Meaning of Positivism: i. Positivism refers to “the doctrine formulated by Comte which asserts that the only true knowledge is scientific knowledge, that is, knowledge which describes and explains the co-existence and succession of observable phenomena, including both physical and social phenomena.” ii. Positivism denotes “any sociological approach which operates on the general assumption that the methods of physical sciences (example, measurement, search for general laws, etc.) can be carried over into the social sciences.” Nature of Comtean Positivism: Comte used the term “positivism” in two distinctive ways: (i) positivism as a “doctrine” and (ii) positivism as a “method”.
Positivism as a Doctrine Positivism as a Way of Thinking: As developed by Auguste Comte, positivism is a way of thinking based on the assumption that it is possible to observe social life and establish reliable, valid knowledge about how it works. Such knowledge can be used to affect the course of change and improve the human condition. Positivism of Comte which represents a philosophical position states that knowledge can be derived only from sensory experience. Metaphysical speculation, subjective or intuitive insight, and purely logical analysis, are rejected as outside the realm of true knowledge. The methods of the physical sciences are regarded as the only accurate means of obtaining knowledge, and therefore, the social sciences should be limited to the use of these methods and modelled after the physical sciences. Positivism as a Method: Positivism Implies the Use of Scientific Method: By the concept of “positivism “, Comte meant the application of scientific methods to understand society and its changes.
Applying this concept to the modern societies, Comte emphasised that sociology must depend on careful observation, usually based on statistical measures of social statics and social dynamics. He also recognised that sociology would have to be less experimental than the physical sciences because of the ethical and practical difficulties intervening in people’s lives. Comte believed that social life is governed by underlying laws and principles that can be discovered through the use of methods most often associated with 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. Positivism would essentially mean a method of approach. The methods of science can give us knowledge of the laws of co-existence and succession of phenomena, but can never penetrate to the inner “essence” or “nature” 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 first pass, that is, the theological, then metaphysical, and finally positive [or scientific] state.
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. Positivism Deifies Observation and Classification of Data: According to Comte, positivism is purely an intellectual way of looking at the world. He believed that the mind should concentrate on the observation and classification of phenomena. He believed that both theological and metaphysical speculations as he used the terms were as likely to be fiction as truth, and that there is no way of determining which the cause is. Thus, it would be more profitable if a person would direct his thoughts to the lines of thinking which are most truly prolific, namely to observation and classification of data. Comte even took the position that it is futile to try to determine causes. We can observe uniformities, or laws, but it is mere speculation to assign causes to these uniformities.
Positivism deified observation and classification of data. Its weaknesses should not hinder the student, however, from seeing the importance of its emphasis upon the scientific procedure of observing and classifying data in an age when dogmatism and speculation were rife. 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. But 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’.