August Comte philosophy

COMTE was a man who felt it desirable in a philosopher that he should practice what he called 'hygiene cerebrale,' a method of keeping the mind healthy for its particular task by cutting himself off from all life that did not concern that work. The Positive Philosophy was his first great work, and in it he propounds his theory that all institutions are based upon the ideas of men which are formed in three successive stages--theology, metaphysics and finally from the positive. His next work was the System of Positive Polity for which the previous book had prepared the way.


ON studying the development of human intelligence, it is found that it passes through three stages: (1) The theological, (2) the metaphysical, (3) the scientific or positive. In the theological stage it seeks to account for the world by super-natural beings. In the metaphysical stage it seeks an explanation in abstract forces. In the scientific, or positive, stage it applies itself to the study of the relation of phenomena to each other.

Different sciences have passed through these stages at different rates. Astronomy reached the positive stage first, then terrestrial physics, then chemistry, then physiology, while sociology has not even yet reached it. To put social phenomena upon a positive basis is the main object of this work; its secondary object is to show that all branches of knowledge spring from the same trunk. An integration of the sciences on a positive basis should lead to the discovery of the laws which rule the intellect in the investigation of facts, should regenerate science and reorganize society. At present the theological, the metaphysical and the positive conflict, and cause intellectual confusion.

The first step to be taken in forming a positive philosophy is to classify the sciences. The first great division we notice in natural phenomena is the division into inorganic and organic phenomena. Under the inorganic we may include the sciences astronomy, physics, chemistry; and under the organic we include the sciences physiology and sociology. These five sciences, astronomy, physics, chemistry, physiology and sociology, we may consider the five fundamental sciences.

This classification follows the order of the development of the sciences, and indicates their social relation and relative perfection. In order to reach effective knowledge, the sciences must be studied in the order named; sociology cannot be understood without knowledge of the anterior sciences.

Behind and before all these sciences, however, lies the great science of mathematics--the most powerful instrument the mind can employ in the investigation of natural law--and the science of mathematics must be divided into abstract mathematics or the calculus, and concrete mathematics embracing general geometry and rational mechanics. We have thus really six great sciences.

MATHEMATICS. Mathematics may be defined briefly as the indirect measurement of magnitudes and the determination of magnitudes by each other. It is the business of concrete mathematics to discover the equations of phenomena; it is the business of abstract mathematics to educe results from the equations Thus concrete mathematics discovers by actual experiment the acceleration which takes place per second in a falling body, and abstract mathematics educes results from the equations so discovered, and obtains unknown quantities from known.

ASTRONOMY. Astronomy may be defined as the science by which we discover the laws of the geometrical and mechanical phenomena presented by heavenly bodies. To discover these laws we can use only our sense of sight and our reasoning power, and reasoning bears a greater proportion to observation here than in any other science. Sight alone would never teach us the figure of the earth or the path of a planet, and only by the measurement of angles and computation of times can we discover astronomical laws. The observation of these invariable laws frees man from servitude to the theological and metaphysical conceptions of the universe.

PHYSICS. Physics may be defined briefly as the study of the laws which regulate the general properties of bodies regarded en masse, their molecules remaining unaltered and usually in a state of aggregation. In the observations of physics all the senses are employed, and mathematical analysis and experiment assist observation. In the phenomena of astronomy human intervention was impossible; in the phenomena of physics man begins to modify natural phenomena.

Physics includes the subdivisions statics, dynamics, thermology, acoustics, optics and electrology. Physics is still handicapped by metaphysical conceptions of the primary causes of phenomena.

CHEMISTRY. Chemistry may be briefly defined as the study of the laws of the phenomena of composition and decomposition, which result from the molecular and specific mutual action of different substances, natural or artificial. In the observations of chemistry the senses are still more employed, and experiment is of still more utility. Even in chemistry metaphysical conceptions linger.

PHYSIOLOGY. Physiology may be defined as the study of the laws of organic dynamics in relation to structure and environment. Placed in a given environment, a definite organism must always act in a definite way, and physiology investigates the reciprocal relations between organism, environment and function.

In physiology observation and experiment are of the greatest value, and apparatus of all kinds is used to assist both observation and experiment. Physiology is most closely connected with chemistry, since all the phenomena of life are associated with compositions and decompositions of a chemical character.


To place social physics on a scientific basis is a task of great difficulty, since social theories are still perverted by theological and metaphysical doctrines. All I can hope to do is to point out general principles which may serve to correct the intellectual anarchy which is the cause of the moral and political anarchy of the present day. I propose to state first how the institution of a science of social physics bears upon the principal needs and grievances of society, so that men worthy of the name of statesmen may realize that such labours are of real utility.

So far, positive philosophy has worked timidly and tentatively, and has not been bold and broad and general enough to cope with intellectual anarchy in social questions; but it is necessary now that it play a more dominant part in life, and lead society out of the turmoil in which it has tossed for three centuries.

At present, society is distracted by two conflicting influences, which may be called the theological polity and the metaphysical polity.

The theological polity at one time exercised a beneficent influence on society; but for three centuries past its influence has been essentially retrograde, and has gradually, but radically, decayed. The causes of its decline are various; but the chief present-day antagonist to the theological polity is the scientific spirit, and this spirit can now never be repressed.

The metaphysical polity is progressive, but progressive mainly in a negative way. So far, it has made for progress; but it has made for progress chiefly by removing impediments to progress, by destroying the theological conceptions which retarded the development of human intelligence and human society. Though dangerous and revolutionary, it has been necessary; for much required to be demolished to permit permanent reconstruction.

The metaphysical polity was required to combat the theological; but now it has served its destructive purpose, and tends to become obstructive, for, having destroyed the old, it will not permit the new. Its chief dogma has always been liberty of conscience with the liberty of press and speech which that implies; but liberty of conscience really means little more than absence of intellectual regulation; and even as liberty of conscience is out of the question in astronomy and chemistry, so it is out of the question in social physics.

Liberty of conscience and inquiry can only be temporary and transitional, and must be followed by positive decision on the part of those qualified to decide. It cannot be held that every man is competent to form opinions in social and political questions; it cannot be maintained that intellects of weak capacity can judge obscure and complex questions, and that all opinions are equally valuable. All society is based on faith in the opinion of others and in reciprocal confidence.

The second dogma of the metaphysical polity is equality, and, like the other dogma, it must be considered the temporary expression of a temporary need. It is indeed a corollary of the dogma of liberty of conscience; for to assume liberty of conscience without equality of intelligence would be to stultify the assumption. Having achieved its purpose, it also became an obstacle in the path of progress. Equality sufficient to permit a man to use his faculties aright is allowed by all; but men cannot be made equal physically, and much less can they be made equal intellectually and morally.

The dogma of liberty of conscience and equality resulted naturally in a third dogma, the sovereignty of the people. This also was provisionally useful, in that it permitted a series of political experiments; but it is in essence revolutionary, condemning the superior to be ruled by the inferior.

A fourth dogma, the dogma of national independence, has also been serviceable in separating the nations in preparation for a new union.

The metaphysical polity fails utterly in constructive capacity. During the first French Revolution it successfully destroyed the old social system; but its attempts to reorganize society were retrogressive. Instead of catholicism it proposed polytheism, and in the name of virtue and simplicity it condemned industry and art. Even science was condemned as aristocracy of knowledge. Nor can these blunders be considered accidental; they were inherent in the polity. It is evident that a polity that admits the need for a theological foundation, and yet destroys the foundations of theology must end in intellectual anarchy.

Satisfied with neither the theological nor the metaphysical polities, society has wavered between them, and the one tendency has served chiefly to counteract the other. Out of these oscillations a third school of political opinion, which we may call the 'stationary school,' has arisen.

This school would fix society in a contradictory position between retrogression and progress, such as is seen in the parliamentary monarchy of England. This is a last phase of the metaphysical polity, and is only a kind of placebo.

The result of all this is to produce a most unfortunate position. The theological polity would revert to old, worn-out principles; the metaphysical polity has no definite principles at all; and the stationary school merely offers temporary compromises. Everywhere there is intellectual anarchy, and in Protestant countries the disorder is increased by sectarian discord. So complex are all social questions that few are able to see them steadily and see them whole, and where individual opinion is unhampered, individual prejudice and individual ignorance must be rampant.

Intellectual anarchy and unsettled convictions, moreover, tend to political corruption. If there are no convictions and no principles to which to appeal, appeal must be made to self-interest or to fear.

A growing tendency to take a short-sighted and material view of political questions is also a disturbing sign of the times. This is due to the fact that when, three centuries ago, spiritual power was abolished, all social questions were given over to men occupied with practical affairs and influenced chiefly by material considerations.

Material views of political questions not only impede progress, but are also dangerous to order, for the view that disorders have a material cause leads to constant interference with institutions and with property. Granted there are abuses in connexion both with property and institutions, what is required is not material changes but general moral and intellectual reform.

An inadequate and material view of social physics naturally favours mediocrity, attracts political charlatans, while the most eminent minds devote their attention to science.

The theological and metaphysical philosophies having failed, what remains? Nothing remains but the positive philosophy, which is the only agent able to reorganize society. The positive philosophy will regard social phenomena as it regards other phenomena, and will apply to the renovation of society the same scientific spirit found effective in other departments of human knowledge. It will bring to politics the conception of natural laws, and deal with delicate social questions on impartial scientific principles. It will show that certain wrongs are inevitable, and others curable; and that it is as foolish to try to cure the incurable in social as in biological and chemical matters. A spirit of this kind will encourage reform and yet obviate vain attempts to redress necessary evils.

It will thus make for intellectual order. It will likewise make for progress and for true liberty by substituting genuine convictions founded on scientific principles for constitutional artifices and the laws of arbitrary wills; it will reconcile the antagonism of class interests by moral and scientific considerations. Revolutionary outbursts there still will be, but they will merely clear the ground for positive reconstruction on a moral and intellectual basis.

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