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Positivism is a philosophy which holds the only authentic knowledge is that which is based on actual sense experience. Though the positivist approach has been a 'recurrent theme in the history of western thought from the Ancient Greeks to the present day' and appears in Ibn al-Haytham's 11th Century text Book of Optics, the concept was first coined by the philosopher and founding sociologist, Auguste Comte, in the early 19th century. As an approach to the philosophy of science deriving from Enlightenment thinkers like Pierre-Simon Laplace (and many others), Comte saw the scientific method as replacing metaphysics in the history of thought, and observed the circular dependence of theory and observation in science. Sociological positivism was later expanded in the work of Émile Durkheim, the founder of the modern formal academic discipline. At the turn of the 20th century, the first wave of German sociologists, including Max Weber and Georg Simmel, questioned and rejected the stricter elements of the doctrine, presenting antipositivist sociology.

In the early 20th century, logical positivism—a stricter version of Comte's basic thesis but a broadly independent movement— sprang up in Vienna and grew to become one of the dominant movements in Anglo-American philosophy and the analytic tradition. Logical positivists reject metaphysical speculation and attempt to reduce statements and propositions to pure logic. In psychology, a positivistic approach has historically been favoured in behaviourism.

The positivist view, however, is sometimes associated with scientistic ideology, and is often shared by technocrats 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.


Positivists are guided by five principles:
  1. Unity of scientific method - logic of inquiry is the same across all sciences (social and natural)
  2. The goal of inquiry is to explain and predict. Most positivists would also say that the ultimate goal is to develop the law of general understanding, by discovering necessary and sufficient conditions for any phenomenon (creating a perfect model of it). If the law is known, we can manipulate the conditions to produce the predicted result.
  3. Scientific knowledge is testable. Research can be proved only by empirical means, not argumentations. Research should be mostly deductive, i.e. deductive logic is used to develop statements that can be tested (theory leads to hypothesis which in turn leads to discovery and/or study of evidence). Research should be observable with human senses (arguments are not enough, belief is out of question). Positivists should prove their research using logic of confirmation.
  4. Science does not equal common sense. Researchers must be careful not to let common sense bias their research.
  5. Relation of theory to practice – science should be as value-free as possible, and the ultimate goal of science is to produce knowledge, regardless of politics, morals, values, etc. involved in the research. Science should be judged by logic, and ideally produce Universal conditionals:
* For all conditions of X, if X has property P and P=Q, then X has property Q.
* Statements must be true for all times and places.

Sociological positivism

Comte's positivism

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) developed a series of texts, entitled The Course in Positivist Philosophy, between 1830 and 1842. He revised and presented this theory in full with the 1844 work A General View of Positivism (published in English in 1865). In these works he describes the epistemology of positivism and the empirical goals of sociological theory and method. Comte also offers an evolutionary historiography, proposing that society undergoes three phases in its quest for the truth according to a general Law of three stages. These are the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive phases.

The theological phase of man was based on whole-hearted belief in all things with reference to God. God, Comte says, had reigned supreme over human existence pre-Enlightenment. Humanity's place in society was governed by its association with the divine presences and with the church. The theological phase deals with humankind's accepting the doctrines of the church (or place of worship) rather than relying on its rational powers to explore basic questions about existence. It dealt with the restrictions put in place by the religious organization at the time and the total acceptance of any “fact” adduced for society to believe.

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 invested with certain rights that must be respected. In this phase, democracies and dictators rose and fell in attempts to maintain the innate rights of humanity.

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 innately 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 and authority. 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.

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. Anthony Giddens argues that since humanity constantly uses science to discover and research new things, humanity never progresses beyond the second metaphysical phase. In this view, Comte’s positivism appears circular.

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". As Comte would say, "from science comes prediction; from prediction comes action". It is a philosophy of human intellectual development that culminated in science.

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. Brazilmarker's national motto, Ordem e Progresso ("Order and Progress") was taken from Comte's positivism, which was also influential in Poland. In later life, Comte developed a 'religion of humanity' for positivist societies in order to fulfil the cohesive function once held by traditional worship. The movement was unsuccessful but influenced the proliferation of various secular humanist organizations in the 19th century. In 1849, Comte also proposed a calendar reform called the 'positivist calendar'.

Durkheim's Positivism

Though Comte was integral to the development of sociology, modern academic sociology began with work of Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), who founded the first European university department dedicated to the subject. For Durkheim, sociology was "the science of social facts"; the task of social scientists being to search for correlations between social facts, and thereby reveal social laws. Having discovered the laws of social structure, Durkheim posited that sociology would be able to determine whether any given society is 'healthy' or 'pathological', and seek social reform to negate organic breakdown or "social anomie". Among the best known of Durkheim's projects is his study of suicide rates. By carefully examining suicide statistics in different police districts, Durkheim attempted to demonstrate that Catholic communities have a lower suicide rate than that of Protestants, something he attributed to social (as opposed to individual) causes.

Weber's Antipositivism

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 norm, values, symbols, and social processes viewed from a subjective perspective. Max Weber argued that sociology may be loosely described as a 'science' as it is able to identify causal relationships—especially among ideal types, or hypothetical simplifications of complex social phenomena. As a nonpositivist, however, one seeks relationships that are not as "ahistorical, invariant, or generalizable" as those pursued by natural scientists. Weber regarded sociology as the study of social action, using critical analysis and verstehen techniques. The sociologists Georg Simmel, Ferdinand Tönnies, George Herbert Mead, and Charles Cooley were also influential in the development of sociological antipositivism, whilst neo-Kantian philosophy, hermeneutics and phenomenology facilitated the movement in general. Karl Marx had long since drawn upon critical analysis rather than empiricism, a tradition which would continue in the development of critical theory.

Logical positivism

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 Centralmarker 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 having no meaning; a criterion of meaning based on Ludwig Wittgenstein's early work; 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.

In the early 1930s, the Vienna Circle dispersed, mainly because of political upheaval and the untimely deaths of Hahn and Schlick. The most prominent proponents of logical positivism emigrated to United Kingdom and United States, where they considerably influenced American philosophy. Until the 1950s, logical positivism was the leading school in the philosophy of science. During this period of upheaval, Carnap proposed a replacement for the earlier doctrines in his Logical Syntax of Language. This change of direction and the somewhat differing views 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."

Further thinkers

Within years of the publication of Comte's book A General View of Positivism (1856), other scientific and philosophical thinkers began creating their own definitions for positivism. They included Émile Zola, 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 Francemarker.

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 the artist, work, and audience interrelate. 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 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 was "an extreme anti-aesthetic scientistic position." He focused his efforts on defining the relation between literature and the environment.

Stephen Hawking is a recent high profile advocate of positivism, at least in the physical sciences. In The Universe in a Nutshell (p. 31) he writes:
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 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.
However, the claim that Popper was a positivist is a common misunderstanding that Popper himself termed the "Popper legend." In fact, he 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. On the other hand, modern continental philosophers like Theodore Adorno and Jürgen Habermas regarded Popper as a positivist because of his devotion to a unified science.

Positivism in science today

The key features of positivism as of the 1950s, as defined in the "received view", 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 elsewhere defined as "the view that all true knowledge is scientific," 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," 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," and even that "social processes are reducible to relationships between and actions of individuals," or that "biological organisms are reducible to physical systems."


Historically, positivism has been criticized for its universalism, 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 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 ideas. 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.

Postpositivism emerged as an attempt to reconcile the criticisms of positivism by asserting that the knower and known cannot be separated, resulting in the absence of a shared, single reality.

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 other 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 proponents 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.

Habermas faults positivism for ignoring all humanly significant and interesting problems, citing its refusal to engage in reflection; it gives to a particular methodology an absolutist status and can do this only because it has partly forgotten, partly repressed its knowledge of the roots of this methodology in human concerns.

Positivists' self-critique

Positivists have themselves raised questions and doubts about positivism, questioning whether anyone can follow the ideal described above. The most often raised points are:
  • Forms of controlled inquiry – there is a narrower range of possibilities for social science study compared to natural science study. Issues of ethics, control and of experimenters involuntarily influencing their subjects limit how we can experiment on humans. It is also difficult to test some predictions other than in time.
  • Knowledge is a social variable – knowing one is a subject of a study changes one's behaviour and results can modify the future (self-fulfilling prophecy).
  • Generalizations are limited – because of the complexity of culture and history, it is impossible to create statements that are true for all times and places.
  • Subjectivity and value orientation – Research is often subjective. Researchers always have their own motives, goals, ethics and values, some deeply unconscious, and it is thus impossible to be a completely objective observer.

Today, although many sociologists would agree that a scientific method is an important part of sociology, orthodox positivism is rare. Social scientists realize that one cannot identify laws that would hold true in all cases when human behaviour 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. In some quarters of contemporary sociology, positivism has been replaced by a contrary view, antipositivism. Many sociologists today operate somewhere between positivism and antipositivism, sometimes described as postpositivism. Sociologists taking this intermediate position argue 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".

See also

Regional histories
Other areas
Pejorative treatment


  1. :
  2. :
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  4. Giddens, Positivism and Sociology, 1
  5. Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism 3
  6. Mises, Positivism: A Study In Human Understanding,5
  7. Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism, 4
  8. Giddens, Positivism and Sociology, 9
  9. Mary Pickering, Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography, Volume I, 622
  10. Mary Pickering, Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography, Volume I, 566
  11. Hacking, I. (ed.) 1981. Scientific revolutions. - Oxford Univ. Press, New York.
  12. Alan Bullock and Stephen Trombley, [Eds] The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, London: Harper-Collins, 1999, pp.669-737
  13. Jũrgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, ISBN 0-8070-1540-7, pp. 4-5; 301ff


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