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Positivism is a philosophy that states that the only authentic knowledge is knowledge that is based on actual sense experience. Such knowledge can only come from affirmation of theories through strict scientific method. Metaphysical speculation is avoided. It was developed by Auguste Comte (widely regarded as the first sociologist)[1] in the middle of the 19th century. In the early 20th century, logical positivism — a stricter and more logical version of Comte's basic thesis — sprang up in Vienna and grew to become one of the dominant movements in American and British philosophy. The positivist view is sometimes referred to as a "scientistic" ideology, and is often shared by technocrats[citation needed] who believe in the necessity of progress through scientific progress, and by naturalists, who argue that any method for gaining knowledge should be limited to natural, physical, and material approaches.

As an approach to the philosophy of science deriving from Enlightenment thinkers like Pierre-Simon Laplace (and many others), positivism was first systematically theorized by Comte, who saw the scientific method as replacing metaphysics in the history of thought, and who observed the circular dependence of theory and observation in science. Comte was thus one of the leading thinkers of the social evolutionism thought.

Comte was highly influential in some countries. Brazilian thinkers turned to his ideas about training a scientific elite in order to flourish in the industrialization process. Brazil's national motto, “Ordem e Progresso” (“Order and Progress”) was taken from Comte's positivism, also influential in Poland. Positivism is the most evolved stage of society in anthropological evolutionism, the point where science and rational explanation for scientific phenomena develops.

Comte's positivism

According to Auguste Comte, society undergoes three different phases in its quest for the truth according to the aptly named Law of three stages. These three phases are the theological, the metaphysical and the positive phases.[2]

The theological phase of man is based on whole-hearted belief in all things with reference to God. God, he says, had reigned supreme over human existence pre-Enlightenment. Humanity's place in society was governed by his association with the divine presences and with the church. The theological phase deals with humankind accepting the doctrines of the church (or place of worship) and not questioning the world. It dealt with the restrictions put in place by the religious organization at the time and the total acceptance of any “fact” placed forth for society to believe.[3]

Comte describes the metaphysical phase of humanity as the time since the Enlightenment, a time steeped in logical rationalism, to the time right after the French Revolution. This second phase states that the universal rights of humanity are most important. The central idea is that humanity is born with certain rights, that should not and cannot be taken away, which must be respected. With this in mind democracies and dictators rose and fell in attempt to maintain the innate rights of humanity.[4]

The final stage of the trilogy of Comte’s universal law is the scientific, or positive stage. The central idea of this phase is the idea that individual rights are more important than the rule of any one person. Comte stated the idea that humanity is able to govern itself is what makes this stage innately different from the rest. There is no higher power governing the masses and the intrigue of any one person than the idea that one can achieve anything based on one's individual free will and authority. The third principle is most important in the positive stage.[5]

These three phases are what Comte calls the universal rule – in relation to society and its development. Neither the second nor the third phase can be reached without the completion and understanding of the preceding stage. All stages must be completed in progress.[6]

The irony of this series of phases is that though Comte attempted to prove that human development has to go through these three stages it seems that the positivist stage is far from becoming a realization. This is due to two truths. The positivist phase requires having complete understanding of the universe and world around us and requires that society should never know if it is in this positivist phase. One may argue that the positivist phase could not be reached unless one were God thus reverting to the first and initial phase; or that humanity is constantly using science to discover and research new things leading one back to the second metaphysical phase. Thus, some believe Comte’s positivism to be circular.[7]

Comte believed that the appreciation of the past and the ability to build on it towards the future was key in transitioning from the theological and metaphysical phases. The idea of progress was central to Comte's new science, sociology. Sociology would "lead to the historical consideration of every science" because "the history of one science, including pure political history, would make no sense unless it were attached to the study of the general progress of all of humanity".[8] As Comte would say, "from science comes prediction; from prediction comes action".[9] It is a philosophy of human intellectual development that culminated in science.

Other positivist thinkers

Comte's ideas of positivism have intrigued many. Within years of his book A General View Of Positivism (1856) other scientific and philosophical thinkers began creating their own definitions for Positivism. They included Emile Hennequin, Wilhelm Scherer, and Dimitri Pisarev.

Émile Zola was an influential French novelist, the most important example of the literary school of naturalism, and a major figure in the political liberalization of France.

Emile Hennequin was a Parisian publisher and writer, who wrote on theoretical and critical pieces. He "exemplified the tension between the positivist drive to systemize literary criticism and the unfettered imagination inherent in literature". He is one of the few thinkers that disagrees with the notion that subjectivity invalidates observation, judgments and predictions. Unlike many positivist thinkers before him he cannot agree that subjectivity does not play a role in science or any other form in society. His contribution to positivism is not one of science and its objectivity but rather the subjectivity of art and the way the artist, work, and audience view each other. Hennequin tried to analyze positivism strictly on the predictions, and the mechanical processes, but was perplexed due to the contradictions of the reactions of patrons to artwork that showed no scientific inclinations.

Wilhelm Scherer, was a German philologist, a university professor, and a popular literary historian. He was known as a positivist because he based much of his work on "hypotheses on detailed historical research, and rooted every literary phenomenon in 'objective' historical or philological facts". His positivism is different due to his involvement with his nationalist goals. His major contribution to the movement was his speculation that culture cycled in a six-hundred-year period.

Dimitri Pisarev was a Russian publiste, who showed the greatest contradictions with his belief in positivism. His ideas focused around an imagination and style though he did not believe in romantic ideas because it reminded him of the tsarist oppressive government he lived in. His basic beliefs were "an extreme anti-aesthetic scientistic position". His efforts were focused on defining the relation between literature and the environment.

Stephen Hawking has been regarded by some as an advocate of modern postivism, at least in the physical sciences. “Any sound scientific theory, whether of time or of any other concept, should in my opinion be based on the most workable philosophy of science: the positivist approach put forward by Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper and others. According to this way of thinking, a scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make. A good theory will describe a large range of phenomena on the basis of a few simple postulates and will make definite predictions that can be tested… If one takes the positivist position, as I do, one cannot say what time actually is. All one can do is describe what has been found to be a very good mathematical model for time and say what predictions it makes.” (The Universe In a Nutshell , p31) (However, the claim that Popper was a positivist is a common misunderstanding which Popper himself termed the 'Popper legend'. Popper in fact developed his views in stark opposition to and as a criticism of positivism and held that scientific theories talk about how the world really is, not, as positivists claim, about phenomena or observations experienced by scientists.)

Criticism and limits of positivism

Historically, positivism has been criticized for its universalism, contending that all "processes are reducible to physiological, physical or chemical events,"[10] "social processes are reducible to relationships between and actions of individuals,"[10] and that "biological organisms are reducible to physical systems."[10]

Max Horkheimer and other critical theorists criticized positivism on two grounds. First, it falsely represented human social action. The first criticism argued that positivism systematically failed to appreciate the extent to which the so-called social facts it yielded did not exist 'out there', in the objective world, but were themselves a product of socially and historically mediated human consciousness. Positivism ignored the role of the 'observer' in the constitution of social reality and thereby failed to consider the historical and social conditions affecting the representation of social. Positivism falsely represented the object of study by reifying social reality as existing objectively and independently of those whose action and labor actually produced those conditions. Secondly, he argued, representation of social reality produced by positivism was inherently and artificially conservative, helping to support the status quo, rather than challenging it. This character may also explain the popularity of positivism in certain political circles. Horkheimer argued, in contrast, that critical theory possessed a reflexive element lacking in the positivistic traditional theory.

Among most social scientists and historians, orthodox positivism has long fallen out of favor. While in agreement on the important role of the scientific method, social scientists realize that one cannot identify laws that would hold true in all cases when human behavior is concerned, and that while the behaviour of groups may at times be predicted in terms of probability, it is much harder to explain the behaviour of each individual or events. Today, practitioners of both the social sciences and physical sciences recognize the role of the observer can unintentionally bias or distort the observed event.

In some quarters of social science, positivism has been replaced by a contrary view, antipositivism. Many sociologists today operate somewhere between positivism and antipositivism, arguing that human behavior is more complex than animal behavior or the movements of planets. Others reject positivism as a fundamental misunderstanding of social reality, that it is ahistorical, depoliticized, and an inappropriate application of theoretical concepts. A similar distinction is often made in the critique of analytic philosophy made by continental philosophers. Some argue humans have free will, imagination and irrationality, so that our behavior is at best difficult to explain by rigid 'laws of society'.

Positivism has also come under fire on religious and philosophical grounds, whose practitioners assert that truth begins in sense experience, but does not end there. Positivism fails to prove that there are not abstract ideas, laws, and principles, beyond particular observable facts and relationships and necessary principles, or that we cannot know them. Nor does it prove that material and corporeal things constitute the whole order of existing beings, and that our knowledge is limited to them. According to positivism, our abstract concepts or general ideas are mere collective representations of the experimental order — for example, the idea of "man" is a kind of blended image of all the men observed in our experience. This runs contrary to a Platonic or Christian ideal, where an idea can be abstracted from any concrete determination, and may be applied identically to an indefinite number of objects of the same class. From the idea's perspective, the latter is more precise as collective images are more or less confused, become more so as the collection represented increases; an idea by definition remains always clear.

Modern positivism in science

The key features of positivism as of the 1950s, as defined in the "received view"[11], are:

  1. A focus on science as a product, a linguistic or numerical set of statements;
  2. A concern with axiomatization, that is, with demonstrating the logical structure and coherence of these statements;
  3. An insistence on at least some of these statements being testable, that is amenable to being verified, confirmed, or falsified by the empirical observation of reality; statements that would, by their nature, be regarded as untestable included the teleological; (Thus positivism rejects much of classical metaphysics.)
  4. The belief that science is markedly cumulative;
  5. The belief that science is predominantly transcultural;
  6. The belief that science rests on specific results that are dissociated from the personality and social position of the investigator;
  7. The belief that science contains theories or research traditions that are largely commensurable;
  8. The belief that science sometimes incorporates new ideas that are discontinuous from old ones;
  9. The belief that science involves the idea of the unity of science, that there is, underlying the various scientific disciplines, basically one science about one real world.

Positivism is also depicted as "the view that all true knowledge is scientific,"[10] and that all things are ultimately measurable. Positivism is closely related to reductionism, in that both involve the view that "entities of one kind... are reducible to entities of another,"[10] such as societies to numbers, or mental events to chemical events. It also involves the contention that "processes are reducible to physiological, physical or chemical events,"[10] and even that "social processes are reducible to relationships between and actions of individuals,"[10] or that "biological organisms are reducible to physical systems."[10]

Philosophical issues

Certain problems arise with the positivist belief system once it is accepted:

  1. Since all of our most certain knowledge, namely, that of our ourselves and our own mental states, is inaccessible to objective science (being personal), how is positivism to account for what we know? And since our inferences about what we do not directly know, but only surmise on the basis of our actual experiences, comprise the objective world of scientific entities imagined by positivist philosophy, how is it supposed to be possible to account for any knowledge at all positivistically?;
  2. Since the self and its knowledge is known and experienced (not only subjectively but) qualitatively not quantitatively, how is it supposed to be possible to give an objective quantitative account of the source and core of all knowledge--scientific and otherwise--namely the scientist himself?;
  3. If an experience is 'reduced' to something else, does it cease to exist as a subjective qualitative thing, or not? If not, doesn't it remain in a crucial sense unreduced to a 'scientific' object? If so, what inspired the 'reduction'?
  4. Since science is descriptive in nature, and posits how a given thing is, how can scientific methods describe how something ought to be?

See also


  1. Sociology Guide. "Auguste Comte". Sociology Guide.
  2. Giddens, Positivism and Sociology, 1
  3. Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism 3
  4. Mises, Positivism: A Study In Human Understanding,5
  5. Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism, 4
  6. Giddens, Positivism and Sociology, 9
  7. Giddens, Positivism and Sociology, 9
  8. Mary Pickering, Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography, Volume I, 622
  9. Mary Pickering, Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography, Volume I, 566
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 10.7 Alan Bullock and Stephen Trombley, [Eds] The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, London: Harper-Collins, 1999, pp.669-737
  11. Hacking, I. (ed.) 1981. Scientific revolutions. - Oxford Univ. Press, New York.


  • Amory, Frederic."Euclides da Cunha and Brazilian Positivism"

Luso-Brazilian Review > Vol. 36, No. 1 (Summer, 1999), pp. 87-94

  • Giddens, Anthony. Positivism and Sociology. Heinemann. London. 1974.
  • LeGouis, Catherine. Positivism and Imagination: Scientism and Its Limits in Emile Hennequin, Wilhelm Scherer and Dmitril Pisarev. Bucknell University Press. London: 1997.
  • Mill, John Stuart. August Comte and Positivism. web-books.com <http://www.web-books.com/Classics/Nonfiction/Philosophy/Mill_Comte/Home.htm>.
  • Mises, Richard von. Positivism: A Study In Human Understanding. Harvard University Press. Cambridge; Massachusetts: 1951.
  • Pickering, Mary. Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, England; 1993.
  • Richard Rorty (1982) Consequences of Pragmatism

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