Heinlein the Positivist, Heinlein the "Ant-Positivist"?
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Author:  RobertPearson [ Wed Aug 14, 2013 12:41 pm ]
Post subject:  Heinlein the Positivist, Heinlein the "Ant-Positivist"?

All kidding about Wikipedia aside...

From the Positivism entry:
Although the positivist approach has been a recurrent theme in the history of Western thought, the modern sense of the approach was developed by the philosopher and founding sociologist Auguste Comte in the early 19th century. Comte argued that, much as the physical world operates according to gravity and other absolute laws, so also does society.

It seems to me that much of Heinlein's early work, especially a number of the Future History stories like "If This Goes On---", "Coventry" and Methuselah's Children are explicit about "laws" of propaganda, group dynamics and, in general, the manipulation of individual minds, and the masses, through scientific means. Positivism also has a more general meaning, basically that only the senses, logic and maths can be sources of true knowledge, and Heinlein never seems to have totally subscribed to this. But he surely seemed to be a "social science positivist" (like his hero, H. G. Wells) in his pre-WW II days.

In the RAH Wikipedia entry we read:
In Stranger in a Strange Land and I Will Fear No Evil, he began to mix hard science with fantasy, mysticism, and satire of organized religion. Critics William H. Patterson, Jr., and Andrew Thornton believe that this is simply an expression of Heinlein's longstanding philosophical opposition to positivism (from their book The Martian Named Smith: Critical Perspectives on Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land).

Since I unfortunately don't have access to The Martian Named Smith I don't have the context for this statement. The Patterson RAH bio makes it clear that as a child and young man Heinlein had certain mystical experiences and believed in the possibility of ESP, telepathy, etc. based on scientific experimental results (Rhine, etc.) but was in general a skeptic about religion, revelation and non-rational means to knowledge.

My conclusions:

Heinlein was a "positivist" in the Comte sense for at least the first half of his life. General Semantics was a key component of this view after he began studying it in the 1930s. Sometime in the 1950s he began to doubt that the "social sciences" were going to be able to achieve the "First Adult Human Society" that Future History envisioned. Stranger was the first expression of this, and in I Will Fear No Evil he makes explicit that our current social organization is deteriorating and there's probably nothing to be done about it. The intelligent will have to get off the planet.

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