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Positivism is the philosophy that the only authentic knowledge is knowledge that is based on actual sense experience. Such knowledge can only come from affirmation of theories through strict scientific method.
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The second half of the nineteenth century is marked by a broad new movement of thought called Positivism. This movement arose in opposition to the abstractionism and formalism of the transcendental Idealists, who had made nature a "representation" of the ego. The purpose of the new school of thought was to lay greater stress upon immediate experience, upon the positive data obtained through the senses.
Positivism found a precedent for its doctrines in English Empiricism, which had acclaimed experience as the sole source of human knowledge. At the same time, however, because of the new interpretation it gives to reality, Positivism differs from Empiricism. The new school of thought held that the sole reality is matter which, through internal energy, is mechanically evolved from inferior forms until it attains consciousness in man. Thus, notwithstanding the intention it had of opposing Idealism, Positivism is closely allied to Idealism in its immanentist concept of reality. For this reason, Positivism, like Idealism, has a distinctly Kantian origin, although Positivism and Idealism went their separate ways in applying Kant's teachings to the problem under investigation.
Idealism had developed the thinking ego and had transformed it into an ego endowed with the power of creating reality; Positivism starts with the concept of the thing in itself, divinizes it, and considers it a kind of energy which is able to create all reality, including man. Thus, although Positivism attempts a reversal of the Idealist position, both are occupied with the "creative force" of matter. This "force" Positivism utilizes in formulating its doctrine of evolution.
The great advances made by the biological, social and economic sciences of the age, and particularly the discoveries concerning electrical energy, favored this movement. Certainly great progress was made in the physical and social sciences during this period. But it was a gross error to apply the methods of the physical sciences to philosophy and in effect to reduce philosophy to the status of a physical science. Philosophy should have limited itself to its task of coordinating the results or findings of the sciences in an over-all picture of reality.
Of particularly great impact upon the development of thought during this period was the hypothesis of the origin of species of Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Darwin's theory is that matter, mechanically and without any intervention of superior forces, developed itself into a multiplicity of living beings by virtue of certain laws inherent in matter itself (the struggle for existence; natural selection).
Darwin's theory, together with Mayer's law of the conservation of energy (work is transformed into motion without loss of energy), on being applied to the field of philosophical inquiry, gave rise to the belief that the sciences, through the concept of evolution, would at last solve the problem of reality. The result was a metaphysics limited to the field of physics, a thoroughly empiricist theory of knowledge, and a utilitarian and hedonistic ethics.
Even politics and economics were influenced by Positivism. An extreme form of democracy arose, proclaiming the absolute rule of the people; freedom was understood as the full liberty of the individual so long as there was no lesion of the rights of others; the laissez-faire doctrine in economics led to Manchesterism, a theory based on a liberal principle of economic freedom which allowed the employer to pay the lowest possible wage without any moral responsibility toward the worker.
Positivism had its beginnings in France, and Auguste Comte was its founder. It reached its fullest development in England under John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer. In Germany it was decidedly materialistic and atheistic. In Italy it met with little enthusiasm. The following discussion will cover only the main phases of Positivism.
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