Positivism is a family of philosophical views characterized by a highly favorable account of science and what is taken to be the scientific method. As such, the position is somewhat circular because, according to most versions of positivism, there is an identifiable scientific method that is understood to be unitary and positivistic, but all three of those claims—that there is an identifiable and specifiable scientific method, that there is just one such method, and that it is positivistic—are tendentious and now highly disputed. Nevertheless, positivism came to designate a philosophical movement that became powerful in all Western countries toward the end of the nineteenth century and well into the first half of the twentieth. Moreover, positivists attempted to import the method of science into philosophy, so that philosophy should become "scientific." Another characteristic of positivism was the attempt to eliminate any metaphysical component from philosophy.
As Niccola Abbagnano has put it:
The characteristic theses of positivism are that science is the only valid knowledge and facts the only possible objects of knowledge; that philosophy does not posses a method different from science; and that the task of philosophy is to find the general principles common to all the sciences and to use these principles as guides to human conduct and as the basis of social organization. Positivism, consequently, denies the existence or intelligibility of forces or substances that go beyond facts and the laws ascertained by science. It opposes any kind of metaphysics and, in general, any procedure of investigation that is not reducible to scientific method (Abbagnano, "Positivism," 414).
Positivism has roots in the work of British philosopher Francis Bacon and the other British empiricists—Locke, Berkeley, and especially David Hume. In the nineteenth century, the British utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, also espoused positivism. The cultural background of positivism was the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century and after, with the accompanying optimism that technology and science would bring about social progress, and that science and the method of science was the source, or ground, of genuine knowledge.
The terms "positivism" and "positive philosophy" were introduced by French philosopher Claude-Henri Saint-Simon (1760-1825) to refer to a scientific approach to the world. For Saint-Simon, the implications of this extended to social, political, educational, and religious affairs. He had the goal of bringing about reforms in each of those areas.
French philosopher Auguste Comte (1789-1857)—for seven years a student and collaborator of Saint-Simon—popularized and systematized the terms "positivism" and "positive philosophy." Comte argued that societies progress from a theological stage to a metaphysical one, and then to a scientific stage wherein the positivistic, scientific outlook and method are dominant. Comte is also widely regarded as having been the first true sociologist.
French critic and philosopher Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893), along with French philosopher and linguist Émile Littré (1801-1881), "was the spokesman for Comtean positivism in the second half of the nineteenth century" (Reese, "Positivism," 596).
Argentine philosopher Alejandro Korn (1860-1936) applied positivism in Argentina, holding that the Argentine experience after independence represented an Argentinian positivism.
Brazil's national motto, Ordem e Progresso ("Order and Progress") was taken from Comte's positivism, which was also influential in Poland. Positivism was also the most evolved stage of society in now-defunct anthropological evolutionism, the point where science and rational explanation for scientific phenomena develops.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the most important and influential positivist was Ernst Mach. Mach's positivism in science became one of the two main influences on the members of the Vienna Circle and on what became Logical Positivism.
By far the strongest and most influential development of positivism in Western philosophy came with the Vienna Circle and the Logical Positivists (also known as Logical Empiricists). They combined the positivism they had learned primarily from Mach with the powerful logic that had been developed by Gottlob Frege to create a positivism that was expressed in logical form. This became so dominant that today, when the term "positivism" is used, it usually means Logical Positivism or a form of analytic positivism that has grown out of the work of the Vienna Circle and the Logical Positivists.
By the 1950s, the positivism of the Vienna Circle and the Logical Positivists—its popularization came largely through A.J. Ayer's widely read and highly influential book, Language, Truth , and Logic—became the dominant form of the view in America and much of the Western World. That view, as it was developed by Carnap, Hempel, and many others, came to be known to its critics as the "received view"—that term was introduced by Hilary Putnam.
Key features the "received view" were set forth by Ian Hacking:
By the end of the twentieth century, nearly every one of those claims or beliefs had been severely criticized or put into question, so much so that they can be regarded now as being untenable, or at least in need of many qualifications and caveats.
Positivism has also been depicted as "the view that all true knowledge is scientific," (Bullock & Trombley) and that all things are ultimately measurable. Because of its "close association with reductionism," positivism and reductionism involve the view that "entities of one kind…are reducible to entities of another" (ibid.), 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" (ibid.), and even that "social processes are reducible to relationships between and actions of individuals" (ibid.), or that "biological organisms are reducible to physical systems" (ibid.). This is precisely where many social and environmental thinkers, historians, philosophers, and ecofeminists, for example, part company with science and roundly condemn the simplistic approach of science when it is inappropriately applied in the inherently more complex social sphere. But in doing so, they adopt an essentially anti-science stance.
Today, among most philosophers, positivism is dead, or at least as dead as a philosophical stance or movement ever becomes, but it is still alive among many scientists and others who are not well-versed in, or knowledgeable about, what has occurred in technical philosophy since the 1950s. The demise of positivism came for many reasons, among them that no specification of the positivist verification principle could ever be found that would withstand critical investigation. A second reason was the growing realization that there is not one identifiable scientific method, and possibly no rigidly specifiable scientific method at all. Moreover, the notion that there is some unity of the sciences has also been much criticized today.
The demise of positivism does not mean that anything goes in science, or any other arena of human knowledge or investigation (despite the claims of Feyerabend), or that there is no distinction between genuine science and pseudoscience. But there is no longer any philosophically, logically, or methodologically rigorous basis on which such a distinction can be constructed. In addition, it has been shown (by Karl Popper and others) that metaphysics cannot be eliminated, even from science itself.
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