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The History And Background Of Positivism Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 3008 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798 ~ 1857) has been known as the father of modern discipline of sociology and founder of positivism theory. Even though his popularity has seen a declining trend in the past several decades, nevertheless he was very popular until the beginning of 20th century. His thought was so popular that the Latin American country, such as Brazil and Mexico made Comte’s thought as their national motto. The Brazilians are still proud of “Ordem e Progresso” (Order and Progress) embossed on their national flag. The followers of Comte were equally active in England, America, Turkey and other parts of the world.

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Comte’s views on the concept of positivism have been explained in his book The Course on Positive Philosophy (1830-1842) which spreads over six volumes. The original French has been translated by Harriet Martineau into English which is titled as The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte. The first three volumes of the Course primarily deals with already existing physical sciences, like mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology and the next two volumes in succession explains about social science, as the next logical science after the physical sciences. He observed the phenomena of circular dependency between theory and observation in physical sciences which helped him to reach to the conclusion that the science of society is no different from other natural sciences.

Comte’s View on Evolution of Humanity

One of the most important pillar on which the positivism philosophy stands is the general “law of the three stages”. By advocating the law of the three stages, Comte explains that, in its quest for truth the society passes through three successive evolution phases. Here Comte’s idea has striking similarity with Karl Marx’s view of a human society peaking with a utopian socialistic class-less society. However, it is not surprising as both Marx and Comte were highly influenced by the famous utopian sociologist of the time, Henri de Saint Simon, who was also the mentor of Comte for some time.

The law of three stages states that in the natural process of evolution of the society, the humanity goes through three stages: the theological, the metaphysical and the positive. The theological stage is the necessary starting point in the evolution process of mankind, whereas the positive state is the natural stage where humanity ought to be and the intermediary metaphysical stage is a transitory phase necessary for the transition from the first to the third stage. In the theological stage, the human society was completed based on divine ideas and humanity’s whole hearted belief in all things in reference to the God. During this stage, instead of relying on its rational ability to seek truth behind human existence, the humanity completely accepted the principles of the place of worship. In terms of material development of humanity, this stage corresponds to the rise of militarism.

During the metaphysical stage of human evolution, in its quest for the causes of natural phenomena, humanity explained them as the result of the supernatural interventions and abstract entities. According to Comte, this stage corresponds to the time since the Enlightenment till the aftermath of French Revolution and the most important feature of this period is respect for the universal rights of humanity. He believed that there are certain rights inherent to humanity which must be respected. This is the phase when various forms of governances rose and fell, all with the primary of objective of safeguarding the rights inherent to humanity.

The natural process of human evolution culminates with the scientific or the positive stage when human mind no longer seek the causes for various natural phenomena, instead it limit itself to various scientific laws governing them. The primary belief of this stage is that individual rights are the supreme and humanity’s ability to govern itself in its free will is what makes this stage different from other stages. According to Comte, these three stages are the fundamental rules upon which the society and its development are based. All the three stages must be completed in successive manner and without the complete understanding of the former; the later can’t just come into existence.

According to Comte, understanding the past is very critical because only through the thorough understanding of the past the future could be built and the transition from proceeding stage to the next one would be possible. So the concept of continuous progression or social evolution was the main theme of the concept of positivism. Further, he believes that the history of one science is of no use unless it is used for the study of the development of humanity as whole. So in nutshell the social evolution theory presented by Comte is of the opinion that humanity passes through different stages through which it acquires intellectual advancements and the whole process culminates with the positive or the scientific stage. However, Comte’s social evolution theory is flawed due to one basic reason. That is the final positivist stage assumes attainment of complete understanding about the universe by the humanity which is impossible in reality. Because humanity continues using the existing scientific knowledge to know more and more and the process never ends. In that sense, humanity can never attain the so called positivist stage when there is nothing left for the humanity to know.

Comte’s View of the Classification of Sciences

Apart from the three stages of social evolution of humanity, the 2nd most important pillar on which the theory of positivism rests on is the classification of sciences. In the first three volumes of The Course on Positive Philosophy, Comte has thoroughly examined the five fundamental sciences – mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology and has classified in that sequence. Comte is of the view that each discipline is closely related to the preceding one and the complete development of the former gives birth to the later. After the complete development of the natural sciences, then came the queen science, which is “Sociology”. He has dedicated the remaining two volumes of the Course to sociology, which according to Comte is the culmination of all sciences. The natural sciences had to come first, so that humanity could use the knowledge of other sciences toward the most complex science of sociology.

The classification of the sciences has been done in a manner of shifting from simplicity toward complexity. Mathematics is the simplest among all the sciences, in the sense that it is objective oriented with absence of subjectivity and at the extreme end there is sociology, which is highly subjective making it the most complex. Moreover, if we look at the historical aspect of the development of these disciplines, astronomy requires mathematics, similarly chemistry requires physics. In other words, development of each science requires the knowledge of the preceding discipline and the full-fledged development of the former leads to the development of the later. However, according to Comte, other branches of science, like zoology, botany, etc. are simply not science because they are yet to develop completely to be called as science. As Peter Halfpenny says in his book, Positivism and Sociology “…positivism is a unity of science thesis, according to which all sciences can be integrated into a single natural system”. [3] Not to mention that among the various classifications of sciences proposed till date, the classification as advocated by Comte is still very popular all over the world.

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Comte was not the first individual to think about the scientific study of social phenomena. He was highly influenced by the ideas devised by Hume, Kant and his mentor Saint-Simon for new philosophy of positivism. However, there is no doubt that Comte broadens and systematized the study of sociology to great extent. The “Social Physics” as he called it first, sociology was divided into two main areas, social statistics and social dynamics. While the first branch concerns about the forces keeping the society together, the later mainly concentrates on causal aspect of social changes. In his later career, when he was criticized by scholars like J.S. Mill as the “bad Comte” (in contrast to the “good Comte” during his first phase of his career), came up with the idea of ideal positivist society based on altruistic ideals in his System of Positive Polity. He established “Religion of Humanity” with the intellectual sociologists as its priests. He was of the opinion that in the industrially developed positivist society, the actual administration would be in the hands of businessmen, the sociologists would be guide and model of public morality and finally the women would be entrusted with the task of maintaining private morality. He has been severely criticised for going against his law of three stages, by moving towards a theological ideology by establishing a new religion. Moreover, his support of elite administration and indifference towards democratic set-up, etc. are also target of criticism. Nevertheless, Comte’s view of sociology as the study of human society and positivist methodology of social research still remains his remarkable contribution. As Frederic Harrison commented in his 1901 article that “Positivism at once a philosophy, a polity and a religion – all three harmonized by the idea of a supreme Humanity, all three concentrated on the good and progress of Humanity.” [4] In fact positivism is perhaps the only philosophy ever came with a complete set of principles concerning social reorganization and religious observance.

Post-Comte Positivism

Comte’s positivist philosophy became popular with the foundation of The Positivist Review by Emile Littre in 1867. The Whig writer Harriet Martineau translated many of Comte’s works into English, after which English followers of positivism increased. While George Elliot appreciated Comte’s Religion of Humanity, Spencer was highly influenced by the positivist idea of to formulate his social Darwinistic philosophy. French social scientist Emile Durkheim, even though critical of many of Comte’s positivist principles, his methodology to study sociology has its origin in Comte’s positivism.

Durkheim and Positivism

Establishment of sociology as an independent branch of knowledge and academic discipline is the most important contribution of French social scientist Emile Durkheim. He is credited with establishment of first Department of Sociology in the University of Bordeaux in 1895. Though he rejected much of the ideas of Comte’s positivism, he completely accepted that sociology is the continuation of the natural sciences and its study must be based on objectivity, causality and rationality. In his The Rules of Sociological Methods published in French in 1895, he clearly indicated two principles for sociology to be called as a science. Firstly, it must concern about a particular object of study (social facts) and secondly, an objective scientific method must be used for the study without prejudice and subjective judgment. [5] In his book Suicide (1897) Durkheim attempted to prove that Catholic Christians have a lower suicide rate than the Protestants, through collection of social facts, such as suicide rate and membership of different religious faiths and their statistical treatment. Collection of social facts, according to Durkheim is the fundamental objective of sociology. He believed Comte’s scientific approach is not suitable to study human society, instead he felt the need for a different sociological scientific approach, for which he developed the concept of sui generis or the social facts to study the suicide trend based on cultural aspect. About the question of objectivity of the sociologist, he believed observation must be impartial and impersonal and hence social facts must be studied in relation to other social facts instead of in relation to the observer. Durkheim’s positivism has been criticised for oversimplification, because he refuted the Comteian idea of applying same scientific approach to study both natural as well as social sciences. Nevertheless, Durkheim is the founder of practical sociological research in its modern sense as we know it today.


In the beginning of the 20th century German sociologists started the concept of anti-positivist, which was of the opinion that social sciences and natural sciences are essentially different from each other epistemologically and hence the approach to study natural sciences cannot be applied to social sciences. On contrary to the Comteian objective approach, they proposed a subjective approach in order to study social phenomena. It was of the opinion that social scientists must reject the empiricism and scientific methodology in order to study sociology. This view was further developed by Max Weber who for the first time used the term anti-positivism. He subscribed to the positivist idea of sociology being called as a science because it confirms to the principle of causal relationship. However, he believed that society, being different from the natural world, must be studied using special tools and methods concentrating on humans and their cultural values and proposed critical analysis and verstehen methodology in order to study sociology. Karl Marx’s theory of historical materialism and critical sociology, which was actually based on positivism, further boosts the anti-positivism movement.

Logical Positivism

Logical positivism, also known as neo-positivism or logical empiricism, is another philosophy with its origin in the Comteian positivism and it accepted empiricism or evidence from observation as indispensable in order to study social phenomena. But it also felt the need of a rational approach, because observation if not the only source of human knowledge. Logical positivism grew before the 1st World War by the members of the “First Vienna Circle” presided by Moritz Schlick. Logical positivists emphasized on public experimental verification rather than individual experience and completely refuted the idea of metaphysics, as it is not empirically verifiable, hence meaningless and believed that all worthwhile knowledge about the world must be codifiable in a single language common to all the sciences. The logical positivist’s idea of a codifiable single language came from Austrian- British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, which advocated for a strong criterion of verifiability, was later criticised by Karl Popper, who proposed to replace the same with the criterion of falsifiability.

Criticism of Positivism

The positivism as conceived by Comte was criticized on several grounds. First, Comte’s viewed the positivist stage as the ultimate stage of human knowledge and once achieved, it will continue to be that. However, he could not foresee that scientific knowledge will lead to further growth in scientific knowledge, inventions and discoveries and in that sense humanity may never achieved that ultimate positivist stage at all. In fact, H. B. Acton goes on to the extent of saying the possibility of a Fourth Stage of human knowledge. [6] Similarly Anthony Giddens observed Comte’s theory as circular that since humanity constantly uses science to bring new things, so humanity never goes beyond the second metaphysical stage. [7] 

Moreover, positivism has been criticised by several philosophers on the grounds of its practicality, methodology and religious aspects. Max Horkheimer, the Frankfort School director, criticised positivism, firstly it falsely represented human social action and secondly positivism being politically conservative proving as a hindrance towards political emancipation of humanity. The first criticism argues that, positivism ignored the role of the observer in the context of social reality and thereby ignores the truth that the so called “social facts” are in fact conditioned by social and historical realities. The representation of social facts is already determined by social and historical human consciousness. Secondly, he argued that political conservatism actually lead to status quo instead of challenging it. Horkheimer instead proposed critical theory which is reflexive in nature to understand about the extent of social reality represented by traditional positivistic philosophy as false. [8] Further, positivism has been criticised on philosophical grounds that it emphasized only on the sensory experiences or empiricism, but ignored the abstract ideas, laws and principles, which constitute a vital part of human knowledge. Nevertheless, positivism is still remains as an active concept in the present day. Comte’s belief of sociology as the scientific study of human being is still accepted by all the modern sociologists.


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