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The rise of positivism ranks with the rise of socialism as a movement of primary importance. Both were in origin nearer to one another than they now appear to be. We have seen how Saint-Simon was imbued with a spirit of social reform, a desire to reorganise human society. This desire Auguste Comte (1798-1857) shared; he felt himself called to it as a sacred work, and he extolled his "incomparable mission." He lamented the anarchical state of the world and contrasted it with the world of the ancients and that of the Middle Ages. The harmony and stability of mediaeval society were due, Comte urged, to the spiritual power and unity of the Catholic Church and faith. The liberty of the Reformation offers no real basis for society, it is the spirit of criticism and of revolution. The modern world needs a new spiritual power. Such was Comte's judgment upon the world of his time. Where in the modern world could such a new organising power be found? To this question Comte gave an answer similar to that of Saint-Simon: he turned to science. The influence of Saint-Simon is here apparent, and we must note the personal relations between the two men. In 1817 Comte became secretary to Saint-Simon, and became intimately associated with his ideas and his work. Comte recognised, with his master, the supreme importance of establishing, at the outset, the relations actually obtaining and the relations possible between science and political organisation. This led to the publication, in 1822, of a treatise, Plan des Travaux scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiser la Société, which unfortunately led to a quarrel between the two friends, and finally, in 1824, to a definite rupture by which Comte seems to have been embittered and made rather hostile to his old master and to have assumed an ungenerous attitude.* Comte, however, being a proud and ambitious spirit, was perhaps better left alone to hew out his own path. In him we have one of the greatest minds of modern France, and his doctrine of positivism is one of the dominating features of the first half of the century.
[Footnote *: In considering the relations between Saint-Simon and Comte we may usefully compare those between Schelling and Hegel in Germany.]
His break with Saint-Simon showed his own resources; he had undoubtedly a finer sense of the difficulties of his reforming task than had Saint-Simon; moreover, he possessed a scientific knowledge which his master lacked. Such equipment he needed in his ambitious task, and it is one of the chief merits of Comte that he attempted so large a project as the Positive Philosophy endeavoured to be.
This philosophy was contained in his Cours de Philosophie positive (1830-1842), which he regarded as the theoretic basis of a reforming political philosophy. One of the most interesting aspects of this work, however, is its claim to be a positive philosophy. Had not Comte accepted the Saint-Simonist doctrine of a belief in science as the great future power in society? How then comes it that he gives us a "philosophie positive" in the first place and not, as we might expect, a "science positive"? Comte's answer to this is that science, no less than society itself, is disordered and stands in need of organisation. The sciences have proceeded to work in a piecemeal fashion and are unable to present us with une vue d'ensemble. It is the rôle of philosophy to work upon the data presented by the various sciences and, without going beyond these data, to arrange them and give us an organic unity of thought, a synthesis, which shall produce order in the mind of man and subsequently in human society.
The precise part to be played by philosophy is determined by the existing state of scientific knowledge in the various departments and so depends upon the general stage of intelligence which humanity has reached. The intellectual development of humanity was formulated generally by Comte in what is known as "The Law of the Three Stages," probably that part of his doctrine which is best known and which is most obvious. "The Law of the Three Stages" merely sets down the fact that in the race and in the individual we find three successive stages, under which conceptions are formed differently. The first is the theological or fictitious stage, in which the explanation of things is referred to the operations of divine agency. The second is the metaphysical or abstract stage when, for divinities, abstract principles are substituted. In the third, the scientific or positive stage, the human mind has passed beyond a belief in divine agencies or metaphysical abstractions to a rational study of the effective laws of phenomena. The human spirit here encounters the real, but it abstains from pretensions to absolute knowledge; it does not theorise about the beginning or the end of the universe or, indeed, its absolute nature; it takes only into consideration facts within human knowledge. Comte laid great emphasis upon the necessity of recognising the relativity of all things. All is relative; this is the one absolute principle. Our knowledge, he insisted (especially in his Discours sur l'Esprit positif, 1844, which forms a valuable introduction to his thought as expressed in his larger works), is entirely relative to our organisation and our situation. Relativity, however, does not imply uncertainty. Our knowledge is indeed relative and never absolute, but it grows to a greater accord with reality. It is this passion for "accord with reality" which is characteristic of the scientific or positivist spirit.
The sciences are themselves relative and much attention is given by Comte to the proper classification of the sciences. He determines his hierarchy by arranging them in the order in which they have themselves completed the three stages and arrived at positivity. Mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology and sociology are his arrangement. This last named has not yet arrived at the final stage; it is but a science in the making. Comte, indeed, himself gives it its name and founds it as the science of society, science applied to politics, as was first indicated in his scheme of work and early ideas of reform.
Comte strongly insists upon the social aspect of all knowledge and all action. He even goes to the extent of regarding the individual man as an abstraction; for him the real being is the social being, Humanity. The study of human society has a double aspect, which is also a feature of the other sciences. As in biology there is the study of anatomy on the one hand and of physiology on the other, so in sociology we must investigate both the laws which govern the existence of a society and those which control its movements. The distinction is, in short, that of the static and the dynamic, and it embraces in sociological study the important conceptions of order and of progress. Comte very rightly stressed the idea of progress as characteristic of modern times, but he lamented its being divorced from that of order. He blamed the conservative view of order as responsible for promoting among "progressives" the spirit of anarchy and revolution. A positive sociology would, Comte maintained, reconcile a true order, which does not exclude change, with real progress, a movement which is neither destructive nor capricious. Comte here owes a debt in part to Montesquieu and largely to Condorcet, whose Esquisse d'un Tableau historique des Progrès de l'Esprit humain (1795) did much to promote serious reflection upon the question of progress.
We have already noted Comte's intense valuation of Humanity as a whole as a Supreme Being. In his later years, notably after 1845, when he met his "Beatrice" in the person of Clotilde de Vaux, he gave to his doctrines a sentimental expression of which the Religion of Humanity with its ritualism was the outcome. This positivist religion endeavoured to substitute for the traditional God the Supreme Being of Humanity—a Being capable, according to Comte, of sustaining our courage, becoming the end of our actions and the object of our love. To this he attached a morality calculated to combat the egoism which tends to dominate and to destroy mankind and intended to strengthen the altruistic motives in man and to raise them to the service of Humanity.
We find Comte, at the opening of our period, restating his doctrines in his Système de Politique positive (1851-54), to which his first work was meant to serve as an Introduction. In 1856 he began his Synthèse subjective, but he died in 1857. Comte is a singularly desolate figure; the powers of officialdom were against him, and he existed mainly by what he could gain from teaching mathematics and by a pension raised by his admirers in England and his own land.
The influence of his philosophy has been great and far- reaching, but it is the spirit of positivism which has survived, not its content. Subsequent developments in science have rendered much of his work obsolete, while his Religion has never made a great appeal. Comte's most noted disciple, Littré (1801-1881), regarded this latter as a retrograde step and confined himself to the early part of his master's work. Most important for us in the present work is Comte's influence upon subsequent thinkers in France, notably Taine, and we may add, Renan, Cournot, and even Renouvier, although these last two promoted a vigorous reaction against his philosophy in general. He influenced his adversaries, a notable testimony. Actually, however, the positivist philosophy found a greater welcome on the English side of the Channel from John Stuart Mill, Spencer and Lewes. The empiricism of the English school proved a more fruitful soil for positivism than the vague spiritualism of Cousin to which it offered strong opposition. Positivism, or rather the positivist standpoint in philosophy, turned at a later date to reseek its fatherland and after a sojourn in England reappears as an influence in the work of French thinkers near the end of the century—e.g., Fouillée, Guyau, Lachelier, Boutroux and Bergson express elements of positivism.
We have now passed in review the four main currents of the first half of the century, in a manner intended to orient the approach to our period, 1851-1921. Without such an orientation much of the subsequent thought would lose its correct colouring and perspective. There is a continuity, even if it be partly a continuity marked by reactions, and this will be seen when we now examine the three general currents into which the thought of the subsequent period is divided.
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