to the postwar American context which were propitious for the graft. The first and most important was the shift in science funding and management from industry dominance to military dominance. The various protocols worked out during World War II – viz., that scientists would conduct research under contracts that were issued by the military but managed through their universities, that they would be subject to indirect controls through security clearances and classification of secrets, that downstream development would be the province of the military science managers, that bureaucratic evaluation would be deployed through ‘peer review,’ that grant overheads could buy off the principal investigator’s academic obligations to his home institution – all militated in favor of treating the scientist as though she were a member of a community apart from the general run of intellectual life. This reification of a separate and unequal science reflected a Cold War truth in a manner it never could have done under the previous industrial regime of science organization. The notion of the scientist as sequestered in an ivory tower was encouraged by the military, especially once a few of the elect physicists had suffered crises of conscience about ‘knowing sin’ after the dropping of the Bomb. The notion that scientists somehow were members of a commonwealth apart from society became smoothly integrated with the oft-intoned refrain that they could not be held responsible for how their discoveries in “pure science” were put to use by “others”. Of course, the very plausibility of the notion of a free-floating “pure science” detached from its prospective utility and retrospective funding was itself the product of a fair amount of legal and economic construction initiated by the military.[24]

The relationship of military-organized science to democracy was perhaps the issue most fraught with controversy in the immediate postwar period. The military and the Operations Researchers shared a jaundiced view of democracy when it came to their profession of prosecuting wars, and the suppression of democratic debate over the use of the Bomb was viewed by many in the political classes as a betrayal of fundamental principles which the Bomb was conceived nominally to protect. Dewey’s blind faith in democracy had, therefore, to be revised in the Cold War era. OR theorists responded to the call, and went to work describing various ways in which democratic decision procedures were ‘irrational’ when it came to such momentous choices.[25] The most famous of these doctrines produced at RAND was the “Arrow Impossibility Theorem,” based directly upon the assumptions of neoclassical economic theory: “If we exclude the possibility of interpersonal comparisons of utility, then the only methods of passing from individual tastes to social preferences which will be satisfactory...are either imposed or dictatorial... the doctrine of voters’ sovereignty is incompatible with that of collective rationality” (Arrow, 1951, pp.59-60). The upshot of this claim was that market expression of citizen preferences was a faithful and dependable representation of their desires, whereas standard majority voting procedures were not. This was an extremely felicitous Cold War doctrine from the military viewpoint, since it suggested that the military was legitimately defending the welfare of the citizenry by allowing them free choice in their purchases while simultaneously conducting the national defense without the need for their explicit political acquiescence. This “double truth” doctrine had its exact parallel in Reichenbach’s separation between science and society: scientists were furthering the welfare of the citizenry by allowing them free choice in the ‘products’ of their endeavors in the marketplace while conducting their fundamental research without the need for prior accommodation or any explicit political acquiescence.[26] Democratic procedures were best kept well clear from such activities.

The Cold War also constituted a watershed in the history of the American social sciences. The earlier orthodoxies of Institutionalist economics and habit psychology had suffered precipitous declines during the war and after (Yonay, 1998; Mirowski, 2002). Hence Dewey’s program to ‘naturalize’ philosophical inquiry, insofar as it bore its commitments to these particular social science doctrines on its sleeve, was increasingly seen as backing the wrong horse. Not only would European émigrés find these commitments utterly unintelligible, but indigenous philosophers would also be aware of more concertedly ‘scientific’ trends in economics and psychology (often jump started in America by other European émigrés.) Psychology grew more behaviorist and individualistic under wartime exigencies, and neoclassical economics rose to dominance in this time period. The gambling metaphor was suffused throughout postwar psychology (Goldstein & Hogarth, 1997, p.10), and as Reichenbach himself put it (1953, p.248), “the scientist resembles a gambler more than a prophet.” It is again no accident that both these movements in economics and psychology were themselves linked to OR, especially beholden to it for their trademark mathematical models and statistical protocols; any philosophy willing to posit the motivations of the larger public as volitions/preferences and the rationality of the scientist as algorithmic optimization would find that their doctrines would resonate with a new postwar cross-disciplinary orthodoxy of the sciences of man. Thus OR reshaped both the social sciences and the philosophy of science in America. Philosophy as the logical ratiocination of the isolated individual, cocooned with his identical brethren in research universities away from the temptations of the crass world of the public, was born.

The exact character of the role of the market in OR and logical positivism was also rooted in the politics of the immediate postwar era. How could the logical positivists have been such pliant Cold Warriors when they identified themselves as socialists? Here is where left/right distinctions should not be taken for granted as dictating political affiliations, but need to be translated into the specific spatio-temporal context. The fact of the matter was that in the 1950s, the OR profession was itself a veritable hotbed of self-identified socialists, both in Britain and in the US. The reason for this incongruous fact was that they were staffed by people who regarded themselves as applying scientific methods of command, planning and control to improve the efficiency of social action undertaken by groups such as armies and governments. It should be remembered that the military constituted the largest planned economy in any Western nation, and that the safest way to ward off perilous accusations of being ‘soft on communism’ and ‘un-American’ (a heightened concern for those having recently emigrated) was to sport a military clearance. A certain type of non-Marxian socialist found the broad church of Operations Research a most congenial shelter from the storms of the McCarthy era; Reichenbach fit right in.[27] An American socialist (who was also a European refugee?) in the Cold War would have enthusiastically embraced the notion that science existed in a world apart from the world they were forced to live in.

Hans Reichenbach did not just resemble an Operations Researcher in the immediate postwar period; he became an Operations Researcher. As his student Norman Dalkey (himself a RAND employee) informs us (in Reichenbach, 1978, p.51), Reichenbach signed on as a consultant at RAND in 1948, that is, very soon after it broke away from Douglas Aircraft and reconstituted itself as a free-standing non-profit corporation.[28] So what would a logical positivist philosopher be doing in a military think tank dedicated to “thinking the unthinkable” about nuclear war? The clarification begins with comments by another Operations Researcher who came to RAND in 1951, Albert Wohlstetter:

I had known some of the first people who were on the RAND staff because they were also mathematical logicians: J.C.C. McKinsey, and Olaf Helmer, and also M.A. Girschick... [they told me about] one of the most important contributions to metamathematics by Alfred Tarski, which had never been published, which showed that it was possible to get a decision method, an entschidungsverfahren, for a rather large and rich section of classical geometry, corresponding to high school geometry... Well, that was very interesting to mathematicians. I was surprised, however, to find that RAND, this organization that worked for the Air Force, was publishing a research memorandum by Tarski which presented this result, because it didn’t seem to me [back then] to have much directly to do with strategic bombing or anything of that sort.... we just ran into Abe Girschick, Olaf Helmer and Chen McKinsey on the street, and they were overjoyed to see us. Mathematical logic was a very, very small world. There were only a little over a dozen mathematical logicians before the war in the US, and two jobs in mathematical logic. For the rest, you had to teach calculus, as Chen McKinsey did, or philosophy of something of that sort.[29]

Prior to the Cold War, career options in mathematical logic and formalist philosophy of science were miniscule to non-existent, as this comment acknowledges. When OR units at RAND, Stanford and elsewhere began to hire mathematical logicians at “unprecedentedly remunerative’ rates (Quine, 1985, p.217) with military funding, this fostered the basis for the professionalization of these disciplines in postwar America. During the war many logicians had worked on cryptography, command and control, and the development of the electronic computer, so they were predisposed to become integrated into the burgeoning world of the defense intellectual after the war. For these reasons, RAND stood out as the locus of the densest concentration of mathematical logicians in the USA in the 1950s. Furthermore, RAND was predisposed to hire a particular type of formalist philosopher: as another RAND consultant, Willard von Orman Quine put it, “young philosophers of the Carnap persuasion” (1985, p.217). RAND did not employ this specialized class of philosophers because they were especially interested in the “elimination of metaphysics through the logical analysis of formal language” or anything else of that sort, but rather because the logical positivist program could readily be subordinated to the objectives of the Operations Researchers, as we have enumerated above.

The fact that the logical empiricist program in the US owed its good fortune to OR has not previously been the subject of much commentary, at least in part because the linkage has been suppressed by the participants themselves. We must remember that a precondition of joining the defense establishment was a willingness to submit to its stringent requirements concerning classification, secrecy and the “double truth” doctrine. In my experience, the vitas and bibliographies of the figures in question omit their military papers; their archives have been ‘sanitized’ of most of their military records; their collected works have blank pages. In their retrospective accounts, if they mention their ties at all, they tend to treat them as “boondoggles” (Quine, 1985, p.217), “diversions” (Davidson in Hahn, 1999, p.32) and other trivial pursuits. Even figures who are a bit more open about their RAND experience, like Nicholas Rescher (1997a, chap.8), are still noticeably reticent about discussing exactly what it was they did under those auspices. The RAND archives themselves, long after the Fall of the Wall, are still effectively closed to many outside researchers. The dense web of interconnections which tied the fledgling OR community to the following important figures in postwar philosophy of science still awaits its historian: Olaf Helmer, Carl Hempel, Paul Oppenheim, Alfred Tarski, Willard Quine, John Kemeny, J.C.C. McKinsey, Patrick Suppes, Donald Davidson, Nicholas Rescher, Paul Kecksemeti, Fred Bales, Leonard Savage and Rudolf Carnap (Reisch, 2003, chap.17). The ability of Reichenbach to get his students (such as Dalkey and Abraham Kaplan) jobs at RAND is a subject that will bear scrutiny. However, we can give some idea of the shape that influence took in the work of Hans Reichenbach.

Norman Dalkey (in Reichenbach, 1978, p.52) informs us that Reichenbach wrote at least three papers for RAND while a consultant there. Two of them, both dated 1949, were “General Form of the Probability for War” RAND D-515, and “Rational Reconstruction of the Decision for War”, RAND D-539. The objectives of these papers, consonant with the general orientation of OR at that time, was “Based on a rational reconstruction of Russia’s doctrines, [to] supply the mathematical form of the probability that Russia will go to war” (1949, p.23). While one rather doubts that any American war planner ever even entertained Reichenbach’s master equations #35 and #36, much less found them useful, their significance from our present perspective is the extent to which they resemble his formalization of the inductive problems of the scientist, and the way in which they draw a distinction between the ‘scientific’ approach to war and the less-than-rational ‘political’ approach presumed to hold sway over other sorts of social formations. Reichenbach starts out by distinguishing between an empiricist approach—ie., actual intelligence gathering—and a “rational reconstruction” of the decision to go to war, an “imagining ourselves in the enemy’s place”, which was the nature of his own exercise. His free flight of imagination is disciplined by the postulation of a “valuation function” resembling the utility function of neoclassical economics and Reichenbach’s own ‘volitional’ preferences discussed above, as well as construction of a formal model of inductive inference. While the decision to go to war sounds a whole lot like the decision whether or not evidence confirms a scientific theory in his account, the problem with understanding the enemy (as Reichenbach conceives it) is that he susceptible to all sorts of irrational motivations (see the quote heading this section). Reichenbach’s solution is to treat these irrational elements as random, and adjust the model with a parameter Ƙ to allow for the “degree of rationality” of the enemy (1949, p.13). He then discusses the possibility of the empirical estimation of ĸ, but worries that it observationally indistinguishable from another variable he calls “the scale of decision ratings”; to thwart the threatening underdetermination problem, he then posits a “coordinative definition”, a theme borrowed from his earlier work on the philosophy of space and time.

This paper helps reveal the ways in which OR did not give rise to the philosophy of logical positivism, but it most certainly transformed it in the American context as a prelude to launching it as the characteristically professionalized philosophy of science that came to dominate the American landscape. Many of the representative themes are present there: the sharp separation between scientific rationality and social structures (as if the Russians did not have their own Operations Researchers!), the suspicion of democracy, the contempt for history and cultural considerations, the conflation of social groups with individual agency, the confusion of statistical inference with scientific method, the portrayal of science as algorithmic, the veiled endorsement of Western economics through recourse to a behaviorist ‘decision theory’, the posturing concerning agnosticism about values, the underestimation of the difficulties of empiricism (especially with regard to the underdetermination of theory by evidence), the conflation of mathematical logic with human rationality, the absence of any actual empirical evidence, the psychological metaphor of gambling, the claim to esoteric expertise. Some holdouts from the previous Pragmatist school may not have wanted to subscribe to much of this, but then they had less and less to say about it, as they were left out in the cold by the postwar reorganization of academic science by the military.


3. The Past, and a bit of the Future

The historian of science Peter Galison (1996) has argued that the Logical Positivist movement was ‘depoliticized’ when it crossed the ocean from Vienna to Chicago (and beyond). The article argues that this notion is insufficient, and perhaps a little misleading, once one actually widens one’s perspective to include the social sciences. Logical Empiricism, as well as neoclassical economics and political theory, were revised by their encounter with Operations Research, and the result was a whole new toolkit and orientation for all concerned. Positivism did become central to the self-image and identity of the American social sciences, in part because some key theoretical terms like “democracy” and “rationality” had become endowed with new meanings. Although we have declined to do so here, it can be argued that this process continues down to the present day as we bid farewell to the Cold War regime of science and welcome in the regime of Globalized Privatization, as suggested in Section 1.

One relatively safe prediction is that the social sciences will continue to be recruited to help jointly redefine both ‘science’ and ‘society’ in the interests of fostering the impression that contemporary organization of inquiry is (once again) exquisitely tuned to produce the best of all possible worlds. If this involves exhuming a few selected Logical Positivists and tarting them up with a  fashionable makeover, then so be it: it won’t be the first time that the paymasters of science had to pay a visit to the undertaker.







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[1] For present purposes I will define the original logical positivists as Otto Neurath, Rudolf Carnap, and Hans Reichenbach. For the recent revival, see, for instance, (Cartwright et al, 1996; Reisch, 2002, 2003; Richardson, 2002; Gimbel, 2003; Uebel, 2004)

[2] Neurath explicitly argued that, “it is politically important to support activities which emphasize empirical and pragmatic philosophies, since Fascism and Communism depend essentially on metaphysical doctrines” (in Reisch, 2003, chap. 15).

[3] Here we would especially mention Hollinger, (1996); Purcell, (1973) and Westbrook (1991) as having provided important clues.

[4] The concept of regimes of science organization in America is discussed at some length in Philip Mirowski & Esther-Mirjam Sent, (2002) and Mirowski (2003).

[5] Descriptions of early 20th century science are taken from Reingold (1991); Shinn, (2003); McGrath, (2002) and sources cited in Mirowski & Sent, (2002). The failures of early 20th century attempts to garnish government support for science are recounted in Tobey, (1971).

[6] The corporate character of early foundations and their effect on scientific research in the early 20th century is discussed in Kohler (1991).

[7] See, for instance, Clarence Ayres (1927, p.275): “Scientists frequently argue that apart from making science one’s profession, the chief advantage to be obtained from the study of science is the scientific mind: freedom from dogma, hospitality to unexpected truth, the experimental attitude... Theoretically, all may gain these insights. But actually, only a few of us have ever done so. Theoretically, we might become a scientific people; but we have not, and are not likely to, except in the sense in which we are now a Christian people.” In a curious incident in 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote a letter to Science in which he suggested that scientists and engineers were not doing enough to help society “absorb the shocks of the impact of science” (in McGrath, 2002, p.50).

[8] This case has been made with great insight by Purcell (1973) and Westbrook (1991).

[9] On the history of Institutionalist economics, consult: (Mirowski, 1988; Rutherford, 1994, Yonay, 1998) On habit psychology, see: (Camic, 1986; Dalton, 2002; Westerbrook, 1991, pp. 286-93; Ayres, 1927, chap. 22). His periodic discussions at Columbia with another of the leading Institutionalist figures, Wesley Clair Mitchell, is documented in Mitchell’s (1969, vol. II, p.450)

[10] This may have some relevance for coming to comprehension of Richard Rorty’s quest to revive Dewey for the modern reader. Rorty distances himself from Dewey’s “habit of announcing a bold new positive program when all he offers, and all he needs to offer, is criticism of the tradition” (quoted in Cahn, 1977, p.56). A very interesting exercise that situates Rorty in his social context, as we have attempted to do here for Dewey, is Gross (2003).

[11] On this point, see Howard (2003a). Ron Giere has reminded us that, “The European origins of logical empiricism are not intellectually continuous with its later development in North America... It is with this fact that any future history of logical empiricism in North America must begin” (1996, p.336).

[12] That appears to be the thrust of comments such as the following: “A socialist and an internationalist, Carnap nevertheless lived through situations which demanded defense, retreat, self-criticism, stubborn decency, maximal intelligence about minimal possibilities...In his passionate way, he was a man o f the resistance” (Cohen, 1971, p.xlii). Carnap’s ambivalence towards democracy has only begun to be noticed: see Notturno (1999). Some evidence comes from the Unity of Science collection, Regenstein Library, University of Chicago [henceforth USUC], Box 1 folder 4, Carnap to Neurath letter, dated 6/24/42: I am looking forward to your article “int. Planning f. Freedom”. In your letter, you put the alternative as: muddling vs. democracy; and then of course we all prefer the second. The question is, whether democracy is actually incompatible with efficient planning and regulation.

[13] This is a well-established fact in the history of American science, such that we should not need to document it here. See, for instance, Kevles, (1995); Kragh, (1999, chap.20); Michael Dennis in Krige & Pestre, (1997). The following three paragraphs are a summary of an extensive case made in Mirowski (2002, chap. 4).

[14] See the letters between Weaver and Charles Morris in USUC, Box 2, folder 18. Carnap was always a little naïve about where his money was coming from and why. See the passage from the letter cited above in fn. 12:  

I shall be free from teaching duties for one year from now on, with the help of the Rockef. Found., for continuing my work in semantics. Is it not remarkable that even in times like these, purely theoretical research is encouraged and supported?…

[15] There is no good history of Operations Research that can be recommended to the general reader. Existing histories of OR are summarized in Mirowski, (2002, chap.4). Kirby (2000) is a guide to the alternative trajectories of OR in the British and American contexts.

[16] Has anyone ever noticed that the Library of Congress call numbers that categorize the philosophy of science in American libraries also designate books in OR of a postwar vintage? Clues are quite abundant if one just permits oneself to perceive them.

[17] On pp.27-31 of Experience and Prediction one will also discover the “physical symbol systems hypothesis” of early Artificial Intelligence avant la lettre, itself soon to also spring forth from its origins in OR.

[18] Reichenbach to Charles Morris, 12/1/37, USUC, Box 2, folder 15.

[19] Reichenbach’s version of inductive causality underlies much of modern American time-series econometric logic: see, for instance, (Hoover, 2003).

[20] Here I differ from an interpretation in Richardson (2001; 2002) that portrays Reichenbach as arguing for an ineliminable role for volitions in science. It is true that Reichenbach thought they would never be altogether banished in practice, in the same sense he expected that sociology of science could never be banished in principle; but the role of the philosopher was to partition them off from the true account of the operation of rational science. One observes this in the RAND paper quoted at the beginning of this section. The effect was to ratify the scientist/ layperson divide.

[21] He was undoubtedly familiar with this school, since he had attempted when younger to try and mathematize economics in conjunction with his friend Carl Landauer. On this, see Reichenbach (1978, p.29).

[22] Many positivists were admitting this by the late 1960s. Witness Herbert Feigl: “the so-called problem of induction ... cannot be solved either by the logical or the statistical concept of probability” (1969, p.11). By the 1970s, it was clear that the positivists had completely misrepresented a monolithic character of probability theory: See Fine (1973).

[23] As Ron Giere asks, “How did a naturalistic pragmatism incorporating an empirical theory of inquiry get replaced by a philosophy that regarded induction as a formal relationship between evidence and hypothesis?” (1996, p.347)

[24] This case has been lately made by Asner (2002), who describes many of the legal, accountancy and economic devices invented in order to give some solidity to the category “pure science”.

[25] The complex interplay of attitudes towards democracy, OR, and decision theory in this period are covered at length in Amadae, (2003). Pp.128-132 especially explain how decision theory was a negation and repudiation of Dewey’s conception of science and democracy.

[26] Here Reichenbach’s autonomy of the scientist dovetails very nicely with the “linear model” of research and development popularized by Vannevar Bush in the same era.

[27] Although we shall not explore the issue here, this fact helps clear up the noxious fog that has surrounded Alan Sokal’s quest to ‘save’ the American Left from the postmodern Left and their tendency to see scientists as co-opted by the Right. The specifically American politics of the Science Wars has been thoroughly misconstrued by Europeans generally, and something that is left opaque by commentators such as Brown, (2001) and Kitcher (2000).

[28] The history of RAND has recently attracted the interest of a number of historians, even though access to their archives is still severely restricted to outside researchers. Some good sources are: Hounshell, (1997); Collins, (1998); Jardini, (1996); Hughes & Hughes, (2000); Amadae, (2003); and Mirowski, (2002, chap.4).

[29] Albert Wohlstetter interview with Martin Collins, 27 July 1987, pp. 1,2. RAND Oral History Project. Transcript from: National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. Wohlstetter had studied with Tarski as an undergraduate at CCNY, and had done graduate work in logic and philosophy of science at Columbia. Wohlstetter was one of the earliest American enthusiasts for the Positivist Unity of Science Movement (Reisch, 2003, chap.3). He later was infamous as one of the hawkish operations researchers that defined RAND’s systems analyses of nuclear war.

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