The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Positivism: A philosophical school emphasizing facts and the description of phenomena. Positivists have developed a mode of empirical investigation based on that of physical scientists pursuing factual, descriptive knowledge. Positivists also reject speculation, especially about matters of “ultimate concern,” arguing that philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge ought to be concerned with humanity and its condition rather than with metaphysical issues.

Positivism has its roots in the writings of George Berkeley and David Hume, eighteenth-century Irish and Scottish philosophers, respectively, but its strongest proponent was the nineteenth-century Frenchman Auguste Comte, who coined the term. The positivist philosophy is pervasive in works by John Stuart Mill, such as On Liberty (1859).

In the twentieth century, positivism was further redefined and refined into a philosophy known as logical positivism, which was championed chiefly by Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein redefined the goal of positivism as the use of logic to elucidate human thought systematically. Logical positivism incorporates elements of experimental scientific and mathematical methods.

Although positivism has had its most direct impact on philosophical and scientific methods, it has also had extensive indirect impact on literature and its analysis. The development of positivism coincided with the rise of realism and, subsequently, naturalism, literary movements whose practitioners attempted to observe, organize, and present reality logically and objectively to readers who, in turn, were expected to approach texts empirically, viewing descriptions, statements made by characters, and plot developments as evidence leading to some viewpoint or interpretive conclusion. This essentially empirical approach to texts is shared by several schools of literary criticism, most of which require interpreters to provide evidence (textual, historical, psychological, and so forth) for their analyses. Impressionistic criticism, personal criticism, and deconstruction are among the critical schools that have resisted the influence of positivism.