Last Updated 25 Mar 2020

What is positivism

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Positivism Is a well established philosophy wealth the natural sciences. In the early nineteenth century It became an integral aspect of social science methodology. In Bacon tradition, positivism is the precise and objective observation of an object from a scientifically detached position. Though its definition is broad, there are fundamentally six assumptions in positivistic philosophy and three distinct generations that negotiate with these assumptions. Naturalism; positivists are committed to the implication of the natural scientific teeth in social science.

The natural scientific method creates a 'closed system' in which a limited number of discrete variables are identified, influences are excluded, cause and effect Is established, and excellently law or authoritative knowledge Is constructed. No acknowledgement of open systems as a feature of both natural and social science Is made. Phenomenal; only knowledge gained from physical experience Is considered valid. Otherwise It Is metaphysical and meaningless. If It cannot be subject to empirical tests and corroborated, it does not exist. Happiness, for example, by this criterion, is meaningless.

Nominal; again concepts must be rooted in physical actuality. Words are mere reflections of things, semantics are dismissed. Scientific concepts are regarded as true reflections of the world instead. Atomics; attempts definition of discrete irreducible objects. An individual would by this criterion, be the smallest unit of society. 19th century utilitarian maxim 'greater good for greater number' placed special emphasis on this assumption. Scientific laws; a sequence of regularities in objects are sought and named a constant conjunction of events.

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A general statement Is then devised citing one variable as the cause, the other as the effect. E. G. : Ill health as the cause for poverty. The problematic, Internal structure of these objects Is not examined. Universal law Is established. Facts and Values: facts only are scientific, distinct then from subjective and relative values which cannot be verified by empirical measurement. The first generation of positivists, in response to European chaos, devised a confident Sino of knowledge as human made, not divine construction and so open to critical enquiry.

Augusta Comet directed early positivist thought in the social sciences. He made a naturalist assumption that through social physics, social cohesion could be attained which would then lead to civic harmony. With positivist philosophy intent, he meant to serve the needs of humanity through objective intellectual enquiry. Comet believed that all knowledge could be reconstructed and a better world created. Human reason could subject social phenomena to natural laws and achieve regress. The method of Induction I. E. He construction of knowledge through the collection of empirical evidence from observed regular instances, would play a early positivistic claim to objective knowledge was very ambitious and modified by the next generation of logical positivists. Prominent in the Vienna Circle, these philosophers placed greater emphasis on the sensory world as automatically composed of separate irreducible objects. Conscious of previous translation of value into fact and failure to separate theories from observation they had a more acute awareness of language and its tendency to, even in simple statements, have normative assumptions.

Logical positivists were careful to make distinctions between statements. Two connected types were identified: analytic and synthetic. An analytic statement such as 'all bachelors are unmarried' is a tautological truth whereas the synthetic there are more bachelors in London than anywhere else' tells us something about the world. It can be empirically tested and refuted. Logical positivists' favoring of the induction method, with its assumption of rabbles' passivity posed a difficulty for the next generation of philosophers, the standard positivists.

Nominal was the prominent assumption for this school of thought. Hempen, acknowledging the role of meaning, championed the idea of deduction over induction. Deduction involves abstract reasoning. It sees thought processes, not a general law as initial in devising empirical research. These positivists see empirical regularity as sufficient in creating a causal law. They see symmetry in explanation and prediction. These causal laws can be empirically tested and verified. Popper on the other hand saw verification as leading to stagnation.

In mid 20th century he proposed instead the idea of falsification which encourages systematic skepticism of all knowledge claims. Moving away from induction's 'common sense' science, Popper begins with an assumption of uncertainty. Truth to Popper is a matter of degree, of verisimilitude, not an absolute. Popper shifts the demarcation criteria of science and non-science. He adopts naturalism but challenges the logical positivist view of the meta-physical as meaningless. To Popper, there is no true or false, but testability.

He held that a search for truth was a search for the end of knowledge, which was contrary to his view of knowledge as continual. He saw the practice of refuting evidence as integral to progress. Popper understood research's vulnerability to false claims, the complexity of the fact/ value distinction. Our awareness of the power of social construction over our perceptions is more astute these days but it is imperative that we situate ourselves and know that we are as shaped by context as ever.

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