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positivism (pŏˈzĭtĭvĭzəm), 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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  1. the doctrine formulated by COMTE which asserts that the only true knowledge is scientific knowledge, i.e. knowledge which describes and explains the coexistence and succession of observable phenomena, including both physical and social phenomena. Comte's positivism had two dimensions:
    1. methodological (as above); and
    2. social and political, in that positive knowledge of social phenomena was expected to permit a new scientifically grounded intervention in politics and social affairs which would transform social life.
  2. (Logical Positivism) the philosophical

    viewpoint of a group of philosophers in the 1920s and 30s known collectively as the Vienna Circle, whose ideas were in part based on Comte but presented as giving Comte's positivism a more secure logical basis. The central doctrine of the Vienna Circle, the Verification Principle, states that the only valid knowledge is knowledge which is verified by sensory experience. More strictly, the expectation was that scientific knowledge would ultimately find formulation in logically interrelated general propositions, grounded in statements about ‘basic facts’ stated in a strictly formulated ‘sense datum’ language. Some but not all members of the Vienna Circle also embraced Comte's project to extend the methods of the physical sciences to social science.

  3. any sociological approach which operates on the general assumption that the methods of physical science (e.g. measurement, search for general laws, etc.) can be carried over into the social sciences.
  4. (pejoratively) any sociological approach seen as falsely seeking to ape the methodology of the physical sciences.
In choosing the term ‘positivism’, Comte conveyed his intention to repudiate all reliance on earlier religious or speculative metaphysical bases of‘knowledge’ (see LAW OF THREE STAGES). However, Comte regarded scientific knowledge as ‘relative knowledge’, not absolute. Absolute knowledge was, and always would be unavailable. Comte's social and political programme envisaged a new consensus on social issues and a reorganization of society on lines suggested by the new science of sociology. A role would exist for sociologists in government and in education, and in establishing a new ‘Religion of Humanity’.

Since it was the work of a ‘school’ rather than an individual, the methodological position of Logical Positivism is more variegated than that of Comte, and in crucial respects at odds with his view. In the realm of ethics, for example, Logical Positivists were often associated with a doctrine that draws a sharp distinction between ‘facts’ (which are verifiable) and ‘values’ (which are not). While most philosophers associated with Logical Positivism maintained that science, including social science, could be expected to provide increasingly reliable knowledge, enabling the achievement of preferred goals, they did not usually accept that science can decide questions of value, ‘ought’ questions rather than ‘is’ statements (see also FACT-VALUE DISTINCTION).

Neither the details of Comte's methodological principles nor his social and political programme find strong support among modern sociologists. Nor has the attempt of the logical positivists to achieve a stricter logical formulation of positivism and ‘science’ proved durable.

Methodologically, a central problem of positivism arises from the so-called ‘problem of empiricism’: the lack of any conclusive basis for ‘verification’ in ‘inductive logic’ see INDUCTION AND INDUCTIVE LOGIC, EMPIRICISM). A further telling criticism – the so-called ‘paradox of positivism’ – is that the Verification Principle is itself unverifiable.

In recent years, new approaches in the philosophy and history of science (see SCIENCE, SCIENTIFIC PARADIGM) have shed doubt on the idea of a single philosophical basis to science. Positivism can be criticized for betraying its own conception of scientific knowledge as ‘relative’ knowledge and as dogmatizing about 'scientific method‘. See also FALSIFICATIONISM.

If the above difficulties apply to Positivism in relation to physical science, further problems arise in relation to sociology specifically. The fact is that sociological positivism has not been successful in achieving either the expected unification of sociological knowledge, or a consensus on schemes for social and political reconstruction. For some sociologists, the failure of positivism points to the necessity to pursue sociology in other than conventionally ‘scientific’ terms – see MEANINGFUL SOCIOLOGY, VERSTEHEN. C. Bryant, Positivism in Social Theory and Research (1985) is an accessible overview of the issues surrounding Positivism in sociology.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a philosophical trend based on the thesis that all genuine, “positive” knowledge can be obtained only through the individual specialized sciences or through their synthesis, and that philosophy as a separate discipline, claiming to study reality independently, has no right to exist.

Positivism took shape as a distinct trend in the 1830’s. During its history of more than a century, positivism has evolved steadily toward expressing more clearly and carrying to a logical conclusion its inherent tendency toward subjective idealism.

The term “positivism” was introduced by the French philosopher A. Comte, the founder of the positivist school, who proclaimed his decisive break with the philosophical (“metaphysical”) tradition. He believed that science has no need for guidance from philosophy. In the opinion of the positivists, however, this does not exclude the existence of a synthesis of scientific knowledge, to which the term “philosophy” may be applied. Thus, philosophy is reduced to a set of general conclusions drawn from the natural and social sciences. Inasmuch as positivism has nothing to do with metaphysical problems, it rejects both idealism and materialism. The claim that causes and essences can be discovered is attributed by Comte to the vestiges of metaphysics, which, in his opinion, ought to be eliminated from science. Science does not explain phenomena but describes them, answering the question “how,” not “why.” By consistently developing this thesis, Comte arrived at a phenomenalist point of view. However, the subjective idealist tendencies in Comtean positivism continued to coexist with certain elements of natural scientific materialism, which stemmed from the traditions of the French Enlightenment of the 18th century. Like the Enlightenment thinkers, Comte stated his conviction that science has an infinite capacity for development.

In addition to Comte, the representatives of the first, “classical” form of 19th-century positivism included E. Littré, G. N. Vyrubov, P. Laffitte, H. Taine, and E. Renan in France and J. S. Mill and H. Spencer in Great Britain. As positivism developed, its phenomenalist and subjective idealist tendencies became clearer (for example, the works of Mill and Spencer and, in Russia, the works of V. V. Lesevich, M. M. Troitskii, V. N. Ivanovskii, P. L. Lavrov, and N. K. Mikhailovskii). Basing his generalizations on new discoveries in the natural sciences in the second half of the 19th century, Spencer studied problems of classification in the sciences, developing the agnostic doctrine that objective reality is unknowable and that the essence of reality can be penetrated only by religion and not by science.

Especially in the latter half of the 19th century, positivism had a considerable influence on the natural sciences and on the social sciences, including sociology, law, political economy, historiography, and literary theory and criticism.

At the end of the 19th century, positivism went through a crisis caused by the radical breakdown of many concepts in physics at the turn of the century, as well as by progress in the natural sciences, which canceled out or reduced the importance of many of the “synthetic” generalizations viewed by positivism as eternal and unquestionable attainments of science. The crisis in positivism was promoted by the intensive development of research in psychology, which forced scientists to analyze “ultimate” philosophical questions of knowledge—the very questions that positivism had always done its utmost to avoid. In addition, the crisis was fostered by the failure of all attempts to find the objective basis for the positivist system of values in mechanistic and metaphysical sociology. (The positivist criterion of what is scientific makes it impossible to introduce the consideration of values into scientific research and to deduce “what should be” from “what is.”)

As a result of all of these developments, it became necessary to reassert the question of philosophy’s role in the sciences. Transformed, positivism entered a new, second stage of its evolution with the appearance of Machism (empiriocriticism). The Machist trend has been further developed in the current, or third stage in the evolution of positivism—neopositivism, which emerged during the 1920’s (seeVIENNA CIRCLE, , and ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHY). Retreating from the attempt to solve fundamental philosophical problems, neopositivism concentrates on concrete logical and methodological research on language or immediate experience.


Lenin, V. I. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 18.
Gulyga, A. V. “Vozniknovenie pozitivizma.” Voprosy filosofii, 1955, no. 6.
Narskii, I. S. Ocherki po istorii pozitivizma. Moscow, 1960.
Kon, I. S. Pozitivizm ν sotsiologii. Leningrad, 1964.
Charlton, D. G. Positivist Thought in France During the Second Empire, 1852–1870. Oxford, 1959.
Simon, W. M. European Positivism in the Nineteenth Century. Ithaca, N.Y., 1963.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. a strong form of empiricism, esp as established in the philosophical system of Auguste Comte, the French mathematician and philosopher (1798--1857), that rejects metaphysics and theology as seeking knowledge beyond the scope of experience, and holds that experimental investigation and observation are the only sources of substantial knowledge
2. the jurisprudential doctrine that the legitimacy of a law depends on its being enacted in proper form, rather than on its content
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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