The beginning of a new philosophical movement, positivism, was founded by Auguste Comte in 1830. For more than a century, supporters of this current were looking for exact methods of knowledge of the world and the achievement of actual knowledge. Representatives of four generations of positivism under the influence of exact sciences tried to create a scientific philosophy. In this article, professional writing services provide you with a scientific definition of positivist philosophy and its formative stages.
In the history of philosophy, it is customary to distinguish four main currents of positivism, which were logical extensions of each other:
- The first (classical) positivism, the 1830s;
- The second positivism (empiriocriticism and Machismo) of the 1890s;
- neopositivism (logical positivism) in the 1920s;
- Postpositivism (critical rationalism), the 1960s.
Each of these currents either complemented Auguste Comte’s principles of cognition (second positivism), singled out a specific tool and tried to improve it (as neopositivism tried to create an “ideal language” of science), or critically reconsidered the fundamental principles of positivism and changed its worldview perspective (post-positivism).
2. Positivism vs. Idealism
According to positivist philosophy, Truth was the accumulation and systematization of accurate knowledge about social processes. Knowledge was considered reliable if it was confirmed as true by experience. If knowledge was not confirmed by experiment, then it wasn’t very sensible from the point of view of scientific philosophy.
The research focus of positivism was on the study of real social processes. Positivists rejected the possibility of studying the causes of phenomena and preferred a static description of objects.
The main reason for the emergence of positivist “pure scientific cognition” were important changes – the development of the exact sciences and the industrial revolution.
3. Second-generation positivism: deepening knowledge
Second, positivism transformed the ideas of O. Comte. In science, this generation of positivists is commonly referred to as “Machismo” or “empire criticism.” The first name appeared because of the great contribution of the Austrian physicist-philosopher Ernst Mach, and the second because of a new critical reinterpretation of empirical experience.
Machists deepened their subject matter and made it acceptable to other disciplines. The reasons for the emergence of second positivism in the late 19th century are best explained by the thesis of the mathematician Henri Poincaré: progress in science can expose even fundamental principles to danger. It happened to positivist knowledge as well: it had to be revised.
The truth of the second positivism changed its quality: Machismo formed an understanding of the importance of the final product (exact knowledge) and perfected a critical analysis of the resulting knowledge (the mechanism of cognition). This form of positivism dealt with the critique of experience. The experience was no longer true in itself but depended on the subjective factors of the researcher, his sensory data, which created laws, formulas, and concepts.
Previously, truth in positivism was in exact static knowledge, which was considered unshakable. But discoveries in mathematics and physics showed the fallacy of this.
If, for the first positivism, the most important factor was to obtain exact knowledge, the second positivism, under the influence of experimental psychology, changed its methodological perspective on the mechanisms of cognition. The method of introspection, the direct observation of the self, could help them.
But the crisis of scientific cognition came after the deepening of knowledge in physics (Newton’s third law no longer worked unconditionally (changing the view of matter due to the discovery of the electron), in mathematics (it was recognized that the Euclidean geometrical system was not unique) and in biology (development of the theory of evolution from Darwin to Spencer convinced of the dynamic nature of processes, not their statism, as the first positivists had believed).
The shift of attention to the study of the subjective senses was influenced by discoveries in the exact sciences and the loss of its universality by mechanistic. Natural processes were now seen as the possibility of multiple systems rather than a singular one.
Whereas the first positivism confronted the conventionality of metaphysical ideas and categorically condemned them using scientific thinking, the second positivism already confronted the conventionality of physical ideas about the world. To recreate the balance, the Machists created the notion of conventionality, “conventionalism,” which became the basis for obtaining true knowledge. Ernst Mach had the greatest influence on the theory of second positivism. He also succeeded in extending the notion of convention from mathematics to the other sciences.
4. Neopositivism and the role of language in science
The followers of neopositivism tried to find the truth of accurate knowledge in the construction of scientific tools through the comprehension of language and its role in transmitting knowledge. In the early 20th century, methods of symbolic logic were successfully used in philosophy and created the third wave of positivism: neo-positivism.
The main focus was now on language as a means of acquiring knowledge. The neo-positivists defined the quality of a scientific statement through the successful verification process using atomic facts. In their view, these atomic facts are directly perceived by man.
Through the invention of precise (formal) language, neopositivists wanted to get rid of the main enemy of their doctrine – metaphysics. And unlike the positivists, the neo-positivists began to neglect the systematization of knowledge (the quantitative aspect) and focused on studying linguistic forms of judgment and categories (the qualitative aspect of knowledge).
To explain whether the verification of language is true or false, the notion of the demarcation of the boundaries of scientific knowledge – the definition of the framework of scientific and non-scientific thinking – was put forward. The neo-positivists suggested that only within the framework of scientific thinking was it possible to create an ideal language, which would be the main tool for obtaining accurate knowledge.
The development of neopositivism lasted more than half a century. And the study of the logical apparatus had the main goal of clarifying thoughts, eliminating semantic and syntactic ambiguities and nonsense in speech. To check the scientificity of propositions, the neopositivists, as part of the boundary of scientific knowledge, proposed the use of different methods: the principle of verification, semiotic analysis, and later – philological criticism of language.
Many scientific currents emerged and developed based on neopositivism and its interest in language. Most new currents studied the importance of language in understanding reality and its interpretation. Thus, the most striking among them was Richard Rorty’s linguistic turn, which gave rise in the aftermath to a multitude of scientific approaches to working with texts.
But despite its enormous fruits, by the 1950s, neopositivism had failed to meet the main challenges it was working on: not only had the exclusion of metaphysics not been addressed, but it had even been revived with renewed vigor at the end of World War II. Metaphysical questions like “Why did the man do it?” became central to the philosophical discourse of postpositivism and its understanding of scientific thinking.
5. Postpositivism and its critique of positivism
Truth, as understood by the representatives of postpositivism, has less of a connection to the tradition of the early positivists. In the critique of neopositivism and positivism, postpositivism forms its basic principles of developing science and scientific knowledge. The main theses of this current were:
- since facts need theory, there was a rehabilitation of the theoretical level of scientific thinking;
- the statement that knowledge is not a static system (the positivists’ version), but a complex causal system of scientific thought development, focused the postpositivists’ attention on studying the development of theories;
- Postpositivists not only declared that they could not get rid of metaphysics, but they also rehabilitated it as an auxiliary step in the scientific apparatus.
Thus, the main question the postpositivists sought to answer was, “How did a new theory arise?” instead of the positivist question, “How does it exist?” The rehabilitation of metaphysics, the critique of empirical knowledge as reliable, and the appeal to causality made the methodology of postpositivism look little like that of Auguste Comte.
The focus of the new current of positivism lost its unconditional nature, recognizing science as much a convention as any ideology, philosophy, or mythology. The postpositivists also changed their focus and underlying approaches – instead of physics and exact sciences, they sought explanations for understanding the world in the history of science and the cyclical nature of society.
Why did the postpositivists’ worldview change so dramatically? Because their understanding of the world was again strongly influenced by sociocultural conditions in society. If technology had a strong influence on the first positivists, the postpositivists were more impressed by the confusion and disorder of 20th-century modern society – totalitarian regimes, wars, and anti-colonialism.
6. What was the significance of positivism?
The main goal of positivist philosophy–to make scientific thinking precise, without ambiguities and incomprehensible abstract concepts–was never achieved.
Despite the long development of scientific thinking, positivist philosophy has had a tremendous impact on the exact sciences and humanities. Auguste Comte, who first categorized the sciences, defined their subjects and purposes and began forming a methodological basis for each discipline.
Thanks to positivism and its four currents, every science has its methodological apparatus today. But despite the established clear boundaries of each science, the postmodern period became characterized by an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge of the world.
It was postpositivism, which rehabilitated metaphysics and recognized the important supplementary role of philosophy in the production of scientific knowledge, that directly initiated this organic interpenetration of different disciplines.
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