Positivism is a philosophical movement and a system of ideas that includes a broad methodological approach and a theory of knowledge, in particular of a scientific knowledge, based on radical empiricism that confines knowledge to observable and verifiable data. It has emerged as a fundamentally new, non-metaphysical (“positive,” in a sense of a quality or state characterized by certainty, acceptance and affirmation) philosophy, especially philosophy of science and social science. This conception must have declared as false and senseless all traditional problems, concepts, and propositions of philosophy inasmuch being of abstract nature and unsolvable by experience. It must have rejected as unscientific and meaningless also any type of theoretical scientific thought, not to say any intuition or revelation, considering it a pure and empty speculation.
Human thought, legitimately represented only by logic and mathematics, must strictly and firmly stick to what has been, or in principle can be, experienced and evidenced by given “positive” facts. Such a thought would encompass “positive” information derived from observable experience. Thus, even though the French philosopher and social theorist Isidore-Auguste-Marie-François-Xavier Comte (1798-1857), who coined the term, is generally recognized as the founder of positivism, its roots can be traced back to the epistemology of British empiricism as contained in the works of F. Bacon, G. Berkeley, and D. Hume, according to whom knowledge should be fully grounded in experience, that is, we should not take as knowledge what has not been perceived or cannot be perceptible by senses. In such a way positivism pretends to express the true spirit of science. It represents an attempt at exact methodology of science and true scientific philosophy. Science, especially natural science, is regarded as the paradigm model of a true knowledge and a model for philosophy as well. Even philosophy itself must become a “positive philosophy,” (that is, a philosophical science based on experience and “positive” science). Comte’s monumental six-volume Cours de philosophie positive (Course in Positive Philosophy) was an encyclopedic project comparable to that of the Enlightenment Encyclopedists,in which he developed a complete system of philosophy to provide the foundations for the social order he envisaged.
The story of positivism has embraced a wide variety of ideas not fully endorsed by all of its proponents. Historically, there have been three phases in the development of positivism, each of which has provided a special form of the positivist doctrine. The classical positivism of Comte represents the first phase, which in a sense is still the outcome of the Enlightenment. It can be labeled as the “social P.,” since its originator intended via his conception of a “positive knowledge” not only to provide a true scientific knowledge but also to put this knowledge in the service of human social progress. Comte contended, together with Claude Henri de Saint-Simon (1760— 1825), for whom he worked as a secretary for a couple of years, that the social evolution could be achieved through education and enlightenment, i.e., knowledge and science. The social reconstruction presupposes the reconstruction of sciences first. Classifying the sciences according to their degree of increasing complexity, Comte reduces them to six in the following order: mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology. Thus Comte had conceived the idea of a new science of society, sociology—or “social physics” in his terms—since he thought that there should not be any substantial difference between this and other natural sciences. As the basis for such a positive knowledge of human society and history, Comte considered laws. He divided the social physics into the “social statics” providing social facts associated in the social order with laws, and “social dynamics,” providing the laws of social evolution resulting in the social progress. Thereby such a science would provide the foundation for social reconstruction. Comte believed in the spirit of the enlightenment: that political problems should be subject to the same procedures that scientists use in order to resolve scientific questions, i.e., that politics should become a sort of “social engineering,” or “social technology,” or perhaps applied social science, which is to be implemented by experts and technicians, who fully understand its subject. In a sense, Comte shared with F. Bacon not only his empiricism but also his pragmatism. He worked diligently to see his ideas be useful in practice. In order to persuade himself and others that his theory is also a part of the social process, he developed the quasi-Hegelian evolutionary scheme of the history of human civilization, according to which the human mind, knowledge, and society have passed through the following three stages, as he put it in his work, The Discours surl’ensemhle du positivisme (A General View of Positivism) published in 1848: “[T]he Theological stage, in which free play is given to spontaneous fictions admitting of no proof, the Metaphysical stage, characterized by the prevalence of personified abstractions or entities, and lastly, the Positive stage, based upon an exact view of the real facts of the case.” That is, the Theological stage was dominated by religion and explanations of natural phenomena by theology; the Metaphysical stage was dominated by obscure abstract concepts and explanations of natural phenomena by philosophy, and the Positive stage shall be dominated by positive knowledge and explanations of natural phenomena by positive science. The first stage represents the “infantile” stage with the primitive, supernatural worldview; the second stage represents the “adolescent” stage with the reference to invisible natural essences, and the third stage represents the “mature” stage, corresponding to the present time, in which the world is conceived as a whole and as an ordered organism governed by necessary laws. Strangely enough but true, Comte, in the later period of his life, and substantially due to a 1-year-long personal affair with Clotilde de Vaux (1815—1846), switched from his hard-nosed scientism toward the recognition of the emotional side of human life, including love, friendship, and altruism (of the latter term he is said to be the originator). He founded a “positive religion,” which he named the “Religion of Humanity” in order to establish even an emotional and spiritual foundation for his philosophy—something he formerly would have strongly dismissed. However, this was in line with the development of his thought, since subsequently he placed ethics on the highest step in his hierarchy of sciences. He suggested that altruism combined with rationality may bring the highest stage of social evolution, and thus he aimed to top his project not only with general social ethics, but perhaps also with general social anthropology, as he mentioned in the popular introduction of his system of 1844 Discours sur l’esprit positif (A Discourse on the Positive Spirit). Humanity has now become the “God” of positivism and the object of worship. Humanity with the world-space and the earth has formed the positivist trinity. Comte even strived to make his secular religion complete with the temple, pontiff, priesthood and its calendar of saints. After the death of Comte, a split occurred in the school of positivism, and in France two groups had been formed: an orthodox one led by Pierre Laffitte (1823—1903), and a dissident one led by Emile Littre (1801-1881). Other important proponents of the first phase of positivism were John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), and Alexander Bain (1818-1903) in England. They focused on the theory of scientific knowledge and theory of society. The principles and spirit of classical positivism no doubt pervaded the scientific and philosophical thought in the 19th century and exercised a broad influence in many spheres.
The second phase of positivism, “Neo-positivism,” which can be labeled as “critical P.” (sometimes as “empirio-criticism”), focused on an immediate experience and its inception dates back to the 1860s-1870s. It is associated mainly with the Austrian philosopher and scientist Ernst Mach (1838-1916)), according to whom it is also called “Machism,” and some of his Austrian colleagues such as Richard Avenarius (1843-1896), but also with J. H. Poincare (1854-1912) in France, and others. These thinkers have not so much in common with the classical Comtean positivists; nevertheless, there are some features in their works that allow one to describe them as participants in the same movement. Thus they were also basically motivated with issues of scientific knowledge and methodology. However, their extreme empiricism brought them to psychologism of the type of J. S. Mill, and even more radically to subjectivism of the type of G. Berkeley. Rather than general sociology, they were interested in a general theory of economics.
The most recent and third stage of P., sometimes also called “Neo-positivism” by those commentators who simply decide to ignore the former Machian stage, also has its several labels such as “logical positivism” (most often) or “logical empiricism,” or “logical atomism” as its special variant. Its origins are firmly linked up with the so-called Vienna Circle (at its beginnings were also influenced by the home “gurus” such as Mach and Avenarius), which started to work as early as in 1907, but was made complete in the 1920s by assembling a whole range of natural and social scientists who gathered to discuss the typical positivist agenda of the philosophy of science, and who have marked substantially the developments in this area for the long decades of the first half of the 20th century to come. The group included such important figures as Moritz Schlick (1882-1936), Otto Neurath (1882-1945), Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970), Philipp Frank (1884-1966), Hans Reichenbach (1891-1953), Herbert Feigl (1902-1988), Kurt Godel (1906-1978), Hans Hahn (1879-1934), Carl Gustav Hempel (1905-1997), Friedrich Waismann (1896-1959), and others, including loosely also Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889- 1953), Alfred J. Ayer (1910-1989), Karl R. Popper (1902-1994), and Willard V. O. Quine (1908-2000), as their partner-discussants and successors, respectively. In due course these thinkers have concentrated on the philosophical problems of language, symbolic logic, the structure of scientific investigations, and so on. They came to oppose psychologism, which they replaced by their logicism, and finally gave rise to another important philosophical movement of the 20th century, with which they have been intertwined, i.e. the analytic philosophy in the broad sense. In comparison to both previous stages of positivism, this one has put emphasis also on logic, whose role they understood as the formulation of a priori rules of valid inference in science, and explication of basic scientific concepts (which they called “the logical analysis of scientific language”). Philosophically, the crucial intention of these positivists was the elimination of metaphysics, a task they intended to accomplish via applying scientific methods to the analysis of language of science and philosophy. As the main instrument for this purpose they selected their self-invented “Verification Principle.” According to this principle, there are just two types of meaningful propositions: tautologies (true by definition), and those verified and/or verifiable by empirical methods of science. All other statements must be pseudostatements lacking a meaning. Such, for instance, are metaphysical and/or theological statements, being neither true nor false, but “nonsense.” The fatal trouble, however, has appeared for the logical positivists with the Verification Principle itself: it is the statement, which cannot be verified by using its own criteria. The suggestion provided by K. R. Popper to replace the principle of verification for the fallibilist principle of falsification has brought better results. After the tragic assassination of M. Schlick, the leader of the Circle, and the rise of Nazism in Germany, the final phase of this movement continued in the United States, prevailingly under the title of logical empiricism. One of the main ideas they took over from Europe, and attempted to maintain during and after World War II, was the idea of a unified science that they were developing within the project of the multivolume International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. This was based on the doctrine that there is a universal scientific method, which can unite all science, natural and social, and that all real science must conform to this methodological model. Thus, particularly in the fields of social science, including humanities and anthropology, such approaches as naturalism, reductionism, behaviorism, operationalism, methodological individualism, and formal and statistic methods have been supported at the expense of, and directly in the opposition to, interpretive and hermeneutic approaches. The focus on explanation versus interpretation has long prevailed, as well as the idea of value-neutral science among the logical empiricists.
Despite the considerable legacy of all phases of positivism, in particular in sociology, methodology, and philosophy of science, the second half of the 20th century has witnessed its final stage and the gradual replacement by what now is called “post-positivism.” Its rise is associated mainly with such figures, formerly members of the logical positivist group, as Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), among others. Traditional methodological dualisms of analytic and synthetic theory and observation seem to have been explained as untenable by W. V. O. Quine. Such an approach attempts to embrace and preserve the scientific values and norms of rationality, while describing them in a new, non-dogmatic, historical, contextual, conventional, communicative, and more creative mode. The post-positivists do not ignore as scientifically irrelevant such factors as historical, anthropological, and cognitive factors, including psychological ones that influence the whole science, not merely the social science. The traditional specters of positivism, such as values, meanings, and interpretations, seem to be thus no more haunting, which may be read as a good message for anthropology from the part of this current, and seemingly the “fourth,” stage of positivism.
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