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Are proverbs really so bad? Herbert Simon and the logical positivist perspective in American public administration Cruise, Peter L . Journal of Management History ; Bradford  Vol. 3, Iss. 4,  (1997): 342.

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Perhaps no movement or school of thought had more effect upon the field of American public administration in the

mid-20th century than did logical positivism. This article will explore the rise of the logical positivist perspective in

American public administration, its heyday, and finally its diminution. The logical positivist perspective limited,

inappropriately, the scope of inquiry within the field since its adoption as the de facto epistemological perspective

in the early 1950s. In recent years this limitation was challenged by a call for the return to value-based traditions

present in the field prior to the 1950s. Aiding in this call for a return to a values-centered approach to research in

public administration has been the acceptance of alternative non-positivist methodological perspectives. Several

of these perspectives, and their corresponding epistemological bases, will be discussed. FULL TEXT  

Peter L. Cruise: School of Urban and Public Affairs, Golden Gate University, San Francisco, California


Perhaps no movement or school of thought had more effect upon the field of American public administration in the

mid-twentieth century than did logical positivism. In the late 1930s the field was beginning to flower both as a

profession and as an academic discipline-due in large part to the pioneering work of classical period writers such

as Frank Goodnow, Leonard White, W.F. Willoughby, Luther Gulick and Lyndall Urwick. At that time, the seeds of

the logical positivist perspective were planted, mainly in the form of works published by Chester I. Barnard. He

questioned the basic tenets propounded by Gulick and Urwick and, by implication, the writings of the field's first

serious scholar, Woodrow Wilson. Soon the attacks were further refined and were led most notably and articulately

by a young University of Chicago doctoral student named Herbert A. Simon. During the late 1940s and early 1950s,

these attacks would be responsible for such a fundamental shift in the focus and composition of the discipline

that, for a time, even the name "Public Administration" seemed to disappear from the academic and professional

landscape. Although over 50 years and millions of critiquing words have passed since the start of the logical

positivist revolution, its after effects-like lingering radiation from an atomic bomb-resonate in the discipline today

as the twenty-first century dawns.

This article will explore the rise of the logical positivist perspective in American public administration, its heyday,

and finally its diminution. The logical positivist perspective limited, inappropriately, the scope of inquiry within the

field since its adoption as the de facto epistemological perspective in the early 1950s[1]. In recent years this

limitation was challenged by a call for the return to value- based traditions present in the field prior to the 1950s.

Aiding in this call for a return to a values-centered approach to research in public administration has been the

acceptance of alternative non-positivist methodological perspectives. Several of these perspectives, and their

corresponding epistemological bases, will be discussed here.

Epistemology and important epistemological and philosophical antecedents to logical positivism, such as

empiricism, modern science, the scientific method, and logical atomism are reviewed in this article. Within these

schools of thought, writers such as Alfred North Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and the writers

in the Vienna Circle significantly contributed to the beginnings of the logical positivist movement. As in many new

philosophical movements, logical positivism selectively borrowed and discarded ideas and constructs from other,

more established philosophical schools of thought stretching back through history to ancient Greece. This process

will also be discussed.

Once these European philosophers began to influence American writers, especially Chester Barnard, logical

positivism and public administration were to remain strange bedfellows for a number of decades. The most

significant individual, and to whom logical positivism is most identified, is Herbert Simon. Although Simon has

long since left writing about the discipline, his early writings marked the dramatic shift from the Classical to the

Behavioural Period in Public Administration[2, 3]. The theories propounded by Simon and the subsequent effect of

his writings are still present in the field and will be examined in this article.

The dominance of the logical positivist perspective in public administration resulted in many strange things:

an early split in the field that even today explains why university public administration departments are located

where they are;

a decline in the 1950s and early 1960s in public administration as an academic field of study, in favour of political

science, so severe that a separate identity for the discipline nearly vanished from American colleges and


an early 1970s counter-revolution against logical positivism, which began with the new public administration

champions at Syracuse University and resulted in a reinvigoration of the field; and

in the 1980s and early 1990s, in a touch of irony, the acceptance of alternative, anti-logical positivist approaches to

research in the field, such as phenomenology and qualitative methods. The article concludes with an exploration of

these reactions to the close relationship between logical positivism and Public Administration. If the two were

indeed strange bedfellows in the middle of the twentieth-century, they are now, in the late 1990s, perhaps still in

the same house but occupying separate bedrooms.

Epistemology and the philosophical antecedents of logical positivism

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge. Traditionally, central issues in

epistemology are the nature and derivation of knowledge, the scope of knowledge, and the reliability of claims to

knowledge[4]. An inquiry of knowledge in the study of public administration is heavily influenced by what the

academic community believes are the proper means to decide what gets included in the literature of the field.

Students and academics interested in exploring the major epistemological views in public administration typically

ask questions like: How does each view largely define accepted knowledge? What are the implications to public

administration? Are any of the views dysfunctional? In what ways? What are the implications to the development

of the field or discipline[5]?

Philosophers have frequently been divided over the nature and derivation questions in epistemology. For example,

Rationalists (i.e., Plato and Rene Descartes) have argued that ideas of reason intrinsic to the mind are the only

source of knowledge. Empiricists, on the other hand, (i.e., John Locke and David Hume) have argued that sense

experience is the primary source of our ideas (or knowledge). The debate between the rationalists and empiricists

continued for quite some time and later took a significant turn with Immanuel Kant's discussion of whether there

could be synthetic a priori knowledge, that is, knowledge not based on experience but which is a condition of the

comprehensibility of experience[6]. Kant, although anti-empiricist in the derivation of knowledge question, agreed

with the empiricists in the scope of knowledge question in that knowledge is limited to the world of experience.

Regarding the question of the reliability of knowledge, a significant influence in the history of epistemology was

the role of the skeptic in demanding whether any claim to knowledge can be upheld against the possibility of

doubt. As early as Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who set aside any claim that was open to doubt, the role of the

skeptic was to increase the level of rigor and precision necessary to posit knowledge[7]. Postmodernist

perspectives notwithstanding, in contemporary epistemology the role of the skeptic has been somewhat

diminished. Even Descartes and modern science would propose at least one basic truth with his statement: cogito,

ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)[8]. As will be discussed later, individuals such as George Edward Moore and

Ludwig Wittgenstein were influential in redirecting attention from the defense of claims to knowledge against

doubt, to an analysis of their meaning.

Philosophical antecedents to logical positivism

To understand how logical positivism answers the basic epistemological questions discussed earlier, we must first

focus on aspects of the philosophical perspectives of two earlier movements: empiricism and modern science.

Aspects of these two movements form the foundations upon which much of logical positivism rests.

Empiricism and modern science

A good understanding of the empiricist perspective can be determined from the word itself-the term comes from

the Greek word emdeiria, meaning experience. The basic tenet of empiricism is that legitimate human knowledge

arises from what is provided to the mind of the individual by introspective awareness through the vehicle of

experience. It is: (1) a rejection of other doctrines (such as Platonism) that state that when the human mind first

encounters the world it is already furnished with a range of ideas or concepts which have nothing to do with

experience; and (2) an acceptance of the idea that, at birth, the mind is a "white paper", or tabula rosa-void of all

characters and that only experience can provide it with ideas[9]. Interestingly, these statements are in sharp

contrast to aspects of modern science as espoused by Descartes who said that man has certain innate seeds, that

if properly cultivated, would grow into knowledge. However, the similarities between empiricism and modern

science, and their collective contribution to logical positivism, are more important than their differences and will be

discussed later.

Empiricism has taken many forms, but one common feature is that it starts from experimental science as a basis

for understanding human knowledge[10]. This is opposed to the rationalist approach, which starts from pure

mathematics as the basis for understanding human knowledge. Empiricism and its major proponents developed

during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, most directly as a result of the growing success and

importance of experimental science and its gradual identity separate from pure mathematics and other disciplines.

Major early proponents of empiricism, known collectively as the British Empiricist School of Philosophy, were

Francis Bacon, John Locke, Bishop Berkeley and David Hume. Later individuals, also usually classified as

empiricists, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, include John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell[11].

Russell's inclusion in this list provides one of the major personality links between the classical British empiricists

and the beginnings of logical positivism in the twentieth-century.

Empiricism's earliest days can be traced to ancient Greece and the first declared empiricist, Epicurus (341 BCE-270

BCE). Epicurus maintained that the senses are the only source of knowledge. He was also an extreme atomist and

held that sense perception comes about only as a result of contact between the atoms of the soul and the films of

atoms issuing from bodies and objects around us. According to Epicurus, all sensations are true and there is no

standard other than sensation to which we may refer our judgments about the world[12]. Implicit with Epicurus's

description of knowledge is that man cannot discover the real, indubitable truths of the universe, but only can

develop probable hypotheses about the world around him.

The inductive knowledge-from-observation and hypotheses development and testing motifs that undergird

empiricism flowered more fully during the time of the British empiricists in seventeenth-century England.

Hypothesis development and subsequent experimentation by individuals such as Robert Boyle (i.e., Boyle's Law)

and Isaac Newton (i.e., Laws of Thermodynamics) necessary for empiricism to be accepted were expanding rapidly

in the physical sciences in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe. Empiricism sees the acquisition of

knowledge as a slow, piecemeal process, endlessly self-correcting but limited by the possibilities of

experimentation and observation[13].

Modern science, as advanced by Descartes, has a number of parallels to Empiricism and these parallels are

important to the development of logical positivism. According to Descartes, the solutions to the questions posed

by epistemology lay in the systematization of knowledge. In the ideal method described by Descartes, man would

start with basic axioms whose truth was clear and distinct, setting aside anything which can be supposed to be

false until he arrives at something that cannot be supposed to be false. Critical to this basic analysis is that

nothing should be accepted as true unless it is clear and distinct. Next, one should analyze the basic axiom,

starting with simple thoughts and only later proceeding to more complex thoughts. Following these steps, one

should review the entire process so that no possible consideration is omitted[14].

The most important similarities between modern science and empiricism include the need to systematize the

acquisition of knowledge. This avoids the introduction of extraneous variables that could confuse and cloud the

final product. There is a need for careful self-correction and comprehensiveness throughout the process to avoid

overlooking or omitting important variables that could affect the final product. The most important difference

between the two perspectives includes the issue of the existence of certain innate truths. Modern science and

Descartes propose that the universe can be explained in terms of absolute properties or truths. By employing the

appropriate procedures described above, we can discover knowledge that, under no circumstances, can be false.

Empiricists, on the other hand, say even if systematized procedures for the acquisition of knowledge were

employed, man cannot discover absolute truths. All that is possible is to develop probable hypotheses about the

universe. Within certain confidence intervals and at certain levels of significance, man could work out a theory of

knowledge, but only within the bounds of the actual achievements of scientists. Discussion of "limits" and

"bounds" along with the disputation that certain organizational absolute "truths" are key concepts. To think

otherwise is to use proverbs. In fact "proverbs" would resonate strongly nearly a century after they were first

discussed when logical positivists like Herbert Simon would examine behaviour of individuals within organizations

with concepts such as "bounded rationality" and "satisficing".

Just as logical positivism owes much to empiricism and modern science, the thinking and writings of several early

twentieth-century philosophers and scientists bridge between the eighteenth and nineteenth-century perspectives

of Empiricism and modern science. They contributed their own important concepts to logical positivism as we

know it today. Before embarking upon an examination of the twentieth-century philosophers important to the

development of logical positivism, several aspects of contemporary philosophy are cited to gain an understanding

of the context in which these individuals developed their various perspectives regarding philosophy and


Philosophy and the philosophical tradition is nearly 3,000 years old in the Western world. Even with this long

history, the exact nature of philosophy is still a matter of debate. For example, the early Greek thinkers thought of

philosophy as we might now think of contemporary science. These individuals thought that through philosophical

reflection alone the nature of the universe would be revealed to them. The explanations of the universe gained

through philosophical reflection gradually grew more complex and grandiose. For example, in ancient Greece in the

fourth century BCE, Democritus worked out a crude version of atomic theory 2,000 years before empirical

verification of it was possible[15].

Over time, as man's curiosity of nature grew and as knowledge of it increased, the study of nature became an

activity which broke away from philosophy and became the new discipline of "science". This breakaway is a

comparatively recent event. As recently as the nineteenth-century university physics courses were still described

as "natural philosophy" courses[16]. The current practice of universities awarding doctorates of philosophy to

individuals in the physical sciences (as well as in many other fields of study) is another example of the early

dominance of philosophy over science. Although science is a broad descriptor encompassing many aspects of the

physical and natural worlds, all activities associated with science utilize a common methodology. This

methodology still includes the ancient philosophical stance of thoughtful reflection of the world, but also involves

the careful observation and experimentation with it. This process became known as the Scientific Method[17].

Further, according to proponents of this perspective, true knowledge of the world can only be acquired through the

use of the scientific method.

With the break away of science from classical philosophy in the late nineteenth-century, obvious questions

developed: What is philosophy apart from science? What kind of knowledge does philosophical activity result in? Is

philosophy different from science? Does philosophical activity result in any knowledge at all[18]? In the twentieth-

century several influential philosophical movements developed each with answers to these and other important

questions in philosophy and science. Important to the development of logical positivism was the perspective of

Logical Atomism and the works of Whitehead, Russell and Wittgenstein, and eventually, the Vienna Circle.

Logical atomism

Logical atomism is an extremely complex philosophical perspective, based primarily on highly technical

mathematical or symbolic logic as developed by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell during the period

from 1910-1913. This section will deal with just a few of its fundamental propositions important to the subsequent

development of the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a student of Bertrand Russell, and Wittgenstein's influence on

the early logical positivists.

Alfred North Whitehead, Bertrand Russell and Principia Mathematica

After more than ten years of work, Whitehead and Russell, in a series of three volumes entitled Principia

Mathematica, described a new type of logic. It was broader in scope than the then standard and accepted logic

system based on the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. This new system of logic described the relations of

symbols to each other (or symbolic logic). The importance of the work by Whitehead and Russell lay in the fact

that it did not reject the centuries of work by philosophers since Aristotle, but refined it, through mathematics, to a

degree of precision never before seen. This symbolic logic could also be used to develop a precise new symbolic

language, beyond that of natural languages like French, English or Spanish. It could clarify the meanings of

sentences for further philosophical analysis[19].

Principia Mathematica and the writings of Whitehead and Russell would receive even further explanation and

elaboration with Ludwig Wittgenstein (1899-1951). Today, many regard him as the greatest philosophical genius of

the twentieth-century. Wittgenstein, among other things, thought of philosophy as an autonomous discipline (e.g.,

separate from science) dealing with its own sort of particular problems. He did not believe that science could solve

philosophical problems and, in later life, would say that even philosophy could not provide any factual information

about the world[20]. It is only one part of Wittgenstein's great body of work, however, that would launch the logical

positivist movement. Several statements contained in Wittgenstein's 1922 work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

would be responsible for a small group of students in Austria, led by a University of Vienna professor named Moritz

Schilick, to describe this new philosophical perspective.

Ludwig Wittgenstein and tractatus logico-philosophicus

The logical atomist perspective of Whitehead and Russell received its most comprehensive explanation in this

work of Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein's version of logical atomism became known as picture theory. Continuing with

the previous examination by Whitehead and Russell of logical precision in language a perfect language,

Wittgenstein said, is like a map, as it pictures or mirrors the structure of reality. As philosophers attempt to utilize

the logical atomist perspective and symbolic logic to develop aspects of the structure of reality, they would be

actively engaged in the process. They were not merely passive and in a reflective stance as in the past[21]. This

single part of Wittgenstein's massive work would become extremely significant for the eventual development of

logical positivism. Wittgenstein's contention that philosophy is a genuine activity, just as science is, would become

a major focus for the Vienna Circle. However unlike science, philosophy does not discover new facts or new

knowledge. Philosophy describes the structure of the world, and how its basic ingredients are constructed. This is

knowledge, but not the same kind of knowledge that science develops[22]. As just described, the philosophical

system of logical atomism was a metaphysical system in the traditional sense, and as such, it would be rejected

shortly by thinkers who would use the same symbolic logic developed by logical atomists to contend that

metaphysical knowledge developed by such thinking was nonsense[23].

"Philosophy as activity" and the rise of the Vienna circle

As has been described, logical positivism is often thought to have been initiated by the remark of Wittgenstein in

the tractatus logico-philosophicus to the effect that philosophy is not a theory but an activity. The group

associated with the beginnings of the movement were individuals meeting in seminars in Vienna, Austria

conducted by Moritz Schilick in the early 1920s. The original members of the Vienna circle were committed to

science either by scholarship or profession and philosophy was more of an avocation. Among its members were

Hans Hahn, Fredrich Waismann, Herbert Feigl, Otto Neurath and Rudolf Carnap. The original focus of the group

was Empiricism. However, they were heavily influenced first by Whitehead and Russell and then, more profoundly,

by Wittgenstein[24].

In elaborating upon Wittgenstein's view that philosophy was not a theory but an activity, the Vienna circle held that

philosophy does not produce propositions which are true or false. Rather philosophy merely clarifies the meaning

of statements. It shows some to be scientific, others to be mathematical, and some to be nonsensical[25]. Four

principles of logical positivism were eventually developed by the Vienna circle. The first principle is that of logical

atomism. It says that all complex statements depend on their truth based on simple statements about what may

be sensed. None of these simple statements can entail any others. The second principle is the verifiability theory

of meaning, in which only those propositions which can be given meaning verifiable by scientific methods could be

said to be either true or false. Therefore anything else, especially metaphysical philosophy, has no genuine

meaning. George Edward Moore and other individuals at the Cambridge School of Analysis are most closely

identified with verification theory. For a time, this second center of logical positivism flourished in England and it

rivalled the one in Vienna. The third principle of logical positivism is the analytic character of a priori knowledge. It

holds that all necessary statements reveal the contents of our ideas, rather than reporting truths about the world.

Finally, the fourth principle describes the emotive theory of values. This says that statements of value are neither

true or false, but are simply expressions of attitude[26, 27].

Of the four principles of logical positivism described by the Vienna circle and the Cambridge School, the two

principles that describe the verification principle and the emotive theory of values had the greatest impression on

the budding career of Herbert Simon and, subsequently, a profound effect on American public administration.

Simon's attack on the work of Gulick and Urwick in Papers on the Science of Administration and his promotion of

the "fact-value dichotomy" in his own work Administrative Behavior are direct extensions of these basic principles

of logical positivism as developed in the Vienna circle and the Cambridge School of Analysis. Simon was not the

first to challenge the direction of the new discipline of public administration. He built upon the tenets of logical

positivism and he forced a major shift from what was then the Classical perspective to the behavioural perspective

in public administration[28]. Simon used the logical positivist perspective as developed by the Vienna circle in the

1920s to mount much of his subsequent work in public administration. Nevertheless the philosophical traditions

of logical positivism actually stretch back through logical atomism, the empiricist and the modern science schools

of thought of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They actually begin in ancient Greece with the first declared

atomist and empiricist, Epicurus.

Logical positivism and public administration theory: the rise of Herbert Simon

By the time the Vienna circle was meeting and discussing the theory of logical positivism in 1920s Austria,

President Woodrow Wilson was already dead and his famous, public administration-founding essay A Study of

Administration was over 30 years old. In this essay, along with a discussion of a necessary separation or

dichotomy between politics and administration, was a clear call for the serious study of the new field of Public

Administration[29]. Twelve years after Wilson's essay, in the early 1900s, books discussing the emerging discipline

of public administration were written by Frank Goodnow and Leonard White. They further developed the concept

that the activities of administration in government should be separate from politics or political influence. They

merged the concepts of efficiency and the "one best way", developed through the work of Frederick Taylor and the

scientific management movement with the dichotomy to define proper administrative activities[30].

By the early 1920s, the bureau movement in the USA was also in full flower. As an outgrowth of the progressive

movement's desire to reform government at the municipal level, the establishment of New York City's Bureau of

Municipal Research (BMR) in 1906, in particular, was to bring forth a number of major figures in public

administration. Later they would be attacked by the adherents of logical positivism[31]. The early BMR writers, who

collectively became known as the ABCs, were William Allen, Henry Bruere, and Frederick Cleveland. Each of the

ABCs dealt with aspects of municipal government administration that largely addressed problems of efficiency

and corruption in the past. Their works collectively, like the mission of the BMR itself, called for the promotion of

efficient and economical government. They adopted scientific methods that included accounting and reporting the

details of municipal business; and the collection, classification, analysis, correlation, interpretation, and finally

publication of the resulting data related to the administration of municipal government[32, 33, 34]. The activities of

the BMR were designed to direct government energy effectively and efficiently to achieve ultimate social

betterment. Aspects of empiricism and modern science are contained within the works of the ABCs and in the

mission of the BMR. They included systematization of knowledge, a reliance on observation and data collection,

and a search for innate truths (i.e., the one best way) among other things. Even though they shared a common

philosophical ancestry with logical positivism, they also abhorred some of the key identity concepts of the logical

positivist perspective.

The philosophy of writers who came from the bureau movement perhaps best explains their eventual conflict with

logical positivism. The founders of the BMR, for example, were social idealists. They were philanthropists and

Settlement House workers concerned with getting the fullest amount of benefit for the public with altruistic rather

than economic motives. The founders of American public administration as part of the progressive movement,

were concerned with ways of increasing government responsibility that reflected an interest in social control of

economic life. They wanted to expand industrialism in the USA but make it subject to a rational and benevolent

democratic programme. Government officials had to be responsible to the citizens who elected them to office.

Citizens also had a role. They had to insist that their elected officials be accountable to them[35]. A strong value

base undergirds these relationships and, indeed, the entire bureau movement. This strong value base, along with

pronouncements of "the best way" to do this or that discussed by later bureau movement writers Luther Gulick and

Lyndall Urwick in their book Papers on the Science of Administration would provide ammunition for a young

doctoral student at the University of Chicago, Herbert Simon.

The influence of Chester Barnard

The history of the development of public administration was certainly altered dramatically by the writings

generated by Herbert Simon during the late 1940s and through the 1950s. However, Simon owed an intellectual

debt to the works published in the 1930s by Chester Barnard. However, Barnard was certainly not a logical

positivist. Barnard was an empiricist who derived his theory from experience and observation[36]. His work,

especially when discussing executive decision making in organizations, was rooted in the trait theory of the

leadership school. When Barnard describes the development of executives within organizations, he de-emphasizes

intellectual ability and academic training and emphasizes intuition, know-how, hunches, and other characteristics

related to intensive experience. This early description of managers in organizations would have effects beyond

Simon. In a parallel manner in the early 1970s, Henry Mintzberg, in The Nature of Managerial Work, described,

using data developed through qualitative methods, the decision making process of managers in a variety of

organizational settings[37].

Herbert Simon adopted major aspects of Barnard's work as he described decision making within organizations. For

example, Simon agreed with Barnard's conceptualization of the organization as a system of exchange and the

definition of authority suggested by that conceptualization. Although disagreeing with his conclusions as to its

source, Simon also adopted Barnard's atomistic approach that complex formal organizations evolve from, and

were consisted with simple formal organizations. This atomistic thinking by Simon continued with his research

methodology. The unit of analysis in Simon's work became decision premises, rather than the decisions


Finally, Simon built on Barnard's description of human nature and the ability to choose among alternatives within

an organizational setting[39]. Barnard felt that individuals are limited in their power to choose by physical,

biological, and social factors. According to Barnard, the organization's role, as defined by its purpose or mission,

also helps to prescribe a set of alternatives among which individuals can choose[40]. Simon's satisficing man

model with its bounded rationality is firmly rooted in Barnard's explanation of individual behaviour.

Perhaps the most important departure from the work of Barnard is Simon's promotion of the logical positivist's

"value free" zone required for the development of a science of administration. Simon argued that facts (i.e.,

statements about the observable world and the way in which it operates and can be either true or false) could be

logically separated from values (i.e., statements about what "should be" or preferences for desired events and

cannot be true or false, or even studied). These could be analyzed in a value-free zone[41]. Unlike Simon's

approach and underlying Barnard's writings in public administration, there is a motif of an "open system" in which

all social phenomena must occur. Although the complexity of each subsystem limits our understanding of cause

and effect, Barnard felt that all subsystems (e.g., facts and values; politics and administration) are connected to

the system and even a larger supersystem. They interact and are at the same time determined and determining

forces in the system[42]. Under Barnard's explanation and in direct conflict with Simon's work, no decision making

or value free subsystem could be artificially carved out or isolated from any other part.

Attacks on the works of the classicists

Interest grew in the 1920s and 1930s to expand upon the classical period writers who attempted to develop a

scientific approach to the study of public administration. In the late 1940s, Herbert Simon's formidable responses

occurred and transformed public administration. In 1946, Simon, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago's

doctoral program in political science, published in Public Administration Review (PAR) an article entitled "The

proverbs of administration". In this article, he sharply criticized the previous work in administrative theory. He

outlined several requirements for an inductive and scientifically-based theory of administration based on the

tenets of logical positivism[43]. This article was subsequently reprinted as a chapter in Simon's first book,

Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organization, that was published

in 1947 and it was based on his doctoral dissertation[44].

In his PAR article, Simon was critical of much of the previous work by writers such as Gulick and Urwick. He

described their work as "proverbs" and often in contradiction with itself. The attack focused on four principles

promoted by Gulick and Urwick in Papers on the Science of Administration. The very inclusion of the term

"science" in the title of the book disturbed Simon as he mounted his attack on the Gulick and Urwick principles.

Those principles were specialization, unity of command, span of control, and organization by purpose, process,

clientele, and place. Simon agreed that these ideas were acceptable as "criteria for describing and diagnosing

administrations". He felt that Gulick and Urwick treated them as immutable laws, and they in fact were often in

contradiction. Simon cleverly went on to analyze them as laws and asserted their contradictory nature. In

summarizing his position, Simon wrote:"

Administrative description suffers from superficiality, oversimplification and lack of realism. It has confined itself

too closely to the mechanism of authority and has failed to bring within its orbit the other, equally important

modes of influence on organizational behavior. It has been satisfied to speak of 'authority, 'centralization,''span of

control,' and 'function' without seeking operational definitions of those terms[45]."

In his book Administrative Behavior, Simon undertakes the task of laying out a comprehensive theory of

administrative organization based upon a logical positivist view of knowledge acquisition. Simon argues that the

role of the scientist is the examination of factual propositions, specifically those based upon the observation of

manifest behaviour or those logically inferred from observation. Simon proposed that neither the values of the

scientist nor those of the person being observed should enter into research or theory building. No knowledge of the

world can be developed from value laden or "should be" statements[46].

The models of man: rational, administrative, satisficing

The rational model of administration and its associated terminology, as first proposed by Simon over 50 years ago,

have entered the lexicon of public administration. Terms developed long ago and often still used today include:

satisficing man; bounded rationality; and administrative man. According to Simon, at the basis of administrative

organization is the concept of rationality. Organizations are created in order to enhance human rationality and

structure human behaviour so that it may approximate rationality[47]. Like Epicurus and the empirical school but

unlike Descartes and the modern science school, Simon felt that absolute or pure rationality could not be achieved,

only approached. Following this line of reasoning, individuals are also limited in their capacity to respond to

complex problems. Due to this limitation, individuals find it necessary to join together in groups and organizations

to deal effectively with the world around them[48]. And in a continuation of this thinking perhaps inspired by

G.W.F. Hegel, Simon felt that only through organizations can an individual approach rationality.

Simon's administrative man was developed to replace the classic economic man (who was basically a utility

maximizer) and exists whenever an organization's values displace the individual's own values or the organization

substitutes for the individual's own judgment and decision-making process[49]. Because true rationality cannot be

achieved, an individual is limited (i.e., bounded) in his perception of rationality. When decisions are necessary, his

cognitive and analytic abilities are also formed under the operating system of bounded rationality and he

"satisfices". That is he makes limited decisions that are merely satisfactory and sufficient for the situation[50].

Simon discussed the rational model of administration once more in 1957 in the book Models of Man. In the years

after and continuing into the 1990s, Simon has turned increasingly toward the social psychology of decision

making, then to information technology and the processes of cognitive development.

Simon and logical positivism's effect on public administration

Perhaps Dwight Waldo best summarized Herbert Simon's early effects on the discipline of Public Administration.

According to Waldo:"

(Simon) replaced the (Wilsonian) politics-administration dichotomy, and offered in its place the fact-value

distinction of logical (positivism). He revealed the shallowness of the claims to science, but offered 'genuine'

science. He demonstrated the 'principles' to be rules-of-thumb, folklore, but held out the hope of arriving

atempirically based knowledge that would pass the test of true science. Simon is... the strongest intellect to

address our core problems (in Public Administration) in the past generation. If he could not give us a new set of

firmly held orienting beliefs to replace the old ones, then we are not likely to have a replacement[51]."

However, Simon's early challenge to public administration and his call for a "genuine" science of administration

based on social psychology principles conducted in a value-free zone made many in the field uncomfortable. In the

midst of this discomfiture, political scientists added to Simon's challenge by attacking the action-oriented, practice

base of the field. Noted political scientists even called for a "continued dominion of political science over public

administration"[52]. Public administration began to decline as a separate identifiable field at many colleges and

universities, becoming many times only an area of emphasis within larger political science departments. However,

during the period from the mid 1950s until the early 1960s, an important shift was also taking place with the

discipline of Public Administration that would eventually lead to is rebirth. As political scientists and the progeny

of Herbert Simon grew and dominated, what was left of classic public administration (specifically those individuals

unsatisfied with Simon, logical positivism and behaviourism generally) began to seek shelter elsewhere. The

unifying epistemological perspective became general management, and the port in the storm became schools of


With the inauguration of the school of business and public administration at Cornell University in the 1950s,

individuals who still believed in the necessity of the discipline of public administration to address real world, value

laden issues would gain a foothold and begin the long climb back to a place in the sun. Eventually, with the rapid

expansion of government programs during Lyndon Johnson's great society, the founding of the National Academy

of Public Administration, and with the rise of the "new public administration", colleges and universities with

autonomous schools and departments of public administration grew rapidly and now account for the majority of

all such programs in the United States[54].

The public administration counterattacks on logical positivism

The growth of logical positivism brought about the (temporary) abandonment of the core values of public

administration inculcated by those individuals in the progressive and bureau movements in the then-budding

discipline. The shift away from value-based considerations weakened and split the field and left a lasting mark that

today still haunts the discipline. A section from a recent paper by Robert Berne, Dean of the Wagner School of

Public Service at New York University, in which he discusses public service needs for the twenty-first century at a

National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) conference highlights the

continuing effects of Herbert Simon and logical positivism. According to Berne:"

Just as there is no way to separate policy from administration, there is no such thing as value free work in public

service. Like it or not, the public sector is all about values and I believe that some of our current problems (in public

administration) stem from our inability (as academics) to address the role that values play[55]."

This is only one of the latest calls for a return to value based approaches to the discipline of public administration.

As early as 1955 in the book The Study of Public Administration, written at the height of logical positivism's

dominance over Public Administration, Dwight Waldo attempted to force the discipline away from logical

positivism[56]. It would take 13 years and a more organized and concerted effort on the part of Waldo to achieve

his desired impact.

The new public administration: values are important

The return to a value-centered approach to the discipline of public administration began in earnest in 1968 when

Dwight Waldo, the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public

Affairs, invited a group of young intellectuals to Syracuse University to discuss the state of the discipline. Unrest

and turbulence, present on the American scene at the time, also highlighted the conference. The resulting book,

Toward A New Public Administration, consisted of papers presented at the conference as well as commentary and

several chapters assessing the impact of the movement. Called alternatively the "Minnowbrook perspective" or

just "New public administration", the common themes among the diverse perspectives presented include the wish

for a "proactive administrator" with positive values to supplant the so-called "impersonal" or value-free bureaucrat.

They desired "social equity" or at least match it with efficiency as the goal of public administration. They

emphasized adaptive and client-centered organizations rather than bureaucracies. They revolted against "value-

free" social science and sought to replace it with social relevance[57].

In the years after the Minnowbrook conference, the literature of public administration began to echo many of the

themes raised by the participants. For example, H. George Frederickson and Frank Marini, among others, first

discussed the potential future of public administration as an outgrowth of the Minnowbrook Conference,

describing the importance of concepts such as social equity and value premises[58]. Frederick C. Mosher and

others wrote about the need for strengthening codes of ethics for elected officials in the wake of the Watergate

scandal[59]. Samuel Krislov introduced the concept "representative" when addressing the structure and

composition of bureaucracy and the need for it to reflect the diversity of its clientele[60]. The number of public

administration writers who presented value-based reasoning in their works continued to grow throughout the

1980s and 1990s. By the 1990s Simon's long-ago call for value-free zones in which to develop knowledge central

to the field of public administration, if not lost in the mists of time, was certainly out of the mainstream of the


With the return to a value base in public administration, new perspectives, methods and tools for academics and

researchers were necessary. These needs led to the growth and acceptance of alternative research perspectives

within the field.

The growth of alternative research perspectives: phenomenology and qualitative research methodology

Phenomenology is a school of thought whose principal purpose is to study phenomena, or appearances, of human

experience while attempting to suspend all consideration of their objective reality or subjective association[61].

The atomistic, knowledge through experience, and tabula rosa nature of man motifs, first proposed long ago by

Epicurus, are present in this school of thought. Phenomenology's major tenets include a combination of the works

of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and aspects of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzche (1844-1900). Edmund

Husserl (1859-1938) and later his student Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) expanded on Kierkegaard and Nietzche

through works published early in the twentieth-century and are responsible for what we now recognize as

contemporary Phenomenology. They believed that philosophy could be an exact science that was based on

certainty which rested on no presuppositions. In a return to the modern science of Descartes and a rejection of

Empiricism, Phenomenology searches for absolute truths through a "phenomenological reduction" of

consciousness and, through this process, uncovers what is intuitively certain along with the essences of


The appearance of the phenomenological perspective in public administration can be first seen in the case

method, which began in the 1930s under the aegis of the committee on public administration of the social science

research council. Practicing public administrators and academics wrote cases on managerial problems and how

they were or should be solved[63]. The popularity of the case method, although diminished by the general

reduction of the field under the assault of the logical positivists, returned as the field expanded in the late 1960s

and flourishes still today.

As the field of public administration again embraced value-based research, alternative methods of data collection

and analysis were also necessary. The phenomenological perspective combined with ethnography and participant-

observation. These research approaches were utilized more frequently, especially in the production of doctoral

dissertations in public administration. However, the expansion of alternative methods of research design, data

collection and analysis in the field has not been welcomed by all. Guy Adams and Jay White, building on the earlier

work of Howard McCurdy and Robert Cleary, feel that the quality of doctoral dissertations in Public Administration

throughout the 1980s has been poor. They argue this is evidenced by the subsequent lack of appropriate, main

stream, peer-reviewed Public Administration publications by the newly minted doctoral degree holders[64, 65].

According to Adams and White, this situation has contributed to a lack of knowledge and theory development

within the field. Perhaps Herbert Simon and logical positivism are not as far back in the mists of time as we


Postscript: The legacy of Herbert Simon and logical positivism for public administration

Inasmuch as logical positivism attacked and weakened public administration for a time, the writers in the field

during the classical period provided their attackers with plenty of ammunition. By overstating their positions in

search of universal truths and absolutes, the classical period writers, however well intentioned and well meaning,

provided Herbert Simon and others large targets that were easy to strike.

In Simon's defense, by demanding higher standards for proof of knowledge development and proposing a

multivariate approach to the study of public administration, Simon forced the field into a period of introspection

and reevaluation from which it has emerged. Perhaps the field still suffers from its long-standing identity crisis, but

certainly it is more robust and more willing to deal with value-based issues than ever before.


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66. Are Proverbs Really So Bad? Herbert Simon and the

67. Logical Positivist Perspective in American Public Administration DETAILS

Subject: History; Public administration; Theory; Logic

Location: United States US

Classification: 9190: United States; 9130: Experimental/theoretical; 9550: Public sector

Publication title: Journal of Management History; Bradford

Volume: 3

Issue: 4

Pages: 342

Number of pages: 0

Publication year: 1997

Publication date: 1997

Publisher: Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Place of publication: Bradford

Country of publication: United Kingdom, Bradford

Publication subject: Business And Economics--Management

ISSN: 1751-1348

Source type: Scholarly Journals

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  • Are proverbs really so bad? Herbert Simon and the logical positivist perspective in American public administration