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. 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. 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?
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. 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. 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). 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. 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
Empiricism has taken many forms, but one common feature is that it starts from experimental science as a basis
for understanding human knowledge. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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? 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 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
"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,
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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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
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. 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. 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
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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."
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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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."
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". 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.
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."
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. 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.
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. Frederick C. Mosher and
others wrote about the need for strengthening codes of ethics for elected officials in the wake of the Watergate
scandal. 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. 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.
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. 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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64. Adams, G. and J. White, "Dissertation research in public administration and cognate fields: an assessment of
methods and quality", Public Administration Review, Vol. 52, 1994, pp. 363-75.
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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
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
Source type: Scholarly Journals
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Language of publication: English
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ProQuest document ID: 211045951
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Copyright: Copyright MCB UP Limited (MCB) 1997
Last updated: 2014-05-19
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- Are proverbs really so bad? Herbert Simon and the logical positivist perspective in American public administration