Positivism is a philosophical approach which holds that our sensory experiences are the exclusive source of valid information about the world. This philosophical approach had its origin in the natural sciences where positivism arose as a result of the need to order experience in such a way that it is possible to verify and replicate them by other workers. This suggests that the positivist cannot have recourse to any supernatural or abstract forces which are by definition outside his direct experience. Once the study of society adopts a positive approach, it could assume the significance of a universal religion in that it offers the ultimate understanding of the highest order of reality known to man. In other words, positivism has the central thesis that science can only concern itself. Science can only concern itself with empirical questions and not with normative questions. Empirical questions are questions about how things are in reality.
Positivism holds that, since we cannot investigate such things as moral norms with our senses, we could keep away from normative questions; we cannot justify our tastes scientifically. Science can be describe how things are, and experimentally or by some other measurement, discover the association of causes which explain why things are as they are. “The research worker can, given his knowledge of contemporary associations of causes, forecast possible developments in the future from given proportions. But science cannot from “is” statements draw conclusions about ‘should’ statements. Ideally, science is value-free, neutral, impartial and objective. When the scientist gives valuations, expressing ‘should’ statements, he is no longer a scientist, but possibly a politician. (Holt-Jensen, 1980)”.
Another major aspect of positivism is its emphasis on the unity of science. Scientific status is guaranteed by a common experience of reality, a common scientific language and a method ensures that observations can be repeated. Since science has a unified method, there can only be one comprehensive science. The common method is the hypothetic-deductive method and the model discipline is physis. The language which will make a unification of science possible is the physical language or thing language. The ultimate aim is, in the words of Rudolf Carnap, to construct ‘all science, including psychology, on the basis of physis, so that theoretical terms are definable by those of physis. The poles and the system of latitude and longitude are the only special definition which must be made before pursing geographical research. It follows from this that disciplines are to be distinguish from each other by their object of study, and not by their method.(Gregory 1978; p27), Holt-Jensen, 1980;77.
The origins of positivism are trace by many to the French nineteenth century social philosopher Auguste Comte. The concept began as a polemical weapon against the negative philosophy prevalent before the French Revolution. This according to Holt-Jensen (1980-77) “was a romantic and speculative tradition which was more concerned with emotional than with practical questions and which sought to change society by considering utopian alternative to existing situations. The positivists regarded such speculation as ‘negative’ since it was neither constructive nor practical; it showed that philosophy was an ‘immature’ science. Philosophers, like scientist, should not concern themselves with such speculative matter, but should study things they could get to grips with: material object and given circumstances. This approach was to be recommended as ‘the positive approach’. Comte himself wanted to direct the development of society, but stated that the nature of positivism is not to destroy but to organize.” An organized development should replace the disorder created by the revolution. Free speculation, or systematic doubt, as defined by Rene Descartes (1596-1650), was identified by comte as the metaphysical principle’. The word metaphysic derived from the works of Aristotle as an expression for the chapters which followed the physical (or empirical) parts of his work. Metaphysic was later redefined as that which lies outside our sense perceptions or is independent of them. Positivists regarded metaphysical questions as unscientific. Comte held the metaphysical principle (systematic doubt) responsible for the French Revolution, which had started in emotional enthusiasm, to tear down the feudal stricture of society, but had ended in despotism. In a positive society, scientific knowledge would replace free speculation or make it unnecessary.
The positive approach has been borrowed by geographers from the natural sciences as far back as the late nineteenth century, but it is during the last three and half decades that positivism in geography took a strong root among those working in the social science areas. A positivist approach in geography is reflected in the discussion of human behaviour in terms of analogies drawn from the natural sciences. For example, human migration is discussed in terms of Newton’s laws of gravity (Haggest, et al, 1977:23). Thus, a large proportion of geographical analysis since the 1960’s has attempted to explain patterns of human behaviour with neat law like statements (Haggett, 1977:23). In order words, the positivist philosophy has played a major role not only in stimulation research but also in explaining the spatial distribution of phenomena.


Positivist science is built on the verification principle. To know that something is true is to know and to accept the method of substantiating its truth. Thus verification implies a methodology. One accepts that a statement is true only because one accepts that the method is of establishing its veracity is valid. This indicates that the positivist conception of science must incorporate an accepted methodology. As pointed out by Johnston (1986:19-20), the positivist methodology goes under a large variety of titles including, simply the scientific method.


Man has always attempted to order and explain his experience. Faced with complicated events over time, efforts have constantly been made by man to manipulate his experience into patterns which are meaningful to us. Generally, four major systems or ordering experience are now existence. First, there is the theological order which provides explanation of experiences which are intrinsically as valid as those produced by other system. Theology has from historical times been very successful in answering questions and reducing anxiety in many societies. All cultures have theological systems and in all of them, theology appears earlier than other formal system of thought. However, theological order is not empirically oriented. Consequently, the existence of the relationship which theological order builds between constructs to explain events cannot be tested by inspection or examination. (Alber et al, 1971:15). This indicates that one either believes that such relationships exist or does not exist. Thus theological order is non-existent if one does not believe. It is only in situations when theological order is believe that its existence is meaningful as a form of explanation in any society. Today, the significance of the theological order has decline remarkably from its dominant role during the early medieval period in the western world.

Secondly, aesthetic and emotional order is another system of ordering experience. This form of explanation is generally individualistic and informal. Thus, each individual is at the centre of his own continuum and builds his own network or artistic and emotional links. However there are situations in own network or emotional links. However there are situations in which aesthetic value systems can be highly formalized, for example, the dominance of a period by a particular style of art or music. Despite this, the individualist characteristic of aesthetic and emotional order is unique because people cannot be force to like a particular music or how tghey should feel about certain experiences. Thus, the informal nature of emotional and aesthetic order makes it difficult to identify, yet, it exists and therefore has a role to play in the ordering of our experiences.

Thirdly, common sense is the third ordering system and it is used by the theologian, artist and the scientist. In some ways, common sense is related to emotion because what one considers to be common sense depends upon ones’ prejudice. However, the distinction between common sense and emotions still exist. Common sense order arises from living in a world of experience and adapting to it. Behaviour patterns associated with common sense are learned only by practice or by listening to ones’ elders’ discussion of their experiences and trying to draw analogies between what happened previously and experiences we are likely to encounter in the future. (Alber et al, 1971). The common sense mode of ordering experience has some weakness, two of which are notable. In the first place it tends to be useful only within specific culture. For example, it is well known that folk wisdom is adapted to folk society, but it may be negative assets in non-folk situations. Secondly, the common sense mode cannot be transmitted efficiently. Thus, when certain common sense behaviour pattern is to be inculcated very quickly experience will not do so as time is required to transmit it. Despite the limitations of the common sense mode of ordering experience, there is no doubt that it has played a major role in the existence and development of many societies.

Finally, science is the fourth mode of ordering experience and it hold a dominant place in contemporary forms of ordering experiences in most parts of the world especially in the developed world. Science like the other systems noted above, attempts to explain our experiences. Today, science, is highly formalized and institutionalized .science, unlike the other systems noted above incorporates formal sub-systems for producing change and for verifying the existence of the relationships it articulates. In order words, science has some rather stringent verification procedures. Thus, a good scientist will not accept the articulation of a relationship without some experiences which verify its existence to his satisfaction. Similarly, he cannot reject an accepted assertion of a relationship until an alternative is available which can be replaced. The one being rejected and do more besides.(Alber, et al, 1971:19). Another indicator of the institutionalization which adds strength to science is that the answers it produces are replicable. In view of the fact that answers to questions in science are accepted only after testing, far more agreement can exist about answers than is possible in other ordering modes. Thus, one scientist can accept another’s’ assertions about certain patterns of relationships only after he has replicated the experiences which led his colleague those assertions. Finally, science, unlike the other modes of explanation has considerable adaptive capacity. It can change its internal structure since once better answers to the same questions are found, the old answers are discarded. Thus, science is adaptable while others are rigid. This makes science viable in the rapidly changing world which it creates.

Abler, R, J.S Adams and P.R. Gould (1971) spatial organization; the Geographers’ view of the world. Englewood cliffs N.J

Alao, N. (1978) ‘Geography in Nigerian universities’ The Nigerian Geographical Journal, Vol. 2. pp. 3137.


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