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Differences between Positivism and Classicism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2157 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Learning the difference between classicism and positivism. This essay will consist of me comparing two terms used to explain crime: Classicist and Positivist. Looking at the relationship between the two terms and how they can oppose one another. Theories, arguments and history of Classicism & Positivism will be the main focus. I will be challenging theories and including what I’ve learnt in my current module to strengthen my point, looking back on the lectures I’ve taken.  To compare classicist and positivist I will be looking at biological, psychological positivism aspects comparing it to what I know about classicism.

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Classicism usually refers back to the late 18th century, first introduced by respected Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria and the well-known British theorist Jeremy Bentham. When talking about classicism, these are the two names will usually be spoken about to give a clear understanding of classicism. Classicism is the reason of explanation and response to crime, this touches on one’s free will and rational calculating. 

Cesare Beccaria wrote a book “on Crimes and punishment”(1764). Cesare Beccaria goes into depth about the origin of punishment, the right to punish and the proportion between crimes and punishment. Cesare Beccaria demonstrates that punishment must proportionate to the crime committed. “It is better to prevent crimes than to punish them.” Cesare Beccaria published his book anonymously in fear of being executed which shows how severe the punishments were to crime or even those who challenged the law. It really shows the idea of punishment and how it was used to induce fear into people to prevent criminal behaviour, which sheds light on public executions and brutal torture. Crime engages in breaking the social contract which involves murder, thefts, etc. “Rule of the law”. 

Jeremy Bentham then intensifies Beccaria’s point by introducing utilitarian philosophy in his book(introduction to principles of morals and legalisation,1780)in his book there’s a quote “utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good or happiness” (1780). 

Jeremy Bentham adding to Beccaria’s studies that punishment should be deterrent. From my understanding, Jeremy Bentham is touching on how human behaviour maximises on pleasure whilst trying to avoid the disadvantages that come with it. Bentham also includes in his studies free-will and hedonistic calculus.  The enlightenment from Beccaria and Bentham is: the punishment is proportional, to be carried out promptly. In addition to fitting the crime.

Positivism is the opposite of classicism and includes science, positivism gives a philosophical body constructing human knowledge on scientific interpretation of observational data. Positivism refers back to the late 19th century, the figurehead of biological positivism is a popular physician and anthropologist Italian Cesare Lombroso introducing atavism into his theory stating that “criminals are born, not made” that one’s appearance and head size could determine their criminal behaviour. Cesare Lombroso was inspired by Charles Darwin’s theory and phenology fuelling his idea for studies in biological positivism leading idea of an atavism criminal. 

Psychological positivism an offence due to a criminal mind. Sigmund Freud the founder of psychoanalysis. Freud contributed to psychological positivism, he believed that humans are born with ID. In Sigmund Freud’s book “The Ego and the ID”(1923) In Freud’s book, he talks the ego, superego and ID. 

He goes into depth about criminal behaviour categorising it into three sections.

Deviant superego, harsh superego, weak superego

In his book, he talks thoroughly about these three expressions “Deviant Superego- Superego well developed, but according to deviant social norms and moral understanding, Harsh superego psychosexual development disrupted – influences of parents: unconsciousness, repressed fantasies.” Weak superego- guilt and morality. 

How both classicism and positivism oppose each other? Classicism and positivism provide an explanation of criminal behaviours and the causes of it.   Positivism explanation of crime that is predetermined which is the complete opposite of classicism.

Classism & Positivism do share some similarities however they conflict with one another. It seems that classicism is a more traditional approach whilst positivism is more of modernity explanation, introducing science and statistics into its findings. When science is involved, it can complicate research, especially in Cesare Lombroso’s case. In Lombroso, there are a few discrepancies within his theories. In his book “The criminal man” he goes in depth about his findings. Lombroso believed that criminals could be determined physical defects this links into anatomical atavisms. The head size and facial features of one could possibly determine their criminal behaviour. “Lombroso’s hypothesis of the “delinquente nato” “the born criminal” affirms that all true criminals have a number of casual connected characteristics: physical characteristics that can be shown anthropologically, and psychic characteristics that can be shown psycho-physiologically which mark them as an individual type of mankind” I personally don’t believe that criminals could be spotted by their genetic makeup, however, there’s a lot of cases I’ve read about a few cases involving criminals committing gruesome crimes, the suspect tend to have an incredibly high IQ. Serial killer Rodney Alcala, Edmund Kemper, etc. This could easily link into Sigmund Freud’s theory about the criminal mind, however, Edmund Kemper did have physical defects but this is probably one of the very few criminals with physical defects. Lombroso contribution to biological positivism makes it very difficult to understand the explanation of positivism. Enrico Ferri who studied at the Italian school of criminology also added that a person’s environment could contribute to their criminal behaviour. “it is not the criminal who wills: in order to be a criminal it is rather necessary that the individual should find himself permanently or transitorily in such personal, physical, and moral conditions, and live in such an environment, which become for him a chain of cause and effect, eternally and internally, that disposes him toward crime” (1917) This creates a bridge to classicism to what Jeremy Bentham wrote about in his book “Utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good or happiness” thus in Enrico Ferri’s statement those people in a personal, physical of moral conditions could be more likely to go into a life of crime to produce more benefits. The cause of crime would most likely be motivation, in this case, an individual could be adjusted to commit crime. 

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Biological positivism is based on scientific research and as we have access to more complex technology, inquisitive approaches this is what makes positivism more modern. Psychological positivism strengthening the idea of positivism: as you are looking at it from a scientific way, but also in the psychological aspect which is the study of a person mind. Enrico Ferri’s quote also includes a sociological factor. Giving positivism three strong arteries: psychology, sociology and biology.

Classicism goes into depth about the repercussions of crime and how crime could possibly be minimised. I did a reading where it gives through explanation on classicism and the work of Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Beccaria. From the reading ”first to escape war and chaos, individuals gave up some of their liberty and established a contractual society. This established the sovereignty of national and ability of the nation to create criminal law and punish offenders, second, because criminal laws placed restrictions on individuals freedoms, they should be restricted in scope. They should not be employed to enforce mortal virtue. To prohibit human behaviour unnecessarily was to increase rather than to decrease crime.” I’ve just taken a small section from Beccaria’s book where he talks about free will and how punishment could possibly deter people from crime. How one’s liberalism was given up, prohibiting human behaviour could increase criminal behaviour.  

However the classicism is an aged theory, classicism and positivism are identical in trying to explain the causes of crime but the two differ due to classicism being more of an assumption, a solution even. Even though it was accepted by the government at the time there were still many critics like Cesare Lombroso looking into the biological perspective of crime. 

In his book “The criminal man” he challenges Beccaria and Bentham view on free will and rationality.  Cesare Lombroso stated that criminality was inherited and could be shown through physical defects. Crime, criminals and even the law changes over time, also depending on which country you live in. The law will not always be applied with fairness unfortunately which could have an impact on the punishment given. In Enrico Ferri’s statement where he talks about moral conditions. An example: The trolley Dilemma (linked below). How does that define that individual rationality? When looking at this example it’s hard to give a clear definition of rationality, it’s very difficult to look at it from a classicist perspective when there’s no choice. 

To conclude Classicism & Positivism have such a huge impact on crime, criminal justice and criminology.  Both theories do explain crime, human behaviour and it’s causes. Positivism is a modernised approach to explain crime, and to punishment as well.  Although I do agree with the quote “Punishment should fit the crime” I don’t agree with certain punishments executed. Classicism is a traditional way to explain crime but it was a solution to approach crime and punishment then. The theories do have a difference due to timeline but there is a lot of similarities that both classicist and positivist share.  Whilst classicism started off as a solution it made a big difference to crime and its punishments. Positivism was developed with science but also contributes to the way we view crime and criminals.



  • On crimes and punishments and other writings Beccaria, Cesare., Parzen, Jeremy. and Thomas Aaron  n.d
  • The criminal anthropological articles of Cesare Lombroso published in the English language periodical literature during the late 19th century and early 20th century.  Lombroso, Cesare.,Horton, David M., and Rich, Katherine E. 2004. Lewiston, N.Y.:Edwin Mellen Press.
  • Crimes and it’s causes and remedies Lombroso, Cesare., and Horton, Henry P. 1968, Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith,


  • Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Jul., 1910), pp. 71-83 Albrecht, Adalbert. Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.


  • Cherry, K. (2016). What Did Freud Really Believe about Personality and the Id, Ego, and Superego?. [online] About.com Health. Available at: http://psychology.about.com/od/theoriesofpersonality/a/personalityelem.htm [Accessed 22 Mar. 2016].
  • Cesare Beccaria: Of Crimes and Punishments, Chapter 41 https://www.constitution.org/cb/crim_pun41.htm
  • The Ego and the ID (1923) by Sigmund Freud – Free PDF eBook https://www.sigmundfreud.net/the-e
  • Albrecht, A. (2018) Cesare Beccaria: A glance at his life work [online]: Available at:  https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1133036.pdf [Accessed 02-12-2018].
  • http://www.baskent.edu.tr/~zekih/ogrenci/crimpun.pdf
  • Booksite.elsevier.com http://booksite.elsevier.com/samplechapters/9781455778928/Chapter_3.pdf


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