Positivism is a philosophical school developed by the French sociologist and philospher Auguste Comte in the mid-19th Century.
Comte believed that Metaphysics and theology should be replaced by a hierarchy of sciences, from mathematics at the base to sociology at the top. The school is based around the idea that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method (techniques for investigating phenomena based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence, subject to specific principles of reasoning). For more details, see the section on the doctrine of Positivism.
As a religious system, developed by Comte later in his life, Positivism denies the existence of a personal God and takes humanity ("the great being") as the object of its veneration and cult, and in this respect has similarities to Humanism. Comte developed a hierarchical priesthood, positive dogmas, an organized cult, and even a calendar on the model of Catholicism.
After Comte's death in 1857, a division arose among the Positivists between the orthodox group under the direction of Pierre Laffitte (which maintained both the scientific and the religious teaching of Positivism) and a dissident group formed under Paul-Maximilien-Emile Littré (1801 - 1881). Orthodox groups (complete with its cult, sacraments, and ceremonies) were formed in England, Sweden, Brazil and Chile. For Littré, however, Positivism was essentially a method which limits human knowledge to the study of experimental facts, and neither affirms nor denies anything conerning what may exist outside of experience. Littré and his followers therefore rejected the religious organization and cult of Positivism.
Although not a large movement in terms of individual contributors, its influence on subsequent philosophic thought was quite profound. The principles of Positivism as a philosophical system were accepted and applied in England by John Stuart Mill, a major figure in the Utilitarianism movement. Later, in the early 20th Century, it gave rise to the stricter and more radical movement of Logical Positivism.