Social Science: Philosophical and Methodological Foundations

By Gerard Delanty | Go to book overview

1
Positivism, Science and
the Politics of Knowledge

Introduction: Defining Positivism

Philosophical debates on the methodology and self-understanding of social science have been for the greater part shaped by the positivist dispute. Therefore a good place to begin is with positivism itself. This will inevitably involve looking at disputes on the meaning of science more generally, since positivism, broadly understood, is a philosophy which argues for the application of the methods of the natural sciences to the social sciences and thereby presupposes the unity of the sciences. Underlying positivism more fundamentally is the naturalistic notion that science is the study of an objectively existing reality which lies outside the discourse of science.

Positivism has been under attack throughout the twentieth century from a variety of different standpoints. It is customary to contrast positivism to hermemeutical or interpretative social science or to the more Marxist inspired critical social science, but positivism, which makes certain assumptions about the nature of natural science, has also been undermined by developments within natural science itself, which cannot be considered positivistic. Thus positivism, both in natural and social science, has been very much in question, particularly since the 1950s. However, the origins of the demise of positivism are to be located within neo-positivism, that is in the general turn to deductive epistemology that began with logical positivism.

To begin, let us be clear on exactly what positivism is. In the most general terms positivism entails the view that scientific knowledge can be positively verifiable, in contrast to dogmatism, speculation

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