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Discuss The Contribution Of Positivism Philosophy Essay


Positivism is originated in the late eighteenth century when Enlightenment introduced new ways of thinking about the natural and social worlds, and referred mainly to the natural sciences, such as physics, chemistry and mathematics. The root of positivism is particularly related to the Empiricism, which works only with the help of observable facts. There are three approaches from the nineteenth century which have had an impact on contemporary social science. Positivism is a theory of knowledge that society could be analyzed empirically just like other subjects of scientific enquiry and social laws and theories could be on the basis of psychology and biology (Comte) (Mark J Smith, 2003). Positivism is a theory of history in which the motor of progress that guarantees the emergence of superior forms of society is competition between increasingly differentiated individuals (Spencer). Positivism is a theory of knowledge according to which the natural science of sociology consists of the collection and statistical analysis of quantitative data about society (Durkheim) (Peter Halfpenny, 1992). Even so these positivisms have different proposals as to what is to be understood by the term of positivism. All the theory of positivism is identical with traditional empiricism and the final aim is to discover the regulations.

Positivism method:

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Some sociologists have tried to adopt the methods of the natural sciences. In doing so, they have tended to advocate the use of quantitative methods. To use such methods in sociology is known as positivism.

First, social facts, Comte believed that the study of society should be confined to collecting data about phenomena that can be objectively observed and classified. Comte argued sociologists should not be concerned with the internal meanings, motives, feelings and emotions of individuals (Mark J Smith, 2003). Because these mental states only exist in the person's consciousness, they cannot be observed and so they cannot be measured in any objective way.

The second aspect of positivism concerns its use of statistical data (Durhkeim). Durhkeim believed it was possible to classify the social world in an objective way. Using these classifications it was then possible to count sets of observable social facts and so produce statistics. For example Durkheim collected data on social facts such as the suicide rate and the membership of different religions.

The third stage of positivist methodology entails looking for correlations between different social facts (Spencer). A correlation is a tendency for two or more things to be found together, and it may refer to the strength of the relationship between them. In his study of suicide, Durkheim found an apparent correlation between a particular religion and a high suicide rate (Mark J Smith, 2003).

The fourth stage of positivist methodology involves a search for causal connections. If there is a strong correlation between two or more types of social phenomena, then a positivist sociologist might suspect that one of these phenomena was causing the other to take place. However this is not necessarily the case and it is important to analyse the data carefully before any such conclusion can be reached. The example of class and criminality can be used to illustrate this point (Mark J Smith, 2003). Many sociologists have noted a correlation between being working class and a relatively high chance of being convicted of a crime.

Relation with natural science:

The chief strength of positivism is that taking positivism approach to the social sciences to emulate with natural sciences and advance the natural sciences over the past four hundred years. Early positivists like Comte, Spencer and Saint-Simon understood their theory and work as something obtaining directly out of the experimental and theoretical. However, the achievements of great natural scientists like Newton, Spinoza, Darwin and others mirrored from positivism approach to cut away from existing knowledge and conform to its vigorous standards of investigation, strips social phenomenon of their perceived nature and reveals them as they really are (Beck R, 1979). In the evolution of science, astronomy developed first, followed by physics, chemistry, biology and sociology (Callinicos, 2006). Comte considered that the natural sciences and natural scientists were essentially positivist: that is, they appealed to the perception and measurement of objective sense-data from which to make experiments, analyze results and make theory, predictions and laws (Hugh Jones & Laidlaw, 2000). Comte and the other early positivists thus understood their work as an act of 'making explicit' the theory which natural scientists had adhered to for centuries. Social scientists think that the positivist approach to the natural sciences offers greater objectivity, certainty of prediction, and deeper insight into their subjects than could achieved by any other method of inquiry.

The development of positivism

The most influential early positivist was Auguste Comte (1798-1857), who was the first person to use the term 'sociology' (Callinicos, 2006). His aim was to create a 'naturalistic science of society capable of both explaining the past and predicting the future' (Hamilton, 1992). And he thought that the first characteristic of positive philosophy is that it regards all phenomena subject to invariable natural laws, just as the natural sciences discovered laws in nature. He argued that all human thought has passed though three separate stages: the theological, the metaphysical and positive. According to Comte, in the theological state, the human mind analyses all phenomena as the result of supernatural forces; feelings and imagination predominate. In the metaphysical stage, abstract ideas such as essences or causes predominate. In the positive stage, the human mind gives up the search for absolute truth and the origin of hidden causes (Callinicos, 2006). Comte's contribution to sociological theory was to emphasis that all social phenomena are subject to invariable laws and establish the regulation between with social phenomena (the Enlightenment and the emergence of social theory).

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After Comte, the evolutionary and organic analogy was more systematically developed by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). Being different from Comte's theory, Spencer believed social science should be based on principles derived from physics. Even Spencer's evolutionary theory of history is opposed to Comte's theory, naturalism is the connect point for their theories. For just as Comte unifies sociology should be at the head of all knowledge, comparing with Spencer unifies all knowledge under his principle of evolution (Peter Halfpenny, 1992). Because Spencer possessed an encyclopedic culture, his theories as it were the entire System of Synthetic Philosophy, in particular, in its conception of philosophical system as the unification of the various branches of scientific knowledge. According to Spencer, the universe is a result of evolution. The laws which made possible such an evolution are two: Concentration, by which is meant the transition of elements from the state of instability to the state of stability; Differentiation, by which is meant the passage from the homogeneity of the elements to the state of heterogeneity (Julian Marias, 1966). The solar system, organic life, conscious life, social lives are undergoing a similar transformation through the process of evolution. In regard to religion, Spencer was an explicitly agnostic. So the one point he really faces is agnosticism which is not his strongest claim to philosophic contribution. The Absolute, because it is absolute, is not relative and is therefore beyond our grasp. Although we cannot think the Absolute it somehow exists in some unknown form (William Sweet, 2004). Hence, Spencer's religion for the man of science is agnosticism. So religion falls into contradiction every time it attempts to penetrate the world of science. And Spencer considered that god was not an object of science, he was the Unknowable (Spencer, 1857).

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) who established an academic discipline of modern social science at the beginning of the twentieth century (Clark, 1973), was thought an extremely important positivist in history. And Durkheim's ideas are still influenced today. In general, Durkheim adopted all of Comte's major themes: empiricism, sociologism, naturalism, scientism and social reformism. However, he thought that Comte's formulation of the unity of the sciences in terms of the law of three stages verged on metaphysical speculation (Peter Halfpenny, 1992). Unlike Comte, who wanted to create a unified natural social science with sociology, Durkheim was concerned to show that sociology was independent of other scientific disciplines, even if their respective methods were comparable. Only extensive and rigorous empirical inquiry, which Comte had not undertaken, could establish whether or not such an all-embracing law was true, and whether naturalism was viable (Durkheim and Fauconnet, 1903).

Specifically, among the best known of in his projects of Suicide (1897), Durkheim brought together nineteenth century Comtean social philosophy and the collection and analysis of quantified social facts. Durkheim employed statistical methods to emphasize his scientific approach regarding social laws. He was not interested in the evolutionist ideas, but instead scientific laws to social phenomena (Diana Kalajian, 2005). The suicide is commonly identified as the classic example of the positivism conception of positivism in sociology: positivism is a theory of knowledge according to which the natural science of sociology consists of the collection and statistical analysis of quantitative data about society (Peter Halfpenny, 1992). In addition, in the Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim distinguishes different forms of solidarity based on their levels of interdependence, evolving from a kinship-based bond to an economically-based bond (Diana Kalajian, 2005). Not only were Durkheim's social facts of the collective conscience limited to ways of functioning (acting, thinking, and feeling), but also included ways of being (the structures of parts of a society, nature of its communication networks, etc.). Therefore, these cannot be categorized as biological phenomena or as purely psychological factors as they exist outside the individual conscience (Ragin and Zaret, 1983). Their defining characteristic as social facts is in quality, in substratum, and in milieu and he reiterated that the substance of social life cannot be explained by biology or psychology. These social and behavioral rules were established before an individual was born into a society, therefore affirming a "superorganic" existence to the collective conscious (McGee 2000).

The weakness of positivism

The weakness of extreme positivism has been its incapacity to accurately demonstrate its hypotheses through empirical experiments (Popper, 1983). Specifically, the use of positivism on people has been criticized for its artificiality and the subsequent problems of taking experimental results as a good indication of what happens throughout society (Mark J Smith, 2003). Social phenomenon included people, communities, organizations which are developed and are compositions of vast complexly connecting with feelings, emotions, thoughts, volitions, passions, motives, associations. Thus, to undertake a social experiment, social scientist has to be sure that he can separate the single mental or behavioral element, as 'a criminal tendency' that has been investigated by Montessori. Then to exclude or control the influence of the other mental and social factors that will otherwise affect the accuracy of the experiment. In many instances such as the children's imitative, the conditions are changing, unconcerned in everyday life (Mark J Smith, 2003). Thus social scientists have become ever more conscious that a human being cannot be put in a limited test-tube or a vacuum and excluded the intrinsic facts. So that positivism approach influences in the way on people in respect to their discipline is its insistence upon perfect conditions for experimentation and for the accuracy of hypotheses and predictions (Dowding, 1995).


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In summary, from Comte advanced the positivism to Spencer and Durkheim, different people have their different proposals. However, all of them identified that positivism is definitely with traditional empiricism which is opposed to theological and metaphysical. Positivism is a history theory that improved the four characteristics of positivism method such as social facts, statistical data, correlations with other social facts and the causal connections, Contributed to the development of the national science, taking Charles Darwin and the origin of the human species for instance. The major advantage of positivism approach to the natural science is the vigorous of hypotheses process, and then empirical the experimentation, of deep analysis the results to summarize laws and predictions. In contrast, positivism is lack of consideration of the subjective, individual and social relationship. As dealing with the phenomenon of human being, the closed system simplify to clear-cut the social relations to make the study of different aspects of social life more manageable, not analyzing the intrinsic properties of the object. It is the significant problem that the positivism approach criticized by other subject.

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