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Ian Baize ’18 Defines “Positivism”


What do you do when you’re reading and come upon an unfamiliar term? Most people will look it up and move on; Ian Baize ’18 took it a step further and turned his search on “positivism” into an Emerson summer research project. His advisor on the project is Professor of History Al Kelly.

“I didn’t know what ‘positivism’ meant, so upon looking into it I discovered that it was actually this whole complex ideology that took parts of the world by storm in the mid- to late- 19th century before virtually disappearing by the time of the First World War,” Baize explained. “In some ways it perfectly encapsulates some aspects of 19th-century European thoughts while also adding in its own set of peculiarities.”

about Ian Baize ’18

Major: History and Hispanic Studies

Hometown: Sudbury, Mass.

High School: Lincoln - Sudbury Regional High School

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Positivism refers to a particular philosophy focused on the social importance and capacities of science, specifically to improve society and organize it in the best, most rational way possible, in keeping with the supposedly inevitable progress of society over time.

In his project titled “Progress as the Goal: Political Positivism in Nineteenth-Century Latin America” Baize will look at what it means from a political standpoint, such as policy proposals and the organization of an ideal society. “In addition, while positivism originated in France, its most enthusiastic reception was in Latin America, so I’ll be examining Brazil and Argentina, specifically,” he explained.

Baize has discovered that in 19th century Brazil, emulating the French bourgeoisie was very much in style among the upper classes so the country adopted the so-called “original,” French positivism of Auguste Comte, the first positivist. The much less racially diverse population of Argentina were drawn to some of its Social Darwinist theories of racial and class superiority, which is associated more with English sociologist Herbert Spencer.

Baize will examine this split and wants to learn the differences between English and French positivism, where did Spencer and Comte disagree, how their ideas made it across the Atlantic and to what extent is this dichotomy an accurate representation of the historical reality.

For his research the history and Hispanic studies concentrator is reading French and English philosophical texts, official correspondence in Spanish and Portuguese, state and national constitutions, and both general and intellectual secondary histories.

Baize acknowledged that the 19th century was a time of great political and social change so many of the concepts he’s dealing with are closely tied up with national identities, which appears to have influenced how they’ve been studied.

He said he’s quickly learning “ how ridiculously complex ‘positivism’ is as an idea.” For example, “Taking only the word ‘positivism’ itself and limiting it to Comte’s most influential work, the Course on Positive Philosophy, ‘positivism’ comes to mean everything from Comte’s own philosophy to the whole of human science to some vague animating force behind the progress of human societies. Throw in different thinkers, different works, different emphases and different languages, and it gets even more complicated,” Baize remarked.

Baize, who is is considering graduate school in history after Hamilton, is up to the task though. “This is exactly the type of intense independent research that I would be doing at that level. While I don’t know exactly what I’ll be specializing in, this project has definitely opened my eyes to the complexity of Latin American thought and opened a number of avenues that I might be interested in pursuing,” he concluded.

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