What are the major differences between French positivism, German Historicism and English-Scottish laissez-faire political economy and British utilitarianism?  Explain which had the greatest...

What are the major differences between French positivism, German Historicism and English-Scottish laissez-faire political economy and British utilitarianism?  Explain which had the greatest influence on American sociology.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In the European social thought, significant differences exist as to what should constitute the central locus of social advancement or development.  For Positivism, scientific development drives social growth.  Positivists like Comte believed that scientific endeavor could unify social advancement, validating the will of the human being:  "The positive method can be judged of only in action. It cannot be looked at by itself, apart from the work on which it is employed." In contrast to this, the laissez- faire approach sees the marketplace as the critical element of social organization. Whereas Positivism sees science as the unifying good, Adam Smith saw the marketplace as where all human endeavor is channeled:  

They [Human beings] are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.

The invisible hand of the marketplace is what drives the individual and social configuration.  Apart from the sweeping universalism in Positivism and free market thought, German Historicism advocated an understanding that particular contexts were essential to analyzing social configuration.  These elements of contingency were fluid and critical in understanding social advancement and arrangement. Thinkers like Hegel embraced the nature of dialectics where Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis were present in social reality.  This analysis presented a vision where there was constant change and mutability because dialectics, as a process, was unending and present everywhere.  Historicism advanced an idea of relativity, something that the universality of the scientific or free- market endeavor repudiated.   In this context, Mill's utilitarianism asserted that social organization should be based on the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  Actions that promote more happiness for more individuals are critical and examining who benefits and how they benefit on a wide scale become vitally important.  In each mode of thought, significant differences exists as the focal point of the philosophic inquiry.  Science, the marketplace, dialectical process, and examination of happiness modes are all significantly difference center points of each philosophical mode of inquiry.

In terms of which philosophy exerted a greater influence on American sociology, I would suggest that a case can be made for either of them.  Each philosophical tradition has found some entry or foothold in American sociology.  I believe that German Historicism has proven itself to be appealing to American sociological thought.  One reason is in the emergence of identity- based sociological exploration.  For the Historicist, the complex emergence of theories about race, class, gender, and/ or sexual orientation are all examples of the dialectical process at work.  There is a dialectical "other" in this mode of sociological analysis.  American sociology is concerned with the organization of the "insider" and "the "outsider," elements revealed through a dialectic.  At the same time, the willingness to embrace contingency as part of American sociological reality is another reason why the Historicist mode of thought is influential in American sociology. 

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