Social Progress in Classical Positivism

1. Science and Social Progress in Classical Positivism

The origins of science date back to the 6th century BC when the pre-Socratic philosophers (later followed by other prominent ones such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in the 5th and 4th centuries BC) attempted for the first time to discover the guiding principles of the world, the so-called “metaphysics.” The Greek pre-Socratic philosophers, among whom Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, and Parmenides, are largely responsible for the transition in Western thought. From “myth” to “logos,” the Greek term for “reason” – a radical shift that involved abandoning hitherto common theological or supernatural explanations of the world and seeking and proposing rational, logical explanations instead. From that point on, the study of the world through logical reasoning or “philosophy” (or in Greek, “the love of wisdom”) is on the march, and the related “logo-centrism” (the belief that the pursuit of “pure reason” leads to the discovery of the underlying substance of the world) predominates. The Middle Ages, i.e., the Western history between ancient times (both Greek and Roman) and the modern era, are strongly marked by a movement known as “scholasticism.” Between the 11th and 14th centuries, the scholastics attempted to combine theology and philosophy. The most widely known combinations were the 13th-century synthesis of Christian faith and Aristotelian metaphysics as interpreted by St. Thomas Aquinas.

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Medieval research of the world was generally conducted within monasteries and later expanded to other more appropriate venues: the first universities were created in Italy, England, and France in the late 11th and 12th centuries. However, the first university founded dates to the 5th century when a center of learning in philosophy, astronomy, and other subjects was established in Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey); formally founded in the 9th century, the university of Constantinople lasted until the 14th century.


The post-medieval period, spanning from the 16th century to the present times, is Modernity. Since the scientific method was first proposed in this period, earlier world investigations are considered “pre-scientific.” The scientific method consists of the principles necessary for conducting (scientific) research, namely, observation or experimentation of phenomena; formulation of hypotheses about the Metatheories in the phenomena under study through “induction” (i.e., “the passage from the particular to the general”); tests to demonstrate the truth or falsity of the proposed hypotheses, through “deduction” (i.e., “the passage from the general to the particular”); and, finally, verification or the need to modify hypotheses.

Generally rooted in the empiricist tradition, thus privileging quantitative research methods and techniques, the scientific method is first employed in the natural sciences and then massively appropriated by social scientists. Modernity includes at least two distinct eras: the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, some historians take the First Age as part of the second. The Age of Reason marks the end of the Middle Ages, during which faith commands reason and imposes a scholastic stamp on world knowledge. Rationalism prevails (i.e., the belief that reason rather than experience is the primary source of knowledge), expounded by prominent philosophers such as René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibniz. Rationalist positions are later challenged by empiricism, the hallmark of the Age of Enlightenment. The leading empiricists (namely John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume) assert that everything that can be known results only from human sensory experience.

The absolute idealists wrote as if the Renaissance methodologists of the sciences had never existed. But if the empirical and scientific tradition in philosophy in Germany was dormant in France and England in the mid-19th century, it was very much alive. Auguste Comte wrote his great philosophical history of science, The Positive Philosophy, in six volumes in France. Influenced by Bacon and the entire school of British empiricism, by the doctrine of progress presented by Turgot and the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-94) during the 18th century, and by the highly original social reformer Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), Comte called his philosophy positivism. Comte meant to have a philosophy of science so narrow as to deny any validity to knowledge not derived through the accepted methods of science.

In this work, Comte made his point not by dialectics but by appealing to the history of thought Burawoy, M. (2005).


Source: National Library of Paris

Auguste Comte

His two basic ideas were:

· The notion that the sciences have arisen in strict order, beginning with mathematics and astronomy, followed by physics, chemistry, and biology, and culminating in the new science of sociology, to which Comte was the first to ascribe the name.

· The so-called “law of the three stages” considers that thought in all fields passes progressively from superstition to science by being first religious, then abstract or metaphysical, and finally positive or scientific.

Comte’s contribution was to initiate an anti-religious and anti-metaphysical bias in the philosophy of science that survived into the 20th century. In mid-19th century England, John Stuart Mill was the leading representative of the empiricist tradition from Bacon to Hume. Mill’s theory of knowledge, best represented in his Examination of the Philosophy of Sir William Hamilton (1865), was not particularly original but rather a reasonable combination of the doctrines of Berkeley and Hume; it symbolized his distrust of vague metaphysics, his denial of the a priori element in knowledge, and his determined opposition to any form of intuitionism. It is in his enormously influential A System of Logic (1843). However, Mill’s main theoretical ideas are to be found.

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