POSITIVISM is a philosophical theory stating that certain
("positive") knowledge is based on natural phenomena and their
properties and relations. Thus, information derived from sensory
experience , interpreted through reason and logic, forms the exclusive
source of all certain knowledge.
Verified data (positive facts) received from the senses are known as empirical evidence ; thus positivism is based on empiricism .
* 1 Etymology
* 2 Overview
* 3.1 Comte\'s positivism * 3.2 Proletarian positivism * 3.3 Durkheim\'s positivism * 3.4 Antipositivism and critical theory * 3.5 Contemporary positivism * 3.6 The role of science in social change
* 4 Logical positivism * 5 Further thinkers * 6 In science today * 7 Criticisms * 8 See also * 9 Notes * 10 References * 11 External links
The English noun _positivism_ was re-imported in the 19th century from the French word _positivisme_, derived from _positif_ in its philosophical sense of 'imposed on the mind by experience'. The corresponding adjective (lat. _positīvus_ 'arbitrarily imposed', from _pono_ 'put in place') has been used in similar sense to discuss law (positive law compared to natural law ) since the time of Chaucer .
The consideration that laws in physics may not be absolute but relative, and, if so, this might be more true of social sciences, was stated, in different terms, by G. B. Vico in 1725. Vico, in contrast to the positivist movement, asserted the superiority of the science of the human mind (the humanities, in other words), on the grounds that natural sciences tell us nothing about the inward aspects of things.
Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911), in contrast, fought strenuously against the assumption that only explanations derived from science are valid. He reprised the argument, already found in Vico, that scientific explanations do not reach the inner nature of phenomena and it is humanistic knowledge that gives us insight into thoughts, feelings and desires. Dilthey was in part influenced by the historicism of Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886).
Main article: Antipositivism
At the turn of the 20th century the first wave of German
The positivists have a simple solution: the world must be divided into that which we can say clearly and the rest, which we had better pass over in silence. But can any one conceive of a more pointless philosophy, seeing that what we can say clearly amounts to next to nothing? If we omitted all that is unclear we would probably be left with completely uninteresting and trivial tautologies.
LOGICAL POSITIVISM AND POSTPOSITIVISM
In the early 20th century, logical positivism—a descendant of
Comte's basic thesis but an independent movement—sprang up in Vienna
and grew to become one of the dominant schools in Anglo-American
philosophy and the analytic tradition. Logical positivists (or
'neopositivists') rejected metaphysical speculation and attempted to
reduce statements and propositions to pure logic . Strong critiques of
this approach by philosophers such as
In historiography the debate on positivism has been characterized by the quarrel between positivism and historicism . ( Historicism is also sometimes termed _historism _ in the German tradition.)
Arguments against positivist approaches in historiography include that history differs from sciences like physics and ethology in subject matter and method . That much of what history studies is nonquantifiable, and therefore to quantify is to lose in precision. Experimental methods and mathematical models do not generally apply to history, and it is not possible to formulate general (quasi-absolute) laws in history.
IN OTHER FIELDS
In psychology the positivist movement was influential in the
development of operationalism . The 1927 philosophy of science book
In economics , practising researchers tend to emulate the methodological assumptions of classical positivism, but only in a _de facto_ fashion: the majority of economists do not explicitly concern themselves with matters of epistemology. Economic thinker Friedrich Hayek (see "Law, Legislation and Liberty") rejected positivism in the social sciences as hopelessly limited in comparison to evolved and divided knowledge. For example, much (positivist) legislation falls short in contrast to pre-literate or incompletely defined common or evolved law. In jurisprudence , "legal positivism " essentially refers to the rejection of natural law , with the latter's claimed basis in a "divine" origin, thus its common meaning with philosophical positivism is somewhat attenuated and in recent generations generally emphasizes the authority of human political structures as opposed to a pseudo-"scientific" view of law, based in a view of natural law, which supposes "divine"origins.
In the early 1970s, urbanists of the positivist-quantitative school like David Harvey started to question the positivist approach itself, saying that the arsenal of scientific theories and methods developed so far in their camp were "incapable of saying anything of depth and profundity" on the real problems of contemporary cities.
IN 1900S SOCIOLOGY
In contemporary social science, strong accounts of positivism have long since fallen out of favour. Practitioners of positivism today acknowledge in far greater detail observer bias and structural limitations. Modern positivists generally eschew metaphysical concerns in favour of methodological debates concerning clarity, replicability , reliability and validity . This positivism is generally equated with "quantitative research " and thus carries no explicit theoretical or philosophical commitments. The institutionalization of this kind of sociology is often credited to Paul Lazarsfeld , who pioneered large-scale survey studies and developed statistical techniques for analyzing them. This approach lends itself to what Robert K. Merton called middle-range theory : abstract statements that generalize from segregated hypotheses and empirical regularities rather than starting with an abstract idea of a social whole.
IN 2000S SOCIOLOGY
Other new movements, such as critical realism , have emerged to reconcile the overarching aims of social science with various so-called 'postmodern' critiques. There are now at least twelve distinct epistemologies that are referred to as positivism.
"The most important thing to determine was the natural order in which the sciences stand—not how they can be made to stand, but how they must stand, irrespective of the wishes of any one. ... This Comte accomplished by taking as the criterion of the position of each the degree of what he called "positivity," which is simply the degree to which the phenomena can be exactly determined. This, as may be readily seen, is also a measure of their relative complexity, since the exactness of a science is in inverse proportion to its complexity. The degree of exactness or positivity is, moreover, that to which it can be subjected to mathematical demonstration, and therefore mathematics, which is not itself a concrete science, is the general gauge by which the position of every science is to be determined. Generalizing thus, Comte found that there were five great groups of phenomena of equal classificatory value but of successively decreasing positivity. To these he gave the names astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology." — Lester F. Ward , _The Outlines of Sociology_ (1898),
Comte offered an account of social evolution , proposing that society undergoes three phases in its quest for the truth according to a general "law of three stages ". The idea bears some similarity to Marx 's belief that human society would progress toward a communist peak (see dialectical materialism ). This is perhaps unsurprising as both were profoundly influenced by the early Utopian socialist , Henri de Saint-Simon , who was at one time Comte's mentor. Comte intended to develop a secular-scientific ideology in the wake of European secularisation .
Comte's stages were (1) the _theological _, (2) the _metaphysical _,
and (3) the _positive_. The theological phase of man was based on
whole-hearted belief in all things with reference to
The final stage of the trilogy of Comte's universal law is the scientific, or positive, stage. The central idea of this phase is that individual rights are more important than the rule of any one person. Comte stated that the idea of humanity's ability to govern itself makes this stage inherently different from the rest. There is no higher power governing the masses and the intrigue of any one person can achieve anything based on that individual's free will. The third principle is most important in the positive stage. Comte calls these three phases 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.
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 was attached to the study of the general progress of all of
humanity". As Comte would say: "from science comes prediction; from
prediction comes action." It is a philosophy of human intellectual
development that culminated in science. 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 a complete understanding of the
universe and world around us and requires that society should never
know if it is in this positivist phase.
Comte's fame today owes in part to
Emile Littré , who founded _The
Positivist Review_ in 1867. As an approach to the philosophy of
history , positivism was appropriated by historians such as Hippolyte
Taine . Many of Comte's writings were translated into English by the
In later life, Comte developed a 'religion of humanity ' for
positivist societies in order to fulfil the cohesive function once
held by traditional worship. In 1849, he proposed a calendar reform
called the 'positivist calendar '. For close associate John Stuart
Mill , it was possible to distinguish between a "good Comte" (the
author of the _Course in Positive Philosophy_) and a "bad Comte" (the
author of the secular-religious _system_). The _system_ was
unsuccessful but met with the publication of Darwin 's _On the Origin
of Species _ to influence the proliferation of various Secular
Humanist organizations in the 19th century, especially through the
work of secularists such as
George Holyoake and
Richard Congreve .
Although Comte's English followers, including
The early sociology of
Fabien Magnin was the first working class adherent to Comte's ideas.
Comte appointed him as his successor as president of the Positive
The modern academic discipline of sociology began with the work of Émile Durkheim (1858–1917). While Durkheim rejected much of the details of Comte's philosophy, he retained and refined its method, maintaining that the social sciences are a logical continuation of the natural ones into the realm of human activity, and insisting that they may retain the same objectivity, rationalism, and approach to causality. Durkheim set up the first European department of sociology at the University of Bordeaux in 1895, publishing his _Rules of the Sociological Method _ (1895). In this text he argued: "ur main goal is to extend scientific rationalism to human conduct... What has been called our positivism is but a consequence of this rationalism."
Durkheim's seminal monograph, _Suicide _ (1897), a case study of
suicide rates amongst
Accounts of Durkheim's positivism are vulnerable to exaggeration and oversimplification: Comte was the only major sociological thinker to postulate that the social realm may be subject to scientific analysis in exactly the same way as natural science, whereas Durkheim saw a far greater need for a distinctly sociological scientific methodology. His lifework was fundamental in the establishment of practical social research as we know it today—techniques which continue beyond sociology and form the methodological basis of other social sciences , such as political science , as well of market research and other fields.
ANTIPOSITIVISM AND CRITICAL THEORY
At the turn of the 20th century, the first wave of German
sociologists formally introduced methodological antipositivism,
proposing that research should concentrate on human cultural norms ,
values , symbols , and social processes viewed from a subjective
Karl Marx\'s theory of historical materialism and critical analysis
drew upon positivism, a tradition which would continue in the
development of critical theory . However, following in the tradition
of both Weber and
In the original Comtean usage, the term "positivism" roughly meant
the use of scientific methods to uncover the laws according to which
both physical and human events occur, while "sociology" was the
overarching science that would synthesize all such knowledge for the
betterment of society. "
The majority of articles published in leading American sociology and political science journals today are positivist (at least to the extent of being quantitative rather than qualitative ). This popularity may be because research utilizing positivist quantitative methodologies holds a greater prestige in the social sciences than qualitative work; quantitative work is easier to justify, as data can be manipulated to answer any question. Such research is generally perceived as being more scientific and more trustworthy, and thus has a greater impact on policy and public opinion (though such judgments are frequently contested by scholars doing non-positivist work).
THE ROLE OF SCIENCE IN SOCIAL CHANGE
The contestation over positivism is reflected in older (see the Positivism dispute ) and current debates over the proper role science in the public sphere. Public sociology —especially as described by Michael Burawoy —argues that sociologists should use empirical evidence to display the problems of society so they might be changed. Conversely, Thibodeaux argued that critical theory—public sociology in particular—relies on a dialectical, unilineal evolutionary view of social change. If a public sociologists assumes a multi-lineal interpretation of social change, public sociology will fail to affect social change for three reasons: (1) there's no objective criteria for the assessment of different goals (2) the rejection of one goal does not necessarily lead to an adherence to some other particular goal and (3) criticizing a goal maintains its relevance at the expense of possible alternatives.
Logical positivism (later and more accurately called logical empiricism) is a school of philosophy that combines empiricism , the idea that observational evidence is indispensable for knowledge of the world, with a version of rationalism , the idea that our knowledge includes a component that is not derived from observation.
Logical positivism grew from the discussions of a group called the "First Vienna Circle" which gathered at the Café Central before World War I . After the war Hans Hahn , a member of that early group, helped bring Moritz Schlick to Vienna. Schlick's Vienna Circle , along with Hans Reichenbach 's Berlin Circle , propagated the new doctrines more widely in the 1920s and early 1930s.
It was Otto Neurath 's advocacy that made the movement self-conscious and more widely known. A 1929 pamphlet written by Neurath, Hahn, and Rudolf Carnap summarized the doctrines of the Vienna Circle at that time. These included: the opposition to all metaphysics , especially ontology and synthetic _a priori_ propositions; the rejection of metaphysics not as wrong but as meaningless (i.e., not empirically verifiable); a criterion of meaning based on Ludwig Wittgenstein 's early work (which he later refuted); the idea that all knowledge should be codifiable in a single standard language of science; and above all the project of "rational reconstruction," in which ordinary-language concepts were gradually to be replaced by more precise equivalents in that standard language. However, the project is widely considered to have failed:
The secondary and historical literature on logical positivism affords substantial grounds for concluding that logical positivism failed to solve many of the central problems it generated for itself. Prominent among the unsolved problems was the failure to find an acceptable statement of the verifiability (later confirmability ) criterion of meaningfulness. Until a competing tradition emerged (about the late 1950s), the problems of logical positivism continued to be attacked from within that tradition. But as the new tradition in the philosophy of science began to demonstrate its effectiveness—by dissolving and rephrasing old problems as well as by generating new ones—philosophers began to shift allegiances to the new tradition, even though that tradition has yet to receive a canonical formulation. — L. D. Smith, Behaviorism and Logical Positivism: A Reassessment of the Alliance
In the early 1930s, the Vienna Circle dispersed, mainly because of fascist persecution and the untimely deaths of Hahn and Schlick. The most prominent proponents of logical positivism emigrated to the United Kingdom and to the United States, where they considerably influenced American philosophy. Until the 1950s, logical positivism was the leading school in the philosophy of science.
After moving to the United States, Carnap proposed a replacement for the earlier doctrines in his _Logical Syntax of Language_. This change of direction, and the somewhat differing beliefs of Reichenbach and others, led to a consensus that the English name for the shared doctrinal platform, in its American exile from the late 1930s, should be "logical empiricism."
Most philosophers consider logical positivism to be, as John Passmore expressed it, "dead, or as dead as a philosophical movement ever becomes". By the late 1970s, its ideas were so generally recognized to be seriously defective that one of its own main proponents, A. J. Ayer , could say in an interview: "I suppose the most important ... was that nearly all of it was false."
Within years of the publication of Comte 's book _A General View of
Positivism_ (1848), other scientific and philosophical thinkers began
creating their own definitions for positivism. They included Émile
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
Emile Hennequin was a Parisian publisher and writer who wrote theoretical and critical pieces. He "exemplified the tension between the positivist drive to systematize literary criticism and the unfettered imagination inherent in literature." He was one of the few thinkers who disagreed with the notion that subjectivity invalidates observation, judgment and prediction. Unlike many positivist thinkers before him, he believed that subjectivity does play a role in science and society. His contribution to positivism pertains not to science and its objectivity, but rather to the subjectivity of art and the way artists, their work, and audiences interrelate. Hennequin tried to analyse 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 critic 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 they reminded him of the oppressive tsarist government under
which he lived. His basic beliefs were "an extreme anti-aesthetic
scientistic position." He focused his efforts on defining the relation
between literature and the environment.
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
However, the claim that Popper was a positivist is a common misunderstanding that Popper himself termed the "POPPER LEGEND." In fact, he developed his beliefs 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. In the same vein, continental philosophers like Theodore Adorno and Jürgen Habermas regarded Popper as a positivist because of his alleged devotion to a unified science . However, this was also part of the "Popper legend"; Popper had in fact been the foremost critic of this doctrine of the Vienna Circle, critiquing it, for instance, in his _ Conjectures and Refutations _.
IN SCIENCE TODAY
See also: Constructive empiricism
The key features of positivism as of the 1950s, as defined in the "received view", are:
* A focus on science as a product, a linguistic or numerical set of statements; * A concern with axiomatization , that is, with demonstrating the logical structure and coherence of these statements; * An insistence on at least some of these statements being testable; that is, amenable to being verified, confirmed, or shown to be false 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. * The belief that science is markedly cumulative; * The belief that science is predominantly transcultural ; * The belief that science rests on specific results that are dissociated from the personality and social position of the investigator; * The belief that science contains theories or research traditions that are largely commensurable; * The belief that science sometimes incorporates new ideas that are discontinuous from old ones; * 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. * The belief that science is nature and nature is science; and out of this duality, all theories and postulates are created, interpreted, evolve, and are applied.
While most social scientists today are not explicit about their epistemological commitments, articles in top American sociology and political science journals generally follow a positivist logic of argument. It can be thus argued that "natural science and social science can therefore be regarded with a good deal of confidence as members of the same genre".
See also: Positivism dispute
Historically, positivism has been criticized for its reductionism , i.e., for contending that all "processes are reducible to physiological, physical or chemical events," "social processes are reducible to relationships between and actions of individuals," and that "biological organisms are reducible to physical systems."
Max Horkheimer criticized the classic formulation of positivism on
two grounds. First, he claimed that 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.
Some scholars today hold the beliefs critiqued in Horkheimer's work, but since the time of his writing critiques of positivism, especially from philosophy of science, have led to the development of postpositivism . This philosophy greatly relaxes the epistemological commitments of logical positivism and no longer claims a separation between the knower and the known. Rather than dismissing the scientific project outright, postpositivists seek to transform and amend it, though the exact extent of their affinity for science varies vastly. For example, some postpositivists accept the critique that observation is always value-laden, but argue that the best values to adopt for sociological observation are those of science: skepticism, rigor, and modesty. Just as some critical theorists see their position as a moral commitment to egalitarian values, these postpositivists see their methods as driven by a moral commitment to these scientific values. Such scholars may see themselves as either positivists or antipositivists.
Experientialism , which arose with second generation cognitive science, asserts that knowledge begins and ends with experience itself.
Echoes of the "positivist" and "antipositivist" debate persist today, though this conflict is hard to define. Authors writing in different epistemological perspectives do not phrase their disagreements in the same terms and rarely actually speak directly to each other. To complicate the issues further, few practicing scholars explicitly state their epistemological commitments, and their epistemological position thus has to be guessed from other sources such as choice of methodology or theory. However, no perfect correspondence between these categories exists, and many scholars critiqued as "positivists" are actually postpositivists. One scholar has described this debate in terms of the social construction of the "other", with each side defining the other by what it is _not_ rather than what it _is_, and then proceeding to attribute far greater homogeneity to their opponents than actually exists. Thus, it is better to understand this not as a debate but as two different arguments: the "antipositivist" articulation of a social meta-theory which includes a philosophical critique of scientism , and "positivist" development of a scientific research methodology for sociology with accompanying critiques of the reliability and validity of work that they see as violating such standards.
* ^ _A_ _B_ John J. Macionis, Linda M. Gerber, _Sociology_, Seventh
* ^ Cohen, Louis; Maldonado, Antonio (2007). "Research Methods In
Education". _British Journal of Educational Studies_.
Routledge . 55
(4): 9. doi :10.1111/j.1467-8527.2007.00388_4.x . .
* ^ "Auguste Comte". _
* ^ Macionis, John J. (2012). _
Sociology 14th Edition_. Boston:
Pearson. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-205-11671-3 .
* ^ _Le petit Robert_ s. v.; _OED_ s. v. _positive_
* ^ Egan, Kieran (1997). _
The Educated Mind _. University of
Chicago Press. pp. 115–116. ISBN 0-226-19036-6 .
* Resources in your library
* The full text of the 1911 _Encyclopædia Britannica_ article "Positivism" at Wikisource * Parana, Brazil * Porto Alegre, Brazil * Present positivistic Sociological theory * Rio de Janeiro, Brazil * Posnan, Poland * Positivists Worldwide * Maison d\'Auguste Comte, France
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