Positivism is a philosophical and cultural movement, born in France in the first half of the nineteenth century by A. Comte. and inspired by some fundamental guiding ideas generally referred to the exaltation of scientific progress. This current of thought, driven by the industrial revolutions and literature related to it, spread in the second half of the century in Europe and worldwide, also influencing the birth of literary movements such as verismo in Italy and naturalism in France.

Positivism, from its origins, sets itself two major cultural purposes:

  1. The overcoming of metaphysics and the use of scientific knowledge of phenomena. Positivist scholars must not ask why phenomena occur, but rather must describe the “how” these phenomena take place;
  2. The foundation of a positive philosophy capable of remaining true to the facts, of generalizing only from empirical evidence.

More generally, the term indicates a culture whose fundamental attitude is attributable to the principles developed by this philosophical direction. Participated scientists, historians, men of letters, in the context of the European situation characterized by the development of industrial society and the growth of science and technology. Positivist philosophers are fully aware of being interpreters of this time and also trace the design of a rational industrial society, that is regulated according to scientific criteria.

Henri de Saint-Simon introduced for the first time the term “positivism”. Positivism is not therefore configured as a philosophical thought organized in a defined system as the one that had characterized the idealistic philosophy, but rather as a movement in some respects similar to the Enlightenment, which shares the belief in science and scientific and technological progress, and for others akin to the romantic conception of history that sees in the progressive affirmation of reason the basis of progress or social evolution.

The term positivism designates, in a broad sense, all those conceptions of the 1800s that are united by a “positive” relationship to science. Between 1600 and 1700 the term “positive” takes on the meaning of precise, certain, real, useful that we find in the term positivism. A. Comte provided the basis of positivism with the Course of Positive Philosophy (1830-42). From the middle of the century positivism spread throughout Europe.

Positivism divides the statements that man make into two categories: scientific and non-scientific. Scientific statements are those that are based on observation, formulation of laws and explanations of phenomena, verification of laws: “The experimental method, as a scientific method, rests entirely on the experimental verification of a scientific hypothesis. This verification can be obtained either with the help of a new observation or with the help of an experience” (Introduction à l’étude de la médecine experimentale).

The positivist position is anti-metaphysical, considering metaphysical everything that cannot be observed and verified.

Positivism affirms the unity of the scientific method and therefore the possibility to subject to the same rules every kind of phenomenon. Taine will say in the Essay on the fables of La Fontaine: “You can consider man as an animal of a superior species that produces philosophies and poems almost as silkworms make their cocoons and bees their hives. This statement is well suited to explain the naturalist poetics.

The meanings of the term “positive”

In Auguste Comte the term positive indicates what is real, useful and certain. Comte’s positivism starts from the assumption that knowledge is always relative, as it must be able to establish relationships between phenomena. There are several meanings listed by Comte in Discours sur l’esprit positif (1844).

  1. The first is that of real, as opposed to chimerical, and this indicates the turning of the new philosophy to research accessible to human intelligence, with the exclusion of the impenetrable mysteries of which the previous philosophy was concerned.
  2. The second meaning is that of useful, as opposed to idle, indicating the pragmatic character of the new philosophy, aimed at improving the condition of individuals and society.
  3. In a third meaning, the term indicates the opposition between certainty and indecision, that is, the attitude of positive philosophy to constitute “logical harmony in the individual and spiritual communion in the species,” instead of pursuing the continuous doubts of previous philosophies.
  4. A fourth meaning is that of precise as opposed to vague, and designates the tendency of positive philosophy to achieve the degree of precision compatible with the nature of phenomena and with the requirement of our needs, whereas the old philosophy led to vague notions that could become common heritage through an imposed discipline founded on a supernatural authority).
  5. The fifth meaning designates the positive as opposed to the negative, and indicates that positive philosophy is not in the business of destroying but of organizing.

These definitions can be valid as a characterization of the most advanced stage of man’s intellectual (and historical) development, the attainment of his full maturity. This stage is called by Comte precisely ‘positive’, and is the third stage after the theological and metaphysical. This succession is for Comte the law of the three stages that has universal validity and is verifiable both in the historical course (with particular reference to European history), and in the development of science, and finally in the individual psychological development.

Reaching the positive stage means freeing oneself from non-scientific criteria in the consideration of phenomena; it means no longer resorting to imaginary supernatural entities as in the theological stage, or to personified abstractions as in the metaphysical stage. In the positive stage, the intellect is strictly limited to facts and their relationships: the cause is replaced by the law, the search for the why is replaced by the search for the how, the absolute is replaced by the relative. The new Comtian world realizes the imperative of altruism and is open to a religion whose god is Humanity and that leaves no place to the transcendent.

One of the greatest relationships identified by Comte is that between the world of nature and the human and social world. In fact, he conceives society as a living organism and as such subject to the same laws of development of the natural world. The science that studies society, of which the French scholar is considered the founder, takes the name of social physics and subsequently that of sociology. Just like an organism, a society is governed by laws that are implemented in a natural and spontaneous way and that are unchangeable.

The law of the three stages

Starting from the parallelism between society and organism, Comte elaborates a theory of development that unites both society and human beings and nature. The history of man and society is divided into three stages: theological, metaphysical and positive.

  1. In the theological stage, nature is represented and governed by divine forces. Natural phenomena are explained by recourse to supernatural entities. On the individual level, the theological stage corresponds to childhood. The dominant form of knowledge is religion.
  2. In the metaphysical stage, society, man and nature are dominated by abstract entities, by ideas. On the individual level, the metaphysical stage corresponds to youth. This is the stage of philosophy.
  3. The positive stage, which corresponds to maturity, explains the occurrence of phenomena by resorting to natural causes. This is the stage characterized by science.

The theory of the three stages explains not only the development of humanity but also the development of forms of knowledge, from religion to philosophy and science.

The moment of maximum development of these forms of knowledge is represented by sociology, which represents a true “summa” of the previous disciplines.

Philosophy and science in positivism

For A. Comte philosophy is, first of all, a reflection on knowledge and thus an analysis of the tendencies and techniques of the various sciences, classified according to an order of decreasing generality; not only that but at times some of their criteria are prescribed to be followed, as those that best respond to their internal logic, that is, to the implementation of their ‘positivity’.

Positivity means overcoming the two previous phases of the development of the intellect (theology, metaphysics); a science is positive when it radically renounces the search for causes and establishes laws, or the constant relations between phenomena, makes predictions, is socially useful. In H. Spencer philosophy is the most general form of knowledge, unifying the sciences and pertaining to notions with the most extensive content.

Science plays a fundamental role in improving society: “Science, from which comes prediction; prediction from which comes action: such is the very simple formula that expresses exactly the general relationship between science and art, taking these two terms in their total meaning”. Human actions, when they follow the predictions that it is possible to make thanks to science, always reach the goals for which they were undertaken. Science frees from false fears and allows man to achieve well-being and happiness.

Progress, according to Comte, is “the necessary result of the preceding and the indispensable motor of the following, according to the luminous axiom of the great Leibniz: the present is pregnant with the future”. An incessant refinement takes place that marks “the increasing preponderance of the noblest tendencies of our nature”.

In the law of the three stages Comte formulates his theory according to which humanity historically passes through three stages: theological, metaphysical and positive. In the theological stage phenomena are explained by recourse to supernatural powers. In the metaphysical stage spiritual powers are replaced by abstract principles. Finally, in the positive stage, laws, or relationships between phenomena, are sought. The scientific method dominates, combining experience and reason.

The positivist mentality was fruitful in the sense that it promoted the ‘scientific’ study of many phenomena. Particularly notable were the suggestions that came from the new mentality to historical studies and social disciplines. A new historiographic method was born, attentive above all to environmental, social and racial factors, aimed at composing on these bases the overall picture within which to understand the events in their multiple connections, the role of individual historical figures (H.T. Buckle, W.E.H. Lecky, H.-A. Taine, P. Villari).

In France, É. Durkheim intended to provide scientific basis to sociology, adopting as principle of explanation the social fact understood as a mode of collective fact that exerts its constraint on the individual (currents of opinion, educational institutions, beliefs). The scientific need extended at the same time to anthropology and psychology (just think of Taine’s work De l’intelligence, 1870, of rigidly analytical inspiration, in which psychic life is seen as traceable to its simplest elements).

In linguistics, genetic and comparative researches received a new impulse; literature and arts in the new climate accentuated romantic realism in an “experimental” sense; the positive method was affirmed in literary criticism, the physiological bases of complex phenomena such as taste were investigated; the attention to the fact stimulated countless philological and erudition researches; in the studies on religions they tended to emphasize the human factors in the development of religious experience, while ethnographic and paleoethnographic researches aimed at the comparative study of the different forms and stages of civilization flourished.

Nor should we forget the merits of positivism with regard to the renewal of scholastic and penal legislation. There was the emergence of a pedagogical positivism (in Italy A. Gabelli, R. Ardigo, etc.), aimed at promoting the spontaneous and creative tendencies of the student, and a positive school of criminal law (the greatest exponents C. Lombroso and E. Ferri), which believed that the criminal law should be based on the principles of the rule of law. Ferri), which believed that the criminal was the product of a series of biological (heredity, anatomical and physiological data) and social components, and explained the crime outside of moral considerations, understanding the punishment not in an afflictive sense, but in function of social defense and re-education of the guilty.

The reaction to positivism

For H. Bergson, on the other hand, philosophy is not a generalizing science, nor a reflection on the sciences, but a mental operation that puts us in a different relationship with things rather than the one in which science places us. Philosophy and science do not compete in grasping reality, but, if anything, they collaborate because they refer to two fundamental aspects of reality itself. Science and metaphysics – says Bergson – have different subjects: «to science the matter and to metaphysics the spirit». But science and metaphysics have intuition in common, which grasps reality in its fullness: in fact, for what they have of essential, in their authentic discoveries, they have proceeded by intuition.

It is the atmosphere of the reaction to positivism, a reaction that reclaims the autonomy of philosophy and seeks a way of approaching reality that is not the generalizing one of law and of type. For W. Windelband as well, philosophy has its own sphere of autonomy as a critical science of universally valid values.

In E. Husserl, the idea of philosophy as a rigorous science reemerges: the essences, which according to his method are intuited, are neither facts nor abstractions taken from facts, but have the characteristic of purity, comparable to mathematical notions. Therefore, a strong anti-relativistic accent, and yet a strong anti-objectivist accent: the objectivism of science has something dogmatic if it claims to exhaust the understood object. Before objectification there is a smooth process, there is the world of life, which is the presupposition of objectification.

The major exponents of positivism

With J.S. Mill positivism takes on a different configuration from that given by Comte. In fact Mill is connected to the English empiricist tradition and in essence has in common with Comte especially the negative part of his philosophy, the refusal of any recourse to theological or metaphysical explanations: his System of logic (1843) is based on the most rigorous experimentalism. On the political level, Mill’s conception is individualistic and liberal, while Comte’s State is rigidly organized. Mill is close to Comte in fact of philosophy of religion, although then develops differently this common point.

It has been seen that Comte does not exclude religious sentiment, and indeed envisages its expansion into the positive stage. Nor does Mill exclude it. In his Three essays on religion (posthumous, 1874) he speaks of a finite god, i.e. not omnipotent, a good but not absolute principle, which therefore must reckon with the material world and its often cruel laws: man is thus a collaborator of this finite divinity and religious feeling reinforces the hope of realizing its moral needs. Both in Comte and in Mill the anthropological presupposition is the sentimental one (man is not only and not even predominantly reason); the theoretical presupposition (and in Mill even more than in Comte) is the agnostic propensity: the rational explanation does not exclude a certain margin of non-knowledge and unverifiability.

A similar attitude is found in other thinkers who refer to positivism. C. Bernard in his Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale (1865) is a supporter of a rigorous experimentalism and rejects what he calls the ‘system’, i.e. the unitary explanation of phenomena (materialism, spiritualism etc.). He considers philosophy different from science because it deals with the indeterminate, of what science cannot experience, and in this way he attributes to philosophy a function of stimulus for science itself, considering ineliminable the needs that give rise to philosophy and religion. Also in J.-R. Renan, even with some oscillations, remains the need not to identify the verifiable with the true, not to be satisfied with rational operations.

A similar gnoseological presupposition is present in H. Spencer, who speaks of a relative knowledge of the conditioned and of an unknowable unconditioned. Religion represents the awareness of this mystery and represents it all the better the more it renounces to represent it and limits itself to take note of its presence-absence. On the one hand, therefore, science, on the other hand, religion, with two distinct spheres of competence. However, for Spencer, these two spheres are not unrelated, because the conditioned, the phenomenon is a manifestation of absolute reality, and we are aware of the unconditioned without having knowledge of it.

Philosophy has the task to generalize the results of science, and these results allow Spencer to formulate a theory of evolution of universal application. In social evolution he foresees a point of arrival where contrasts will be smoothed out, where individual and social, private and public will be reconciled. In view of this arrival, Spencer supported in his political doctrine thesis contrary to any intervention of the State. Spencer was the positivist philosopher who had the greatest fortune: in the last forty years of the nineteenth century his philosophy had an enormous diffusion.

Critic of the unknowable of Spencer is the Italian R. Ardigo, who does not admit a different and more authentic plane of reality, but sticks to the fact and the verifiable. The fact is ascertained through direct apprehension, which is followed by the reflexive operations that distinguish. This passage from an original indistinct to successive distinctions is a fact of thought, but it is also a real fact: reality itself is specified in this sense, so that every distinct is in turn indistinct with respect to further distinct.

Positivism was also widespread in Germany, but more than a true German positivist school we can speak of “positivist atmosphere” (anti-metaphysics, attention to the results of science, the problem of the limits of scientific knowledge, the problem of the relationship between science and philosophy). It can be traced back to positivism, in particular to Spencerian dualism, the positions of the physiologist E. du Bois-Reymond, which assume the existence of an aspect of reality precluded to science. Du Bois-Reymond lists some fundamental difficulties of scientific research, some “enigmas” in front of which it stops: the essence of matter and force, the origin of the movement, the origin of life, the natural finalism, the origin of consciousness, rational thought and its language, the freedom of the will.

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