- Comte and positivism
- Comte and positivism Robert Brown COMTE’S AIMS The chief aim of all of Auguste Comte’s publications, and the constant mission of his entire working life, was the improvement of human character through the perfecting of human society. He was convinced that the scientific knowledge available in his own lifetime—the first half of the nineteenth century—was rapidly making possible, and in a sense inevitable, the creation of the most suitable society for the ‘social regeneration of Western Europe’. Born in Montpellier in 1798, Comte was both literally and intellectually a child of the eighteenth century who became an adult during the Napoleonic aftermath of the French Revolution. In searching for social salvation by means of the application of science to political and economic questions, Comte was a perfectibilist of a sort that he helped to make typical of his period. The set of beliefs about society that perfectibilists of his kind had inherited from the eighteenth century have been well summarized by John Passmore in The Perfectibility of Man: Man had until that time been a mere child in respect of knowledge and, in consequence, of virtue; he was now at last in a position, as a result of the development of science, to determine how human nature develops and what is the best thing for human beings to do; this new knowledge could be expressed in a form in which all men would find it intelligible; once they knew what it is best to do, men would act accordingly and so would constantly improve their moral, political and physical condition. Provided only, then, that ‘sinister interests’ did not prevent the communication of knowledge, the development of science was bound to carry with it the constant improvement of the human condition, to a degree which would be, like the growth of science itself, unlimited. ([6.50], 208) Comte is most often remembered now as an early practitioner of the history of science, and as an advocate of the application of scientific method to the explanation and prediction of social behaviour and its institutions. His own opinion of his contribution to society was rather more ambitious in its claims. The nature and scope of these claims are most briefly revealed in a letter that Comte wrote two months before his death in 1857: he would in the future sign all his circulars ‘Le Fondateur de la religion universelle, Grand Prêtre de l’Humanité,’ and he let it be known that his being would become more sacred than the Catholic pontiff’s. The Pope was only a minister, but he, Auguste Comte, who had discovered the fundamental laws of human evolution, was the very personification of the Great Being. ([6.43], 267) Comte’s formal qualifications for this role were few. He had spent the years 1814–16 enrolled in the École Polytechnique in Paris, and had absorbed the faith in the power and utility of the current physical sciences which the school’s highly distinguished staff were noted for instilling in their students. Expelled as a trouble-maker just before graduation, Comte lived by tutoring in mathematics until he became the secretary and, later, ‘adopted son’ of Comte Henri de Saint-Simon in 1817, a relationship that lasted until the two men quarrelled and separated a year before Saint-Simon’s death in 1825. During those years, and up to early middle age, Comte read omnivorously and was influenced, as he reported, by a group of thinkers—Plato, Montesquieu, Hume, Turgot, Condorcet, Kant, Bonald, De Maistre among others—whose widely different views on many topics he pieced together in the thousands of pages that make up his two major philosophical works, the Cours de philosophie positive (1830–42, [6.3]) and Système de politique positive (1851–4, [6.1]). In the last fifteen years of his life Comte read and thought little about the serious philosophical and sociological problems that occupied him earlier. Increasingly detached from scientific friends and philosophic debate by his growing confidence that he was a religious seer, bitter and hostile towards his estranged wife, financially dependent in that period on contributions from French and British well-wishers who included, in England, Sir William Molesworth, John Stuart Mill and George Grote, Comte devoted himself, firstly, to the deification of Clothilde de Vaux, the unhappy woman whom he had befriended and loved during the last year of her life and, secondly, to his detailed proposals in Catéchisme positiviste (1852) and the Politique positive for creating a society worthy of her character. The one person whose intellectual influence Comte refused to acknowledge was Saint-Simon, the hated collaborator whose ideas Comte had shared and extended, and whose career Comte was destined to duplicate in such unfortunate details as poverty, divorce, mental instability, advocacy of the messianic authoritarianism of a new religion of love and the conviction of being a divinely inspired leader. Of the proposal outlined in the Politique positive for the Catholic Church to be replaced by a ‘corporate hierarchy’ of philosophers with spiritual but not secular power, Mill was highly critical. The proposal required us to rely, he said, ‘on this spiritual authority as the only security for good government, the sole bulwark against practical oppression’. The remainder of the book Mill went on to characterize, in a much quoted passage, as the completest system of spiritual and temporal despotism which ever yet emanated from a human brain, unless possibly that of Ignatius Loyola: a system by which the yoke of general opinion, wielded by an organized body of spiritual teachers and rulers, would be made supreme over every action, and as far as in human possibility, every thought, of every member of the community, as well in the things which regard only himself, as in those which concern the interests of others. ([6.49], 221) How, then, had Comte’s attempt to regenerate European society, by the application of the method and results of modern science, reached the stage of evoking such a response from a man who had contributed so greatly to the favourable reception of Comte’s ideas in Britain? To answer this question is our major task here. THE LAW OF THREE STAGES It is best to begin with the problem that troubled Comte: the disharmony he believed to exist between the backward state of the European social systems with which he was familiar and the advanced state of the scientific knowledge to which he had been exposed in the École Polytechnique. During this period its staff included Gaspard Monge, the originator of descriptive geometry; Louis Poisson, still one of the most famous of mathematical physicists; Gay-Lussac as the professor of chemistry; Ampère, as a chief contributor to electrodynamics; Cauchy, a creator of the theory of functions among many other achievements; and Fresnel, the pioneer of optical research. These were some of the men whose work, both theoretical and applied, was transforming the intellectual and material culture of Europe and was, in Saint-Simon’s and Comte’s view, also making obsolete the political systems within which it was being conducted. In his two early essays ‘A Brief Appraisal of European History’ (1820) and ‘Plan of the Scientific Operations Necessary for Reorganizing Society’ (1822), Comte suggested that the partnership of Catholicism and feudalism that had ruled Europe from the eleventh century was approaching its end. The prosperity of nations and the organization of their intellectual life no longer needed either a military society or its theological superstructure. The rise of industry and the positive—or experience-based—sciences could, and would, replace war and metaphysics as the unifying forces of the new social order. The development of this order could be encouraged if scientists transformed the pursuit of politics into a theoretical science with practical applications, a science that used historical laws to explain and, above all, predict the course of our social existence. This was the state of affairs for which Comte believed that he had discovered both the correct analysis and the remedy. In the ‘Plan for Reorganizing Society’ he wrote: The fundamental law which governs the natural progress of civilization rigorously determines the successive states through which the general development of the human race must pass. On the other hand, this law necessarily results from the instinctive tendency of the human race to perfect itself. Consequently it is as completely independent of our control as are the individual instincts the combination of which produces this permanent tendency. ([6.13], 146) The ‘instinctive tendency’ referred to here is the tendency of human beings to make full use of their genetic capacities by means of a social life that they develop in a lawlike fashion, but of whose orderly sequence they are largely unaware. People have reached their natural goals and satisfied their innate desires by evolving, over a long history, a social life in several stages. This conclusion about historical stages is found throughout the eighteenth century. From Vico’s description of the necessary course of human history to the later multi-stage views of economic advancement held by Turgot, Quesnay, Mirabeau, Smith, Condorcet and Robertson, interest concerning possible regularities of evolutionary succession in human civilization was intense, and schemes of large-scale historical stages were numerous. By the time that Comte ‘discovered’ his Law of Three Stages he was familiar with the earlier and similar schemes adapted by Condorcet from Turgot’s ‘Second Discourse on Universal History’ (1751) and by Saint-Simon from Condorcet. Turgot had discerned three stages in the history of human intellectual development: Before men were conversant with the mutual interconnection of physical effects, nothing was more natural than to suppose that these were produced by intelligent beings, invisible and resembling ourselves. Everything that happened…had its god… When the philosophers had recognised the absurdity of these fables…the idea struck them to explain the causes of phenomena by way of abstract expressions like essences and faculties: expressions which in fact explained nothing, and about which men reasoned as if they were beings, new gods substituted for the old ones. Following these analogies, faculties were proliferated in order to provide a cause for each effect. It was only much later, through observation of the mechanical action which bodies have upon one another, that men derived from this mechanics other hypotheses which mathematics was able to develop and experiment to verify. ([6.57], 102) In Comte’s version, Turgot’s scheme of three stages becomes a ‘great fundamental law’ that governs by ‘invariable necessity’ the entire development of human intelligence in its different fields. Comte’s law is that each of our principal conceptions, each branch of our knowledge, passes in turn through three different theoretical stages: the theological, or fictitious; the metaphysical, or abstract; the scientific, or positive. These are three distinct and opposed forms of philosophical thinking of which the first is a necessary point of departure, the second merely transitional, and the third fixed and final. In the theological stage, the human mind, enquiring into the inner nature of things—the origin and purpose of the impressions that affect us—supposes these phenomena to be the result of direct and continuous action by supernatural agents. In the metaphysical stage, which for the most part is only a simple modification of the first, the supernatural agents are replaced by abstract forces, personified abstractions, inherent in everything, and conceived of as capable of generating and explaining all observed phenomena by referring each one to a corresponding force. In the positive stage the human mind attempts to discover, by combining reason and observation, the laws of phenomena: that is, their invariable relations of succession and similarity. The explanation of facts is simply the establishment of a connection between particular phenomena and some general facts whose number tends to diminish with the progress of science. The perfection of the positive system, towards which it tends unceasingly, but which it will probably never reach, would be the ability to exhibit all the different observable phenomena as particular cases of a single general fact such as gravitation ([6.8], I, 21–2) In the Cours, Comte advances three kinds of evidence in support of his law. The first is that the positive sciences of the present day still show traces of the two earlier stages. The second is that since the starting point in the education of the individual is the same as that of the species, the principal phases of both are the same, and hence, with respect to the more important ideas, each person is a theologian in childhood, a metaphysician in youth and a scientist in adulthood. The third and most important piece of evidence is that in every age human beings have needed theories with which to connect events, but at the outset of their mental development could not possibly have based their theories on the results of observation. Because a scientific theory must be founded on the observation of phenomena, and they in turn require a theory so that we can notice, connect and retain them, the human mind would have been enclosed in a vicious circle, without any means of escape, if it had not been for the spontaneous development of theological conceptions which provided a primitive solution—a solution that was improved only to a limited extent in the metaphysical era. ‘The fundamental character of positive philosophy,’ Comte writes, ‘is that of regarding all phenomena as subject to invariable natural laws whose accurate detection, and reduction to the smallest number possible, is the goal of all our efforts. Because they are completely inaccessible, it is senseless for us to seek what are called ‘causes’, whether they be first causes or final causes’. Thus positive philosophy eliminates the useless search for the ‘generating causes of phenomena’, and tries only ‘to analyze exactly the circumstances of their production, connecting one to the other by the normal relations of succession and similarity’ ([6.3], I, 25–6) In objecting to the search for ‘generating causes’—or indeed causes in general—Comte is giving a rather limited and special use to the term ‘causes’; and he is relying on a simple form of the verification principle with which to exclude such causes. In a genuine science, he says, when we try to explain an obscure fact we proceed to form a hypothesis, in agreement, as far as possible, with the whole of the data we are in possession of; and the science, thus left free to develop itself, always ends by disclosing new observable consequences, tending to confirm or invalidate, indisputably, the primitive supposition. ([6.11] I, 243) However, when we go on to speculate about causes that are unobservable in principle, such as ‘chimerical fluids causing planetary motions’, we are introducing factors that are ‘altogether beyond the limit of our faculties’ and must always remain so. What scientific use can there be in fantastic notions about fluids and imaginary ethers, which are to account for the phenomena of heat, light, electricity and magnetism?… These fluids are supposed to be invisible, intangible, even imponderable, and to be inseparable from the substances which they actuate. Their very definition shows them to have no place in real science; for the question of their existence is not a subject for judgment: it can no more be denied than affirmed: our reason has no grasp of them at all.([6.11], I, 243) These unobservable causes explain nothing. To use the idea of an unobservable fluid expanding between molecules as an explanation of the expansion of bodies when heated is to use one mystery to account for another. When we employ such fictitious entities there is a serious risk that sooner or later we shall take them to be real. They are simply examples of the metaphysical forces of whose emptiness we have already been warned ([6.11], 1:244–5). THE CHARACTER AND ORGANIZATION OF THE SCIENCES Very little of Comte’s Law of Three Stages has escaped criticism. In part, Comte encouraged this by his claims concerning its philosophical importance and the major role that he took it to play in his system. True, he emphasized that the different sciences moved through the three stages at different rates and at different times, and that some sciences—mathematics and astronomy, for example—were already in the positive stage whereas physics, chemistry and biology were only on the verge of entering it. Nevertheless, Comte left the status of his law as obscure as had the many previous advocates of such laws of large-scale, inescapable and fixed stages of social evolution. In his later work it became clear that he believed that the law provided the basis of his social reforms: they, after all, were designed to entrench in the new society the methods and outlook of the final, and positivist, stage of intellectual development. It was much less clear whether Comte’s law was merely a classification of three types of explanatory theories, and their accompanying social systems, or whether the law was a testable sociological hypothesis about the three historical phases of human thought. The kinds of evidence that Comte himself produced in support of his law, and the fact that he took it to be a truth that he had discovered, indicate that he believed the law to be the most general and basic of all sociological propositions. In this interpretation it has met with many objections. John Stuart Mill produced a number of them in Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865). It was unlikely, he thought, that mathematical theorems were ever thought to depend on the intervention of divine or metaphysical forces to make them true. ([6.47], 47) Nor was it necessary for religious belief to be restricted to the theological and metaphysical stages, for a positive scientist can believe that God always rules by means of fixed laws, and this satisfies the chief characteristic of the positivist phase, namely the belief that every event, as part of a ‘constant order’, is ‘the invariable consequent of some antecedent condition’. So Comte might be mistaken in claiming that every event has a purely natural antecedent condition ([6.47], 15). He was certainly mistaken, says Mill, in not recognizing that in every field some conclusions have always been drawn from observation and experience. For that reason, some portion of every discipline must always have been in the positivist phase ([6.47], 51). However, here Mill’s complaint is misguided. As early as 1825 Comte had written: ‘In truth, man has never been entirely in the theological condition. Some phenomena have always existed, so simple and regular, that, from the first, he could only consider them as subjected to natural laws’ ([6.13], 183) Later critics have rejected the very conception of a law of social or intellectual evolution. Karl Popper, for example, has argued that all such ‘laws’ are simply trends based on past experience and then projected, unjustifiably, into the future. They are summaries of previous events but offer no basis for reliable prediction. Because these ‘laws’ are actually trends, and thus not accompanied by qualifications that identify the conditions under which the generalizations can be applied, unexpected changes in local conditions can alter the trends and make them inapplicable ([6.53], 105–30) So embarrassing counter-examples need to be warded off by various defences: as being survivals from the past, as having skipped over crucial stages, as having been subject to unusual rates of change. These devices, says Popper, are necessary because the trendstatements themselves can give us no clue as to why the past events to which they refer have ceased to occur; and since the trends are supposed to be the fundamental laws of the system there is no additional law available for explaining why they sometimes do not work. Comte, of course, believed that his law was satisfactory, and he spent a great deal of time and energy in working out what he took to be its ramifications within the various sciences. He also thought that the law made necessary the adoption of certain philosophical principles concerning the nature, organization and application of scientific knowledge. As a result of holding these beliefs, Comte could not agree that the Law of Three Stages was defective without also admitting that its supposed consequences might be mistaken. A large portion of his system would then be exposed to threat. Attached to Comte’s law is a hierarchical classification of the six basic sciences arranged in the order of their decreasing simplicity, generality and abstractness—or in the order of their increasing complexity, specificity and particularity. First is mathematics; it is followed by physics, chemistry, physiology (biology), and last, social physics, for which Comte later invented the name ‘sociology’. Each succeeding science relies on some of the conclusions and laws of the earlier sciences, but the later science cannot be derived from them and they are independent of it. It is correct to refer to the sciences as ‘earlier’ and ‘later’ because their hierarchical order is the approximate order in which they developed historically. It is also the order of their decreasing precision, and thus of the steps by which human beings advanced from the more precise but simple disciplines to the less precise but increasingly complex fields. More significantly, says Comte, this scheme shows us that there can be no rational scientific education, and hence no great improvement of scientific knowledge, until each science is studied with a knowledge of all the sciences on which it is dependent. Physical philosophers cannot understand Physics without at least a general knowledge of Astronomy; nor Chemists without Physics and Astronomy; nor Physiologists, without Chemistry, Physics, and Astronomy; nor, above all, the students of Social philosophy, without a general knowledge of all the anterior sciences. ([6.11], 1:32) Moreover, the various sciences must be studied in their proper order. Otherwise, the student will not be able to use the indispensable methods and results of the simpler discipline in attempting to master the succeeding and more complex science. For this reason the practice of sociology will require the longest, most arduous, preparation and the outstanding ability, and disinterestedness, needed to make use of it. Comte was by nature and practice an inveterate and indefatigable classifier. Nevertheless, he gives two rational grounds for producing his scheme of classification. One is that by exhibiting the objectives, methods and limits of the different sciences, and their interrelations, we can improve the organization of scientific research. For new work, especially that requiring several disciplines, will be suggested by various features of the general scheme and be fitted into it appropriately. We shall not, for example, waste energy in grappling with topics such as psychology for which there is, and can be, no positive science. The other ground is that the scheme aids us to renovate our system of theoretical education; the student learns the general concepts, procedures and conclusions that belong to the scientific method itself while also learning how they are exemplified in the various sciences. For until ‘a certain number of general ideas can be acknowledged as a rallying point of social doctrine, the nations will remain in a revolutionary state’. But once ‘first principles’ are agreed upon, ‘appropriate institutions will issue from them…for the causes of disorder will have been arrested by the mere fact of agreement’ and a ‘normal state of society’ will ensue. ([6.11], 1:16). The disorder to which Comte refers was that marked both by the July revolution of 1830 in which the French king, Charles X, was forced to abdicate in the face of middle-class opposition, and by the proletarian riots during the turbulent years of his successor, Louis Philippe, until he abdicated during the February revolution of 1848. The sociological significance of Comte’s law is that he took each of its three stages to be closely intertwined—for he could not have said causally connected—with the three phases into which he divided European history, phases characterized by the relative strength during each period of the temporal and spiritual (religious or philosophical) authorities. Society in the first phase, dominated from the fourth to the fifteenth century by Catholicism and feudalism, was organized, in its economic structure, for war, and in its intellectual structure for the need of a priestly caste, with its theological knowledge, to share power with the nobles of a military court. The latter demanded ‘passive obedience’ from the common people, and the former required their ‘mental submission’. In the second or metaphysical phase, the Protestant subversion of Papal authority replaced blind faith with a limited degree of intellectual freedom and political authority for the educated or the wealthy. At the same time, free cities, the bourgeoisie and science began their development and interacted with the effects of the Protestant Reformation. In consequence, we are now in the modern phase of industrialism, positive science and political revolutionaries seeking legislative, administrative and social power. Our technological and scientific advances must be matched, therefore, by new forms of social and political authority. These new forms are what Comte believes that he, and perhaps he alone, can offer. He does so in his second major work, the Système de politique positive, after having described in the Cours the scientific method and knowledge that are to culminate in the positivist society. However, Comte devoted only two introductory chapters (or lessons), and one later chapter, of the entire sixty in the Cours to basic problems in the philosophy of science. These include the scientific status of psychology, the nature of scientific explanation and, of course, the character, scope and application of the Law of Three Stages. Comte rejected the study of psychology because he took it to rely on unverifiable introspection of the intellectual processes and the passions. To this he objected that ‘there can be nothing like scientific observation of the passions, except from without, as the stir of the emotions disturbs the observing faculties more or less’. Nor can there be an ‘intellectual observation of intellectual processes. The observing and observed organ are here the same, and its action cannot be pure and natural’. The reason, for this, he thinks, is that ‘In order to observe, your intellect must pause from activity; yet it is this very activity that you want to observe’. Unless your intellect can pause, it cannot observe. But if it does pause, there is nothing left to observe ([6.11], 1:12). Of this argument John Stuart Mill complained, many years after his initial enthusiasm for Comte’s views had waned, that it is ‘a fallacy respecting which the only wonder is that it should impose on anyone’. For if we can learn about the mental life of other people only by observing their behaviour, how can we ever interpret it unless we are allowed to use our knowledge of our own feelings and thoughts? We cannot obtain that knowledge merely by observing our own behaviour. In fact, we obtain self-knowledge both by memory and by our ability to attend to ‘a considerable number of impressions at once’. Comte’s wish to replace introspection with observation of behaviour, including physiological reactions, neglects the impossibility of then correlating that behaviour with what on his own view is our inaccessible mental life. Mill recognizes that Comte believes that all mental states are produced by—invariably succeed—states of the brain, and hence that the regularities of succession among mental states necessarily depend upon similar regularities among brain states. Nevertheless, even if this is correct, Mill argues, mental regularities cannot be deduced at present from physiological regularities. We are able to investigate the latter only because we have a better knowledge of the former ([6.47], 63–4). Mill could have added what he also knew: that for all Comte’s argument shows, the actual relation between mental states and brain states is the reverse of what Comte believes, and that the latter invariably follow on the former. In any case, the fact that one invariably follows on the other does nothing to make the later regularity either impossible to observe or in some way fictitious. The temporal relation, if any, between the two kinds of regularity is irrelevant to their observability—except that if one of them were unobservable in principle we should find it difficult to establish the temporal relationship. Comte’s dismissal of psychology as a genuine science was not based on the scientific evidence available to him, and the rejection led him to neglect describing what Mill did describe in Book VI of A System of Logic (1843), the nature of the relationship between psychological and sociological phenomena—between ‘the operations of mental life’ and the genuine, or irreducible, laws of society of which Comte was the tireless herald. Comte did assert that the explanation of individual human actions could not be logically derived from supposed ‘laws of individual life’, whether these laws were psychological or otherwise. For individual actions are the outcome of combined biological and social factors that accumulate over time, and thus create the societies to which all actions of individual people owe their existence. Because such factors underlie and produce the psychological features of every person, it is only the fundamental sociological laws that permit us to explain those features. The laws do so by explaining the character, origin and changes of particular types of societies and of civilization taken as a whole. These conclusions, popular throughout the nineteenth century, were one answer to the widespread demand by thoughtful people during that period for a new scientific certainty to replace their lost religious beliefs. Certainly, the interest of both Comte and Mill in social reform and laws of social change was motivated by their common need to be assured that civilization was proceeding at a reasonable pace on a worthwhile journey. But Mill disagreed with Comte in two important respects: firstly, in believing that psychological laws were a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for the explanation of social phenomena; and secondly, in being convinced that there was not, and could not be, one ultimate law of nature concerning the development of civilization. On this latter point Mill wrote that it is a misconception to suppose that the order of succession which we may be able to trace among the different states of society…could ever amount to a law of nature… The succession of states of the human mind and human society cannot have an independent law of its own; it must depend on the psychological and ethological laws [of character formation] which govern the action of circumstances on men and of men on circumstances. ([6.48], 2:914) In objecting to Comte’s belief that there can be a law of social evolution, and that he had formulated it in his Law of Three Stages, F.A.Hayek complained that it is ‘a curious feature of the Comtean system that this same law which is supposed to prove the necessity of the new science is at the same time its main and almost sole result’ ([6.34], 179) This verdict is somewhat harsh. It is true that Comte formulated few, if any, testable social laws—ordinary laws of the constant concomitance, whether of coexistence or succession, between identifiable social factors. That was not his aim. Instead, he was trying to describe the need for a scientific study of social life, the ways in which the methods of the natural sciences could be used to establish a social science, and the general form that its empirical laws would take as the result of genuinely scientific investigation. Comte did not, and could not correctly, claim to be practising empirical sociology, for that discipline had yet to be created. He believed that the task of the sociologist of the future would be to discover social laws that presupposed the existence of biological laws without being derivable from them—social laws that implied various regularities of national and individual character, including those of mental life. Such laws, he reiterated in the last three volumes (lessons 46–60) of the Cours, would take account of two facts: the cumulative effect on people’s behaviour of social factors over time; and the way in which social institutions and customs are always parts of a social system and operate as an ‘ensemble’ of interrelated factors in much the same fashion as do the organs of an animal’s body. Each law of observed phenomena offers us an explanation because every such law connects together under one heading a variety of otherwise disparate facts. Thus the theory of gravitation explains planetary ‘attraction’ by showing that it conforms to ‘the ordinary phenomena which gravity continually produces on the surface of our globe’. The theory brings together under one head the whole immense variety of astronomical facts; exhibiting the constant tendency of atoms towards each other in direct proportion to the squares of their distances; whilst the general fact itself is a mere extension of one which is perfectly familiar to us, and which we therefore say that we know; the weight of bodies on the surface of the earth. As to what weight and attraction are, we have nothing to do with that, for it is not a matter of knowledge at all. Theologians and metaphysicians may imagine and refine about such questions; but positive philosophy rejects them. ([6.11], 1:6) The reason they are rejected, says Comte, is that the greatest minds have been able to define the two properties only in terms of each other, so that terrestrial attraction is only weight and weight is nothing more or less than terrestrial attraction. Thus, according to Comte, phenomena are observed facts, and facts can be either specific events and processes or general laws. Since weight and attraction are not directly observable, they are not verifiable scientific facts; they are to be classified with ether and heat-fluid as imaginary causes. However, Comte does not make this complaint of the Newtonian theory that atoms attract each other as the squares of their distances. Nor does he make it when discussing indirect observations of the earth’s size. His failure to do so reveals the difficulties that he creates for his system by not distinguishing between things that are observable only in principle and those that are observable in practice. As a result, he has to rely on common sense for deciding which events and processes are observable in any given field of science. For this reason, he has trouble in distinguishing between metaphysical and scientific entities, and hence between questions that can be given a scientific answer and those for which this is impossible. So his reliance on the possibility of future verification to discriminate scientific hypotheses from metaphysical ones is unsupported, for he gives no developed account of any criterion of scientific verifiability except, as we shall see, to admit entailments that are unobservable but lead to observable consequences. He leaves unanswered the question ‘what is to count as an observation in science?’ Yet his Law of Three Stages assumes that he can discriminate between the stage of metaphysical explanation and that of positive scientific explanation. These problems are both a result and a source of Comte’s ideas about causes. As early as 1840, William Whewell pointed out that hypotheses about unobservable causes were often essential in scientific enquiry. How, for example, he asked, ‘could the phenomena of polarization have been conceived or reasoned upon, except by imagining a polar arrangement of particles, or transverse vibrations, or some equivalent hypothesis?’ Causes could not simply be metaphysical entities ([6.59], 2:268). Mill’s criticism of Comte on causes was rather different. Comte overlooked the difference, Mill complained, between conditional and unconditional regularities of phenomena. The alternation of night and day is an apparently invariable sequence but it is not a natural law, for it is merely the result of a genuinely invariable regularity, or unconditional sequence, that of the earth’s rotation around the sun. The succession of night and day is as much an invariable sequence, as the alternate exposure of opposite sides of the earth to the sun. Yet day and night are not the causes of one another; why? Because their sequence, invariable in our experience, is not unconditionally so: those facts only succeed each other, provided that the presence and absence of the sun succeed each other. ([6.47], 57–8) Unconditional regularities, ones in which the antecedent always will be followed by the consequent ‘as long as the present constitution of things endures’, are laws of causation. Conditional regularities are those in which, as a mere fact of our experience, ‘the antecedent always has been followed by the consequent’. They are Comte’s laws or regularities of phenomena. They simply record what has happened to date, and thus offer no basis for the explanation, prediction and control of phenomena that is so highly valued in Comte’s system ([6.47], 57–8). HYPOTHESES AND SOCIAL LAWS Despite his difficulties with the notions of observation, cause, verification and law of nature, Comte was one of the earliest social thinkers to stress the indispensability in social scientific work of the appropriate use of theories and hypotheses. In his essay ‘Philosophical Considerations on the Sciences and Savants’ (1825), he wrote: Unless man connects facts with some explanation, he is naturally incapable not merely of combining and making deductions from them, but even of observing and recollecting them. In a word, it is as impossible to make continuous observations without a theory of some kind, as to construct a positive theory without continuous observations. ([6.13], 185) Some years later, in the Cours, Comte expanded on this view. He suggested that without the help of conjectures (or imaginative hypothesis) we could use neither deduction nor induction: Neither of these methods would help us, even in regard to the simplest phenomena, if we did not begin by anticipating the results, by making a provisional supposition, altogether conjectural in the first instance, with regard to some of the very notions which are the object of the inquiry. Hence the necessary introduction of hypotheses into natural philosophy. The method of approximation employed by geometers first suggested the idea; and without it all discovery of natural laws would be impossible in cases of any degree of complexity; and in all, very slow. ([6.11], 1:241) Comte’s belief in the importance of hypotheses and theories in scientific work leads him to comment on the relatively small role that observation plays in some astronomical investigation: The few incoherent sensations concerned would be, of themselves, very insignificant; they could not teach us the figure of the earth, nor the path of a planet. They are combined and rendered serviceable by long-drawn and complex reasonings; so that we might truly say that the phenomena, however real, are constructed by our understanding. ([6.11], 1:151) So in contrast to his own simpler ideas about the limits of observation, Comte here recognizes the need both for direct observations and for their unobservable entailments, concluding that ‘the perpetual necessity of deducing from a small number of direct measures, whether angular or horary, quantities which are not themselves immediately observable, renders the use of abstract mathematics indispensable’ ([6.11], 1:151). Of course, this recognition of the necessity of using unobservable quantities makes the exclusion of unobservable metaphysical causes more difficult, for a general criterion that distinguishes one from the other has now to be found. This was the task undertaken much later by the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle, and in England by A.J.Ayer, in the form of a search for a reliable principle of verification that would separate sense from nonsense, and separate theoretically necessary, but fictional, entities from unobservable but actual ones. ‘All sciences,’ Comte wrote, ‘aim at prevision. For the laws established by the observation of phenomena are generally employed to foretell their succession.’ This is as true of sociology as it is of chemistry and physics. All sciences use verified conjectures to predict, explain and thus control phenomena ([6.13], 167). However, in the case of sociology Comte qualifies this view in two respects. The first is that the content of such laws, in sociology as in the other sciences, is to be restricted to the succession and coexistence of observable phenomena, whether direct or indirect—to telling us, in the form of an accurate description, how an event or process takes place, but not why it does. We cannot explain why a particular sequence occurs even though we can describe how it takes place. This distinction between the explanatory ‘why?’ and the descriptive ‘how?’ is found in the work of a long line of eighteenth-century philosophers, including Berkeley, Hume, Thomas Reid, Dugald Stewart, Thomas Brown, and also in that of the Sicilian physicist Ruggiero Boscovich. At the end of the nineteenth century the distinction featured prominently in the writings of Ernst Mach, the Austrian physicist who was an early advocate of logical positivism. In this group, Comte was forthright in claiming that laws of phenomena give us genuine explanations because all that we can sensibly want to know is how, and not why, something happened. The other qualification that Comte applies to the laws of sociology is that they must concern large-scale collective events and processes, for it is the general features of an entire society or form of government or economic system, and the types to which they belong, that are the operative factors in the historical growth of human faculties and achievements. ‘It is clear,’ he says, ‘that the social evolution must be more inevitably subject to natural laws, the more compound are the phenomena, and the less perceptible therefore the irregularities which arise from individual instances.’ A closely related point is ‘that the laws of social dynamics are most recognizable when they relate to the largest societies, in which secondary disturbances have the smallest effect’. As a civilization develops, ‘the social movement becomes more distinct and certain with every conquest over accidental influences’. The result, according to Comte, is that ‘these fundamental laws become the more irresistible, and therefore the more appreciable, in proportion to the advancement of the civilization upon which they operate’ ([6.11], 2: In describing this qualification, one of central importance in his system, Comte is led astray, as he often is, by not distinguishing more clearly between a general law and the effects of its operation in any given instance. Thus what is more recognizable, if it is, than the effect produced by a social law operating in a small society is the effect of the law’s operation in a large society. Again, it is not the fundamental laws themselves that become more ‘irresistible’ but their effects in the fields in which they operate. That is, the nature, or content, of the laws does not change; it is the changes in the fields in which they operate that make the laws more recognizable and ‘irresistible’. For Comte, the significance for scientific procedure of the distinction between large-scale collective events and ‘secondary disturbances’ is considerable. ‘Astronomers,’ he writes,’ in commencing their study of the laws of the planetary movements omitted all consideration of the perturbations. After these laws had been discovered, the modifications could be determined’ and brought within the scope of the law that applied to the chief movements. But if we had begun by trying ‘to account for the irregularities, it is plain that no precise theory could ever have been constructed’. Comte’s conclusion, then, is that, in order to examine the secondary disturbances that affect the rate of social change but do not fundamentally alter it, sociologists must first find the general laws that chiefly control social progress. The counter-influences exerted by secondary factors can then be reduced to the fundamental laws. But how, in Comte’s view, do we discover at the beginning which is the ‘principal movement’ and which the secondary, or accidental, influences? What makes a sociological conjecture a plausible one? To this query Comte offers no response, believing, as he did, that the question has no informative answer other than what he has already said about scientific, and thus sociological, procedure in general: a plausible conjecture is one that not only meets the procedural criteria but takes account of the current state of knowledge within the field. We can only say what makes a particular hypothesis plausible, not what makes hypotheses in general plausible. True, we can exclude certain types. That does not, however, give us a useful characterization of the remainder. Comte’s emphasis on the importance of mass phenomena in sociology largely contributed to a major difficulty in his account of the structure of sociological laws. The difficulty arises from his assumption that, for the most part, sociological laws of the future will be direct generalizations from various sorts of aggregates and collective events. It is to assume, for example, that because the Great Depression of the 1930s was a collective event, each singular causal statement about its causes must imply a generalization about the economic and social causes of depressions in general. Yet this is obviously not true. The fact that our palm tree has been torn up by the roots in a hurricane does not imply that there must be a physical law to the effect that all similar trees are torn up in similar hurricanes. What we are committed to by our singular causal statement is simply this: there are generalizations from which, given appropriate statements of initial conditions, our singular statement is derivable, for these generalizations are physical laws that we can use to explain the effects of certain physical forces, such as hurricanes of a given intensity, on specific types of objects under specifiable conditions. Such laws can be applied to many kinds of situations, and that of our palm tree is merely one of them. Comte thought that the future laws of sociology would be direct generalizations about forms of government, armed forces, rebellions, nations and all other collectivities whose operations could in some sense be observed directly, or indirectly. Yet it has often been remarked that the operations and composition of such aggregates are the joint outcome of highly varied influences and causes. Hence, if there are any sociological laws to be found concerning these collectivities, whether observable or not, the laws must be quite general and abstract. THE SOCIAL REFORMER On the first page of the preface to his second multi-volume work, the Système de politique positive (1851–4), Comte says that his philosophical career has been ‘homogeneous throughout; the end being clearly aimed at from the first’. He is referring here to his lifelong project to reform the intellectual, social and economic life of European society, and to his intention from the beginning of his career, as his earliest writings show, to develop a social science that would both explain the unhappy state of that society and prescribe the appropriate remedies to eliminate its anarchic condition. Many of the early readers of the Cours, such as Mill, Littré and Whewell, were unprepared for the kinds of social prescriptions that Comte issued more and more freely and at ever greater length in his succeeding publications. Comte’s history of science and his discussion of its methodology had won their professional admiration; and his claims of the benefits that applied science could bestow on a rejuvenated society, one that embraced the positivist 7Religion of Humanity, had stirred their religious yearnings for individual fulfilment through the pursuit of a worthy common goal, that of a rejuvenated and unified society. In his ‘Introductory Remarks’ to the first volume of the Système or System of Positive Polity Comte makes his project of social regeneration quite explicit: it becomes every day more evident how hopeless is the task of reconstructing political institutions without the previous remodelling of opinion and of life. To form then a satisfactory synthesis of all human conceptions is the most evident of our social wants: and it is needed equally for the sake of Order and of Progress. During the gradual accomplishment of this great philosophical work, a new moral power will arise spontaneously throughout the West, which, as its influence increases, will lay down a definite basis for the re-organisation of society. It will offer a general system of education for the adoption of all civilised nations, and by this means will supply in every department of public and private life fixed principles of judgment and conduct. Thus the intellectual movement and the social crisis will be brought continually into close connection with each other. Both will combine to prepare the advanced portion of humanity for the acceptance of a true spiritual power. ([6.6], 1:2) In the fourth and final volume of the Système Comte outlines the nature of social reconstruction and true spiritual power, having used the other three volumes to qualify and amplify the argument of the Cours. It is in this last volume that Comte advances his belief that the cultivation and use of the benevolent emotions produces the fullest happiness; that the only moral actions are those performed entirely for the good of other people, and that self-gratifying actions are morally worthless and to be eliminated; that all scientific enquiry is to be pursued and valued only in so far as it fulfils human needs and desires of a practical kind, for disinterested investigation, especially of abstract topics, is morally unwholesome for most people; that useless plants and animals should be destroyed along with the major portion of existing printed material; that the practice of art is the most suitable occupation for human beings since it stimulates their worthwhile emotions; and that these views can best be realized by the concerted action of the working classes and the intellectuals, the latter of whom will later form a priesthood that will lead and maintain the public worship of the Religion of Humanity—that is, the worship of the great and valued dead for their past contributions to human happiness. This priesthood will also be in charge of the educational system that will support the detailed arrangements which Comte laid down for the social and economic tasks to which the various classes of citizens will be assigned according to their ability and qualifications. In brief, the reorganized society will have a theoretical class and a practical class: the former will provide the principles and system of general ideas needed for the guidance of the society; the latter will carry out the administrative and practical measures, such as the distribution of authority and the arrangement of institutions that are needed to fulfil the general plan. In the early essay, ‘Plan for Reorganizing Society’, Comte remarked on the long span of time that a scientific or social revolution displayed between the announcement of its basic principles and their embodiment in practice. It required a century, he says, for the conception of the elastic force of steam to find a use in machinery, and five centuries for the ‘triumph of Christian doctrines’ to develop into the Catholic-feudal system of western Europe—the system upon which his own proposed two classes are modelled. Hence, the rate of social change depends both on the adoption of clear, well understood policies or principles and on the amount of effort put into carrying them out over a long period. This shows us ‘the absurdity of attempting to improvise a complete plan for reorganizing society down to its smallest details’ ([6.13], 122). Yet this absurdity is what Comte embraces late in the Système. There he proposes that school ‘instruction will occupy seven years, during which each pupil remains throughout under the same teacher, teaching, be it added, both sexes, though in separate classes’. Every school will need seven priests and three vicars. Each professor will give two lectures a week for ten months, in addition to a month of examinations. ‘Every school is annexed to the temple of the district, as is the presbytery, the residences of the ten members of the sacerdotal college and of their families’. The upshot of these arrangements is ‘that the spiritual wants of the West may be duly met by a corporation of twenty thousand philosophers, of whom France would have the fourth’ ([6.6], 4:223). It is true that Comte warns us that these numerals will be corrected when better data become available. However, many of the other details will remain, and throughout the volume Comte provides a very large number of fixed and highly specific recommendations. The philosophical interest of these Utopian schemes is slight, but their presence clearly reveals that the dominant impulse in Comte’s thought is social reform. For him, philosophical discussions are just a necessary stage in that regenerative process. For that reason, they often form part of his grand system without themselves being systematic or thorough, and often without being advanced or defended by argument. If the distinctive feature of philosophy is, in John Passmore’s phrase, ‘its being a critical discussion of critical discussion’, then Comte is a philosopher only on rare occasions. Moreover, he often proceeds to his conclusions without either first- or second-order critical discussion. For instance, in his treatment of astronomy in the Cours he begins by asserting that ‘astronomical phenomena are the most general, simple, and abstract of all’ and that the study of science must begin with them ([6.11], 1:28). However, this claim depends upon the truth of Comte’s later and additional belief that in the case of the planets ‘we may determine their forms, their distances, their bulk, and their motions, but we can never know anything of their chemical or mineralogical structure; and much less of organized beings living on their surface’. Not only can we ‘never learn their internal constitution’, and the amount of heat absorbed by their atmospheres, but their mean temperatures are ‘for ever excluded from our recognition’. The laws of astronomy must therefore be the laws solely of the geometrical and mechanical features of the heavenly bodies ([6.11], 1:148–9) It is this limitation achieved by tendentious definition that makes astronomical phenomena most general, or simple, and abstract; for knowledge, such as we now have, of the chemical and physical structure of astronomical bodies would convert portions of astronomy into ‘celestial’ physics and chemistry, thus destroying, for Comte, its generality and abstractness. Again, in his discussion of intellectual progress Comte says of truth, our doctrines never represent the outer world with exact fidelity. Nor is it needful that they should. Truth, in any given case, social or individual, means the degree of exactness in representation possible at the time. For positive logic is but the construction of the simplest hypothesis that will explain the whole of the ascertained facts. Any superfluous complication, besides causing a waste of labour, would be a downright error, even though a fuller acquaintance of facts might at a later time justify it. In fact, without this rule subjectivity runs wild, and the mind tends toward madness… But in proportion as our observations are extended, we are forced to adopt more complicated theories in order adequately to represent facts. ([6.6], 3:19) There are two points of immediate interest here. The first is that the notion of ‘exactness in representation’ is ill prepared to stand unsupported as it does. For Comte, representation or enunciation of facts—whether the facts are statements of observation or statements of a lawlike kind—can have meaning, and thus be scientific, only if they are testable. The construction of simple explanatory hypotheses is an essential part of the process of confirmation that establishes the claim of factual statements to have meaning. But what makes a testable representation, of varying degrees of exactness, a true one rather than merely a meaningful one? On this point Comte is unhelpful. On the second point he is little better. Permitting undue complication of hypotheses has often been criticized for leading us away from the truth, but seldom for allowing, or perhaps encouraging, the wilder flights of imagination. It is true that unduly complicated hypotheses are sometimes the expression of unchecked imagination although, as Comte himself points out, complex hypotheses are often required. However, what injunctions of simplicity, such as Occam’s Razor, are designed to do is to smooth the path to adequate hypotheses, not to constrain imaginative and complex conjectures. Whether they are unnecessarily complex is often impossible to determine until simpler testable ones become available, and even then the nature of the criterion of simplicity may itself be open to debate. Against such defects in Comte’s architectonic method must be set his achievements, near-achievements and fertile errors. His outline of sociology as a new science of social systems, one using empirical data and testable laws to study collective behaviour, combines all three of these characteristics. Before Comte, many writers had advocated the creation of a natural science of politics, but it was Comte who produced a detailed description of its future structure, subject-matter, the scientific procedures appropriate to its topics and the relationship of sociology both to the other sciences in the hierarchy of scientific knowledge and to political action. Social behaviour in the form of interconnected practices, systems and institutions is the cumulative outcome of the historical development of a society in its conformity to the Law of Three Stages, each stage bearing within itself the seeds of the next one. In the case of Europe, Comte thought that each of these intellectual stages was correlated with a distinct type of social system: the theological stage with a theological-military system; the metaphysical stage with a metaphysical-legal system; and the positive stage with a scientific-industrial system. A large portion of the second half of the Cours, and also volume three of the Système, are devoted to the characteristics, historical development and geographical location of the three systems and their correlated stages. Comte’s procedure was to begin with what he took to be the basic general properties of the systems—their types of religion, government, commerce, industry and art, for example—and then to account for either their maintenance or their changes by means of reference to more specific factors and local conditions. He did this because he believed that our knowledge of the three stages and their associated systems was superior to our knowledge of particular institutions and customs. Knowing the Law of Three Stages and their systems we know both the past and present of civilization better than we know the sub-sections that they so strongly influence. In a general way, we can predict, explain, and thus control, aggregate social behaviour whereas we often cannot do this in cases of individual or sectional or local behaviour and beliefs. Our knowledge of the laws of social wholes, and our ability to observe them, is primary; our information about small-scale phenomena is derivative from that we have on large-scale ones. ‘All political action,’ Comte says, ‘is followed by a real and durable result, when it is exerted in the same direction as the force of civilization, and aims at producing changes which the latter necessitates. On every other hypothesis it exerts no influence or a merely ephemeral one’ ([6.13], 148). The phrase ‘force of civilization’ refers to the Law of Three Stages that ‘rigorously determines the successive states through which the general development of the human race must pass’. Because ‘this law necessarily results from the instinctive tendency of the human race to perfect itself…it is as completely independent of our control as are the individual instincts the combination of which produces this permanent tendency’ ([6.13], 146). One of the obvious benefits of our knowledge of this rigorous succession, according to Comte, is this: When in tracing an institution and a social idea, or a system of institutions and a complete doctrine, from their birth to their present stage, we find that, from a given epoch, their influence has always been either diminishing or increasing, we can foretell with complete certainty the destiny which awaits them… The period of their fall or triumph may even be calculated, within narrow limits, from the extent and rapidity of the variations observed. ([6.13], 151) Claims to foreknowledge of the pattern of social history held special appeal for an educated, and largely Christian, audience in the nineteenth century. Many people agreed with Comte—and with such groups as the British Chartists, the young Hegelians and later the Marxists—that industrial capitalism was in an economic, social and moral crisis. An explanation of its sources and ‘prevision’ of its outcome were constantly called for, and equally often supplied either as a supplement to, or substitute for, Christian eschatology, these various considerations emerge very clearly in Harriet Martineau’s preface to her translation into English in 1853 of the Cours. ‘We are living in a remarkable time,’ she wrote, ‘when the conflict of opinions renders a firm foundation of knowledge indispensable.’ She thought that ‘for want of an anchorage for their convictions’ a great number of people are now ‘alienated for ever from the kind of faith which sufficed for all in an organic period which has passed away’. No new firm and clear conviction had taken its place, and although ‘The moral dangers of such a state of fluctuation are fearful in the extreme’, Comte’s work, she believed, was ‘unquestionably the greatest single effort to obviate this kind of danger’ ([6.11], 1:xxiii–xxiv). For in his work ‘We find ourselves living, not under capricious and arbitrary conditions…but under great, general, invariable laws, which operate on us as a part of the whole’. Martineau concluded that despite Comte’s singular and wearisome style with its ‘constant repetition’ and overloaded sentences, positive philosophy opened boundless prospects. It had established, among many other ‘noble truths’, that ‘The law of progress is conspicuously at work throughout human history’ ([6.11], 1:xxx). COMTE’S INFLUENCE After Comte’s death, when positivism had to make its own way without the guidance of its first ‘High Priest of the Religion of Humanity’, it exerted influence in several ways. The first, and least significant, was by doctrinal descendants and proselytizing enthusiasts, and by friendly critics. Prominent in the last group was Emile Littré, editor of the Journal des savants, and a decade later of the highly regarded Dictionnaire de la langue française. In the former two groups were Pierre Lafitte, a mathematics teacher not favoured by Comte as his successor but who afterwards was the Professor of History of Science at the Collège de France, and an English band consisting, among others, of Edward Beasly, Professor of History, University College, London; Frederick Harrison, the lawyer, philosopher and prolific author; F.S. Marvin, historian and author of Comte: the Founder of Sociology (1936); and the Anglican clergyman, and former Oxford tutor, Richard Congreve, who in 1867 founded the London Positivist Society and wrote that ‘Positivism is the one idea of my life’ ([6.56], 49). Both the British and the French societies founded journals that lasted for several decades, and both societies underwent a long series of internal quarrels and schisms. Nevertheless, the various positivist societies with their small number of members, and a Parisian lending library, kept up a programme of meetings, lectures and courses, in addition to their doctrinal rivalry, until the First World War. They strongly agitated for, and gave firm support to, the establishment of both sociology and the history of science as academic fields of study, and they also campaigned, with some success in France, for a scientific and secular education in schools. However, their more ambitious hopes of arousing popular support for the future Religion of Humanity were never fulfilled. A second, and more important, influence exerted by positivism on the intellectual life of the nineteenth century was independent of both the organized piety of the positivist societies and the messianic aspirations of Comte himself. Through the early enthusiasm of Mill, a number of eminent and able people in Britain came to read and appreciate the Cours. They included not only Grote, Whewell and Molesworth, but also G.H.Lewes, consort of George Eliot, and author of The Biographical History of Philosophy (1845–6) which favoured positivism, and of Comte’s Philosophy of the Sciences (1853); George Eliot herself who was impressed by religious positivism; Henry Sidgwick, the Cambridge philosopher, who later criticized Comte’s views; John Morley, editor, biographer of Gladstone and highly successful politician; and John Austin, one of the most influential jurists of the nineteenth century. Of these people only Mill and Lewes were ever substantially influenced by Comte in their work, but the earlier editions of Mill’s A System of Logic (1843) owed much to Comte’s methodology and the later Mill still defended the Law of Three Stages. In France, the historian of science Paul Tannery, an editor of the standard edition of Descartes’ Works (1897–1910), was said to have believed that Comte’s influence on him was stronger than that of any other thinker ([6.56], 133). The philosopher of science Emile Meyerson was a friendly critic of Comte, and in Identity and Reality (1908) respectfully criticized Comte’s ideas on cause, scientific laws, psychology and physics. Claude Bernard, famous as a physiologist and for his book An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865), was thought to have been a disciple of Comte until middle age; after 1865 he became a resolute antipositivist ([6.56], 15). These three men are merely a small sample of Comte’s serious readers in France during the half-century after his death. They, like many other philosophers, scientists and historians, took the reading and study of the Cours for granted. They absorbed from it the conceptions that seemed to them valuable and discarded or ignored the remainder. Hardly any of the eminent ones among them, however sympathetic to some of Comte’s views, could be described as disciples. In that respect they would have bitterly disappointed Comte’s expectations for the future success of his system. Another and most important way in which Comte’s influence made itself prominent was through the young Emile Durkheim, the man who in 1887 was the first person appointed to lecture on sociology in a French university. For a few years Durkheim was a discriminating enthusiast for Comte’s conception of the nature of sociology; he adopted much of Comte’s belief in the significance of the collective mind in society as the creator and sustainer of religious and moral attitudes, the guarantor of social stability, and the chief bulwark against the loss of self-esteem by the members and their accompanying alienation from common values. However, even though Durkheim’s second book, The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), attacks positivist claims on many issues, he later reiterated his debt to Comte and ‘continued to recommend the Cours as the best possible initiation into the study of sociology’ ([6.56], 147). Other sociologists of this period, such as Gabriel Tarde, were similarly both critical and appreciative of Comte’s work. Much of their kind of discussion was incorporated into the academic teaching of sociology and anthropology throughout Europe and America, and in that form has continued to influence social science until the present day. In its devotion to major social reform, positivism found a responsive audience among the early Fabians. Like Durkheim, they rejected the anarchic, irrational, inefficient individualism that they took to be the hallmark of materialistic capitalism. Like Saint- Simon and Comte, they wished to create a scientifically organized society in which, to use Gertrude Himmelfarb’s words, the parts were arranged, ordered, regulated, planned, so as to make for the most efficient and equitable whole. Such a society could come about only through the conscious effort of intellectuals and ‘scientists’…who were prepared to dedicate themselves to the public good and bring their superior reason to bear upon the reorganization of the public order. ([6.35],359–60) The Fabian collectivist society of the future would be led and presided over, as were the utopias of Comte and Saint-Simon, by a theoretical class devoted to the social good and the elimination of competitiveness. It would be ascetic and non-materialistic as was positivism, and yet evolutionary rather than revolutionary—and so anti-Marxist. These Fabians were not, of course, religious positivists, but as socialists they claimed the politically conservative Comte as one of their own. Five of the seven authors of Fabian Essays (1889) were positivist sympathizers: Beatrice Webb (then Beatrice Potter) had been familiar with Comte from her schoolgirl reading of Mill, Harrison, and George Eliot; by 1884 her diary contained frequent references to Comte and excerpts from his writings. Long before he met her, Sidney Webb had heard about Comte at the Zetetical Society and later at the London Positivist Society. He and his friends Sydney Olivier, a fellow clerk in the Colonial Office, and Graham Wallas, a young schoolmaster, were so taken with Comte that they embarked upon a systematic reading of all his works. ([6–35], 358–9) These four were not the only Fabians who were sympathetic to positivism. Its project of individual moral reform produced by social regeneration, the latter itself the result of the application of scientific knowledge and method to a sick society, had widespread appeal in the late nineteenth century. It is an appeal which—however viciously distorted by various communist regimes in the twentieth century—is still with us today. BIBLIOGRAPHY Works—French editions 6.1 Système de politique positive, 4 vols, Paris, 1851–4; reprint Osnabrück: O. Zeller, 1967. 6.2 Oeuvres, 12 vols, reprint Paris: Editions Anthropos, 1968 6.3 Cours de philosophie positive, ed. M.Serres et al., 2 vols, Paris: Hermann, 1975. 6.4 Lettres d’Auguste Comte à John Stuart Mill, 1841–1846, Paris: E.Leroux, Paris: 1877. 6.5 Correspondance Générale et Confessions, ed. P.Berredo Carneiro and P. Arnaud, 8 vols, Paris: Mouton, and J.Vrin, 1923–90. English translations 6.6 System of Positive Polity, trans. J.H.Bridges, Frederic Harrison et al., 4 vols, London: 1875: reprint New York: Burt & Frankin, 1966. 6.7 A General View of Postivism, trans. J.H.Bridges of Discours sur l’ensemble du positivisme (1848), London: W.Reeves, 1880. 6.8 Appeal to the Conservatives, trans. T.C.Donkin and R.Congreve of Appel aux Conservateurs d’ordre et progrès (1855); London: Trübner, 1889. 6.9 Religion of Humanity… Subjective Synthesis, vol. I, trans. R.Congreve of Synthèse subjective (1856), London: Trübner, 1891. 6.10 The Catechism of Positive Religion, trans. R.Congreve of Catéchisme positiviste (1852), London: Kegan Paul, 1891; reprint Clifton, N.J.: Augustus Kelley, 1973. 6.11 The Positive Philosophy, trans. and condensed by H.Martineau, 3 vols (1853), from Cours de Philosophie positive (1830–42), London: George Bell, 1896. 6.12 Confessions and Testament of Auguste Comte and his Correspondence with Clothilde de Vaux, trans. A.Crompton of Testament d’Auguste Comte et correspondance avec Clothilde de Vaux (1884), Liverpool: H. Young & Sons, 1910. 6.13 The Crisis of Industrial Civilization: The Early Essays of Auguste Comte, London: Heinemann, 1974; reprint of general appendix, vol. 4, System of Positive Polity. Discussions 6.14 Acton, H.B. ‘Comte’s Positivism and the Science of Society’, Philosophy, 26 (99) (1951): 291–310. 6.15 Annan, N. The Curious Strength of Positivism in English Thought, London: Oxford University Press, 1959. 6.16 Arnaud, P. Sociologie de Comte, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1969. 6.17 Aron, R. Main Currents in Sociological Thought, trans. R.Howard and H. Weaver, 2 vols, vol. 1, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1965. 6.18 Bréhier É. The Nineteenth Century: Period of Systems, 1800–1830 (1932), trans. W.Baskin, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968. 6.19 Brown, R. The Nature of Social Laws, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. 6.20 Caird, E. The Social Philosophy and Religion of Comte, Glasgow: James Maclehose, 1885. 6.21 Charlton, D.G. Positivist Thought in France, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959. 6.22 Ducassé, P. Méthode et Intuition chez Auguste Comte, Paris: Félix Alcan, 1939. 6.23 Dumas, G. Psychologie de Deux Messies, Positivistes Saint-Simon et Auguste Comte, Paris: Félix Alcan, 1905. 6.24 Durkheim, E. The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), trans. S.A.Solovay and J.H.Mueller, New York: Free Press, 1964. 6.25——Socialism and Saint-Simon (1928), trans. C.Sattler, London: Routledge, 1959. 6.26 Eisen, S. ‘Herbert Spencer and the Spectre of Comte’, The Journal of British Studies, 7 (1967): 48–67. 6.27 Evans-Pritchard, E.E. The Sociology of Comte: An Appreciation, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1970. 6.28 Fletcher, R. Auguste Comte and the Making of Sociology, London: Athlone Press, 1966. 6.29 Flint, R. Historical Philosophy in France, Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1893. 6.30 Gouhier, H.G. La Jeunesse d’Auguste Comte et la formation du positivisme, 3 vols, Paris: J.Vrin, 1933–41. 6.31——La Vie d’Auguste Comte, Paris: J.Vrin, 1965. 6.32 Hawkins, R.L. Auguste Comte and the United States, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936. 6.33——Positivism in the United States (1853–1861), Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938. 6.34 Hayek, F.A. The Counter-Revolution of Science, Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1955. 6.35 Himmelfarb, G. Poverty and Compassion, New York: Knopf, 1991. 6.36 Höffding, H. A History of Modern Philosophy, 2 vols, vol. 2, New York: Dover reprint, 1955. 6.37 Kremer-Marietti, A. Auguste Comte et la théorie sociale du positivisme, Paris: Seghers, 1970. 6.38 Laudan, L. ‘Towards a Reassessment of Comte’s “Méthode Positive”’, Philosophy of Science, 37 (1971):35–53. 6.39 Lévy-Bruhl, L. The Philosophy of Auguste Comte, trans. K.de Beaumont-Klein, London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1903. 6.40 Lewes, G.H. The History of Philosophy, From Thales to Comte, 4th edn, 2 vols, vol. 2, London: Longmans, 1781. 6.41 Littré, E. Auguste Comte et la philosophie positive, Paris: Hachette, 1863; reprint Westmead, Gregg, 1971. 6.42 Manuel, F.E. The New World of Henri Saint-Simon, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956. 6.43——The Prophets of Paris, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962. 6.44 Marvin, F.S. Comte, The Founder of Sociology, reprint, New York: Russell & Russell, 1965. 6.45 Meyerson, E. Identity and Reality (1908), trans. K.Lowenberg, London: Allen & Unwin, 1930. 6.46 Michel, U. La Théorie du savoir dans la philosophie d’Auguste Comte, Paris: Félix Alcan, 1928. 6.47 Mill, J.S. Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865), 2nd edn, London: Trübner, 1866. 6.48——A System of Logic, 2 vols, Toronto and London: University of Toronto Press and Routledge, 1974. 6.49——Autobiography and Literary Essays, Toronto and London: University of Toronto Press and Routledge, 1981. 6.50 Passmore, J. The Perfectibility of Man, London: Duckworth, 1970. 6.51 Pickering, M. ‘Comte and German Philosophy’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 50 (3)(1989):443–63. 6.52 Plamenatz, J. Man and Society, 2 vols, vol. 2, London: Longmans, 1963. 6.53 Popper, K. The Poverty of Historicism, London: Routledge, 1957. 6.54 Scharff, R.C. ‘Mill’s Misreading of Comte on “Interior Observation”’, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 27 (4) (1989):559–72. 6.55——‘Positivism, Philosophy of Science, and Self-Understanding in Comte and Mill’, American Philosophical Quarterly, 26 (4) (1989):253–68. 6.56 Simon, W.M. European Positivism in the Nineteenth Century, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963. 6.57 Turgot, A. On Progress, Sociology and Economics, trans. and ed. R.L.Meek, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973. 6.58 Vernon, R. ‘Auguste Comte and the Withering-Away of the State’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 45 (4) (1984):549–66. 6.59 Whewell, W. The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, 2 vols, London: Parker, 1840. 6.60 Whittaker, T. Comte and Mill, London: Constable, 1908. 6.61——Reason: A Philosophical Essay, Cambridge: ambridge University Press, 1934. 6.62 Wright, T.R. The Religion of Humanity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Routledge History of Philosophy. Taylor & Francis e-Library. 2005.
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