Published Humanitas, Volume IX, No. 1, 1996

In a recent issue of this journal Professor Claes G. Ryn has raised the question of the legitimacy of classifying Irving Babbitt as an adherent to the method of literary criticism known as positivism. His remarks were stimulated by my own advocacy of restoring to common use a critical methodology, positivism, widely designated under that name, which Babbitt looked upon with favor. Labelling my renewed version neo-positivism, I described it as “a method of objective description allowing for esthetic and moral evaluations and welcoming multiculturalism as represented by Babbitt at the beginning of the century and Etiemble at its end.” Seeking a compromise between approaches based on analysis of technique and those on culture, I proposed that “such a neo-positivism could embrace both stylistically- oriented studies and those tending toward history.” I also described Babbitt as “a self-proclaimed positivist.” Professor Ryn objected to my proposal on two principal grounds: 1) that positivism is a system appropriate to the natural sciences, but not to the humanities; 2) that Babbitt used the terms “positivist” and “positivism” loosely and that he did not in his own practice follow positivistic methodology.

Before venturing an opinion on whether Professor Ryn’s objections are well founded, I shall give a brief sketch of the meaning of positivism in history and a somewhat more extensive sketch of Babbitt’s treatment of the concept. The system along with its name derived from two works by the French philosopher Auguste Comte, Cours de philosophie positive (1830-42) and Systeme de politique positive (1851-54), the first an exposition of a method of scientific inquiry and the second a vision of reorganizing society on the basis of this method. As a result of the wide divergence between the aims of these two books, there has been an equally great divergence among the historical definitions of positivism. According to John Stuart Mill, positivism is essentially the scientific method, “not a recent invention of M. Comte, but a simple adherence to the traditions of all the great scientific minds whose discoveries have made the human race what it is.” According to a later disciple, Frederic Harrison, however, “Positivism is at once—a scheme of Education, a form of Religion, a school of Philosophy, and a phase of Socialism.”

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