Positivism is a philosophical and cultural movement, born in France in the first half of the nineteenth century by A. Comte. and inspired by some fundamental guiding ideas generally referred to the exaltation of scientific progress. This current of thought, driven by the industrial revolutions and literature related to it, spread in the second half of the century in Europe and worldwide, also influencing the birth of literary movements such as verismo in Italy and naturalism in France.

Positivism, from its origins, sets itself two major cultural purposes:

  1. The overcoming of metaphysics and the use of scientific knowledge of phenomena. Positivist scholars must not ask why phenomena occur, but rather must describe the “how” these phenomena take place;
  2. The foundation of a positive philosophy capable of remaining true to the facts, of generalizing only from empirical evidence.

More generally, the term indicates a culture whose fundamental attitude is attributable to the principles developed by this philosophical direction. Participated scientists, historians, men of letters, in the context of the European situation characterized by the development of industrial society and the growth of science and technology. Positivist philosophers are fully aware of being interpreters of this time and also trace the design of a rational industrial society, that is regulated according to scientific criteria.

Henri de Saint-Simon introduced for the first time the term “positivism”. Positivism is not therefore configured as a philosophical thought organized in a defined system as the one that had characterized the idealistic philosophy, but rather as a movement in some respects similar to the Enlightenment, which shares the belief in science and scientific and technological progress, and for others akin to the romantic conception of history that sees in the progressive affirmation of reason the basis of progress or social evolution.

The term positivism designates, in a broad sense, all those conceptions of the 1800s that are united by a “positive” relationship to science. Between 1600 and 1700 the term “positive” takes on the meaning of precise, certain, real, useful that we find in the term positivism. A. Comte provided the basis of positivism with the Course of Positive Philosophy (1830-42). From the middle of the century positivism spread throughout Europe.

Positivism divides the statements that man make into two categories: scientific and non-scientific. Scientific statements are those that are based on observation, formulation of laws and explanations of phenomena, verification of laws: “The experimental method, as a scientific method, rests entirely on the experimental verification of a scientific hypothesis. This verification can be obtained either with the help of a new observation or with the help of an experience” (Introduction à l’étude de la médecine experimentale).

The positivist position is anti-metaphysical, considering metaphysical everything that cannot be observed and verified.

Positivism affirms the unity of the scientific method and therefore the possibility to subject to the same rules every kind of phenomenon. Taine will say in the Essay on the fables of La Fontaine: “You can consider man as an animal of a superior species that produces philosophies and poems almost as silkworms make their cocoons and bees their hives. This statement is well suited to explain the naturalist poetics.

The meanings of the term “positive”

In Auguste Comte the term positive indicates what is real, useful and certain. Comte’s positivism starts from the assumption that knowledge is always relative, as it must be able to establish relationships between phenomena. There are several meanings listed by Comte in Discours sur l’esprit positif (1844).

  1. The first is that of real, as opposed to chimerical, and this indicates the turning of the new philosophy to research accessible to human intelligence, with the exclusion of the impenetrable mysteries of which the previous philosophy was concerned.
  2. The second meaning is that of useful, as opposed to idle, indicating the pragmatic character of the new philosophy, aimed at improving the condition of individuals and society.
  3. In a third meaning, the term indicates the opposition between certainty and indecision, that is, the attitude of positive philosophy to constitute “logical harmony in the individual and spiritual communion in the species,” instead of pursuing the continuous doubts of previous philosophies.
  4. A fourth meaning is that of precise as opposed to vague, and designates the tendency of positive philosophy to achieve the degree of precision compatible with the nature of phenomena and with the requirement of our needs, whereas the old philosophy led to vague notions that could become common heritage through an imposed discipline founded on a supernatural authority).
  5. The fifth meaning designates the positive as opposed to the negative, and indicates that positive philosophy is not in the business of destroying but of organizing.

These definitions can be valid as a characterization of the most advanced stage of man’s intellectual (and historical) development, the attainment of his full maturity. This stage is called by Comte precisely ‘positive’, and is the third stage after the theological and metaphysical. This succession is for Comte the law of the three stages that has universal validity and is verifiable both in the historical course (with particular reference to European history), and in the development of science, and finally in the individual psychological development.

Reaching the positive stage means freeing oneself from non-scientific criteria in the consideration of phenomena; it means no longer resorting to imaginary supernatural entities as in the theological stage, or to personified abstractions as in the metaphysical stage. In the positive stage, the intellect is strictly limited to facts and their relationships: the cause is replaced by the law, the search for the why is replaced by the search for the how, the absolute is replaced by the relative. The new Comtian world realizes the imperative of altruism and is open to a religion whose god is Humanity and that leaves no place to the transcendent.

One of the greatest relationships identified by Comte is that between the world of nature and the human and social world. In fact, he conceives society as a living organism and as such subject to the same laws of development of the natural world. The science that studies society, of which the French scholar is considered the founder, takes the name of social physics and subsequently that of sociology. Just like an organism, a society is governed by laws that are implemented in a natural and spontaneous way and that are unchangeable.

The law of the three stages

Starting from the parallelism between society and organism, Comte elaborates a theory of development that unites both society and human beings and nature. The history of man and society is divided into three stages: theological, metaphysical and positive.

  1. In the theological stage, nature is represented and governed by divine forces. Natural phenomena are explained by recourse to supernatural entities. On the individual level, the theological stage corresponds to childhood. The dominant form of knowledge is religion.
  2. In the metaphysical stage, society, man and nature are dominated by abstract entities, by ideas. On the individual level, the metaphysical stage corresponds to youth. This is the stage of philosophy.
  3. The positive stage, which corresponds to maturity, explains the occurrence of phenomena by resorting to natural causes. This is the stage characterized by science.

The theory of the three stages explains not only the development of humanity but also the development of forms of knowledge, from religion to philosophy and science.

The moment of maximum development of these forms of knowledge is represented by sociology, which represents a true “summa” of the previous disciplines.

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