The Scientific Aspects of Positivism

The Fortnightly Review (1869)
Lay Sermons, Addresses and Reviews

[128] It is now some sixteen or seventeen years since I became acquainted with the "Philosophie Positive," the "Discours sur l'Ensemble du Positivisme," and the "Politique Positive" of Auguste Comte. I was led to study these works partly by the allusions to them in Mr. Mill's "Logic," partly by the recommendation of a distinguished theologian, and partly by the urgency of a valued friend, the late Professor Henfrey, who looked upon M. Comte's bulky volumes as a mine of wisdom, and lent them to me that I might dig and be rich. After due perusal, I found myself in a position to echo my friend's words, though I may have laid more stress on the "mine" than on the "wisdom." For I found the veins of ore few and far between, and the rock so apt to run to mud, that one incurred the risk of being intellectually smothered in the working. Still, as I was glad to acknowledge, I did come to a nugget here and there; though not, so far as my experience went, in the discussions on the philosophy of the physical sciences, but in the chapters on speculative and practical sociology. In these there was indeed much to arouse the liveliest interest in one whose boat had broken away from the old moorings, and who had been content "to lay out an anchor by the stern" until daylight should break and the fog clear. Nothing could be more interesting to a student of biology than [129] to see the study of the biological sciences laid down as an essential part of the prolegomena of a new view of social phænomena. Nothing could be more satisfactory to a worshipper of the severe truthfulness of science than the attempt to dispense with all beliefs, save such as could brave the light, and seek, rather than fear, criticism; while to a lover of courage and outspokenness, nothing could be more touching than the placid announcement on the title-page of the "Discours sur l'Ensemble du Positivisme," that its author proposed

"Réorganiser, sans Dieu ni roi,
Par le culte systématique de l'Humanité,"

the shattered frame of modern society.

In those days I knew my "Faust" pretty well, and, after reading this work of might, I was minded to chant the well-known stanzas of the "Geisterchor"–

"Weh! Weh!
Die schöne welt.
Sie stürzt, sie zerfällt
Wir tragen
Die Trümmern ins Nichts hinüber
Der Erdensöhne
Baue sie wieder
In deinem Busen baue sie auf."

Great, however, was my perplexity, not to say disappointment, as I followed the progress of this "mighty son of earth" in his work of reconstruction. Undoubtedly "Dieu" disappeared, but the "Nouveau Grand-Être Suprême," a gigantic fetish, turned out brand-new by M. Comte's own hands, reigned in his stead. "Roi" also was not heard of; but, in his place, I found a minutely-defined social organization, which, if it ever came into practice, would exert a despotic authority such as no sultan has rivalled, and no Puritan presbytery, in its palmiest days, could hope to excel. While as for the "culte systématique de l'Humanité," I, in my blindness, could not distinguish it from [130] sheer Popery, with M. Comte in the chair of St. Peter, and the names of most of the saints changed. To quote "Faust" again, I found myself saying with Gretchen,–

Ungefähr sagt das per Pfarrer auch
Nur mit ein bischen andern Worten."

Rightly or wrongly, this was the impression which, all those years ago, the study of M. Comte's works left on my mind, combined with the conviction, which I shall always be thankful to him for awakening in me, that the organization of society upon a new and purely scientific basis is not only practicable, but is the only political object much worth fighting for.

As I have said, that part of M. Comte's writings which deals with the philosophy of physical science appeared to me to possess singularly little value, and to show that he had but the most superficial, and merely second-hand, knowledge of most branches of what is usually understood by science. I do not mean by this merely to say that Comte was behind our present knowledge, or that he was unacquainted with the details of the science of his own day. No one could justly make such defects cause of complaint in a philosophical writer of the past generation. What struck me was his want of apprehension of the great features of science; his strange mistakes as to the merits of his scientific contemporaries; and his ludicrously erroneous notions about the part which some of the scientific doctrines current in his time were destined to play in the future. With these impressions in my mind, no one will be surprised if I acknowledge that, for these sixteen years, it has been a periodical source of irritation to me to find M. Comte put forward as a representative of scientific thought; and to observe that writers whose philosophy had its legitimate parent in Hume, or in themselves, were labelled "Comtists" or "Positivists" by public writers, even in spite of vehement protests to the contrary. It has cost Mr. Mill hard rubbings to get that label off; and I watch Mr. Spencer, as one regards a good man struggling with adversity, still engaged in eluding its [131] adhesiveness, and ready to tear away skin and all, rather than let it stick. My own turn might come next; and therefore, when an eminent prelate the other day gave currency and authority to the popular confusion, I took an opportunity of incidentally revindicating Hume's property in the so-called "New Philosophy," and, at the same time, of repudiating Comtism on my own behalf.1

The few lines devoted to Comtism in my paper on the "Physical Basis of Life" were, in intention, strictly limited to these two purposes. But they seem to have given more umbrage than I intended they should to the followers of M. Comte in this country, for some of whom, let me observe in passing, I entertain a most unfeigned respect; and Mr. Congreve's recent article gives expression to the displeasure which I have excited among the members of the Comtian body.

Mr. Congreve, in a peroration which seems especially intended to catch the attention of his readers, indignantly challenges me to admire M. Comte's life, "to deny that it has a marked [132] character of grandeur about it;" and he uses some very strong language because I show no sign of veneration for his idol. I confess I do not care to occupy myself with the denigration of a man who, on the whole, deserves to be spoken of with respect. Therefore, I shall enter into no statement of the reasons which lead me unhesitatingly to accept Mr. Congreve's challenge, and to refuse to recognize anything which deserves the name of grandeur of character in M. Comte, unless it be his arrogance, which is undoubtedly sublime. All I have to observe is, that if Mr. Congreve is justified in saying that I speak with a tinge of contempt for his spiritual father, the reason for such colouring of my language is to be found in the fact, that, when I wrote, I had but just arisen from the perusal of a work with which he is doubtless well acquainted, M. Littré's "Auguste Comte et la Philosophie Positive."

Though there are tolerably fixed standards of right and wrong, and even of generosity and meanness, it may be said that the beauty, or grandeur, of a life is more or less a matter of taste; and Mr. Congreve's notions of literary excellence are so different from mine that, it may be, we should diverge as widely in our judgment of moral beauty or ugliness. Therefore, while retaining my own notions, I do not presume to quarrel with his. But when Mr. Congreve devotes a great deal of laboriously guarded insinuation to the endeavour to lead the public to believe that I have been guilty of the dishonesty of having criticised Comte without having read him, I must be permitted to remind him that he has neglected the well-known maxim of a diplomatic sage, "If you want to damage a man, you should say what is probable as well as what is true."

And when Mr. Congreve speaks of my having an advantage over him in my introduction of "Christianity" into the phrase that "M. Comte's philosophy, in practice, might be described as Catholicism minus Christianity; " intending thereby to suggest that I have, by so doing, desired to profit by an appeal to the odium theologicum , he lays himself open to a very unpleasant retort.

[133] What if I were to suggest that Mr. Congreve had not read Comte's works; and that the phrase "the context shows that the view of the writer ranges–however superficially–over the whole works. This is obvious from the mention of Catholicism," demonstrates that Mr. Congreve has no acquaintance with the "Philosophie Positive"? I think the suggestion would be very unjust and unmannerly, and I shall not make it. But the fact remains, that this little epigram of mine, which has so greatly provoked Mr. Congreve, is neither more nor less than a condensed paraphrase of the following passage which is to be found at page 344 of the fifth volume of the "Philosophie Positive:"2

"La seule solution possible de ce grand problème historique, qui n'a jamais pu être philosophiquement posé jusqu'ici, consiste à concevoir, en sens radicalement inverse des notions habituelles, que ce qui devait nécessairement périr ainsi, dans le catholicisime, c'é'tait la doctrine, et non l'organisation, qui n'a été passagèrement ruinée que par suite de son inévitable adhérence élémentaire à la philosophie théologique, destinée a succomber graduellement sous l'irrésistible émancipation de la.raison humaine; tandis qu'une telle constitution, convenablement reconstruite sur des bases intellectuelles à la fois plus étendues et plus stables, devra finalernent présider a l'indispensable réorganisation spirituelle des sociètés modernes, sauf les diffèrences essentielles spontanément correspondantes àl'extrême diversité des doctrines fondamentales; à moins de supposer, ce qui serait certainement contradictoire à l'ensemble des lois de notre nature, que les immenses efforts de tant de grands hommes, secondés par la persévérante sollicitude des nations civilisées, dans la fondation séculaire de ce chef-d'œuvre politique de la sagesse humaine, doivent être enfin irrévocablement perdus pour l'élite de l'humanité sauf les résultats, capitaux mais provisoires, qui s'y rapportaient irnmédiatement. Cette explication générale, déjà évidemment motivée par la suite des considérations propres à ce chapitre, sera de plus en plus confirmée par tout le reste de notre opération historique, dont elle constituera spontanèment la princìpale conclusion politique."

Nothing can be clearer. Comte's ideal, as stated by himself, is Catholic organization without Catholic doctrine, or, in other words, Catholicism minus Christianity. Surely it is utterly unjustifiable to ascribe to me base motives for stating a man's doctrines, as nearly as may be, in his own words!

My readers would hardly be interested were I to follow Mr. Congreve any further, or I might point out that the fact of his not having heard me lecture is hardly a safe ground for his [134] speculations as to what I do not teach. Nor do I feel called upon to give any opinion as to M. Comte's merits or demerits as regards sociology. Mr. Mill (whose competency to speak on these matters I suppose will not be questioned, even by Mr. Congreve) has dealt with M. Comte's philosophy from this point of view, with a vigour and authority to which I cannot for a moment aspire; and with a severity, not unfrequently amounting to contempt, which I have not the wish, if I had the power, to surpass. I, as a mere student in these questions, am content to abide by Mr. Mill's judgment until some one shows cause for its reversal, and I decline to enter into a discussion which I have not provoked.

The sole obligation which lies upon me is to justify so much as still remains without justification of what I have written respecting Positivism–namely, the opinion expressed in the following paragraph:–

"In so far as my study of what specially characterises the Positive Philosophy has led me, I find therein little or nothing of any scientific value, and a great deal which is as thoroughly antagonistic to the very essence of science as anything in ultramontane Catholicism."

Here are two propositions: the first, that the "Philosophie Positive" contains little or nothing of any scientific value; the second, that Comtism is, in spirit, anti-scientific. I shall endeavour to bring forward ample evidence in support of both.

I. No one who possesses even a superficial acquaintance with physical science can read Comte's "Leçons" without becoming aware that he was at once singularly devoid of real knowledge on these subjects, and singularly unlucky. What is to be thought of the contemporary of Young and of Fresnel, who never misses an opportunity of casting scorn upon the hypothesis of an ether –the fundamental basis not only of the undulatory theory of light, but of so much else in modern physics–and whose contempt for the intellects of some of the strongest men of his generation was such, that he puts forward the mere existence of night as a refutation of the undulatory theory?3 What a won[135]derful gauge of his own value as a scientific critic does he afford, by whom we are informed that phrenology is a great science, and psychology a chimæra; that Gall was one of the great men of his age, and that Cuvier was "brilliant but superficial"!4 How unlucky must one consider the bold speculator who, just before the dawn of modern histology– which is simply the application of the microscope to anatomy–reproves what he calls "the abuse of microscopic investigations," and "the exaggerated credit" attached to them; who, when the morphological uniformity of the tissues of the great majority of plants and animals was on the eve of being demonstrated, treated with ridicule those who attempt to refer all tissues to a "tissu générateur," formed by "le chimérique et inintelligible assemblage d'une sorte de monades organiques, qui seraient dès lors les vrais éléments primordiaux de tout corps vivant;"5 and who finally tells us, that all the objections against a linear arrangement of the species of living beings are in their essence foolish, and that the order of the animal series is "necessarily linear,"6 when the exact contrary is one of the best established and the most important truths of zoology. Appeal to mathematicians, astronomers, physicists,7 chemists, biologists, about the "Philosophie Positive," and they all, with one consent, begin to make protestations that, whatever M. Comte's other merits, he has shed no light.upon the philosophy of their particular studies.

To be just, however, it must be admitted that even M. Comte's most ardent disciples are content to be judiciously silent about his knowledge or appreciation of the sciences themselves, and prefer to base their master's claims to scientific authority upon his "law of the three states," and his "classification of the sciences." But here also, I must join issue with them as [136] completely as others–notably Mr. Herbert Spencer–have done before me. A critical examination of what M. Comte has to say about the "law of the three states" brings out nothing but a series of more or less contradictory statements of an imperfectly apprehended truth; and his "classification of the sciences," whether regarded historically or logically, is, in my judgment, absolutely worthless.

Let us consider the law of "the three states" as it is put before us in the opening of the first Leçon of the "Philosophie Positive:"–

"En étudiant ainsi le développement total de l'intelligence humaine dans ses diverses sphères d'activité, depuis son premier essor le plus simple jusqu'à nos jours, je crois avoir découvert une grande loi fondamentale, à laquelle il est assujetti par une nécessité invariable, et qui me semble pouvoir être solidement établie, soit sur les preuves rationelles fournies par la connaissance de notre organisation, soit sur les vérifications historiques résultant d'un examen attentif du passé. Cette loi consiste en ce qui chacune de nos conceptions principales, chaque branche de nos connaissances, passe successivement par trois états théoriques différents; l'état théologique, ou fictif; l'état m´étaphysique, ou abstrait; l'état scientifique, ou positif. En d'autres termes, l'esprit humain, par sa nature, emploie successivement dans chacune de ses recherches trois méthodes de philosopher, dont le caractère est essentiellement différent et même radicalement opposé; d'abord la méthode théologique, ensuite la méthode métaphysique, et enfin la méthode positive. De là, trois sortes de philosophie, ou de systèmes généraux de conceptions sur l'ensemble des phénomènes qui s'excluent mutuellement; la première est le point de départ necessaire de l'intelligence humaine; la troisième, son état fixe et définitif; la seconde est uniquement destinée à servir de transition."8

Nothing can be more precise than these statements, which may be put into the following propositions:–

(a) The human intellect is subjected to the law by an invariable necessity, which is demonstrable, à priori, from the nature and constitution of the intellect; while, as a matter of historical fact, the human intellect has been subjected to the law.

(b) Every branch of human knowledge passes through the three states, necessarily beginning with the first stage.

(c) The three stages mutually exclude one another, being essentially different, and even radically opposed.

[137] Two questions present themselves. Is M. Comte consistent with himself in making these assertions? And is he consistent with fact? I reply to both questions in the negative; and, as regards the first, I bring forward as my witness a remarkable passage which is to be found in the fourth volume of the "Philosophie Positive" (pp. 491), when M. Comte had had time to think out, a little more fully, the notions crudely stated in the first volume:–

"A proprement parler, la philosophie théologique, même dans notre première enfance, individuelle ou sociale, n'a jamais pu être rigoureusement universelle, c'est-a-dire que, pour les ordres quelconques de phénomènes, les faits les plus simples et les plus communs ont toujours été regardés comme essentiellement assujettis à des lois naturelles, au lieu d'être attribués à l'arbitraire volonté des agents surnaturels. L'illustre Adam Smith a, par exemple, très-heureusement remarqué dans ses essais philosophiques, qu'on ne trouvait, en aucun temps ni en aucun pays, un dieu pour la pesanteur. Il en est ainsi, en généra], même à l'égard des sujets les plus compliqués, envers tous les phénomènes assez élémentaires et assez familiers pour que la parfaite invariabilité de leurs relations effectives ait toujours dû frapper spontanément l'observateur le moins préparé. Dans l'ordre moral et social, qu'une vaine opposition voudrait aujourd'hui systématiquement interdire à la philosophie positive, il y a eu nécessairement, en tout temps, la pensée des lois naturelles, relativement aux plus simples phénomènes de la vie journalière, comme l'exige évidemment la conduite générale de notre existence réelle, individuelle ou sociale, qui n'aurait pu jamais comporter aucune prévoyance quelconque, si tout les phénomènes humain avaient été rigoureusement attlibués à des agents surnaturels, puisque dès lors la prière aurait logiquement constitué la seule ressource imaginable pour influer sur le cours habituel des actions humaines. On doit même remarquer, à ce sujet, que c'est, au contraire, l'ébauche spontanée des premières lois naturelles propres auz actes individuels ou sociaux qui, fictivement transportée à tous les phénomènes du monde exterieur, a d'abord fourni, d'après nos explications précédentes levrai principe fondamental de la philosophie théologique. Ainsi, le germe élémentaire de la philosophie positive est certainement tout aussi primitif au fond que celui de la philosophie théologique elle-même, quoi qu'il n'ait pu se développer que beaucoup plus tard. Une telle notion importe extrêmement à la parfaite rationalité de notre théorie sociologique, puisque la vie humaine ne pouvant jamais offrir aucune véritable création quelconque, mais toujours une simple évolution graduelle, l'essor final de l'esprit positif deviendrait scientifiquement incompréhensible, si dès l'origine, on n'en concevait, à tous égards, les premiers rudiments nécessaires. Depuis cette situation primitive, à mesure que nos observations se sont spontanément étendues et généralisées, cet essor, d'abord à peine appréciable, a constamment suivi, sans cesser longtemps d'être subalterne, une progression très-lente, mais continue, la philosophie théologique restant toujours réservée pour les phénomènes, de moins en moins nombreux, dont les lois naturelles ne pouvaient encore être aucunement connues,"

Compare the propositions implicitly laid down here with those [138] contained in the earlier volume. (a) As a matter of fact, the human intellect has not been invariably subjected to the law of the three states, and therefore the necessity of the law cannot be demonstrableà priori . (b) Much of our knowledge of all kinds has not passed through the three states, and more particularly, as M. Comte is careful to point out, not through the first. (c) The positive state has more or less co-existed with the theological, from the dawn of human intelligence. And, by way of completing the series of contradictions, the assertion that the three states are "essentially different, and even radically opposed," is met a little lower on the same page by the declaration that "the metaphysical state is, at bottom, nothing but a simple general modification of the first;" while, in the fortieth Leçon, as also in the interesting early essay entitled "Considérations philosophiques sur les Sciences et les Savants (1825),"the three states are practically reduced to two. "Le véritable esprit général de toute philosophie théologique ou métaphysique consiste à prendre pour principe, dans l'explication des phénomènes du monde extérieur, notre sentiment immédiat des phénomènes humaines; tandis que au contraire, la philosophie positive est toujours caractérisée, non moins profondément, par la subordination nécessaire et rationelle de la conception de l'homme à celle du monde."9

I leave M. Comte's disciples to settle which of these contradictory statements expresses their master's real meaning. All I beg leave to remark is, that men of science are not in the habit of paying much attention to "laws" stated in this fashion.

The second statement is undoubtedly far more rational and consistent with fact than the first; but I cannot think it is a just or adequate account of the growth of intelligence, either in the individual man, or in the human species. Any one who will carefully watch the development of the intellect of a child will perceive that, from the first, its mind is mirroring nature in two different ways. On the one hand, it is merely drinking in sensations and building up associations, while it forms concep[139]tions of things and their relations which are more thoroughly "positive," or devoid of entanglement with hypotheses of any kind, than they will ever be in after-life. No child has recourse to imaginary personifications in order to account for the ordinary properties of objects which are not alive, or do not represent living things. It does not imagine that the taste of sugar is brought about by a god of sweetness, or that a spirit of jumping causes a ball to bound. Such phænomena, which form the basis of a very large part of its ideas, are taken as matters of course– as ultimate facts which suggest no difficulty and need no explanation. So far as all these common, though important, phænomena are concerned, the child's mind is in what M. Comte would call the "positive" state.

But, side by side with this mental condition, there rises another. The child becomes aware of itself as a source of action and a subject of passion and of thought. The acts which follow upon its own desires are among the most interesting and prominent of surrounding occurrences; and these acts, again, plainly arise either out of affections caused by surrounding things or of other changes in itself. Among these surrounding things, the most interesting and important are mother and father, brethren and nurses. The hypothesis that these wonderful creatures are of like nature to itself is speedily forced upon the child's mind; and this primitive piece of anthropomorphism turns out to be a highly successful speculation, which finds its justification at every turn. No wonder, then, that it is extended to other similarly interesting objects which are not too unlike these–to the dog, the cat, and the canary, the doll, the toy, and the picture-book–that these are endowed with wills and affections, and with capacities for being "good" and "naughty." But surely it would be a mere perversion of language to call this a "theological" state of mind, either in the proper sense of the word "theological," or as contrasted with "scientific" or "positive." The child does not worship either father or mother, dog or doll. On the contrary, nothing is more curious than the absolute irreverence, if I may so say, of a kindly-treated young [140] child; its tendency to believe in itself as the centre of the universe, and its disposition to exercise despotic tyranny over those who could crush it with a finger.

Still less is there anything unscientific, or anti-scientific, in this infantile anthropomorphism. The child observes that many phænomena are the consequences of affections of itself; it soon has excellent reasons for the belief that many other phænomena are consequences of the affections of other beings, more or less like itself. And having thus good evidence for believing that many of the most interesting occurrences about it are explicable on the hypothesis that they are the work of intelligences like itself–having discovered a vera causa for many phænomena– why should the child limit the application of so fruitful an hypothesis? The dog has a sort of intelligence, so has the cat; why should not the doll and the picture-book also have a share, proportioned to their likeness to intelligent things?

The only limit which does arise is exactly that which, as a matter of science, should arise; that is to say, the anthropomorphic interpretation is applied only to those phænomena which, in their general nature, or their apparent capriciousness, resemble those which the child observes to be caused by itself, or by beings like itself. All the rest are regarded as things which explain themselves, or are inexplicable.

It is only at a later stage of intellectual development that the intelligence of man awakes to the apparent conflict between the anthropomorphic, and what I may call the physical,10 aspect of nature, and either endeavours to extend the anthropomorphic view over the whole of nature–which is the tendency of theology; or to give the same exclusive predominance to the physical view–which is the tendency of science; or adopts a middle [141] course, and taking from the anthropomorphic view its tendency to personify, and from the physical view its tendency to exclude volition and affection, ends in what M. Comte calls the "metaphysical" state–"metaphysical," in M. Comte's writings, being a general term of abuse for anything he does not like.

What is true of the individual is, mutatis mutandis, true of the intellectual development of the species. It is absurd to say of men in a state of primitive savagery, that all their conceptions are in a theological state. Nine-tenths of them are eminently realistic, and as "positive" as ignorance and narrowness can make them. It no more occurs to a savage than it does to a child, to ask the why of the daily and ordinary occurrences which form the greater part of his mental life. But in regard to the more striking, or out-of-the-way, events, which force him to speculate, he is highly anthropomorphic; and, as compared with a child, his anthropomorphism is complicated by the intense impression which the death of his own kind makes upon him, as indeed it well may. The warrior, full of ferocious energy, perhaps the despotic chief of his tribe, is suddenly struck down. A child may insult the man a moment before so awful; a fly rests, undisturbed, on the lips from which undisputed command issued. And yet the bodily aspect of the man seems hardly more altered than when he slept, and, sleeping, seemed to himself to leave his body and wander through dreamland. What then if that something, which is the essence of the man, has really been made to wander by the violence done to it, and is unable, or has forgotten, to come back to its shell? Will it not retain somewhat of the powers it possessed during life? May it not help us if it be pleased, or (as seems to be by far the more general impression) hurt us if it be angered? Will it not be well to do towards it those things which would have soothed the man and put him in good humour during his life? It is impossible to study trustworthy accounts of savage thought without seeing that some such train of ideas as this lies at the bottom of their speculative beliefs.

There are savages without God, in any proper sense of the [142] word, but none without ghosts. And the Fetishism, Ancestor-worship, Hero-worship, and Demonology of primitive savages are all, I believe, different manners of expression of their belief in ghosts, and of the anthropomorphic interpretation of out of-the-way events, which is its concomitant. Witchcraft and sorcery are the practical expressions of these beliefs; and they stand in the same relation to the religious worship as the simple anthropomorphism of children, or savages, does to theology.

In the progress of the species from savagery to advanced civilization, anthropomorphism grows into theology, while physicism (if I may so call it) develops into science; but the development of the two is contemporaneous, not successive. For each, there long exists an assured province which is not invaded by the other; while, between the two, lies a debateable land, ruled by a sort of bastards, who owe their complexion to physicism and their substance to anthropomorphism, and are M. Comte's particular aversions–metaphysical entities.

But, as the ages lengthen, the borders of Physicism increase. The territories of the bastards are all annexed to science; and even Theology, in her purer forms, has ceased to be anthropomorphic, however she may talk. Anthropomorphism has taken stand in its last fortress–man himself. But Science closely invests the walls; and Philosophers gird themselves for battle upon the last and greatest of all speculative problems– Does human nature possess any free, volitional, or truly anthropomorphic element, or is it only the cunningest of all Nature's clocks? Some, among whom I count myself, think that the battle will for ever remain a drawn one, and that, for all practical purposes, this result is as good as anthropomorphism winning the day.

The classification of the sciences, which, in the eyes of M. Comte's adherents, constitutes his second great claim to the dignity of a scientific philosopher, appears to me to be open to just the same objections as the law of the three states. It is [143] inconsistent in itself, and it is inconsistent with fact. Let us consider the main points of this classification successively:–

"Il faut distinguer par rapport à tous les ordres des phénomènes, deux genres de sciences naturelles; les unes abstraites, générales, ont pour objet la découverte des lois qui régissent les diverses classes de phénomènes, en considérant tous les cas qu'on peut concevoir; les autres concrètes, particulières, descriptives, et qu'on désigne quelquefois sous le nom des sciences naturelles proprement dites, consistent dans l'application de ces lois à l'histoire effective des différents êtres existants."11

The "abstract" sciences are subsequently said to be mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, physiology, and social physics–the titles of the two latter being subsequently changed to biology and sociology. M. Comte exemplifies the distinction between his abstract and his concrete sciences as follows:–

"On pourra d'abord l'apercevoir très-nettement en comparant, d'une part la physiologie générale, et d'une autre part la zoologie et la botanique proprement dites. Ce sont évidemment, en effet, deux travaux d'un caractère fort distinct, que d'étudier, en général, les lois de la vie ou de déterminer le mode d'existence de chaque corps vivant, en particulier. Cette seconde ètude, en outre, est nécessairement fondée sur la première."–P. 57.

All the unreality and mere bookishness of M. Comte's knowledge of physical science comes out in the passage I have italicised. "The special study of living beings is based upon a general study of the laws of life!" What little I know about the matter leads me to think that, if M. Comte had possessed the slightest practical acquaintance with biological science, he would have turned his phraseology upside down, and have perceived that we can have no knowledge of the general laws of life, except that which is based upon the study of particular living beings.

The illustration is surely unluckily chosen; but the language in which these so-called abstract sciences are defined seems to me to be still more open to criticism. With what propriety can astronomy, or physics, or chemistry, or biology, be said to occupy themselves with the consideration of "all conceivable cases" which fall within their respective provinces? Does the astronomer occupy himself with any other system of the universe than [144] that which is visible to him? Does he speculate upon the possible movements of bodies which may attract one another in the inverse proportion of the cube of their distances, say? Does biology, whether "abstract" or "concrete," occupy itself with any other form of life than those which exist, or have existed? And, if the abstract sciences embrace all conceivable cases of the operation of the laws with which they are concerned, would not they, necessarily, embrace the subjects of the concrete sciences, which, inasmuch as they exist, must needs be conceivable? In fact, no such distinction as that which M. Comte draws is tenable. The first stage of his classification breaks by its own weight.

But granting M. Comte his six abstract sciences, he proceeds to arrange them according to what he calls their natural order or hierarchy, their places in this hierarchy being determined by the degree of generality and simplicity of the conceptions with which they deal. Mathematics occupies the first, astronomy the second, physics the third, chemistry the fourth, biology the fifth, and sociology the sixth and last place in the series. M. Comte's arguments in favour of this classification are first–

"Sa conformité essentielle avec la co-ordination, en quelque sorte spontanée, qui se trouve en effet implicitement admise par les savants livrés à l'étude des diverses branches de la philosophie naturelle."

But I absolutely deny the existence of this conformity. If there is one thing clear about the progress of modern science, it is the tendency to reduce all scientific problems, except those which are purely mathematical, to questions of molecular physics–that is to say, to the attractions, repulsions, motions, and co-ordination of the ultimate particles of matter. Social phænomena are the result of the interaction of the components of society, or men, with one another and the surrounding universe. But, in the language of physical science, which, by the nature of the case, is materialistic, the actions of men, so far as they are recognizable by science, are the results of molecular changes in the matter of which they are composed; and, in the long run, these must come into the hands of the physical. [145] A fortiori, the phænomena of biology and of chemistry are, in their ultimate analysis, questions of molecular physics. Indeed, the fact is acknowledged by all chemists and biologists who look beyond their immediate occupations. And it is to be observed, that the phænomena of biology are as directly and immediately connected with molecular physics as those of chemistry. Molar physics, chemistry, and biology are not three successive steps in the ladder of knowledge, as M. Comte would have us believe, but three branches springing from the common stem of molecular physics.

As to astronomy, I am at a loss to understand how any one who will give a moment's attention to the nature of the science can fail to see that it consists of two parts: first, of a description of the phænomena, which is as much entitled as descriptive zoology, or botany, is, to the name of natural history; and, secondly, of an explanation of the phænomena, furnished by the laws of a force–gravitation–the study of which is as much a part of physics, as is that of heat, or electricity. It would be just as reasonable to make the study of the heat of the sun a science preliminary to the rest of thermotics, as to place the study of the attraction of the bodies, which compose the universe in general, before that of the particular terrestrial bodies, which alone we can experimentally know. Astronomy, in fact, owes its perfection to the circumstance that it is the only branch of natural history, the phænomena of which are largely expressible by mathematical conceptions, and which can be, to a great extent, explained by the application of very simple physical laws.

With regard to mathematics, it is to be observed, in the first place, that M. Comte mixes up under that head the pure relations of space and of quantity, which were properly included under the name, with rational mechanics and statics, which are mathematical developments of the most general conceptions of physics, namely, the notions of force and of motion. Relegating these to their proper place in physics, we have left pure mathematics, which can stand neither at the head, nor at the tail, of any hierarchy of the sciences, since, like logic, it is equally [146] related to all; though the enormous practical difficulty of applying mathematics to the more complex phænomena of nature removes them, for the present, out of its sphere.

On this subject of mathematics, again, M. Comte indulges in assertions which can only be accounted for by his total ignorance of physical science practically. As for example:–

"C'est donc par l'étude des mathématiques, et seulement par elle, que l'on peut se faire une idée juste et approfondie de ce que c'est qu'une science. C'est là uniquement qu'on doit chercher à connaître avec précision la méthode générale que l'esprit humain emploie constamment dans toutes ses recherches positives, parce que nulle part ailleurs les questions ne sont résolues qu'une manière aussi complète et les déductions prolongées aussi loin avec une sévérité rigoureuse. C'est là également que notre entendement a donné les plus grandes preuves de sa force, parce que les idées qu'il y considère sont du plus haut degré d'abstraction possible dans l'ordre positif Toute éducation scientifique qui ne commence point par une telle ètude pèche donc nécessairement par sa base."12

That is to say, the only study which can confer "a just and comprehensive idea of what is meant by science," and, at the same time, furnish an exact conception of the general method of scientific investigation, is that which knows nothing of observation, nothing of experiment, nothing of induction, nothing of causation! And education, the whole secret of which consists in proceeding from the easy to the difficult, the concrete to the abstract, ought to be turned the other way, and pass from the abstract to the concrete.

M. Comte puts a second argument in favour of his hierarchy of the sciences thus:–

"Un second caractère très-essentiel de notre classification, c'est d'être nécessairement conforme à l'ordre effectif du développement de la philosophie naturelle. C'est ce que vérifie tout ce qu'on sait de l'histoire des sciences."13

But Mr. Spencer has so thoroughly and completely demonstrated the absence of any correspondence between the historical development of the sciences, and their position in the Comtean hierarchy, in his essay on the "Genesis of Science," that I shall not waste time in repeating his refutation.

[147] A third proposition in support of the Comtean classification of the sciences stands as follows.–

"En troisième lieu cette classification présente la propriété très-remarquable de marquer exactement la perfection relative des différentes sciences, laquelle consiste essentiellement dans le degré de precision des connaissances et dans leur co-ordination plus ou moins intime "14

I am quite unable to understand the distinction which M. Comte endeavours to draw in this passage in spite of his amplifications further on. Every science must consist of precise knowledge, and that knowledge must be coordinated into general proportions, or it is not science. When M. Comte, in exemplification of the statement I have cited, says that "les phénomènes organiques ne comportent qu'une étude à la fois moins exacte et moins systématique que les phénomènes des corps bruts," I am at a loss to comprehend what he means. If I affirm that "when a motor nerve is irritated, the muscle connected with it becomes simultaneously shorter and thicker, without changing its volume," it appears to me that the statement is as precise or exact (and not merely as true) as that of the physicist who should say, that "when a piece of iron is heated, it becomes simultaneously longer and thicker and increases in volume;" nor can I discover any difference, in point of precision, between the statement of the morphological law that "animals which suckle their young have two occipital condyles," and the enunciation of the physical law that "water subjected to electrolysis is replaced by an equal weight of the gases, oxygen and hydrogen." As for anatomical or physiological investigation being less "systematic" than that of the physicist or chemist, the assertion is simply unaccountable. The methods of physical science are everywhere the same in principle, and the physiological investigator who was not "systematic" would, on the whole, break down rather sooner than the inquirer into simpler subjects.

Thus M. Comte's classification of the sciences, under all its [148] aspects, appears to me to be a complete failure. It is impossible, in an article which is already too long, to inquire how it may be replaced by a better; and it is the less necessary to do so, as a second edition of Mr. Spencer's remarkable essay on this subject has just been published. After wading through pages of the long-winded confusion and second-hand information of the "Philosophie Positive," at the risk of a crise cérébrale –it is as good as a shower-bath to turn to the "Classification of the Sciences," and refresh oneself with Mr. Spencer's profound thought, precise knowledge, and clear language.

II. The second proposition to which I have committed myself, in the paper to which I have been obliged to refer so often, is, that the "Positive Philosophy" contains "a great deal which is as thoroughly antagonistic to the very essence of science as is anything in ultramontane Catholicism."

What I refer to in these words, is, on the one hand the dogmatism and narrowness which so often mark M. Comte's discussion of doctrines which he does not like, and reduce his expressions of opinion to mere passionate puerilities; as, for example, when he is arguing against the assumption of an ether, or when he is talking (I cannot call it arguing) against pyschology, or political economy. On the other hand, I allude to the spirit of meddling systematization and regulation which animates even the "Philosophie Positive," and breaks out, in the latter volumes of that work, into no uncertain foreshadowing of the anti-scientific monstrosities of Comte's later writings.

Those who try to draw a line of demarcation between the spirit of the "Philosophie Positive," and that of the "Politique" and its successors, (if I may express an opinion from fragmentary knowledge of these last,) must have overlooked, or forgotten, what Comte himself labours to show, and indeed succeeds in proving, in the "Appendice Général" of the "Politique Positive." "Dès mon début," he writes, "je tentai de fonder le nouveau pouvoir spirituel que j'institue aujourd'hui." "Ma politique, loin d'être aucunement opposée a ma philosophie, en constitue tellement la suite naturelle que celle-ci fut directe[149]ment instituée pour servir de base à celle-là comme le prouve cet appendice."15

This is quite true. In the remarkable essay entitled "Considerations sur le Pouvoir spirituel," published in March 1826, Comte advocates the establishment of a "modern spiritual power," which, he anticipates, may exercise an even greater influence over temporal affairs, than did the Catholic clergy, at the height of their vigour and independence, in the twelfth century. This spiritual power is, in fact, to govern opinion, and to have the supreme control over education, in each nation of the West; and the spiritual powers of the several European peoples are to be associated together and placed under a common direction or "souveraineté spirituelle."

A system of "Catholicism minus Christianity" was therefore completely organized in Comte's mind, four years before the first volume of the "Philosophie Positive" was written; and, naturally, the papal spirit shows itself in that work, not only in the ways I have already mentioned, but, notably, in the attack on liberty of conscience which breaks out in the fourth volume:–

"Il n'y a point de liberté de conscience en astronomie, en physique, en chimie, en physiologie même, en ce sens que chacun trouverait absurde de ne pas croire de confiance aux principes établis dans les sciences par les hommes compétents."

"Nothing in ultramontane Catholicism" can, in my judgment, be more completely sacerdotal, more entirely anti-scientific, than this dictum. All the great steps in the advancement of science have been made by just those men who have not hesitated to doubt the "principles established in the sciences by competent persons;" and the great teaching of science–the great use of it as an instrument of mental discipline–is its constant inculcation of the maxim, that the sole ground on which any statement has a right to be believed is the impossibility of refuting it.

Thus, without travelling beyond the limits of the "Philosophie [150] Positive," we find its author contemplating the establishment of a system of society, in which an organized spiritual power shall override and direct the temporal power, as completely as the Innocents and Gregorys tried to govern Europe in the middle ages; and repudiating the exercise of liberty of conscience against the "hommes cométents," of whom, by the assumption, the new priesthood would be composed. Was Mr. Congreve as forgetful of this, as he seems to have been of some other parts of the "Philosophie Positive," when he wrote, that "in any limited, careful use of the term, no candid man could say that the Positive Philosophy contained a great deal as thoroughly antagonistic to [the very essence of16] science as Catholicism"?

M: Comte, it will have been observed, desires to retain the whole of Catholic organization; and the logical practical result of this palt of his doctrine would be the establishment of something corresponding with that eminently Catholic, but admittedly anti-scientific, institution–the Holy Office.

I hope I have said enough to show that I wrote the few lines I devoted to M. Comte and his philosophy, neither unguardedly nor ignorantly, still less maliciously. I shall be sorry if what I have now added, in my own justification, should lead any to suppose that I think M. Comte's works worthless; or that I do not heartily respect, and sympathise with, those who have been impelled by him to think deeply upon social problems, and to strive nobly for social regeneration. It is the virtue of that impulse, I believe, which will save the name and fame of Auguste Comte from oblivion. As for his philosophy, I part with it by quoting his own words, reported to me by a quondam Comtist, now an eminent member of the Institute of France, M. Charles Robin:–

"La Philosphie est une tentative incessante de l'esprit humain pour arriver au repos: mais elle se trouve incessamment aussi dérangée par les progrés continus de la science. De là vient pour le philosophe l'obligation de refaire chaque soir la synthèse de ses conceptions; et un jour viendra où l'homme raisonnable ne fera plus d'autre prière du soir."

1 I am glad to observe that Mr. Congreve, in the criticism with which he has favoured me in the number of the Fortnightly Review for April 1869, does not venture to challenge the justice of the claim I made for Hume. He merely suggests that I have been wanting in candour in not mentioning Comte's high opinion of Hume. After mature reflection I am unable to discern my fault. If I had suggested that Comte had borrowed from Hume without acknowledgment; or if, instead of trying to express my own sense of Hume's merits with the modesty which becomes a writer who has no authority in matters of Philosophy, I had affirmed that no one had properly appreciated him, Mr. Congreve's remarks would apply: but as I did neither of these things, they appear to me to be irrelevant, if not unjustifiable. And even had it occurred to me to quote M. Comte's expressions about Hume, I do not know that I should have cited them, inasmuch as, on his own showing, M. Comte occasionally speaks very decidedly touching writers of whose works he has not read a line. Thus, in Tome VI. Of the "Philosophie Positive" p. 619, M. Comte writes: "Le plus grand des métaphysiciens modernes, l'illustre Kant, a noblement mérité une éternelle admiration en tentant, le premier, d'échapper directement à l'absolu philosophique par sa célèbre conception de la double réalité, à la fois objective et subjective, qui indique un si juste sentiment de la saine philosophie."

But in the "Préface Personnelle" in the same volume p. 35, M. Comte tells us:–"Je n'ai jamais lu, en aucune langue, ni Vico, ni Kant, ni Herder, ni Hegel, &c.; je ne connais leurs divers ouvrages que d'après quelques relations indirectes et certains extraits fort insuffisants."

Who knows but that the "&c." may include Hume? And in that case what is the value of M. Comte's praise of him?

2 Now and always I quote the second edition, by Littré.

3 "Philosophie Positive," ii. p. 440.

4 "Le brillant mais superficiel Cuvier."–Philosophie Positive, vi. p. 383.

5 "Philosophie Positive," iii. p. 369.

6 Ibid. p. 387.

7 Hear the late Dr. Whewell, who calls Comte "a shallow pretender," so far as all the modern sciences, except astronomy, are concerned, and tells us that "his pretensions to discoveries are, as Sir John Herschel has shown, absurdly fallacious."–"Comte and Positivism." Macmillan's Magazine, March 1866.

8 "Philosophie Positive," i. pp. 8, 9.

9 "Philosophie Positive," iii. p. 188.

10 The word "positive" is in every way objectionable. In one sense it suggests that mental quality which was undoubtedly largely developed in M. Comte, but can best be dispensed with in a philosopher; in another, it is unfortunate in its application to a system which starts with enormous negations; in its third, and specially philosophical sense, as implying a system of thought which assumes nothing beyond the content of observed facts, it implies that which never did exist, and never will.

11 "Philosophie Positive," i. p. 56.

12 "Philosophie Positive," i. p. 99.

13 Ibid., i. p. 77.

14 "Philosophie Positive," i. p. 78.

15 Loc. cit., Préface Spéciale, pp. i. ii.

16 Mr. Congreve leaves out these important words, which show that I refer to the spirit, and not to the details of science.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University