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 Positivists.org, 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.