Authors born between 1700 and 1800 CE
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Theological, Metaphysical, and Positive States
Evolution of the Mind
Observation and Theory
The Move Towards Laws
The Mental Revolution
The Need for Sociology
The Spirit of Positive Philosophy
Artificial Boundaries in Science
Opinions of Society
Reconstructing Political Institutions
The Role of Women and Working Classes
Philosophy and Politics
Auguste Comte (1798-1857) was born at Montpellier, France. Educated in the local school he became an accomplished scholar, qualifying at age 14 for admission to the Ecole Polytechnique. After two years there, he participated in a demonstration, the school was closed, and his formal education came to an end. He then made a precarious living as a mathematical tutor while continuing his own studies. By 1818 he had become a friend and disciple of Saint-Simon, who aided him in selecting the direction of his philosophical development. This was based on two principal ideas: (1) true philosophy must be social and concerned with moral, religious and political systems; and (2) these systems themselves are subject to underlying general laws like those in the science.
In 1824 Comte quarreled with Saint Simon over a matter of priority of authorship, and began to publish occasional articles. By this time he was well versed in the established sciences of mathematics and astronomy, and was developing his Positive Philosophy. This included ideas on a general theory of science that incorporated social science (which he later called sociology). In 1826 he began expounding his theory of science and sociology in public lectures. He became ill and did not resume the lectures until 1828, incorporating most of them in the first volume of his Course of Positive Philosophy, which appeared in 1830. The sixth and last volume appeared in 1842.
Comte saw our understanding of the world progressing successively through three stages: the theological, the metaphysical and the positive (scientific). Only the last, based on the positive information of experiment and observation, could provide true understanding. He also saw sciences as interdependent—physics depending on mathematics, chemistry on physics, biology on chemistry, and psychology on biology—although each science developed its own logic and methodology.
Comte turned to the practical problems of implementing his positive philosophy in society, publishing his projected approach in A General View of Positivism in 1848. This was incorporated into a four-volume work, Positive Polity, published between 1851 and 1854. At this time, he began to draw up a religion of humanity whose saints included Frederick the Great, Dante, Shakespeare, and Adam Smith, publishing A Positivist Catechism in 1852. Extracts from two of his works follow.
1 I regret . . . to have been obliged to employ, for want of another, a word like philosophy, which has been so improperly used in a multitude of different meanings. But the qualifying adjective positive appears to me to clearly prevent any misconception, certainly on the part of those who know its proper meaning. I will, therefore, in this Preface simply say that I use the word philosophy in the sense in which it was employed by the ancients, and especially by Aristotle, as comprising the general system of human conceptions. And by adding the word positive I wish to denote that I am considering that particular manner of philosophizing which holds that the purpose of theories, in any class of ideas, is to coordinate facts. This is the third and last state of general philosophy, the first being theological, and the second metaphysical, as I shall explain in the first chapter.
2 In thus studying the total development of human intelligence in its different spheres of activity, from its first and simplest beginning up to our own time, I believe that I have discovered a great fundamental law, to which the mind is subjected by an invariable necessity. The truth of this law can, I think, be demonstrated both by reasoned proofs furnished by a knowledge of our mental organization, and by historical verification due to an attentive study of the past. This law consists in the fact that each of our principal conceptions, each branch of our knowledge, passes in succession 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 very nature—in each of its researches makes use successively of three methods of philosophizing, whose characters are essentially different, and even radically opposed to each other. We have first the theological method, then the metaphysical method, and finally the positive method. Hence there are three kinds of philosophy or general systems of conceptions on the aggregate of phenomena, which are mutually exclusive of each other. The first is the necessary starting-point of human intelligence; the third represents its fixed and definitive state; the second is only destined to serve as a transitional method.
3 In the Theological state, the human mind directs its researches mainly towards the inner nature of beings, and towards the first and final causes of all the phenomena which it observes—in a word, towards absolute knowledge. It therefore represents these phenomena as being produced by the direct and continuous action of more or less numerous supernatural agents, whose arbitrary intervention explains all the apparent anomalies of the universe.
In the Metaphysical state, which is in reality only a simple general modification of the first state, the supernatural agents are replaced by abstract forces, real entities or personified abstractions, inherent in the different beings of the world. These entities are looked upon as capable of giving rise by themselves to all the phenomena observed, each phenomenon being explained by assigning it to its corresponding entity.
Finally, in the positive state, the human mind, recognizing the impossibility of obtaining absolute truth, gives up the search after the origin and destination of the universe and a knowledge of the final causes of phenomena. It only endeavors now to discover, by a well-combined use of reasoning and observation, the actual laws of phenomena—that is to say, their invariable relations of succession and likeness. The explanation of facts, thus reduced to its real terms, consists henceforth only in the connection established between different particular phenomena and some general facts, the number of which the progress of science tends more and more to diminish.
4 The theological system arrived at its highest form of perfection, when it substituted the providential action of a single being for the varied play of the numerous independent gods that had been imagined by the primitive mind. In the same way, the last stage of the metaphysical system consisted in replacing the different special entities by the idea of a single great general entity—nature, looked upon as the sole source of all phenomena. Similarly, the ideal of the positive system, towards which it constantly tends, although in all probability it will never attain such a stage, would be reached if we could look upon all the different phenomena observable as so many particular cases of a single general fact, such as that of gravitation, for example.
5 In the first place, it is, I think, sufficient merely to enumerate such a law for its accuracy to be immediately verified, by all those who are fairly well acquainted with the general history of the sciences. For there is not a single science that has today reached the positive stage which was not in the past—as each can easily see for himself—composed mainly of metaphysical abstractions. And, going back further still, it was altogether under the sway of theological conceptions.
6 This general evolution of the human mind can, moreover, be easily verified today, in a very obvious, although indirect, manner, if we consider the development of the individual intelligence. The starting-point being necessarily the same in the education of the individual as in that of the race, the various principal phases of the former must reproduce the fundamental epochs of the latter. Now, does not each of us in contemplating his own history recollect that he has been successively—as regards the most important ideas—a theologian in childhood, a metaphysician in youth, and a natural philosopher in manhood? This verification of the law can easily be made by all who are on a level with their age.
7 But, in addition to the proofs of the truth of this law furnished by direct observation of the race or the individual, I must, above all, mention in this brief summary the theoretical considerations which show its necessity.
The most important of these considerations arises from the very nature of the subject itself. It consists in the need at every epoch of having some theory to connect the facts, while, on the other hand, it was clearly impossible for the primitive human mind to form theories based on observation.
All competent thinkers agree with Bacon that there can be no real knowledge except that which rests upon observed facts. This fundamental maxim is evidently indisputable if it is applied, as it ought to be, to the mature state of our intelligence. But, if we consider the origin of our knowledge, it is no less certain that the primitive human mind could not, and indeed ought not to, have thought in that way. For if, on the one hand, every positive theory must necessarily be founded upon observations, it is, on the other hand, no less true that, in order to observe, our mind has need of some theory or other.
8 Thus there were two difficulties to be overcome: the human mind had to observe in order to form real theories, and yet had to form theories of some sort before it could apply itself to a connected series of observations. The primitive human mind, therefore, found itself involved in a vicious circle, from which it would never have had any means of escaping, if a natural way out of the difficulty had not fortunately been found by the spontaneous development of theological conceptions . . . they offer to man the strong attraction of an unlimited control over the exterior world, which is regarded as being entirely destined for our use, while all its phenomena seem to have close and continuous relations with our existence. These chimerical hopes, these exaggerated ideas of man's importance in the universe, to which the theological philosophy gives rise, are destroyed irrevocably by the first-fruits of the positive philosophy. But, at the commencement, they afforded an indispensable stimulus without the aid of which we cannot, indeed, conceive how the primitive human mind would have been induced to undertake any arduous labors.
9 We are at the present time so far removed from that early state of mind—at least as regards the majority of phenomena—that it is difficult for us to appreciate properly the force and necessity of such considerations. Human reason is now so mature that we are able to undertake laborious scientific researches, without having in view any extraneous goal capable of strongly exciting the imagination, such as that which the astrologers or alchemists proposed for themselves. Our intellectual activity is sufficiently excited by the mere hope of discovering the laws of phenomena, by the simple desire of verifying or disproving a theory. This, however, could not be the case in the infancy of the human mind. Without the attractive chimeras of astrology, or the powerful deceptions of alchemy, for example, where should we have found the perseverance and ardor necessary for collecting the long series of observations and experiments that, later on, served as a basis for the first positive theories of these two classes of phenomena?
10 It is easily seen that our understanding, which was compelled to progress by almost insensible steps, could not pass suddenly, and without any intermediate stages, from theological to positive philosophy. Theology and physics are so profoundly incompatible, their conceptions are so radically opposed in character, that, before giving up the one in order to employ the other exclusively, the human intelligence had to make use of intermediate conceptions, which, being of a hybrid character, were eminently fitted to bring about a gradual transition. That is the part played by metaphysical conceptions, and they have no other real use. By substituting, in the study of phenomena, a corresponding inseparable entity for a direct supernatural agency—at first, the former was only held to be an offshoot of the latter—man gradually accustomed himself to consider only the facts themselves. In that way, the ideas of these metaphysical agents gradually became so dim that all right-minded persons only considered them to be the abstract names of the phenomena in question. It is impossible to imagine by what other method our understanding could have passed from frankly supernatural to purely natural considerations, or, in other words, from the theological to the positive regime.
11 We have seen that the fundamental character of the positive philosophy is to consider all phenomena as subject to invariable natural laws. The exact discovery of these laws and their reduction to the least possible number constitute the goal of all our efforts; for we regard the search after what are called causes, whether first or final, as absolutely inaccessible and meaningless. It is unnecessary to dwell much on a principle which has now become so familiar to all who have made anything like a serious study of the observational sciences. Everybody, indeed, knows that in our positive explanations, even when they are most complete, we do not pretend to explain the real causes of phenomena, as this would merely throw the difficulty further back; we only try to analyze correctly the circumstances of their production, and to connect them together by normal relations of succession and similarity.
Thus, to cite the best example, we say that the general phenomena of the universe are explained—as far as they can be—by the Newtonian law of gravitation. On the one hand, this admirable theory shows us all the immense variety of astronomical facts as only a single fact looked at from different points of view; that fact being the constant tendency of all molecules towards each other, in direct proportion to their masses and inversely as the squares of their distances. On the other hand, this general fact is shown to be the simple extension of an extremely familiar and, therefore, well-known phenomenon—the weight of a body at the earth's surface. As to determining what attraction and weight are in themselves or what their causes are, these are questions which we regard as insoluble and outside the domain of Positive Philosophy; we, therefore, rightly abandon them to the imagination of the theologians or the subtleties of the metaphysicians.
12 Thus, astronomical phenomena, being the most general, the simplest, and the most independent of all others, were the first to be subjected to positive theories. There then followed in succession and for the same reasons the phenomena of terrestrial physics, properly so called, those of chemistry, and finally physiological phenomena.
13 It is impossible to fix the precise date of this mental revolution; we can only say that, like all other great human events, it took place continuously and at an increasing rate, especially since the labors of Aristotle and the Alexandrian school, and afterwards from the introduction of natural science into the west of Europe by the Arabs. However, as it is better to fix an epoch in order to give greater precision to our ideas, I would select that of the great movement imparted to the human intellect two centuries ago, by the combined influence of the precepts of Bacon, the conceptions of Descartes, and the discoveries of Galileo. It was then that the spirit of the positive philosophy began to assert itself in the world, in evident opposition to the theological and metaphysical spirit; for it was then that positive conceptions disengaged themselves clearly from the superstitious and scholastic alloy, which had more or less disguised the true character of all the previous scientific work.
14 In the four principal categories of natural phenomena enumerated above—astronomical, physical, chemical, and physiological—we notice an important omission relating to social phenomena. Although these are implicitly comprised among physiological phenomena, yet, owing to their importance and the inherent difficulties of their study, they deserve to form a distinct class.
This last order of ideas is concerned with the most special, most complicated, and most dependent of all
phenomena. It has, therefore, necessarily progressed more slowly than all the preceding orders, even if we do not take into account the more special obstacles to its study
which we shall consider later on. Whatever the cause, it is evident that it has not yet been included the domain of Positive
Theological and metaphysical methods are never used now by anyone in dealing with all the other kinds of phenomena, either as a means of investigation or even as a mode of reasoning. But these discarded methods are, on the contrary, still exclusively used for both purposes in everything which concerns social phenomena, although their insufficiency in this respect has been already fully felt by all good judges, such
men being tired of these empty and endless discussions about divine right and the sovereignty of the people.
15 Here, then, is the great, but evidently the only, gap that has to be filled in order to finish the construction of positive philosophy. Now that the human mind has founded celestial physics, terrestrial physics (mechanical and chemical), and organic physics (vegetable and animal), it only remains to complete the system of observational sciences by the foundation of social physics [sociology].
16 We need a new class of properly-trained scientists, who, instead of devoting themselves to the special study of any particular branch of natural philosophy, shall employ themselves solely in the consideration of the different positive sciences in their present state. It would be their function to determine exactly the character of each science, to discover the relations and concatenation of the sciences, and to reduce, if possible, all their chief principles to the smallest number of common principles, while always conforming to the fundamental maxims of the positive method. At the same time, the other scientists, before devoting themselves to their respective specialties, should have received a previous training embracing all the general principles of positive knowledge. This would enable them henceforth to make immediate use of the light thrown on their work by the scientists devoted to the study of generalities, whose results the specialists would, in turn, be able to rectify. . .
To make the study of scientific generalizations a distinct department of intellectual labor is merely a further extension of the same principle of division that led to the successive separation of the different sciences. As long as the different positive sciences were only slightly developed, their mutual relations were not important enough to give rise, at all events permanently, to a special class of workers; nor was the need of this new study nearly so urgent as it is now. But, at the present day, each of the sciences has developed on its own lines to such an extent that the examination of their mutual relations affords material for systematic and continued labor. At the same time this new order of studies becomes indispensable, to prevent the fragmentation of human ideas.
17 I have now determined, as exactly as it was possible for me to do in a first sketch, the general spirit of a course of positive philosophy. In order to bring out its full character, I must state concisely the principal general advantages which such a work may have—if its essential conditions are properly fulfilled—as regards intellectual progress. I will mention only four. They are fundamental qualities of the positive philosophy.
In the first place, the study of the positive philosophy, by considering the results of the activity of our intellectual faculties, furnishes us with the only really rational means of exhibiting the logical laws of the human mind, which have hitherto been sought by methods too ill-calculated to reveal them.
To explain what I mean on this point, I must first recall a philosophical conception of the highest importance, set forth by Blainville in the fine introduction to his Principles of Comparative Anatomy. According to him, every active being, and especially every living being, may be studied in all its manifestations under two fundamental relations—the static and the dynamic; that is, as fitted to act and as actually acting. It is clear that all the considerations which might be presented will necessarily fall under the one or the other of these heads. Let us apply this luminous fundamental maxim to the study of intellectual functions.
If these functions are regarded from a static point of view, their study can only consist in determining the organic conditions on which they depend; it thus forms an essential part of anatomy and physiology. When considering the question from a dynamic point of view, we have merely to study the actual march of the human intellect, in practice, by examining the procedures used by it in order to acquire a knowledge of the various sciences; this constitutes essentially the general object of the positive philosophy, as I have already defined it in this chapter. In brief, we must look upon all scientific theories as so many great logical facts; and it is only by a thorough observation of these that we can rise to the knowledge logical laws.
18 These are evidently the only two general methods, complementary to each other, by the use of which we are able to arrive at any really rational ideas concerning intellectual phenomena. We see that in no case is there room for that illusory psychology—the last transformation of theology—to revive which attempts are being made so vainly at the present day. This theory, while ignoring and discarding the physiological study of our intellectual organs, and the observation of the rational methods which actually direct our various scientific researches, claims that it can discover the fundamental laws of the human mind by contemplating it in itself, without paying any attention either to the causes or the effects of its activity. . . for the last two thousand years the metaphysicians have in this manner been cultivating psychology, and yet they have not been able to agree on one single intelligible and sound proposition. They are, even at the present day, divided into a multitude of schools which are incessantly disputing on the first elements of the doctrines. In fact, interior observation gives rise to almost as many divergent opinions as there are so-called observers.
19 The first great direct result of the positive philosophy is [will be], then, the manifestation by experience of the laws which our intellectual functions follow in their operations; and, consequently, a precise knowledge of the general rules which are suitable for our guidance in the investigation of truth.
A second consequence of no less importance and of much more urgent concern, which must immediately result from the establishment of the positive philosophy as defined in this chapter, is the recasting of our educational system.
20 Competent judges are already unanimous in recognizing the necessity of replacing our European education, which is still essentially theological, metaphysical, and literary, by a positive education in accordance with the spirit of our time and adapted to the needs of modern civilization. Various attempts have been made in increasing number during the last hundred years, and especially during recent years, to spread and augment, without ceasing, instruction of a positive kind. Such attempts, which the different European Governments have always eagerly encouraged and often initiated, are a sufficient testimony that the spontaneous feeling of this necessity is everywhere growing. But, while supporting these useful enterprises as much as possible, we must not conceal the fact that, in the present state of our ideas, they are not at all capable of attaining their principal object—namely, the fundamental regeneration of general education. The exclusive specialization, the too rigid isolation, which still characterizes our way of conceiving and of cultivating the sciences has necessarily a marked influence upon the mode of teaching them.
An intelligent person who wishes at the present day to study the principal branches of natural philosophy, in order to acquire a general system of positive ideas, is obliged to study each separate science in the same way, and with the same amount of detail, as if he wished to become an astronomical or chemical specialist, etc. This renders such an education almost impossible and necessarily very imperfect, even in the case of the most intelligent minds, placed in the most favorable circumstances. Such a mode of proceeding would, therefore, be chimerical as regards general education, and yet an essential requirement of latter is a complete body of positive conceptions on all the great classes of natural phenomena. It is such a survey, on a more or less extended scale, which must henceforth constitute, even among the mass of the people, the permanent basis of all human education; it must, in short, constitute the mental framework of our descendants.
21 In order that natural philosophy may be able to complete the already partially accomplished regeneration of our intellectual system, it is, therefore, indispensable that the different sciences composing it—regarding them as different branches of a single trunk— should be first reduced to what constitutes their essence; that is, to their principal methods and most important results. It is only in this way that the teaching of the sciences can become basis of a new general and really rational education for our people. Of course, each individual, after receiving general education, will have to supplement it by such special education as he may require, in which he will study one or other of the special sciences. But the essential consideration which I wished to point out here is that all these special studies, even if by great labor all of them were mastered, would be necessarily insufficient to really renew our educational system, if they did not rest on the preliminary basis of this general education, itself the direct result of the positive philosophy as defined in this discourse.
22 The special study of scientific generalities is not only destined to reorganize education, but it will also contribute to the particular progress of the different positive sciences. This constitutes the third fundamental property which I have to point out.
The divisions which we establish between the sciences, although not arbitrary, as some people suppose, are yet essentially artificial. In reality, the subject of al1 our researches is one; we only divide it so that we may, by separating the difficulties, resolve them more easily. And so it occasionally happens that these established divisions are a hindrance, and that questions arise which need to be treated by combining the points of view of several sciences. This cannot be easily done when scientists are so addicted to specialization. Hence the problems are left unsolved for a much longer time than would otherwise be necessary. Such an inconvenience must make itself especially felt in the case of the more essential doctrines of each positive science. Very striking examples of this fact could be easily cited, and I shall carefully call attention to them as they occur in the course of this work.
I could cite a very memorable example of this in the past, in the case of the admirable conception of Descartes relating to analytical geometry. This fundamental discovery, which has changed the aspect of mathematical science, and in which we should see the true germ of all the great subsequent progress, is simply the result of establishing a closer connection between two sciences [algebra and geometry] that had hitherto been regarded from separate standpoints.
23 There is a fourth and last fundamental property of what I have called the positive philosophy, to which I must thus early draw attention, and which no doubt deserves our notice more than any other property, since it is today the most important one from a practical point of view. We may look upon the positive philosophy as constituting the only solid basis of the social reorganization, which must terminate the crisis in which the most civilized nations have for so long found themselves. . . It may be thought that I am making a too ambitious claim for the positive philosophy. But a few very simple reflections will suffice to justify it.
There is no need to prove to readers of this work that the world is governed and overturned by ideas, or, in other words, that the whole social mechanism rests finally on opinions. They know, above all, that the great political and moral crisis of existing societies is due at bottom to intellectual anarchy. Our gravest evil consists, indeed, in this profound divergence which now exists among all minds. With regard to all the fundamental maxims, fixity is the first condition of a true social order. As long as individual minds are not unanimously agreed upon a certain number of general ideas capable of forming a common social doctrine, we cannot disguise the fact that the nations will necessarily remain in an essentially revolutionary state, in spite of all the political palliatives that may be adopted. Such a condition of things only really admits of provisional institutions. It is equally certain that, if this general agreement upon first principles can be once obtained, the appropriate institutions will necessarily follow, without giving rise to any grave shock; for the greater part of the disorder will have been already dissipated by the mere fact of the agreement. All those, therefore, who feel the importance of a truly normal state of things should direct their attention mainly to this point.
24 I think we may sum up exactly all the observations relating to the existing situation of society, by the simple statement that the actual confusion of men's minds is at bottom due to the simultaneous employment of three radically incompatible philosophies—the theological, metaphysical, and positive. It is quite clear that, if any one of these three philosophies really obtained a complete and universal preponderance, a fixed social order would result, whereas the existing evil consists above all in the absence of any true organization. It is the existence of these three opposite philosophies which absolutely prevents all agreement on any essential point. Now, if this opinion be correct, all that is necessary is to know which of the three philosophies can and must prevail by the nature of things; every sensible man should next endeavor to work for the triumph of that philosophy, whatever his particular opinions may have been before the question was analyzed.
The question being once reduced to these simple terms, the issue cannot long remain doubtful, because it is evident for all kinds of reasons . . . that the positive philosophy is alone destined to prevail in the ordinary course of things. It alone has been for many centuries making constant progress, while its antagonists have been as constantly in a state of decay. Whether this is a good or a bad thing matters little; the general fact cannot be denied, and that is sufficient. We may deplore the fact, but we are unable to destroy it; nor, consequently, can we neglect it, on pain of giving ourselves up to illusory speculations. This general revolution of the human mind is, at the present time, almost entirely accomplished. Nothing more remains to be done, as I have already explained, than to complete the positive philosophy by including in it the study of social phenomena, and then to sum them up in a single body of homogeneous doctrine. When these two tasks have made sufficient progress, the final triumph of the positive philosophy will take place spontaneously, and will re-establish order in society. . . We must complete the vast intellectual operation commenced by Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo, by furnishing the positive philosophy with the system of general ideas which is destined to prevail henceforth, and for an indefinite future, among the human race. The revolutionary crisis which harasses civilized peoples will then be at an end.
25 Positivism consists essentially of a philosophy and a political theory. These can never be dissevered; the former being the basis, and the latter the end of one comprehensive system, in which our intellectual faculties and our social sympathies are brought into close correlation with each other. For, in the first place, the science of society, besides being more important than any other, supplies the only logical and scientific link by which all our varied observations of phenomena can be brought into one consistent whole. . . Now here we find a coincidence which is assuredly not fortuitous. At the very time when the theory of society is being laid down, an immense sphere is opened for the application of that theory; the direction, namely, of the social regeneration of Western Europe. For, if we take another point of view, and look at the great crisis of modern history, as its character is displayed in the natural course of events, it becomes every day more evident how hopeless is the task of reconstructing political institutions without the previous remodeling of opinion and of life. To form then a satisfactory synthesis of all human conceptions is the most urgent of our social wants: and it is needed equally for the sake of order and of progress.
26 This will lead us naturally to another question. The regenerating doctrine cannot do its work without adherents: in what quarter should we hope to find them? Now, with individual exceptions of great value, we cannot expect the adhesion of any of the upper classes in society. They are all more or less under the influence of baseless metaphysical theories, and of aristocratic self-seeking. They are absorbed in blind political agitation, and in disputes for the possession of the useless remnants of the old theological and military system. Their action only tends to prolong the revolutionary state indefinitely, and can never result in true social renovation.
Whether we regard its intellectual character or its social objects, it is certain that positivism must look elsewhere for support. It will find a welcome in those classes only whose good sense has been left unimpaired by our vicious system of education, and whose generous sympathies are allowed to develop themselves freely. It is among women, therefore, and among the working classes that the heartiest supporters of the new doctrine will be found.
27 The object of all true philosophy is to frame a system of human life, social as well as individual, which shall comprehend human life in a systematic view under every aspect, and present a basis for modifying its imperfections, It embraces, therefore, the three kinds of phenomena of which our life consists: thoughts, feelings, and actions. Under all these aspects, the growth of humanity is primarily spontaneous; and the basis upon which all wise attempts to modify it should proceed, can only be furnished by an exact acquaintance with the natural process. We are, however, able to modify this process systematically; and the importance of this is extreme, since we can thereby greatly diminish the partial deviations, the disastrous delays, and the grave inconsistencies to which so complex a growth would be liable were it left entirely to itself.
To effect this necessary intervention is the proper sphere of politics. But a right conception cannot be formed of it without the aid of the philosopher, whose business it is to define and amend the principles on which it is conducted. With this object in view the philosopher endeavors to coordinate the various elements of man's existence, so that it may be conceived of theoretically as an integral whole. His synthesis can only be valid in so far as it is an exact and complete representation of the relations naturally existing. The first condition is therefore that these relations be carefully studied. When the philosopher, instead of forming such a synthesis, attempts to interfere more directly with the course of practical life, he commits the error of usurping the province of the statesman, to whom all practical measures exclusively belong.
28 Philosophy and politics are the two principal functions of the great social organism. Morality, systematically considered, forms the connecting link and at the same time the line of demarcation between them. It is the most important application of philosophy, and it gives a general direction to polity. Natural morality, that is to say the various emotions of our moral nature, will, as I have shown in my previous work, always govern the speculations of the one and the operations of the other.
29 I have said that our conception of human unity must be totally inadequate, and, indeed, cannot deserve the name, so long as it does not embrace every element of our nature. But it would be equally fatal to the completeness of this great conception to think of human nature irrespectively of what lies outside it. A purely subjective unity, without any objective basis, would
be simply impossible. In the first place any attempt to co-ordinate man's moral nature, without regard to the external world, supposing the attempt feasible, would have very little permanent influence on our happiness, whether collectively or individually; since happiness depends so largely upon our relations to all that exists around us. Besides this we have to consider the exceeding imperfection of our nature.
Self-love is deeply implanted in it, and when left to itself is far stronger than
social sympathy. The social instincts would never gain the mastery were they not sustained and called into constant exercise by the workings of the external world, an influence which at the same time checks the power of the selfish instincts.
30 Thus it is that an intellectual synthesis, or systematic study of the laws of nature, is needed on far higher grounds than those of satisfying our theoretical faculties, which are, for the most part, very feeble, even in men who devote themselves to a life of thought. It is needed, because it solves at once the most difficult problem of the moral synthesis. The higher impulses within us are brought under the influence of a powerful stimulus from without. By its means they are enabled to control our discordant impulses, and to maintain a state of harmony towards which they have always tended, but which, without such aid, could never be realized. Moreover, this conception of the order of nature evidently supplies the basis for a synthesis of human action; for the efficacy of our actions depends entirely upon their conformity to this order.
1-24 Adapted from The Fundamental Principles of the Positive Philosophy, by Auguste Comte, translated by Paul Descours and H. Gordon Jones. Watts & Co, London, 1905.
25-30 Adapted from A General View of Positivism by Auguste Comte, translated by J. H. Bridges. Trubner and Co., London, 1865.
Authors born between 1700 and 1800 CE
Introduction and selection of extracts Copyright © Rex Pay 2003