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Lecture 25

The Age of Ideologies (3): The World of Auguste Comte

We can so far take a prophetic glance into futurity as to foretell that it will be the common and widely-spread species, belonging to the larger and dominant groups within each class, which will ultimately prevail and procreate new and dominant species. As all the living forms of life are the lineal descendants of those which lived long before the Cambrian epoch, we may feel certain that the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken, and that no cataclysm has desolated the whole world. Hence we may look with some confidence to a secure future of great length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection.

Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

By 1880 Europe entered into a period which could well be described as the classical age of the 19th century. It was the mid-Victorian era -- the era of middle class domination. The middle classes of Europe settled back into their comfortable bourgeois chairs, fully imbued with the virtues of middle class existence. In England, industrialization and free trade had made the middle class. Political stability helped as well. Charles Dickens (1812-1870), ever the prolific voice and critic of this middle class, described one such middle class family, the Podsnaps, in his novel of 1864, Our Mutual Friend:

Mr. Podsnap was well to do, and stood very high in Mr. Podsnap’s opinion. Beginning with a good inheritance, he had married a good inheritance, and had thriven exceedingly in the Marine Insurance way, and was quite satisfied. He never could make out why everybody was not quite satisfied, and he felt conscious that he set a brilliant social example in being particularly well satisfied with most things, and, above all other things, with himself.

Queen Victoria (1819-1901), the personification of all that goes by the expression bourgeois values, reigned in Great Britain. In fact, the 19th century in Britain is truly the century of Victoria. And it was Britain that led the way into the industrial age as the workshop of the world. Although Victorian culture was born in Britain, we find evidence of similar values in Germany, Austria, the Low Countries and the United States -- the cultural phenomenon known as Victorian was both Continental and trans-Atlantic in scope.

In the twenty five years between 1850 and 1875 dynamic forces were at work -- forces which would transform Europe and eventually, the rest of the world. The 1860s were crucial for it was during this decade that major changes can be identified. The Russian serfs were emancipated; Germany and Italy were unified as nation states; in France the Second Empire collapsed and gave way to the Third Republic; the British enfranchised most of the industrial working class; and the United States faced its Civil War. There are intellectual landmarks as well. Between 1858 and 1870 Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published his Origin of Species (see Lecture 26), Karl Marx (1818-1883) Das Kapital (see Lecture 24), Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) his Culture and Anarchy and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was especially busy having published three important essays, On Liberty, On the Subjection of Women and The Principles of Political Economy.

Despite these achievements, Europe was not at peace. Mid-Victorian prosperity carried grim phenomena in its wake: there were bleak, sooty landscapes; exploited workers; crass materialism was rampant; and philistinism seemed to be the new buzzword which captured the essence of all this "progress." And then there was a general crisis of religious faith. However, this classic age also produced some classic ideologies which were intended to rectify the worst perversions of European society. Karl Marx and Auguste Comte can be described as synthesizers of social science, as creators of systems of secular ideology. Charles Darwin, of course, promulgated a scientific ideology for an age of science. Socialism, liberalism and democratic nationalism assumed the stature of popular creeds with which people ordered their lives. Christianity, meanwhile, continued to decline. The cultural movement known as Romanticism (see Lecture 16) gave way to literary realism and naturalism. This was perhaps inevitable in an industrial age in which the empiricism characteristic of 18th century philosophic thought now became the justification for the middle classes themselves. On the whole, Europe sustained an optimistic faith after mid-century. There was much to fear in the secularization of the European mind. Still, intellectuals looked to the future without quite letting go of their past.

Auguste Comte on the InternetAUGUSTE COMTE (1798-1857) is best known today as the father of French positivist thought. Positivism may be described as either a philosophical system or as a philosophy of history. As a philosophy of history, Comte’s work appears as one of the first general histories of modern science. It was Comte who first coined the expression "sociology." His political philosophy was a bold attempt to reconcile science, religion, and the ideals of 1789 with the doctrine of counter-revolution of his own time. His influence on 19th century thought, in general, was immense, although he is almost always overshadowed by Marx and Darwin. Positivist societies were formed in England and France and Comtean churches appeared in far off Brazil. The novelist George Eliot (1819-1880) and philosopher John Stuart Mill were positivists and in France the regime of Louis Napoleon, established in 1851, was also influenced by Comte. The psychologist Claude Bernard (1813-1878), the historian Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893) and the philologist and historian, Ernst Renan (1823-1892), were all struck by the significance of positivism. As one intellectual historian has written, the period which falls between 1850 and 1880 was "uniquely positivist." (Read more about BERNARD, TAINE and RENAN.)

Auguste Comte was born at Montpellier, France in 1798. Although his family was a devout Catholic one, Comte announced, at the age of fourteen, that he had "naturally ceased believing in God." At the same time, he abandoned the royalist sympathies of his family and became a republican. As a result, the young Comte’s relationship with his family was strained throughout his relatively short life -- he died in 1857 and is buried in Pêre-Lachaise. As a child, Comte was coddled by his mother. His father and sister, meanwhile, always complained of ill-health. Later in his life, Comte would call his family "covetous and hypocritical." He complained, rather vocally at times, that because of the ill-health of his father and sister, the family rarely had enough money to support his literary career.

There are two outstanding events in Comte’s early life which help to explain the nature of his more mature thought. The first was his attendance at the École Polytechnique. Founded in 1794 at the height of the radical phase of the French Revolution, the École Polytechnique trained military engineers and was quickly transformed into a school for the advanced sciences. Under Napoleon, it grew to become the foremost French scientific institution. For Comte, however, the École Polytechnique became a model for a future society ordered and sustained by a new elite of scientists and engineers (enter the technocrat). In 1816, Comte led a protest of students against the manners of one of the tutors and was expelled. He spent a few months with his parents and then returned to Paris. It was in Paris that the eighteen year old Comte first encountered a group of radical French thinkers which included the Comte de Volney (1757-1820) and Georges Cabanis (1757-1808) and who were known collectively as the "ideologues." Comte also read the political economists Adam Smith (1723-1790) and J. B. SAY (1767-1832) as well as histories by WILLIAM ROBERTSON (1721-1793) and David Hume (1711-1776). Of greatest importance, however, was Comte’s encounter with Condorcet (see Lecture 10), whom Comte would later call "my immediate predecessor." Comte was quite taken with Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, an optimistic philosophy of history which posited the various stages of history culminating in social, political and economic progress.

The second great event in Comte’s life took place in 1817. It was in that year that Comte became the secretary to the French utopian socialist Saint-Simon (see Lecture 22), a relationship which lasted until 1824 when it ended in bitterness. The relationship between the elder Saint-Simon and the younger Comte is rather difficult to unravel. Both men were responding to the same challenges of an age of revolution. What they sought was a science of human behavior, what Saint-Simon called a "social physiology." The elder Saint-Simon was the first to announce the Law of the Three Stages. He also argued for the creation of a new industrial-scientific elite.

Comte turned out to be far more encyclopedic than his master. Comte saw that it was necessary for each science to develop its own methodology. He also perceived that such a development is revealed historically, that is, it came with the progress of the human mind. Hopefully, Comte’s debt to Condorcet is clear.

After the break with Saint-Simon in 1824, Comte supported himself by tutoring in mathematics. He married in 1825 but the union proved unhappy and ended in separation. Beginning in 1826, he also began to lecture on his new philosophy to a private audience composed of outstanding French thinkers. It was from these lectures that Comte developed his magnum opus, the six volume Course of Positive Philosophy, which was published between 1830 and 1842. In 1845, Comte met Clothilde de Vaux and fell deeply in love. This marriage, like the first, was shortlived as his wife died within one year. Following Clothilde’s death, an event which brought Comte close to insanity, he began to emphasize a new universal religion of humanity. He managed to publish two more works, The System of Positive Polity (1851-54) and The Catechism of Positive Religion (1852) but neither work captured his audience as had the Course of Positive Philosophy. In 1857, worn out from his intellectual labors and personal tragedies, Comte died in wretchedness and isolation. What he left behind was his monumental attempt to synthesize many of the most important intellectual trends of his own day.

Comte’s positive philosophy emanated from his historical study of the progress of the human mind. His sole interest, however, was the western European mind and by mind, he meant the sciences, especially astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology. You may wonder why he did not include mathematics. For Comte, mathematics was a tool and not a science.

The history of the sciences shows that each science goes through three successive stage: the theological, the metaphysical and the positive. Progress through the three stages was not only inevitable but irreversible. Progress is also asymptotic -- that is, we always approach, but never obtain, perfect positive knowledge. Comte’s view of each of the three stages is as follows: [1] the theological -- man views nature as having a will of its own. This stage also contains three stages. (i) animism: objects have their own will, (ii) polytheism: divine wills impose themselves on objects and (iii) monotheism: the will of God imposes itself on objects. [2] metaphysical -- thought substitutes abstractions for a personal will. Here, causes and forces replace desires. The world is one great entity in which Nature prevails. And finally [3] positive -- the search for absolute knowledge, the first cause, is abandoned. In such a scheme, each stage corresponds to a specific form of mental development. There is also a corresponding material development.

Like G. W. F. Hegel, Comte believed that historical development revealed a matching movement of ideas and institutions. In the COURSE OF POSITIVE PHILOSOPHY, Comte attempted to demonstrate that each science is necessarily dependent on the previous science, that is, science can only be understood historically as the process of greater perfection. For example, before there can be an effective physics, there must be astronomy. Furthermore, the history of the sciences reveals the law that as the phenomenon become more complex, so to do the methods of those sciences. In contrast to Descartes who saw only one right method of inquiry -- the geometrical method -- Comte believed that each science develops by a logic proper to itself, a logic that is revealed only by the historical study of that science. Comte, of course, claimed to go beyond Descartes -- after all, hadn’t everybody else done the same thing? Like Vico, Herder, Hegel and Condorcet, Comte studied the mind historically. The mind can only be explained in terms of what it has done in the past.

The final science which Comte claimed to have discovered and one which had not yet entered its positive stage, was sociology. It was sociology, he claimed, that would give ultimate meaning to all the other sciences -- it was the one science which held the others together. Only sociology would reveal that man is a developing creature who moves through three stages in each of his sciences. With this profound assertion, Comte argued that we could finally understand the true logic of mind. And in the 47th lesson of the fourth volume of the Course of Positive Philosophy, Comte proposed the word sociology for this new science rather than the current expression, physique sociale (or social physics).

Sociology was divided into two distinct parts. On the one hand, there was social statics, that is, the study of socio-political systems relative to their existing level of civilization. On the other hand, there was social dynamics which entailed the study of the three stages. Statics and dynamics then, are branches of the science of sociology. Comte also added a division between order and progress. Order exists when there is stability in fundamental principles and when the majority of the members of society hold similar opinions. Progress, on the other hand, was identified with the period following the Protestant Reformation up to the French Revolution. What was now needed, Comte told his readers, was a synthesis of order and progress in a higher, scientific form. Once a science of society had been developed, opinions would once again be shared and society would be stable. Once there was true social knowledge, people would not be as willing to fight over religious or political opinions. Liberty of conscience, Comte declared, is as out of place in social thought as in physics, and true freedom in both areas lies in the rational submission to scientific laws. The gradual awareness and understanding of these laws is what Comte meant by the word progress.

text1-23a.gif (5278 bytes)Comte’s sociology was overly intertwined with his own ideas of the correct polity. In his view, society had broken down as a result of the French Revolution. The Revolution was a good thing -- the Revolution had also been necessary because the ancien regime -- based as it was on obsolete theological knowledge -- no longer served as a respectable basis for shared opinions. It was the progress of the sciences that had undermined this basis. The Revolution offered no grounds for the reorganization of society because it was negative -- that is, the Revolution destroyed the old without creating the new.

The task then, was to provide a new religion and a new faith. And, of course, a new clergy was needed, a higher clergy. To replace the Catholic clergy Comte proposed a scientific-industrial elite that would announce the invariable laws of a new social order. The ancien regime and its destruction by the French Revolution had to be synthesized and made meaningful by a new clergy of elites: the technocrats. This was absolutely necessary to meet the problems brought about by the collapse of the ancien regime as well as those problems created by industrial society. This insight, religious in nature and intuitive in form, was then reformulated by Comte and his followers in terms of what they were to call a "positive science."

And while he was busy creating the "positive science" he also set about to construct a "positive religion." One product of this religion was the calendar of positivist saints. This calendar illustrated his shift away from philosophical and scientific interests to what could only be called a form of mysticism. As to be expected, Comte appointed himself as the high priest of the new religion of humanity. The new religion had its holy days, its calendar of saints -- Adam Smith, Frederick the Great, Dante, Shakespeare and others -- and its positive catechism. It was a nontheistic, atheistic religion, a religion of man and society.

Before we leave off our discussion of Comte a few final thoughts seem to be in order. The goal of Comte’s positive polity was never an affluent society. Affluence meant very little to Comte. Instead, what he sought, indeed, what he spent his entire career trying to obtain, was moral order. The positive religion urged everyone "to live for others." Comte perceived the existence of class conflict -- he understood the selfish character of the capitalist. He wished to see an end to class conflict but not by the destruction of one class by another, as Marx had suggested. Instead, Comte sought to moralize one and all, a cure for humanity not for one class at the expense of another.

It is nearly impossible today to fully appreciate the vast influence of positivism as it existed more than a century ago. During the Second Empire in France, Comte was known and remained highly esteemed. Because of the elasticity and comprehensiveness of Comte’s thought, his reputation worked its way outside France as well. But, like the utopian socialist Saint-Simon, and his religious devotees, the Saint-Simonians, Comte’s fame rests securely on the unflagging effort of his most ardent disciple, Emile Littré (1801-1881). It was Littré, a French lexicographer and philosopher, who refused to follow Comte into the nebulous gray area of his positivist religion. He considered this part of positivism to be the product of Comte’s tired and disturbed mind. However, in 1867, Littré founded The Positivist Review. It was in this journal that Littré maintained that the real value of positivism lay in showing that philosophy could subject itself, with profit, to the same methods as the positive sciences. He accepted Comte’s notion that social improvement depended on the advancement of the sciences. Positivism offered the only hope for the future development of society along rational lines. Positivism directed human efforts toward work, toward social equity and toward international peace by means of four things: industry, the diffusion of science, the cultivation of the fine arts and the moral improvement of man.

The dominant motive of Comte’s positivism was not speculative but practical. His purpose was for him, most clear -- the reformation of the social order. "The object of all my labor," Comte wrote, "has been to re-establish in society something spiritual that is capable of counter-balancing the influence of the ignoble materialism in which we are at present submerged." With this statement in mind, Comte continues the 18th and 19th century preoccupation with human liberation -- whether the Church, tyranny, materialism or government, man must liberate himself.

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