Comte and the Positivist Vision

Authored by: Vincent Guillin

The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Social Science

Print publication date:  December  2016
Online publication date:  December  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138825758
eBook ISBN: 9781315410098
Adobe ISBN: 9781315410081


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A spectre has long been haunting the philosophy of social science—the spectre of positivism. Once the dominant view on the nature and prospects of scientific inquiry and its application to the study of social phenomena, it gradually appeared obvious to many that this conception failed to capture the defining characteristics of science, so much so that the very label “positivism” has become “a term of abuse” (Giddens 1977, 29). Yet, despite its demise, that positivist view of science still remains influential today, albeit in a somewhat paradoxical manner, to the extent that it provides a convenient representation of an obsolete methodological ideal that generally serves as a foil for social science and the different disciplines it encompasses (for a classic formulation of that position, see Hayek 1979). It is important to point out, however, that “logical positivism,” the modern incarnation of the positivist idea—which has been rightfully criticized for its uncritical reliance on the analytic-synthetic distinction, its unsatisfactory verification criteria for cognitive meaningfulness, and its inability to come up with a clear theory of the confirmation of empirical statements—is a far cry from the original vision entertained by Auguste Comte, the very philosopher to whom it owes its name.

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