Equipped with an understanding of the Cartesian tradition, we are prepared to understand its epistemological extension-positivism. Few epistemological orientations have exerted so much influence or have been so little understood. An historical overview is in order to begin our exploration of positivism. The Enlightenment (Age of Reason) of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries realized its rational self-fulfillment with the advent of modern science. True reality, the Enlightenment thinkers posited, was founded upon scientific understanding-the world could be comprehended only via science and scientific methodology. This form of science was universal in the sense that it applied to all subjects of study and was based on mathematics. With the realization of this type of scientific enterprise during the Enlightenment, Western thought was prepared for the advent of what many have called 'the era of positivism' (Held, 1980; Giroux, 1997; Kincheloe, 2001).
The label, positivism, was popularized by Auguste Comte, the nineteenth-century French philosopher, who argued that human thought had progressed through three stages: the theological stage, the metaphysical stage, and the scientific or positivistic stage. One could only designate scientific findings as certain in the scientific stage. Comte sought to discredit the legitimacy of thinking which did not take sense experience into account, that is, a priori modes of thought. Advocating such a position, Comte extended the scientific orientation of the Enlightenment (J. Smith, 1983; Kneller, 1984).
Comte did not see a distinction between the methods used for research in the physical and the human sciences. Thus, from Comte's perspective, sociology was a reflection of biology. Society came to be viewed as a body of neutral facts governed by immutable laws. These facts and laws could be researched in the same manner as any physical object could be researched.