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POSITIVISM . The terms positivisme and positiviste were coined by Auguste Comte (17981857), who first employed them in his Discours sur l'ensemble du positivisme (1848) and his Catéchisme positiviste (1852).Comte's neologisms were accepted by the Academie Française in 1878. Equivalent English terms were employed by John Stuart Mill in his Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865).

For Comte, "positive philosophy" means real, certain, organic, relational philosophy, and positivism is a philosophical system founded on positive facts and observable phenomena. Because positive facts are not isolated but comprehended by the positive sciences, positivism is a philosophy drawn from the whole of those sciences, and the scientific method determines positivist doctrine. But positivism, as developed by Comte, is both a philosophical system and a religious system that develops from that philosophy.

Positivism and the Three-State Law

In his Cours de philosophie positive (18301842), Comte explains the relation of positive philosophy to the positive sciences: "The proper study of generalities of the several sciences conceived as submitted to a single method and as forming the several parts of a general research plan." He compares positive philosophy to what is called in English "natural philosophy." However, this latter does not include social phenomena, as does positive philosophy.

Comte contrasted positive philosophy to theological philosophy and metaphysical philosophy. These three philosophies are distinguished according to a three-state law of human knowledge, first presented in Plan des travaux scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiser la société (Plan of the scientific tasks necessary for the reorganization of society, 1822) and developed in the Cours de philosophie positive. The first lesson of the course sketches the progressive march of the human mind and the whole development of human understanding through three methods, or states, of philosophizing: theological, or fictitious; metaphysical, or abstract; and scientific, or positive.

Before the positive method was developed, philosophers, using the metaphysical method, had recourse to abstract forces to explain all natural phenomena; before the metaphysical method, they had recourse to theological modes of explanationto supernatural entities, to first and final causesin the search for absolute truth. Though the positive way of philosophizing is, according to Comte, the highest accomplishment of the human mind, the most fundamental of the three methods remains the theological, which is itself divided into three substates: the fetishistic, the polytheistic, and the monotheistic. Comte appreciates the role of each of these substates in the development of the human mind and in the "intellectual history of all our societies"; they ground the possibility of three logics within positive logic: a feeling logic, a picture logic, and a sign logic. The "fetishistic thinker" is the founder of human language and of the fine arts; he is nearer to reality and to scientific truth than is the "dreamy theologist." Theologism, identified with polytheism, is thus opposed to both fetishism and positivism. Monotheism, the third of the theological substates, is "basically metaphysical theology, which reduces fiction by means of reasoning." The metaphysical state is always presented by Comte as a transitional state between theology and positive science, but it also operates as a principle of transformation in the movement from fetishism to polytheism, and from polytheism to monotheism. Beyond this, the metaphysical continues its mediation in the "anthropological revolution" that begins with Comte's own synthesis.

Time, Progress, History

Comte did not create the idea of positivism; it was created by the scientific progress of his century. Emphasis on the relation between the concept of positivism and the concept of progress helps to avoid misconstruing positivism as a nondialectical position based on the mere assertion that scientific data exist. The three-state law introduced to the system of the sciences the notion of time as threefold, dialectical, and progressive.

The predecessors of positivism can be identified among the founders of positive science. Comte often invoked the names of Francis Bacon (15611626), Galileo Galilei (15641642), and René Descartes (15961650); nor did he forget Roger Bacon (12201292), pioneer of the experimental method and among the finest medieval thinkers engaged in natural philosophy.

Roger Bacon's scientia experimentalis ("experimental science") was the first form of positive science and as such was conceived in correlation with the idea of progress. The idea of progress arises from the dialogue between humans and naturebetween the questions of humans and the answers of nature. Along with experience, experiment is the foundation of the human-nature dialogue, which has been expressed in mathematical formulas; an example is Galileo's De motu (On motion).

From the thirteenth to the seventeenth century, a developing critical attitude effected a transition from the common religious beliefs of the theological period. During this transition, authority was rejected in favor of evidence and observation. Roger Bacon, in his Opus maius (Great work), and Francis Bacon, in his Novum organum (New instrument), discuss authority as a cause of error. By circumventing such error, progress in the sciences and the advancement of learning became possible: the concept of progress emerges with the birth of positive science.

Giordano Bruno (15481600), in La cena de le ceneri (The Ash Wednesday supper), writes that truth is in progress: "Time is the father of truth, its mother is our mind." A concept of time was thus introduced into the scientific method. It was further developed by subsequent philosophers. Galileo's Discorso del flusso e riflusso del mare (Discourse on flood and ebb) demonstrates that nature does not concern itself with the human capacity to understand natural laws: Humans must create a method to understand nature. In Discours de la méthode (Discourse on method), Descartes introduces a method of reasoning that requires time, as opposed to evidence (which reveals itself in the present). Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (16571757) emphasizes the history of scientific progress in his Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (Talks on the plurality of worlds).

The notion of history, implied by the concept of progress, was further developed by Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (17271781) in Les progrès successifs de l'esprit humain (The successive developments of the human spirit) and by Condorcet (17431794) in Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain (Sketch of a historical picture of the successive developments of the human spirit). The progress of enlightenment becomes the motor of history, a movement beyond the progress of virtue emphasized by the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. A manifold time is therefore necessary to Comte's conception of science: the time for discovering the truth, or method; the time of scientific progress, or the history of discoveries; the time for the awakening of consciousness from simple sensation.

Science and Sociology

The three-state law reiterates and condenses observations of Turgot and Condorcet on the human mind in a formula that belongs to a new science of the system of sciences: sociology or anthropology. The law must be understood in correlation with the system of the sciences presented in the course on positive philosophy, in which Comte demonstrates the three-state law in each of the several sciences, from mathematics to biology to sociology. The aim of the course is realized with the coordination of all scientific conceptions and the birth of a new science: social science. Here, the social scientific discovery of social history reveals the intimate interrelation of scientific and social development. Moreover, mind and history play upon one another. Thus, Comte's philosophy of mind is also a philosophy of history and, hence, positivistic.

The paradigm of the three-state law organizes the classification of the sciences, and the relation between law and classification may be expressed in the definition of positivism as scientia scientiarum, or science of sciences. Robert Flint (18381910), in Philosophy as Scientia Scientiarum and a History or Classifications of the Sciences (Edinburgh, 1904), writes:

Philosophy as scientia scientiarum may have more functions than one, but it has at least one. It has to show how science is related to science, where one science is in contact with another; in what way each fits into each, so that all may compose the symmetrical and glorious edifice of human knowledge, which has been built up by the labours of all past generations, and which all future generations must contribute to perfect and adorn. (p. 4)

For Comte, historical practice itself implies the social theory of the three-state law, which implies the logical and historical necessity of social science, which implies positivism, positive philosophy, or the system of positive knowledge. In its turn, positivism implies a practice of social reorganization, advocated by Comte both at the beginning and at the end of his own intellectual history.

Religion and Positivism

That the question raised by positivism with regard to religion was the most important problem for believers at the end of the nineteenth century can be observed in such studies as Science et religion dans la philosophie contemporaine (Science and religion in contemporary philosophy) by Émile Boutroux (18451921) and The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (18421910). Boutroux gives a positivist account of the relation of science to religion and recognizes their common components of solidarity, continuity, love, and altruism, but he does not see a relation of these components to the positivist starting point in the observation of concrete things. Thus, Boutroux is unable to admit the principles of religion as he conceived them: God and immortality of the soul. The positivist philosophers Richard Avenarius (18431896) and Ernst Mach (18381916), on the other hand, rejected all absolute entities. In a letter dated July 14, 1845, Comte himself wrote to John Stuart Mill:

Actually, the qualification of atheists suits me, going strictly by etymology, which is almost always a wrong way to explain frequently used terms, because we have in common with those who are so called nothing but disbelief in God, without sharing in any way with them their vain metaphysical dreams about the origin of the world or humankind, still less their narrow and dangerous attempts to systematize morals.

Nevertheless, in another letter to Mill, Comte did not reject praying. "For a real positivist, to pray is to love and to think, first to think by praying, then to pray by thinking, in order to develop subjective life toward those whose objective life is accomplished" (October 28, 1850). To the claim of Emil Du Bois-Reymond (18181896)"Ignorabimus" ("We shall ignore [nonnatural events]"), such positivists as Alfred Fouillée (18201912) replied "Sperabimus" ("We shall hope"). Fouillée assented in some spiritualist claims; like Herbert Spencer (18201903), he admitted an unknowable.

The Impulse of Positivism

Positivism is characterized by the will to realize a synthesis that takes into account all human concerns. Some positivists, like Émile Littré (18011881) and Abel Rey (18731940), reduce philosophy to a mere history of scientific thought. Nevertheless, Littré concluded that beyond the positivist object of thought there is a reality unattainable yet within the human range of clear vision. Instead of God or the unknowable, Comte proposed humanity as the focus of his synthesis, and his "religion of humanity" attracted many followers in France and abroad, especially in Brazil.

See Also

Comte, Auguste.


For discussion of the birth and development of positivism, see Henri Gouhier's La jeunesse d'Auguste Comte et la formation du positivisme, 3 vols. (Paris, 19331941). Exegesis of the entire philosophical and scientific enterprise of Comte and the positivists can be found in my Entre le signe et l'histoire: L'anthropologie positiviste d'Auguste Comte (Paris, 1982), Le positivisme (Paris, 1982), and Le concept de science positive: Ses tenant et ses aboutissants dans structures anthropologiques du positivisme (Paris, 1983). For a study of religious positivism, see Walter Dussauze's Essai sur la religion d'après Auguste Comte (Paris, 1901) and Paul Arbousse-Bastide's "Le positivisme politique et religieux au Brésil" (Ph.D. diss., Sorbonne, 1953). Paul Arbousse-Bastide treats Comte's philosophy of education in La doctrine de l'éducation universelle dans la philosophie d'Auguste Comte, 2 vols. (Paris, 1957). Pierre Arnaud's "Le Nouveau Dieu " (Paris, 1973) examines positive politics.

New Sources

Cashdollar, Charles. The Transformation of Theology, 18301890: Positivism and Protestant Thought in Britain and America. Princeton, N.J., 1989.

Friedman, Michael. Reconsidering Logical Positivism. New York, 1999.

Groff, Ruth. Critical Realism, Post-Positivism, and the Possibility of Knowledge. New York, 2004.

Guest, Steven, ed. Positivism Today. Issues in Law and Society series. Aldershot, U.K., 1996.

Scharff, Robert. Comte after Positivism. New York, 2002.

AngÈle Kremer-Marietti (1987)

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