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Philosophy and metaphysics

Logic and mathematics

Theory of knowledge

Positivist ethics

The influence of positivism


There are two positivisms: that of the nineteenth century and that of the twentieth. Common to both is a continuation of the eighteenth-century philosophy of the Enlightenment. Metaphysics and theology are again brought before the bar of reason, with the insistence that the institutions appealing to them for justification be reformed or replaced. Science is claimed to provide the standards applied in this critique. The name “positivism” derives from the emphasis on the positive sciences—that is, on tested and systematized experience rather than on undisciplined speculation.

The older positivism of Auguste Comte viewed human history as progressing through three stages: the religious, the metaphysical, and the scientific. His positivism was presented as articulating and systematizing the principles underlying this last (and best) stage. Law, morality, politics, and religion were all to be reconstituted on the new scientific basis. Traditional religion, for instance, was to be replaced by a religion of humanity and reason, with rituals and symbols appropriate to the new doctrine (Simon 1963). Comte’s evolutionary and scientistic perspectives were shared by such men as Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley, but contemporary movements of thought have been very little influenced by the older positivism.

Twentieth-century positivism came to be known as logical positivism, to distinguish it from the older philosophy. (The movement itself preferred the name logical empiricism.) The adjective points to the importance of the rationalist component in the modern view, which owes as much to Leibniz, inventor of the differential calculus and one of the pioneers of mathematical logic, as to Hume and the later British empiricists, like John Stuart Mill.

Twentieth-century positivism. Modern positivism began in the early 1920s with the establishment of the so-called Vienna circle by Moritz Schlick in association with Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath, Herbert Feigl, and a number of mathematicians and scientists. A few years later Hans Reichenbach and others in Berlin developed closely related ideas. In the late 1930s the center of the movement shifted to Chicago, where Carnap accepted an appointment. There, under the influence of C. W. Morris, the contributions of American pragmatism made themselves felt. The movement came increasingly to be called scientific empiricism, which reflected its broader outlook; an International Encyclopedia of Unified Science was published, as well as a short-lived Journal of Unified Science. Positivism as such lasted into the 1940s, but continued to be indirectly influential by way of its impact on British analytic philosophers, especially Gilbert Ryle and A. J. Ayer.

Among the movements contributing to the rise of logical positivism, three are especially worthy of notice. First, around the turn of the century, a number of scientists—Karl Pearson in England, Pierre Duhem in France, Ernst Mach in Austria, and others—were directing attention to the logical structure of scientific theory, proposing, and to some extent carrying out, a reconstruction of science on a strictly empiricist and even phenomenalist basis and looking to the replacement of pictorial models by axiomization. This line of thought reached its culmination in Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which positivists later widely adduced as illustrating the intimate connection between meaning and verification, apropos of the conception and measurement of space and time. A few years later Bertrand Russell embarked on a program of reducing mathematics to logic, along lines previously followed by Gottlob Frege. In collaboration with A. N. Whitehead he wrote the monumental Principia mathematica (Whitehead & Russell 1910–1913), which provided a comprehensive symbolic logic that was to become the language of the new philosophy. In the early 1920s his pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein published the superlative and important Tractatus logico-philosophicus (1921), which laid out the philosophical implications of the new logic in concise and often cryptic form. Finally, the political situation in central Europe after World War i helped to shape logical positivism in the spirit of the Marxist critique of ideology; also, anticlericalism gave particular relevance to a philosophy that denied meaning to even the questions posed by theology.

Philosophy and metaphysics

The positivist conception of the nature of philosophy marked a radical departure from the prevailing view. Philosophy is not a doctrine embodying “wisdom”—it is an activity; it is neither a theory nor a way of life but rather a way of analyzing what is said in the course of living or in theorizing about life. The business of philosophy is not to arrive at a certain set of propositions embodying a suprascientific truth; its business is to make propositions clear. Schlick looked forward to the day when there would be no more books on philosophy but all books would be philosophically written.

As a distinctive activity, philosophy consists in analysis. While the synthetic method, as practiced by mathematics and science, builds up conclusions from initial assumptions or data, analysis, as Russell in particular emphasized, digs down to the foundations. It looks to presuppositions rather than to outcomes; it aims at laying bare the “logical atoms” out of which our complex ideas are compounded. (The synthetic aspect of thought was later provided for in the positivist ideal of a “unified science.”) The name “logical positivism” calls attention to both the form and the matter of the new philosophy: its method is logical analysis, and its subject matter is the positive sciences. The later, so-called analytic philosophy, especially as it developed in England (in such journals as Analysis and Mind), differs in both respects from the logical positivism by which it was so deeply influenced: its method is more linguistic than logical, and its subject matter is provided as much by the discourse of law, morality, and everyday life as by what positivism calls “the language of science.”

Clarity and meaning

The governing ideal of the activity of analysis is clarity. Russell, taking science and mathematics as his exemplar, insisted that it is better to be clearly wrong than vaguely right. Knowledge grows by disproof as well as by confirmation, but intimations and adumbrations of the truth are of no great cognitive value. Opposition to the positivist movement in recent years has crystallized in the slogan “Clarity is not enough”; whether because of the intrinsic nature of philosophic problems or because of the limitations of the resources we bring to bear on their solution, the ideal of clarity is not just unattainable but misguided. According to this view, the great questions of human nature and destiny will not yield to exact treatment. To give up muddleheadedness for simple-mindedness is a worthless exchange.

From the outset, however, logical positivism rejected these “great questions” as meaningless. The problems taken to be most characteristically philosophical—those of metaphysics—are in fact pseudoproblems, which are incapable of solution not because of their profundity but because they pose nothing to be solved. The questions asked have the form of questions but are lacking in content. Philosophy need not decide between alternative answers, since all are equally uncalled for. Thus, for instance, agnosticism is as much to be rejected as is theism or atheism, because the agnostic, in maintaining that the answer is unknown, acknowledges the genuineness of the question. To the categories of truth and falsehood, into which statements were previously classified, the positivist added a third category: nonsense. It is indeed this third classification that is the distinctive concern of philosophy; to decide whether statements are true or false is the business of science. What philosophy does is to show, by logical analysis, which statements are eligible for scientific consideration and how they are to be considered.

To do this work, philosophy needs what Karl Popper has called (while repudiating this use) a “criterion of demarcation”—a way to distinguish meaningful from meaningless statements. Such a criterion positivism found in the so-called verifiability theory of meaning. (Whether it is indeed a theory, or rather a rule or stipulation, was a matter of controversy within the movement, as well as with its critics.) The verifiability principle allows meaning only to statements capable of verification, and it allows only so much meaning as is verifiable (unless they are statements of pure logic or mathematics). A way of testing whether a statement is true or false is necessary to the statement’s having meaning, and as the slogan had it, its meaning lies in its method of verification. By this last formulation, positivism is closely linked with operationism (Bridgman 1927).

A satisfactory formulation of the criterion occupied much of the attention of the positivist movement (Hempel 1950), but none was universally accepted, even within the movement. If, like Ockham’s razor, with which the principle was often compared, it is to free us from “surplus meanings,” the problem is how to shave close without cutting into the flesh. The difficulties are twofold. On the one hand, the criterion must be made loose enough to allow entry to the whole of science. Thus, falsification is as acceptable as verification; for Popper (1934) it is the fundamental requirement. Some degree of confirmation or disconfirmation is all that can be asked for (Carnap 1936–1937), and the possibility of verification may be either a technical, physical, or merely logical possibility (Reichenbach 1938). On the other hand, a criterion liberal enough to allow for statements containing theoretical terms, whose verification may be extremely remote and indirect, may readmit ideologies, myths, and ultimately metaphysics.

Logic and mathematics

A major concern of modern positivism, which is central to both its method and its content, is the nature of language. Philosophy does not analyze things, as science does, but rather our ideas of things—or, more precisely, the language in which our ideas are expressed. The object of any philosophical inquiry is accordingly known as the object language; the language in which the inquiry itself is formulated is the metalanguage. In particular cases the two languages may coincide, in whole or in part; but one must always distinguish between using a word and mentioning it—that is, saying something about the word itself. Statements that purport to be about objects but that can be analyzed as (or replaced by) statements about language were called pseudo-object sentences by Carnap; many characteristic statements of metaphysics were taken to be of this kind. Thus, Wittgenstein’s assertion “The world is the totality of facts, not of things” (1921) might well be rendered as “Science is the totality of true sentences, not of names or predicates.” The notions of a statement’s being “about” something and of one statement’s being “replaceable” by another later became the focal points of much analysis and discussion, under the rubrics designation and synonymy.

Following Charles Peirce, the nineteenth-century American philosopher, later thinkers classified language under sign processes in general; Morris (1938) formulated a widely used theory of signs, which was largely a codification of distinctions rather than a theory in the strict sense. Signs may be analyzed in three “dimensions,” or aspects, of their working: in relation to other signs (which is the province of syntactics or logical syntax); in relation to what they signify (semantics); and in relation to their users (pragmatics). In its early years positivism was preoccupied with syntax; later, semantics became the chief concern. Comparatively little was done in pragmatics before the positivist movement as such came to a close [seeSemantics and semiotics].

Logic and scientific purpose

Logic was identified as the syntax of the language of science and later broadened to comprise its semantics also. Thereby, logic was taken to be definitively freed from both psychology and ontology. The laws of logic are neither principles of reason nor truths of being but are rules of language or the consequences of those rules. These, however, are logical consequences, so that the analysis of any given logic presupposes a logic used in the analysis; but this regression was not regarded as a vicious one. For every language there are rules of formation, by which its signs can be combined into sentences, and rules of transformation, by which, given certain sentences, certain others can be asserted. The rule of modus ponens, for instance, allows us to assert the sentence B, given the sentences A and “If A then B.” Because of this rule, the sentence “A, and A implies B, together imply B” is a logical truth, and the second implication is a logical implication.

The rules may also allow certain sentences to be asserted regardless of what others are given. These sentences are then known as postulates of the system; if they can be so interpreted that their truth, and not merely their assertibility, is guaranteed by the rules of the language, then these sentences, together with their consequences, are logical truths. Which rules are adopted for a language is a matter of convention; it is not the business of philosophy to prohibit certain modes of expression or inference (Carnap’s principle of tolerance). Thus, there are many systems of logic and many languages proposed as “the” language of science. The question is always whether a language of a given structure is adequate for the purposes of science (or for some other special purpose). In particular, positivism promulgated the thesis that everything can be said in an extensional language, that is, one in which the truth of compound sentences is determined solely by the truth of their components and in which predicates designate classes rather than properties. But whether a certain language is judged to be “adequate” for the purposes of science depends on one’s convictions as to what there is to be said. On this score, the issues dividing positivism from its critics remained unresolved and, indeed, largely unformulated.

Foundations of mathematics

The logic of positivism is not merely a symbolic but a mathematical logic. Symbols have been used in logic since Aristotle, but only as abbreviations or auxiliaries. In the new logic everything hinges on the rules for the use of the notation. It is the focus on the combination and transformation of symbols that makes the logic mathematical. Mathematics, according to the positivist view, is itself a language. It does not tell us anything about the world, but it allows us to transform given statements into others and explores the possibilities of such transformations.

By the turn of the century, mathematics had been put into postulational form. Questions then arose as to the nature of the postulates and the justification of the rules associated with them. These questions of the foundations of mathematics occupied much of the attention of the positivist movement. Russell held that mathematics is reducible to logic by defining numbers as certain classes of classes and by defining arithmetical operations on numbers as certain logical operations on classes. Thus, Principia (Whitehead & Russell 1910–1913) begins with purely logical postulates (such as “q implies p or q”); eventually it presents a proof of “1 + 1 = 2.” In opposition to this logicist school, the intuitionists, led by L. E. J. Brouwer, looked at mathematics from the standpoint of pragmatics rather than semantics: mathematics is essentially a human activity; we cannot meaningfully speak of the existence of a mathematical entity without being able to construct it. A third school, the formalist, following David Hilbert, was concerned only with syntax—the occurrence of mathematical symbols in certain combinations—without regard to how the symbols are interpreted or used.

Each of these approaches involved serious difficulties. The logicist view encountered certain paradoxes, especially in relation to class membership (Is the class of all classes that are not members of themselves a member of itself?). The intuitionist must make special provision for the infinite processes that are fundamental to large parts of mathematics—for instance, in connection with limits and continuity. Especially important results were achieved that set absolute limits to the formalist program. Gödel (1931) proved that any formalism sufficiently rich to allow for the formulation of arithmetic also allowed for the occurrence of statements which, although true, could not be proved to be true within that formalism.

Out of these various endeavors a whole new discipline of metamathematics emerged, in which questions about the nature of various mathematical statements and proofs are themselves treated in a rigorous mathematical way (Tarski 1956). Through the so-called new mathematics in elementary education, the elements of logic (set theory) are now becoming known to every schoolboy.

Theory of knowledge

Fundamental to any question about the scope and validity of human knowledge is some conception of the nature of truth. The positivist emphasis on the analysis of the language of science was sometimes suggestive of the coherence theory of truth: a statement is accepted as true because of its relation to other statements that provide evidence or arguments for it. In the main, however, the positivist position was that ultimately certain statements (protocol sentences) are accepted on the basis of direct experience that is not itself verbalized. Truth is correspondence with fact, as disclosed by experience. This view, which goes back to Aristotle, was refined by Russell and Wittgenstein, who analyzed the correspondence in logical terms. A proposition is true if it has the same structure as the fact it asserts. However, it is only the logical structure of the proposition that is involved, not the grammatical structure of the sentence formulating the proposition. Thus, “the present king of France” is not a logical constituent of the statement “The present king of France is bald,” but only its grammatical subject. Yet, how exactly to determine logical structure, whether of propositions or of facts, remained to some extent obscure and at any rate controversial (Ryle 1932; Hampshire 1948).

Analytic and synthetic truths

Of special interest to positivism was the development by Tarski (1944) and others of the so-called semantic conception of truth. Here, also, truth is a matter of correspondence, but interest is focused on the way in which the truth of complex statements is definable by the truth of other, simpler expressions. The procedure is applicable, however, only to exact languages.

Basic to the positivist theory of knowledge is the difference beween logical and factual truth. In positivism this difference reduces to that between analytic and synthetic statements. For Kant, analytic statements were those whose predicates were contained in their subjects (“Every effect has a cause”). Positivists regarded analytic statements as fundamentally either definitions or tautologies: compound statements which remain true for all possible combinations of truth-values of their constituents (“Either it will rain or it will not rain”). However, a satisfactory definition of “analytic” remained elusive, and in later years serious doubts were raised as to whether even the sharp distinction between “logical” and “factual” is tenable (Quine 1953; see, however, Grice & Strawson 1956).

A fundamental tenet of positivism is that only analytic truths can be known a priori. Metaphysics is rejected because, as Kant saw, it lays claim to synthetic a priori knowledge. However, “analytic” and “a priori” were often defined, in effect, in terms of one another. If this is not done, some critics held, counterexamples to the positivist position can be provided.

The problem of induction. The most important of these putative instances is some form of the so-called principle of induction. As Hume saw, this principle is not analytic and therefore is not knowable a priori, yet it cannot be inductively grounded, a posteriori, without vicious circularity. Some positivists (such as Wittgenstein and Schlick) held that induction is not a matter of a “principle” but only of a rule, so that the question of its truth does not arise. But even a rule calls for justification. In the main, positivists approached the question in terms of a more general concern with the nature and foundations of inductive logic.

Inductive logic, it was widely agreed, is fundamentally a matter of probability. But how probability is to be interpreted raised important issues even within the positivist movement. Mathematics provides a probability calculus by which given probabilities allow for the calculation of others sought for. The question is what exactly we are given and whether this same calculus allows us to attach a determinate probability to, for example, a scientific hypothesis. Reichenbach (1935) defended the view that probabilities are essentially frequencies in the long run and that the frequency interpretation can be applied throughout. Carnap (1950), while acknowledging the importance of the frequency interpretation for certain cases, developed a conception of logical probability to be employed in the logic of confirmation. Each position faces acknowledged difficulties, some of which have in the meantime been bypassed by the development of a third conception—that of “subjective” or “personal” probability (Savage 1954).

Operationism and the unity of science

Whatever the logic of induction, positivists agreed that inductive knowledge of extralogical truths can only be empirical. From Hume and Mach, positivism acquired a strong phenomenalistic bent: all knowledge can be cast in the form of statements about immediate experience (Carnap 1928). Alternatively, it can be formulated on a realistic basis (the “thing-language”). Most important is the claim— the thesis of “physicalism”—that everything can be said, in principle, in the language of physics. Closely connected with this thesis is the positivist thesis of the unity of science, which holds that there is no fundamental cleavage between Geisteswissenschaft and Naturwissenschaft. Science has but one method; it is unified as to terms, in the sense of physicalism; and there is, again in principle, a unity of scientific laws, all of which can be derived from some single, comprehensive theory. The thesis of the unity of science, however, was of incomparably greater significance as a program than as an established philosophical doctrine.

It was with respect to the unity of terms that most progress was made. Operationism, which was positivistic in spirit if not in origin, formulated conditions for the introduction of any term into the language of science: the specification of operations for measurement or verification. It appears, however, that the meaning of a term cannot be identified or even univocally associated with these operations, for it is characteristic of science that there may be several quite different ways of measuring the same magnitude or of verifying the same hypothesis. A greater difficulty is that certain terms are connected with observations, not directly, but only by way of their relation to other terms; symbolic operations are thus called for. But once such operations are admitted, much of the force of the operationist requirement is dissipated.

In the positivist movement, this difficulty centered on the status of theoretical terms. Theory, according to the positivist view, is significant primarily as an intermediary between observations (or experiments). What is required is a specification of how theoretical terms can be brought into relation with observables. To this end Carnap (1936–1937) developed a theory of reduction sentences, which are partial definitions, as it were; no theoretical term is capable of being completely defined by way of observables. This is not to say, however, that theory posits an ontological domain other than what can be observed. To be sure, theory not only describes observable facts but also explains them. But explanation is essentially a matter of prediction: to explain a fact is to adduce a law from which, together with appropriate initial conditions, the fact can be deduced—that is, predicted (Hempel & Oppenheim 1948). Here, too, problems of detail persisted, and some recent philosophers of science have tended to separate explanation from prediction and to emphasize the part played in explanation by unifying patterns.

Positivist ethics

As to ethics, some of the logical positivists (e.g., Schlick 1930) espoused a naturalistic hedonism, akin to the liberal utilitarianism of nineteenth-century thought. But the distinctively positivistic view (Ayer 1936; Reichenbach 1951) applied the criterion of verifiability to moral judgments and concluded that these are strictly devoid of meaning. More accurately, a distinction was introduced between two kinds of meaning, which came to be known as cognitive and emotive. The former is characteristic of scientific discourse, is expressed in declarative sentences, and is capable of being true or false; the latter is characteristic of the discourse of politics, religion, morality, and art, and is expressed in imperatives or exclamations. The first conveys beliefs, whereas the second conveys attitudes (Stevenson 1944). Ethical statements do not embody propositions, but rather constitute commands, exhortations, and the like.

Much of the severe criticism directed against this position begged the question of whether it “robs morality of any foundation,” although attitudes may be as firmly grounded in character and as effective on action as are beliefs. More philosophic objections were addressed to the workability of the distinction between the two sorts of meaning and to the question of whether the positivist analysis applies to moral judgments rather than only to expressions of moral sentiment. The later development of the positivist view gave rise to various “deontic” logics, the precise postulational treatment of ascriptions of rights and duties—and related notions—in ways connected with the tradition of analytic jurisprudence, on the one hand, and with the utility theory of modern economics, on the other.

The influence of positivism

The persistence of identifiable schools of philosophy, each engaged in continuing polemic with other, opposing schools, seems more characteristic of the European scene than the American. At any rate, the dispersal of European scholars at the outbreak of World War II marked the beginning of the end of logical positivism as a movement. The increasing diversity of viewpoints within the movement, as well as more widespread misunderstanding of its claims, made for increasing reluctance to identify with it. Moreover, as time passed there was a progressive softening of what had been taken to be its distinctive doctrines. The verifiability criterion was broadened; semantics and even pragmatics assumed more importance, as compared with syntax; and principles became programs to be espoused rather than theses to be defended. The revolutionary and even utopian impulse in some of the early positivists (for instance, Neurath) became dissipated.

In philosophy, positivism had a marked impact on analytic philosophy, which is in a way its heir, and positivism is largely responsible for the central position in philosophic training accorded to mathematical logic almost everywhere. But its influence was much greater on science, and on the borders between science and philosophy, than on philosophy itself. On its empirical side, positivism added—especially in psychology and sociology—to the growing emphasis on observation and data, as against the theoretical and even speculative bent of the preceding generation or two. Positivism may also have contributed to the emergence of “behavioral science” as something more than an alternative designation for the more traditional disciplines. It must be noted, however, that the positivists were not, on the whole, inclined toward a strict behaviorism: both Carnap and Reichenbach were quite sympathetic to psychoanalytic ideas, for instance. The positivist interest in the logic of measurement and in the nature of probability at least coincided with, if it did not directly contribute to, the growth of such disciplines as psychometrics and sociometrics.

It is on its logical side, however, that positivism exerted its most unmistakable and distinctive influence. The increasing interest during the last several decades in the application to empirical materials of various logical and even mathematical systems is clearly indebted to the positivistic philosophy of science. In mathematics itself—especially in foundation studies—a strong claim can be made for the value of postulational and even formal approaches. More dubious is the fruitfulness of their application in the physical and biological sciences (Reichenbach 1944; Woodger 1952). In the social sciences the influence of positivism can be recognized in the concern with “miniature systems” and “model building.” It may be too early to assess the value of this tendency. One recognizable danger may be identified as the “semantic myth”: that if concepts are introduced by the explicit operational definition of terms and if assumptions are clearly stated as postulates, the scientific significance of the undertaking is assured.

In sum, the influence of positivism has been on form rather than substance—on methodology rather than on content. It has given new vigor to the ideals of clarity and precision of thinking, in a perspective in which the emphasis on theory is conjoined with an equal emphasis on the ineluctability of empirical data. But too much self-consciousness as to methodology may have a repressive effect on the conduct of scientific inquiry. Unintentionally, and even contrary to its own purposes, modern positivism may have contributed to a “myth of methodology”: that it does not much matter what we do if only we do it right.

Abraham Kaplan

[See alsoEthics, article onethical systems and social structures; History, article onthe philosophy of history; Probability; Survey analysis; and the biographies ofComte; Pearson; Peirce; Schlick; Whitehead.]


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The history of positivism falls into two nearly independent stages: nineteenth-century French and twentieth-century Germanic, which became the logical positivism or logical empiricism of the Vienna Circle that, in turn, enjoyed an American phase. In the postmodern world, "positivist" is often a term of abuse, but historical research now contests the received characterization.

In a broad sense, positivism is the philosophical expression of scientism, the view that empirical science is the primary cultural institution, the only one that produces clear, objective, reliable knowledge claims about nature and society that accumulate over time and thereby the only enterprise that escapes the contingencies of history. For positivists, that reliability is proportional to the proximity of claims to observed factsthe empirical basis of knowledge. Every substantive claim not tested by experience is sheer human fabrication. Positivists claim that they alone take fully into account the special nature and historical importance of science, with its actual and potential contribution to human life and culture. They reverse the traditional intellectual priority of science and philosophy (epistemology): philosophy is no longer prior to science but becomes the interpreter of and commentator on science. As W. V. Quine once quipped, "Philosophy of science is philosophy enough" (1976, p. 155).

Positivists aim to carry on the social mission of the scientific Enlightenment. The sciences, including the new human sciences, are to be unified under one method, usually with physics as the model. The positivists' insistence that the hardheaded, allegedly value-free methods of the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften ) be extended to the human sciences or humanities (Geisteswissenschaften ) has provoked charges of cultural imperialism from those defending historical, hermeneutical-interpretive, religious, or aesthetic modes of understanding (Verstehen ).

In the broad sense, Karl Popper and even Quine are positivists, despite their trenchant critiques of the logical empiricists of the Vienna Circle (especially Rudolf Carnap), who achieved cultural authority in the twentieth century and with whom "positivism" in a narrow sense is now identified.

The Nineteenth Century: Comte to Mach

Although it owes something to the British empiricism of David Hume and to later radical empiricists such as John Stuart Mill and Alexander Bain, positivism as a movement developed on the Continent in France and later in central Europe, especially Vienna and Berlin. We can recognize positivist strains in the French Académie des Sciences around 1800, but it was the sociologist and philosopher August Comte who, in the 1830s, founded positivism as a distinctive movement, gave it its name, and also named the new science of social physics "sociology." The conjunction was not accidental. For him, sociology was the final science, crowning the hierarchy of sciences, employing the same lawful methods as all positive sciences, and making possible a mature scientific philosophy. Comte is most famous for his law of three stages, which claims that civilization (and every field of knowledge) passes from a naïve, animistic, theological stage, through a more abstract, metaphysical-philosophical stage, to a final, scientific or "positive" stage. In the French tradition of Descartes and the encyclopédistes of the Enlightenment, Comtean positivism was an entire cultural system designed to fill the vacuum left by the French Revolution, which had swept away the religious and metaphysical ancien régime. Comtean positivism became an evangelical movement, with scientific humanism as the new religion and Comte himself as the high priest.

The law of three stages implied the need to demarcate science from other endeavors. Comte's criterion was that scientific claims are predictive, which excluded not only metaphysics but also unstructured accumulations of singular facts. Positive science aims at lawful generalizations expressing invariable succession and resemblance, including laws of history and societypreviously considered the domain of free human action and thus outside the scope of science. Positive science is cumulative and hence progressive. For Comte, something is "positive" insofar as it is precise, certain, useful, an organic organizing tendency for society, and relational rather than absolute. This last contrast means that Comte's science seeks lawful correlations among phenomena rather than essences or underlying causes (the postulation of which smacks of metaphysics). It sticks to the observable surface of the world. "No proposition that is not finally reducible to the enunciation of a fact, particular or general, can offer any real and intelligible meaning" (vol. 3, p. 358). For Comte, explanation has the same form as prediction, namely subsumption of a fact under a general regularity rather than as the effect of a cause. Yet Comte also embraced the newly popular method of hypothesis against the old empiricist requirement that laws be induced from prior facts. All of these tenets except the strange Comtean religion are characteristic of later forms of positivism, although rarely via Comte's influence. The great French sociologist Emile Durkheim did acknowledge a large debt to him.

Positivist strains are also evident in German scientific thinking in the decades before and after 1900, but it was Ernst Mach, physicist, historian, and philosopher of science, who made Vienna a center of positivist thinking. Positivists typically minimize the gap between appearance and underlying reality, at least knowable reality. Mach rejected atomic theory as empirically meaningless metaphysical speculation, at best of heuristic value; and his emphasis on the economy of thought led him to view scientific laws as rationally organized summaries of facts. Unlike the later positivists, he worked seriously on history of science (especially mechanics) and wrote on the processes of problem solving and discovery.

Logical Positivism and the Vienna Circle

The most developed form of positivism was the logical positivism or logical empiricism (LE) of the Vienna Circle. LE developed in three main phases: the first Vienna Circle from about 1907; the second Vienna Circle (the Vienna Circle proper), from the mid-1920s until about 1933; and the predominantly American emigrant phase after Hitler came to power. In all three cases the logical empiricists (LEs) were scientists, mathematicians, and scientifically trained philosophers who met to discuss substantive and methodological problems of science and society. The first circle was influenced directly by Mach and other scientists such as Heinrich Hertz, Richard Avenarius, Wilhelm Ostwald, Henri Poincaré, and Pierre Duhem, and by scientific developments such as non-Euclidean geometry, David Hilbert's axiomatization of Euclidean geometry, and Einstein's relativity theories. The second circle was heavily influenced additionally by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead's attempted reduction of mathematics to the new symbolic logic in Principia Mathematica (19101913), Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus (1921), Hilbert's metamathematics, the new quantum theory, behavioral psychology, and antivitalistic progress in biology.

All three phases were also shaped by their respective social contexts. The first circle experienced the events leading to World War I and the final days of the Habsburg Empire, while the Weimar period framed the sociopolitical issues of the second circle. By contrast, the "end of ideology" characterized the American period, especially after World War II. Upon the emigration to America by members of the circle, the LE social program vanished. The American LEs presented their work as purely technical and hence politically neutral.

Many postmodern intellectuals, who think of the positivists as heavy-handed, dogmatic conservatives or as emotionless technical analysts disinterested in cultural affairs, are surprised to learn that the Vienna Circle assigned itself the urgent mission of reforming and transforming all of social and political culture by adapting to present conditions the program of the scientific Enlightenment. A major initiative was linguistic reform. The Viennese positivists' animus against metaphysics was directed as much against obfuscatory and potentially totalitarian political discourse as it was against woolly philosophy. This is apparent at once in the manifesto of 1929, "The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle," by Hans Hahn, Carnap, and Otto Neurath in honor of their leader, Moritz Schlick. Modernist in outlook, the Vienna Circle celebrated the machine age and the transformative reconstruction (Aufbau ) of Europe after World War I. It had close ties with a similar circle of scientific philosophers around Hans Reichenbach (Einstein's colleague) in Berlin and with the Bauhaus school of design at Dessau, which in its own way emphasized clarity of structure shorn of all baroque, metaphysical adornment. Like the Bauhaus, the circle was international in outlook and proworking class, and some members were politically active. Neurath was a neo-Marxist social scientist who radicalized the young Carnap, a logician. Schlick led a moderate wing.

When Schlick was assassinated in 1936, Neurath and Carnap became the leaders of the circle. It was in America that the indefatigable Neurath found a publisher for his dream project of a new, systematic encyclopedia of the sciences, but the overall project was a failure. Neurath died in 1945, and the University of Chicago Press published only twenty monographs of what was intended to be a long-term monthly subscription series. (These were later reissued as the two volumes of Foundations of the Unity of Science in 1955 and 1970.) One of the last contributions was Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), commonly regarded as a refutation of logical empiricism. Meanwhile, Carnap, Herbert Feigl, Reichenbach, and Carl Hempel (a student of Reichenbach) headed the American phase of the movement. Ernest Nagel, although of a more Deweyan pragmatic cast, was a close associate. In America, unlike Europe, the aforementioned all had important academic positions, which they used to found the new specialty discipline of philosophy of science as well as to teach a new generation of philosophers, including Adolf Grünbaum, Wesley Salmon, and Hilary Putnam. With its rigorous formal methods, LE made the pragmatism of Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey seem quaintly dated and gradually displaced it as the official scientific philosophy. LE remained dominant until the 1960s and still casts a large shadow at the start of the twenty-first century.

The received view of the Vienna Circle is largely a post-Kuhnian construction that is now being contested. To be sure, the LEs wanted to make philosophy (or their replacement for it) a collective, progressive enterprise like that of the sciences, but the manifesto announced a more iconoclastic unity than was actually present. Accordingly, it was easy for opponents to miss the internal discord and tar all LEs with the same brush. Although the LEs were vehemently antimetaphysical and rejected most philosophy as a meaningless, fruitless pursuit of solutions to "pseudoproblems," they were liberal in refusing to dogmatize about empirical questions and they viewed their group as open to discussion of all views. Another source of misunderstanding was A. J. Ayer's inflammatory Language, Truth, and Logic (1936), the book that brought German positivism to an English-speaking audience. Ayer's "potboiler" (as it has been called) mis-located the positivists in the British empiricist tradition.

Archival research sensitive to the intellectual and cultural milieu of central Europe later provided a major reinterpretation of the Austro-German positivist movement from Mach to Hempel. The participants came from varying academic backgrounds and life experiences and they frequently disagreed over matters of philosophical content as well as strategy and politics. They were their own most trenchant critics. For example, Kurt Gödel defended a Platonist (and hence metaphysical) ontology of mathematics. Neurath was out of sympathy with Carnap's project to reconstruct science within a formal logical system and with Schlick's commitment to the correspondence theory of truth. Neurath rejected the foundational, linear empiricist theory of justification, from supposedly infallible basic statements up through ever-higher levels of theory, in favor of a holistic coherence position featuring mutual support, a stance that he famously articulated in his ship metaphor: "There is no tabula rasa. We are like sailors who have to rebuild their ship on the open sea, without ever being able to dismantle it in drydock and reconstruct it from the best components" (Giere and Richardson, p. 83).

The LEs also disagreed over labels. Several members attacked "positivism," and Reichenbach sometimes denied that he was a "logical empiricist." (By the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, the inclusive term "logical empiricism" was commonly applied to both the Vienna and Berlin groups as well as the American contingent and was preferred to "logical positivism.") Also, the views of the leading figures developed significantly over their lifetimes. Accordingly, a summary that is both brief and accurate is impossible.

Contrary to Ayer, the LEs had too serious an engagement with Kant to be squarely in the British empiricist tradition. They were anti-Kantian up to a point, with the political goal of displacing the neo-Kantians of the Marburg school (which included Ernst Cassirer) as the dominant school of scientific philosophy in Europe. The central problem was to retain what was correct in Kant's critique of crude, British empiricism without commitment to Kant's permanent categories and forms of intuition, which licensed synthetic a priori judgments. The latter are necessary truths that are knowable a priori yet make substantive statements about the universe, for example, that physical space is Euclidean and the laws of mechanics, Newtonian. Without them, Kant had said, mathematics and natural science would be impossible.

Kant had realized that sensory inputs do not automatically sort themselves into intelligible perceptions about which we can make coherent judgments. Coherent perception and thought must be actively constituted by the human mind by means of its processing rules (the categories and forms of intuition). Upon analyzing relativity theory, Reichenbach and Schlick concluded that Kant was partly right: science does need constitutive framework principles that are neither logical truths nor empirical claims subject to testing and in that sense a priori. But how, then, to avoid Kant's commitment to a special, nonnatural intuition that yields synthetic a priori truths? Briefly, the LEs' solution, anticipating Kuhn's paradigms by several decades, was to disambiguate Kant's necessary a priori from the constitutive a priori of framework principles and to regard the latter as based on human convention rather than Kantian intuition. For example, Reichenbach's analysis of space-time theory bifurcated it into two components: a purely conventional component of "coordinating definitions" that define the meaning of measurement operations (and that we could change if it proved convenient to do so), plus a purely empirical component expressing the substantive content of the theory relative to the constitutive framework.

Stated in another way, the LEs' problem was how to wed empiricism to logic and mathematics. As Kant had emphasized, raw experience is not the sort of thing that can enter into logical relations with statements, providing justificatory reasons or evidence. And analytic claims need their own special warrant. Carnap, the most influential LE, later widened the above approach to include logic itself. The axioms of a logical system are not self-evident to reason, he said, for there is no such thing as a special faculty of rational intuition. It is not even a question of epistemic correctness; rather, it is a question of human linguistic conventionchoice of language. The choice is pragmatic, not epistemic. We may freely choose any formal system we like and explore its consequences, keeping those systems that produce the most fruitful consequences for our purposes. Thus we arrive at the mature LE view that all and only empirical statements are synthetic and all and only a priori statements are analytic (in the pragmatically grounded sense). On this view, the a prioria posteriori distinction coincides with the analytic-synthetic distinction. There is no synthetic a priori.

Where does philosophy fit into this scheme? For Carnap its task is purely analyticWissenschaftslogik, the logical analysis of the language of science using the tools of symbolic logic. Scientific philosophers clarify the logical structure of empirical science but do not do empirical science. Thus was born both mature analytic philosophy and philosophy of science as a specialty.

Logical Empiricist Themesand Their Reception

What follows is a list of several interlocking theses and projects and their outcomes, several of which were controversial among the LEs themselves.

1. The verifiability theory of meaning.

A sentence is empirically meaningful if and only if it is verifiable in principle and (roughly) its meaning is given by the method of its verification. The LEs quickly rejected full verifiability in favor of weaker forms of testability. However, they were never able to formulate an adequate formal criterion of meaning or justify the equation of meaning with empirical evidence. It was this "verificationism" that backed the LEs' anthropomorphic claim that all genuine problems are empirical and therefore humanly solvable and their dismissal of all metaphysical problems as pseudoproblems. Since competing metaphysical positions, by definition, have no empirical consequences, they cannot differ in meaning; so there can be no meaningful problem of choosing between them.

2. The attack on metaphysics as meaningless.

The LEs agreed that an enlightened society has no room for metaphysics; however, they sometimes disagreed over what counts as metaphysics.

3. A sharp fact-value distinction and emotive ethics.

Ethical and aesthetic utterances are emotional reactions. Since they are not empirically testable, they have no cognitive meaning and cannot be true or false. Nonetheless, the early LEs took a strong normative stance on social and political issues.

4. The observational-theoretical distinction.

The project to distinguish epistemically unproblematic observational terms and sentences from the theoretical ones and legitimize the latter in terms of their logical relations to the former ran into similar difficulties despite important progress such as Carnap's treatment of dispositional terms. N. R. Hanson, Popper, Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and Putnam noted that scientific observational language is "theory laden" and that there is no context-free, linear gradation of theoreticity.

5. The analytic-synthetic distinction.

Quine's influential critique of this pillar of LE (and of much else), in "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" and other writings, and his return to a pragmatic naturalism were heavy blows. The second dogma was "radical reductionism," the idea that each sentence in isolation can be correlated with a range of experience.

6. Application of the resources of the new symbolic logic and the third dogma.

The LEs (especially Carnap) developed and applied the new symbolic logic in ingenious ways, mainly in terms of purely syntactic rules; but later critiques by Quine, Hempel, Nelson Goodman, and others showed that semantic and pragmatic considerations are unavoidable, effectively dooming Carnap's project to produce objective, ahistorical, context-free languages of science. By the 1950s and 1960s, philosophers increasingly felt that the LEs had exhausted the resources of deductive logic without adequately capturing the richness of scientific reasoning. Static logical relations seemed especially incapable of modeling scientific theories and deep conceptual change, for example, scientific revolutions. Commitment to deductive logic by the LEs and Popper has been called the third dogma of empiricism. (Others, following Donald Davidson, give this label to the so-called scheme-content distinction.) Reichenbach all along had urged a probabilistic approach (a theme continued by his student, Salmon), although he and Carnap had developed probability theory in roughly opposite ways.

7. Logical analysis of scientific confirmation, explanation, and theory structure.

The LEs admirably articulated old and new ideas here in terms of detailed models. Their work set the standard for ongoing research in these areas. Hempel's extension of "covering law" explanation to history, psychology, and the social sciences was especially controversial since it challenged old ideas about human freedom and spontaneity and the need for sympathetic understanding. Yet it also failed to capture the force of causal explanation.

8. The unity of science.

Pitting the sciences against the rest of culture, some LEs defended the unity of science on three fronts: conceptual, doctrinal, and methodological. Conceptual unity means that there is one universal language of science; doctrinal unity, that more complex disciplines such as biology are ultimately reducible to more basic disciplines such as chemistry and physics; methodological unity states that there is one general method of science, that all legitimate theories, all explanations, and so on possess the same logical structure. All of these projects produced interesting results, but have since been abandoned. In the antireductionist, more pragmatic atmosphere of the early twenty-first century, the emphasis is on diversity, on teasing out the differences among the various sciences rather than on trying to model all of them on physics; and physics itself turns out to be internally diverse. Most experts reject the existence of a unique scientific method as a fiction of textbooks and school administrators.

9. The fall and rise of naturalistic epistemology.

Prominent LEs followed Gottlob Frege in sharply distinguishing logic and epistemology from psychology; "psychologism" was the fallacy of confusing them. It was on this point that the positivists differed most obviously from the American pragmatists. (As usual, the most important exception was Neurath, who promoted a naturalistic epistemology.) But the LEs' own critique of Kant's transcendental epistemology could be viewed as a step toward a naturalistic epistemology. Quine took the next step and urged a return to a naturalistic pragmatism, contending that epistemology should become a branch of behavioral psychology. Historical case studies by Kuhn, Feyerabend, and their followers showed that the failure of LE and Popperian methodologies to fit actual history was so great as to raise the question whether anything recognizable as science could fit the old rules of method. Since (as Kant said) "ought" implies "can," the critics thereby showed that empirical information is relevant to and can in a sense "refute" a methodology despite its normative character.

This surprising turn does fit Quine's pronouncement that "no statement is immune to revision," come what maynot a conventional or "analytic" statement or even a normative one. The critics increasingly perceived some problems in the philosophy of science as artifacts of the LE approach and hence as pseudoproblems with respect to real science. Kuhn famously distinguished normal science under a paradigm (a quasi-Kantian categorical scheme that made normal science possible and intelligible) from revolutionary science, neither of which fit the tenets of either LE or Popperianism. In "the battle of the big systems" (initially among the LEs, Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Imre Lakatos, and Stephen Toulmin), many considered Kuhn the winner, although many philosophers severely criticized his work. And yet Carnap, who increasingly thought in terms of free, pragmatic choices among available linguistic frameworks, welcomed Kuhn's contribution as making a similar point. The work of Kuhn and Feyerabend brought all the above-mentioned difficulties of LE to a focus, which hastened its demise as the generally accepted account of science. No similarly grand consensus has replaced it.

10. The discovery-justification distinction.

This distinction was an LE bulwark against psychologism. The basic idea is that it does not matter how or why a theory or problem solution pops into someone's head; what matters is how the claim is tested. There is a psychology of discovery but no logic of discovery, only a logic of justification. Philosophy is concerned only with the logically reconstructed products and not the processes of science. The LEs' applications of the discovery-justification distinction drew philosophy of science closer to philosophical problems of logic and epistemology and away from the study of science as practiced by communities of scientists. Since the new historical case studies were precisely the study of the process of investigation, they challenged these applications.

11. The emergence of science studies.

As scientific insiders, the original LEs relied on their own knowledge and intuitions about how science works (or should work) and, qua analytic philosophers, saw no need for careful empirical studies of the sciences themselves. The Kuhnian revolution changed that. Their sharpest critics noted the irony that the logical empiricists urged everyone else to be empiricists but themselves! But while post-Kuhnian philosophers began to take the history of science seriously, they did not study in detail the scientific practices of contemporary science. They thereby left an opening for the new empirical sociology of scientific knowledge that has since grown into a multidisciplinary "science studies," often defined to exclude philosophy.

12. Realism versus social constructionism and "the science wars."

As strong empiricists, early LEs tended to advocate a minimalist stance toward theories and the entities that they appeared to postulate. Some regarded theories as instruments for calculation rather than as attempts truly to describe underlying reality. Carnap himself used Russell's maxim as a motto: "Wherever possible logical constructions are to be substituted for inferred entities." This is a logical constructionist position. Most science studies practitioners are also constructionists, but social constructionists. They deny that science is a special, epistemically privileged institution and regard its results as negotiated social constructions. In reaction, many philosophers now take a "realist" position that affirms objective, scientific progress toward truth and vigorously denies the cultural relativity of scientific results. As heirs of the Enlightenment, they reject the centrifugal tendencies of postmodernism and defend the special place of the sciences in human culture. This heated debate among philosophers, science studies practitioners, culture theorists, and scientists themselves is commonly known as "the science wars." If the postmodernist critics are right, Comte's law of three stages stopped at least one stage too soon!

13. The linguistic turn and the rise and fall of narrowly analytic philosophy.

With G. E. Moore, Russell, and the early Wittgenstein as precursors, the LEs, and especially Carnap, were the primary developers of analytic philosophy. After World War II, a wider sort of linguistic philosophy, "ordinary language philosophy," flourished at Oxford. Both movements construed philosophy itself as a metadiscipline concerned to analyze language rather than to address substantive questions about the world and human activity. But since the 1960s, Anglo-American philosophy has become more liberal in its interests and methods. Philosophers once again vigorously discuss the metaphysical issues rejected by the LEs as pseudoproblems, and there is even something of a rapprochement with the so-called Continental philosophy of Heidegger and his successors. Carnap dominated the American phase and the received view of LE; but at the turn of the twenty-first century, many experts were examining Neurath's position in greater detail and finding it more defensible.

See also Analytical Philosophy ; Empiricism ; Falsifiability ; Linguistic Turn ; Paradigm .


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Thomas Nickles

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POSITIVISM, an empiricist philosophy that emerged in early nineteenth-century Europe, and whose chief exponent was Auguste Comte, the French philosopher of science. Once the secretary of utopian socialist Claude Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), Comte articulated his own grand system in a series of lectures subsequently published as the Cours de philosophie positive (1830–1842). Extending the insights of Francis Bacon, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and others, this philosophical tour de force laid out the component parts of positivism: an empiricist epistemology, an inductive method, a hierarchical classification of the sciences, and an elaborate philosophy of history. Like other empiricists, Comte restricted knowledge to data gained only through sensory perception and rejected any consideration of first or ultimate causes. In the "law of the three stages," Comte claimed to have discovered the law of historical development that revealed human society progressing from the primitive theological stage (where deities were invoked to explain natural phenomenon), to the philosophical stage (where reified ideas were employed in causal explanation), to, ultimately, the thoroughly empirical positive stage. Comte's hierarchy of the sciences built upon this "science of history"; he believed that each field of study had attained the positive level at a different time. Comte ranked mathematics first (as the most general and independent), then astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and, finally, sociology, the "queen of the sciences." The latter, truly a science of society, was the last to attain the positive method.

Because he held that the social instability of nineteenth-century Europe was rooted in intellectual chaos, Comte developed a detailed social blueprint founded upon his empiricist philosophy in the Système de politique positive (1851–1854). Comte's so-called "second system" included an institutionalized religion of humanity headed by a priestly scientific class. He believed that worship was an essential part of human nature but that religion had been mistakenly based on theology, rather than on positive science. Accordingly, Comte identified a host of secular scientific saints in his church's calendar and offered himself as the first "Supreme Pontiff of Humanity."

European Followers and Critics

Comparatively few European intellectuals embraced all of Comte's controversial social and religious ideas. Yet, by the 1870s, some sort of positivism was accepted by a broad spectrum of thoroughly naturalistic thinkers. At one pole stood Comte's few orthodox disciples such as Pierre La-fitte and (in England) Richard Congreve. Nearer the center of the spectrum were those who broke with the official cult but who shared many of Comte's social and political concerns and who believed that the empiricist epistemology and philosophy of history did have social ramifications. One could include in this group G. H. Lewes (and his wife, the author George Eliot) and Frederic Harrison. Finally, there emerged a more generic school of positivists at the other end of the spectrum who, like John Stuart Mill, had been profoundly influenced by the theory and method of the Cours but were repelled by the Système, which Mill dismissed as despotic. Another generic positivist, T. H. Huxley, who combined positivist empiricism with evolutionary theory, aptly characterized Comte's religion of humanity as "Catholicism without Christianity." Still, even these critics shared Comte's thoroughly naturalistic assumptions and his hostility to theology, and, like Comte, they attempted to employ a strict empiricism in their methodology.

American Positivists

All three of these points along the positivist spectrum had representatives in Gilded Age America, although historians have often ignored the first two groups. English émigré Henry Edger embraced orthodox positivism in 1854 and corresponded with Comte, who soon appointed Edger "Apostle to America." Edger settled in a small perfectionist commune on Long Island known as Modern Times. From there, he sought converts in neighboring New York City. A tiny clique of sectarian Comtists coalesced around the New York World editor David G. Croly in 1868, but it soon broke away from Edger and official Comtism and fractured further as the years passed.

Arguably, the major American thinker most influenced by Comte's Cours and some of the French philosopher's social ideals was Lester Frank Ward (1841–1913). Indebted to the political principles of the American Whigs, Ward used Comte's ideas to articulate the first naturalistic critique of William Graham Sumner's political economy. Drawing upon Comte's interventionism, Ward stressed that the mind was a key "social factor" that laissez-faire systems—like that proposed by Sumner—had overlooked or misunderstood. Social science, properly applied, could enable humanity to control the human environment and thereby ensure social progress; it was neither unnatural nor unscientific for the state to intervene in the private economy.

The other American advocates of a more generic positivism during the late nineteenth century included John William Draper, Chauncey Wright, and Henry Adams. Draper, president of the medical faculty at New York University and a popular author, read Comte in 1856 and adopted a modified form of Comte's "law of the three stages" in his work; he had even visited Croly's New York group during the 1860s. Wright, a philosopher of science and a mathematician, was one of Mill's most important American followers; he rejected any sort of metaphysical argument and attacked Herbert Spencer as not being an authentic positivist in terms of method. Adams encountered Comte by reading Mill's influential essay Auguste Comte and Positivism. He wrote in his autobiographical Education that by the late 1860s, he had decided to become "a Comteist [sic], within the limits of evolution" (p. 926).

By the 1890s, grand theorists such as Comte and Spencer and their monistic systems were decidedly out of favor both in the emerging social science disciplines and in academic philosophy. "At the end of the nineteenth century," notes Maurice Mandelbaum, "the earlier systematic form of positivism had to all intents and purposes lost its hold upon the major streams of thought. What had once seemed to be the philosophic import of the physical sciences no longer carried the same conviction" (Mandelbaum, p. 19). Although Ward finally obtained an academic appointment at Brown University in 1906, his approach had by then begun to look decidedly outmoded. Other, younger pioneering sociologists such as Albion Small at the University of Chicago and Edward A. Ross, first at Stanford and then at Wisconsin, moved away from a reductionistic explanatory method. Yet their meliorism and interest in social control also evidenced their early reading of Ward and, indirectly, the impact of Comtean assumptions. In the final pages of Social Control (1901), Ross portrayed the sociologist as a sort of priestly technocrat who would carefully guard the secret of social control but would "address himself to those who administer the moral capital of society—to teachers, clergymen, editors, lawmakers, and judges, who wield the instruments of control" (p. 441). The historian Robert Bannister describes American sociology growing into two distinct types of scientism in the early twentieth century and explains this development as a bifurcation of "the legacy of Comtean positivism: the one [branch] adopting the emphasis on quantification as the route to positive knowledge, and the other, Comte's utopian program without the mumbo jumbo of the Religion of Humanity" (Bannister, p. 6).

Meanwhile, Charles S. Peirce and William James in philosophy softened positivism's harsh rejection of religious experience by the close of the nineteenth century. They both recognized the limitations of science in a way that some of their critics feared would open the door to metaphysics. James poked fun at the "block universe" of Spencer and, by implication, at the pretensions of all-inclusive systems. James and John Dewey were both influenced by the neo-Kantian revival in philosophy and came to stress the dynamic organizing function of the mind. Pragmatism may have been influenced by positivism but much of its approach diverged from Comte's assumptions.

On a more popular level, the journalist Herbert Croly, son of orthodox positivist David Croly, blended German idealism and a Comtean concern for social order and coordinated social progress. In Promise of American Life (1909), Croly called upon Americans to leave behind the provincial negative-state liberalism of the Jeffersonian tradition and embrace a more coherent national life. As Croly biographer David Levy has shown, Croly's organicist understanding of society owed much to his father's positivism. In a 1918 article supporting the establishment of a school of social research (which later became the New School), Croly referred to Ward and explained in Comtean terms that "the work of understanding social processes is entangled inextricably with the effort to modify them" (Croly, quoted by Harp, p. 201).

A New Variant

By the 1920s a new stream, styling itself logical positivism, emerged in Vienna. It represented a more radical sort of empiricism that stressed the principle of verification. Logical positivists dismissed arguments as metaphysical unless they could be verified on the basis of convention or with reference to empirical phenomenon. They called upon philosophy to be as precise a discipline as mathematics. In 1935, Rudolf Carnap came to the United States from Europe and joined the University of Chicago the following year, thereby becoming one of the key American proponents of this variety of positivism, especially after World War II. Aspects of this movement proved to have a long-lasting impact upon American academia in general.

Positivism shaped the intellectual discourse of the late nineteenth century. Combined with Darwinism, it contributed significantly to the secularization of Anglo-American thought, to the undermining of classical political economy, and to bolstering the cultural authority of science. While varieties of philosophical idealism weakened its appeal by the end of the nineteenth century, it continued to influence the methodology of philosophy and of the social sciences well into the post–World War II era. In particular, its hostility to metaphysics marked American philosophy and social science until the end of the twentieth century.


Adams, Henry. Writings of Henry Adams. New York: Norton, 1986.

Bannister, Robert C. Sociology and Scientism: The American Quest for Objectivity, 1880–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

Cashdollar, Charles D. The Transformation of Theology, 1830– 1890: Positivism and Protestant Thought in Britain and America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Harp, Gillis J. Positivist Republic: Auguste Comte and the Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865–1920. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.

Hawkins, Richmond L. Auguste Comte and the United States, 1816–1853. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936.

———. Positivism in the United States, 1853–1861. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938.

Kent, Christopher. Brains and Numbers: Elitism, Comtism, and Democracy in Mid-Victorian England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978.

Levy, David W. Herbert Croly of the New Republic: The Life and Thought of an American Progressive. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Mandelbaum, Maurice. History, Man, and Reason: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Thought. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.

Ross, Dorothy R. The Origins of American Social Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Schneider, Robert Edward. Positivism in the United States: The Apostleship of Henry Edger. Rosario, Argentina, 1946.

Gillis J.Harp

See alsoEconomics ; Philosophy ; Pragmatism ; Science and Religion, Relations of ; Sociology .

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There are two uses of the term positivism in the social sciences, one derived from sociology, the other from jurisprudence, especially international law. In sociology, positivism was a broad movement of European thought during the second half of the nineteenth century. The name derives from the fact that thinkers returned to the appreciation of positive facts so as to restore the world of nature, which idealists had reduced to a mere representation of the ego. Positivism placed greater stress on immediate experience and on the data obtained through the senses.

In jurisprudence, positivists emphasize textual analysis, in contrast to naturalists, who take treaties and other texts as a starting point for determining the guiding principles of the day. However, if there is no text and a new or revised rule of customary international law is advocated, naturalists are likely to emphasize the actual consequences of the new practice, while positivists underscore intent or motive. This is the opposite of the situation faced in textual analysis. One could imagine situations in which the claim is made that the text should be ignored in favor of a new customary principle. Where there is a conflict between positive law and customary principles, naturalists argue that the customary law claimed to exist should prevail. However, naturalists are also likely to argue that principles can be used to interpret provisions in such texts as the UN Charter, which would reduce the probability of a conflict with custom.

Positivism flourished in Latin America as nowhere else, not even in France, where it was first developed by Auguste Comte (17981857). It met the needs of many Latin American intellectuals who rejected Spanish and Portuguese culture and were trying to prove their independence by adopting French ideas. They considered Catholicism as a tool of Spanish imperialism, which had kept Latin America in a state of amoral, chaotic backwardness. Positivism called for progress, discipline, morality, and freedom from the tyranny of theology. The positivists rebelled against the spiritualist metaphysics shared by deists and Catholics. This rebellion turned them into agnostics and sometimes even into atheists.


The sociological use of positivism emerged in France under Comte, evolving from English empiricism, which argued that experience was the only source of human knowledge. The new school of thought held that reality mechanically evolves from inferior forms until it attains consciousness in humans. According to Comte, historical observations on the process of human society show that humans have passed through three stages. First was the theological state, in which nature was mythically conceived and the individual sought the meaning of natural phenomena from supernatural beings. Second came the metaphysical stage, in which nature was conceived of as a result of obscure forces and the individual sought to explain natural phenomena from them. Third came the positive stage, in which all abstract and obscure forces are discarded and natural phenomena are explained by their constant relationships. Comte extended the law of the three stages to include all reality.

Jurisprudential positivism emerged in the nineteenth century and gained influence in the twentieth century because of the tendency to replace customary or natural law with statutory or treaty law. In international law, positivism gained even more influence after the 1945 UN Charter. Positivists argue that the charter, and law generally, should be treated as a constitution that, following the model of H. L. A. Hart (1961), establishes primary rules (to make rules) and secondary rules based on them that establish particular policies and principles, including, but not requiring, conceptions of justice and other issues of substance. In international law, if treaties are read loosely, or principles are imputed or inflated, or customs are claimed rather than observed, positivists feel that the consent required for law to exist on the basis of explicit rules does not exist. Furthermore, in specific applications, motives matter in order to assure that the community of nations agrees. Because motives are difficult to know, the presumption of positivists is that consent for actions against prevailing interpretations of legal doctrine must be unambiguous for law to deviate from claimed fundamental principles. Opposition to what is clearly the intent of positive law as expressed in texts is normally a sign of illegality.

Sociological positivists did not follow exactly the same course in the Latin American countries. Positivism was most influential in Brazil, whose elites studied French and visited Paris, where they came to admire everything French. By the end of the nineteenth century these elites wanted to import or copy everything they associated with France. At the time, positivism became particularly important in Brazils technical schools and military academies, where many middle-class children studied. Comtes emphasis on progress through gradual change appealed to Brazils new elite, who saw positivism as a way of incorporating themselves into the national elite without threatening the social order on which the old elite depended. They were attracted by the idea of using military and government officials to plan economic development for progress and industrialization. They believed that by expanding economic opportunities and education, they could incorporate the disenfranchised into society without the need for widespread social or political change. Furthermore, in positivism they saw the possibility of ending foreign economic domination and colonialism in Brazil.


Jurisprudential positivism, following a line of jurisprudence that has included the theories of Vattel, Zouche, Kelsen, and Hart, emphasizes legal rules and consent in the relations of states. Rights and obligations about rules and principles are based primarily on the words in treaties. Based on the empiricism of Locke and Hume, positivists in international law, such as Humphrey, the principal author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Schachter and Henkin among lawyers and Donnelly among political scientists, have argued that rules take precedence over claimed principles or unprecedented customs of states. Without observable experience or consent, validating customs after the fact betrays self-serving, perverse incentives besides nullifying the original intent of primary rules.

Jurisprudential positivists cite three UN Charter articles that make humanitarian intervention presumptively illegal. First, Article 39 of Chapter VII limits coercion sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), whether by the UN or by the armies of member states, in three situations: a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression. Taken literally, Article 39 (and the title of Chapter VII) does not apply to a country that is killing its own citizens but not threatening or attacking other countries. Second, positivists might also argue that unilateral humanitarian intervention would usually be illegal because of Article 2(4), except either when the UNSC finds an Article 39 situation, as indicated above, or for individual or collective self-defense to armed attack under Article 51. Article 2(4) names only three situations in which a state may not threaten or use force: (1) against the territorial integrity, or (2) political independence of any state, or (3) in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.

Jurisprudential positivists define a violation of territorial integrity as an armed attack on another state and a violation of political independence as a de facto partition or loss of sovereignty over part of a country. Donnelly calls for positive non-intervention to respect UN Charter Article 2(7)s intervention prohibition and encourage uninhibited criticism. Nonintervention means only the renunciation of intervention, in the strict sense of coercive interference. International human rights, however, are an appropriate subject for the exercise of international influence. Inaction in the face of human rights violations is not only morally inappropriate, it is in no way required by international law.

Some positivists, such as Schachter, would permit armed humanitarian intervention for great emergencies and with a consensus among the five permanent members of the Security Council. In commenting on UNSC Resolution 688 regarding northern Iraq, he notes that the council could invoke the Chapter VII enforcement procedures, at least if there is some threat to international peace as well. Others, such as Henkin, might be willing to forgo UNSC authorization to authorize force to stop mass murder, but not in the face of a likely veto. Positivists might be divided on whether to insist upon a consistent standard for legal humanitarian intervention or to permit it where it is politically possible. As Henkin (1991, p. 41) suggests, The Charter does not prohibit humanitarian intervention by use of force strictly limited to what is necessary to save lives. He would presumably not accept humanitarian intervention if a UNSC consensus was absent or if a unilateral intervention were to change national boundaries or replace a government: It has not been accepted, however that a state has a right to intervene by force to topple a government or occupy its territory even if that were necessary to terminate atrocities or to liberate detainees. Henkin also opposes using force to promote democracy, as do his ideological opposites, Franck and the Reagan administration.

SEE ALSO Comte, Auguste; Economics; Empiricism; Friedman, Milton; Hume, David; Imperialism; Jurisprudence; Locke, John; Logic; Methodology; Naturalism; Philosophy of Science; Realist Theory; Religion; Social Science; Sociology


Damrosch, Lori Fisler. 1991. Commentary on Collective Military Intervention to Enforce Human Rights. In Law and Force in the New International Order, ed. Lori Fisler Damrosch and David J. Scheffer, 215223. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Donnelly, Jack. 1992. Humanitarian Intervention and American Foreign Policy: Law, Morality and Politics. In Human Rights in the World Community: Issues and Action, ed. Richard Pierre Claude and Burns H. Weston, 307320. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Franck, Thomas M. 1992. The Emerging Right to Democratic Governance. American Journal of International Law 86 (1): 4691.

Hart, H. L. A. 1961. The Concept of Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hawkins, Richmond Laurin. 1938. Positivism in the United States (18531861). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Henkin, Louis, Stanley Hoffmann, and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick. 1991. Right v. Might: International Law and the Use of Force. 2nd ed. New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press.

Humphrey, John P., and Ronald St. John MacDonald. 1979. The Practice of Freedom; Canadian Essays on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. London: Butterworths.

Lenzer, Gertrude, ed. 1998. Auguste Comte and Positivism: The Essential Readings. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Mill, John Stuart. 1961. Auguste Comte and Positivism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. (Orig. pub. 1865)

Schachter, Oscar. 1991. United Nations Law in the Gulf Conflict. American Journal of International Law 85: 452473.

Woodward, Ralph Lee, Jr., ed. 1971. Positivism in Latin America, 18501900: Are Order and Progress Reconcilable? Lexington, MA: Heath.

Zea, Leopoldo. 1974. Positivism in Mexico. Trans. Josephine H. Shulte. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Henry F. Carey

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positivism The acknowledged founder of positivism or ‘the positive philosophy’ was the French philosopher and social scientist Auguste Comte (1798–1857). Comte is also accredited with the invention of the term ‘sociology’ to describe his proposed science of society.

Positivism is, above all, a philosophy of science. As such, it stands squarely within the empiricist tradition. Metaphysical speculation is rejected in favour of ‘positive’ knowledge based on systematic observation and experiment. The methods of science can give us knowledge of the laws of coexistence and succession of phenomena, but can never penetrate to the inner ‘essences’ or ‘natures’ of things. As applied to the human social world, the positive method yields a law of successive states through which each branch of knowledge must pass: first theological, then metaphysical, and finally positive (or scientific). Since the character of society flows from the intellectual forms which predominate in it, this gives Comte a law of the development of human society itself. The phase of anarchy and revolution through which France had recently passed resulted from intellectual anarchy. Irresolvable disputes on metaphysical questions such as the Divine Right and the sovereignty of the people must now give way to a positive science of society. Well-grounded knowledge would form the basis of consensus, and could also be applied to remove the causes of disorder, just as natural-scientific knowledge had been applied in the taming of nature.

Comte's work was much admired by John Stuart Mill, amongst others, and positivism became something of a popular movement in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Comte's views shifted later in his life, under the influence of Clotilde de Vaux. He came to see that science alone did not have the binding-force for social cohesion, as he had earlier supposed. He argued that the intellect must become the servant of the heart, and advocated a new ‘Religion of Humanity’.

However, Comte's wider and continuing influence in social science derives almost exclusively from his earlier writings. Today, positivism signifies adherence to an empiricist view of the nature of science, and the project of a scientific approach to the study of social life on the empiricist model. In the case of the social sciences, this is most commonly taken to mean a modelling of the methods of social science on those of natural science; the attempt to discover social laws analogous to the law-like regularities discovered by natural sciences; and an absolute insistence on the separation of facts and values. The close link between the empirical knowledge generated by these methods, and questions of political or industrial policy, is also very much in line with Comtean social engineering.

Criticisms of positivism commonly focus on the inappropriateness of natural-scientific methods in the human or social sciences. Consciousness, cultural norms, symbolic meaning, and intentionality are variously held to be distinctive human attributes which dictate a methodological gulf between natural science and the study of human social life. However, following the work of Thomas S. Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and others, it has also become common to reject the empiricist account of the natural sciences. Since the positivist proposal for a unified science of nature and society is premissed upon empiricism, these questions have to be considered afresh, on the basis of alternative views of the nature of science.

The term positivism (more usually ‘logical positivism’) is also used to refer to the radical empiricism and scientism advanced in the early decades of the twentieth century by the Vienna Circle. This is usually considered to be the major influence on modern, twentieth-century sociological positivism, via the philosophy of the social sciences advanced by such theorists as Ernest Nagel (The Structure of Science, 1961) and Carl G. Hempel (The Philosophy of Natural Science, 1966), and as exemplified in the work of Paul Lazarsfeld. A qualified defence of positivism, which specifically takes issue with much (misguided) sociological criticism, is mounted in Percy S. Cohen 's ‘Is Positivism Dead?’, Sociological Review (1980)

In an innovative article on ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’ (Theory and Society, 1997)
, which claims to offer a ‘positivist’ analysis of' a phenomenon normally assumed to forbid the possibility of positivism: the multiple and seemingly incommensurable meanings assigned to human events' (that is, ‘ambiguity’), Andrew Abbott starts from the controversial premiss that there are two basic problems with the established philosophical critique of positivism. These are that, ‘first, even though positivist social science has been shown to be in principle impossible, the vast majority of social-science effort (and funding) is in fact spent doing it’. In Abbott's view, it is foolish to ignore this research, because it is intellectually and politically consequential. Second, ‘proclamations against positivism often mask an arbitrary unwillingness to think formally about the social world. One asserts that the world is constructed of ambiguous networks of meaning, argues for the complexity of interpretations and representations, and then simply assumes that formal discussion of the ensuing complexity is impossible.’ Abbott argues this is untrue, and attempts to show how a formal analysis of typical positivist research reveals it to be a source of untapped information about those multiple meanings, revealing so-called positivism to be ‘a complex and subtle terrain’.

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A school ofjurisprudencewhose advocates believe that the only legitimate sources of law are those written rules, regulations, and principles that have been expressly enacted, adopted, or recognized by a government body, including administrative, executive, legislative, and judicial bodies.

Positivism sharply separates law and morality. It is often contrasted with natural law, which is based on the belief that all written laws must follow universal principles of morality, religion, and justice. Positivists concede that ethical theories of morality, religion, and justice may include aspirational principles of human conduct. However, positivists argue that such theories differ from law in that they are unenforceable and therefore should play no role in the interpretation and application of legislation. Thus, positivists conclude that as long as a written law has been duly enacted by a branch of government, it must be deemed valid and binding, regardless of whether it offends anyone's sense of right and wrong.

Positivism serves two values. First, by requiring that all law be written, positivism ensures that the government will explicitly apprise the members of society of their rights and obligations. In a legal system run in strict accordance with positivist tenets, litigants would never be unfairly surprised or burdened by the government imposition of an unwritten legal obligation that was previously unknown and nonexistent. The due process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments incorporate this positivist value by mandating that all persons receive notice of any pending legal actions against them so that they can prepare an adequate defense.

Second, positivism curbs judicial discretion. In some cases judges are not satisfied with the outcome of a case that would be dictated by a narrow reading of existing laws. For example, some judges may not want to allow a landlord to evict an elderly and sick woman in the middle of winter, even if the law authorizes such action when rent is overdue. However, positivism requires judges to decide cases in accordance with the law. Positivists believe that the integrity of the law is maintained through a neutral and objective judiciary that is not guided by subjective notions of equity.

Positivism has been criticized for its harshness. Some critics of positivism have argued that not every law enacted by a legislature should be accepted as legitimate and binding. For example, laws depriving African Americans and Native Americans of various rights have been passed by governments but later overturned as unjust or unconstitutional. Critics conclude that written law ceases to be legitimate when it offends principles of fairness, justice, and morality. The American colonists based their revolt against the tyranny of British law on this point.

Positivism still influences U.S. jurisprudence. Many judges continue to evaluate the viability of legal claims by narrowly interpreting the law. If a right asserted by a litigant is not expressly recognized by a statute, precedent, or constitutional provision, many judges will deny recovery.

further readings

Conklin, William E. 2001. The Invisible Origins of Legal Positivism: A Re-reading of a Tradition. Boston: Kluwer Academic.

Neyhouse, Teresa J. 2002. Positivism in Criminological Thought: A Study in the History and Use of Ideas. New York: LFB Scholarly.

Sebok, Anthony J. 1995. "Misunderstanding Positivism." Michigan Law Review 93.

Soper, Philip. 1996. "Searching for Positivism." Michigan Law Review 94.

Tuori, Kaarlo. 2002. Critical Legal Positivism. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate.

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positivism was the philosophical system originated by Henri, comte de Saint-Simon, and developed by Auguste Comte. Positivists hold that science is the only valid form of knowledge, and that ‘positive’ facts—the sole subject-matter of science—are the only valid objects of knowledge. We must accept the natural world as we experience it, and not attempt to go behind nature in search of some ultimate reality or metaphysics. For positivists all aspects of human life, including politics, ethics, and even religion, could be established on a scientific basis, since human values were themselves simply facts. According to Comte, there have been three phases of intellectual development. The first was the theological stage, in which events in the physical world were explained in terms of external miraculous powers. The second was the metaphysical stage, in which natural events were assumed to be caused by some intrinsic quality or vital spirit within natural phenomena. Only in the third, the scientific or positive stage, has mankind advanced beyond pseudo-explanation to genuine knowledge. Progress depends upon scientific development, and the ultimate society is one ruled by a sociocracy, a scientific élite, dedicated to the worship of humanity (the positivist divinity which replaces God). Comte had few British disciples, though Buckle was attracted by positivism. But he influenced many scientists, philosophers, and sociologists, and positivism became part of the western scientific attitude in the 20th cent.

Tim S. Gray

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pos·i·tiv·ism / ˈpäzətivˌizəm; ˈpäztiv-/ • n. Philos. 1. a philosophical system that holds that every rationally justifiable assertion can be scientifically verified or is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and that therefore rejects metaphysics and theism. ∎  a humanistic religious system founded on this. ∎  another term for logical positivism. 2. the theory that laws are to be understood as social rules, valid because they are enacted by authority or derive logically from existing decisions, and that ideal or moral considerations (e.g., that a rule is unjust) should not limit the scope or operation of the law. 3. the state or quality of being positive: in this age of illogical positivism, no one wants to sound negative. DERIVATIVES: pos·i·tiv·ist n. & adj. pos·i·tiv·is·tic / ˌpäzətəˈvistik/ adj. pos·i·tiv·is·ti·cal·ly / ˌpäzətəˈvistik(ə)lē/ adv.

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positivism (pŏ´zĬtĬvĬzəm), philosophical doctrine that denies any validity to speculation or metaphysics. Sometimes associated with empiricism, positivism maintains that metaphysical questions are unanswerable and that the only knowledge is scientific knowledge. The basic tenets of positivism are contained in an implicit form in the works of Francis Bacon, George Berkeley, and David Hume, but the term is specifically applied to the system of Auguste Comte, who developed the coherent doctrine. In addition to being a dominant theme of 19th-century philosophy, positivism has greatly influenced various trends of contemporary thought. Logical positivism is often considered a direct outgrowth of 19th-century positivism.

See L. Kołakowski, The Alienation of Reason (tr. 1968) and Positivist Philosophy (tr. 1972); C. Bryant, Positivism in Social Theory and Research (1985).

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positivism Philosophical doctrine asserting that ‘positive’ knowledge (definite or scientific facts) can be obtained through direct experience. Auguste Comte first proposed positivism, and it was a dominant system of 19th-century philosophy. Logical positivism developed in the 20th century, initially by the philosophers of the Vienna Circle, as an attempt to link ‘positive knowledge’ to the strict application of logic.

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positivism a philosophical system which holds that every rationally justifiable assertion can be scientifically verified or is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and which therefore rejects metaphysics and theism.

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