, , , ,

The Dark Side of Positivism: From Hope to Profit

John Berger’s exploration of the convergence of photography, sociology, and positivism reveals their shared pursuit of empirical truth. However, their noble goals falter as profit-driven logic distorts photography into manipulation, sociology into reductionism, and positivism into a narrow worldview. Art emerges as a vital counterpoint, resisting reductionism and advocating for a holistic understanding of humanity.


min read


John Berger’s profound elucidations concerning the intricate interplay among photography, sociology, positivism, and the conventional realist novel evoke a sense of intellectual enthrallment owing to their profundity. Berger’s compelling thesis orbits around the simultaneous emergence of these intellectual realms and their shared ambition—an impassioned conviction in the transformative potential intrinsic to observable and quantifiable facts, meticulously ensnared by adept practitioners, to constitute the very bedrock of irrefutable verity, thereby impelling the trajectory of human advancement. Evidently, the avowed objective was the replacement of metaphysics with meticulous precision, with the additional aspiration of quelling discord through methodical strategic schemata. Alas, the trajectory of events took an unforeseen detour, yielding an unforeseen paradigm wherein the reduction of all entities and denizens to mere calculative and profit-centric factors emerged as the ultimate aspiration.

Upon a contemplative examination of the historical interrelationships between photography, sociology, and positivism, a conspicuous coalescence of their formative epochs becomes discernible, engendering a symbiotic reinforcement. Owing to photography’s relatively veracious fidelity in documenting the palpable tapestry of reality, it metamorphosed into an invaluable instrument for sociological inquiry. In essence, this medium solidified ephemeral temporal fragments, furnishing tangible evidentiary substrata that could be dissected and scrutinized with surgical precision. Analogously, the sociologist, akin to their photographic counterpart, embarked upon the endeavor to unravel the intricacies of the societal loom by discerning patterns, correlations, and concealed veracities within the captured images or amassed data reservoirs.

Positivism, reaching the pinnacle of its ascendancy in the nineteenth century, embarked upon a fervent odyssey to establish a scientific framework as the preeminent conduit for comprehending the universe. It vociferously championed the doctrine that knowledge ought to derive its provenance from empirical substantiation, propelling the march of human progress forward through the conduit of rational principles. In this noble pursuit, positivism serendipitously converged with the burgeoning realms of photography and sociology, collectively forging a shared epistemological edifice. Together, they envisioned a forthcoming epoch wherein empirical testimony and logical ratiocination would converge harmoniously, ushering forth an idyllic and prosperous utopian societal panorama.

Parallel to this congruence, the aspirations of photography, sociology, and positivism resonated profoundly with the ambitions of the classical realist novel. Endowed with a meticulous fastidiousness for detail and an unwavering resolve to faithfully replicate the corporeal world, these intellectual disciplines, through their respective mediums, aspired to encapsulate reality, anchoring it to tangible experiences and offering a reflective portrayal of the multifold dimensions of the human condition. Analogous to photography, the realist novel endeavored to encapsulate the nuances and intricacies of existence, accentuating the primacy of empirical scrutiny and the depiction of society’s labyrinthine weave.

Notwithstanding the initial promise heralded by the convergence of photography, sociology, positivism, and the realist novel, their subsequent trajectory took a serendipitously divergent course. In lieu of a society steered by precision, meticulously devised strategies, and the pursuit of incontrovertible truth, we bear witness to the gradual erosion of their lofty ideals. The noble objectives of these intellectual pursuits were eclipsed by the advent of a calculative logic, spurred forth by an insatiable avarice for pecuniary gain.

Once the vanguard of truth revelation, photography metamorphosed into a manipulative and persuasive apparatus. Advertisements, for instance, adroitly employed carefully contrived and retouched visual stimuli to mold consumer desires and wield influence over public sentiment. Concurrently, the unrestrained proliferation of digital manipulative artifices eroded the medium’s credibility, engendering a blurred demarcation between actuality and the fictitious. In this contemporary milieu, the once-pristine purity of photography receded, and its status as the arbiter of veracity became increasingly ensconced in skepticism.

In a parallel vein, sociology encountered a parallel vicissitude. The impulse to quantify and categorize human comportment burgeoned into reductionism, relegating individuals to mere statistical nodes. The intrinsic richness and diversity endemic to the mosaic of human experiences fell victim to an anodyne embrace of simplified models, valuing generalizability over the nuance of individual narratives. Consequently, the lived realities of marginalized cohorts and their labyrinthine struggles were with alarming frequency marginalized or entirely disregarded.

Unwittingly, positivism contributed to the emergence of a reductionist Weltanschauung, despite its initial endeavor to supplant metaphysics with the pantheon of scientific inquiry. The inexorable pursuit of pecuniary gain and operational efficiency steered societies onto a utilitarian trajectory wherein human worth was exclusively measured in terms of monetary valuation. Concomitantly, considerations of long-term societal and environmental ramifications were jettisoned in favor of quantifiable outcomes and immediate returns.

At the epicenter of this paradigmatic transformation resides a latent flaw in the foundational assumptions and reductionist agenda intrinsic to positivism. Positivism, ardently aspiring to supplant subjective conjecture and metaphysical musings with an empirical bedrock of objective truths, earnestly endorsed the belief that only through scientific scrutiny and quantifiable data acquisition could authentic knowledge be gleaned. Alas, in its zealous endeavor to establish an indomitable bastion of verity, positivism inadvertently overlooked the intricacies and convolutions inherent to the human experience.

This positivist paradigm precipitated the ascendancy of a reductionist Weltanschauung, one that proffers the notion that all entities and individuals can be distilled into calculable variables. It perceives the world as a conglomeration of quantifiable entities bereft of intrinsic worth or import. Human value, in this reductionist schema, is exclusively adjudged by contributions to a profit-centric society and the degree of productivity one achieves. This reductionist perspective disavows the inherent value, agency, and intricate complexity underpinning individual lives, relegating them to the status of mere cogs in the relentless pursuit of material gain.

Furthermore, this reductionist Weltanschauung buttresses a cognitive framework that ascribes precedence to transient gains over the protracted sustenance of equilibrium. The interlinked and interdependent nature of systems and processes is frequently obfuscated by the oversimplification of intricate phenomena into rudimentary models and numerical indices. This narrow focus on immediate pecuniary gains engenders unintended repercussions, notably ecological despoliation, social inequity, and the atrophy of communal bonds.

As a salient counterpoise to this reductionist Weltanschauung, art ascends to a vanguard position. Art, in its multifarious manifestations, resists the siren call of reductionism by embracing the intricacies, ambiguities, and subjective facets intrinsic to human existence. It serves as a poignant reminder of the irreducible components of our lives, encompassing emotions, imagination, beauty, and the ceaseless quest for meaning.

Art, in its transcendent capacities, surmounts the limitations inherent to the quantifiable, engaging with the ineffable facets of human experience. It compels us to question, reflect, and explore alternative perspectives that transcend the purview of profit-driven calculations. Art, in its quintessence, facilitates a challenge to established norms, envisioning alternative futures that transcend the confines of a reductionist worldview when we engage with profound existential inquiries.

In the precincts of my personal contemplations on this weighty matter, an acute awareness of the prodigious responsibility borne by artists, philosophers, and intellectuals germinates. Collectively, we possess the agency to withstand the inexorable deluge of reductionism, to reclaim the sanctity of complexity and nuance, and to engender a societal milieu that extols the virtues of human flourishing, ecological sustainability, and the pursuit of communal well-being over the myopic calculus of profit.

The inadvertent ramifications of profit-driven calculative logic have begotten a reductionist Weltanschauung that peremptorily diminishes all entities and denizens into mere calculable variables. Positivism, in its quest for objective truth and progress, has inadvertently sidestepped the intricacies of human existence and the overarching repercussions of reductionism. Yet, through the puissance of art and profound philosophical introspection, we possess the capacity to contest this reductionist paradigm, to embrace the complexity of our existence, and to chart a course toward a more holistic and meaningful comprehension of the cosmos.

John Berger, “Ways of Seeing” (United Kingdom)
Max Weber, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (Germany)
Michel Foucault, “The Birth of Biopolitics: Foucault’s Lecture on Neo-Liberal Governmentality” (France)
Susan Sontag, “On Photography” (United States)
Pierre Bourdieu, “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste” (France)
Zygmunt Bauman, “Liquid Modernity” (Poland)
Herbert Marcuse, “One-Dimensional Man: The Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society” (Germany)
Donna Haraway, “Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature” (United States)
Jean Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulation” (France)
David Harvey, “The Condition of Postmodernity: The Origins of Cultural Change” (United Kingdom)