Positivism – Concept, characteristics, principles and authors

We explain what positivism is in philosophy, its characteristics and fundamental principles. In addition, its main representatives.

positivism auguste-comte
August Comte was the founder of positivist thought.

What is positivism?

Positivism or positive philosophy is a philosophical current born in the mid-nineteenth century and established, particularly, in the thought of the French Henri Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and Auguste Comte (1798-1857). He argued that the only authentic knowledge to which humanity can aspire is that which arises from the application of the scientific method, whose model to follow would be that of the physical or natural sciences.

Positivism emerged as the heir to empiricism and epistemology. In addition to Saint-Simon and Comte, the work of the British John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was very influential in its development.

It was a model of thought very successful between the end of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th. It originated numerous schools of positivist thought, some more rigid than others, whose main common features were the valuation of scientific thought above any other, and the rejection of any form of metaphysics, considered as a pseudoscience.

One of the greatest aspirations of positivism was to apply the scientific method to the study of the human being, both individually and socially. It led to a perspective that viewed human beings as objects, completely understandable through math and experimentation. That is why in Comte’s work was the origin of sociology, which aspired to be the science that studies human society.

However, the limitations of these points of view engendered a whole philosophical movement against it, known as antipositivism or negativism, which rejected the use of the scientific method in the social sciences. In the long run, this rejection allowed the emergence of qualitative and not exclusively quantitative research approaches, as was more common in positivism.

On the other hand, positivism gave rise to many different currents in different fields of knowledge, such as, among others:

  • Iuspositivism, current of legal thought that proposes a conceptual separation of law and morality, rejecting any link between the two, and that the exclusive object of study of law must be positive law.
  • Behaviorism, current of psychological thought that proposed the objective and experimental study of behavior. It served as a channel for more than ten variants of behaviorism that emerged between the 19th and 20th centuries, which moved more or less away from concepts such as “mind”, “soul” and “consciousness”, to focus on the relationship between subjects and their environment.
  • Empirio-criticism, a philosophical current created by the German philosopher Richard Avenarius (1843-1896), who proposed the study of experience itself, without attending to any other form of metaphysical thought, that is, aspiring to a “pure experience” of the world.

Characteristics of positivism

Positivism, broadly speaking, was characterized by the following:

  • He defended the scientific method as the only possible to obtain valid knowledge, regardless of the type of science in question, and taking the natural sciences as a model to follow.
  • Criticized and walked away from any form of metaphysics, subjectivism or considerations that were not objective in empirical terms.
  • Its central purpose was to causally explain the phenomena of the universe through the formulation of general and universal laws, for which he considered human reason as a means to other ends (an instrumental reason).
  • He argued that inductive methods were the only useful to gain knowledge. For this reason he valued documentary evidence, and instead despised any form of general interpretations.
  • Positivist works tended, therefore, to abound in documentary support and err on the side of lack of interpretive synthesis.

Fundamental principles of positivism

The very principles of positivism understood knowledge as something only obtainable from the given, from the “positive”, and therefore denies that philosophy can provide real information about the world. According to this, beyond the realm of facts, there are only logic and mathematics.

For Auguste Comte, for example, human history could be explained through transit by:

  • Theological: The human being in his intellectual childhood explained the universe through gods and magic.
  • The metaphysical: With his maturation, the human supplanted these deities by metaphysical and absolute ideas, but at least asking himself the question of the why of things.
  • The positive: Upon reaching his intellectual maturity as a civilization, he began to apply the sciences and study the physical laws behind phenomena.

This consideration of science as the ultimate and absolute perspective on things it is precisely the positivist gaze. According to her, everything that does not conform to these precepts must be considered as pseudoscience.

Representatives of positivism

positivism John Stuart Mill
In addition to being a positivist, John Stuart Mill was one of the founders of utilitarianism.

The main representatives of positivism were:

  • Henri de Saint-Simon, philosopher, economist and socialist theorist of French origin, whose work (known as “Saint-Simonism”) was influential both in the fields of politics, sociology, economics and philosophy of science. He was one of the most influential thinkers of the 18th century.
  • Auguste ComteFounding father of sociology and positivist thought, this French philosopher was initially secretary to Count Henri Saint-Simon, with whom he later fell out due to conceptual and personal differences. His work is considered heir to that of Francis Bacon, and was one of the most dedicated to exalting science and reason as the only instruments of the human being to really know reality.
  • John stuart millA British-born philosopher, economist and politician, he is a representative of the classical school of economics and one of the theorists of utilitarianism, along with Jeremy Betham. A distinguished member of the liberal party, he was a great critic of state intervention and a defender of the female vote.

Logical positivism

Positivism should not be confused with plogical ositivism or logical empiricism, also sometimes called neopositivism or rational empiricism. The latter emerged during the first third of the 20th century, among the scientists and philosophers who made up the so-called Vienna Circle.

Logical positivism is part of the currents of the philosophy of science that limit the validity of the scientific method to that which is empirical and verifiable, that is, that which has its own verification method or which in any case is analytical. This was known as verificationism.

Thus, logical positivism was much stricter in its defense of science as the only viable route to knowledge than positivism itself, and it was one of the strongest movements within analytic philosophy. His fields of study also included logic and language.