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The term positivism was used first by Henri, Comte de Saint-Simon to designate scientific method and its extension to philosophy. Adopted by Auguste Comte, it came to designate a great philosophical movement which, in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, was powerful in all the countries of the Western world.

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 possess 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.

The principal philosophical sources of positivism are the works of Francis Bacon, the English empiricists, and the philosophers of the Enlightenment; but the cultural climate that made it possible was that of the eighteenth-century Industrial Revolution and the grand wave of optimism to which the first successes of industrial technology gave rise. Positivism made this climate into a philosophical programthat is, a universal project for human life. It exalted science without concerning itself (as does contemporary positivism) with the conditions and the limits of the validity of science, and it claimed that not only ethics and politics but also religion would become scientific disciplines. In one direction, this led to an attempt to establish a "positive" religion in place of traditional theological religions.

Through its acceptance of the concept of the infinity of nature and of history and, therefore, of necessary and universal progress, positivism had affinities with the other important nineteenth-century philosophical movement, absolute idealism, and belongs with it in the general range of romanticism.

There are two fundamental kinds of positivism: social positivism, with a professedly practicopolitical character, and evolutionary positivism, with a professedly theoretical character. Both share the general idea of progress, but whereas social positivism deduces progress from a consideration of society and history, evolutionary positivism deduces it from the fields of physics and biology. Comte and John Stuart Mill are the principal representatives of social positivism, and Herbert Spencer of evolutionary positivism. A materialistic or spiritualistic metaphysics is often associated with evolutionary positivism. A third, critical type of positivism, also known as empiriocriticism, should be distinguished from both social and evolutionary positivism. Contemporary forms of positivismlogical positivism and neopositivismare directly connected with critical positivism.

Social Positivism

Social positivism arose in France through the work of Saint-Simon and other socialistic writers (Charles Fourier, Pierre Joseph Proudhon) and in England through that of the utilitarians (Jeremy Bentham and James Mill), who, in turn, considered their work closely associated with that of the great economists Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo. Social positivism sought to promote, through the use of the methods and results of science, a more just social organization. According to Saint-Simon, men now lived in a critical epoch because scientific progress, by destroying theological and metaphysical doctrines, had eliminated the foundation of the social organization of the Middle Ages. A new organic epoch, in which positive philosophy would be the basis of a new system of religion, politics, ethics, and public education, was required. Through this system society would regain its unity and its organization by basing itself on a new spiritual powerthat of the scientistsand a new temporal powerthat of the industrialists. In his last writing, The New Christianity (1825), Saint-Simon considered the new organic epoch to be a return to primitive Christianity.


Saint-Simon's ideas inspired the work of Auguste Comte. The point of departure of Comte's philosophy is his law of the three stages. According to this law, both the general history of humanity and the development of the individual man, as well as that of every branch of human knowledge, passes through three stages: the theological, or fictitious, stage in which man represents natural phenomena as products of the direct action of supernatural agents; the metaphysical stage, in which the supernatural agents are replaced by abstract forces believed to be capable of generating the observable phenomena; and, finally, the positive stage, in which man, refusing to seek the ultimate causes of phenomena, turns exclusively toward discovering the laws of phenomena by observation and reasoning. The positive stage is that of science, whose fundamental task is to predict phenomena in order to use them.

"Science whence comes prediction; prediction whence comes action" is the formula in which Comte epitomized his theory of science. The formula, as Comte himself recognized, expresses exactly Francis Bacon's point of view. The law of the three stages permits the classification of the sciences according to the order in which they entered into the positive phasesan order determined by the degree of simplicity and generality of the phenomena which are the objects of each science as it reaches the positive phase. Thus, according to Comte the following hierarchy constitutes "a necessary and invariable subordination": astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology. Mathematics remains outside this order because it is at the basis of all the sciences; psychology, because it is not a science, also remains outside. Psychology should be based on introspective observation. But introspective observation is impossible, because the observed and observing organ would have to be identical. The apex of the hierarchy of sciences is sociology, or social physics, which Comte divided into social statics, or theory of order, and social dynamics, or theory of progress.

Progress is a necessary law of human history: The realization of progress is entrusted not to individuals, who are only the instruments of progress, but to the true subject of historyhumanity, conceived as the Great Being in which past, present, and future beings partake. "We always work for our descendants, but under the impulse of our ancestors, from whom derive the elements and procedures of all our operations" (Politique positive, Vol. IV, pp. 3435). Humanity is the continuous and uninterrupted tradition of the human race, and it is the divinity that must replace the God of traditional religions. The wisdom and providence of humanity preside infallibly over the realization of progress. At the end of progress there is sociocracy, a new absolutist social regime based on science and the religion of humanity and directed by a corporation of positivist philosophers. Sociocracy, by limiting liberties, will make impossible any deviation from the fundamental beliefs of the positivistic cult.

In his last work, Philosophy of Mathematics (1856), Comte proposed a new kind of religious trinity, the Great Being (humanity), the Great Fetish (Earth), and the Great Way (space). The religious aspect of Comte's philosophy drew a great number of followers and generated the greatest wave of enthusiasm. Pierre Lafitte and Émile Littré in France, Richard Congreve and G. H. Lewes in England were the most philosophical of Comte's first disciples. The influence of Comte's religious thought, however, rapidly exhausted itself, except among small groups of devotees, while his philosophical ideas (the law of the three stages; the conception of science as description and prediction; the theory of progress; and sociology as a positive science) have exercised a lasting influence on science and philosophy.

bentham and the mills

Comte's English contemporaries, the utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, presented with equal force, although more modestly, the fundamental requirement of positivism: that every kind of valid knowledge be included within science. They sought to establish a science of mind based on facts, as is the science of nature, and tried to make ethics itself, as Bentham used to say, an "exact science." They considered the mind to be an associative mechanism, ruled by precise laws whose constitutive elements are sensations, which were regarded as the ultimate facts of mind. Traditional ethics was substantially a theory of the end of human conduct: It established by a priori means what that end was and deduced from it the rules of conduct. Bentham and Mill intended to substitute for traditional ethics a theory of the motives of conductthat is, of the specific causes of conduct. If it were ascertained what are the motives and the rules that human beings obey, Bentham and Mill believed, it would be possible to direct human conduct in the same way that nature can be controlled by knowing its causal laws.

These principles remained fundamental in later developments of positivism, first in the work of John Stuart Mill, who was influenced by both Saint-Simon and Comte. Mill, like Saint-Simon and Comte, spoke of reorganizing society on new foundations. He rejected, however, the doctrinaire political and religious absolutism of Comte and defended instead the freedom and development of the individual, to whom he considered the social organization subordinate. Mill's classic Principles of Political Economy (1848) concluded by determining the limits of governmental intervention in economic affairslimits required so that there would be in human existence "a sacred fortress safe from the intrusion of any authority."

Mill's System of Logic (1843), which is perhaps the most important work of nineteenth-century positivism, contains a fundamental correction of Comte's view of science. Comte had stressed the rational aspect of science and considered its experimental basis, the verification of facts, as merely preparatory to the formulation of laws. He had excluded the notion that once they were formulated, laws could again be subjected to the test of facts and eventually placed in question by "a too detailed investigation," and he had prescribed for scientific investigation a series of limitations to keep it from being transformed into "a vain and at times a seriously disturbing curiosity." Mill's logic, instead, appealed to a radical empiricism and avoided any dogmatizing of scientific results. The very principles of logic, according to Mill, are generalizations of empirical data, and induction is the only method that science has at its disposal. The basis of induction itself, the principle of the uniformity of the laws of nature, is, in turn, an inductive truth, the fruit of many partial generalizations. Prediction is possible in science only on the basis of past experience, which alone furnishes the evidence both for the major premise and for the conclusion of the traditional syllogism. "'All men are mortal' is not the proof that Lord Palmerston is mortal; but our past experience of mortality authorizes us to infer both the general truth and particular fact with the same degree of certainty for one and the other" (System of Logic, Bk. II, Ch. 3).

Like the other utilitarians, John Stuart Mill held that the human mind has the same structure as natural phenomena and is knowable in the same ways. "If we knew the person thoroughly, and knew all the inducements which are acting upon him, we could foretell his conduct with as much certainty as we can predict any physical event" (System of Logic, Bk. VI, Ch. 2, 2). To make such predictions possible, he held that a new science, ethology, was needed to study the laws of the formation of character. Mill placed this science alongside Comtian sociology, to which he attributed the task of discovering the laws of progress that make it possible to predict social events infallibly (ibid., Ch. 10, 3).

Mill held that even religion should be based on experience. Experience, by suggesting that there is a limited and imperfect ideological order in nature, permits belief in a divinity of limited power, a kind of demiurge. Such belief encourages a religion of humanity based upon an altruistic ethics and the "supernatural hopes" of humankind.

social positivism in italy and germany

In Italy social positivism had two defenders, Carlo Cattaneo and Giuseppe Ferrari. Both were influenced by the work of Saint-Simon, and both saw him as a continuer of the work of Giambattista Vico, whom they credited with having founded "a science of man in the very heart of humanity."

The German social positivists Ernst Laas, Friedrich Jodl, and Eugen Dühring appealed to Ludwig Feuerbach rather than to Saint-Simon and Comte. But faith in science, in progress based on science, and in a perfect social form to which this progress must lead was the inspiration of all social positivists.

Evolutionary Positivism

Evolutionary positivism shared the faith in progress of social positivism but justified it in a different way. Evolutionary positivism is based not on society or history but on nature, the sphere of physics and biology. Its immediate forerunners were the work of the geologist Charles Lyell and the doctrine of biological evolution. Lyell, in The Principles of Geology (1833), demonstrated that the actual state of Earth is the result not of a series of cataclysms (as Georges Cuvier had argued) but rather of the slow, gradual, and imperceptible action of the same causes that are acting before our eyes. The doctrine of evolution triumphed in 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, which first presented adequate proofs of biological evolution and formulated the doctrine in a rigorous way. Lyell's and Darwin's doctrines made possible the formulation of the idea of a natural and necessary progress of the whole universe, beginning with a cosmic nebula and, through the uninterrupted development of the inorganic and organic world, continuing into the "superorganic" development of the human and historical world. It is superfluous to note that the scientific theories that furnish the occasion for the rise of the idea of evolutionary positivism do not constitute the elements of a sufficient proof of it, since it is so highly generalized a hypothesis that it seems to be of a metaphysical nature. Darwin himself remained "agnostic" (to use the term created by another biological evolutionist, T. H. Huxley) with respect to all problems that concern the universe in its totality.


The importance of Herbert Spencer, however, and the lasting influence of his work, depends on his defense of universal progress as a continuous and unilinear evolution from a primitive nebula to the more refined products of human civilization. Spencer used the term evolution in preference to progress in an early programmatic article of 1857, and even then he saw universal progress as modeled on biological evolution. His definition of evolution as "the passage from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous" or from the simple to the complex was suggested by the development of vegetable and animal organisms, whose parts are chemically and biologically indistinct at first but which then differentiate to form diverse tissues and organs. Spencer held that this process can be discovered in all fields of reality and that each of these fields has a specific science whose task is to recognize and clarify its characteristics. Philosophy is (as Comte conceived of it) the most generalized knowledge of the process of evolution. The role of philosophy begins with the widest generalizations of the individual sciences; from these generalizations it seeks to realize a "completely unified" knowledge. However, neither philosophy nor science, according to Spencer, can take the place of religion.

The truth of religion is that "the existence of the world with all that it contains and all that it encompasses is a mystery that always needs to be interpreted" (First Principles, London, 1862, Par. 14). All religions, however, fail in giving this interpretation; therefore, the sole task of authentic religion is to serve as a reminder of the mystery of the ultimate cause. The task of science, on the other hand, is to extend indefinitely the knowledge of phenomena. Like William Hamilton and Henry Mansel, Spencer held that human knowledge is enclosed within the limits of the relative and the conditioned, that is, within the limits of phenomena. Beyond these limits there is the unlimited and unknown force on which all phenomena depend. The unknowability of this force is revealed in the insolubility of certain problems at the limits of philosophy and science, such problems as those concerning the essence of space, of time, of matter, and of energy, the duration of consciousness (whether finite or infinite), and the subject of thought (whether it is the soul or not).

If Comte's religion of humanity had little success among philosophers and scientists, Spencer's agnosticism found many adherents among them, and for a few decades it was a required attitude for intellectuals generally. Other positivists, however, such as Roberto Ardigò, rejected agnosticism and denied that one could speak of an "unknowable" in an absolute sense. Ardigò;, moreover, wanted to redefine the process of evolution by considering it as "a passage from the indistinct to the distinct," referring to psychological experience rather than to biology.

Spencer wrote on many fields of knowledgebiology, sociology, ethics, politics, and education. When he turned his attention to sociology, he attempted to rescue it from the practical and political task that Comte had assigned to it and to consider it as a theoretical discipline whose task is to describe the development of human society to its present state. This change was accepted by such positivist sociologists as John Lubbock, Edward Tylor, Émile Durkheim, and William Graham Sumner, who were strongly influenced by Spencer.

Evolutionary positivism is, in its more rigorous form, as far from materialism as it is from spiritualism. Spencer affirmed (First Principles, Par. 194) that the process of evolution can be interpreted both in terms of matter and movement and in terms of spirituality and consciousness: The Absolute that it manifests can be defined neither as matter nor as mind. Positivism embraces both trends that interpret the concept of evolution materialistically and trends which interpret it spiritualistically. The laws of the conservation of matter discovered by Antoine Lavoisier (1789) and the laws of the conservation of energy implicit in Robert Mayer's discovery of the equivalence of heat and work (1842) were taken as proofs of the hypothesis that a single substance, of which matter and energy are inseparable attributes, is the eternal subject of cosmic evolution and necessarily determines all its characteristics.

haeckel and monism

The German philosopher Ernst Haeckel termed the view that matter and energy are inseparable attributes of one basic substance "monism" and utilized it to combat the dualism that he held was proper to all religious conceptions based on the duality of spirit and matter, of God and the world. Haeckel also found a decisive confirmation of biological evolution and of its necessity in what he termed the "fundamental biogenetic law" of a parallelism between ontogeny, the development of an individual, and phylogeny, the development of the species to which that individual belongs. Monism was accepted by many chemists, biologists, and psychologists and became popular through the diffusion of Haeckel's writings and of such other works as Ludwig Büchner's Force and Matter (1855).

Monism also inspired literary and historical criticism. A passage from the introduction to Hippolyte Taine's History of English Literature (1863) has remained famous as an expression of this tendency: "Vice and virtue are products just as vitriol and sugar are, and every complex datum is born from the encounter of other simpler data on which it depends."


The positive school of penal law, founded by Cesare Lombroso, drew its inspiration from materialistic and especially from deterministic positivism. This school taught that criminal behavior depends on inevitable tendencies which are determined by the organic constitution of the delinquent. The structures of this constitution would be analyzed by a corresponding sciencecriminal anthropology.


Evolutionary positivism was also interpreted spiritualistically, notably by Wilhelm Wundt, who sought to substitute "psychophysical parallelism" for materialistic monism. Wundt's doctrine was that mental events do not depend on organic events but constitute a causal series by themselves and correspond point for point to the series of organic events. He made this doctrine the basis of his psychological investigations (Wundt founded the first laboratory of experimental psychology), and for many decades it remained the working hypothesis of experimental psychology. Wundt cultivated, moreover, a "psychology of peoples" that is descriptive sociology, in Spencer's sense. Like Spencer, Wundt intended it to be the study of the evolutionary process that produces institutions, customs, languages, and all the expressions of human society.

influence of evolutionary positivism

Evolutionary positivism has left as a legacy to contemporary philosophy the idea of a universal, unilinear, continuous, necessary, and necessarily progressive evolutionan idea that forms the background and the explicit or implicit presupposition even of many philosophies which do not recognize their debt to positivism and which, in fact, argue against it. The idea of evolution is fundamental to the philosophies of C. S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, as well as to those of George Santayana, Samuel Alexander, and A. N. Whitehead. Some of these philosophers have sought to remove the necessitarian character from the idea of evolution and to include within it an element of chance or freedom (Peirce, James, Dewey) or of novelty and creativity (Henri Bergson, C. Lloyd Morgan). Bergson, who interpreted evolution in terms of consciousness and insisted upon its creative character, explicitly acknowledged his debt to Spencer (La pensée et le mouvant, 3rd ed., Paris, 1934, p. 8). It is not without reason that his disciple Édouard Le Roy termed Bergson's doctrine a "new positivism," which means a new spiritualistic interpretation of cosmic evolution.

The vitality and the broad diffusion of the legacy of positivism is no sign of its validity. No scientific discipline is as yet able to adduce any sufficient proof in favor of a unilinear, continuous, and progressive cosmic evolution. In fact, in the very field where the phenomena of evolution have been most closely consideredbiologyevolution seems to lack precisely those characteristics that positivism attributes to it.

Critical Positivism


In the last decade of the nineteenth century, positivism took on a more critical form through the work of Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius. In Germany and Austria this critical positivism was known as empiriocriticism. Mach and Avenarius both held that facts (which for them, as for the other positivists, constituted the only reality) were relatively stable sets or groups of sensations connected to and dependent on each other. Sensations are the simple elements that figure in the constitution both of physical bodies and of perceptions or consciousness or the self. These elements are neutral, neither physical nor psychical, and every substantial difference between the physical and the psychical disappears. From this point of view, a "thing" is a set of sensations and the thought of the thing is the same set considered as "perceived" or "represented." For Avenarius, however, the process of interiorization, which he called introjection, and by which the thing is considered as a modification of the subject or as a part of consciousness, is a falsification of "pure" (that is, authentic or genuine) experience. For Avenarius and Mach, science, and knowledge in general, is only an instrument that the human organism uses to confront the infinite mass of sensations and to act in the light of those sensations in such a way as to conserve itself. The function of science is, therefore, economic, not contemplative or theoretical. It conforms to the principle of least action, and its end is the progressive adaptation of the organism to the environment.

Theories concerning concepts, scientific laws, and causality very different from those of classical positivism are the chief results of empiriocriticism. According to Mach a concept is the result of a selective abstraction that groups a large number of facts and considers those elements of these facts that are biologically importantthat is, those adapted to excite the appropriate reaction in the organism. Since the variety of the biologically important reactions is much smaller than the variety of facts, the first task is to classify and simplify the facts by means of concepts, each of which constitutes the project of an appropriate reaction. And since the interests with which people confront facts are different, there are different concepts which refer to the same order of facts. The laborer, the doctor, the judge, the engineer, and the scientist all have their own concepts, and they define them in those restricted ways which are appropriate for stimulating the reaction or set of reactions in which each is interested.

The concept of law, which classical positivism conceived of as a constant relationship among facts (a relationship which in turn was considered as a fact) underwent a radical transformation in critical positivism. The Englishman Karl Pearson, in The Grammar of Science (1892), gave a kind of summa of the fundamental principles of the science of the time. Although Pearson's work utilized Machian concepts, it supplied Mach himself with many inspirations. Pearson affirmed that scientific law is a description, not a prescription: It "never explains the routine of our perception, the sense-impressions we project into an 'outside world.'" Instead of description, Mach preferred to speak of a restriction that the law prescribes on our expectation of phenomena. In any case, he added, "Whether we consider it a restriction of action, an invariable guide to what happens in nature, or an indication for our representations and our thought which bring events to completion in advance, a law is always a limitation of possibilities" (Erkenntnis und Irrtum, Leipzig, 1905, Ch. 23).

Mach and Pearson sought to free the notion of causality from the notion of force, which they regarded as an anthropomorphic interpolation. Mach held that the mathematical notion of function should be substituted for that of cause. When science succeeds in gathering various elements into one equation, each element becomes a function of the others. The dependence among the elements becomes reciprocal and simultaneous, and the relation between cause and effect becomes reversible (Die Mechanik in ihrer Entwicklung, 4th ed., Leipzig, 1901, p. 513). From this point of view, time, with its irreversible order, is real at the level of sensations and as a sensation. The time of science is, on the other hand, an economic notion which serves for the ordering and prediction of facts.

Along the same lines, a disciple of Mach, Joseph Petzoldt, proposed to substitute for the principle of causality the "law of univocal determination," which would also be applicable to cases of reciprocal action. According to this law, one can find for every phenomenon means that permit determination of the phenomenon in a way which excludes the concurrent possibility of different determinations. According to Petzoldt this law permits the choosing, from among the infinite conditions that either determine a phenomenon or are interposed between it and its cause, of those conditions which effectively contribute to the determination of the phenomenon itself.

Pearson drew from his descriptive concept of law the consequence that scientific laws have only logical, not physical, necessity: "The theory of planetary motion is in itself as logically necessary as the theory of the circle; but in both cases the logic and necessity arise from the definition and axioms with which we mentally start, and do not exist in the sequence of sense-impressions which we hope that they will, at any rate, approximately describe. The necessity lies in the world of conceptions, and is only unconsciously and illogically transferred to the world of perceptions" (The Grammar of Science, 2nd ed., London, 1900, p. 134).

The empiriocritical branch of positivism is the immediate historical antecedent of the Vienna circle and of neopositivism in general. The sense impressions spoken of by Pearson and the sensations spoken of by Mach, Avenarius, and Petzoldt as neutral elements that constitute all the facts of the world, both physical and psychical, correspond exactly to the objects (Gegenstände ) spoken of by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-philosophicus as the constituents of atomic facts and to the elementary experiences (Elementarerlebnisse ) spoken of by Rudolf Carnap in Der logische Aufbau der Welt. The restriction of necessity to the domain of logic, and the consequent reduction of natural laws to empirical propositions, is also a characteristic of the neopositivism of Wittgenstein, Carnap, and Hans Reichenbach. The critique of the principle of causality frequently recurs in neoempiricism reinforced by consideration of quantum mechanics (Philipp Frank, Reichenbach). The emphasis on prediction, important at all levels of science, is also a result of both empiriocriticism and logical positivism, as is the principle of the empirical verifiability of scientific propositions and the need to test and correct them constantly.

What empiriocriticism lacks is the stress on logic and language that is central to contemporary neopositivism. This stress developed out of work done in mathematical logic, especially by Bertrand Russell. Empiriocriticism lacks the concern with logic and the preoccupation with the nature of mathematics and of logical principles that is characteristic of contemporary neopositivism. The view that the proper business of philosophy is the clarification of concepts or the analysis of meanings derives largely from Russell, as does the preoccupation with problems about the status of logical and mathematical principles. The so-called linguistic theory about the nature of logical and mathematical principles, although subsequently endorsed by Russell, was developed by Wittgenstein. The use of the verifiability principle to demarcate meaningful from meaningless sentences and questions derives ultimately from David Hume's theory of impressions and ideas, but it is not to be found in any systematic form prior to the publications of the Vienna circle.

See also Logical Positivism.


There are no complete studies on positivism. For the individual philosophers, see J. Watson, Comte, Mill and Spencer: An Outline of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1895); Leslie Stephen, The English Utilitarians, 3 vols. (London: Duckworth, 1900); D. G. Charlton, Positivist Thought in France during the Second Empire, 18521870 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959); and W. M. Simon, European Positivism in the Nineteenth Century (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1963), which is limited to Comte's positivism and reactions to it.

The best comprehensive exposition of positivism as a philosophy and general world view is Richard von Mises, Kleines Lehrbuch des Positivismus: Einführung in die empiristische Wissenschaftsauffassung (Den Haag: van Stockum, 1939), translated under the author's supervision as Positivism: A Study in Human Understanding (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951). A briefer and more historical account, by another member of the logical positivist movement, is Hans Reichenbach, The Rise of Scientific Philosophy (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1951). A less partisan overview (by a non-positivist) of positivist thought as a whole, emphasizing its unity while acknowledging its diverse ramifications and placing each episode in historical context, is Leszek Kolakowski, The Alienation of Reason: A History of Positivist Thought, translated by Norbert Guterman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1968).

On the Enlightenment forerunners to nineteenth-century positivism, Charles Coulston Gillispie, Science and Polity in France: The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Years (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004) provides the political and social background, while the ideas are the focus in Keith Michael Baker's Condorcet: From Natural Philosophy to Social Mathematics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975).

There are a number of valuable studies of the major nineteenth-century figures. On Comte, Robert C. Scharff, Comte after Positivism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Juliette Grange, La philosophie d'Auguste Comte: Science, politique, religion (Paris: Presses Universersitaires de France, 1996) both focus primarily on philosophical ideas. On Mill, John Skorupski, John Stuart Mill (London: Routledge, 1989) also puts philosophical content in the foreground. On the evolutionary positivists, however, most studies have focused on social, political, and cultural aspects. David Weinstein, Equal Freedom and Utility: Herbert Spencer's Liberal Utilitarianism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998), for instance, focuses entirely on political ideas, and the Monist movement is situated in its social context by Gangolf Hübinger. "Die monistische Bewegung: Sozialingenieure und Kulturprediger," in Kultur und Kulturwissenschaften um 1900 II: Idealismus und Positivismus, G. Hübinger, R. von Bruch, and F.W. Graf, eds. (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1997, 246259). Two of the three major figures of critical positivism have been the subjects of informative life-and-works studies: John T. Blackmore, Ernst Mach: His Work, Life, and Influence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), and Theodore M. Porter, Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004). The importance of Mach in particular for later positivist thought is brought out by Richard von Mises in "Ernst Mach and the Scientific Conception of the World," in Unified Science: The Vienna Circle Monograph Series Originally Edited by Otto Neurath, Now in an English Edition, edited by Brian McGuinness, translated by Hans Kaal (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1987: 166190), and by Philipp Frank in "The Importance for our Times of Ernst Mach's Philosophy of Science," in his Modern Science and its Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949: 6178).

A great deal of scholarly effort has been devoted since the 1980s to the excavation and philosophical reconstruction of logical positivism, particularly the Vienna Circle. One important strand in this literature has regarded the neo-Kantian roots of logical positivism as more important than the positivist influence going back to Comte, Mill, and the western Enlightenment; exemplary for this trend is Michael Friedman, Reconsidering Logical Positivism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999). The continuity between the Enlightenment and logical positivism, in contrast, has been stressed by Thomas Uebel, e.g. "Enlightenment and the Vienna Circle's Scientific World-Conception," in Philosophers on Education; Historical Perspectives, edited by A. O. Rorty (London: Routledge, 1998, pp. 418438), and Vernunftkritik und Wissenschaft: Otto Neurath und der erste Wiener Kreis (Vienna: Springer, 2000). The occlusion of the political, social, and educational dimensions in logical positivism after its main figures emigrated to North America is discussed by George Reisch, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005). A useful handbook with comprehensive bibliographies of the major figures and many peripheral ones is Friedrich Stadler, The Vienna Circle: Studies in the Origins, Development, and Influence of Logical Empiricism, translated by Camilla Nielsen et al (Vienna: Springer, 2001).

Nicola Abbagnano (1967)

Translated by Nino Langiulli

Bibliography updated by A. W. Carus (2005)


views updated May 23 2018


The history of positivism falls into two nearly independent stages: nineteenth-century French and twentieth-century Germanic, which became the logical positivism or logical empiricism of the Vienna Circle that, in turn, enjoyed an American phase. In the postmodern world, "positivist" is often a term of abuse, but historical research now contests the received characterization.

In a broad sense, positivism is the philosophical expression of scientism, the view that empirical science is the primary cultural institution, the only one that produces clear, objective, reliable knowledge claims about nature and society that accumulate over time and thereby the only enterprise that escapes the contingencies of history. For positivists, that reliability is proportional to the proximity of claims to observed factsthe empirical basis of knowledge. Every substantive claim not tested by experience is sheer human fabrication. Positivists claim that they alone take fully into account the special nature and historical importance of science, with its actual and potential contribution to human life and culture. They reverse the traditional intellectual priority of science and philosophy (epistemology): philosophy is no longer prior to science but becomes the interpreter of and commentator on science. As W. V. Quine once quipped, "Philosophy of science is philosophy enough" (1976, p. 155).

Positivists aim to carry on the social mission of the scientific Enlightenment. The sciences, including the new human sciences, are to be unified under one method, usually with physics as the model. The positivists' insistence that the hardheaded, allegedly value-free methods of the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften ) be extended to the human sciences or humanities (Geisteswissenschaften ) has provoked charges of cultural imperialism from those defending historical, hermeneutical-interpretive, religious, or aesthetic modes of understanding (Verstehen ).

In the broad sense, Karl Popper and even Quine are positivists, despite their trenchant critiques of the logical empiricists of the Vienna Circle (especially Rudolf Carnap), who achieved cultural authority in the twentieth century and with whom "positivism" in a narrow sense is now identified.

The Nineteenth Century: Comte to Mach

Although it owes something to the British empiricism of David Hume and to later radical empiricists such as John Stuart Mill and Alexander Bain, positivism as a movement developed on the Continent in France and later in central Europe, especially Vienna and Berlin. We can recognize positivist strains in the French Académie des Sciences around 1800, but it was the sociologist and philosopher August Comte who, in the 1830s, founded positivism as a distinctive movement, gave it its name, and also named the new science of social physics "sociology." The conjunction was not accidental. For him, sociology was the final science, crowning the hierarchy of sciences, employing the same lawful methods as all positive sciences, and making possible a mature scientific philosophy. Comte is most famous for his law of three stages, which claims that civilization (and every field of knowledge) passes from a naïve, animistic, theological stage, through a more abstract, metaphysical-philosophical stage, to a final, scientific or "positive" stage. In the French tradition of Descartes and the encyclopédistes of the Enlightenment, Comtean positivism was an entire cultural system designed to fill the vacuum left by the French Revolution, which had swept away the religious and metaphysical ancien régime. Comtean positivism became an evangelical movement, with scientific humanism as the new religion and Comte himself as the high priest.

The law of three stages implied the need to demarcate science from other endeavors. Comte's criterion was that scientific claims are predictive, which excluded not only metaphysics but also unstructured accumulations of singular facts. Positive science aims at lawful generalizations expressing invariable succession and resemblance, including laws of history and societypreviously considered the domain of free human action and thus outside the scope of science. Positive science is cumulative and hence progressive. For Comte, something is "positive" insofar as it is precise, certain, useful, an organic organizing tendency for society, and relational rather than absolute. This last contrast means that Comte's science seeks lawful correlations among phenomena rather than essences or underlying causes (the postulation of which smacks of metaphysics). It sticks to the observable surface of the world. "No proposition that is not finally reducible to the enunciation of a fact, particular or general, can offer any real and intelligible meaning" (vol. 3, p. 358). For Comte, explanation has the same form as prediction, namely subsumption of a fact under a general regularity rather than as the effect of a cause. Yet Comte also embraced the newly popular method of hypothesis against the old empiricist requirement that laws be induced from prior facts. All of these tenets except the strange Comtean religion are characteristic of later forms of positivism, although rarely via Comte's influence. The great French sociologist Emile Durkheim did acknowledge a large debt to him.

Positivist strains are also evident in German scientific thinking in the decades before and after 1900, but it was Ernst Mach, physicist, historian, and philosopher of science, who made Vienna a center of positivist thinking. Positivists typically minimize the gap between appearance and underlying reality, at least knowable reality. Mach rejected atomic theory as empirically meaningless metaphysical speculation, at best of heuristic value; and his emphasis on the economy of thought led him to view scientific laws as rationally organized summaries of facts. Unlike the later positivists, he worked seriously on history of science (especially mechanics) and wrote on the processes of problem solving and discovery.

Logical Positivism and the Vienna Circle

The most developed form of positivism was the logical positivism or logical empiricism (LE) of the Vienna Circle. LE developed in three main phases: the first Vienna Circle from about 1907; the second Vienna Circle (the Vienna Circle proper), from the mid-1920s until about 1933; and the predominantly American emigrant phase after Hitler came to power. In all three cases the logical empiricists (LEs) were scientists, mathematicians, and scientifically trained philosophers who met to discuss substantive and methodological problems of science and society. The first circle was influenced directly by Mach and other scientists such as Heinrich Hertz, Richard Avenarius, Wilhelm Ostwald, Henri Poincaré, and Pierre Duhem, and by scientific developments such as non-Euclidean geometry, David Hilbert's axiomatization of Euclidean geometry, and Einstein's relativity theories. The second circle was heavily influenced additionally by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead's attempted reduction of mathematics to the new symbolic logic in Principia Mathematica (19101913), Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus (1921), Hilbert's metamathematics, the new quantum theory, behavioral psychology, and antivitalistic progress in biology.

All three phases were also shaped by their respective social contexts. The first circle experienced the events leading to World War I and the final days of the Habsburg Empire, while the Weimar period framed the sociopolitical issues of the second circle. By contrast, the "end of ideology" characterized the American period, especially after World War II. Upon the emigration to America by members of the circle, the LE social program vanished. The American LEs presented their work as purely technical and hence politically neutral.

Many postmodern intellectuals, who think of the positivists as heavy-handed, dogmatic conservatives or as emotionless technical analysts disinterested in cultural affairs, are surprised to learn that the Vienna Circle assigned itself the urgent mission of reforming and transforming all of social and political culture by adapting to present conditions the program of the scientific Enlightenment. A major initiative was linguistic reform. The Viennese positivists' animus against metaphysics was directed as much against obfuscatory and potentially totalitarian political discourse as it was against woolly philosophy. This is apparent at once in the manifesto of 1929, "The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle," by Hans Hahn, Carnap, and Otto Neurath in honor of their leader, Moritz Schlick. Modernist in outlook, the Vienna Circle celebrated the machine age and the transformative reconstruction (Aufbau ) of Europe after World War I. It had close ties with a similar circle of scientific philosophers around Hans Reichenbach (Einstein's colleague) in Berlin and with the Bauhaus school of design at Dessau, which in its own way emphasized clarity of structure shorn of all baroque, metaphysical adornment. Like the Bauhaus, the circle was international in outlook and proworking class, and some members were politically active. Neurath was a neo-Marxist social scientist who radicalized the young Carnap, a logician. Schlick led a moderate wing.

When Schlick was assassinated in 1936, Neurath and Carnap became the leaders of the circle. It was in America that the indefatigable Neurath found a publisher for his dream project of a new, systematic encyclopedia of the sciences, but the overall project was a failure. Neurath died in 1945, and the University of Chicago Press published only twenty monographs of what was intended to be a long-term monthly subscription series. (These were later reissued as the two volumes of Foundations of the Unity of Science in 1955 and 1970.) One of the last contributions was Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), commonly regarded as a refutation of logical empiricism. Meanwhile, Carnap, Herbert Feigl, Reichenbach, and Carl Hempel (a student of Reichenbach) headed the American phase of the movement. Ernest Nagel, although of a more Deweyan pragmatic cast, was a close associate. In America, unlike Europe, the aforementioned all had important academic positions, which they used to found the new specialty discipline of philosophy of science as well as to teach a new generation of philosophers, including Adolf Grünbaum, Wesley Salmon, and Hilary Putnam. With its rigorous formal methods, LE made the pragmatism of Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey seem quaintly dated and gradually displaced it as the official scientific philosophy. LE remained dominant until the 1960s and still casts a large shadow at the start of the twenty-first century.

The received view of the Vienna Circle is largely a post-Kuhnian construction that is now being contested. To be sure, the LEs wanted to make philosophy (or their replacement for it) a collective, progressive enterprise like that of the sciences, but the manifesto announced a more iconoclastic unity than was actually present. Accordingly, it was easy for opponents to miss the internal discord and tar all LEs with the same brush. Although the LEs were vehemently antimetaphysical and rejected most philosophy as a meaningless, fruitless pursuit of solutions to "pseudoproblems," they were liberal in refusing to dogmatize about empirical questions and they viewed their group as open to discussion of all views. Another source of misunderstanding was A. J. Ayer's inflammatory Language, Truth, and Logic (1936), the book that brought German positivism to an English-speaking audience. Ayer's "potboiler" (as it has been called) mis-located the positivists in the British empiricist tradition.

Archival research sensitive to the intellectual and cultural milieu of central Europe later provided a major reinterpretation of the Austro-German positivist movement from Mach to Hempel. The participants came from varying academic backgrounds and life experiences and they frequently disagreed over matters of philosophical content as well as strategy and politics. They were their own most trenchant critics. For example, Kurt Gödel defended a Platonist (and hence metaphysical) ontology of mathematics. Neurath was out of sympathy with Carnap's project to reconstruct science within a formal logical system and with Schlick's commitment to the correspondence theory of truth. Neurath rejected the foundational, linear empiricist theory of justification, from supposedly infallible basic statements up through ever-higher levels of theory, in favor of a holistic coherence position featuring mutual support, a stance that he famously articulated in his ship metaphor: "There is no tabula rasa. We are like sailors who have to rebuild their ship on the open sea, without ever being able to dismantle it in drydock and reconstruct it from the best components" (Giere and Richardson, p. 83).

The LEs also disagreed over labels. Several members attacked "positivism," and Reichenbach sometimes denied that he was a "logical empiricist." (By the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, the inclusive term "logical empiricism" was commonly applied to both the Vienna and Berlin groups as well as the American contingent and was preferred to "logical positivism.") Also, the views of the leading figures developed significantly over their lifetimes. Accordingly, a summary that is both brief and accurate is impossible.

Contrary to Ayer, the LEs had too serious an engagement with Kant to be squarely in the British empiricist tradition. They were anti-Kantian up to a point, with the political goal of displacing the neo-Kantians of the Marburg school (which included Ernst Cassirer) as the dominant school of scientific philosophy in Europe. The central problem was to retain what was correct in Kant's critique of crude, British empiricism without commitment to Kant's permanent categories and forms of intuition, which licensed synthetic a priori judgments. The latter are necessary truths that are knowable a priori yet make substantive statements about the universe, for example, that physical space is Euclidean and the laws of mechanics, Newtonian. Without them, Kant had said, mathematics and natural science would be impossible.

Kant had realized that sensory inputs do not automatically sort themselves into intelligible perceptions about which we can make coherent judgments. Coherent perception and thought must be actively constituted by the human mind by means of its processing rules (the categories and forms of intuition). Upon analyzing relativity theory, Reichenbach and Schlick concluded that Kant was partly right: science does need constitutive framework principles that are neither logical truths nor empirical claims subject to testing and in that sense a priori. But how, then, to avoid Kant's commitment to a special, nonnatural intuition that yields synthetic a priori truths? Briefly, the LEs' solution, anticipating Kuhn's paradigms by several decades, was to disambiguate Kant's necessary a priori from the constitutive a priori of framework principles and to regard the latter as based on human convention rather than Kantian intuition. For example, Reichenbach's analysis of space-time theory bifurcated it into two components: a purely conventional component of "coordinating definitions" that define the meaning of measurement operations (and that we could change if it proved convenient to do so), plus a purely empirical component expressing the substantive content of the theory relative to the constitutive framework.

Stated in another way, the LEs' problem was how to wed empiricism to logic and mathematics. As Kant had emphasized, raw experience is not the sort of thing that can enter into logical relations with statements, providing justificatory reasons or evidence. And analytic claims need their own special warrant. Carnap, the most influential LE, later widened the above approach to include logic itself. The axioms of a logical system are not self-evident to reason, he said, for there is no such thing as a special faculty of rational intuition. It is not even a question of epistemic correctness; rather, it is a question of human linguistic conventionchoice of language. The choice is pragmatic, not epistemic. We may freely choose any formal system we like and explore its consequences, keeping those systems that produce the most fruitful consequences for our purposes. Thus we arrive at the mature LE view that all and only empirical statements are synthetic and all and only a priori statements are analytic (in the pragmatically grounded sense). On this view, the a prioria posteriori distinction coincides with the analytic-synthetic distinction. There is no synthetic a priori.

Where does philosophy fit into this scheme? For Carnap its task is purely analyticWissenschaftslogik, the logical analysis of the language of science using the tools of symbolic logic. Scientific philosophers clarify the logical structure of empirical science but do not do empirical science. Thus was born both mature analytic philosophy and philosophy of science as a specialty.

Logical Empiricist Themesand Their Reception

What follows is a list of several interlocking theses and projects and their outcomes, several of which were controversial among the LEs themselves.

1. The verifiability theory of meaning.

A sentence is empirically meaningful if and only if it is verifiable in principle and (roughly) its meaning is given by the method of its verification. The LEs quickly rejected full verifiability in favor of weaker forms of testability. However, they were never able to formulate an adequate formal criterion of meaning or justify the equation of meaning with empirical evidence. It was this "verificationism" that backed the LEs' anthropomorphic claim that all genuine problems are empirical and therefore humanly solvable and their dismissal of all metaphysical problems as pseudoproblems. Since competing metaphysical positions, by definition, have no empirical consequences, they cannot differ in meaning; so there can be no meaningful problem of choosing between them.

2. The attack on metaphysics as meaningless.

The LEs agreed that an enlightened society has no room for metaphysics; however, they sometimes disagreed over what counts as metaphysics.

3. A sharp fact-value distinction and emotive ethics.

Ethical and aesthetic utterances are emotional reactions. Since they are not empirically testable, they have no cognitive meaning and cannot be true or false. Nonetheless, the early LEs took a strong normative stance on social and political issues.

4. The observational-theoretical distinction.

The project to distinguish epistemically unproblematic observational terms and sentences from the theoretical ones and legitimize the latter in terms of their logical relations to the former ran into similar difficulties despite important progress such as Carnap's treatment of dispositional terms. N. R. Hanson, Popper, Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and Putnam noted that scientific observational language is "theory laden" and that there is no context-free, linear gradation of theoreticity.

5. The analytic-synthetic distinction.

Quine's influential critique of this pillar of LE (and of much else), in "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" and other writings, and his return to a pragmatic naturalism were heavy blows. The second dogma was "radical reductionism," the idea that each sentence in isolation can be correlated with a range of experience.

6. Application of the resources of the new symbolic logic and the third dogma.

The LEs (especially Carnap) developed and applied the new symbolic logic in ingenious ways, mainly in terms of purely syntactic rules; but later critiques by Quine, Hempel, Nelson Goodman, and others showed that semantic and pragmatic considerations are unavoidable, effectively dooming Carnap's project to produce objective, ahistorical, context-free languages of science. By the 1950s and 1960s, philosophers increasingly felt that the LEs had exhausted the resources of deductive logic without adequately capturing the richness of scientific reasoning. Static logical relations seemed especially incapable of modeling scientific theories and deep conceptual change, for example, scientific revolutions. Commitment to deductive logic by the LEs and Popper has been called the third dogma of empiricism. (Others, following Donald Davidson, give this label to the so-called scheme-content distinction.) Reichenbach all along had urged a probabilistic approach (a theme continued by his student, Salmon), although he and Carnap had developed probability theory in roughly opposite ways.

7. Logical analysis of scientific confirmation, explanation, and theory structure.

The LEs admirably articulated old and new ideas here in terms of detailed models. Their work set the standard for ongoing research in these areas. Hempel's extension of "covering law" explanation to history, psychology, and the social sciences was especially controversial since it challenged old ideas about human freedom and spontaneity and the need for sympathetic understanding. Yet it also failed to capture the force of causal explanation.

8. The unity of science.

Pitting the sciences against the rest of culture, some LEs defended the unity of science on three fronts: conceptual, doctrinal, and methodological. Conceptual unity means that there is one universal language of science; doctrinal unity, that more complex disciplines such as biology are ultimately reducible to more basic disciplines such as chemistry and physics; methodological unity states that there is one general method of science, that all legitimate theories, all explanations, and so on possess the same logical structure. All of these projects produced interesting results, but have since been abandoned. In the antireductionist, more pragmatic atmosphere of the early twenty-first century, the emphasis is on diversity, on teasing out the differences among the various sciences rather than on trying to model all of them on physics; and physics itself turns out to be internally diverse. Most experts reject the existence of a unique scientific method as a fiction of textbooks and school administrators.

9. The fall and rise of naturalistic epistemology.

Prominent LEs followed Gottlob Frege in sharply distinguishing logic and epistemology from psychology; "psychologism" was the fallacy of confusing them. It was on this point that the positivists differed most obviously from the American pragmatists. (As usual, the most important exception was Neurath, who promoted a naturalistic epistemology.) But the LEs' own critique of Kant's transcendental epistemology could be viewed as a step toward a naturalistic epistemology. Quine took the next step and urged a return to a naturalistic pragmatism, contending that epistemology should become a branch of behavioral psychology. Historical case studies by Kuhn, Feyerabend, and their followers showed that the failure of LE and Popperian methodologies to fit actual history was so great as to raise the question whether anything recognizable as science could fit the old rules of method. Since (as Kant said) "ought" implies "can," the critics thereby showed that empirical information is relevant to and can in a sense "refute" a methodology despite its normative character.

This surprising turn does fit Quine's pronouncement that "no statement is immune to revision," come what maynot a conventional or "analytic" statement or even a normative one. The critics increasingly perceived some problems in the philosophy of science as artifacts of the LE approach and hence as pseudoproblems with respect to real science. Kuhn famously distinguished normal science under a paradigm (a quasi-Kantian categorical scheme that made normal science possible and intelligible) from revolutionary science, neither of which fit the tenets of either LE or Popperianism. In "the battle of the big systems" (initially among the LEs, Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Imre Lakatos, and Stephen Toulmin), many considered Kuhn the winner, although many philosophers severely criticized his work. And yet Carnap, who increasingly thought in terms of free, pragmatic choices among available linguistic frameworks, welcomed Kuhn's contribution as making a similar point. The work of Kuhn and Feyerabend brought all the above-mentioned difficulties of LE to a focus, which hastened its demise as the generally accepted account of science. No similarly grand consensus has replaced it.

10. The discovery-justification distinction.

This distinction was an LE bulwark against psychologism. The basic idea is that it does not matter how or why a theory or problem solution pops into someone's head; what matters is how the claim is tested. There is a psychology of discovery but no logic of discovery, only a logic of justification. Philosophy is concerned only with the logically reconstructed products and not the processes of science. The LEs' applications of the discovery-justification distinction drew philosophy of science closer to philosophical problems of logic and epistemology and away from the study of science as practiced by communities of scientists. Since the new historical case studies were precisely the study of the process of investigation, they challenged these applications.

11. The emergence of science studies.

As scientific insiders, the original LEs relied on their own knowledge and intuitions about how science works (or should work) and, qua analytic philosophers, saw no need for careful empirical studies of the sciences themselves. The Kuhnian revolution changed that. Their sharpest critics noted the irony that the logical empiricists urged everyone else to be empiricists but themselves! But while post-Kuhnian philosophers began to take the history of science seriously, they did not study in detail the scientific practices of contemporary science. They thereby left an opening for the new empirical sociology of scientific knowledge that has since grown into a multidisciplinary "science studies," often defined to exclude philosophy.

12. Realism versus social constructionism and "the science wars."

As strong empiricists, early LEs tended to advocate a minimalist stance toward theories and the entities that they appeared to postulate. Some regarded theories as instruments for calculation rather than as attempts truly to describe underlying reality. Carnap himself used Russell's maxim as a motto: "Wherever possible logical constructions are to be substituted for inferred entities." This is a logical constructionist position. Most science studies practitioners are also constructionists, but social constructionists. They deny that science is a special, epistemically privileged institution and regard its results as negotiated social constructions. In reaction, many philosophers now take a "realist" position that affirms objective, scientific progress toward truth and vigorously denies the cultural relativity of scientific results. As heirs of the Enlightenment, they reject the centrifugal tendencies of postmodernism and defend the special place of the sciences in human culture. This heated debate among philosophers, science studies practitioners, culture theorists, and scientists themselves is commonly known as "the science wars." If the postmodernist critics are right, Comte's law of three stages stopped at least one stage too soon!

13. The linguistic turn and the rise and fall of narrowly analytic philosophy.

With G. E. Moore, Russell, and the early Wittgenstein as precursors, the LEs, and especially Carnap, were the primary developers of analytic philosophy. After World War II, a wider sort of linguistic philosophy, "ordinary language philosophy," flourished at Oxford. Both movements construed philosophy itself as a metadiscipline concerned to analyze language rather than to address substantive questions about the world and human activity. But since the 1960s, Anglo-American philosophy has become more liberal in its interests and methods. Philosophers once again vigorously discuss the metaphysical issues rejected by the LEs as pseudoproblems, and there is even something of a rapprochement with the so-called Continental philosophy of Heidegger and his successors. Carnap dominated the American phase and the received view of LE; but at the turn of the twenty-first century, many experts were examining Neurath's position in greater detail and finding it more defensible.

See also Analytical Philosophy ; Empiricism ; Falsifiability ; Linguistic Turn ; Paradigm .


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, ed. Logical Positivism. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1959.

Cartwright, Nancy, et al., eds. Otto Neurath: Philosophy between Science and Politics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Comte, Auguste. The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte. Translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau. 3 vols. London: G. Bell, 1913.

Feigl, Herbert, and May Brodbeck, eds. Readings in the Philosophy of Science. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1953.

Friedman, Michael. A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger. Chicago: Open Court, 2000.

Giere, Ronald N., and Alan W. Richardson, eds. Origins of Logical Empiricism. Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science 16. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Hahn, Hans, Rudolf Carnap, and Otto Neurath. "The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle." In Otto Neurath, Empiricism and Sociology, 299318. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1973. Originally published in German in 1929.

Hardcastle, Gary L., and Alan W. Richardson, eds. Logical Empiricism in North America. Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science 18. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Hempel, Carl G. Aspects of Scientific Explanation, and Other Essays in the Philosophy of Science. New York: Free Press, 1965.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 1962. 2nd ed., with postscript. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Neurath, Otto, Rudolf Carnap, and Charles F. W. Morris. Foundations of the Unity of Science: Toward an International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955, 1970.

Parrini, Paolo, Wesley C. Salmon, and Merrilee H. Salmon, eds. Logical Empiricism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003.

Quine, Willard Van Orman. "Mr. Strawson on Logical Theory." The Ways of Paradox. Rev. edition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.

. "Two Dogmas of Empiricism." In his From a Logical Point of View: Logico-Philosophical Essays, 2046. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953.

Russell, Bertrand, and Alfred North Whitehead. Principia Mathematica. 3 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 19101913.

Sarkar, Sahotra, ed. and introductions. The Legacy of the Vienna Circle: Modern Reappraisals. New York: Garland, 1996.

Simon, Walter Michael. European Positivism in the Nineteenth Century, an Essay in Intellectual History. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1963.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translated from the 1921 German edition by C. K. Ogden. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922.

Thomas Nickles


views updated May 21 2018


Philosophy and metaphysics

Logic and mathematics

Theory of knowledge

Positivist ethics

The influence of positivism


There are two positivisms: that of the nineteenth century and that of the twentieth. Common to both is a continuation of the eighteenth-century philosophy of the Enlightenment. Metaphysics and theology are again brought before the bar of reason, with the insistence that the institutions appealing to them for justification be reformed or replaced. Science is claimed to provide the standards applied in this critique. The name “positivism” derives from the emphasis on the positive sciences—that is, on tested and systematized experience rather than on undisciplined speculation.

The older positivism of Auguste Comte viewed human history as progressing through three stages: the religious, the metaphysical, and the scientific. His positivism was presented as articulating and systematizing the principles underlying this last (and best) stage. Law, morality, politics, and religion were all to be reconstituted on the new scientific basis. Traditional religion, for instance, was to be replaced by a religion of humanity and reason, with rituals and symbols appropriate to the new doctrine (Simon 1963). Comte’s evolutionary and scientistic perspectives were shared by such men as Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley, but contemporary movements of thought have been very little influenced by the older positivism.

Twentieth-century positivism came to be known as logical positivism, to distinguish it from the older philosophy. (The movement itself preferred the name logical empiricism.) The adjective points to the importance of the rationalist component in the modern view, which owes as much to Leibniz, inventor of the differential calculus and one of the pioneers of mathematical logic, as to Hume and the later British empiricists, like John Stuart Mill.

Twentieth-century positivism. Modern positivism began in the early 1920s with the establishment of the so-called Vienna circle by Moritz Schlick in association with Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath, Herbert Feigl, and a number of mathematicians and scientists. A few years later Hans Reichenbach and others in Berlin developed closely related ideas. In the late 1930s the center of the movement shifted to Chicago, where Carnap accepted an appointment. There, under the influence of C. W. Morris, the contributions of American pragmatism made themselves felt. The movement came increasingly to be called scientific empiricism, which reflected its broader outlook; an International Encyclopedia of Unified Science was published, as well as a short-lived Journal of Unified Science. Positivism as such lasted into the 1940s, but continued to be indirectly influential by way of its impact on British analytic philosophers, especially Gilbert Ryle and A. J. Ayer.

Among the movements contributing to the rise of logical positivism, three are especially worthy of notice. First, around the turn of the century, a number of scientists—Karl Pearson in England, Pierre Duhem in France, Ernst Mach in Austria, and others—were directing attention to the logical structure of scientific theory, proposing, and to some extent carrying out, a reconstruction of science on a strictly empiricist and even phenomenalist basis and looking to the replacement of pictorial models by axiomization. This line of thought reached its culmination in Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which positivists later widely adduced as illustrating the intimate connection between meaning and verification, apropos of the conception and measurement of space and time. A few years later Bertrand Russell embarked on a program of reducing mathematics to logic, along lines previously followed by Gottlob Frege. In collaboration with A. N. Whitehead he wrote the monumental Principia mathematica (Whitehead & Russell 1910–1913), which provided a comprehensive symbolic logic that was to become the language of the new philosophy. In the early 1920s his pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein published the superlative and important Tractatus logico-philosophicus (1921), which laid out the philosophical implications of the new logic in concise and often cryptic form. Finally, the political situation in central Europe after World War i helped to shape logical positivism in the spirit of the Marxist critique of ideology; also, anticlericalism gave particular relevance to a philosophy that denied meaning to even the questions posed by theology.

Philosophy and metaphysics

The positivist conception of the nature of philosophy marked a radical departure from the prevailing view. Philosophy is not a doctrine embodying “wisdom”—it is an activity; it is neither a theory nor a way of life but rather a way of analyzing what is said in the course of living or in theorizing about life. The business of philosophy is not to arrive at a certain set of propositions embodying a suprascientific truth; its business is to make propositions clear. Schlick looked forward to the day when there would be no more books on philosophy but all books would be philosophically written.

As a distinctive activity, philosophy consists in analysis. While the synthetic method, as practiced by mathematics and science, builds up conclusions from initial assumptions or data, analysis, as Russell in particular emphasized, digs down to the foundations. It looks to presuppositions rather than to outcomes; it aims at laying bare the “logical atoms” out of which our complex ideas are compounded. (The synthetic aspect of thought was later provided for in the positivist ideal of a “unified science.”) The name “logical positivism” calls attention to both the form and the matter of the new philosophy: its method is logical analysis, and its subject matter is the positive sciences. The later, so-called analytic philosophy, especially as it developed in England (in such journals as Analysis and Mind), differs in both respects from the logical positivism by which it was so deeply influenced: its method is more linguistic than logical, and its subject matter is provided as much by the discourse of law, morality, and everyday life as by what positivism calls “the language of science.”

Clarity and meaning

The governing ideal of the activity of analysis is clarity. Russell, taking science and mathematics as his exemplar, insisted that it is better to be clearly wrong than vaguely right. Knowledge grows by disproof as well as by confirmation, but intimations and adumbrations of the truth are of no great cognitive value. Opposition to the positivist movement in recent years has crystallized in the slogan “Clarity is not enough”; whether because of the intrinsic nature of philosophic problems or because of the limitations of the resources we bring to bear on their solution, the ideal of clarity is not just unattainable but misguided. According to this view, the great questions of human nature and destiny will not yield to exact treatment. To give up muddleheadedness for simple-mindedness is a worthless exchange.

From the outset, however, logical positivism rejected these “great questions” as meaningless. The problems taken to be most characteristically philosophical—those of metaphysics—are in fact pseudoproblems, which are incapable of solution not because of their profundity but because they pose nothing to be solved. The questions asked have the form of questions but are lacking in content. Philosophy need not decide between alternative answers, since all are equally uncalled for. Thus, for instance, agnosticism is as much to be rejected as is theism or atheism, because the agnostic, in maintaining that the answer is unknown, acknowledges the genuineness of the question. To the categories of truth and falsehood, into which statements were previously classified, the positivist added a third category: nonsense. It is indeed this third classification that is the distinctive concern of philosophy; to decide whether statements are true or false is the business of science. What philosophy does is to show, by logical analysis, which statements are eligible for scientific consideration and how they are to be considered.

To do this work, philosophy needs what Karl Popper has called (while repudiating this use) a “criterion of demarcation”—a way to distinguish meaningful from meaningless statements. Such a criterion positivism found in the so-called verifiability theory of meaning. (Whether it is indeed a theory, or rather a rule or stipulation, was a matter of controversy within the movement, as well as with its critics.) The verifiability principle allows meaning only to statements capable of verification, and it allows only so much meaning as is verifiable (unless they are statements of pure logic or mathematics). A way of testing whether a statement is true or false is necessary to the statement’s having meaning, and as the slogan had it, its meaning lies in its method of verification. By this last formulation, positivism is closely linked with operationism (Bridgman 1927).

A satisfactory formulation of the criterion occupied much of the attention of the positivist movement (Hempel 1950), but none was universally accepted, even within the movement. If, like Ockham’s razor, with which the principle was often compared, it is to free us from “surplus meanings,” the problem is how to shave close without cutting into the flesh. The difficulties are twofold. On the one hand, the criterion must be made loose enough to allow entry to the whole of science. Thus, falsification is as acceptable as verification; for Popper (1934) it is the fundamental requirement. Some degree of confirmation or disconfirmation is all that can be asked for (Carnap 1936–1937), and the possibility of verification may be either a technical, physical, or merely logical possibility (Reichenbach 1938). On the other hand, a criterion liberal enough to allow for statements containing theoretical terms, whose verification may be extremely remote and indirect, may readmit ideologies, myths, and ultimately metaphysics.

Logic and mathematics

A major concern of modern positivism, which is central to both its method and its content, is the nature of language. Philosophy does not analyze things, as science does, but rather our ideas of things—or, more precisely, the language in which our ideas are expressed. The object of any philosophical inquiry is accordingly known as the object language; the language in which the inquiry itself is formulated is the metalanguage. In particular cases the two languages may coincide, in whole or in part; but one must always distinguish between using a word and mentioning it—that is, saying something about the word itself. Statements that purport to be about objects but that can be analyzed as (or replaced by) statements about language were called pseudo-object sentences by Carnap; many characteristic statements of metaphysics were taken to be of this kind. Thus, Wittgenstein’s assertion “The world is the totality of facts, not of things” (1921) might well be rendered as “Science is the totality of true sentences, not of names or predicates.” The notions of a statement’s being “about” something and of one statement’s being “replaceable” by another later became the focal points of much analysis and discussion, under the rubrics designation and synonymy.

Following Charles Peirce, the nineteenth-century American philosopher, later thinkers classified language under sign processes in general; Morris (1938) formulated a widely used theory of signs, which was largely a codification of distinctions rather than a theory in the strict sense. Signs may be analyzed in three “dimensions,” or aspects, of their working: in relation to other signs (which is the province of syntactics or logical syntax); in relation to what they signify (semantics); and in relation to their users (pragmatics). In its early years positivism was preoccupied with syntax; later, semantics became the chief concern. Comparatively little was done in pragmatics before the positivist movement as such came to a close [seeSemantics and semiotics].

Logic and scientific purpose

Logic was identified as the syntax of the language of science and later broadened to comprise its semantics also. Thereby, logic was taken to be definitively freed from both psychology and ontology. The laws of logic are neither principles of reason nor truths of being but are rules of language or the consequences of those rules. These, however, are logical consequences, so that the analysis of any given logic presupposes a logic used in the analysis; but this regression was not regarded as a vicious one. For every language there are rules of formation, by which its signs can be combined into sentences, and rules of transformation, by which, given certain sentences, certain others can be asserted. The rule of modus ponens, for instance, allows us to assert the sentence B, given the sentences A and “If A then B.” Because of this rule, the sentence “A, and A implies B, together imply B” is a logical truth, and the second implication is a logical implication.

The rules may also allow certain sentences to be asserted regardless of what others are given. These sentences are then known as postulates of the system; if they can be so interpreted that their truth, and not merely their assertibility, is guaranteed by the rules of the language, then these sentences, together with their consequences, are logical truths. Which rules are adopted for a language is a matter of convention; it is not the business of philosophy to prohibit certain modes of expression or inference (Carnap’s principle of tolerance). Thus, there are many systems of logic and many languages proposed as “the” language of science. The question is always whether a language of a given structure is adequate for the purposes of science (or for some other special purpose). In particular, positivism promulgated the thesis that everything can be said in an extensional language, that is, one in which the truth of compound sentences is determined solely by the truth of their components and in which predicates designate classes rather than properties. But whether a certain language is judged to be “adequate” for the purposes of science depends on one’s convictions as to what there is to be said. On this score, the issues dividing positivism from its critics remained unresolved and, indeed, largely unformulated.

Foundations of mathematics

The logic of positivism is not merely a symbolic but a mathematical logic. Symbols have been used in logic since Aristotle, but only as abbreviations or auxiliaries. In the new logic everything hinges on the rules for the use of the notation. It is the focus on the combination and transformation of symbols that makes the logic mathematical. Mathematics, according to the positivist view, is itself a language. It does not tell us anything about the world, but it allows us to transform given statements into others and explores the possibilities of such transformations.

By the turn of the century, mathematics had been put into postulational form. Questions then arose as to the nature of the postulates and the justification of the rules associated with them. These questions of the foundations of mathematics occupied much of the attention of the positivist movement. Russell held that mathematics is reducible to logic by defining numbers as certain classes of classes and by defining arithmetical operations on numbers as certain logical operations on classes. Thus, Principia (Whitehead & Russell 1910–1913) begins with purely logical postulates (such as “q implies p or q”); eventually it presents a proof of “1 + 1 = 2.” In opposition to this logicist school, the intuitionists, led by L. E. J. Brouwer, looked at mathematics from the standpoint of pragmatics rather than semantics: mathematics is essentially a human activity; we cannot meaningfully speak of the existence of a mathematical entity without being able to construct it. A third school, the formalist, following David Hilbert, was concerned only with syntax—the occurrence of mathematical symbols in certain combinations—without regard to how the symbols are interpreted or used.

Each of these approaches involved serious difficulties. The logicist view encountered certain paradoxes, especially in relation to class membership (Is the class of all classes that are not members of themselves a member of itself?). The intuitionist must make special provision for the infinite processes that are fundamental to large parts of mathematics—for instance, in connection with limits and continuity. Especially important results were achieved that set absolute limits to the formalist program. Gödel (1931) proved that any formalism sufficiently rich to allow for the formulation of arithmetic also allowed for the occurrence of statements which, although true, could not be proved to be true within that formalism.

Out of these various endeavors a whole new discipline of metamathematics emerged, in which questions about the nature of various mathematical statements and proofs are themselves treated in a rigorous mathematical way (Tarski 1956). Through the so-called new mathematics in elementary education, the elements of logic (set theory) are now becoming known to every schoolboy.

Theory of knowledge

Fundamental to any question about the scope and validity of human knowledge is some conception of the nature of truth. The positivist emphasis on the analysis of the language of science was sometimes suggestive of the coherence theory of truth: a statement is accepted as true because of its relation to other statements that provide evidence or arguments for it. In the main, however, the positivist position was that ultimately certain statements (protocol sentences) are accepted on the basis of direct experience that is not itself verbalized. Truth is correspondence with fact, as disclosed by experience. This view, which goes back to Aristotle, was refined by Russell and Wittgenstein, who analyzed the correspondence in logical terms. A proposition is true if it has the same structure as the fact it asserts. However, it is only the logical structure of the proposition that is involved, not the grammatical structure of the sentence formulating the proposition. Thus, “the present king of France” is not a logical constituent of the statement “The present king of France is bald,” but only its grammatical subject. Yet, how exactly to determine logical structure, whether of propositions or of facts, remained to some extent obscure and at any rate controversial (Ryle 1932; Hampshire 1948).

Analytic and synthetic truths

Of special interest to positivism was the development by Tarski (1944) and others of the so-called semantic conception of truth. Here, also, truth is a matter of correspondence, but interest is focused on the way in which the truth of complex statements is definable by the truth of other, simpler expressions. The procedure is applicable, however, only to exact languages.

Basic to the positivist theory of knowledge is the difference beween logical and factual truth. In positivism this difference reduces to that between analytic and synthetic statements. For Kant, analytic statements were those whose predicates were contained in their subjects (“Every effect has a cause”). Positivists regarded analytic statements as fundamentally either definitions or tautologies: compound statements which remain true for all possible combinations of truth-values of their constituents (“Either it will rain or it will not rain”). However, a satisfactory definition of “analytic” remained elusive, and in later years serious doubts were raised as to whether even the sharp distinction between “logical” and “factual” is tenable (Quine 1953; see, however, Grice & Strawson 1956).

A fundamental tenet of positivism is that only analytic truths can be known a priori. Metaphysics is rejected because, as Kant saw, it lays claim to synthetic a priori knowledge. However, “analytic” and “a priori” were often defined, in effect, in terms of one another. If this is not done, some critics held, counterexamples to the positivist position can be provided.

The problem of induction. The most important of these putative instances is some form of the so-called principle of induction. As Hume saw, this principle is not analytic and therefore is not knowable a priori, yet it cannot be inductively grounded, a posteriori, without vicious circularity. Some positivists (such as Wittgenstein and Schlick) held that induction is not a matter of a “principle” but only of a rule, so that the question of its truth does not arise. But even a rule calls for justification. In the main, positivists approached the question in terms of a more general concern with the nature and foundations of inductive logic.

Inductive logic, it was widely agreed, is fundamentally a matter of probability. But how probability is to be interpreted raised important issues even within the positivist movement. Mathematics provides a probability calculus by which given probabilities allow for the calculation of others sought for. The question is what exactly we are given and whether this same calculus allows us to attach a determinate probability to, for example, a scientific hypothesis. Reichenbach (1935) defended the view that probabilities are essentially frequencies in the long run and that the frequency interpretation can be applied throughout. Carnap (1950), while acknowledging the importance of the frequency interpretation for certain cases, developed a conception of logical probability to be employed in the logic of confirmation. Each position faces acknowledged difficulties, some of which have in the meantime been bypassed by the development of a third conception—that of “subjective” or “personal” probability (Savage 1954).

Operationism and the unity of science

Whatever the logic of induction, positivists agreed that inductive knowledge of extralogical truths can only be empirical. From Hume and Mach, positivism acquired a strong phenomenalistic bent: all knowledge can be cast in the form of statements about immediate experience (Carnap 1928). Alternatively, it can be formulated on a realistic basis (the “thing-language”). Most important is the claim— the thesis of “physicalism”—that everything can be said, in principle, in the language of physics. Closely connected with this thesis is the positivist thesis of the unity of science, which holds that there is no fundamental cleavage between Geisteswissenschaft and Naturwissenschaft. Science has but one method; it is unified as to terms, in the sense of physicalism; and there is, again in principle, a unity of scientific laws, all of which can be derived from some single, comprehensive theory. The thesis of the unity of science, however, was of incomparably greater significance as a program than as an established philosophical doctrine.

It was with respect to the unity of terms that most progress was made. Operationism, which was positivistic in spirit if not in origin, formulated conditions for the introduction of any term into the language of science: the specification of operations for measurement or verification. It appears, however, that the meaning of a term cannot be identified or even univocally associated with these operations, for it is characteristic of science that there may be several quite different ways of measuring the same magnitude or of verifying the same hypothesis. A greater difficulty is that certain terms are connected with observations, not directly, but only by way of their relation to other terms; symbolic operations are thus called for. But once such operations are admitted, much of the force of the operationist requirement is dissipated.

In the positivist movement, this difficulty centered on the status of theoretical terms. Theory, according to the positivist view, is significant primarily as an intermediary between observations (or experiments). What is required is a specification of how theoretical terms can be brought into relation with observables. To this end Carnap (1936–1937) developed a theory of reduction sentences, which are partial definitions, as it were; no theoretical term is capable of being completely defined by way of observables. This is not to say, however, that theory posits an ontological domain other than what can be observed. To be sure, theory not only describes observable facts but also explains them. But explanation is essentially a matter of prediction: to explain a fact is to adduce a law from which, together with appropriate initial conditions, the fact can be deduced—that is, predicted (Hempel & Oppenheim 1948). Here, too, problems of detail persisted, and some recent philosophers of science have tended to separate explanation from prediction and to emphasize the part played in explanation by unifying patterns.

Positivist ethics

As to ethics, some of the logical positivists (e.g., Schlick 1930) espoused a naturalistic hedonism, akin to the liberal utilitarianism of nineteenth-century thought. But the distinctively positivistic view (Ayer 1936; Reichenbach 1951) applied the criterion of verifiability to moral judgments and concluded that these are strictly devoid of meaning. More accurately, a distinction was introduced between two kinds of meaning, which came to be known as cognitive and emotive. The former is characteristic of scientific discourse, is expressed in declarative sentences, and is capable of being true or false; the latter is characteristic of the discourse of politics, religion, morality, and art, and is expressed in imperatives or exclamations. The first conveys beliefs, whereas the second conveys attitudes (Stevenson 1944). Ethical statements do not embody propositions, but rather constitute commands, exhortations, and the like.

Much of the severe criticism directed against this position begged the question of whether it “robs morality of any foundation,” although attitudes may be as firmly grounded in character and as effective on action as are beliefs. More philosophic objections were addressed to the workability of the distinction between the two sorts of meaning and to the question of whether the positivist analysis applies to moral judgments rather than only to expressions of moral sentiment. The later development of the positivist view gave rise to various “deontic” logics, the precise postulational treatment of ascriptions of rights and duties—and related notions—in ways connected with the tradition of analytic jurisprudence, on the one hand, and with the utility theory of modern economics, on the other.

The influence of positivism

The persistence of identifiable schools of philosophy, each engaged in continuing polemic with other, opposing schools, seems more characteristic of the European scene than the American. At any rate, the dispersal of European scholars at the outbreak of World War II marked the beginning of the end of logical positivism as a movement. The increasing diversity of viewpoints within the movement, as well as more widespread misunderstanding of its claims, made for increasing reluctance to identify with it. Moreover, as time passed there was a progressive softening of what had been taken to be its distinctive doctrines. The verifiability criterion was broadened; semantics and even pragmatics assumed more importance, as compared with syntax; and principles became programs to be espoused rather than theses to be defended. The revolutionary and even utopian impulse in some of the early positivists (for instance, Neurath) became dissipated.

In philosophy, positivism had a marked impact on analytic philosophy, which is in a way its heir, and positivism is largely responsible for the central position in philosophic training accorded to mathematical logic almost everywhere. But its influence was much greater on science, and on the borders between science and philosophy, than on philosophy itself. On its empirical side, positivism added—especially in psychology and sociology—to the growing emphasis on observation and data, as against the theoretical and even speculative bent of the preceding generation or two. Positivism may also have contributed to the emergence of “behavioral science” as something more than an alternative designation for the more traditional disciplines. It must be noted, however, that the positivists were not, on the whole, inclined toward a strict behaviorism: both Carnap and Reichenbach were quite sympathetic to psychoanalytic ideas, for instance. The positivist interest in the logic of measurement and in the nature of probability at least coincided with, if it did not directly contribute to, the growth of such disciplines as psychometrics and sociometrics.

It is on its logical side, however, that positivism exerted its most unmistakable and distinctive influence. The increasing interest during the last several decades in the application to empirical materials of various logical and even mathematical systems is clearly indebted to the positivistic philosophy of science. In mathematics itself—especially in foundation studies—a strong claim can be made for the value of postulational and even formal approaches. More dubious is the fruitfulness of their application in the physical and biological sciences (Reichenbach 1944; Woodger 1952). In the social sciences the influence of positivism can be recognized in the concern with “miniature systems” and “model building.” It may be too early to assess the value of this tendency. One recognizable danger may be identified as the “semantic myth”: that if concepts are introduced by the explicit operational definition of terms and if assumptions are clearly stated as postulates, the scientific significance of the undertaking is assured.

In sum, the influence of positivism has been on form rather than substance—on methodology rather than on content. It has given new vigor to the ideals of clarity and precision of thinking, in a perspective in which the emphasis on theory is conjoined with an equal emphasis on the ineluctability of empirical data. But too much self-consciousness as to methodology may have a repressive effect on the conduct of scientific inquiry. Unintentionally, and even contrary to its own purposes, modern positivism may have contributed to a “myth of methodology”: that it does not much matter what we do if only we do it right.

Abraham Kaplan

[See alsoEthics, article onethical systems and social structures; History, article onthe philosophy of history; Probability; Survey analysis; and the biographies ofComte; Pearson; Peirce; Schlick; Whitehead.]


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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)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 23 2018





There are two uses of the term positivism in the social sciences, one derived from sociology, the other from jurisprudence, especially international law. In sociology, positivism was a broad movement of European thought during the second half of the nineteenth century. The name derives from the fact that thinkers returned to the appreciation of positive facts so as to restore the world of nature, which idealists had reduced to a mere representation of the ego. Positivism placed greater stress on immediate experience and on the data obtained through the senses.

In jurisprudence, positivists emphasize textual analysis, in contrast to naturalists, who take treaties and other texts as a starting point for determining the guiding principles of the day. However, if there is no text and a new or revised rule of customary international law is advocated, naturalists are likely to emphasize the actual consequences of the new practice, while positivists underscore intent or motive. This is the opposite of the situation faced in textual analysis. One could imagine situations in which the claim is made that the text should be ignored in favor of a new customary principle. Where there is a conflict between positive law and customary principles, naturalists argue that the customary law claimed to exist should prevail. However, naturalists are also likely to argue that principles can be used to interpret provisions in such texts as the UN Charter, which would reduce the probability of a conflict with custom.

Positivism flourished in Latin America as nowhere else, not even in France, where it was first developed by Auguste Comte (17981857). It met the needs of many Latin American intellectuals who rejected Spanish and Portuguese culture and were trying to prove their independence by adopting French ideas. They considered Catholicism as a tool of Spanish imperialism, which had kept Latin America in a state of amoral, chaotic backwardness. Positivism called for progress, discipline, morality, and freedom from the tyranny of theology. The positivists rebelled against the spiritualist metaphysics shared by deists and Catholics. This rebellion turned them into agnostics and sometimes even into atheists.


The sociological use of positivism emerged in France under Comte, evolving from English empiricism, which argued that experience was the only source of human knowledge. The new school of thought held that reality mechanically evolves from inferior forms until it attains consciousness in humans. According to Comte, historical observations on the process of human society show that humans have passed through three stages. First was the theological state, in which nature was mythically conceived and the individual sought the meaning of natural phenomena from supernatural beings. Second came the metaphysical stage, in which nature was conceived of as a result of obscure forces and the individual sought to explain natural phenomena from them. Third came the positive stage, in which all abstract and obscure forces are discarded and natural phenomena are explained by their constant relationships. Comte extended the law of the three stages to include all reality.

Jurisprudential positivism emerged in the nineteenth century and gained influence in the twentieth century because of the tendency to replace customary or natural law with statutory or treaty law. In international law, positivism gained even more influence after the 1945 UN Charter. Positivists argue that the charter, and law generally, should be treated as a constitution that, following the model of H. L. A. Hart (1961), establishes primary rules (to make rules) and secondary rules based on them that establish particular policies and principles, including, but not requiring, conceptions of justice and other issues of substance. In international law, if treaties are read loosely, or principles are imputed or inflated, or customs are claimed rather than observed, positivists feel that the consent required for law to exist on the basis of explicit rules does not exist. Furthermore, in specific applications, motives matter in order to assure that the community of nations agrees. Because motives are difficult to know, the presumption of positivists is that consent for actions against prevailing interpretations of legal doctrine must be unambiguous for law to deviate from claimed fundamental principles. Opposition to what is clearly the intent of positive law as expressed in texts is normally a sign of illegality.

Sociological positivists did not follow exactly the same course in the Latin American countries. Positivism was most influential in Brazil, whose elites studied French and visited Paris, where they came to admire everything French. By the end of the nineteenth century these elites wanted to import or copy everything they associated with France. At the time, positivism became particularly important in Brazils technical schools and military academies, where many middle-class children studied. Comtes emphasis on progress through gradual change appealed to Brazils new elite, who saw positivism as a way of incorporating themselves into the national elite without threatening the social order on which the old elite depended. They were attracted by the idea of using military and government officials to plan economic development for progress and industrialization. They believed that by expanding economic opportunities and education, they could incorporate the disenfranchised into society without the need for widespread social or political change. Furthermore, in positivism they saw the possibility of ending foreign economic domination and colonialism in Brazil.


Jurisprudential positivism, following a line of jurisprudence that has included the theories of Vattel, Zouche, Kelsen, and Hart, emphasizes legal rules and consent in the relations of states. Rights and obligations about rules and principles are based primarily on the words in treaties. Based on the empiricism of Locke and Hume, positivists in international law, such as Humphrey, the principal author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Schachter and Henkin among lawyers and Donnelly among political scientists, have argued that rules take precedence over claimed principles or unprecedented customs of states. Without observable experience or consent, validating customs after the fact betrays self-serving, perverse incentives besides nullifying the original intent of primary rules.

Jurisprudential positivists cite three UN Charter articles that make humanitarian intervention presumptively illegal. First, Article 39 of Chapter VII limits coercion sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), whether by the UN or by the armies of member states, in three situations: a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression. Taken literally, Article 39 (and the title of Chapter VII) does not apply to a country that is killing its own citizens but not threatening or attacking other countries. Second, positivists might also argue that unilateral humanitarian intervention would usually be illegal because of Article 2(4), except either when the UNSC finds an Article 39 situation, as indicated above, or for individual or collective self-defense to armed attack under Article 51. Article 2(4) names only three situations in which a state may not threaten or use force: (1) against the territorial integrity, or (2) political independence of any state, or (3) in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.

Jurisprudential positivists define a violation of territorial integrity as an armed attack on another state and a violation of political independence as a de facto partition or loss of sovereignty over part of a country. Donnelly calls for positive non-intervention to respect UN Charter Article 2(7)s intervention prohibition and encourage uninhibited criticism. Nonintervention means only the renunciation of intervention, in the strict sense of coercive interference. International human rights, however, are an appropriate subject for the exercise of international influence. Inaction in the face of human rights violations is not only morally inappropriate, it is in no way required by international law.

Some positivists, such as Schachter, would permit armed humanitarian intervention for great emergencies and with a consensus among the five permanent members of the Security Council. In commenting on UNSC Resolution 688 regarding northern Iraq, he notes that the council could invoke the Chapter VII enforcement procedures, at least if there is some threat to international peace as well. Others, such as Henkin, might be willing to forgo UNSC authorization to authorize force to stop mass murder, but not in the face of a likely veto. Positivists might be divided on whether to insist upon a consistent standard for legal humanitarian intervention or to permit it where it is politically possible. As Henkin (1991, p. 41) suggests, The Charter does not prohibit humanitarian intervention by use of force strictly limited to what is necessary to save lives. He would presumably not accept humanitarian intervention if a UNSC consensus was absent or if a unilateral intervention were to change national boundaries or replace a government: It has not been accepted, however that a state has a right to intervene by force to topple a government or occupy its territory even if that were necessary to terminate atrocities or to liberate detainees. Henkin also opposes using force to promote democracy, as do his ideological opposites, Franck and the Reagan administration.

SEE ALSO Comte, Auguste; Economics; Empiricism; Friedman, Milton; Hume, David; Imperialism; Jurisprudence; Locke, John; Logic; Methodology; Naturalism; Philosophy of Science; Realist Theory; Religion; Social Science; Sociology


Damrosch, Lori Fisler. 1991. Commentary on Collective Military Intervention to Enforce Human Rights. In Law and Force in the New International Order, ed. Lori Fisler Damrosch and David J. Scheffer, 215223. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Donnelly, Jack. 1992. Humanitarian Intervention and American Foreign Policy: Law, Morality and Politics. In Human Rights in the World Community: Issues and Action, ed. Richard Pierre Claude and Burns H. Weston, 307320. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Franck, Thomas M. 1992. The Emerging Right to Democratic Governance. American Journal of International Law 86 (1): 4691.

Hart, H. L. A. 1961. The Concept of Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hawkins, Richmond Laurin. 1938. Positivism in the United States (18531861). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Henkin, Louis, Stanley Hoffmann, and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick. 1991. Right v. Might: International Law and the Use of Force. 2nd ed. New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press.

Humphrey, John P., and Ronald St. John MacDonald. 1979. The Practice of Freedom; Canadian Essays on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. London: Butterworths.

Lenzer, Gertrude, ed. 1998. Auguste Comte and Positivism: The Essential Readings. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Mill, John Stuart. 1961. Auguste Comte and Positivism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. (Orig. pub. 1865)

Schachter, Oscar. 1991. United Nations Law in the Gulf Conflict. American Journal of International Law 85: 452473.

Woodward, Ralph Lee, Jr., ed. 1971. Positivism in Latin America, 18501900: Are Order and Progress Reconcilable? Lexington, MA: Heath.

Zea, Leopoldo. 1974. Positivism in Mexico. Trans. Josephine H. Shulte. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Henry F. Carey


views updated May 21 2018


A name given to a doctrine taught in the 19th century by A. comte or to any one of a set of general philosophical views, of which Comte's is but one exemplar, that tend to limit human knowledge to what can be established by the methods of "science." For the most important 20th-century version of positivism, see logical positivism; few contemporary philosophers, however, call themselves "positivists": they prefer the name "logical empiricists," mainly in order to suggest their opposition to the narrow verificationism of the Vienna Circle. In what follows, consideration is given to the background of Comte's doctrine; then those elements of Comte's doctrine that continue to have importance are discussed, some later developments are reviewed, and finally a brief evaluation is made.

Historical Background. The history of positivistic views extends over the 3½ centuries of the modern period, in which the progressive expansion of modern science has taken place. What struck many thinkers, perhaps most notably I. kant, was the contrast between the status of science and that of philosophy: progress in the former, stagnation and deadlock in the latter. A necessary condition of growth in established knowledge appeared to them to be the application of the techniques of science to phy itself was increasingly considered to be no longer the handmaid of theology, but rather the handmaid of science. Resistance from the "metaphysicians" who, the positivists said, claimed to have information about what lies beyond experience, aroused a progressively strong antimetaphysical reaction, a scornful and dogmatic reaction that reached its full strength in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Anti-metaphysical bias tends to be the most striking property separating those in the positivist tradition from others who give full credit to the achievements of science.

Forerunners. It is impossible to do justice in a few words to the forerunners of 19th-century positivism, for given the fact that positivism can be seen as a variety of empiricism (which, as opposed to rationalism or its variant, idealism, emphasizes the role of experience and minimizes the role of reason), any of those who contributed to the development of empiricism can be considered as having contributed to the development of positivism. And if one speaks, rather vaguely, of "positivistically inclined thinkers" or of positivism as a "temper of mind," one might range all the way from the sophists of the Greek Enlightenment through the philosophes of 18th-century France to the American pragmatists of the early 20th centuryand even include, along the way, men such as duns scotus, who is called a "moral positivist" because of his teaching that a thing is good (or bad) simply because God wills it to be good (or bad). Nevertheless it seems fairly clear that full-blown positivism had its day in the 19th century when the distinctive intellectual influence in the modern world, the natural sciences, had reached the high tide of their domination of the philosophical world.

As contributing to the development of 19th-century positivism, one might first mention Francis bacon, the "trumpeter" of the new sciences detached from philosophy in the 16th and 17th centuries. Bacon characterized past philosophy as mere childish prattling and expressed his utter confidence in the brilliant future of the natural sciences and of humanity under their guidance. (In his New Atlantis he gives a vivid picture of a mankind served and guided no longer by traditional aristocracies but by the new aristocracy of science.) Another important precursor of Comte in the field of social and legal philosophy was Thomas hobbes, whose opposition to traditional "natural-law" positions clearly puts him in the ranks of the major forerunners of self-conscious positivists.

Major Influences. Certainly, however, the two major influences on Comte and other early positivists are those of D. hume and Kant. The very notion of science as the study of the invariable relations of coexistence and succession observed to hold between elements of experience, the notion of scientific knowledge as relative and tentative, the notion of unknown and unknowable noumena, the notion of metaphysics as a surrogate of science that offers a total (but false because characterized by a sort of mathematical necessity) explanation of the universe, the suggestion that perhaps the methods of science might be adapted to the solution of philosophical problemsall these themes had Humean or Kantian sources.

The most immediate and direct influences on Comte were those of J. d' Alembert, J. L. Lagrange (who first stated the principles of mechanics without any reference to ultimate cause or hidden forces, merely describing the laws by which phenomena were connected), condorcet, Turgot, and, most important of all, saint-simon, whom Comte served as secretary.

Comte's Doctrines. The most influential doctrines of Comte were three: the "Law of Three States," the hierarchy of sciences, and his notion of sociology and the social sciences.

Three States. According to Comte, the structure of the human mind is such that all thought has followed a law of progress, the Law of Three States. There is first a primitive stage in which explanations of puzzling phenomena are theological, changes being attributed to the will of the gods, conceived of as very powerful human beings. The intermediate stage is that in which metaphysical explanations predominate, when forces or powers having abstract names take the place of superhuman agents. The third and final stage is that in which not explanation but pure description of phenomena takes the place of discarded powers or agents. Thus, for example, gravitation was first explained theologically as effected by divine beings attracting or repelling one another from their seats in the stars or planets; later, gravitation was explained anthropomorphically as a force or a power assumed to cause the movement of bodies; and only in the positive stage was a mathematical equation given that describes "how" but not "why" movement occurs. The positive method is well summarized by J. S. mill: "We have no knowledge of anything but phenomena; and our knowledge of phenomena is relative, not absolute. We know not the essence nor the real mode of production of any fact, but only its relations of other facts in the way of succession and similitude. These relations are constant, i.e., always the same in the same circumstances. The constant resemblances which link phenomena together, and the constant sequences which unite them as antecedent and consequent, are termed their laws. All phenomena without exception are governed by invariable laws, with which no volitions, either natural or supernatural, interfere. The essential nature of phenomena and their ultimate causes, whether efficient or final, are unknown and inscrutable to us" (A System of Logic, bk. 2). One might note that there was a general consensus in the 19th century, shared, as Émile Meyerson (an important critic of positivist anti-ontologism) has shown, even by G. W. F. hegel, that empirical science must be purely descriptive, confined to establishing the regularities of observed phenomena; Hegel did not, of course, like Comte, deny value to explanation, for his idealistic philosophy of nature provided the grounds of all explanation.

Hierarchy of Sciences. A second key Comtean doctrine was his conception of the "positive hierarchy" of the sciences. The fundamental sciences were said to fall into a logical order (one depends on another for certain of its principles), a single linear order of decreasing generality and increasing complexity; and this is also the historical order in which they developed: mathematics, physics, chemistry, biologyand finally, with Comte's own work, sociology. Psychology, that "last transformation of theology," was denied a special role in his hierarchy because Comte denied the possibility of knowledge through introspection (it is impossible to observe one's own mental processes without at the same time destroying them). In the positive stage one will limit himself to a consideration of the organic conditions on which various psychic functions depend: as A. Bain put it, "psychologus nemo nisi physiologicus." The International Encyclopedia of Unified Science (Chicago 1938) is a contemporary answer to Comte's demand for a coherent synthesis of all science.

Sociology. The third important area of Comte's significance and influence is that of the social sciences or of sociology. Comte thought of himself as first and foremost a social reformer. He believed that satisfactory social organization could be achieved only after the spiritual foundationthe reorganization of all knowledge along "positive" lineshad been laid: institutions rest on morals, morals on beliefs; and once a stable and unified body of beliefs is available, social beatitude is possible. Of course, implied in Comte's notion of the hierarchy of science is the basing of social science on physical science, thus making it possible to treat social phenomena in purely physical, nonanthropomorphic language. A leading idea of positivist sociology was first given expression by Condorcet when he wrote that to an observer from another planet, physical and social phenomena would appear in the same light, "a stranger to our race, he would study human society as we study those of the beavers and bees."

Though an archenemy of anthropomorphism and the "empathetic fallacy," Comte nevertheless thought of sociology as the study of the evolution of mankind as a sort of collective organism ("the whole of the object is here certainly much better known and more immediately accessible than the constituent parts"), conceiving of humanity as a "social being," a kind of superperson. Comte and his followers thus committed what A. N. Whitehead has named "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness." Such notions are quite consistent with the historicist orientation of 19th-century Continental social thought, an orientation best known today in the works of K. marx and F. engels.

The positivist view of society as organismichumanity alone is real and the individual only an abstractionclearly has the effect of suppressing or obliterating the freedom of the individual subject to it and of sanctioning a "scientific" despotism; J. S. Mill described the resulting system as "liberticide" and as "the completest system of spiritual and temporal despotism which ever yet emanated from the human brain, unless possibly that of Ignatius Loyola." (Like his early mentor, Saint-Simon, Comte also founded a "religion" of veneration and cult of "the Great Being: Humanity," well-described by T. H. Huxley in his epigram "Catholicism without Christianity.")

It is especially in treating social phenomena that Comte's practical bent most clearly shines through: "I have a supreme aversion to scientific labors whose utility, direct or remote, I do not see." For him as for so many of the 19th-century positivists, science is the handmaid of humanity (though few went quite so far as Comte in considering sidereal astronomyby contrast with the study of the solar system, in which man livesa "grave scientific aberration" serving only to satisfy vain curiosity). For Comte and many later positivists, knowing is for the sake of foreseeing and then controlling: voir pour prévoir, prévoir pour prévenir, prévenir pour pouvoir.

Later Developments. Comte's influence on the later history of positivism was achieved in great part through his influence on Mill and a few other leading English thinkers. (The sixth book of Mill's Logic, which deals with the methodology of the moral sciences, is little more than an exposition of Comtean doctrine.) The writings and translations of George Lewes, Harriet Martineau, and George Eliot were important in making Comte known in Germany, where L. feuerbach became known as the founder of German positivism. Herbert spencer, though severely critical of Comte, attempted a not dissimilar task in attempting to formulate a law of progress and the development of a unified "synthetic" philosophy of science.

In sociology, Émile durkheim was Comte's principal disciple and, though divesting sociology of Comte's religious and politically reactionary elements, continued to emphasize the group mind as the point of reference for all human knowledge. In legal philosophy, positivism confines itself to positive law (laws actually valid at a certain time in a certain place) and strongly opposes any "higher" law. The Allgemeine Rechtslehre in Germany, analytical jurisprudence in England, H. Kelsen's "pure theory of law" (which leaves no place for an ideal of justice), and American "legal realism," though poles apart in some respects, are united in their common aversion to metaphysical theories in general and natural-law theories in particular, and so are generally known as types of legal positivism. (Legal positivism today is, however, under something of a cloud because of the ease with which a form of positivism facilitated Hitler's subversion of German law.) see positivism in jurisprudence.

An important contribution to the development of contemporary philosophy was made by the left-wing positivists, the late 19th-and early 20th-century scientist-philosophers G. R. Kirchhoff (182487), E. Mach, W. K. Clifford (184579), and K. Pearson (18571936), all of whom had a phobia of the invisible and intangible and the thrust of whose thought led, not to an acceptance of the "law of three states" but to the discarding of all statements that cannot be reduced to perceptual data. The right-wing idealist, quasi-Kantian branch of positivism flowered but briefly in the writings of F. A. Lange (182875) and Hans Vaihinger (18521933), who believed that metaphysics is arrant nonsense considered as anything but poetry, though as poetry it may have a certain beauty.

Evaluation. It is clear, as H. Feigl has remarked, that the issues that divided G. berkeley and Locke, Hume and Kant, Mach and H. von Helmholtz, phenomenalists, neorealists and critical realists, cannot be solved by positivistic fiat. Second, the positivist, like all other antimetaphysicians (with the possible exception of the early Greek skeptics) is, as F. H. bradley has remarked, a "brother metaphysician with a rival theory of first principles." The assumption is made that there are facts, each distinct from every other, that man can observe and then correlate; but when an attempt is made to say what "facts" are, various positivists give as widely differing answers (Bacon's "simple natures," Hume's "impressions," Comte's "special or general facts") as do self-confessed metaphysicians. Third, though positivism may well have served as a useful reminder against the dangers of a priori speculation and formed a useful counterbalance to the yeasty absolutisms of idealist metaphysics, its attempt to show, for example, that final causality has no valid use or meaning because it has no place in mechanics or in an intellectual system based on mechanics is an unwarranted limitation on the range of human experience. Finally, even in their chosen field of scientific methodology, the 19th-century positivists misconceived the role of hypothesis as a function of science (taking the relation between hypothesis and confirming evidence to be purely logical or analytic) and found no place for what science has no way of directly testing. This led them to condemn as meaningless many propositions later accepted as scientific truth, such as propositions about the chemical structure of the stars.

Perhaps one might accept the analogy of R. W. Sellars as a benign expression of the general impact of early positivism; this, he suggests, "might be compared to the action of a firm of scientific accountants going over the books of that ancient firm called philosophy. It has been a healthy thing for philosophy; and it may be that the accountants have also learned something."

See Also: scientism; metaphysics, validity of.

Bibliography: j. a. passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy (New York 1957). b. magnino, Storia del positivismo (Rome 1955). g. milhaud, Le Positivisme et le progrès de l'esprit (Paris 1902). f. a. von hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason (Glencoe, IL 1952). h. g. gouhier, La Jeunesse d'Auguste Comte et al formation du positivisme, 3 v. (Paris 193341). h. de lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, tr. e. m. riley (New York 1949), pt. 2. r. l. hawkins, Positivism in the United States, 18531861 (Cambridge, MA 1938). r. hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (rev. ed. New York 1959). h. feigl, "The Power of Positivistic Thinking," Proc. and Addresses of the American Philosophical Assoc. 196263, 36 (Yellow Springs, OH 1963) 2141. r. w. sellars, "Positivism in Contemporary Philosophic Thought," American Sociological Review 4 (1939) 2655. h. b. acton, "Comte's Positivism and the Science of Society," Philosophy 26 (1951) 291310.

[r. l. cunningham]


views updated May 11 2018


The concept of "positivism" was originally used to denote the scientific study of social phenomena, but today the term positivism has become vague. Most often, it is used as a pejorative smear for certain kinds of intellectual activity in the social sciences, sociology in particular. Most frequently, at least within sociology, positivism is associated with such undesirable states as "raw empiricism," "mindless quantification," "antihumanism," "legitimation of the status quo," and "scientific pretentiousness." With few exceptions (e.g., Turner 1985), sociologists are unwilling to label themselves "positivists." Yet, the titular founder of sociology—Auguste Comte—used this label as a rallying cry for developing formal and abstract theory that could still be used to remake society; so, the current use of the term does not correspond to its original meaning. If anything, the term connotes almost the exact opposite of Comte's vision (1830–1842). It is proper, therefore, to review Comte's original conception of positivism and its use in early sociology, and then we can discover how and why the meaning of positivism changed.

In Cours de philosophie positive, Comte began by asserting that "the first characteristic of Positive Philosophy is that it regards all phenomena as subject to natural Laws" (1830–1842, p. 5). Moreover, he emphasized that "research into what are called causes, whether first or final," is "in vain" (1830–1842, p. 6); and by the time he was well into Cours de philosophie positive, he stressed that a "great hindrance to the use of observation is the empiricism which is introduced into it by those who . . . would interdict the use of any theory whatever" because "no real observation of any kind of phenomena is possible, except in as far as it is first directed, and finally interpreted, by some theory" (1830–1842, p. 242). Rather, the goal of positivistic sociology is to "pursue an accurate discovery of . . . Laws, with a view to reducing them to the smallest possible number," and "our real business is to analyze accurately the circumstance of phenomena, to connote them by natural relations of succession and resemblance" (1830–1842, p. 6). Comte's exemplar for this advocacy was Newton's law of gravitation, an affirmation of his early preference to label sociology as "social physics." Moreover, such laws were to be used to reconstruct society; and while Comte went off the deep end on this point, proclaiming himself, late in his career, to be the "high priest of humanity" (Comte 1851–1854), it is difficult to see Comte's positivism as antihumanistic, as conservative, or as legitimating the status quo.

How, then, did Comte get turned on his head? The answer to this question cannot be found in nineteenth-century sociology, for the most positivistic sociologists of this period—Herbert Spencer (1874–1896) and Émile Durkheim ([1893] 1947; [1895] 1934)—could hardly be accused of "raw" and "mindless" empiricism, nor could they in the context of their times be considered antihumanistic, conservative, and apologists for the status quo (the label "conservative" for these thinkers is imposed retrospectively, through the refraction of contemporary eyeglasses). Moreover, early American sociologists—Albion Small, Frank Lester Ward, Robert Park, William Graham Sumner, and even the father of statistical methods and empiricism in American sociology, Franklin Giddings—all advocated Comtean and Spencerian positivism before World War I. Thus, the answer to this question is to be found in the natural sciences, particularly in a group of scientist-philosophers who are sometimes grouped under the rubric "the Vienna Circle," despite the fact that several intellectual generations of very different thinkers were part of this circle.

Before the "circle" was evident, the nature of the issues was anticipated by Ernst Mach (1893), who argued that the best theory employs a minimum of variables and does not speculate on unobservable processes and forces. Mach emphasized reliance on immediate sense data, rejecting all speculation about causes and mechanisms to explain observed relations among variables. Indeed, he rejected all conceptions of the universe as being regulated by "natural laws" and insisted that theory represent mathematical descriptions of relations among observable variables. Although Mach was not a member of the Vienna Circle, his ideas framed the issues for those who are more closely identified with this group. Yet, his ideas did not dictate their resolution. Many in the Vienna Circle were concerned primarily with logic and systems of formal thought, almost to the exclusion of observation (or, at least, to the point of subordinating it to their primary concerns). A split thus developed in the Vienna Circle over the relative emphasis on empirical observation and systems of logic; a radical faction emphasized that truth can be "measured solely by logical coherence of statements" (which had been reduced to mathematics), whereas a more moderate group insisted that there is a "material truth of observation" supplementing "formal truths" (Johnston 1983, p. 189). Karl Popper, who was a somewhat marginal figure in the Vienna Circle of the 1930s, is perhaps the best-known mediator of this split, for he clearly tried to keep the two points of emphasis together. But even here the reconciliation is somewhat negative (Popper 1959, 1969): A formal theory can never be proved, only disproved; and so, data are to be used to mount assaults on abstract theories from which empirical hypotheses and predictions are formally "deduced."

Why did the philosopher-scientists in the Vienna Circle have any impact on sociology, especially American sociology? In Europe, of course, sociology had always been firmly anchored in philosophy, but in American sociology during the 1920s and 1930s, the rise of quantitative sociology was accelerating as the students of Franklin Giddings assumed key positions in academia and as Comtean and Spencerian sociology became a distant memory. (It should be noted, however, that Marx, Weber, and Durkheim had yet to have much impact on American sociology in the late 1920s or early 1930s.) But American sociology was concerned with its status as science and, hence, was receptive to philosophical arguments that could legitimate its scientific aspirations (Turner and Turner 1990). Mach was appealing because his advocacy legitimated statistical analysis of empirical regularities as variables; and Popper was to win converts with his uneasy reconciliation of observation and abstract theory. Both legitimated variable analyses; and for American sociologists in the 1930s and later from the 1940s through the early 1960s, this meant sampling, scaling, statistically aggregating, and analyzing empirical "observations." Members of the Vienna circle had even developed an appealing terminology, logical positivism, to describe this relation between theory (abstract statements organized by a formal calculus) and research (quantitative data for testing hypotheses logically deduced from abstract statements). The wartime migration of key figures in the late Vienna Circle to the United States no doubt increased their impact on the social sciences in the United States (despite the fact that the "logical" part of this new label for "positivism" was redundant in Comte's original formulation). But logical positivism legitimated American empiricism in this sense: The quantitative data could be used to "test" theories, and so it was important to improve upon methods of gathering data and analyzing methodologies in order to realize this lofty goal. Along the way, the connection of theory and research was mysteriously lost, and positivism became increasingly associated with empiricism and quantification, per se.

There was a brief and highly visible effort, reaching a peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to revive the "logical" side of positivism by explaining to sociologists the process of "theory construction." Indeed, numerous texts on theory construction were produced (e.g., Zetterberg 1965; Dubin 1969; Blalock 1969; Reynolds 1971; Gibbs 1972; Hage 1972), but the somewhat mechanical, cookbook quality of these texts won few converts, and so the empiricist connotations of positivism were never successfully reconnected to abstract theory. Even the rather odd academic alliance of functional theory with quantitative sociology—for example, Merton and Lazarsfeld at Columbia and Parsons and Stouffer at Harvard—was unsuccessful in merging theory and research, once again leaving positivism to denote quantitative research divorced from theory.

Other intellectual events, anticipated by various figures of the Vienna Circle, created a new skepticism and cynicism about the capacity to develop "objective" science, especially social science. This skepticism stressed the arbitrary nature of symbols and signs and hence their capacity to represent and denote the universe independently of the context in which such signs are produced and used. Such thinking was supplemented by Kuhn's landmark work (1970) and by the sociology of science's emphasis (e.g., Whitley 1984) on the politico-organizational dynamics distorting the idealized theory-data connection as advocated by Popper (1969). Out of all this ferment, a new label increasingly began to appear: postpositivism. This label appears to mean somewhat different things to varying audiences, but it connotes that Comte's original vision and Popper's effort to sustain the connection between empirical observations and theory are things of the past—just as "rationalism" and "modernity" are giving away to "postmodernism." Thus, one hears about a "postpositivist" philosophy of science, which, despite the vagueness and diversity of usages for this label, is intended to signal the death of positivism. Curiously, this postpositivism is meant as an obituary for the older Comtean positivism or its resurrection as logical positivism by the Vienna Circle, where abstract logic and observation were more happily joined together.

The result is that the term "positivism" no longer has a clear referent, but it is evident that, for many, being a positivist is not a good thing. It is unlikely, then, that "positivism" will ever be an unambiguous and neutral term for sociological activity revolving around the formulation and testing of theory and the use of plausible theories for social engineering (or in more muted form, for "sociological practice"). Other labels are likely to be employed in light of the negative connotations of positivism in an intellectual climate dominated by "post-isms."

Despite this apparent eclipse of positivism by various post-isms, positivistic sociology remains a vibrant activity, albeit by other names. Because of the pejorative use of the label "positivism," few are willing to embrace it, but many practice positivistic sociology. What, then, are the main tenets of positivism? This question can be answered under ten general points.

First, positivism assumes that there is a "real world" that can be studied scientifically. The social world is not an illusion, or a total fabrication of sociologists' imaginations. It is there; it has properties amenable to investigation.

Second, positivism assumes that there are fundamental properties of the social universe that are always operative when people act, interact, and organize. While the properties can manifest themselves in a wide variety of forms in varying contexts, they nonetheless exist; and they are what drive the dynamics of the social universe. The goal of positivism is to uncover these fundamental properties, to see how they work, to develop theories on their operation, and to test these theories with systematically collected data.

Third, the theories developed by positivists should strive for some degree of formality. The making of formal statements need not invoke mathematics or some other system of formal argument; rather, all that is necessary is that concepts denoting processes be explicitly defined and that relations among concepts be stated clearly. These goals can be met with ordinary language, although if they can be converted into mathematics, this is seen by most positivists as useful though not absolutely necessary.

Fourth, in defining concepts formally, these definitions should denote aspects of the social universe such that what is encompassed by the concept is clear and, equally important, what is not is also explicit. In stating relations among concepts denoting fundamental properties of the social world, these relations can be stated in three basic ways. One is functional (in the mathematical sense), whereby variation in one concept is seen to be related to another (e.g., the level of differentiation in a population is a positive function of its size). A second way to state relations is through analytical models that specify the direct, indirect, and reverse causal effects among those forces of the universe that are seen as connected. A third procedure is historical in which events at earlier points in time are seen to cause directly, or in combination with other events, an outcome. A fourth, though less desirable (and at best, preliminary), procedure is to find the place of particular forces in an abstract category system that juxtaposes phenomena (e.g., the periodic table in chemistry or Parsonian four-functions analysis).

Fifth, the goal of all positivistic theories statements is parsimony. Reducing theories to their simplest form is always desired, whether this be a simple equation, an analytical model, a historical sequence of cause, or even a simple set of categories.

Sixth, at the same time that statements move toward parsimony, they should become ever more abstract and should seek to explain as large a portion of reality as is possible. The goal is always to explain as much of the social universe with as few principles and models as can do justice to the dynamics of the social world.

Seventh, all theoretical statements must be testable, at least in principle. Some statements can be tested directly with existing methodologies; others must be transformed (e.g., from deductions to hypotheses); and still others may have to wait for new methodologies or for specific classes of events to occur. The critical criterion is that theories be testable, now or in the future. They must suggest by their formulation ways of operationalization.

Eighth, theories can be tested by all relevant methods: historical, comparative, experimental, survey, observational, and even simulational. No one method identifies positivism; all are useful in assessing the plausibility of theories.

Ninth, tests must always be used to assess the plausibility of theories. When tests do not support the theory, the theory must be rejected and/or revised.

Tenth, theories that remain plausible constitute, for the time being, the best explanations of the social universe. And the more theories remain plausible, the more they are made parsimonious, and the more new theories are developed to explain what has not yet been explained, the more knowledge of the nature and operative dynamics of the social universe accumulates.


Blalock, Hubert M., Jr. 1969 Theory Construction: FromVerbal to Mathematical Formulations. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Comte, Auguste 1830–1842 Cours de philosophie positive:Les Préliminaires géneraux et la philosophie mathématique. Paris: Bachelier.

——1851–1854 Système de politique: ou, traite de sociologie,instituant la religion de l'humanite. Paris: L. Mathias.

Dubin, Robert 1969 Theory Building. New York: Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile (1895) 1934 The Rules of the SociologicalMethod. New York: Free Press.

——(1893) 1947 The Division of Labor in Society. New York: Free Press.

Gibbs, Jack 1972 Sociological Theory Construction. Hinsdale, Ill.: Dryden Press.

Hage, Jerald 1972 Techniques and Problems of TheoryConstruction in Sociology. New York: John Wiley.

Johnston, William M. 1983 The Austrian Mind: An Intellectual and Social History 1848–1938. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kuhn, Thomas 1970 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mach, Ernst 1893 The Science of Mechanics, trans. T. J. McCormack. La Salle, Ill: Open Court.

Popper, Karl 1969 Conjectures and Refutations. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

——1959 The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London: Hutchinson.

Reynolds, Paul Davidson 1971 A Primer in Theory Construction. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Spencer, Herbert 1874–1896 The Principles of Sociology, 3 vols. New York: Appleton.

Turner, Jonathan H. 1985 "In Defense of Positivism." Sociological Theory 3:24–30.

Turner, Stephen Park, and Jonathan H. Turner 1990 The Impossible Science: An Institutional Analysis of American Sociology. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage.

Whitley, Richard 1984 The Intellectual and Social Organization of the Sciences. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Zetterberg, Hans L. 1965 On Theory and Verification inSociology, 3rd ed. New York: Bedminster Press.

Jonathan H. Turner


views updated May 21 2018


POSITIVISM, an empiricist philosophy that emerged in early nineteenth-century Europe, and whose chief exponent was Auguste Comte, the French philosopher of science. Once the secretary of utopian socialist Claude Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), Comte articulated his own grand system in a series of lectures subsequently published as the Cours de philosophie positive (1830–1842). Extending the insights of Francis Bacon, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and others, this philosophical tour de force laid out the component parts of positivism: an empiricist epistemology, an inductive method, a hierarchical classification of the sciences, and an elaborate philosophy of history. Like other empiricists, Comte restricted knowledge to data gained only through sensory perception and rejected any consideration of first or ultimate causes. In the "law of the three stages," Comte claimed to have discovered the law of historical development that revealed human society progressing from the primitive theological stage (where deities were invoked to explain natural phenomenon), to the philosophical stage (where reified ideas were employed in causal explanation), to, ultimately, the thoroughly empirical positive stage. Comte's hierarchy of the sciences built upon this "science of history"; he believed that each field of study had attained the positive level at a different time. Comte ranked mathematics first (as the most general and independent), then astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and, finally, sociology, the "queen of the sciences." The latter, truly a science of society, was the last to attain the positive method.

Because he held that the social instability of nineteenth-century Europe was rooted in intellectual chaos, Comte developed a detailed social blueprint founded upon his empiricist philosophy in the Système de politique positive (1851–1854). Comte's so-called "second system" included an institutionalized religion of humanity headed by a priestly scientific class. He believed that worship was an essential part of human nature but that religion had been mistakenly based on theology, rather than on positive science. Accordingly, Comte identified a host of secular scientific saints in his church's calendar and offered himself as the first "Supreme Pontiff of Humanity."

European Followers and Critics

Comparatively few European intellectuals embraced all of Comte's controversial social and religious ideas. Yet, by the 1870s, some sort of positivism was accepted by a broad spectrum of thoroughly naturalistic thinkers. At one pole stood Comte's few orthodox disciples such as Pierre La-fitte and (in England) Richard Congreve. Nearer the center of the spectrum were those who broke with the official cult but who shared many of Comte's social and political concerns and who believed that the empiricist epistemology and philosophy of history did have social ramifications. One could include in this group G. H. Lewes (and his wife, the author George Eliot) and Frederic Harrison. Finally, there emerged a more generic school of positivists at the other end of the spectrum who, like John Stuart Mill, had been profoundly influenced by the theory and method of the Cours but were repelled by the Système, which Mill dismissed as despotic. Another generic positivist, T. H. Huxley, who combined positivist empiricism with evolutionary theory, aptly characterized Comte's religion of humanity as "Catholicism without Christianity." Still, even these critics shared Comte's thoroughly naturalistic assumptions and his hostility to theology, and, like Comte, they attempted to employ a strict empiricism in their methodology.

American Positivists

All three of these points along the positivist spectrum had representatives in Gilded Age America, although historians have often ignored the first two groups. English émigré Henry Edger embraced orthodox positivism in 1854 and corresponded with Comte, who soon appointed Edger "Apostle to America." Edger settled in a small perfectionist commune on Long Island known as Modern Times. From there, he sought converts in neighboring New York City. A tiny clique of sectarian Comtists coalesced around the New York World editor David G. Croly in 1868, but it soon broke away from Edger and official Comtism and fractured further as the years passed.

Arguably, the major American thinker most influenced by Comte's Cours and some of the French philosopher's social ideals was Lester Frank Ward (1841–1913). Indebted to the political principles of the American Whigs, Ward used Comte's ideas to articulate the first naturalistic critique of William Graham Sumner's political economy. Drawing upon Comte's interventionism, Ward stressed that the mind was a key "social factor" that laissez-faire systems—like that proposed by Sumner—had overlooked or misunderstood. Social science, properly applied, could enable humanity to control the human environment and thereby ensure social progress; it was neither unnatural nor unscientific for the state to intervene in the private economy.

The other American advocates of a more generic positivism during the late nineteenth century included John William Draper, Chauncey Wright, and Henry Adams. Draper, president of the medical faculty at New York University and a popular author, read Comte in 1856 and adopted a modified form of Comte's "law of the three stages" in his work; he had even visited Croly's New York group during the 1860s. Wright, a philosopher of science and a mathematician, was one of Mill's most important American followers; he rejected any sort of metaphysical argument and attacked Herbert Spencer as not being an authentic positivist in terms of method. Adams encountered Comte by reading Mill's influential essay Auguste Comte and Positivism. He wrote in his autobiographical Education that by the late 1860s, he had decided to become "a Comteist [sic], within the limits of evolution" (p. 926).

By the 1890s, grand theorists such as Comte and Spencer and their monistic systems were decidedly out of favor both in the emerging social science disciplines and in academic philosophy. "At the end of the nineteenth century," notes Maurice Mandelbaum, "the earlier systematic form of positivism had to all intents and purposes lost its hold upon the major streams of thought. What had once seemed to be the philosophic import of the physical sciences no longer carried the same conviction" (Mandelbaum, p. 19). Although Ward finally obtained an academic appointment at Brown University in 1906, his approach had by then begun to look decidedly outmoded. Other, younger pioneering sociologists such as Albion Small at the University of Chicago and Edward A. Ross, first at Stanford and then at Wisconsin, moved away from a reductionistic explanatory method. Yet their meliorism and interest in social control also evidenced their early reading of Ward and, indirectly, the impact of Comtean assumptions. In the final pages of Social Control (1901), Ross portrayed the sociologist as a sort of priestly technocrat who would carefully guard the secret of social control but would "address himself to those who administer the moral capital of society—to teachers, clergymen, editors, lawmakers, and judges, who wield the instruments of control" (p. 441). The historian Robert Bannister describes American sociology growing into two distinct types of scientism in the early twentieth century and explains this development as a bifurcation of "the legacy of Comtean positivism: the one [branch] adopting the emphasis on quantification as the route to positive knowledge, and the other, Comte's utopian program without the mumbo jumbo of the Religion of Humanity" (Bannister, p. 6).

Meanwhile, Charles S. Peirce and William James in philosophy softened positivism's harsh rejection of religious experience by the close of the nineteenth century. They both recognized the limitations of science in a way that some of their critics feared would open the door to metaphysics. James poked fun at the "block universe" of Spencer and, by implication, at the pretensions of all-inclusive systems. James and John Dewey were both influenced by the neo-Kantian revival in philosophy and came to stress the dynamic organizing function of the mind. Pragmatism may have been influenced by positivism but much of its approach diverged from Comte's assumptions.

On a more popular level, the journalist Herbert Croly, son of orthodox positivist David Croly, blended German idealism and a Comtean concern for social order and coordinated social progress. In Promise of American Life (1909), Croly called upon Americans to leave behind the provincial negative-state liberalism of the Jeffersonian tradition and embrace a more coherent national life. As Croly biographer David Levy has shown, Croly's organicist understanding of society owed much to his father's positivism. In a 1918 article supporting the establishment of a school of social research (which later became the New School), Croly referred to Ward and explained in Comtean terms that "the work of understanding social processes is entangled inextricably with the effort to modify them" (Croly, quoted by Harp, p. 201).

A New Variant

By the 1920s a new stream, styling itself logical positivism, emerged in Vienna. It represented a more radical sort of empiricism that stressed the principle of verification. Logical positivists dismissed arguments as metaphysical unless they could be verified on the basis of convention or with reference to empirical phenomenon. They called upon philosophy to be as precise a discipline as mathematics. In 1935, Rudolf Carnap came to the United States from Europe and joined the University of Chicago the following year, thereby becoming one of the key American proponents of this variety of positivism, especially after World War II. Aspects of this movement proved to have a long-lasting impact upon American academia in general.

Positivism shaped the intellectual discourse of the late nineteenth century. Combined with Darwinism, it contributed significantly to the secularization of Anglo-American thought, to the undermining of classical political economy, and to bolstering the cultural authority of science. While varieties of philosophical idealism weakened its appeal by the end of the nineteenth century, it continued to influence the methodology of philosophy and of the social sciences well into the post–World War II era. In particular, its hostility to metaphysics marked American philosophy and social science until the end of the twentieth century.


Adams, Henry. Writings of Henry Adams. New York: Norton, 1986.

Bannister, Robert C. Sociology and Scientism: The American Quest for Objectivity, 1880–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

Cashdollar, Charles D. The Transformation of Theology, 1830– 1890: Positivism and Protestant Thought in Britain and America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Harp, Gillis J. Positivist Republic: Auguste Comte and the Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865–1920. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.

Hawkins, Richmond L. Auguste Comte and the United States, 1816–1853. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936.

———. Positivism in the United States, 1853–1861. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938.

Kent, Christopher. Brains and Numbers: Elitism, Comtism, and Democracy in Mid-Victorian England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978.

Levy, David W. Herbert Croly of the New Republic: The Life and Thought of an American Progressive. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Mandelbaum, Maurice. History, Man, and Reason: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Thought. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.

Ross, Dorothy R. The Origins of American Social Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Schneider, Robert Edward. Positivism in the United States: The Apostleship of Henry Edger. Rosario, Argentina, 1946.

Gillis J.Harp

See alsoEconomics ; Philosophy ; Pragmatism ; Science and Religion, Relations of ; Sociology .


views updated May 18 2018


The fundamental axiom of positivism, the system of thought founded by Auguste Comte (1798–1857), is that everything, not only the natural world but also human morality and religion, should be ordered on the basis of science. The word positive (positif in French), deriving from the Latin ponere (to put or place) had been used in the sense of "relating to fact" from the sixteenth century and in opposition to "metaphysical" from the eighteenth century, when the encyclopedists had first begun attempting to synthesize human knowledge. Comte stands very much in the tradition of Denis Diderot (1713–1784) and his colleagues, attempting to ground political and social thought on the same rational basis as the natural sciences.

Another synonym for positive, in Comt's view, was relative, the Kantean belief that one can know nothing about things in themselves but only the relations between them. Positivism accordingly abandons the search for causes in favor of the laws of relation. All human conceptions, according to Comt's law of the three stages, pass from the theological through the metaphysical to the positive stage; from being seen as the result of super-natural agencies or abstract essences they are finally regarded as related to each other by fixed and invariable laws. This had long been recognized in the physical sciences; what was new in Comte was the attempt to devise a science of society, a social statics or order based on social dynamics or history. Comte attempted to give system and scientific rigor to the widespread contemporary confidence in a grand narrative of human progress.

Many of Comt's contemporaries were happy enough with his synthesis of the sciences, the Cours de philosophie positive, which appeared in six volumes from 1830 to 1842, but were less happy with the dictatorial tendencies that became all too evident in the second of his major works, the Système de politique positive (published from 1851 to 1854), setting out the details of his religion of humanity, on the basis of which society should be ordered. There is a continuing debate over the continuity between the two "halves" of Comt's career. There can be no doubt that Comte always intended positivism to provide a complete explanation of all phenomena, including the human sciences. The problem, at least for Comt's followers, was the detail with which Comte spelled out the way in which he believed society should be ordered.

Comte came to see the religion of humanity as the natural successor to Christianity. Much of his work is devoted to analyzing the merits and defects of Catholicism, which had provided the Middle Ages with a set of beliefs on which to base human morality. Those beliefs had gradually been eroded, however, by the Western Revolution, firstly under Protestantism and then under deism. Now, according to Comte, it was necessary to devise a new synthesis of knowledge on which to base human behavior, thus avoiding the anarchy and disorder that had been the result of the French Revolution (year one of the positivist calendar began in 1789). Positive morality was erected on the basis of the contemporary "science" of phrenology and faculty psychology, advocating the gradual strengthening of the altruistic instincts at the expense of the egoistic, a process involving an elaborate system of prayer and meditation based on "real" angels of the house (mothers, wives, and daughters).

Comt's French followers, historians of science such as Pierre Laffitte and Maximilien-Paul-Émile Littre, author of the famous dictionary of medicine, tended to play down the later Comt's attempted reconstruction of religion. Pioneering sociologists such as Émile Durkheim also drew more on the early work, helping to establish the new discipline of sociology on a genuinely scientific basis. This was also the case with Comt's most famous English disciple, John Stuart Mill, whose System of Logic (1843) culminated in the "Logic of the Moral Sciences." Mill advocated new sciences of the mind (psychology), of morals (ethology), and of society (sociology). In Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865) he distinguished clearly between the acceptable Comte of the Cours and the unaccep-table high priest of humanity of the later work. His posthumously published Three Essays on Religion (1874), however, was surprisingly sympathetic toward the general aim of reorganizing religion on a humanist basis.

The most enthusiastic popularizer of Comt's philosophy of the sciences was George Henry Lewes, George Eliot's partner, whose widely read Biographical History of Philosophy, first published in 1845–1846, went through several editions, the third and fourth (1867 and 1871) displaying his continuing faith in their revised title, The History of Philosophy from Thales to Comte. Other prominent positivists, much read in their own time but now largely forgotten, included Frederic Harrison and Edward Spencer Beesly, professor of history at University College London from 1860 to 1893. Both were actively involved in the development of working men's colleges and in the legitimization of the trade unions in the 1860s and 1870s. They saw to it that positivism was much discussed by politicians, historians, and theologians as well as by scientists in mid-to-late Victorian Britain. The official Positivist Society remained small in numbers, but everybody who was anybody in the world of late-Victorian Britain had to have a position on positivism as a general philosophy. Novelists such as George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, George Gissing (tutor to Harrison's children), and Mrs. Humphry Ward (Mary Augusta Ward) studied Comte carefully and developed their own views in relation to his.

Positivism made a particularly powerful impact in Latin America where intellectual elites considered it a tool for emancipating their nations from the economic backwardness, political and moral anarchy, and pre-scientific culture for which they blamed their former colonial powers. Under Julio de Castilhos, the first republican governor of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, positivism continued to guide state- and nation-building in Brazil over most of the twentieth century. The country's republican flag, with its motto of "order and progress," was reconfirmed after each regime change, and Brazil remains the only country worldwide that still has a positivist church.

The lasting legacy of positivism should probably be seen as the foundation of the new academic disciplines of sociology and the history of science. The logical positivists of the 1930s owed little to Comte, merely sharing his dislike of metaphysics. Modern humanism, attempting to gain recognition of the legitimacy of a lifestyle based entirely on human values, sees Comte himself as an embarrassment. His reputation has certainly not been enhanced by biographical studies focusing on his supposed madness and eccentricity. He can claim nevertheless to have articulated many of the basic assumptions of his time, albeit in an idiosyncratic and ultimately unacceptable manner.

See alsoComte, Auguste; Science and Technology; Secularization; Sociology.


Chadwick, Owen. The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1975.

Hentschke, Jens R. Positivism gaúcho-Style: Julio de Castilhos's Dictatorship and Its Impact on State and Nation-Building in Vargas's Brazil. Berlin, 2004.

Kolakowski, Leszek. Positivist Philosophy from Hume to the Vienna Circle. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1972.

Simon, Walter Michael. European Positivism in the Nineteenth Century: An Essay in Intellectual History. Ithaca, N.Y., 1963.

Wright, Terence R. The Religion of Humanity: The Impact of Comtean Positivism on Victorian Britain. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1986.

T. R. Wright


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Positivism is a philosophy developed in France by Auguste Comte (1798–1857), who set out his views in the sixvolume Cours de philosophie positive (1830–1842). Comte identified three stages of human thought: (1) the theological, (2) the metaphysical, and (3) the positive, this last being the culminating stage, when reliance on supernatural and abstract entities is replaced by empirical, scientific explanation. In his classification of the sciences, Comte placed sociology in a supreme position (modern sociologists do in fact regard him as one of the great pioneers in their field), whereas in his study of "social dynamics" he sought to analyze the conditions of progress. Reason, order, and progress were key terms in the Comtean lexicon. Later on, Comte tried to ground his theories in a paradoxical "religion of humanity," with ceremonies reminiscent of those of Catholicism. In Europe one of the writers most strongly influenced by positivism was Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), who combined it with insights drawn from Darwinian evolutionism.

In Latin America positivist influence was at its height in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It was a major intellectual trend in the region, best seen in the context of the attempts made from the 1870s onward to modernize and rationalize the Latin American states, at precisely the moment when the region was being drawn more closely into the international division of labor that was a feature of the burgeoning world capitalist economy. Positivist ideas (not least their emphasis on order, science, and progress) proved attractive to several generations of Latin American intellectuals, who were eager to overcome the still tenacious social legacy of the colonial period and to stimulate the kind of progress they perceived as taking place in western Europe and North America. Several countries are clearly associated with the impact of positivism. In each, however, the results were somewhat different.

In Brazil, given the persistence of monarchy, positivism took a distinctively republican slant, and positivists were in the forefront of the movement to overthrow the Empire in 1889. Miguel Lemos (1854–1917) and Raimundo Teixeira Mendes (1855–1927) developed Comte's "religious" tendency and founded a Positivist Church in Rio (1881). Another major focus of positivist teaching was the Military School of Rio de Janeiro. Benjamin Constant Botelho de Magalhães (1836–1891), one of the school's instructors, made aggressive contributions to politicizing Brazilian positivism.

In Mexico the chief agent of positivism was Gabino Barreda, educational reformer of the Benito Juárez period and director of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (1867). Barreda left as his legacy the group of advisers to Porfirio Díaz known (after 1892) as the "científicos." This group advanced an interpretation of positivism that was both elitist and informed by concerns with race. Members included Justo Sierra (1848–1912), Francisco Bulnes (1847–1924), and José Yves Limantour (1854–1935).

In Argentina, positivism was compatible with the highly influential thought of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811–1888). Comte's ideas provided him with new tools for developing the more subtle racialist contents of his early work. His book Conflicto y armonías de las razas en América (1883; Conflict and harmonies of races in the Americas) was defined by Sarmiento himself as a scientific and well-documented rewriting of his "too literary" masterpiece Facundo (1845). The "whitening" of Argentina also factored as a major concern for positivists such as Carlos Octavio Bunge (1875–1918) and José Ingenieros (1877–1925).

In Chile intellectuals developed two positivist currents. One, a strongly "religious" faction, was led by the Lagarrigue brothers, Juan (1852–1927), Jorge (1854–1894), and Luis (1864–1949). A second, more heterodox faction, advanced predominantly democratic readings of Comte, such as those of José Victorino Lastarria (1817–1888). Valentín Letelier (1852–1919), another heterodox, was a member of the Radical Party and rector of the University of Chile.

Latin American positivism was flexible in its appeal. The Puerto Rican pedagogue and sociologist Eugenio María de Hostos (1839–1903) used it to fight for a full decolonization of the Hispanic Caribbean, whereas Peruvian writers such as Manuel González Prada (1848–1918) and Mercedes Cabello de Carbonera (1845–1909) used it to criticize ethnic and/or gender discrimination. Conversely, the Venezuelan sociologist Laureano Vallenilla Lanz (1870–1936) described dictatorship as an unavoidable consequence of Latin America's history and ethnic makeup, and the Bolivian writer Alcides Arguedas (1879–1946) asserted in Pueblo enfermo (1909; A sick people) that native cultures and interracial breeding posed overwhelming obstacles for progress. Although the label becomes less useful after about 1920, traces of "positivist" thought can be found in a number of twentieth-century literary, philosophical, and political movements.

See alsoBulnes, Francisco; Bunge, Carlos Octavio; González Prada, Manuel; Ingenieros, José; Limantour, José Yves; Philosophy: Overview.


Hale, Charles A. The Transformation of Liberalism in Late Nineteenth-Century Mexico. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Martí, Oscar. The Revolt against Positivism in Latin America. Ph.D. diss., City University of New York, 1978.

Mead, Karen. "Gendering the Obstacles to Progress in Positivist Argentina, 1880–1920." Hispanic American Historical Review 77, no. 4 (1997): 645-675.

Woodward, Ralph L., ed. Positivism in Latin America, 1850–1900. Lexington, MA: Heath, 1971.

Zea, Leopoldo. Positivism in Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1974.

Zea, Leopoldo, ed. Pensamiento positivista latinoamericano, 2 vols. Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1980.

                                           Simon Collier

                                           Miguel Gomes