Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2321
Article abstract: One of the greatest systematic thinkers of nineteenth century France, Comte was the father of positivism, a philosophy which saw the evolution of new ideas as the shaping force in history and regarded the empirical method of science as the only valid basis of knowledge. Comte sought to extend the method of science to the study of man, coining the word “sociology.” His later thought took a Romantic swing, emphasizing the primacy of the feelings, glorifying religion in a secular guise, and proposing a highly regulated social order.
Isidore-Auguste-Marie-François-Xavier Comte, the eldest of four children, was born in the French university town of Montpellier on January 19, 1798. His father, Louis-Auguste Comte, was a tax official, a man of strict habits and narrow interests; his mother, Félicité-Rosalie Boyer, twelve years older than her husband, was a warm, emotional person who devoted her life to her children. Both parents were devout Catholics and royalists.
Young Comte was nearsighted and small—his head and trunk seemed too large for his limbs. He had an extraordinary memory, however, and proved to be a brilliant student in the local lycée, winning prizes in Latin and mathematics, on occasion substituting for his teacher. At the age of fifteen, he was admitted to the prestigious École Polytechnique in Paris. There his diligence and acuteness led his awed classmates to nickname him “the philosopher.” Napoleon I had given this school, like Comte’s lycé, a military tone and discipline. Yet Comte, who at age fourteen had already rebelled against the religion of his parents by becoming an atheist, was one of the most unruly students at the school. Comte was a prominent spokesman for the students when they supported Napoleon during his futile attempt to regain control of France in 1815. Later, Comte was judged by authorities a ringleader of a student effort to oust an unpopular professor, a conflict so heated that it served as a pretext for temporarily closing the school. He was sent home and was placed under police surveillance.
In 1817, Comte returned to Paris, studying independently and tutoring students in mathematics to support himself. The possibility of an offer to teach in a new American polytechnical school led Comte to immerse himself in the writings of Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, but the project was not funded. Comte therefore became secretary to the exuberant social philosopher Henri Saint-Simon, borrowing the broad outlines of many of his own later doctrines while writing essays and articles which appeared under Saint-Simon’s name. Comte served Saint-Simon for seven years, but was uncomfortable with the religious bent of Saint-Simon’s late writings and believed that his social theory needed a more systematic theoretical foundation. A critical preface by Saint-Simon to an essay Comte published under his own name precipitated the end of the relationship in 1824.
By then, the headstrong Comte had dropped his first name, Isidore, in favor of Auguste; had fathered an illegitimate daughter, who would die at the age of nine, by an Italian woman; and was living with Caroline Massin, herself the offspring of an unmarried provincial actress, whom he had known for three years and would marry in 1825. He praised her kindness, grace, wit, and cheerful disposition; she had been sold by her debauched mother to a young lawyer when in her mid-teens and was by this time a registered prostitute. It was partly to help her get her name off of police rolls that he agreed to the marriage. Their union was marred by his seeming indifference to their straitened economic circumstances and her occasional disappearances. A final separation came in 1842. Nevertheless, she had provided needed support through the difficult period when he produced his most important work, the six-volume Cours de philosophie positive (1830-1842; course on positive philosophy). The most important part of this support came shortly after he had begun the series of seventy-two lectures out of which this book grew, when he had a nervous breakdown so severe that he was incapacitated for more than a year (1826-1827), was judged incurably insane by one physician, and attempted suicide.
Comte wanted to be a philosopher-prophet, like Francis Bacon, Nicolas Condorcet, or his mentor Saint-Simon. Living in an era scarred by deep social antagonisms and warring ideologies, he dreamed of creating a persuasive philosophical synthesis which could restore both spiritual and social order to European society. Such solid intellectual underpinning was lacking, he believed, in Saint-Simon’s thought. Comte reasoned that if the method of science could be extended to every aspect of life, the intellectual unity which had characterized medieval Europe could be restored on a more lasting basis, and unity of thought would bring social order.
Comte interpreted the rise of science and its extension to the study of man in the context of a general theory of human intellectual development he borrowed, via Saint-Simon, from the eighteenth century economist and statesman Jacques Turgot. The “law of the three stages” held that as positive knowledge of nature gradually replaces earlier tendencies to attribute much in life to unseen powers, thought moves from a theological to a metaphysical stage, replacing imagined divinities with nonobservable abstractions. Yet they too fall to skepticism, and a scientific or positive outlook triumphs. For Comte, this concept constituted a general theory of history, accounting for institutional as well as intellectual development. Thus, he held that theological societies have military political systems; metaphysical societies have a juristic social organization; and positivist societies will have an industrial polity. A positivist approach to phenomena came first in the simple sciences, such as astronomy and physics, while metaphysical or even theological modes of thought linger where phenomena are more complex. Since sciences dealing with the latter must rest on the foundation of more general, simpler ones, of necessity new positive sciences emerged in the following order: mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology. Although the later volumes of the book contain many prescriptive judgments about the future needs of society which now would not be termed scientific, Cours de philosophie positive was a tour de force, a landmark in both philosophy and the historical study of science.
With its publication and the growth of his reputation, Comte secured academic posts at the Institut Laville and the École Polytechnique. His outspoken criticisms of some academicians at the school led to the rejection of his candidacy for a chair there. He retaliated by appealing to European public opinion through a bitter attack on his opponents in the preface of the last volume of Cours de philosophie positive, an action which brought his final break with Caroline and cost him his positions. His financial difficulties led admirers in both France and England (including John Stuart Mill, later a critic) to raise funds on his behalf.
Comte lived modestly in his last years. The most significant episode in this period was a passionate emotional relationship with a beautiful but unhappy and ill young woman, Clotilde de Vaux. He had known her only a year and a half when she died in the spring of 1846 from tuberculosis. Yet her memory absorbed him through his remaining years. He dedicated his late work to her, including a second monumental book, the four-volume Système de politique positive (1851-1854; System of Positive Polity, 1875-1877). He declared that it was she who had taught him the importance of feelings.
System of Positive Polity is a work which prophesies in great detail the future of Western society. Its vision is in part a realization of the plan of Comte’s youth, but it reveals a remarkable shift in emphasis from reason and scientific understanding to the emotions. He had come to regard as futile his earlier dream of achieving intellectual unity through science. Now he made men’s wants, that is, morality, the foundation for intellectual unity in positivism. The emphasis in this work had been presaged in his Considerations sur le pouvoir spirituel (1826; considerations on spiritual power), in which he wrote that the Catholic church, shorn of its supernaturalism, might provide an ideal structural model for positivist society. It was probably Comte’s intense feelings for de Vaux that brought this hitherto inveterate rationalist to emphasize the heart above intelligence and knowledge, and to prescribe a cult of womanhood as the emotional center of his secular religion.
The object of worship in this system, which T. H. Huxley dubbed Catholicism minus Christianity, was humanity itself, past, present, and future. Scientist-priests were to control both religion and education, positivist in content, which would be the foundation of the new social order. Actual political power, Comte declared, would rest with bankers and industrialists, whom economic developments were already thrusting to the fore. They would, however, operate under the spiritual guidance of the priests. The new industrial working class, its morals strengthened by religion and examples of feminine virtue, would accept the dominion of the industrialists but also give full backing to the priests. The latter, as shapers of powerful public opinion, would ensure that the workers’s interests were safeguarded.
Thus, Comte, who earlier had declared the intellect his lord, now saw the feelings, not reason, as the key to social unity. He contended that man has a benevolent instinct—coining the word “altruism” to describe it—but that it is weak unless nurtured by good institutions. This need provided Comte a rationale for dictating the features of his positivist utopia in obsessive detail, from career paths to private devotions, from indissoluble marriage and perpetual widowhood to the particular heroes of human progress who were to be honored on each day of the (thirteen-month) positivist calendar.
Like many in his age, including his German contemporary Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (whose complex philosophy paralleled Auguste Comte’s in remarkable ways), Comte was a visionary, a self-proclaimed prophet for the ages who believed that he had unveiled profound truths with sweeping social implications. As was true of most other utopian visionaries, his concrete predictions were off the mark. Thus, while many were dazzled by the younger Comte’s brilliance as an interpreter of the evolution of science and defender of its method in all realms of thought, the impact of his later writings was quite limited. Whereas a number of intellectuals, including Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine, Ernest Renan, and the logical positivists of the twentieth century, inherited his skepticism about nonempirical thinking, his religion of humanity was essentially stillborn, even though it championed the Humanism made popular by the Enlightenment. In emphasizing the limits of reason and the importance of emotions, he was at one with the Romantic movement, as were many other major writers of the nineteenth century. His sympathy for medieval institutions, if not medieval belief, was also widely shared by other intellectuals of his time, particularly in literature and art—it was the period of Walter Scott and Gothic revival, the period when the works of Dante (whom Comte much admired) were finally translated into English. Yet Comte’s humorless preoccupation with order and perfection was not well suited to winning for him a broad and enthusiastic following. He antagonized onetime supporters such as Mill with his obsession with ordering—down to the level of minute details of thought and feeling, artistic creation, and religious devotion—the life of positivist society, for which he planned to be the high priest. His indifference to democracy and individual freedom separated him from the liberals of his day. His interest in old forms without old content alienated conservatives, and he had no interest in the growing nationalism which was to provide yet another basis for ideology in the decades which followed him. Yet, curiously, his thought had an affinity to a modern development for which he could have had little sympathy. In his obsession with uniformity and order, his vision of a society which sought to control every facet of man’s intellectual and emotional life for social ends dictated by a small elite group, he was a precursor of the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century.
Comte, Auguste. A General View of Positivism. Translated by J. H. Bridges. New York: Speller, 1957. This book, written during the ferment of the Revolution of 1848 and published shortly after Comte founded the Positivist Society, is an excellent introduction to his later social philosophy. It relates his ideas to contemporaneous social developments.
Gould, F. J. Auguste Comte. London: Watts, 1920. This biography, though brief, provides a balanced survey of Comte’s life and thought. It gives more attention than does the Sokoloff volume to those who comprised his intellectual circle and treats his ideas more fully. The curious positivist calendar is appended.
Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien. The Philosophy of Auguste Comte. Translated by Kathleen de Beaumont-Klein. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1903. A thorough and sympathetic treatment of Comte’s thought by a highly regarded French scholar. Takes issue with Mill’s contention that there are serious discrepancies between Comte’s early and later writings.
Manuel, Frank. The Prophets of Paris. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961. This survey of a number of important French social philosophers devotes an illuminating chapter to Comte. The study provides a good perspective from which to assess Comte in relation to his intellectual milieu. Seen in the company of other visionaries, his detailed prescriptions are somewhat less puzzling.
Mill, John Stuart. Auguste Comte and Positivism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961. First published in 1865, this critical assessment of Comte’s ideas remains one of the most important books by an English author on Comte. Highly critical of Comte’s later writings, it slights the elements of continuity they share with the rest of his work.
Sokoloff, Boris. The “Mad” Philosopher, Auguste Comte. New York: Vantage Press, 1961. A brief, readable biography which summarizes Comte’s chief ideas while treating more fully the biographical context within which they developed. Gives more attention to his youth and his relationship with women than to his ties to other intellectuals.
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