I’ve been sitting on a more reflective post, but the long slog of daily readings persists, along with a few other inanities of doctoral student life, so that essay will have to wait awhile. For now I’m just under a month from my last (I hope) major doctoral exam, and today’s readings are two books by Victorian thinkers (John Stuart Mill and G. H. Lewes) on the early philosophy of continental writer Auguste Comte, best known as the father of positivism, but also as a critical figure in the rise of humanism.
This last is an especially intriguing point for modern reflection. I’m not a fan of atheist “churches” or related assemblies, as are forwarded by some non-religious people today, but I’m even less a fan of pretending that these ideas are anything new. Put simply, in his later life, after struggling with mental health concerns both within and outside institutions, divorcing in 1842 (a rare and serious act in the 19th century), and losing a close platonic friend in 1846, Comte’s views and applications of positivism changed drastically… and he created his own, secular church.
Indeed, from the ideal of this dead friend, Clotilde de Vaux, as a moral paragon in her feminine virtue, came the “Religion of Humanity”–a ritualistic faith patterned after the Catholic Church, with Comte as the “high priest” (read: pope), and women and the working class primarily targeted for conversion therein. As Richard G. Olson notes in Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe, this whole movement also prompted quite a few philosophical reversals for Comte. For instance: “Whereas in the Positive Philosophy Comte had complained that sociology had heretofore been crippled by the failure to subordinate imagination to reason, in the Positive Polity he touted the importance of imagination and claimed that ‘Positivism is eminently calculated to call the imaginative faculties into exercise.'”
This is the sort of stark mental shift one must expect as plausible in all human beings–even (or perhaps especially) those who significantly contribute to a number of fields. And sure enough, Comte made a significant impact on both the philosophy of science and the development of the social sciences. To this end, he outlined three stages of societal development towards the apprehension of truths: the “theological”, which has three phases of interpreting active, conscious wills at work in the world; the “metaphysical”, which involves abstract, idealized concepts that nature moves toward without the need for conscious wills; and finally the “positive”, in which one recognizes the critical role of observation and positive verification of hypotheses in the physical sciences before the benefits of empiricism can be turned to the study of human society. From this framework emerges a coherent rationale for valuing experimental findings when seeking to describe the world: in short, a 19th-century advancement of the scientific method.
It bears noting, too, that Comte’s negotiation of both the physical sciences and the social sciences held serious philosophical weight at the time. This was an era when philosophical doctrines like utilitarianism, which advocates as morally correct whatever action maximizes the overall good, were crudely applied to sociopolitical theory on the back of ill-gotten and ill-used “facts” about the world. As I mentioned in my post about John Kidd, for instance, there were certainly men of prominence with skewed notions of what the overall “good” looked like: Leaning on natural theology, Kidd especially argued that Britain’s social welfare system took away the opportunity for the poor to practise (Christian) humility, and the rich to practise (Christian) charity, with members of all classes resenting each other in consequence.
Nor did such manipulations of worldly “knowledge” escape public notice: Dickens railed against a caricature of utilitarianism in Hard Times (1854), arguing that actions taken from a place of pure reason could produce nothing but social and individual misery. While his caricature lacked philosophical finesse, it was not far off the mark from how major leaders of industry and government officials were actively distorting such ideas to their own economic advantage. Though originally from the continent, Comte’s work–first translated into English by Harriet Martineau in 1853, but widely known in England prior–thus offered a more coherent and widely-accessible method of making inquiries into the state and needs of the world. As Martineau writes in her preface to The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte (1853):
“My strongest inducement to this enterprise [of translation] was my deep conviction of our need of this book in my own country, in a form which renders it accessible to the largest number of intelligent readers. We are living in a remarkable time, when the conflict of opinions renders a firm foundation of knowledge indispensable, not only to our intellectual, moral, and social progress, but to our holding such ground as we have gained from former ages. While our science is split up into arbitrary divisions; while abstract and concrete science are confounded together, and even mixed up with their application to the arts, and with natural history; and while the researches of the scientific world are presented as mere accretions to a heterogeneous mass of facts, there can be no hope of a scientific progress which shall satisfy and benefit those large classes of students whose business it is, not to explore, but to receive. The growth of a scientific taste among the working classes of this country is one of the most striking of the signs of the times. I believe no one can inquire into the mode of life of young men of the middle and operative classes without being struck with the desire that is shown, and the sacrifices that are made, to obtain the means of scientific study. That such a disposition should be baffled … by the desultory character of scientific exposition in England, while such a work as Comte’s was in existence, was not to be borne, if a year or two of humble toil could help, more or less, to supply the need.
In short: Martineau’s translation of Comte’s work offered a philosophical foundation for empirical inquiry that would allow a wider range of persons to evaluate any “facts” put before them about how the world should be, and why, on the basis of how the natural world currently is and the natural laws it summarily follows.
In his later evaluation of Comte’s work, Mill takes particular care to negotiate the metaphoric landscapes that don’t translate well (a word in French, for instance, having a different cultural history than even its closest approximation in English), but he also takes care to note that Comte’s work also addresses how huge paradigm shifts change an entire culture’s consciousness–and how readers in any climate would do well to take similar care not to repeat their predecessors’ ideological errors. In relation to Comte’s second stage, for instance, Mill writes:
In repudiating metaphysics, M. Comte did not interdict himself from analyzing or criticising any of the abstract conceptions of the mind. … What he condemned was the habit of conceiving these mental abstractions as real entities, which could exert power, produce phaenomena, and the enunciation of which could be regarded as a theory or explanation of facts. Men of the present day with difficulty believe that so absurd a notion was ever really entertained, so repugnant is it to the mental habits formed by long and assiduous cultivation of the positive sciences. But those sciences, however widely cultivated, have never formed the basis of intellectual education in any society. It is with philosophy as with religion: men marvel at the absurdity of other people’s tenets, while exactly parallel absurdities remain in their own, and the same man is unaffectedly astonished that words can be mistaken for things, who is treating other words as if they were things every time he opens his mouth to discuss. No one, unless entirely ignorant of the history of thought, will deny that the mistaking of abstractions for realities pervaded speculation all through antiquity and the middle ages. The mistake was generalized and systematized in the famous Ideas of Plato. The Aristotelians carried it on. Essences, quiddities, virtues residing in things, were accepted as a bona fide explanation of phaenomena. Not only abstract qualties, but the concrete names of genera and species, were mistaken for objective existences. … To modern philosophers these fictions are merely the abstract names of the classes of phaenomena which correspond to them; and it is one of the puzzles of philosophy, how mankind, after inventing a set of mere names to keep together certain combinations of ideas or images, could have so far forgotten their own act as to invest these creations of their will with objective reality, and mistake the name of a phaenomenon for its efficient cause.
Mill goes on to point out that this is precisely the point of Comte’s three stages–this metaphysical fixation on abstracts-as-absolutes being an intermediate phase in humanity’s approach to understanding the world, somewhere between using words to invoke notions of a divine will and “the gradual disembodiment of [such] a Fetish”, whereafter words are simply used to identify phenomena with consistent and natural causes that can be understood through empirical inquiry.
In all the works I’m reading today–referencing Martineau’s 1853 translation and Olson’s modern literary criticism while delving into Mill’s and Lewes’ 19th-century British revisions of Comte’s doctrine of positivism–the overwhelming theme is thus one of mental frameworks in flux. On an individual level, we see this in both Comte’s personal life and argumentative double-standards that persist in all eras. Likewise, on a societal level, massive paradigm shifts mark the whole of our written record, while the impact of a given philosophy even within a specific period is by no means culturally stable.
To my mind, a doctoral programme in the humanities tasks its students to live in a similar state of flux: capable of holding a wide range of competing histories and ideas in unrelenting tension. The trick is that, both throughout and at the end of this process, I also need to be able to synthesize these tensions concretely for a wide range of audiences. I haven’t yet mastered this last part, but… I’m getting there, I hope. One bloody book at a time!
Cheers and best wishes to you all.