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Positivism vs. Empiricism: What's the Difference?

Edited by Harlon Moss || By Janet White || Published on October 26, 2023
Positivism is a philosophical approach that emphasizes the importance of empirical observation and scientific methodology to acquire knowledge. Empiricism focuses on the role of experience and sensory perception in forming knowledge.

Key Differences

Positivism and Empiricism are both philosophical theories concerned with the nature and sources of knowledge. Positivism asserts that knowledge is primarily (or exclusively) derived from empirical observation and mathematical or logical analysis. Empiricism, in contrast, argues that experience and sensory perception are the foundations of knowledge, although it doesn't necessarily limit knowledge to the scientific method.
In terms of their historical and philosophical origins, Positivism emerged during the 19th century and was heavily influenced by thinkers like Auguste Comte. It often encompasses a broader worldview that includes a rejection of metaphysics and a focus on observable phenomena. Empiricism has its roots in ancient philosophy but was particularly influential during the Enlightenment, with figures like John Locke and David Hume contributing to its development.
Grammatically, both "Positivism" and "Empiricism" function as nouns and describe specific philosophical standpoints. Both terms can also be used as adjectives when describing a person, idea, or approach that embodies the respective philosophy. For example, a "positivist method" would be one based on empirical observation and scientific reasoning, whereas an "empirical approach" would rely on experience and sensory data.
In the realms of science and research, Positivism tends to favor quantitative methods, objective data, and the pursuit of law-like generalizations. Empiricism, however, is often less prescriptive about the methodologies used for gaining knowledge, which may include qualitative data and subjective experience. Both theories have been applied and critiqued in various disciplines including natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

Comparison Chart


Empirical observation & scientific methodology
Experience & sensory perception

Historical Origin

19th century, Auguste Comte
Enlightenment, John Locke

Grammatical Role

Primarily a noun, can be an adjective
Primarily a noun, can be an adjective

Methodology in Science

Quantitative methods, objective data
Less prescriptive, can include qualitative data

Philosophical Scope

Broader, rejects metaphysics
Narrower, doesn't reject metaphysics

Positivism and Empiricism Definitions


A belief in the progress of society through science and technology.
Positivism supports the idea that scientific innovation can solve human problems.


A philosophy that knowledge comes primarily from sensory experience.
Empiricism lays the groundwork for observational sciences.


A philosophy emphasizing empirical observation in the acquisition of knowledge.
His research was influenced by the principles of Positivism.


The theory that all concepts are derived from experience.
In Empiricism, innate ideas do not exist.


The rejection of metaphysics in favor of observable phenomena.
Positivism seeks to eliminate speculative reasoning.


The reliance on experiment and observation to form knowledge.
Empiricism encourages experimental methodology.


The idea that all meaningful statements are either empirically verifiable or logically necessary.
According to Positivism, unverifiable claims are meaningless.


A focus on inductive reasoning based on sensory data.
Empiricism values evidence over conjecture.


The application of the scientific method in social sciences.
Positivism in sociology advocates for quantitative research methods.


An approach that highlights the limitations of a priori reasoning.
Empiricism challenges purely logical or mathematical proofs.


A doctrine contending that sense perceptions are the only admissible basis of human knowledge and precise thought.


The view that experience, especially of the senses, is the only source of knowledge.


The application of this doctrine in logic, epistemology, and ethics.


Employment of empirical methods, as in science.


The system of Auguste Comte designed to supersede theology and metaphysics and depending on a hierarchy of the sciences, beginning with mathematics and culminating in sociology.


An empirical conclusion.


Any of several doctrines or viewpoints, often similar to Comte's, that stress attention to actual practice over consideration of what is ideal
"Positivism became the 'scientific' base for authoritarian politics, especially in Mexico and Brazil" (Raymond Carr).


The practice of medicine that disregards scientific theory and relies solely on practical experience.


The state or quality of being positive.


Medicine as practised by an empiric, founded on mere experience, without the aid of science or a knowledge of principles; folk medicine, quackery.


(philosophy) A doctrine that states that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method, refusing every form of metaphysics.


(philosophy) A doctrine which holds that the only or, at least, the most reliable source of human knowledge is experience, especially perception by means of the physical senses. (Often contrasted with rationalism.)


(legal) A school of thought in jurisprudence in which the law is seen as separated from moral values; i.e. the law is posited by lawmakers (humans).


A pursuit of knowledge purely through experience, especially by means of observation and sometimes by experimentation.


A system of philosophy originated by M. Auguste Comte, which deals only with positives. It excludes from philosophy everything but the natural phenomena or properties of knowable things, together with their invariable relations of coexistence and succession, as occurring in time and space. Such relations are denominated laws, which are to be discovered by observation, experiment, and comparison. This philosophy holds all inquiry into causes, both efficient and final, to be useless and unprofitable.


Used to describe research based on methodology shaped from empirical philosophy (see above), e.g. surveys, statistics, etc.


The form of empiricism that bases all knowledge on perceptual experience (not on intuition or revelation)


The method or practice of an empiric; pursuit of knowledge by observation and experiment.


A quality or state characterized by certainty or acceptance or affirmation


Specifically, a practice of medicine founded on mere experience, without the aid of science or a knowledge of principles; ignorant and unscientific practice; charlatanry; quackery.


The philosophical theory which attributes the origin of all our knowledge to experience.


(philosophy) the doctrine that knowledge derives from experience


The application of empirical methods in any art or science


Medical practice and advice based on observation and experience in ignorance of scientific findings


Who are the key figures in Empiricism?

John Locke and David Hume are notable empiricists.

What is Empiricism?

Empiricism is a philosophical stance focusing on experience and sensory perception.

How do Positivism and Empiricism differ?

Positivism leans heavily on scientific methodology, while Empiricism focuses on experience and sensory data.

What is Positivism?

Positivism is a philosophical theory emphasizing empirical observation and scientific methodology.

Who are the key figures in Positivism?

Auguste Comte is often considered the father of Positivism.

Is Positivism anti-religious?

Positivism generally rejects metaphysics but doesn't necessarily oppose religion.

Can Positivism apply to social sciences?

Yes, Positivism has been applied in areas like sociology and psychology.

Is Empiricism skeptical of rationalism?

Empiricism often challenges rationalist claims that lack empirical evidence.

Does Empiricism deny innate knowledge?

Empiricism generally denies the existence of innate ideas.

How does Empiricism view metaphysics?

Empiricism doesn't necessarily reject metaphysics but emphasizes empirical verification.

What methodology does Empiricism favor?

Empiricism is less prescriptive but often relies on observational methods.

What methodology does Positivism favor?

Positivism typically prefers quantitative methods and objective data.

How does Positivism view metaphysics?

Positivism generally rejects metaphysical claims as unverifiable.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.

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