Positivism or the Positive Philosophy

The French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857) formulated a form of empiricism, which he called Positivism or the Positive Philosophy. As John Stuart Mill explains, Comte believed

We have no knowledge of anything but Phænomena; and our knowledge of phænomena is relative, not absolute. We know not the essence, nor the real mode of production, of any fact, but only its relations to other facts in the way of succession or of similitude. These relations are constant; that is, always the same in the same circumstances. The constant resemblances which link phænomena together, and the constant sequences which unite them as antecedent and consequent, are termed their laws. The laws of phænomena are all we know respecting them. Their essential nature, and their ultimate causes, either efficient or final, are unknown and inscrutable to us. [emphasis added]

“Comte,” Mill adds, “claims no originality for this conception of human knowledge,” for he believed anyone who “made any real contribution to science” implicitly adopted what he terms Positivism, and he considered Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo “as collectively the founders of the Positive Philosophy,” which came to fruition with Newton.

As Mill also points out, Comte's uniqueness lay therefore not in originating Positivism but in placing it within a theory of history that claims human culture developed (and always must develop) in three stages:

1. Theological: In this stage human beings rely on supernatural agencies to explain what they can't explain otherwise.

The Theological, which is the original and spontaneous form of thought, regards the facts of the universe as governed not by invariable laws of sequence, but by single and direct volitions of beings, real or imaginary, possessed of life and intelligence. In the infantile state of reason and experience, individual objects are looked upon as animated. The next step is the conception of invisible beings, each of whom superintends and governs an entire class of objects or events. The last merges this multitude of divinities in a single God, who made the whole universe in the beginning, and guides and carries on its phaenomena by his continued action, or, as others think, only modifies them from time to time by special interferences. [Mill's summary]

2. Metaphysical: In this stage human beings attribute effects to abstract but poorly understood causes.

Metaphysical, accounts for phaenomena by ascribing them, not to volitions either sublunary or celestial, but to realized abstractions. In this stage it is no longer a god that causes and directs each of the various agencies of nature: it is a power, or a force, or an occult quality, considered as real existences, inherent in but distinct from the concrete bodies in which they reside, and which they in a manner animate. Instead of Dryads presiding over trees, producing and regulating their phaenomena, every plant or animal has now a Vegetative Soul. [Mill's summary]

3. Positive: Human beings now understand the scientific laws that control the world.

In explaining his ideas and contributions, Mill admits that Comte's choice of terminology might confuse a British audience: “Instead of the Theological we should prefer to speak of the Personal, or Volitional explanation of nature; instead of Metaphysical, the Abstractional or Ontological: and the meaning of Positive would be less ambiguously expressed in the objective aspect by Phaenomenal, in the subjective by Experiential.”

Comte's contributions

Comte also founded the social sciences, and it is important to remember in our more cynical times the ideals to which they aspired. Comte and other early social scientists assumed that human behavior must obey laws just as strict as Newton's laws of motion, and that if we could discover them, we could eliminate moral evils -- in exactly the same way that medical scientists were then discovering how diseases worked and were eliminating much of the physical suffering which had always been an inevitable part of the human condition.  In his earlier, less systematic works he influenced such figures as J.S. Mill, T.H. Huxley, George Henry Lewes, and George Eliot; all gradually fell away as his philosophy became more rigidly systematic.

The Religion of Humanity

In “what M. Comte termed his second career, in which the savant, historian, and philosopher of his fundamental treatise, came forth transfigured as the High Priest of the Religion of Humanity" (Mill), he systematized Positivism as a secular religion complete with priests and a calendar of saints, driving away his major disciples one by one. Nonetheless, as comments by John Ruskin and many other Victorians who used the phrase "Religion of Humanity" suggest, he importantly influenced those, like Eliot, who were no longer his disciples or those, like Ruskin, who had never been one.

Major Works

The "Plan des travaux scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiser la société" (1822 — the "fundamental opuscule").

The Cours de philosophie positive (1830-1842); English translation & condensation The Positive Philosophy of August Comte, by Harriet Martineau (1853).

The complete Système de politique positive, ou Traité de Sociologie instituant la Religion de l'Humanité (1851-1854); English translation, The System of Positive Polity, by J.H. Bridges, Frederick Harrison, et. al., 1875-77. 

The Synthèse subjective, ou Système universel des conceptions propres à l'état normal de l'Humanité, of which he completed only the the first volume before his death in 1857.

Also crucially important to his influence in Victorian England was John Stuart Mill's Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865), available as Project Gutenberg EBook #16833, produced by Marc D'Hooghe.

Related Material


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Last modified 11 February 2014r