Positivism refers to a philosophical movement that served as the foundation for an intellectual movement in the powerful Western countries; it helped to construct modernity in the late 19th and early 20th century in Europe and North America.
Positivists sought to integrate the scientific method into philosophy to make philosophy objective and to make social reality more predicted, and they also wanted to remove the metaphysical aspect from philosophy. Works of positivism can be related to British philosophers and theorists like Francis Bacon, John Locke, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.
The industrial revolution of the 18th century is considered as the cultural background of positivism in Europe, considering technology and science that has brought social progress and advancement of human society. French scholar Claude-Henri Saint Simon (1760-1825) implied a scientific approach to understand social affairs and it was followed by Auguste Comte (1798-1857) (considered as the father of sociology) that popularized positivism by applying scientific methods to the social world.
This article gives a general perspective of positivism theory and Comte’s view on positivism.
At the time of the French revolution, Saint-Simon proposed positive reorganization of society controlled by the head of industries; with the objective of this society shall produce a thing that is useful for life in terms of universal association and under new social order, the men of science shall provide spiritual guidance to the society rather than religion.
As per positivism, knowledge derived from the scientific method of inquiry or practice of attaining the actual knowledge is related to positivism, relating to beyond the possibility of any doubt or dispute. This stands for absolute and dependable knowledge based on an actual sense of experience and its empirical collections.
This knowledge is deriving from an affirmation of theories through purely ‘scientific method’. This is related to the philosophy of science that teaches the interpretation of the world is dependent on the human experience that emphasises the use of a scientific method of use of natural sciences to the study of the social world. The article highlights the principles of this theory of positivism.
Positivism in Social Science
It is concerned with the use of the scientific method by natural scientists to study human behaviour. This theory brought a revolution in the field of social science that blended faith in progress based on the idea of a scientific explanation of history that would provide the path to resolve every problem of society.
It is believed that the actual knowledge comes from fact or factual. Considering science is the legitimate source of knowledge and based on fact. The objective of this philosophy is to discover the universal principles shared by all sciences and the use of these principles are foundation guidelines for understanding human behaviour and the foundation of the social order.
This rejects intuition, theological and metaphysical knowledge and prior reasoning. It is used to reject the principles based on emotions and speculations before the French revolution by the practical questions to understand how things are in reality. Positivism is not related to the supernatural but concern with real-world and natural laws that govern the universe. Scientific knowledge is based on direct observation as per positivism.
Comte’s Stages of Mankind History: “Law of Human Progress”
The philosopher brought the term ‘altruism’, stating the people to live for the sake of others; and his goal was to create a science of society, by explaining human development and future guidelines of humankind. The philosopher believes in method of natural science should be implied in social sciences to gain empirical knowledge, these method includes observation, experimentation, comparison and the historical method, as a method of inquiry.
Comte believed mankind history evolved through a progressive three-stage path, first is primitive societies or theological stage (19th century France preceding the enlightenment/generally considered before 13 century) that is related to religious terms like idols, gods and spirits. Under this stage, people believe that all-natural occurrences are the work of the divine or supernatural, as mankind is not able to identify the natural physical causes, thus they ascribed them to the divine or supernatural force.
The second stage is termed as metaphysical phase (before the French Revolution/generally considered from 13 to 18th century) that is a further development of the theological stage, where God is regarded as an abstract entity/notion and the events of the world are guided and determined by abstract power or force. Natural forces were not imagined as superhuman forces. At this stage, one rejects faith in concrete God. This stage is supposed to be the stage of adolescence of a human being.
The third stage refers to the positive stage (after the eighteenth century) of the scientific or technological stage, based on scientific explanation based on observation, experimentation and comparing through mathematical techniques and statistics. This is based on a rational way to observe the world and its objective was to find solutions to social problems.
This stage is considered a stage of maturity of knowledge of mankind. Comte believed in the scientific empirical and inductive process of the natural sciences. It is believed that this three-stage of law is applied to all societies around the world and transition from one phase to another goes through crisis rather than progress.
Comte believed that natural laws govern society and human history. He stated that historians should discover these natural laws that regulate changes in societies. These laws help to predict human society’s future development. He thought about an ideal society where positivism and sociology are considered supreme based on the rule of reason. Positivism generally relates to ‘Naturalism (influence of external environment on actions), inductivism (supremacy of facts) and empiricism (observable)’.
Some scholars raised the weakness of Comte’s work as his thinking was based on his own life experiences and away from reality; he was also disconnected from other intellectuals. Other criticised scientific explanations do not reach the inner nature of phenomena, so the humanistic knowledge gives an insight into thoughts and feelings, and it is also criticised for being different from historical studies.
Author: Dr Sakul Kundra, A.HOD Department of Social Science, College of Humanities and Education, Fiji National University.