Philosophy and science in positivism

For A. Comte philosophy is, first of all, a reflection on knowledge and thus an analysis of the tendencies and techniques of the various sciences, classified according to an order of decreasing generality; not only that but at times some of their criteria are prescribed to be followed, as those that best respond to their internal logic, that is, to the implementation of their ‘positivity’. Positivity means overcoming the two previous phases of the development of the intellect (theology, metaphysics); a science is positive when it radically renounces the search for causes and establishes laws, or the constant relations between phenomena, makes predictions, is socially useful. In H. Spencer philosophy is the most general form of knowledge, unifying the sciences and pertaining to notions with the most extensive content.

The reaction to positivism

For H. Bergson, on the other hand, philosophy is not a generalizing science, nor a reflection on the sciences, but a mental operation that puts us in a different relationship with things rather than the one in which science places us. Philosophy and science do not compete in grasping reality, but, if anything, they collaborate because they refer to two fundamental aspects of reality itself. Science and metaphysics – says Bergson – have different subjects: «to science the matter and to metaphysics the spirit». But science and metaphysics have intuition in common, which grasps reality in its fullness: in fact, for what they have of essential, in their authentic discoveries, they have proceeded by intuition.

It is the atmosphere of the reaction to positivism, a reaction that reclaims the autonomy of philosophy and seeks a way of approaching reality that is not the generalizing one of law and of type. For W. Windelband as well, philosophy has its own sphere of autonomy as a critical science of universally valid values.

In E. Husserl, the idea of philosophy as a rigorous science reemerges: the essences, which according to his method are intuited, are neither facts nor abstractions taken from facts, but have the characteristic of purity, comparable to mathematical notions. Therefore, a strong anti-relativistic accent, and yet a strong anti-objectivist accent: the objectivism of science has something dogmatic if it claims to exhaust the understood object. Before objectification there is a smooth process, there is the world of life, which is the presupposition of objectification.