Philosophy and science in positivism
Philosophy and science in positivism
For A. Comte philosophy is, first of all, a reflection on knowledge and thus an analysis of the tendencies and techniques of the various sciences, classified according to an order of decreasing generality; not only that but at times some of their criteria are prescribed to be followed, as those that best respond to their internal logic, that is, to the implementation of their ‘positivity’.
Positivity means overcoming the two previous phases of the development of the intellect (theology, metaphysics); a science is positive when it radically renounces the search for causes and establishes laws, or the constant relations between phenomena, makes predictions, is socially useful. In H. Spencer philosophy is the most general form of knowledge, unifying the sciences and pertaining to notions with the most extensive content.
Science plays a fundamental role in improving society: “Science, from which comes prediction; prediction from which comes action: such is the very simple formula that expresses exactly the general relationship between science and art, taking these two terms in their total meaning”. Human actions, when they follow the predictions that it is possible to make thanks to science, always reach the goals for which they were undertaken. Science frees from false fears and allows man to achieve well-being and happiness.
Progress, according to Comte, is “the necessary result of the preceding and the indispensable motor of the following, according to the luminous axiom of the great Leibniz: the present is pregnant with the future”. An incessant refinement takes place that marks “the increasing preponderance of the noblest tendencies of our nature”.
In the law of the three stages Comte formulates his theory according to which humanity historically passes through three stages: theological, metaphysical and positive. In the theological stage phenomena are explained by recourse to supernatural powers. In the metaphysical stage spiritual powers are replaced by abstract principles. Finally, in the positive stage, laws, or relationships between phenomena, are sought. The scientific method dominates, combining experience and reason.
The positivist mentality was fruitful in the sense that it promoted the ‘scientific’ study of many phenomena. Particularly notable were the suggestions that came from the new mentality to historical studies and social disciplines. A new historiographic method was born, attentive above all to environmental, social and racial factors, aimed at composing on these bases the overall picture within which to understand the events in their multiple connections, the role of individual historical figures (H.T. Buckle, W.E.H. Lecky, H.-A. Taine, P. Villari).
In France, É. Durkheim intended to provide scientific basis to sociology, adopting as principle of explanation the social fact understood as a mode of collective fact that exerts its constraint on the individual (currents of opinion, educational institutions, beliefs). The scientific need extended at the same time to anthropology and psychology (just think of Taine’s work De l’intelligence, 1870, of rigidly analytical inspiration, in which psychic life is seen as traceable to its simplest elements).
In linguistics, genetic and comparative researches received a new impulse; literature and arts in the new climate accentuated romantic realism in an “experimental” sense; the positive method was affirmed in literary criticism, the physiological bases of complex phenomena such as taste were investigated; the attention to the fact stimulated countless philological and erudition researches; in the studies on religions they tended to emphasize the human factors in the development of religious experience, while ethnographic and paleoethnographic researches aimed at the comparative study of the different forms and stages of civilization flourished.
Nor should we forget the merits of positivism with regard to the renewal of scholastic and penal legislation. There was the emergence of a pedagogical positivism (in Italy A. Gabelli, R. Ardigo, etc.), aimed at promoting the spontaneous and creative tendencies of the student, and a positive school of criminal law (the greatest exponents C. Lombroso and E. Ferri), which believed that the criminal law should be based on the principles of the rule of law. Ferri), which believed that the criminal was the product of a series of biological (heredity, anatomical and physiological data) and social components, and explained the crime outside of moral considerations, understanding the punishment not in an afflictive sense, but in function of social defense and re-education of the guilty.