positivism

The acknowledged founder of positivism or ‘the positive philosophy’ was the French philosopher and social scientist Auguste Comte (1798-1857). Comte is also accredited with the invention of the term ‘sociology’ to describe his proposed science of society.
Positivism is, above all, a philosophy of science. As such, it stands squarely within the empiricist tradition. Metaphysical speculation is rejected in favour of ‘positive’ knowledge based on systematic observation and experiment. The methods of science can give us knowledge of the laws of coexistence and succession of phenomena, but can never penetrate to the inner ‘essences’ or ‘natures’ of things. As applied to the human social world, the positive method yields a law of successive states through which each branch of knowledge must pass: first theological, then metaphysical, and finally positive (or scientific). Since the character of society flows from the intellectual forms which predominate in it, this gives Comte a law of the development of human society itself. The phase of anarchy and revolution through which France had recently passed resulted from intellectual anarchy. Irresolvable disputes on metaphysical questions such as the Divine Right and the sovereignty of the people must now give way to a positive science of society. Well-grounded knowledge would form the basis of consensus, and could also be applied to remove the causes of disorder, just as natural-scientific knowledge had been applied in the taming of nature.
Comte's work was much admired by John Stuart Mill , amongst others, and positivism became something of a popular movement in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Comte's views shifted later in his life, under the influence of Clotilde de Vaux. He came to see that science alone did not have the binding-force for social cohesion, as he had earlier supposed. He argued that the intellect must become the servant of the heart, and advocated a new ‘Religion of Humanity’.
However, Comte's wider and continuing influence in social science derives almost exclusively from his earlier writings. Today, positivism signifies adherence to an empiricist view of the nature of science, and the project of a scientific approach to the study of social life on the empiricist model. In the case of the social sciences, this is most commonly taken to mean a modelling of the methods of social science on those of natural science; the attempt to discover social laws analogous to the law-like regularities discovered by natural sciences; and an absolute insistence on the separation of facts and values. The close link between the empirical knowledge generated by these methods, and questions of political or industrial policy, is also very much in line with Comtean social engineering.
Criticisms of positivism commonly focus on the inappropriateness of natural-scientific methods in the human or social sciences. Consciousness, cultural norms, symbolic meaning , and intentionality are variously held to be distinctive human attributes which dictate a methodological gulf between natural science and the study of human social life. However, following the work of Thomas S. Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and others, it has also become common to reject the empiricist account of the natural sciences. Since the positivist proposal for a unified science of nature and society is premissed upon empiricism, these questions have to be considered afresh, on the basis of alternative views of the nature of science.
The term positivism (more usually ‘logical positivism’) is also used to refer to the radical empiricism and scientism advanced in the early decades of the twentieth century by the Vienna Circle . This is usually considered to be the major influence on modern, twentieth-century sociological positivism, via the philosophy of the social sciences advanced by such theorists as Ernest Nagel (The Structure of Science, 1961) and Carl G. Hempel (The Philosophy of Natural Science, 1966), and as exemplified in the work of Paul Lazarsfeld . A qualified defence of positivism, which specifically takes issue with much (misguided) sociological criticism, is mounted in’s ‘Is Positivism Dead?’, Sociological Review (1980).
In an innovative article on’Seven Types of Ambiguity’ (Theory and Society, 1997), which claims to offer a ‘positivist’ analysis of' a phenomenon normally assumed to forbid the possibility of positivism: the multiple and seemingly incommensurable meanings assigned to human events' (that is, ‘ambiguity’), Andrew Abbott starts from the controversial premiss that there are two basic problems with the established philosophical critique of positivism. These are that, ‘first, even though positivist social science has been shown to be in principle impossible, the vast majority of social-science effort (and funding) is in fact spent doing it’. In Abbott's view, it is foolish to ignore this research, because it is intellectually and politically consequential. Second, ‘proclamations against positivism often mask an arbitrary unwillingness to think formally about the social world. One asserts that the world is constructed of ambiguous networks of meaning, argues for the complexity of interpretations and representations, and then simply assumes that formal discussion of the ensuing complexity is impossible.’ Abbott argues this is untrue, and attempts to show how a formal analysis of typical positivist research reveals it to be a source of untapped information about those multiple meanings, revealing so-called positivism to be ‘a complex and subtle terrain’.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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