Science and Social Progress in Classical Positivism

1. Science and Social Progress in Classical Positivism

The origins of science date back to the 6th century BC when the pre-Socratic philosophers (later followed by other prominent ones such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in the 5th and 4th centuries BC) attempted for the first time to discover the guiding principles of the world, the so-called “metaphysics.” The Greek pre-Socratic philosophers, among whom Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, and Parmenides, are largely responsible for the transition in Western thought. From “myth” to “logos,” the Greek term for “reason” – a radical shift that involved abandoning hitherto common theological or supernatural explanations of the world and seeking and proposing rational, logical explanations instead. From that point on, the study of the world through logical reasoning or “philosophy” (or in Greek, “the love of wisdom”) is on the march, and the related “logo-centrism” (the belief that the pursuit of “pure reason” leads to the discovery of the underlying substance of the world) predominates. The Middle Ages, i.e., the Western history between ancient times (both Greek and Roman) and the modern era, are strongly marked by a movement known as “scholasticism.” Between the 11th and 14th centuries, the scholastics attempted to combine theology and philosophy. The most widely known combinations were the 13th-century synthesis of Christian faith and Aristotelian metaphysics as interpreted by St. Thomas Aquinas.

Medieval research of the world was generally conducted within monasteries and later expanded to other more appropriate venues: the first universities were created in Italy, England, and France in the late 11th and 12th centuries. However, the first university founded dates to the 5th century when a center of learning in philosophy, astronomy, and other subjects was established in Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey); formally founded in the 9th century, the university of Constantinople lasted until the 14th century.


The post-medieval period, spanning from the 16th century to the present times, is Modernity. Since the scientific method was first proposed in this period, earlier world investigations are considered “pre-scientific.” The scientific method consists of the principles necessary for conducting (scientific) research, namely, observation or experimentation of phenomena; formulation of hypotheses about the Metatheories in the phenomena under study through “induction” (i.e., “the passage from the particular to the general”); tests to demonstrate the truth or falsity of the proposed hypotheses, through “deduction” (i.e., “the passage from the general to the particular”); and, finally, verification or the need to modify hypotheses.

Generally rooted in the empiricist tradition, thus privileging quantitative research methods and techniques, the scientific method is first employed in the natural sciences and then massively appropriated by social scientists. Modernity includes at least two distinct eras: the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, some historians take the First Age as part of the second. The Age of Reason marks the end of the Middle Ages, during which faith commands reason and imposes a scholastic stamp on world knowledge. Rationalism prevails (i.e., the belief that reason rather than experience is the primary source of knowledge), expounded by prominent philosophers such as René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibniz. Rationalist positions are later challenged by empiricism, the hallmark of the Age of Enlightenment. The leading empiricists (namely John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume) assert that everything that can be known results only from human sensory experience.

The absolute idealists wrote as if the Renaissance methodologists of the sciences had never existed. But if the empirical and scientific tradition in philosophy in Germany was dormant in France and England in the mid-19th century, it was very much alive. Auguste Comte wrote his great philosophical history of science, The Positive Philosophy, in six volumes in France. Influenced by Bacon and the entire school of British empiricism, by the doctrine of progress presented by Turgot and the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-94) during the 18th century, and by the highly original social reformer Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), Comte called his philosophy positivism. Comte meant to have a philosophy of science so narrow as to deny any validity to knowledge not derived through the accepted methods of science.

In this work, Comte made his point not by dialectics but by appealing to the history of thought Burawoy, M. (2005).


Source: National Library of Paris

Auguste Comte

His two basic ideas were:

· The notion that the sciences have arisen in strict order, beginning with mathematics and astronomy, followed by physics, chemistry, and biology, and culminating in the new science of sociology, to which Comte was the first to ascribe the name.

· The so-called “law of the three stages” considers that thought in all fields passes progressively from superstition to science by being first religious, then abstract or metaphysical, and finally positive or scientific.

Comte’s contribution was to initiate an anti-religious and anti-metaphysical bias in the philosophy of science that survived into the 20th century. In mid-19th century England, John Stuart Mill was the leading representative of the empiricist tradition from Bacon to Hume. Mill’s theory of knowledge, best represented in his Examination of the Philosophy of Sir William Hamilton (1865), was not particularly original but rather a reasonable combination of the doctrines of Berkeley and Hume; it symbolized his distrust of vague metaphysics, his denial of the a priori element in knowledge, and his determined opposition to any form of intuitionism. It is in his enormously influential A System of Logic (1843). However, Mill’s main theoretical ideas are to be found.


John Stuart Mill

Source: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

He indicates that the work on the principles of evidence and methods of scientific investigation was less concerned with formal logic than with scientific methodology. Mill here made the fundamental distinction between deduction and induction, defined induction as the process of discovering and proving general propositions, and presented his “four methods of experimental investigation” as the heart of the inductive method. These methods were, in fact, just an expanded and refined version of Francis Bacon’s “tables of discovery.” But the most significant section of a logic system was its conclusion, Book VI, On the Logic of the Moral Sciences.

Although rationalism is opposed in principle to empiricism, one needs to recognize that empiricist philosophers are neither totally against the use of reason nor do they fail to deploy reason (when necessary) in investigations of the world. The basis of empiricist philosophy, however, lies earlier when Francis Bacon first proposed the “inductive method” through which one can arrive at universal statements about the world by resorting to multiple observations and experiments and thus discovering “regularities of events” or “constant conjunctions of events.” The 19th century witnessed the development of “idealism” and “positivism.” These two philosophies elaborate on rationalist and empiricist views, respectively. While the idealism postulated by Georg Hegel and others holds that the world is composed of ideas (i.e., the world exists primarily as human consciousness or spirit), the positivism of Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill emphasizes sensory perceptions as the sole sources of knowledge. Idealism is a reaction to the materialist position that the world is matter, essentially physical Burawoy, M. (2005).


II. The Sociology of Science

With distant antecedents in Marx, Engels, and Durkheim and, more recently, in Merton and other authors, the sociology of science has been developed, which complements, in various aspects, the treatment of these disciplines by epistemology. Bunge, who has also written on that subject, refers, controversially in some qualifications, to different currents occurring in the sociology of science, as can be seen in the quote below: “New orientations in the sociology of science have been emerging since the 1960s. Although the respective styles represent considerable differences, they adhere to several shared dogmas. These are externalism, a thesis in whose terms the conceptual content is determined by the social frame of reference; constructivism or subjectivism, according to which the research subject constructs not only his own version of the facts but also the facts themselves and eventually the whole world; relativism, for which there are no objective and universal truths; pragmatism, which emphasizes action and interaction at the expense of ideas and identifies science with technology; ordinaries, which reduces scientific research to pure, uninspired transpiration, refusing to recognize science as having a special status and to distinguish it from ideology, pseudoscience and even anti-science; the adoption of obsolete psychological doctrines, such as behaviorism and psychoanalysis, and the replacement of positivism, rationalism and other classical philosophies by a multitude of philosophies alien to science and even anti-scientific, such as linguistic philosophy, phenomenology, existentialism, hermeneutics, “critical theory”, post-structuralism, deconstructivism, or the French school of semiotics, as the case may be.

III. Women, Artists, Workers, and Secular Education

The first friendly civil servants, working-class educators, will be women of the bourgeoisie who seek to improve their lives, guided by the spirit of utilitarianism (Moix: 1991, 57), which pursues the greatest good of the greatest number. The role of women in the 19th century is also an important reference to understanding the context in which social work was born. Her role in society, the distribution of power, and the spaces of the two sexes will configure a presence of women in a society that is subsidiary to the individual, expelled from public life, and whose importance, both in production and social reproduction, is not sufficiently valued. Farge (1991) points out that women are characterized in this period by being subjected: the product of their work falls to their legal guardian, and procreation is subject to the control of the community. They are considered weak, so perhaps the first legislation on working conditions is directed at them and their children, which does not prevent their work from remaining hard. They are seen as irresponsible. Their sphere of power is limited to the domestic sphere, where their presence is experienced as an intrusion. In this space, the socialization of sons and daughters will occur and, therefore, social reproduction. The only thing that changes, according to Farge, is that women begin to develop a public presence that was previously the exclusive domain of men.

Germany takes the form of true social motherhood. In this case, bourgeois women help, educate and control poor and working-class women. They pass at the impulse of associations, from being visitors of the poor to benevolent inspectors, from protective ladies to social assistants, precursors of the social workers. In the same way, doctors made women their allies in the fight for hygiene.

Women were gradually incorporated into social life, with social assistance being one of the privileged fields. Their presence in their work extends the expressive roles in the domestic sphere, which they reproduce in the public sphere. It can also be seen how the precursor movement of social work was born in the upper class. Apart from serving to justify women before society is used as a control mechanism of which the working class is wary, as it had previously been wary of other aid mechanisms developed by society.

As a precursor of social work, social assistance was born out of a reformist desire from the social elites, far from the incipient social state and without participation in the debate on social sciences.

IV. Durkheim and Bunge: Objectivity and Subjectivity

A particular dualism prevalent in current sociocultural theory is that of objectivity and subjectivity. Objectivity is an omniscient, neutral, and detached theoretical perspective concerning a given attribute or set of attributes. The objective courtroom judge has no reason to favor the defendant or plaintiff, and the objective journalist includes no judgment bias in reporting an event. On the other hand, subjectivity is the opposite condition of being situated within feelings and opinions.

The situated nature of perception, i.e., subjectivity or objectivity, is a crucial qualifier of human experience. Indeed, it is one of the most widely recognized and researched fields of psychological inquiry, particularly considering Jaques Lacan’s theory of “the mirror stage.” In this developmental period, Lacan asserts, an individual reconciles the tension of having an image projected in a mirror separate from the experienced physical self. Eventually, the individual recognizes the singular body as a simultaneous subject and object in the presence of a mirror. Although this stage marks the first time a person is confronted with this perceptual dualism, it remains a tension throughout their life. The shortcomings of Cash’s (1990) account of the relationship between taxation and body image represent his sharp analytic division of objectivity and subjectivity. He dismisses their simultaneous effects on bodily perception. He argues that the experience of body image can be “neatly divided” into two different perspectives of objectivity and subjectivity, or a “view from the outside” vs. a “view from the inside.” This is a reductionist analysis because the two are inseparable. The view from the inside profoundly affects how people perceive others and see them and vice versa. Moreover, no one can achieve an utterly isolated objective or subjective view because no one can escape their perception. No one can exist without receiving others’ social cues, affirmations, and denunciations (Goffman).



Gray, S. & Zide, M. (2017) Psychopathology: Competency-based assessment models for Social Workers.