Positiv of the Scientific RevolutionIdealism vs Positivism 
(Two schools from the Analytical Philosophy of History)

Positivism: The Base Definitions
  • Originally conceived by August Comte, a french Philosopher-Sociologist
  • First mentioned in “The Course in Positivist Philosophy” written between 1830 and 1842
  • Comte believed that scientific methods would eventually be adopted to evaluate human events such as conflicts and that this was a superior method
  • Notion of history is both cyclical and linear: Cyclical due to Positivism’s emphasis on analyzing and deriving trends from similar events, while linear due to the proposal of an end-point in the method employed by humans in contemplating issues
  • Like Vico, Comte argued that the development of the “mode of thought” was complemented by the development of institutions and knowledge in society.
  • In “Law of Three Stages” regarding the social evolution of the human race, he proposes that mankind would move through different stages of thought in this particular order:

1. Theological - Explaining choices/events based on the supernatural, which can be further subdivided into Animism, Polytheism and Monotheism

2. Metaphysical - Explaining choices/events based on abstract (in Comte’s perspective ‘unclear’) concepts such as human rights

3. Positivity - Explaining choices/events based on the scientific method; exploration of relationships.
  • Compassionate feelings and human instinct are considered as non-scientific due to positivist claims that it sometimes ‘blinds’ us from seeing reality
  • Positivism relies on generalization to create laws around historical events so as to standardize and build history around a common verifiable framework.

Positivism: Beliefs and Methods
  • Followers of the Positivist school assert that the removal of speculation creates greater certainty which in turn leads to greater accuracy
  • They also advocate the expression of relationships in logically simplified forms: In fact, some extremist Positivists think that the closer the expression of any subject in terms of Math, the more accurate it is
  • In short, they believe that the methodology used in the study of natural processes in our world apply for history as history is a natural process itself

Positivism: A few criticisms
  • Positivists assume that all subjects can be united under one methodology, when hard sciences evaluate phenomena based on empirical methods, whereas in humanities, human nature and motives are encompassed in the mind, and cannot be simply studied like environmental/natural through empirical methods because thoughts don’t necessarily translate into action in the way which think it should.

> This is countered by exploring the Idealists alternative. See Idealism: Criticisms from   the Positivist viewpoint. 

  • There are too many factors to consider, such as the mood of the character involved in the historical event at a particular instant which may greatly affect his decision and hence the course of human history, which cannot be recorded in its entirety and “slips pass” the historians’ nets. Hence, such methods are inevitably inaccurate as assumptions are made based on existing evidence while not considering the lack of in certain cases.

> Positivist thinker Hempel took into account probability as a compromise, as he stated   that “given a certain set of requirements that are fufilled, then there would be a certain chance that an event takes place”.

Idealism: The Base Definitions
  • Refers to a large school of thought from which there have been many derivatives
  • Belief in the importance of the mind in human experience rather than the absolute-experience views of materialists such as Karl Marx
  • For the scope of historiography, only the schools of idealism descending from either Wihelm Dilthey, Bendetto Croce and Robin Collingwood are discussed
  • Believed that natural sciences and social sciences are fundamentally different and should be dealt with using different methods
  • Historians must not only evaluate the act within history, but explore the mind of the individual involved by “re-thinking” his thoughts - contextualization.
  • Collingwood in particular explained the Idealist perspective as such: Every historical event has an ‘outside’ and ‘inside’. The ‘outside’ is defined as physical subjects/objects and their actions, which can be more or less observed directly, while the ‘inside’ refers to the thoughts of the subjects which has to be speculated.
  • In contrast to natural sciences, social sciences hence should focus equally on motives/thought and phenomena rather than phenomena itself.
  • The aim of Idealism is the explanation of the workings of the human mind so as to comprehend the truth within history completely.

 Idealism: Beliefs and Methods
  • Idealists think that Historians should re-create the entire event explored in his mind taking into account the feelings of the subjects through constant speculation and evaluation
  • In contradiction to Positivism, Idealists believe that historical events are largely separate due to a summation of un-repeatable actions and conditions which prevent one from gaining more knowledge of general events through comparison.

Idealism: A few Criticisms
  • Idealist conceptions of history are no more than airy-fairy half truths which cannot be verified as the “accuracy” of the subject now depends on the intellectual level of the historian (which affects his interpretation) - considering that it is nevertheless speculation.

> Collingwood argues that speculation can be carried out in a stringent fashion to reduce uncertainty and explain the workings of the human mind. Idealists assert that they do  

not deny empirical evidence, but are fighting against the sole use of it to evaluate history.            [This doesn’t address the point that there is a huge variation between possible intepretations of history amongst historians ]

  • Other than the personal “colouration” of history, another problem with Idealism is that it relies heavily on induction as compared to positivisim, where the ‘scientific method’ ensures that induction brings the benefit of the categorization and generalization of knowledge while minimizing the ambiguity presented by sources (facts)

> The positivist alternative of leaving out human emotion from the entire equation would be equally inaccurate according to this argument because both the omission of facts and the mis-respresentation of them lead to inaccuracies in interpretation.