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Durkheim Positivism Essay


Positivism is a philosophy of science that assumes a specific epistemological, ontological, and methodological perspective. Auguste Comte was the first to lay out the positivist position for sociology arguing that (1) social phenomena—or social facts, as Durkheim would call them—external and observable to individuals were amenable to empirical, scientific analysis and, thus, the goal for a positivist social science would be (2) to discern the abstract, social laws that undergirded these observable facts; (3) to not focus on causes, especially ultimate causes, but rather the natural relations between phenomena; and (4) to produce a body of cumulative knowledge that could guide social engineers, analogous to physics or chemistry guiding mechanical or electrical engineers. Since Comte, positivism has evolved. Contemporary positivists, as well as their critics, assign different meanings and emphases to a relatively wide range of practices and philosophical positions, which has produced some confusion as to what positivism is or is not. Given the negative connotation that positivism tends to have in many contemporary sociological circles, especially outside the United States, each section of this bibliography will include one or two critical pieces linked to the section’s theme. Additionally, a later section, Commentary and Critique, will provide seminal works that underscore the diversity in critiques of positivist sociology. Perhaps the most important charge leveled against positivism is that it dominates the discipline and especially the most prestigious journals, in spite of the fact that positivism has many different contemporary methodological and epistemological meanings. Nevertheless, a few core elements can be isolated that underscore all positivisms. First, sociology is and should be a science, in that only those social facts external and observable by scientific methods and instruments are to be studied. Second, and closely related, sociological inquiry should be objective, value-neutral inquiry distinguishable from religious, moral, political, or philosophical inquiry. Third, the methods and instruments should be reliable, verifiable, and precise; though there is not a distinct set of methods to which positivists adhere, many positivists (often called methodological positivists) subscribe to quantitative analyses. Fourth, theories should be abstract, generalizable statements with clearly defined concepts linked by their relationship. Though few positivists speak of “laws,” most believe the goal of theory is to explain a class of phenomena. Fifth, the ultimate goal is cumulative, objective knowledge of the social world, its properties, and its dynamics.

General Overviews of Classical Positivism

No clear bifurcation between classical or contemporary positivism can be delineated. Perhaps arbitrary, positivist thought from Comte (Comte 1968) through Logical Positivism (Carnap 1934, Ayers 1959) may be termed “classical,” as elements continue to inform positivism today, yet these scholars are generally not referred to or employed in contemporary defenses of or writings on positivism. Comte’s philosophy was central to the sociological work of both Spencer (Spencer 1897) and Durkheim (Durkheim 1982). Both social scientists accepted the belief that there was an empirical world and that scientific methods should be employed to observe it; both wrote a text specifically on methods, with Spencer 1961 focused on the use of historical-comparative methods to generate first principles. Durkheim 1982 did not prescribe a particular method, but cogently argued that social facts were distinct phenomena apart from psychological facts and established the logic behind scientific inquiry. During the classical phase of sociology, in Europe and the United States, most social scientists took for granted sociology as a science. For instance, Sorokin 1959 contains a general theory of stratification and mobility that tacitly assumes these phenomena have some unchanging identifiable qualities. Or, consider Sumner and Keller 1927, a herculean effort to compile data on every known society so that all sociologists would draw from the same place and cumulative knowledge could be established. Comte’s vision, which explicitly or implicitly informed sociology, was eventually abandoned with the rise of Logical Positivism (Carnap 1934, Ayers 1959). In essence, Logical Positivists emphasized methodology over theory, logic over abstraction, and verification. In many ways, Logical Positivism shaped what is called methodological positivism today in that they conflated empirical generalizations with theoretical statements. Max Weber’s statement on sociological methods (Weber 1946) provides a critique of positivism, while at the same time laying the foundations for modern interpretivism in sociology. On the other hand, Popper 2002 offers one of the more cogent and respected philosophy of science critiques of positivism.

  • Ayers, A. J., ed. 1959. Logical Positivism. New York: Dover.

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    An edited book of essays by the most relevant Logical Positivists.

  • Carnap, Rudolf. 1934. The unity of science. London: Kegan Paul.

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    A typical example of a Logical Positivist argument. In particular, Carnap focuses on what is often called the unity of science or the epistemological, ontological, and methodological position that all external, observable phenomena are amenable to scientific measurement. Found in Comte’s so-called Hierarchy of the Sciences, the unity of science position has undergirded the argument that sociology is a science.

  • Comte, Auguste. 1968. System of positive polity. 4 vols. New York: Burt Franklin.

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    Comte’s complete and ultimate statement on positivism and the social sciences. Though all four volumes inform the reader, of special importance to his philosophy are the first one hundred pages or so. Originally published 1851–1854.

  • Durkheim, Emile. 1982. The rules of sociological method, and selected texts on sociology and its method. New York: Free Press.

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    Originally published in 1895. Durkheim’s text on methods, focused principally on the epistemological and ontological foundations of a positivist social science.

  • Popper, Karl. 2002. The logic of scientific discovery. London: Routledge.

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    Originally published in 1934. A classic philosophy of science work that questions the tenets of Logical Positivism, while offering a critical examination of the assumptions of scientific inquiry.

  • Sorokin, Pitirim. 1959. Social and cultural mobility. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

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    Originally published in 1927. An example of a formal theoretical work with ubiquitous, abstract propositions regarding stratification and inequality in human societies. Though often a forgotten text, numerous general contemporary theories of stratification and empirical studies appear to verify many of Sorokin’s propositions.

  • Spencer, Herbert. 1897. The principles of sociology. New York: Appleton.

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    As was typical of positivists, the search for the most basic elements or principles of a science was an important step in building a cumulative body of knowledge. Spencer’s efforts have slowly become recognized in some corners of contemporary sociology, but they are exemplary of 19th-century positivism.

  • Spencer, Herbert. 1961. The study of sociology. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

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    Originally published in 1873. Spencer’s positivist text on sociological methods.

  • Sumner, William Graham, and Albert G. Keller. 1927. The science of society. 4 vols. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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    A qualitative data set that is cross-cultural with the intention of giving social scientists a common body of data to draw from and speak to each other through.

  • Weber, Max. 1946. Methods of the social science. In From Max Weber: Essays in sociology. Edited by H. Gerth and C. W. Mills, 55–61. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Weber’s methodological statement highlighting the concept Verstehen and the interpretivist approach.

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For other uses, see Positivism (disambiguation).

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.[1] Positivism holds that valid knowledge (certitude or truth) is found only in this a posteriori knowledge.

Verified data (positive facts) received from the senses are known as empirical evidence; thus positivism is based on empiricism.[1]

Positivism also holds that society, like the physical world, operates according to general laws. Introspective and intuitive knowledge is rejected, as are metaphysics and theology. Although the positivist approach has been a recurrent theme in the history of western thought,[2] the modern sense of the approach was formulated by the philosopher Auguste Comte in the early 19th century.[3] Comte argued that, much as the physical world operates according to gravity and other absolute laws, so does society,[4] and further developed positivism into a Religion of Humanity.


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) has been used in a similar sense to discuss law (positive law compared to natural law) since the time of Chaucer.[5]



Positivism is part of a more general ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry, notably laid out by Plato and later reformulated as a quarrel between the sciences and the humanities,[6] Plato elaborates a critique of poetry from the point of view of philosophy in his dialogues Phaedrus 245a, Symposium 209a, Republic 398a, Laws 817 b-d and Ion.[7]Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911) popularized the distinction between Geisteswissenschaft (humanities) and Naturwissenschaften (natural sciences).[8]

The consideration that laws in physics may not be absolute but relative, and, if so, this might be more true of social sciences,[9] was stated, in different terms, by G. B. Vico in 1725.[10] 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.[11]


Positivism asserts that all authentic knowledge allows verification and that all authentic knowledge assumes that the only valid knowledge is scientific.[12] Thinkers such as Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827) and Auguste Comte (1798–1857) believed the scientific method, the circular dependence of theory and observation, must replace metaphysics in the history of thought.[citation needed]Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) reformulated sociological positivism as a foundation of social research.[13]

Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911), in contrast, fought strenuously against the assumption that only explanations derived from science are valid.[8] He reprised the argument, already found in Vico, that scientific explanations do not reach the inner nature of phenomena[8] and it is humanistic knowledge that gives us insight into thoughts, feelings and desires.[8] Dilthey was in part influenced by the historicism of Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886).[8]


Main article: Antipositivism

At the turn of the 20th century the first wave of German sociologists, including Max Weber and Georg Simmel, rejected the doctrine, thus founding the antipositivist tradition in sociology. Later antipositivists and critical theorists have associated positivism with "scientism"; science as ideology.[14] Later in his career (1969),[15] German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, Nobel laureate for pioneering work in quantum mechanics, distanced himself from positivism by saying:

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.[16]

Logical positivism and postpositivism[edit]

Main articles: 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 Karl Popper, Willard Van Orman Quine and Thomas Kuhn have been highly influential, and led to the development of postpositivism.

In historiography[edit]

In historiography the debate on positivism has been characterized by the quarrel between positivism and historicism.[9] (Historicism is also sometimes termed historism in the German tradition.)[17]

Arguments against positivist approaches in historiography include that history differs from sciences like physics and ethology in subject matter and method.[18] 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.[18]

In other fields[edit]

Positivism in the social sciences is usually characterized by quantitative approaches and the proposition of quasi-absolute laws. A significant exception to this trend is represented by cultural anthropology, which tends naturally toward qualitative approaches.[9]

In psychology the positivist movement was influential in the development of operationalism. The 1927 philosophy of science book The Logic of Modern Physics in particular, which was originally intended for physicists, coined the term operational definition, which went on to dominate psychological method for the whole century.[19]

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.[20] 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; 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 "scientific" view of law.

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.[21]

In 20th century sociology[edit]

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.[22] 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,[23] 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.[24]

In 21st century sociology[edit]

Other new movements, such as critical realism, have emerged to reconcile the overarching aims of social science with various so-called 'postmodern' critiques.[25][26] There are now at least twelve distinct epistemologies that are referred to as positivism.[27]

Sociological positivism[edit]

Comte's positivism[edit]

Auguste Comte (1798–1857) first described the epistemological perspective of positivism in The Course in Positive Philosophy, a series of texts published between 1830 and 1842. These texts were followed by the 1844 work, A General View of Positivism (published in French 1848, English in 1865). The first three volumes of the Course dealt chiefly with the physical sciences already in existence (mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology), whereas the latter two emphasized the inevitable coming of social science. Observing the circular dependence of theory and observation in science, and classifying the sciences in this way, Comte may be regarded as the first philosopher of science in the modern sense of the term.[28] For him, the physical sciences had necessarily to arrive first, before humanity could adequately channel its efforts into the most challenging and complex "Queen science" of human society itself. His View of Positivism therefore set out to define the empirical goals of sociological method.

"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), [29]

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).[citation needed] 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.[30] 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.[31] 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.[32]

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.[33] 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.[34]

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".[35] As Comte would say: "from science comes prediction; from prediction comes action."[36] 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. Anthony Giddens argues that since humanity constantly uses science to discover and research new things, humanity never progresses beyond the second metaphysical phase.[34]

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 Whig writer, Harriet Martineau, regarded by some as the first female sociologist. Debates continue to rage as to how much Comte appropriated from the work of his mentor, Saint-Simon.[37] He was nevertheless influential: Brazilian thinkers turned to Comte's 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 the positivism motto, "Love as principle, order as the basis, progress as the goal", 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. 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).[28] 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 George Eliot and Harriet Martineau, for the most part rejected the full gloomy panoply of his system, they liked the idea of a religion of humanity and his injunction to "vivre pour autrui" ("live for others", from which comes the word "altruism").[38]

The early sociology of Herbert Spencer came about broadly as a reaction to Comte; writing after various developments in evolutionary biology, Spencer attempted (in vain) to reformulate the discipline in what we might now describe as socially Darwinistic terms.

Proletarian positivism[edit]

Fabien Magnin was the first working class adherent to Comte's ideas. Comte appointed him as his successor as president of the Positive Society in the event of Comte's death. Magnin filled this role from 1857 to 1880, when he resigned.[39] Magnin was in touch with the English positivists Richard Congreve and Edward Spencer Beesly. He established the Cercle des prolétaires positivistes in 1863 which was affiliated to the First International. Eugène Sémérie was a psychiatrist who was also involved in the Positivist movement, setting up a positivist club in Paris after the foundation of the French Third Republic in 1870. "Positivism is not only a philosophical doctrine, it is also a political party which claims to reconcile order – the necessary basis for all social activity – with Progress, which is its goal." he wrote.[40]

Durkheim's positivism[edit]

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.[23] Durkheim set up the first European department of sociology at the University of Bordeaux in 1895, publishing his Rules of the Sociological Method (1895).[41] In this text he argued: "[o]ur main goal is to extend scientific rationalism to human conduct... What has been called our positivism is but a consequence of this rationalism."[29]

Durkheim's seminal monograph, Suicide (1897), a case study of suicide rates amongst Catholic and Protestant populations, distinguished sociological analysis from psychology or philosophy. By carefully examining suicide statistics in different police districts, he attempted to demonstrate that Catholic communities have a lower suicide rate than Protestants, something he attributed to social (as opposed to individual or psychological) causes. He developed the notion of objective sui generis "social facts" to delineate a unique empirical object for the science of sociology to study.[23] Through such studies, he posited, sociology would be able to determine whether a given society is 'healthy' or 'pathological', and seek social reform to negate organic breakdown or "social anomie". Durkheim described sociology as the "science of institutions, their genesis and their functioning".[42]

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.[43]

Antipositivism and critical theory[edit]

Main articles: 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 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.[44] As a nonpositivist, however, one seeks relationships that are not as "ahistorical, invariant, or generalizable"[45] 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's theory of historical materialism and critical analysis drew upon positivism,[46] a tradition which would continue in the development of critical theory. However, following in the tradition of both Weber and Marx, the critical theorist Jürgen Habermas has critiqued pure instrumental rationality (in its relation to the cultural "rationalisation" of the modern West) as meaning that scientific thinking becomes something akin to ideology itself. Positivism may be espoused by "technocrats" who believe in the inevitability of social progress through science and technology.[47][48] New movements, such as critical realism, have emerged in order to reconcile postpositivist aims with various so-called 'postmodern' perspectives on the social acquisition of knowledge.

Contemporary positivism[edit]

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. "Positivism is a way of understanding based on science"; people don't rely on the faith of God but instead of the science behind humanity. "Antipositivism" formally dates back to the start of the twentieth century, and is based on the belief that natural and human sciences are ontologically and epistemologically distinct. Neither of these terms is used any longer in this sense.[23] There are no fewer than twelve distinct epistemologies that are referred to as positivism.[27] Many of these approaches do not self-identify as "positivist", some because they themselves arose in opposition to older forms of positivism, and some because the label has over time become a term of abuse[23] by being mistakenly linked with a theoretical empiricism. The extent of antipositivist criticism has also become broad, with many philosophies broadly rejecting the scientifically based social epistemology and other ones only seeking to amend it to reflect 20th century developments in the philosophy of science. However, positivism (understood as the use of scientific methods for studying society) remains the dominant approach to both the research and the theory construction in contemporary sociology, especially in the United States.[23]

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).[49][50] This popularity may be because research utilizing positivist quantitative methodologies holds a greater prestige[clarification needed] in the social sciences than qualitative work; quantitative work is easier to justify, as data can be manipulated to answer any question.[51][need quotation to verify] 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).[51][need quotation to verify]

The role of science in social change[edit]

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.[52] Conversely, Thibodeaux[53] 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[edit]

Main article: 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 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 himself later set out to refute)[citation needed]; 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.[54][55]

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."[citation needed] While the logical positivism movement is now considered dead, it has continued to influence philosophy development.[56]

Further thinkers[edit]

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 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 France.

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 incorporated 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.

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."[57] 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.[58] 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.[59]

In science today[edit]

See also: Constructive empiricism

The key features of positivism as of the 1950s, as defined in the "received view",[60] 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 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.
  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.
  10. 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.

Positivism is elsewhere[non sequitur][where?] defined[by whom?] as the belief that all true knowledge is scientific,[61] and that all things are ultimately measurable. Positivism is closely related to reductionism, in that both involve the belief that "entities of one kind... are reducible to entities of another,"[61] such as societies to configurations of individuals, or mental events to neural phenomena. It also involves the contention that "processes are reducible to physiological, physical or chemical events,"[61] and even that "social processes are reducible to relationships between and actions of individuals,"[61] or that "biological organisms are reducible to physical systems."[61]

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.[49][50] It can be thus argued that "natural science and social science [research articles] can therefore be regarded with a good deal of confidence as members of the same genre".[49]


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."[61]

Max Horkheimer criticized the classic formulation of positivism on two grounds. First, he claimed that it falsely represented human social action.[62] 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.[62] 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.[62] Positivism falsely represented the object of study by reifying social reality as existing objectively and independently and labour actually produced those conditions.[62] 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.[62] 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.[62]

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.[63]

Positivism has also come under fire on religious and philosophical grounds, whose proponents state 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[citation needed] From the idea's perspective, Platonism is more precise. Defining an idea as a sum of collective images is imprecise and more or less confused, and becomes more so as the collection represented increases. An idea defined explicitly always remains clear.

Experientialism, which arose with second generation cognitive science, asserts that knowledge begins and ends with experience itself.[64][65]

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.[66] 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.[67] 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.[66] 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ abJohn J. Macionis, Linda M. Gerber, Sociology, Seventh Canadian Edition, Pearson Canada
  2. ^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. .
  3. ^"Auguste Comte". Sociology Guide. 
  4. ^Macionis, John J. (2012). Sociology 14th Edition. Boston: Pearson. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-205-11671-3. 
  5. ^Le petit Robert s. v. positivisme; OED s. v. positive
  6. ^Egan, Kieran (1997). The Educated Mind. University of Chicago Press. pp. 115–116. ISBN 0-226-19036-6.  
  7. ^Saunders, T. J. Introduction to Ion. London: Penguin Books, 1987, p.46
  8. ^ abcdeWallace and Gach (2008) p.27
  9. ^ abcWallace, Edwin R. and Gach, John (2008) History of Psychiatry and Medical Psychology: With an Epilogue on Psychiatry and the Mind-Body Relation.p.14
  10. ^Giambattista Vico, Principi di scienza nuova, Opere, ed. Fausto Nicolini (Milan: R. Ricciardi, 1953), p. 365–905.
  11. ^Morera, Esteve (1990) p.13 Gramsci's Historicism: A Realist Interpretation
  12. ^Larrain, Jorge (1979). The Concept of Ideology. London: Hutchinson. p. 197.  
  13. ^Craig J. Calhoun (2002). Classical Sociological Theory. Wiley-Blackwell

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