The major exponents of positivism
The major exponents of positivism
With J.S. Mill positivism takes on a different configuration from that given by Comte. In fact Mill is connected to the English empiricist tradition and in essence has in common with Comte especially the negative part of his philosophy, the refusal of any recourse to theological or metaphysical explanations: his System of logic (1843) is based on the most rigorous experimentalism. On the political level, Mill’s conception is individualistic and liberal, while Comte’s State is rigidly organized. Mill is close to Comte in fact of philosophy of religion, although then develops differently this common point.
It has been seen that Comte does not exclude religious sentiment, and indeed envisages its expansion into the positive stage. Nor does Mill exclude it. In his Three essays on religion (posthumous, 1874) he speaks of a finite god, i.e. not omnipotent, a good but not absolute principle, which therefore must reckon with the material world and its often cruel laws: man is thus a collaborator of this finite divinity and religious feeling reinforces the hope of realizing its moral needs. Both in Comte and in Mill the anthropological presupposition is the sentimental one (man is not only and not even predominantly reason); the theoretical presupposition (and in Mill even more than in Comte) is the agnostic propensity: the rational explanation does not exclude a certain margin of non-knowledge and unverifiability.
A similar attitude is found in other thinkers who refer to positivism. C. Bernard in his Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale (1865) is a supporter of a rigorous experimentalism and rejects what he calls the ‘system’, i.e. the unitary explanation of phenomena (materialism, spiritualism etc.). He considers philosophy different from science because it deals with the indeterminate, of what science cannot experience, and in this way he attributes to philosophy a function of stimulus for science itself, considering ineliminable the needs that give rise to philosophy and religion. Also in J.-R. Renan, even with some oscillations, remains the need not to identify the verifiable with the true, not to be satisfied with rational operations.
A similar gnoseological presupposition is present in H. Spencer, who speaks of a relative knowledge of the conditioned and of an unknowable unconditioned. Religion represents the awareness of this mystery and represents it all the better the more it renounces to represent it and limits itself to take note of its presence-absence. On the one hand, therefore, science, on the other hand, religion, with two distinct spheres of competence. However, for Spencer, these two spheres are not unrelated, because the conditioned, the phenomenon is a manifestation of absolute reality, and we are aware of the unconditioned without having knowledge of it.
Philosophy has the task to generalize the results of science, and these results allow Spencer to formulate a theory of evolution of universal application. In social evolution he foresees a point of arrival where contrasts will be smoothed out, where individual and social, private and public will be reconciled. In view of this arrival, Spencer supported in his political doctrine thesis contrary to any intervention of the State. Spencer was the positivist philosopher who had the greatest fortune: in the last forty years of the nineteenth century his philosophy had an enormous diffusion.
Critic of the unknowable of Spencer is the Italian R. Ardigo, who does not admit a different and more authentic plane of reality, but sticks to the fact and the verifiable. The fact is ascertained through direct apprehension, which is followed by the reflexive operations that distinguish. This passage from an original indistinct to successive distinctions is a fact of thought, but it is also a real fact: reality itself is specified in this sense, so that every distinct is in turn indistinct with respect to further distinct.
Positivism was also widespread in Germany, but more than a true German positivist school we can speak of “positivist atmosphere” (anti-metaphysics, attention to the results of science, the problem of the limits of scientific knowledge, the problem of the relationship between science and philosophy). It can be traced back to positivism, in particular to Spencerian dualism, the positions of the physiologist E. du Bois-Reymond, which assume the existence of an aspect of reality precluded to science. Du Bois-Reymond lists some fundamental difficulties of scientific research, some “enigmas” in front of which it stops: the essence of matter and force, the origin of the movement, the origin of life, the natural finalism, the origin of consciousness, rational thought and its language, the freedom of the will.
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