David Brewster (review date 1838)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 17215

SOURCE: Review of Cours de philosophie positive, in The Edinburgh Review, Vol. LXVII, No. CXXXVI, July, 1838, pp. 271-308.

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[In the following review, Brewster outlines a "sketch of the objects and methods of positive knowledge," focusing especially on Comte's theism and cosmology]

The competitors for the honours of science may be divided into several classes, actuated by very different motives, and pursuing very different objects;—those who investigate by observation and experiment the phenomena and the laws of nature; those who arrange the facts and expound the doctrines of science; those who record at different epochs the history of its progress; and those who attempt to explain the mental progresses by which discoveries have been made, and prescribe for every branch of knowledge the most appropriate methods of research.

Though the love of posthumous fame supplies these different classes with their earliest and their strongest impulse, yet this principle of action is often modified and replaced by less noble incitements, and those who have begun their career under its generous influence, have been seduced by advantages of more immediate adjudication and enjoyment.

The first of these classes of the cultivators of science, comprehends all those to whom the name of philosopher is strictly applicable. But as no sound knowledge can exist, but that which either rests immediately on facts, or is deduced from them by mathematical reasoning, this class is necessarily subdivided into two—those who observe facts, and those who reason from them—those who make experiments, and those who deduce from their results the law of phenomena, and the more general principles to which these laws may be ultimately referred.

The history of science furnishes us with many distinguished instances in which these two qualities of mind have been in a singular manner united; but the instances are doubtless more numerous where the observer and the experimentalist have confined themselves to their own sphere of labour, and where minds of a less practical and a more discursive capacity have found a more congenial exercise in the higher processes of combination and analysis. Although the last of these orders of enquirers have been generally supposed to belong to a higher rank of intelligence, yet this erroneous appreciation of mental value can be founded on no other principle than that the laws of phenomena are necessarily higher steps in the scale of knowledge than facts and observations.

The two conditions of mind by which these two classes of philosophers are characterised, are in reality incommensurable. Facts may sometimes be discovered, and observations made which demand but little attention, and involve no extraordinary exertion of the mind; but the great facts and experimental results, which form the basis of modern science, have been generally obtained from processes of reasoning at once ingenious and profound, and have called forth the highest functions of our intellectual frame. Even when the fruits of experimental philosophy are merely simple facts, their value is inestimable, and no revolution in science will ever deprive their discoverer of the honours which belong to them. But when he who discovers new facts, detects also their relation to other phenomena, and when he is so fortunate as to determine the laws which they follow, and to predict from these laws phenomena or results previously unknown, he entitles himself to a high place among the aristocracy of knowledge.

Such men are in truth the real functionaries of science. They are the hewers of its wood and the drawers of its water—the productive labourers who furnish to less industrious and more speculative minds, not only the raw material, but the embroidered fabric of intellectual luxury and splendour.

Previous to the sixteenth century the active explorers of science were few in number, and even these few had scarcely thrown off the incubus of the scholastic philosophy. Speculation unrestrained and licentious threw its blighting sirocco over the green pastures of knowledge, and prejudice and mysticism involved them in their noxious exhalations. This condition of knowledge had been long ago subverted, and in the present day the ascendancy of observation and experiment has been universally recognised. There is still, however, a body of men, insignificant in number and, with some exceptions, in talent, who, impatient of the labour of continuous research, or perhaps unfitted for its exercise, have sought to storm the temple of science, and possess themselves of its treasures. The members of this brotherhood are, generally speaking, imperfectly acquainted with the facts and laws by which modern physical science is upheld. They feel the force neither of mathematical nor of physical reasoning; and regarding the noblest doctrines of science as founded only in speculation, they are ambitious of the honour of placing them on a surer and more extended basis. Those who are thus blind to the force of physical truth, are not likely to discover the errors which their own minds create and cherish. Embarrassed by no difficulties, the stream of their speculations flows on without eddies or currents. Such a class of speculators have no position in the lists of science, and they deserve none; but in thus denouncing their labours, we must carefully distinguish them from a higher order of theorists, whose scientific acquirements are undoubted; but who, in place of employing their talents in the substantial labours of research, are ambitious of becoming the legislators of science, the adjudicators of its honours, and the arbiters of its destiny. Self-constituted and irresponsible, this legislative tribunal owed to science all the tenderness which was compatible with justice, and all the diligence and solicitude of research which perplexing details and conflicting interests demand. To the dead it owed the gratitude which belonged to great achievements, and that respectful homage which is the birthright of exalted genius; and to the living that delicacy of criticism, and that courteous acknowledgment of their services, which to sensitive minds is the highest reward for their past, and the most powerful stimulus to their future labours.

In the history of science, and in the distribution of its honours, we must not expect to find that minute accuracy, or that nice appreciation of evidence to which we are accustomed in legal adjudications. All that is due from the historian is depth of research and honesty of purpose, and we must pronounce that judge to be righteous who holds evenly the scales of justice. The historian cannot record facts which are not within the sphere of ordinary research, and the judge is not responsible for the mathematical equipoise of his balance.

In applying these principles to those efforts of scientific legislation which are alone deserving of the name, we are confined within a very narrow range. The subject was almost exhausted by the great reformer of philosophy; and though it has been casually discussed by authors who flourished in subsequent periods, yet the only works of any distinction which are devoted to the subject are The History of the Inductive Sciences by Mr. Whewell, which we have examined in a previous Number, and the Cours de Philosophie Positive by M. Comte, which stands at the head of this article. The three volumes of Mr. Whewell's are indeed only introductory to his code of reformed philosophy; but he has indulged his readers with a foretaste of its enactments; and from the labours and decisions of the historian, we have no difficulty in anticipating the character of the lawgiver, and the temper of the judge.

The first volume of M. Comte's work was published in 1830, about seven years, and the second volume in 1835, about two years before that of Mr. Whewell; and yet no reference whatever is made by the latter to the previous labours of the French philosopher. We presume, therefore, notwithstanding several similarities of sentiment and expression, that the Cours de Philosophie Positive had not found its way to Cambridge, although it was well known and highly appreciated in London, before the publication of Mr. Whewell's work.

In alluding to these points of resemblance, which are, of course, merely accidental, we do not mean to convey the idea that there is any similarity between the two works in their leading and essential features. With the single exception of some just views on the value and use of hypotheses which Mr. Whewell seems to have borrowed without acknowledgment from an English work, the History of the Inductive Sciences, and the Course of Positive Philosophy, stand strongly opposed to each other; not only in the tone and temper in which they are written, and in the motives by which their authors seem to have been guided, but, to as great an extent, in the results at which they have arrived, and in the decisions which they have pronounced on the great points of scientific controversy. Such a contrariety of sentiment, while it casts a just opprobrium over the pretensions of our scientific lawgivers, has a tendency to bring science itself into disrepute; for when the Solons and the Lycurguses of philosophy are as contradictory in their enactments as the Mackenzies and Murphys of meteorology are in their predictions, men of ordinary capacity are apt to place the physical sciences on the same level with that weather wisdom which has been recently agitating the metropolis.

Before we proceed to a comparison of these works, and to a discussion of the subjects which they have brought into the arena of controversy, we must make our readers acquainted with the nature and object of M. Comte's researches. There is, however, a preliminary topic which forces itself upon out attention, and which, were it possible, we would pass by unnoticed. But as some of our readers might be led by this Article to study the original work, we must warn them beforehand that M. Comte avows himself an Atheist; and we think that we cannot more effectually remove this stumbling-block which he has placed in our way, and deprive it of all its danger, than by presenting his observations at once to our readers.

To our minds unacquainted with the study of the heavenly bodies, though often otherwise well informed in other branches of natural philosophy, astronomy has still the reputation of being a science eminently religious, as if the famous verse,—Coeli enarrant gloriam Dei (The heavens declare the glory of God), had preserved all its force. It is, however, certain, as I have proved, that all real science stands in radical and necessary opposition to all theology; and this character is more strongly indicated in astronomy than in any other; precisely, because astronomy is, so to speak, more a science than any other, according to the comparisons already made. No science has given such terrible blows to the doctrine of final causes, generally regarded by the moderns as the indispensable basis of all religious systems, though it is in reality but the consequence of them. The knowledge of the motion of the earth ought alone to destroy the first real foundation of this doctrine—the idea of a universe subordinate to the earth, and consequently to man, as I shall more particularly show in treating of this motion. But, independent of this, the exact exploration of our solar system cannot fail to put an end essentially to that blind and boundless admiration which the general order of nature inspires, by showing in the distinctest manner, and under a great number of different aspects, that the elements of this system were certainly not arranged in the most advantageous manner, and that science allows us to conceive easily a better arrangement. In short, under another point of view, still more important, by the development of the true celestial mechanics since the time of Newton, all theological philosophy, even the most perfect, has been henceforth deprived of its principal intellectual office; the most regular order being now conceived as necessarily established and kept up in our world, and even throughout the whole universe, by the simple mutual attraction of its different parts.

Our author then proceeds to support these feeble and innocuous arguments by a reference to the stability of the solar system; though he seems fully sensible that this doctrine of modern astronomy may be used as a powerful weapon in the hands of his opponents. 'The grand doctrine,' says he,

when presented under a suitable aspect, may doubtless be easily made the basis of a series of eloquent declamations, having an imposing appearance of solidity. Yet, nevertheless, an arrangement so essential to the continuous existence of animal species, is a simple necessary consequence (from the mechanical laws of the world), of certain characteristic circumstances of our solar system;—the extreme smallness of the planetary masses in comparison of the central mass, the slight eccentricity of their orbits, and the moderate mutual inclination of their planes;—characters which in their turn may, with much probability, as I shall afterwards show, according to the indication of Laplace, be derived, quite naturally, from the mode of formation of the system. But besides we ought, à priori, to expect in general such a result from this single reflection, that since we exist, it follows of necessity that the system, of which we form a part, be arranged in such a manner as to permit this existence, which would be incompatible with the total absence of stability in the principal elements of our system. In order properly to appreciate this consideration, we ought to observe that this stability is by no means absolute, for it does not take place with regard to comets, whose perturbations are much greater, and may even increase almost indefinitely, from the want of those conditions of restriction which I have mentioned, and which hardly allows us to suppose them to be inhabited. The pretended final cause will therefore be reduced in the present case, as we have already seen on all analogous occasions, to this puerile remark—that there are no stars inhabited in our solar system but those which are habitable. . . . Such .. . are the immense and fundamental services which the development of astronomical theories has rendered to the emancipation of human reason.

Although we intended, in quoting these passages, to have left the refutation of them to the common sense of our readers, yet it may be proper to make a few observations on the new argument which our author has founded on the Cosmogony of Laplace. Admitting, as M. Comte does, that the stability of the solar system is essential to the continued existence of Animal Species, and aware of the powerful support which such an admission lends to the theological argument for design, he endeavors to show that this arrangement is the simple necessary consequence, through the operation of mechanical laws, of certain properties of the planetary orbits, and certain relations between the solar and planetary masses. Here he is again aware that such an adjustment of forms and magnitudes, is itself an extraordinary proof of design; and he strives to show that this effect may, with much probability, be deduced from the mode of formation of the system, as suggested by Laplace—one of the boldest speculations of modern fancy, but one which does not, when properly viewed, afford the smallest aid to those who are desirous of finding any substitute for the agency of an all-directing mind.

But though we consider the Cosmogony of Laplace as merely an ingenious speculation, we shall permit M. Comte to make it the basis of his argument; and we shall suppose, with its distinguished inventor, that the sun's atmosphere, expanded by heat, reached the limits of our system—that it gradually contracted in cooling, and that during the revolution of this immense system of vapour round the sun's axis, the Georgium Sidus, Saturn, Jupiter, and the other primary planets were gradually thrown off from it into their present orbits, and with the velocity of the atmosphere, of which they formed a part; that they contracted into solid globes by cooling, having previously in their turn thrown off their Satellites; and that the characteristic circumstances in the system thus formed, which produce stability, are the necessary consequences of this mode of formation. After all these admissions, the argument for design remains unshaken, and the mind still turns itself to the great first cause. Who created and planted a sun in the centre of what was to become a system of future worlds? Who supplied the due portion of heat to expand his atmosphere through that region of space in which it was to deposit the future abodes of life and intelligence? Who added the rotatory impulse, and adjusted it to that precise velocity which would throw off planets revolving in harmonious stability, in place of comets wheeling in eccentric and unstable orbits? By what power was that heat withdrawn, so as to permit the zones of the solar atmosphere to contract successively into solid planets? Who separated the 'light from the darkness' which brooded over the revolving chaos? Who gathered into the ocean's bed its liquid elements? Who decked the earth with its rich and verdant embroidery? Who conjured up the forms of animal life? And, above all, who placed over this fair empire—MAN—godlike and intellectual—breathing the divine spirit, and panting with immortal aspirations?

The Cosmogony of Laplace, even if admitted as a physical truth, would only carry us back to an earlier epoch in the history of creation, and exhibit to us the wonders of Divine power, condensed into a narrower compass, and commanding a more intense admiration.

But even if science could go infinitely farther, and trace all the forms of being to their germ in a single atom, and all the varieties of nature to its development, the human mind would still turn to its resting-point, and worship with deeper admiration before this miracle of consolidated power.

Had the opinions which we have been combating been maintained by those rash speculators who are permitted, at distant intervals, to disturb the tranquillity of the religious world, we should not have allowed them to interfere with ours. But when a work of profound science, marked with great acuteness of reasoning, and conspicuous for the highest attributes of intellectual power—when such a work records the dread sentiment that the universe displays no proofs of an all directing mind, and records it, too, as the deduction of unbiased reason, the appalling note falls upon the ear like the sounds of desolation and of death. The life-blood of the affections stands frozen in its strongest and most genial current; and reason and feeling but resume their ascendancy when they have pictured the consequences of so frightful a delusion. If man is thus an orphan at his birth, and an outcast in his destiny—if knowledge is to be his punishment and not his prize—if all his intellectual achievements are to perish with him in the dust—if the brief tenure of his being is to be renounced amid the wreck of vain desires—of blighted hopes and of bleeding affections—then, in reality as well as in metaphor, is life a dream!

Unwilling as we are to dwell upon such a subject, our readers should be informed that M. Comte is a Teacher in the Polytechnic School, and our country congratulated on possessing Institutions which prevent opinions like his from poisoning the springs of moral and religious instruction.

We are informed by M. Comte that from the time of his quitting the Polytechnic School in 1816, he was constantly occupied, during ten years, in the preparation of his 'Lectures on Positive Philosophy.' In the spring of 1826 his course was opened to the public; but a severe malady prevented him from continuing it; and this misfortune was greatly aggravated by the circumstance, that he numbered among his auditors Baron Humboldt, M. Blainville, M. Poinsot, and other celebrated and distinguished members of the Academy of Sciences. In the winter and spring of 1829, M. Comte resumed his course before a brilliant audience; among whom were Baron Fourier, perpetual Secretary of the Academy of Sciences, M. M. Blainville, Poinsot, and Navier, members of the Academy, and Professors Broussais, Esquirol, and Binet.

The 'Course of Positive Philosophy,' of which the two published volumes placed at the head of this Article form the principal part, comprehends Mathematics, Astronomy, Physics, and Chemistry, or the sciences of Inorganic Bodies; and Physiology, and Social Physics, or the sciences of Organic Bodies. MATHEMATICS are subdivided into the Calculus, Geometry, and Rational Mechanics. The six lectures on the Calculus contain a general view of mathematical analysis, the Calculus of direct and indirect functions, the Calculus of variations, and that of finite differences. The five lectures on Geometry contain a general view of geometry, the geometry of the ancients, the fundamental conception of analytical geometry, and the general study of lines, and of surfaces. The four lectures on Rational Mechanics, embrace the fundamental principles of mechanics, a general view of statics and dynamics, and the general theorems of mechanics.

After some general considerations on ASTRONOMY, he divides his subject into Geometrical and Mechanical Astronomy. Under the first division he gives a general exposition of the methods of observation; and he treats of the elementary geometrical phenomena of the heavenly bodies, of the theory of the earth's motion, and of the laws of Kepler. Under the second division, he treats of the law of universal gravitation; and after a philosophical appreciation of this law he applies it to the explanation of celestial phenomena.

The great department of PHYSICS is divided into Barology, Thermology, Acoustics, Optics, and Electrology. CHEMISTRY is divided into Inorganic and Organic Chemistry. PHYSIOLOGY embraces the structure and composition of living bodies, the classification of living bodies, vegetable physiology, animal physiology, and intellectual and affective physiology; and under SOCIAL PHYSICS, our author treats of the general structure of human societies, of the fundamental natural law of the development of the human species, and of the progress of civilization. This last section is subdivided into three heads,—the theological epoch, the metaphysical epoch, and the positive epoch, the first of these epochs embracing Fetichism, Polytheism, and Monotheism.

The two volumes now before us contain only Mathematics, Astronomy, and Physics, and other two will doubtless be necessary to complete the work.

In explaining the exact meaning of the term Positive Philosophy, M. Comte remarks that it bears a strong analogy to the term Natural Philosophy, as used by English writers since the time of Newton; but as the latter includes only the sciences of observation, and excludes the subject of social physics as well as Physiology, and all the branches of natural history, he was compelled to adopt the more general though vague expression of Positive Philosophy. He conceives, however, that the term positive removes, to a certain degree, the objection which might otherwise be urged against the application of the term philosophy to the sciences of observation.

In studying the 'total development' of human intelligence in its various spheres of action, from its earliest and simplest effort to the present time, M. Comte believes that he has discovered a grand fundamental law to which that development is subjected by an invariable necessity; and which he conceives to be firmly established, not only by arguments furnished by the knowledge of our own organization, but by an attentive study of the history of science. 'This law,' says he,

consists in this, that each of our principal conceptions, each branch of knowledge, passes successively through three different theoretical states—the theological or fictitious state, the metaphysical or abstract state, and the scientific or positive state; in other words, the human mind, by its nature, employs successively in each of its researches three methods of philosophizing, the character of which is essentially different, and is even radically opposite;—at first the theological method, next the metaphysical method, and lastly, the positive method. Hence we have three kinds of philosophy, or general systems of conceptions relative to phenomena, which mutually exclude each other. The first is the necessary point of departure of human intelligence, the third its fixed and definite condition, while the second is destined only to be a state of transition.

In the theological state the human mind, directing its researches to the intimate nature of things, to the first and final causes of all the effects which we witness, in a word, to absolute knowledge, represents the phenomena as produced by the direct and continued actin of supernatural agents, whose arbitrary intervention explains all the apparent anomalies of the universe.

In the metaphysical state, which is, in reality, only a simple modification of the theological one, the supernatural agents are replaced by abstract forces, real entities (personified abstractions) inherent in the different bodies of the universe, and conceived to be capable of generating by themselves all the observed phenomena; the explanation of which then consists in assigning to each a corresponding entity.

Finally, in the positive state the human mind, recognising the impossibility of obtaining absolute notions, renounces the attempt of enquiring into the origin and destination of the universe, and of detecting the intimate causes of phenomena, in order to set itself only to discover, by a judicious combination of reasoning and observation, their effective laws; that is, their invariable relations of succession and similitude. The explanation of facts, then reduced to real terms, is henceforth but the connexion established between different individual phenomena and some general facts, the number of which becomes more and more diminished in the progress of science.

The theological system has reached the highest degree of perfection of which it is susceptible, when it has substituted the providential action of one being, instead of the varied agency of numerous independent divinities which had been at first imagined. In like manner the last term of the metaphysical system consists in conceiving, in place of different individual entities, a single great general entity, viz., nature viewed as the only source of all phenomena. In the same way the perfection of the positive system towards which it unceasingly tends, though it is very probable that it will never reach it, will be the power of representing all the different phenomena, capable of being observed as particular cases of a single general fact; such, for example, as that of gravitation.

Although M. Comte has reserved his demonstration of this fundamental law, and his discussion of the results to which it leads, for that part of his work which treats of social physics, yet we have no hesitation in admitting its general accuracy. The quaint though expressive terms in which it is announced [are] apt to prejudice an English reader against its reception; but when this prejudice is removed by the study of the early history of science, he cannot fail to recognise its truth and importance. In thus perceiving the general character of the steps by which science has been gradually attaining its more perfect and final condition, he cannot but feel that the study of its past history must indicate the general tendency of its future progress, and may probably furnish some safe, if not infallible rules of investigating truth.

Since the time of Galileo, Bacon, and Newton, every branch of knowledge has been steadily advancing towards a fixed and positive state. The precepts of Bacon, and the methods actually used by Galileo and Newton, have established it as a fundamental truth, that there can be no real knowledge but that which is founded on observation and experiment. Facts and observations, however, when standing alone and unconnected, afford no permanent satisfaction to the philosopher who has discovered them. He knows, indeed, their high value and their ultimate importance; but this conviction does not assuage the thirst of philosophy; and the mind instinctively seeks to determine the relations of the facts which it has discovered, and turns to some pole to which they appear to converge, or some general principle to which they point, and by which they may be explained. Hence it is, that in the infancy of knowledge, the mind would be compelled, were it not its natural tendency, to invent some theory by which a collection of insulated facts might be fixed in the memory, and thus presented to the judgment under a single aspect.

In the infancy of science this natural passion for generalization is easily gratified. Supernatural power offers an immediate and a complete solution of every difficulty. Metaphysical abstractions gradually replace theological agents, and in the process of time these gradually disappear, and the phenomena themselves become the principal object of our notice. In this manner the theological gradually passes into positive philosophy, the nature of which is thus described by M. Comte.

The fundamental character of Positive Philosophy is to regard all phenomena as subjected to invariable natural laws, the precise discovery of which, and their reduction to the least possible number, are the object of all our researches, regarding as senseless and absolutely inaccessible the enquiry into what are called causes. It would be unprofitable to insist much upon a principle which has become so familiar to all who study profoundly the sciences of observation. Every one, indeed, knows that in our most perfect explanations of phenomena we never pretend to explain their generating causes (for this would be only driving back the difficulty), but only analyze with accuracy the circumstances of their production, and connect them by the relations of succession and similitude. Thus, in order to give the best of all examples, we say, that the general phenomena of the universe are explained as much as they can be by the Newtonian law of gravitation; because, on the one hand, this fine theory exhibits to us all the immense variety of astronomical facts as only one and the same fact seen in different points of view—the constant tendency of all the particles of matter towards one another in the direct ratio of their masses, and the inverse ratio of the squares of their distances; whilst, on the other hand, this general fact is presented to us as the simple extension of a phenomenon which is eminently familiar to us, and by it alone we consider as perfectly explained the gravity of bodies at the surface of the earth. With regard to the determination of what this attraction and that gravity are in themselves, or what are their causes, these are questions which we regard as incapable of solution—which are not within the domain of positive philosophy, and which we justly abandon to the imagination of theological speculators, or to the subtleties of metaphysicians. The most obvious proof that such solutions are impossible is, that whenever the greatest philosophers have endeavored to say anything truly rational on this subject, they have been able only to define one of these principles by the other—in saying for attraction that it is nothing else than universal gravity, and for gravity that it consists simply in terrestrial attraction.

M. Comte has given us another illustration of what he means by positive philosophy, deduced from the beautiful researches of Baron Fourier on the Theory of Heat, which he considers as affording a very happy verification of the preceding general remarks. 'In this work,' says he,

the philosophical character of which is so eminently positive, the most important and precise laws of thermological phenomena are developed without the slightest enquiry into the intimate nature of heat, and without mentioning, for any other purpose than to point out its inutility, the long agitated controversy between the partisans of calorific matter and those that make heat consist in the vibrations of an universal Ether. And, nevertheless, the highest questions several of which have not even been previously discussed, are treated of in Baron Fourier's work—a palpable proof that the human mind without wasting its strength on unapproachable problems, and by limiting itself to researches of an absolutely positive nature, may find inexhaustible materials for the most profound activity.

Having thus indicated the general spirit and character of positive philosophy, our author proceeds to examine the degree of progress which it has made, and to ascertain the steps which are yet necessary for its establishment. The phenomena of astronomy, of terrestrial physics, of chemistry, and of physiology, he considers as reduced to positive theories; and he ascribes to the combined precepts of Bacon, the conceptions of Descartes, and the discoveries of Galileo, the first grand movement by which 'positive conceptions' were distinctly separated from the superstitious and scholastic alloy which disguised the labours of preceding philosophers. Notwithstanding, however, the great progress of the physical sciences, M. Comte admits that Social Physics, which forms the last division in his arrangement, has not yet acquired any positive character; and though he does not suppose that the observations which he has to offer on this subject can give to it the same degree of perfection as the older sciences, he yet hopes that they will impress upon this branch of knowledge the same positive character. When this object is once attained, he conceives that all our fundamental conceptions will become homogeneous,—that philosophy will be definitively constituted in its positive state, and, that without changing its character it will gradually develop itself by constantly increasing acquisitions which necessarily result from new facts and more profound meditations.

In proceeding to give a distinct view of the plan of his 'Course of Lectures on Positive Philosophy,' our author warns his readers that they must not expect a series of special treatises on each of the principal branches of Natural Philosophy. Without considering the time which such an enterprise would require, M. Comte modestly states, that the task could not be accomplished by him or by any person whatever, in the present state of education. He proposes merely to give a course of Positive Philosophy, and not a course of Positive Science; and his object is only to consider each fundamental science in its relation to our whole positive system of knowledge, and to the spirit which characterizes it;—that is, under the twofold view of its essential methods and its leading results.

Having thus explained the object of his course, our author proceeds to give an account of the plan of it, or to expound his general views on what he calls the hierarchy of the positive sciences. The classification of the different branches of knowledge, as given by Bacon and D'Alembert, and founded on a supposed distinction of the different faculties of the mind, becomes an untenable one, from the very circumstance that such a distinction has no solid foundation; because in every mental effort all our principal faculties are simultaneously employed. With regard to other classifications, our author pronounces them to be fundamentally erroneous, from the very circumstance, that every speculator has given a new one of his own, and that all men of rightly constituted minds entertain a strong prejudice against any attempt to arrange and define the different branches of knowledge. In confirmation of these sound views, we cannot avoid referring to the singular subdivision of the sciences which so distinguished an individual as Dr. Thomas Young has adopted in his valuable work on Natural Philosophy. Even at a time when he regarded the undulatory theory of light with some distrust,—when it had not attracted that attention and acquired that importance which it now enjoys,—and when, indeed, he himself was about its only abettor, he did not scruple to make such a theory the basis of part of his classification by introducing the science of OPTICS as a branch of Hydrodynamics! In such a procedure the sound principles of classification were set at nought, and it remained only to divide fluids into ponderable and imponderable, and then to tack to Hydrodynamics the sciences of Magnetism, Electricity, Galvanism and Thermology.

Such an attempt to make a mere hypothesis the basis of a philosophical arrangement points out, in a striking manner, the necessity and the value of that severe discussion by which M. Comte has established his classification of the sciences. The general theory of classification now adopted in natural history he considers as a sure guide in the classification of the sciences,—the classification arising out of the study of the objects to be classified, and depending on the real affinities and the natural connexion which they present; so that it shall be itself the expression of the most general fact developed by an elaborate comparison of the objects which it embraces. Hence it follows that the different positive sciences must be arranged in reference to their mutual dependence, and this dependence can only be deduced from that of their corresponding phenomena. In this way our author is led, by a rigorous and philosophical survey of the different branches of knowledge, to the following arrangement of the six fundamental sciences—Mathematics, Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Physiology, and Social Physics—an arrangement which forms a part of the more general one to which we have already directed the attention of the reader.

In arriving at this result our author has discussed several important topics which, limited as our space is, we cannot altogether overlook. Considering all human works as bearing reference either to speculation or to action, he divides our real knowledge into theoretical and practical. The first of these departments, embracing the whole system of our fundamental conceptions on the different orders of phenomena, he conceives to be analogous to the prima philosophia of Bacon; and to form the basis of all that practical knowledge by which man acts upon external nature, and exercises a power over the material universe. But though in this respect knowledge is power, and though every branch of industry and the arts has derived from scientific theories the richest benefits, we must not suppose for a moment that the value of our enquiries can be measured by their bounty to the arts. Philosophy, while she condescends to be their landmaid, and the willing dispenser of domestic benefits, aims at a nobler and loftier object. Her insatiable spirit cherishes a paramount interest in determining the laws and detecting the causes of phenomena, even when they have no apparent application to the wants of our species; nor would that interest be at all diminished were such an application found to be impossible. The whole history of science has established the incontrovertible fact that speculations the most abstract often lead, in the course of time, to practical results of high value;—and as Condorcet has beautifully remarked, 'the sailor who has been preserved from shipwreck by an accurate observation of the longitude, owes his life to a theory conceived two thousand years before by men of genius who had in view only simple geometrical speculations.'

In pursuing the researches of science, however, we must renounce all consideration either of their immediate or contingent application; we must concentrate our undivided energies upon the subject with which we are grappling, and bequeath as a legacy to posterity any germ of usefulness which may sometimes lie hidden among our theoretical deductions.

But this view of the subject acquires new force when we consider the faculties of man as not limited in their exercise to his present sphere of activity. The capacities and cravings of our intellectual appetite are not given us merely that they might administer to our own corporeal wants, or to the vulgar necessities of our species. Is our knowledge of the heavenly bodies—of their nicely balanced actions and harmonious movements—to have no other end than to regulate a timekeeper or determine a ship's place upon the ocean? Is our study of the sun, which rules by day, and the moon, which rules by night, to have no higher aim than if they were merely to replace the pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night? Is man to be forever a shepherd pilgrim in this lovely Oasis, treading on its green pastures and listening to the music of its quiet waters? Or is he, in the perfection of mechanism, to be forever flying over its surface with the speed of Camilla, visiting every clime, greeting every individual of his race, and compressing into the diminished span of his being all the events of an antediluvian existence? Such suppositions stand opposed to every lesson of philosophy, and to every response of revelation. Let our philosophical researches, then, be regarded as the best preparatory education for that intellectual existence, when the mind shall have burst the prison bars of its earthly durance, and received new revelations of knowledge, suited to its improved capacity and proportioned to its previous attainments.

After a preliminary lecture, entitled 'Philosophical Considerations on the General Science of Mathematics,' M. Comte devotes nearly the whole of his first volume to an account of the Calculus, Geometry, and Rational Mechanics, following the subdivisions of those branches which we have already given. He considers mathematics as the basis of all the positive sciences; and he defines it to be the science which has for its object the indirect measure of magnitudes, and which determines one magnitude by others, by means of the precise relations which exist between them. He subdivides the general science into two great sciences, abstract and concrete mathematics. The complete solution of every mathematical question, he conceives, may be decomposed into two parts essentially distinct in their nature; namely, the concrete part, or that which determines the precise relations which exist between the known and unknown quantities, and the abstract part, or that by which the unknown quantities are determined from these relations. The concrete part evidently depends on the nature of the phenomena under consideration; whilst the abstract part is completely independent of the nature of the objects examined; and bears solely on the numerical relations which they present. The former, having for its object to discover the equations of phenomena, would seem, a priori, to consist of as many distinct sciences as there are really different categories among natural phenomena. But there are only two great general categories of phenomena of which we constantly know the equations, namely, geometrical and mechanical phenomena; and hence the concrete branch of mathematics must consist of geometry and rational mechanics. If, as our author remarks, all the parts of the universe are conceived to be immoveable, there could be no other phenomena but geometrical ones, since everything would be reduced to relations of form, magnitude, and position; but when we consider the motions which actually take place, we must take into account also the mechanical phenomena. Hence, in applying a philosophical conception due to M. Blainville, the universe, when seen in a statical point of view, presents only geometrical phenomena, and when seen in a mechanical point of view only mechanical phenomena. Geometry and mechanics, therefore, constitute by themselves the two fundamental natural sciences; so that all natural effects may be conceived as simple necessary results either of the laws of extent or of the laws of motion.

Again, with respect to abstract mathematics, it consists, according to our author, of what is called the Calculus; the object of which is to resolve all questions of number. It includes all operations, from the most simple arithmetical ones, to the most sublime combinations of transcendental analysis. This science, as M. Comte calls it, though more perfect than any other, is still little advanced; so that it has but rarely attained, in a completely satisfactory manner, its ultimate object of deducing the value of unknown quantities from those that are known. The following abbreviated extract will give our readers a clear idea of our author's view respecting the division of mathematical science into three branches; and the relations which these branches bear to each other and to the other sciences:—

If we compare, on one hand, the calculus, and on the other hand geometry and mechanics, we shall verify, in relation to the two principal sections of mathematics, viz. abstract and concrete, all the essential characters of our Encyclopedic arrangement. Analytical ideas are evidently more abstract, more general, and more simple than geometrical or mechanical ideas. Though the principal conceptions of mathematical analysis, viewed historically, were formed under the influence of geometrical or mechanical considerations, with the advancement of which sciences the progress of the calculus has been closely connected, yet analysis is not the less, in a logical point of view, essentially independent of geometry and mechanics, whilst the latter, on the contrary, are necessarily founded on the first. Mathematical analysis is, therefore, the true rational basis of the whole system of our positive knowledge. It constitutes the first and the most perfect of all the fundamental sciences. The ideas with which it is conversant are the most universal, the most abstract, and the most simple which we can conceive; and were we to try to go farther under these three equivalent relations, we should inevitably fall into metaphysical reveries. This, therefore, being the proper character of mathematical analysis, we can easily explain why, when it is suitably employed, it holds out to us such powerful means, not only to give more precision to our real knowledge, but also to establish an infinitely more perfect co-ordination in the study of the phenomena to which it is applied. As a single analytical question, abstractly resolved, contains the implicit solution of a crowd of physical questions, the mind is led to perceive, with the greatest facility, the relation between phenomena which appear at first wholly insulated, and from which we can easily deduce whatever is common to them all. It is thus that in the solution of important questions in geometry and mechanics, we see springing up naturally, by the aid of analysis, the most unexpected relations between problems, which, though they present at first no apparent connexion, are often found to be identical. Who, for example, could, without the aid of analysis, perceive the least analogy between the determination of the direction of a curve at each of its points, and that of the velocity acquired at each instant of its varied motion? questions which, however different they may be, are but one in the eyes of a geometer.

After discussing the causes of the high relative perfection of mathematical analysis, and controverting the opinion of Condillac, that its supremacy is owing to the use of algebraic signs as an instrument of reasoning, he proceeds to show that it possesses by its nature a rigorous and logical universality; and he goes on to consider the great limitations by which, in consequence of our imperfect intelligence, its domain is singularly narrowed, in proportion as the phenomena become more complicated and numerous. In the leading branches of physics, it is often impracticable to reduce a question to one of numbers; so that it is only when the phenomena are of the most simple and general kind, that analysis can be successfully applied to natural philosophy. When we consider, indeed, that before such an application can be made, we must first discover precise relations between the quantities co-existing in the phenomenon which we are studying, before we can establish those equations which form the first step in our analytical enquiries, it is evident that it is only in Inorganic Physics, including astronomy, physics, and chemistry, that we can hope to apply the calculus with real advantage. Organic Physics, on the contrary, and probably some of the more complex portions of inorganic physics, are, as our author states, necessarily inaccessible to the calculus, in consequence of the extreme numerical variability of the corresponding phenomena. In the phenomena of living bodies, all idea of fixed numbers is wholly out of the question; so that any application of analysis to physiology, is an abuse of the former, and must lead to serious errors in the latter.

The case, however, is different with inorganic bodies. In all such bodies, as our author has observed, their different properties are almost invariable. Their physical properties—for example, their form, consistence, specific gravity, elasticity, &c,—have such a remarkable numerical fixity, as to enable us to consider them in a mathematical point of view. In the chemical phenomena, however, of such bodies, the variations are more frequent, however, of such bodies, the variations are more frequent, more extensive, and consequently more irregular; and even the doctrine of definite proportions has not yet acquired such a character as to admit of the application of mathematical analysis. The science of meteorology furnishes us with phenomena nearly as complex, and as little susceptible of the application of the calculus as that of physiology. 'It cannot be doubted,' as M. Comte remarks, that 'each of the numerous agents which concur in the production of these phenomena, follow separately mathematical laws, though we are still ignorant of the greater number of them: but their multiplicity renders the observed effects as irregular in their variations, as if each cause had not been subject to any precise condition.'

But not only are we often unable to obtain fixed numerical results, even in the most special cases—the phenomena are often so complicated that, even when we shall have discovered the mathematical law, which each agent separately obeys, the corresponding problem may become absolutely insoluble, when a great number of conditions require to be combined; and hence it is that so little progress has been made in the effective study of the greater number of natural phenomena. In illustration of these views our author makes the following observations:—

We know that the very simple phenomenon of the motion of a fluid in virtue of its gravity alone, through a given orifice, has not been completely solved when we wish to take into account all the essential circumstances. The same is true of the still more simple motion of a solid projectile through a resisting medium. Why is it, then, that mathematical analysis had adapted itself with such admirable success to the profound study of the celestial phenomena? It is just because, in spite of common appearances, they are much more simple than all others. The most complicated problem which they present—that of the modification produced in the motion of two bodies tending towards each other by their mutual gravitation, by the influence of a third acting on both in the same manner, is much less complex than the simplest terrestrial problem; and yet it presents such difficulties that the solutions of it are still only approximative. It is also obvious, in examining the subject more profoundly, that the great perfection to which solar astronomy has been brought by the application of mathematics, is owing to the circumstance of our having skillfully taken advantage of all the particular, and, so to speak, accidental facilities, which the special constitution of our planetary system presents for the solution of such problems. The planets, indeed, of which it is composed, are few in number, and have their masses very unequal, and much smaller than that of the sun; their forms are most perfectly spherical, and their orbits are nearly circular, and slightly inclined to each other. Hence it results, from all these circumstances, that the perturbations are often very slight, and that in order to calculate them, it is commonly sufficient to take into account, concurrently with the action of the sun upon each, the influence of one other planet, capable, from its magnitude and proximity, of producing sensible derangements. But if, instead of such a state of things, our solar system had been composed of a greater number of planets concentrated into a smaller space, and nearly equal in mass,—if their orbits had presented very different inclinations and considerable eccentricities,—if these bodies had been of a more complicated form, very eccentric ellipsoids, for example, it is certain that, supposing the same real law of gravitation, we should not even now have been able to submit the study of the celestial phenomena to our mathematical analysis, and probably we should not have succeeded, even at present, in establishing the principal law. These hypothetical conditions would be found accurately realized, and that too in a high degree in chemical phenomena, were we to calculate them by the theory of general gravitation.

From these admirable observations on the doctrine and application of mathematical analysis, of which we have given a very brief and imperfect notice, M. Comte proceeds to a detailed account of the history and the present state of the various branches of mathematics, following the arrangement which we have already indicated; but though we were anxious to have submitted to our readers some specimens of the fine reasoning and beautiful generalizations which distinguish this part of the work, our narrow limits force us to proceed to the more popular topics of astronomy and physics.

After defining astronomy to be the science which has for its object the discovery of the laws of the geometrical and the mechanical phenomena of the heavenly bodies, our author subdivides it into solar and sidereal; and considers the former, or that which relates to the solar system, as the only branch which is entitled to the name of positive. Our knowledge of sidereal astronomy is at present extremely limited; and though it may be considerably extended in reference to the relative motions of multiple stars which form part of the group to which our own system belongs, yet it must ever remain a comparatively imperfect branch of the science.

In estimating the rank which astronomy holds among the natural sciences, our author submits to his readers what he considers a new and very important philosophical law—namely, that in proportion as phenomena become more complex, they are at the same time susceptible, by their nature, of being explained, by more extended and varied methods, without there being an exact compensation between the increase of the difficulties, and the augmentation of the resources. Hence, he concludes, that as the phenomena of astronomy are the most simple, they ought to be those for which we have the fewest means of examination. That this is the case shows in the following manner.

Our art of observing consists, in general, of three different methods. 1. Observation, properly so called; that is, the direct examination of a phenomenon such as it naturally appears to us; 2. Experiment, or the contemplation of a phenomenon more or less modified by artificial circumstances, which we institute expressly for the purposes of examination; and, 3. Comparison, or the gradual comparison of a series of analogous cases, in which the phenomenon is more and more simplified. The science of organized bodies which studies phenomena of the most difficult access, is also the only one which really permits us to employ all these three methods of research. Astronomy, on the contrary, is necessarily limited to the first. Experiment is obviously impossible; and with regard to comparison, it could only exist, if we were able to observe directly several solar systems. Observation, therefore, only remains, and even it is reduced to the least possible extent; as it can be carried on solely by one of our senses. To measure angles, and to reckon time, are the only means by which our understanding can proceed to the discovery of astronomical laws. But these means are the only ones which are required for observing geometrical and mechanical phenomena-magnitudes and motions. From this, however, we ought to infer that, among all the branches of natural philosophy, astronomy is that in which direct observation, however indispensable it be, is, by itself, the least significative, and in which the reasoning part is incomparably the greatest. Nothing truly interesting is ever decided by simple inspection, contrary to what takes place in physics, chemistry, physiology, &c. We may say, indeed, without exaggeration, that the phenomena, however real they be, are for the most part essentially constructed by our understandings; for we are not able to see immediately the figure of the earth, nor the curve described by a planet, nor even the daily motion of the heavens: our mind alone can form these different notions in combining, by processes of reasoning, often very long and very complex, insulated sensations, the incoherence of which would, without this, have rendered them almost entirely insignificant.

Hence M. Comte concludes that astronomy is justly entitled to the rank which it has unanimously received of being placed at the head of the sciences, and which it owes to the perfection of its scientific character, and to the preponderating importance of the laws which it unveils. But it is not only to this preeminence that he considers it entitled. He regards the general laws of the planetary motions as the first foundation of the whole system of positive knowledge, not excepting even Social Physics, whereas astronomy itself is independent of every other science but that of mathematics.

After illustrating the fundamental axiom that all science has for its object prediction,—by which it is distinguished from simple erudition, which relates only to events that have been accomplished,—our author points out the advantages of astronomy in dissipating those absurd prejudices and superstitious terrors which the phenomena of eclipses and comets used to foster and inspire; but instead of confining his remarks within the limits which naturally belong to such a discussion, he digresses into those painful and groundless observations, to which we have already been obliged to refer. The stream of his eloquence, however, soon resumes its purity, and we follow him with delight through one of the finest surveys of astronomical truth that has ever been composed.

From the methods of observation employed in this science he passes to general views respecting the elementary geometrical phenomena of the heavenly bodies. He discusses, in a general manner, the interesting problem of the earth's motion. He treats of the laws of Kepler, the finest effort of human genius, and points out their application to the geometrical study of the celestial motions. He then proceeds to give some fundamental views on the law of gravitation, and treats in successive lectures the important topics of celestial statics and dynamics; and he concludes his subject with general considerations on sidereal astronomy, and on positive cosmogony. We could have wished to place before our readers some specimens of our author's manner of treating these difficult and deeply interesting topics—of his simple, yet powerful eloquence—of his enthusiastic admiration of intellectual superiority—of his accuracy as a historian, his honesty as a judge, and of his absolute freedom from all personal and national feelings. On every subject, save that on which we have already placed a mark, the reader feels that he is conducted through the labyrinths of astronomical discovery by a safe and skilful guide, who has himself traced its windings and marked its ambiguities; and the philosopher who has grown hoary in the service of science longs for the advantage of such a historian to record his labours, and of such an arbiter to appreciate their value. Confined, however, as our limits are, we must give our readers a brief account of M. Comte's Lectures on sidereal astronomy and positive cosmogony.

Although our author has distinguished sidereal from solar astronomy as a branch of the science, respecting which we are not likely to acquire much positive knowledge, yet he has so judiciously put together its scanty materials, and so distinctly separated what is positive from what is probable, that the mind clearly apprehends not only what astronomers have achieved in this remote domain, but also all that we may expect them to achieve for centuries to come. In order that our readers may duly appreciate the talent of our author as the historian of science, we shall submit to them the whole of what Mr. Whewell has written on the very same subject, viz. the body of his section, entitled, Discovery of the Laws of Double Stars.

If the stars were each insulated from the rest, as our sun appears to be from them, we should have been quite unable to answer this inquiry, Do the fixed stars obey the law of gravitation? But among the stars there are some which are called double, and which consist of two stars, so near to each other, that the telescope alone can separate them. The elder Herschel diligently observed and measured such stars; and, as has often happened in astronomical history, pursuing one object he fell in with another.

Supposing such pairs to be really unconnected, he wished to learn, from their phenomena, something respecting the annual parallax of the earth's orbit. But in the course of twenty years' observations he made the discovery (in 1803) that these couples were turning round each other with various velocities. These revolutions were, for the most part, so slow, that he was obliged to leave their complete determination as an inheritance to the next generation. His son was not careless of the bequest, and after having added an enormous mass of observations to those of his father, he applied himself to determine the laws of these revolutions. A problem so obvious and so tempting was attacked also by others, as Savary and Encke, in 1830 and 1832, with the resources of analysis. But a problem in which the data are so minute and inevitably imperfect, required the mathematician to employ much judgment as well as skill in using and combining these data; and Herschel, by employing positions only of the line joining the pair of stars, to the exclusion of their distances, and by inventing a method which introduced the whole body of observations, and not selected ones only, into the determination of the motion, has made his investigations by far the most satisfactory of those which have appeared. The result is, that it has been rendered very probable that the double stars describe ellipses about each other; and, therefore, that here also, at an immeasurable distance from our system, the law of attraction, according to the inverse square, prevails. And, according to the practice of astronomers, when a law has been established, tables have been calculated for the future motions; and we have ephemerides of the revolutions of suns round each other in a region so remote; that the whole circle of our earth's orbit, if placed there, would be imperceptible by our strongest telescopes. The permanent comparison of the observed with the predicted motions, continued for more than one revolution, is the severe and decisive test of the truth of the theory; and the result of this test astronomers are now awaiting.

The verifications of Newton's discoveries were sufficient employment for the last century; the first step in the extension of them belongs to this century. We cannot at present foresee the magnitude of this task, but every one must feel that the law of gravitation, before verified in all the particles of our own system, and now extended to the all but infinite distance of the fixed stars, presses upon our minds with irresistible evidence as a universal law of the whole material creation.

That the preceding view is not only barren of information, but vague in its conceptions, as well as incorrect in its statements, will be admitted by every astronomer. The reader is led to believe that the thousands of double stars which have been discovered are all binary systems, whose motions have been determined; whereas the great body of them are merely two stars lying accidentally in the same direction as seen from our system. He learns nothing respecting the phenomena exhibited by a binary system,—the peculiar nature and delicacy of the requisite observations,—the uncertainty of the results, or the lengths of the periods of revolution which characterize each of the systems that have been really established. He is told, indeed, that Sir W. Herschel diligently observed and measured such stars, but unless he be an astronomer, he cannot tell what measuring a double star means. He learns that Savary and Encke attacked the problem analytically, but the result of the attack is withheld. He reads that Sir John Herschel invented a method (which is also concealed), but which renders it very probable that the double stars describe ellipses round each other, and that the law of solar attraction prevails at an immeasurable distance from our system.

Now, supposing the reader to have so little curiosity as to rest satisfied with a result deduced from phenomena and measurements and methods which have not even been named, we defy him to understand what the result actually means that the double stars describe ellipses about each other! We may suppose that one double star or binary system describes an ellipse round another double star, or binary system; or that, while the smaller star describes an ellipse around the greater star, the greater describes an ellipse round the smaller star; but he will never find out, unless by appealing to an elementary work, that the smaller describes an ellipse round the greater star supposed to be at rest in one of the foci of that ellipse.

Having at last reached the truth, and admired the deduction from it that the law of terrestrial gravity extends to such double stars, he becomes anxious to appreciate the evidence for a conclusion so pregnant with interest. Mr. Whewell at first tells him that the elliptical motion on which it rests is very probable. He then describes the conclusion as a theory, the proof of which astronomers are now awaiting; and finally, he reaches the climax of certainty by declaring that every one must feel that the law of gravitation, now extended to the fixed stars, ''presses upon our minds with irresistible evidence as a universal law of the whole material creation.'

From these flying commentaries on sidereal astronomy we shall proceed to the learned and philosophical discussion of the subject by M. Comte. After mentioning that out of more than 3000 multiple stars, almost all of which are double, there are only a few whose relative motions, as the elements of a binary system, are irrefragably established, he points out the probability that the great body of what are called double stars do not form binary systems; and concludes that the only study really positive which we can recognise in sidereal astronomy, 'is that of the well established relative motions of certain double stars, whose number does not exceed seven or eight.' But even with respect to the orbits of these stars, our knowledge can never be compared with that which we possess of the orbits of our own planets; because the apparent radii vectores are so small, that an error in such delicate measures may perhaps amount in general to a fourth or even to a third of their total value. The same observation applies to the periodic times when they have not been directly observed, which hitherto has always been the case. 'It is hence,' says our author, 'very difficult to conceive how these studies can ever acquire that exactness which will furnish a base sufficiently solid for dynamical conclusions that are truly irresistible; so as to demonstrate, for example, the effective extension of the theory of gravitation to the mutual action of the two elements of a double star, which would besides be very far from establishing the rigorous universality of that theory.' From these general remarks our author proceeds to sum up the amount of our positive knowledge in sidereal astronomy. 'The seven orbits,' says he,

of double stars hitherto established, and the first of which is due to the labours of M. Savary, present in general very considerable eccentricities, the least of which is almost double and the greatest, quadruple of the greatest eccentricity of our planetary orbits. With regard to their periodic times the shortest exceeds a little forty years, and the longest six hundred years. Besides, the eccentricity and the duration of the revolution do not appear to have any fixed relation to each other; and neither the one nor the other seems otherwise to depend on the angular distance of the two elements of the corresponding couples.... While the linear distances of these stars from the earth, and consequently from each other, are unknown, the preceding notions cannot have any great importance, nor perhaps even sufficient solidity. If these distances, however, should yet become known, we might easily obtain a value of the masses of the corresponding couples on the supposition that the law of gravity was legitimately applicable to them. . . . The quantity thus determined by which the secondary star would tend to fall in a given time towards the principal one, being compared with the fall of bodies at the surface of the earth, previously reduced to the same distance according to the ordinary law, would immediately give us the value of the ratio between the mass of the couple and that of the earth. But the repartition of this total mass between its two elements would evidently be still uncertain; since it is very possible that it may be effected in a manner much less unequal than between our planets and their satellites. This last consideration throws over the whole of the subject a new degree of uncertainty. For if the masses of the two elements of each stellar couple differ so little compared to their distance and their magnitude, that the centre of gravity of the system deviates sensibly from the principal star, it is to this unknown centre that we must necessarily refer the observed motions; and then what accurate dynamical conclusion could we draw from elliptic orbits round the larger star as their focus, even if they were rigorously determined?

Our author then proceeds to explain the ingenious method conceived by M. Savary for determining within certain limits the distances of some of the double stars from our earth or sun,—a method which he regards as constituting the only scientific conception in sidereal astronomy; being independent of every hypothesis respecting the exact form of the orbits of double stars, and the extension of the theory of gravity. It is necessary only to admit that the orbits are symmetrical relative to their longest diameter; and that the lesser star moves with the same velocity at two points equidistant from the greater star. Like the general theory of aberration, this method is founded on the fact that the velocity of light is accurately known, with this difference only, that in the case of aberration we are occupied with an error of place, whereas here we consider an error of time. 'Let us conceive,' says M. Comte,

a stellar orbit whose smaller axis is situated perpendicularly to the visual ray drawn from the sun or the earth, which may here be confounded. If the same were true of the greater axis, and, consequently, of the plane of the orbit, the two halves of the revolution which the lesser star really performs in times exactly equal, would obviously still appear of equal duration, however slow the propagation of light might be at each position. But this would no longer be the case when the plane of the orbit is greatly inclined to the visual ray; unless when the ray lay in that plane, in which case the fundamental observation becomes impossible. In this case, the duration of the semi-revolution corresponding to the half of the curve where the star moves towards us, ought to appear less than it is in reality; and that relative to the half when the star moves farther and farther from us will appear, on the contrary, to be augmented, in consequence of the difference of the times that light ought to employ in reaching us from the two points of the orbit which are most unequally distant from the earth. Hence though the total periodic time ought not to be changed, the two halves of the revolution will not have exactly the same apparent duration; and if their inequality could be well observed, it would enable us immediately to determine, from the real velocity of light, the true difference between the distances of the earth from the two extreme points of the orbit. Consequently, this difference will evidently become a sufficient geometrical base for estimating, with a corresponding approximation, the linear dimensions of the orbit, and its true distance from the earth; its inclination and its true angular extent being otherwise previously given. Every thing is then reduced to the determination of an appreciable inequality between the duration of two semi-revolutions; but it is indispensable that this appreciation be made from the effective observation of an entire revolution, so that its accuracy may not depend on any hypothesis respecting the geometrical nature of the stellar orbit, or the law relative to the velocity with which the star describes it.... Until experience has determined it, we cannot say whether or not the radii of the stellar orbits have such a relation to their distances that we can perceive a sensible difference between the two halves of their periodic times. . . . Every second of error in the periodic time, which probably can never be determined within several days, tends to introduce an error of at least 32,000 myriametres in the value of the distance required; so that the method, as its inventor has stated, is only capable of determining a maximum and a minimum, probably very remote from each other. But in spite of its necessary imperfection, it possesses the deep interest of holding out the hope of obtaining, some time or other, a certain approximation with regard to several of those distances which have a coarse inferior limit common to the innumerable stars which the heavens present to us.

From these interesting views of sidereal astronomy, our author proceeds to give an account of the cosmogony of Laplace,—a portion of modern theory omitted by Mr. Whewell,—but which, when restricted to our own planetary system, M. Comte regards not only as the most plausible which has ever been proposed, but as susceptible of a mathematical verification which its illustrious author had not ventured to anticipate. The object of this ingenious hypothesis, to which we have already had occasion to refer, is to explain, by the agency of heat and gravity, the general circumstances which characterise, the constitution of our solar system; namely, the identity in the direction of all the annual and diurnal motions of the planets and their satellites from west to east; the small eccentricity of all their orbits, and the slight deviation of their planes compared with that of the solar equator. 'The cosmogony of Laplace,' says our author,

consists in forming the planets by the gradual condensation of the solar atmosphere, supposed to have been primitively extended by the action of extreme heat to the limits of our system, and to have been successively contracted by cooling. It rests on two incontestable mathematical considerations. The first concerns the necessary relation which exists, in conformity with the fundamental theory of rotations, and especially the general theorem of areas, between the successive dilatations or contractions of any body (including in this its atmosphere, which is inseparable from it), and the duration of its rotation, which ought to be accelerated when the dimensions diminish, or become slower when they increase, so that the angular and linear variations, which the sum of the areas tend to experience, may be exactly compensated. The second consideration relates to the connexion, no less evident, between the angular velocity of the sun's rotation and the possible extent of his atmosphere; the mathematical limit of which is inevitably at the distance where the centrifugal force due to that rotation becomes equal to the corresponding gravity; so that if by any cause whatever a part of this atmosphere should come to be placed beyond such a limit, it would soon even cease to belong to the sun, though it ought to continue to revolve round him with a velocity corresponding to the moment of separation, but without participating any more in the ulterior modifications which will take place in the solar rotation by the progress of cooling.

Hence we may easily conceive how the mathematical limit of the sun's atmosphere ought to diminish without ceasing, for the parts situated in the solar equator, in proportion as the cooling has made the rotation more rapid. This atmosphere, therefore, must successively abandon in the plane of this equator different gaseous zones situated a little beyond the corresponding limits, which will constitute the first state of our planets. The same mode of formation will evidently apply to the different satellites, by means of the atmospheres of their respective planets. Our stars being thus once detached from the solar mass, may afterwards become fluid, and finally solid, by the continued progress of their own proper cooling, without being affected with the new changes which the atmosphere and rotation of the sun may have experienced. But the irregularity of this cooling, and the unequal density of the different parts of each planet, ought naturally, during these transformations, to change almost always the primitive annular form which would not subsist without alteration, but in the solitary case of the singular satellites with which Saturn is immediately surrounded. Most frequently the preponderance of a portion of the gaseous zone ought to reunite gradually, by the way of absorption round this nucleus, the entire mass of the ring; and the star ought thus to assume a spheroidal figure, with a motion of rotation, in the same direction as the translation on account of the excess of the necessary velocity of the superior molecules with respect to the inferior ones.

This ingenious hypothesis, while it affords a rational explanation of all the general phenomena exhibited in the solar system, assigns a plausible origin to that primitive impulsion belonging to each planet, which has hitherto embarrassed the fundamental conception of the celestial motions; and as our author has for the first time remarked, it follows from the hypothesis, that the creation of the different parts of the solar system has been necessarily successive; those planets being the most ancient which are farthest from the sun, and the same law being observed in each of them with respect to their different satellites,—all of which are more modern than their corresponding primaries.

After making the just remark, that we may yet be able to perfect this chronological arrangement, in so far at least as to assign within certain limits the number of centuries which have elapsed since each formation, our author proceeds to the bold attempt to give a real mathematical consistency to the cosmogony which we have now described. In order to do this, he tried to discover an aspect in which it would admit of some numerical verification,—an indispensable criterion, as he remarks, of every hypothesis relative to astronomical phenomena; and in discovering a class of numerical elements which should harmonize with the necessary results of the theory, he found it requisite to limit himself, at least in the first instance, to the consideration of the motions of translation, which are much more susceptible of an exact analysis than the rotations of the planets, of which we know so little.

The fundamental principle of this verification consists, as our author remarks, in this, that the periodic time of each star that is formed must necessarily be equal to that of the star from which it is formed, at the time when its atmosphere extended to that point of space. Hence the problem to be solved is this—What was the duration of the rotation of the sun when the mathematical limit of his atmosphere extended to the different planets. By combining Huygen's theorems for central forces with the law of gravitation, our author established a simple fundamental equation between the duration of the rotations of the producing star, and the distance of the star produced; the constants of this equation being the radius of the central star, and the intensity of gravity at its surface, which is a direct consequence of its mass. 'This equation,' our author observes,

leads immediately to the third great law of Kepler, which, independent of its dynamical interpretation, thus becomes susceptible of being conceived a priori in a cosmogonical point of view. At the same time, the fundamental harmony of different revolutions seems to be thus completed; for though the law of Kepler clearly explained why, when the periodic time and mean distance of one star were given, another star should revolve in a period corresponding to its distance, it did not establish any necessary relation between the position and the velocity of each body considered by itself. Our principle, however, tends to establish a general law between the different initial velocities, which, in celestial mechanics, have been hitherto treated as essentially arbitrary.

The first application which M. Comte made of his equation, and with the result of which he was much struck, was to the moon, whose actual periodic time agrees within less than the tenth of a day with the duration which the revolution of the earth ought to have had at the time when the lunar distance formed the limit of our atmosphere. The coincidence he found to be less accurate, though still very striking in every other case. In the case of the planets he obtained, from the duration of the corresponding solar rotations, a value always a little less than their real periodic times. It is remarkable, as he observes, that this duration, though increasing as the planet is more distant, preserves, nevertheless, very nearly the same relation to the corresponding periodic time, of which it commonly forms the forty-fifth part. This defect changes to an excess in the different systems of the satellites, where it is proportionately greater than in the planets, and unequal in different systems. From the whole of the comparisons of his formula with the periods of the primary and secondary planets, our author deduces the following general result:—Supposing the mathematical limit of the solar atmosphere successively extended to the regions where the different planets are now found, the duration of the sun's rotation was, at each of these epochs, sensibly equal to that of the actual sidereal revolution of the corresponding planet; and the same is true, for each planetary atmosphere in relation to the different satellites.

Although this correspondence between the hypothesis and the present state of the solar system is extremely remarkable, yet our author by no means regards it as a demonstration of Laplace's cosmogony. He looks forward, however, to the possibility of deriving from it the diurnal rotations of the different planets, which have no apparent relation to each other, notwithstanding the probability that some law actually connects them. The slight deviations between the periodic times of the planets and those indicated by our author's principle, he ingeniously employs as a base for determining, with a certain degree of approximation, the epochs when the different planets were formed. If the periodic times had coincided, and the primitive ones suffered no change, no such attempt could have been made. The increase of eight days, for example, which, according to this cosmogony, our sidereal year must have experienced since the separation of the earth, will allow us to fix, within limits more or less remote, the date of that event, if the influence of the disturbing causes which produced that change should ever be sufficiently known; and this consideration becomes more rational, as the deviation increases in the planets that are more remote and more ancient.

By the same general views our author is led to the conclusion, that our world is now as complete as it can be; because the effective extent of each atmosphere is actually below the mathematical limit which results from the corresponding rotation, so that any new formation is absolutely impossible. Hence, he concludes that our system is now as stable, in a cosmogonical point of view, as it is in a mechanical one. But, notwithstanding this coincidence, neither of these kinds of stability can be regarded as absolute. By the continued resistance of the general medium with which space is occupied, our globe must inevitably return to the solar atmosphere from which it emanated; till, by a new dilatation of the central mass, it is again thrown off, to pass through the same career of change which it had previously undergone.

These views of the origin and destiny of the various systems of worlds which fill the immensity of space, break upon the mind with all the interest of novelty, and all the brightness of truth. Appealing to our imagination by their grandeur, and to our reason by the severe principles of science on which they rest, the mind feels as if a revelation had been vouchsafed to it of the past and future history of the universe. In regarding every planet of every system as necessarily thrown off from a central sun, and again deposited on its burning nucleus, we recognise the probable cause of many sidereal phenomena, which have hitherto been objects of perplexity and wonder. The consolidation of luminous matter into brilliant centres;—the changes which take place in nebulae and clusters of stars; the sudden appearance of brilliant stars, and the equally sudden extinction of others,—are all epochs in the ever-changing cycles of the universe. Nor do these speculations at all interfere with those more cherished opinions which rest on the convictions of reason and conscience, and which faith and hope have combined to consecrate. The loftiest doctrines of natural theology appeal to us with more irresistible force when science carries us back to the Great First Cause, and points out to us, in the atmosphere of the sun, all the elements of planetary worlds so mysteriously commingled. In considering our own globe as having its origin in a gaseous zone, thrown off by the rapidity of the solar rotation, and as consolidated by cooling from the chaos of its elements, we confirm rather than oppose the Mosaic cosmogony, whether allegorical or literally interpreted. The succession of geological changes, too, which modern science has established, and the continued refrigeration of our globe from a state of incandescence, are equally consistent with the cosmogony which we have explained; and when we read in Holy Writ, that the heavens shall be dissolved and the elements shall melt in fervent heat, we anticipate the conclusion of that mighty cycle, when our planet shall be reunited with the sun, and engulfed in its devouring furnace.

In the grandeur and universality of these views, we forget the insignificant beings which occupy and disturb the planetary domains. Life in all its forms, in all its restlessness, and in all its pageantry, disappears in the magnitude and remoteness of the perspective. The excited mind sees only the gorgeous fabric of the universe, recognises only its Divine architect, and ponders but on its cycles of glory and desolation. If the pride of man is ever to be mocked, or his vanity mortified, or his selfishness rebuked, it is under the influence of these studies that he will learn humility, and meekness, and charity.

Before proceeding to the separate examination of the physical sciences, our author details in his twenty-eighth Lecture, of nearly eighty pages, his general views, under the title of Philosophical Considerations on the Physical Sciences. After stating that this second fundamental branch of Natural Philosophy did not begin to assume a positive character, by disengaging itself from Metaphysics, till Galileo had made his splendid discoveries respecting the fall of heavy bodies, he endeavours to draw a distinct line of demarcation between Physics and Chemistry. Regarding these divisions of science as having for their united object the knowledge of the general laws of the inorganic world, he distinguishes them by three general considerations, each of which is perhaps insufficient when taken singly. The first of these is the necessary generality of physical, and the necessary specialty of chemical researches. The second, which he considers as less important than the first, is that the phenomena are always related to masses in physics, and to molecules in Chemistry. The third, which he regards as the most definite, is that in physical phenomena the constitution of the body, or the mode of arrangement of its particles, may be changed, though most frequently it is essentially untouched; but its nature, that is, the composition of its molecules, remains constantly unalterable; while in chemical phenomena there is not only always a change of state with respect to one of the bodies, but the mutual actions of these bodies necessarily change their nature, and it is indeed this change which constitutes the phenomenon. This last consideration is so well founded, as M. Comte observes, that it would still preserve its distinctive character, even if all chemical phenomena should be found to depend on physical agencies. For it would still be necessarily true, that in a chemical fact there would always be something more than in a physical one, namely, the characteristic change in the molecular composition of the body, and consequently in all its properties. Hence he defines physics as that science in which we study the laws which govern the general properties of bodies, generally viewed in the mass, and constantly placed in circumstances susceptible of preserving untouched the composition of their molecules, and even most commonly the state of their aggregation. And in order to complete the definition, he adds, that the ultimate object of physical theories is to predict, as exactly as possible, all the phenomena which a body will present when placed in any given circumstances.

From these general views, it would be natural to conclude that the physical sciences in which bodies are accessible to all our senses, must be more complicated, and in a less advanced state than astronomy, where the bodies can be viewed only under two very simple aspects, namely, their forms and their motions. But as this increased complication may be compensated by increased means of investigation, this consideration leads our author to the application of his philosophical law, that in proportion as phenomena become more complicated, they are capable of being examined under a greater number of relations.

In astronomy, our art of observing is limited to the use of the single sense of sight; but in physics, all our senses may be employed to discover and compare the properties of bodies. Even with these powerful auxiliaries, however, we should make but little progress in physical research, if we did not possess another powerful instrument of investigation. This instrument is experiment, by means of which we observe bodies out of their natural state; by placing them, in artificial aspects and conditions contrived for the purpose of exhibiting to us, under the most favourable circumstances, their phenomena and their properties.

After pointing out the relative power of experimental inquiry in physiology, chemistry, and physics, our author makes the following admirable observations on the use of mathematical analysis in physical researches.

After the rational use of experimental methods, the principal basis for the improvement of physics arises from the more or less complete application of mathematical analysis. It is here that the actual domain of this analysis in natural philosophy terminates; and we shall see how chimerical it would be to expect that its empire should ever extend farther with any real efficacy, even if we limit it to chemical phenomena. The fixity and simplicity of physical phenomena, ought naturally to permit an extensive application of the mathematical instrument; though it is much less adapted to them than to. astronomical studies. This application may be either direct or indirect. The first takes place when the immediate consideration of phenomena allows us to recognise in them a fundamental numerical law which becomes the basis of a series more or less prolonged, of analytical deductions; as has been so distinctly seen when the celebrated Fourier created his fine mathematical theory of the repartition of heat, founded wholly on the principle of thermological action between two bodies proportional to the difference of their temperatures. On the other hand, however, mathematical analysis introduces itself only indirectly, that is, after the phenomena have been first brought, by an experimental inquiry, more or less difficult, to some geometrical or mechanical laws, and then it is not properly to physics that analysis applies itself, but to geometry or mechanics. Among other examples, in a geometrical point of view, we may mention the theories of reflection and refraction, and in a mechanical point of view, the study of gravity and that of part of acoustics.

But whether the introduction of analysis be mediate or immediate, it is of essential consequence that it be employed with extreme circumspection, after having severely scrutinized the reality of the first step, which can alone establish the solidity of the deduction; and that the genuine spirit of physics shall unceasingly direct this powerful instrument. It must be admitted that these conditions have been rarely fulfilled in an adequate manner by geometers, who most frequently mistaking the means for the end, have embarrassed physics with a multitude of analytical labours, founded on hypotheses very hazardous, or in conceptions entirely chimerical; and in which sound minds can see only mathematical exercises of great abstract value, but in no way calculated to advance the progress of physics. The unjust contempt which the predominance of analysis has too frequently called down upon studies purely experimental, has a tendency to displace physics from its indispensable foundations; and to drive it back to a state of uncertainty and obscurity very little removed from its former metaphysical state. Natural philosophers have therefore no other remedy for these evils than to become themselves good enough geometers to direct the use of the analytical instrument, as they do that of the other apparatus which they employ; instead of abandoning the application of it to minds which have commonly no distinct and profound idea of the phenomena, to the investigation of which they apply it.

Notwithstanding these observations, our author pays a willing homage to the great services which mathematics have conferred on physics, but he most properly recommends a change in the preliminary education of experimental philosophers; and as he regards the art of intimately uniting analysis and experiment without making the one predominate over the other, as one almost wholly unknown, he considers it as the last fundamental step of the method which is necessary for the profound study of physics.

After determining the place which physics should occupy in the scale of the fundamental sciences, and pointing out its great value as a general instrument of intellectual education, he proceeds to treat of the rational formation and the true use of hypotheses,—a task in which he is aware that he must array himself against the opinions, and run counter to the preconceptions of the great body of natural philosophers.

Our readers may remember that we, some time ago, ventured to open the trenches in this war of innovation; and it is with much satisfaction that we hail the assistance of so powerful an auxiliary as M. Comte. Under the head of the Fundamental Theory of Hypotheses, he states that there are only two general methods of developing, in a direct and rational manner, the real law of any phenomenon, or its exact and immediate relation to some more general law previously established—namely induction and deduction. But even in the case of the most simple phenomena, these methods would prove insufficient were we not often to anticipate the results by making some provisional supposition, at first essentially conjectural, with respect to some of the notions which constitute the final object of research. Hence, says our author, the introduction of hypotheses into natural philosophy is strictly indispensable. But in employing this artifice such hypotheses only are to be admitted as relate to the laws of phenomena, and are susceptible by their nature of a positive verification. Hence he excludes, as utterly chimerical and inadmissible, all those hypotheses which assume the existence of calorific or luminiferous ethers; or of those invisible, intangible, and imponderable fluids by which the phenomena of light, heat, magnetism, electricity, and galvanism have been explained; and he pronounces those hypotheses only to be scientific which bear exclusively on the laws of phenomena; and never on their modes of production—a decision which we cannot admit without great modifications. The luminiferous ethers and the electric fluids he places on the same level with the elementary spirits of Paracelsus; he expresses his surprise that their abettors do not believe in genii and guardian angels; and in mentioning the idea of a sonorous fluid, proposed by the illustrious Lamarck, he observes, that it has no other fault than that of having been proposed after acoustics had been fully constituted, and that if it had been created in the infancy of the science, it might probably have had the same good fortune as the hypotheses respecting heat, light, and electricity.

After arranging the physical sciences in the following order, Barology, Thermology, Acoustics, Optics, and Electrology, our author proceeds, in separate Lectures, to give a general view of each of these sciences. These Lectures are marked with the same sagacity which characterises every portion of his work, and contain many valuable discussions, and much interesting information. We must confess, however, that we have not perused with any degree of satisfaction our author's Lecture on optics. It is a meagre abstract both of the early and the recent history of the science; and passes over in a superficial notice, and without any adequate praise, the splendid discoveries of his own distinguished countrymen. Although many just and sagacious observations are scattered through this Lecture, yet we are strongly impressed with the conviction that our author is but imperfectly acquainted with the recent acquisitions which the science has made; and this opinion is confirmed by his repeated denunciations of the undulatory theory as an assumption utterly fantastical, and calculated only to check the progress of legitimate discovery.

This grave error, which we should not have expected from so sound a reasoner, appears to originate from two causes—from his excluding all hypotheses as unscientific which bear on 'the mode of production of phenomena,' and from his not being aware of the actual power of the undulatory theory in predicting as well as in explaining phenomena. The hypotheses which our author condemns may be arranged in three classes—those which serve no other purpose than that of all artificial memory to group and recall insulated facts; those which afford an explanation of facts otherwise unintelligible without making any assumption incompatible with our positive knowledge; and those which to this condition unite the still more important one of being able to predict new facts, and extend by real discoveries the bounds of our positive knowledge.

The first of these classes of hypotheses is a very humble one; but even in its simply mnemonic character we are not disposed to reject its aid. Though it can neither explain nor predict phenomena, it may direct the enquirer, and even lead to discovery. If in beating the bush which has no foliage we occasionally start the noblest game—the very act of putting the most unpromising speculation to the ordeal of experiment may sometimes confound error, or elicit truth:—By pursuing even the track of the mole we may discover the mine which is to be sprung beneath our feet. The same observations are applicable a fortiori to the second class of hypotheses, and still more emphatically to the third, which claims the transcendent merit of predicting new phenomena.

Now, though the undulatory theory does assume an ether, invisible, intangible, imponderable, inseparable from all bodies, and extending from our own eye to the remotest verge of the starry heavens; yet, as the expounder of phenomena the most complex, and otherwise inexplicable; and as the predicter of highly important facts, it must contain among its assumptions (though, as a physical theory, it may still be false) some principle which is inherent in, and inseparable from, the real producing cause of the phenomena of light, and to this extent it is worthy of our adoption as a valuable instrument of discovery, and of our admiration as an ingenious and fertile philosophical conception.

The hostility and strong feeling of contempt with which M. Comte delights to speak of this theory, and contrast it with the thermological researches of Baron Fourier, may have been excited by those extreme eulogies, which have been pronounced upon it in this country. When a philosopher of the Cambridge school not only announces the undulatory theory as a reality, and capable of explaining all the varied phenomena of light, but calls upon us to praise God for having created the luminiferous ether, it is scarcely to be wondered at that men more cautious in their judgments should be driven into the opposite extreme by such ludicrous extravagances.

In such scientific collisions, however, the direct interests of truth are too often sacrificed to the impulses of ambition and vanity. He who regards the labyrinth of science as already traced, will not be disposed to follow out its windings; and he who thinks that it will lead to nothing will not enter cheerfully its most inviting paths. It was scarcely to have been expected that, in the era of positive knowledge, conflicting heresies like these should have sprung up amongst the physical sciences. In lamenting their existence, we must lament still more the unbecoming spirit in which they have been propagated. If they do not shake the Temple of Science, they cannot fail to disquiet its sanctuary. It is, however, some consolation that the leading combatants are not men who have added much to positive discovery; and that those who are destined to maintain the vestal fire on its altar are not likely to disturb the flame which has been fanned by themselves.

In the preceding sketch of the objects and methods of positive knowledge, we have viewed from a distance almost infinite the vast panorama of creation—in the foreground the worlds of the solar system—in the middle distance the binary creations of remote suns—and on the farthest verge of space the embryo systems of uncompleted worlds. In this survey of the universe the mind is alone occupied with the grand ideas of magnitude and distance. Unconscious even of its own being, everything that thinks and breathes is excluded from its contemplation. Nature appears only in the lonely grandeur of her dumb and inanimate creations; and no voice is heard save that which proclaims the power and glory of her King. Retiring within our own system, we feel ourselves at home amidst primary and secondary worlds. Our own planet and its humble attendant break upon our view. Its everlasting hills—its wide-spreading ocean—its empires—rise successively to the eye. The flood and field, the hill and valley of our youth—the habitations of man—life and all its glories—home and all its endearments—intrench us again in the mysterious position from which our reason and our imagination had transported us. Overwhelmed with a painful sense of its own littleness, and learning in the very width of their range the weakness of its faculties, the Mind pants after new powers of thought and of action, and longs for the development of that mighty plan which we 'know but in part, and see but in part.'

John Stuart Mill (essay date 1841)

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SOURCE: A letter to Auguste Comte on November 8, 1841, in The Correspondence of John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte, edited and translated by Oscar A. Haac, Transaction Publishers, 1995, pp. 35-6.

[In the following letter to Comte, Mill discusses his intellectual indebtedness to Comte and his system.]

I don't know, Sir, whether someone completely unknown to you may take a few moments of time as precious as yours, to tell you about himself and the great intellectual debt he owes you; but with the encouragement of my friend, Mr. Marrast, and believing that, in the midst of your great philosophical enterprises, you would perhaps not be entirely displeased to receive an expression of sympathy and support from abroad, I dare hope that you will not judge my present letter inappropriate.

It was in the year 1828, dear Sir, that I read your short essay on Positive Polity for the first time, and this reading gave my ideas a strong jolt which, along with other causes but much more than they, was responsible for my definitive leaving the Bentham section of the revolutionary school in which I grew up; I can almost say in which was born. Although Benthamism has doubtless remained very far from the true spirit of the positive method, this doctrine appears to me even today the best preparation for true positivity, applied to social doctrines: be it on account of its tight logic and the care it always takes to understand itself, be it above all because it categorically refuses all attempts to explain any kind of phenomenon by ridiculous metaphysical entities, the essential worthlessness of which it taught me to feel from earliest youth.

I believe that I can say that ever since the time when I learned of the first sketch of your ideas on sociology, the seeds sown by this small volume did not stay fruitless in my mind. However, it was only in 1837 that I came to know the first volumes of your Course. Fortunately I was rather well-prepared to appreciate its importance, since none of the basic sciences were entirely foreign to me. I had, incidentally, always concentrated on the methodology that they might provide. Since the happy moment when I came to know these two volumes, I am always looking forward to each additional volume with keen impatience; I read it and reread it with true intellectual passion. I can say that I was already embarked in a direction rather akin to yours; but I still had to learn from you many matters of the utmost importance, and I hope to give you new proof in the near future that I have learned them well. There remain some questions of secondary rank, where my opinions do not agree with yours; one day this disagreement may well disappear. At least I believe that I do not flatter myself excessively when I say: I hold no ill-founded opinion so deeply rooted as to resist thorough discussion, such as it would encounter if you do not mind my submitting my ideas to you periodically and asking for explanations of yours.

You know, dear Sir, that religion has so far had deeper roots in our country than in the rest of Europe, even though it has lost, here as elsewhere, its traditional cultural value, and I consider it regrettable that the revolutionary philosophy, which a dozen or so years ago still was in full swing, today has fallen into neglect before completing its task. It is all the more urgent that we replace it by embarking on the path of positive philosophy: and it is with great pleasure that I can tell you that, in spite of the openly antireligious spirit of your work, this great monument of the truly modern philosophy begins to make headway here, less however among political theorists than among various kinds of scientists. Incidentally, we now come to notice for the first time, among those who cultivate the physical sciences, a rather pronounced tendency toward scientific generalities, which appears as a good omen to me and leads me to believe that we can expect more of these scientists than of political thinkers, be they theorists or men of action. Indeed, the latter have fallen as low as those in France since 1830, and everyone understands that we can undertake new things only with a new doctrine; only, most of them do not as yet believe in the advent of such a new doctrine, and consequently remain in their skepticism, which becomes ever more enervating and discouraging.

Please excuse this somewhat presumptuous attempt, dear Sir, of entering directly into intellectual communication with the one great mind of our time, whom I respect and admire most. And please believe that the realization of this wish would be for me of immense value.

G. H. Lewes (essay date 1853)

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SOURCE: "The Future," in Comte's Philosophy of the Sciences: Being an Exposition of the Principles of the Cours de philosophie positive of Auguste Comte, 1853. Reprint by George Bell and Sons, 1878, pp. 327-38.

[In the following essay, Lewes considers Comte's Law of Three States and his class system.]

Guided by his logical principles of the general extension of the Positive Method to the rational study of social phenomena, Comte has gradually applied to the whole of the past his fundamental law of the evolution at once mental and social, consisting in the passage of humanity through three successive states: the preparatory Theological state, the transitory Metaphysical state, and the final Positive state. By the aid of this single law he has explained all the great historical phases, considered as the principal consecutive phases of development, so as rightly to appreciate the true character proper to each of them, with the natural emanation of one phase from the preceding, and its tendency towards the following phase: whence results the conception of a homogeneous and continuous connection in the whole series of anterior ages, from the first manifestation of sociality, to the most advanced condition of mankind.

A law which has sufficed to fulfil adequately these conditions is no mere philosophical fancy, but must contain an abstract expression of the reality. It can be employed with rational security in connecting the future with the past. The foremost portion of mankind, after having exhausted the successive phases of Theological life, and even the different degrees of metaphysical transition, is now approaching the completely positive state, the principal elements of which have already sufficiently received their partial elaboration, and now only await their general co-ordination to constitute a new social system.

This co-ordination must be first intellectual, then moral, and lastly, political. Every attempt rising from any other logical source would be utterly powerless against the present state of disorder which is essentially mental. As long as this disorder remains, no durable institution can be possible, for want of a solid basis; and our social condition will admit of only provisionary political measures, destined for the most part to guarantee the maintenance of a degree of material Order against ambitions everywhere excited by the gradual diffusion and extension of spiritual anarchy. To fulfil this office, all governments, whatever be their form, will continue necessarily to count as they do upon nothing but a vast system of corruption, assisted, on occasions of necessity, by a repressive force.

Nothing of what is at present classed is capable of being directly incorporated in the final system, all the elements of which must previously undergo an entire intellectual and moral regeneration: thus the future spiritual power, the first basis of a genuine reorganization, will reside in an entirely new class, having no analogy with any of those now existing, and originally composed of members issuing indifferently, according to their peculiar individual vocation, from all ranks of society; the gradual arrival at this salutary incorporation will be also essentially spontaneous, since its social ascendancy can result only from the voluntary assents of all intelligences to the new doctrines successively worked out: so that by its nature such an authority could neither be decreed nor interdicted.

As we have recognized in principle that the evolution of mankind is characterized by a perpetually increasing influence of the speculative over the active life, although the latter will always preserve the actual ascendancy, it would be contradictory to suppose that the contemplative part of man will remain for ever deprived of proper cultivation and distinct direction in a social state in which intelligence will have the most habitual exercise, even among the lowest classes.

At a time when all thinking minds admit the necessity of a permanent division between theory and practice for the simultaneous perfecting of both, in the least important subjects to which our efforts are directed, can we hesitate to extend this healthy principle to the most difficult and most important operations, when such a progress has become sufficiently realizable? Now, under the purely mental aspect, the separation of the two powers, spiritual and temporal, is in fact the mere exterior manifestation of the same distinction between science and art, transferred to social ideas, and made systematic.

While spiritual reorganization is the most urgent, it is also, in spite of the great difficulties attending it, the best prepared amongst the most advanced minds. On one hand, existing governments renouncing the task of directing such an operation, tend thereby to confer this high office upon that philosophical system which shall prove worthy of presiding over it. On the other hand, the populations radically freed from metaphysical illusions by the teaching of half a century of decisive experiments, begin to understand that all the social progress compatible with current doctrines has been accomplished, and that no important political institution can now arise which is not based upon an entirely new philosophy.

The general principle which determines the separation between the respective attributes of spiritual and temporal power consists in considering the spiritual authority as decisive in all that concerns education, whether special or general, and merely deliberative in all that concerns action, whether private or public, its habitual interference being only to recall in every case the rules of conduct previously established. The temporal authority, on the contrary, entirely absolute as far as regards action, to the extent of being able, under responsibility as to results, to follow a line of conduct opposed to the corresponding authority, cannot exercise more than a simple deliberative influence over education, being limited to solicit the revision or partial modification of the precepts apparently condemned by practice.

It is principally as a general basis to such a system that the Positive Philosophy must be previously coordinated and established, destined as it is to furnish henceforward to the human mind a resting-place, by means of a homogeneous and hierarchical series of positive ideas, at once logical and scientific, upon all orders of phenomena, from the lowest to the most eminent moral and social phenomena.

Positive education will be principally characterized by the final systematization of human ethics, which, freed from all theological conceptions, will rest on positive philosophy. The indefinite dispersion of religious creeds left to individuals will prevent anything being established on such insecure foundations. What philosophical inconsistency can be compared to that of our deists, whose dream is now the consecration of morality, by a religion without a revelation, without a worship, and without a clergy?

Humanity must be looked upon as still in a state of infancy, as long as its principal rules of conduct, instead of being drawn from a just appreciation of its own nature, shall continue to rest upon extraneous fictions. Such is the general aim, nature, and character of the spiritual reorganization which must necessarily commence and direct the entire regeneration, towards which we have seen the permanent course of all the different social movements, since the middle ages, more or less directly converge.

As to the temporal reorganization, we will confine ourselves to the general principle of the elementary coordination of modern society.

In proceeding to do this, we must set aside the distinction between the two sorts of functions, public and private. In every truly constituted social body, each member may, and ought to be, considered as a public functionary, inasmuch as his particular activity concurs with the general economy.

The dignity which still animates the most obscure soldier in the exercise of his humblest duties, is certainly not peculiar to the military order; it belongs equally to everything that is systematic; it will one day ennoble the simplest profession, when Positive Education, causing a just general notion of modern sociality to prevail everywhere, shall have made it sufficiently understood by all, that each partial activity has a continuous participation in the common economy. Thus the general cessation of the division now existing between private and public professions, depends necessarily upon the universal regeneration of modern ideas and manners.

Although this final elevation of private professions to the dignity of public functions will certainly make no essential change in the existing mode of exercising them, it will entirely transform their general spirit, and probably have a considerable effect upon their usual conditions. Whilst on the one hand such a normal appreciation will develop in all classes a noble personal feeling of their social value, it will on the other hand make evident the permanent necessity of a certain systematic discipline, tending to guarantee the preliminary and continuous obligations proper to every career. In one word, this simple change will constitute spontaneously an universal symptom of regeneration.

In every society, whatever be its nature and destination, each different partial activity becomes classed according to the degree of generality which distinguishes its habitual character. Consequently the real philosophical difficulty in this matter consists in the true appreciation of the different degrees of generality inherent in the different functions of the positive organism.

Now this has already been almost entirely accomplished, although with another intention. Social progress, in fact, first presented itself to us as a sort of necessary prolongation of the animal series, in which beings are the more elevated the nearer they approach to the human type; whilst, on the other hand, the human evolution is especially characterized by its constant tendency to make those essential attributes predominant which distinguish man from the animal. Such is the first basis which positive philosophy will naturally furnish to social classification.

The first application of this hierarchical theory to the new social economy leads us to conceive the speculative class as superior to the active class, since the first affords a wider field for the exercise of the faculties of generalization and abstraction which form the great distinction of human nature. For this purpose, however, it is first necessary that the members of this speculative class should be sufficiently freed from that speciality in their studies and ideas, which we have seen to be a decided obstacle to the elaboration of a Philosophy, although originally indispensable an a division of labour.

The speculative class separates itself into two distinct parts, according to the two very different directions taken by the contemplative spirit, sometimes philosophical or scientific, sometimes aesthetic or poetical. Whatever the social importance of the Fine Arts, it is unquestionable that the aesthetic point of view is less abstract and less general than the philosophical or aesthetic. The latter has immediate relation to the fundamental conceptions destined to direct the universal exercise of human reason, whereas the other merely relates to the faculty of expression, which can never occupy the first rank in our mental system.

The active or practical class, which necessarily embraces an immense majority in its more distinct and complete development, has already made its essential divisions appreciable: so that with respect to them the hierarchical theory has only to systematize the distinctions hitherto consecrated by use. To this end we must consider first the principal division of industrial activity into production, properly so called, and the transmission of products. The second is evidently superior to the first, as regards the abstract nature of its operations, and the generality of its relations.

After dividing the active or practical class into two principal categories, one of which confines itself to production, while the other employs itself in the transmission of products, Comte again subdivides each of these into two according as the production is that of simple materials, or their direct employment, and as the transmission refers to the products themselves or merely to their representative signs. It is plain that of these two divisions the last has a more general and abstract character than the preceding one, conformably to our established rule of classification. These two divisions constitute the real industrial hierarchy: placing in the highest rank the Bankers, by reason of the superior generality and abstract nature of their operations; next the Merchants, then the Manufacturers, and lastly the Agriculturists, whose labours are necessarily more concrete, and whose relations are more restricted than those of the other three practical classes.

By an easy combination of the preceding indications every one may form a conception of the positive economy. The normal classification resulting from it will be naturally consolidated by its homogeneity: since in this hierarchy no class can refuse to recognize the superior dignity of the preceding one, except by immediately altering his own position towards the one following, the uniformity of the principle of co-ordination being constant. The same hierarchical principle extended to domestic life, comprises the true law of the subordination of the sexes.

By imposing moral obligations, more extensive and more strict in proportion as social influences become more general, the fundamental education will directly tend also to the abuses inherent in these necessary inequalities. It is clear, too, that these different elementary tendencies of the new economy cannot obtain their social efficacy until a system of universal education shall have sufficiently developed the attributes and manners which must distinguish these different classes, and of which we can form no idea in the present confused state of things.

Considered with regard to the degrees of material preponderance, henceforward measurable principally by wealth, our statical series presents necessarily opposite results according as we examine the speculative or the active class: for in the former the preponderance diminishes, while in the latter it augments, as we ascend in the hierarchy. If, for example, the first cooperation, seen in a purely industrial point of view, of the grand astronomical discoveries which have brought material arts to their present perfection, could be duly appreciated in every expedition, it is evident that no existing fortune could give any idea of the monstrous accumulation of riches which would thus have been realized by the temporal heirs of a Kepler, a Newton, &c, even if their partial remuneration were fixed at the lowest rate. Nothing can serve better than such hypotheses to demonstrate the absurdity of the pretended principle relative to an uniformly pecuniary remuneration for all real services; proving as they do that the most extensive usefulness, inasmuch as it is too distant and too much diffused in consequence of its superior generality, can never find its just recompense except in the higher social consideration it enjoys.

From these remarks it is clear that the principal pecuniary ascendancy will reside in about the middle of the entire hierarchy, in the class of bankers, naturally placed at the head of the industrial movement, and whose ordinary operations have precisely the degree of generality most proper for the accumulation of capital. Here it is that we shall find the principal ultimate seat of temporal power, properly so called. We must remark also, on this subject, that this class will always be by its nature the least numerous of the industrial classes; for in general the positive hierarchy will necessarily present an increasing numerical extension in proportion as its labours becoming more special and more urgent, admit and require at once more multifarious agents.

After this sociological summary it would surely be superfluous to add any direct explanation of the necessarily mobile composition of the various classes making up the positive hierarchy. Universal education is eminently fitted in this respect, without exciting any disturbing ambitions, to place every one in the situation most suitable to his principal aptitudes, in whatever rank he may have been born. This happy influence, far more dependent by its nature upon public opinion than upon political institutions, demands two opposite conditions both equally indispensable, the fulfillment of which will in no wise assail the essential basis of the general economy. On the one hand it is necessary that the access to every social career should remain constantly open to just individual pretensions, and that nevertheless, on the other hand, the exclusion of the unworthy should be always practicable according to the common appreciation of the normal guarantees, both intellectual and moral, which the fundamental education will have prescribed for every important case.

Doubtless after the present existing confusion shall have terminated in some primary regular classification, such changes, although always possible, will become essentially exceptional, being considerably neutralized by the natural tendency to hereditary professions: for the greater number of men have in reality no special vocation, and at the same time the greater number of the social functions require none; which will naturally leave a great habitual efficacy to imitation, except in the very rare cases of a real predisposition.

It would besides be evidently chimerical to dread the ultimate transformation of classes into castes, in an economy entirely free from the theological principle: for it is clear that castes could never have any solid existence without a religious consecration. Puerile terror on this score must not be made the occasion or pretext for an indefinite opposition to every true social classification, when the preponderance of the positive spirit, always in its nature accessible to a wide discussion, will be able to dissipate the anxieties raised by the vague and absolute character of theologico-metaphysical conceptions.

Let us now consider the great spiritual reorganization of modern society, pointing out its intimate connection with the just social reclamations of the lower classes. Every spiritual power should be essentially popular, since its most extended sphere of duty relates to the constant protection of the most numerous classes, habitually the most exposed to oppression, and with which the education common to all leads it into daily contact. In the final state the spiritual class will be connected with the popular mass by common sympathies, consequent upon a certain similitude of situation, and parallel habits of material improvidence, as well as by analogous interests with regard to the temporal chiefs, necessarily possessors of the principal wealth.

But we must especially remark the extreme popular efficacy of speculative authority, whether by reason of its office of universal education, or because of the regular interference which, according to our previous indications, it will always exercise in the different conflicts of society: thereby developing suitably the mediatory influence habitually attendant on the elevation of its views, and the generosity of its inclinations. Narrow views and malignant passions will in vain attempt to institute legally laborious hindrances against the accumulation of capital, at the risk of paralyzing directly all real social activity. It is clear that these tyrannical proceedings will have much less real efficacy than the universal reprobation applied by the positive ethics to any utterly selfish use of the wealth possessed.

When the new speculative class shall have arisen, the great practical collisions continually becoming more numerous in the total absence of any industrial systematization, will doubtless constitute the principal occasions of its social development, by making apparent to all classes the increasing utility of its active moral intervention, alone capable of sufficiently tempering material antagonism, and of habitually modifying the opposing sentiments of envy and disdain inspired on either hand. The classes most disposed at present to recognize the real ascendancy which wealth enjoys, will then be led by decisive and probably melancholy experience to implore the necessary protection of that very spiritual power which they now look upon as essentially chimerical.

It is in this manner that a power which by its nature can rest on no other foundation than that of its universal free recognition, will be gradually established on the ground of the services rendered by it. The popular point of view is henceforward the only one which can spontaneously offer at once sufficient grandeur and distinctness to be able to place the minds of men in a truly organic direction.

The unavailing changes of individuals, ministerial or even royal, which appear of so much importance to the various present factions, will naturally become quite indifferent to the people, whose own social interests can in no wise be affected thereby.

The assurance of education and work to every one will always constitute the sole essential object of popular policy properly so called: now this great end, perfectly separated from constitutional discussions and combinations, can never be adequately attained but by a real reorganization; first and foremost spiritual; afterwards necessarily temporal.

Such is the connection which the entire situation of modern society institutes between popular necessities and philosophical tendencies, and according to which the true social point of view will gradually prevail in proportion as the active intervention of the People, speaking in their name, begins to characterize more and more the grand political problem.

Emile Durkheim (essay date 1895)

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SOURCE: "Sociology and the Social Sciences (1903)," in The Rules of Sociological Method, and Selected Texts on Sociology and Its Method, edited by Steven Lukes, translated by W. D. Halls, The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1982, pp. 175-208.

[In the following essay, originally written in 1895, Durkheim discusses Comte's conception of sociology.]

Engendered within a philosophy, sheer necessity obliged sociology from the beginning to display the distinctive character of any philosophical discipline: a leaning towards general, overall views and, in contrast, a certain indifference to factual details and specialist investigations. Consequently it was natural for it to develop untrammelled by any special techniques, as an autonomous mode of speculation, capable of being self-sufficient. This stance was moreover justified by the state in which the sciences then were and by the spirit which infused them, one which on these essential points was radically opposed to that on which the new science proceeded. Not without reason does Comte reproach political economy in his day with not being a truly positivist science, but with still being shot through with metaphysical philosophy, lingering over sterile discussions on the elementary notions of value, utility and production. Such discussions, he declares, recall 'the strange debates of the medieval Schoolmen about the basic attributes of their pure, metaphysical entities'. Moreover, the general admission by economists of 'the necessary isolation of their so-called science in relation to social philosophy in general' justifiably appeared to him to constitute 'an involuntary recognition, decisive though indirect, of the scientific uselessness of that theory. . . . For, by the very nature of the subject, in social studies as in all those relating to living objects, by force of necessity the various general aspects are solidly linked to one another and are rationally inseparable, to the point where they can only be clearly elucidated by reference to one another'. In fact [it] is certain that the notion of natural law as understood by Comte was unknown to economic science. Undoubtedly the economists freely used the word 'law', but on their lips it possessed none of the meaning that it had in the sciences of nature. It did not connote relationships between facts, objectively observable among things, but purely logical connexions between concepts formed in entirely ideological fashion.

For the economist the task was not to discover what occurs in reality or investigate how stated effects derive from causes that are likewise stated, but mentally to combine purely formal notions such as value, utility, scarcity, supply and demand. The same charge could be levelled against the most current theories concerning law and morality—that of Montesquieu no less than of Kant.

For such diverse reasons, therefore, sociology could only achieve a consciousness of itself within the framework of philosophical thinking, remote from special disciplines and their influence. Indeed this characteristic sprang from causes too deep-seated to be entirely abandoned from the moment when the science began to be organised. Thus it is in no way surprising to discover that it recurs with Spencer, Comte's immediate successor. It is abundantly plain that Spencer worked on sociology as a philosopher, because he did not set out to study social facts in themselves and for their own sake, but in order to demonstrate how the hypothesis of evolution is verified in the social realm. But in so doing he was able to complement and correct in important respects the general conceptions of Comtean sociology. Although Comte had definitively integrated societies with nature, the excessive intellectualism which marked his doctrine was not easily reconcilable with that fundamental axiom of all sociology. If scientific evolution determines political, economic, moral and aesthetic evolution, a wide gulf separates sociological explanations from those employed in the other sciences of nature, so that it is difficult to avoid relapsing into ideology. By showing that under different forms the same law governs the social and the physical worlds, Spencer narrowed the gap between societies and the rest of the universe. He gave us a sense that, beneath the facts produced on the surface of the collective consciousness—facts which are interpreted as being the fruits of reflective thinking—obscure forces are at work which do not move men to act out of that sheer logical necessity which links together the successive phases of scientific development. On the other hand Comte did not admit that a large number of social types existed. According to him, only one society existed, the association of mankind in its totality; the various states represented only different moments in the history of that one society. Sociology was therefore placed in a peculiar position among all the sciences, since the object of study was an entity of a unique kind. Spencer disposed of this anomaly by showing that societies, like organisms, can be classified into genera and species and, whatever the merits of the classification he proposed, the principle at least was worthy of retention and has in fact survived. Although elaborated in philosophical terms, these two reforms thus represented invaluable gains for the science.

Yet if this way of understanding and developing sociology has at a given moment in time certainly been necessary and useful, that necessity and usefulness proved only temporary. To build itself up and even take its first steps forward, sociology needed to rely upon a philosophy. But to become truly itself, it was indispensable for it to assume a different character.

The very example of Comte can serve to prove this point, for because of its philosophical character, the sociology he constructed was in no position to satisfy any of the conditions which he himself demanded for any positivist science.

In fact, of the two divisions that he distinguished in sociology, the static and the dynamic, he really treated only the latter. From his viewpoint this was moreover the more important, for if, according to him, social facts exist distinct from purely individual phenomena, this is chiefly because a progressive evolution of humanity occurs. It is because the work of each generation survives it and is aggregated to that of succeeding generations. Progress is the paramount social fact. Thus social dynamism, as he expounded it, in no way presents 'that continuity and that fecundity' which, as Comte himself observed, constitute 'the least equivocal symptoms of all truly scientific conceptions', for he himself considered that he had finally explained social dynamism in broad terms. In fact, it is contained wholly in the law of the three stages. Once this law had been discovered it was impossible to see how it could be added to or extended, and even less so, how different laws might be discovered. The science was already complete before it had hardly been founded. In fact those disciples of Comte who adhered closely to the substance of his doctrine could do no more than reproduce the propositions of their master, sometimes illustrating them with new examples, but without such purely formal variants ever constituting truly new discoveries. This explains the full stop to the development of the strictly Comtean school after Comte's death; the same formulae were religiously repeated without any progress being realised. This is because a science cannot live and develop when it is reduced to one single problem on which, at an ever-increasing distance in time, a great mind has placed its seal. For progress to be accomplished, the science must resolve itself into an increasingly large number of specific questions, so as to render possible co-operation between different minds and between successive generations. Only upon this condition will it have the collective, impersonal character without which there is no scientific research. But the philosophical and unitary conception which Comte imposed upon sociology ran counter to this division of labour. Thus his social dynamics are in the end only a philosophy of history, remarkable for its profundity and novel character, but constructed on the model of earlier philosophies. The task is to discern the law which controls 'the necessary and continuous movement of humanity', which alone will allow insertion into the succession of historical events the unity and continuity which they lack. But Bossuet set himself no other task. The method varies, as does the solution, but the investigation is no different in kind.

Yet, despite the lesson that could have been learnt from the failure of such an attempt, sociology has remained for most of our contemporaries approximately what it was for Comte, as essentially philosophical speculation. Over the last twenty years we have seen a veritable flowering of sociological literature. Its production, once intermittent and sparse, has become continuous; new systems have been constructed and others are being constructed every day. But they are always, or almost always, systems in which the entire science is more or less undisguisedly reduced to a single problem. As with Comte and Spencer, the task is to discover the law which governs social evolution as a whole. For some it is the law of imitation, for others it is the law of adaptation, or the struggle for survival and, more particularly, the struggle between races. For yet another it is the influence of the physical environment, etc. Really, as we survey all these seekers after the supreme law, the cause which dominates all causes, the 'key which opens all locks', we cannot help thinking of the alchemists of former days in their search for the philosopher's stone.

Far from there having been any progress, rather has there been regression. For Comte, at least sociology was the complete science of social facts, encompassing the multifarious aspects of collective life. No category of phenomena was systematically excluded from it. If Comte refused to regard political economy as a sociological science, it is because in his day it was treated in a thoroughly unscientific spirit and because it mistook the true nature of social reality. But in no way did he intend to place economic facts beyond the pale of sociology. Consequently the way remained open for a further division of labour, for an increasing specialisation in problems, as the domain of the science was extended and its complexity more fully grasped. The very opposite has occurred. The latest sociologists have gradually developed the idea that sociology is distinct from the social sciences, that there is a general social science which contrasts with these special disciplines, one with its own subject matter, its own special method, to which is reserved the name of sociology. Starting from the fact that the social sciences have been constituted outside the great philosophical syntheses which gave rise to the word sociology, it has been concluded from this that there must exist two kinds of investigations clearly different in kind, and efforts have been made to differentiate between them. Whilst each science specialises in a determinate category of social phenomena, it has been stated that sociology has as its subject collective life in general. It is by virtue of this designation as being a general social science that it constitutes a distinct and individual entity.

L. Levy-Bruhl (essay date 1900)

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SOURCE: "Conclusion," in The Philosophy of August Comte, Swan Sonnenschein & Co. Lim., 1903, pp. 343-63.

[In the following essay, Levy-Bruhl contrasts Comte's philosophy with the metaphysics that preceded it.]

At the end of the Cours de philosophie positive Comte has himself summed up the results which he believed himself to have established. In the first place it is, from the intellectual point of view (which at first takes precedence of all others, although, in the positive state, the mind must be subject to the heart), a "perfect mental coherence which, as yet, has never been able to exist in a like degree," not even in the primitive period when man explained the phenomena of nature by the action of wills. For already, in this period, although imperceptibly, the positive spirit was making itself felt, while, in the positive period, nothing will subsist of the theological and metaphysical mode of thought. From the moral point of view, which comes next, the agreement of minds upon speculative problems, and in particular upon the relations between man and humanity, will allow of a common education, which will bring about ardent moral conviction in all. Powerful "public prejudices" will develop, and with them, such irresistible fullness of conviction, according to Comte, that Humanity will be able to realise what our penal system is incapable of achieving: to prevent instead of punishing, at least in the majority of cases. From the political point of view, the two spiritual and temporal powers will be duly separated, and a lasting organisation will at once insure order and progress. Finally, from the aesthetic point of view, a new art will appear. No longer an aristocratic and learned art like the one which has been with us since the Renaissance, but an art closely connected with the convictions and the life of all, which will be accessible and familiar to all, as was the case with the art of the Middle Ages. The positive conception of man and of the world, will become an "inexhaustible spring" of poetical beauty.

All these results will be ordered, protected and sanctified by the positive religion, or religion of Humanity, of which Auguste Comte, in his "second career," established the dogma, the worship and the régime.

Without entering into the details of this religious construction we see that, like the ethics and the politics, it depends upon the "perfect mental coherence" founded, in the first place, by positive philosophy. In its turn, this perfect mental coherence, reduces itself to the unity of the understanding, whose necessary and sufficient conditions are "homogeneity of doctrine and unity of method." Now, when Comte began to write, this homogeneity and this unity already existed for all the categories of natural phenomena. The moral and social phenomena alone were still an exception. In conclusion everything was reduced to this question: "can moral and social facts be studied in the same way as the other natural phenomena?" If not, we must be resigned to the indefinite duration of the disorder of minds, and consequently of the disorder of customs and institutions. But, if the contrary is true, then the human understanding reaches the unity to which it aspires. Is sociology impossible? then we have no politics and no religion. Is sociology founded? then all the rest is based upon it.

Thus, the creation of social science is the decisive moment in Comte's philosophy. Everything starts from it and comes back to it. As in Platonism, all paths lead to the theory of ideas, so, from all the avenues of positivism we see sociology. Here, as in a common centre, are joined the sciences, the theory of knowledge, the philosophy of history, psychology, ethics, politics and religion. Here, in a word, is realised the unity of system, a unity which, in Comte's eyes, is the best proof of its truth.

If, in sociology, we chiefly consider the end which Comte proposes to attain by its means, it is true that this doctrine is principally a political one, and the very title of Comte's second great work bears this out. But, considered in itself, it is essentially a speculative effort, and the principle of a philosophy in the proper sense of the term. What Kant called a totality of experience is made possible by the creation of social science.

Before Comte, this totality had been attempted many times. But those who attempted it started from this postulate that philosophy is specifically distinct from scientific knowledge proper. Whether philosophy were dogmatic or critical, whether it had bearings upon the essence of things or rather upon the laws of the mind, it none the less presented characteristics of its own, which seemed to separate it from positive science, and even allowed it to dominate over this science, and to "explain" its principles. Comte rejects this postulate. He is going to endeavour to see if, by taking the contrary postulate as his foundation, he will not succeed better than his predecessors.

In order to reject the postulate admitted by philosophers before him, he appeals at the same time to arguments founded on facts and demonstration; but we must notice that, in his doctrine, these two orders of arguments logically reduce themselves to one another. Indeed he says, up to the present time no philosophy which commands acceptance by all minds has been established. Idealisms, materialisms, pantheisms from all sources and in every shape have never done more than ruin the doctrines opposed to them, without becoming finally established themselves. Those systems claimed to give a rational knowledge of that which by nature is beyond the reach of science. They prided themselves upon explaining the essence, the cause, the end and the order of the phenomena of the universe. Thus they could only build up temporary conceptions which were undoubtedly indispensable at the time but which were doomed to die. Metaphysics is never anything but a rationalized theology which is weakened by this very fact, and deprived of what constituted its strength during the period when it was an object of belief.

But in the name of what principle can Comte discern what is and what is not "beyond the reach of science?" In order to justify a distinction of this kind should he not before everything begin by a criticism of the human mind, that is to say by a theory of knowledge similar to that proposed by Kant in his "Criticism of Pure Reason"? M. Renouvier endeavours to show that, through the absence of this preliminary criticism, with which Comte dispensed, his philosophy remains superficial. Mr. Max Muller expressly says that there is no need to take into account a philosophical doctrine which proceeds as if the "Criticism of Pure Reason" had not been written.

On the whole the objection reduces itself to reproaching Comte with not having attempted to do what he considered to be impracticable: namely, not to have determined the intellectual laws by the analysis of the mind reflecting upon itself. But, it is said, by what right does he affirm that this is impossible? Because, like all the others, these laws can only be discovered by means of the observation of facts, and because the only method which is suitable for the discovery of intellectual facts is the sociological method: the nature of these facts being such that, especially from the dynamic point of view, they can only be grasped in the evolution of humanity. The theory of knowledge demanded by M. Renouvier and Mr. Max Muller is not wanted in positive philosophy. It is not seen in this philosophy, because it is not presented in its traditional form. It is there none the less; but, instead of consisting in an analysis a priori of thought, as a preliminary to philosophy, it is not separated from the philosophy itself. It is one of the many aspects of sociology.

In the positive doctrine, as in all the others, there are dialectics—dialectics which are no longer abstract and logical, but real and historical. They do not seek to see the laws of the human mind through an effort at reflection in which the mind, beneath the phenomena, apprehends its very essence. They endeavour to discover these laws in the necessary sequence of periods which constitute the progress of the human mind. They, in their turn, study the "universal subject" whose forms, categories and principles have been determined by Kant a priori. But this universal subject is no longer reason grasping itself, so to speak, outside and above the conditions of time and of experience: it is the human mind becoming conscious of the laws of its activity through the study of its own past. Instead of the "absolute ego" of "impersonal reason," or of the "conscience of the understanding," positive philosophy analyses the intellectual history of humanity. It has then neither ignored nor neglected the problem. It has put it in new terms, and has been obliged to deal with it by a new method.

The critic is free to point out the defects of this method and the insufficiency of these terms. But, to reproach positive philosophy with not having dealt with the problem in the usual form in which it is taken by metaphysicians, and, for this reason, to put it aside unexamined, is to commit a kind of "petitio principii." If Comte abstains from attempting an abstract theory of knowledge, he gives philosophical reasons for his refusal to do so. Before condemning him, it is but right to examine them. Had he done what M. Renouvier and Mr. Max Muller reproach him with having omitted, he would have contradicted himself. There would have been no reason for the existence of his system. He claimed to have reformed the very conception of philosophy: can we reproach him with the fact that his conception does not coincide with the view preferred by his adversaries? Briefly that which, according to Comte, characterises positive philosophy, is that it no longer requires for its constitution what in the judgment of M. Renouvier and Mr. Max Muller on the contrary, is indispensable. Are they or is he in the right? The question cannot evidently be solved by the mere affirmation of those interested. The examination of the doctrines themselves is necessary.


The position taken by Comte may be briefly defined in a few words. Seeing that philosophy, such at least as it had been conceived until the XIX. century, could not assume the characteristics of science, he asks himself whether one would not succeed better by endeavouring to give the characteristics of science to philosophy. Like Kant, he might have compared the revolution he was attempting to that accomplished by Copernicus in astronomy, had he not preferred to present it as prepared and gradually brought about by the very "progress" of science and philosophy.

According to his own expression then he endeavours "to transform science into philosophy." But on what conditions will the transformation be effected? If science were to lose in it its characteristics of positiveness, of reality, and of relativity, to assume those of a metaphysical doctrine, this change would be neither desirable nor possible. The transformation will simply consist in giving to science the philosophical character which it does not yet possess, namely universality. While thus acquiring a new property, positive science should lose none of those which it already possesses, and which constitute its value.

Thus, in the "transformation of science into philosophy," what is transformed at bottom is not science which remains itself while becoming general from being special: it is philosophy rather which is transformed. The latter will henceforth undoubtedly be conceived as the highest and most comprehensive form of positive knowledge, but as constituting a part of that knowledge. It has been said that Comte does away with philosophy, by reducing it to being merely the "generalisation of the highest results of the sciences." This is not a proper interpretation of his thought. Up to the present time the duties performed by the philosophical doctrines have been indispensable. Comte intends that his system shall fulfil them in future. Beside science properly so-called, which is always special, philosophy which represents the "point of view of the whole" must arise. On this condition alone can the government of minds and the "perfect logical coherence" become possible.

Philosophy will then not merely be a "generalisation of the highest results of the sciences." The synthesis of the sciences must be brought about according to a principle to which they will be all related. It must really be a "summing up of experience." But if this philosophy thus coalesces with science it must also be real like it, and all real knowledge is necessarily positive and relative. In short, the distinction between science and philosophy implies no specific difference between these two kinds of speculation. On the contrary, there exists between them homogeneity of doctrine and unity of method.

Therein lies the novelty of Comte's system. The question was, without leaving the scientific point of view, to discover a single universal conception of the whole of Reality as we find it in experience. The solution of this problem was found on the day when Comte created social science. For indeed, in the first place, sociology makes the positive method universal by extending it to the highest order of natural phenomena accessible to us. Moreover, once it is established as a special science, ipso facto it assumes the character of a universal science, and consequently of a philosophy. Under a certain aspect, sociology is the sixth and last of the fundamental sciences. Under another aspect it is the only science, since the other sciences may be regarded as great sociological facts, and since the whole of what is given to us is subordinated to the supreme idea of humanity.

Such is the way in which the transformation of science into philosophy takes place. If it dates from the foundation of sociology, it is because, once this last positive science has been created, nothing remains in nature of which we conceive the possibility of obtaining an absolute knowledge. "The relative character of scientific conception is necessarily inseparable from the true notion of natural laws, in the same way as the chimerical tendency to absolute knowledge spontaneously accompanies whatever use we make of the logical fictions or of metaphysical entities."

Considered as a whole, the object of positive science, according to Comte, necessarily coincides with that of philosophy. For both of them it is the whole of the reality given to us. The human mind cannot exert itself in a vacuum. What it might draw from itself, without the help of experience, (if such a conception be not absurd), is purely fictitious, and has no objective value. If then the human mind remains attached to a metaphysical philosophy, this can only be in so far as the mind still conceives the whole or a part of reality from the absolute point of view, that is to say in so far as it still fails to understand that the laws of phenomena alone are within its reach, and persists in seeking the essence and the first or final cause for some among them. There was a time when the whole of reality was so understood. The conception of the world was then entirely metaphysical or partly theological. But the human mind has gradually constituted the positive science, first of the more simple and more general phenomena, and then of the more complicated ones. Finally the most complex of all, that is to say, the moral and social phenomena alone remained untouched by the scientific form. Let us suppose that this last order of facts is conquered by the positive method: the metaphysical mode of thought being no longer possessed of real objects, ipso facto disappears. At the same time the positive mode of thought becomes universal, and positive philosophy is founded.

In this way two great connected facts which occupy a considerable place in the philosophical history of our century are explained. We understand: 1. that the fate of metaphysics appears to be closely bound up with that of psychology, of ethics of the philosophy of history and of the moral sciences in general, while the connection between physics, for instance, and metaphysics seems to be very weak; 2. that the foundation of sociology determines that of positive philosophy. So long as psychology speculates upon the nature of the soul and upon the laws of thought; ethics, upon the final cause of man; the philosophy of history, upon the final cause of humanity; metaphysics remains standing. Indeed it seems better able than positive knowledge to lead the human mind to a conception of the whole of the real. It appears to be all the more appropriate for doing this in that the point of view of the Absolute can be easily made to harmonise with the point of view of the Universal, in the same way as the conception of substance, whatever it may be, leads without any difficulty to the conception of the unity of substance. But, from the day when we no longer should seek anything but the laws of psychical, moral and social facts, refraining from any hypothesis as to causes and essences, (a method already made use of for all the other categories of phenomena), three results would be obtained at a single blow: metaphysical philosophy would disappear, social science would be created, and positive philosophy would be founded.

According to the essential law of social dynamics, the metaphysical stage is never anything but a transitory one between the theological and the positive stages. The human intellect could not pass immediately from the former to the latter. The metaphysical stage which can assume an endless number of forms and of degrees, insensibly leads it from one to the other. Metaphysical philosophy partakes of the theological in so far as it claims to "explain" the totality of the Real by means of a first principle, and of the positive, in so far as it endeavours to demonstrate its "explanations," and to bring them into accordance with the real knowledge already acquired. It originates in theology and it ends in science. But, however near it may come to positive knowledge, its original theological brand is never effaced. Were they compelled to choose between the theological and the positive doctrines, metaphysicians would certainly adopt the former. The essence of metaphysical philosophy is to tend towards the absolute, whilst positive philosophy only seeks the relative. In favouring the progress of positive science, metaphysical philosophy was working to make itself useless.

To those then who reproach him with not leaving any function proper to philosophy, Comte would answer that, in his doctrine, philosophy is on the contrary better defined and more fully constituted than in any other. Indeed metaphysical philosophy has never been anything but a compromise, destined to satisfy more or less, the needs of theological explanation and of rational science. But positive philosophy is pure and unalloyed with heterogenous elements. It gives to the whole of experience all the intelligibility which we can hope for, through the discovery of laws, and, in particular, of the encyclopedic laws. By making humanity the supreme end at once of our speculation and of our activity, it furnishes morality and politics with a definite basis, and gives religion an object. In this way, according to Comte, positive philosophy is more truly a philosophy than metaphysics, since it secures the homogeneity of knowledge and the "perfect mental coherence," and it is also more truly religious since, as its final conclusion, it shows that the end of the intellect itself lies in devotion to humanity.


Every new philosophical doctrine is in general guided by a double tendency. At the same time it seeks to establish its originality and to find out its antecedents. In order to reach the former result, it criticises preceding and contemporary doctrines, and shows that, better than any of the others, it succeeds in "summing up experience." But, at the same time, it discovers a pedigree for itself in history which is never very difficult to establish.

Like the others, positive philosophy fulfills this two-fold requirement, in such measure, however, as its particular nature and the definition of its object reasonably allow. Properly speaking, it does not undertake to refute the metaphysical systems which it deems itself destined to replace. Those systems in refuting positive philosophy, are faithful to their principle; and positive philosophy is faithful to its own principle in not following their example. It suffices for it to "locate" them in the general evolution of the human mind, and to show, according to this law of evolution, how the very necessity which brought them into being is also the cause of their disappearance. Their office is fulfilled, their part is ended. It matters little that they should seek to prolong an ebbing existence; cases of survival may slacken the rate of progress, but they are powerless to arrest it. And so positive philosophy is the only one which can be perfectly just towards its adversaries. "It ceases," says Comte, "being critical in regard to the whole of the past." In order to be established, it does not require to combat and to supplant the philosophies which have preceded it. With itself, it places all doctrines in history. It substitutes the historical genesis to abstract dialectics.

Undoubtedly Comte recognises a long series of his precursors properly so-called, in the double line of philosophers and scientific men who have contributed to the progress of the positive spirit from Aristotle and Archimedes to Condorcet and Gall. But positive philosophy, none the less, looks upon itself as heir to all the philosophies, even to those which are most opposed to its principle. For they, like the others, have been necessary moments in the progress which was to end in the positive system.

Thus considered in its relation to the metaphysical speculation which preceded it, this system does not refute it, for it is neither necessary nor even possible for it to do so. Neither does it incorporate it within itself, for it could not do so without a formal contradiction. Still, according to Comte's own confession, it proceeds from metaphysics as much as from science properly so-called. In what then does this relation consist, if positive philosophy neither opposes nor adopts previous doctrines?—It transposes them. What its predecessors had studied from the absolute point of view, it projects upon the relative plane.

As we proceeded we have noted more than one of these transpositions. It may perhaps not be useless to make a recapitulation of them here, without, however, claiming for it perfect completeness.

This list might easily be prolonged. Once again it shows us that, in the history of philosophy as in history in general, the result of the most apparently radical revolutions is not so much to abolish as to transform. Thus, Kant's philosophy might seem to be entirely opposed to that of Leibnitz. Yet we see that the metaphysics of Leibnitz is to be found almost in its entirety in Kant. Of this dogmatic philosophy Kant has preserved the doctrine. He only rejected its dogmatism; which, as a matter of fact, was of capital importance. In the same way, positive philosophy has often been presented as the formal negation of the philosophy which preceded it When we verify this, we nearly always find them both concerned with the same problems, and often reaching analogous solutions. Here again it is only a question of transposition; an extremely serious one it is true, on account of all that it implies.

Errors of interpretation are very often due to a lack of historical perspective. Once they have been formulated and adopted by current opinion they are difficult to rectify. Time is needed in order that beneath superficial differences, deep seated resemblances may appear. During many years Kant was in all sincerity looked upon as a sceptic in France. Those who criticised him could not conceive how any one could give up metaphysical dogmatism, without at the some time abandoning the doctrines which had been cast in the metaphysical form before Kant. In the same way, in the eyes of most of his adversaries, Comte's system must have appeared as the very negation of philosophy, because the terms "philosophy" and "relative" seemed incompatible to them. But this system, which is an effort to realise, from the point of view of positive science, the unity of the understanding, and the "perfect logical coherence," in reality ends by putting the traditional problems of philosophy in a form suitable to the spirit of our age.


If the relationship between Comte's philosophy and the doctrines which preceded it is sufficiently evident, it does not follow that this philosophy has brought with it nothing new. On the contrary, the "transposition" of problems and the constant effort to substitute the relative to the absolute point of view, entails serious consequences with very far reaching effects. Some of these were at once apparent, and first served to characterise positive philosophy in the eyes of the public. Others, more remote, but no less important, appeared more slowly.

The negative consequences almost alone attracted attention at first. The chief characteristic of the new philosophy seemed to be the denial of the legitimacy and even of the possibility of metaphysics in all its forms: rational psychology, the philosophical theory of matter and of life, rational theology, etc. It seemed also to deny the possibility of introspective psychology, of ethics in its traditional form, as well as of logic. In a word, one after another, it excluded all the parts of what constituted a "course of philosophy." No wonder, then, if this doctrine which took the name of "positive" appeared to be chiefly negative.

However, in reality, the negation only affected the so-called "rational" or "philosophical sciences." . . . Stringently applying the principle of the relativity of knowledge, he refused to admit anything absolute. He was therefore perfectly true to himself in rejecting doctrines founded upon metaphysical principles. But this entirely negative aspect of his philosophy is very far from being the one according to which we can best understand it. Truly speaking, it is only preparatory, and historians have often committed the mistake of allowing people to believe that it is essential. "We only destroy what we replace," said Comte.

The question was not to ruin but to transform the psychological, moral and social sciences. As we have seen, positive philosophy does not deny the possibility of a psychology.

On the contrary, it establishes that psychical phenomena like the others, are subject to laws, and that these laws must be looked for by the positive method. It only rejects the psychology of the ideologists as abstract, and that of Cousin as metaphysical. It claims that, in presence of the phenomena which he is studying, the psychologist should assume the same attitude as the biologist or the physicist, that any search after cause or essence should be carefully avoided, that any metaphysical or ethical after-thought should be set aside. Then a science of physical phenomena will be established; still it will only be able to study the highest mental functions in the "universal subject," in humanity. If we wish to do so, we may continue to call it by its traditional name, although it is to the old psychology only what the chemistry of our day is to alchemy.

A similar transformation gives rise to social science. Here again, the indispensable condition for the scientific knowledge of facts and of laws is a new attitude of mind in presence of these facts. We must set aside what interests us subjectively in them, and consider what is "specifically social" in them just as the physiologist studies what is "specifically biological" in the phenomena of the organism. M. Durkheim, as a real heir of Auguste Comte, reasonably maintains that this is a condition sine qua non of positive sociology. This only exists as a science if there are facts which are properly social subject to special laws, besides the more general laws of nature which rule them also, and if these facts, by constant objective characteristics, are sufficiently distinct from the phenomena called psychological.

Positive psychology is now already constituted. Positive sociology is being formed. The science of language, the science of religions, the history of art are also assuming a positive form. The movement which has begun, and of which we only see the beginnings, will probably extend much further than we think. It supposes at least a provisional separation between the scientific interest and the political, moral and religious interests. Being already constituted for a considerable part of our knowledge, this separation for the remainder is still distasteful to the traditional habits of the majority of minds We are accustomed to speculate upon physical or chemical nature with perfect disinterestedness as to the metaphysical consequences of the results which we may obtain. For we are convinced that the laws of these phenomena do not necessarily imply any consequences of this kind, or that they can be almost indifferently brought into accord with any form of metaphysics we may be pleased to adopt. What do physics, chemistry, natural philosophy prove, as to the destiny of man or the supreme cause of the universe? Nothing, and it does not occur to us to be surprised at it. We consider that these sciences are in accordance with their definition if they give us a knowledge of the laws of phenomena, and if this knowledge enables us within certain limits to exercise a rational and efficacious action upon nature.

Are we in the same position in what concerns psychology and the moral and social sciences? This is doubtful. The very name of "moral sciences" is significant enough on this point. We cannot refrain from thinking that these sciences "prove" something outside themselves. For several of the schools of this century, psychology is still the path that leads to metaphysics. Spirituality and the immortality of the soul seem to have a direct interest in it. In a more or less conscious manner orthodox political economy has found itself "proving" the legitimacy of the modern capitalist régime, and has represented it as being in conformity with the immutable laws of nature. The historical materialism of Marx "proves" the necessity of collectivism. History too often serves national interests, or political parties.

Comte's most interesting and fertile leading idea is that the sciences conceived in this way are still in their infancy and do not deserve their name. Those who take them up should, in the first place, convince themselves of the fact that they prove no more in favour of spiritualism or materialism, of protection or of free exchange, than physics or chemistry prove in favour of the unity or the plurality of substances in the universe. In the school of the more advanced sciences men may be taught to distinguish between the objects of positive research and the metaphysical or practical questions. They will see also that the human mind did not begin by making this distinction in the case of inorganic and of living nature. For a long time it could only think of physical phenomena religiously. Without the admirable effort of the Greek men of science and philosophers, we might yet find ourselves in this period, and positive philosophy might still be awaiting the hour of its birth. To-day this philosophy has come into being. In order to prove finally established, it requires that individual and social human nature should become the object of a science as distinterested as physics and biology have already become. From that day alone will the "Social sciences" be definitely constituted.

It is true that since in a certain way the object of these sciences is ourselves, it seems paradoxical to look upon them in the same way as if it were a question of salts or of crystals. We persist in believing that any knowledge of this order, as soon as it is acquired, admits of immediate applications to our condition or conduct. But this is an illusion. Is not the importance of the "milieu" in which we find ourselves, and of the forces which affect us from without for our welfare and even for our preservation which depends upon them at every moment, a simple matter of evidence? Nevertheless, we seek a purely abstract, scientific knowledge of the laws of phenomena, because we know that our effective power upon natural forces is subordinate to science. In the same way we separate physiology from therapeutics and medicine, and from physiology. So in the same way, paedagogy, rational economy, politics, and in general all the social arts in the future will be subordinated to the theoretical science of the individual and social nature of man, when this science has been constituted by means of a purely positive method, and is no longer expected to "prove" anything but its laws.

This may perhaps be the work of centuries. We are only witnessing its early beginnings. We still have only a vague idea of a polity founded upon science; and we do not yet know what individual and social psychology will yield as a positive science. Comte anticipated results which could not be immediate. This is yet another feature which he has in common with Descartes, to whom we have so often had occasion to compare him. Having conceived a certain mathematical ideal of physical science, Descartes pictured the problems of nature, and especially of living nature, as being infinitely less complex than they are. Our scientific men to-day no longer venture to put to themselves the biological questions whose solution appeared to Descartes to be comparatively easy. In the same way, Auguste Comte, having recognised that moral and social phenomena should be objects of science, just as those of inorganic and living nature, believed this new science to be far more advanced by his own labours than it was in reality.

It is easy to understand his mistake. He was anxious to proceed to the "social reorganisation," in view of which he was constructing his philosophy. Then, given the conception he had formed of social science, he was bound to think that the discovery of the great dynamic law of the three States was sufficient to finally constitute it. In his eyes "the hardest part of the work was done." Sociologists at present believe that almost everything remains to be done. But, here again, we may renew the comparison between Descartes and Comte. In the work of both, without much difficulty, we can distinguish what is done by the scientific man properly so-called and what is done by the philosopher. It is the same with Comte the sociologist as with Descartes the physicist. Their hypotheses have met with the fate common to scientific labours, of which Comte himself has so well set forth the necessary transitoriness. The other portion of their work, more general in character, is possessed of more enduring qualities. In this sense, and setting aside his political and religious views, which belong to another order, the speculative philosophy of Comte is living still, and pursues its evolution even within the minds of those who are engaged in opposing it.

Jane M. Style (essay date 1928)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2573

SOURCE: "After Days," in Auguste Comte: Thinker and Lover, Kegan Paul, Trench Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1928, pp. 196-205.

[In the following essay, Style discusses the legacy of Comte's religion of Humanity.]

Before Comte died he felt that the religion of Humanity had been proclaimed to the world, and believed that fervent disciples would be found to preach and perfect it. How has his prophecy been fulfilled in the years since his death? As to the date of its systematic acceptance it has certainly failed, but the ablest seaman, while he can tell the date at which a ship should reach its destination, cannot tell what tempests, head winds, undercurrents or other causes may delay the voyage. Had Comte himself lived longer he might have influenced the rapidity of the change, for his voice was beginning to be heard in many lands, the last work he had planned, his volume on Industry, would have appealed to leading practical men, and his followers would have profited by his direct guidance, for Comte was the truly modern man, the embodiment of the new age in which the social outlook is consciously attained and dominates the whole of life. He was the modern man while we grope and stumble towards modernity, our mental make-up resembling that of a snake whose parched and dried skin has parted strewing a little of the beauty and promise of the future while all the rest is dim, dusty and outworn. France seems to have sold her birthright and abandoned any attempt at religious construction, probably the disturbance which led to the Franco-Prussian war and the bitter resentment which was its consequence, delayed her development though Gambetta was Comte's follower, and the cultured Parisian, who may be of any class and is frequently a workman, has still the most central outlook among the sons of Humanity. Faithful apostles in many lands have not been lacking. As Comte foresaw, the most devoted have been found in the Portuguese and Spanish settlements in South America. In Brazil the Republic was peacefully established under the leadership of Benjamin Constant, an avowed Positivist, the motto "Order and Progress" being chosen for the national flag, while in public affairs the positivists have exercised a marked influence. They have instituted the public celebration of many historic types and the last act of Senhor Mendes, their revered leader, was connected with the statue of St. Francis of Assisi to be erected in Rio. In the older civilisations their voices have been more drowned but in England they have faithfully proclaimed the doctrine with regard to Gibraltar, India, Egypt, Ireland, China, Trades Unions and other matters, while much of the improvement in Poor Law administration, sanitation and the general care of health is due to the strenuous labours of Dr. Bridges, one of Comte's followers who "renounced private practice to devote himself to public work". In Liverpool a Temple of Humanity has been erected of which the beauty and dignified simplicity is recognised across the Atlantic.

Small indeed have been the conscious and systematic results compared with what might have been, but only seventy years have elapsed since the premature death of Comte, and, it must be remembered, he continually emphasised the fact that there are two ways in which the religion of Humanity may come. The one, the conscious and systematic of which we have spoken, that is, by the acceptance of the doctrine and the attempt to put it into practice, the other, the spontaneous and unconscious, by the gradual dissolving of the old and formation of the new order. "All men are", he says, "especially in the present day, spontaneous positivists at different stages of evolution which only need completeness".

To those who have had the privilege of observing society for over half a century, with the enlightening help of the doctrine of Humanity, the change in this respect has been very marked in all spheres of thought and activity: Much careful scientific observation has been carried on, notably in anthropology. Royalty is everywhere passing away, hereditary titles are losing their glamour, dictators tend to arise, and in the country which Comte thought would be second in the acceptance of the religion of Humanity a dictator has arisen from the people who has tried to introduce order into a disorganised society and to foster habits of discipline and devotion to work, unfortunately he has not fulfilled the indispensable condition of allowing spiritual liberty and freedom of speech, and rather resembles a dictator of the past than of the future a position which must inevitably lead to reaction. Turning to our own country, although the ruling classes have not risen, as Comte hoped, to the realisation of the grandeur of the work of accomplishing re-organisation without revolution and have lately, e.g. in the struggle over miners' wages, been engaged in delaying the incorporation of all workmen into society, still, much has been gained. Beautiful parks with costly and rare flowers are secured and tended for the enjoyment of the poorest citizens. Public playgrounds with appliances, far better than those provided for the wealthy fifty years ago, are ready for the little ones. Games, dancing and the arts which teach control and grace of body are doing away with the class consciousness so evident a short time ago, the wives and daughters of the workmen can scarcely be distinguished in the streets from their wealthier sisters. Suffering enough remains, but the dissolving process has begun, class distinction is passing away and the one Humanity is being realised. Cruel and revolting doctrines are preached and forgotten such as "the destruction of the old and diseased", compulsory birth control, and through it all devoted doctors are striving with all their skill to save and succour the diseased, and nurses are sacrificing their health and their careers to keep those alive who have lost all but life. Miners instead of securing their own safety are going into the burning pit to lose their lives in the effort to save their fellows. Everywhere men and women are realising that improvement depends on self control and on the gradual advance of the whole, that acts of cruelty and tyranny defeat themselves by lowering the general standard of feeling. Consideration for animals has increased as shown by the Bird Sanctuaries, and such institutions as the Horse processions are a foretaste of the "Festival of the Animals", when the lesser brethren will be honoured in the Temple of Humanity. The improvement in Poor Law Infirmaries, which now compare favourably with the best, the care of children brought up by the State, old age pensions, the humane treatment of prisoners, the diminution of the desire for vengeance by punishment, all point to the growth of social feeling and recognition of social duty. Such a saying as "A man may do what he likes with his own", prevalent fifty years ago, would hardly be asserted now even by the men who still act upon it. Such a saying as "My country right or wrong", once considered rather fine, and certainly a necessity for the soldier in the execution of his duty, is now discredited, and one of the most significant signs of the times is, that, whenever a country is acting tyrannically to a weaker, or exploiting a less advanced race, champions of the oppressed are sure to arise in the oppressing country, who, shewing themselves true patriots oppose her wrong-doing and dishonour. International feeling has grown among the mass of the people in all countries. Men are beginning to realise that as no family can work worthily or gain honour save in the service of city or country so no country can find its fulfillment save as a part of the one whole to which all belong. The League of Nations is one sign of this change and the Assembly of the League is an attempt at an advising or spiritual power resembling in some respects the International Council proposed by Comte.

An extraordinary change has taken place in the doctrines of theology, little acknowledged but none the less vital. The popular novelists have scarcely a rag of theological belief left, yet people who consider themselves orthodox read, admire and applaud. It sometimes seems as if we needed the little child to say, as in the fairy tale of the King's beautiful garment: "Why he has nothing on." The very dignitaries of the Church have long given up belief in doctrines such as that of the resurrection of the body, still included in the services and creeds. Quite recently a bishop had the courage to acknowledge that the belief in hell was past, though when he put forward the positive doctrine that the fear of injuring others should be a sufficient deterrent from sin, he did not add that the belief in heaven must also pass away for if the bad did not need punishment surely the good would not need reward. One curious anomaly is seen in the religious teaching of the day. Many preachers have thrown aside the magnificent conception of supreme sacrifice in Christ Jesus, who left the glories of Heaven to suffer for man on earth, but have attempted to retain in the individual man Jesus all the qualities which have grown up around the ideal type through the Christian era. Even the finest individual type is not enough. It may suffice for private worship, for here the worshipper is nearly always of the opposite sex and the heart of the worshipper becomes a combination of masculine and feminine attributes, but in the public worship the symbol must combine the virtues, thoughts and powers of all mankind. The energy and wisdom of man, the tenderness and wisdom of woman, the widely differing forms of excellence of both exhibited in every relation and accident of life can be found in no individual man or woman. To imagine them in one must result in the unreality which it is the aim of the modern man to avoid. In the God ideal this mixture was more permissible but the tendency was to monstrosity. This was largely overcome in the Christian dogma by the conception of the Trinity but its inadequacy was felt by Saint Bernard who added the Madonna to introduce the more strictly feminine element. In 'Humanity' all types are of necessity combined. Goodwill is growing everywhere but with confused thought. Phrases are used without attention to the meaning of words or, at any rate, of their implication. The phrase "Science and Religion are reconciled", a truth which Comte's life and work have triumphantly proved to the extent that religion can only embrace the whole of life when it is firmly founded on science carried into the highest regions, this phrase, loosely used, makes the ordinary hearer believe that there has been some discovery proving the existence of God, or, in other words, that Science and Theology are reconciled, a very different proposition and totally untrue. They are different ways of accounting for things and can only be reconciled as different phases in the history of Humanity. As in Comte's day, the mental plan is not clear, men have but a confused idea that the industrial era is the ideal of the future while they constantly turn back to the military ideal of the past. We have a vision of the promised land of peace and industry founded on human truth and love but, like the Israelites in the old legend, many turn back to the golden calf of superstition, militarism or of hereditary privilege. While the superstitious belief in science as an end in itself, which was so marked in the 19th century, has passed away few have recognised that the solution is found in science taking service under love while many have returned to more primitive superstitions. Men like Sir James Mackenzie have striven to free the people from the medical tyranny which results from applying the general rule to the particular case using the deductive method in an art which especially calls for careful observation; everywhere men of exceptional insight are adopting the positive method in isolated cases but the mental chaos remains. This mental attitude is, in default of the complete acceptance of the new order, a matter of congratulation as under it the dissolving process is carried on. The new Liverpool Cathedral, situate on a hill not much more than a stone's throw from the Temple for the conscious worship of Humanity, is a place for spontaneous human worship, the noble lives of humble women are recorded in the windows, its bishop strives to draw into one fellowship the different sects of theology, and, by special services for railwaymen and others, begins the festivals of the transition.

The ground of confidence lies in the law of human progress "Man ever grows more religious," discovered by Comte. This is difficult to see because the meaning of religious is not understood. Men compare the modern world with the theocracies and with the Middle Age and think that religion is dying out, and even comparing the present with a generation or two ago, the discipline of life and recognition of religious duty seems passing away. But religion as Comte defines it, consists of harmony within and without, peace in the mind and union with our fellows. Harmony is the result of the increase of social, and the greater control of personal, feelings. This results from living together. Modern industry depends in a constantly increasing degree on mutual trust, there is less room for suspicion and resentment. As men from different classes and lands associate together and find in all the same kindly feelings, the same aspirations, a sense of security and confidence grows up. As in a happy family the atmosphere is one of fearlessness, wit, humour, joyousness and all the sweet flowers of human intercourse grow apace, so, as the same confidence finds its place in the larger life, as each one feels that his fellows will stand by him in misfortune and share with him in need, joyousness will be the mark of the religious man. It is worthy of notice that the two most widely beloved saints in the Catholic Church, St. Francis and St. Catherine, were distinguished by their gaiety of heart. This gaiety is not that of mere exhuberance of youth, which may be accompanied by much selfishness and lead to a sombre and discontented age, it is the supreme joy of life which results when duty and happiness are one. It is a harmony of heart and this can only be fully attained when there is also a harmony of mind, when feeling, thought and action all tend to one centre. The spontaneous growth of religion can be clearly seen around us and the day is not distant when men will see in whom they have believed and will delight to render honour where honour is due. When that time shall come, as one of our novelists has said, the name of Auguste Comte must arise into prominence. And when the light of Comte's memory rises on the human horizon it will be accompanied by that of the mother who first "by her love his love awoke," by that of the fair and delicate spirit who by one short year of companionship glorified the whole of his after life and by that of the simple noble hearted woman who loved and tended him to the end.

Etienne Gilson (essay date 1937)

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SOURCE: "The Sociology of A. Comte," in The Unity of Philosophical Experience, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1937, pp. 248-70.

[In the following essay, Gilson considers Comte's sociologism to be "one of the most striking philosophical experiments recorded by history."]

On the third day of the month of Dante in the sixty-sixth year of the Great Western Crisis, the French philosopher Auguste Comte was completing the list of the one hundred fifty volumes that make up his "Positivist Library." In the Positivist Calendar, the third day of the month of Dante is the feast of Rabelais. Yet the "Positivist Library" was not a joke; it was a catalogue of the books which it is necessary and sufficient to read in order to acquire all the knowledge required by our social needs. Thirty volumes of poetry, thirty volumes of science, sixty volumes of history, and thirty volumes of what Comte called synthesis, make one hundred fifty volumes. The philosophical works in that library are listed among the thirty volumes of Synthesis, and do not comprise more than four or five volumes. Plato is not represented; nor are Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Kant; but one volume is reserved for the Politics and Ethics of Aristotle, a second volume for Descartes' Discourse on Method, preceded by Bacon's Novum Organum and followed by Diderot's Interpretation of Nature: Pascal's Thoughts, followed by those of Vauvenargues, and the Counsels of a Mother by Mme. de Lambert make up a third volume; the main works of Auguste Comte himself provide the matter for a fourth volume, and Hume's Philosophical Essays form an essential part of the last. At the origins of Comte, as at the origins of Kant, stands Hume.

Born in 1798, educated at the college of Montpellier, then a pupil at the Polytechnic School, whence he was expelled because of subversive political opinions, Comte had been confronted, from early youth, with the social consequences of the eighteenth-century philosophy. His starting point was not only the breakdown of classical metaphysics, as it had been with Kant, but also the breakdown of the very social structure which, for several centuries, had both sheltered that form of Philosophy and been sheltered by it. Destroyed by the Revolution, the France of the Kings had gone; but the Revolution itself had failed to establish a new order of political life, and after the glorious and tragic episode of Napoleon's Empire, the country seemed to be headed for a return to the past. The Kings were coming back, and were pretending to rule France as though nothing had happened since 1789. Comte's whole career was to be dominated by the settled conviction that after the Revolution a restoration was indeed necessary, but that at the same time the past was irrevocably dead. Comte's thought is wholly contained in his adverbs; "irrevocably" means that the death sentence which was passed upon the old social régime could not possibly be revoked by men, because it expressed a historic and objective fatality.

This being the case, a restoration had to be a reorganization; that is, the building of a new type of social order according to new principles. Comte was not the only one to feel concerned with the problem: De Bonald and de Maistre, Fourier, and Saint-Simon had already suggested various remedies for the political anarchy of the times; but Comte approached the situation as a born philosopher for whom the whole problem was essentially a problem of ideas, solution of which must necessarily be a philosophical solution. To him social and political anarchy was but the outward manifestation of the state of mental anarchy that had been prevailing ever since the old ways of thinking had become obsolete. Although those old ways were gone, no new way had come to take their place, or to play, in a new social order, the part which metaphysics had played in the old. That was why no new social order could arise. When men do not know what to think, they cannot know how to live. Comte would show men how to live by teaching them what to think. This was, no doubt, a high ambition, but one from which Comte never shrank, and which he ultimately felt had been wholly fulfilled. From 1830 to 1810 the new reformer had published the six volumes of his System of Positive Philosophy; now he could inscribe the words of the French poet, Alfred de Vigny, as a motto for his System of Positive Politics: "What is a great life? A thought of youth fulfilled in maturity." Yet Comte's great life was but one more great dream, for an evil genius had attended the birth of his philosophy; and once again it was a dazzling scientific idea: not mathematics, or physics, but sociology. Comte's philosophy was to be a Sociologism.

The choice of a new standard science can not be considered as an entirely arbitrary decision in this case any more than it can in that of Abailard, Descartes or Kant. Taken at any one moment of its evolution, a society is always defined by three fundamental elements whose mutual relations are unchangeable, and which Comte described as follows. First of all, lying at the very root of each social group there is a definite state of intellectual knowledge. It is an obvious fact that a society in which fetichism reigns supreme is wholly different, in every element of its internal structure, from a society in which monotheism prevails; and that such a society, in its turn, must needs be different from another in which a monotheistic theology has been superseded by scientific knowledge. A social group is essentially constituted of families united by the same intellectual conception of the world. In connection with and determined by, this factor of knowledge, there always appears a second factor, which is a definite form of political government. It flows from the first; for government is but the natural reaction of the whole upon its parts, and since the whole is the common intellectual outlook which ties together the members of the community, any political regime is bound to express the belief from which it springs. Finally there is the third element, which also flows from the first two: a specific literary, artistic, commercial and industrial civilization, born of both the ruling belief and the political regime of that society. An easy way to remember this part of Comte's doctrine is to reverse it. In that case we have Marxism, with a definite industrial situation at the root of the system, whence springs a political regime, which is, in turn, attended by its religious, artistic and philosophical justifications. Reverse it again, and we are back to Comtism, with a definite state of knowledge at the root of the system, an equally definite industrial situation at the top, and, in between, a specific form of art. In short, just as Marxism is an historical materialism, Comtism was an historical idealism, in which the whole structure of a given society, at a given time, is strictly determined by the communion of beliefs on which it is founded. The ideological cohesion of these beliefs is one and the same with the social cohesion.

Such being the static structure of all social groups, let us now consider the dynamic law of their development. Given the position adopted by Comte, the development of human societies had to be conceived necessarily as that of a certain idea or, rather, of a certain spirit. In point of fact, Comte conceived it as the slow but almost regular process by which what he calls "the positive spirit" has reached the complete awareness of its own nature. What we call political or social history, together with the history of art, literature, or philosophy, tells us of mere episodes incidental to the great central epic of the positive spirit. For this spirit existed from the very beginning when the human mind was still explaining all phenomena by the wills of deities. That was the so-called "theological state"; but the proof that the positive spirit was already there lies in the fact that, even during that primitive state, there was a progressive rationalization of theological beliefs, from fetichism to polytheism, and from polytheism to monotheism. This is so true that the transition from monotheism to the second state was almost imperceptible. This second is the "metaphysical state," in which abstract causes are substituted for gods, or for God, as an ultimate explanation of the world. In point of fact, says Comte, metaphysics is but the ghost of dead theologies. Yet it is a necessary interlude during which positive science reaches its complete maturity. Now the positive spirit is essentially the spirit of positive science, which feels no interest in gods, or in causes, because it is never concerned with the "why," but only with the "how." Laws, not causes, are the only valid explanations for all knowable facts. Such is the third and last of the three stages through which all human conceptions, and therefore all human societies, have to pass necessarily in the course of their development. The famous "law of the three states" was completely formulated by Comte as early as 1822, and was to remain the basis of his whole system: every branch of human knowledge successively passes through the theological or fictitious state, the metaphysical or abstract state, and the scientific or positive state.

The discovery of that universal law was not only the foundation of Comte's sociology, but it also offered him the complete explanation of the social crisis in which he was living, and a safe means of bringing it to a close. Supposing a society in which theology reigns supreme, a corresponding social order is not only possible but necessary. The Middle Ages, for which Comte always entertained a romantic admiration, were a clear proof of the fact. A revealed truth taught by theology and received through faith was bound to bring about a theocracy in which the popes ruled the priests, and the priests the kings, and the kings the lords, and so on, in accordance with the laws of the feudal system. To this were added a Christian art and a Christian literature, so that the whole structure of medieval society was permeated, quickened from within, and kept together by the same theological spirit. Not so in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Owing to the necessary growth of the positive spirit, medieval theology had become a thing of the past. In due time it had given way to the metaphysical state, whose rise had been attended by the absolute monarchies of the seventeenth century, their art and their literatures. But the positive spirit marches on; its advance must bring about the disruption of the metaphysico-monarchical order, and this had, in fact, been the effect of the French Revolution. Metaphysics had now become obsolete, even as theology before it. Hume and the critical spirit of the eighteenth century had revealed its complete vanity to the world. The difficulty, however, was that the positive spirit had failed so far to produce a completely rounded interpretation of the world, whose general acceptance would become the common bond of a new social order. Who was to do for the positive state in the nineteenth century what St. Thomas Aquinas had done for the theological state in the Middle Ages, and what Descartes had done for the metaphysical state in the seventeenth century? The world was waiting for a prophet whose mission it would be to usher in the last and final age in which humanity was to live forever. Of course, you know the name of the prophet—Auguste Comte. But how was he to do it?

Gifted as he was with an immense power for abstract speculation, Comte began by showing why positive science had failed to provide mankind with a systematic view of the world. True, there were already many positive sciences, but there still remained one order of facts whose interpretation was purely metaphysical: the order of social and political facts. In a time when no one would have dreamt of dealing with matter without resorting to physics, chemistry, or biology, it was still the general belief that social facts obey no laws and that, consequently, any man can make any society to be what he wants it to be, provided only he has the power to do so. Hence the illusions of the belated conservatives, or of the reckless revolutionists, who draw plans for ideal and dreamlike cities without asking what the laws of social life actually are. Therefore the first task of our reformer was necessarily to extend the spirit of positive science to social facts; that is, to create the still missing science, sociology. By doing so, Comte hoped to achieve a twofold result. First, by taking politics out of its metaphysical and chaotic state and turning it into a positive science, he would initiate an era of social and political engineering. We can act upon matter because we know its laws; when we know social laws, it will be at least as easy to act upon societies. Next, having thus extended the positive spirit to the only class of facts still outside of its jurisdiction, Comte could proceed to build up a perfectly consistent system of human knowledge and to procure the scientific dogma required for the new social order. By driving metaphysics out of its last position, Comte had ensured the perfect uniformity of the whole of human knowledge; all ideas, all laws, being equally positive, could henceforth be reduced to a homogeneous system, whose ideological cohesion would be the social cohesion of humanity.

All well and good. Even realizing how delusive it is, I cannot withhold my sympathy for the pure enthusiasm of these young philosophers. There is nothing on earth more beautiful than the birth of an idea when, in its pristine novelty, it throws a new light on our old world. Whereas everything was out of joint, now everything has found its place, because logic revealed itself to Abailard, mathematics to Descartes, physics to Kant, or because the young Comte now discovers the science of social facts. But why should each one of them be so certain that he has at the same time discovered philosophy itself? We are now, I hope, much nearer to the answer of that important question than we were at the beginning of our inquiry, but before giving it we must pursue the sociological experiment of Comte and his successors to its bitter end.

There was nothing wrong in discovering sociology. A new science is always welcome, and though this science is not the most secure, it may in time become a very decent branch of knowledge, especially if it takes into account the fact that not animal groups, but human societies, are its object. The only trouble with Comte was that, after having conceived the possibility of such a science, he thought that he could achieve it all alone; and that, having more or less achieved it, he asked it to solve all philosophical problems. First of all, he asked it to make philosophy itself possible by reorganizing all human knowledge from within.

There is nothing arbitrary in the ventures of a philosopher, even when he is mistaken. Comte was in quest of a scientific dogma whose common acceptance would bring forth a new social order. At first glance, the whole body of scientific knowledge now completed by the discovery of sociology seemed to be in itself a sufficient answer to the question. Science was replacing metaphysics in human reason; the only thing to do was to wait patiently for the inevitable day when, the old ideas having completely vanished, all men would spontaneously adopt the same scientific outlook on the world. Then would the new social order naturally arise as a necessary offspring of the new mental unity.

This was a very tempting solution because it was so simple; but Comte never accepted it, and for a very profound reason. Science, whereby he meant the body of all positive sciences from mathematics to biology and sociology, is an objective representation of what the world actually is; but if we look at it from the point of view of science, the world has no unity of its own. Every scientist naturally has the temper and the tastes of a specialist; he first specializes in his own science; then he begins to specialize in a special part of that same science, and he goes on restricting his outlook on the world until, at last, turning his back on all the other sciences and their results, he finds himself engaged in the exhaustive investigation of some microscopic detail which has now become the whole of reality—so far as he is concerned. This is the reason why, already in Comte's time, the teaching of the sciences in universities was absolutely chaotic, no one science being related to any other, and each professor holding his own bit of the world, as a dog his bone, with an unfriendly look at those who would touch it. In short, the natural tendency of science is not towards unity, but towards an ever more complete disintegration. Such facts point to an intrinsic heterogeneity of the world. True enough, everything is strictly determined, but the sum total of all those determinations does not make up a whole. Now, even though the physical world, as expressed by positive science, is not a coherent system of things, yet a society, to be a real society, must be a coherent system of men; this is impossible, however, unless its fundamental outlook on the world has some sort of unity. A primitive tribe is a whole because of its fetich; a theological civilization is one because of its god; a metaphysical society is swayed by the Author of Nature; but if it has nothing to live by except science and its disconnected laws, society will inevitably find itself condemned to a state of a complete disintegration; in fact, it will not be a society at all.

This train of thought led Comte to the conclusion that, although all the material of the future dogma had to be borrowed from science, science alone could never produce the dogma itself. What was needed now, above and beyond positive science, was a positive philosophy—a strictly unified system of thoughts, each of which would be a scientifically demonstrated truth, and all of which taken together, would constitute a completely rounded explanation of reality. All the data of the problem with which we have been dealing from the beginning of this book are here before our eyes, numbered and defined by Comte with an amazing lucidity. Men no longer believe in theology; they also know that metaphysics is a thing of the past; yet they need a philosophy; but the only thing that remains for them is not philosophy, but science; hence the problem: how will science give us a philosophy? That which makes Comte's case highly significant is the fact that, having thus asked the question, he was clear-sighted enough to give it the right answer: science alone will not and cannot give us a philosophy. Unless we look at science from a non-scientific point of view, our positive knowledge will never be reduced to unity. Now if we do not look at things from the point of view of things, as science does, the only alternative is to look at them from the point of view of man. To express the same idea in Comte's own terminology, let us say that since no "objective synthesis" is attainable, the only possible synthesis is a "subjective synthesis." Consequently, philosophy has to be the subjective synthesis of positive knowledge from the point of view of man and his social needs.

Being compelled to take that fatal leap, Comte did it as scientifically as possible. First he pointed out the fact that the youngest of all positive sciences, sociology, was the science of man. Nor was it by chance that the science of man had been the last to be discovered; for the positive knowledge of societies, which are the most complex of all facts, presupposes the positive knowledge of all other facts, and hence all the other sciences had to be discovered before sociology. But then, and for the same reason, human social life is the only fact from which we can view all the others with the certainty of not overlooking any that is fundamental. Thus science itself invites us to unify positive knowledge from the point of view of humanity. The consequences of this subjective interpretation of science in Comte's doctrine are simply amazing. In order to draw a subjective synthesis from positive knowledge, Comte had first to reduce it to what he calls the theoretical and abstract sciences: mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology. Such sciences deal with laws, not with things; should we take into account such concrete sciences as mineralogy, botany or zoology, we would again lose ourselves in the heterogeneous character of reality. Let us therefore stick to the abstract sciences and eliminate all the rest as unfit for a philosophical synthesis. From the point of view of science itself this was, of course, an arbitrary move. In his book, The Classification of the Sciences (1864), H. Spencer raised a strong protest against the "anthropocentric" character of Comte's classification. Spencer was right; how could one, in the name of science, eliminate half the sciences for the benefit of the other half? But Comte was not wrong: if you do nothing to science, how are you to turn it into a philosophy?

Having proceeded to this drastic reduction in the number of the sciences, Comte found himself confronted with the still more difficult task of reducing those that remain to a synthetic unity. To ask sciences themselves to restrict their activities to what furthers the social needs of man would have been a waste of time. Science cares not for man, but for things, and to the pure scientist it is just as important to know one thing as it is to know another, provided only that it falls within the scope of his own science. The consequence was that every one of the fundamental sciences themselves had to be reorganized from within to suit the needs of the philosopher. Comte called this operation the "regeneration" of a science, by which he meant: to cause the spiritual rebirth of science by infusing into it a proper dose of subjective spirit. Unfortunately the subjectively regenerated sciences looked so queer that the scientists failed to recognize them in their new positive garb. Astronomy, for example, was reduced to the study of the solar system, because this is the system in which man happens to live; as to so-called sidereal astronomy, Comte branded it as a "grave scientific aberration." Later on he submitted astronomy to a still more drastic reduction by restricting it to the study of the earth and of the other celestial bodies in their relation to the earth. For the earth is our planet, the human planet, and therefore our astronomical studies should be concentrated around it. In the same way chemistry should be simplified: first, by supposing that all composite bodies are made up of two simple bodies, or of any number of other complex bodies, which may in turn be resolved into two simpler ones; next, by casting off the study of practically all those innumerable chemical bodies which are unworthy of our attention.

When a science had gone through this process of regeneration, what little of it was left had still to face the last, and by far the most dangerous, of its trials: its actual incorporation into the subjective synthesis. As Comte had said at the end of his System of Positive Philosophy: "The essentially philosophical point of view finally assigns no other end to the study of natural laws than that of providing us with such a representation of the external world as will meet the essential requirements of our intelligence, insofar as is consistent with the degree of accuracy required by the whole of our practical needs." As soon as he set about to build up his subjective synthesis, it became apparent that practical needs would not tolerate much intellectual accuracy. After all, Comte had now reached a point at which reason had nothing more to say. Were a scientist to say to him: "Since you are so fond of the spirit of science, which you call the positive spirit, why does not positivism let science alone? As a scientist, I strongly object to any one tampering with science on any ground whatsoever, even in the highest interests of man. You do not want science to be the handmaid of theology; I do not want it to be the handmaid of humanity, for the result will be the same in either case, science will be destroyed." What rational arguments could Comte have opposed to such an attitude? Absolutely none. The ultimate reason why science should be regenerated to suit the social needs of humanity cannot possibly be found within science itself; the less you interfere with science, the better it feels; and the more you love science, the less you feel like sacrificing it to anything else. The only justification for such a venture could be not a reason, but a feeling; in point of fact, it could be no other feeling than love for humanity. By thus making love the ultimate foundation of positivism, Comte was repeating, in his own way, and for reasons that were entirely his own, Kant's famous move decreeing the primacy of practical reason. Obviously Comte owed nothing to Kant, but, left as he was with the task of contriving a philosophy without metaphysics, he had no choice other than some sort of moralism. Comte's moralism was to be the sentimentalism which asserts itself at the beginning of his Discours sur l'ensemble du Positivisme: "The necessity of assigning with exact truth the place occupied by the intellect and by the heart in the organization of human nature and of society leads to the decision that affection must be the central point of the synthesis." And again: "The foundation of social science bears out the statement made at the beginning of this work, that the intellect under Positivism accepts its proper position of subordination to the heart. The recognition of this, which is the subjective principle of Positivism, renders the construction of a complete system of human life possible." The initial condemnation of metaphysics in the name of science, posited by such philosophies as the only type of rational knowledge, invariably culminates in the capitulation of science itself to some irrational element. This is a necessary law, inferable from philosophical experience, and wholly confirmed by what is often called Comte's second career.

The popular explanation of his sentimental subjectivism is, of course, quite different. When, after going through the six volumes of the System of Positive Philosophy, the render stumbles upon the motto of A General View of Positivism: "We tire of thinking and even of acting; we never tire of loving," he cannot help wondering what lies behind it? The obvious answer is: a woman; and, in fact, there was one. In Comte's case, cherchez la femme is a perfectly superfluous piece of advice, for the problem is not to find her, but to get rid of her and of what he calls "her angelic influence." As Comte says in his inimitable manner: "My career had been that of Aristotle—I should have wanted energy for that of St. Paul, but for her." One should never quarrel with prophets about the source of their inspiration. Comte tells us that Clotilde de Vaux was to him a "new Beatrice." It is a rather good comparison, for it reminds us that though Beatrices are plentiful, very few find their Dante; and so long as there is no Dante, there is no Divine Comedy: Clotilde never inspired Comte except with his own ideas. Let us therefore pay due homage to the new Beatrice, without forgetting that the second part of Comte's career flows, not from Clotilde de Vaux, but from the first part of his career, and that with an organic necessity.

As early as 1826, that is eighteen years before he met Clotilde, Comte had laid down the principles of his social and religious reformation in his Considerations on Spiritual Power. Anticipating the time when the new positive dogma would have been formulated, he could already foresee the necessity of organizing a new clergy, whose proper function it would be to teach the new truth and to facilitate the rise of a positive social order. As soon as his System of Positive Philosophy and his Positive Politics were completed, the next move obviously was for Comte to establish a positive spiritual power and, of course, to assume its direction. From that time on, instead of being simply the central principle of his subjective synthesis, humanity became for Comte an object of worship, the positive god, or Great Being, of the new religion whose self-appointed pope he was. The science of sociology thus gave rise to sociolatry, with love as the principle, order as the basis, and progress as the end. As he grew older, Comte felt more and more convinced of the holiness of his religious mission. On Sunday, October 19, 1831, he concluded his third course of philosophical lectures on the General History of Humanity with what he modestly calls "a summary of five hours." The memorable conclusion of that summary was this uncompromising announcement: "In the name of the Past and of the Future, the servants of Humanity—both its philosophical and practical servants—come forward to claim as their due the general direction of this world. Their object is to constitute at length a real Providence in all departments—moral, intellectual, and material. Consequently they exclude, once and for all, from political supremacy all the different servants of God—Catholic, Protestant, or Deist—as being at once outdated and a cause of disturbance."

Having thus excommunicated all the other religions, the High Priest of Humanity set about organizing the new cult. His first thought was for his immortal predecessors, the great men of the eighteenth century, whose destructive work had been carried on so consistently, both in religion and in politics, that, after them, a total and direct reorganization of society had become an absolute necessity. It was not for Voltaire, or Rousseau, whose vague metaphysical deism had given rise to "superficial and immoral sects" wholly alien to the positive spirit, but rather for the great and immortal school of Diderot and Hume. "Hume," says Comte, "is my principal precursor in philosophy," and now we know why his Essays are among the few philosophical books listed in the catalogue of the "Positivist Library." But the most important point lies not there, but in the necessary connection which Comte perceived between Hume's complete destruction of metaphysics and religion, and his own reconstruction of religion and politics on the basis of a new philosophy. As compared with Hume, Kant, whose "fundamental conception had never really been systematized and developed except by Positivism," was merely an accessory to Comte. Comte, not Kant, had brought the great Western crisis to a close, since, starting from the universal and absolute negation of Hume, he had at last reached what he calls "the noble object of his wishes, a religion resting on demonstration."

In contrast to Kant, Comte had been both his own Fichte and his own Hegel. This notable fact accounts not only for his lack of enthusiasm for Kant's work, but also for the fact that the two schools broke down in two opposite ways. Kant had to cut loose from Fichte, because he refused to be dragged from positive knowledge to metaphysics and from metaphysics to religion. John Stuart Mill and Littré had to cut loose from Comte, because they refused to be dragged by him from positive philosophy to a new theology and a new religion. The disciples of Kant had travelled too fast and too far for him, Comte was travelling too fast and too far for his early followers. Hence the endless controversy in which Mill and Littré were obliged to oppose Comte on the same point, though not for the same reasons.

Mill had been an independent, but very close, follower of Comte during the first part of the latter's career. He was very much in favour of a positive philosophy, whereby he meant a complete reliance on scientific knowledge coupled with a decided agnosticism in metaphysics as well as in religion; but as soon as he heard of the subjective synthesis, Mill accused Comte of yielding to an inordinate passion for abstract unity. He then withdrew from the school on the ground that Comte's positive politics and positive religion had really nothing to do with his positive philosophy. Comte, Mill concluded, was at least as great as Descartes and Leibniz, who, of all great scientific thinkers, "were the most consistent, and for that reason the most Absurd, because they shrank from no consequences, however contrary, to common sense, to which their premisses appeared to lead." Yes, Comte was as great as they, and hardly more extravagant; only, writing in an age "less tolerant of palpable absurdities," those which he committed, though not in themselves greater, at least appeared more ridiculous.

Littré also wanted a philosophy based upon science and nothing else, but he took exception to the comparison drawn by Mill between Comte and the old metaphysicians. According to Littré, Descartes and Leibniz were wrong because, having laid down wrong principles, they had consistently pursued them to their last consequences; whereas, said Littré, Comte had laid down true philosophical principles, but had failed to follow them in a consistent way: "In the case of both Descartes and Leibniz, the principle was responsible for the consequences; in the case of Mr. Comte, the consequences were arbitrary, but the principle itself remained safe." Littré concluded accordingly that true positivism must be exclusively restricted to Comte's scientific philosophy without any admixture of subjective religion.

Mill and Littré were good men, but they were no match for Comte. Naturally, he was deeply hurt, but that at which he marvelled above all was their shortsightedness. They wanted a positive philosophy free from all subjectivism; in other words, they wanted an "objective synthesis." But that was a "palpable absurdity"! Were we to remove from his positivism all its subjective elements, the positive politics and the positive religion would, of course, go, but the positive philosophy itself would also have to go. Comte knew his own doctrine from the inside, and he could not forget how he had made it. Remove the subjective purpose of reorganizing the sciences to suit the social needs of humanity, and nothing will remain but disconnected scientific knowledge, a chaos of unrelated sciences, most of them useless, and the few useful ones themselves encumbered with irrelevant speculation. In short, science would be left, not philosophy. If you reject positive politics and positive religion because of their subjectivity, you must also reject positive philosophy, and for the same reason; if, on the contrary, you accept positive philosophy in spite of its subjectivity, what right have you to condemn positive politics and positive religion? Philosophy is a synthesis; all synthesis is subjective; positive philosophy is a subjective synthesis of objective facts, and this is why it is a philosophy; therefore, you must either take the whole as it is, or leave it.

Comte's sociologism is one of the most striking philosophical experiments recorded by history. Reduced to its simplest expression, it means that if you give up metaphysics as incompletely rational, there remains no other choice but to "regenerate" science on a non-scientific basis, which entails the loss of science; or strictly to maintain the complete objectivity of scientific knowledge, which entails the loss of philosophy. Mill and Littré were right in refusing to tamper with the absolute objectivity of science, for the very existence of science was at stake; but Comte also was right in replying that, having identified rational knowledge with objective scientific knowledge, Mill and Littré could not reject all subjectivity and still have a philosophy. Such being the case, men naturally chose to lose philosophy, thus opening the age of intellectual disorder and social anarchy in which we ourselves are now groping our way.

Eric Voegelin (essay date 1950?)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10044

SOURCE: "The Apocalypse of Man: Comte," in From Enlightenment to Revolution, edited by John H. Hallowell, Duke University Press, 1975, pp. 136-59.

[In the following essay, Voegelin contends that Comte's political philosophy is an apocalyptic vision that establishes Comte as an authoritarian figure.]

After a century of misunderstanding we are approaching today, on the basis of more recent experiences, a more adequate understanding of Comte both in his quality as an astute philosopher of history and in his more sinister quality as a spiritual dictator of mankind. The history of the misunderstanding of Comte and of the gradual dissolution of these misunderstandings is, at the same time, the history of our growing insight into the Western crisis. Auguste Comte (1798-1857) was well aware of the fact that Western civilization faced a crisis and while he misjudged the duration of the crisis he neither misjudged its scale nor its nature. While his attempt at a solution was as abortive as the contemporary ones, at least one important cause of the failure was the close relationship between Comte's ideas and the totalitarian practice of our times. We might say that our historical understanding is catching up today with the insight of Comte and our political practice with his projected solution.

The split in the life of Comte

If we set aside for a moment the important monographic studies on Comte which have been published in recent years, we may say that the picture of Comte is still determined by the incision in his life that was deep enough to make Comte himself speak of his "first" and "second" life. The crowning achievement of the "first" life is the Cours de Philosophie Positive (6 vols., 1830); in his "second" life Comte institutes the Religion of Humanity through his Système de Politique Positive, ou Traité de Sociologie instituant la Religion de l'Humanité (4 vols., 1851-54). Between the two periods lies the "incomparable year" of his relation with Clotilde de Vaux in 1845. In the first period he was the theorist of Positivism and the founder of the science to which he gave the name, sociology; in the second period he was the Fondateur and Grand-Prêtre of the new religion. Until quite recently, this articulation of Comte's life and work has remained the guiding principle for the critical interpretation of the thinker. Comte the positivist and founder of sociology was accepted while Comte the founder of the Religion of Humanity was rejected. For England in particular this pattern was set by John Stuart Mill's study on Comte, first published in the Westminster Review. Part I of this study deals with the Cours and, within the limits of Mill's abilities, gives a fair, critical appreciation of the work; Part II deals with "The Later Speculations of M. Comte" and gives a somewhat indignant account of the curiosities that are to be found in this later work and which, we agree, do not make sense to common sense. Mill concludes his account with the sentence: "Others may laugh, but we would far rather weep at this melancholy decadence of a great intellect."

Mill's concluding sentence conveys two implications. First, it implies that there was a deep incision in the life and thought of Comte and that Comte's "two lives" self-interpretation should be accepted as correct; second, it implies that the incision has the nature of a "decadence," of something like a mental disturbance. Let us consider this second point first, for this assumption of a mental disturbance and decadence has been for more than one critic the reason which justified his rejection of the "second" Comte. The assumption of the mental disturbance originated in 1851 when Comte greeted with satisfaction the coup d'état of Louis Napoleon as a step toward the establishment of the Occidental Republic in which the Positivists would function as the pouvoir spirituel. A note, entitled Essor empirique du républicanisme français and dated June 17, 1852, gives a fairly clear idea of Comte's political conception at this time; it outlines the phases of development toward the final Republic:

  1. The French Government should be republican and not monarchial. (Crisis of February 1848).
  2. The French republic should be social and not political. (Crisis of June 1848).
  3. The social republic should be dictatorial and not parliamentary. (Crisis of December 1851).
  4. The dictatorial republic should be temporal and not spiritual, in the sense of a complete freedom of exposition, and even of discussion.
  5. Decisive arrival of the systematic triumvirate, characterizing the temporal dictatorship which Positivism has announced since 1847, as the preparatory government that will facilitate the organic transition.

This conception of the coup d'état as the step that would lead to the dictatorial "systematic" republic, which in its turn would prepare the final Occidental Republic of all Europe with Positivism as its state religion and with Comte and his successors as the new High Priests—all that was too much for the liberals among Comte's followers. From this time dates the distinction between the unconditional Positivists and the others whom Comte styled the "intellectual Positivists." Among the liberals who left the Société Positiviste in December, 1851 was Emile Littré. It seems that to him is due more than to others the new attitude of loyally accepting the first part of Comte's work and of justifying the rejection of the second part by the charge of mental derangement. In his biography of Comte, Littré undertook to "split" his subject, and in a later work he suggested that "the absurdities (in Comte's late work) are more pathological than philosophical."' In support of the thesis, he recalled Comte's "crise cérébrale" of 1826, which incapacitated him for two years, and the charge received publicity when Mme. Comte demanded the annulment of the testament of the Grand-Prêtre "because of insanity of mind."

As a matter of fact, Comte was about as sane as anybody. The famous "crise cérébrale" of 1826, as far as one can determine on the basis of insufficient reports, seems to have been what today we would call a "nervous breakdown," caused by the unfortunate coincidence of ruthless overwork and domestic troubles; the recovery seems to have been complete. The seceding liberals did not find any insanity in Comte before the "incomparable year." Considering this situation, it will be worthwhile to examine the diagnosis and to see at precisely what point a man becomes insane in the eyes of a liberal, intellectual Positivist. We find the answer to this question in Littré's biography of Comte, in the chapter on "Retour à l'état théologique." Littré first describes the "normal" state of mind which is the "positive" state. In this state the human mind conceives of phenomena as governed by immanent laws. There is no sense in addressing prayers to them or in adoring them. Man must approach them by intelligence; he must get acquainted with them and submit to them in order to achieve by these means an increasing dominion over nature and over himself, "ce qui est le tout de la civilization" This state of mind is the essential, mature state which is reached historically after the mind has passed through the nonessential, transitory, theological and metaphysical states. In his first period, Comte has developed this theory of the mind and Littré accepts it fully. In his second phase, however, Comte reverts to the theological type; he creates new divinities and, what is worse, he creates a trinity of supreme gods. This leads us to suspect the Catholic influences of his early youth, and we know that such influences, however quiescent they seem to have become, "sometimes will reawaken, not without force, at the decline of life." Moreover, this relapse into theology, as into a kind of second childhood, is not an inconsequential weakness. The return to the theological state is a matter of principle for Comte. When the mind has reached the height of its evolution, when its attitude toward phenomena has become positive, then on Comte's view it must return to its fetishistic beginnings and superimpose on the universe of laws a world of "fictions" which give free expression to the affective and volitional part of the human soul. This part of Comte's philosophy is for the liberal Littré the great fall. The order of the mind can be preserved only if the affective part is under the guidance of reason, for the "heart" and "love" can generate heat but no light. And if it is accepted that the mind cannot do without the belief in divine entities, endowed with will and sentiments, then the whole system of positive philosophy comes crashing down. Positivism rests on the assumption that the theological and metaphysical phases of the mind are transitory and not necessary. If, however, the return to the theological state is considered the end of evolution and progress, if the mind is necessarily theological, then the struggle against this necessity would be as foolish as the struggle against the laws which govern the phenomena of the external world. If the end is the return to the theological state, then we might as well stay in the theological state in which we were before the advent of Positivism. Moreover, if that is the end, how can such dry fictions as those of Comte enter into competition "with the theology which emanates from the depth of history and is enhanced by the grandeur of its institutions and rituals?"

The criterion of integral sanity is the acceptance of Positivism in its first stage. The criteria of decadence or decline are (1) a faith in transcendental reality, whether it expresses itself in the Christian form or in that of a substitute religion, (2) the assumption that all human faculties have a legitimate urge for public expression in a civilization, and (3) the assumption that love can be a legitimate guiding principle of action, taking precedence before reason. This diagnosis of mental deficiency is of an importance which can hardly be exaggerated. It is not the isolated diagnosis of Littré; it is rather the typical attitude toward the values of Western civilization which has continued among "intellectual positiviste" from the time of Mill and Littré down to the neo-Positivistic schools of the Viennese type. Moreover, it has not remained confined to the schools but has found popular acceptance to such a degree that this variant of Positivism is today one of the most important mass movements. It is impossible to understand the graveness of the Western crisis unless we realize that the cultivation of values beyond Littré's formula of civilization as the dominion of man over nature and himself by means of science is considered by broad sectors of Western society to be a kind of mental deficiency.

As far as the interpretation of Comte is concerned, it took a considerable time until the fable of his mental derangement was overcome outside the restricted circle of Comtean sectarians. The decisive publication is the monograph by George Dumas on the Psychologie de Deux Messies [1905]. Dumas does not burden himself with the problem of the two lives of Comte; Saint-Simon has only one, but in this one life he is quite capable of developing the same messianic characteristics as Comte. Dumas, furthermore, dispells the atmosphere of strangeness, which disturbed Littré and Mill, by placing the two prophets into the spiritual situation of their time. The critique of the eighteenth century had ruined the prestige of Catholicism and monarchy; the Revolution had marked the end of a religious as well as of a political régime. The contemporaries were too near to the catastrophe to see how much was left standing of the old civilization in spite of the general destruction. They believed that nothing survived, that the future had to be made anew, and enthusiasts in great numbers felt the call to preach the moral and political gospel for the new age. Saint-Simon was only the first of them, through his Lettres d'un habitant de Genève of 1803, but he was soon followed by Fourier, Comte, d'Enfantin, Bazard and a host of minor Saint-Simonians. "They took themselves seriously for men of destiny, marked by a fatal sign on their forehead." Saint-Simon entitles himself the scientific pope of humanity and vicar of God on earth; he acts as the successor to Moses, Socrates and Christ and he admonishes the princes to listen to the voice of God that speaks through his mouth. Enfantin divinizes Saint-Simon and sees himself in the role of the new Isaac, new Jesus and new Gregory VII. In a letter to Duveyrier he writes: "When you believe to speak to Moses, Jesus and Saint-Simon, Bazard and I shall receive your words. Have you well considered that Bazard and I have nobody above ourselves except Him who is always tranquil because He is eternal love." Comte released in 1851 the "decisive" Proclamation by which he "took over" the leadership of the Western world: "in the name of the past and the future, the theoretical servants and the practical servants of Humanity assume befittingly the general leadership of the affairs of the earth in order to construct, at last, the true providence, moral, intellectual and material; they irrevocably exclude from political supremacy all the various slaves of God, Catholics, Protestants, or Deists, since they are retrogrades as well as perturbators." Dumas, finally, draws attention to the great model of the messianic figures on the historical scene as well as in contemporary literature, that is to Napoleon. His influence is visible, in various degrees, in most of the historical and literary figures of this type, and it is visible in particular in Comte. Not that Comte was his follower; on the contrary, he execrated him as the "retrograde genius." But Napoleon was nevertheless for Comte the concretization of the messiah, though of a rival messiah. The sentiment of rivalry was so intense that Comte considered it one of the foremost symbolic acts of the coming Occidental Republic to destroy the monument on the Place Vendôme and to replace it by a monument for the true founder of the Occident whose work Comte wanted to continue, that is of Charlemagne. Saint-Simon and Comte, thus, were no more extravagant or strange than any number of their contemporaries. [In the words of Dumas, they] were two instances of a species "that was rather widespread between 1800 and 1848 and of which one cannot say that it ever disappears completely, although in the great social revolutions it will without doubt find the occasion and the special reasons for its development."

The work of Dumas has disposed of Comte's mental derangement. The disposal leads us back to the problem of Littré. If there was no decline in Comte's later years, if as a messiah he was a typical figure, one of many in his age, the question arises: What actually did happen? Did anything happen at all? Or did not perhaps the "second" life, in spite of the "incomparable year," quite intelligibly continue the "first" one? And is not the great break perhaps an invention of Littré's? We shall have to deal with the problem of continuity in Comte's life presently but for the moment we shall anticipate the result and state that there was no break in continuity. The messianism of Comte is not a second phase in his life; it is present from the beginning, that is from approximately 1820. The idea of the new pouvoir spirituel of which he will be the founder is fully developed by 1822. If anything is characteristic of Comte's life it is the peculiar "plan" which it follows from the mid-twenties to his death in 1857. Moreover, this "plan," as we shall see, was no secret, since several times in the course of its gradual realization it was published in print for everybody to read. The great theoretical work, the Cours, was never intended as anything but the basis for the later religious work, and anyone who cared to inform himself could know it.

If we realize this situation clearly, the withdrawal of Littré, as well as the indignation of Mill, appear in a new light. For the interpretation of this phenomenon, Dumas has given the clue. The contemporaries of the great revolutionary upheaval were too near to the catastrophe to see how much of the old structure of sentiments and institutions was left standing. Hence the crowding of the prophets and messiahs of the new age. By the middle of the century, in spite of unpleasant reminders that all might not be well (such as the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 and the coup d'état of Louis Napoleon), the structure of the liberal bourgeois society begins to emerge with the appearance of stability. Comte is a late comer. His messianism reaches in its origins into the unsettlement of the Revolution and it comes to its full flowering precisely at the opening of the temporary stabilization of the Western crisis in the second half of the nineteenth century. That part of Comte's theoretical work that serves the destruction of the ancien régime, that attacks Christianity and establishes the scientistic creed, is acceptable to the generation of the mid-century; the part that serves the foundation of the new religion and the institutionalization of a new society is unacceptable to the liberals who feel comfortable precisely in the fragmentary civilization which Littré has so succinctly formulated as to its substance and which he calls "le tout de la civilization." We have heard, furthermore, Littré's heart-felt complaint: for what purpose have we destroyed the unreasonable, nonpragmatic values of Western civilization, if now we must cultivate the same type of values again in a not so glorious imitation?

A diagnosis of Littre's liberalism

In this conflict between Comte and Littré, we can lay our finger on the principal structural problem of the Western crisis. Its structure is that of a gradual decomposition of civilizational values, consummated historically by repeated upheavals which destroy, or intend to destroy, the social bearers of the condemned values. Between the upheavals we find periods of stabilization at the respective levels of destruction. The attitudes toward this structure of the crisis may differ. In the case of Comte we see the great, intramundane eschatologist who underestimates the length of time which such a process of destruction needs, who anticipates its end, and who "plans" the new age. On the other side we see the liberal Littré who is satisfied by the amount of destruction worked up to this point and who is ready to settle down in the ruins. The two types are brothers under the skin though the virtues and vices are variously distributed among them. The Comtean type is vitiated by the megalomania that an individual man can grasp and "plan" the course of history and impose his "plan" on mankind. He is distinguished, however, from the other type by his profound insight into the nature and dimensions of the crisis. He knows that destruction is not an end in itself but the prelude to regeneration, and when he attacks the spiritual authority of the Church he does it in order to replace it by the church that lives by his own spiritual authority. Littré's type represents the peculiar mixture of destructiveness and conservatism that is an important component in the complex of sentiments and ideas which we call "liberal." He is willing to participate in revolution until civilization is destroyed to the point which corresponds to his own fragmentary personality. He is not literate enough to understand that Christianity is one thing, and the corruption of a Church quite another; hence, he is ready to eliminate Christianity from history because, quite understandably, he does not like the state of the Church. He is not intelligent enough to understand the problem of the institutionalization of the spirit. Since he lives in the illusion that one can ruin the prestige of a Church or abolish it, and that then matters will be settled, he is greatly surprised and frightened when a new variant of the spirit raises its head, one that he likes even less than Christianity, and clamors for institutionalization in place of the Church of which he has just got rid. He cannot understand these problems, because as a man he has not substance enough to be sensitive to spiritual problems and to cope with them adequately. On the other hand, he is only a mild megalomaniac; he certainly believes that this is the best of all worlds when it is ruined enough to correspond to his limitations, but at least he does not believe that he is a demiurge who can form men in his image. On the contrary, there is left in him from the Christian and humanistic periods a certain self-respect and respect for the personality of others, a sturdy sense of independence which distinguishes French republicanism in its good period, before it was finally broken by the mob hysterics during the Dreyfus affair. By virtue of these qualities, the liberal of this type is highly sensitive to movements which are apt to endanger his independence economically or politically. Since the process of decomposition does not stop, he is pressed more and more into a conservative position, until, in our time, the few surviving specimens of the genus are labelled as reactionary. The break of Littré with Comte is due to his fright in face of the dictatorial spectre, though he was blind to the inner logic of Comte's movement from "intellectual Positivism" to its religious form. In spite of our weighing of virtues and vices there is not much to choose between them. The liberal Positivist reduces the meaning of humanity to the dominion, by science, over nature and man, and thereby deprives man of his spiritual life and freedom; the dictatorial eschatologist collects the castrates and grafts his own spirit on them. The one plays into the hands of the other and through their interplay the crisis goes its accelerating course.

We have stressed that Comte never made a secret of his plan. If a contemporary did not have enough imagination to visualize the end toward which theoretical Positivism must lead, he could inform himself about the continuity of Comte's intention and about the aim toward which it was moving from the ample expositions of Comte himself. The enigmatic element in this situation receives some light from a passage in [Henri] Gouhier's treatise on Comte, where the author deals with the strange blindness. As Gouhier points out: "It is easy for the independent historian to believe in the unity of Comte's thought; that does not oblige him to anything. He must place himself, however, in the position of Littré and Professor Ch. Robin, before he says that they have not understood or, as certain positivists have suggested, that they were not interested to understand. For them, let us not forget, it was a question of conceding to a high priest the right to marry them and to baptize their infants; they ran the risk of being appointed triumvirs and, on occasion of their funeral, to be judged in public with an outspokenness of which the unfortunate Blainville had experienced the severity, though he was associated with Lamarck in the new calendar. That the 'intellectual positivists,' as Comte said, have mutilated the authentic doctrine, is certain; our historical reconstruction of the system, however correct it may be, does not authorize us, however, to neglect the fact that, beginning from a certain moment, eminent and sincere men have no longer recognized the philosophy which study and their life had rendered them familiar." Gouhier has touched the decisive point: the "eminent and sincere men" are willing to accept Positivism as long as it is an irresponsible intellectual attitude but they no longer recognize it when the necessity for order in their lives obliges them to practice its principles in every day life. Gouhier's book was published in 1933. A few years later, he might have recognized in the "eminent and sincere men" the forerunners of the good Germans who got emotionally drunk on the harangues of the savior as long as their intellectual stupor did not oblige them to anything, and who shrank back in horror when the program, about which they were perfectly well informed, was translated into political action. Littré and his contemporaries had the good fortune to live at a time when they could withdraw when the crucial moment came; their modern successors could barely murmur "so haben wir es nicht gemeint" before they were caught and silenced by the machinery of the new Golden Age.

The continuity in the life of Comte

The question of continuity in Comte's ideas, thus, has dissolved into the question of the split between integral Positivists and intellectual Positivists. A generation later, when the animosities among the living had died, agreement on the continuity is achieved. The work of Lévy-Bruhl on Comte is representative of the new atmosphere. Nevertheless, with this agreement we have not reached the end of the affair. We remember that the seceding intellectuals could support their charges by Comte's own insistence on the great incision of 1845. Hence the love for Clotilde de Vaux and the bearing which it had on the development of Comte needs some clarification. Moreover, the word "continuity" raises a question rather than answering one. As a matter of fact, the question of what precisely the continuous element in the various phases of Comte's work consists turns out to be rather thorny. In endeavoring to answer this question we receive considerable help from the studies on Comte by Gouhier and Ducassé, but even these studies, masterful as they are, can hardly be the last word, for they are inclined to neglect what is most important, that is, the character of Comte as an intramundane eschatologist.

We shall approach the problem through the intellectual autobiography which Comte has given, under the title Préface Personnelle, in the last volume of the Cours. The story is somewhat stylised but substantially correct. Comte came from a family of southern France, strongly Catholic and monarchical. He received his first education in one of the lycées which Napoleon had created for the restoration of the old "theologico-metaphysical" educational régime. At the age of fourteen he had already gone through the essential phases of the revolutionary spirit and had experienced the need for a "universal regeneration" that would be both philosophical and political. The later education at the École Polytechnique made him see the only intellectual path that would lead to this "great renovation": the methods of science which are used in mathematics and physics must be applied not only to inorganic phenomena but to organic and social phenomena as well. During the period in which he acquired a knowledge of biology and history, the idea of the true "encyclopedic hierarchy" of the sciences began to develop. And at the same time there was growing in him the instinct of a "final harmony" between his intellectual and political tendencies. These beginnings, which were influenced by Condorcet, were thrown into some confusion, on leaving the École, through his association with Saint-Simon. The older man had also understood the need for a "social regeneration" based on a "mental renovation" and this coincidence had a disturbing influence because it interrupted the philosophical work of Comte and turned his interests toward a regeneration through "futile attempts at direct political action." By 1822, however, he had recovered his equilibrium, and at the age of twenty-four he made the fundamental discovery of the law of the three phases which produced in him the "true mental and even social unity." Such a "philosophical harmony," however, could not be truly "constituted" before the actual elaboration of the new positive philosophy. In 1842, this task is finished and the reader now has in his hands the "final systematization" of this philosophy that had been in formation since Descartes and Bacon.

In the closing pages of the Préface Personnelle, Comte reveals some details of the technique which he employed in the conscious "operation" of producing his own "unity." He reflects that the philosophers of antiquity were in a more favorable position than the moderns because their "meditation" was not disturbed by reading vast quantities of literature; permanent irritation through reading affects the "originality" of a meditation as well as its "homogeneity." Comte protected himself against this disturbance in the following manner. In his early youth he amassed the materials which seemed to him necessary for his great plan of founding the final positive philosophy and "for the last twenty years" (this date would carry us back to the great discovery of 1822) he had imposed on himself a hygiène cérébrale. In order not to confuse the "esprit fondamental" of his work, he denied himself the reading of any literature which had a bearing on the subject-matter on which he was working. When he approached the second part of the Cours, that is the volumes on sociology, he went further and stopped reading any philosophical and political periodicals, dailies or monthlies. With regard to the sociological volumes, moreover, he reduced his preparatory reading and he prides himself on never having read Vico, Kant, Herder or Hegel in any language, though he is willing now to learn German in order to compare his "new mental unity" with the German systematic efforts. To this hygiène he attributes the "precision, energy and consistency" of his conceptions.

At the end of volume 6 of the Cours, finally, Comte views in retrospect what has happened during the "operation" of writing the six volumes. The Cours resumes "the philosophical impulse of Bacon and Descartes." This impulse was exhausted with the preliminaries of creating the inorganic sciences in the spirit of "rational positivity." Through the Revolution, the human mind was compelled to face the problem of "final renovation" in this spirit. At first this problem was only seen in a confused manner but now we know that a "situation without precedent" required "philosophical intervention" in order to dispel imminent anarchy and to transform the revolutionary agitation into organic activity. The Cours is this philosophic intervention in the troubles of the age. It is not, however, "direct action" in the Saint-Simonian sense; rather, it is the concrete process in which a man's intelligence reproduces "personally" the principal successive phases of modern mental evolution. As a consequence, the intelligence of Comte has disengaged itself at the end of this work completely from metaphysics and theology and arrived at the "full positive state." And by virtue of this substantial transformation it will now hopefully exert such a fascination on all energetic thinkers as will induce them to collaborate with him in the systématisation finale de la raison moderne. The "spontaneous reproduction," in the sense of Descartes, of modern evolution in the Cours which has elevated the reader and himself to the "positive state," must now be followed by the detailed elaboration of the various sciences in the spirit of the "new philosophical unity." This explanation is followed by the enumeration of the works through which he will participate in the systematization. The most important of these works will be the Philosophie Politique, projected as a treatise of four volumes. Since the present Cours has culminated in the "universal mental preponderance" of the social point of view, conceived logically and scientifically, one cannot cooperate better toward the "final installation" of the new philosophy than by elaborating the "normal state" of the corresponding political science.

The phases in Comte's work

The self-interpretation of 1842 can be corroborated by later utterances of Comte; we shall confine ourselves, however, to the present summary as the basis for further discussion because the autobiography of the Cours lies before the critical year 1845 and hence cannot be suspected of hindsight with regard to the problem of continuity. The foregoing passages cast light on several aspects of this problem. We shall consider them successively. The first will be the sequence of the phases of Comte's work that emerges from his own account.

The first phase is the period of the initial intuition, centering in the "great discovery" of 1822. The works of this period which in the opinion of Comte merited permanent attention were republished by him as the Appendice Général of Volume 4 of the Système. Besides two minor works, this appendix contains the Plan de travaux scientifiques nécessaires pour reorganiser la société. This is the work of 1822 in which Comte developed the law of the three phases. It was republished in 1824 under the title Système de politique positive. Comte appropriated this title later for his second main work, and assigned to the minor work the new title in the appendix. The Plan is followed by the Considérations philosophiques sur les sciences et les savants (1825) and the Considérations sur le pouvoir spirituel (1826). These three works together contain, indeed, as Comte maintained, the substance of his later elaboration. The second phase is the period in which Comte elaborates his positive theory, first orally, then in literary form. The result is the Cours de Philosophie Positive, published 1830-42. The third phase is that of the Occidental Republic and the writings which institute its religion and its spiritual power. The main work is the Système de Politique Positive, 1851-54. Other writings which are of specific importance for the history of political ideas are the Discours sur l'ensemble du positivisme (1848), later incorporated as Discours Préliminaire in Volume 1 of the Système; the Appel au public occidental (1848); the manifesto for the Positivist Society (1848): Le Fondateur de la Société positiviste, a quiconque désire s'y incorporer, the Calendrier positiviste of 1849; the Catéchisme Positiviste, ou Sommaire exposition de la religion universelle en onze entretiens systématiques entre une femme et un prêtre de l'Humanité (1852); and, finally, the Appel aux conservateurs (1855), destined to fulfill for the Occidental statesmen the function which the Cathéchisme fulfills for "proletarians and wornen." The fourth and last phase we may call that of the Global Republic. The main work of this period is the Synthèse Subjective, ou Système universel des conceptions propres a l'état normal de l'Humanité. Of this work only the first volume, Système de Logique Positive, ou Traité de philosophie mathématique (1856), was published. In 1857 Comte died. This last work is written already within the new age and it is destined for use by the educational authorities of the new republic. The work was planned in three parts. The first part, the only one published, contains the philosophy of mathematics, the second part was to contain the Système de Morale Positive, the last part was to be the Système d'Industrie Positive. We have designated this last phase as that of the Global Republic because in the 1850's Comte's imagination began to range beyond the Occidental Republic and to include the non-Western civilizations into his great plan. The documents for this final development are the letter A Sa Majesté le tzar Nicolas (December 20, 1852) and the letter A Son Excellence Reschid-Pascha, ancien grand vizir de l'Empire Ottoman (February 4, 1853), which must be considered as diplomatic approaches for a federation of Russia and the Islamic world with the Occidental Republic. In the Synthèse, finally, we find indications that the religious system of the Republic was to be enlarged in such a manner that it could absorb African and Chinese forms of religiousness.

Meditation and personal renovation

The phases of Comte's work are no more than the skeleton of his mental development. Even the brief characterization of this skeleton, however, confirms the interpretation which Comte himself has put on the process of his meditation. Let us turn now to this process itself. The works of Comte are not simply a series of treatises on various subject matters. They are connected with each other as the "elaboration" of an initial "intuition." Moreover, elaboration is not the systematic amplification of a "good idea," or the carrying out of a "project." While the term "elaboration" certainly contains the element of conscious direction or of a "plan," this "operation" is conceived as the "renovation" of a person, as its substantial transformation to the point where it has reached the state of "positive rationality." The initial intuition is the visionary anticipation of this final state and the meditative process (which precipitates in the literary work) is the means by which this state is reached. The insight into the character of the work as a precipitate of a meditation is the first requirement for understanding Comte's peculiar modus operandi. The encyclopedic survey of the sciences from mathematics to sociology in the Cours is not meant as an introduction to these sciences. It is meant, first, as the disengagement of the positive method from the actual state of the sciences in which it was previously employed, secondly, as the extension of this method to the science of man in society (which for this purpose had to be created) and thirdly, by means of this extension to clarify the true place of man in society in such a manner that in the thinker who has engaged in this meditation there will be created the disposition toward "a way of life" in conformity with this insight. Since the meditation is a spiritual practice, and not at all primarily a scientific exploration of the world, the question whether Comte's Cours renders faithfully the actual state of science, or the question of obsolescence, cannot legitimately be raised. Comte defends himself in the Préface Personnelle against criticisms of this kind precisely by the argument that the changing state of science has no bearing on the spirit which characterizes the positive method. The famous hygiène cérébrale, which aroused Mill is therefore entirely appropriate to Comte's "operation": once the initial orientation and vision are given, the accumulation of new materials and the opinions of others can only disturb a process of which the end is known at the beginning.

Intervention and social regeneration

Thus far we have considered the meditative process only in the solitary existence of the thinker. The Comtean operation, however, gains a further dimension through the relation between personal "renovation" and social "regeneration." We have seen that Comte characterized the state which the "great discovery" produced in him as a state of "mental and even social unity." The personal intuition has the consequence of integrating the thinker into society because the law of the three phases is a law of personal evolution as well as of social evolution. If we use a later biological terminology, we may say that the law is valid for the ontogenesis as well as for the phytogenesis. Comte passes from the early Catholicism of his home, through the revolutionary spirit of eighteenth century metaphysics, to the positive intuition, and correspondingly mankind passes from the theological, through the metaphysical, to the positivistic stage. The convergence of the two evolutions, however, is not automatic. Mankind does not pass from contemporary anarchy to the positive order without a personal effort. The social regeneration requires an active, personal intervention. A man of vision must come and realize the meaning of the critical epoch. He must produce in himself the transition to the positive state and through the fascination of his personal renovation inspire the regeneration of mankind. Correspondingly, his spiritual authority in this social operation will derive from the fact that the transformation which he produces in himself personally is the very transformation which it is the destiny of mankind to undergo at this crucial hour of its history. The man who initiates the social regeneration through his personal renovation thus becomes the chosen instrument by means of which the esprit humain operates its own progress to the new and final level of positive order.

The interlocking of the personal and the social processes in the one historical movement of mankind sometimes assumes curious forms in the routine of daily life. In the Préface Personnelle, Comte explains the reasons why volume 2 of the Cours appeared only in 1834, that is four years after the publication of the first volume, though it had been projected for a much earlier date. The reason was the upheaval of 1830 which compelled Comte to find a new publisher. The point is that the delay was not due to the fact that a finished manuscript could not go to press but that Comte would not even start to write the second volume before he had the guarantee that it would be printed as soon as he had finished the last sentence. "My nature and my habits," he tells us, made it impossible ever to write a book "unless it is written in view of immediate publication." The personal meditative process has to stream over immediately into the social process of regeneration. This is not an accidental trait in Comte's character; it is a fundamental trait in his style of communication. It accounts for the interminable length of sentences, paragraphs, chapters and volumes which is not necessitated by the requirement of clear presentation of the subject matter, but by the desire for relentless communication of every intellectual shade of the precious meditation. It accounts in particular for the monomanic use of adjectives and adverbs which characterize and qualify nothing but incessantly convey the sense of fatality of the urgent operation in which the author is engaged and in which the reader through his perusal is supposed to participate. These are "les adverbes, les innombrables, les assonmants adverbes" such as assurément, radicalement, décisivement, spontanément, pleinement, directement, suffisament, necessairement, irrévocablement, certainement, exclusivement, principalement, irresistiblement, and so forth. These adverbs (of which we have given the crop of two pages), a corresponding series of adjectives, and the deadly host of adverbial appositions, swamp the nucleus of meaning so effectively that only with a continuous effort can it be disengaged from the steady stream of words. This does not mean that Comte's writing is confused; on the contrary, the construction of the sentences is logically and grammatically impeccable, and the organization of the subject matter is superbly clear. Comte's style is a phenomenon sui generis for which Ducassé has found the formula of a complete explicitation of the meditative existence of the thinker. Nothing remains unsaid; every nook and corner of Comte's thought, every swerve and every side path of this priceless operation must be communicated to the public.

Comte seems to have been a man without privacy. His style is only one symptom of the conscious and radical transformation of his personal life into a part of the public, historical life of mankind. Nothing is too intimate to escape this monumentalization. The details of his relation with Clotilde de Vaux, the most intimate movements of his soul, have been spread before the public in a manner that could not be called anything but tactless and repulsive, unless this publicity is understood as the eternal embodiment into the memory of mankind of a spiritual event that is of greater importance than the birth of Christ. The principle of "Vivre au grand jour" does not respect even the dignity of death. Those who have entered into the body of positive mankind live in it forever "subjectively" in commemoration. This memory of mankind must be both public and just; hence it is incumbent on the High Priest of Humanity to fix the just image of the deceased forever, and what occasion could be more fit for fixing this image than a speech at the grave? In fulfillment of this obligation, Comte delivered a most insulting appreciation of Blainville on the occasion of his funeral. He was not in the least abashed by the scandal which he created. He reprinted the speech in the appendix to volume 1 of the Systéme and he even added a postscript in which he reports how various public dignitaries left the ceremony when Comte disturbed it by his outrageous performance: "In order to understand this discourse better, one must note that its opening determined the brusque departure of all the official representatives of the various decadent classes, both theological and academic. That the field was left in this manner to the esprits positifs indicates sufficiently where the reputation of Blainville will find its permanent home."

Let us, finally, record the monumentalization of troubles and trivialities of his personal life. A man of this character, as one can imagine does not fit too well into social institutions and public functions. The professorship which he expected as his due never materialized and he was finally discharged even of his secondary functions. The details of this struggle with the educational authorities again were communicated to the public in long hagiographic accounts. And when Comte was ultimately without an income, he solved the problem by public subscriptions from Positiviste sectarians. He issued annual "budget messages" to the subscribers in which he formulated his requirements for the coming year and accounted for the expenditures of the revenue received during the last year. These Circulaires were also communicated in print because they were public documents in which the High Priest, besides the budget of the sacerdotal power, also reported the progress which the Church had made in the spreading of membership and administration of sacraments during the past year as well as the projects for the future. The monumentalizing, hagiographic obsession goes to such extremes that we are informed about the relation between the meditative progress of Comte and his consumption of stimulants. On the occasion of the crisis of 1826 he gave up tobacco, on the occasion of a minor crisis in 1838 he gave up coffee, and on the occasion of Clotilde de Vaux he gave up wine—a sacrifice which reduced materially his personal expenditures, as he assured the subscribers in the Circulaires. If he had survived his death, he certainly would have informed mankind that now he had given up everything. As a matter of fact, even in death he did not give up everything for through his Testament he took care at least of his "subjective" survival. His apartment (10, rue Monsieur-le-Prince) will be the Holy See of the Religion of Humanity. It will belong to the successor in the pontificate on the same conditions as it belonged to Comte: that its content, and everything that will be added to it, will belong to the future pontiffs in the succession. Only one exception is made. The successor must respect all the reliques of Clotilde de Vaux as belonging to the sacred treasure of the universal Church. Particular veneration is due to "the red chair, enveloped in a green cover, and marked on its front board with my initials in red wax." This is the chair on which Clotilde de Vaux has sat during her sacred visits on Wednesdays. "I have erected it, even during her life-time, and still more so after her death, into a domestic altar; I have never sat on it except for religious ceremonies." It must serve no other function so long as it lasts.

The divinization of woman

What influence did the relation with Clotilde de Vaux have on the development of Comte's ideas? While the relationship did not influence the theoretical content of Comte's philosophy it strongly affected Comte's vie sentimentale. The daily prayers which Comte offered to Clotilde are illustrative. In the Prière du Matin we find Comte saying: "It is only you, my saint Clotilde, to whom I am obliged that I do not leave this life without having experienced the best emotions of human nature. An incomparable year made spontaneously surge up the only love, pure and profound, that was destined for me. The excellence of the adored being allows me in my maturity, more favored than my youth, to glimpse in all its fullness true human felicity. Vivre pour autrui." In the Commémoration Générale, which comprises a Revue Chronologique de tous nos souvenirs essentials d'après les passages correspondants de nos lettres, we find, under the heading Union définitive, the quotation: "In order to become a perfect philosopher I needed a passion, profound and pure, that would make me appreciate the affective part of human nature." The letter from which this passage is taken continues: "Its explicit consideration, no more than implied in my first great work, will now dominate my second one. This final evolution, even more indispensable for me today than eight or ten years ago, was the decisive upsurge of my aesthetic tastes." The Prière du Soir continues this reflection: "By virtue of your powerful invocation, the most painful crisis of my intimate life has finally improved me in every respect, for I was able, though I was alone, to develop the sacred seeds of which the belated but decisive evolution I owe to you. The age of private passions had terminated for me. . . . From then on I surrendered myself exclusively to the eminent passion which, since my adolescence, has consecrated my life to the fundamental service of Humanity. . . . The systematic preponderance of universal love, gradually emanating from my philosophy, would not have become sufficiently familiar to me without you, in spite of the happy preparation which resulted from the spontaneous upsurge of my aesthetic tastes." "Under your various images, in spite of the catastrophe, you will always recall to me that my final situation surpasses everything I could have hoped for, or even dreamt of, before you. The more this harmony without example between my private and my public life develops (which I owe to you), the more you incorporate yourself, in the eyes of my true disciples, into every mode of my existence."

Without the transformation of the affective life of Comte through Clotilde there would have been a positive political theory which would have even postulated the preponderance of sentiment over intellect, but the faith would have lacked its existential concreteness. The religiousness of Comte that was released through the experience of 1845 has certain characteristics which merit attention. The concrete unity of Comte's existence is reached through the incorporation of Clotilde "into every mode of his existence." Comte's love, for which he has invented the term altruism, is not an amor Dei that would orient the soul toward transcendental reality. The place of God has been taken by social entities (by family, country and mankind) and more particularly by woman as the integrating, harmonizing principle. Woman in general and Clotilde concretely as the representative of the principle has become the unifying power for the soul of man; hence the cult of Clotilde is an essential part of the Comtean religious foundation. In the Prières we find a section A genoux devant l'autel recouvert (that is, the famous red chair), with the following litany:

(A mon éternelle compagne)
Amem te plus quam me, nec me nisi propter te!
(A l'Humanité dans son temple, devant son grand autel)
Amem te plus quam me, nec me nisi propter te!

(A ma noble patronne, comme personnifiant l'Humanité)
Vergine-madre, Figlia del tuo figlio,
Amem te plus quam me, nec me nisi propter te!

Tre dolci nome ha' in te raccolti Sposa, madre, e figliuola!

To the new vergine-madre is transferred the Christian Amem te plus quam me, nec me nisi propter te!

The historicity of the mind

The pages of the Discours Préliminaire reveal Comte's conception of the historicity of the mind. The mind has a constant intellectual-affective structure. The possibility and necessity of historical evolution enters this structure because the two component factors can stand in various relations to each other. The history of the mind begins with an excessive preponderance of the affective and volitional life. This preponderant experience is projected into the environment and the events in nature are interpreted as actions which emanate from entities endowed with a will and affects. The evolution of the intellect is secondary. It has an "insurrectional" aspect because its function is to dissolve the false interpretation of the world that has been created by the affective component. Nevertheless, the volitional and affective interpretation is not altogether false. Once the domain of the intellect has been extended far enough to bring the order of the universe, and the place of man in it, into full view, the "insurrectional" function of the intellect must come to an end. The terminal point for the expansion of the intellect is reached when all sciences of the world content, that is the inorganic, organic and social sciences, are fully developed. The laws which govern this world are all that man can know and ought to know. Once he has become acquainted with this order, he must submit to it. He must fit his life into it and embrace it with affection. The advancement of science abolishes the excesses of the theological state but it does not abolish religiousness and the affective life. On the contrary, without the guidance of the affections the work of intellect would be aimless. The supreme affection of altruism must be the guiding principle of social life, providing the aims; the function of science can only be the increasing knowledge of the means by which the aims can be realized. Ducassé remarks rightly: "We must completely reverse the pejorative appreciation that is sometimes extended to the utilitarianism of Comte. If we charge the word 'utility' with its true affective, spiritualist and charitable intentions, we must say: Precisely because of the immediate connection which it institutes between the experience of mathematical invention and the exigencies of charity (that is of the desire of spiritual utility among men), is the Comtean form of inspiration new and superior." Comte has compressed these principles of the constitution of the mind in the formula: "L'Amour pour principe et l'Ordre pour base, le Progres pour but." In his last work, the Synthèse, he expresses the subordination of the intellect to the heart in the Christian formula: "Omnis ratio, et naturalis investigatio fidem sequi debet, non precedere, nec infringere."

Nevertheless, the Christian assonances, the magic of such words as "charity," "love," "spirituality" and "faith" must not deceive us. When Ducassé stresses the spirituality of Comte's utilitarianism, he certainly is right; but such spirituality is not at all reassuring. A consistent utilitarian who believes that the problems of life are solved when the standard of living is rising is a comparatively innocuous fellow. A spiritual utilitarian is a much more dangerous person for he speaks with the authority of spirit and for this reason his claims may gain a semblance of legitimacy. He does not merely insist that you make yourself "useful" (which would be bad enough in itself), he demands that you conform your personality to his faith—and the nature of his faith may not be to your liking. That there is such a thing as an evil spirit has never occurred to Comte, nor does it seem to have occurred to Ducassé, who is a convinced Comtean sectarian. Once such terms as "love" or "faith" can be used at all, no further problems of the spirit seem to exist. We also must beware of such formulations as Thomas Huxley's that Positivism is "Catholicism minus Christianity." The formula is brilliant but senseless. That the Comtean Religion of Humanity is not Christian, we may agree. That Comte has been inspired in his dogmatic formulations as well as in his ecclesiastical projects by Catholic forms, we may also agree. What Huxley's formula does not convey is the positive substance of Comte's religiousness which has to be expressed in such terms as the apocalypse of man, as intramundane eschatology, as divinization of world-immanent entities.

Hence Littré's complaint about Comte's rétour à l'état théologique must be taken with a grain of salt. Comte returns, indeed, to the état théologique of his conception but he does not return to the religiousness of Christianity as it has existed, and still does exist, historically. And he cannot return to a Christian religiousness because he never had an adequate conception of it in the first place. Comte's conception of the mental constitution of man is monadic. To be sure, the mind evolves historically; but the historical evolution of the mind is immanent to its constitution; the component factors of the mind are the only forces which determine this evolution. The mind is a monad with an immanent history; at no point can this prison be broken. Religiousness, for Comte, is not a participation in transcendental reality, a communication in which the spirituality of man is constituted as the autonomous, organizing center of his personality; rather, religiousness is a movement of the vie sentimentale which results in a more or less true interpretation of the world. The fallacy of Comte's position can be put in one sentence; Religion is theology, and theology is an interpretation of the world in competition with science. This demonic closure of the monad is the basis of Comte's speculation. The historical world of Comte does not begin with an état théologique; it begins with Comte's "intuition." Insofar as this intuition has absorbed a certain amount of historical knowledge, this knowledge can be projected on a time scale and be called the evolution of the esprit humain, and since Comte's historical knowledge was considerable, the projection will even have a certain degree of empirical adequacy. Nevertheless, an adequate philosophy of history can never result from an "intuition" which is itself nothing but an event in history, for the problem of human history is precisely the tension between the historical existence of man and his transcendental destination. The speculation of Comte begins with a compact "intuition" and is followed by its "explication," "elaboration," and "concretization" quite legitimately supported by the hygiène cérébrale. The elaboration, therefore, can follow a "plan" and it can be directed from the beginning to the foreknown end. We should pay attention in particular to Comte's favorite word for this process, namely, the word "operation." The word awakens the association of the alchemystic opus operatum, of the successful liberation of the spirit from matter through a human agency.

The personal "renovation" of Comte merges with social "regeneration" into the one process of progressing mankind. The life of the Grand Être, of Divine Humanity, streams through the life of Comte. Every phase of this life is a divine manifestation since in this life is revealed the new, positivist phase of the Grand Être. This revelation is not a personal event but the public, historical coming of the new age, overflowing from the focal point of the revelation into ever-widening circles of humanity. The life of Comte is a true apocalypse in the religious sense of the word. Only if we recognize the apocalyptic character of Comte can we understand his actions in the political phase after 1845. The Third Realm of the positive spirit has come, its spiritual power institutionalized in the Pontifex Maximus who functions and administers sacraments. The Occidental Republic is founded in substance and in a few years it will have created institutions devised by the man who signs himself as Fondateur de la Religion de l'Humanité. By his authority as the High Priest of the Occidental Republic he sends diplomatic notes to the non-Western powers. And finally he sends an ambassador to the General of the Jesuit Order suggesting that he associate himself with Comte in a demand to the Pope that the ecclesiastic budgets be abolished. The abolition of state support for the Catholic Church would advance the free coming of the new spirituality, while the old spiritual power "would gain the independence and morality that is necessary for its positive transformation or its dignified extinction."

In the present state of the crisis, we cannot know whether Comte is a forerunner of the apocalyptic founders of new realms whom we have witnessed in our time and of more formidable ones who will appear in the future, or whether the contemporary apocalyptic figures are the last ones of a breed of which Comte is by intellect and personal style the most grandiose specimen. Whatever the answer of the future will be, there can be no doubt even now that Comte belongs, with Marx, Lenin, and Hitler, to the series of men who would save mankind and themselves by divinizing their particular existence and imposing its law as the new order of society. The satanic Apocalypse of Man begins with Comte and has become the signature of the Western crisis.

Arline Reilein Standley (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: "Conclusion," in Auguste Comte, Twayne Publishers, 1981, pp. 154-58.

[In the following essay, Standley discusses the paradoxical legacy of Comte and his philosophy.]

The space of more than a century between us and Comte has done little to clarify his image. Now, the paradoxes of his own nature are overlaid with the multiple reflections, compounded of everything from firmly delineated parts to free-floating myth. We are challenged to define the impact on society of a man whose characteristics could be so negatively summed up as they are by Sir Isaiah Berlin: "His grotesque pedantry, the unreadable dullness of his writing, his vanity, his eccentricity, his solemnity, the pathos of his private life, his insane dogmatism, his authoritarianism, his philosophical fallacies. . . . [his] naïve craving for unity and symmetry at the expense of experience," his "bureaucratic fantasies. . . . with his fanatically tidy world of human beings joyfully engaged in fulfilling their functions, each within his own rigorously defined province, in the rationally ordered, totally unalterable hierarchy of the perfect society." As Simon observes, the fact that Comte's system had any diffusion at all is not something to be taken for granted. Given the weaknesses of his doctrines and the unattractiveness of his style, literary and personal, the critic cannot but wonder how Comte found any following at all. "That such a system so presented should have enlisted hundreds of full-fledged disciples and attracted partial assent from hundreds of others, including names both famous and unknown, is a matter that calls for explanation." And the explanation has to encompass, too, the view that Comte might be regarded "as the central figure of his century—of the century whose special problem was the reconciling of destruction with reconstruction, negation with affirmation, science with religion, the head with the heart, the past with the present, order with progress." Out of these multiple images how can we find the truest of all possible Comtes? Is the essential Comte the comprehensive systematizer of knowledge, the self-proclaimed Messiah of the Religion of Humanity, the organizer of the new sociocracy, or the Blakean angel—the visionary creator who tries to project his dream on us?

For many, the main contribution of Comte was his vast synthesis of all knowledge. Comte's comprehensiveness of view and vigor of mind represented to them the dawn of a new era—an era in which science and technology could be seen in proper perspective and put into integral relationship with the life of mankind. Whether we view this synthesis as a philosophy, as a history of science, or as a philosophy of science, we see the same strengths—and the flaws that go with them. As systematizer, he could not rest until his system was complete—and rigid; every detail had to be made to fit into that closed structure. Nevertheless, Comte's history of science, his classification of the sciences, and his development of sociology all represent significant contributions to Western thought.

In his moral and religious concepts, Comte was no less creative. On the one hand, his cultural relativism and his belief in moral progress attracted those who needed reassurance that mankind could develop spiritual values, even without the assistance of divine wisdom. Meliorism and creative evolution had strong roots here. On the other hand, Comte's Religion of Humanity appealed to those who needed an organized church. Unfortunately, that organization hardened into the same rigidity as his intellectual system; and, as Voegelin points out, the dangers implicit in Comte's spiritual dictatorship are not ones we can safely ignore. Though we recoil from his authoritarianism, it was precisely this attempt to forge a new religion "that makes it possible," says Basil Willey, "to regard Comte as the central figure of his century. . . ." It was here that he addressed himself to some of the most troubling issues of his day and their source in the all too general spiritual disorientation.

Comte's moral and religious ideas were closely linked to his plans for the new sociocracy, and the main link between the two was education. Though Comte's specific course of instruction was not adopted, his work encouraged interest in education for all. The educational program he devised was progressive in its emphasis on the general principles of science and the broad outlines of history though it was, perhaps, too oriented to science, too uniform, and too little encouraging to the free play of mind. Despite its scientific base, however, Comte's program bared the fact that education is in reality, moral and social in nature; he clearly designed his educational system to manipulate public opinion.

As for the social structure that this public opinion was to recreate, it had its anomalies, too. Though Comte was on the side of the social planners, he at first expected the new society he envisioned to come about by a natural process of evolution. Ultimately, he simply awaited the arrival of the dictator who would imprint it on the world. Comte seems naive in his belief that a spiritual force would develop that would be strong enough to control either human greed or the increasingly threatening power of modern technology; he was sanguine enough to think that altruism could be effectively cultivated in a society built on competition (capitalism). Indeed, the morality that Comte enjoined taught submission to the powers that be and encouraged a passivity that would simply justify the status quo. The Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis neatly satirized this aspect of Comte's ideas in his portrait of Quincas Borba, the mad philosopher of Humanitism, whose motto is: To the winner the potatoes!

With Machado de Assis's challenging of the Comtean vision, we are reminded again of Blake's turning on the Angel who has almost imposed his vision of Hell on him. What strikes us most of all with Comte is the tenacious strength and unitary nature of his vision. Such intensity of vision tends to impose itself on others. The force of Comte's imagination seems to have made its impression, as we have seen, whether extolling the virtues of objectivity (or scientism), of utopianism, or of the subjective empire of Love.

George Eliot pictured just that intensity of vision in her portrait of Mordecai in Daniel Deronda—no matter that her "real model" was Emmanuel Deutsch. Mordecai, poor and scorned, lives with an adoptive family; learned, he lives in and for a dream—a vision of the Jews restored to their land and reunited as a nation. This enthusiast feeds himself on visions, for, he says, "visions are the creators and feeders of the world. I see, I measure the world as it is, which the vision will create anew."

So, too, was Comte absorbed by his vision of unification. His real life was marred by poverty, mental illness, and difficulties with family, wife, colleagues, and the establishment; but his system, he convinced himself, would make all into harmonious oneness. His dogged search for this unity—his idealization of relationships (his mother, Clotilde, Sophie)—his own almost-immaculate conception of the final synthesis (he did need some help from Clotilde)—these are Comte's steps into the world of vision. It is surely ironic that this man, whose name is for many synonymous with scientism, is at heart so thorough-going a Romantic.

The inevitable effect of such vision is, as Eliot says of Mordecai, the belief that this dream must have a farther destiny, fulfillment in reality. "An insane exaggeration of his own value, even if his ideas had been as true and precious as those of Columbus or Newton, many would have counted this yearning, taking it as the sublimer part for a man to say, 'If not I, then another,' and to hold cheap the meaning of his own life. But the fuller nature desires to be an agent to create, and not merely to look on. . . . And while there is warmth enough in the sun to feed an energetic life, there will still be men to feel, I am lord of this moment's change, and will charge it with my soul.'"

So, too, Comte sought to fulfill his destiny. Anointing himself High Priest of Humanity—as Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor—Comte saw himself as the spiritual leader not only of France but of the Republic of the West.

But Mordecai is not just a visionary, he is also a dying man. Aware that he himself will never fulfill his dream, he searches for the heir to whom he can entrust this sacred vision. The young man who has taken him into his family is too preoccupied with business; this young man's small son, though he loves Mordecai, only plays contentedly with a bright farthing while Mordecai is trying to plant in his young mind a sense of the spiritual richness of the Hebrew past and to fire this young heart with his own glowing hopes for the future. Finally, Mordecai meets Daniel Deronda and sees in him the one he has been seeking. Though sympathetic, Daniel can only respond to Mordecai's vision of him as the reincarnation of himself: But I am not of your race. Eventually, however, Daniel discovers that he is a Jew. In finding his roots and his heritage (his blood, and the ancient manuscripts left him by his father), Daniel finds himself—and he accepts the dead hand of the Past, the present task, and the vision of Mordecai. "It is," Daniel says, "through your inspiration that I have discerned what may be my life's task. . . . Since I began to read and to know, I have always longed for some ideal task, in which I might feel myself the heart and brain of a multitude—some social captainship, which would come to me as a duty, and not be striven for as a personal prize." And Daniel makes the pledge of his life with "sacred solemnity."

Mordecai's dream of the Jewish nation as the spiritual heart of mankind and of the restored Jewish nation as the unifier of East and West has lost some of its glow for us in the twentieth century. This heart seems as corrupt and divided as the rest of the world's body, and unification seems more beyond our capabilities than ever. History has an unpleasant way, as Voegelin points out, of turning dream into nightmare.

Comte found no son and heir, no High Priest he could anoint as his successor. For all that, there were those who accepted the heritage, the task, and the vision of Humanity's High Priest, and through that found the transmutation of the self that they, like Daniel, had yearned for. Comte's vision—whether it was that of Devil or Angel—was, indeed, a Memorable Fancy.

Mary Pickering (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: "Cours de philosophie positive: Positivism and the Natural Sciences," in Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography, Volume I, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 561-604.

[In the following essay, Pickering outlines Comte's positive philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology.]

Let us not forget that in almost all minds, even the most elevated, ideas usually remain connected following the order of their first acquisition and that it is, consequently, a failing, which is most often irremediable, not to have begun by the beginning. Each century allows only a very small number of capable thinkers at the time of their maturity, like Bacon, Descartes, and Leibniz, to make a true tabula rasa in order to reconstruct from top to bottom the entire system of their acquired ideas.

Comte, 1830


Comte dedicated the Cours to Joseph Fourier and Blainville, both of whom had been a source of personal encouragement and exemplified the positive spirit in the inorganic and organic sciences respectively. In Comte's view, Fourier's mathematical theory of heat was the most valuable scientific contribution since Newton's law of gravity. Blainville's work was admirable for its synthetic and systematic character and use of classification and hierarchy. His theory that every living being should be studied from two points of view—the static (its conditions) and the dynamic (its actions)—was used throughout the Cours, for Comte believed it could be applied to all phenomena "without exception." Although he would later harshly criticize the Academy of Sciences, Comte now sought to enhance the validity and respectability of his project by claiming Blainville, a member of the Academy of Sciences, and Fourier, its permanent secretary, as his "illustrious friends."

In the two introductory lessons to volume I, Comte outlined his main ideas clearly and systematically. The first lesson discussed the importance of "positive philosophy." Without mentioning that he took his definition from Saint-Simon, Comte explained that the term "positive" meant "this special manner of philosophizing that consists of envisaging the theories in any order of ideas as having for their object the coordination of observed facts." Positive philosophy thus represented a way of reasoning that could be applied to all subjects. Comte did not explain what he meant by "observation" or by "fact," although these terms were crucial to his definition.

Instead, he took a historicist approach to his own philosophy, using the past to justify it. Because, to him, no conception whatsoever could be understood without grasping its history, he explained positive philosophy by means of the law of three stages, which showed its development. He had propounded this theory in his fundamental opuscule of 1824, and here he elaborated it further, explaining that the theological, metaphysical, and positive stages represented different methods of philosophizing and thus different ways of looking at the world. The existence of each stage could be verified by considering not only the historical epochs of the human species but the different phases of individual development. In a famous passage, chiefly reflecting his own experience, Comte wrote, "Now each one of us, in contemplating his own history, does he not remember that he has been successively, in terms of his most important notions, a theologian in his childhood, a metaphysician in his youth, and a natural philosopher [physicien] in his virility?"

Each stage in the evolution of knowledge was characterized by a drive for perfection because human understanding was systematic by nature; it always sought to consolidate its methods and make its doctrines homogeneous. The apogee of the theological system was monotheism, in which one God replaced numerous independent supernatural agents. The metaphysical system reached its height when it considered nature, instead of numerous different forces, to be the source of all phenomena. The positive philosophy's quest for perfection consisted of connecting all phenomena by relations of succession and resemblance and subjecting them to a decreasing number of invariable natural laws. Rejecting other philosophers' search for a "vague and absurd unity," Comte insisted that a single explanatory law would remain impossible to attain. As the last and definitive stage of human intellectual development, the positive era would seek unity not in one entity, principle, or law, but in one method. In espousing a revolution based on a new method, Comte was following the example set by Bacon and Descartes.

He further explained the diversity of these three stages by referring to the problems encountered by the human mind in understanding the world. The human mind was always torn between the "necessity of observing to form real theories and the necessity, not any less imperious, of creating some theories in order to devote oneself to coherent observations." The nature of human understanding had compelled primitive man to begin with the theological system, for he could escape the vicious circle between fact and theory only by creating hypotheses, that is, myths, to explain the universe. The theological system stimulated social activity and development by giving him the illusion that the universe was made for him and that he had some control over it. The positive system grew out of this provisional system and reflected man's humbling realization that the causes and nature of phenomena and the origin and purpose of the universe were mysteries beyond his reach. But man's reason was now sufficiently mature for him to be stimulated solely by his intellectual desire to understand the laws of phenomena. Because the positive outlook was so radically opposed to the theological, Comte claimed that the metaphysical state had acted as a necessary transition between the two and partook of enough of their respective characteristics to ensure some degree of continuity in mankind's development.

Though he described three distinct stages, Comte maintained that history was a gradual development; elements of each stage had been growing since the beginning of civilization. For example, although the positive "revolution" had begun in the seventeenth century with the work of Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo, positive philosophy had, in reality, existed since Aristotle. Again, Comte's approach was paradoxical. He wished to justify the future by looking toward the past. To satisfy conservatives afraid of risk, he sought to make his enterprise legitimate by appealing to tradition, but at the same time he hoped to appease those on the Left by giving the past a revolutionary cast. He took his approach from biology, where germs and embryos were preexisting objects that developed in time.

The first and "special" aim of the Cours was to establish social physics, which would extend the positive method to the last group of phenomena still under the theological and metaphysical regimes. The creation of this last science was, according to Comte, the "greatest and most pressing need of our intelligence." By finally making all our conceptions homogeneous, he would realize the positive revolution.

Yet Comte had already fallen into an intellectual trap. As Lévy-Bruhl pointed out, Comte began the Cours with the law of three stages to demonstrate that the coming of social physics was inevitable. However, the law proved at the same time that the science of society already existed because this was the main law of sociology. In using universal sociological laws to verify sociology, Comte was making sociology legitimize itself—a questionable procedure.

Comte's second and "general" aim was pedagogical: to give a course in positive philosophy as a whole. Since social physics now was completing the system of natural sciences, it was possible and necessary to review the positive state of scientific knowledge in its entirety. Not aimed at specialists, the Cours would examine each of the five fundamental positive sciences—astronomy, physics, chemistry, physiology, and social physics—in terms of its relation to the whole positive system, especially to see how it developed the logical procedures of the positive method, which could not be understood apart from its application. This review of the individual sciences was important not only for revealing the method and tendencies of the new philosophy, but also for laying the groundwork for social physics, which required a firm grasp of the various scientific methods as well as the laws of the more simple phenomena that influenced society. Therefore, Comte's two aims in writing the Cours were inseparable.

Finally, this overview of the sciences was necessary to combat specialization, one of the main characteristics of the positive age. Comte believed that increased specialization was a crucial component of progress, but he condemned this tendency to become isolated and lost in detail as the great weakness of positive philosophy. To diminish its impact, Comte urged the formation of a class of learned men, the positive philosophers, who would specialize in the "study of scientific generalities." Other scientists would study the work of these generalists so that their own specialties would profit from the knowledge of the whole. In this way, positive philosophy would ensure the unity of human knowledge.

Comte believed his course on positive philosophy had four advantages. The first was that, because scientific theories were products of man's intellectual faculties and showed the mind in action, studying these theories would lead to a firm grasp of the logical laws of the human mind. One of the main themes of the Cours, whose importance was recognized by Mill, was that the logical and scientific points of view were indivisible because logical education coincided with scientific education. The way to understand logic was to study the history of science. Like Hegel, Comte was concerned with studying the mind in action, that is, the way it manifested itself throughout history and in society. Rejecting abstract, static studies of logic and of the individual, he sought to substitute positive philosophy for psychology, which he called the "last transformation of theology." Unlike the members of Cousin's school, who disagreed among themselves due to the looseness of their speculations about the mind's observation of itself, positive philosophers would agree on how the mind functioned and could lay the basis of social consensus.

The second main advantage of the establishment of positive philosophy would be the reorganization of the educational system to make it more responsive to the "needs of modern civilization." Objecting to the confused curriculum of traditional schools and to premature specialization, Comte felt that positive philosophy—the study of the spirit, results, and method of every science—must not be a monopoly of the scientists but had to become the basis of the education of even the "popular masses." After all, science's "true point of departure" always consisted of ideas held by the common people about the "subjects under consideration." Comte's animus against the scientific elite and the populist strain in his thought, which had been apparent in his earliest writings, could not have been clearer.

The third advantage of the positive philosophy would be the reform of the sciences. Arguing that the divisions among the sciences were ultimately artificial, he hoped he could encourage a more interdisciplinary approach to the solution of problems, which would lead to more rapid progress.

The fourth advantage of this new philosophy would be the most important: the reorganization of the social system, which would end the state of crisis that had existed since the French Revolution. Although Comte was frequently accused of materialism, he believed that "ideas govern and overturn the world, or in other words, that the entire social mechanism rests ultimately on opinions." The "intellectual anarchy" that was at the root of the present social disorder was caused by the simultaneous use of theological, metaphysical, and positive ways of thinking. With the inevitable extension of the positive method to social phenomena, human knowledge would become homogeneous, and there would emerge the intellectual consensus necessary for society to return to "normal." Thus in his first "lesson" of the Cours, Comte made it clear that he was advocating a "general revolution of the human mind" and that its ultimate object was practical and political: the completion of the social revolution. Although not directly involved in politics, he aimed in an indirect and profound fashion to shape the world of action.

The first lesson summed up the important results of Comte's lifework. It did not introduce any new material or reflect any radical changes in his opinions since his fundamental opuscule. Most of the significant themes of positivism were developed in a concise and austere manner: the importance of ending the revolutionary crisis by a philosophy of the sciences, the law of three stages, the theory of hypotheses, the necessity of raising politics to a positive science, the reorganization of the educational system, the interdisciplinary approach to intellectual problems, and the condemnation of psychology, reductionism (in terms of both reducing one science to another and reducing scientific knowledge to one law), and excessive specialization.

Lesson 2, the complement of lesson 1, dealt with the classification of the sciences. He argued that this classification was possible only at the current time because social physics, which ensured the uniformity of our knowledge, was becoming a positive science. Moreover, botanists and zoologists had only recently provided a model of classification based on observation. Comte made it clear that he was not seeking to classify and unify all of human knowledge as the Encyclopedists endeavored to do, for this was impossible. The Cours was concerned only with theoretical knowledge, above all, the laws of nature, which led to action. Even he admitted that his classification of this knowledge was ultimately "arbitrary" and "artificial."

One of Comte's favorite aphorisms was "from science comes prediction; from prediction comes action." The aim of each science was therefore prediction. Prediction to Comte meant going not only from the present to the future, but from the known to the unknown. "Scientific prevision . . . consists .. . in knowing a fact independently of its direct exploration in virtue of its relations with others already given." Larry Laudan [in an article in Philosophy of Science, March 1971] has pointed out that Comte departed in a significant way from traditional criteria of what made knowledge scientific. Up to this point, scientists insisted on the certainty and infallibility of their knowledge. But with his relativism, which outlawed appeals to truth, Comte declared that knowledge was scientific if it displayed predictive power. He thus could avoid the problem of dictating one means of scientific investigation. According to Laudan, Comte was influential in the philosophy of science because he believed that "a statement is scientific so long as it makes general claims about how nature behaves, which are capable of being put to experimental test." Scientific propositions were thus different from nonscientific ones if they were general and capable of being tested.

In lesson 28, Comte clarified this novel and important methodological approach in his famous theory of hypotheses, to which he had previously alluded in the third and fourth opuscules and the first lesson of the Cours. He agreed with Bacon that knowledge must rest on facts, but rejecting his empiricism, he maintained that facts could not even be perceived or retained without the guidance of an a priori theory. At the beginning of the scientific investigation of a subject, a "provisional supposition"—a hypothesis—was "indispensable" for aiding the discovery of natural laws. The scientist was not a passive, mechanical observer as the empiricists believed; he first had to use his imagination and come up with an explanatory theory simply to be able to make an observation:

If, in contemplating phenomena, we did not immediately attach them to some principles, not only would it be impossible for us to connect these isolated observations, and, consequently, to draw something from them, but also we would even be entirely incapable of remembering them; and facts would most often remain imperceptible before our very eyes.

Although geometers had devised the artifice of a theory, Comte asserted that no one had yet discussed the fundamental condition that legitimized its usage:

This condition . . . consists of imagining only hypotheses [that are] susceptible .. . of a positive verification, more or less in the future, but always clearly inevitable, and whose degree of precision is exactly in harmony with that which the study of the corresponding phenomena comprises. In other words, truly philosophical hypotheses must constantly present the character of simple anticipations of that which experiment and reason would have revealed immediately, if the circumstances of the problem had been more favorable.

Once a hypothesis that was in harmony with already determined data was conceived, the science could freely develop and would explore new consequences that would confirm or negate the conjecture. Hypotheses could not be considered scientific theories until they were verified by induction ("the immediate analysis" of the movement of a phenomenon) and deduction (the analysis of the relation of a phenomenon to a previously established law). Thus one reason Comte insisted upon prediction as a criterion of scientific knowledge was that he wished to avoid having to base this knowledge solely on induction, as empiricists did. Scientific investigation rested on the use of both induction and deduction. His predilection is revealed in a comment he later made to a disciple:

I consider Descartes and even Leibniz infinitely superior to Bacon. The latter, who wrote so much on deduction, never made a single inductive discovery of any value, . . . while Descartes, who . . . philosophically appreciated only deduction, made important advances in mathematics and elsewhere by means of induction.

In volume 3, Comte also introduced the "art" of "scientific fictions," which he acknowledged derived from the "poetic imagination." Whereas the art of hypothesis related fictions to the solution of a problem, this other art applied them to the problem itself by inventing a series of purely hypothetical cases. One example of the possible use of this new method in biology would be to place "purely fictive organisms," which one hoped to discover later, between already known organisms in order to make the biological series more homogeneous, continuous, and regular.

Like his theory of hypothesis, this art of scientific fiction showed that Comte was not a slave to his belief in the supreme importance of observation. Despite the criticism of the Saint-Simonians, he always gave a large role to imagination in the scientific process. And to avoid giving reason too much importance in scientific research, he deliberately refused to offer elaborate, ahistorical rules of scientific procedure and proof.

Comte's attitude toward the use of hypotheses and "scientific fictions" resembled his view of the manipulation of mathematical principles because they all offered man the ability to do scientific exploration in an indirect manner whenever direct investigation was impossible. In proclaiming the utility and advantages of such conjectures and fictions, which were not exact representations of reality, Comte was stressing the relativity of knowledge while trying to save man from total skepticism or empiricism.

At the same time, he carefully limited the range of this indirect means of investigation. Hypotheses, for example, could pertain only to the laws of phenomena, that is, to their "constant relations of succession or of similitude." They could not be used to solve problems concerning the causes or nature of phenomena, which were beyond our means of observation and reasoning and thus "necessarily insoluble." Thus, as Warren Schmaus has pointed out [in an article in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, March 1985], Comte did not insist that hypotheses be formulated in the "language of observation." They could use theoretical terms as long as they did not refer to "unobservable entities, especially causal entities." The molecule was, for example, a theoretical term whose use Comte permitted, although he did not think this "artifice" pertained to "reality." But theories about God, for example, could never be affirmed or refuted. And isolated facts were not scientific either because they had no predictive capability.

The majority of early-nineteenth-century methodologists still believed that scientific theories could be constructed simply on the basis of induction or analogy, without recourse to conjectures. Although Comte did not spell out the rules of verification, his explanation of hypotheses as useful, convenient, and respectable devices that served a crucial function in scientific discovery was a novel theory, one that became very influential. It foreshadowed the later work of Hans Vaihinger and Henri Poincaré and may have also influenced Claude Bernard, Marcelin Berthelot, Paul Janet, Ernst Mach, Wilhelm Ostwald, and Pierre Duhem. The logical positivists took up a similar approach to the problems of ascertaining meaningfulness, distinguishing scientific from nonscientific knowledge, and using verifiability to criticize metaphysicians.

To Comte, prediction was important in itself as a way of demarcating scientific knowledge, but it was also crucial because it enabled man to act more effectively. Despite the determinism of the law of three stages and his stress on the limitations of human knowledge and operations, Comte retained an activist conception of man. Like Marx, he believed man must use his intellect to discover scientific laws enabling him to modify the universe "to his advantage . . . despite the obstacles of his condition." Comte never lost sight of the practical goal of his Cours. His scientific exposition was always subordinated to his social goal; philosophy had to be realized in politics.

While emphasizing that theoretical knowledge had a utilitarian end, he argued, nevertheless, that it had to be pursued in a separate domain without regard to its practical application. He rejected the new, materialistic trend to make the sciences the handmaidens of industry, for to him, they had a "more elevated destination, that of satisfying the fundamental need felt by our intelligence to know the laws of phenomena." This innate desire to put facts into order and to arrive at simple, general conceptions was more important than practical needs in stimulating scientific research and thus intellectual progress.

Comte upheld a philosophical, historicist approach to the sciences. Influenced by Blainville, he maintained that the philosophy of a science could not be studied apart from the "intellectual history" of that science and vice versa. (This consideration of a science in terms of either its ideas or its history corresponded to the dichotomy between statics and dynamics, i.e., order and progress.) As Johan Heilbron has suggested [in an article in Sociological Theory, Fall 1990], Comte's epistemology rejected the traditional approach of grounding the sciences on universal principles and showed that scientific knowledge itself had to be considered a historical process.

This process was complex. According to Comte, the history of a particular science could not be studied in isolation because the progress of each science was connected to the simultaneous development of the other sciences, to the arts (practical applications), and to society as a whole. In other words, one could not understand how the ideas and theories of a single science changed without studying the entire history of humanity. Comte was thus one of the first thinkers to point out that the history of science was the "most important" and "neglected" part of the development of humanity and, moreover, had to be interdisciplinary in scope. His analysis later had a large impact in France, where scholars such as Bachelard and Canguilhem sought to approach the formation of concepts and theories from a historical, instead of a logical, perspective.

Comte's basic rules for classifying the sciences elaborated on the principles that he had announced in his fundamental opuscule. The sciences devoted to the most simple and thus the most general phenomena came first in the hierarchy. Influencing all other phenomena without in turn being influenced by them, these simple, abstract phenomena were also the most independent and the farthest away from man. The later, more complicated sciences studied phenomena that were increasingly complex, particular (specialized), and concrete. These phenomena were closer to man and more dependent on the phenomena studied by the previous sciences in the hierarchy. In sum, because the classification of the sciences reflected the dependence that existed among their corresponding natural phenomena, each science was founded on the knowledge of the principal laws of the preceding one and became, in turn, the foundation of the one that came after it. Therefore, each science depended on its antecedents but had its own peculiarities that prevented it from being reduced to the science preceding it. Likewise, each science could influence only the sciences that followed it in the hierarchy.

According to Heilbron, Comte's important "differential theory of science" reflected his profound grasp of the new kind of disciplinary battles raging in the age of specialization. At this time, the spokesmen for the mathematico-mechanical disciplines were fighting the representatives of the life sciences; each group claimed universal validity for its models and methods. Comte's theory was effective in destroying the illusions of such monism.

Concerned with differentiating the sciences in terms of their history and ideas, Comte argued that the organic sciences were more complex and more particular than the inorganic ones and thus came after them in the hierarchy. The inorganic sciences were divided into those dealing with celestial phenomena—astronomy—and those dealing with terrestrial phenomena—physics and chemistry. The organic sciences were divided into the science of the individual physiology—and that of the species—social physics. The most difficult science of all, social physics, dealt with the most particular, complex, and concrete phenomena—those closest to man. It depended on all of the other sciences but could not influence them. Beside these five sciences, natural philosophy included a sixth—mathematics—which was its "true fundamental basis." Mathematics was more significant to Comte as a method, that is, as a "means of investigation in the study of other natural phenomena," than as a doctrine. It constituted the "most powerful instrument that the human mind can use in the search for the laws of natural phenomena." It was the most perfect science as well as the oldest, and because it served as the foundation of the other five sciences, it came first in his classification. Comte was making the science that was his own specialty the "head of positive philosophy." At the opposite end of the hierarchy, he placed the other science to which he was most attached—social physics. It too represented the point of departure and the head of positive philosophy but in a different sense that would become clearer later on.

Comte declared that his classification of the sciences not only reflected the divisions that had grown up spontaneously among them but also accorded with their development in history. His classification verified the law of the three stages by showing why the diverse branches of our knowledge were often at different stages of development. Because the simplest sciences were studied first and thus matured quickly, they were the first to reach the positive state. The more complex sciences took longer to reach that stage, for they depended on the knowledge of the simpler sciences and could not make any real progress until the preceding sciences did.

Moreover, the classification marked the "relative perfection" of the diverse sciences. Throughout the Cours Comte defined perfection in terms of unity, abstraction, simplicity, universality, precision, and coordination of facts, which made predictions more exact. Yet at the same time, he stressed the limitations of knowledge—as he had done when he prohibited man from trying to uncover first causes and the destiny of the universe and when he showed the necessity of using hypotheses because of the feebleness of the mind. Now he declared that whereas astronomy was fairly precise and tightly organized, the sciences of organic phenomena (especially social phenomena) could never be very exact or systematic. However, although physiology and social physics might even be extremely imprecise, Comte maintained somewhat dogmatically that they were as certain as the other sciences, for "everything that is positive, that is, founded on well-observed facts, is certain." He did not revel in the torments of doubt.

The most important property of the classification of the sciences was that it presented the general outlines of a rational scientific education. To learn what constituted a scientific law, a positive conception, or a valid observation, one first needed to study the simpler sciences, which were easiest to understand. Otherwise, one would not be able to comprehend the more complex sciences. Moreover, the simpler sciences should be studied first because their greater distance from man meant they did not generate passions and prejudices. (This distance and objectivity also helped make them more precise than the science of society, whose phenomena were so close to man and defied exactitude.) Comte insisted, furthermore, that this order of study was important for both the scientist and layperson. He was thinking not only of Guizot and other brilliant men who had disappointed him because they lacked scientific knowledge, but also of scientists themselves, who had neglected to start "at the beginning" and thus lacked a "rational education." Most of all, he was worried that without a grasp of all the sciences, people undertaking the study of society would not know how to relate society to natural phenomena or apply the positive method to social phenomena.

Composed of these two lessons, the "Exposition" of the Cours was a remarkably clear discussion of most of the main points of Comte's doctrine. It has, in fact, become a classic text of nineteenth century French philosophy. Arguing his points well, he anticipated criticisms and added numerous nuances, which made the tone of his discourse much less dogmatic than many of his other writings. His theory of hypotheses showed that he did not believe that scientific discoveries could proceed by the observation of facts alone. His concern with the practical side of the sciences was balanced by his warning that considerations of pure utility would stifle the sciences. His attraction to the law of gravity as one unifying principle was offset by his realization that the sciences were too complex to be reduced in this fashion. His classification of the sciences according to their ideas was modified by his assertion that this classification was consistent with their historical development. Although he repeatedly emphasized the necessity of establishing a science of society, he did not attempt to hide the fact that its findings would not always be as precise as one would like. In brief, despite his many peremptory statements and his often gross assumptions, Comte revealed himself to be a complex thinker.

The "Exposition" is perhaps most striking by what it left out. The passion of his earlier opuscules was replaced by a cool, dry, "objective" tone suitable to a scientific treatise. Absent from the lessons is any reference to the separation of powers, especially to the new spiritual power controlling the educational system and advising the government. Such questions were reserved for the last volumes. Comte may have decided to keep his vehemently anticlerical and anti-Catholic opinions temporarily to himself so as not to estrange his readers before they read even a hundred pages.

He was also being true to the decision that he had made just before his mental breakdown of 1826, when he suddenly recognized the necessity of establishing positive philosophy before positive politics. Realizing that intellectual supremacy had to precede political dominion, Comte believed that only positive philosophy could give validity and authority to positive politics, which completed it. He felt that what distinguished him from reactionaries, revolutionaries, and liberals was his creation of a philosophy supplying the scientific basis of the reorganization of society. His first volumes did initially appear "scientistic" and "materialistic" for he did nothing but discuss the sciences. But as he explained later to Mill, he was trying to systematize ideas without which social regeneration would fall "into a sort of more or less vague mysticism." Emphasizing the threat of mysticism, which would come from basing a reorganization first on feelings, he continued:

This is why my fundamental work [the Cours] had to address itself almost exclusively to the intellect: this had to be a work of research and even incidentally of discussion, destined to discover and constitute true universal principles by climbing by hierarchical degrees from the most simple scientific questions to the highest social speculations.

Only when these "highest social speculations" came up at the end of the Cours could Comte logically develop his ideas of a spiritual power and spiritual doctrine. Once these views of spiritual reorganization were established at the end of the Cours, he could then turn his attention to systematizing the feelings. Broaching these subjects at the beginning would have ruined the scientific impressions of his enterprise, which were initially most important to impart to his readers.


Except for the two introductory lessons, volume I was devoted to mathematics. It developed ideas that had first appeared in Comte's incomplete essays of 1818 to 1820. Whereas at that time he had not been sure about the proper way to begin intellectual reform, he now decided it must start with mathematics. In fact, he inserted a long critique of French mathematical education, whose defects he blamed on the "extreme inferiority" of the majority of teachers. They did not fully appreciate Descartes's "fundamental revolution," lacked a grasp of the whole of their subject, and failed especially to give their students a solid understanding of geometry, which was important for showing the relationship between the abstract and the concrete. Comte's disparagement of his fellow professors and of the Ecole Polytechnique would not win him many friends in the future and was undiplomatic considering his current attempts to find a position. But it shows that he had a poor opinion of these scientists even before they created problems for him. His later difficulties merely confirmed what he had already thought and dared to write.

In these lessons, Comte's highest praises went to Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, and Lagrange. Greatly inspired by Lagrange, a former professor at the Ecole Polytechnique, Comte relied heavily on several of his books, going so far as to paraphrase whole sections of them. Much of the text of the Cours is plainly derivative.

As he would do with the other five sciences, Comte first treated mathematics as a whole. He considered its aim, subject matter, composition, theories, discoveries, methods, relationships with the other sciences, limitations, and possibilities for future development. He then broke the science down into different divisions, which he further subdivided and characterized, revealing his passion for classifications and definitions. Dividing and labeling in this fashion gave him a feeling of power, a feeling that he was in control of his subject. Disregarding his criticism of scientists for creating specialized languages, he also often tried to imprint an original character on his reflections by simply giving a new name of his own to old terms.

Throughout the Cours, Comte aimed to show how each science incorporated the positive method and contributed to the positive system. He believed mathematics represented the origin of positive philosophy. Only by studying this quintessential science could one arrive at a "correct and deep idea" of what a science was in general. One learned that positive laws must show relationships between independent and even apparently isolated phenomena, which enabled the scientist to make predictions. Indifferent to the search for causes or substances, mathematics was, in short, the science of invariable relationships and best demonstrated the positive method.

Thanks especially to the work of Descartes in geometry, mathematics exhibited the interrelationship of the abstract and concrete realms. Comte argued that intellectual development was synonymous with the growth of abstraction; the consideration of increasingly abstract ideas allowed people to solve more concrete problems. As the most abstract science, mathematics first stimulated this intellectual development. Thus its translation of concrete facts into abstract ideas was necessary for scientific advancement.

Deeply influenced by Descartes, Comte asserted that the range of mathematics could be extended indefinitely; its deductive logic was universal. In fact, he hoped to replace formal logic, which was too abstract and ontological, with mathematics, which would then become the "normal basis of all healthy logical education." Ideally, each science would be one day as rigorously deductive and rational as mathematics:

One can even say generally that science is essentially destined to dispense with all direct observation—as much as the diverse phenomena allow—by making it possible to deduce from the smallest possible number of immediate data the greatest possible number of results.

Comte was thus no simple inductivist. He believed science must aim at constructing laws and theories that would do away with the tedious task of observing facts and enable one to go beyond direct evidence.

Yet although very loyal to Descartes and deduction, Comte distrusted pure abstraction. Trained in the synthetic or realist school of geometry of Monge, he maintained that positive theories had to be ultimately founded on the observation of a real, concrete body. To prevent an "abuse of pure reasoning" that would lead to "sterile" works, even the most rational science had to remember its experiential roots, for there was no a priori knowledge.

Comte rejected Descartes's effort to make mathematics the universal science by reducing every problem in natural philosophy to a question of numbers. He argued that the human mind could represent mathematically only the least complicated and most general inorganic phenomena, those whose properties were fairly fixed. Complex inorganic phenomena and all organic phenomena would always remain closed to mathematical analysis because they exhibited "extreme numerical variability" and were affected by so many factors that no two cases were alike. This criticism of the abuse of statistics, particularly in biology and the science of society, reflected Comte's effort to preserve the autonomy and individuality of each science.

In sum, although Comte praised mathematics for being the most universal and most applicable of all the sciences, he warned his contemporaries not to continue to exaggerate its power. Mathematicians, who were dominant in early-nineteenth-century France, could not, in his eyes, continue to pretend to monopolize the scientific realm. A certain realism about the range of the human mind and consequently a certain humility characterized Comte's approach to the science that occupied his daily life. Indeed, one of the main principles of the Cours was the deficiency of our knowledge even in the limited realm of what was understandable. Comte insisted that

it was necessary to recognize that by an indisputable law of human nature, our means for conceiving new questions . . . [are] much more powerful than our resources for solving them, or in other words the human mind . . . [is] far more capable of imagining than of reasoning.

Although one could not determine with precision the boundaries of the power of the mind, their existence was undeniable. Comte reveled in the fruitfulness of the sciences, but he never declared them to be all-powerful. His arguments were far more complex than those who accused him of scientism admit.


The first part of the second volume was devoted to astronomy, which Comte considered to be the first "direct" natural science and a model for the "true study of nature." It best demonstrated that a science consisted of laws, not isolated facts, and predictions. Newton's law of gravity brought astronomy to the "highest philosophical perfection" that any science could hope to achieve. This theory proved the importance not only of reducing phenomena to a single law but also of using hypotheses to advance one's understanding, especially when concrete, observed facts were missing. Pointing out that even this model of a positive explanation could conceivably be superseded one day by another hypothesis, Comte did not fail to stress the relativity of knowledge even in the most precise and certain science.

He also placed astronomy at the head of the natural sciences because its laws represented the foundation of our whole system of knowledge. Astronomical phenomena influenced physical, chemical, physiological, and social phenomena but could not be influenced by them in turn. Subsequent research, however, proved him wrong.

One of Comte's scientific laws was that "as the phenomena to be studied become more complex, they are at the same time susceptible .. . of more extensive and varied means of exploration." Since astronomical phenomena were the simplest, astronomy had only one means of exploration, observation, which it introduced into the positive system. Here Comte explained that the art of observation consisted of three methods: the direct observation of concrete objects (which led to induction), experimentation, and comparison. He thus restricted astronomical research to "simple visual observations." Again, later developments regarding dark stars and black holes would invalidate his position. Furthermore, he unwisely limited the range of astronomy to the solar system. His rejection of sidereal astronomy was based on his assumption that it was impossible to arrive at a true conception of the universe of stars. Moreover, he believed man did not need to know about this universe, which did not affect him. To Comte, man should always ask what he needed to know, not what he could know.

This optimistic assumption that a basic harmony existed between man's needs and the scope of his knowledge would run throughout the Cours. Instead of being frustrated by the restrictions of knowledge, Comte simply dismissed them as irrelevant. His engineering mind-set was evident in the supposition that science could solve the practical problems of man's existence. Although worried about the enslavement of theory to practice, he was not always in favor of scientific curiosity for its own sake and sometimes adopted a more utilitarian approach.

Astronomy was also an important science because it showed the importance of combining induction and deduction. Given that astral bodies were distant and hard to observe, astronomy had to make recourse to mathematics, which it used to represent its simple objects and make deductions. Comte considered astronomy the most perfect science and a model for all the others precisely because its method was primarily mathematical and abstract and consequently the most free of theological and metaphysical influences.

However, once again, he condemned the calculus of probabilities. He believed the notion of "evaluated probability" could never regulate human conduct. Often contradicting common sense, it would lead people to "absurd consequences," such as rejecting "as numerically unlikely events that are, nevertheless, going to happen." Comte therefore denied a place for probabilities in any of the sciences—especially the science of society, where he felt that its repercussions could be especially damaging. Here again, Comte proved to be conservative about scientific innovations. Despite his faith in the predictive power of scientific thought and his law of three stages, his projections about the future direction of scientific development often missed the mark. Comte argued that the two extremes of natural philosophy—astronomy and physiology—had the most beneficial impact on intellectual progress because questions concerning the world and man had always attracted the most attention. As the most scientific of all the sciences, astronomy was the most opposed to theology. It had not only freed the human mind of its "absurd prejudices" and "superstitious terrors," but also hurt the doctrine of final causes, the keystone of the theological system. The heliocentric theory humiliated man, who had thought he was the center of the universe, and it stripped providential action of any intelligible aim. Challenging the theological argument by design and arguing that man was more intelligent than nature, Comte maintained, moreover, that the elements of the solar system were not arranged in the best manner as theologians liked to imagine; science could "easily" conceive of a better one. Inspired by Laplace, he argued that astronomers presented a much more ordered universe than did theologians, who believed all things were governed by the will of one or several supreme beings and were thus irregular. To Comte, order was "necessary and spontaneous" and not dependent on outside agents."

In these chapters on astronomy, he repeatedly stressed the harmony, regularity, and stability of the solar system, which were reflected in the precision, rationality, and invariability of astronomical laws. Although he wrote in a cold, dry style, he could hardly contain his passion for the order incarnated in the solar system and in the science that explored it. It is evident that he found more certainty, consistency, and reassurance in a world explained by the sciences than in a world ruled by a god. This love of stability, which would pervade the remaining lessons of the Cours, seemed discordant with his activist image of human nature.


After considering the laws of the heavens, Comte turned his attention in volume 2 to the laws of the earth, studied by physics and chemistry. As the second natural science, dealing with more complex phenomena, physics was more backward than astronomy. Whereas astronomy had been positive (at least in its geometrical aspect) ever since the foundation of the School of Alexandria, physics had reached this stage only with Galileo. Instead of the "perfect mathematical harmony" that characterized astronomy, physics was, moreover, marked by disunity; it was composed of numerous branches that had little relation to each other, and its theories were not well coordinated.

Physics demonstrated Comte's law that as one ascended the scale of the sciences, prediction became more imperfect and the power of man to modify phenomena increased. There was therefore an inverse relation between prediction and human intervention. In physics, where prediction was not as wide-ranging or exact as it was in astronomy, natural phenomena began for the first time to be modified by human intervention. Comte argued that this ability to modify phenomena proved that phenomena were not under the control of the gods.

Because of its imperfections, physics was still pervaded by metaphysical habits, which were absent in astronomy. It was in the context of contrasting astronomy with physics that Comte appeared to use the term "positivism" for the first time:

In astronomy the discussion [among people supporting the positive spirit and those maintaining metaphysics] was less marked, and positivism triumphed almost spontaneously, except on the subject of the earth's movement.

Up to this point, Comte had usually referred to his system as the "positive philosophy." Occasionally, he had used the word "positivity." In general, he was very careful about the fabrication of new terms, which he thought often served to "hide the real emptiness of ideas." Nevertheless, he liked to use neologisms, such as "positivity," and conscientiously explained their background. Because this time he did not claim to have invented the term "positivism," it seems probable that Comte adopted it from someone else, perhaps from Bazard, who had used the word during the summer of 1829. Comte later made a virtue of having "spontaneously" chosen this word, pointing out that his philosophy, unlike all others, such as Christianity and Fourierism, was the "only one" that had a name different from that of its author.

Comte believed that the complicated nature of physical phenomena meant that physics would never be as perfect as astronomy, but this complexity gave it more methods of exploration. Physics introduced and fully developed the art of experimentation—the second method of observation—thanks to the possibility of modifying physical bodies almost without restriction. The emphasis on experimentation meant that induction was more important in physics than in astronomy and that deduction was no longer dominant. Yet once again, Comte argued for the simultaneous use of deduction and induction, lamenting that the "art of closely combining analysis and experimentation, without subordinating one to the other, is still almost unknown."

Although he urged that mathematical analysis be used to a greater extent in physics, where it could connect isolated facts and make experiments more rational, he warned against its misapplication, which would lead to "useless hypotheses" and "entirely chimerical conceptions." Therefore, mathematicians, who despised experimentation and liked excessive abstraction, should not be allowed to dominate in physics. But this fear of the possible abuse of mathematics led Comte to make imprudent statements. For example, his assertion that physics, not chemistry, was the last field where purely mathematical analysis was effective showed his ignorance of stoichiometry, which covers the quantitative expressions of chemical reactions.

Comte used his doctrine of hypotheses to warn physicists not to resort to the metaphysical theories of universal ethers and imaginary fluids that were popular in his era as a means of explaining the phenomena of heat, light, electricity, and magnetism. These ethers and fluids, he said, were like angels and genies: their existence could be neither negated nor affirmed, and they explained nothing. He also unwisely treated all questions of light in the same manner. To him, both the corpuscular and undulatory theories of light were "antiscientific" because they simply piled one mystery on top of another. They also connected optics too closely with mechanics and acoustics.

It seems clear that Comte's goals were occasionally problematical. On the one hand, he was eager to unify the sciences as much as possible through the discovery of their interrelationships. On the other hand, he wished to keep each science (or branch of science) distinct by avoiding the temptation of reducing one to another. Yet he carried his antireductionist tendencies too far when he wrote "Despite all arbitrary assumptions, luminous phenomena will always constitute one sui generis category necessarily irreducible to any other: a light will be eternally heterogeneous to a movement or to a sound." Such an absolutist position went against scientific progress.


The subject of the first half of the third volume was chemistry, a science that had been developing rapidly since the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Based to a large extent on the works of Claude-Louis Berthollet, a former professor at the Ecole Polytechnique, Comte's exposition centered on what prevented chemistry from becoming a true science consisting of uniform laws. Instead of urging chemists to find new facts, Comte encouraged them to systematize the knowledge they already had in order to make one homogeneous doctrine. They should particularly take advantage of the comparative method, the third scientific means of observation, which chemistry introduced into the positive system for it would at least allow them to classify chemical phenomena according to their natural families.

Comte's objective in the lessons on chemistry was to stress its distinctiveness as a science, for he saw many threats to the validity of its findings and to its independence. For example, he strongly criticized Lorenz Oken, the leader of German Naturphilosophen, for trying to reduce all substances to four elements. Oken, according to Comte, had carried the search for simplification to such an extreme that he had disregarded the "reality" of natural phenomena. When Comte turned to the relationship of chemistry to physics and physiology, which was one of the leading questions of the day, he concluded that chemistry had an ambiguous but nevertheless independent position between these two sciences. He insisted that the separate identities of all three sciences should be preserved and that scientists should not completely take over the work of a less developed science. Condemning reductionism, he warned physicists not to include chemical phenomena in their science. He also reprimanded chemists for trying to deal with organic phenomena, because he said they lacked an understanding of the whole of physiology. In fact, he argued against the existence of organic chemistry as a separate science. Precluded from dealing with the phenomena of life, all of chemistry should be inorganic. Despite his stress on the need to preserve a place for chemistry in the positive hierarchy, Comte seemed most interested in saving physiology from its encroachments. His restrictions on the realm of direct chemical investigation would be unacceptable today.

Comte argued that verification of the results of chemical research could occur by the double process of analysis and synthesis, terms that he suggested had been abused by the Saint-Simonians and other metaphysicians. Properly confined to chemistry, analysis pertained to decomposition, and synthesis to composition. To verify a chemical demonstration, a substance that was decomposed should be able to be recomposed exactly. Comte criticized chemists for using their analytical faculties far more than their synthetic ones. Just as he encouraged both induction and deduction, he was arguing for the use of both analysis and synthesis in scientific investigation in order to maximize possibilities in research.

Comte claimed that chemistry had an important impact on intellectual development, especially on humanity's liberation from theology and metaphysics. The ability to transform chemical phenomena improved the "human condition" and represented the "principal source" of people's power to effect change in general. The "positive notions of decomposition and recomposition" and the "necessarily indefinite perpetuity of all matter" replaced the theological dogma of "absolute destructions and creations." Also, by showing that transformations in living bodies obeyed the laws of chemical phenomena, chemistry put an end to the theological dogma that organic matter was radically different from inorganic matter.

In sum, Comte's five lessons on chemistry are remarkable for their reformist spirit. Although the rapid changes in chemistry caused most of his specific suggestions for improvement to become outdated, his demand for homogeneity, systematization, predictive laws, and clearer hypotheses remained valid and encouraged the science to develop to a higher stage of''positivity."


The last lesson on chemistry marked the end of Comte's discussion of the inorganic sciences. Many scientists and philosophers from Comte's time to the present have judged these thirty-nine lessons in an unfavorable light. As mentioned previously, Comte's rigid approach to the classification of the sciences—particularly his infatuation with the vague term "complexity of phenomena"—often led him to make untenable, if not absurd, predictions about their development. At times, he also appears to have made errors in discussing certain laws or discoveries. Comte's contemporary Joseph Bertrand even accused him of making significant errors in his discussion of mathematics, the very subject he taught. In a recent article [in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, June 1990], Craig Fraser points out that Comte's personal animosity toward Cauchy and Poisson prevented him from taking seriously their important work, which showed the weaknesses of Lagrange's mathematics.

The renowned philosopher Michel Serres [in his notes to the 1982 edition of the Cours] has also demonstrated that Comte's knowledge of purely mathematical developments was remarkably poor. Serres goes so far as to say that Comte's mathematical knowledge stopped with Lagrange, who died in 1813, and that he consequently neglected the "great mathematical revolution of his time"—the rebirth of formalism and abstraction that was occurring in the early nineteenth century with Gauss, Abel, and Jacobi. Comte was therefore partly responsible for the backwardness of French mathematical instruction in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although Serres praises Comte's explanation of astronomy as "clear" and "definitive" for his time, he suggests that his Cartesian conception of this science was likewise turned toward the past and totally missed the trends toward thermodynamics and astrophysics. Serres caustically calls the entire Cours a "monument" of the times:

His encyclopedia of the exact sciences was . . . dead the first day of its birth. Let us not speak of the errors, which are especially notable in mathematics. It was dead for two reasons, two praises: because it recapitulates, and the exhaustive knowledge of the author is rarely in the wrong: whence the best general survey of a present and its past: because it prohibits what, for us, became its future, and the wisdom of the author is unsurpassable: he perceives in a dazzling manner what will be, only to cross it out immediately.

Presenting its own static "decisive model of the universe," the Cours thus ironically tried to prevent the development of the modern scientific spirit, which was occurring at the very moment Comte was writing.

Paul Tannery, a famous historian of the sciences who was Comte's disciple, claimed that at the very least the Cours was a historical document that faithfully reflected the state of the sciences in the early nineteenth century. Yet he had to admit that Comte was not at all informed about the new developments in the mathematical and physical sciences. As a result, scientists even of Comte's time did not take him seriously. It seems, then, that in his knowledge of the sciences, Comte had not gone much beyond what he had learned as an adolescent at the Ecole Polytechnique.

Pierre Arnaud points out that these criticisms of Comte's knowledge of mathematics and the other sciences are irrelevant because he was not a specialist and was not trying to write on the sciences per se but on philosophy. Yet most of the lessons in the Cours deal with specific scientific questions. Comte spoke with confidence and authority, even proposing reforms and fruitful areas of research to scientific specialists. His lack of credibility on some of these issues—especially in the first volume on mathematics and astronomy may have hindered the reception of the positive philosophy. His audience was probably less sympathetic to these problems, given the fact that the science of society, which would put all the other sciences in perspective philosophically, was merely a distant prospect. The general reader, who had great difficulty wading through the long volumes on the sciences with no relief in sight, was no happier than the scientist, who was offended by Comte's scientific errors and criticisms.

Comte was repeatedly advised to discuss at the beginning the main principles of social science, but he angrily rejected this counsel as illogical. Discussing social science first would have "ruined in advance the fundamental principles of the scientific hierarchy," which "best" characterized his philosophy. After all, one of the points of the Cours was that the education of each individual had to start at the beginning and go through the whole history of knowledge. And this history ended with the science of society. Moreover, by following such advice, Comte would have deprived himself of the scientific foundation necessary for the establishment of a social theory. The Cours was a learning process not only for his readers but, more important, for himself.


Besides finding it difficult to follow a work published in pieces over a period of twelve years, both the layperson and the scientist had one other hurdle to face: Comte's poor writing. Comte's method of composing the Cours had a significant effect on the work. He always had to think first about his subject matter for a very long time in order to formulate a complete outline in his mind. Without taking a single note, he ordered the main ideas, the secondary points, and then the mass of supporting details. Before he was ready to write, the chapter had to be already composed in his head. Then it almost poured forth onto the page as he scribbled away at a furious pace. Comte was so pressed for time to finish the Cours and to realize his many projects and so confident that he had not forgotten anything in what he had just written that he immediately gave the finished pages to his publisher. The manuscript of the Cours shows that he indeed made very few corrections. He crossed out on average only three to seven words a page. As a result, the Cours is basically a rapidly executed first draft, one that Comte never even reread.

His method of composition is reflected in his atrocious style. Valat had attacked him for his use of a dry scientific language in 1824, and many other readers criticized him throughout the years as well. But in defending his mode of discourse, Comte suggested that he sought precisely to avoid literary and rhetorical devices that would have made reading his works more pleasant, because he sought to differentiate himself from the littérateurs, or metaphysicians, who spoke in dangerous abstractions. To mark the uniqueness of his approach, he chose another style, a difficult "scientific style" that made his study of society seem scientific and objective and thus more worthy of respect. Boasting about the direct, spontaneous nature of his writing, one not marred by artistic conventions, he added:

I write under the inspiration of my thought and . . . I have the profound conviction that it would be absolutely impossible for me to write in any other manner than that which the moment dictates to me. . . . [S]tyle is the man himself, and the one cannot be remade any more than the other.

Very much an individualist when questions of his own development arose, Comte viewed his style as a means of self-expression—a position in keeping with the romantic age in which he lived. Yet he sought to disprove the romantic writers' conviction that scientists could not be creative. Refusing to be manipulated by the marketplace, with its demands for pleasure, Comte wished to display his originality and maintain his purity.

The result, however, is that the Cours is almost unreadable. Its sentences are far too long and convoluted, littered with too many adjectives, adverbs, and parenthetical phrases. The reader's attention span is further taxed by Comte's repetitions, digressions, and numerous empty formulas, such as the "nature of things." One professor wrote to Littré in despair:

You told me that reading it [the Cours] once cannot suffice. In fact, from reading it once, I retained almost nothing.... Reading Comte's book is tiring. The sentences are so long that one has trouble remembering the beginning when one gets to the end. Now one must remember in order to understand, and one must understand in order to remember. It is a vicious circle. The essence and the form are, for the reader, two causes of serious difficulties.

Especially in France, where style is highly prized, Comte's graceless, heavy prose undoubtedly worked against him and was another factor reinforcing his isolation.


Although Comte's review of the inorganic sciences was open to criticism, there was one natural science that he covered in an extraordinarily insightful manner: biology. Having studied this science since 1816, when he enrolled in the famous Ecole de Médecine in Montpellier, he recognized that it was in an important and exciting period of development. By classifying biology as one of the five major sciences, instead of a division of terrestrial physics as Lamarck and others did, Comte ensured its new significance.

Although the medical school in Montpellier had taught Comte much about biology, especially about the popular theories of vitalism, it was Blainville who most influenced his views and made him a strong opponent of mechanism. From 1829 through 1832, Comte had followed Blainville's lectures on general and comparative physiology at the Faculty of Sciences. He considered this course to be the "most perfect example of the most advanced state of present biology." Therefore, thanks to Blainville, Comte knew the latest ideas in this nascent science far better than those in the other sciences. Moreover, because biology was the "immediate point of departure" for the science of society and had to be established first, he exercised greater care in discussing it. His efforts to unify and systematize biology's new theories and to make it an independent science would have a decisive impact on its development.

What first strikes the reader of these lessons in volume 3 is Comte's use of the term "biology" rather than the usual word, "physiology." He adopted the expression "biology" from Blainville, whom he wrongly credited with inventing it. (Lamarck actually introduced the term "biology" into France in 1802 to denote theories relating to the vegetal and animal series.) Comte adopted Blainville's idea that to understand all the phenomena of life, biology had to cover the study of man as an individual (physiology) as well as that of animals and plants. Comte's influence in this instance was such that henceforth people referred to the study of the phenomena of life as "biology" instead of "physiology."

Comte was convinced that only the positive philosophy could establish biology on a solid basis. Because theology and metaphysics studied man, then nature, they tended to explain all phenomena from man's standpoint, attributed an arbitrary will to these phenomena, and thus ultimately neglected nature. Positivism used the inverse method. It subordinated the conception of man to that of the external world, made the concept of "natural laws" of primary importance, and opened up the possibility of extending such laws to man and society.

On the basis of this difference in methodology, Comte criticized vitalism. He rejected such notions as the "soul" of Stahl, the "vital principle" of Barthez, and the "vital forces" of the "great Bichat himself." He felt all three vitalists were metaphysicians because there was no evidence for their theory of an independent life force, which resembled a first cause. He disapproved of their studying man in isolation from nature and their neglect of general laws, especially those of chemistry. They did not see that the study of man had to rest on the inorganic sciences. Above all, Comte was preoccupied with linking the two great subjects of philosophical speculation—man and the universe.

Besides vitalism, the other great enemy of biology was, in Comte's eyes, the mechanism of Boerhaave, which was particularly strong in the medical school in Paris. Although Boerhaave had introduced the "fundamental link between inorganic philosophy and biological philosophy," making all of natural philosophy "one homogeneous and continuous system," he had gone too far. Whereas vitalism exaggerated the independence of vital phenomena, mechanism denied it altogether by reducing biology to physics.

Comte argued that the true nature of biology lay somewhere between the two extremes of vitalism and materialism, whose disputes he blamed for making the science eclectic and disorderly. Although he appreciated the fact that Boerhaave had demonstrated the importance of physico-chemical phenomena, Comte was also favorable, if not more so, to the vitalists, because he continually defended the idea of the distinctiveness of life and said that they at least recognized physiology as a separate science. His views were influenced by Jacques Lordai, a renowned expert on Barthez and one of the professors at the Montpellier Ecole de Médecine who had befriended him. Thanks to Lordat, Barthez, along with Bichat, had a large impact on Comte.

Comte also wanted to free biology from medicine. Now that it was becoming a science in its own right, biology required speculative freedom to develop and thus had to separate itself from its corresponding practical science of application, that is, medicine. It needed scientists exclusively devoted to it and a place in formal scientific bodies, such as academies. Comte recognized that the proper organization of the scientific division of labor was a necessary element in the progress of science itself.

In discussing the nature of biology, Comte objected to the widely held definition of life originally proposed by Bichat. To combat mechanism and to separate organic from inorganic phenomena, Bichat had defined life as the totality of functions opposed to death. But having learned from Cabanis, Lamarck, and especially Blainville of the environment's strong influence on the living organism, Comte argued there could be no such absolute antagonism between "living nature" and "dead nature"; living bodies were so fragile that they could not exist if their surroundings tended to destroy them. Thus life depended on matter, and the fundamental condition of life was a "harmony between the living being and the corresponding milieu." Comte expanded the definition of the word "milieu" to include the "total ensemble of all types of external circumstances that are necessary for the existence of each determined organism." In this way, he encouraged interest in the relationship between man and his environment, which was already being stimulated by the industrial revolution. Inspired by Blainville and German Nutur-philosophen, Comte also urged biologists to create a special general theory clarifying the influence of milieus on organisms. In a sense, he was promoting the importance of ecology.

In searching for the correct definition of life, Comte criticized contemporary German philosophy (Naturphilosophie) for equating life with spontaneous activity. He argued that this definition failed to relate the idea of life to inorganic laws and made life lose all significance because all natural bodies were active. Instead, he adopted Blainville's definition of life as the "double internal movement, both general and continuous, of composition and decomposition." Comte was therefore close to the mechanists in arguing that organic life was characterized by chemical and physical activity. In fact, according to Paul Tannery, Comte's conception of the chemical foundation of life had a significant impact on nineteenth-century biological research. But Comte also reproached Blainville for not having emphasized in his definition that the organism had to exist in a proper milieu. A biological phenomenon could be understood only in relation to other phenomena in the living body and to the outside world. Life was, in effect, this dualism between the milieu and the organism.

Thanks to Blainville, Comte also maintained that one of the key differences between the organic and the inorganic was that only the former was characterized by organization. Without organization, there was no life. Therefore, biology could not be reduced to chemistry because vital phenomena were influenced not only by laws of composition and decomposition but by their organization, that is, their anatomical structure. The chemical transformations in living organisms were different from those in inorganic bodies in that they were continuous and dependent on the anatomical organization of the living bodies in question. Comte did not endeavor to define the essence of life but insisted that it could not be summed up in chemical reactions.

Influenced again by Blainville, Comte criticized biologists for separating the static state (the anatomical point of view) and the dynamic state (the physiological point of view). He argued that this division would disappear only when the whole biological system derived from his principle that the concept of life was inseparable from that of organization. Biologists would then see that there could be no organ without a function and no function without an organ. (Function designated the "action" of the organism when influenced by the milieu.) They would accept the principle that when an organism was "placed in a given system of external circumstances," it must act in a "determined manner." Such determinism was necessary for biology to fulfill the primary aim of all positive sciences, that of prediction. By insisting on determinism, Comte opposed the vitalists and made a significant contribution to the development of biology in the nineteenth century. Thanks to Claude Bernard, determinism became one of the leading principles of this new science.

Comte's theory of organization and milieu was one of the most important and original points of the entire Cours. It enabled him to create a theory of life totally distinct from that of death. On the one hand, in proclaiming the originality and autonomy of life and the specificity of biology, he avoided taking a purely empirical or materialistic position. His stress on organization as one of the conditions of life allowed him to avoid the reductionism of the physico-chemical school. On the other hand, his insistence that the second condition of life was a suitable milieu eliminated the mystical or vitalist notion that life was universally diffused throughout nature and could be produced spontaneously. Thanks to the efforts of the Société de Biologie, founded by his disciples, Comte's theory of milieu had an enormous impact on French biology. The term "milieu" would later be applied to historical circumstances by the historian Hippolyte Taine.

In discussing methodology, Comte declared, as he had in 1824, that in contrast to the inorganic sciences, the study of life should begin with the best known phenomena, which were the most particular and complex (i.e., human beings), and proceed gradually to the least known phenomena, which were the most general and simplest. Since life was characterized above all by solidarity and consensus, the whole had to be grasped before the details could be comprehended. Epistemologically, biology was, therefore, a synthetic science.

Because it dealt with more complex phenomena than the sciences that preceded it, its means of investigation were greater. Direct observations made by the natural senses could be improved by artificial apparatuses, such as the microscope. However, reflecting the fears of Bichat and Blainville, Comte had some reservations about its use, because he feared it could lead to illusions.

Like Cuvier and Blainville, he was also wary of experimentation, the second means of investigation. Since each organism was very complex, depended on many interconnected external and internal influences, and formed an indivisible system, it was impossible to isolate phenomena sufficiently to make experimentation as effective as it was in the inorganic sciences. Comte particularly protested against the increasing use of vivisection, for he believed it disturbed the organism too much and led to a "deplorable levity" and "habits of cruelty," which were intellectually and morally detrimental to the scientist. The only experimentation that Comte endorsed was the introduction of disturbances into the milieu—a much less "violent" procedure than vivisection. He also believed the study of disease was like experimentation in that the biologist learned about normal physiological conditions by investigating a variation of the normal state. Comte credited Broussais with this idea and unwisely attacked the "incompetent judges" at the Academy of Sciences for rejecting his candidacy.

Impressed by Blainville's use of the comparative method in anatomy, Comte declared that this third general mode of investigation would blossom in biology because of the fundamental resemblance of organic phenomena. Relying on classification for organizing distinct but analogous beings, the comparative method was the most important means of investigating living bodies. His recommendation of a wide use of this method in physiology was one of the original points of the Cours.

Comte believed that biology was the most intellectually demanding natural science because it depended on a preliminary mastery of the methods and laws of all the other sciences preceding it in the hierarchy. Though critical of Bichat's vitalism, Comte did agree with his prohibition of the excessive use of mathematics in biology. Like chemical phenomena, biological phenomena were too complicated, varied, and diverse to permit numerical calculations. Comte's views on this subject were shortsighted.

Comte claimed that biology had a strong impact on the "emancipation of human reason." By proving that the organic world was regulated by natural laws and that organisms and the environment could be modified by human intervention, it actively combated "theological fictions" and "metaphysical entities." In terms of method or logic, biology contributed to the positive system of knowledge by developing two of man's most basic powers, those of comparison and classification. Biology had taught Comte himself that he could unify the sciences by classifying them in a hierarchy and that subordination was one of the characteristics of order.

Comte expressed reservations about several recent developments in biology. He rejected nascent cell theory because he felt cells were an absurd and incomprehensible imitation of molecules and tissue theory already established anatomy on a solid scientific base. Microscopic research, which supported the "metaphysical" cellular theory, was in his eyes much too vague and unreliable. Comte's views on cell theory, microscopic research, and vivisection meant that he failed to put himself in the forefront of biological research, and they proved embarrassing to some of his disciples.

Following Blainville's lead, Comte also took a conservative approach in rejecting Lamarck's new theories of evolution. It is clear that Comte greatly admired Lamarck's linear approach to the chain of being, his investigations into the influence of the milieu on the organism, his concept of the heredity of acquired characteristics, and his theory of habit, whereby habit was "one of the principal bases of the gradual perfectibility of animals and especially of man." Yet he considered Lamarck's concept of the variation of the species to be a farfetched exaggeration. Repeating Cuvier's argument, Comte maintained that observation could not verify Lamarck's theory that needs created organs. Moreover, if, as Lamarck asserted, different species could transform themselves into others owing to external influences, the idea of "species" would be deprived of meaning, classification would become almost impossible, and the science of biology itself would become muddled. Lamarck's suggestion that the organism was completely determined by its milieu threatened the unity and distinctiveness of the living organism. Whereas earlier in these lessons on biology Comte seemed closer to Lamarck in insisting on the effect of the milieu on the organism, he now stressed that the influence of the milieu on the species was limited to nonessential changes, and he seemed to increase the power of the organism to modify its environment.

Instead of Lamarck's transformism, Comte maintained the old doctrine of the fixity of the species. Just as he admired the stability of the celestial world, he insisted upon the unchanging order of the world of vital phenomena. Although he referred to the adaptation of the organism to its milieu and even to the "perfectibility" of the animal and human species, his conception of biology neglected the significance of time and was ultimately more static than dynamic. Comte's position is paradoxical, considering that he is regarded as the philosopher of progress. He apparently wished to empower individuals so that they could transform their world in an advantageous manner, but reflecting the strains of the postrevolutionary era, he seemed basically more concerned about the disruptive consequences of change.

The last chapter of volume 3 was devoted to the biological study of cerebral phenomena. By extending the positive method to these phenomena, Comte claimed to complete the scientific revolution begun by Descartes. Comte believed that Descartes had erred when he separated the study of man from that of the animals, thereby giving new life to the theological and metaphysical philosophies. But thanks to the work of Gall, intellectual and moral phenomena, which represented the last stronghold of the theological and metaphysical philosophies, now could be made a subject of scientific investigations. In denying the separation of matter and spirit, phrenology thus strengthened Comte's stance against Cartesian dualism.

Much of Comte's discussion was motivated by his dislike of metaphysical theories of psychology, which he divided into three schools. First there was the Scottish school, which he most admired. Then there was the French school of the Idéologues and their predecessors, the sensationalists Condillac and Helvétius, which he felt was the clearest and most systematic. Finally there was the German school, which included the French eclectics, such as the "famous sophist" Cousin, whom he accused of inspiring in French youth the "deplorable psychological mania." These three schools based their theories on the unscientific notion of "interior observation." Because the mind could not be studied apart from nature, as the psychologists claimed, the study of the mind, according to Comte, had to be a physical science based on the other, more simple sciences.

Psychologists, fond of referring to "purely nominal entities," such as the soul, the will, and the ego, also neglected the fact that every function had an organ and vice versa. "Phrenological physiology" was superior to psychology because it determined intellectual and affective functions by considering the organs on which they depended in the brain. Phrenology showed that intellectual and moral phenomena depended in a concrete fashion on organization, that is, on anatomical structure.

At this point, Comte added another criticism of the psychologists and Idéologues, which sheds light on his concept of human nature. In his private letters, he had often mentioned that he had strong emotional needs that directed the way he lived. Now backed by Gall, he criticized psychology and Idéologie for neglecting the affections and wrongly subordinating them to the intellect. As if directing his attack against Hegel and Cousin, Comte denounced the exclusive attention given to the "mind" (l'esprit). "Daily experience" shows that "the affections, penchants, [and] passions constitute the principal motives of human action." Arising spontaneously and independently from the intellect, they stimulate the "first awakening and the continuous development of the different intellectual faculties" because they give them a "permanent goal," without which these faculties would remain "dull." Comte added, "It is even only too certain that the least noble and the most animalistic penchants are habitually the most energetic, and consequently, the most influential." Because the psychologists and Idéologues vaguely attached the affections to some unifying principle, such as sympathy or egoism, which was supposedly directed by the intellect, they portrayed man "against all evidence as an essentially reasoning being, executing continually, without his knowledge, a multitude of imperceptible calculations with almost no spontaneity of action, even from the most tender age of childhood." Attacking one of the bases of Enlightenment and liberal theory, Comte insisted, furthermore, that it was wrong to argue that man could be changed and improved by his intelligence. Stressing the limits of rationalism, Comte was not only responding to the criticisms that the Saint-Simonians had made of him but contributing in his own fashion to the cult of the emotions that was having an impact on literature and the arts at the time.

Comte was convinced that the psychologists' unified ego represented a "purely fictive state," one designed to preserve artificially the separation between men and animals and to maintain the theological idea of a unified soul. In reality, human nature was "essentially multiple, that is, prompted almost always by several very distinct and fully independent powers, between which equilibrium is established very painfully." Influenced by Barthez and Broussais, Comte argued that the only real unity was physical; it was the "fundamental unity of the animal organism," which resulted from an "exact harmony among [its] diverse principal functions," that is, from the association of the animal's different organs. This primarily physical sense of equilibrium among the faculties constituted health and determined the "general feeling of the self [le moi]." Moreover, the sentiment of personal harmony was extremely unstable and complex and could not be the basis of a philosophy, despite Cousin's assertions to the contrary. As Lévy-Bruhl indicates, Comte was here speaking as a successor of Hume and Cabanis. In sum, by stating that the ego was merely the "universal consensus of the whole of the organism," Comte was arguing, in contrast to the psychologists, that both men and animals had a feeling of the ego because this feeling was mainly physical. He was, in effect, placing man and the animals on the same level, reaffirming the unity of living beings and attacking theologians and metaphysicians for painting a more noble picture of man than was scientifically admissible.

To combat Descartes's original, fatal distinction between intelligence and instinct that was used by the psychologists and Idéologues to separate human from animal nature, Comte praised Gall's view that instinct and intelligence were not opposites. Instinct was not confined to animals any more than intelligence was to humans. Instinct, defined as "any spontaneous impulse toward a determined direction," could be applied to any faculty, including intelligence. One could have an instinct for mathematics or music, and people had at least as many instincts as animals. Furthermore, since intelligence was the "aptitude for modifying one's conduct in conformity to the circumstances of each case," animals, like people, were obviously intelligent because they could transform their behavior if necessary. The usual theological and metaphysical definition of man as a "rational animal" was, therefore, "nonsense," for animals themselves had to act in a reasonable manner in order to survive. People were different from animals only because they developed the intellectual and affective faculties more fully. This difference was one of degree, not of kind. Comte's stress on the affective and intellectual attributes of animals helps explain his antivivisectionism. Denying once again that man was the center of the universe, Comte found theologians' and metaphysicians' worries about degrading human nature a barrier to scientific progress. Although he himself opposed theories of evolution, his predilection for placing animals and humans on the same continuum pointed the way toward Darwinism.

Comte's purely "naturalistic" approach to man made him vulnerable to accusations of materialism. Yet he distanced himself from the sensationalists, such as Locke, Condillac, and Helvétius, who were considered the leading exponents of materialism, for he believed that they grossly exaggerated the power of intellectual faculties and the environment's influence on man. He particularly criticized Helvétius for suggesting not only that all men had similar senses and were equal intellectually but also that "egoism" should be the sole moral principle. These dangerous ideas led to the "most absurd exaggerations about the unlimited power of education" to make improvements. They also reduced social relations to "ignoble coalitions of private interests." Again, Comte was criticizing Enlightenment and liberal philosophy, which he held partly responsible for the destructive political movements since the French Revolution.

Comte praised German philosophy (German idealism) for trying to refute the errors of the French school, but he felt that it was hindered by the "vague Absolute of its unintelligible doctrines." Thinking probably of Fichte's ego, Comte argued that because the German philosophers claimed the ego to be characterized by "vagabond liberty," they made it "essentially ungovernable" and free from all laws. This approach ran counter to Comte's basic principle that all phenomena were subject to natural laws. Kant's and Fichte's notions of the categorical imperative seemed equally false. Condemning the Germans' tendency toward "universal mystification," Comte criticized their idea of allowing "each individual to direct exclusively his conduct according to the abstract idea of duty." Acting in the name of an abstract metaphysical entity "would lead ultimately to the exploitation of the species by a small number of clever charlatans." Thus the errors of German philosophy had social and political consequences as dangerous as the French school's.

The school of psychology that Comte found the "least absurd of all" was the Scottish. Although their doctrines suffered from a lack of clarity, unity, and widespread influence, Hume, Smith, and Ferguson offered the best metaphysical rebuttal to the philosophy of sensationalism because they recognized that sympathy was at least as powerful a force in man as egoism.

Despite Comte's admiration for the Scots, he was still most enthusiastic about Gall's doctrine, which he believed was the clearest and most scientific refutation of metaphysical theories, especially sensationalism. Although Comte claimed to be a relativist, he argued that two of Gall's principles of human nature would remain forever unchanged. Indeed, since they provided Comte with the basis for his social and political philosophy, his own system would fall if they one day proved false.

The first principle was the innateness of fundamental intellectual and emotional dispositions. Because it asserted that people were born with different characteristics, this principle put an end to the sensationalists' insistence on equality and their optimistic approach to the effects of environment.

The second principle involved the plurality of distinct, independent faculties. Far from being one organ, the brain was an apparatus composed of different organs that corresponded to these faculties or dispositions. Comte rejected Gall's view that each action was linked to a faculty and that there were "organs" of theft, murder, music, poetry, and so forth. He preferred Spurzheim's theory that action depended on the association of certain faculties (or "organs") and the corresponding circumstances, especially because he believed this theory could be verified anatomically and applied to both human beings and animals. Comte commended both Gall and Spurzheim for having eliminated the sensationalist and metaphysical theory that sensation, memory, imagination, and judgment were fundamental, separate faculties of abstraction, invariable in all human beings. Instead, these abilities were related to each phrenological function and varied from one person (and animal) to the next, according to how much they were exercised. Eliminating the idea that everyone had a similar intellectual makeup, this second principle also showed the absurdity of the notion of human equality.

Most important, Gall's principles provided scientific confirmation for the Scottish philosophers' theory that sympathy was an innate disposition in man. Arguing in favor of the predominance of the affective faculties in human and animal nature, Gall placed the affective faculties in the back and middle part of the brain and the intellectual faculties in the front part, where they constituted merely a quarter or a sixth of the encephalic mass. This anatomical discovery destroyed the basis of psychology and Idéologie, which insisted on the preeminence of man's intellect. By placing the affections directly in the brain, Gall disproved Cabanis's and Bichat's theories that the brain was one organ composed solely of the intellect and that the passions were located in other organs such as the heart or the liver. Comte was delighted to have this "proof of the human being's inherent sociability because it demonstrated man's natural tendency to form a group without resorting to the old theories of the social contract and utility, which were ultimately based on individualism.

Comte admitted that Gall's and Spurzheim's efforts to localize the diverse cerebral functions were full of errors. So far, there was no conclusive theory about the "type, number, range, and reciprocal influence of the organs" that could be assigned to the intellectual and affective functions. Nevertheless, Comte did accept phrenology's main subdivisions. What were traditionally called the heart, character, and mind could be found respectively in the back, middle, and front parts of the brain. Comte denied that this schematic presentation of the brain meant that all human action was predetermined. Since moral and intellectual phenomena were more complex than other phenomena, they could be modified more easily. Also the faculties could be exercised and strengthened. In particular, the intellectual faculties, which affected an animal's or a person's behavior, could significantly alter the influence of all the other faculties. Yet although Comte claimed that Gall upheld human freedom and responsibility, what appealed most to him was clearly Gall's principle of the innateness of certain dispositions, which challenged not only the German philosophers' insistence on the unlimited power of the ego to transform one's moral nature, but also the French philosophers' belief in the unlimited ability of institutions to change the individual.

Comte maintained that Gall's theories demonstrated that people could not be improved through education unless they had the requisite predispositions. He fully accepted the phrenological principle that people, for the most part, were "essentially mediocre" both intellectually and emotionally. Each person possessed all the penchants, sentiments, and elementary aptitudes, but usually none of these faculties dominated the others. Although education could improve people, it would never allow them to overcome their essential mediocrity, which in fact was necessary for "good social harmony." It seems that Comte's years of teaching had discouraged him and left him with a certain bitterness that was strikingly different from the enthusiasm of his youth. But even in his youth he had once said to Valat that a friend of theirs had disappointed him by displaying an "odious trait":

I thought I could consider that man one of the people who came to virtue through instruction, and I see that I must erase him from my list. In truth, I am beginning to discover that the more one examines men, the less one finds within their interior anything that gains in being seen.

Nevertheless, Comte's views on the limitations of instruction seem incongruous considering that the purpose of the Cours was to effect an educational revolution leading to the regeneration of humanity.

Despite his enthusiasm for Gall and Spurzheim, Comte criticized them and other phrenologists for their arbitrary localizations, their superficial grasp of the association of the different faculties, and their excessive multiplication of "organs" and functions. (Gall claimed there were twenty-seven faculties, and Spurzheim, thirty-five.) He insisted that phrenology's analysis of the brain had to be "entirely" redone, especially with the help of anatomical studies, in order to avoid the base charlatanism that was now endangering its credibility. Once corrected, this new science would be useful politically and socially because it would improve the "difficult art of judging men according to incontestable signs."

Like many other of his scientific forecasts, Comte's prediction that cerebral physiology would become one of the most important scientific developments of the nineteenth century proved erroneous. Nevertheless, his criticism of the vagueness and limited views of the psychological schools of his day as well as his insistence that psychology be considered a part of biology instead of epistemology proved valid. Lévy-Bruhl pointed out that Comte's dislike of "psychology" referred mainly to the "science of the soul obtained by the introspective method," a method that would be unacceptable to many modern psychologists. He avoided the use of the term "psychology" to denote the study of cerebral phenomena because he did not want to be confused with Cousin's metaphysical school. Lévy-Bruhl was right to insist that "it is inexact to say that there is no psychology in Comte." Comte's animosity toward scholars who speculated in an a priori manner about the nature of the mind foreshadowed the position of twentieth-century behaviorists. B. F. Skinner and other behavioral psychologists still contend that one cannot directly observe the processes of the mind itself and challenge the Freudian interest in the unconscious. Furthermore, Comte's vision of man as an emotional being not entirely governed by reason and his insistence that human equilibrium was very fragile would not be denied by later psychologists. Like him, they have stressed the importance of studying animal behavior, insanity, and more respectable forms of "cerebral localization" as a means of deepening one's understanding of human nature. In recent years, there seems to have been a revival of Comte's ideas that there are physiological bases for mental illness, that parts of the brain control certain actions, and that the brain has "functions." Thus, although Comte's enthusiasm for phrenology seems singularly unscientific, at least some of his views remain worthy of attention.

Angèle Kremer-Marietti (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8489

SOURCE: "Introduction: Comte and Mill: The Philosophical Encounter," in The Correspondence of John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte, edited and translated by Oscar A. Haac, Transaction Publishers, 1995, pp. 1-23.

[In the following essay, Kremer-Marietti chronicles the relationship between Comte and Mill, documenting possible mutual influences.]

On November 8, 1841, when John Stuart Mill (1806-1872) first wrote to Auguste Comte (1798-1857), he introduced himself as a devoted disciple with such humility, that Comte replied: "Your scrupulous modesty had led you, Sir, to overemphasize the influence of my work on your philosophical development." A close friendship and sincere affection rapidly grew between the two. Then issues arose that affected their relations, and in 1847 they terminated their correspondence. But evidence of how close their relations had been is apparent when Comte laments in 1857, the year of his death, that he had been unable to win John Stuart Mill's approval of his "Religion of Humanity."


Mill received a rigorous intellectual education from his father, James Mill (1773-1836), a Scottish philosopher who wrote for the Edinburgh Review between 1808 and 1813. In 1819 James Mill authored an important work entitled History of India. He was also an economist and a friend and associate of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Bentham's brother invited John Stuart Mill to spend a year in France when he was fourteen, which included six months in Montpellier in the winter of 1820-21. John Mill learned French rapidly and developed a keen interest in French thought. (Comte's acquaintance, Dr. Roméo Pouzin, knew Mill when he was quite young and recognized his superior intelligence.)

At fourteen, John Stuart Mill had already read Jeremy Bentham's works and felt "transformed" by them. They corresponded and, in 1825, Mill edited Bentham's Rationale of Judicial Evidence. Not long after, Mill became aware of Auguste Comte and Positivism. He met Comte's disciple, Gustave d'Eichthal, who sent him the short Système de politique positive. Mill read it in 1828 and, by 1837, the first two volumes of the Cours. He discovered that he shared numerous ideas with Comte: they were both opposed to metaphysics and theology; they both sought to organize human knowledge by creating a systematic philosophy; and they hoped to reform society.

Thus, when Mill addressed his first letter to Comte, he could speak of his great philosophic debt and of his enthusiasm for the first volumes of the Cours where he found, "the essential doctrine for modern times." He salutes Positivism as a bulwark against skepticism and as the philosophy which will carry on the great traditions of the past, those of the medieval church, of the absolute state of the seventeenth century and of the French Revolution. Mill welcomes Positivism as the legitimate heir to the great philosophic movements of the past, a faith for the present and an inspiration for the future. Just as Rationalism had replaced religious beliefs that had become dated and meaningless, so Positivism was to take over from the "negative" and "critical" spirit of the Enlightenment.

Mill could identify with Positivism all the more easily as he had grown up without any Christian commitment. He felt that here was the doctrine for the new age. He foresaw its success especially among scientists, a group broadly conceived to include philosophers like Comte and himself, but not among contemporary politicians for whom he held little hope. Both men believed in religious tolerance but hailed Positivism as the path to intellectual and philosophical renewal.


The publication of the sixth and last volume of the Cours in 1842 is an important event in the correspondence between the two men. Comte was now ready to create the "Positive Committee of Western Nations," to coordinate the efforts of scientists, "establish . . . spiritual power" separate from temporal power and prepare for the "positive" renewal of the leading nations toward unity, continuity and solidarity—a plan Comte had envisioned as early as 1826.

Volume six completed twelve years of intensive work; it was a comprehensive survey of human knowledge. It was the culmination of Comte's. first philosophic endeavor; the second was to center on Positive Polity and the Religion of Humanity. In the Cours, Comte had formulated his grand law of social evolution by defining the three ages of humankind: the theological, the metaphysical (critical) and the positive (scientific). To the basic sciences he had surveyed—mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology—the last volume of the Cours had added a sixth, the supreme science of sociology, the crown of human knowledge. Comte proclaimed the epistemological need for sociology as a social, historical and political science. He considered his own historical and systematic classification of "positive sciences" to be far superior in defining a hierarchy of human knowledge to earlier attempts made by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and d'Alembert (1717-1783), which had centered around human faculties such as memory, reason and imagination.

Thus, in 1842, the mutual agreement between Mill and Comte was broad enough for Mill to honestly say, even before reading volume six, that he was ready to join Comte's Positive Committee of Western Nations. Mill stood ready to support the philosophic rebirth envisaged by Comte, an association of social elites that would sponsor a new morality and stand ready to stem what they considered the decline of the West, caused by the rule of negative, metaphysical (critical) philosophy. The group of "positive" nations was called upon to combat such "subversive utopias."

Comte and Mill were warning Western Europe of great perils when they adopted the spirit of the motto Comte was to publicize in 1847: "Order and Progress." The great nations of the West were to initiate a new European revolution which would be quite unlike the disruption of 1789 or 1793. Comte saw the philosophes of the Enlightenment as critics of church and religion whose "critical metaphysics" brought about the French Revolution. Their "negative" role, though necessary, was destructive. Positivism, by contrast, was to be reconstructive. Mill and Comte were looking forward to the "positive" period of reorganization, to the salutary and much needed substitution of Positivism for theology and metaphysics. Positive science, based on observation and applied by pragmatic methods, would enable positivist philosophers to anticipate the needs of society; better still, the positive science of sociology gave philosophers the right and the duty to act in the political sphere. Indeed, they were obliged to intervene in European affairs so that moral and social renewal, guided by Positivism and inspired by sociology, could create the "scientific" philosophy of the future. In solidarity, England and France were to join in a radical reorganization of Europe.

To Mill, this was close to an apocalyptic vision, heralding the impending triumph of Positivism. He was willing to go along with Comte, sincerely convinced that a true, social philosophy was the solid foundation for moral regeneration. The motto, "a Revolution in Western Europe," looks forward to the radical transformation Comte and Mill were trying to accomplish. Meanwhile, Mill was convinced that the concept of God would yield to the idea of Humanity (Letter 21).

For a time, both men expected that their philosophic sympathies would cause their views to coincide, first on basic issues and later on secondary questions. They believed that the expanding harmony of the French and the English spirit would propel the hoped-for reorganization of Europe. Both men looked forward to an active commitment. It was in such expectation of agreement that Comte, in his "thinker's solitude," lonely also because his wife had left him, welcomed the bond with Mill. He was looking forward to sharing ideas in fraternal solidarity. They felt like fellow citizens of Western Europe. Their philosophic steps were to take precedence over political considerations, for these were to be solved after spiritual reorganization, which in turn required further temporal measures.

At this "epistemological point of agreement" Comte and Mill found that their accord depended more on "method" than on "doctrine;" in other words, it depended more on philosophical principle than on any body of data in particular sciences. For Comte, general principles of method mattered more than scientific data of doctrine, though the two were inseparable. Mill agreed and, in his Logic, emphasized inductive demonstration. Both believed that positive philosophy could not be separate from the body of observations to which it applied.

Comte was a generalist. As he considered his social and intellectual surroundings, he focused on principles equally applicable to astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, sociology and moral speculation. He looked on anthropology, the basic science of society, as the ultimate product of "western history," as stated in his Discours sur l'esprit positif of 1844. Mill, meanwhile, had published A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive (1843), which placed the emphasis on the study of human nature (psychology) and character (ethology).

Thus both Mill and Comte looked upon social anthropology (sociology) as the principal achievement of the scientific traditions of England, France, Germany, Italy, and the smaller neighboring nations; for positive science depended above all on the cooperative effort of "the West," on common endeavors and reforms along essential lines. These are defined by Comte to include:

  1. a synthesis of knowledge serving a common purpose, to relate man to the world, subject to object;
  2. a common body of positive knowledge, the sciences being viewed from a social perspective; altruism replaces egoism, as individuals serve other individuals, not society as such;
  3. the realization that history is a continuum and solidarity a social fact; nation states must unite in the common goal of positive polity, conceived so as to improve modern society.

These ideals stem in part from the Scottish school of philosophy discussed by Comte (Letters 24, 58); both he and Mill owed it a significant debt. Comte had taken much from David Hume (1711-1776), Adam Smith (1723-1790) and Adam Ferguson (1723-1816). In lesson 45 of the Cours, these philosophers are said to stand very close to Positivism; they are empiricists who adopt the ideal of sympathy which links man's "interest" to "altruism" and establishes an essential social bond.

Comte's idea of society has much in common with Ferguson's, for Ferguson was interested in the history of civil society and, contrary to Rousseau, saw self-interest as the basis of our social conscience. This theory can be found in his Institutes of Moral Philosophy (1772). In Comte as in Ferguson, altruism does not spring spontaneously from human nature; it may, in fact, derive from self-interest. Comte speaks of egoism as opposed to altruism but also as a preparation for it. This is the way in which Comte felt that the Scottish school, including Ferguson, had made their great contribution, Descartes's cogito seeming all too individualistic to serve as the starting point for modern philosophy. It may be astonishing to find Comte calling Descartes "irrational" for not being oriented toward society, but for Comte, rationalism must be neither theological nor metaphysical in the traditional sense. Ferguson, on the other hand, and his Scottish colleagues, had better understood man's "supposed egoism" and subordinated it to the essential social reality. The Scottish philosophers, Comte felt, had grasped the import of society as such, and this conception was also at the root of John Stuart Mill's theory of general happiness. In short, Comte believed, as did Ferguson, that individual (self-)interest merges with the interest of the group.

As for Hume, Comte read especially his History of England (1754) and was as suspicious of causality in nature as Hume was himself. However, he did not share Hume's skepticism and preferred a kind of "scientific legalism." In Comte's epistemology the notion of law replaces the notion of cause.

Scottish philosophy did bring Comte and Mill together, although Comte seems to seek out the Scottish philosophers of a more distant past. One exception to this was Adam Smith, whose ideas separated Mill from Comte rather than bringing them together. Comte cited Smith's early Philosophical Essays, especially the Considerations Concerning the First Formation of Languages on the age of theology. He also mentions Smith's History of Astronomy on fetishes in his own Considérations philosophiques sur les sciences et les savants (1825), but he neglected Smith's economic theory presented in the famous Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Comte read it and retained the idea of the division of labor. He applied it not to industry, but to intellectual enterprises as a way of deriving theory from practice and of separating them. Indeed, he was not speaking about the advantages of specialization: he was opposed to undue specialization in intellectual activities. Mill, on the contrary, used the Wealth of Nations as the model for his Principles of Political Economy.


As we read the letters of Comte and Mill, we see their harmony giving way to a number of fundamental disagreements in the areas of psychology, economics and, above all, in the appraisal of the social role of women. In each case Comte expected his young colleague to accept his views as those of his elder, the voice of experience, while Mill questioned Comte's analysis, not only on the basis of his personal convictions but on those of his fiancée, Harriet Taylor. Gradually their exchanges became less forthright, even hostile; we find Mill's ambivalence in the portrait he draws in Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865).


Although they did not stand far from each other, psychology found Mill and Comte divided; both were searching for a positive view based on the latest findings of biology and physiology, but their reactions differed. Comte had been strongly attracted by Gall (1758-1828) and his phrenology, and for a while, considered Gall to be the founder of psychophysiology. In Lesson 45 of the Cours, he describes Gall as the "creator" of a new science, while in the first volume of Comte's Politique positive, Gall is reduced to the status of a "precursor" of Comte's own Brain Chart.

Actually Comte had never fully agreed with Gall; he called Gall's analysis "irrational" since it studied the individual without reference to his milieu and to the influence of society. Among other determinants, Gall had studied the dominant influence of the organism on the brain, but he had left out the social environment, ignoring the influence of education, the social context. Gall had limited his study of the brain to anatomy and physiology, outside of the concerns of sociology, whereas Comte was convinced that sociology must "regenerate" biology. In the Discourse on the positive spirit, Comte spelled out this requirement. Comte's new "rationalism" had to be "social" or "sociological." "Sociality" is said to be the precondition of the scientific state. Mill, on the other hand, rejected Gall almost entirely (Letters 9 and 11). Mill gave him credit only for the idea that animal instincts and mental functions were related to specific areas of the brain. Mill's reaction was negative, while Comte's friends, Broussais (1772-1838) and Blainville (1777-1850), held Gall in the highest esteem.

Comte derived his psycho-physiology from Gall's phrenology, without, however, going as far as Broussais, who adopted it with enthusiasm and taught it in his courses at the medical school. Comte's famous Brain Chart describes the psycho-physiological base of sense experience, of man's affective and intellectual aptitudes. The Chart becomes the necessary base for analyzing social statics. With ethics as the seventh in his hierarchy of sciences, Comte provides the "universal synthesis," which enables man to understand how the individual reacts to social and biological factors.

As Comte explains in Lessons 1 and 45 of the Cours, he rejects the kind of introspection or "interior observation" dear to Mill. In Lesson 1 he is arguing against the metaphysical method. According to the criteria of positive science, interior observation is of no scientific value. Then in Lesson 45, directing himself once more against the metaphysicians and against German philosophy in particular, he explains that the unity of the self is a false concept. He is searching for a science of the mind relating psychic phenomena to the brain and to the nervous system.

In 1841, Mill writes to Comte that, like him, he is looking for a "positivist psychology which would certainly be neither that of Condillac, nor that of Cousin, nor even that of the Scottish school" (Letter 3). Later on Mill, thinking of the argument Comte proposed in Lesson 1, that is of the impossibility of observing the observer, Mill contradicts Comte: Mill believes that by means of "interior observation" we do have direct knowledge of the mind. For him, psychology leads to ethology. Mill argues that "there is a direct connection between Comte's sexist misuse of anatomy and physiology and his rejection of psychology." Such will still be their arguments when they come to discuss the status of women.

Let us conclude that Mill's appraisal of Gall is more reserved, more negative than that of Comte, whose major critique appears when he proposes to integrate the physical sciences into sociology. Mill, on the other hand, insists that a full appreciation of psychology is called for. Mill considers psychology a science, while for Comte it does not deserve to be included among the positive sciences, either as an independent or as a basic one.


We now turn to another major issue that caused Mill to abandon Comte. The analysis of political economy was as important for Mill as it had been for his father, while Comte, though not entirely opposed, did not rank it as a positive science. He did discuss political economy in his Considérations sur le pouvoir spirituel (1826), later in lesson 47 of the Cours, and in Positive Polity, volume II, ch. 2, which includes "positive economics." However, Comte disliked the limited principles of contemporary economists. Their research did not concern society as a whole and was too particularized; so he called them "metaphysical" and "irrational," not yet scientific. In Comte's eyes, economics was still based a priori on absolute principles, rather than on the observation of interrelated social phenomena that would lead to a realistic view of society. He felt justified, therefore, in omitting economics from his list of basic, positive sciences.

Mill's orientation was very different. He shared Comte's reservations concerning current practice; like Comte, he regretted that the historical method was little used and that metaphysical assumptions precluded "positive" results. Economics seemed to Comte insufficient and transient in nature, while Mill was deeply interested in the field and planned to write several studies of it. The first of these, Principles of Political Economy (1848), was composed while he was corresponding with Comte, and was written directly after A System of Logic (1843).

The two philosophers debated one epistemological issue in particular: "scientific prediction." Mill believed future developments could be anticipated, that economic forecasting could yield accurate results based on practical skill and careful observation. Comte denied this, though he conceded that forecasts would succeed once they fitted the "positive" conceptions: the symmetry of explanation and prediction. As he put it: "From science comes foresight, from foresight action" (science, d'où prévoyance; prévoyance, d'où action).

Actually their differences in opinion produced constructive results: Comte made Mill aware of the transitory nature of the data currently available. Mill was willing to proceed and made every effort to apply positive methods to economic matter. As his model in economics, he chose Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, whereas Comte was basically indebted to Jean-Baptiste Say, although Comte came to criticize him also.

On April 3, 1844, (Letter 46) Mill explains how the general principle of production differs from what he calls "principles of exchange and wealth." None of these explanations alter Comte's negative stance (Letter 49). He insists that Mill's data apply insufficiently to the overall structure of society, to the social order in social statics, and to historical and social progress in social dynamics. As their debate unfolds, it becomes apparent that neither the technique of "prediction" nor the "principles" on which it is based mean exactly the same thing to both men.

Comte cites his motto from the Cours: "Progress is the extension of Order," to indicate that social dynamics depends on statics and that, therefore, the principles of economics must simultaneously inform on both. Comte wants economics to be an exact social science and finds that it does not meet this requirement. For Comte there exists no true positive science of economics; he is thereby rejecting research that is very important to Mill.

The Status of Women: Social Statics Threatens Their Synergy

In their debates on psychology and economics, there remained points of contact between Comte and Mill, but as they turned to the social position of women even their common estimate, that the insufficiency of social statics stood in their way, was of little avail. The subject arose at a moment of heartfelt friendship. Comte and Mill were satisfied with the favorable course of their correspondence. Mill was busy composing A System of Logic and was eager to receive the last volume of the Cours. In October, 1842, when he finally read it, he enthusiastically expressed the great interest it aroused (Letter 19). Mill even liked the "Personal Preface," which, he had feared, might be offensive for being too frank (it was!), but he was pleased to find it written in the same tone as the remainder of the work. In December of the same year, after a second and more attentive reading, Mill was astounded that the positive spirit had been so fully realized (Letter 21). When he learned that Comte was not reappointed as an examiner at the Ecole Polytechnique and that he had lost a good part of his income, Mill offered to use every penny at his disposal to come to his aid (Letter 20 of 15 June 1843).

At this high point of their solidarity, the argument concerning the status of women intervened, for in that same letter Mill emphasized several points of divergence concerning marriage and property. He argued that social evolution would bring appreciable changes. He had raised the problem of divorce once before (Letter 17 of 10 September 1842), saying that he could not understand why one sex should be subordinate to the other. Comte countered that marriage was "indissoluble" and later even added his theory of "eternal widowhood." Mill vigorously rejected them both. Still, they remained optimistic about their relationship. They prized their philosophic "synergy"; expected it to overcome disagreements and eventually to extend to all essential concepts, as it already had on some issues (such as the separation of spiritual power from the temporal). Yet, on the intellectual and social capacities of women they could not agree at all.

Why, then, their debate on social statics? Because it considered not only the structure of society but also the anatomical and physiological make-up of men and women while for Mill, social dynamics suggested that opportunities of education and training could affect women's social position. Though Comte granted the importance of the milieu, he was convinced that women could not transcend their natural limitations, anatomically and physiologically determined. Social dynamics studied changes in history but these, Comte believed, could not greatly affect the "natural" constitution of men and women, each with their own innate capacities; he assumed that historical changes occur only along lines of their given, natural and permanent constitution. The two sides to the debate were clear: Comte believed that women could not acquire capacities equal to those of men, while Mill must be regarded as a leading feminist: to Harriet Taylor's essay, "The Enfranchisement of Women" (1851), Mill added The Subjection of Women (1861, 1869) and he campaigned for women's suffrage as a member of Parliament in 1867.

Comte derived his definitions of social statics and dynamics in good part from the zoologist, Blainville, considered to be a worthy successor of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). Blainville had introduced into biology the concept of a dynamic state—that is the "dynamic" activity of the organism as distinguished from its "static" structure. Comte found a parallel distinction in the work of the mathematician Lagrange (1736-1813), who used "dynamics" to designate motion in mechanics and "statics" for states of equilibrium. Comte admitted that he first considered developing statics without biological implications. He added them later by viewing biology anew through sociology.

The problem was that Comte was defining a constitutional (static) inferiority of women, not subject to education or historical (dynamic) change, quite unaware that he was hurting Mill's deeply held convictions. He simply invoked biological determinants to justify the social subordination of women and expected his younger colleague to recognize his view.

The Debate Concerning Women Intensifies

Mill objected that Comte's principles were insufficiently established to be "positive"; affection between men and women was in no way furthered by a master-slave relationship; true love and reciprocal sympathy could not thrive under inequality! Mill clearly espoused the modern position. He suggested interviews with the women themselves, especially those who were living in a state of open rebellion. Comte replied by referring back to "the natural hierarchy of sexes" (Letter 33). This time, Mill did not answer. Comte had to write a second letter, more than a month after the previous exchange.

Upon receiving this letter, Mill took up the discussion where they had left off, reasoning along lines of common sense and empirical observation: Even suppose, he replied, that women were closer to childhood than were men—how do we know that children are inferior to men solely because their brain is insufficiently developed, and not by their lack of training? For Mill, even if the brain of women were smaller than the brain of men and, therefore, according to certain physiologists, less suited for scientific study, the fact remained that women had never received the proper education to pursue advanced studies. In addition, their household chores neither prepared them for quiet meditation, nor gave them time to meditate. Even men who lacked the necessary education, available only to persons in the upper strata of society, could not make up for what they missed in childhood.

Mill mentioned that women possessed general capacities while men knew only the specialty for which they were being trained. Above all, he questioned that the "affections" were typically feminine and in women replaced what Comte and others called "male intelligence." Mill saw weaknesses in both sexes. Egoism in its pure form, he said, was most common in men.

All the while Mill pleaded a lack of exact knowledge in these matters; his affected tone of humility is the opposite of Comte's determined affirmations. Mill admitted that he was arguing from everyday observation, but pursuing the inductive reasoning he knew well. His strength was a healthy skepticism. He rightly emphasized the neglect of women's education. Above all, he noted that women were human beings and cleverly emphasized the milieu, which Comte otherwise considered so important. In fact, did Comte not speak of the harmony between the organism and the milieu as a determining aspect of life? In Comte's thought, the concordance (l'harmonie) between milieu and organism found its parallel in the consensus of the organs within the organism.

This is why Mill introduced Ethology, "the science of the formation of character," into his System of Logic. Ethology was to study the variations in the universal human type, called forth by different living conditions; nationality and femininity were Mill's examples of these variations. Unfortunately, Comte did not recognize that Ethology fitted perfectly into his notion of organism and milieu. They were approaching no consensus.

In his letter of early October, 1843, Comte finally noted "a serious difference of opinion" between them (Letter 36). It was all a matter of biology as much as of sociology. He therefore returned to his comparison between women and children, calling women ill-formed children, and added that his conception of domestic life was "definitive," empirically drawn from an experience of over twenty years. He became blunt, spoke of women's "inborn inferiority," of their being unfit for abstraction and intellectual concentration; he accused them of being unable to overcome passion, of yielding to feelings. Personal observations, he claimed, had brought him to notice in women "a very insufficient ability to generalize relationships, to make consistent deductions, also to give reason precedence over passion" (Letter 36). This is what we might call the "tacit general theory of anti-feminism of all times."

Comte concluded that education and training cannot alter the basic inferiority of women or lead to a change in their social status and capacities. Comte refused to even discuss the merits or potential of an appropriate education; he also refused to consider the influence of the milieu. This is an astounding stance to take for "the creator of sociology."

For Comte, the primary function of women remained what it had been traditionally: that of motherhood, of bringing up the children in the family. Nevertheless, he assigned them what he considered an important social mission, a role complementary to the masculine in the "domestic order": they are the auxiliaries of the (masculine) spiritual forces and intervene (in male action) as (feminine) forces of moderation. There is a fundamental contradiction in the fact that those who tend to be carried along by passion (women), are to restrain the passion of those (men) who reason better than they! Comte added that the position of women as auxiliaries made them the guardians of universal morality. In judging men and women, he considered social functions, not rights.

Here Comte is in perfect agreement with Aristotle. In Politics, men are first in the family and in society, for women are unable to direct and command. Therefore, Comte demanded that they be protected and "nourished." Comte, indeed, supported his wife from whom he had separated for his entire life and even beyond (by his written will)—all this to escape anarchy!

Mill compared the subservience of women to that of the slaves and serfs. He found significant parallels between the subjection of women and the institution of slavery. He even tried to explain why the emancipation of women occurred so long after that of the serfs. Arguing like Aristotle in book I of his Politics, Comte simply rejected Mill's comparison between women and slaves.

In his anti-feminism, Comte was not alone: the avowed successors of Aristotle, the medical anthropologists of his day and the physiologists (including Gall) all approved of male dominance, while the zoologists showed that female supremacy among animals was limited to ants and bees. Comte adduced from the superb colors of the male peacock and the subdued grey of the female, that a rigid hierarchy was natural for living beings and that man must rule the family as well as society.

Mill did not concede the argument. He felt that Comte based his points on indeterminate experiences of daily life and on insufficient data, carelessly selected (Letter 40). He accused Comte of affirming with great assurance, conclusions based on data that were far from verified. Further, Mill disliked being treated as one ignorant of animal life and of the physiology of the brain (Letter 83). Did Comte not accept Gall's conclusions, knowing full well that they were most doubtful? How could Gall's localized functions of the brain serve to prove that women were inferior? Mill suggested that women be allowed to follow their vocations and not be subject to a theoretical judgment of their aptitudes (Letter 40): the whole "problem of women," he felt, must be studied anew in all of its complexity.

The correspondence breaks off in 1847. In his Autobiography Mill describes how he first slowed the rate of his letters and of how Comte refused to answer his last of May 17, 1847. He did so with good reason, for Mill had sent a sarcastic account of the unemployed in Ireland. He was thinking back to Comte's request for financial support from his wealthy friends, implying that he should have returned to private tutoring, just as the Irish were asking for support when they should be seeking employment. This comparison with recipients of public welfare must have hurt Comte deeply. He was a proud man. Not long before he had told Mill that one must not beg for relief in the face of injustice; one must conquer it! At times Comte spoke as the heir of the French Revolution.


In later writings, such as Comte's Positive Polity (1851-54) and Mill's Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865), also in his posthumous Autobiography, we find the sequel of the issues debated in the correspondence. Their arguments center on Comte's theory of the affections, on social statics, especially with respect to the status of women, and on positive religion.

The Affections and Comte's Brain Chart

The essential new element in Positive Polity is the theory of the affections, which is to balance the emphasis on scientific thought in the Cours. The affections are the philosophical ground of Comte's new Religion of Humanity. We can appreciate their importance in the Brain Chart in volume one.

Comte sketched the psychosociological functions as early as July, 1839, in his "preliminary considerations on social statics," of Lesson 50 of the Cours. Sociability is described as the "mortar" of social conditions. Comte's love for Clotilde de Vaux and her premature death on April 5, 1846, confirmed this position. The Brain Chart was conceived in 1847 and further elaborated for Positive Polity I (1851). The Brain Chart concerns social statics and the individual but also the collectivity; this is why it implies social dynamics. Human industry reconciles opposing directions and progresses beyond them—beyond military ambition for conquest, characteristic of the theological age, and beyond the defensive military maneuvers of the metaphysical age. The Brain Chart deals with the essence of the particular stages of human development.

A few comments are in order:

  1. Some of Comte's terms become clear if we compare them with note "O" or XV of Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality: the instinct for self preservation is like Rousseau's love of self (amour de soi); the perfecting instinct and ambition equal Rousseau's self-esteem (amour-propre); egoism includes all of these.
  2. The listings under "altruism" are based on Comte's conviction that egoism is transmuted into altruism by the social instinct.
  3. The emphasis on the affections reflects Comte's new appreciation of the feminine forces of humankind, but they are in no way restricted to women; this is evident in the listings of "military aspects" or "goodness." The appearance of "motherhood" without reference to "fatherhood" reflects his conception of domestic life which remains essentially unchanged. The distinctions between "veneration" and "attachment" places Comte's love for Clotilde de Vaux in a category by itself, beyond the scope of ordinary love. Clotilde is the patron saint of his Religion of Humanity.
  4. There is, above all, a balance between intellect and affections, between the male and the female principle.

[See Brain Chart on page 242.]

All along Mill recognizes the originality of Comte in social dynamics; he likes his explanation of the rise of civilization from the theological (fetishism, polytheism, monotheism) to the metaphysical and finally to the modern positive and scientific state, which brings about the era of modern science and industry; but Mill criticizes his social statics. For Comte it is the basis of social order, the element that "harmonizes" the changes in history, the fundamental conditions of life. It reflects human nature, in the face of historical change, for instance, after the military conquests of the theological age give way to the defensive tactics of absolute governments in the metaphysical age, these in turn are forced to yield to the modern industrial age. Comte's illustration stems from Saint-Simon, but he adds important arguments in support.

Social Statics

Mill rejects the idea of a permanent make-up of humankind, the basis of Comte's definition of the limited capacities of women; he finds it unfounded and overly restrictive, even fatalistic. It is characteristic that Comte counters the objections by asking Mill to read Positive Polity, where he will develop his system and make it convincingly clear. Developed it was but, as was to be expected, Comte's explanations will not convince Mill; probably Mill did not read Positive Polity very carefully. By justifying "the subjection of women" (Mill) within the framework of his systematic philosophy, Comte compounded Mill's objections.

Social statics, the theory of social existence, as described in volume II of Positive Polity, includes an essential code of ethics, just as social dynamics, set forth in volume III, includes the laws governing politics. By analogy, ethics and politics serve as cornerstones of Comte's Religion of Humanity. It is important to note that he conceives of women as the guardians of morality (ethics), one more aspect of the fundamental if "auxiliary" role women play in Positive Polity.

In volume II .. . , Auguste Comte analyzes the influence of the social milieu, first on the individual, then on the family, finally on society as a whole. It represents a fundamental reorientation, also a reply to Mill's complaint that too little attention was paid to the social milieu and to its influence.

Critics have not always realized that Comte's study of society begins with the individual and self-interest. Like Ferguson, Comte makes the general interest flow from individual interest, just as the social instinct channels individual interests to support altruism. Social concern shapes the attitudes of the individual and guides his intellectual activities. Thus egoism, which is ultimately transformed into altruism, need not be suppressed. The individual will overcome his social insufficiency by aiding others. Love and affection will rule. Comte's optimism flows from an immense faith in social progress.

The Social Status of Women

Auguste Comte assumes that, within this natural framework, men and women take up their separate and distinct social functions. It is true that their efforts are inter-dependent, like all aspects of social statics and dynamics, but they will depend on their biological and psychological constitution, which Comte viewed as a permanent make-up, part of "the order of humanity" which determines what women can and will do, for social statics spills over into social dynamics and historical development. As stated, Comte assumes that human development surmounts breaks and finds a harmony in successive movements and opposing tendencies, a harmony based on the lasting qualities in men and women. The basic "harmony" reconciles order (statics) and progress (dynamics), for Comte history is a continuum, an aspect of the fundamental nature of men and women.

Mill on the other hand resists Comte's universal and natural hierarchy. Comte's "order" seems as objectionable to him as it will appear to the modern reader, who would certainly take contention with the beliefs that women are capable of managing the household only under male supervision or that male dominance rules city and State. Comte believes that the household is a microcosm that foreshadows loftier levels of action and authority. All the essentials of political constitutions are already contained in the constitution of the household. In the positivist polity, women might appear as a kind of proletariat, but Comte makes a clear distinction between women and proletarians.

In terms of the affections, he sees their role as brilliant, for they incarnate love as a social principle. They live for others (Vivre pour autrui, 1849) according to Comte's general motto.

Everywhere he assigns them an educational role: in the family, in the State and in the nation. His veneration for Clotilde de Vaux leads Comte to identify the feminine ideal with the affections in social relations. He considers them even more important than reason, that is to say, than male intelligence: the heart must lead the head!

The identification of inborn capacities, biologically determined, in men and in women was a characteristic nineteenth century phenomenon. The problem was that, once such definitions were accepted, the qualities assigned to them were then discovered, in varying proportions, in everyone. Each man and woman had partly male, partly female characteristics and both intellect and affections. Mill, even while arguing sharply against Comte, did not arrive at a clear statement of this fact. He argues that if women stand closer to children than do men, nothing proves that children are less intelligent; they are merely less experienced. Both philosophers compare the capacities of the sexes but vary widely in their conclusions: Mill wants to raise women to a status equal to that of men; Comte, on the contrary, finds that, in the area of the affections, men must ultimately imitate women and develop qualities of heart. As a matter of fact, both philosophers seem to imply that men and women can develop qualities of either gender.

Mill's critique must have prompted Comte to redefine social statics and to study the "milieux subjectifs" as he calls the realms in which we operate, such as religion, property, family and language in domestic, civil and religious society. None of these considerations settled the differences between them, for their arguments were not so much due to varying or insufficient concepts of social statics—though both claimed this—but to basic attitudes that would not yield to evidence.

Comte loved to illustrate problems by diagrams and mottos. Here are his essential formulations concerning men and women, applicable to matters of heart. The Brain Chart defines their life with the motto, "vivre pour autrui" [to live for others]; a second slogan reads: "To act out of affection and to think in order to act." His "definitive" formulation is the following: "L'Amour pour principe, et l'Ordre pour base; le Progrès pour but!" [The principle: love; the base: order; the objective: progress].

Comte's Positive Religion

The institution of a positive religion in no way represents a return to revealed religion, for the Religion of Humanity is "demonstrated." If Comte links it to a higher principle, it is one inherent in the world; it includes all men, dead and living. He will have it supported by a hierarchy of "positivist" priests who counsel the government.

This call for a religious establishment produces the most violent reactions from Mill. In the name of liberty, he protests against this dictatorial enterprise, worthy of Ignatius of Loyola. Like Comte, Mill upholds the ideal of Humanity, but wants no part of Clotilde as a patron saint, adored in positivist chapels.

It is paradoxical to see Comte's religion of love, conceived to compensate for an excessive emphasis on the intellect in his earlier philosophy, become the focus of the most vigorous attacks. Mill abhorred Comte's hierarchy of priests as a threat to liberty and his proposed ritual as a "residue" of Catholicism. Mill's non-sectarian background makes him resist ecclesiastic authority, especially of the Catholic stripe.

Even so, their orientations were surprisingly similar. Comte would have found no quarrel with Mill's opening address (1867) as Rector of the University of Saint-Andrews, a call to the study of the life sciences (including psychology and sociology) in the spirit of Positivism. Mill's utilitarianism is tempered by a "higher" dimension which brings him close to Comte and distinguishes between the useful and the expedient, one directed toward general happiness, the other aimed at personal gain. He considers virtue and justice to be, not just a way to happiness, but a finality in itself, a way to the truth. Mill is sincere in his devotion to Positivism and community oriented like Comte. Both men envisage a transcendent ideal, but in the case of Comte, it takes the form of a powerful institution, a "demonstrated religion" whose "time had come." This is where Mill withdraws in horror. In Auguste Comte and Positivism he uses strong words of condemnation. He prefers the ideal in education, the faith in science and "moral utilitarianism," which we find in his latest work, Nature, the Utility of Religion, Theism, Being Three Essays on Religion (1874). Like Comte, Mill underlines the ideal of Humanity, but not as the base of a new religion, an "unacceptable residue of Catholicism." In his History of English Literature, Hippolyte Taine, a shrewd observer, writes something which applies to John Stuart Mill: "In England, the religious and the positive spirit live side by side and separately."

Mill considers Comte's positive religion to be "a deviation" from Positivism, while Comte takes Mill to be an incomplete Positivist, who rejects the affective (religious) element. Yet, to the end, Mill recalls (in the Autobiography) how much he gained from Comte, how avidly he read the Cours de philosophie positive, how he welcomed Comte's method.

As they drift apart, Mill admits a particular debt for two of Comte's ideas: the separation of the spiritual and temporal powers since the Middle Ages, and his comparative ("inverse deductive") method. He knew how important these factors were in his Logic (1843) and how he made use of Comte's historical analysis in the Principles of Political Economy (1848), as he compared different coexisting states of society and formulated his theory of production.


The letters portray the high point of a sincere friendship of two major philosophers of the nineteenth century. They inform us of significant developments throughout Europe. After the Saint-Simoniens, especially Gustave d'Eichthal, introduced Mill to Positivism and Auguste Comte (around 1828), Mill became an enthusiastic supporter of positive philosophy. It alone, he believed at the time, could renew modern philosophy. Long before he wrote his first letter in 1841, he recognized the originality with which Comte analyzed philosophical problems, his "positive method."

Mill approved of Comte's philosophy of history (or social dynamics); he accepted the law of three ages, the theological, metaphysical and the positive, also Comte's classification of basic sciences. Above all, Mill, recognized that Comte had made a precious inventory of the "methods of investigation," in other words, he had developed what we call an epistemology.

Then differences arose. In 1865, Mill criticized Comte for not having analyzed the methods of verification and established criteria for truth; he regretted that Comte did not include psychology and economics in his list of basic sciences, if they could only be brought to the level of positive sciences.

Mill greatly appreciated the Cours de philosophie positive. He justly emphasized that, after the masterful Cours, Comte's success was greater in England than in France. Alexander Bain (1818-1903), who is frequently mentioned in the correspondence and founded the journal, Mind (1876), adhered if not directly to Comte's philosophy, at least to the English positivist school. Like Comte, Bain tied his psychology to the spontaneous action of the brain.

In the Cours, Comte was the first to define social statics and social dynamics. The distinction was used later by sociologists everywhere and more recently by LéviStraus. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) carried on the discipline of social statics, although he insists that there are vast differences between his own conception and that of Comte. In Social Statics (1851) Spencer expresses a pronounced measure of individualism, but he does take up Comte's principal themes, such as social evolution. He rejects his philosophy but does apply positive doctrine. The English Positivist, Frederic Harrison (1832-1923), founder of The Positive Review (1893) and the author of another Social Statics (1875), embarked on a polemic with Spencer, to force him to admit that he shared many ideas with Comte. Spencer declined; he would only recognize that he owed Comte the notion of social consensus.

Mill emphasized the difference between Comte's first and second philosophy: one ending with the publication of the Cours, the other centered around Positive Polity and the institution of positive religion. Indeed, the future of Positivism was greatly affected, for it was "positivist intellectuals" like Mill and Littré, who refused to follow Comte to the "applied Positivism" of the later period. They did not adopt its religious, moral and political applications.

One can find a fundamental unity in Comte's thought, as he did himself and also Dr. J. H. Bridges, when he replied to Mill's book, Auguste Comte and Positivism, but Comte realized that he had neglected the affections in the Cours and that the Système with its emphasis on positive religion introduced fundamental changes.

The great difference between Comte and Mill lies in the way their philosophy evolves: Mill reformulates his view step by step. This is how the Autobiography describes his process of constant review: "I found the fabric of my old and taught opinions giving way in many fresh places, and I never allowed it to fall to pieces, but was constantly occupied in weaving it anew" (Collected Works 1:163-64). This method, pictured for 1829, applies throughout. Comte also developed concepts regularly from the beginning, but he experienced an ecstatic love for Clotilde de Vaux. Mill's letters show how foreign this was to him; he refused to publish even one fragment written for her.

Mill turns increasingly to "moral" utilitarianism as he emphasizes first principles, especially liberty and justice. His two essays on Bentham and Coleridge (1838, 1840) initiate this trend. Mill's positions, often at variance and not always pertaining to distinct periods, reveal a radical as well as a liberal Mill, even a more conservative Mill. This is what his letters illustrate so well. His defense of liberty is individualistic; he is anxious to safeguard his independence, in the face of the prior experience, in the face also of his original admiration for Comte and of his early tendency to defer to him. Mill's final "lesson" for Comte: how to handle the Irish unemployed, his ideal of self-reliance is the very opposite of Comte's claim that society owes a debt to men of genius and must support them so they can fulfill their task. Often their arguments run counter to their early agreement that radical changes were needed to justify power and privilege: their conclusions clash. They come to life in the correspondence.

Mill is perfectly aware of what sociology in the Comtian perspective did offer: a link between "universal history" and the philosophical concept of progress, applied to history; social statics, the coexistence of social phenomena, along with social dynamics which observes their succession (A System of Logic, VI. 10). Mill expresses in Comtian terms that social statics is the theory of the consensus between the different aspects of social organization; he even uses Comte's analogy between the biological organism and society. Mill is assimilating Comte's principles when he defines social unity to mean: (1) recognizing a government, (2) feeling allegiance for it, (3) realizing the inter-dependence of the members of society. By combining the static and dynamic point of view, they acknowledge the interplay of "spontaneous" states of society and their "simultaneous" changes. From this analysis they draw a "scientific" law of history. Among the agents of social progress, they stress the influence of human intelligence on society. They differ in character and temperament, but it is remarkable to what extent the correspondence reveals their similarities: they share the essentials of positivist doctrine and draw on the sciences of social statics and dynamics to elucidate social, political and intellectual progress. The correspondence is live testimony of their speculations, the essential commentary of two important philosophers on their times, a wide-ranging panorama of nineteenth century thought.

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