Philosophy Weekend: The Auguste Comte Awakening

I can never guess which of my Philosophy Weekend blog posts will turn out to have legs.

Nine months ago, researching the origin of the word ‘altruism’, I learned that the term had been coined by Auguste Comte, a 19th Century French philosopher I had heard of but knew little about. Comte had developed a humane and optimistic system of political, ethical, scientific and metaphysical philosophy called Positivism, and during his lifetime Positivism was a gigantic sensation around the world. Intrigued, I wrote a blog post to wonder what it signified about our own culture that a major 19th Century philosopher with an ambitious platform of international peace, respect for human diversity and freethinking scientific rigor had fallen completely off the radar immediately after the disaster of the First World War.

What I didn’t expect was that my blog post would start getting lots of hits from Google, and would become one of my more popular Philosophy Weekend posts (I do watch my traffic statistics, not to feed my ego but to discern trends in reader interest). Then, a mysterious late comment appeared on my Comte post that brought a big smile to my face. In response to my statement that Positivism was defunct today, and this commenter posted a single sentence reply:

Well, we are not quite that dead, are we?

This was accompanied by a link to, a well-designed website with an active Facebook page and a lively blog. The new web presence is apparently the work of an eager German philosopher named Olaf Simons who appears to have some clue how to use social media to spread a message. Positivism lives!

For any philosophy to truly live, of course, it must have its detractors as well as its supporters. Last week my friend (and one-time Litkicks contributor) Jim Berrettini took a critical look at Comte on his own blog. Jim’s ‘Comte-n Pickin’ Positivism‘ accused Auguste Comte of being a dull writer (a crime many good philosophers have been guilty of, though one must counter that Comte was a good enough writer to find many devoted readers during his lifetime) and, more damningly, of representing a misguided philosophical instinct that does more harm than good on this planet we all share. Jim wrote:

Last year, a blogging friend of mine posted an encomium to Positivist philosopher Auguste Comte. Along with the joy of discovering Comte’s story, my friend conveyed a sense that Comte was on the side of the angels. Some of this is understandable: Comte is associated with creating the discipline of sociology, he supported Order and Progress, and he promised a better world through Science. Comte was far from an anodyne purveyor of Better Living Through Science. There’s a pretty ugly grasping after power that lurks in his pages.

What Comte was proposing (in deadly boring prose) was nothing short of revolutionary: to give a general view of the progress of the human mind through history, and through “positive science” to solve mankind’s problems. Comte posits that human development has three phases: the Theological, the Metaphysical, and the Positive. He establishes a hierarchy of scientific knowledge, culminating in Sociology, or Social Science. He feels that “Social Physics” can connect all the sciences, and while deriving from the speculatively, it may prove to move human progress (which is, above all, scientific progress) forward more rapidly. When Sociology has been perfected, all human knowledge will be directed by it. It will remedy defects in Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy, Mathematics, etc.

There’s little to suggest that Comte perfected some kind of Scientific Method that is universally utilized today. There’s little or no discernible science behind it. The “scientific” nature of his goals seems more like a pose than anything else. From a modern vantage point, he reads like a marginally insane person. In observing his earnestness, I’m reminded of this quip I came across:

“She spent all her life doing good to others. You could tell the others by their hunted look.”

Reading through Comte’s Positive Philosophy, I felt like one of the hunted others. And the hunt is part and parcel of Comte’s approach. Once both the theological and metaphysical are undermined, there is nothing left but a social science and engineering that treats humankind as a material to be analyzed and manipulated. Mankind’s problems are solved only once the Problem of Mankind is solved. Thanks, but no thanks.

I’m struck by one line in Jim’s post: “There’s a pretty ugly grasping for power that lurks in his pages”. This empasis on insidious power reminds me of the idea I hear often lately among American conservatives that American liberals wish or yearn for a powerful central government. In fact, liberals like me do not favor putting blunt power into any government’s hands. Our concerns are more practical and more immediate: we wish to solve certain terrible problems (like the rising cost of a college education, or the rapacious behavior of Wall Street banks, or the sickening practices of unregulated health insurance giants), and we are willing to live with the dubious bargain of a powerful central government if this powerful central government will help solve these terrible problems. There’s a big difference here: what we wish for is the solution to the problems. We do not wish for a powerful central government, and if a powerful central government can ever solve these problems (we hope it can) we will be very happy to see the powerful central government become less powerful again once the problems are solved. It’s certainly not the case that many American liberals are interested in strong governmental power for its own sake.

Similarly, it seems to me that Jim is way off in insinuating that Comte yearned for power in any form, and in describing this “ugly grasping” in Auguste Comte’s philosophy. Comte wanted to solve problems, and appears to have been willing to take steps that would have presented a risk of ugly abuses of power if the steps turned out badly. That is a position that deserves to be critiqued, but it is not fair to conclude that Comte desired the ugly abuses of power themselves.

There is also little evidence of this ugly grasping for power in any record of Comte’s career. Like Jim, I read and enjoyed John Stuart Mill’s book about Comte (and, like Jim, I had better luck enjoying Mill on Comte than in reading Comte’s own lengthy words). But I failed to find the slightest hint in this book that Mill detected in Comte any ugly grasping for power, or anything remotely like it. I’m not sure where this insinuation comes from, but I don’t think its source can be found anywhere within Comte’s works or ideas.

I think Jim Berrettini is probably right that Auguste Comte’s system of three stages leading to enlightened society is comically simplistic, and was fated to fail. The violence of the 20th Century’s great European wars — which ended Comte’s fame and ditched his glowing reputation — certainly stands as proof of this, and we all live with the results even today. Still, it is Comte’s hopefulness and his ambition for a better world that now inspires. Again, he invented the word ‘altruism’. What a strange word, and what an object to ponder! Altruism — “other-ism” — often cited as “the opposite of selfishness” or “the opposite of egoism”. What does it mean that no such word existed before Auguste Comte began using it?

It can’t mean that altruism did not exist before Comte, of course. But it suggests that Auguste Comte was a brashly original thinker, and it reminds us that we can miss great things if we think in narrow channels. Auguste Comte was a wide thinker. I don’t value him for his successes, but rather for his ambitions. John Stuart Mill described thus the topical political and historical context out of which Comte’s ethical philosophy sprung:

M. Comte was right in affirming that the prevailing schools of moral and political speculation, when not theological, have been metaphysical. They affirmed that moral rules, and even political institutions, were not means to an end, the general good, but corollaries evolved from the conception of Natural Rights. This was especially the case in all the countries in which the ideas of publicists were the offspring of the Roman Law. The legislators of opinion on these subjects, when not theologians, were lawyers, and the Continental lawyers followed the Roman jurists, who followed the Greek metaphysicians, in acknowledging as the ultimate source of right and wrong in morals, and consequently in institutions, the imaginary law of the imaginary being Nature. The first systematizers of morals in Christian Europe, on any other than a purely theological basis, the writers on International Law, reasoned wholly from these premises, and transmitted them to a long line of successors. This mode of thought reached its culmination in Rousseau, in whose hands it became as powerful an instrument for destroying the past, as it was impotent for directing the future. The complete victory which this philosophy gained, in speculation, over the old doctrines, was temporarily followed by an equally complete practical triumph, the French Revolution: when, having had, for the first time, a full opportunity of developing its tendencies, and showing what it could not do, it failed so conspicuously as to determine a partial reaction to the doctrines of feudalism and Catholicism. Between these and the political metaphysics (meta-politics as Coleridge called it) of the Revolution, society has since oscillated; raising up in the process a hybrid intermediate party, termed Conservative, or the part of Order, which has no doctrines of its own, but attempts to hold the scales even between the two others, borrowing alternately the arguments of each, to use as weapons against whichever of the two seems at the moment most likely to prevail.

This summarizes succinctly the absolute ideological mess that Auguste Comte faced when he began to create his philosophical system. Today, a violent century and a half later, the mess has won the battle, and Comte has lost. The greatest risk we face as political philosophers, it seems to me, is not that we will foolishly move too fast to clean up this mess, but rather that we will give up, that we won’t try. Jim Berrettini contrasts Auguste Comte to C. S. Lewis, who was a brilliant writer, but who doesn’t seem to offer much urgency towards practical solutions to the problems of the world. Rather, his prescription for mankind seems to be to each retreat within the private purity of our own souls, and let the planet burn. Thanks, but no thanks.

11 Responses

  1. I’m content with letting the
    I’m content with letting the planet burn. Politics is wool over the eyes, I don’t trust any of these politicians because they are working for the big banks and big business. The president does not run this country. Politicians do not run this country. The people who run this country have no room in their hearts for empathy or compassion. They are hellbent on profits and will stop at nothing to make more money. The proof is right in front of our eyes. The banks got bailed out in 08. Where’s my bailout? What about all those people who lost their homes? I don’t see government getting involved in health care anytime soon either. Let the market regulate itself. That’s the motto.

    However, I do not mean to sound apathetic. I’m a fan of Comte’s altruism. I believe I still have power, but I don’t have any power in the realm of politics. No citizen does. I still believe in kindness. I still believe in sympathy. I still believe in compassion. We gotta be careful to look at how we treat other people. We gotta be forgiving. We can’t be too hard on ourselves or others. I think we have to look at our circle of influence and start there, not the other way around.

  2. “…doesn’t seem to offer
    “…doesn’t seem to offer much urgency towards practical solutions to the problems of the world. Rather, his prescription for mankind seems to be to each retreat within the private purity of our own souls, and let the planet burn. Thanks, but no thanks.”

    This is a rather drama queenish false dichotomy.

    The basic disconnect, philosophical difference in this is that there is a school of thought where problems of the world, of existence itself, must be actively solved in some novel practical implementable manner.

    It’s hubris and messianic. Problems are generally created and exaggerated to feed this psychological need.

    “She spent all her life doing good to others. You could tell the others by their hunted look.”

    The above is a great quote. But it is potentially a lot worse. The greatest amount of human suffering and deaths have been caused by trying to actively solve perceived problems of humanity.

    But the solution exists and has always existed. Bill Ectric paraphrased it well on an earlier topic a while ago. Take more personal responsibility for your self and for others.

  3. TKG, I beg you to think for a
    TKG, I beg you to think for a minute of all the good that has been done by “trying to actively solve perceived problems of humanity”. Where do I begin? Government and public service and taxpayer-funded organizations have cured and eradicated diseases like polio and smallpox. We have built interstate highways, dams, great transportation systems. We have regulated commerce to the extent that we can have a stable and productive economy. We have created an education system that, though it is far from perfect, achieves miraculous things on a daily basis. We have passed civil rights laws that have greatly improved our society.

    This is what happens when smart people work together to try to actively solve perceived problems of humanity. So, I really don’t know what you’re talking about. Maybe you’ve been watching too many TV commercials funded by the Koch brothers about the evils of government regulations. I think you’re being fooled. Sure, sometimes do-gooders make mistakes — and when they do, it’s necessary to learn lessons from the mistakes and do things better next time. But we’re not going to give up on the idea that competent, smart government can do things to improve our lives.

  4. Levi, you are going off half
    Levi, you are going off half cocked man.

    I don’t watch TV. Don’t even have cable. I know of Koch brothers only as bete noir of the left.

    The things you mention I agree with.

    And, really, every thing you mentioned I agree are pinnacles of human endeavor and do show what we can do and have done are possible because of individuals with a dream who act on it not to save the world but for the joy of doing it — to learn something. Or perhaps crassly to make money by making something better.

    There are giants of history who have made the things you rightly cite above possible. Thomas Edison. Henry Ford. They did it for money, but also for the challenge and belief to make things better.

    Gregor Mendel. He did it in complete anonymity solely for the love of knowledge and understanding. Edward Jenner didn’t do what he did to save the world. A different Koch, Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur did what they did out of their own self drive and passion.

    Getting back to my comment, I do not see the dichotomy you present. It all works together.

    Read this article: Bugs Could Save the World if you haven’t all ready.

    This isn’t anything about politics. That is secondary.

    I was looking at a new memoir by Dick Van Dyke. In it he mentions how someone asked Walt Disney about working with Van Dyke when they have such different political views. Disney said that has nothing to do with their friendship. Van Dyke writes he always appreciated Disney saying that.

  5. TKG, I probably am going off
    TKG, I probably am going off half-cocked, because (in this article and in these comments) I’m talking about two things at once: current American politics, and Comte’s legacy. I know it’s hazardous to make these leaps — and it heats up the intensity of the philosophical conversation — but I do think it helps to see current controversies in this centuries-old philosophical light.

    So, you wrote “The greatest amount of human suffering and deaths have been caused by trying to actively solve perceived problems of humanity”. I then pointed out all the good that has been done by trying to actively solve perceived problems of humanity. You say you agree with the things I mention. Well, what I’m trying to point out is that liberal and progressive government initiatives — because most of these I mention were considered liberal or progressive initiatives at the time they occurred — have a great history. This is the value we get for the taxes we pay. I’m frustrated that an allegedly credible presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, is running on the propaganda line that liberal/progressive government initiatives always fail, and that these types of programs are not a good use of taxpayer money. (Ironically, Romney and his minions see no reason not to spend taxpayer money to maintain our already bloated and wasteful military departments.) If my responses seem overly intense, it’s because I find this very, very offensive.

    Apologies to Auguste Comte, who may be getting lost in all this topical stuff. I hope he wouldn’t mind.

  6. As far as politics, I am of
    As far as politics, I am of the opinion that these were in no way “liberal and progressive” initiatives.

    Go down item by item and analyze who did them how they were done, why and who supported them.

    This is a great topic (and I’m not sure it has anything to do with Positivism). The topic of human achievement is a great thing to appreciate, understand and look at. It does juxtapose with the topic of human cruelty and failure and does illustrate how the same type of human large scale dynamic can save millions of lives or destroy millions of lives.

    Since you are so obsessed with current political thought, I submit to you, based on your comments you beg me to consider, that indeed you are a lot more conservative than you think you are.

  7. Well, TKG, there are a lot of
    Well, TKG, there are a lot of ways to define “liberal” and “conservative”. I am certainly both a liberal and a conservative in the broadest existential sense: I welcome the process of continuing change (“liberal”) but there is much good in the world that I wish to preserve (“conservative”).

    The reason I think of myself as a liberal in today’s political context is that:

    1. I would like to see wealthy people pay much more taxes to help pay off our federal debts, and I don’t think middle class Americans should have to pay more taxes.

    2. I generally approve of government spending if it’s well managed and well monitored and geared towards success. I think of Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as examples of leaders I generally trust in terms of spending priorities.

    3. I do not approve of government spending for military buildup and foreign wars (here, I think I am to the left of Barack Obama).

    4. I strongly approve of government regulation of finance, health insurance, pollution, etc. I do not believe that smart government regulations harm businesses or the economy. I think lack of government regulation was the primary cause of the Wall Street crash of 2007/2008.

    5. I favor marriage equality for gays, marijuana legalization, a women’s right to choose abortion, and various other freedoms generally considered “left”.

    So, TKG, I’m not sure where I’m more conservative than I think, but I’d like to hear what you have in mind. Perhaps it is also possible that you are more liberal than you think?

    Apologies again to all Litkicks readers for taking this so far from the topic of Auguste Comte! I hope there is SOME relevance to the original post here!

  8. I know far little than you,
    I know far little than you, Levi, about Auguste Comte but having done some searches thru the link you offered on the dot org site. I felt very uncomfortable visiting the various offerings on this site. It felt as though my own individuality was threatened, if I may use such a strong word. How many times have I personally found some interest in various religions or philosophies only to feel that same threat penetrate my very soul…. and this ‘Positivism’ is no different.

    Allow me to attempt an explanation on damn near any subject we, mankind, as delved into. Whenever a new discovery or theory comes down the pike, the initial ‘offering’ seems valid enough and even may be interesting enough to share with others. But invariably something happens to every religion, every philosophical idea and even most, if not all scientific ideas – they eventually grow into self-made monsters. This is mainly because so many people jump on the bandwagon that the wagon itself because far more than what it was intended to be – a valid discussion amongst a small handful of interested parties that enhances our intellectual needs and even our passions.

    Whenever any subject that I’ve mentioned becomes so large it becomes a huge ‘ego’ that is damn near intolerable. Theories become semi-factual and as their growth continues, fences and borders grow up around them and within these eventual limitations, in order to defend and protect their ‘preciousness’ rules and constrictions become inevitable. What was once a simple hu’man idea that had no other purpose other than share ideas amongst others in hopes of expanding their individuality, that uniqueness that is are very own, now threatens each individual with the burden of ‘carrying the message’ … that baggage that intrudes in each individuals freedom to Be.

    Whether it’s a religion of any kind, a philosophical idea of any worth, a sociological theory that portends to save hu’manity from itself… whatever the subject may be, if it becomes so favored that individuality itself is threatened there is an innate inner defense reaction that waves a caution flag within those who know themselves. Call it instinctual and that would be more understandable. Our instinct should be listened to. Nature gave us our ‘inner voice’ in order to protect the most valuable thing we have – that individuality that I have mentioned so often in this reply.

    Be assured – reading and accepting in various religions, philosophies and/or sciences does indeed enhance our very being. But to put our very Being in the backseat of another’s individuality based upon their own ‘treasured’ opinions is nothing less than irresponsible for anyone that truly knows their Self.

    All these subject that our hu’manity has shared with each other are but stepping stones on our own journey of discovery of who we truly are. There is no single idea that has been shared with anyone who is interested enough that IS what we, each individual, each soul, IS.

    Perhaps that is the encapsulation of our hu’manity today – we no longer value our very Being over all the other opinions that drown us out daily thru the vast media we’ve created. We’ve become so enamored by all the hundreds of thousands of people’s cacophonous drones that we do not hear that all important inner voice anymore… the voice within that speaks honestly and favorably for our own Being.

    There certainly is something very askew with hu’manity today. With all our inventiveness and words being tossed out to others, our very civilization is at a major crossroads. All our religions, all our philosophies, all our gains in the sciences are seemingly inadequate to correct whatever it is that has caused us the Great Imbalance we are facing today. Perhaps revisiting our Being or even discovering our Self would bring some correction to that imbalance..?

  9. Thanks for those insightful
    Thanks for those insightful thoughts, mtmynd. That brings a nice perspective to this whole thing.

    Now, just to make this clear: I am not suggesting Positivism (in any form) as a viable actual belief system for a person living in 2012. I see Positivism as a fascinating movement from the 19th and early 20th Century. My main interest in it is historical and cultural, rather than political. I’m particularly interested in the fact that Comte was once so widely known and loved around the world, and was so quickly forgotten after World War I. I think this stands as evidence that the practice of war can change (often for the worse) the way we as a culture think.

    So, when I praise this new website or the Positivists Worldwide organization, I do so because I am glad to see that somebody else out there is excited by the ideas of Auguste Comte, not because I personally endorse the organization. I don’t know much about it, and I won’t be parading down the street with an Auguste Comte banner anytime soon. Whatever the answers are that can help us today, I think we will find them among the writers and thinkers currently living and writing.

  10. Oh, neither would I run
    Oh, neither would I run around with Comte-posters. The web project was designed to irritate. Has Comte anything to do with sex positivism or the HIV+positive movment with its web presence at I included them liberally. Maybe they are all positivists, far more than I initially thought possible – one will have to see.

    I myself read Comte after an extensive reading of Wittgenstein and Foucault and doubted that the latter two would have much to do with the 19th century man. Positivism has after all – all the qualities of a provocation as soon as one begins to connect these movements with each other.
    Two things eventually motivated me to grab the domain: The pope’s speech at the German Bundestag ( – he did not attack the atheist movement, he attacked positivism (the Guardian had a wonderful blog article about it Positivism was what he would detect behind the modern sciences and behind our societies – behind societies that discuss how they want to organize themselves.

    …and actually, I cherish these societies – and in that case positivism, a philosophy that put almost everything into our hands. This, I think, has to be stated with a closer look at the 19th century: Comte was enormously successful as a philosopher who dared to think of modern societies as organizations that invent themselves – if they want to: from the scratch, including all their traditions, all their laws, their ethics, their essential religion, and even their dreams of a future. We grew into Comte and out of Comte, the website is beyond.

    The second reason to get into this little provocative project was given with all these present neo-con movements that continue to plead for an alternative of fixed belief-systems, solid traditions, and true identities. As a historian I see that they sell everything but that. At best they create traditions their followers will not question.

    I feel, it is time to get out again of the present confrontation of atheism and Christian fundamentalism. The entire question of whether there is a God or not – is filled with scholastic arguments that kill me as a philosopher.

    The question will be what kind of living conditions we create and what operable explanations we can give to data. I am a fan of the occupy movement with its claims to have the right to organize things (remember Mill and his notion of greatest happiness and greatest numbers?) to the advantage of the 99%. We can constitute the public, we can define social conditions reaching from our penal systems to laws we design to restrict the influence of global companies. How would I want to see this done? With a bit of readiness to learn from success. If Sweden is a society that creates more freedom and a greater potential to change, I’ll be ready to see how they do it. With a bit of German history in my mind, I think: We can even redefine our value systems in critical debates about what we should better think to deal with the world on relaxed terms. Comte (by the way) loved Paris and the unparalleled freedom the city offered him. I would not adopt his ‘Catechism’ but the determination he showed to discuss and to provocatively plan how we live together – also: with what kind of social and historical awareness we might do that. He was far from ending traditions, he was rather thinking of widening their sphere in order to integrate new and global movements.

    …and then to get back to the beginning – it is of course fun to pretend that positivism still exists (ah, maybe it does wherever one does this) (that’s part of the fun this project offers).

  11. Wonderful response, Olaf …
    Wonderful response, Olaf … thanks, and it is good to meet you!

    I like it that you “include liberally”, and I try to do the same on this blog. I think your Positivists Worldwide project and my Philosophy Weekend project have something in common, other than the initials: an optimistic sensibility, perhaps, and a willingness to take risks in public discourse. I hope we can continue to support each other’s efforts.

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