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Positivism - The Nineteenth Century: Comte To Mach, Logical Positivism And The Vienna Circle, Logical Empiricist Themes—and Their Reception

science positivists human sciences

The history of positivism falls into two nearly independent stages: nineteenth-century French and twentieth-century Germanic, which became the logical positivism or logical empiricism of the Vienna Circle that, in turn, enjoyed an American phase. In the postmodern world, "positivist" is often a term of abuse, but historical research now contests the received characterization.

In a broad sense, positivism is the philosophical expression of scientism, the view that empirical science is the primary cultural institution, the only one that produces clear, objective, reliable knowledge claims about nature and society that accumulate over time and thereby the only enterprise that escapes the contingencies of history. For positivists, that reliability is proportional to the proximity of claims to observed facts—the empirical basis of knowledge. Every substantive claim not tested by experience is sheer human fabrication. Positivists claim that they alone take fully into account the special nature and historical importance of science, with its actual and potential contribution to human life and culture. They reverse the traditional intellectual priority of science and philosophy (epistemology): philosophy is no longer prior to science but becomes the interpreter of and commentator on science. As W. V. Quine once quipped, "Philosophy of science is philosophy enough" (1976, p. 155).

Positivists aim to carry on the social mission of the scientific Enlightenment. The sciences, including the new human sciences, are to be unified under one method, usually with physics as the model. The positivists' insistence that the hardheaded, allegedly value-free methods of the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) be extended to the human sciences or humanities (Geisteswissenschaften) has provoked charges of cultural imperialism from those defending historical, hermeneutical-interpretive, religious, or aesthetic modes of understanding (Verstehen).

In the broad sense, Karl Popper and even Quine are positivists, despite their trenchant critiques of the logical empiricists of the Vienna Circle (especially Rudolf Carnap), who achieved cultural authority in the twentieth century and with whom "positivism" in a narrow sense is now identified.

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