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Positivism – not so positive after all

August Comte via Wikipedia

Positivism is a branch of philosophical thought asserting that all knowledge is arrived at through observing phenomena and learning facts.

Although the positivist approach has been a recurrent theme in the history of western thought, the modern sense of the approach was formulated by the philosopher Auguste Comte in the early 19th century. Comte argued that, much as the physical world operates according to gravity and other absolute laws, so does society.¹

Proponents of positivism advocate the sheer negation of any kind of knowing that cannot be demonstrated to others. Love, mysticism, introspection, intuition, metaphysics and theology are all rejected. As absurd as this may seem, we find aspects of this unsavory outlook in contemporary society. Today, many people uncritically uphold apparently positivist truth claims that, in fact, are not even truly positivist.

A good example can be found in in psychiatry, where all sorts of ideological, political and economic statements pose as scientific “truth” while competing theories within psychiatry, itself, are downplayed. This is especially so in neuropsychology where competing theories about, for example, “depression” exist. However, by the time we visit the psychiatrist’s office or watch TV ads selling medications, we hear only a simplified version of the dominant theory at any given point in time. And competing ideas are effectively blocked from public awareness.²

Moritz Schlick, the founding father of logical...

Moritz Schlick, the founding father of logical positivism and the Vienna Circle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So instead of involving, say, a complex relation of spiritual, social, environmental, biological and ethical factors, the idea of depression has sometimes been narrowed down to a “chemical imbalance.” Again, this seems absurdly simple. But we hear it time and again in the 21st century, with believers uncritically repeating the idea.

This would not be such a huge problem if it merely involved personal choice. But psychiatry has legal power, in varying degrees depending on where one lives. And believers sometimes try to push their simplistic beliefs onto others who would rather – or perhaps must – think for themselves, making this not only a philosophical issue but also a human rights issue.

In the 20th century “logical positivism” arose as an elaboration of positivism. Logical positivism deals with the meaning and verification of statements.


² I own an excellent Oxford handbook that outlines competing biochemical theories for depression. I just searched my home a second time, trying to find it. Unfortunately, it’s still missing. But I plan to find and list it here.

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