Positivism is a philosophical system deeply rooted in science and mathematics. It’s based on the view that whatever exists can be verified through experiments, observation, and mathematical/logical proof. Everything else is nonexistent. In addition, positivists usually believe that scientific progress will eradicate, or at least sharply reduce, the problems facing mankind.
Positivists are almost always strong realists – that is, they believe that what we experience as reality is really out there in the world. In other words, they believe in objective truth. They also tend to deny the influence of things like theoretical and cultural biases that get in the way of science.
Positivism divides all statements into three categories: true, false, and meaningless (neither true nor false). A meaningless statement is one that isn’t clear enough to be tested through positivistic means. For example, “The color green sleeps angrily” is a meaningless statement. There’s no way you could test whether or not it’s true, which means it isn’t true or false. It’s just nonsense. This is an extreme example, of course, but many other sentences fall into this category when their terms are not clearly defined.
If a statement does have a meaning, then it must be either true or false. But that doesn’t mean we necessarily know which one it is. For example, “There are exactly 23.8762 billion domestic cats in the world” has a definite meaning, but no one can say for sure whether it’s true or not. It would be impossible to count all the domestic cats one by one, so no one can verify the statement. In principle, though, it could be verified through scientific observation – which just don’t have the actual means to carry out the study.
Note: Despite its name, positivism has nothing to do with “positive thinking” or optimism – it’s just a coincidence that they have similar names.
II. Positivism vs. Postpositivism
Positivism hit peak popularity in the early 20th century, but after that a new school – the postpositivists – started to notice problems with the theory.
Positivism is an attractive philosophy because it affirms the value of science and maintains a strong distinction between “true” and “false” (a distinction which many other philosophies muddy up!) However, there are also serious problems with it, notably the fact that positivism fails to acknowledge the cultural, political, and psychological factors that get in between the observer and the truth.
Even more importantly, positivism is self-defeating. Here’s a schematic of the postpositivist argument:
a. Positivism claims what is true can be verified by science and logical proof.
b. Positivism also claims everything else is either false or meaningless.
1. Claim “a” cannot be verified by science or logical proof.
2. Therefore claim “a” is either false or meaningless.
In other words, if positivism is true, then positivism is false! There is no objective basis for believing in objective truth!
Realizing this flaw, many people decided to abandon positivism altogether – they developed new schools of thinking that completely abandoned the positivist project. The postpositivists, however, still held on to many aspects of the older school. In particular, they still felt that the goal of philosophy should be to aim at objective truth. They believed that there was an objective reality, and felt that science was a flawed but still highly respectable means of understanding it, but they accepted that there were major complications in the process of knowing or understanding that truth. And, of course, they accepted that there was no objective basis for believing in objective truth.
Postpositivism has been so successful in critiquing positivism that there are very few fully-convinced positivists left today. You’ll notice throughout the article that the quotes and pop-cultural examples are mostly from people who are slightly critical of positivism – that’s because to find full-on positivist examples we’d have to reach back many decades!
III. Quotes about Positivism
“From the study of the development of human intelligence, in all directions, and through all times, the discovery arises of a great fundamental law, [which is that] each branch of our knowledge passes successively through three different theoretical conditions: the theological, or fictitious; the metaphysical, or abstract; and the scientific, or positive.” (Auguste Comte)
Auguste Comte was a French philosopher who lived in the early 19th century and was strongly associated with positivism (though he was more interested in sociology, a science that was just then getting under way, than he was in the natural sciences). In this short quote, he expresses the basic hope of positivism: that human knowledge will inevitably progress through predefined stages, never moving backward or evolving in unexpected directions. Notice, too, that he places religion at the bottom of his hierarchy, referring to it as a fiction. This skepticism of religion is common among positivists.
“Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.” (Karl Popper)
Karl Popper was probably the 20th century’s most influential theorist of the scientific method – even today, many scientists base their research on his theories. Despite being such an important scientific figure, however, Popper was skeptical about positivism. As an early postpositivist, he argued that there were limits to scientific knowledge simply because there are limits to what we as human beings can possibly know and understand. Thus, he thought that positivism placed too much faith in science without being attentive enough to its blind spots.
IV. The History and Importance of Positivism
The basic insight of positivism is as old as philosophy itself, and probably a lot older. That is, human beings have always understood that one of the best ways to know about reality is to observe it systematically, and ordinarily people believe pretty easily that the world around them is an objective reality.
The modern form of positivism, however, is defined by the modern form of science, which dates back to around the 17th century. European thinkers developed a system for testing and evaluating their ideas which was not completely new – it was strongly influenced by Indian and Islamic ideas developed in previous centuries – but which did include some striking new elements. For example, the European scientists decided that supernatural ideas could not be used to explain their observations, an idea that would become central in modern positivism.
Positivism reached its peak in the early 20th century, when philosophers in Britain and America were at the height of their efforts to integrate philosophy with the natural sciences. They were understandably impressed with the progress that science had made over the previous centuries, and believed that this progress was due to the inherent superiority of science over all other systems of thought.
As we’ve seen, the postpositivists punctured this bubble – at least partially. They showed that scientific thinking was not a perfect or complete system, and that it had to be supplemented with other non-scientific ideas. They didn’t disparage science or advocate abandoning it, but they did show some of the gaps in positivism and demonstrated the need for a new way of understanding the world that would integrate science with other forms of knowledge.
Today, we live in an age caught between two opposite forces: the continuing advancement of science, and a growing awareness of its limitations. On the one hand, our world is more deeply shaped by science than ever before – our smart phones and 4G networks are obvious evidence of scientific power, but so is the globe’s massive population, which can only exist thanks to revolutionary agricultural technologies provided by science. However, we also realize that science is responsible for death and destruction on a massive scale, and that our love of technology has not helped us develop greater love for our fellow human beings. So the allure of positivism is still there, since we all understand the power of the scientific worldview – but at the same time, we are much more aware of its dangers than the original postpositivists ever were.
V. Positivism in Popular Culture
Despite its ambiguous stance on science, the movie Avatar has some positivist underpinnings. For one thing, the nature-forces of Pandora are not spiritual beings – they’re flesh-and-blood superorganisms that could in principle be understood through science. So the movie basically takes a positivist stance on what sort of things exist in the world, but it still makes room for a semi-spiritual relationship to the natural world. In addition, the scientists in the movie are mostly good guys, with better values than the film’s villains, who are mainly corporate and military types.
In an episode of South Park, Cartman travels into the future to a time when positivism has taken over the world, replacing political and religious ideas with pure science. Although this future world has incredible technology, all the basic problems are exactly the same – war, bigotry, and stupidity are still rampant. The show is communicating a critique of positivism through humor, showing that the “progress” of science won’t solve all of humanity’s problems.
The Existence of God: True, False, or Meaningless?
For many people, the existence of God is a true-or-false question. Atheists say it’s false whereas theists say it’s true. But some positivists argue that the existence of God is neither true nor false – it’s meaningless. They argue that the word “God” is not clear enough for a true-or-false analysis, and that before we can ask whether God exists we have to get much more clarity on what the word “God” actually means.
Of course, “God” is not the sort of word that can have any easy definition. Whatever else they might disagree on, most religions agree that God is in some way beyond our understanding, which means it’s impossible to develop a clear, simple definition of the word “God.” From a positivist perspective, that means it’s impossible to establish whether or not God exists.
Historically, most positivists (and many postpositivists) have been atheists. They believe only in what science can demonstrate, and since science can’t demonstrate the existence of God they conclude that God does not exist. But notice that you can’t have it both ways – some positivists say that the existence of God is false, while others say that it’s meaningless, but it can’t be both at the same time. (In order to be false, a statement must have an established meaning.)
So, there are three possible positions for a positivist:
- God exists, and this can be shown through science (an unusual position!)
- God does not exist because science cannot show the existence of a god.
- The word “God” has no meaning.