Whether or not you fit neatly into your own description as a “Positivist,” I do not know. Here is a question to consider in any case: What constitutes universal humanity in history? That is one of the questions taken up by Voegelin in Volume 4 of Order and History, entitled The Ecumenic Age. It is probably my favorite single volume by Voegelin.
Briefly, what has been interpreted as forming “universal humanity” in our “present age” would have to consider: the Enlightenment conception of reason reaching into the French thinker, Comte (founder of “Positive Science”), with its belief that everyone shares in immanent reason. (This conception would be rooted in ancient Greek philosophers, but with a radically different understanding of reason than that explored by Parmenides, Heracleitos, Plato, Aristotle. My sheer guess is that when you studied philosophy as an undergraduate, your studies proceeded under and with an Enlightenment conception of reason, and professors did not clarify, perhaps did not understand, the difference between Platonic-Aristotelian nous (reason, intellect) and the notion of reason presented by thinkers such as Descartes and John Locke, and then in the self-styled “Enlightenment” and in “Positive Science.” This kind of “Enlightenment” reason could explore world-immanent phenomena, such as natural processes and “bodies in motion,” but could not explore the divine-human realm as accessible to this kind of rationalistic “reason.”
A second and also still extant understanding of what constitutes universal humanity in history comes from Hegel, writing in the early 19th century. Grounding himself on experience, and in his case, a clearly Gnostic experience, Hegel clearly has an interest in exploring “universal humanity” in history, and does so as human being grounded in “self-consciousness.” The essence and completion of human being is human self-consciousness, a work of reason, understood as human being coming to know itself as divine. Whereas Locke and the Enlightenment speculatively separated human nature from God, and especially reason from its openness to divine transcendence in any way, Hegel imaginatively collapsed human reason with the divine mind or spirit, the Geist, in “full self-consciousness.” A Positivist, I dare say, would not appreciate the Hegelian turn. Actually, Hegel’s “System of Science,” fallacious as it was, constituted an important step in the recovery of the understanding of reason and of humanity. Hegel returned away from doctrine and dogma into the truth of experience; unfortunately, his grounding experience was not an open, searching spiritual experience, but a Gnostic experience of self-enclosure, even self-divinization. Young Marx and other Hegelians knew well that Hegel had imaginatively “taken the divine back into man,” the action that Hegel himself described as “the Protestant principle” in his ever-enlightening lectures on the history of philosophy. (Luther would not have agreed with Hegel’s “Protestant principle,” but Jacob Boehme would have.)
As I have come to understand modern and contemporary philosophy, Voegelin has done well what Hegel attempted, but was fundamentally derailed by his Gnostic (self-divinized) experience. Voegelin does not operate within the bounds of reason as articulated by Descartes, Locke, the French philosophes, Kant, Comte, Marx, or Nietzsche. Rather, Voegelin returns to the Platonic-Aristotleian understanding of reason as a knowing but limited participation in the divine Nous that orders the Whole, the Kosmos. This Greek philosophical reason (nous, logos) cannot contain or comprehend the divine, but it can explore divine reality as present in the structure of reality, including human being. Like Hegel, Voegelin appreciates the Judaeo-Christian pneumatic revelations as well as the Greek theophanies in reason, something that neither Locke, nor the Enlightenment, nor Comtean Positivism saw as having value for a more valid understanding of universal humanity—of what it means to be human being in history. But Voegelin’s range of empirical knowledge is far vaster than Hegel’s, which was already astounding for the early 19th century. As an example, Voegelin even learned Chinese and studied Chinese classics and the “Chinese ecumene,” which was parallel in time to the western ecumene (Persian, Greek, Roman empires). Voegelin searched for “order in history” in the full amplitude of divine-human experience, or theophanies.
What Voegelin demonstrates is that to understand human being in history, one has to have vast empirical knowledge, as well as solid theoretical grounding. On both of these scores, the Enlightenment and Hegel were too narrow and parochial, in addition to making the theoretical errors hinted at above. In Voegelin, the philosophical enterprise so well advanced by Plato and Aristotle has been renewed and furthered. And Voegelin’s work lacks the dogmatizing tendencies present even in as great a mind as Thomas Aquinas. In my understanding, religious dogmatic conceptions, as well as rationalistic simplifications, had to be renounced, and the seeker for truth about God-in-man had to return from rigid conceptions to the simple and joyful truth of experience.
The question for you is, as noted, “What constitutes universal humanity in history?” Or do you want to do what Marx did in his “Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts” of 1846 (as I recall), and say something such as “Socialist Man [or Positivist human being] does not ask such questions…Don’t think, don’t ask such questions.” That comes from a passage Voegelin analyzed as “logophobia” (fear of reason) in Marx, and sparked an outcry among German Marxist intellectuals when he analyzed Marx as an “intellectual swindler” who forbad human beings to ask basic questions of existence. But the words are there in Marx’s texts, and Marx never pursued such questions as “why is there something, why not nothing?” He refused to think. Do I not remember finding a similar forbidding of questions in Positivism, including Logical Positivism? Yes, the phrase “Scheinprobleme” (merely “seeming problems”) comes to mind, from no less a thinker than Wittgenstein, as I recall. Questions should not be refused or cut off for ideological reasons. Fundamentalists pull that stunt, as you and I both know. But so do Enlightened intellectuals of one stripe or another. They refuse to ask the pressing questions of human existence.
Here is a summary line from Voegelin’s lengthy analysis on humanity in history: "The mankind whose humanity unfolds in the flux of presence is universal mankind. The universality of mankind is constituted by the divine presence in the Metaxy.” (Ecumenic Age, p. 304). The “Metaxy” is one of Voegelin’s significant borrowings from Plato. In the Symposium, especially (but in other dialogues as well), Plato explores human existence as a movement between (Greek, metaxu) the human and the divine, between good and evil, between fullness and emptiness, etc. Love, for example, is a movement between the human and the divine poles of existence; it is neither strictly human nor solely divine, but a mutual participation of the divine and human. Hegel flattens out the Metaxy, the in-between, into “human self-consciousness,” breaking the “tension of existence,” and replacing philosophy as “love of wisdom” with philosophy or Science as “real knowledge.” Voegelin effectively restores the Platonic emphasis on search (zetesis) rather than on knowledge as possession (Greek, gnosis). Not surprisingly, Voegelin finds “the Question,” and especially the recurring existential questions, such as “Why am I alive?” or “Why is there something?” as constitutive of humankind in history, and not particular answers. If I may say so, Positive or Secular Science and Hegelianism have definite answers, or dismiss the questions, as noted, and in this sense, they are no better than religious fundamentalists who lock God up into a book. Philosophy seeks and asks the fundamental questions of existence. Surely you read enough Plato and Aristotle to have seen those two great minds engaged in “the search for truth,” without claiming to have “built a system” or arrived at any final understanding. Insights are gained, of course, but they lead to more searching, not to a closing off to reality. And you probably know that second-rate minds later tried to provide “answers” and “definitions” based on Plato and Aristotle, and even developed a so called “metaphysics” out of Greek explorations of reality. Remember the Roman conception, summarizing the Greek, as human being as the “rational animal”? The insight was alive for Aristotle in his explorations of the nous; it was not a mere definition to be bandied about by “thinkers.”
For many good reasons, the Enlightenment, Positive Science, and Hegel criticized “doctrinaire thinking,” and “metaphysics,” etc (attacks already visible in Descartes, of course). But the proverbial baby was thrown out with the bathwater, and a new kind of doctrinaire thinking (or refusal to ask the big questions) was passed off as intellectually justifiable. In truth, there is no substitute for the open-ended search for truth. The answer to all ideologies—Christian, Muslim, Positivist, Hegelian, Marxian, Liberal, etc—must come from genuine philosophical inquiry. It is this inquiry, at once empirically well grounded and rooted in the truth of personal experience, that keeps drawing me back to studying Plato, Aristotle, Voegelin, and to any mind that is philosophical in the sense of engaging in an open-ended search for the truth of reality in its full range of being.
These thoughts are sketchy, perhaps a little heavy. But I share the thoughts with someone who probably disagrees, but who may perhaps understand them. In my own search for truth, I read in order to converse with great minds who have advanced the exploration of reality, and especially of what it means to be a human being.