Philosophy of Positivism

03.05.2015 |

Episode #8 of the course “Brief history of Contemporary philosophy”

Becoming a popular school of thought in the early 19th century, positivism rose with the acceptance and implementation of the scientific method as a means by which to gain knowledge. As the scientific community, who valued empirical evidence to support claims, grew, so did the idea that knowledge gained from the world was the most sure kind of knowledge. Claiming to be new and detached from previous schools of thought that valued empiricism over cognition, the positivist theories were unique in understanding that natural laws could be relative and therefore affect the empirical evidence that is observed.

With the writings of Auguste Comte, positivism became an influential philosophy that rejected abstractions, cognitive analysis, and hypothetical speculation and instead advocated that the problems of philosophy be solved by conducting experiments and observations using concrete, replicable methods. Comte is sometimes called the first modern “philosopher of science.” In addition to Comte, J.S. Mill, Herbert Spencer, and Ernst Mach are among the names of famous 19th century positivist theorists.

Because of the measurable data collected by observing the world, positivism became foundational for the emerging field of sociology. Positivists believed that society operated by natural laws, much like the laws of physics, and that those could be measured, described, and compared. Throughout the 20th century, the study of natural scientific laws has overlapped from the traditional fields of astronomy, biology, and metaphysics discussed by Comte into the socially progressive fields of psychology, politics, and social sciences. Other theories have absorbed some elements of positivism, and the term continues to expand and be debated over.


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