Visualizing Social Theory

Positivism is a theory developed by August Compte that believes that empirical research can be applied to the study of social life and interaction. This theory maintains that society, like the physical world operates on a system of laws and rejects abstract explanations(Bourdeau). Antipositivism is the opposing view, and the belief that social sciences should not be held to the same standard of empiricism used in the natural sciences. Antipositivists believe that research should understand the social actions between people. Jurgen Habermas is a German sociologist who is best known for his theories on communicative reason and disagrees with Compte’s strict beliefs on positivism. 

Compte believed that the only valid scientific knowledge came from empirical methods and “rejects the cognitive value of philosophical study.” ( Positivism emerged due to the inability of philosophy to solve problems that had arisen as a result of scientific development. ( “Positivism declared false and senseless all problems, concepts and propositions of traditional philosophy that could not be solved or verified by experience due to a high degree of abstract nature”( ).Compte thought that all knowledge should be limited to what could be measured methodologically; positivism rejects theoretical ideas to obtain knowledge. 

Habermas’ is a pragmatist, who believes in a practical approach to solving problems based on specific situations instead of theories and ideas. Habermas’ has studied communications in an attempt to put meanings into language. He uses a method known as rational reconstructions, which transforms intuitive knowledge into logical thought (Bohman, James and Rehg, William). While the natural sciences generate theoretical knowledge, rational reconstructions generate a theoretical knowledge through interpretation(Bohman, James and Rehg, William)  Due to his work in rational reconstruction, Habermas provides a modern view on Compte’s strict positivism. Habermas sees value in using rational, logical support, but combined with the benefits of intuitive thought.

Compte and Habermas would disagree with each other, because Compte would reject any findings of Habermas that are not empirically tested. Compte believes that the laws found in the natural sciences that dictate the cosmos can be applied to social sciences. Habermas however, would believe that only using a logical approach to explanations would severely limit his understanding of communications between people and hinder the overall understanding of knowledge of communications.  Habermas acknowledges the need for logic in research, but his findings of communications between people also relies on abstract data gained from social relations that cannot be empirically measured.


This image describes how knowledge achieved through positivism is gained solely by fact. This image shows that the man searching for happiness does consider any alternative approaches to finding the meaning of happiness other than fact. This image shows how positivism can be drawback to discovery, because the man is limited from finding the meaning of happiness based on his on experiences. His concern with fact limits him from finding any alternative ways to find the definition of happiness.  A singular focus on methodology can be a drawback, because it excludes valuable qualitative data that may be abstract and stifles creativity.


This picture represents why we need order and logic. Empirical research is important for testing and confirming data. Without logic, there would be chaos and it is necessary in research to have verifiable data. Theories and ideas should have a concrete foundation, and empirical data provides this foundation.


Bourdeau, Michel, “Auguste Comte”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), “Positivism Reference.” Accessed February 24, 2014.

Bohman, James and Rehg, William, “Jürgen Habermas”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),


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