Positivism is a philosophical theory that focuses on empirical knowledge and evidence, and rejects a priori facts as true knowledge. The theory originated from Auguste Comte in the early nineteenth century, who promoted establishing knowledge through scientific investigation and observable data. Comte argued that theories were only relatively true, and questioned theories such as Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation as true until new data would establish a more concrete theory. Comte also believed that scientific studies of society should be confined to collecting information about phenomena that can be objectively observed and classified. This had sociological implications, as the internal meanings, feelings and emotions were rejected because they could not be observed or measured objectively.
Positivism includes certain principles:
1. The unity of the scientific method
2. Science is able to explain and predict worldly truths
3. Scientific knowledge can be investigated, and truths can only be proved through empirical methods, and not by logic, belief or arguments alone. Truth should therefore be deductive, i.e. statements must be tested, in order to produce hypotheses, investigations and finally, evidence
4. The scientific objective is to establish knowledge, and not be influenced by politics, values, or morals
Comte’s ideas were developed further into the twentieth century, incorporating philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Tractatus (1921). The twentieth century saw the growth of Logical Positivism, based on Georg Hegel’s criticism of Metaphysics, that it could not be deemed true because it could not be empirically proven. This movement reduced all knowledge to scientific foundations, and was a crucial epistemological development of the time. An organisation of philosophers such as Moritz Schlick, Otto Neurath, Hans Hahn and Rudolf Carnap, formed the Vienna Circle in the 1920s and explored these ideas, Most infamously, A.J. Ayer brought Logical Positivism to Britain, in his Language, Truth and Logic (1936). The Vienna Circle saw philosophers aiming to analyse truth statements and empirical evidence in the context of technological and scientific transformations. These philosophers denied metaphysical assertions and logical concepts of mathematics, and that no statement could be true a priori. They argued that, through using the Verification Principle, statements could be deemed cognitively meaningful or meaningless based on whether they could or could not be verified empirically. They were not concerned with the truth of statements, but whether they could be proven to be true or false.
Critics of Logical Positivism argue that the verification principle is problematic due to the fact that the principle itself is unverifiable. Karl Popper, infamous critic, argued against the assertion that metaphysical statements are cognitively meaningless, and argued that the falsifiability of a statement can change in the scientific contexts over time.