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What is "positive"?

A visit to Dictionary.com's definition of the word "positive" turns up 33 definitions! Why so many, you ask? Perhaps a broad reason is that it's a value word, and in our culture, values are in a tangled mess.

I say "perhaps", because I'm not positive about that.

In this last sentence, I used meaning #4 in Dictionary.com's lengthy list.

One thing I am positive about is that I have no intention of covering all 33 meanings presented by Dictionary.com. Of course, maybe you prefer Merriam-Webster's definitions, of which there are only 20, or, more precisely, 8 major definition groups, all but one of which contains 2 or more sub-definitions. And, truth be told, Dictionary.com finds 28 meanings of "positive" taken as an adjective, and 5 meanings where "positive" is taken as a noun. And, now that I mention Merriam-Webster's sub-definitions, I should also note that 4 of Dictionary.com's definitions have sub-definitions, yielding a total of 38 definitions and sub-definitions.

As it happens, I believe the meaning of "positive" can be further clarified, by breaking it down to "posit" and "ive", and investigating the meaning of these parts and how they go together.

Let's start with "posit". Fortunately for our discussion, Dictionary.com only has three definitions for this root word, two as a verb and one as a noun. Here they are:

As a verb:

  1. to place, put, or set.
  2. to lay down or assume as a fact or principle; postulate.

"Posit" is also used as a noun, as "something that is posited; an assumption; postulate."

This is akin to the way that the related word "pose" can be taken as a verb or as a noun.

In theory, all we have to do is add the ending "ive" to get "positive". For the ending "-ive", Dictionary.com supplies the following meaning: 'a suffix of adjectives (and nouns of adjectival origin) expressing tendency, disposition, function, connection, etc.:"

That definition works quite well for words like "communicative", "laxative" and "relative". If we apply that to "positive", we get "expressing a tendency (etc.) to being posited." It takes a little work, but we can begin to see how that relates to our use of "positive", since, when we are quite sure of something, we are very comfortable positing it, especially to someone who is not familiar with the factoid in question.

There seems, on the surface, to be a snag when applying this logic to the word "restive."

According to Dictionary.com, "restive" means: "impatient of control, restraint, or delay, as persons; restless; uneasy." So, we might conclude that someone who is restive finds it very difficult to "rest." That is, until we think of what rest actually means. Dictionary.com, definition 7 of "rest" gives: "cessation or absence of motion:" Ordinarily, when we stop moving we are in a state of repose. Energy is not expended, except to breath, to circulate the blood, etc. Yet we restrict our use of "-ive" is we only accept positive reasons for ceasing motion. What happens if we also accept negative reasons, such as uncertainty of motivation, or even anxiety about the potential consequences of acting? Then we get Dictionary.com's definition of restive: "impatient of control, restraint, or delay, as persons; restless; uneasy."

It would seem, then, that definitions of "positive" (particularly in the adjectival case) are, in one way or another, derived from "posit". We run into a genuine snag, however, when we come to definition 8… "determined by enactment or convention; arbitrarily laid down [as in]: positive law." [Brackets inserted by me.] It seems to me this would be better declared as "posited law," since it relates, not to something that is motivated or something that derives from a tendency of some sort. That meaning is at odds with "arbitrarily laid down", with the word "arbitrarily" strongly suggesting the lack of a motivating reason or tendency.

Whereas, the word "posited" works just fine in this instance.

That is, until we go into the history of "positive law." That's where things start to get interesting, in a philosophical sense.

The explanation of "positive law" given in Wikipedia is quite scholarly, and, if we aren't inclined to wade into such waters, could be quite confusing. Nevertheless, we find this quite crisp statement giving its gist: "Positive law is law by the will of whoever made it, and thus there can equally be divine positive law as there is man-made positive law."

Notice that this is actually a secular perspective, since it entirely bypasses the notion of "natural law". In natural law, which is, to be sure, law ordained by God, we are talking about laws which can be derived through reasoning about the nature of man in creation. When it comes to man-made positive law, however, there may be no substantial rhyme or reason behind it. Noting that "positive law" can originate from God is like saying that God's reasons for his legislation are arbitrary. This claim is motivated, it seems to me, by a desire to claim that man-made positive law is just as "reasonable", if not more so (since it is verifiably put forward [posited] by human beings), as divinely posited law. That clearly contradicts any reasonable theology or any reasonable anthropology.

There is no question, however, that the tendency of post-modern legislation is in the direction of arbitrarily posited law, or, if we might be permitted to say so, law whose motivation is unclear to a dispassionate observer.

Unclear, that is, until we investigate the negative motivations of the dominant source of positive law, the progressive movement. Those fears began with the speculations of Robert Malthus, were exacerbated by the eugenic fears of Francis Galton and rose to a fever pitch with 20th century speculations about peak oil and global warming.

All of these speculations fail to take into account the impact on scientific discovery and application (engineering and manufacturing) of increasing the size of the human population. For example, Malthus' claim that "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man." In Malthus' view, progress was always going to be impeded by the poverty that inevitably accompanies population growth. Yet food is in such great abundance today that (thanks to the "Green Revolution", everyone on planet Earth could have their fill if the ambitions of dictators didn't get in the way. And, thanks to electronic media, education is, in principle, available to everyone, as well, so that the increase in the number of geniuses that naturally accompanies growth in population yields great dividends in the capacity of humanity to innovate its way into a future of readily sustainable plenty..

Even the challenges of global warming (and assuming the challenges are accurately reported by responsible scientists and accurately picked up by responsible news outlets) can and most assuredly will be met by the innovations of geniuses in the area of energy harvesting and production.

That is, assuming civil society (with its tendency to ignore natural human motivation (resulting in the endemic growth of moral hazard) in its design of the structure of that society) can survive its profligacy in the service of establishing an ideal (from a materialist perspective) future. As a result of such tendencies, human civilizations rise and fall, and it is precisely in the collapse of civilizations that we find the very perils Robert Malthus wrote about.

… which is why the question 'What is positive?" takes on particular importance.,

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