Dylan Riley. The Social Foundations of Positivism: The Case of Late Nineteenth Century Italy

Monday, November 30, 2015 - 2:00pm to 3:30pm
Blumer Room - 402 Barrows Hall

Monday, Nov 30, 2-3:30pm in Barrows 402

The Social Foundations of Positivism: The Case of Late Nineteenth Century Italy

What is the connection between positivism, the claim that the social world can be studied like the natural world, and capitalism? The overwhelmingly dominant view common to both positivists themselves, and critical theorists is that positivism is a product of industrial capitalism. In the light of this consensus our paper examines a "case" of positivism that clearly does not fit with these expectations. We show four things: that positivism in Italy was widespread in the late nineteenth century despite the fact that Italy was not a fully developed capitalist society; that positivist centers existed in both backward and advanced parts of the peninsula; that positivist intellectuals tended to have non-industrial class backgrounds; and finally, that many positivists were committed socialists. We explain our evidence by arguing that Italian positivism appealed to the particular social configuration of intellectuals. Positivism in Italy claimed to provide answers to moral and political questions on the basis of empirical study and thus fused technical expertise with teleological claims. This appealed to a traditional intelligentsia comprised of people who combined the roles of scientist, philosopher, and artist. This configuration was destroyed, not strengthened, by the advance of capitalism that broke apart this status group and laid the foundations for a conflict between philosophy and science.

Dylan Riley is a comparative and historical sociologist and associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of several articles and three books including most recently a two volume comparative and historical sociology of censuses co-authored with Rebecca Jean Emigh of UCLA, and Patricia Ahmed of South Dakota State University. The article that forms of the basis of this talk is also co-authored with Rebecca Jean Emigh and Patricia Ahmed.