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Explanations > Social Research > Philosophies of Social Research > Positivism

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All knowledge comes from 'positive' information of observable experience. Scientific methods are the best way of achieving this. All else is metaphysics.


The problem with social research is that it is not easy to get solid and repeatable results, as we are such a complex and variable species. In the history of social understanding, Positivism originated out of the French Enlightenment, with French philosopher Auguste Comte, who sought to the replace the 'brainpower approach' of Rationalism by leveraging the principles of the natural sciences (such as Physics, Chemistry and Biology).

At the time of Comte, science was having a huge impact and was steadily replacing religion as the key authority for knowledge about what was true or false. When something is pronounced 'scientific' then it is generally held to be verifiable. This creates a difficulty in psychology as people are not as predictable as apples. 

Comte's three stages of scientific knowledge:


Comte's three stages

Stage 1

Stage 2

Stage 3

Stage of knowledge

Fictitious knowledge

Metaphysical knowledge

Scientific knowledge

Foundations of belief

Faith and custom


Rational logic

Social base





The roots of Positivism lie particularly with Empiricism, which works only with observable facts, seeing that beyond this is the realm of logic and mathematics.

The basic principle of Positivism is that all factual knowledge is based on the "positive" information gained from observable experience, and that any ideas beyond this realm of demonstrable fact are metaphysical.

Only analytic statements are allowed to be known as true through reason alone. Thus 'Roses are flowers' is analytic, whilst 'Roses are fragrant' is synthetic and requires evidence.

The six tenets of Positivism are:




Naturalism The principles of the natural sciences should be used for social science.
Phenomenalism Only observable phenomena provide valid information.
Nominalism Words of scientific value have fixed and single meanings. The existence of a word does not imply the existence of what it describes.
Atomism Things can be studied by reducing them to their smallest parts (and the whole is the sum of the parts).
Scientific laws The goal of science is to create generalised laws (which are useful for such as prediction).
Facts and values Facts are to sought. Values have no meaning for science.


Positivism seeks empirical regularities, which are correlations between two variables. This does not need to be causal in nature, but it does allow laws to be defined and predictions made.

It has been used to justify inequality (eg. Herbert Spencer in industrial revolution and general empire) and support racialism (e.g. John Knox's skull-size measurements and Hans Eysenck's IQ assessments).

Forms of Positivism include:

  • Social Positivism - of Comte, which showed people as evolving.
  • Critical Positivism - of Ernst Mach, who focused on immediate experience.
  • Logical Positivism - of Von Mises And the Vienna circle, which took a harder line.

In particular:

Logical Positivism places particular emphasis on sense experience and observation and attempted to eradiate metaphysics and synthetic statements. Promoted by the 'Vienna Circle'. For each object, a definitive 'mimetic' statement can be made to accurately reflect the object. They used inductive approaches, collecting data and building theories on this.

Logical Positivists include early Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whitehead (Principia Mathematica) and Rudolph Carnap.

In Standard Positivism Carl Hempel countered Logical Positivist use of inductive methods with using deduction to first identify possible laws which are then proven or otherwise in experiments. (Behaviourism used this). It also sought to pull free of value statements of scientists.


Although Positivism has since been shown to be inadequate to study the full range of human experience, it has been hugely influential and still affects the significant use of experiments and statistics in social research.

See also

John Stuart Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865)

Auguste Comte, Cours de philosophie positive, 6 vol. (1830-42)


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