Positivism is an empiricist philosophical theory that holds that all genuine knowledge is either true by definition or positive—meaning a posteriori facts derived by reason and logic from sensory experience. Other ways of knowing, such as theology, metaphysics, intuition, or introspection, are rejected or considered meaningless.
Although the positivist approach has been a recurrent theme in the history of western thought, modern positivism was first articulated in the early 19th century by Auguste Comte. His school of sociological positivism holds that society, like the physical world, operates according to general laws. After Comte, positivist schools arose in logic, psychology, economics, historiography, and other fields of thought. Generally, positivists attempted to introduce scientific methods to their respective fields. Since the turn of the 20th century, positivism has declined under criticism from antipositivists and critical theorists, among others, for its alleged scientism, reductionism, overgeneralizations, and methodological limitations.
The English noun positivism was re-imported in the 19th century from the French word positivisme, derived from positif in its philosophical sense of 'imposed on the mind by experience'. The corresponding adjective (Latin: positīvus) has been used in a similar sense to discuss law (positive law compared to natural law) since the time of Chaucer.
Kieran Egan argues that positivism can be traced to the philosophy side of what Plato described as the quarrel between philosophy and poetry, later reformulated by Wilhelm Dilthey as a quarrel between the natural sciences (German: Naturwissenschaften) and the humanities (Geisteswissenschaft).
In the early nineteenth century, massive advances in the natural sciences encouraged philosophers to apply scientific methods to other fields. Thinkers such as Henri de Saint-Simon, Pierre-Simon Laplace and Auguste Comte believed the scientific method, the circular dependence of theory and observation, must replace metaphysics in the history of thought.
Main article: Logical positivism
Logical positivism (later and more accurately called logical empiricism) is a school of philosophy that combines empiricism, the idea that observational evidence is indispensable for knowledge of the world, with a version of rationalism, the idea that our knowledge includes a component that is not derived from observation.
Logical positivism grew from the discussions of a group called the "First Vienna Circle", which gathered at the Café Central before World War I. After the war Hans Hahn, a member of that early group, helped bring Moritz Schlick to Vienna. Schlick's Vienna Circle, along with Hans Reichenbach's Berlin Circle, propagated the new doctrines more widely in the 1920s and early 1930s.
It was Otto Neurath's advocacy that made the movement self-conscious and more widely known. A 1929 pamphlet written by Neurath, Hahn, and Rudolf Carnap summarized the doctrines of the Vienna Circle at that time. These included the opposition to all metaphysics, especially ontology and synthetic a priori propositions; the rejection of metaphysics not as wrong but as meaningless (i.e., not empirically verifiable); a criterion of meaning based on Ludwig Wittgenstein's early work (which he himself later set out to refute); the idea that all knowledge should be codifiable in a single standard language of science; and above all the project of "rational reconstruction," in which ordinary-language concepts were gradually to be replaced by more precise equivalents in that standard language. However, the project is widely considered to have failed.
After moving to the United States, Carnap proposed a replacement for the earlier doctrines in his Logical Syntax of Language. This change of direction, and the somewhat differing beliefs of Reichenbach and others, led to a consensus that the English name for the shared doctrinal platform, in its American exile from the late 1930s, should be "logical empiricism." While the logical positivist movement is now considered dead, it has continued to influence philosophical development.
Historically, positivism has been criticized for its reductionism, i.e., for contending that all "processes are reducible to physiological, physical or chemical events," "social processes are reducible to relationships between and actions of individuals," and that "biological organisms are reducible to physical systems."
The consideration that laws in physics may not be absolute but relative, and, if so, this might be even more true of social sciences, was stated, in different terms, by G. B. Vico in 1725. Vico, in contrast to the positivist movement, asserted the superiority of the science of the human mind (the humanities, in other words), on the grounds that natural sciences tell us nothing about the inward aspects of things.
Wilhelm Dilthey fought strenuously against the assumption that only explanations derived from science are valid. He reprised Vico's argument that scientific explanations do not reach the inner nature of phenomena and it is humanistic knowledge that gives us insight into thoughts, feelings and desires. Dilthey was in part influenced by the historicism of Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886).
The contestation over positivism is reflected both in older debates (see the Positivism dispute) and current ones over the proper role of science in the public sphere. Public sociology—especially as described by Michael Burawoy—argues that sociologists should use empirical evidence to display the problems of society so they might be changed.
Main article: Antipositivism
At the turn of the 20th century, the first wave of German sociologists formally introduced methodological antipositivism, proposing that research should concentrate on human cultural norms, values, symbols, and social processes viewed from a subjective perspective. Max Weber, one such thinker, argued that while sociology may be loosely described as a 'science' because it is able to identify causal relationships (especially among ideal types), sociologists should seek relationships that are not as "ahistorical, invariant, or generalizable" as those pursued by natural scientists. Weber regarded sociology as the study of social action, using critical analysis and verstehen techniques. The sociologists Georg Simmel, Ferdinand Tönnies, George Herbert Mead, and Charles Cooley were also influential in the development of sociological antipositivism, whilst neo-Kantian philosophy, hermeneutics, and phenomenology facilitated the movement in general.
Main articles: Postpositivism and Critical rationalism
In the mid-twentieth century, several important philosophers and philosophers of science began to critique the foundations of logical positivism. In his 1934 work The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Karl Popper argued against verificationism. A statement such as "all swans are white" cannot actually be empirically verified, because it is impossible to know empirically whether all swans have been observed. Instead, Popper argued that at best an observation can falsify a statement (for example, observing a black swan would prove that not all swans are white). Popper also held that scientific theories talk about how the world really is (not about phenomena or observations experienced by scientists), and critiqued the Vienna Circle in his Conjectures and Refutations. W. V. O. Quine and Pierre Duhem went even further. The Duhem–Quine thesis states that it is impossible to experimentally test a scientific hypothesis in isolation, because an empirical test of the hypothesis requires one or more background assumptions (also called auxiliary assumptions or auxiliary hypotheses); thus, unambiguous scientific falsifications are also impossible. Thomas Kuhn, in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, put forward his theory of paradigm shifts. He argued that it is not simply individual theories but whole worldviews that must occasionally shift in response to evidence.
Together, these ideas led to the development of critical rationalism and postpositivism. Postpositivism is not a rejection of the scientific method, but rather a reformation of positivism to meet these critiques. It reintroduces the basic assumptions of positivism: the possibility and desirability of objective truth, and the use of experimental methodology. Postpositivism of this type is described in social science guides to research methods. Postpositivists argue that theories, hypotheses, background knowledge and values of the researcher can influence what is observed. Postpositivists pursue objectivity by recognizing the possible effects of biases. While positivists emphasize quantitative methods, postpositivists consider both quantitative and qualitative methods to be valid approaches.
In the early 1960s, the positivism dispute arose between the critical theorists (see below) and the critical rationalists over the correct solution to the value judgment dispute (Werturteilsstreit). While both sides accepted that sociology cannot avoid a value judgement that inevitably influences subsequent conclusions, the critical theorists accused the critical rationalists of being positivists; specifically, of asserting that empirical questions can be severed from their metaphysical heritage and refusing to ask questions that cannot be answered with scientific methods. This contributed to what Karl Popper termed the "Popper Legend", a misconception among critics and admirers of Popper that he was, or identified himself as, a positivist.
Main article: Critical Theory
Although Karl Marx's theory of historical materialism drew upon positivism, the Marxist tradition would also go on to influence the development of antipositivist critical theory. Critical theorist Jürgen Habermas critiqued pure instrumental rationality (in its relation to the cultural "rationalisation" of the modern West) as a form of scientism, or science "as ideology". He argued that positivism may be espoused by "technocrats" who believe in the inevitability of social progress through science and technology. New movements, such as critical realism, have emerged in order to reconcile postpositivist aims with various so-called 'postmodern' perspectives on the social acquisition of knowledge.
Max Horkheimer criticized the classic formulation of positivism on two grounds. First, he claimed that it falsely represented human social action. The first criticism argued that positivism systematically failed to appreciate the extent to which the so-called social facts it yielded did not exist 'out there', in the objective world, but were themselves a product of socially and historically mediated human consciousness. Positivism ignored the role of the 'observer' in the constitution of social reality and thereby failed to consider the historical and social conditions affecting the representation of social ideas. Positivism falsely represented the object of study by reifying social reality as existing objectively and independently of the labour that actually produced those conditions. Secondly, he argued, representation of social reality produced by positivism was inherently and artificially conservative, helping to support the status quo, rather than challenging it. This character may also explain the popularity of positivism in certain political circles. Horkheimer argued, in contrast, that critical theory possessed a reflexive element lacking in the positivistic traditional theory.
Some scholars today hold the beliefs critiqued in Horkheimer's work, but since the time of his writing critiques of positivism, especially from philosophy of science, have led to the development of postpositivism. This philosophy greatly relaxes the epistemological commitments of logical positivism and no longer claims a separation between the knower and the known. Rather than dismissing the scientific project outright, postpositivists seek to transform and amend it, though the exact extent of their affinity for science varies vastly. For example, some postpositivists accept the critique that observation is always value-laden, but argue that the best values to adopt for sociological observation are those of science: skepticism, rigor, and modesty. Just as some critical theorists see their position as a moral commitment to egalitarian values, these postpositivists see their methods as driven by a moral commitment to these scientific values. Such scholars may see themselves as either positivists or antipositivists.
During the later twentieth century, positivism began to fall out of favor with scientists as well. Later in his career, German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, Nobel laureate for his pioneering work in quantum mechanics, distanced himself from positivism:
The positivists have a simple solution: the world must be divided into that which we can say clearly and the rest, which we had better pass over in silence. But can any one conceive of a more pointless philosophy, seeing that what we can say clearly amounts to next to nothing? If we omitted all that is unclear we would probably be left with completely uninteresting and trivial tautologies.
In the early 1970s, urbanists of the quantitative school like David Harvey started to question the positivist approach itself, saying that the arsenal of scientific theories and methods developed so far in their camp were "incapable of saying anything of depth and profundity" on the real problems of contemporary cities.
According the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Positivism has also come under fire on religious and philosophical grounds, whose proponents state that truth begins in sense experience, but does not end there. Positivism fails to prove that there are not abstract ideas, laws, and principles, beyond particular observable facts and relationships and necessary principles, or that we cannot know them. Nor does it prove that material and corporeal things constitute the whole order of existing beings, and that our knowledge is limited to them. According to positivism, our abstract concepts or general ideas are mere collective representations of the experimental order—for example; the idea of "man" is a kind of blended image of all the men observed in our experience. This runs contrary to a Platonic or Christian ideal, where an idea can be abstracted from any concrete determination, and may be applied identically to an indefinite number of objects of the same class From the idea's perspective, Platonism is more precise. Defining an idea as a sum of collective images is imprecise and more or less confused, and becomes more so as the collection represented increases. An idea defined explicitly always remains clear.
Other new movements, such as critical realism, have emerged in opposition to positivism. Critical realism seeks to reconcile the overarching aims of social science with postmodern critiques. Experientialism, which arose with second generation cognitive science, asserts that knowledge begins and ends with experience itself. In other words, it rejects the positivist assertion that a portion of human knowledge is a priori.
Echoes of the "positivist" and "antipositivist" debate persist today, though this conflict is hard to define. Authors writing in different epistemological perspectives do not phrase their disagreements in the same terms and rarely actually speak directly to each other. To complicate the issues further, few practising scholars explicitly state their epistemological commitments, and their epistemological position thus has to be guessed from other sources such as choice of methodology or theory. However, no perfect correspondence between these categories exists, and many scholars critiqued as "positivists" are actually postpositivists. One scholar has described this debate in terms of the social construction of the "other", with each side defining the other by what it is not rather than what it is, and then proceeding to attribute far greater homogeneity to their opponents than actually exists. Thus, it is better to understand this not as a debate but as two different arguments: the "antipositivist" articulation of a social meta-theory which includes a philosophical critique of scientism, and "positivist" development of a scientific research methodology for sociology with accompanying critiques of the reliability and validity of work that they see as violating such standards.
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While most social scientists today are not explicit about their epistemological commitments, articles in top American sociology and political science journals generally follow a positivist logic of argument. It can be thus argued that "natural science and social science [research articles] can therefore be regarded with a good deal of confidence as members of the same genre".
In contemporary social science, strong accounts of positivism have long since fallen out of favour. Practitioners of positivism today acknowledge in far greater detail observer bias and structural limitations. Modern positivists generally eschew metaphysical concerns in favour of methodological debates concerning clarity, replicability, reliability and validity. This positivism is generally equated with "quantitative research" and thus carries no explicit theoretical or philosophical commitments. The institutionalization of this kind of sociology is often credited to Paul Lazarsfeld, who pioneered large-scale survey studies and developed statistical techniques for analyzing them. This approach lends itself to what Robert K. Merton called middle-range theory: abstract statements that generalize from segregated hypotheses and empirical regularities rather than starting with an abstract idea of a social whole.
In the original Comtean usage, the term "positivism" roughly meant the use of scientific methods to uncover the laws according to which both physical and human events occur, while "sociology" was the overarching science that would synthesize all such knowledge for the betterment of society. "Positivism is a way of understanding based on science"; people don't rely on the faith in God but instead on the science behind humanity. "Antipositivism" formally dates back to the start of the twentieth century, and is based on the belief that natural and human sciences are ontologically and epistemologically distinct. Neither of these terms is used any longer in this sense. There are no fewer than twelve distinct epistemologies that are referred to as positivism. Many of these approaches do not self-identify as "positivist", some because they themselves arose in opposition to older forms of positivism, and some because the label has over time become a term of abuse by being mistakenly linked with a theoretical empiricism. The extent of antipositivist criticism has also become broad, with many philosophies broadly rejecting the scientifically based social epistemology and other ones only seeking to amend it to reflect 20th century developments in the philosophy of science. However, positivism (understood as the use of scientific methods for studying society) remains the dominant approach to both the research and the theory construction in contemporary sociology, especially in the United States.
The majority of articles published in leading American sociology and political science journals today are positivist (at least to the extent of being quantitative rather than qualitative). This popularity may be because research utilizing positivist quantitative methodologies holds a greater prestige[clarification needed] in the social sciences than qualitative work; quantitative work is easier to justify, as data can be manipulated to answer any question.[need quotation to verify] Such research is generally perceived as being more scientific and more trustworthy, and thus has a greater impact on policy and public opinion (though such judgments are frequently contested by scholars doing non-positivist work).[need quotation to verify]
See also: Constructive empiricism
The key features of positivism as of the 1950s, as defined in the "received view", are:
Stephen Hawking was a recent high-profile advocate of positivism in the physical sciences. In The Universe in a Nutshell (p. 31) he wrote:
Any sound scientific theory, whether of time or of any other concept, should in my opinion be based on the most workable philosophy of science: the positivist approach put forward by Karl Popper and others. According to this way of thinking, a scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make. A good theory will describe a large range of phenomena on the basis of a few simple postulates and will make definite predictions that can be tested. ... If one takes the positivist position, as I do, one cannot say what time actually is. All one can do is describe what has been found to be a very good mathematical model for time and say what predictions it makes.
one of the features of positivism is precisely its postulate that scientific knowledge is the paradigm of valid knowledge, a postulate that indeed is never proved nor intended to be proved.
Positivism is marked by the final recognition that science provides the only valid form of knowledge and that facts are the only possible objects of knowledge; philosophy is thus recognized as essentially no different from science [...] Ethics, politics, social interactions, and all other forms of human life about which knowledge was possible would eventually be drawn into the orbit of science [...] The positivists' program for mapping the inexorable and immutable laws of matter and society seemed to allow no greater role for the contribution of poets than had Plato. [...] What Plato represented as the quarrel between philosophy and poetry is resuscitated in the "two cultures" quarrel of more recent times between the humanities and the sciences.
To conclude, logical positivism was progressive compared with the classical positivism of Ptolemy, Hume, d'Alembert, Comte, Mill, and Mach. It was even more so by comparison with its contemporary rivals—neo-Thomisism, neo-Kantianism, intuitionism, dialectical materialism, phenomenology, and existentialism. However, neo-positivism failed dismally to give a faithful account of science, whether natural or social. It failed because it remained anchored to sense-data and to a phenomenalist metaphysics, overrated the power of induction and underrated that of hypothesis, and denounced realism and materialism as metaphysical nonsense. Although it has never been practiced consistently in the advanced natural sciences and has been criticized by many philosophers, notably Popper (1959 , 1963), logical positivism remains the tacit philosophy of many scientists. Regrettably, the anti-positivism fashionable in the metatheory of social science is often nothing but an excuse for sloppiness and wild speculation.
The upshot is that the positivists seem caught between insisting on the V.C. [Verifiability Criterion]—but for no defensible reason—or admitting that the V.C. requires a background language, etc., which opens the door to relativism, etc.
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