The Advent of Positive Philosophy



“[Augste] Comte [pictured above] had great confidence in the ascendancy of the positive doctrine. Its “perfect logical coherence” and its social function assured success, because this doctrine “will impart a homogeneous and rational character to the desultory politics of our day, and it will…establish a general harmony in the entire system of social ideas…” (p. 35). Positive philosophy, he believed, is undoubtedly superior to its predecessors. For […] only the positive principle is able to recognize “the fundamental law of continuous human development, representing the existing evolution as the necessary result of the gradual series of former transformations, by simply extending to social phenomena the spirit which governs the treatment of all other natural phenomena” (p. 36). And toward what end is this positive science to be developed? “It is plain that that true science has no other aim than the establishment of intellectual order, which is the basis of every order” (p. 36).

We must let Comte speak for himself to demonstrate the degree to which he advanced his positive doctrine with one purpose in mind–to avert revolution and to achieve the resignation of the “multitude” to the conditions of the existing order. He explicitly pushes to the extreme some of the conclusions which were only implicit in [Henri de] Saint-Simon’s work and purges from that work every last critical element that might have remained:

It is only by the positive polity that the revolutionary spirit can be restrained, because by it alone can the influence of the critical doctrine be justly eliminated and circumscribed….Under the rule of the positive spirit, again, all the difficult and delicate questions which now keep up a perpetual irritation in the bosom of society, and which can never be settled while mere political solutions are proposed, will be scientifically estimated, to the great furtherance of social peace…. At the same time, it [the positive polity] will be teaching society that, in the present state of their ideas, no political change can be of supreme importance, while the perturbation attending change is supremely mischievous, in the way both of immediate hindrance, and of diverting attention from the true need of procedure….Again, the positive spirit tends to consolidate order, by the rational development of a wise resignation to incurable political evils….A true resignation–that is, a permanent disposition to endure, steadily, and without hope of compensation, all inevitable evils–can proceed only from a deep sense of the connection of all kinds of natural phenomena with invariable laws. If there are (as I doubt not there are) political evils which, like some personal sufferings, cannot be insurmountable. Human nature suffers in its relations with the astronomical world, and the physical, chemical, and biological, as well as the political. How is it that we turbulently resist in the last case, while, in the orders, we are calm and resigned…? Finally, the positive philosophy befriends public order by bringing back men’s understanding to a normal state through the influence of its method alone, before it has had time to establish any social theory. It dissipates disorder at once by imposing a series of indisputable scientific conditions on the study of political questions. By including social science in the scientific hierarchy, the positive spirit admits to success in this study only well-prepared and disciplined minds, so trained in the preceding departments of knowledge as to be fit for the complex problems of the last. The long and difficult preliminary elaboration must disgust and deter vulgar and ill-prepared minds, and subdue the most rebellious. (pp. 37-38)

Image result for class conflict

The positive conception of progress is superior to all others, and especially superior to the revolutionary view in which progress consists of the continuous existence of freedom, and the “gradual expansion of human powers. Now, even in the restricted and negative sense in which this is true–that of the perpetual diminution of obstacles–the positive philosophy is incontestably superior: for true liberty is nothing else than a rational submission to the preponderance of the laws of nature…” (p. 39). The scientific elite will be the final authority of what those laws are and will indicate the degree to which the lot of the lower classes may be slowly improved. In that way the positive doctrine will provide a so-called constructive alternative to the insurrectionary solution advocated by the revolutionary [critical] school. Basic economic and political institutions are not to be changed, for history has shown that such change avails nothing. The class structure should remain as it is; and class conflict presumably will be reduced, even eliminated, through the moral reconciliation of the classes [class collaboration]. That will be facilitated by imposing a moral authority between the working classes and the leaders of society.

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Those who identify with the theological-retrograde school probably will not support the positive doctrine because they are not interested in just any order but in their unique one. The “stationary school,” the defenders of the status quo, on the other hand, may be won over when they recognize that it will further their interests. But Comte’s real target is the revolutionary school whose “doctrines will be absorbed by the new philosophy, while all its anarchical tendencies will be extinguished.” The present generation of scientists, however, is too much infested with revolutionary principles to adopt the positive view. Therefore the chance of winning over the scientists will depend on the younger generation who will be given a really thorough positive education. In all cases, “progress” will depend on “an intellectual, and then a moral reorganization [which] must precede and direct the political” (p. 42).”

[Pp. 85-86 in Zeitlin, Irving M. 1994. Ideology and the Development of Sociological Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. [5th ed.] Additionally, all page references here are Comte, Auguste. 1893. The Positive Philosophy, 2 vols. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.]

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