AUGUSTE COMTE (A.D. 1798 – 1857) -The Life and Works of Comte

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AUGUSTE COMTE (A.D. 1798 – 1857) -The Life and Works of Comte -A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 2_ Modern and Postmodern_ From Descartes to Derrida

Auguste Comte was born at Montpellier in 1798. He came from a French rationalist Catholic family. He studied science and was secretary of Saint-Simone at Ecole Polytechnique. He said he “naturally ceased believing in God” at age fourteen. He is the father of philosophical positivism. He also coined the term “sociology” and founded that discipline. He developed a mystical (non-theistic) humanistic religious cult (see below). The major works of Comte are Course, The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte (1830—1842, trans, 1853) and The Cathechism of Positive Religion (1852, trans. 1858).

Auguste was the oldest son of a revenue office clerk. His mother, who was twelve years older than his father, clutched to Auguste. His father and sister seemed to always be of ill health. Passing all of the competitive exams for entrance into the Polytechnical school, he was admitted at the age of sixteen. It was there that he studied mathematics, physics, and chemistry. From 1814 to 1816, he attended the Poly-Technical school in Paris but was subsequently dismissed because of rebellious behavior against an unpopular instructor. For six years Comte was a disciple of Saint Simon’s teaching of social philosophy. After a disagreement regarding an essay that Simon wrote, the two parted company. While in Paris around 1816, he studied the idealist thoughts of Destutt de Tracy and Cabanis and the writings of Hume and Condorcet. When he was denied a professorship at the Polytechnical school, Comte supported himself through odd jobs such as a tutor, a coach and examiner for the school, private instructor, and through lecturing. After his departure from school, he became a mathematics tutor and also served as secretary to the French utopian socialist Saint-Simon learning about industrialization, banking, politics, and philosophy’s involvement in the French revolution. This background provided a foundation from which he created his three states of mind: the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive. These events occurred between 1817 and 1824. In 1826, Comte started his public lectures on the positivist philosophy.

Comte fell in love with the orphaned Caroline Massin who supported herself as a seamstress. After her and Comte were married, she supported his scholarly endeavors. When finances became meager, she sought relations with other men in order to supplement their income. Comte disagreed with this procedure and the two eventually separated even though she continued to offer her support for his work. He later had an attack of insanity brought on by a rigorous workload and his regrettable marriage to Caroline, leading to a suicide attempt. After his recovery, he continued lecturing and his Course of Positive Philosophy was later issued (1830—1842). His Discourse on the Positivist Spirit was issued in 1844 emphasizing the importance of his science of sociology. He also wrote Discourse on the Positivist Outlook in 1848 which emphasized the development of the positivism in human society and in the following year he developed the Positivist Calendar.

Comte would later fall in love and become devoted to Madame Clotildede Vaux in 1844, however, they would not marry. After her death, Comte’s philosophical views drastically changed. Now he believed that a new religion needed to be developed that would conserve the values of Catholicism without its doctrines. We should serve Humanity as a substitute for serving God.

In order for the followers of positivism to be properly rooted, he wrote a Positivist Catechism instructing the adherers on the history of humanity and as a thesis for the future development. He also wrote a four-volume System of Positive Polity (1851—1854) which combined the speculative with the practical and the scientific with the religious aspects of his ideology forming his religion of humanity. At the time of his death in 1857, he was in the process of writing the Subjective Synthesis beginning with volume one in 1856. Its premise was to accomplish unity of all the sciences. Auguste Comte died in 1857 worn out from his efforts and finishing out his life in isolation and wretchedness.

The Philosophy of Comte

Comte wanted to be able to view society in such a way that it would benefit all classes of people and ultimately insuring universal peace to all societies, including the economic situation. His philosophy was basically one of social reform. Comte’s philosophy would emerge from his historical study of the progress of the Western European human mind, that is, the sciences of astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology. He only considered mathematics as a logical tool and not a science like the others. Comte gave the meaning to ‘positive philosophy’ similar to Aristotle’s idea of philosophy— the general system of human concepts. The notion behind the ‘positive’ is the idea of theories having
the focal point centered on the coordination of the observed facts. In other words, ‘positive philosophy’ aligns the observed facts—positive knowledge—and synthesizes them with the sciences. Thus, the mind only knows subjective impressions, those that are ‘appearing to us.’ It is Hume’s skepticism that seems foreign to Comte, except when it has to do with theological beliefs and metaphysics as it transcends from the phenomenal world. To Comte, philosophy was an extension of the natural ideas or common sense. His epistemological starting point was Kant’s anti Metaphysic and Hegel’s historical development.

Three Stages of Society

It was his study of the ‘scientific mind’ that prompted Comte to notice that the history of the sciences goes through three stages. He claimed that the progress of these three stages are inevitable and irreversible. In his Law of Growth Comte delineated three stages of human development:

The Theological Stage (child)—which characterized ancient philosophy. In the theological stage, like a child, man views everything as given life by some will(s) and life-form(s) [from animism to polytheism to theism, see below] similar to his own.

The Metaphysical (transitional) Stage (youth)—which was depicted in medieval thought. Comte thought most men in this stage thought mostly in metaphysical terms overemphasizing egoism and individual rights. This second stage could easily be misunderstood. What Comte means by the metaphysical stage is the transformation of personal deities (or God) into metaphysical abstractions —the concept of a personal god is followed by the concept of an all-inclusive Nature like force, attraction, and repulsion. This of course easily leads into the next stage of Comte’s scientific outlook or mentality.

The Positivistic Stage (manhood)—which he initiated in the modern world. In this last stage, scientists concentrated on observation and the laws of phenomena with no consideration of the ‘unseen or unknowable spirit forces.’ In order for the transition to the final stage to take place, there may need to be a moderately short and progressive dictatorship to guide public thought towards the right direction. This is part of the social science—moving society out of the theological and metaphysical stages.

Comte thought that the current society was in a state of confusion—men were at times thinking  in terms of one of the stages and at other times thinking in another stage. This occurrence was taking place not only in the natural sciences but also in the social subjects as well. To resolve this problem, men need to all be brought into the last stage, the Positive Stage. The final goal of Positivism according to Comte is to find a general law by which all phenomena are related. What Comte attempted via a mass of detail to demonstrate that each science was dependent on the previous science—there is no physics before astronomy, no biology before chemistry. He arranged the sciences in a hierarchal order: mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and lastly, sociology. Psychology, the one science not mentioned, is according to Comte falls partly under sociology and mostly under biology. Neither his philosophy nor metaphysics is a part of the list because these apparently are not based upon facts or what is real.

Comte viewed historical philosophy as an earlier stage characterized with men in constant doubt and dispute with one another. Here is where he differed in methodology as compared to Descartes. Descartes determined that there was one right method for conducting reason—the geometric method. Comte saw that logic was revealed in through the history of scientific inquiry. In his view, the mind can only be explained by looking back into the past in order to see how it has evolved through the sciences. The difference is that the mind cannot be explained in an a priori method.

It should be noted that Comte rejected materialism on the basis that it is impossible to reduce the phenomena of life to chemistry because the phenomena of each science is governed by the laws of the previous science. Men are not mere products of nature as the materialists claim. Sociology, being the most unstable science, is the last in the progression. Such a law, he believed, would be the ideal result of positivistic philosophy. However, he was realistic enough to believe that the best likely result is a unity in scientific method. To date scientists still search for the one universal law which will explain are physical forces in the universe which Albert Einstein called the Unified Field

The Science of Sociology

According to Comte, Sociology is the final science, the science of society, the last one to enter the positivistic stage. He considered himself as the founder of Sociology as a positive science. It was not until the advent of sociology that the struggle between the theologico- metaphysical mentality holding to a general explanation of reality and the positivist mentality suffering from overspecialization could be resolved. Comte attempted to combine the universality of form and the reality of the content in a new single science—sociology.

According to Comte, sociology is intertwined with and includes economics, political science, ethics, social psychology, and the philosophy of history. Comte acknowledges Montesquieu and Condorcet as his predecessors in this science of man. However, it was Comte alone who brought this new science of sociology into the final stage. Social progress is dialectical. The science of sociology can be drawn from an analogy in geometry—the principles of statics, the mathematical side, and dynamics, the mechanics side. Social statics makes inquiry into the changeless aspects of society where it focuses on societal order in comparison to the social dynamics investigates society’s development and observes its progress. Sociology studies both the static and dynamic formations and society needs both as well. It moved from Feudalism to the French Revolution (the ‘metaphysical’ transition of his day) to Positivism. Freedom of thought is as out of place in society as it is in physics. True freedom lies in rational subjection to scientific laws. One law is that society must develop in a positivistic direction.

Three States of Social Change Illustrated

In brief, in the Middle Age society shared common religious ideas (the theological stage). In the French Revolution society had common political ideal (the metaphysical stage). In Modern times, society must share same scientific method (the positivistic stage. The Catholic priesthood must be replaced by scientific-industrial elite. Religious dogma should be replaced by the dogma is based on science and proclaimed by this elite. Karl Marx denied reading Comte until 1886 but a Comptian friend (E.S. Beesley) chaired the 1864 meeting of the Marxist International Workingmen’s Association.

Comte’s Religious Views

Comte’s religious doctrine is inherent to his philosophy and follows from his suppositions concerning the social order. To devise his religious dogma, he borrowed from the French traditionalists notions concerning Medieval Catholicism (and perhaps from the influences of his parents as well). And of course, he positioned himself as its high priest. He admired these institutions but yet divorced their doctrinal foundations. Because the goal of social progress is to reverse the animality and egoism of the past replacing it with a move towards an exalted altruism—all are to live
for others

Auguste Comte – Thought | Britannica

Comte proposes that this be accomplished through the positivist subjective synthesis. This places the criteria of human welfare at a higher level. Therefore, when dealing with man’s beliefs, appetites, and impulses there needs to be some form of a positivist religion of humanity. It is here where Comte wants to replace the theological religious values with an anti-theistic humanism. Whereas religion was once God-centered in worship, it is now to be man centered, servicing the Great Being, humanity—an absolutivism-for-us. The triune-god of humanity was composed of three members: humanity, the earth, and apace. Notwithstanding, the Christian calendar, which illustrated the sacred holidays, was replaced with the Positivists Calendar. This illustrated thirteen months each named after a great man. Whatever great work they accomplished was to then be celebrated.

To understand Comte’s religious belief, he is to be interpreted as one who maintains that as humans progress they shed their belief in God. The spread of atheism is a characteristic of man’s advance into maturity. (This is a natural way of interpreting his three stages.) The more man sees scientific proofs the less man needs supernatural explanations. However, Comte did not assert dogmatically that there was no God. In fact, he did defend positivism against the charge of atheism. Rather, he adopted the notion that the idea of God became an unverified hypothesis as humans furthered their scientific explanations.

Comte disliked Protestantism because it was negative and productive of intellectual anarchy. In place of both he developed a Humanistic (non-theistic) religion in which Comte was the high priest of this Cult of Humanity. Comte’s mistress (Mme. Clothilde Vaux) was the high priestess. He developed a Humanistic Religious Calendar (with Saints, such as Frederick the Great, Dante, and Shakespeare.

Some Criticisms of Comte

There is truth to the progress of science thesis. Science has eliminated many superstitions and promoted progress in understanding our world. Further, metaphysical presuppositions can hinder the progressive understanding of our world. All the modern conveniences and technology we enjoy has been made possible by the scientific method. Further, the study of sociology has increased our understanding of human actions in the social setting. For all of these, we can thank Comte and the other positivists.

However, positivism (scientism) has some serious flaws. First of all, it basic premise is errant. The scientific method is not the sources of all truth about our world. There is no scientific basis for making such a claim. So, it fails on its own test.

Second, even granting Comte thesis of the maturing of society with the advancement of stages, Comte offers no proof that his third stage is final. It is always possible that something could supersede that stage.

Third, Comte does not succeed in eliminating the possibility that a theistic God exists. And if God exists, then miracles are possible. And this would be a refutation of Comte’s naturalistic presupposition.

Fourth, If God exists, then there could be another source of truth than science, namely, divine revelation. The only way Comte can eliminate this possibility, is to prove that it is impossible for God to exist. But he offers no such proof. And if God exists, then supernatural events and supernatural revelation is possible.

Fifth, Comte feeble attempt at establishing a non-theistic secular religion show the incurability of the need to worship. It reveals what Pascal saw as a God-sized vacuum in the human heart—one that it best filled by God Himself.

Sixth, Comte’s anti-Protestantism view as “anti-scientific,” and his pro-Catholicism view are not supported by the facts. Comte certainly was aware of the Catholic Church’s treatment of Galileo and of the fact that the founders of many areas of modern science were not Catholics. Likewise, his defense of the Crusades, saying, “All great expeditions common to the Catholic nations were in fact of a defensive character” is not supported by the historical facts. Indeed, this is granted even by many Catholic scholars.

AUGUSTE COMTE (A.D. 1798 – 1857) -The Life and Works of Comte -A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 2_ Modern and Postmodern_ From Descartes to Derrida

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