The Life of the Positivist Dinosaur

I was recently categorized as being an “allopathic positivist dinosaur” by a student in an online course. I must admit I quite liked the dinosaur bit (the Liopleurodon was always a favourite as a kid) , but apart form the obvious issues with ad-hominem arguments I was also interested to see what the students knew about positivism, and the ideas of Auguste Comte, but sadly (as I suspect is the case with many students) they didn’t know who he was.

The charge of positivist thinking seems to be rather a common position taken in modern thought in my discipline and seems to give opponents to science a convenient label to apply to anyone who holds contrary views to their own, or challenges non-scientific healthcare or supports evidence-based practice. As with most arbitrary labels used to create binary opposite catagorizations, they seldom reflect the  complex reality, but I suspect that very few of my students, and quite a few of my academic colleagues really know what positivist thinking is and where it arose (otherwise, they probably wouldn’t misuse the label) .

Positivism was a school of thought originally advanced by the Frenchman Auguste Comte, often thought of as the founder of sociology. It was based on a return to the notion that the senses, experiences and their logical and mathematical treatment were the exclusive source of all worthwhile knowledge (i.e. positive experience). Comte proposed that systematic inquiry should be the same across both natural and social sciences and research findings could only be proved by empirical and testable means. He is most well known for his assertion that societies advance through three distinct phases:

  1. The theological stage; where the foundation of belief is faith and custom based, referring to deities for explanations and the social base of society is the family
  2. The metaphysical stage; where beliefs become based upon reason, thinking about the world, but without empirical foundation, and the state becomes the social base, and lastly
  3. The scientific stage, where belief is based upon scientific knowledge, and society turns to humanity as the social base.

Positivist philosophy was further developed by Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) who rejected many details of Comte’s philosophy, but accepted his ideas that the social sciences were a logical progression of scientific inquiry into the field of human activity. Durkheim supported the use of the hypothetico-deductive method in the social sciences and suggested the notion of social realism. This idea was an argument for a return to epistemological realism, in that Durkheim proposed that external social realities exist in an objective reality independent of an individual’s perception of them.

At the time this view opposed the empiricist viewpoint, as even empiricist thinkers such as David Hume had suggested that reality was altered by human perception, and realities were thus perceived, and did not exist independently of our perceptions having no causal powers of themselves (Morrison, 2006). Whilst Comte, argued social laws could be deduced from empiric work, Durkheim suggested that sociology would discover the nature of society itself. Overall, these positivist ideas are closely linked to empiricism, and strongly influenced the following development of logical positivism, and pragmatism.

Much of the criticism of modern science by postmodernists is focused on characterizing science as positivist thinking. But, this is rather a straw-man argument as modern science has moved far from these ideas, which came to their peak of influence in the 1930s and 40s. Modern science involves a wide range of tools and techniques and this sort of thinking is long-gone (like the dinosaurs). If anything, post-positivist modern science recognizes there are many different approaches to gathering data and examining evidence,and all still fall within the framework of empirical science. Following Kuhn’s  The structure of scientific revolutions  (1996) science has adopted a plurality of thinking in terms of how  human thinking influences human knowledge, and that our knowledge at any given point reflects the psycho-social limitations of our thinking at that time.

So if you are charged with positivist thinking, ask the person raising the challenge in exactly what way does modern science reflect the thinking of Comte, Durkheim and other positivists?  I suspect they won’t have a good answer to that.




Comte A. (1818) A General View of Positivism (translated by J.H. Bridges)

Kuhn, T. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions (3rd ed.) University of Chicago Press.

Morrison, K. (2006). Marx, Durkheim, Weber: Formations of modern social thought.(second ed.). London: Sage.