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Title: The Philosophy of Auguste Comte
Author: Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien
Language: English
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                      PHILOSOPHY OF AUGUSTE COMTE

                      PHILOSOPHY OF AUGUSTE COMTE

                             L. LÉVY-BRUHL
    _Maître de Conférences de Philosophie à la Faculté des Lettres
                       de l’Université de Paris,
         Professeur à l’Ecole libre des Sciences politiques_.

                       _AUTHORISED TRANSLATION_

                         TO WHICH IS PREFIXED
                            AN INTRODUCTION
                        FREDERIC HARRISON, M.A.
              _Honorary Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford_


                     SWAN SONNENSCHEIN & CO. LIM.
                          PATERNOSTER SQUARE




The publication in 1900 of Professor Lévy-Bruhl’s volume _The
Philosophy of Auguste Comte_ was an event in the history of the
Positive movement. The eminent position in the University of Paris
and in recent philosophical history that is held by Prof. Lévy-Bruhl
gave great interest and importance to a systematic judgment from his
pen such as the present work. The commemorative festival of Comte held
this year, when the statue in the Place de la Sorbonne was unveiled
by the Minister of War, in presence of an international gathering of
delegates from the civilised world, has called fresh attention to
the lifework of the philosopher who died 45 years ago. Accordingly,
a translation of Professor Lévy-Bruhl’s book was urgently demanded.
When I was invited to add to this translation, which I can confidently
recommend to students of philosophy, a slight introductory essay, I
proposed to use a piece which I wrote on the publication of the French
work. It appeared in “The Speaker,” (14 April, 1900;) and, as I see no
reason to modify my opinion of this masterly book, I leave it nearly
as then written. I may add that the learned Professor was a member of
the International Committee with many eminent representatives of the
government of France and of the Universities of the Old and New World,
which in May last raised the monument to Auguste Comte in Paris.

Professor Lévy-Bruhl followed up his _History of Modern Philosophy in
France_ by a substantial work on the philosophy of Auguste Comte. It
forms a volume of the _Bibliothèque de Philosophie Contemporaine_,
which has already devoted four other works to the Positive Philosophy.
It is as well to premise that this treatise dealt solely with the
_philosophy_, not with the polity, or any part of the religious scheme
of Comte. Professor Lévy-Bruhl writes as a student, but not as an
adherent of Auguste Comte. His entire work is rather an exposition, not
a refutation, or a criticism, or an advocacy of Comte’s philosophical
system. But it may be said at once that no one abroad or at home,
certainly neither Mill, nor Lewes, nor Spencer, nor Caird, has so truly
grasped and assimilated Comte’s ideas as M. Lévy-Bruhl has done.

In his _Introduction_ M. Lévy-Bruhl very clearly states the scope of
his work, and his own general attitude. He traces the origin of Comte’s
philosophy in the mental effervescence of the first generation of
the present century towards a reorganisation of society, after the
upheaval left by the Revolution and its consequences. He correctly
states the relation of St. Simon to Comte as being that of an initial
stimulus. The cardinal difference between Comte and all the socialists
and founders of social and religious Utopias consisted in this,
that Comte saw the necessity of a new system of philosophy as the
indispensable preliminary to any reorganisation of society. In 1824, at
the age of twenty-six, Comte wrote:—“Discussions about institutions are
pure folly until the spiritual reconstitution of society is effected
or much advanced.” The construction of an intellectual reorganisation,
before any social restoration was possible, occupied twenty or thirty
years of Comte’s life. And when he opened his _Polity_, or social and
religious scheme, the conditions had much changed: the public and its
interests were no longer what they had been in 1820-30.

M. Lévy-Bruhl effectively disposes of the objection of Littré, to which
Mill gave countenance, that the _Polity_, with the whole of Comte’s
second or social system, was in contradiction with his first and
philosophic system as propounded in the _Philosophy_. As M. Lévy-Bruhl
proves, the six _Opuscules_ dating from 1819 to 1826, some years before
the _Cours_, which only began in 1830 and occupied twelve years,
contain in germ the scheme ultimately elaborated in the _Politique_,
from 1851 to 1854. Besides this, the _Letters to Mill_, which M.
Lévy-Bruhl edited in 1899, and the _Letters to Valat_, which are long
antecedent to the _Politique_, show the same governing design. To the
unity of Comte’s doctrine M. Lévy-Bruhl bears emphatic testimony:—

 “His whole life was the methodical execution of his programme.... He
 had but one system, not two. From the _Opuscules_ of his twentieth
 year, to the _Synthèse_ of his last year, it is the development of one
 and the same conception.”

M. Lévy-Bruhl then explains that, whilst recognising the entire
coherence of Comte’s collective labours, he proposes to confine his
present study to the earlier and principal work, the _Philosophy_,
which in M. Lévy-Bruhl’s opinion is the dominant and more fruitful

This he regards as the representative work of the nineteenth century,
as shown by the intellectual history of the period. He points to its
influence on thought in England, in Europe, and in America. It will
surprise many persons to learn that in M. Lévy-Bruhl’s opinion two
eminent French writers, who assuredly neither were, nor were supposed
to be, Positivists, “have done more for the diffusion of the ideas and
method of Comte than Littré and all the other Positivists together.”
These two are Taine and Renan, much as they differed from Comte’s
actual scheme and doctrines. Renan indeed spoke of Comte as destined
to prove one of the typical names of the century. The present writer
remembers Renan saying to him with a most genial welcome, “I too am a
believer in the religion of humanity.” History, romance, poetry, says
M. Lévy-Bruhl, have all reflected the positive spirit:—

 “Contemporary sociology is the creation of Comte; scientific
 psychology, in a certain degree has sprung from him. It is not rash
 to conclude that the Positivist Philosophy expresses some of the most
 characteristic tendencies of the age.”

It is clear that, if M. Lévy-Bruhl is in no sense an adherent of Comte,
he is a most sympathetic and discerning master of the positive system.

M. Lévy-Bruhl opens his analysis of Comte’s philosophy by examining
his main conceptions:—(1) The law of the three states, theological,
metaphysical, and positive, through which all human ideas pass; (2) the
Classification of the Sciences; (3) the scheme of each science in turn.
And he closes with an explanation of the general doctrines of Humanity,
as the centre of human thought, feeling, and activity.

The law of the three states announced by Comte in 1822, is thoroughly
explained and entirely assimilated by M. Lévy-Bruhl. Its demonstration,
he thinks, is complete when we recognise that, although many orders
of ideas have not finally reached their positive state, all of them
exhibit the tendency to the same evolution, and there is no single
instance of a conception of a positive science ever retrograding
into unverified figment. Of course the terms _theological_ and
_metaphysical_ have to be understood in the sense adopted by
Comte--_i.e._ “anthropomorphic” and “hypothetical,” a bare hypothesis
wearing a scientific form. M. Lévy-Bruhl himself regards the law
as irrefutable and of capital importance, “the corner stone of the
positive system.”

Our professor is equally conclusive in his estimate of Comte’s
classification of the sciences. He quite demolishes the objections
made to it by Mr. Herbert Spencer in his essay with that title. M.
Lévy-Bruhl repeats the criticisms to which Spencer has been exposed in
this country and abroad by Littré, Lewes, Mill, and others. And he has
no difficulty in showing that Mr. Spencer’s objections are due to his
very slight acquaintance with Comte’s text, and his own superficial
study of the English abridgments. In proposing a classification of
the _concrete_ sciences, Mr. Spencer enters on a task which Comte
distinctly repudiates, and which on good grounds he treats as
philosophically impracticable for purposes of evolutionary sequence.
Comte’s strictly _relative_ theory excludes such a scale of _concrete_
science; whilst Spencer’s _absolute_ theory of the universe forces
him to attempt it in vain. If it be objected that Comte’s ascending
scale of the sciences is “anthropocentric,” the answer is that, when
reasonably understood as a philosophic device for sorting human
ideas, not as a statement of _absolute_ truth, the “anthropocentric”
arrangement of human knowledge is the only one which is at once
possible and useful.

It would need a long essay even to sketch M. Lévy-Bruhl’s analysis of
Comte’s conception of _science_, of _law_, and of the six dominant
sciences. He has thoroughly assimilated the positive spirit, that
_science_ implies a co-ordination of _laws_, not an encyclopædia of
facts, that it is _relative_ to our powers of observation and reasoning
and not an _absolute_ explanation of the universe in itself. He goes
through the sciences, physical, social, and moral, in turn, as treated
by Comte, and justly explains that Comte never attempted or conceived
a _vade-mecum_ or handbook of contemporary scientific knowledge, but
a scheme for the co-ordination of general ideas of science. A real
“philosophy of the sciences” is something wholly distinct from a
compendium of all the sciences--a thing which in 1840 was far less
possible than it might be now. Controversialists have reproached Comte
with the obvious fact that his concrete science is now sixty years
old. In dealing with these shallow criticisms, M. Lévy-Bruhl has shown
how little able is any narrow specialist to understand the abstract
conceptions of a real philosopher.

One of the most common of these misconceptions is the ignorant charge
that Comte repudiated “psychology,” in the sense of the laws of man’s
intellectual and moral nature. “_Psychologie_,” as M. Lévy-Bruhl
shows, when Comte wrote, meant Cousin’s futile introspection of the
_ego_. Comte certainly rejected that as idle, as do all competent
psychologists of our time. Psychology, meaning the laws of mind and
will, was not only an indispensable basis of Comte’s system, but its
rational, systematic foundation dates from Comte’s suggestions. His
signal contribution to psychology lies, not in his doctrine of its
physiological basis, but in his referring it to sociology as its guide
and inspiration.

M. Lévy-Bruhl concludes his study with a co-ordinate table of twelve
contrasted propositions of the metaphysical and of the positive
systems respectively. These show how simple and rational a transition
is that between Positivism and the older theological and metaphysical
hypotheses of the universe and of Man. We welcome a book which all
positivists will regard as fair, learned, and instructive, and which
all students of philosophy must regard as a masterly study of a
comprehensive subject.

  _45th Anniversary of the death of Comte_,
  (5th SEPTEMBER, 1902.)


Fifty years have now elapsed since Auguste Comte’s monumental work,
the _Cours de Philosophie Positive_, was first introduced to English
readers by Miss Harriet Martineau. But her work was much more than a
translation. It was a condensed exposition of Comte’s doctrines, done
with such mastery that it obtained the emphatic approval of Comte
himself who, in such matters, was not very easily satisfied.

In Harriet Martineau’s case, both the substance of the book and
the English form in which it was offered to the public, were her
work. In the case of the present volume, while a woman is once more
responsible for the translation, the substance of the book, that is
the comprehensive exposition of Comte’s system in the light of all his
published works, is from the pen of Professor Lévy-Bruhl, and readers
who are acquainted with Harriet Martineau’s book will be all the more
in a position to appreciate the importance of this fresh contribution
to the elucidation of the thought of Auguste Comte.

We fear that the clearness of style, the richness of expression, the
power of condensed thought which characterise our author will be found
to have been often weakened, if not sometimes altogether obliterated,
in this translation. The striking simplicity of the text at first
deceived me into the belief that I could do justice to it. I was often
tempted to sacrifice the literal sense in order to preserve some of the
graces of the original. Yet I hope to be forgiven for having uniformly
preferred to err through too much faithfulness to the letter. My sole
object has been to enable the English reader to get at the meaning of
the text.

But, while I have only too much reason to solicit the indulgence of
my readers, conscious as I am of the many defects of this translation,
I feel that no apology is needed for bringing that of which it is a
translation within the reach of the English-speaking public.

We live in times when the intimate relation between the natural
sciences and social questions is increasingly felt. Old landmarks
are disappearing, new foundations are being laid, new problems are
constantly arising, generating doubts and perplexities for which the
solutions of other days supply no adequate answer.

Meanwhile, as the facts of science reveal to us more of the conditions
of human life, we give, more or less consciously, a larger place to
sociology in our mental preoccupations. Thus renewed interest is being
felt in the writings of the Founder of the Science of Sociology. The
most conflicting schools of thought study the works of Auguste Comte
and many ask: who is that man whose ideas appear to contain a clearer
message to our generation than they did to his own? For such inquirers
Professor Lévy-Bruhl’s book should prove singularly useful and timely.
It is a plain, independent account of what Comte really taught, written
by one possessed of the fullest qualifications for such a task, and
no work of recent date will enable students to understand so clearly
the solution given by the French philosopher to the perplexing moral,
social, and religious problems of our time.

Here, as elsewhere, “il s’agit de tout comprendre, non de tout
admirer,” and Professor Lévy-Bruhl is himself too much of a philosopher
to forget that golden rule; but, nevertheless, by his free, independent
judgment of Comte’s teaching, he helps us to realise to what an extent,
in these days, Comte is inspiring many who are not perhaps conscious of
following him.




  Note by Mr. Frederic Harrison                                       v.

  Translator’s Preface                                             xiii.

  Introduction by Professor Lévy-Bruhl                                 1


  CHAPTER I.--The Philosophical Problem                               23

    “  II.--The Law of the Three States                               35

    “ III.--The Classification of the Sciences                        49

    “  IV.--Science                                                   60

    “   V.--Science (continued) Phenomena and Laws                    79

    “  VI.--Science (continued) Positive Logic                       103


  INTRODUCTION.--The Philosophy of the Sciences                      121

  CHAPTER I.--Mathematics                                            125

    “    II.--Astronomy                                              142

    “   III.--Sciences of the Inorganic World                        154

    “    IV.--Biology                                                171

    “     V.--Psychology                                             188


  CHAPTER I.--Transition from Animality to Humanity--Art
  and Language                                                       213

    “    II.--General Considerations on Social Science               230

    “   III.--Social Statics                                         249

    “    IV.--Social Dynamics                                        260

    “     V.--The Philosophy of History                              276


  CHAPTER I.--The Principles of Ethics                               303

   “  II.--Social Ethics                                             319

   “  III.--The Idea of Humanity                                     334

  CONCLUSION                                                         343




Every new system of philosophy, however original in appearance, is
more or less directly related to the doctrines which have preceded
it. But it is also connected with more general conditions in a manner
no less close, if not so immediately obvious. It depends upon a whole
set of social conditions. The influence of the religious, political,
economical, intellectual phenomena, in a word of the contemporary
_milieu_ upon this system is as indisputable as its own influence
upon the _milieu_. It is therefore not enough to study it as a
self-sufficient whole. This whole which is in itself but a part, must
be restored to its place within the greater whole which alone explains
its essential characteristics.

This rule of historical method, which Comte likes to recall, applies
very well to his own system. In order to reach as complete an
understanding as possible of his doctrine, to appreciate exactly
its general orientation, to understand the importance which the
author attaches in it to this or that part, the study of the text
will not suffice. We must further take into account the historical
circumstances in which the doctrine found its birth, the general
movement of contemporary ideas, and the manifold influences which have
reacted upon the mind of the philosopher.

Now one great fact, above all others, dominates the period in which the
positive philosophy appeared. It is the French Revolution, as Comte
expressly states: without it, neither the theory of progress, nor
consequently social science, nor consequently again positive philosophy
would have been possible. Was it not, moreover, inevitable that this
extraordinary social upheaval should by reflex action have determined a
vast and prolonged movement in philosophical and political speculation?
The effects of this reflex action varied according to the value and the
originality of the minds which experienced them. But in the greatest as
in the most mediocre we recognise infallibly certain common features.
For instance, men and women, in the rising generation at the beginning
of the XIX. century, never fail to put the same question to themselves:
“What social institutions should be established after the Revolution?”
and by this all understand not only the political form of government,
but the very principles of social order: a problem which appeared as
urgent from the practical point of view, as it was supreme from the
theoretical point of view. It is this problem in various forms which
preoccupies Chateaubriand as well as Fourier and Saint-Simon, and
Joseph de Maistre as well as Cousin and Comte.

All agree upon the first point. We must “reconstruct.” An “organic”
period must succeed the “critical” period which has just come to
an end. According to Saint Simon’s striking expression, humanity
is not made to inhabit ruins. The revolutionary storm had been so
formidable, the din so deafening, the social back-wash so violent,
that no one exactly measured the effect which had been produced. Many
institutions which had only been shaken seemed to be overthrown. A
good part of the old régime had even gone through the crisis without
being too greatly damaged, and had survived. But this fact, which was
very well appreciated by the men of 1850, could not yet be discovered
by the first generation of the century. It conscientiously believed
that the old régime had crumbled altogether, and that the task either
of restoring it, or of again laying down the very bases of society
belonged to it. In this the first generation remained faithful to the
spirit of the Revolution, which had considered itself as an effort to
institute an entirely new social and political system, a thought in
which the civilised world had shared. Now, in spite of the labours of
the revolutionary assemblies, in spite of the power and of the great
talent which the Convention had at its command, this ambitious hope
had not been realised. The question remained open after the Directoire
and after the Empire. When the old régime was supposed to have been
destroyed, how was society to be “reorganised”?

Thus, at the opening of the XIX. century, philosophical speculation
was at first to be directed towards the religious and social problems.
Undoubtedly the influence of the uninterrupted advance of the positive
sciences was also felt at the same time. A study of Auguste Comte’s
system could hardly fail to recognise the fact. But, even with Comte,
scientific interest, however active it may be, is subordinated to the
social interest. What he asks of philosophy is the rational settlement
of the bases of modern society. Thus, he means to discover the elements
of a religion which can be substituted to Catholicism, whose mission he
considers as at an end.

“The XIX. century,” Ranke has said, “is especially a century of
restoration.” A deep saying, which exactly expresses one of the leading
features in the historical physiognomy of this century. It is precisely
thus that it was conceived by those who inaugurated it. Such indeed
is the main tendency of the greater number of philosophical doctrines
which have expressed its most intimate characteristics. Only, as is
generally the case, this restoration absorbs and consolidates a large
part of the results acquired during the crisis. At the same time new
problems, raised especially by the development of industry in its
larger aspects, made clear-sighted men feel that the revolutionary
period, however desirable it might be to bring it to a close, was
really only beginning.


Like many of his contemporaries Auguste Comte thought himself
singled out for the mission of formulating the principle of “social
reorganisation.” But this is where he differs from them. Each of the
reformers begins by proposing his own solution of the social problem,
and all his efforts only tend to justify it. As this problem is the
most urgent one in their eyes, it is also the only one which they have
put directly to themselves. Now this method, according to Comte, is a
bad one, and in following it they court certain failure. For a social
problem is such that its solution cannot be obtained immediately; other
problems, more theoretical in character, must be solved beforehand.
It is therefore these which must first be dealt with, if we seek
anything else than the lengthening of the history of political dreams
and of social chimeras. “Institutions,” Comte says, “depend on morals,
and morals, in their turn, depend on beliefs.” Every scheme of new
institutions will therefore be useless so long as morals have not been
“reorganised,” and so long as, to reach this end, a general system
of opinions has not been founded, which are accepted by all minds as
true, as was, for instance, the system of Catholic dogma in Europe in
the Middle Ages. Therefore, either the social problem admits of no
solution--and Comte does not stop at this pessimistic hypothesis,--or
the solution sought for supposes that a new philosophy shall have
been previously established. This is why Comte wishes to be at first
only a philosopher. In 1824 he writes “I regard all discussions upon
institutions as pure nonsense, until the spiritual reorganisation of
society has been brought about, or at least is very far advanced.”[1]

Comte’s originality will therefore lie in taking from science and
philosophy the principles upon which depends the social reorganisation,
which is the real end of his efforts. While having the same aim as the
reformers of his time, he will follow a different path. It is indeed a
polity which he also claims to found, but this polity is _positive_: it
rests upon ethics and philosophy both equally _positive_. Undoubtedly
the polity is the _raison d’être_ of the system, which Comte has
constructed for it. But, without the system, the Polity would remain
arbitrary. It would lack authority and that which would make it
legitimate. Philosophy is no less indispensable to the foundation
of politics, than are politics to the completion and unification of

Whence comes it that Comte has put this great problem, which
preoccupied all the minds of his time, in a form which belongs to
him alone? We cannot here enter into the detailed biographical study
which would throw some light upon this question. Let us only recall
that Comte was born in a Catholic Royalist family. From the age of
thirteen, he tells us, he had broken with the political convictions and
the religious beliefs of his own people. Perhaps, however, the trace
of these beliefs was less completely effaced than he himself thought.
During the whole of his life he professed the liveliest admiration for
Catholicism. On his own confession he was especially inspired in this
by Joseph de Maistre; but, if he so much appreciated the book _du
Pape_, did not his great sympathy partly spring from impressions of
childhood indelibly stamped upon a passionate and sensitive nature?

Whatever may be the case, the first subject which seriously occupied
his mind was mathematics. Being admitted to the _Ecole polytechnique_
a year before the usual age, he began to study the natural sciences.
At the same time he “meditates” upon Montesquieu and Condorcet. He
approaches philosophy properly so called by reading the Scottish
philosophers, Ferguson, Adam Smith, Hume, and he sees very well
that the last one is far above the others. Having left the _Ecole
polytechnique_, he remains in Paris, and while giving lessons to earn
his living, he completes his scientific education with Delambre, de
Blainville, and the Baron Thénard. He reads assiduously Fontenelle,
d’Alembert, Diderot, and especially Condorcet who has distilled
and clarified the philosophy of the XVIII. century. While studying
Descartes and the great mathematicians who came after him, he also
follows attentively the labours of naturalists and of biologists, of
Lamarck, for instance, of Cuvier, of Gall, of Cabanis, of Bichat,
Broussais and of so many others. He understands the philosophical
importance of these new sciences, as already pointed out by Diderot.
But for all that he does not neglect historical and social studies. He
has read the ideologists, among whom he especially esteemed Destutt
de Tracy. Without giving up Montesquieu or Condorcet, he studies the
traditionalists: M. de Bonald, this “energetic thinker” and, more than
the others, Joseph de Maistre who made the deepest and most enduring
impression upon his mind.

Before knowing Saint-Simon then--and his correspondence with Valat
testifies to the fact--Comte already possessed a large portion of
the materials for his future system. Up to this time his labours had
borne upon two distinct orders of subjects. The one scientific proper
(mathematics, physics and chemistry, natural sciences) the other more
properly political (history, politics, and social questions).

In 1818 Comte meets Saint-Simon. He is attracted and surrenders himself
almost unreservedly. For four years he works with Saint-Simon. He
loves and venerates him as a master. He feeds upon his ideas, and
collaborates in his labours and enterprises. He calls himself “pupil
of M. Saint-Simon.” However, from 1822 he detaches himself from this
greatly-admired master, and in 1824 the rupture is complete and final.
What can have happened?

The grievances brought forward by Comte are only of secondary
importance. As a matter of fact master and pupil were bound to separate
sooner or later. There was a radical incompatibility between those two
minds. Saint-Simon, marvellously inventive and original, throws out
a multitude of new ideas and views, of which many will be fruitful.
But he quickly affirms, and proves little. He has not the patience to
continue working long at the same subject, or to probe it to the bottom
in an orderly way. Comte, on the contrary, thinks with Descartes,
that method is essential to science, and that “logical coherence” is
the surest sign of truth. He could not long remain satisfied with
Saint-Simon’s disconnected essays. He could even, without dishonesty,
turn to account the brilliant but disorderly intuition in which his
master abounds and believe that his own doctrine alone gave those
disconnected essays scientific value, because his doctrine alone was
in a position to systematise them and to connect them with their

It would therefore seem that we can admit at the same time that
Saint-Simon’s influence upon Comte was considerable, and, on the other
hand, that Comte’s philosophical originality is no less certain.
Saint-Simon’s influence would chiefly have consisted: 1. in suggesting
to Comte a certain number of general ideas and of views of detail,
especially for his philosophy of history; 2. in showing him how
the two orders of labours which he had been following until then
were to blend into a single one, through the creation of a _science_
which would be social, and consequently of a _polity_ which would be
scientific. Would this synthesis of the two orders of studies which
Comte had undertaken side by side have been produced in his mind, had
he not known Saint-Simon? In any case it would have been produced
more slowly. Let us at least leave Saint-Simon the credit which Comte
himself granted him, that of having “started” his disciple upon the
line best suited to his genius.

The intellectual intimacy between them could never be perfect. If
Comte entered entirely into Saint-Simon’s ideas, (without adopting
them all, however), in return there was an aspect in Comte’s thought
which Saint-Simon scarcely discerned through the lack of a sufficiently
strong scientific education. It is enough to see how he speaks of
the law of universal attraction. Comte must have been scandalised by
it. So, at the very moment when he submits with most enthusiasm and
youthful confidence to Saint-Simon’s influence he does not neglect his
special mathematical studies. “My labours,” he writes to Valat on the
28th of September, 1819, “are and will be in two orders, scientific and
political. I should set little value upon the scientific studies, did I
not continually think of their utility to the human race. As well then
amuse myself in deciphering very complicated puzzles. I have a supreme
aversion for scientific labours whose utility, either direct or remote,
I do not see. But I also confess, in spite of all my philanthropy, that
I should put far less eagerness into political labours, if they did
not stimulate the intellect, if they did not bring my brain strongly
into play, in a word: if they were not difficult.”[2] A year later,
in sending a parcel of political tracts to his friend, in which he
distinguishes what is in his own manner and what is from Saint-Simon,
he says that he is besides very eagerly occupied with mathematical
work. He wants to take part in the competition opened by the Institut;
and his ambition is soon to enter the _Academie des Sciences_.

From 1822, in the celebrated pamphlet entitled _Plan des travaux
scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiser la société_, the synthesis
between the two orders of labours is accomplished in Comte’s mind,
thanks to the double discovery of the classification of the sciences
and of the great law of social dynamics. We know that this work was,
if not the principal reason, at least the occasion of the rupture
between Comte and Saint-Simon. It is the moment which Comte himself
considers to have been decisive in the history of his mind. The whole
of his future doctrine was essentially contained in this pamphlet.
The preface added by Saint-Simon shows that he did not understand its
full bearings. Comte is henceforth his own master. At length he has
found what for several years he had been seeking without being clearly
conscious of it; and the rest of his life is now consecrated to the
work which he has conceived and of which he has just outlined the plan.
Since he has established a philosophical hierarchy of the sciences,
whose summit is crowned by social physics, he has no further occasion
to ask how he can conciliate his scientific labours with his political

“In the interval of my great philosophical labours,” he writes on
the 8th September, 1824, “I propose to publish a few more special
works upon the fundamental points in mathematics, which I have long
conceived, and which I have at last been able to connect with my
general ideas of positive philosophy: so that I shall be free to give
myself up to them without _breaking through the unity of my thought_,
which is the great condition for the life of a thinker.”[3] And in a
very remarkable letter to de Blainville, on the 27th February, 1826,
he explains in the clearest way the generating idea of his system. “My
conception of politics as social physics, and the law which I have
discovered upon the three successive states of the human mind are but
one and the same thought, considered from the two distinct points of
view of method and of science. That being established, I shall show
that this single thought directly and completely satisfies the great
actual social need, _considered under its two aspects of theoretical
need and practical need_. I will therefore show that what on one hand
tends to consolidate the future by re-establishing order and discipline
among intellects, tends, on the other hand to regulate the present, as
far as possible, by furnishing statesmen with _rational_ lines to work

Henceforth Comte’s life was to be but the methodical execution of his
programme. In turn, with perfect regularity, he wrote and published the
philosophy of the sciences and of history, the ethics, the positive
polity and the positive religion. Does this mean that Comte’s thought
remained stationary? Most certainly not. It evolved from 1822 to 1857.
But this evolution followed a curve which an attentive observer might
have sketched beforehand after having read the _Plan des travaux
scientifiques nécéssaires pour réorganiser la société_. Comte had but
one system, not two. From the _opuscules_ of his twentieth year to the
_Synthèse subjective_ of his last year, it is the development of one
and the same conception.


The unity of the doctrine has been disputed. Comte himself
distinguished two successive “careers” in his life. In the first, he
says, without affected modesty, he was Aristotle: in the second he
will be St. Paul. The founder of the philosophy did but pave the way
for the organiser of the religion. “I have systematically devoted my
life to draw at last from real science the necessary basis of a sound
philosophy, according to which I was afterwards to construct the true

Many of Comte’s disciples, even some of the more illustrious, and
at first more fervent, such as Littré, refused to follow him in his
“second career.” Their admiration for the philosopher could not
persuade them to submit to the pontiff.

Littré and his friends were undoubtedly free to follow Comte only up
to a certain point, and, while accepting his philosophy, to reject
his religion. If they had stopped there, Comte could but have blamed
their want of logic and himself have disowned “those incomplete
positivists, who are not more intelligent because they call themselves
intellectual.” But it is they, on the contrary, who accused Comte of
inconsistency and of self contradiction. Comte, they said, betrayed his
own principles. The “subjective method” in his second career ruined the
precious results he had obtained in the first by his objective method.
In refusing to go beyond the _Cours de philosophic positive_ they
remained more faithful to Comte’s master-thought than Comte himself. In
a word, they defended true positivism against its misguided founder.

Comte answered these attacks, which were all the more painful to him
because they came from those whom he had long regarded as his faithful
disciples and his best friends. In the course of this work it will
appear that those attacks were unfounded.[6] Comte’s two methods are
not opposed to each other. They complete each other, as do also the two
“careers” which they characterize.

It is true that during the last two years of his life an increasingly
marked tinge of mysticism spread over his thought and his writings.
His brief friendship with Mme. de Vaux, and the death of this “holy”
friend had stirred very strong emotions within him, and these emotions
with him were transformed into ideas which came to be incorporated into
his system. At the same time he laboured to organise the Religion of
Humanity. He claimed to secure for it an authority over souls at least
equal to that which had been enjoyed by Catholicism at the period of
its greatest power. The exaltation of his sentiments, the preoccupation
of the new religion which was to be established, the ever-present
consciousness of his sacerdotal mission, all this was necessarily bound
to react upon the doctrine which he had founded in the preceding period.

Thus the philosophy of the sciences and of history is no longer
presented to us in the same way in the _Politique positive_ as it is
in the _Cours de philosophie positive_. But it is designedly so. The
difference in tone and the difference of method in the setting forth
is explained, according to Comte, by the different object which he
has in view in each of these works.[7] Essentially, the philosophical
doctrine has not varied. All we can grant to Littré is that by the fact
of its being presented from the religious, that is to say from the
synthetic, point of view in the _Politique positive_, it undergoes an
apparent alteration. If we only knew the doctrine through this work we
should not get the perfectly clear view of it given in the _Cours de
philosophie positive_. Comte himself often advises the reader of the
_Politique_ to refer to his “great fundamental treatise.”

But, on the other hand, in carefully reading the _Cours_, we find
numerous indications of the future structure of the Politique positive.
Comte might have been content with a reference to the _Cours_, to
answer the objections of his dissenting disciples. He did better. He
reprinted at the end of the fourth volume of his _Politique positive_
six pamphlets written in his youth from 1818 to 1826. In them, not
only is his philosophy already sketched in its main outlines with
sufficient precision; but the idea that philosophy is a preliminary
work, a simple prelude and that the essential work, the supreme end,
is the positive religion which shall arise upon this philosophy--this
idea is the very soul of these pamphlets. The proof is given. Upon
the question of the unity of his doctrine Comte wins the case against


In his correspondence with Stuart Mill which takes place between 1841
and 1846, that is to say which embraces the end of his first career
and the beginning of the second, Comte has repeatedly explained how
the two successive portions of his work are connected together, and in
what they are distinct. It may not be useless to quote his own words.
“The second half of my philosophical life,” he says, “must differ
notably from the first, especially in that feeling must take, if not
an obvious, at least a real part in it, one as great as that of the
intellect. The great work of systematization which has been reserved
for our century, must indeed embrace equally, both feelings and ideas
as a whole. Truly it was the ideas which had first to be systematized,
under pain of failing to bring about a complete regeneration by falling
into a more or less vague mysticism. That is why my fundamental work
had to appeal almost exclusively to the intellect. It was to be a work
of research, and accessorily of discussion, destined to discover and
to constitute the true universal principles, in rising by hierarchical
degrees from the simplest scientific questions to the highest
social speculations.”[8] But this being done, Comte passed to the
systematisation of the feelings, “a necessary sequel to that of the
ideas, and an indispensable basis for that of the institutions.”

It is, therefore, an entirely new work. Comte can imagine without
difficulty that it might have been reserved for another than himself.
His personal mission might have been limited to the foundation of the
philosophy which puts an end to the “_mental_ anarchy.” The ethics and
the religion which were to be established upon this philosophy, to put
an end to _moral and political_ anarchy, would, in this case, have been
the work of one of his successors. Stubborn labour and good fortune
allowed Comte to undertake this work himself. But even in 1845, he says
how “under the holy influence of Mdme. de Vaux,” he had very clearly
seen his two careers as distinct and as one, these two careers of which
the second was to transform philosophy into religion, as the first had
changed science into philosophy.

The object of the present work is to study Comte’s philosophy properly
so called, leaving aside the transformation of this philosophy into
religion. The choice which we thus make is not an arbitrary one, since,
in order to justify it, we have the distinction formally established
by Comte himself, when he admits that his philosophy and his religion
might have been the work of two different persons.

It will perhaps be asked in what our position differs from that of
Littré, and of the “incomplete positivists.” By the difference, we
shall answer, which separates the historical from the dogmatic point of
view. It is from the latter point of view that Littré and his friends
reject the “systematisation of the feelings,” the subjective method
and the religion of Humanity. It is as positivists that they connect
themselves with the first half of the doctrine, and that they exclude
the second half. But we are here working from the historical point of
view, and the historian, while using his right to define the limits of
his work has nothing to exclude from the doctrine which he sets forth.
As a matter of fact far from claiming with Littré that the second part
of Comte’s work weakens and contradicts the first, we have recognised
that they both form a whole of which he had drawn out the plan in his
early writings, and that he was not wrong in taking as an epigraph for
his _Politique positive_ the fine words of the poet-philosopher: _What
is a great life? A thought of youth fulfilled in riper age._

But then, why only study the first of the two careers, why not respect
the integrity of that whole which, according to us, Littré ought not to
have disregarded?--We do respect it, for we do not arbitrarily exclude
from the doctrine any of the parts which Comte included in it. If we
make the philosophy proper the sole object of this study, in it we
shall ever have before our minds the idea of the greater whole in which
Comte placed it. On this condition alone, our study will be accurate.
But once this condition is fulfilled we do not consider that we exceed
our right, in concentrating our effort upon the philosophy.

There are two different ways of conceiving the history of a doctrine.
The historian may place himself exactly in the mental attitude of
the philosopher whom he studies, and think again after him his
leading ideas, as indeed he should do; but further, he can judge,
just as the philosopher himself does, of the respective importance of
problems, without allowing himself to distinguish what is secondary
from what is essential. The historical work then assumes the shape
of a “monography,” or of an “intellectual biography;” or else, while
endeavouring to penetrate to the heart of the system, in order to
grasp it in its principles, the historian may nevertheless place
himself outside it and above it, and try to “situate” it in the
general evolution of philosophy. Then the system is better understood
in its entirety, since we can see its relations with the preceding,
contemporary and following doctrines. At the same time it becomes
possible to separate what is of enduring philosophical interest, from
what was merely of secondary or momentary importance, although the
author may have judged otherwise. To borrow from Comte a distinction
which he often uses, the former of these methods is better suited to
erudition, the latter to history.

Applied to the study of his doctrine, the first method would have us
to consider positive philosophy with him as simply preparatory to the
Religion of Humanity, which was the first and the last goal of his
efforts. The writer should undoubtedly give a large place to this
“préambule indispensable,” to this great fundamental work, in which
Comte lays down the intellectual bases of his political and religious
system. But he ought nevertheless to subordinate it to this system and
place in the front rank the “social reorganisation,” the dogma, the
worship and the _régime_ of the Religion of Humanity, the institution
of a spiritual power, in fact the whole of that portion of Comte’s work
in which he takes up again “the Catholic programme of the Middle Ages,”
confident of fulfilling it better than Catholicism itself ever did.

Now it is not in this part of his work that Comte shows himself most
original, and that his thought has been most fruitful. The problem of
“social reorganisation” does not belong to him alone. Its presence
is felt, so to speak, in the air at the time that Comte’s youth was
passing away. The common aspirations of the generation which grew
up with him were to re-establish order and to fix the conditions of
progress, to determine the relations of Ethics to Politics, and to
put a new religion in the place apparently left free by Catholicism.
The _Politique positive_ which claims to satisfy these aspirations,
corresponds in Comte’s system (all proper allowance being made for
the substance of the doctrines) to what the Saint Simon school had
already attempted to do before 1830. It comes thirty years later
than the previous attempts of the same kind, because Comte wanted
to found his “social organisation” upon philosophy and morality, and
because this speculative effort occupied the better part of his youth
and of his maturity. But it originated in fact in the first third of
the century as is proved by the pamphlets reprinted by Comte. When it
appears between 1850 and 1857, a new generation brought up in other
political and social circumstances gives it only passing attention.
Other problems command attention more forcibly, and claim a more
urgent solution. The philosophy of history no longer excites the same
passionate interest. Men are less anxious to see the birth of a new
religion, and Catholicism has proved that its vitality is still very

Therefore neither Comte’s genius, nor the precautions which he thought
he had taken to place his “social reorganisation” upon a rational
basis, could shield it from the common fate which sooner or later
overtakes all attempts similar to his own. Undoubtedly the _Politique
positive_ and the other works of Comte’s second career are full of
just and deep views. Whatever may be the subject upon which a great
mind has worked it is always interesting and profitable to see what
the reflection of that mind has discovered in it. But, in fact, that
portion of his work, which to him was the most important, is far from
maintaining this position in the eyes of the historian.

By his _Politique positive_ Comte only represents his generation. By
his philosophy properly so called he is a “representative man” of
his entire century. Is it necessary to prove this? The intellectual
history of our age witnesses to it at every step. Of all the systems
which found birth in France in the XIX. century, this one alone found
a hearing beyond the frontiers and left a deep impression upon foreign
thinkers. Comte’s philosophy was at first received in England and in
Holland even with more sympathy than in France. John Stuart Mill,
Herbert Spencer, George Lewes, George Elliot and a number of English
philosophers and writers drew more or less of their inspiration from
it. To this day, it is defended by men of great talent in England. It
is true that no German philosopher had the same personal relations
with Comte as John Stuart Mill, but as a matter of fact, for thirty
years the positive spirit has gradually gained ground in the German
Universities. To be convinced of this, it is enough to see how
metaphysics are set aside in them and to observe the lines on which the
moral and social sciences are taught. In the Latin countries of the
two hemispheres Comte’s influence has been exercised with even greater
strength, in Spain, in Portugal, in South America; and North America
has also its Positivist societies. In his life time, Comte had already
found there some of his most devoted disciples. In France the principal
“vehicles” of Positivist philosophy have been the works of two writers
who, in their time, were those most beloved by the public; Renan and
Taine, although they were not positivists, have perhaps done more for
the diffusion of the ideas and method of Comte than Littré and all the
other positivists together.

It is true that Taine owes a great deal to Spinoza and to Hegel, and
more still to Condillac. Among his contemporaries he seems to be
especially connected with John Stuart Mill and Spencer. But through
them it is from Comte that he proceeds, and there we find the origin
of the greater number of his leading ideas. His conception of literary
history, of criticism, of the philosophy of art, in a word, his effort
to bring into the study of the moral sciences the method used in the
natural sciences, all this is chiefly derived from Auguste Comte. The
_Histoire de la Litterature anglaise_ is, in a sense, an application
of the positive theory according to which the evolution of the arts
and literatures is governed by necessary laws which constitute its
solidarity with that of morals, of institutions and of beliefs. The
theory of the “moment” and of the “milieu” which is the chief one in
Taine’s work was certainly not unknown in the XVIII. century. But it
is Comte who generalised it by bringing Lamarck nearer to Montesquieu;
it is he who taught Taine the general definition, at once biological
and social, of the idea of the “milieu.”

Renan spoke of Comte with extreme severity, and not without some
disdain. He owned, however, that later on Comte’s name would be one
of the most representative ones of this century, and he had himself
strongly felt his influence. We must certainly take into account all
the other French and foreign sources from which this mind at once so
supple and so large, drew inspiration. But is it not from Comte, as
much as from Hegel, that he learnt to regard history as the “sacred
science of humanity,” to expect from it what before was demanded
from theology, to transform the ancient dogmas of Providence and of
optimism into the belief in the positive idea of progress, and finally
to conceive that truth and goodness are not immutable and immoveable
realities, but are realised by degrees through the effort of successive

These two examples will suffice to show the point of extreme diffusion
which has been reached by the positive spirit.

This spirit is so intimately mingled with the general thought of our
time that we scarcely notice it, just as we do not pay attention to
the air we breathe. History, romance, and, even poetry have reflected
its influence and, being charged with it, have contributed to its
diffusion. Contemporary Sociology is the creation of Comte; scientific
Psychology, in a certain degree has also sprung from him. From all
these signs, it is not rash to conclude that positive philosophy
expresses some of the most characteristic tendencies of the age.

We are therefore conforming to historical reality when we attach
ourselves, in Comte’s work, to the philosophy which constitutes its
most original, and up to the present time its most fruitful and living
part. It matters little that he himself should only have considered it
as a preliminary portion of his work. How often has the speculative
effort made by a great thinker for the purpose of establishing
practical conclusions proved to be of more enduring interest than those
conclusions themselves!


[1] Lettres à Valat, p. 156-7 (25 Décembre 1824).

[2] Lettres à Valat, p. 99.

[3] Lettres à Valat, p. 128.

[4] Revue Occidentale, 1881, I, p. 288.

[5] Politique positive, II, p. XX.

[6] V. book, I, ch. vi. p.

[7] Correspondence de J. S. Mill et de Comte, Lettre de Comte du 14
juillet 1845, p. 456-7.

[8] Correspondance de Comte and de Stuart Mill, p. 456-7. Lettre de
Comte du 14 juillet 1845.




According to Comte, philosophy is destined to serve as a basis for
morality, for politics and for religion. It is not an end in itself but
a means to reach an end not otherwise attainable. Had Comte thought
it possible to reorganise society without first reorganising morals,
and to reorganise morals without first reorganising beliefs, he would
not perhaps have written the six volumes of the “Cours de Philosophie
positive” which occupied him from 1830 to 1842. He would have gone
straight to what was of supreme interest.

He early became convinced that the shortest way would not be the
best. In his view, all endeavour at religious, moral, or political
reorganisation, must be vain so long as _mental_ reorganisation has not
taken place. It is therefore with a new philosophy that he must begin.
Indispensable to the social end which Comte has in view, philosophy
becomes, at least provisionally, an end in itself.

Comte is going to endeavour to reorganise beliefs, that is to say, to
substitute a demonstrated faith to the revealed faith whose force is
now spent. This demonstrated faith will have nothing in common with
the natural religion of the XVIII. century, which was at bottom but
a weak and degenerate form of belief in the supernatural. Under the
metaphysical garb of Deism we still recognise theological thought.
On the contrary the demonstrated faith will have its origin and
its justification in positive science. The two words “faith” and
“demonstration” appear to clash with each other. But the contradiction
lies merely on the surface. For we are still concerned with “faith”
since the great majority of men will always have to take on faith the
conclusions of positive philosophy.

The number of men with sufficient leisure and enough culture to examine
these conclusions and to go into their proofs will always be small.
The attitude of the others must be one of submission and respect. But,
differing on this point from the religious dogmas which humanity has
known until now; the new faith will be “demonstrated.” It will contain
nothing which has not been established and controlled by scientific
methods, nothing which goes beyond the domain of the relative, nothing
which at any moment cannot be proved to a mind capable of following the

This form of “faith” already exists in the case of a great number of
scientific truths. Thus all men to-day believe in the theory of the
solar system which we owe to Copernicus, to Galileo and to Newton.
Yet how many are in a position to understand the demonstrations upon
which this theory rests? They know, however, that what here is a matter
of faith to them, is a matter of science to others, and would be so
equally for themselves had they gone through the necessary studies.
_Faith_ therefore signifies here not indeed a voluntary abdication of
the intellect in presence of a mystery which surpasses its power of
comprehension, but a submission to fact, which in no way encroaches
upon the rights of reason. Every man is not capable, at any moment, of
exercising this right to criticise. In practice, Comte will severely
restrict the use of it.[9] But in theory this right belongs to all men,
and must ever remain unalterable. In the last place the legitimate
existence of the demonstrated faith rests upon this proposition: “If
all minds were in a condition to examine the dogmas of that faith,
all, without exception, would understand the demonstration, and would
agree with it.”

The words “belief” and “faith” must not be misunderstood. In the
“reorganisation of beliefs” which he undertakes, Comte only concerns
himself with beliefs capable of demonstration. He is here faithful to
the thought of Saint Simon, who understood “religion” chiefly as a
basis of political organisation. At any rate, in the early part of his
philosophical career Comte does not bring into “faith” the mystical,
sentimental and non-intellectual elements which this word usually
implies and which so often oppose it to “reason.” The word signifies
for Comte that which man believes concerning _what may be for him a
subject of knowledge_. Until now these beliefs have set forth a more
or less mythical or metaphysical explanation of the universe and of
man, taught by priests and philosophers. But this no longer satisfies
the human mind. By degrees positive science, which works on a totally
different plan, substitutes a knowledge of the laws of phenomena to
those “explanations.” From this moment the problem thus presents itself
to Comte: To establish by rational means a system of universally
accepted truths concerning man, society and the world.

Comte thus takes for granted: 1st, that the “opinions,” the “beliefs”
and the “conceptions” relating to these matters, are to-day
“anarchical”: 2nd, that their natural and normal condition is to be

There is no need to prove the first part; a glance at contemporary
society is enough. The confused disturbing movements which fill it with
trouble and agitation, and which, unless rational harmony be at last
established, threaten its destruction are not due merely to political
causes. They proceed from moral disorder. And this in turn proceeds
from intellectual disorder, that is to say from a lack of principles
common to all minds, and from the absence of universally admitted
conceptions and beliefs. For in order that a human society may subsist,
a certain harmony of sentiment or even common interests among its
members will not suffice. Above all things, intellectual concord which
finds expression in a body of common beliefs is necessary.

If, therefore, a society be a prey to chronic disorders, which
political remedies appear powerless to cure, one has every right to
believe that the deep-rooted evil has its origin in intellectual
disorganisation. All other troubles are merely symptoms. This,
according to Comte, is precisely the state of contemporary society.
It has neither “intellectual” nor “spiritual” government, and does
not even feel the want of it. The minds of men recognise no common
discipline. Not a principle subsists which negative and “corrosive”
criticism has not attacked. The individual erects himself as a judge
of all things--philosophy, ethics, politics, religion. The opinion
which he adopts most frequently without any special qualification for
so doing, and according to his passions, always appears to him to have
as much right to be admitted as those of other men. He claims to be
amenable to no one for his thoughts. And this scattering (later on
Comte will say insurrection) of intelligences is what he calls a state
of _anarchy_.

But, we may say, does not this state represent the ordinary condition
of human societies? Perhaps the “organic” state only appears
occasionally and as an exception? Such a supposition is groundless.
For, if such were the case societies could not subsist, and above all
could not develop. We must admit, on the contrary, that periods of
intellectual anarchy form the exception, and that in a normal state of
society men are united by their unanimous submission to a sufficiently
large body of principles and beliefs. History confirms this view. The
immobility of civilisation in the Far-East is especially due to the
intellectual stability which distinguishes it from our own condition.
The societies of Antiquity (Grecian and Roman), rested upon a
conception of man, of citizenship and of the world, which, as a matter
of fact, scarcely varied during the whole period of their existence.
Lastly, in the Middle-ages, Christianity had constituted an admirable
spiritual authority. The organisation of Catholicism, “a masterpiece of
political sagacity,” had established a body of beliefs which all minds
accepted with complacent docility. It is the decomposition of this
great system which has produced the majority of the evils with which
we are now struggling. Mental anarchy is therefore truly an abnormal
state, a pathological fact, what Comte will call later on the “western
disease,” a mortal disease if it is to be prolonged. Either modern
society must perish, or minds must regain their stable equilibrium by
submission to common principles.

The problem of the organisation of beliefs would seem to come under
two heads. In the first place we have the philosophical problem: how
to establish a system of principles and beliefs capable of being
universally admitted; and, in the second place, a social problem:
how to bring all minds into the new faith. But this distinction only
appears on the surface. As a matter of fact, the solution of the
first problem will necessarily imply that of the second. Does not the
principal cause for the lack of common discipline lie in the disorder
which troubles the mind of each individual? If intellects are divided
among themselves it is because each intellect is divided against
itself. Let one of them succeed in establishing a perfect harmony
within itself, and by the mere force of logic, this harmony, by gradual
diffusion will be communicated to the others--once true philosophy is
established, the rest will only be a matter of time. It will therefore
suffice to examine the opinions and beliefs which actually exist in
_one_ mind, and to inquire into the conditions necessary to substitute
in it harmony to anarchy, or in a word, to realise within it a _perfect
logical coherence_.

As Descartes, in order to test all his knowledge, had only to examine
the sources from which it originated, so Comte, in order to verify the
logical compatibility of his opinions, will content himself with the
consideration of the methods which have furnished him with them. If he
discovers methods which mutually tend to exclude each other, he will
have found the cause of the mental disorder which gives birth to all
the evils we see troubling modern society. At the same time he will
have discovered the remedy which will bring about the disappearance
of those contradictions. The human mind is so constituted, that the
first thing it requires is unity. Understanding is spontaneously
systematic. Opinions merely in juxtaposition in the mind but
logically irreconcilable cannot satisfy it. As a matter of fact, the
contradiction, even when it is ignored, nevertheless impresses itself.
Whether we know it or not, each of our opinions implies a complexus
of connected opinions all arrived at by the same method as the one in
question; and this complexus is itself part of the more considerable
whole which finally completes itself in a comprehensive conception of
the world given in experience.

Now Comte saw in himself, as in his contemporaries, two general
methods, two “modes of thought” which cannot coexist without
contradiction, although neither one nor the other has obtained a full
mastery up to the present time. Concerning several categories of
phenomena he thinks as a scholar trained in the school of Hobbes, of
Galileo, of Descartes and of their successors. He does not seek to
explain them by causes. When, by means of observation or deduction, he
has arrived at a knowledge of their laws he remains satisfied. For the
knowledge of these laws allows him in certain cases to intervene in
the phenomena, and to substitute to the natural order an artificial
order better suited to his requirements. It is thus that mechanical,
astronomical, physical, chemical and even biological phenomena are
objects of _relative_ and _positive_ science for him to-day.

But, as soon as the question is one of facts which originate in the
human conscience, or which are connected with social life and with
history, an opposite tendency becomes predominant. Instead of solely
seeking for the laws of phenomena, our mind desires to explain them.
It wants to find the essence and the cause. It speculates upon the
human soul, upon the relation of that soul to the other realities of
the universe, upon the end which society should have in view, upon the
best possible government, upon the social contract, etc. All these
questions arise from the “metaphysical” mode of thought, and this mode
is formally incompatible with the preceding one. Yet we see both of
them subsisting in our minds to-day.

Social dynamics will show how this condition must have been produced.
But whatever the historical reasons may be, the reality is only too
evident. The human mind to-day can neither adhere entirely to nor give
up entirely one or the other of these two modes of thought. Undoubtedly
it feels that the conquests of positive science are “irrevocable.”
For example, how could it return to a metaphysical or theological
explanation of astronomical or physical phenomena? But, on the other
hand, metaphysical and theological conceptions seem to it no less
indispensable. It does not believe it could do without them. And this
is natural. For, to satisfy the desire for unity, which is its supreme
requirement, the human mind demands a conception of the whole which
embraces all the orders of phenomena, what Kant called a totalizing of
experience, in a word a “philosophy.”

Now, up to the present time, the positive mode of thought has not
shown itself in a position to respond to this demand. It has only
produced individual sciences. Positive Science has been “special” and
fragmentary, always attached to the investigation of a more or less
restricted group of phenomena. With a laudable prudence, which has made
her strength, she has applied herself solely to works of analysis and
partial synthesis. She has never ventured upon a synthesis of the whole
of the real within our reach. Until now theologies and metaphysics
alone have made the effort, and this office is, still to-day, the chief
reason of their existence, this office must be fulfilled. The human
mind is carried, by a spontaneous and necessary movement, towards the
point of view of the universal. Sooner than leave the philosophical
problems without an answer, it would remain attached indefinitely
to the solutions, chimerical as they are, which the theologies and
metaphysics offer him. In short, in the present state of things, the
positive mind is “real” but “special.” The theologico-metaphysical mind
is “universal” but “fictitious.” We can neither sacrifice the “reality”
of science, nor the “universality” of philosophy. Which is the way out
of this difficulty?

Three solutions alone are conceivable:

1. To find a reconciliation which will make it possible for the two
modes of thought to coexist without contradiction:

2. To re-establish unity by making the theologico-metaphysical method

3. To re-establish unity by making the positive method universal:


The first solution at first sight appears to be the most acceptable.
Why should not the positive investigation of the divers orders of
natural phenomena be reconciled with a theological or metaphysical
conception of the universe? Nothing prevents one from conceiving the
phenomena as governed by invariable laws, and from seeking at the same
time, by another method, for the reason which renders nature in general
intelligible. Positive science liberated at last from theology and
metaphysics, would assure them of the independence which she claims for
herself. Thus, with growing precision would be fixed the boundaries on
the one hand of the domain proper of positive science, and on the other
that of the speculation which goes beyond experience.

This reconciliation, says Comte, has for a long time been considered
legitimate, because for a long time it was indispensable. Up to the
present time Theology and Metaphysics have been the only comprehensive
conceptions of the world which the human mind has formed. They have
fulfilled a necessary function. Moreover, without them positive science
could neither have originated nor have been developed. But, as she is
their heiress, she is also their antagonist. Her progress necessarily
involves their downfall. The parallel history of religions and
metaphysical dogmas on the one hand and of positive knowledge on the
other shows that the conciliation between them has never been a lasting

Not that the antagonism between the two modes of thought can be
solved by a supreme dialectical struggle in which the theological and
metaphysical dogmas would be worsted. It is not thus that dogmas come
to an end. They disappear, according to Comte’s striking expression,
_by desuetude_, as is the case with forsaken methods. As a matter of
fact, have they not been as methods for the human mind, which sought
within a single point of view to embrace the universality of things
before they had been sufficiently studied? Man demanded from his
imagination at first sight an absolute knowledge of the real, which
reason could only give him at a later stage, on a very modest scale,
entirely relative and after the patient labour of the sciences. But by
degrees, as he has advanced in the positive study of phenomena, he
has forsaken the theological and metaphysical “explanations.” Without
relinquishing altogether the search after causes, he has taken the
habit of relegating them to more and more remote regions. Already, in
what concerns phenomena whose concept has reached a positive stage we
can very well do without any assumption of causes. It suffices for us
to represent these phenomena to ourselves as subject to laws. When all
the phenomena of all orders are habitually conceived in this way, when
the idea of their laws, whatever they may be, will have become equally
familiar to us, the metaphysical mode of thought will have disappeared.

In a word, as soon as the whole of science shall have become positive,
philosophy will necessarily be positive also: For we only have at our
disposal _one_ point of view concerning things. All our real knowledge
bears upon phenomena and their laws. If, therefore, considered one
by one, all the orders of phenomena are conceived according to the
positive mode of thought, how could it be that considered together,
and in their totality, they should be conceived according to a mode of
thought completely different, and even inconsistent with the former one?

As a matter of fact, the coexistence of these two modes of thought
lasts so long as the positive spirit has not reached its complete
expansion, so long as a more or less considerable portion of natural
phenomena is still explained by their essence, their cause, or their
end. But this cannot be indefinitely prolonged. The more the positive
spirit progresses, the more the theological and metaphysical conception
of the world loses ground, and it becomes more evident that we must
make our choice. The unity of the understanding the _perfect logical
coherence_, are at this price.

The conciliation being set aside, the alternative either to think
solely or not at all, according to the positive mode, presents itself.
The traditionalists, and especially Joseph de Maistre, saw this aspect
of the problem very clearly. Comte gives them very great credit for
it. De Maistre admits no salvation for our society except in the
complete return to the theological mode of thought. He thus attacks
at its very source, or to put it more plainly, in its many sources,
the spirit of modern philosophy. He does not spare Locke any more than
the philosophers of the XVIII. century who proceed from him, Bacon any
more than Locke; the promoters of the Reformation any more than Bacon.
He understood that the XVIII. century came as a mighty conclusion of
which the XVI. and XVII. centuries were the premisses, and that the
great destructive syllogism had originated in a work of decomposition
which began as early as the XIV. century. He is therefore perfectly
consistent with himself, when he endeavours to combat this diabolical
work, and to bring Europe back to the mental and religious condition
of the Middle-ages. The re-establishment of the spiritual supremacy of
the Pope would put an end to mental and moral anarchy. The catholic
doctrine would restore to men’s minds that unity which is their supreme

This solution fulfils ideally the conditions of the problem, but,
as a matter of fact, the solution is impracticable. The tide of
history cannot flow back. In order to bring men’s minds once again
under the sway of that spiritual power which they freely accepted in
the Middle-ages, we should also have to reconstitute the totality
of the conditions in which they lived at that time. How can we wipe
from the pages of history the discovery of America, the invention of
printing, and so many other great social facts? How can we pretend that
Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and all the heralds of
positive Science never existed? And if, presuming what is impossible,
we should succeed in restoring the mental and moral unity of Christian
society in the Middle-ages, how could we prevent the natural laws
which have once brought about its decomposition, from producing again
the same result?

We are thus necessarily brought to the third and last solution.
Since the conciliation between the positive mode of thought and
the other one is impossible; since the exclusive ascendency of the
theologico-metaphysical mode of thought is out of the question; since
when all is said the human mind needs a philosophy, it follows that
that philosophy can only proceed from the positive mode of thought
itself. There is nothing, _a priori_, to prevent this solution from
being realised. For the last positions of the theologico-metaphysical
spirit are surely not impregnable. This spirit, “fictitious” in
its essence, never could become “real.” The positive spirit is
only accidentally “special.” It is quite capable of acquiring the
universality which it lacks. The new philosophy would then be founded,
and the problem of _perfect logical coherence_ would be solved.

The whole difficulty thus appears to be in “universalising” the
positive mode of thought. To do this it must be extended to those
phenomena which are still habitually conceived according to the
theologico-metaphysical mode, that is to say, to the moral and
social phenomena. This will be Comte’s crowning discovery. He will
found “social physics.” By so doing he will take from theology and
metaphysics the last reason of their existence. He will make possible
the transition from a positive science to an equally positive
philosophy. Thus will be realised “the unity of the understanding,” and
this mental harmony will carry with it as its consequence the moral and
religious harmony of humanity.


[9] cf. infra. book iii. ch. v. p.



In Comte’s system the constitution of sociology may be considered at
the same time as a terminus and as a starting point. One sees the
positive method attaining with it to the order of the highest, the most
“noble,” the most complicated phenomena: in this sense sociology is the
term reached by the positive spirit in its ascent. It thus reaches the
summit of the hierarchy of the sciences, and henceforth rules over them
all. On the other hand, positive philosophy, possible from this moment,
will make this a starting point for establishing the principles of
morality and of polity.

“Through the foundation of sociology,” says Comte at the beginning of
the _Cours_, “positive philosophy will acquire that universal character
which it still lacks, and will thus become qualified to take the place
of theological and metaphysical philosophy, whose only real property
to-day is this universality,”[10] and at the end of the _Cours_ he
concludes: “The creation of sociology endows with fundamental unity the
entire system of modern philosophy.”[11]

This creation, upon which everything else depended, dates from the time
when Comte discovered _the law of the three states_ as it is called.
For, once this law is established, “social physics” ceases to be a mere
philosophical conception, and becomes a positive science. This law
had been anticipated and even already formulated in the XVIII. century
by Turgot, then by Condorcet, and by Dr. Burdin. Comte, nevertheless,
takes to himself the merit of the discovery. As he is generally most
precise in doing full justice to his “precursors,” we must admit that,
according to him, none of them had seen the scientific importance of
this law. It certainly is one thing to gather the notion of a law out
of a number of facts, and another to understand its capital importance,
and to discern in it the fundamental law which governs the whole of the
evolution of humanity.

This is the way in which Comte enounces it, in the _Plan des travaux
scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiser la société_ (1822).

“According to the very nature of the human intellect every branch of
our knowledge must necessarily pass successively in the course of its
progressive development, through three different theoretical states:
the theological or fictitious state, the metaphysical or abstract
state, finally the scientific or positive state.”[12]

In the first lesson of the _Cours de philosophie positive_, after
having reproduced this statement, Comte adds: “In other words the
human mind, by its nature, in each one of its researches makes use
successively of three methods of philosophising, essentially different
and even opposed to each other: firstly, the theological method,
next, the metaphysical, and lastly the positive. Hence we find three
kinds of philosophies, or general systems of conceptions of the
totality of phenomena, which mutually exclude each other. The first
is the necessary starting-point of human intelligence, the third, its
fixed and final state; the second is solely destined to serve as a

The words “theological” and “metaphysical” are here taken in a
particular sense, strictly defined.

Comte calls “theology” a general system of conceptions concerning the
universality of phenomena, which explains the appearance of these
phenomena by the will of gods. He has not in his mind theological
speculation as one usually understands it, as a rational or sacred
science. He does not in the least dream of a study of revealed truth.
He only designated by this name an interpretation of natural phenomena
by means of supernatural and arbitrary causes. Theological--that is
to say--fictitious. Elsewhere Comte calls this mode of explanation
“imaginary” or “mythological.” It is in this sense that he could ask
if each one of us did not remember having been in regard to his most
important notions, a theologian in his infancy, a metaphysician in his
youth, and a physicist in his manhood?[14] Comte does not allude to the
religious traditions which the child receives from his parents, but
indeed to the spontaneous tendency which causes him in the first place
to explain natural phenomena by wills, and not by laws. Theology is
here synonymous with anthropomorphism in the conception of causes.

Similarly Comte does not take the word “metaphysics” in the most usual
extension of its meaning. The science of Being as such, the science of
Substance or of first Principles, is not here in question, at least
directly. He only refers to a certain mode of explaining phenomena
given in our experience. For example, in physics, the hypothesis of an
ether to explain optical and electrical phenomena is metaphysical. So
it is in physiology with the hypothesis of a vital principle, or, in
psychology, with the hypothesis of a soul. “Metaphysical or abstract,”
says Comte. At bottom this mode of explanation is no other than the
preceding one, but more and more pale and colourless, vanishing, so to
speak, as natural phenomena, better observed, are referred no longer
to capricious wills, but to invariable laws.

Let us then be careful not to give here to the words “metaphysics”
and “theology” their full meaning. For instance, to conclude from the
law of the three States that the evolution of humanity ever carries
it further from theology, to end in a final state wherein religion
should have no place is singularly to misapprehend Comte’s doctrine.
On the contrary the evolution of humanity is leading it to a state
which will be pre-eminently religious. In it religion will regulate
the whole life of man. Comte perhaps would not refuse to define man,
as has often been done, as a religious animal. The history of humanity
may be represented, in a sense, as an evolution which proceeds from
primitive religion (fetichism) to final religion (positivism). But the
object of the law of the three States is not to express the religious
evolution of humanity. It is only concerned with the progress of the
human intellect. It sets forth the successive philosophies which that
intelligence has been obliged by turn to adopt in the interpretation of
natural phenomena. It is, in a word, the general law of the evolution
of _thought_.

Those who made a mistake about it probably only considered this law in
the first lesson of the _Cours_, where it is separately presented. But
the error is no longer possible when one refers to the fourth volume
of the _Cours_, where the law is put in its place, in social dynamics,
especially in the fifty-eighth lesson, in the sixth volume.

It is not, however, without reason that Comte set forth this law in
the first pages of his _Cours de philosophie positive_. In sociology
as he conceives it, the law of the intellectual evolution of humanity,
that is to say the law of the three States is the essential law of
dynamics, and therefore of the whole of social science. For, of all
the social factors of which the concomitant and joint evolution
constitutes the progress of humanity, the intellectual factor is the
most important. It is the dominant one, in the sense that the others
depend far more upon it than it does upon them. The history of art, of
institutions, of morals, of law, of civilisation in general could not
be understood without the history of intellectual evolution, that is to
say of science and of philosophy, whereas this one, strictly speaking,
would still be intelligible without the others. This evolution is
therefore the principal axis around which the other series of social
phenomena are arranged. Thus the law which expresses it is the most
“fundamental,” the most “general,” in the precise sense in which Comte
understands this word. In enunciating this law he declares legitimate
by anticipation the existence of a social science. He proves _ipso
facto_ not only that it is possible, but that it already exists. Hence
the eminent position which he gives to the law of the three states.


The demonstration of this law presents itself under two distinct forms.
In the first place Comte supports his argument by history. This proves
indeed that every branch of our knowledge passes in turn through the
three states, with never a single retrogression. It is true that much
of our knowledge has not yet reached the positive state. But at any
rate it is established that up to the present even those sciences which
have not yet reached that state have all described the same curve,
already described by those that have reached it.

Historical verification would suffice, if necessary, provided it were
complete. Comte is not satisfied with it. He claims moreover to deduce
the law of the three states from the nature of man. He will thus give
a direct demonstration of it. However useful history may appear to
him as an instrument of proof, he still wishes to render its verdict
intelligible. To reach this end he has recourse to psychology. “We
ought,” he says, “carefully to characterise the general motives, drawn
from an exact knowledge of human nature, which must have rendered
partly inevitable, partly indispensable, the necessary succession of
social phenomena, considered directly with respect to the intellectual
development which dominates essentially their chief advance.”[15]

In the first place, the human mind could only begin to interpret nature
by a philosophy of the theological type. For it is the only one which
is spontaneously produced, the only one which does not presuppose
another. Man at first conceives all activity on the same plan as his
own. In order to understand phenomena, he likens them to his own
actions, whose mode of production he thinks he apprehends, because he
has the feelings of his own efforts and the consciousness of his own
volitions. This anthropomorphic explanation comes so naturally to us
that we are always ready to give way to it. Even to-day, if we forget
positive discipline for a moment, if we venture to ask for the mode of
production of some phenomenon, we immediately dimly imagine an activity
more or less like our own. And among the metaphysicians who profess to
give an idea of God, the most consistent, according to Comte, are those
who make a person of Him.

The spontaneity which characterises the theological mode of thought has
been extremely useful. Without it, we do not see how man’s intelligence
could have begun to unfold itself. For, in order to form a scientific
theory, however modest and fragmentary, of natural phenomena, the mind
needs previous observations, while, on the other hand, in default of
a theory, or at any rate of a preexisting hypothesis, no scientific
observation is possible. Absolute empiricism, says Comte, is barren,
and even, strictly speaking, inconceivable. Simple collections of
facts, however numerous we may suppose them to be, do not possess by
themselves any scientific significance. Such, for instance, would be
the case in the meteorological facts, making interminable lists, and
filling volumes. They would only become observations if in collecting
them the mind tried to put upon them some interpretation, however vague
or precise, real or chimerical.

Caught between the two equally imperative necessities of observing
in the first place in order to reach “suitable conceptions”, and of
conceiving at the same time some theory in order to make coherent
observations, the human mind saves itself by the theological mode
of thought. For it has no need of previous observations to imagine
everywhere in nature activities similar to its own. Once this
hypothesis has arisen, observation comes into play, first to confirm
it, but soon to oppose it. From that moment the impulse has been given.
The evolution of the sciences and of philosophy will be continued
through doctrines which will succeed each other in a necessary order.

In the same way, from the moral point of view, a theological philosophy
alone could at first inspire weak and ignorant humanity with sufficient
courage and confidence to shake off its primitive torpor. To-day, if
man knows that phenomena are subject to invariable laws, he also knows
that a knowledge of these laws gives him a certain control over nature.
But in the days when man could not foresee the power of science,
the idea that phenomena obeyed necessary laws would have filled him
with despair. It would probably have paralysed him for all exertion.
The theological mode of thought was far more encouraging since the
phenomena are imagined to be arbitrarily modifiable. Anything may
happen. Nothing is impossible, neither is anything necessary. The will
of the gods suffices for a thing to happen or not to happen. Directly,
man has no power over nature; indirectly he can do everything, provided
only that he can propitiate the divinities whose will is law. In this
way, it is at the moment when man’s impotence is greatest, that his
confidence in his own power is the strongest.

Finally, from a social point of view, theological philosophy was
indispensable for human society to subsist and to be developed. For
this society does not merely imply sympathy of feeling and union of
interests among its members, but first and above all unanimous adhesion
to certain beliefs. Without a “certain system of common preliminary
opinions” there can be no human society. But, on the other hand, how
can we conceive the appearance of such a system, if social life is not
organised? Here is a new vicious circle, out of which the theological
philosophy alone can release us. It constitutes at first sight a
totality of common beliefs. All the members of the society defend them
all the more energetically, because with them are bound up their hopes
and their fears, for this world, and for the next, if they already
believe in it.

At the same time, this theological philosophy determines the formation,
in society, of a special class, consecrated to speculative activity.
What an immense progress this division between practice and theory must
have been, however roughly outlined! Such a division was established
as soon as a sacerdotal class began to be distinguished from the rest
of the social body. And how slow this progress must have been, when we
see even to-day how hard it is for men to accept any innovation which
does not seem to carry with it any immediate practical advantage!
The sacerdotal class, invested, by the nature of its functions with
an authority which was precious for social progress, at the same
time enjoyed that leisure which is indispensable for theoretical
research. “Without the spontaneous establishment of such a class,”
says Comte, “all our activity, thenceforth exclusively practical,
would have confined itself to the improvement, very soon checked, of
some processes having reference to military or industrial life.”[16]
The subsequent division of labour depended upon this initial step.
Our savants, our philosophers, our engineers descend from the first
priests, sorcerers and rain conjurors.

Thus, given the nature of Man, the theological philosophy was bound
to appear _spontaneously_. This appearance was at the same time
“inevitable and indispensable,” in a word, necessary. Immediately
begins what one might call the dialectics of the intellectual history
of humanity. The theological philosophy has made possible the
observation of phenomena. In its turn, this observation introduces
the idea of invariable laws into the mind, whereby the theological
philosophy begins to be compromised. The time comes when it appears
antiquated and pernicious and reason tends to take the place of the
imagination in the interpretation of nature. The more evolution
advances, the more marked becomes the preference of the human mind
for the positive mode of thought, and, in the several orders of the
sciences, after a more or less prolonged conflict, this latter ends by
obtaining the ascendancy.

As a matter of fact, the theological stage of our knowledge, even when
it exercises its greatest dominion, that is to say, at the time nearest
to its origin, already contains the germs of its own decomposition. It
is never perfectly homogeneous. There are very common phenomena whose
regularity man has never failed to recognize, and which he has never
conceived as depending upon arbitrary wills. Comte likes to quote a
passage from Adam Smith, where that philosopher remarks that in no
time and in no country do we find a god of Weight. Moreover, since the
existence of society, man must have had some idea of psychological
laws since he was obliged to regulate his conduct according to the way
in which his fellows thought and acted. Consequently “the elementary
germ of positive philosophy is quite as primitive, at bottom, as that
of theological philosophy, although it could only be developed very
much later.”[17] Not being universal, theological philosophy could
only be provisional. The philosophy, that is to say, the method of
interpretation of natural phenomena, will alone be final, which will be
applicable to all phenomena without exception, from the most simple to
the most complicated. For this philosophy alone will realise the unity
demanded by the understanding.

The passage from theological to positive philosophy is never suddenly
accomplished. Their opposition is too sharply defined, and our
intelligence does not lend itself to such an abrupt change. The
metaphysical state serves as a transition. This state is distinguished
from the two others, in that it has no principle proper which defines
it. Theological philosophy is sufficient to itself. It forms a
harmonious whole, at least so long as the germ of positiveness which
it contains has not yet revealed its activity. In the same way, the
positive state will be perfectly homogeneous. On the contrary, the
metaphysical state is only described by a mixture of the two others.
“The metaphysical conceptions,” wrote Comte in 1825, “proceed at the
same time from theology and physics, or rather are only the former
modified by the latter.”[18] Under ever varying and progressively
attenuated forms, metaphysics procure the indispensable conciliation
in order that the theological and positive philosophies may coexist
in men’s minds, so long as the latter is not perfectly worked out.
Under cover of metaphysical hypotheses, the scientific method has been
able to push its conquests, without greatly alarming the defenders of
theological philosophy. Thus metaphysical speculation has a very active
critical quality. It has not slightly contributed to the decomposition
of the ancient system of beliefs. In this sense, Comte regards the
French philosophers of the XVIII. century, for the most part, as
excellent representatives of the metaphysical spirit.

Nevertheless, if we must refer this intermediate stage to one of
the two extremes, Comte does not hesitate to approximate it to the
theological stage. As a matter of fact, metaphysical philosophy
substitutes entities to will, and Nature to the Creator, but with a
very analogous function. It supplies, at bottom, the same “explanation”
of the real, although weakened by a stronger and stronger sense of
the need of natural laws. This equivocal method preserves theology,
“while destroying its principal mental consistency.” It denies the
consequences in the name of the principles. Moreover, it offers no
guarantee against an offensive return of theological conceptions, so
long as they have not been replaced by positive notions. In the final
conflict between the theological spirit, and the positive spirit, the
metaphysicians will probably be seen, with the Deists, involved in
a retrograde concentration.”[19] “Positive philosophy,” says Comte,
“has neither historical nor dogmatic solidarity with this negative
philosophy, and can only contemplate it as a final preparatory
transformation of theological philosophy.”[20]

Thus the metaphysical stage is never other than an unstable compromise.
It only lasts on condition that it changes continually. In default of
a principle of its own, metaphysical philosophy is purely critical
in character. As a fact, there are but two philosophies, that is
to say two methods, two organic modes of thought. Only theological
philosophy and positive philosophy allow the mind to construct a
logical and harmonious system of ideas, the basis of a morality and of
a religion. The theological spirit is “ideal in its advance, absolute
in its conception, arbitrary in its application.” The positive spirit
substitutes the method of observation to that of imagination, relative
notions to absolute notions. It does not flatter itself with unlimited
dominion over the phenomena of nature; it knows that its power is
measured by its knowledge. The intellectual history of humanity shows
by what stages it has passed from the former mode of thought to the


Comte regards the law of the three stages as demonstrated. “Seventeen
years of continuous meditation on this great subject,” he writes in
1839, “discussed under all its aspects, and subjected to all possible
tests, authorise me to affirm beforehand, without the slightest
scientific hesitation, that we shall always see confirmed this
historical proposition, which now seems to me as fully demonstrated
as any of the general facts actually admitted in the other parts of
natural philosophy.”[21] It could only be doubted if we found any
branch of our knowledge which had gone back from the metaphysical to
the theological state, or from the positive state to either of the
two preceding states. But this case has never presented itself. The
theoretical demonstration of the law has established that it _could
not_ present itself.

Indeed this demonstration has shown that the successive advance
through the three stages, in invariable order, was the necessary form
of progress of the human mind in the knowledge of phenomena. It is
founded upon the nature of the mind. In Comte’s thought, the law of the
three states could therefore have been equally called psychological or

But we are not here concerned with introspective Psychology, which
uses self-consciousness as a means of investigation. Comte does not
recognize any scientific value in this method.[22] He even denies its
possibility. Moreover the observation of a subject by himself, were
it possible, would be of no help in the present case. For it would
only reveal to him the present state of his individual intellect,
and not the law of the evolution of the human mind. For this law
to become manifest, we must consider not the individual, but the
species. Giving up a fruitless effort at self-contemplation in its
activity, the intellect must grasp the law of its successive phases
in the progress of what it has produced. The philosophical history
of our beliefs, of our conceptions, and of our systems: such is the
consciousness which the human intellect can have of itself. There only,
the philosopher sees the faculties of which this intellect contained
the germ coming into play by turns, to reach a “durable harmony.” Then,
once discovered, the law of the three States helps us to understand
the intellectual evolution of each individual, and the study of the
individual then furnishes us with a supplementary verification of
the law. But, by itself, this study of the individual could not have
established it. Whatever utility I may have often derived from the
consideration of the individual, says Comte, it is evidently to the
direct study of the species that I owed, not only the fundamental
thought in my theory, but afterwards its specific development.

The law of the three States is then the general formula of the progress
of the human intellect, considered not in an individual subject, but in
the _universal subject_, which is humanity.

It is indeed also the “universal subject” that Kant has studied in
his _Critic of Pure Reason_. But Kant’s method is altogether abstract
and metaphysical, the universal subject of which he seeks the laws is
a human mind “in itself,” considered in its essence. Comte, on the
contrary, represents the universal subject as a concrete unity, which
realized itself in time. For him, the study of the mental functions
characteristic of man only becomes positive when it is carried out
from an historical and sociological point of view. That is why the
discovery of the law of the three States is an event of capital
importance. It inaugurates the positive science of humanity, which was
an indispensable condition for positive philosophy to be established.
It marks the time when, all phenomena being henceforth studied after
the same method, the “perfect logical coherence” is definitely assured.
This law of social dynamics is the corner-stone of the whole positive


[10] Cours de philosophie positive, I, 19 (5e edition, Paris, 1892).

[11] Cours, VI, 786.

[12] Pol. pos. IV, appendice, p. 77.

[13] Cours, I. 3.

[14] Cours, I. 6.

[15] Cours IV, 526.

[16] Cours IV, 548.

[17] Cours, IV, 554-5.

[18] Pol. pos., IV. Appendix, p. 144.

[19] Correspondence de H. Comte avec John Stuart Mill. Lettre du 5
avril 1842, p. 51.

[20] Cours, V. 573-5.

[21] Cours, IV, 523.

[22] Cp. infra, book II, chap. V, p.



According to the law of the three States, all our conceptions in the
different orders of knowledge, begin by being theological, pass through
the metaphysical transition, and end by becoming positive. If this
evolution were terminated at the presented time, the philosophy which
Comte wishes to found would be _ipso facto_ established. But we are
far from such a state of things. On the contrary, the three modes of
thought theological, metaphysical, and positive, coexist, still to-day,
even in the most cultivated minds. In a different measure, all lack the
“logical coherence.”

Even in those sciences where the positive method has been finally
and for a long time established, in physics, and in chemistry, for
instance, we observe undoubted traces of the metaphysical spirit. To
a still greater degree this spirit is manifested in what are called
the moral and social sciences. Nevertheless, this “incoherence” cannot
last. Now that the positive spirit has assumed full consciousness of
itself, it is possible to proceed with a systematic purification, which
will disentangle it from the theological and metaphysical spirit.

But is not this critical review of the whole of human knowledge an
enterprise above the powers of a man?--Happily positive philosophy
itself furnishes a means of lightening the task. It establishes an
order which allows us to determine without too much trouble to what
degree of positiveness the conception of a given category of phenomena
has reached up to the present time. Comte calls this order the
classification, or, more precisely the “positive hierarchy” of the
fundamental sciences. It is “the plan which he will follow in the
exposition of positive philosophy.”[23]

This plan is not a simple artifice destined to make the entirety of
the doctrine clearer, or its exposition easier. It is not external
to the work. It is born from the very spirit of positive philosophy;
it expresses the spirit of that philosophy in a new form. It is
the natural complement of the law of the three States. Comte puts
it in plain words: “The different branches of our knowledge have
not been able with equal rapidity to pass through the three great
phases in their development, nor consequently to reach simultaneously
the positive state. There exists, in this respect, an invariable
and necessary order, which our different kinds of conceptions have
followed and have been obliged to follow in their progress, and of
which the exact consideration is the _indispensable complement_ to the
fundamental law previously enounced.”[24]

Comte did not, like his contemporary Ampère, set himself the logical
problem of the classification of the sciences in their entirety. He
did not seek according to what principle we could arrange them all in
an order where the fact of their respective subordination would be
maintained. He even doubts how far such a principle exists, and he is
so far from thinking of establishing a complete classification of the
sciences, that he begins by leaving out the greater number of them.
He first sets aside all forms of human knowledge which refer to art,
that is to say all the applied sciences, practical and technical.
Similarly he sets aside all the concrete sciences, such as zoology,
mineralogy, geography, etc. He only places within his classification
the _theoretical and abstract_ sciences, that is to say those which
have no other object but the knowledge of laws, and which study
phenomena, exclusive of the concrete beings in which these phenomena
present themselves. Comte calls them “fundamental” because the other
sciences suppose their existence, whereas the abstract sciences do not
suppose the existence of the others before them.

These sciences are the only ones whose consideration is of
consequence to the end which Comte has in view. For why does he need
a classification of the sciences? It is in order to study the ascent
of the positive spirit through the successive orders of phenomena. For
this, he has no occasion to consider the applied or concrete sciences,
which receive their principles from the theoretical and abstract
sciences. It suffices for him to be concerned with these. It is in the
methods and the progress of these sciences that the characteristic
efforts of the human mind have been manifested; and it is therefore
here that we can grasp the laws of its evolution.

In order to classify the fundamental sciences, Comte will conform
to the principles of the positive method. He will be guided by the
rational classifications of which the model is to be found in the
natural sciences. The classification must spring from the very study of
the objects which are to be classified, and must be determined by the
real affinities and the series of connected links which they present,
in such a way that this classification may itself be the expression of
the most general truth, made manifest by the searching comparison of
the objects which it embraces.

Comte will not therefore stop to consider the classifications which
have preceded his own. In the first place, when they appeared, the
rational method of classification was not established. Further, how
could anyone have united the whole of the sciences into an encyclopædic
conception, when some had already reached the positive state, while
others remained in the theological or metaphysical states? How could
anyone rationally arrange heterogenous conceptions in a single system?

Those premature attempts were doomed to failure. In order that the
undertaking might succeed, it was necessary that _all_ our conceptions,
relating to the various orders of phenomena should have reached the
positive form. Here again, the creation of sociology has been the
decisive event, for it has allowed the series of fundamental sciences
to be made complete. The discovery of the law of the three States
has founded sociology, and at the same time it has accomplished the
homogeneity of human knowledge. In its time, this homogeneity renders
possible the rational classification of the sciences.


Henceforth, the fundamental sciences are all conceived as equally
positive. They have all given up the pursuit of the absolute for the
study of the relative, and the search after causes for the knowledge of
laws. All now proceed by means of the same general methods and their
differences can therefore only arise from their object, that is to say
from the nature of the phenomena which are studied. Consequently their
relations of mutual dependence will solely result from the relations
of these phenomena. Now, observation shows us that these phenomena
form themselves into a certain number of natural categories, such
that the rational study of each category presupposes a knowledge of
the laws of the preceding category, and that a knowledge of this one
is in turn presupposed for understanding the one that follows. This
order is determined by the degree of generality of the phenomena, from
which their successive dependence upon each other results, and as a
consequence the greater or lesser simplicity of each science results
from it also.

Upon this principle, the encyclopædic ladder of the fundamental
sciences is easily constructed. After the mathematics, in an order of
diminishing generality and of growing complexity, come astronomy,
physics, chemistry, physiology or biology, social physics or sociology.
The first science considers the most general, the most simple, the
most abstract phenomena, and those furthest removed from humanity.
They influence all the others, without being influenced by them. The
phenomena considered by the last are the most particular, the most
complicated, the most concrete, and the most directly interesting for
man; they depend more or less upon all the preceding ones. “Between
these two extremes, the degrees of specialisation, of complication, and
of individualisation, are in an ever-growing quantity.”

This classification is confirmed, in fact, by the general usage of
learned men. It reproduces the historic order of the development of the
sciences. Thus, for a long time, mathematics was the only science of
a positive type. On the other hand, social science has been the last
to reach this point. Nevertheless, Comte does not mean to say that
the fundamental sciences came into existence one after the other, nor
that, for every one of them, each period is sufficiently explained by
the period immediately preceding it. His thought is very different. On
the contrary, he represents the development of the several sciences as
simultaneous. They act and react one upon another in a thousand ways.
Often some progress in a science is the direct effect of a discovery
made in an art which has apparently no affinities with it. Such is,
to quote an example which Comte could not in the least have foreseen,
the progress of astronomical observations due to photography. In fact,
the history of a science during a given period is closely allied to
that of the other sciences and arts during the same time, or rather,
to be more explicit, to the general history of civilisation. But their
respective transitions to the positive state is accomplished in the
order set forth in the classification. For individually they could not
reach this state, if the fundamental science immediately preceding had
not attained to it before them. “It is in this order that the progress,
although simultaneous, must have taken place.”[25]


Mr. Herbert Spencer has made several objections to Auguste Comte’s
classification of the sciences; Littré has lengthily refuted them. It
is not in our design to reopen this discussion. But it results from
the preceding explanations that the greater number of Mr. Spencer’s
criticisms miss the mark, perhaps because he has not read Comte
properly. On his own admission, he only knows the two first lessons in
the _Cours de philosophie positive_ in the text, further the inorganic
Physics and the first chapter of the Biology in Miss Martineau’s
condensation, and finally the remainder in Lewes’s summing up in his
_History of Philosophy_.[26] If Mr. Spencer had been able to obtain a
knowledge of the _Cours de philosophie positive_ in its entirety, and
especially of the three last lessons, or at least of the _Discours sur
l’Esprit positif_ or of the _Discours sur l’ensemble du positivisme_ he
would probably have appreciated differently the positive classification
of the sciences. His own classification, in which he includes the
concrete and concrete-abstract sciences, is not really opposed to that
of Auguste Comte who only wished to classify the fundamental _abstract_
sciences. Comte never sought to do what Mr. Spencer reproaches him with
not having done.

Among Mr. Spencer’s objections, there is one which, bearing upon the
very conception of the classification of the sciences, shows very
clearly the misunderstanding which we are pointing out.

Mr. Spencer insists upon the “anthropocentric” character of Comte’s
classification, which is indeed remarkable; and he is surprised
at what appears to him to be a glaring contradiction. Is not the
conception of things from man’s point of view, one of the essential
forms of the theological mode of thought, according to Comte himself?
Does not positive philosophy teach that man must not consider himself
as a sort of “imperium in imperio,” but as a being subordinate to the
whole of nature? If therefore we must substitute the objective to the
subjective point of view in which man at first spontaneously places
himself, how can the classification of the sciences be at the same time
“anthropocentric” and positive?

This objection would perhaps be a strong one against positive
philosophy as Littré understood it. Against Auguste Comte it has no
force, for he accepts it. He admits that his classification presents
these two characters at the same time, and he does not think that in so
doing he is contradicting himself. We must only distinguish with him
two successive and different periods. So long as positive philosophy
is in process of formation, (that is to say so long as the positive
spirit remains special) it is quite true that it is orientated from
the objective point of view, in other words, that it goes from the
world to man. During this period, it is indeed opposed to the naïve
belief which makes man the centre and the end of the universe. But,
when from special the positive spirit has become universal, when it has
risen from science to philosophy, when sociology is at length founded,
and when the understanding realises, from the positive point of view
the logical unity which is indispensable to it, this unity is only
completed when, in its turn, it takes man for its centre.

Considered as an exact reproduction of the real world, says Comte, our
science is not capable of being completely systematised; and in this
sense we must not seek for any unity save that of method, aspiring
only to homogeneity and to the convergence of the different doctrines.
It is otherwise in regard to the inner source of human theories
contemplated as the results of our individual and collective mental
evolution. “Thus referred, not to the universe, but to man, or rather
to humanity, our real knowledge tends on the contrary towards an entire
systematization. We must then conceive a single science, the human
science, more precisely social, of which our existence constitutes at
once the principle and the end. Into this human science the rational
study of the external world becomes fused, at once as a necessary
element and a fundamental preamble.”[27]

Comte would therefore not have repudiated, for his classification of
the sciences, the qualification of “anthropocentric” on condition
that it were understood. It is no longer the spontaneous subjectivism
from which the theological philosophy starts; it is the conscious
subjectivism to which the positive philosophy attains. It has the merit
of uniting in itself the two methods called objective and subjective.
The former has been in the ascendant during the long evolution of the
sciences, which were by degrees and successively reaching the positive
state. The latter allows us to concentrate the aim of the distinct
sciences thus constituted into a supreme science, which subordinates
all the others to itself, without absorbing them.


The classification of the sciences is, at the same time, a plan for
the setting forth of the positive philosophy, and a complement of the
law of the three States. But, while this law expresses the _progress_
of the human intellect in the constitution of science and philosophy,
the classification supposes that science and philosophy are already
constituted. It expresses their _order_, and enunciates from the static
point of view what the law formulates from the dynamic point of view.
It shows the relations of the various elements of philosophy among
themselves, and to the whole.

So long as this idea of the whole was not defined, that is to say, so
long as positive science remained special, these relations could not
be rationally established. But, once sociology was created, and with
it positive philosophy, it became possible to embrace the whole of the
fundamental sciences in a single conception. For, from that time, they
can be represented as being various aspects of the development of the
human intellect.

Truly, the object of science is single, and the divisions which are
introduced into it for our convenience, without being arbitrary, are
artificial. All the branches of our knowledge, that is to say all the
fundamental sciences, must be considered as issuing from a single
trunk. Not that these sciences can ever be reduced one to another.
It suffices that they be homogeneous, and their homogeneity results
from their subjection to the same method; further, from their tendency
towards the same end, and finally, from their subordination to the
same law of progress. In respect to the last and highest of these
sciences, the others “must only be finally regarded as indispensable
preliminaries in a progressive order.”[28]

Thus the ladder of the fundamental sciences represents, in Comte’s
mind, the methodical ascent of the positive spirit towards universality
and unity. It is a hierarchy, a _scala intellectus_, according to
Bacon’s expression. It includes the whole of the “philosophia prima”
also foreshadowed by Bacon and vainly sought after by philosophers.

The memory of Bacon does not prevent the preponderating influence in
this conception of Comte from being that of Descartes. Comte is far
from ignoring it. He calls himself the continuator and by a dreadful
barbarism, the _completer_ of Descartes.[29] Undoubtedly Descartes had
not like him conceived the series of the fundamental sciences. After
having applied a positive method to the study of inorganic nature, and
even of living nature, for the rest he had reverted to a metaphysical
method. But this “cartesian compromise” could only be provisional. None
the less to Descartes belongs the merit of having definitely acquired
several orders of phenomena for the positive spirit, and of affirming
the unity of science at the same time as the unity of method. He was
unable himself to realise this twofold unity, for its time had not
come, and the necessary conditions had not yet been brought together.
Moreover in the cartesian idea of science metaphysical elements
subsist, and Descartes wrongly believed that the universal method was
to be obtained by a transformation of the mathematical method.

Comte takes up the leading ideas of Descartes again, and, at the same
time, he corrects them, according as the progress of the positive
spirit during two centuries enabled him to do. The position of “leading
science,” if this expression can be allowed, passes from mathematics to
sociology. Moreover, the unity of science, as Comte conceives it, no
longer prevents the fundamental sciences from being irreducible to one
another. This unity is sufficiently secured by the homogeneity of the
sciences, which form a continuous series, an “encyclopædic hierarchy,”
and which are all subordinated to the final science. Lastly the unity
of the positive methods does not imply its uniformity everywhere. Each
fundamental science, as will be seen further on, has its methods which
are special to itself.[30]

The classification of the sciences thus shows how positive philosophy
stretches back over the XVIII. cent., whence it springs, to link itself
with Bacon and Descartes. Comte has retained Bacon’s view on this
point, that all scientific knowledge rests upon facts which have been
fully observed, and that a system of positive sciences constitutes the
indispensable basis for the only philosophy which is within our reach.
To Descartes he here owes the idea of the unity of method and of the
unity of science. We might almost say that he has received from Bacon
his idea of the contents of the sciences and from Descartes his idea of
their form. By what means did he invest such matter with such a form?
The answer to this question is found in the positive theory of science.


[23] Cours, I, 46-47.

[24] Cours, I, 14-15.

[25] Cours, I, 82, 12.

[26] Herbert Spencer: The Classification of the Sciences. London, 1864,
p. 42.

[27] Discours sur l’esprit positif (1844) p. 24.

[28] Cours, VI. 610.

[29] Correspondence de H. Comte and de John Stuart Mill. Lettre du 5
novembre 1842, p. 132.

[30] Cp. infra, book I, ch. VI.



We may admit, with Aristotle, that curiosity is natural to man, and
that we are inclined to inquire into things for the pleasure of knowing
them. But it must be admitted, adds Comte, that this inclination is one
of the least active and the least imperative in our nature. It must
have been still less so in the beginning of mankind’s development; and
it was, in any case, much weaker than the inclination to laziness,
or than the repugnance to accept anything new. It has therefore
been necessary, in order that man might emerge from his primitive
intellectual torpor, that the activity of his mind should be induced
and even compelled to exert itself by pressing circumstances. Such were
undoubtedly the necessities of hunting, the dangers of war, and in a
general way, the desire to avoid suffering and death.

Moreover, the knowledge which the human mind acquires at first is only
very imperfectly real; for theological philosophy furnishes the mind
with its first conceptions. Man begins by supposing everywhere wills
like his own, and the world which surrounds him is peopled with gods
or fetishes. Nevertheless, from this first period, the rudiments of a
more positive knowledge already appear. In every order of phenomena
some are very simple and of such striking regularity, that evidently no
arbitrary will intervenes in their working. Man must very quickly have
had a “real” idea of these phenomena. In all the other cases instead
of observing the phenomena he imagined the mode of their production;
but here he observed the sequences and concomitances which he could not
resist; and he regulated his conduct upon this observation. From this
humble beginning science came into being.

In this way, far from opposing scientific thought to common thought,
as most of the philosophers do, Comte, without disregarding the
special character of one and of the other shows that both spring from
the same source, and that they do not present any essential point of
difference. However abstract and however elevated science may become,
it always remains, according to him, a “simple special prolongation” of
good sense, of common sense and of “universal wisdom.” The character
of “positivity,” by which scientific knowledge is distinguished from
theological and metaphysical conceptions, belongs also to popular
wisdom. Like this wisdom, which the practical necessities of life have
formed, science abstains from searching after the causes, the ends,
the substances, and whatever is beyond the reach of verification by
experience. Its efforts bear exclusively upon the laws of coexistence
and of succession which govern the phenomena. And again it is from this
wisdom that it has borrowed the spirit of its positive method, which
consists in observing facts and in systematising observations to rise
to the concept of laws.

It follows from this that science contains within itself neither its
starting-point nor its terminus. Both are given it by “common sense”
whence it springs. The starting-point is the spontaneous observation
of constant relations between the most simple phenomena. The terminus
is the knowledge of these same relations among all given phenomena,
as complete and as precise as our requirements demand. Indeed the
common sense, or the popular wisdom, is soon baffled by the complexity
of phenomena. If we had no other guide we should know very little,
and in nearly all cases we should be reduced to a kind of empirical
divination. The function of science is to substitute a real knowledge
of laws to this divination.

This function would never have been fulfilled if the human mind had not
possessed the property of being able to separate theory from practice.
Undoubtedly the former proceeds from the latter. As has been said,
every science is born from a corresponding art, and from the desire
to perfect it. But this perfecting would not have gone very far, if
the human mind had never lost sight of it. Happily, man is capable
of temporarily forgetting his immediate interests in the pursuit of
knowledge. By degrees, from the complexity of concrete cases, he has
learnt to disengage the elements common to a whole class of phenomena.
He has thus formed the idea of law, or the invariable relation between
given phenomena. Beyond the intellectual satisfaction which this
knowledge gave him, he found in time applications of it which he would
never have imagined beforehand. To quote an example from a civilisation
already very advanced, when the Greek geometers patiently applied
themselves to the study of conic sections, did they suspect that
their labours would one day serve in calculating certain astronomical
determinations upon which the safety of mariners would depend?

In this way, science, utilitarian in its origin, since it sprang from
the practical needs of man, utilitarian in its end, since it aims at
providing for those needs, has nevertheless been unable to develop
itself and will be unable still to do so in the future, except by
neglecting this very utility. Better to fulfil its destiny, it must
provisionally forget it; and it will be the more useful, in the long
run, in proportion as it will have been the more disinterested. We
never know, _a priori_, if a discovery which finds no application
to-day, combined later with another one, will not be of capital
interest for mankind. Therefore it is of the highest importance that
theoretical order should remain clearly distinct from the practical

That is why Comte regarded the appearance of a sacerdotal class,
specially occupied with speculative research, as a decisive moment
in history of humanity. It matters little that these researches
should have remained chimerical and absurd during long centuries.
The essential point was that the human mind should form and keep the
habit of disinterested speculation, that it should not rest content
with immediately applicable knowledge, and that it should exert itself
towards a theoretical conception of nature, however simple at first
that conception was bound to be.

Thus, science has, properly speaking, two roots, the one practical,
the other theoretical. If it originated in the primitive arts, it
is no less closely allied with primitive philosophy. It still bears
features which enable us to discern this twofold filiation. On the one
hand, it has remained _speculative_ as was the theological philosophy
which first dominated over the human mind. Only this speculation has
gradually abandoned everything except the laws of phenomena, and it
has ended by undermining the theological conceptions from which it
came. On the other hand, science has remained _real_, like the popular
wisdom which gave it birth. But, while dealing with given phenomena in
experience, it has developed in the direction of theory. Instead of
only considering scenes of concrete objects, it has resolved them into
their elements. A more and more powerful analysis has raised it to the
consideration of laws more and more general and abstract. Thus, while
the popular wisdom is limited to empirical generalisations, a science
such as, for instance, astronomy discovers the law which governs the
whole of an immense order of phenomena.

From this general idea of science the following consequences at once

1. Science is the collective work of humanity. It bears upon an object
common to all: Reality. It employs the method common to all: the
positive method. All intellects work in the same manner on a common
ground. It is what Comte calls “the profound mental identity of learned
men with the crowd whose destiny fulfils itself in active work.[31]”
The progress of the scientific mind is a methodical extension of
popular common sense to all subjects accessible to human reason.
But here method does almost everything. “The whole superiority of
the philosophical mind over the popular common sense results from a
special and continuous application to common speculations, in starting
prudently from the initial step, after having brought them back to a
normal state of judicious abstraction, for the purpose of generalising
and coordinating. For, what ordinary intellects chiefly lack, is less
the precision and penetration appropriate for discerning partial
approximations, than the aptitude for generalising abstract relations,
and for establishing a perfect logical coherence among our various

The germ of the highest scientific conceptions is often to be found
in common reason. Comte delights in giving as an example one of the
discoveries which he most admires, Descartes’ invention of analytical
Geometry. To determine at every moment the position of a point in space
by its distance from fixed axes: is not that what geographers have been
doing for so long in order to determine the longitude and latitude
of a place upon the terrestrial sphere? And has not this proceeding
itself been suggested to the geographer by simple common sense? For he
instinctively seeks to mark the inaccessible points which interest him,
by means of their distance from given points or lines. From this the
idea of the Cartesian co-ordinates only differs by a superior degree of
abstraction and of generality.

Thus all men must be regarded as collaborating in the discovery of
truth as much as in making use of it. Speaking generally, if the great
philosophers and scientific men of genius seem to be the intellectual
guides of humanity, it is because they are the first to be affected by
each mental revolution. They are the first to pass from a traditional
to a new attitude and their example is decisive. But, says Comte, “the
changes relating to the method of thinking with originality only become
manifest when they are almost accomplished.” The great men whose names
are justly authors attached to are, however, more the heralds than the
of these changes.

2. Science is the work of all: it must therefore be accessible to all.
It is a patrimony common to the whole of mankind; and the inheritance
must be taken from no one. As a consequence, the State owes scientific
instruction to those who are not in a position to procure it for
themselves. Not that all men, all the people ought to acquire a deep
knowledge of the several fundamental sciences, like those who make it
the particular occupation of their lives. The impossibility of such
a thing is too evident for several reasons. Neither is it a question
of popularising the great scientific theories, for the use of badly
prepared minds. Comte condemns severely this way of “simplifying”
science. For instance, he will not allow Newton’s laws to be separated
from their demonstrations. It will always be the duty of the greater
number of men to adopt the majority of scientific truths on the
testimony of those who will have discovered, criticised and verified
them. But, what it will be the duty of common education to give to
every mind, is the habit of conceiving all phenomena, from the most
simple to the most complex, as equally governed by invariable laws,
and, consequently, of understanding the whole of nature as an order
which the positive method alone allows us to discover and to modify.
And as this method cannot be studied apart from the sciences in which
it is used, it will be necessary for every man to be made acquainted
with a summary of each fundamental science, from mathematics to
sociology. There is nothing impracticable in this scheme. Comte has
drawn out, in the positive Polity, a plan of education conceived on
this principle. On this condition alone will philosophy, founded upon
positive science, succeed in realising the harmony of minds, and in
“reorganising the beliefs.”


Auguste Comte often says that the positive spirit consists in keeping
oneself equally distant from two dangers, mysticism and empiricism.[33]
By mysticism he understands the recourse to non-verifiable explanations
and to transcendent, hypotheses. Men’s imagination finds pleasure in
these things, but we must be able to bring all “real” knowledge back to
a general or particular fact. Positive science therefore abstains from
searching after substances, ends, and even causes. It only bears upon
phenomena and their relations.

Empiricism, in its turn, is no less than mysticism contrary to the
spirit of science, Empiricism signifies for Comte the knowledge which
does not go beyond the pure and simple ascertainment of a fact. Now, an
accumulation of even precisely noted facts has no theoretical interest.
It may, at most, be erudition, but it is not science. To think that by
thus gathering facts together one is labouring at the work of science,
is “to take a quarry for an edifice.”[34] In a word, “science is made
up of laws, and not of facts.”[35]

Strictly speaking, no scientific observation is even possible without
a previous theory, that is to say, without a presupposed law, whose
verification is in question. Undoubtedly in science when it has
become positive, the imagination no longer constructs “causes” or
“essences.” It must submit to reason, that is to say, to the methodical
investigation of phenomena. Nevertheless, this investigation cannot
take place without guiding hypotheses, and thus the imagination
plays a part in science, subordinate it is true, but indispensable.
Comte here separates himself from Bacon. According to the English
philosopher, in the knowledge of nature, the mind must make itself
as receptive as possible. In introducing anything of itself it would
falsify science, and its whole effort must be to hold itself up to
phenomena as a perfectly plain and unspotted mirror, so as to reflect
them as they are. Now this is precisely the idea of science which
Comte rejects under the name of empiricism. Without the hypotheses or
the theories suggested by the very activity of the mind science would
never be constituted, according to him. There would never even be an
apprehension of fact, at least an apprehension such that it could be of
service to science. In a word “absolute empiricism is impossible.” In
the simple observation of a phenomenon by the human mind, the entire
mind is interested, and in it the subjective conditions of science are
already virtually given.

This being granted, science may be defined as a methodical processus
of the connection and extension of our knowledge. It consists, in
every department “in the exact relations established between observed
facts, so as to deduce from the least possible number of fundamental
data, the most extensive series of secondary phenomena, in renouncing
absolutely the vain search after causes and essences.” So long as men
seek to “explain” phenomena the theological and metaphysical spirit has
not yet disappeared. Positive science abstains from all explanations
of this kind. Thus, Newton has placed in the same category universal
gravitation and the attraction of bodies. We cannot know what this
mutual action of the stars and the attraction of terrestrial bodies are
in themselves. But we know with full certainty, the existence and the
law of these two orders of phenomena and moreover we know that they are
identical. For the geometer weight is explained when he conceives it as
a particular case of general gravitation. On the contrary it is weight
which makes the physicist proper understand celestial gravitation. We
can never go beyond such juxtapositions “of ideas.”[36]

But while science brings together similar phenomena, its chief function
is to _connect_ them, that is to say to determine them one by another
according to the relations which exist between them. All science, says
Comte, consists in the co-ordination of facts; and if the several
observations remained isolated there would be no science. We may even
say generally that science is destined, as far as the various phenomena
permit, to dispense with direct observation, in allowing us to deduce
the greatest possible number of results from the smallest number of
acquired data. If a constant relation is found to subsist between
two phenomena, it becomes useless to observe them both; for from the
observation of one the variations of the other will be deduced. But
the first may in its turn be the function of a third, and so on; until
at last we conceive a constant connection between all the phenomena
of a given order, which may allow us to deduce them all from a single
law. Such for Comte would be the perfect form of science: how near it
is to the Cartesian ideal! “The positive spirit,” he says, “without
failing to recognize the preponderance of reality directly ascertained,
tends to enlarge the rational at the expense of the experimental
domain, by substituting the prevision of phenomena to their immediate
observation.” Scientific progress consists in diminishing the number
of distinct and independent laws, by continually multiplying their
respective connections.[37]

“Prevision” thus becomes the essential characteristic of scientific
knowledge, and that independently of any utilitarian mental
reservation. For the eventual applications of science do not determine
its theoretical advance. The prevision with which we are here concerned
consists solely in the possibility of knowing with certainty without
observing. It is knowledge _a priori_ in the Aristotelian sense of
the word, of which mathematics present the most perfect model. A
rectilinear triangle being given, I do not need experience to know
with certainty that the sum of the angles in it is equal to two right
angles. Thus understood prevision applies to the present, and even to
the past, as well as to the future. When Comte writes “All science has
prevision for its aim,”[38] we must understand: “All science tends to
substitute deduction to experience, rational to empirical knowledge.”
This prevision, a necessary consequence of the constant relations
discovered between phenomena, will allow men never to mistake real
science for fruitless erudition, which accumulates facts without
deducing them one from another.

Thus the formula cited above enlarges itself: “Science is composed
of laws and not of facts.” The more deduction is substituted to
experience, the better is the extension and connection of our knowledge
realised. Consequently, the more also does science draw near to
that unity which is imperatively claimed by our understanding, and
which is for it the criterion of truth. “Real science,” says Comte,
“regarded from the highest point of view, has no other general
object but to establish or to fortify unceasingly the intellectual
order, which is the basis of all other order.”[39] The mind which
applies itself to the contemplation of the world requires, before
everything, to find it intelligible. “Real” science satisfies it, not
in imagining wills and causes, as did theology and metaphysics, but in
discovering order in the constant relations between phenomena. When
this order is harmonious, that is to say, when the several classes of
phenomena are conceived as homogenous, and as similarly governed by
laws, “the spontaneous unity of our understanding is consolidated.”
It matters little that the various orders of phenomena are given
to us as irreducible to one another. The highest object of science
is to determine the point of view from which all phenomena appear
intelligible, and this point of view is one as the understanding itself
is one.


Perhaps it would have been easy to pass from this conception of
positive science to a theory of knowledge, and to a metaphysical view
of nature, both idealistic. But Comte neither could nor would push his
theory in this direction. In this respect nothing is more significant
than his way of understanding the relativity of science.

This relativity is usually presented as the conclusion of a criticism
of our understanding, of its nature, of its bearings, and of its
relations to its objects. But, according to Comte, an inquiry pursued
on these lines, has no chance of reaching a conclusion. The only
theory of knowledge which is positive and “real,” is drawn from the
history of the human mind. The laws of the mind are only revealed in
the examination of the successive products of its activity, that is to
say in its beliefs and in its science. The relativity of science can
therefore only be stated at first, as a fact, leaving it for subsequent
inquiry to determine the reason of that fact. The law of the three
States suffices for this, for it shows that man began by seeking for
absolute knowledge. The philosophy to which he first turns is, at the
same time, the most naïve and the most ambitious. But a necessary
evolution causes him to abandon the pursuit of the absolute, first in
its theological form and then in the metaphysical form. Having reached
the positive state, man knows that his science, necessarily relative,
is limited to “the systematic co-ordination of phenomena,” and the
knowledge of their laws.

The condemnation which thus strikes researches bearing on the absolute
is itself, moreover, only relative in character. It prejudges nothing
respecting the ultimate solution of questions. Positive philosophy
in no way takes sides in respect to these problems. It simply states
that science has more and more cut them off from the number of those
which it studies. Indeed it is impossible to apply the positive method
to questions which concern the absolute. Now, this method being the
only one which our mind can henceforth follow, at least if it wishes
to maintain the logical unity which is its supreme requirement, it
follows that these problems are in fact abandoned. Nothing more and
nothing less. “Sound philosophy,” says Comte, “sets aside, it is true,
insoluble questions”; but “in stating the motive of their rejection, it
avoids denying anything respecting them, which would be contradictory
to that systematic disuse by which alone uncontrovertible opinions must
die out.” (Comte means: opinions which do not come within the range
of positive discussion.) The problems relating to the essence of the
soul or to the “substantia prima” will melt away, as the majority of
the metaphysical problems which the scholastics put to themselves have
already disappeared.

Even to positive science, we must be careful not to attribute an
absolute character--that is to say, in a sense slightly different from
the preceding one, but very frequently with Comte--a definite and
immutable character. The laws which we can determine are never true
except under certain conditions. We have no right to consider them as
true _absolutely_. Newton’s law is demonstrated for our solar system:
but do we know that it is verified in all the systems throughout space?
Do not let us confound the world, which we can study with the united
resources of observation and calculation with the universe, of which we
know scarcely anything, and which outranges all our powers. In spite of
the famous principle of the sufficient reason the absence of motives
for negation does not constitute the right of affirmation, without any
direct proof. Absolute notions, says Comte, seem to me so impossible
that I would not even dare, whatever probability I may see in it, to
warrant the necessary and unalterable perpetuity of the theory of
gravitation restricted to the interior of our world, if one day, (which
is moreover very difficult to admit) the precision of our present
observations came to be perfected as much as we have done in comparison
to Hipparchus.[40]

In the same way, must not attraction have seemed to be an absolute
quality (that is to say an immutable one) of bodies, since neither
change of shape, nor the passage from one physical constitution to
another, nor any chemical metamorphosis, nor even the difference
between the state of life and death could modify this quality, so
long as the integrity of the substance was maintained? The Newtonian
conception came and destroyed entirely at a signal stroke this
character which must have appeared so indestructible, by showing that
the weight of a body is a phenomenon purely relative to the position of
this body in the world, or, more precisely, to its distance from the
centre of the earth.[41]

In order that our positive science of any part of nature should be
absolute, that is to say, final, it would have to be complete. But,
as all things are caused or causing, helped or helping, according
to Pascal’s expression, all the phenomena in a reciprocal universal
action, all the laws relative one to another, our science will never
be complete on any point. It only furnishes more or less imperfect
approximations.[42] The discovery of new facts and new laws is always

How many times does not positive science find itself obliged to modify
and to readjust a system of long acquired notions, in order to make a
place for new elements? This is a work often very laborious, but from
which science never dreams of shrinking, knowing that it is made liable
to it, so to speak, by definition, that is to say, that it is relative.
Examples of this abound, not only in the history of physical and
natural science, but even in that of so-called exact sciences. Do we
not hear M. Poincaré declaring in accordance with Hertz, that given the
system of Galileo and of Newton in mechanics it is impossible to give a
satisfactory idea of mass and of force?[43]

Thus the definitions, and even the laws, established by the positive
sciences, are at every period approximations corresponding to the
knowledge we have of facts. And as this knowledge can always be
enriched the approximation may also become stricter, without ever
reaching its confines. Leibnitz already said that the analysis of
anything real reaches to infinity. This thought is with him, closely
allied to the whole of his metaphysics. We find in Comte an expression
in some way equivalent, although positive. He says, although the
progress of the science of nature consists in substituting as much as
possible the rational method to the experimental method, the limit
can never be attained, we can never affirm that experience will not
bring new elements which will oblige us to modify the edifice of
science. The relativity of science thus serves to maintain an equal
balance between the need of unity which comes from the understanding,
and the inexhaustible diversity of the world of reality which this
understanding studies.

As a fact, then, positive science is always relative. Rightly, it
cannot be otherwise, and this for two essential reasons. It depends
necessarily upon “our organisation” and “our situation”[44] or, in
other words, it is relative “both to the individual and to the species
in its advance.”

It is relative in the first place to our organisation. Here Comte
takes up again an idea which was dear to the philosophers of the
XVIII. century and in particular to Diderot. If our organisation were
different, the data which our science elaborates would be other that
they are. With more organs we might perhaps grasp kinds of problems
of which we have no idea. If we suppose our species to be blind,
astronomy would not exist for it. And further, a natural law requires
that the more complex and the higher phenomena in regard to their
conditions of existence, should be subordinated to the more general
and the more common phenomena. The intellectual phenomena thus depend,
first, upon the biological phenomena, and then upon all those to which
the biological phenomena are subordinated. In this sense, therefore,
science is relative to our organisation, which is itself relative
in respect to the milieu in which we live. But, reciprocally, the
representation of this milieu and of this organisation rests upon
intellectual laws which impart to science a need of unity and harmony
special to the mind.

Comte concludes, therefore, that to endeavour to apportion what belongs
to the object and what to the subject in scientific knowledge is a
hopeless attempt. We simply know that science is not the exclusive
product either of the subject or the object. Giving too much to the
object leads us to “empiricism.” Falling to the opposite extreme leads
to “mysticism.” The efforts of philosophers to construct an abstract
theory of knowledge have only ended in miserable results. We have not
gone beyond Aristotle’s “axiom as corrected by Leibnitz.” _Nihil est in
intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu, nisi ipse intellectus._ We
are only certain of one thing: our science, necessarily conditioned by
our organisation, is also necessarily relative.

But this is not the most decisive consideration for it only makes us
see that our science would be different, if our organisation were to
change. Now, as a matter of fact, our organisation does not change.
Human nature, according to Comte, remains similar to itself in the
whole course of its evolution. It is this evolution which itself
becomes a cause, and a decisive one, of relativity for science. For, if
our organisation does not vary, the system of our conceptions and of
our science necessarily varies, according to our “situation,” that is
to say, according to the position which we occupy in this evolution,
which accomplishes itself according to laws.

Our conceptions, our religions, our philosophies, are not only
individual phenomena; they are also and chiefly social phenomena,
moments in a collective and continuous life, of which all the phases
are interdependent. We only know in a given order of knowledge, what
is compatible at that moment with the generally admitted philosophy,
with the knowledge already acquired in this and in the other orders
of phenomena, with the great hypotheses considered as true, with the
methods in force, etc. As soon as the human mind has become conscious
of the evolution to which it is subject, as soon as it has grasped its
most general law (the law of the three states), in a word, as soon as
sociology is founded, science can no longer be conceived as other than
relative. For from that moment the various sciences appear as so many
great social facts, which vary as so many functions of the rest of

Our speculations, “depending on the totality of social progression,”
can therefore never admit of that absolute fixity which metaphysicians
have supposed. The continuous movement of history modifies, in the
long run, the beliefs which appear to be the most immutable. Our
theories tend to represent more and more faithfully the objects of
our investigations, that is to say the laws of phenomena. We are thus
brought back to the idea of limit, which is never attained, towards
which we are advancing by means of approximations ever more exact.

The time is not yet far distant, when a doctrine of this kind could not
have been advanced without at once being rejected as sceptical. The
human mind is scarcely beginning to understand that truth cannot be
immutable.[45] Men believed that truth must always be identical with
itself, always identical for all minds at all times and at all places.
It seems that in losing this character, it must cease to be truth.
That is why philosophy has been so persistent in the pursuit of the
absolute. It was believed that no truth could be certain, unless it
rested, ultimately, upon an immutable foundation.

Science was therefore made to hang on metaphysics. And the defeats,
a thousand times repeated, of metaphysics would not have discouraged
the human mind had not positive philosophy at last shown that the
truth of which we are capable, because it is relative does not cease
to be truth. We are not condemned to choose between the pursuit of
an inaccessible absolute and the crumbling down of all science. It
suffices to understand that human science evolves and that this
evolution is subject to laws. It is never ended: it always “becomes.”
It is not a “state:” it is a “progress.”

There are therefore provisional, and, if one may so speak, temporary
truths. Does science ever establish any others? The ideas which
Hipparchus and the Greek astronomers had of the heavens was not false
in all respects. It was the astronomical truth compatible with the
conditions of the society in which they lived. After the labours of
the observers of the Middle Ages, utilised by Copernicus, this idea
faded before another one which became more perfect with Newton and
Laplace. Perhaps this one will be modified in its turn, in consequence
of new discoveries! Similarly it was thought that the earth was a
flat surface, then a round disc. Then it was represented as a sphere
and finally as an ellipsoid. To-day we know that this ellipsoid is

Truth is then at each period “the perfect logical coherence,” or
the correspondence between our conceptions and our observations.
The history of human thought is composed of a progressive series of
alternating periods. At a certain moment the mind has placed what
it conceives in accordance with what it knows. But, by degrees, new
facts are observed, known facts are better interpreted, discoveries
burst forth. The harmony between the conceptions and the observations
then becomes precarious. Minds find a greater and greater difficulty
in fitting all the acquired knowledge into the traditional frame.
At last the frame gives way. Then the harmony is re-established in
a more comprehensive form, which in its turn is destined to become
insufficient. Here positive philosophy recognises a sociological law.
It gives up the vain dream of immutable truth. It no longer regards
the truth of to-day as absolutely true, nor the truth of yesterday as
absolutely false. It ceases to be critical in regard to the past.”

To conclude, the theory of science can therefore only be accomplished
from the sociological point of view. It remains imperfect so long as
“we” has not been substituted to “I,” the universal subject which is
humanity to the individual subject, and a philosophical history of the
sciences to mere reflective analysis. To the logical conditions of
science, to define it completely, its biological and social conditions
must be joined. Then, but then only, it will be understood, that, at
each period, science is at the same time true and relative, without its
relativity placing its truth in danger.


[31] 1 Cours, vi. 651-3.

[32] 2 Cours, vi. 651-3.

[33] Discours sur l’esprit positif, p. 16; Pol. pos. III, 25.

[34] Cours, III, 4.

[35] Cours, VI, 647.

[36] Cours, I. 108: II. 18, 188-9.

[37] Cours, VI. 646 sqq.

[38] Cours, II. 18: III, 11-12.

[39] Cours, IV, 147.

[40] Cours, II, 195-7.

[41] Cours, II, 187.

[42] Cours, IV, 672-3.

[43] Revue générale des Sciences, 30 septembre, 1897.

[44] Discours sur l’Esprit positif, p. 15.

[45] Cours, 756., VI.




The perfection of the positive system, towards which it unceasingly
tends, although very probably it may never reach it, would be to
represent all observable phenomena as particular cases of a single
general fact, such as, for example, that of gravitation. The
fundamental identity of phenomena, the reduction of particular laws to
a supreme law; this is an ideal which we are free to entertain. Comte,
after d’Alembert and Saint-Simon, has formulated it himself at the
beginning of the _Cours de philosophie positive_.[46]

Unfortunately this ideal is not realisable. We apply a very weak
intellect to a very complicated world.[47] The unity which, scorning
experience, we might establish, would naturally be valueless. For
the several categories of phenomena proposed to us seem irreducible.
If this[48] be the case, the pursuit after scientific unity is
“irrational.” Comte ended by treating it as an “absurd utopia.”[49]

However, this utopia is forever reappearing; for the human mind is
secretly attached to it. It is because, on the one hand, unity pleases
it above all things, and on the other hand because there is here an
illusion produced and maintained by a philosophy born of mathematical
inspiration. Descartes’ discovery which allowed questions of geometry
to be dealt with by algebra has been the occasion of a grave error.
It gave rise to the thought that differences of quality could be
reduced to differences of quantity. Hence the idea of “reducing” the
various categories of phenomena to one another. But this was a wrong
interpretation of the principle of analytical geometry. Even there,
we have a translation, not reduction, “The geometrical ideas of form
and of situation,” says Comte--and Mr. Renouvier will repeat it after
him--“are not naturally more like numerical notions than the other
real conceptions. Every phenomenon, even social, would certainly have
its equation, as a figure or a motion if its law were known to us with
sufficient precision.

Analysis is therefore but an instrument of incomparable power for the
study of phenomena. But, from the fact that we can make use of it, it
does not in the least follow that the phenomena may be all brought back
to an identical type. Quality is in no way by this means reduced to
quantity, which is something entirely abstract, and this no more takes
place in the case of geometrical quality than in the case of any other.
Neither can the geometrical quality be reduced to pure analysis, nor
the physical to the geometrical, nor the living to the inorganic, nor
the social to the biological. At every stage something qualitatively
new appears. Whether or no we can formulate the relations of phenomena
in the form of an equation, their heterogeneity subsists always

What is true of phenomena is also true of their laws. Each order of
phenomena has its special laws over and above those which result from
its relations with the less complicated and more general orders. The
idea of a supreme law from which all the others would be deduced must
therefore be forsaken. Even within the range of each fundamental
science, it is doubtful how far the unity dreamt of could ever be
attained. The number of irreducible laws is far more considerable
than is imagined by a false appreciation of our mental powers and of
scientific difficulties. For instance, in physics, how can optics and
acoustics be reduced to one another? Physiological considerations,
in default of other reasons, would be opposed to such a confusion of
ideas.[50] Likewise in biology, how can the laws of animal life be
reduced to those of lower organic life? and in sociology, the laws
of human society, implying a course of history, to those of animal
societies which do not do so?

Instead, therefore, of conceiving _a priori_, the phenomena and the
laws as capable of a “reduction” which is, in fact, impossible, the
positive method requires the determination of the general characters of
these phenomena and of these laws by observations. It first establishes
the following:

1. _The more complex phenomena become, the more also our means of
studying them increase in number._

It is a natural but an insufficient compensation. For the difficulty
of establishing the science of phenomena grows much more quickly than
the number and the power of our methodical processes. However, without
this compensation, scarcely any fundamental science would ever reach
the positive state. Thus, to the method of pure mathematics observation
in astronomy comes to be added. Experimentation appears in physics, the
art of nomenclatures in chemistry, the comparative method in biology,
the historical method in social science. With this final science, the
positive method is henceforth complete.

2. _The more complex phenomena become, the more modifiable they are._

We have no power over astronomical phenomena. Even the perfect
knowledge of their laws would only allow us to foresee them. But we
can, in a great number of cases, bring about or arrest physical and
chemical phenomena. Our intervention is still more efficacious if we
are concerned with biological phenomena, as is sufficiently proved by
the good and the evil wrought by medicine and surgery. And it finally
reaches the height of its power in social and political life. So much
so that even cultivated men find it difficult to persuade themselves
that social phenomena are governed by invariable laws, and that
politics can become the object of a science. Experience seems to tell
them, on the contrary, that the activity of man, and especially that of
the man of genius, is all-powerful in this domain. Nevertheless it is
not so, as sociology, by the mere fact of its existence sufficiently
proves. But it remains true that, of all the phenomena of nature, the
social and moral phenomena are those in which man’s intervention is at
once the easiest and the most efficacious.

3. _The more complex the phenomena the more imperfect they are._

We shall perhaps be surprised to see Comte appealing to the idea
of perfection. It seems that he ought to have excluded it as being
something metaphysical. Further on we shall consider his theory of
finality. At present let us only say that if he considers natural
phenomena as imperfect, it is in the sense in which Helmholtz calls the
eye a poor optical instrument. He simply states that certain ends, in
fact, being realized by a natural arrangement of a group of phenomena,
the same end might be better or more economically reached, by other
arrangements that we can easily conceive. In this sense our solar
system is imperfect, but less so than many living forms whose organism
might present a much higher degree of advantageous adaptation. And yet
these living forms are themselves less imperfect than societies subject
as they are to all sorts of pathological alterations, as history
clearly shows. It is remarkable that the most imperfect phenomena
should precisely be the most modifiable, and also those whose study
only became positive in the last stage.


More or less complex, modifiable and imperfect, _all_ phenomena are
subject to laws. It is the supreme principle, the “fundamental dogma”
of science and of positive philosophy. Comte thus enunciates it: “All
phenomena whatever, inorganic or organic, physical or moral, individual
or social, are all subjected in a continuous manner to rigorously
invariable laws.”[51]

Undoubtedly this principle is not yet extended, by the majority of
minds, to all phenomena. This is shown clearly enough by their mode
of reasoning in ethics and in politics. But it is, however, implied
in their general conception of nature. It thus assumes a universal
character, which has caused it to be regarded by many philosophers
as an innate, or at least a primitive notion, in the human mind.
According to Comte, this is erroneous. Like John Stuart Mill, whom
he expressly quotes on this point,[52] he sees in this principle the
result of a long, gradual induction, at the same time individual and
collective. Except in the case of the most familiar phenomena, whose
regularity is most striking, the human mind does not begin by believing
in an invariable order. Even the mind’s conceptions, (theological and
metaphysical), conceal the existence of laws, long after observation
would have made it see them, were it freed from bias. It is true that
the “first germs” of this principle exist as soon as human reason
begins to be exercised, since the dominion of theological philosophy
never could be absolute. But these germs are only developed very
slowly, like the positive method and conceptions themselves.

The induction upon which this principle is founded only began to
acquire solidity when it was definitely verified for a whole order of
important phenomena, that is to say when mathematical astronomy had
been founded. Phenomena of the highest importance, from the theoretical
as well as from the practical point of view, could then be predicted
with perfect certainty. The invariability of their laws had been placed
beyond doubt. From that moment, the principle must have been extended
by analogy, to the more complex orders of phenomena, even before
their own laws could be known. But according to Comte this “vague
logical anticipation” remained valueless and fruitless. It is of no
use to conceive, in the abstract that a certain order of phenomena
_must_ be subject to laws. This empty conception cannot outweigh the
theological and metaphysical beliefs, which have the force of habit
in their favour. In order that the principle of laws should be really
established in an order of phenomena, some laws must _in fact_ have
been discovered and demonstrated in it.

Consequently, while in the _a priori_ doctrines the possibility of
all science rests upon the principle of laws, in Comte’s doctrine, on
the contrary, it is the progress of positive science which by degrees
founds the principle, and which finally brings it to the universal
form in which we find it to-day. Until the creation of sociology,
this principle did not yet possess an effective universality, since
the moral and social phenomena were not conceived as subject to
invariable laws. But when the last conquest of the positive spirit
is once accomplished, “this great principle at once acquires a
decisive fulness, and may be formulated as applying universally to all
phenomena.” Undoubtedly, in each order, we have only established for
a few what henceforth we affirm for all phenomena without previous
verification. But we think that laws, unknown to us, nevertheless
exist. In this we yield to an “irresistible analogy,” which has never
been proved to be false.

Thus, “the most fundamental dogma of the whole of positive philosophy,
that is to say, the subjection of all real phenomena to invariable
laws, only results with certainty from an immense induction, without
really being deducible from any notion whatever.”[53] This immense
induction is a progressive sum of inductions which have taken place
successively in each category of phenomena. It would not be absurd,
strictly speaking, that a certain category should not be submitted,
like the others to invariable laws. But, since sociology has been
founded, we know that all are in fact so subjected.

The laws are known to us, sometimes by experience, sometimes by
reasoning. This diversity of origin in no way influences either the
certainty or the philosophical dignity of the laws. Each of the six
fundamental sciences gives examples of these two distinct modes of
advance which mutually complete each other. “There is not less genius
in the discovery of Kepler than in that of Newton. The initial laws
of mechanics and even of geometry rest solely upon observation. The
logical perfection consists in confirming by one of these ways what
must have been found by the other. But one of the two suffices when all
the conditions required by the method are fulfilled.”[54] How should
the laws obtained by induction be regarded as less certain than the
laws obtained by deduction, since the principle of laws itself rests
upon an induction?


In proportion as the several orders of phenomena are conceived as
governed by invariable laws, the belief in final causes becomes weaker
and tends to disappear. The final causes are imagined by the mind to
explain certain combinations of natural phenomena. When the laws of
these phenomena are known, this explanation becomes useless, it ceases
to have currency. It shares the fate of the whole of theological and
metaphysical philosophy, of which it is a part.

The doctrine of final causes is generally regarded as a constituent
principle of religious systems. A special argument in favour of the
existence of God has even been drawn from it. Comte remarks that
it is more probably a consequence of these systems. So long as man
believes in the continual action of the gods, or of God, in nature,
he does not need the consideration of final causes upon which to
found his belief. He does not even dream of it. Later on only, when
the religious conception of the world has become weaker, when God has
so far withdrawn from the world as to be no longer anything but a
sovereign who reigns, but does not govern, then the need is felt to
demonstrate His existence, and the order of nature becomes an argument.
The consideration of final causes from this point of view is a symptom
of the weakening of the theological spirit; it is thus pre-eminently a
metaphysical doctrine.

Whatever may be the case, experience witnesses against it. Positive
science does not lay down that the world must be conceived as the
work of an all-powerful intelligence. For instance, the scientific
knowledge of our solar system has shown in the most obvious manner,
and in various ways, that the elements of this system were certainly
not disposed in the most advantageous manner, and that science allowed
us to conceive of a better arrangement.[55] Astronomers may admire a
natural finality in the organisation of animals; but the anatomists
who know all its imperfections, fall back upon the arrangements of the
stars. In what concerns animals, a blind admiration wonders even at
evidently detrimental complications: it is the case with the eye, with
the bladder, etc.[56] But “it is an almost universal disposition of
physiologists to draw, even from their ignorance, as many motives for
the admiration of the profound wisdom of a mechanism which they declare
they cannot understand.”

In truth, the natural order, so much extolled, is extremely imperfect,
and we can without difficulty conceive a better one. The human works,
says Comte, from the most simple mechanical appliances to the most
sublime political constructions, are generally far superior either
in expediency, or in simplicity, to everything that the most perfect
natural economy can offer us.[57] Our geometers and our physicians
“sufficiently prepared” would do far better than nature, if they dared
“to take the direct conception of a new animal mechanism as the object
of an intellectual exercise.” This idea of artificial organisms pleases
Comte and he often returns to it. He considers that fictions of this
kind may be useful in biology to intercalate intermediaries between the
several known organisms, in such a manner as to facilitate comparison
in making the biological series more homogeneous and continuous.[58] In
fact this is what Broca attempted to do, when he endeavoured to connect
man with the other primates by hypothetical anthropoids. Quite recently
M. Delage has made use of a similar fiction in his _Traité de Zoologie_.

Comte seldom misses an opportunity of smiling at the stupid admiration
of those who believe that nature has done everything “for the best,” or
that everything in it has been ordered by a providential wisdom. But we
can surprise him also in the very act of admiration; not doubtless on
the subject of astronomical or biological phenomena, but in the chapter
which lies nearest to his heart, that of social facts. He writes, “we
cannot experience too much respect and admiration when we see this
universal natural disposition which is the primary basis of all
society....”[59] and elsewhere: “Can one really conceive, in the whole
of natural phenomena, a more marvellous spectacle than this regular and
continuous convergence of an immensity of individuals....”[60]

However, there is not here a contradiction. In reality, although
Comte says that the consideration of final causes must be accepted
altogether, or rejected altogether, he does not himself reject it as
entirely as he seems at first to do.

What he formally rejects, is the finality understood in the theological
or metaphysical manner: _Cœli enarrant gloriam Dei_. He does not admit
that we can “explain” the natural order by a supernatural wisdom.
But he in no way contests the finality which Kant called internal.
This finality, or better, this reciprocal causality appears in living
beings, where the whole and the parts are reciprocally end and means.
The tree could not subsist without the leaves any more than the leaves
without the tree. Comte expresses this idea in terms which are almost
identical with those of Kant, although he did not know them. “We
shall,” he says, “cease defining a living being by the collection of
its organs, as if these could exist isolated.... In biology the general
notion of the being, always precedes that of any of its parts whatever.
In sociology, where partial interdependence is less intimate although
wider, it would be a serious heresy to define humanity by man ...
_a fortiori_ in biology we ought not to conceive the whole from its
parts.”[61] As soon as we rise above the inorganic world, the first
condition for the study of phenomena is the idea of their consensus,
first in biology, and then in sociology. This _consensus_ corresponds
to Kant’s internal finality.

But the distinction between internal finality and external finality
cannot be strictly maintained. We will never affirm that some beings
were made in view of others. This would be in the highest degree a
theological “explanation” of the first order. But from the positive
point of view, we observe that, in order to subsist, organisms need
not only special intimate structure, but further require a certain
equilibrium of external conditions. At each moment their existence
depends at once on their constitution and on the “milieu.” This
word, which was destined to attain such popularity and the theory
of the “milieu” which Taine has rendered no less popular, belong to
Comte. Undoubtedly, the idea was suggested to him, on the one hand by
Montesquieu and by his successors, and on the other by the labours of
Lamarck and of the contemporary biologists. He also drew inspiration
from Bichat’s celebrated _Recherches sur la vie et la mort_. But Bichat
especially insisted upon the antagonism between the living being and
the forces of the inorganic world which press upon him from all sides.
Comte thinks, on the contrary, that the very existence of living beings
is the proof of a sufficient harmony between their organism and the
milieu. And what we cannot dispute is his merit in having generalised
the idea specially applied by Montesquieu to social facts, and also
specially applied by Lamarck and Bichat to the phenomena of life.

“I designate by this word “milieu,” says Comte, in excusing himself
for the new meaning which he gives it, “not only the fluid in which
the organism is immersed, but, in general, the totality of external
circumstances of any kind whatever necessary to the existence of each
determined organism.”[62]

Properly speaking then, Comte does not reject the doctrine of final
causes; he only transforms it. He had declared this himself in his
_opuscule_ in 1822. “The doctrine of final causes has been converted by
the physiologists into the principle of the conditions of existence.”
Positive philosophy appropriates, “with the understanding of a suitable
change,” the general ideas primitively invented by the theological and
metaphysical philosophies. As the positive notion of the mathematical
laws of phenomena arose out of the metaphysical conceptions of the
Pythagoricians concerning the properties of numbers, so the scientific
principle of the conditions of existence springs from the hypothesis of
final causes.[63]

An example will allow us to realise this transformation in the act.

The stability of the solar system renders the existence of living
species on the earth possible. A good example of finality it would
seem. Nevertheless this stability is simply a necessary consequence,
according to the mechanical laws of the world, of some circumstances
characteristic of our system: extreme smallness of the planetary masses
in comparison to the central mass, small eccentricity of their orbits,
slight mutual inclination of their planes, etc. Since, in fact, we
exist it must be that the system of which we form a part is arranged so
as to allow of this existence.” The so-called final cause would then
reduce itself here, as on all analogous occasions, to this childish
remark: the only stars inhabited are those which are habitable. In a
word, we return to the principle of the conditions of existence, which
is the true positive transformation of the doctrine of final causes,
and whose bearings and fertility are far superior.”[64]

In order to give the formula of this principle, we must have recourse
to the general distinction established by de Blainville between the
static point of view and the dynamic point of view.

Every active being, and in particular every living being, can be
analysed from these two points of view. The static analysis considers
its elements in their relations of simultaneous connexions. The dynamic
analysis discovers the laws of their joint evolution. The first is
the share of the anatomist, the second that of the physiologist. Now
it is clear that these two analyses are complementary to one another,
and are even separately unintelligible. For instance, the anatomist is
constantly guided by physiological considerations. Conversely, without
anatomical knowledge there is no positive physiology.

Thus, the statical analysis establishes the laws of coexistence, the
dynamic analysis the laws of succession or of movement. The principle
of the conditions of existence is nothing else than _the direct and
general conception of the necessary harmony of these two analyses, that
is to say, of the agreement of these two orders of laws_.[65] If this
harmony, in fact, was not realised, no living being, no natural system
of phenomena could subsist. From the point of view of the object this
principle accounts for the permanence of beings: from the point of view
of the subject it expresses the possibility of science.

Why does Comte say that the importance and fertility of this principle
are far superior to those of the doctrine of final causes? It is
because this latter doctrine claims to “explain.” In referring the
natural order to the wisdom of a Providence, it dispenses in some
measure with scientific research, or at least it does not require it.
The principle of the conditions of existence, on the contrary, is
closely allied to the positive conception of natural phenomena. It only
implies the existence of laws. It only establishes the continuity of
the relations between these laws, a continuity verified by experience,
since beings subsist and reproduce themselves. In a word, it allows
us to connect the laws of succession with the laws of coexistence
everywhere. Now, to connect is the essential function of science. By
means of this principle not only the successive moments of any natural
evolution whatever are understood as having solidarity with each other
but the whole of this evolution becomes intelligible by its relation to
the statical conditions to which it corresponds. And, in virtue of the
relativity of science, or, if we prefer it, of the universal reciprocal
action of all phenomena, the principle of the conditions of existence
leads the human mind to a scientific investigation ever more exact and
never completed.

This positive transformation of the doctrine of final causes had
already been clearly sketched by the philosophers of the XVIII. century
whom Comte knew very well, by Diderot, by Hume, by d’Holbach. Hume
says, for instance,[66] “It is useless to insist upon the uses of
parts in animals or in plants, and on their curious adaptation one to
another. I should much like to know how an animal could subsist without
this adaptation. Do we not see that if it ceases he perishes at once,
and that the matter of which he was composed takes some other shape?”
And d’Holbach, “These wholes would not exist in the form which they
bear, if their parts ceased to act as they do; that is to say, ceased
to be arranged in such a way as to lend themselves to being mutually
helpful to each other. To be surprised that the heart, the brain, the
eyes, the arteries, etc., of an animal act as they do; or that a tree
produces fruit, is to be surprised that a tree or an animal exists.
These beings would not exist or would no longer be what they are, if
they ceased to act as they do: this is what happens when they die.”[67]

Comte makes this criticism of the doctrine of final causes his own.
But, faithful to his maxim, “We only destroy what we replace,” he
claims to substitute a positive principle to this metaphysical
doctrine, which preserves the elements in it which are compatible
with the scientific method. It is the principle of the conditions of
existence. In virtue of this principle, by the very fact that such
an organ is part of such a living being, it necessarily co-operates
in a determined although perhaps unknown manner, with the totality of
the acts which make up its existence: an organ no more exists without
a function than a function without an organ. But it in no way follows
from this that all the organic functions are performed as perfectly
as we could imagine them to be. For instance pathological analysis
demonstrates that the disturbing action of each organ upon the whole
of the economy is very far from being always compensated for by its
utility in the normal state. “If, within certain limits, everything is
necessarily arranged in such a way as to be able to exist, we should
seek in vain, in the majority of effective arrangements, for proofs of
a wisdom superior or even equal to human wisdom.”[68]

Extending these considerations to the whole of the phenomena known to
us, Comte concludes in almost the same way as Cournot will later on.
An order establishes itself in nature, since it subsists, since it
is intelligible, since there are laws.[69] Does not the very idea of
a law induce at once the corresponding idea of a certain spontaneous
order? But “this consequence is not more absolute than the principle
from which it is derived.”[70] The experience which reveals this order
to us also shows us that it is imperfect, of an imperfection which
grows with the complexity of phenomena. Every time that the necessary
and sufficient conditions are realised for a natural system to be able
to exist, this system exists in fact, however full of imperfections
it may be in other respects. “Undoubtedly, an inevitable necessity
which links together a series of events, and a premeditated plan which
directs them, resemble each other very much so far as the consequences
are concerned.”[71] But, if the necessity is established, there is
no need to suppose the plan. Now the principle of the conditions of
existence, in showing that all that is “indispensable,” is at the same
time “inevitable,” renders this supposition superfluous.

A double tendency makes itself felt in this theory. On the one hand
Comte, faithful to the spirit of his philosophy, rejects all that
claims to go beyond experience, that is to say the transcendental
hypothesis of final causes and of optimism. On the other hand, he
wishes to account for the order of nature, which is a fact. Now this
order, all imperfect as it is, implies not only the existence of laws,
but moreover a permanent harmony between these laws. “The present
is full of the past, and big with the future.” The principle of the
conditions of existence explains this permanence of order, at least as
much as it needs to be explained from the positive point of view. For
it states that everywhere, in fact, the dynamical laws are in harmony
with the statical laws, and that “progress is a development of order.”
The principle of the conditions of existence is no more _a priori_
than the principle of laws. Like it it is founded upon an “immense
induction.” Like it again, it only acquires its full power when social
science is created, and positive philosophy established.

Should we not be tempted to see in this doctrine a kind of projection
of an idealism such as that of Leibnitz on the lines of positive
thought? Just as Leibnitz makes mechanism rest upon a deeper dynamism,
so Comte completes the principle of laws by the principle of the
conditions of existence. True, between these two doctrines there lies
all the distance which separates the positive from the metaphysical
spirit. But none the less both give symmetrical solutions of the same
problem which correspond to one another, the one _a priori_ the other
_a posteriori_.


All natural laws, must be conceived as rigorously invariable, whether
it be a question of mathematical or of sociological laws. If we could
conceive, in any case, that under the influence of conditions exactly
similar the phenomena should not remain perfectly identical, not only
in kind, but also in degree, all scientific theory would at once become
impossible.[72] This principle is the very condition of the possibility
of prevision, and consequently of positive science. Claude Bernard
will call it “the absolute determinism of phenomena.” Comte admits
no absolute: but he considers nevertheless that the invariability of
natural laws does not permit of exception.

In the case of certain laws their invariability can be directly
verified, since they come before us in a mathematical form. Such are,
for instance, the mechanical, astronomical and physical laws. Others,
on the contrary, such as the biological laws, refuse to be dealt with
by numbers and cannot be reduced to equations. But this evidently comes
from their complexity: “If it were possible rigorously to isolate
each one of the simple causes which concur in producing the same
physiological phenomenon, everything tends to show that under well
determined circumstances, it would appear to be possessed of a kind of
influence and of a quantity of action, as exactly fixed as we see it to
be in universal gravitation.”[73] Every elementary phenomenon has its

If then in all cases we could go back to the elementary phenomena,
we could undoubtedly also formulate their mathematical law. In this
sense, mathematical analysis would apply to all the phenomena of the
world without exception. But, nearly always, the decomposition of given
phenomena into elementary phenomena is impossible to us. At any rate
the work of synthesis or of re-composition taken in the reverse order
is far beyond our mathematical powers. The only phenomena to which
we apply the analysis without too much trouble are the most simple
of all, the geometrical and mechanical phenomena. The difficulty
grows very rapidly with the complication of astronomical, physical,
and especially chemical phenomena. When we reach the realm of living
nature, the elementary phenomena escape us altogether. They are given
to us in a state of almost infinite complexity, and, in virtue of the
biological _consensus_, closely bound up with others of no less complex
a character. These phenomena are in themselves syntheses depending upon
other syntheses all in a state of mutual influence and of constant
instability. Then, although, in principle, it remains true that
identical antecedents can only have identical consequents, in fact,
because of the very great number of elementary actions which concur in
the production of each phenomenon, there have perhaps never been, there
perhaps never will be, two cases rigorously similar.

It follows that we must not confuse “the subordination of any events
whatever to invariable laws with their irresistible necessary
accomplishment.”[74] Relatively single phenomena appear indeed to us
to be produced with an irresistible necessity: for instance, the facts
of gravitation. But complex phenomena, in virtue of the more and more
varied combinations which their several necessary conditions admit of
no longer present this character. They are more “modifiable” and less
“irresistible.” In other words, as one considers more elevated, more
complex, more “noble” categories of facts, the laws become removed
from the type of mathematical necessity, and admit more of an ever
increasing element of “contingency”?

The order of the world can then be conceived as a “modifiable
fatality.”[75] In the eyes of the greater number of present thinkers,
says Comte, this formula will seem contradictory. This comes from
old habits of mind which are not easily broken with. In the same
way, as we have had a great deal of trouble in representing truth to
ourselves otherwise than as immutable, so we are unwilling to conceive
order otherwise than as necessary. During a long time the science of
mathematics has been the only positive science. The idea of law formed
itself in this science, that is to say according to the necessary
relations which are demonstrated in it. It came to be afterwards
transferred, just as it was, into the other orders of phenomena,
as the positive spirit progressed. But orders of phenomena differ
qualitatively from one another. All laws ought not to be conceived
according to the single type of geometrical and algebraical laws. In
order to obtain a complete idea of a natural law, we must not confine
ourselves to the mathematical order, which is an “exception” in this
respect. All the orders of phenomena must be considered. We then see
that law must be defined “constancy in variety.”

In fact, “the normal type is never suited to any but a medium state,
more ideal than real, around which effective existence ceaselessly
oscillates, so long as the deviation does not go beyond the limits
which are compatible with the duration of the system. Order, even
isolated, is no more eternal than it is absolute.”[76] In this
passage, Comte is speaking of astronomical order, but the same
consideration applies to all the systems or groups of phenomena. Every
law is necessarily something abstract. Being indispensable to the
intelligibility of the real, every law allows prevision and science
to exist. But it is not an adequate expression of this reality, which
never remains identical with itself.

Comte goes so far as to say that our requirement of precision in
the study of natural laws must not be pushed too far. For the laws
which it has been possible to establish within certain degrees of
approximation vanish if this approximation is pushed further. Not that
the phenomena cease to be subject to laws; but these laws becoming too
complex, escape us. For instance, it has been possible to establish
with our thermometers the laws of the variation of temperature of
a body under certain conditions. With very much more sensitive
thermometers the variations becomes incessant and very complicated.
The known laws disappear without our being in a condition to establish

The order which positive science shows us in nature is then very far
from being absolute. It is, to speak truly, the outcome of the combined
activity of our mind and of things. We cannot separate what belongs
to each of these two factors, but it appears from what has just been
said that the mind plays a great part, that the external relations
are far more contingent than suits our blind instinct of universal
connection.”[78] Nevertheless the phenomena are not irreducible to
order, since science and prevision remain possible. But this order,
entirely relative in respect to our understanding is only established
within certain limits. More powerful minds than ours would probably
construct richer and more complex orders for themselves. For us, beyond
a certain point of complexity our vision becomes confused and our
logical requirements are no longer satisfied. Limits would thus seem to
be placed upon scientific investigation, and these in the interest of
science itself.

Finally we reach the last consequence of this theory founded upon
experience, the principle of laws and the principle of the conditions
of existence only insure a provisional order. Comte readily admits that
it might not exist. “This order might become so irregular that it might
even escape brains superior to ours. There is nothing to prevent us
from imagining words outside our solar system, always given over to
an inorganic and entirely disordered agitation, which would not even
allow of a general law of gravitation.”[79] This is the very hypothesis
formulated by John Stuart Mill, in almost similar terms, and in which
a kind of _reductio ad absurdum_ of his own theory was thought to be
found. It is, however, compatible with the existence of a science which
does not claim to possess an absolute value. Moreover Comte at once
adds, “Still, even if order should be found to be particular to our
world, in fact, it would be in no way accidental in it, since it is the
first condition for human existence.” In virtue of the principle of the
conditions of existence, the presence of a being such as man implies
the whole of the laws which govern our world.


The laws which for us constitute the order of the world are of two
kinds. Some are established by the positive method in each order of
phenomena separately considered; the astronomical laws, physical laws,
chemical laws, etc. They belong to the domain of science properly
so-called. The others are apprehended when the mind leaves the special
point of view of science, and places itself at the universal point of
view of philosophy. They are found again in the different orders of
phenomena, whose relations they express without compromising their
respective independence. They represent them severally connected, or,
according to Comte’s expression, as convergent. Comte calls these last
_encyclopædic_ laws. They tend to realise the unity which the mind
claims, not in pursuing the chimerical reduction of all laws to a
supreme law, but in showing that the systems of irreducible laws are
nevertheless harmonious among themselves.

Generally speaking, these laws have been known for a long time, but
only as special laws of such and such an order of phenomena. It belongs
to positive philosophy to give them their encyclopædic character,
that is to say, to make them universal. For instance, d’Alembert’s
principle is known in mechanics as a law which connects questions of
movement with questions of equilibrium. Philosophy finds a similar
law in biology: (physiological questions are correlated to anatomical
questions); and also in sociology (“progress is the development of
order”). It then formulates the encyclopædic law which generalises
these three laws, that is, the principle of the conditions of existence.

Similarly the three great laws of mechanics, known under the name of
the laws of Kepler, of Galileo and of Newton, must be universalised
and become encyclopædic for they are applicable to all the orders
of phenomena.[80] The law of Kepler, in the first place, expresses
the spontaneous tendency of all natural phenomena to persevere
indefinitely in their state, if no disturbing influence supervenes;
a tendency whence are derived inertia in mechanics, habit in living
bodies, and the conservative instinct in societies. The law of Galileo
which reconciles every common movement with the various particular
movements, applies to all the organic and inorganic phenomena. For, in
any system, we can always ascertain the independence of the several
active or passive mutual relations with regard to any action which is
exactly common to the various parts, whatever may be their kind and
degree. Finally the universal character of Newton’s law (reaction is
equal to action), is evident at first sight. It is accidentally, not
essentially, that these laws have at first been mechanical laws. They
could have been equally attained by the study of biological or social
phenomena. If the science of mechanics was the first to formulate them
it is because it has for its object the less complicated phenomena.

A complete and rational system of encyclopædic laws would realise the
“philosophia prima” which Bacon dimly foresaw. In the actual condition
of the sciences this would probably be a rash undertaking. Comte
attempted it in the fourth volume of the _Politique positive_.[81]
One can hardly say that the trial was a decisive one. It is true that
at that moment Comte was already entirely taken up with religious

However, the encyclopædic laws are destined to play a part in the
positive philosophy of nature, which may be compared, in some respects,
with that of the categories in Aristotle’s philosophy. They are the
most general forms under which the phenomena given in experience become
objects of scientific thought for us. As in each class of phenomena we
determine laws, principles of order and of harmony, so the encyclopædic
laws make the order and the harmony of the different classes among
themselves. They are, so to speak, _the laws of laws_. Through them
the human mind which has already reached unity of method, may some day
reach a certain unity of knowledge. But this unity will always differ
by two essential characteristics from that which metaphysicians have
pursued up to the present time: it will respect the irreducibleness of
the various fundamental sciences, and it will remain relative, both by
the conditions of the object and by those of the subject, upon which it
equally depends.

Our conception of universal order “results from a necessary concurrence
between that which is without us, and that which is within. The laws,
that is to say the general facts, are never anything but hypotheses
confirmed by observation. If harmony in no way existed outside us our
mind would be entirely incapable of conceiving it, but in no case is it
verified so much as we suppose it to be.”[82] We neither make order nor
perceive it entirely. By long and arduous labour the human intellect
gradually disengages the concept of order out of the facts that come
crowding within its reach. It is an imperfect, contingent, perishable
order, in a word, an order, relative like the mind itself. It is order
nevertheless, and a necessary condition for ethics as well as for


[46] Cours, I. 4.

[47] Discours sur l’Esprit positif, p. 23.

[48] Cours, II. 505.

[49] Cours, VI. 648.

[50] Cours, VI, 659.

[51] Cours, VI, 655.

[52] Discours sur l’esprit positif, p. 17.

[53] Lettre inedite a M. Papot, 8 mai 1851 (archives de la société

[54] Cours, VI, 662.

[55] Cours, II, 36.

[56] Cours, III, 362.

[57] Cours, VI, 833.

[58] Cours, III, 339, 365.

[59] Cours, IV, 452.

[60] Cours, IV, 470.

[61] Pol. pos. i, 641.

[62] Cours, III, 235.

[63] Pol. pos. iv, Appendice p. 17.

[64] Cours, ii, 26-27.

[65] Cours, iii, 366.

[66] Dialogues on natural religion, VIII.

[67] Système de la nature, II. 187.

[68] Cours, III. 363-4.

[69] Pol. pos. II. 42.

[70] Cours, IV. 274.

[71] Pol. pos. Appendice, p. 25.

[72] Cours, III. 325.

[73] Cours, I, 128-9.

[74] Cours, III. 642.

[75] Pol. pos. II. 427.

[76] Pol. pos. 431.

[77] Cours, VI. 690.

[78] Pol. pos. I. 588.

[79] Pol. pos. II. 30.

[80] Cours, XI., 740-46; Pol. pos., I, 494-5.

[81] Pol. pos., IV., 173-80.

[82] Pol. pos., II. 33.



Logic, says Comte, almost in the terms of Descartes, is the sole
portion of ancient philosophy which is capable of still presenting some
appearance of utility.[83] And does even this appearance correspond to
a very solid reality?

If we distinguish, according to custom, formal logic from applied
logic, Comte in his system will find no place for the former, which
establishes _a priori_ the principles and the mechanism of reasoning.
As to the principles, which are the laws of the understanding, positive
philosophy has shown that the only way to discover them is to study
the products of the human intellect, that is to say, the development
of the sciences. And it is again from these sciences that, through
observation, the theory of reasoning must be drawn. Formal logic, as
metaphysicians have constructed it, especially develops the dialectical
faculty, that is to say, an aptitude more harmful than useful, for
proving without finding.[84] Descartes said the same, in speaking of
the syllogism, that it serves more for explaining to others the things
which we know, than to discover those which we ignore.

All the utility which we can attribute to the study of logic properly
so-called is found again more extended, more varied, more complete,
more luminous, in mathematical studies. The mechanism of reasoning
is everywhere the same. Whatever may be the phenomena which are the
objects of a science the nature of deduction and induction never
changes in them. Thus in practising these forms of reasoning in the
most simple and the most general phenomena, those whose science is most
advanced, we learn to know them with the most entire evidence, and in
all the generality of which they are capable. Nowhere is reasoning so
exact, so rigorous as in mathematics. They accustom the mind not to
feed upon false reasons, and it is in that school that men ought to
learn the theory and the practice of reasoning.

But, if the old pure logic is thus replaced by mathematics, must we
not at least preserve the general study of the processes used in the
various sciences, which is called methodology? Has not Comte himself
insisted upon the irreducibleness of the several orders of laws to
one another, and in particular to the mathematical laws? Is not the
legitimate object of logic to define the processes of investigation and
of proof particular to each of the fundamental sciences?

Comte does not think so. This applied logic does not appear to him
to be more indispensable than formal logic. In the first place, the
former, in fact, supposes the latter. It proceeds from the same
philosophical conception. In order to determine _a priori_, in a
general way, the rules of the application of the mind to its various
scientific objects, we should first have to possess a knowledge of the
laws of the mind. But, according to Comte, this knowledge can only be
obtained by the observation of the methods which the mind has indeed
followed. Moreover, no art is taught abstractedly, not even the art
of reasoning well, nor that of experimenting, of finding hypotheses,
etc. It has never been sufficient to know the rules of versification
in order to write true poetry. A deep knowledge of the rules of method
will not lead to scientific discoveries.[85] Whatever we learn of an
art, it is practice that has taught us. Nothing here can replace time,
natural disposition, and experience.

Methods then cannot be studied apart from the positive researches in
which men of learning make use of them. Even supposing that in the
far future, when the sciences are advanced, the methods and their
applications could be taught by themselves, the study would run a great
risk of yielding poor results.[86] Up to the present time all that has
been said of the method, considered in the abstract, reduces itself
to vague generalities. When, in logic, we have thoroughly established
that all our science of nature must be founded upon observation, that
we must proceed sometimes from facts to principles, sometimes from
principles to facts, and a few other similar aphorisms, we know far
less of the method than the man who has studied a single one of the
positive sciences somewhat deeply, even without any philosophical
purpose. It is thus that Eclectic philosophers have imagined to make
their psychology into a science, thinking they could understand and
practice the positive method because they had read the _Novum Organum_
and the _Discours de la Méthode_. But did not Bacon, Pascal, Descartes,
and the other great scientific leaders insist on the uselessness of
abstract considerations about method? They never separated the rules
they formulated from their application to positive research.

Comte himself, their successor and their heir, uses no other language.
In his long study of the fundamental sciences he never fails to
distinguish the contents of the science from its method, what he
calls “the scientific point of view and the logical point of view.”
But, while distinguishing them, he considers that they are correlated
and closely allied among themselves. He no more conceives method
as separated from the science which he studies, than science as
separated from its method. Both constitute one intellectual reality
seen under two aspects closely allied to one another.[87] To conclude,
traditional logic is fast disappearing. In its theoretical parts it is
superannuated like the metaphysical philosophy whence it proceeds. In
its applied parts it is barren if separated from the practice of the


There is however a positive logic, and in it we can also distinguish a
theoretical and a practical part.

The theoretical part deals with logical laws. These laws which,
finally, govern the intellectual world, are invariable, and common
not only to all time and places, but also to all subjects whatever
without any distinction even between those which Comte calls real and
chimerical. They are observed, fundamentally, even in dreams.[88]
But this universality of logical laws is not understood by him in
the sense in which the rationalist philosophers understand it. Comte
is only concerned with a permanence and continuity purely historical
in character. The mind of man, like the rest of his nature remains
identical with itself, through the diversity of epochs and situations.
It evolves without changing fundamentally “without other differences
than those of gradually developed maturity and experience.”

Ancient philosophy claimed to discover the intellectual laws by
reflection, as if the mind could think and at the same time see
itself thinking, reason and observe its reasoning Comte rejects this
introspective method, which yields no scientific results. If we apply
the method of positive investigation to the intellectual phenomena
as to all the others, two ways only are open. We can look at it from
the static point of view, that is to say, study the conditions upon
which these phenomena depend, and refer the phenomena to them as we
refer generally the function to its organ. In this sense the study
of the intellectual phenomena belongs to biology. Or else, from the
dynamic point of view, we can consider these phenomena in their
evolution, by observing the successive phases through which they pass.
And since the life of the individual is too short for this “progress”
to be appreciable, it must be studied in the life of the species. So
understood, the science of the intellectual laws comes within the
sphere of sociology.

Now, higher biology which deals with moral and intellectual phenomena,
has only just been founded by Cabanis and Gall. Comte discovered that
it could not be constituted as a science without the help of sociology.
It is then to this newly born study that the search after intellectual
laws in every way belongs.

Positive logic abstains, as we see, from speculating upon the leading
principles of knowledge, principles of identity, of contradiction
of causality, etc. These kinds of principles are not objects of
examination or of discussion. Comte upon this point is in full accord
with the Scottish school. No positive science questions its own
principles, for how can we submit the very principles of all reasoning
to criticism? Nothing is less in accordance with the positive spirit
than an attempt of this kind. It is simply metaphysical and has no
chance of success.

The intellectual laws of which the research is positive are such as
the law of the three states (which is the most general of all), or
such, for instance, as these: the human mind always makes an effort
to place its conceptions in accordance with its observations; in
every case the human mind forms the simplest hypothesis, etc. These
laws, which are derived from the nature of the human mind, and whose
action has always been felt, could only be discovered and formulated
quite recently. For biology and sociology, to which they are related,
could not be constituted before the more simple fundamental sciences
were sufficiently advanced. To reach a scientific knowledge of the
intellectual laws, to found a “positive logic,” nothing less was needed
than the long evolution whose term is marked by Comte’s philosophy.

Applied logic, or theory of method, also finds a new meaning in the
positive doctrine. Comte does not fall into the mistake which he has
criticised. He does not propose to teach an art _ex professo_, and he
will not formulate the rules which positive research must follow in
order to be productive. Here again Comte will found his doctrine upon
the intellectual evolution of humanity.

In the first place, like the sciences, the positive methods are
collective works, “the work of the species gradually developed in the
long sequence of centuries.” Comte considers as impertinent the
pretensions of some modern scientists, who pride themselves upon having
invented the comparative method in biology. As if Aristotle had not
already practised it! And Aristotle had not been the first to do so.
The processes of the positive methods do not reveal themselves all at
once, under a perfect and final form. They gradually come to light
during a long period of groping. The human mind notices the processes
which have succeeded in simple cases. It endeavours to generalize them,
and tests them in new and slightly more complex cases. It seeks for the
reason why in certain cases the end is reached, in others it is missed.
Method is thus insensibly formed by a kind of practical induction.
Its essential processes are, like the leading ideas in the sciences,
“inspirations from universal wisdom.” The office of great men--and
this is sufficient for them to earn our gratitude--is to recognise the
value and the fecundity of these inspirations, to set them at work,
and especially to endow them with an often indefinite extension by
separating them from the concrete conditions in which they were at
first manifested.

Thus positive philosophy, less ambitious than its predecessors, does
not take upon itself to legislate upon method. But neither does it
confine itself to the mere duty of making statements, that is to say
to simply register the processes made use of in the sciences. Is not
its proper function to represent in human knowledge the “universalizing
mind” which in Comte’s language is synonymous with government? He
himself calls the fifty-eighth lesson of the _Cours de philosophie
positive_ his _Discours de la Méthode_.[89] He rises above the
necessarily peculiar position which belongs to specialists, and places
himself at the central and universal point of view which is proper to
the philosopher. Thence he embraces under one point of view, the entire
hierarchy of the fundamental sciences. Out of this well-ordered whole,
he watches as they arise, first the essence of the positive method,
and then the relations of the various elements in this method to one

In its essence, the positive method is one, as science is one. For it
ever tends towards the same end: the establishment of the invariable
relations which constitute the effective laws of all observable events,
“thus capable of being rationally foreseen from one another.” The
positive method proceeds to this by means of a threefold abstraction.
It first separates the practical requirements from theoretical
knowledge, to be only concerned with the latter, it seeks for the laws
of phenomena without troubling itself, at least provisionally, with
any possible applications. It also puts aside æsthetic considerations,
which ought not to intervene in scientific investigation. Finally--and
here is the condition for the very existence of science--the positive
method always carefully distinguishes between the abstract and the
concrete point of view. It studies not beings, but phenomena. Even
in the simplest cases, in astronomy for instance, no general law can
be established so long as bodies are considered in their concrete
existence. The principal phenomenon has had to be detached, so to
speak, so as to submit it alone to an abstract study, afterwards
allowing us to return successfully to the consideration of more complex
realities. This is what the ancients had known how to do in geometry;
and this is what Comte himself has done in the most complex of all
sciences, in sociology. Instead of stopping at the concrete reality of
history, he determined, by a bold abstraction, the law of the essential
movement in human society “leaving to subsequent labours the care of
bringing apparent anomalies into line with it.”[90]

In the main, these general characteristics of the positive method
bring it singularly near to the Cartesian method. Comte’s “Threefold
gradual abstraction” seems indeed to have for its end, like Descartes’
analysis, to go back to what is simplest and easiest to know, and
then to come down, by a synthetic and progressive advance, towards
the reality which is given to us in experience. The one and the other
of these methods witness, here, to an effort towards generalising the
spirit of the mathematical method. Let us never forget, writes Comte,
that the general spirit of positive philosophy was first formed by the
culture of mathematics, and that we must necessarily go back so far, in
order to know this spirit in its elementary purity. The mathematical
processes and formulæ are rarely capable of being applied to the
effective study of natural phenomena, when we wish to go beyond the
most extreme simplicity in the real conditions of the problems. But
“the true mathematical spirit, so distinct from the algebraical spirit,
with which it is too often confounded, is on the contrary, constantly
of value.”[91]

We must therefore not take too much notice of Comte’s urging and
bitterness, when he criticises the narrowness of mind and the
“imphilosophisme” of geometers.[92] Undoubtedly he never tires
of safeguarding the higher sciences against the encroachments of
mathematics, and of showing the impossibility of a philosophy founded
exclusively upon their principles. But he none the less recognises
that this science possesses the double privilege of having furnished
historically, the first model of the positive method, and of presenting
still to-day its finest and purest examples.

However, Comte, even more than Descartes, takes care not to transform
the mathematical method into a universal method by a simple
generalisation. Nothing would be more contrary to the positive spirit.
For the development of this spirit the study of mathematics is a
necessary introduction. It is, however, but an introduction. The use
which mathematics can make of deduction, on account of the extreme
simplicity of their subject produces a very false idea of the power
of our understanding, and disposes us to reason more than to observe.
Far from preparing us for the method which must be followed for the
study of the other orders of natural phenomena, the exclusive habit
of mathematics tends rather to draw us from it. In a word it is a
dangerous error to take this “initial degree of sound logical education
for the final degree.”[93]

In order to grasp the positive method in its entirety, we must not
consider only mathematics, but the whole series of the fundamental
sciences. This method, always fundamentally identical, takes particular
determinations in adapting itself to each new order of phenomena.
Each of these orders introduces, so to speak, the use of some of
the principal processes of which the method is composed, and “it is
always at their source that these notions of universal logic must
be examined. Thus the mathematical science is the one which gives
the best knowledge of the elementary conditions of positive science.
In it all the artifices of the art of reasoning, from the most
spontaneous to the most sublime are continually practised with far
more variety and fecundity than anywhere else. Astronomy then teaches
us, in its initial purity, the art of observation accompanied by that
of forming hypotheses. It shows in what the rational provision of
phenomena consists, and that science always ends in assimilation or
in combination. Physics initiate us to the theory of experimenting,
chemistry to the general art of nomenclatures, the science of organic
bodies to the theory of classifications. Biology specially makes use
of the comparative method, and finally with sociology appears the
“transcendant” process which Comte calls the historical method.[94]

Positive logic extends to all the fundamental sciences the use of the
processes at first peculiar to each one of them. Each great logical
artifice, once studied in the portion of natural philosophy which shows
its most spontaneous and most complete development, can afterwards
be applied, with the necessary modifications, to the perfecting of
the other sciences. For instance, the comparative method belongs in
the first place to biology. But, when brought back to its principle
and generalised, it becomes a precious instrument for sociology, for
physics, and even for mathematics. In every science, the method is
completed by the auxiliary use of the processes whose power and whose
sphere of action have been made known by the other sciences. By these
mutual loans, in each one of them, the positive method reaches its
maximum of production.

To be cultivated in the most rational manner possible, the sciences
must then be subject to the direction of a general system of positive
philosophy, “the common basis and the uniform combining element of all
truly scientific labours.”[95] The scientific man must at the same
time be a philosopher, since philosophy alone puts him in possession
of all the resources of positive method. For instance, this philosophy
will show the geometer that he must at least have a general knowledge
of biology and of sociology. Biology will teach him the comparative
method, of which he can make use when occasion offers, and sociology by
showing him the history of his science in the general development of
the human mind, will help him better to understand it. If the geometers
had a more philosophical mind, their science would be better taught.
The great conceptions of Descartes, of Leibnitz, of Lagrange, would be
more intelligently explained and brought to light.

If it is useful for the geometer to have studied the other fundamental
sciences, it is not less indispensable for other learned men to have
gone through the study of mathematics. As an “initial” discipline,
this science can be neglected by no one. It is the common school of
positivity for all minds. It is therefore to be regretted that the
scientific education of future physiologists should be mainly made up
of literary studies and of a few notions of physics and chemistry.
The more complex the phenomena whose laws they will have to seek,
the more necessary will it be for them to have become familiarised
in mathematics and in astronomy, with the precise idea of scientific
truth. And, as a matter of fact, until this century, the study of the
exact sciences had always been regarded as a preliminary condition
for that of the natural sciences. Buffon and Lamarck in their day
had still received this discipline. If it has been so difficult to
constitute social science, it comes, among other reasons, from the lack
of scientific education among those who, up to the present time, have
wished to study social phenomena. Where, for instance, could economists
have found the scientific idea of what constitutes natural laws,
ignoring as most of them did not only biology which was being formed
beside them, but even the sciences which had already reached a positive

The exclusive cultivation of a single science is always a danger for
the intellect. Nevertheless, so long as the chief task of the positive
spirit was to disorganise the system of beliefs which constituted
theological and metaphysical philosophy, the speciality of the works
and of the methods was an inconvenience of secondary importance.
It mattered little that the discoveries of the astronomers, the
physicians, the biologists should be more or less co-ordinated and
directed by a universal positive method, so long as they did their
work and prepared the future. But, when the positive spirit had to
become organic instead of critical, when it had to substitute a new
philosophy to the one which it had overthrown, then it was obliged to
subordinate the special processes which it had made use of until then
to a single universal method. Should the “scientific anarchy” have
lasted, the progress of the positive spirit would undoubtedly have led
to the discrediting of the metaphysical régime, but without replacing
it, and consequently without having done with it. By rejecting any new
general discipline, modern scientific men would unknowingly tend to
re-establish the system which they seemed to have shattered for ever.

In a word, the triumph of the positive method, to be final, presupposes
the acceptance of the positive philosophy by all men of learning. The
old logic was bound by the narrowest ties to the metaphysical doctrines
which were then dominant. In the same way positive logic is bound up
with positive philosophy. Speaking more precisely, it is an expression
of this very philosophy.


Is the general method of positive philosophy objective, or subjective,
or both at once? As we know, this question has raised passionate
discussion among positivists.[96] Outside the school it has been
solved by some historians as if Auguste Comte, at the end of his life,
had gone back to a doctrine very different from the one set forth by
him in the _Cours de philosophie positive_. It suffices, however, to
distinguish, with him, two successive points of view, to see how the
two methods, antagonistic in a certain sense, can, in another one, be
very well reconciled.

If we only consider the process followed by our mind in the explanation
of natural phenomena, that is to say the object of positive philosophy
taken in the strict sense of the word, it is true that two opposite
methods are found face to face. The subjective method goes from the
consideration of man to that of the world, the objective method goes
from the knowledge of the world to that of man. The first gives rise
to theological and metaphysical philosophy, the latter to positive
philosophy. The incompatibility of the two philosophies proceeds from
that of the methods, which is irreducible. It allows us to say: “This
will kill that.”[97] In this sense, the final establishment of the
objective method, which is completed by the foundation of sociology,
implies the exclusion, also final, of the subjective method.

But “having reached its full maturity, true philosophy should
inevitably tend to reconcile these two antagonistic methods,” wrote
Comte in 1838, in the third volume of the _Cours de philosophie
positive_, that is to say, long before the time of what has been
wrongly called his second philosophy.[98] This reconciliation will be
accomplished by means of the distinction between the special point of
view of the sciences, and the universal point of view of philosophy.
The scientific investigation of the laws of natural phenomena can
only be made by means of the objective method: Comte never varies in
his thought on this point. But these sciences are but the parts in a
greater whole, for which the subjective method alone is suitable.

Two arguments especially prove this, one belonging to the logical, the
other to the moral and the religious order.

The supreme requirement of our intellect is unity. Shall we ever reach
this unity by using the objective method in the sciences? Evidently
not. Even in each order of phenomena separately considered we do not
see how to reduce the laws which we know to a single law of a more
general character. And what are the laws known to us compared with
those which elude our search, and which perhaps may do so for ever?
Considered in its object, each one of our sciences reaches, so to
speak, to infinity, far beyond our limited horizon. If then, in order
to satisfy us, a _single_ conception of the world is necessary, we
shall never obtain such a conception from the objective point of view.
But if we change our point of view, if we refer the whole of the
sciences to man, or better, to humanity, as a centre, we shall then be
able to realise the unity which we seek. This is precisely what is made
possible by sociology, by subordinating the hierarchy of the positive
sciences to the final science of humanity.

To consider the other fundamental sciences as “indispensable
preliminaries,”[99] to represent the evolution which has brought them
forth in turn as the very history of human progress; to verify the
law of the three states in all our beliefs, and in all our knowledge;
finally, to control all scientific research from the sociological point
of view: this is what Comte understands by the conciliation of the two

The whole development of positive science from mathematics to
sociology, lies between the new use which is made of subjective method
and that which was spontaneously made of it by theological philosophy.
When theological philosophy considered the knowledge of man and that
of the world as interdependent, the instinct which animated it was a
just one. But it was imagining instead of observing. It represented
the world as filled with “causes” analogous to the will of man and
equally capricious. The new subjective method rests, on the contrary,
upon the very results of the positive sciences, brought to a synthesis
in sociology. It takes as established that the intellectual and moral
phenomena depend upon the biological laws, and that the biological laws
themselves are subordinate to the laws of the inorganic _milieu_. But,
since the “final systematisation of all these laws”[100] must always
remain impossible from the objective point of view, the new subjective
method undertakes it from the point of view of humanity as a centre.

We can thus distinguish two great periods in the intellectual advance
of humanity. During the first, the positive spirit successively applies
the scientific, that is to say objective, method, to higher and higher
orders of phenomena. The foundation of sociology marks the term of
this progress. Then the second period begins. The positive spirit
from special has become universal, from analytical synthetical. It
reacts upon the particular sciences, and henceforth makes use of the
“regenerated” subjective method, to govern the whole of them.

From the moral and religious point of view, once sociology has been
constituted, and positive philosophy has been established, the
functions proper to religion appear. The intellect recognises that its
end does not lie within itself, and that it is incapable of determining
its own rule and aim. It submits to a directing authority, which
will guide its efforts and fix their object. _To act from affection,
and to think in order to act._ But if the mind understands that it is
destined to be used in the service of humanity, it sees at the same
time that in the complete positive doctrine, which contains religion,
the objective method gives precedence to the subjective, or rather that
they mutually support each other. If we were pure intellects we should
probably always go from the world to man. But in us the intellect is
only a means. Love is the principle, action is the end; and it is to
man, finally, that our study of the world must be referred.

Towards the end of his life, Comte replaced the logic of the mind,
“especially guided by artificial signs,” by the logic of the heart
“founded upon the direct connection of the feelings.”[101] We shall not
here insist upon a conception which is closely allied to his religious
system. We will only conclude that, from the philosophical point of
view the two methods objective and subjective, in Comte’s thought,
are easily reconciled, provided that both have been “systematically
regenerated.” Now, the regeneration is obtained as soon as sociology
is founded. On the one hand, as a matter of fact, it furnishes the
sciences formed by the objective method with a principle of unity,
since henceforth they are all subordinated to the single science of
Humanity. And, on the other hand, the subjective method acquires the
positivity which it lacked, for sociology has substituted to the
arbitrary “individual subject,” the “universal subject,” that is to say
again, Humanity.


[83] Cours, III. 336-7.

[84] Synthèse subjective, p. 85.

[85] Cours, VI., 708.

[86] Cours, I, 32.

[87] Cours, VI, 709.

[88] Cours, V, 79.

[89] Cours, VI, 731.

[90] Cours, VI, 704.

[91] Cours, II. 324-5.

[92] Lettres à Valat, p. 93 (24 septembre, 1828).

[93] Cours, VI. 712-15.

[94] Cours, VI. 720 sq.

[95] Cours, VI. 74.

[96] See above, Introduction, pp.

[97] An allusion to a famous passage in Victor Hugo’s “Notre Dame de

[98] Cours, III, 210.

[99] Cours, VI. 610.

[100] Pol. pos., I. 447.

[101] Pol. pos., II. 101-2.




The Philosophy of the Sciences is one of the leading parts of Comte’s
work. No other brings out more clearly the essential differences which
distinguish his doctrine from previous systems.

In Comte’s eyes the philosophy of the sciences is inseparable from
the philosophy of history and from the theory of progress. For the
sciences are great sociological facts and, as such, are subject, in
their evolution, to invariable laws. The method of the philosophy of
the sciences could therefore only be the positive method, ever like to

Moreover,--and this is an immediate consequence of this first
consideration,--the object of the positive philosophy of the sciences
is in no way to “explain” what the sciences themselves do not explain.
The sciences, as is well known, do not inquire into their data and
their principles. They consider them as sufficiently established by
the implicit consent of all men, or at least by the universal usage
of learned men. The geometer leaves to others the care of speculating
upon the essence of space, or upon the _a priori_ character of his
definitions. The physicist, if he form an idea of matter for himself,
unhesitatingly adopts the one which appears to be the most immediately
advantageous, that is to say, the one which is best in accordance with
what he knows of its properties and of its laws. He attributes no more
value than that of a simple hypothesis to this idea.

Up to the present the business of solving the questions which
the scientific man does not examine has belonged to the
philosopher--understand by this term the metaphysician. It is for
him to seek what matter, time, movement, space, etc., may be “in
themselves.” Whether he descends from metaphysics to the positive
sciences, or ascends from the latter to metaphysics, he always
endeavours to show that such and such a transcendental hypothesis is
more in accordance than any other with what we know to-day of the laws
of nature. In a word; the philosophy of the sciences has been, in
general, an effort to interpret scientific knowledge metaphysically.
This explanation remains in respect to such a knowledge an “extrinsic
denomination.” It explains but does not touch it.

Now, according to Comte, there are not two forms of knowledge, the
one positive and properly speaking scientific the other metaphysical
and properly called philosophical. _The whole_ of our real knowledge
in the end bears upon special or general facts. There can therefore
be no question of a philosophy which should be essentially distinct
from positive knowledge. Any attempt to explain by essences, causes,
principles or ends, is excluded by the positive method. Metaphysical
problems can no longer be set and, in this sense, when they disappear,
the philosophy of the sciences disappears with them.

But, on the other hand, as we have already seen, the positive sciences
are not self-sufficient. They need to be crowned and ordered by a
philosophy. If then a philosophy is indispensable, and if, at the same
time, this philosophy must be positive, relative like the sciences
themselves, and _homogeneous_ with them, only one solution remains
possible. The philosophy of the sciences will consist in substituting
the point of view of the whole to that of the parts. It will still be a
product of the positive spirit; but in it this spirit from special will
have become general; from particular it will have become universal.

This universal character remains common to Comte’s philosophy and to
that of his predecessors. But Comte did not understand it as they did.
For metaphysicians in general, and still for Kant, universality is the
distinctive sign of knowledge which does not come from experience,
which is therefore necessary and _a priori_. Comte, who does not know
of any _a priori_ in the Kantian sense, calls that knowledge universal
which remains relative, and which is founded upon induction, but which
regulates the other forms of knowledge in the order of generality. Thus
the principle of laws is universal. The encyclopædic laws of phenomena
are universal. The point of view of humanity is universal, because
from this point of view a synthesis of the whole of our knowledge
is possible. And, as universality is a relative thing, we conceive
universalities of different orders.

Henceforth the philosophy of the sciences is easily defined. Are we
concerned with a certain science considered by itself? The philosophy
of this science consists in embracing at a glance the whole, the
object and the method, as opposed to the special point of view of the
scientific man who follows the discovery of more or less special laws
in a branch of this science, but such a philosophy necessarily remains
imperfect and fragmentary. The philosophy of a science is only really
established in the general philosophy of the sciences, that is to say
by a view at once synthetic and single of all the sciences, in which
are co-ordinated the objects which they study, the laws which they
discover, the methods which they make use of, and the ends which they
should pursue.

It has been said that this is not a philosophy of the sciences but
simply a “synthesis of the most general results of the positive
sciences.” Comte partly accepts and partly rejects the objection. If he
is reproached with not having constructed a philosophy of the sciences
according to the old spirit, that is to say an effort at “explanation,”
which goes beyond the point of view of positive science, he grants
the objection. He considers all philosophy of this kind as out of the
question. Is it said that there is no difference between his point of
view and that of the scientific man properly so called, unless it be
that he successively goes through all the fundamental sciences? Comte
calls our attention to the fact that it is not enough to place these
sciences side by side to obtain their philosophy. A new point of view,
truly universal, although always relative, is needed. How could Comte
have distinguished otherwise, in each science, what is lasting and in
conformity with the positive spirit from what is decaying and still
bears the mark of the theological and metaphysical spirit? Could he
especially have fixed the relations which the sciences should maintain
among themselves, and could he have imposed upon them a discipline
whose principle was not to be found in any one of them?

Thus, until Auguste Comte’s time, the philosophy of the sciences had
been a metaphysical conception, joined more or less closely to the
whole of positive knowledge. Comte endeavoured to form a conception of
this whole, which should be philosophical while remaining positive. It
is this conception which is especially set forth in the three first
volumes of the _Cours de philosophie positive_. From the static point
of view it is founded upon the hierarchy of the sciences, the unity of
the method, and the homogeneity of knowledge. From the dynamic point
of view, it endeavours to show the progressive convergence of all the
sciences towards sociology, the final and universal science. With
this “guiding thread,” Comte will be able to establish in turn the
philosophy of each fundamental science, without ever losing sight of
the relation which it bears to the whole of the others.



In the eyes of philosophers, mathematics has always occupied a
privileged place among the sciences. Plato located their object in an
intermediate region between the world of sensible phenomena and that
of intelligible realities. On the one hand mathematical objects, and
in particular the geometrical figures, appeal to the imagination as
sensible things; on the other hand, mathematical truths like ideas
and the relations between ideas, are characterised by immutable and
eternal fixity. This is why the study of mathematics is an excellent
preparation for philosophy, which is the science of ideas. While
still leaving to the mind the help of direct sensible perception, it
accustoms it to permanent truth. During the whole of antiquity the
science of mathematics, as the name indicates, was pre-eminently _the_
science. The science of physics, less sure of its object and of its
method, was hardly distinguished from philosophical speculation, and
lent itself with difficulty to the purely scientific form.

For Plato then, and for those who followed him, mathematics has
characteristics which distinguish it from the study of phenomena. In
a certain measure, it partakes of the nature of science, conceived
as bearing upon _what is_, upon the absolute reality which is
neither subject to change nor to motion. It is true that they start
from definitions and hypotheses. But, once the principles are
established, they are developed _a priori_ by a succession of necessary
demonstrations like the dialectics of ideas.

This conception offers a mixture of metaphysical and positive elements.
It implies that the object of science is reality such as it is in
itself; but, at the same time, it sees in the demonstration the
essential character of science. A long evolution, which culminates in
Comte’s doctrine, has driven the metaphysical elements out of science
while the other elements subsist in it still. Far from saying with
Plato or with his successors that there is no science of the phenomenon
or of that which passes away, Comte thinks on the contrary, that the
only object of science is phenomenal reality so far as it is subject to
laws. Science has not to search for causes or substances; it suffices
for it to determine invariable relations.

If the mathematical sciences have long been the only sciences properly
so called, and if to-day they are still more advanced than any others,
it is because the geometrical and mechanical phenomena are indeed
the simplest of all, and those which are most naturally connected
among themselves. The period during which they could be studied by
observation could therefore be very short, so short that it is even
not absurd to maintain that it never existed, and that, in this case,
rational knowledge was not preceded by the empirical establishment of
facts. But the difference between mathematics and the other sciences
none the less remains one of degree and not of kind. The Science of
Mathematics is in advance of the other sciences; but all work on common
ground. In a word, like all other sciences it is a natural science.

This endeavour to present the whole of the sciences as homogeneous,
that is to say, to avoid two distinct classes being formed of
mathematics on the one hand, and of the sciences of nature on the
other, had already been attempted before Comte. This endeavour imposed
itself, so to speak, upon modern philosophers, from the time when
Descartes sought for a universal method for science conceived as a
whole. Comte, who saw very well the defect in the Cartesian conception,
in which the ascendency of mathematics was still too much felt, did
not, however, deny that his own conception proceeded from that of
Descartes. In another form, the idea of the homogeneity of the sciences
is also found in Leibnitz and even in Kant. Does not the _Critique de
la raison pure_ show that mathematics on the one hand, and physics on
the other, equally rest upon principles which are synthetic _a priori_?
In the _Prolégomenes à toute métaphysique future_ just as the chapter
corresponding to _l’esthétique transcendentale_ is entitled “How are
pure mathematics possible _a priori_?” so the chapter corresponding to
the _Logique transcendentale_ bears as its title “How are pure physics
_possible a priori_?” On another plan Comte’s theory is parallel
to Kant’s. Here as there mathematics as well as physics rests upon
synthetic principles--“superior to experience,” says Kant--proceeding
from experience, says Comte. The latter, it is true, did not know
Kant’s theory, and, had he known it he would not have accepted it. But
the analogy of tendency subsists none the less beneath the diversity of

The immediate antecedent of Comte’s theory is found in d’Alembert. The
author of the _Discours préliminaire_ had said, “We will divide the
science of nature into physics and mathematics.”


Every science has its origin in the art corresponding to it.
Mathematics arose out of the art of measuring magnitudes. Indeed this
art would be very rudimentary if we only practised direct measurement.
Among the magnitudes which interest us there are very few which we can
measure thus. Consequently the human mind had to seek some indirect
way of determining magnitudes.

In order to know the magnitudes which do not allow of direct
measurement, we must evidently connect them with others which are
capable of being immediately determined, and according to which we
succeed in discovering the former, by means of the relations which
exist between them and the latter. “Such is the precise object of
mathematical science in its entirety.”[102] We see immediately
how extremely vast it is. If we must insert a large number of
intermediaries between the quantities which we desire to know, and
those which we can measure immediately, the operations may become very

Fundamentally, according to Comte, there is no question, whatever it
may be, which cannot be finally conceived as consisting in determining
one quantity by another, and consequently which does not depend
ultimately upon mathematics. It will be said that we must take into
account not only the quantity, but also the quality of the phenomena.
This objection, decisive in the eyes of Aristotle, who could not
conceive that we could legitimately [Greek: metaballein] [Greek: eis
allo genos], no longer holds good for modern thinkers. Since Descartes’
time, they have seen analysis applied to geometrical, mechanical and
physical phenomena. There is no absurdity in conceiving that what has
been done for these phenomena is possible for the others. We must be
able to represent every relation between any phenomena whatever by an
equation, allowing for the difficulty of finding this equation and of
solving it.[103] As a matter of fact, we are quickly stopped by the
complexity of the data. In the present state of the human mind there
are only two great categories of phenomena of which we regularly know
the equations: these are geometry and mechanics.

This being established, the whole of mathematical science is divided
into two parts: abstract and concrete mathematics. The one studies the
laws of geometrical and mechanical phenomena. The other is constituted
by the _calculus_, which, if we take this word in its largest sense,
applies to the most sublime combinations of transcendent analysis,
as well as to the simplest numerical operations. It is purely
“instrumental.” Fundamentally, it is nothing else than an “immense
admirable extension of natural logic to a certain order of deductions.”

This part of mathematical science is independent of the nature of the
objects which it examines, and only bears upon the numerical relations
which they present. Consequently, it may happen that the same relations
may exist among a great number of different phenomena. Notwithstanding
their extreme diversity these phenomena will be considered by the
mathematician as presenting a single analytical question, which can be
solved once for all. “Thus, for instance, the same law which reigns
between space and time when we examine the vertical fall of a body _in
vacuo_, is found again for other phenomena which present no analogy
with the former nor among themselves; for it also expresses the
relation between the area of a sphere and the length of its diameters;
it equally determines the decrease in intensity of light or of heat by
reason of the distance of the objects lighted and heated, etc.”[104]
We have no general method which serves indifferently for establishing
the equations of any natural phenomena whatever: we need special
methods for the several classes of geometrical, optical, mechanical
phenomena, etc. But, whatever may be these phenomena, once the equation
is established, the method for solving it is uniform. In this sense,
abstract mathematics is really an “_organon_.”

Geometry and mechanics, on the contrary, should be regarded as real
natural sciences, resting as the others do upon observation. But, adds
Comte, these two sciences present this peculiarity, that in the present
state of the human mind, they are already used, and will continue
to be used as methods far more than as direct doctrine. In this way
mathematics is in fact “instrumental,” not only in abstract parts, but
also in its relatively concrete parts. It is entirely used as a “tool”
by the more complicated sciences, such as astronomy and physics. It is
truly the real logic of our age.

In the philosophical study of abstract mathematics, Comte proceeds
successively from arithmetical to algebraical calculation, and from
the latter to the transcendent analysis or differential and integral
calculus. After having stated the manner in which this calculus is
presented according to Leibnitz and to Newton, he adopts that of
Lagrange, which appears to him the most satisfactory. It is true that
at the end of his life his admiration for the author of the _Mécanique
analytique_ had greatly diminished. Without here entering into the
detail of questions, we will limit ourselves to the indication of a
consideration upon the bearings of abstract mathematics, which appears
to be of capital importance to Comte. Whether it be a question of
ordinary analysis, or especially of transcendental analysis, Comte
brings out at once the extreme imperfection of our knowledge, and the
extraordinary fecundity of their applications. He can only solve a very
small part of the questions which come before us in these sciences.
However, “in the same way as in ordinary analysis we have succeeded
in utilising to an immense degree a very small amount of fundamental
knowledge upon the solution of equations, so, however little advanced
geometers may be up to the present time in the science of integrations,
they have none the less drawn, from these very few abstract notions
the solution of a multitude of questions of the first importance, in
geometry, in mechanics, in thermology, etc., etc.”[105] The reason
of this is that the least abstract knowledge naturally corresponds
to a quantity of concrete researches. The most powerful extension of
intellectual means which man has at his disposal for the knowledge
of nature consists in his rising to the conception of more and more
abstract ideas, which are nevertheless positive. When our knowledge is
abstract without being positive, it is “fictitious” or “metaphysical.”
When it is positive without being abstract, it lacks generality, and
does not become rational. But when, without ceasing to be positive, it
can reach to a high degree of abstraction, at the same time it attains
the generality, and, along the lines of its furthest extension, the
unity which are the end of science.

Hence the importance of Descartes’ fine mathematical discovery, and
also of the invention of differential and integral calculus, which
may be considered as the complement to Descartes’ fundamental idea
concerning the general analytical representation of natural phenomena.
It is only, says Comte, since the invention of the calculus, that
Descartes’ discovery has been understood and applied to the whole of
its extent. Not only does this calculus procure an “admirable facility”
for the search after the natural laws of all the phenomena; but, thanks
to their extreme generality, the differential formulæ can express each
determined phenomenon in a single equation, however varied the subjects
may be in which it is considered. Thus, a single differential equation
gives the tangents of all curves, another expresses the mathematical
law of every variety in motion, etc.

Infinitesimal analysis, especially in the conception of Leibnitz,
has therefore not only furnished a general process for the indirect
formation of equations which it would have been impossible to discover
directly, but in the eyes of the philosopher it has another and a
no less precious advantage. It has allowed us to consider, in the
mathematical study of natural phenomena, a new order of more general
laws. These laws are constantly the same for each phenomenon, in
whatever objects we study it, and only change when passing from one
phenomenon to another “where we have been able moreover, in comparing
these variations, to rise sometimes, by a still more general view, to
a _positive_ comparison between several classes of various phenomena,
according to the analogies presented by the differential expressions of
their mathematical laws.”[106] Comte cannot contemplate this immense
range of transcendent analysis without enthusiasm. He calls it “the
highest thought to which the human mind has attained up to the present
time.” The highest, because being the most profoundly abstract among
all the positive notions, this thought reduces the most comprehensive
range of concrete phenomena to rational unity.

As the consideration of analytical geometry suggested to Descartes the
idea of “universal mathematics,” which lies at the basis of his method,
so we can think that philosophical reflection upon transcendental
analysis led Comte to the idea of those “encyclopædic laws,” which hold
such an important place in his general theory of nature. For these
encyclopædic laws, analogous as they are to the differential formulæ
spoken of by Comte, are equally verifiable in orders of otherwise
irreducible phenomena, and allow us to conceive them as convergent.


Geometry is the first portion of concrete mathematics. Undoubtedly the
facts with which it deals are more connected among themselves than
the facts studied by the other sciences, and this allows us easily to
deduce some of these facts once the others are given. But there is a
certain number of primary phenomena which, not being established by
any reasoning, can only be founded upon observation, and which stand as
the basis of all geometrical deductions.[107] Although very small, this
part of observation is indispensable because it is the initial one, and
never can quite vanish.

In this way, metaphysical discussions upon the origin of geometrical
definitions and space are set aside. Comte here adopts d’Alembert’s
opinion. The latter had said: “The true principles of the sciences are
simple recognised facts, which do not suppose any others, and which
consequently can neither be explained nor questioned: in geometry
they are the properties of extension as apprehended by sense. Upon
the nature of extension there are notions common to all men, a common
point at which all sects are united as it were in spite of themselves,
common and simple principles from which unawares they all start. The
philosopher will seize upon these common primitive notions to make them
the basis of the geometrical truths.”[108]

Extension is a property of bodies. But, instead of considering this
extension in the bodies themselves, we consider it in an indefinite
milieu which appears to us to contain all the bodies, of the universe
and which we call space. Let us think, for instance, of the impression
left by a body in a fluid in which it might be immersed. From the
geometrical point of view this impression can quite conveniently be
substituted to the body itself. Thus, by a very simple abstraction, we
divest matter of all its sensible properties, only to contemplate in a
certain manner its phantom, according to d’Alembert’s expression. From
that moment we can study not only the geometrical forms realised in
nature, but also all those which can be imagined. Geometry assumes a
“rational” character.

Similarly, it is by a simple abstraction of the mind that geometry
regards lines as having no thickness, and surfaces as being without
depth. It suffices to conceive the dimension to be diminished as
becoming gradually smaller and smaller until it reaches such a degree
of thinness that it can no longer fix the attention. It is thus that
we naturally acquire the “real idea” of surface, then of the line, and
then of the point. There is therefore no necessity to appeal to the _a

Thus constituted, the object of geometry is the measurement of
extension. But since this measurement can hardly ever be directly taken
by superposition, the aim of geometry is to reduce the comparison
of all kinds of extensions, volumes, surfaces or lines to simple
comparisons of straight lines, the only ones regarded as capable of
being immediately established.”[109] The object of geometry is of
unlimited extent, for the number of different forms subject to exact
definitions is unlimited. In regarding curved lines as generated by the
movement of a point subject to a certain law, we can conceive as many
curves as laws.

The human mind, in order to cover this immense field, the extension
of which it was very late in apprehending, may pursue two different
methods. Perfect geometry would, indeed, be the one which would
demonstrate all the properties of all imaginable forms, and this can
be obtained in two ways. Either we can successively conceive each of
the forms, the triangles, the circle, the sphere, the ellipse, etc.,
and seek for the properties of each one of them. Or else we can group
together the corresponding properties of various geometrical forms,
in such a way as to study them together, and, so to speak, to know
beforehand their application to such and such a form which we have not
yet examined. “In a word,” says Comte, “the whole of geometry can be
ordered, either in relation to bodies which are being studied, or in
relation to phenomena which are to be considered.” The first plan is
that of the geometry of the ancients, or _special_ geometry; the second
is that of the geometry since Descartes, or _general_ geometry.[110]

At its origin geometry could only be special. The ancients, for
instance, studied the circle, the ellipse, the parabola, etc.,
endeavouring, in the case of each geometrical form, to add to the
number of known properties. But, if this line of advance had been
the only one which could be followed, the progress of geometry would
never have been a very rapid one. The method invented by Descartes
has transformed this science, by enabling it to become _general_,
and to abandon the individual study of geometrical forms for the
common study of their properties. This revolution has not always been
well understood. Often in teaching mathematics, its bearings are not
sufficiently shown. From the manner in which it is usually presented,
this “admirable method” would at first seem to have no other end than
the simplification of the study of conic sections or of some other
curves, always considered one by one according to the spirit of ancient
geometry. This would not be of great importance. The distinctive
character of our modern geometry consists in studying in a general way
the various questions relating to any lines or surfaces whatever by
transforming geometrical considerations and researches into analytical
considerations and researches.[111]

All geometrical ideas necessarily relate to the three universal
categories; magnitude, form, position. Magnitude already belongs to
the domain of quantity. Form can be reduced to position, since every
form can be considered as the result of the advance of a point, that
is to say of its successive positions. The problem is therefore to
bring all ideas of situation whatever back to ideas of magnitude.
How did Descartes solve it? By generalising a process which we may
say is natural to the human mind, since it comes spontaneously into
being under the stress of necessity. Indeed, if we must indicate the
situation of an object without showing it immediately, do we not refer
it to others which are known, by stating the magnitude of geometrical
elements by which we conceive the object to be connected with them?
Geographers act in the same way in their science to determine the
longitude and latitude of a place, and astronomers to determine the
right ascension and the declination of a star. These geographical and
astronomical co-ordinates fulfil the same office as the Cartesian
co-ordinates. The only difference, but it is a capital one, consists in
the fact that Descartes carried this method to the highest degree of
abstract generality thus giving it its maximum of fertility and power.

Although general geometry is infinitely superior to special geometry
it cannot, nevertheless, altogether dispense with the latter. As the
ancients did, so it will always be necessary to begin with special
geometry. For general geometry rests upon the use of calculation. But
if, as Comte has said, geometry is truly a science of facts calculation
will evidently never be able to supply us with the first knowledge
of these facts. In order to lay the foundations of a natural science
simple mathematical analysis would never suffice, nor could it give a
fresh demonstration of it, when these foundations have already been
laid. Before all things a direct study of the subject is necessary,
until the precise relations are discovered. “The application of
mathematical analysis can never begin any science whatever, since it
could never take place except when the science has been sufficiently
elaborated to establish, in relation to the phenomena under
consideration, some equations which might serve as a starting-point for
analytical work.”[112] In a word, the creation of analytical geometry
does not prevent geometry from remaining a natural science. Even when
it has become as purely rational as possible, it none the less remains
rooted in experience.


The second part of concrete mathematics (mechanics) is also one of the
natural sciences which owes its marvellous progress to analysis. Here
again we must distinguish the data which are at the basis of science,
and which are facts, from the abstract development undergone by this
science because of the simplicity of these facts and the precision
of the relations which exist between them. The distinction between
what is “really physical” and what is “purely logical”[113] is not
always an easy one. We must, however, separate facts furnished by
experience, from artificial conceptions whose object is to facilitate
the establishment of general laws of equilibrium and of motion.

Only to consider inertia in bodies is a fiction of this kind.
Physically the force of inertia does not exist. Nature nowhere shows us
bodies which are devoid of internal activity. We term those which are
not alive inorganic, but not inert. Were gravitation alone common to
all molecules, it would suffice to prevent the conception of matter as
devoid of force. Nevertheless, mechanics only considers the inertia of
bodies. Why? Because this abstraction presents many advantages for the
study, “without, moreover, offering disadvantages in the application.”
Indeed, if mechanics had to take into account the internal forces of
bodies and the variations of these forces, the complications would
immediately become such that the facts could never be submitted to
calculation. Mechanics would run the risk of losing its character as
a mathematical science. And, on the other hand, as it only considers
the movements in themselves, regardless of their mode of production, it
is always lawful for mechanics to replace, if necessary, the internal
forces by an equivalent external force” applied to the body. The
inertia of matter is therefore an abstraction, the end of which is to
secure the perfect homogeneity of mechanical science, by allowing us to
consider all moving bodies as identical in kind, and all forces as of
the same nature.

The “physical” character of this science is again evident from the
consideration of the three fundamental laws upon which it rests.[114]

The first, called Kepler’s law, is thus defined: “All movement is
naturally rectilinear and uniform; that is to say, any body subject to
the action of a single force which acts upon it instantaneously, moves
constantly in a straight line with invariable speed.” It has been said
that this law is derived from the principle of sufficient reason. The
body must continue in a straight line because there is no reason why it
should deviate from it more on one side than on the other. But, answers
Comte, how do we know that there is no reason for the body to deviate,
except precisely because we see that it does not deviate? The reasoning
“reduces itself to the repetition in abstract terms of the fact itself,
and to saying that bodies have a natural tendency to move in a straight
line, which is precisely the proposition which we have to establish.”
It is by similar arguments that the philosophers of antiquity, and
especially Aristotle, had, on the contrary been led to regard circular
motion as natural to the stars, in that it is the most perfect of all,
a conception which is only the abstract enunciation of a imperfectly
analysed phenomenon. The tendency of bodies to move in a straight line
with constant speed is known to us by experience.

The second fundamental law of mechanics, called Newton’s law,
expresses the constant equality of action and reaction. It is pretty
generally agreed to-day to consider this law as resulting from the
observation of facts. Newton himself understood it so.

Finally the third law establishes that “every movement exactly
possessed in common by all the bodies of any system does not alter
the particular movements of those different bodies in respect to each
other; but those movements continue to take place as if the whole of
the system was motionless.” This law “of the independence or of the
coexistence of movements” was formulated by Galileo. It is no more
_a priori_ than the two preceding ones. How could we be sure, if
experience did not show it to us, that a common motion communicated
to a system of bodies moving in relation to one another, would change
nothing in their particular motions? When his law was made known by
Galileo, on all hands there arose a cloud of objections, tending to
prove _a priori_ that this proposition was false and absurd. It was
only admitted later when, in order to examine it, the logical point of
view was set aside for the physical point of view. It was then seen
that experience always confirmed this law, and that, if it ceased to
operate, the whole economy of the universe would be thrown into utter
confusion. For instance, the movement of the translation of the earth
in no way affects the mechanical phenomena which take place upon the
surface or within the globe. As the law of the independence of motions
was unknown when the theory of Copernicus appeared, an objection was
put to him which was thought to be drawn from experience. He was told
that if the earth moved round the sun all the movements which take
place upon it or within it would be modified by the action. Later
on when Galileo’s law became known, the fact was explained and the
objection disappeared.

Once these three laws are established, mechanics has sufficient
foundation. Henceforth the scientific edifice can be constructed by
simple logical operations, and without any further reference to the
external world. But this purely rational development no more transforms
mechanics into an _a priori_ science than the application of analysis
deprives geometry of its character as a natural science. What proves
this, in one case as in the other, is the possibility of passing from
the abstract to the concrete and of applying the results obtained
to real cases, merely restoring the elements which science had been
compelled to set aside. If it were possible entirely to constitute the
science of mechanics according to simple analytical conceptions, we
could not imagine how such a science could ever become applicable to
the effective study of nature. What guarantees the reality of rational
mechanics is precisely its being founded upon some general facts, in a
word, upon the data of experience.

Comte could assuredly not foresee the controversies which to-day bear
upon the principles of mechanics and which have been summed up by Mr.
Poincaré in an article upon Hertz’s mechanical theories.[115] Mr.
Poincaré says that the principles of Dynamics have been stated in many
ways, but nobody sufficiently distinguished between what is definition,
what is experimental truth, and what is mathematical theorem. Mr.
Poincaré is satisfied neither with the “classical” conception of
mechanics, whose insufficiency has been shown by Hertz, nor with the
conception with which Hertz wishes to replace it. In any case it is a
high philosophical lesson to see the classical system of analytical
mechanics--a system constructed with such admirable accuracy, and
made by Laplace to arise altogether, as Comte says, out of a single
fundamental law,--to see it after a century labouring under grave
difficulties, not unconnected with the progress of physics.

Might not this be an argument in support of the theory of d’Alembert
and of Comte on the nature of concrete mathematics? Geometry and
mechanics would only differ from the other natural sciences by the
precision of the relations between the phenomena of which they treat,
by the facility which they have for dealing with these relations by
means of calculus and analysis, and, consequently, by assuming an
entirely rational and deductive form. For the extraordinary power of
the instrument should not hide from us the nature of the sciences which
make use of it. These, like the others, bear upon natural phenomena.
Only, as these phenomena are the most simple, the most general and
the most closely allied of all, these sciences are also those which
respond in the best way to the positive definition of science. They
have “very easily and very quickly replaced empirical statement by
rational prevision.” They are composed of laws and not of facts. But,
conforming in this again to the positive definition of science, they
are empirical in their origin, and they remain relative in the course
of their development.

Thus positive philosophy, having reached the full consciousness of
itself, reacts upon the conception of the sciences which have most
contributed to its formation. When the philosophy is universally
accepted the idea that a science can be _a priori_, that is both
absolute and immutable, will have disappeared. Precisely because it
is the most perfect type of a positive science, mathematics will no
longer claim these characteristics, and its ancient connection with
metaphysics will be finally severed.


[102] Cours, I, 101.

[103] Cours, I, 121-4.

[104] Cours, I, 112

[105] Cours, I, 256.

[106] Cours, I, 195-7.

[107] Cours, I, 286-7.

[108] Elements de philosophie, I, p. 132-3.

[109] Cours, I, 298. sq.

[110] Cours, i, 314-16.

[111] Cours, i, 383-4.

[112] Cours, i. 322-3.

[113] Cours, i. 422. sq.

[114] Cours, i, 455-463.

[115] Revue générale des sciences pures et appliquées, 30 septembre



The object of astronomy is the discovery of the laws of the geometrical
and mechanical phenomena presented by the celestial bodies; and, by the
knowledge of these laws to obtain the precise and rational prevision of
the state of our system at any given period whatever. It is in a word,
“the application of mathematics to celestial phenomena.”[116]

Mr. H. Spencer has taken occasion of this definition to criticise
the place assigned by Comte to astronomy in his classification of
the sciences. He makes him contradict himself. He says: you term
fundamental sciences the abstract sciences which do not study beings in
nature, but the laws which govern phenomena in those beings; by what
right is astronomy placed among these sciences, between mathematics and
physics? Is not the object of astronomy the study of certain beings
in nature? In what does the application of mathematics to celestial
phenomena differ from their application to other cases? It appears
evident that here Comte introduces into the series of abstract sciences
a science which is really concrete, or at least, according to Mr.
Spencer’s expression, abstract-concrete.

Comte had foreseen the objection. The answer which he makes throws
a strong light upon the sense in which he understands the words
“abstract” and “general” as applied to the sciences. He partly accepts
the objection. The true astronomical notions, he says, only differ
from purely mathematical notions by their special restriction to
the celestial case; and this, at first sight, must appear contrary
to the essentially abstract nature of the speculations which belong
to the first philosophy. But on the other hand, these speculations
bear upon the phenomena given in experience, and the order of the
abstract sciences should reproduce the real order of dependence
of the phenomena. Thus the first of these sciences, mathematics,
determines the essential laws of the most general phenomena, which
are common to all material beings (form, position, movement). Now,
are not the most general phenomena after these, those “of which the
the continuous ascendency inevitably dominates the course of all the
other phenomena?”[117] In other words, before passing to the study of
physical, chemical, biological phenomena, etc., it is indispensable
to know the general laws of the _milieu_ in which these phenomena
are manifested. Outside of this _milieu_, they would be impossible,
or at any rate, it so conditions them that, were it otherwise, these
phenomena would also be different from what they are.

The character of generality which, with that of abstraction, is made
use of to institute the hierarchy of phenomena is thus reduced to
the idea of dependence. It is the consideration of this dependence
which assigns to astronomy its place between mathematics and physics
in the encyclopædic ladder of the sciences. Considered singly in
themselves, the phenomena studied by astronomy are purely geometrical
and mechanical. They would not, therefore, constitute the object of a
science distinct from mathematics. But positive philosophy considers
everything from the point of view of humanity. Now, for humanity, this
“special case” is of unequalled importance. All the other phenomena
given to us by experience (except the mathematical phenomena) depend,
in a more or less direct manner, upon astronomical phenomena. The
knowledge of astronomical laws is therefore the necessary condition
for the knowledge of all the others. Thus, the infringement of the
principle of the hierarchy of fundamental sciences is only apparent. An
analogous case is found in chemistry. The analysis of air and water is
incorporated in abstract chemistry, because air and water constitutes
the general _milieu_, “in which all ulterior phenomena occur.”[118]

The place given to astronomy is therefore justified. This science,
moreover, remains abstract. For it to be a concrete science, all
aspects of the existence of celestial bodies would have to be studied
and considered in their relations, to each other in it. But, on the
contrary, astronomy only studies the geometrical and mechanical
phenomena in the celestial bodies, all physical and chemical
considerations, etc., being eliminated. Comte concludes that in passing
on to the celestial case mathematics does not lose its abstract nature.
It only becomes more developed in the case of a special example, whose
extreme importance demands such a specialisation.

The abstract character of astronomy belongs to it almost _a priori_.
The facts upon which it rests are only revealed to us by one of our
senses, the most intellectual of them indeed, but by which we are only
informed of the mathematical properties of bodies. Our eyes alone
touch the stars. There is no astronomy for a blind race. Dark stars,
if such there be, are for ever hidden from us. All that is given to
us, therefore, is the shape, the position and the motion of visible
celestial bodies. We can never by any means know how to study their
chemical composition, nor their mineral structure, nor _a fortiori_
the nature of the organic bodies which may live upon them. Comte might
have formulated in less categorical terms affirmations which were
soon to be contradicted by spectral analysis and by photography. But
he was confirmed in the entirely abstract and mathematical conception
which he had of astronomy by his persuasion that no discoveries of so
far-reaching a nature were possible.

Thus, astronomy appeared to be an excellent type of a positive
science, because it is at once natural and abstract, and in it these
two characteristics are equally apparent, which was not the case in
mathematics. In this science the share of observation is so limited,
so transient, that it becomes inappreciable. In astronomy, on the
contrary, determination of certain facts evidently plays a part in the
science. But, at the same time, nowhere do we see more clearly that
science does not consist in the mere apprehension of facts. Here they
are so simple, and moreover so uninteresting, that their connexion
and the knowledge of their laws alone deserves the name of science.
In general, what is an astronomical fact? None other than this: such
a star has been seen at such a precise instant, and under such an
angle duly measured. The more or less profound elaboration of these
observations is indispensable to science, even in its most imperfect
state. Astronomy, says Comte, did not really come into being when
the priests of Egypt or Chaldea made a series of more or less exact
empirical observations in the heavens; but only when the first Greek
philosophers began to reduce the general phenomenon of diurnal motion
to a few geometrical laws.[119]

Of all the natural sciences, after mathematics, astronomy is also
the most perfectly free from all theological and metaphysical
considerations. From every point of view it is positive. Astronomers no
longer have recourse to a Providence, which as the intelligent cause
of the order of the celestial world, would in its turn, witness to
the existence of this cause. They do not inquire any more into the
intimate nature of forces (gravitation, attraction, etc.). Astronomy
is content to determine the invariable relations of phenomena with
the greatest possible precision. It is here that philosophical minds
can study the essential characteristics of a positive science. In
it they will also see how disinterested it must be in order to
become useful. “Without the highest speculations of geometers upon
celestial mechanics, which have so greatly increased the precision of
astronomical tables, it would be impossible to determine the longitude
of a ship with the degree of accuracy which is now attainable.”[120]

Finally no science has exercised a greater influence upon the evolution
of the human mind than this one. The great epochs in astronomy are
also those in cosmological philosophy. The desperate resistance
which was offered by theological dogmatism to Galileo’s discovery
responded to a just apprehension of the consequences involved in this
discovery. To admit that the earth was not the centre of the world
was to take a first and a decisive step in the way which leads away
from the anthropocentric prejudice. It was like pledging oneself to
substitute sooner or later the relative point of view to the absolute
one in philosophy. It was introducing the positive spirit, to-day in
speculative physics, to-morrow in speculative ethics.


Although astronomy is an “eminently mathematical” science, the method
of working by observation is used in it. The astronomer observes before
calculating, and he observes again after having calculated. The art of
observation for which there is no use in mathematics appears here then,
and, with it, the inductive method.

Indeed there is no “absolute separation” between observing and
reasoning.[121] The mind does not first observe facts in a receptive
or “passive” manner, in order to work out combinations of these facts
afterwards. In reality every observation is a combination, and this
is particularly true in astronomical observation. The facts which
we observe are really constructed. We can only see simultaneous or
successive directions, according to which the mind must construct the
form or the movement which the eye could not take in. The necessary
and constant association “between prevision and inspection” is more
intimate and more evident here than in any other science.

In the same way, hypothesis (which is inseparable from observation)
can be studied in astronomy in its most simple form. Here it is
presented in its clearest aspect, and, if one may say so, in the one
which most reveals its essential nature. Now, hypothesis in astronomy
“serves to fill up the necessary gaps in observation.” It provisionally
supplements the knowledge--not indeed of causes, for positive science
seeks nothing of this kind--but of facts and laws which we ignore.
For instance, the simple geometrical sketch of a diurnal motion would
remain impossible without an abstract hypothesis which being compared
with the concrete spectacle presented by the movement itself enables us
to connect together the various celestial positions. Modern astronomy,
which has destroyed primitive assumptions regarded as real laws of
the world, has maintained their permanent value for conveniently
representing phenomena provisionally. And, as we are not deceived as
to the reality of such assumptions we can use without scruple any one
which seems to us most advantageous.[122]

The use of hypothesis, as it is employed in astronomy, must be carried
into the other sciences. This mode of procedure everywhere remains
like to itself, although we do not always conceive it so clearly.
“Its normal domain coincides with that of observation.” An hypothesis
completes by anticipation what we know of facts and of their laws.
Consequently, it is subject to be modified, corrected, or contradicted
by a wider or deeper knowledge of facts. Hypotheses then are only valid
during the time when they are advantageous, that is to say, as long as
they serve to unite and co-ordinate our observations. As has been said,
they labour to render themselves useless. But they are indispensable,
and science, without them, could neither advance nor even begin. Far
from giving too small a share to hypothesis, like Bacon, Comte would
rather incur the reproof of having given it too large a one. He made
too much use of it himself at the end of his life. But the theory
which he gave of it in the _Cours de philosophie positive_ and of
which certain features appeal again in Claude Bernard’s _Introduction
a l’étude de la médecine experiméntale_, was a careful study of its
nature and function.


Astronomy, or at least that part of astronomy which bears the name of
celestial mechanics, of all the physical sciences is the one which has
been carried to the highest degree of perfection. Nowhere else have
the phenomena been better reduced to a supreme law which allows us to
foresee them with sufficient precision. But this result could only have
been obtained by substituting the notion of a solar world to that of
a universe.[123] This world is the only one which we can comprehend
as a system. If the object of astronomy were the general laws of the
universe, this science would be extraordinarily imperfect, not to say
impossible. For what do we know about cosmic laws?[124] We do not even
know whether Newton’s law applies to any or all systems of stars.

We must then distinguish between astronomy as the science of our world
and sidereal astronomy. The latter is not absolutely forbidden us, but
we know very little on this subject, and we shall probably never know
much more. Do the innumerable suns scattered in space form a general
system, or do independent systems exist? Is space limitless? Is the
number of celestial bodies an infinite one? philosophers ask. In truth
the consideration of our world is positive. The consideration of the
universe is not.

History helps us to understand the transition which led from one to the
other. Ancient philosophy made the earth the centre of the universe.
Notwithstanding the diversity of their particular characteristics and
of their motions, it was natural then for all the celestial bodies to
be conceived as the parts of a single system. A more or less clearly
expressed postulate supported this astronomical conception: the purpose
of the universe was the existence of man. There was no occasion to
distinguish our world from the whole world. But could this conception
stand when the earth was reduced to the condition of a planet revolving
round a sun so like a multitude of other suns. Suddenly the stars were
carried to distances infinitely more considerable than the greatest
planetary intervals. Undoubtedly the human mind could continue to
regard the very small groups of which the earth forms a part as a
system. But the system (if it exists) which embraces the whole of the
celestial bodies ceased henceforth to be within our reach. Since then
“the notion of the world has become clear and habitual, and that of the
universe has become uncertain and almost unintelligible.”[125]

It matters little, moreover, for, according to one of Comte’s favourite
maxims, what we have no means of knowing, neither have we any need
to know; and every thing which it is our interest to learn we can
also attain. Nor should we see in this any providential harmony. That
which it is our interest to know must always in some way influence
the conditions of our existence. By the mere fact that this action
makes itself felt, it is inevitable that sooner or later, directly
or indirectly, we should come to know of it. This reflection can be
well applied to astronomy. The study of the laws of the solar system,
of which we form a part, is of supreme interest for us: and we have
reached very great precision on this point. On the contrary, the exact
notion of the universe is inaccessible to us; but it is unimportant
to us leaving out of the question our “insatiable curiosity.” The
independence of our world is certain. The phenomena which take place
within the solar system do not appear to be affected by the more
general phenomena which relate to the mutual action of suns. Our
tables of celestial events, drawn up long beforehand and taking into
consideration no other world than our own, so far accord strictly with
direct observations. Supposing the law of gravitation to extend to the
entire universe, the perturbation in our world caused by a mass equal
to a million times its own, and which would be situated at the distance
of the nearest sun to our own, would be several thousand million times
less than that which brings about our tides, that is to say practically

Here, says Comte, is the only exception to the encyclopædic law
according to which the more general phenomena control the more
particular ones without being influenced by them.[126] From this
he simply concludes that the phenomena of our system are the most
general to which positive research can extend, and that the study of
the universe must henceforth be excluded from natural philosophy.
The encyclopædic law then remains true for the whole of positive

The delimitation of the object of astronomy is one of the points where
we can best follow the successive modifications of Comte’s thought. In
the second volume of the _Cours de philosophie positive_ he gave to
astronomy the place which is generally conceded to it by scientific
men. He even claims, as a condition for its utility, the most perfect
disinterestedness of scientific research in the whole extent of its
province. The example which he gives of it (the determination of
longitude at sea), is borrowed from Condorcet. Undoubtedly, Comte
already insists upon the distinction between the ideas of world
and universe, the former only being positive. Nevertheless, he
still admits that we should not give up all hope of obtaining some
sidereal knowledge,[127] and that it would be very precious for us
to know the relative motions of multiple stars, etc. But already in
the sixth volume of the _Cours_ he condemns entirely the “so-called
sidereal astronomy, which to-day constitutes the only grave scientific
aberration peculiar to celestial studies.”[128] Ten years later, in the
first volume of the _Politique positive_, he “regenerates” astronomy
from the synthetic point of view. He is no longer content to limit it
to the knowledge of the solar system. He confines the particular study
of our world within narrow limits. Astronomy, like the other sciences,
from objective must become subjective. Instead of the vague (that is to
say indefinite) study of the heavens its end must be the knowledge of
the earth, and the consideration of the other celestial bodies only in
their relation to the human planet. At this price alone can the unity
of this science be secured.[129]

Thus Comte came back to Aristotle’s closed world with the earth as its
centre. He points it out himself in showing in what way he differs
from the ancient conception. “This unity,” he says, “existed for the
ancients, but was of an absolute character which at that time was
legitimate.” When the motion of our planet became known, the ancient
constitution of celestial science might merely have been modified “by
preserving in it, as subjective, the centre which was at first supposed
to be objective.” That would have sufficed to change astronomy from
an absolute science to a relative one. Undoubtedly the ancients were
deceived in believing the earth to be the centre of the world; but, in
order to correct their error, it sufficed to say, the centre of _our_
world. The subjective synthesis “indeed concentrates the celestial
studies round the earth.” The other stars only deserve our attention
in so far as the knowledge of our planet requires it. Comte ends by
saying in the fourth volume of the _Politique positive_ that, strictly
speaking, the study of the sun and moon would suffice. We may add to
them the ancient planets, but not the “little telescopic planets.”[130]

This progressive narrowing of the astronomical domain does not
indicate a radical change in Comte’s philosophical thought. It only
results from the growing subordination of the scientific interest to
other superior interests. To know for the sake of knowing, appears to
Comte to be a wrong use of the human intellect. The Newtons and the
Laplaces in the past have fulfilled a necessary function, and humanity
owes them eternal gratitude. They struck a decisive blow against
theological and metaphysical philosophy; and secured the victory for
the positive spirit. In their time scientific speculation which tended
to the discovery of the laws of phenomena, and especially of celestial
phenomena, was at once the most sublime and the most useful occupation
which those men of genius could set themselves. But now that their
efforts have culminated in the foundation of positive philosophy, and
this philosophy itself in the “final religion,” there is no longer
any reason to continue researches with which henceforth humanity can
dispense. We must even “cut down many idle acquisitions.”[131] In a
word, from the religious point of view, Comte, in order to remedy the
anarchy of science, suppresses its liberty.

These extreme, but logically deduced consequences, are part of the
whole of Comte’s religious conceptions, that is to say of a distant
ideal. They must not blind us to the profundity of his philosophical
considerations on astronomy. His reflections upon the relation between
the ideas of the world and of the universe correspond, from the
positive point of view, to the first antinomy of the transcendental
Dialectics in the _Critique de la raison pure_. Can we ever be more
fully conscious of the relativity of our knowledge, that when we see
that what we know of celestial phenomena is admirably precise so long
as the solar system is concerned, but is reduced to almost nothing if
we look beyond it?

Our world will perish, and its disappearance like its existence, will
perhaps be an imperceptible incident. By the continued resistance
of the general _milieu_, says Comte, in the end our world must be
re-united to the solar mass from which it came, until, in the immensity
of future ages, a fresh dilatation of this mass shall organise a new
world in the same manner, destined to repeat more or less completely
the former cycle. Moreover, all these immense alternatives of
destruction and of renewal have to be accomplished without influencing
in any way the more general phenomena due to solar interaction; so
that the great revolutions in our world would only be secondary and,
so to speak, local events, in relation to transformations of a really
universal character.[132]

This outlook into the “immensity” of space and of duration suffices
to show that Comte was not a prisoner in the little solar fatherland
in which he seems to seclude himself. It may be that for moral and
religious reasons he will not allow himself to go beyond it. But,
like Pascal, he well knows that he inhabits “a little out of the way
district of nature.”



If we do not separate chemistry from physics, their common object is
the knowledge of the laws of the inorganic world. In this way they are
clearly distinguished on one hand from astronomy which we may consider
as an “emanation from mathematical science,” and on the other hand
from biology. The distinction between physics and chemistry presents a
greater difficulty. Nevertheless this distinction must be maintained,
since the physical phenomena are more “general,” and the chemical
phenomena more “special,” that is to say, the latter depend upon the
former, without this dependence being for the most part reciprocal.
Even if some day we succeeded in establishing that chemical phenomena
are in reality physical, the distinction would none the less subsist,
in this sense, that in a fact termed chemical, there is always
something more than in a fact which is simply physical, namely, the
characteristic alteration which the molecular composition of bodies
undergoes, and which consequently affects the totality of their

To speak only of physics in the first place, this science presents
different characteristics from those of astronomy. The speculative
perfection of a science is measured by two correlative although
distinct considerations, by the more or less complete co-ordination
of the laws, and by the more or less accurate prevision of facts.
Now, under one aspect or the other, even supposing that physics
should make very important progress, it will always remain very much
behind astronomy. Indeed, the celestial science presents an almost
perfect unity; physics, on the contrary, is composed of several
branches which are almost isolated from one another, and each one
taken by itself cannot even reduce all its laws to a more general
law. And, as to the second point, while a very small number of direct
observations allows of rational and exact prevision of the whole of the
celestial phenomena, physics only renders possible predictions which
are generally founded upon experience at once immediate and within
easy reach. Undoubtedly some parts of physics allow of the use of
mathematical analysis (we shall see presently under what conditions).
Nevertheless, the part played by experience is infinitely greater in
physics than in astronomy. So it is in the former science that we first
meet with the inductive method, which is afterwards used and developed
in the other positive sciences. Although deduction continues to fulfil
an important part, it already ceases to predominate here, because, says
Comte, in it the institution of true principles begins to become more
troublesome than the development of accurate consequences.[134]

The inductive method implies these essential processes; 1∘ observation
properly so called, that is to say the direct examination of the
phenomenon such as it appears naturally: 2∘ experimenting, which is
usually defined as the examination of the phenomenon more or less
modified by artificial circumstances instituted by us in order to study
it better; 3∘ comparison, that is to say the gradual consideration of
a succession of analogous cases, in which the phenomenon becomes more
and more simple. Of these three processes astronomy only makes use of
the first. Physics cannot use the third which is reserved for biology;
but it avails itself of the first and institutes the second. This is a
fresh confirmation of the law established by Comte: to the complexity
and increasing difficulty of the sciences, corresponds an increasing
development of the processes of the positive method applicable to them.

Research by way of experiment, which is impossible in Astronomy,
appears in Physics. It is therefore here where it originates that we
must study it. It is also here that it is most successful, and gives
the greatest number of results. Indeed, to experiment successfully we
must be able to compare two cases “which present no other difference
direct or indirect, than that which relates to the course of the
phenomenon under analysis.”[135] By experimenting, Comte here clearly
designates what John Stuart Mill will call the method of difference,
that is to say the most powerful of his methods for the investigation
of phenomena.

Now, experimenting, so understood, is extremely difficult when very
complicated phenomena are concerned. In physiology, for instance, the
experiments must be combined in such a way as to maintain the subjects
in the living state, and even, as far as possible, in the normal state.
But any modification of one part of the organism immediately affects
the other parts. The living being reacts instantly, and adapts itself
as best it can to the new conditions in which it has been placed by the
experimentalist. We can therefore hardly ever establish in physiology
what is so easily obtained in physics: two cases exactly similar in all
respects, except in the one which we want to analyse. In chemistry, it
is true, experimenting would seem to be even easier than in physics,
since in it, as a rule, we merely consider facts resulting from
circumstances which are produced by man’s intervention. But this is
to mistake the nature of the experimental method. The essence of this
process does not consist in man’s institution of the circumstances
surrounding the phenomena; it lies in the “freest possible choice of
the case best suited to show the law of the phenomenon,” whether this
case be, moreover, natural or artificial. Now, this choice is nearly
always easier in physics than in chemistry. For the chemical phenomena
more complex in themselves, in general can only be brought about by the
co-operation of a great number of different influences; for this reason
in chemistry, it is more difficult to modify the circumstances under
which phenomena are produced, and still more difficult to isolate as
completely as in physics the various conditions by which phenomena are

To the use of the experimental method, physics can often join that of
mathematical analysis. But in the employment of the latter it must be
extremely cautious, and we must only have recourse to this application
of mathematics after having “carefully considered the reality of
the starting point,” which alone can guarantee the solidity of the
deductions. In a word, the spirit proper to physical investigation,
must constantly direct the use of this powerful instrument. Now, this
condition has not always been fulfilled. Too often the preponderance of
mathematical analysis has been the cause of the neglect of experimental
studies. Not only has mathematical analysis in this way retarded the
progress of physics but it has even tended to vitiate the conception
of that science, and to bring it back to a state of obscurity and
uncertainty which, says Comte, notwithstanding the apparent severity
of the forms differs little, at bottom, from its old metaphysical

For this reason, the application of analysis to physics must not be
left to geometers who are chiefly concerned with the instrument. It
must belong to the physicists who before all things consider the use
to be made of it. Mathematicians have often encumbered physics with a
quantity of analytical labour founded upon very doubtful hypothesis;
they must give way to physicists trained in experimental studies, and,
nevertheless, with sufficient knowledge of mathematics to make use of
the analysis whenever it is possible. Within these limits mathematical
analysis will render the greatest service to the science of physics.
Would optics, acoustics, the theories of heat and of electricity have
reached the point where we see them to-day without the powerful help
of analysis? Yet even here, physical researches are almost always so
complex that, in order to assume a mathematical form, they demand the
setting aside of a more or less essential portion of the conditions of
the problem. Indeed we are here in presence of the general problem of
the translation of the concrete into the abstract. This problem, which
is admirably solved in mathematics, and sufficiently in astronomy,
is only imperfectly solved in physics. The art of closely combining
experience and analysis, says Comte, is still almost unknown. It
constitutes the final progress of the method proper to the deeper
study of physics.[137] We may add, and this is in Comte’s mind, that
conversely the progress made by this art would be useful to analysis


Astronomy has reached a perfect state of “positivity.” All trace of
the metaphysical spirit has disappeared from it. Can we say as much of
physics? It would not seem so, when we see the hypotheses which play so
great a part in this science, and of which a few are keenly contested
by Comte.

How can we distinguish the valuable hypotheses from the useless ones,
those which are useful to physics from those which are merely an
encumbrance and should be rejected? This is not a question which can
be solved by referring to abstract rules. In order to answer it,
we must study the use of hypotheses where it is perfect, and decide
according to this example. To my mind, says Comte, the deeper study of
the art of hypotheses in astronomy can alone establish the rules which
are suitable to direct the use of this precious artifice in physics,
and more so still in the remainder of natural philosophy.[138] Now of
what use is it to astronomers? To anticipate the results of deduction
or of induction, “by making a provisional supposition concerning
some of the very notions which constitute the final object of the
research.” It is a process of which the methods of approximation used
by geometers originally suggested the general idea. They “supposed”
that the circumference was the limit of the perimeters of inscribed and
circumscribed polygons the number of whose sides went on increasing.
In the same way, hypotheses provisionally fill up the “lacunæ” of our

An hypothesis should always be open to a positive verification, “whose
degree of precision is in harmony with that of the corresponding
phenomena.” For it only expresses beforehand what experience and
reasoning might have made known immediately, if the circumstances of
the problem had been more favourable. If, therefore, an hypothesis
claimed to attain that which in its nature is inaccessible to
observation and to reasoning, it would immediately become illegitimate
and harmful. In a word, it must bear exclusively upon laws, and never
upon causes or the modes of production of phenomena.

In the physics of his own time Comte finds the two kinds of hypotheses,
but he also finds more bad hypotheses than good ones. He especially
protests against the ethers and the fluids to which the phenomena
of heat, light, electricity and magnetism were attributed. These
hypotheses, according to him, are destined to disappear from science.
It is true that the physicists deny that they attribute an objective
reality to their ethers and their fluids. They claim to need them
absolutely in order to facilitate the conception and the combination
of phenomena. However, in spite of themselves, they are drawn into
speaking of their ethers as if they really existed. Moreover, do they
not see that astronomy gets on very well without similar hypotheses?
In order to conceive the phenomena it is enough to observe and analyse
them attentively. And, as to combining them, that depends upon the
knowledge which has been obtained of their positive relations.

The corpuscular theory is, on the contrary, an example of a good
hypothesis in physics, where it plays a part analogous to that of the
inertia of bodies in mechanics.[139] The innermost structure of bodies
is unknown to us. But we have a right to introduce all the hypotheses
which can help us in our research, and in particular the hypothesis of
atoms, so long as we do not understand it as something representing a

The ethers and the fluids tend to “explain” the physical phenomena by
the nature of the agent which produces them. It is here that these
hypotheses bear the mark of the metaphysical spirit. To understand
the appearance and especially the persistence of these hypotheses, it
is not enough to consider them in themselves. We must get back to the
history of physics, and compare it with that of the other fundamental
sciences. Was it possible for physics to pass suddenly from the period
in which phenomena are referred to causes and essences, to the positive
period where they are conceived as simply subject to laws? A period of
transition was necessary. The scholastic entities, before disappearing,
became semi-materialised. They were transformed into fluids. What is
heat conceived as existing apart from a hot body, light independent
of a luminous body, electricity separated from an electric body? They
are the old entities in a new garment, more easily grasped, in spite of
their “equivocal corporeity.” They gradually lead to the more and more
exclusive consideration of phenomena and of laws, until, in their turn,
they disappear.

Astronomy went through the same phases before Physics. In it we have
also seen hypotheses which cannot be verified come to facilitate
the transition from the theological to the positive state. Such was
the conception of Descartes who explained the celestial motions by
the system of vortices. Those famous vortices introduced the idea
of a mechanism where Kepler himself had only dared to conceive the
incomprehensible action of souls and genii. Then Newton came, who
preserved the idea of mechanism, while giving up the vortices. In vain
did the Cartesians fight against his entirely positive conception.
Their arguments in favour of fluids and ethers were as plausible
as those of the physicists of our own time. But we have ceased to
listen to them. Having become entirely positive, astronomy no longer
seeks anything but the laws at work in the phenomena observed. Every
accessory hypothesis aiming at anything else has no further interest
for us.

The most advanced portions of physics have already reached this point.
Take, for instance, the study of gravitation. There was not perhaps
a single scientific man of any importance in the XVII. century, even
long after Galileo, who did not construct or adopt a system concerning
the fall of bodies. At that time any science on this subject seemed
impossible without a hypothesis of this kind. Who troubles himself with
it to-day? We may be allowed to think that the other parts of physics
will follow the same line, and that in turn they will conform to this
rule of the positive method: “Every hypothesis must bear exclusively
upon the laws of phenomena, and never upon their modes of production.”


In the series of the fundamental sciences Chemistry appears to fill a
somewhat secondary and subordinate place. In it the positive method
is not enriched by any process of capital importance, but it confines
itself to developing the processes already made use of in physics.
In spite of appearances, even experimenting is less easy and less
fertile in chemistry than in physics. The only new process which we see
appearing is the art of nomenclature. Whenever we wish to study this
art “at its source” we shall have to refer to chemistry.[140]

The phenomena which it studies are the most complicated of the
inorganic world. If then physics is extremely imperfect, it is not
surprising that chemistry should be much more so. In the greater number
of its researches “the chemistry of the present day hardly deserves the
name of science.”[141] But this inferiority of chemistry is not only
due to the nature of its object. There are other causes which it would
be easier to remedy. The progress of chemistry is retarded: 1, by the
wrong direction given to much of its work up to the present time; 2, by
the defective education of the majority of the scientific men who give
themselves to its study.

Before all things, chemists lack a clear and rational idea of their
science, of its relation to the sciences which stand nearest to it and
the way in which its problems should be stated. Being intermediate
between physics and biology, chemistry has suffered from the vicinity
of both. As the more advanced sciences always have a marked tendency
to encroach upon those above them, chemistry must in the first place
defend itself against the ascendency of physics, as physics itself
must fight against that of mathematics. The chemist must undoubtedly
have studied physics, in order to make use of the results obtained
by this science, and to turn them, if he can, into a method for
his own use. The relation of these two sciences is very close, and
a knowledge of the laws of calorific and electric phenomena, for
instance, is of the highest importance for chemical research. But, for
all this, the chemist has his own point of view. He studies, (which the
physicist does not do), the laws of the phenomena of composition and
decomposition which are the result of the molecular and specific action
of diverse natural or artificial substances upon each other. He must
therefore make use of physics, but not subordinate himself to it.

On the other hand physiological research is not within the province
of chemistry. What has been called “biological chemistry” belongs,
according to Comte, to biology alone. For the physiologist to have gone
through the school of chemistry is natural and even indispensable.
But his point of view is quite different from that of the chemist.
As a matter of fact, chemists have shown themselves unqualified for
physiological studies. None of their numerous attempts have succeeded
in establishing a single point of general doctrine, in biology. They
merely furnished materials. Moreover these cannot be used just as they
are by the physiologist, who is obliged to take up the researches again
“under the preponderating influence of biological considerations.”
Comte admires the self-confidence of the chemists who approach
physiological questions without having measured or even suspected the
special difficulties. It is, however, clear that the most carefully
made chemical analyses must be fruitless here so long as they are not
directed in the first place by a precise physiological notion of the
whole of the phenomenon, and then modified by the knowledge of the
limits of the normal variations to which the phenomena may be liable.
Now, for proceeding in this manner, the physiologists alone are

Analogous considerations lead Comte to reject even organic chemistry.
Although the chemical phenomena present characteristics which in the
inorganic world come nearest to the solidarity which subsists between
the elements of living forms, nevertheless chemical phenomena remains
irreducible to living phenomena. That which is chemical is not yet
organic; and that which is organic is no longer purely chemical. We
must do away with this heterogenous and fictitious grouping which is
called organic chemistry, to unite the different parts, according
to their respective nature, some to chemistry proper, the others to

How can we define the object of this science, so imperfectly determined
at the present time? Comte knows that he is about to depart from the
methods generally in use among chemists, but he is not afraid of this.
For, he says, in order to understand the real nature of a science,
we must always suppose it to be perfect.[144] As chemistry, is in
an extreme state of imperfection, the “scientific type” which the
philosopher conceives respecting it will appear to be very far removed
from what exists at present. It matters little so long as this type is
perfectly “rational.”

What is essential to science is the possibility of foreseeing
phenomena. Given the characteristic properties of the simple or complex
substances placed in chemical relations with each other under well
defined circumstances, the object of chemistry will therefore be to
determine exactly in what their action will consist, and what will be
the properties of the new substances produced.[145] According to this
definition, the fundamental data of chemistry should be ultimately,
reducible to the knowledge of the essential properties of the simple
elements alone, which would lead to that of the various immediate
chemical substances, and consequently to the most complex and distant
combinations. Obviously, the study of simple bodies can only be made
by means of experiments, which alone reveal their properties. But,
once this basis is laid down, “all the other chemical phenomena,
notwithstanding their immense variety, should be capable of rational
solutions, according to a small number of invariable laws, established
by the science of chemistry for the various classes of combinations.”

Thus, Comte sees clearly that the complexity of the chemical phenomena
prevents us from expressing their relations in a form which allows of
the use of mathematical analysis. But none the less, in this science as
in the preceding ones, he persists in making the experimental method a
mere starting-point. The experimental method furnishes the data which
it alone can supply. But these data are afterwards elaborated without
its intervention. The scientific ideal in chemistry, as in physics and
in astronomy, is _to substitute as much as possible rational prevision
to experimental verification_. Science always seeks to _deduce_ the
greatest number of consequences from the smallest number of data, and
the smallest number of data in this case are the properties of simple
bodies. Deduction will establish _a priori_ what the properties of a
given combination of two simple bodies, or of two complex bodies will

In the name of this scientific ideal, Comte reproaches the chemists
with the superabundance of their analytical work. In default of a
rational conception of chemistry they do not make their work bear
upon the necessary points. What is the use of studying such and such
a body, placed in such and such conditions, in an arbitrary way and
according to the fancy of investigation? The progress of chemistry
should consist far less in the acquisition of new materials than in the
systematisation of those which we already possess. Chemistry is to-day
as rich in details as it is imperfectly constituted as a science.[146]
Its present state in no way gives an idea of what its normal state will

Not content with showing to chemists the “scientific type” towards
which their science should tend, Comte suggests a contrivance in method
which will bring them nearer to it. It is in no way like the hypothesis
of affinities, for this appears to him to be even more “ontological”
than the hypothesis of imaginary fluids or ethers. As always happens
when we are concerned with metaphysical conceptions, the explanations
which we draw from affinities consist in the reproduction in abstract
terms of the very statement of the phenomenon.[147] To this hypothesis,
which is not a scientific one since it bears up the mode of production
of facts, Comte substitutes what he calls the “dualist hypothesis.” We
ignore, he says, and it is not for us to seek the real manner in which
the elements of which bodies are composed come to be grouped together.
But, consequently, it is lawful for us, in the very circumscribed
sphere of our positive research, to conceive the immediate composition
of any substance whatever as merely _binary_, each of the two bodies so
separated being able, according as the case may be, to lend itself to
a similar analysis, equally binary, and so on, as the occasion arises.
We do not affirm that dualism is a real law of nature. It will be a
fundamental contrivance in chemistry, like the hypothesis of inertia in
mechanics, and that of atoms in physics. It will serve to “simplify our
elementary conceptions” in chemistry, and in having recourse to it we
do not exceed “the special kind of liberty” of which our intellect may
avail itself, in the institution of science.[148]

The use of this hypothesis would allow us to endow chemistry with a
“fine” character of unity and rationality which it lacks to-day. It is
true that Comte himself confessed that this hypothesis, proposed by
him in 1838, had yet “produced nothing” in 1851. But he explains this
sterility to himself by the metaphysical spirit, from which chemists
are not sufficiently freed.


We can now take in at a single glance the relations of the sciences
of the inorganic world (including astronomy), with the totality of
positive philosophy.[149]

In several ways these sciences have contributed to the progress of the
positive spirit. By their constitution, they allowed and prepared the
formation of the more complex sciences of Biology and of Sociology.
Moreover, their development struck a mortal blow at theological and
metaphysical philosophy. Through them minds became familiarised with
the idea of natural law. This idea was not so clearly brought to light
by mathematics on account of their almost purely abstract character,
and of the imperceptible part played in them by observation. It
appears, on the contrary, as the mainspring of astronomy, of physics,
and of chemistry. The whole effort of these sciences tends to discover
invariable relations between phenomena given in experience.

Theological philosophy is the “explanation” of nature which the
human mind first makes for itself. In order that it may give up this
“explanation” some contrary evidence must oblige it to do so. It may
see for instance, that phenomena can be predicted with a perfect
exactness which is always confirmed by experience, or that man, under
certain conditions, can modify them with certainty. Astronomy gives us
an example of the former case. It studies phenomena which, it is true,
are removed from our sphere of action. But, in return, it predicts them
with a certainty of which the effect has been practically infallible
in the long run. It is astronomy which has done most to discredit the
religious and philosophical doctrine of final causes.[150] Not only has
it proved that the universe is not disposed with reference to man, but
it has shown the imperfections of our solar system. It has helped more
than any other science to check the mental habit of seeking the mode of
production of phenomena.

Physics is far from allowing of a rational prevision which is
comparable to that practised by astronomy. But, as a compensation, it
shows how the knowledge of laws gives the power to cause phenomena
to vary with certainty. This second way leads us no less surely than
the first to the positive conception of nature. For example, Franklin
destroyed the religious theory of thunder, even in the least cultivated
intellects. The discovery of the means of directing lightning therefore
had the same effect, in another way, as the exact prevision of the
return of comets.[151]

On the other hand the sciences of the inorganic world furnish the
general positive method with some of its most powerful processes.
Astronomy introduces observation and hypothesis into this method,
Physics adds experimenting to it, and Chemistry the art of
nomenclatures. The inductive method, which virtually consists in simple
scientific observation, becomes, however, enriched and is developed,
according as the phenomena in question become more complicated.

But, in return, positive philosophy exercises a considerable influence
over these sciences. It claims nothing less than to direct and
“regenerate” them. Viewing them from above and as a whole, philosophy
can bring a remedy to the difficulties which arise from their
specialism. It sets an exact limit to each of the sciences. It delivers
physics from the “algebraical yoke,” and protects the independence of
chemists against the encroachments of the physicists. It places the
entirety of the positive method at the service of each particular
science. For instance, it directs the use of hypothesis in physics by
the theory drawn from the use which is made of it in astronomy; for
classifications, it extends to chemistry the use of the comparative
method which properly belongs to biology. When, later, the integral and
final constitution of the philosophy of our age shall have organised
the relations between all the sciences, it will be almost impossible,
save from the historical point of view, to understand how the study of
nature was ever conceived and directed otherwise.[152]

Positive philosophy organises labour within each science, and puts
an end to “anarchy.” It distinguishes between “idle” researches, and
those which should be pursued. It avoids waste of efforts and prevents
digressions. We have seen within what limits Comte wishes to enclose
astronomy in the name of philosophy. He does not perceive the means
by which he can unite the various branches of physics; but he claims
to replace the fragmentary and scattered chemistry of his time by a
single systematic science, which will forsake the researches of detail
which are without interest for humanity. “Almost the whole of those
innumerable compounds will not finally be worthy of any scientific
attention. Some well-chosen series may even be able to satisfy the
logical requirements of chemistry for the discovery of the abstract
laws which belong to each order of composition.”[153]

Finally positive philosophy causes the disappearance of the last
remains of the theological and metaphysical spirit from the sciences of
inorganic nature. This philosophy has already shown that mathematics
is not a more absolute science than the others, and that it originates
in experience. In physics and in chemistry it banishes the hypotheses
which, more or less avowedly, tend to make us conceive the essence or
the mode of production of phenomena. It is thus that it demands a
science of physics freed from ethers and fluids, and a wholly rational
chemistry which shall give up affinities.

Comte is not therefore possessed of a superstitious respect for the
sciences in the state in which they appear before him. On the contrary,
he intends that they should be subject to deep modifications, and that
they should strive towards an ideal form which is laid down for them by
philosophy. He calls this form “positive.” In reality it is Cartesian.


[116] Pol. pos. I, 499-507.

[117] Cours, VI, 749.

[118] Cours, III, 93.

[119] Cours, II, 16-17.

[120] Cours, II, 14-15.

[121] Pol. pos. I. 500.

[122] Cours, II, 153.

[123] Cours, II, 132-3.

[124] Cours, VI, 751.

[125] Cours, II, 133.

[126] Cours, II, 266-7.

[127] Cours, II. 7.

[128] Cours, VI, 751.

[129] Pol. pos. I, 508.

[130] Pol. pos. IV. 212.

[131] Pol. pos. I. 508-13.

[132] Cours. II. 297.

[133] Cours II. 310.

[134] Pol. pos. I, 516-18.

[135] Cours, II, 313-15; Pol. pos. I, 519.

[136] Cours, II, 317.

[137] Cours, II, 321.

[138] Cours, II, 336 sq.

[139] Pol. pos. 520.

[140] Pol. Pos., I, 532.

[141] Cours, III, 3-4.

[142] Cours, III, 186-9.

[143] Cours, III, 195.

[144] Cours, I. 118: II. 311.

[145] Cours III. 11-12.

[146] Cours, III. 206.

[147] Cours, III. 35.

[148] Cours, III. 87-8.

[149] Pol. pos. I. 551.

[150] Cours, II. 24-26.

[151] Cours, II. 331.

[152] Cours, III. 75.

[153] Pol. pos. I, 561.



The passage from the inorganic world to the world of Life constitutes a
critical step in natural philosophy. Astronomy, Physics, and Chemistry
represented successive steps in the same series. If each order of
phenomena presented in itself something which was irreducible to
previous orders, nevertheless all these phenomena, in a certain sense,
remained homogeneous. Without rashness, Descartes could conceive that
physics, like astronomy, would one day assume the mathematical form.
And to-day more than one scientific man considers the distinction
between physics and chemistry as provisional.

But as soon as life appears, we enter a new world. At this degree
the “enrichment of the real” is suddenly so considerable that we
find it difficult to admit the homogeneity of these phenomena with
the preceding ones. Comte here reaps the benefit of his prudence.
His philosophy has guarded against reducing all science to a single
type, and it is content with the unity of method and the homogeneity
of doctrine. It only demands that each science should limit itself to
the search after the laws of phenomena. As to the way in which this
research is to be carried out, it is evidently subordinated to the
nature of the phenomena in question. Now, biological phenomena present
a number of characteristics which belong to them alone, and the first
duty of the positive science which studies them is to respect their

Comte, therefore, here breaks with Descartes who conceived biology as
a prolongation of physics. He takes an entirely different view of this
science, which, in a sense, is opposed to the whole of the sciences of
the inorganic world. From this there arises a double effort. On the
one hand, Comte wishes to maintain the continuity of the encyclopædic
series of the sciences: he thus shows Biology as immediately following
chemistry, and maintaining the closest relations with astronomy and
physics. On the other hand he clearly brings out the irreducible
character of the vital phenomena, and the modifications which the
positive method must undergo when applied to them. Despite the extreme
difference between the points of view and the doctrines, he often
makes us think of those deep and difficult passages in the _Critique
du Jugement_ where Kant has shown that without the hypothesis of an
inner finality, (although this hypothesis is in itself obscure), the
phenomena which take place in living beings remain unintelligible.

With biology, says Comte, necessarily appear the ideas of _consensus_,
of hierarchy, of “milieu”, of the conditions of existence, of the
relation between the static and the dynamic states, between the organ
and the function.[154] In a word, a biological phenomenon, considered
alone is devoid of meaning. Strictly speaking, it does not even exist.
It can only be understood by its relations with the other phenomena
which take place in the living being, phenomena which react upon it. At
the same time it reacts upon them. Here, in opposition to what takes
place in the inorganic world, the parts are only intelligible through
the idea of the whole. Undoubtedly a certain solidarity of phenomena
exists in the inorganic world, which allows us to consider united
wholes in it. But the solidarity of biological phenomena is far closer,
for, without it we could not conceive them, while, as regards the
phenomena of the inorganic world, there is nothing impossible in this

Henceforth, the positive method must adapt itself to the
characteristics which belong to biological phenomena. It does not
always demand, as it has been wrongly stated, that we should go from
the simple to the complex, but only that we should proceed from the
known to the unknown. It is true that in the sciences of the inorganic
world we proceed from the least complex to the most complex cases;
we begin by the study of phenomena which are as isolated as possible
from one another. But, on the contrary, living beings are all the
better known to us in proportion as they are more complex. The idea
of the animal is in some respects clearer to us than the idea of the
vegetable. The idea of the superior animals is clearer to us than that
of the inferior ones. Finally man for us is the principal biological
unity, and it is from this unity that speculation starts in this

Thus, in dealing with Biology the positive method undergoes a veritable
inversion. In the preceding sciences, the last degree of composition is
forbidden us: we never succeed in uniting the whole of the inorganic
world into a single synthesis. In biology, on the contrary, sums of
phenomena are given; but it is the last degree of simplicity which
escapes us. We have to start from those sums of phenomena, and biology
must in this way assume a synthetic character. In it the analysis of
phenomena will be as minute as possible; but the analytical operations
will always be more or less directly subordinated to the leading idea
of the vital _consensus_.[155]


Like the other fundamental sciences Biology must be abstract, that is
to say it must not bear upon individual beings, but upon phenomena.
It is thus distinct from zoology and botany which are concrete
sciences. In its widest generality it is defined through the constant
correspondence between the anatomical and the physiological point of
view. Its object is to constantly unite them to one another. In reality
these two points of view are the two aspects of a single problem. It
is owing to historical reasons that, during a certain time, these two
sciences appeared to develop independently of one another. Physiology
remained attached to the metaphysical methods, that is to say, to
unverifiable hypotheses and to principles which went beyond experience,
while anatomists already made use of the positive method. But to-day,
the two sciences being equally positive, “their opposition is reduced
to that which subsists between the static and the dynamic points of

Another element which should enter into the more general definition of
biology, although it has sometimes been neglected, is the consideration
of the _milieu_. The relation between the organism and its _milieu_
is no less essential to life than the relation of the organ to the
function. Life supposes not only that the being should be organised in
a certain way, but also that a certain number of external circumstances
should sustain this organisation, and should be compatible with its
activity. Living beings are thus dependent upon their _milieu_, and
this dependence grows as we rise in the organic series. The system
of the conditions of existence becomes all the more complex as the
functions develop and become more varied. Inferior organisms are
subject to less numerous external conditions; but, says Comte, a little
variation in one of these conditions suffices to make them perish.
The superior organisms stand a variation of this kind better. But, in
return, the number of conditions upon which they depend is far greater.
The study of _milieux_ in their relations to organisms, a study which
is hardly outlined, undoubtedly has many discoveries in store for the
future.[157] Here is an order of problems of which Lamarck probably
suggested the idea to Comte, and upon which Darwin’s genius will work.

Bichat then was wrong in saying in his celebrated definition of life
that it is “the sum of the forces which resist death.” The radical
antagonism between inorganic and living nature is an incomplete and
consequently a false idea. Indeed if, as Bichat supposed, everything
which surrounds living bodies tended to destroy them, their existence
would become unintelligible.[158] Where could they find strength
to resist such formidable pressure, even for a short time? On the
contrary, the fundamental condition for life is a certain “harmony”
between the organism and the _milieu_ in which it is placed. The proof
of this is furnished at every turn by experience.

This being established, what will be the most general problem of the
science of life? From the anatomical point of view, says Comte, all
possible organisms, all parts whatever of each organism, and all the
various states of each necessarily present a common basis of structure
and of composition, from which the tissues, organs and apparatus have
emerged by means of a progressive differentiation. In the same way,
from the physiological point of view, all living beings, from the
vegetable kingdom up to man, considered in all their actions and all
the periods of their existence, necessarily possess a common basis
of vital activity, whence the innumerable phenomena of nutrition,
secretion, etc., proceed, by means of progressive differentiation. Now,
from both these points of view, that which is similar in these cases,
is more important than that which distinguishes them, since the more
general phenomena govern those which are less so. We must therefore
disengage the elementary physiological phenomenon and the anatomical
structure which corresponds to it, we must determine their relation,
and, with the help and confirmation of experience, we must deduce the
increasingly more complex, physiological and anatomical, phenomena from

This conception which, despite Comte’s reservation, still appears to be
entirely saturated with the Cartesian spirit, leads him to the “most
mathematical statement possible” of the biological problem. “Given
the organ, or the organic modification, to find the function or the
act, and vice versa.”[160] There is nothing more in conformity with
the general definition of science, which consists in substituting the
knowledge of laws to that of facts, and rational prevision to empirical
observation. Here, it is true, we have an “ideal scientific type,” from
which biology, which has scarcely reached the positive state, is very
far removed. But there is no science which does not fall short of its
definition more or less. The use of this definition is already a help
for a science, and provides a means for measuring its progress.


In part, or even entirely, biology is deprived of certain methodical
processes which are utilised by the sciences which precede it. It
cannot avail itself of calculation. Undoubtedly each of the elements
which go to make up a physiological phenomenon varies according to
a definite law. But the sum of these elements forms such a complex
whole, that we shall never be able to express their relations in the
terms of an equation. Further, the numbers which are relative to the
phenomena of living bodies present continual and irregular variations,
which do not allow us to establish the data of a mathematical
calculation.[161] Each living being has its individuality, its
personal formula, its characteristic reactions, which prevent us from
treating it as identical with the other beings of the same species.
Each physiological or pathological “case” is distinct from any other
case. That is why Comte distrusts statistics. In his judgment they
are misleading in physiology, and fatal in medicine. In the same way,
Claude Bernard will protest vigorously against averages.

Is the inductive method at least a convenient one to make use of in
biology? Simple observation cannot lead us far in the study of such
complex phenomena, of which many are not directly accessible to our
senses or to our instruments. Experimenting is very difficult in
biology, for nothing is easier than to disturb, to suspend, or even
to bring about the entire cessation of the phenomena of life. But it
is almost impossible to introduce an exactly determined perturbation,
whether of kind, or, _a fortiori_, of degree. Indeed a modification of
a single condition of the phenomenon almost at once affects the greater
number of the other phenomena, by reason of their _consensus_. In
principle, experimenting is not forbidden in biology. On the contrary
it is of remarkable efficacy, but it is often impracticable.

Nevertheless, as we know, it is not man’s intervention in phenomena
which constitutes experimenting properly so called. It consists,
before all things, in the rational selection of cases, (natural or
artificial, it matters little), which are most appropriate for bringing
out the law of variation of the phenomenon under observation. Nature
gives us such, for illnesses resemble experiments which we can follow
through their entire course and to their termination. They are often
difficult to interpret, on account of their extreme complexity, but
less so, however, than the majority of the experiments which we bring
about ourselves. For are they not more or less violent diseases,
suddenly produced by our intervention, without our being able to
foresee all their indirect and future consequences? It is pathological
anatomy which led Bichat to his fine discoveries in histology and in
physiology. And to pathology we must join teratology which is, as it
were, its prolongation. Here again, nature supplies experiments which
we should not know how to institute.[162]

Whatever may be the help which biology derives from these natural
ways of experimenting, its progress could only be a very slow one, if
it did not possess besides a powerful method for proceeding which is
peculiar to it: _comparison_. It is true that every inductive operation
implies comparison. We compare what we observe with other real and
possible cases. Again we compare when we are experimenting. But, in
the comparative method, properly so called, we do not limit ourselves
to bringing two cases together. Comparison bears upon a long sequence
of analogous cases, in which the subject is modified by a continual
succession of almost insensible gradations.[163]

How would the general problems of biology receive a solution without
this method? If we consider an organism by itself, the complication of
functions and organs is inextricable in it. But, if we compare this
organism with those which come nearest to it, and then with others
which are near to them and so on, disengaging what they have in common,
a simplification is produced. The accessory characteristics disappear
by degrees, as we descend in the biological series, and, if we have set
ourselves to study a certain function, we can finally determine its
relation to its organ.

Although it belongs to biology, this method has its analogy in
other sciences, and especially in mathematics. It appears to me,
says Comte, to present a character similar to that of mathematical
analysis, which brings forward, in each sequence of analogous cases
“the fundamental portion which is common to all, which portion, before
this abstract generalisation, was concealed beneath the secondary
specialities of each isolated case.” The comparative method, in a
word, is a method for analysing biological continuity. Whether it be a
question of an anatomical disposition or of a physiological phenomenon
“_the methodical comparison of the regular sequence of the growing
differences_ which relate to them will always present the surest
and most efficacious means of throwing light upon even the ultimate
elements of the proposed question.” We see that Comte had here his
conception of the infinitesimal calculus in his mind. Better still,
where terms are lacking in the organic series he does not hesitate to
suppose them to re-establish continuity. He introduces intermediary
“fictitious organisms” hypotheses which some day perhaps palæontology
will turn into realities.

By means of this method, not only we shall know a far greater number of
cases, but, what is of more importance, we shall know each one among
them better, “as an inevitable consequence of their being drawn nearer
together.” We assume, it is true, that all these various cases present
a fundamental similarity accompanied by gradual modifications, which
always follow a regular course. But this hypothesis as we have seen, is
implied in the very definition of general biology.

The comparative method will then apply successively to the different
parts of an organism, to the different ages of the same organism, and
to the different organisms in the animal and vegetable series. It will
even apply to embryonic life, Comte clearly formulates von Baer’s
law, while making indispensable reservations. The primitive state of
the highest organism, he says, must represent, from the anatomical
and physiological point of view, the essential characteristics of the
complete state which belongs to the more inferior organism, and so on
successively “without our being able to find again the exact analogy
of each of the principal terms of the inferior organic series in the
sole analysis of the various phases of development of each superior
organism.” This comparison, so to speak, allows us to realise in the
same individual the growing complication of organs and of functions
which characterises the whole biological hierarchy. Thus it is
particularly “luminous.”[164] Von Baer’s book had appeared in German in
1827. Had Comte known it, it is most probable that, according to his
habit, he would have quoted it.


In order to consider organisms in the regular sequence which allows
of comparison, we must first have established the order in which
they should be arranged. But, conversely, to establish this order, a
knowledge of anatomy and physiology is indispensable. So between these
two sciences on the one hand and “biotaxy” on the other there is a
strict solidarity. The problem of classification is thus an essential
part of general biology. In the natural classification sought after
by science, the position assigned to each organism would suffice
to define at once the whole of its anatomical and physiological
nature, in relation to the organisms which precede and to those which
follow.[165] Any natural classification cannot, however, be anything
but imperfect. Accustomed as we are to artificial classifications,
which admit of absolute and immediate perfection, we are surprised that
the same should not be the case in natural classification. But, if the
latter is a real science, we must own that, here as elsewhere, we can
only reach more or less distant approximations. The co-ordination of
living species is a problem like the static or dynamic analysis of a
determined organism. Like this analysis, it only allows of solutions
which are approached rather than realised.[166]

How, in the first place, must we understand species? Between Cuvier
and Lamarck, Comte sides with Cuvier, with this reservation, however,
that “our ideas upon this question of capital importance are not yet
properly fixed.” Two reasons especially incline him to admit the fixity
of of species. Lamarck’s theory is not sufficiently proved: we nowhere
see that the _milieu_ exercises the almost boundless influence upon
organisms which is attributed to it by Lamarck. Undoubtedly, within
certain limits, the exercise induced by external circumstances tends
to modify the primitive organisation. But this action of the _milieu_
and this aptitude of the organism are certainly very limited. On
the other hand, if we have a choice between the two hypotheses, the
interest of science would prompt us to use this liberty in favour of
Cuvier. The fixity of species guarantees that the series of organisms
will always be composed of terms which are clearly distinct, separated
by insuperable intervals. This “increases the degree of rational
perfection of which the final establishment of this hierarchy is
capable.”[167] It is then under the influence of a purely formal motive
that Comte’s preference is here decided. For he felt the strength and
the import of Lamarck’s labours. Of the two celebrated antagonists, he
said, Lamarck was unquestionably the one “who manifested the clearest
and deepest sense of the true organic hierarchy.”[168]

Comte has even dealt with certain objections which do not go against
Lamarck. Thus, we might think at first that, in his hypothesis,
there is no real zoological series, since animal organisms would be
essentially identical, their differences being henceforth attributed
to the diverse and unequally prolonged influence of the external
conditions. But, on looking into it more closely, we see, on the
contrary, that this hypothesis only presents the series in a new
aspect which would even render its existence still more evident. For
the whole of the zoological series would then become, in fact as
well as ideally, altogether analogous to the whole of the individual
development, confined at least to its ascending period. It would then
be conceived as continuous. “The progressive advance of the animal
organism, which for us is only a convenient abstraction, would be
converted into a natural law.”[169]

For the logical perfection of science, Comte prefers to regard species
as fixed in the absence of contrary proofs. None the less Lamarck
has stated a problem of the highest interest. Comte points out its
importance. “The rational theory of the necessary action of the various
_milieux_ on the different organisms has still almost entirely to be
formulated. Such an order of research, although greatly neglected,
constitutes one of the finest subjects which the present condition of
biology can present.” By this means, he adds, we might obtain a theory
for the perfecting of living species even including mankind.[170]


Comte’s anatomical and physiological philosophy is naturally allied to
the science of his time. It is especially connected with the labours
of Bichat and of de Blainville. Here again he endeavours to state the
problems in the most general form possible. Anatomy should begin by
the study of the tissues, to ascend afterwards to the association of
several tissues, that is to say, to the organs, and to the associations
of several organs, that is to say, to systems. But analysis must not
be concerned with the tissue itself. To attempt the passage from this
notion to that of the molecule, is to allow the organic to enter into
the inorganic philosophy. In biology, the tissue corresponds to what
the molecule is in physics. Such, at least, is the doctrine of the
_Cours de philosophie positive_. Later on, instructed by Schwann’s
works, Comte admits in the _Politique positive_ that the anatomical
element is the cell.

Be it tissue or cell, there must be a fundamental anatomical element.
The simultaneous existence of several elements independent of one
another would greatly mar “the admirable unity of the organic world,”
and consequently the perfection of biological science. Life is always
essentially the same. To this dynamic consideration, there must
correspond, in the static order, that of a common basis invariable in
its primordial organisation, successively producing, by deeper and
deeper modifications, the various special anatomical elements.

Similarly, physiology will not be entirely organised until it studies
functions (at least the organic functions), throughout the whole chain
of living beings, from the vegetable kingdom up to man. This conception
of a general physiology leads Comte to dwell, as Claude Bernard will
later on, upon the phenomena of life which are common to plants and
to animals. Some are better studied in plants and others in animals.
But, whether it be animal or vegetable every organism always presents
two fundamental functions: 1. the absorption of nutritious materials
borrowed from the _milieu_ (the assimilation of these materials and
finally nutrition); 2. the rejection of unassimilated materials.
However, plants are the only organised beings which live directly upon
the inorganic _milieu_.[171] Comte was ignorant of the physiology of

Comte unreservedly adopts the distinction established by Bichat
between the functions of organic life and those of animal life. In
the first place he concludes from this, in virtue of the correlation
of the dynamic to the static point of view, that distinct tissues
correspond to these distinct functions. Then, he goes more deeply into
the difference between the two kinds of functions. Strictly speaking,
the phenomena of organic life only constitute a special order of
composition and of decomposition. They come very near to chemistry, and
may serve as a transition between the inorganic world and the world of
life.[172] On the contrary, the phenomena of animal life (irritability,
sensibility), offer no analogy with the phenomena of the inorganic
world. We might almost believe, according to Comte, that the separation
is established not between the chemical and biological phenomena, but
between organic and animal life, the phenomena of the former reducing
themselves to physico-chemical phenomena, and those of the latter
presenting entirely different characteristics. Such is not, however,
Comte’s thought. Undoubtedly, considered one by one, the phenomena of
organic life (absorption, circulation, exhalation, etc.) are indeed
physico-chemical phenomena. But what renders their biological character
irreducible is that it is impossible to consider them separately: in
order to understand them we must first look at them from the point of
view of the whole, and appeal to the organic _consensus_, in a word, to
what Claude Bernard, will call _l’idée directrice_.

In the study of organic functions we shall begin by the lower extremity
in the series of living beings, that is to say by the most rudimentary
forms of the vegetable kingdom, for it is here that we shall grasp the
phenomena in their simplest form. Then we shall follow their growing
complexity. For the animal functions, on the contrary, it is expedient
to begin by man, “the only being in which such an order of phenomena
is ever immediately intelligible.” From this point of view man is
pre-eminently the biological unity. As soon as it is a question of the
characteristics of animality, we must begin with man and see how they
descend by degrees, rather than start from the sponge, and look for
their mode of development. Man’s animal life helps us to understand
that of the sponge; but the reverse is not true.[173] Moreover, the
phenomena of organic life, being the most general, are also the most
fundamental. The functions of animal life are first useful for the
needs of organic life, by perfecting it. It is in man alone that the
vegetative life is subordinate to the life of relation: and even for
that he must have reached a high degree of civilisation.[174]


It is not surprising that biology, even more than physics and
chemistry, preserves the metaphysical spirit. Such, for instance,
is the hypothesis of spontaneous generation. Positive philosophy
recognizes that each living being always emanates from another similar
being. This is not established _a priori_, but is the result of an
“immense induction.”[175] _Omne vivum ex vivo._ Efforts to explain
how the generating tissue should itself be formed by kinds of organic
monads, (an allusion to certain theories arising out of Schelling’s
philosophy) can only fail. We should never know how to connect the
organic with the inorganic world except through the fundamental laws
belonging to the general phenomena which are common to them both.
Positive speculations in anatomy and in physiology form a limited
system, within which we must establish the most perfect unity,
but which must ever remain separated from the whole of inorganic
theories.[176] We see clearly, it is true, that there is no matter
which is of itself living. Life is not peculiar to certain substances
which are organised in a certain manner. It never belongs to them for
more than a time: every organism of which the molecules are not renewed
is dissolved. But “we can no more explain this instability than this

In the same way we see that in living bodies the nutritive functions
are the basis of the others; but there is no contradiction in
“dreaming” of thought and sociability in beings whose substance would
remain unalterable. From this point of view spiritualism is not less
admissible than materialism, in so much as death does not seem to be a
necessary consequence of life. This again is an idea which is common
to Descartes and to Comte. They both conceive an organism in which the
play of functions should not cease of itself. The theory of death, says
Comte, although it is founded upon that of life, is entirely distinct
from it.[178]

If biology still often hesitates in the statement of its problems
and in the choice of its hypotheses, it is in a great measure due to
the two opposite tendencies between which it oscillated in the last
century. On the one hand, Boerhaave, and the school of physiology which
is more or less directly connected with Descartes, sought a mechanical
explanation of biological phenomena, and tended to reduce biology to
physics and chemistry. On the other hand, Stahl in Germany, and the
vitalist school of Montpellier in France, appealed to metaphysical
principles and to unverifiable hypotheses. Being thus swayed from
one extremity to another, biology only escaped the “oppression” of
the inorganic sciences to involve itself in conceptions which were
scarcely scientific.[179] It is only at the end of the XVIII. Century,
with Haller, Gall and Bichat, that it finds its equilibrium, takes
possession of its method, and at last enters into its positive phase.

By its lower extremity it is contiguous to inorganic science (the
physico-chemical phenomena of vegetative life). By its higher
extremity, (intellectual functions), it reaches to the final science,
or sociology. But the adherence is far from being as close in one case
as in the other. At the moment when we pass from the inorganic world to
the world of living beings, according to positive philosophy, there is
a sudden “enrichment of the real.” The transition is very marked. The
domain of biology is not so sharply separated from that of sociology.
For the higher biological functions, the intellectual functions, cannot
be analysed from the point of view of the individual, at least in man,
but only from the point of view of the species. We must then, while
preserving the distinction between the two sciences, admit a kind of
inter-relation between them. Undoubtedly sociology could not be founded
so long as biology had not made decisive progress. But, conversely,
sociology once founded alone completes the positive study of the
highest biological functions.

Certainly, biology has not been less transformed than chemistry during
the last sixty years, and the state in which we see it to-day differs
singularly from that in which Comte knew it. It has been developed
and differentiated far beyond what he could foresee. None the less
he conceived some of its principles with remarkable power. He had a
precise idea of that which could constitute a general biology that is,
a single physiology and anatomy for the whole of living beings. He
knew the fecundity of the comparative method, and he pointed out its
analogy with the method of analysis in mathematics. Finally, although
he refused to adopt the transformist hypothesis, he had understood the
importance of Lamarck’s work.


[154] Cours, VI, 772.

[155] Cours, IV, 285-7.

[156] Cours, III, 8-239.

[157] Cours, III, 490, 510.

[158] Cours, III, 224-7.

[159] Cours, III, 271-2.

[160] Cours, III, 237.

[161] Cours, III, 326 sq.

[162] Cours, III. 259-65.

[163] Cours, III. 284-5.

[164] Cours, III. 282-546.

[165] Cours, III. 437.

[166] Cours, III. 456-7.

[167] Cours, III, 452.

[168] Cours, III, 444.

[169] Cours, III, 441-2.

[170] Cours, III, 452-3.

[171] Cours, III, 529-31; Pol. pos., I, 594.

[172] Cours, III, 553-6.

[173] Cours, III, 380-1.

[174] Cours, III, 562-3.

[175] Pol. Pos., I, 591.

[176] Pol. Pos., I, 587.

[177] Pol. Pos., I, 587; Cours, III, 419-20.

[178] Pol. Pos., I, 589.

[179] Cours, VI, 766-68.



Psychology has no place in the classification of the fundamental
sciences. In it Sociology immediately succeeds Biology. Use has been
made of this fact in order to reproach Comte with having neglected an
order of most important phenomena. A grave objection has been raised
against his doctrine in general. What are we to think of a philosophy
which, deliberately, omits a part, and, according to many philosophers,
the chief part of reality, the world of consciousness, the spiritual
nature of man?

Presented in this way, the objection rests upon many confused notions
about words and ideas. What do we understand by psychology? If the
word means: “the science of the soul reached through the introspective
method,” we must own that Comte does not admit the possibility of
such a science. But the same objection will also hold good against
the majority of the psychologists of our time. For they do not admit
this possibility any more than Comte, and they have endeavoured to
constitute the science of psychical facts by a different method than
that of introspection, pure and simple. Is psychology defined as “the
science which investigates the laws of feeling, of the intellect and of
moral phenomena in man and in animals?” Then it is inaccurate to say
that there is no psychology for Comte. On the contrary, he thinks that
positive psychology has just been founded by contemporary science of
whose methods he approves. If he did not use the word “psychology,”
he did so in order to avoid confusion. At that moment the word was, so
to speak, the property of the eclectic school. By the “psychological”
method, everyone then understood that of Jouffroy. “Psychology” was
the science founded by Cousin on the analysis of the _ego_. Comte
who opposes these philosophers, did not wish his theory of psychical
phenomena, which differs from theirs, to be called by the same name. It
is this very precaution which has come to be no longer understood, now
that “psychology” does not designate the eclectic doctrine alone, but
any theory whatsoever concerning mental facts.


Comte finds the field occupied by three psychological schools, and he
combats all three, for reasons of method and also of doctrine. He looks
to them to refute each other mutually, and he will only attack what is
common to them all.[180]

The representatives of these three schools are the Ideologists, with
Condillac, from whom they proceed, then the Eclectics, and finally
the philosophers of the Scottish school. Comte sometimes calls the
eclectics the German school, in opposition to the ideologists, who
are the French school, and to the Scottish school, the first of the
three in point of time. But he always speaks sympathetically of
the Scottish school, remembering that, in part, he owes to it his
philosophical education. He also esteems the sincerity and logical
vigour of the ideologist Destutt de Tracy. But, after all, we have
here metaphysicians, as are also the eclectics upon whom he passes a
more severe judgment. By “metaphysicians,” he understands all those
who study phenomena, (in this case psychical phenomena), by means
of a method which is no longer theological, but which has not yet
become positive. In this sense, Locke is a metaphysician, as well as
Condillac and his other successors in the XVIII. century, Hume alone

Comte showers derision upon the method of internal observation which
is practised by the “psychologists.” The sharpness of his language is
at least partially explained by the indignation with which Cousin’s
“charlatanisme” inspired him. This “famous sophist,” in whom he
recognises some of the gifts of an orator, and in particular that of
a mimic, according to him, exercises most unfavourable influence over
the minds of men.[181] He turns them aside from the positive path,
which they are about to enter, to bring them back to metaphysical
dialectics, or to hollow and sonorous rhetoric. And, to crown all, this
“psychology” claims to follow a scientific method! the very method
which has succeeded so well in the natural sciences! It conceives
the idea of practising internal observation, as physics makes use of
external observation. But what is this internal observation? How can
the function of the same organ be to think, and at the same time to
observe that it thinks? We conceive that man should be able to observe
himself if it is a question of the passions which animate him. No
anatomical reason is opposed to this since the organs which are the
seat of the passions, are distinct from those which are used for the
observing functions. But as to observing the intellectual phenomena
in the same way, it is manifestly impossible. In this case, the organ
which is observed being one with the observing organ, how could the
observation take place?

This objection does not only hold against the eclectics, but also
against the Scottish school and the ideologists. We already find it
set forth in a letter from Comte to Valat on the 24th, of September,
1819, when he was perhaps not yet acquainted with Cousin. “With what
should we observe the mind itself, its operations, its activity? We
cannot divide our mind, that is to say, our brain, into two parts, of
which one acts while the other looks on, to see how it goes to work.
The so-called observations made on the human mind, considered in
itself and _a priori_, are pure illusions. All that we call _logic_,
_metaphysics_, _ideology_, is an idle fancy and a dream, when it is not
an absurdity.”[182]

This text, to which we could add many similar ones, allows us to
rectify an erroneous, although a frequent interpretation of Comte’s
thought. He does not deny that we are informed by consciousness of
the existence of psychical phenomena. On the contrary, he expressly
recognises the fact. What he regards as impossible is to study the
activity of thought by means of reflection, that is to discover the
“intellectual laws” by a method of internal observation. In a word,
it is such works as those of Condillac, of the ideologists, of Reid,
etc., which he condemns in their principle. In these works the subject
matter is the theory of knowledge, and not that which is called to-day
_psychology_ proper.

If, instead of seeking specially for the intellectual laws, we wish to
study psychical phenomena in general, internal observation will become
possible in a certain number of cases. But it will not lead to the end
which we wish to reach. It excludes the use of the comparative method,
so fertile and so indispensable in the whole domain of biology. It only
studies man, and even adult and healthy man. What will it tell us of
the child, of the mentally deranged, of the animal?[183] Will it, like
Descartes, go so far as to deny the existence of a psychical life in
animals? Still this life cannot be studied by internal observation. We
must then have recourse to another method.

Strictly speaking, there are only two methods which are suitable for
the science of those phenomena. Either we determine with all possible
precision the various organic conditions on which they depend: this is
the object of what Comte calls phrenological psychology. Or else we
observe directly the products of the intellectual and moral activity,
and this study then belongs to sociology. But, if by this supposed
psychological, method we set aside the consideration of the agent,
that is to say of the organ, and that of the action, that is to say
of the productions of the human faculties, what can remain “unless an
unintelligible logomachy,” or verbal entities which are substituted to
real phenomena? Here then is the study of the most difficult and most
complex functions suspended, as it were, in the air, without any point
at which it touches the simpler and more perfect sciences, “over which,
on the contrary, it is claimed that it should reign majestically.”

Nothing is more opposed to the general order of nature, in which we
always see the more complex and higher phenomena subordinated, so
far as the conditions of their existence are concerned, to the more
simple and commoner ones. As the biological depend upon the inorganic
phenomena, just as, within biology, the phenomena of animal life are
subordinated to those of organic life, so the intellectual and moral
phenomena depend upon the other biological functions. Beyond their own
particular laws, the laws of all the subjacent orders of phenomena also
govern them. Can we study them as if all these laws did not exist? Let
the metaphysician be free to do so. The scientific man who follows the
positive method will proceed on other lines.

A defective method could lead but to false results. Notwithstanding
the differences in their doctrines, ideologists and psychologists
have agreed to place the intellectual functions in the front rank,
and to thrust the affective functions further back. _The mind_ has
become the almost exclusive subject of their speculations. Look
at the titles of their great works since Locke’s “_Essay on the
Human Understanding--Principles of Human Knowledge--On the origin
of our Ideas--On Sensations--Ideology, etc._” The various affective
faculties have been left comparatively in the shade. Now, it is the
contrary which should have been done. Experience shows that the
affections, the passions, the inclinations, play by far the most
important part in the life of animals and even of man. Far from
being the result of intelligence their “spontaneous and independent”
impulse is indispensable for the first awakening, and afterwards for
the development, of the various intellectual faculties. “Against
all evidence man has been represented as essentially reasoning, as
being continually performing unaware a multitude of imperceptible
calculations with scarcely any spontaneity, even from tenderest

Had the study of the psychical functions been made upon animals at
the same time as upon man, this error would not have lasted long. But
philosophers were maintained in it, on the contrary, by metaphysical
and even theological preoccupations. The science of mental functions
had to establish a difference, not only of degree but of kind between
man and animals. It was further required, by reason of another
necessity closely allied to the former, that the soul should be
considered as being immortal. And it was consequently necessary that
the “ego” should present metaphysical characteristics of unity, of
simplicity and of identity. Now, it is by thought that man is most
distinguished from animals. It is therefore from thought that the
characteristics attributed to the soul or to the “ego” have been

But in fact the “ego” is not the absolute unity which the eclectic
psychologists say that it is. It represents the feeling which the
superior living being has, at every moment of the “sympathies” and the
“synergies” which take place within the organism. It is the conscious
expression of what the French call to-day “cénesthésie.” Far from being
directly perceived as Cousin asserts, it is the indirect product of a
quantity of sensations and sentiments, of which the majority are not
perceived in the normal state.[185] It is especially by pathological
facts, (diseases of the personality, double consciousness, lunacy,
etc.), that the attention of the scientific man is drawn to this very
complex phenomenon. It is, moreover, impossible to regard the sentiment
of the “ego” as belonging exclusively to man. Everything leads us to
believe that it also exists in the other higher animals. In any case
there is no metaphysical doctrine to be founded upon this exceedingly
complex and very unstable sentiment. Comte is here speaking as the
successor of Hume and of Cabanis. In the clearest manner he defines
his opposition to Cousin’s doctrine. The latter draws the whole of
philosophy from the analysis of the “_ego_,” Comte draws nothing from

He does not, however, stop to show the superiority of the positive
method over theological or metaphysical method in this matter. Of what
use would it be? The progress of science, in the end, gets the better
of methods which have become antiquated and barren. Metaphysicians
have already passed from the state of “domination” to that of
“protestation.”[186] And when the positive method gets a footing in an
order of phenomena, there is no instance in which, sooner or later, it
has not asserted its mastery over it.


The psychology of Comte is connected with that of Cabanis and of Gall,
without, however, any actual confusion with them. He praises Cabanis
for having been one of the first to form a positive conception of
intellectual and moral phenomena.[187] Cabanis set himself to show that
the phenomena so numerous and so varied which take place in the being
who lives and feels, constantly act and react upon each other. The
psychical phenomena do not escape this law. At every moment, through
the medium of the nervous system, they are subject to the influence
of the state of the whole body, and they make the body feel their own
influence. Cabanis gives a great number of proofs of this, borrowed
from the action of sex, of age, of temperament, of illness, etc.
Moreover, the relation of psychical phenomena to the brain is identical
with that which exists between any function whatever and its organ,
for instance, between digestion and the stomach. According to Cabanis
we are not necessarily materialists because we refuse to explain the
functions of feeling, and the intellectual functions by means of a
special principle. First causes always escape us. Here, as elsewhere,
the scientific man confines himself to the observation of phenomena
and to the search after their laws. On the other hand, if psychology
claimed to start from the analysis of the “ego,” it would leave aside
many phenomena with which our consciousness does not acquaint us, and
which are psychical nevertheless. This is a fruitful remark, which will
be taken up again by Maine de Biran, and which psychologists in our own
time have turned to great account.

Cabanis conceived psychical facts in a positive manner, but he did not
attempt to construct their science. In Comte’s opinion it is Gall who
is the real founder of positive psychology. Whatever may be the value
of his localisations--Comte does not think it an enduring one,--to Gall
at least belongs the merit of having set the problem as it should be
set, and of presenting a precise solution of it. Moreover Gall did not
confine himself to localising the different faculties in different
parts of the brain. His doctrine proper is preceded by an excellent
criticism directed against the psychology usually received in the
XVIII. century.

In order to combat Condillac, Helvetius and the ideologists, Gall takes
his stand upon experience, that is to say upon mental physiology and
pathology, and also upon the observation of animals. As a fact, each
individual comes into the world with tendencies, with predispositions,
with innate faculties. The supposed natural equality of all men is an
ill-founded abstraction, since their propensities and their qualities
often differ very greatly. The paradox of Helvetius who attributes the
moral and intellectual inequality of men to the all powerful influence
of education and of circumstances, cannot be upheld. We cannot, as we
will, make just minds and upright souls. Variety of organs entails
diversity of functions; the difference between men and animals, as
that of men among themselves, is therefore due to anatomical and
and physiological differences. Condillac’s absolute sensualism is
thus refuted by facts. Moreover, if the science of psychology does
not advance it is because distinctions between the faculties of the
soul, (memory, imagination, judgment, etc.) have been arbitrarily
established, from a metaphysical and logical point of view, which does
not correspond to the real speciality of the functions.

Gall lays down the following principle as the ultimate conclusion of
experience, and the fundamental basis of his doctrine of the functions
of the brain:[188] _The dispositions of the individual soul and mind
are innate and their manifestation depends upon the organisation_. We
must not see in this a return to the _a priori_ method. Gall guards
against reverting to the innateness of Descartes and Leibnitz. He
means to speak simply of dispositions, or tendencies, or “faculties,”
for instance, the faculty of love, the feeling of the just and of the
unjust, ambition, the faculty of learning languages, that of comparing
several judgments or ideas, of deducing consequences from them, etc.
“We confine ourselves,” says Gall, “to observation.” We only consider
the faculties of the soul in so far as they become phenomena for us by
means of the material organs. We deny and affirm nothing except that
which can be brought under judgment by experience.

Comte assents to all this. With Gall he condemns the “childish dreams”
of Condillac and of his successors about transformed sensations[189];
with him he admits the speciality of the psychical functions,
corresponding to the speciality of the cerebral organs. But he only
borrows Gall’s principle. He has the strongest objections even to
Gall’s psychology. Undoubtedly at the time when Gall lived, no one
could have done better, and his effort deserves to be admired. But his
errors, although they were inevitable, are errors none the less.

In the first place Gall was wrong in isolating the nervous system too
much from the brain, which is in fact a prolongation of this system,
as is proved by comparative anatomy.[190] Gall considered the systems
of automatic life, of voluntary motion, and of the senses, as entirely
distinct from one another. He only included in the brain those nervous
organs, which, at any rate in the most perfect animals, are the
special organs of consciousness, of the instinctive aptitudes, of the
inclinations, and of the faculties of the mind and soul. To this thesis
Comte opposes the facts assembled by Cabanis, and the solidarity of all
the elements in the living being. The brain can neither be isolated
from the rest of the nervous system, nor the nervous system from the
rest of the organism.

Again, Gall multiplies the faculties in an arbitrary manner. He had
established 27 of them. Spurzheim carried this number to 35, and
others have further increased it. Every phrenologist will soon create
a function, and its organ, whenever it may seem opportune to him,
with as much facility as ideologists and psychologists construct
entities.[191] These creations are nearly always extremely clumsy.
Thus an innate “mathematical aptitude” has been established. Why not
also a chemical, an anatomical aptitude, etc.? And this mathematical
aptitude is manifested by the facility for executing calculations. But
the mathematical mind, far from being an isolated and special aptitude,
presents all the varieties which the human mind can offer by the
different combinations of really elementary faculties. For instance,
some great geometers have especially excelled by the sagacity of their
inventions, others by the extent of their combinations, others again
by the genius of language and the institution of signs and so on. From
this point of view, well drawn up monographies of great scientific
men and great artists would be extremely precious for the progress of

In conclusion, “fundamental phrenological analysis” must be
reconstructed. From Gall, Comte only preserves “the impulsion.” The
greater part of the localisations which Gall thought right to establish
must be abandoned. But he was right in searching for them, for thus he
showed science the path to be followed. Even an erroneous hypothesis
on positive lines is always a service rendered in the beginnings of
a science. But of Gall’s doctrine only two principles henceforth
indisputable subsist. 1st, the innateness of the various fundamental
dispositions, be they affective or intellectual; 2nd, the plurality of
faculties distinct and independent of one another, “although effective
actions usually demand their more or less complex co-operation.” These
two principles are moreover the two correlative and interdependent
aspects of the same conception, which is in accordance with what
“common sense” has always thought of human nature. It corresponds to
the division of the brain, from the anatomical point of view into a
certain number of partial organs, at once independent and depending
upon one another. To establish and to demonstrate the detail of this
correspondence is the object of “phrenological physiology.”


Comte took up the attempt where Gall had failed. But his doctrine
passed through two successive forms. He himself calls attention to the
importance and to the causes of this change.

In 1837, when he was writing the third volume of the _Cours de
philosophie positive_, he still closely followed not only Gall’s
general conception, but also his anatomical and physiological
hypotheses. He then thought that “the doctrine deduced by Gall from the
method represents the true moral and intellectual nature of man and
animals with admirable fidelity.” He approved of the division of the
faculties into the affective and the intellectual, the organs of the
former occupying the whole of the posterior and middle regions of the
brain, and the organs of the others occupying only the anterior region
of the brain, that is to say, a quarter or a sixth of the cephalic
mass, “which at once re-establishes the pre-eminence of the affective
faculties upon a scientific basis.” He even accepted the sub-division
of these faculties into inclinations and feelings, and that of the
intellectual faculties into perceptive faculties and reflective

At this moment, his objections were especially directed against the
excessive multiplication of the faculties, and upon the insufficiency
of the anatomy of the brain which accompanied the distinction of so
many faculties. He thought the anatomists were right in protesting
against this method of the phrenologists who, from the supposed
existence of an irreducible faculty, assume the existence of a
corresponding organ in the brain. But anatomy cannot thus be treated
_a priori_. As the aim of every biological theory is to establish an
exact harmony between anatomical analysis and physiological analysis,
this evidently supposes that they are not exactly modelled upon one
another, and that each one of them has been worked out in a distinct
manner. We must then take up the analysis of the cerebral apparatus
again, provisionally setting aside all idea of function, or at least
only making use of it as an auxiliary in anatomical research.[192]

In 1851, in the first volume of the _Politique positive_, Comte’s
attitude is quite different. In Gall’s psychology he no longer
recognises anything but what is of historical interest. His own
conception of psychology is completely altered. This great change has
been determined by the foundation of sociology.

Undoubtedly Gall’s merit remains very great, for he rendered a
service of the first order in daring to construct a positive theory
of the intellectual and moral functions. Without this theory, which
at first he considered to be exact in its general lines, Comte could
not have undertaken to apply the positive method to social facts,
nor consequently to found his philosophy. So his gratitude to Gall
is almost as great as to Condorcet, “his spiritual father.” But once
sociology is founded, in looking back, Comte understands that Gall’s
“cerebral theory” cannot be maintained. It resembles a provisional
bridge by means of which positive philosophy passed over the interval
which separates biology proper from sociology. Hardly has it reached
the other side when the bridge collapses. It matters little: it
suffices that, thanks to the bridge, Comte should have set foot upon
the sociological ground. He can now return in all security to the
study of the mental functions. “When I had founded sociology,” he says,
“I understood at last that Gall’s genius had been unable to construct
a real physiology of the brain, owing to the lack of a knowledge of
the laws of collective evolution, which alone must furnish at once its
principle and its end. From that time I felt that this task, which
before I expected biologists to accomplish, belonged to the second part
of my own philosophical career.”[193]

The psychology, which, in the _Cours de philosophie positive_, was
essentially biological, and ended simply in sociology, becomes, in the
_Politique positive_ essentially sociological, and is only secondarily
biological. From 1846 Comte became conscious of this new orientation of
his thought, and, during the five years which follow, he never ceases
working at his “cerebral table.”

At first, he no longer demands an anatomical study parallel to the
analysis of the mental functions, and independent of it. He intends,
henceforth, to determine these functions outside all anatomical
research. “The logical principle of this construction consists, for
me, in its subjective institution.” He systematically subordinates
anatomy to physiology, and he henceforth conceives the determination
of the cerebral organs as the complement, and even as the result, of
the positive study of the intellectual and moral functions. At bottom,
“this subject has never allowed of any other method but the subjective,
well or ill employed.” It has been equally used by the disciples of
Gall and by his adversaries. What psychology has lacked up to the
present is, not exact localisations but a sufficiently deep analysis
of intellectual and moral phenomena. And as a matter of fact it was
impossible to treat this problem well, so long as we ignored the laws
of sociology, “which alone is capable of dealing with these noble

Thus, in order to determine the elementary faculties, those which
are irreducible, and which by their co-operation produce the complex
phenomena which are apprehended by consciousness, the method must be
at once subjective and sociological. For the subject which we must
analyse is not the individual consciousness, of which the study is too
inaccessible, and whose life is too short: it is the universal subject,
_humanity_, “the case of the species being alone sufficiently developed
to characterise the various functions.” To this analysis, as a system
of control, will be joined the observation of animals. Indeed, all our
innate dispositions belong also to the other superior animals. If then
the study of man should seem to establish elementary, moral, or even
intellectual functions, of which we see no trace in these animals, by
this alone we should consider that the analysis has been imperfect,
and that complex results have been considered as irreducible.
“_Sociological inspiration controlled by zoological appreciation_: such
is the general principle of the positive theory of the soul.”[195]

By this method Comte obtains 18 irreducible faculties, of which 10 are
representative of the heart, 5 of the mind, and 3 of the character. To
each of these he assigns a special organ. He places the organ of the
heart in the posterior portion of the brain and in the cerebellum, the
organs of the mind in the anterior portion of the brain, and those of
character in the intermediary region. Anatomists are free to verify _a
posteriori_ the separation of the 18 elements which Comte distinguished
_a priori_ in the cerebral apparatus. The existence of these organs,
in any case, appears to him to be sufficiently demonstrated, and
anatomical determination is not very important. We might confine
ourselves to the specification of the number and the situation of the
organs, which we have deduced from the number and relations of the
elementary functions. It would not be necessary for us to know their
shape or their size. The utility of cerebral localisations resembles
that which geometers draw from curves for the better consideration
of equations.[196] The organ is simply the static equivalent of the
function of the soul. It suffices for us to know its existence and
its position so as to situate in it all the relations of the function
itself, so to speak. It plays the part of a schematic drawing.

So, the theory of the brain and of the soul is no longer
“simultaneous.” In fact, the theory of the soul is first constructed by
a subjective and independent method and without any consideration of
the disposition of the cerebral apparatus. This disposition is deduced,
afterwards, from the theory of the soul, once it is established.

Returning then to Gall’s psychology, Comte can explain its defects
to himself. Gall had “oscillated between subjective inspiration and
objective tendencies,” without adopting a systematic plan. There has
not been any very great disadvantage in this empirical fluctuation
in what concerns the theory of the affective functions. Without a
doubt, Gall had established an ill-founded distinction between the
inclinations and the feelings. But he could not be mistaken concerning
the fundamental inclinations of human nature. In default of the true
method, he was supported on this point by common wisdom, and by the
observation of animals. It is on the subject of the intellectual
functions that he is entirely wrong, because here this twofold help
failed him, and nothing, in this case, filled the place of the true
method which was then unknown. In order to discover the static and
dynamic laws of the intellect, it was necessary to abandon the
biological point of view. To Gall’s theory Comte then substitutes a new
classification of the intellectual functions. He distinguishes between
the faculties of conception and the faculties of expression. He
indicates the relations of the intellectual functions proper with the
affective functions and the functions of motion. He makes us apprehend
the very intimate relations which connect desire and will. Finally, to
determine the fundamental intellectual functions, he takes into account
the historical evolution of the human species.

It does not enter into the purpose of this work to set forth Comte’s
theory in detail, and to examine the eighteen irreducible faculties
of the cerebral table one by one. But the systematic character of
the doctrine does not prevent us from taking up a certain number of
interesting and deep psychological views in it. To limit ourselves to
a few examples, Comte drew imitation near to habit, and he brought
habit itself back “to the great cosmological law of persistence,”
which, in the vital order is modified by the intermittance of
phenomena.[197] He remarked that attention is never produced without an
affective phenomenon upon which it depends.[198] He also indicated the
distinction between strong states and weak states, and the “reduction”
of images by actual perceptions. “If our images could offer as much
intensity, he says, as our external sensations, our mental state would
not allow of any consistency. The appreciation of what is without would
be troubled by this conflict with what is within....” Hence a theory of
hallucination and insanity.[199]

The theory of perception which Comte opposes to the abstract sensualism
of the ideologists is allied to his general conception of the relations
between the subject and the object. Our internal operations are never
anything but the direct or indirect prolongation of our external
impressions. But “reciprocally, the latter are always complicated
by the others, even in the most elementary cases.” The sensation,
which appears simple, is already the result of a very complex
combination.[200] For no sensations are really perceived except after
reiterated impressions. If the mind is ever passive, it can only be the
first time. For the second, it is already prepared by the preceding
one, combined with the whole of previous acquisitions. And Comte
insists upon “the habitual participation of reasoning in the operations
which are attributed to sensation alone.” The activity belonging to the
mind enters into all its actions, even the smallest of them.

Mental pathology scarcely exists, owing to the lack of the scientific
spirit among specialists for the diseases of the mind. Still if
Broussais’ principle be true, that is to say, if morbid phenomena are
produced according to the same laws which govern normal phenomena,
what advantage might not scientific men derive from the observation of
mental diseases? They are privileged cases which nature supplies for
them, real experiments, where that which is inseparable in the normal
state appears disassociated. What light might be thrown by this means
upon many physiological and even anatomical questions, in particular
in what concerns the sentiment of the _ego_ (diseases of personality,
aboulia, etc.), and the faculties of expression, isolated from the
faculties of conception (diseases of speech).

Animal psychology would not be less instructive. All the affective
and intellectual faculties are common to men and higher animals, save
perhaps the highest intellectual aptitudes. Even this exception is
a doubtful one, if without prejudice we compare the actions of the
highest animals with those of the least developed savages. We should
study the habits and the mind of wild animals. We should observe the
changes which are produced in them by domestication. Here again almost
everything has to be done afresh.[201]


In spite of whatever may have been said, Comte then has a psychology.
And, what is more, this psychology is in a sense not far removed
from that of the Scottish school and of the Eclectics although he
so much fought against their methods. The points of contact are
numerous and important. In both doctrines the psychical phenomena are
referred to faculties and these are represented as “dispositions,”
innate “properties.” In both, the essential psychological problem
appears to be the determination of the number and the relations of
these faculties, whose action variously combined produces psychical
phenomena: before everything, it is a question of not considering as
an elementary faculty that which as a matter of fact results from the
combination of several faculties, or inversely. Finally in both, it is
claimed to establish this doctrine of the innate faculties upon the
observation of human nature.

Comte himself had seen that, at any rate in the case of Condillac’s
criticism, he was in accordance with the eclectics. On this point he
only refused to grant them originality. According to him they merely
popularised, in obscure and emphatic declamations, what physiologists
like Charles Bonnet, Cabanis, and chiefly Gall and Spurzheim had long
before stated on this subject in a far clearer and especially in a far
more exact manner. For his part Garnier, the author of the _Traité
des Facultés de l’âme_ had clearly seen the relations of eclecticism
to Gall’s doctrine, and had studied them in a work entitled _De la
Phrénologie et de la Psychologie comparées_ which appeared in 1839.

Why then does Comte attack the eclectics with such persistence and
such violence, if, indeed, the results of his psychology are not very
far removed from what they say?--It is because in reality, beneath the
apparent resemblance of doctrine, a difference of method as serious
as can be conceived is concealed. For Cousin, and especially for the
Cousin we know before 1830, psychology is not an end in itself. It
is a means which he uses to rise to the study of being in itself and
of the Absolute. The “ego” which he analyses is independent of the
organism. This is what Comte condemns as a retrogression. “Some men,
not recognizing the present and irrevocable direction of the human
mind, have endeavoured for ten years to transplant German metaphysics
into our midst, and to constitute, _under the name of psychology_,
a so-called science entirely independent of physiology, superior
to it, and to which should exclusively belong the study of moral
phenomena.”[202] And this attempt at reaction takes place at the very
moment when the works of Cabanis and of Gall have brought this study
upon the positive path!

It is needless to say that, in Comte’s system, psychical phenomena are
subordinated, as far as their conditions of existence are concerned,
to all the orders of more general natural phenomena. Comte should then
have followed Cabanis and Gall, as a matter of course. But he thought
that to establish the science of the “transcendent functions,” the
biological point of view was insufficient. In this case anatomical
considerations are only a kind of reduplication and transcription
of physiological considerations. As Maine de Biran said, in terms
curiously like Comte’s, “a distinction of places assigned to the
exercise of each faculty must necessarily be itself referred to another
pre-established division of the faculties.... Hypothesis thus grafted
upon hypothesis of a different order would not much contribute to throw
light upon the analysis of our intellectual functions.”[203] Only,
instead of appealing, like Maine de Biran, to reflection, Comte rises
from the biological to the sociological point of view He recognises
that the subjective method alone is suitable for the science of
psychical phenomena, but, in place of the _metaphysical subjective
method_, by means of which the “_ego_” is deluded into the belief that
it analyses its operations, and grasps its own activity, he will make
use of the _positive subjective method_. The subject which he will
analyse will be the human mind, or better, the human soul considered
in its continuous evolution, that is to say in its religions, in its
sciences, in its philosophy, in its language and in its art. Here is
matter for a psychology which will no longer be chimerical, but real,
which will be positive, in a word, like the biology upon which it
depends and of which it is the fulfilment.

If we leave aside the conception of the “faculties” which Comte
accepted rather hastily at the hands of the Scottish school and of
Gall, and the “cerebral table” which he believed to be once for all
constructed, his psychology contained more than one important and
fertile seed. To the eclectic psychology, which is not positive,
Comte substituted two sciences which are such. In the first place,
an experimental science of the psychical phenomena studied in their
relation to their organic conditions: it is the physiological
psychology of which no one to-day questions the legitimacy. Then,
by the introduction of the sociological point of view, Comte opened
the way to a whole series of studies which begin to be developed,
(social psychology, ethnical psychology, psychology of the masses,
etc). It is often said that sociological laws have their foundation in
psychological laws. But the reverse is no less true. The psychological
laws, at least the mental and moral laws, are, at the same time,
sociological laws, since they are only revealed in the study of the
intellectual history of the human species. “We must not explain
humanity by man, but man by humanity.” To the “Τγνῶθι σεαυτόν” of
ancient psychology, the positive method substitutes this precept: “To
know yourself, know history.” Man only becomes conscious of himself,
when he becomes aware of his place in the evolution of Humanity.


[180] Correspondance de Comte, et de John Stuart Mill, p. 162 (27
février 1843.) p. 365 (21 oct. 1844).

[181] Pol. pos., IV, Appendix, p. 218.

[182] Lettres à Valat, p. 89-91.

[183] Cours, III. 614-16.

[184] Cours, III, 618-19.

[185] Cours, III, 601-2; 621-22.

[186] Cours, III, 611.

[187] Lettres à Valat, p. 134 (8 septembre 1824).

[188] Cours, III, 631-2.--Gall, Anatomie and physiologie du système
nerveux, Paris 1810, II, 6-7.

[189] Cours, III, 626-7.

[190] Cours, III, 666-8.

[191] Cours, III, 654-5.

[192] Cours, III, 15-26.

[193] Pol. pos., I, 729.

[194] Pol. pos., I, 671-2.

[195] Pol. pos., I, 672-3.

[196] Pol. pos., I, 731-2.

[197] Cours, III, 596-8; Pol. pos. I, 598-9.

[198] Pol. pos. I, 727.

[199] Pol. pos. II, 383.

[200] Pol. pos. I, 712-14.

[201] Cours, III, 660.

[202] Pol. pos., IV, Appendice, p. 218.

[203] Maine de Biran, _œuvres inédites_ (éd. Cousin), II, 55-58.





Of the philosophers who flourished before the rise of the positive
doctrine, the greater number assumed as a postulate in the comparative
study of man and animals, that there was between them a difference of
nature, and not merely one of degree. Whatever fundamental difference
be attributed to reason, language, moral sense, religion, etc., the
“human kingdom” is conceived for the most part as superior to the
animal kingdom and as clearly separated from it. Taking their stand
upon an analysis of the present state of the human conscience, those
philosophers recognise an order of “moral realities,” to which animals
have no access. Thus they give to the science of Man a privileged
object which separates it from the group of the natural sciences.

The positive method admits neither this postulate, nor the consequences
which are drawn from it. In general this method is characterised by the
substitution of the objective to the anthropocentric point of view, and
also by the substitution of observation to imagination. It does not
suddenly change its orientation when it comes to the study of man. The
positive method is not therefore concerned with knowing what idea man
forms of himself to-day and of his relations with other living beings.
Into this idea enter elements of religious and metaphysical origin,
whose presence is explained by historical reasons. The question is to
observe the nature of man in his _real_ relations with other beings.
Man, so considered, at once takes his place again at the top of the
zoological scale.

The problem will then be set in the following terms: Given that man is
included in the animal series, of which he is the highest term, but
still a term, to account for the differences which to-day place him
so high above the term immediately below him. This is taking the very
reverse attitude of nearly all the philosophers, whose main difficulty
is to give an account of the likenesses which exist between man and
animals. It is the position which Darwin will take in his _Descent of

Comte takes his stand upon two postulates. The first affirms the
fundamental identity of the essential functions in man and animals.
Since the whole of the moral and intellectual functions constitutes the
necessary complement of animal life properly so-called, it would be
difficult to conceive that all those functions which are fundamental
should not, by this very fact be “common, at various degrees, to
all the higher animals, and perhaps even to the entire group of the
vertebrata.”[204] The animal functions are as a blossoming out of
organic life, destined in the first place to make this life more
perfect and more complex: in the same way, the intellectual and moral
functions are, originally, as it were, another blossoming out of animal
life, and must consequently be found, at least as a possibility,
wherever animal life has reached a certain degree of development.

This postulate, according to Comte, is sufficiently established
by biology, by means of the comparative method. All the principal
characteristics which pride and ignorance set up as absolute privileges
of our species, also appear, more or less rudimentary, in the majority
of the higher animals.[205] The mistake was made because metaphysical
ideology and psychology place intelligence foremost in the study of
psychical functions. Intelligence indeed puts to-day an immense
distance between man and animals. But a more accurate psychology
recognises that the most energetic, the most “fundamental” of mental
functions are the affective functions, since, in default of the
impulse given by them, intelligence itself would not be developed. The
analogy between man and the animals at once appears: for the affective
functions are common to them both. It is the same with the intellectual
functions, when allowance is made for the development they have assumed
in man. In a word, if the dynamical superiority of the human species
over the other species is strong, its statical superiority is weak.
The problem consists in finding how, to such an apparently unimportant
difference in the organs, such a considerable difference in the
functions corresponds.[206]

Here comes in the second postulate: “The fundamental constitution of
man is invariable.” _Evolution but not transformation_: this great
principle, transmitted by biology to sociology, dominates the latter
science entirely. In the course of the long history which leads
humanity from savage animality to positive civilisation,[207] nothing
absolutely new appears. Everything which manifests itself little by
little, pre-existed in the nature of man--in a potential state it is
true; and this state would perhaps never have ceased if a number of
favourable conditions had not occurred together.

The mental functions, which are indispensable to organic and to
animal life properly so called, quickly attained the degree of
development without which the species would have disappeared. On
the contrary, the highest “fundamental dispositions” of our nature
remained latent for a long time, and only manifested themselves by
degrees. But if their development has been slow, it is, in return,
continuous and indefinite. And these dispositions tend to preponderate,
although the “inversion” of the primitive economy can never become
complete. Humanity emerges progressively from animality. The highest
civilization is then, at bottom, entirely in conformity with nature:
for it is only the manifestation more and more marked of the most
characteristic properties of our species. In this sense, our social
solution must be understood “as the extreme term of a progression
continued uninterruptedly throughout the whole living kingdom from the
most simple forms of vegetable life, the predominance of the organic
functions becoming less and less exclusive, in order in the first place
to make room for the predominance of the animal functions properly so
called, and finally for that of the intellectual and moral functions,
whose development is the very definition of humanity.”[208]

Thus, the chain of being is uninterrupted. But Comte, as we know,
did not accept Lamarck’s hypothesis. He believed in the fixity of
species. Undoubtedly he admits in a measure which science will some
day fix, acquisitions slowly incorporated into organisms by heredity.
But he does not think that they will go so far as to transform
species. The whole evolution of man must then be explained by its
original constitution. Indeed, Comte here maintains, as everywhere
in nature, the perfect correspondence between the statical and the
dynamical point of view. The case of man cannot be an exception to this
encyclopædic law, which is verified in all the orders of phenomena from
the most simple to the most complex. As the whole line of the curve
corresponds to the equation, so the whole development of humanity must
correspond to the “fundamental nature” of man. On this condition alone
is sociology possible as a science. Now positive sociology exists:
therefore the postulate is justified.


The theory of the relation between man and animals thus finds itself
deduced from the general principles of positive philosophy. But it can
also be verified _a posteriori_, through the criticism of the arguments
of the adverse theory by means of observation and experience.

The first of these arguments and the one which in general makes the
greatest impression, contrasts the instinct of animals with the
intelligence of man. It represents instinct as blind and fatal, and
intelligence as free and progressive. But this antithesis cannot
withstand the examination of facts. Instinct is called too hastily
a “fatal tendency of animals to the mechanical execution of actions
which are uniformly determined by corresponding circumstances, and not
requiring nor even admitting of any education properly so-called.” This
fatal tendency does not exist. It is a gratuitous supposition, perhaps
a remnant of the Cartesian theory concerning the automatism of animals.
Georges Leroy, in his charming _Lettres sur les animaux_, has shown
that in the mammals and in the birds of our districts, the fixity in
the construction of habitations, in the habits of hunting, in the mode
of migration, etc., only existed for naturalists who never left their
study, or for inattentive observers.[209]

Undoubtedly, habits may become hereditary. But here we only have a
phenomenon common to men and animals, and those habits are modified
if the circumstances which have produced them come to change.
It is in this sense alone that we can admit M. de Blainville’s
formula: “L’instinct est la raison fixée, la raison est l’instinct
mobile.” We must especially understand that instinct is not opposed
to intelligence. What ought we really to indicate by instinct? A
spontaneous impulse in a direction determined, independently of any
foreign influence.” But in this sense, the word applies to the activity
of any faculty whatever, to the intellectual faculties as well as to
the others. There is no contrast between instinct and intelligence.
We say of a child that he has the “instinct” of music, of drawing, of
calculation, etc. In this sense man has certainly as many and more
instincts than animals. If, on the other hand, we call intelligence the
faculty of modifying our conduct according to the circumstances of each
case, animals are, like man, more or less intelligent and reasonable.
Otherwise they would be doomed to disappear very quickly.

But animals have no language! Another error in observation. The higher
animals have a certain degree of language corresponding to the nature
and to the extent of their relations. This language is no more fixed
than the so-called instincts. The language of each social species is
characterised by an arrest of development precisely like the society
which this species tended to found. The limits of its progress, beyond
which indeed it does not go, result from the whole of the obstacles
which it encounters, in consequence of the competition with the other
species, and particularly with the human species, without naming those
limits which the imperfection of organs may create.[210]

Many animals are capable of experiencing needs without regard to a
useful purpose. For instance, they like to exercise their animal
functions for the pleasure of doing so, that is to say, to play. Some
among them experience æsthetic impressions. They are also, without
the slightest doubt, capable of altruistic feelings. Sometimes these
feelings show themselves in the shape of domestic affection, and tend
to make a solitary life unbearable to the individual. Family life then
becomes permanent. Sometimes an animal devotes itself to the service of
a superior race. Do we know to what lengths the progress of altruism
would go in certain animal species, if their intelligence could have
been more developed, and if their surroundings had allowed of their
more extensive social progress?[211]

Finally, animals even possess a rudiment of religion, if by this we
understand an endeavour to interpret the phenomena which strike them.
When sufficiently developed to manifest, where there is sufficient
leisure, a certain speculative activity, they reach spontaneously,
in the same way as we do ourselves, a kind of low fetichism, which
consists in supposing that external bodies are animated by will and
by passions.[212] “A child, a savage, a dog, a monkey, seeing a watch
for the first time, will see in it a kind of animal.” But Comte at
once adds that the chief difference between man and animals lies in
the impossibility for the latter to emerge from the lowest degree of
fetichism, and to rise to a real religion. No animal society “combines
sociability with intelligence sufficiently ever to constitute a
religious association.”[213] Comte would probably have approved of M.
de. Quatrefages’ definition in which he calls man a religious animal.
The decisive step was taken on the day when man’s intellect passed from
fetichism to astrolatry.[214] That “great creation of the gods” was the
first trial in purely speculative activity made by his mind. The whole
subsequent development of humanity arose from this.

Thus, the arguments which claim to establish an insuperable distance
between man and animals, generally rest upon imperfectly observed
facts. On the contrary, in animals, we find the more or less visible
rudiments of everything which has evolved so magnificently in humanity.
We cannot describe in detail how and why this species has become, so
to speak, incomparable and incommensurable with the others. It must
have got the upperhand, not in virtue of this and that particular
advantage, (although an important one), such as the upright position or
the possession of a hand, but on account of the co-operation of many
favourable conditions, of which the totality allowed, so to speak, of
an almost indefinite development. From a certain moment, there was a
definite stoppage in the social evolution of the other species, and
the progress of the human species was decisive. We cannot estimate the
initial influence of the various conditions according to the present
development of the several human faculties, for this development is
especially due to the social life of which those conditions allowed.
Each superiority of man may have been very little defined originally.
Time, the action of the other higher functions, exercise, heredity
have played their part here. The “human attributes” must then have
grown constantly, ever consolidating the “ascendency” which they had
determined. At the same time the corresponding attributes must have
diminished in the rival species, as they were brought to a standstill
in their development. Undoubtedly, by degrees, the interval has widened
until it has become a gap so broad and so deep as to make it impossible
to imagine how it could ever have been crossed. But biology and
sociology help us to judge better. We must see this, in some detail, in
connection with the important question of language.


The theory of language, during the eighteenth century, had been one of
the favourite subjects of philosophical speculation; in general, it
had proceeded in this matter, by way of abstract and logical analysis.
It chiefly saw in language a product of the intellectual faculties of
man. But, already, from the second half of the century, this conception
had been attacked in Germany by the school which began the reaction
against the “philosophers,” and in which the most illustrious name
is that of Herder. In France the traditionalist school felt that here
one of the weak points of the philosophy of the eighteenth century
was being touched. It insisted upon the characters of language which
this philosophy did not explain. Comte knew the works of this school,
and, in particular, those of M. de Bonald, whom he calls an “energetic
thinker.”[215] But his method differs from theirs, and he only agrees
with them in the critical part of their doctrine.

If the theory of language, says Comte, is encumbered with insoluble
questions, the fault lies in the method made use of by the
metaphysicians. They have only considered man’s language, in its state
of highest complication. They have attributed excessive importance to
the signs of articulate human language, they have exaggerated the part
played by reflection, and misunderstood that of spontaneity. Condillac
especially and his school attributed far too much importance to the
“disponibilité” of signs.[216] The scientific method will not isolate
humanity from the other species which it dominates. It will connect
the positive study of language with biology and with sociology: with
biology more particularly for the question of origin; with sociology
in so far as the development of language depends upon the reaction of
social life upon domestic life.

The starting-point of the theory is a fact of experience. Every
strong emotion is accompanied by the impulse to manifest it, and
this expression reacts upon the emotion itself. Many species exhibit
this.[217] Singing and mimicking, or rather cries and gestures, are
often used by them, as by man, not only to relieve the passions,
but to excite them more. For instance, anger in carnivorous animals
grows to exasperation, through the external signs which the animal
gives of it. Comte is in accordance with the observations of Bell
and of Gratiolet. The movements which co-operate in expression, he
says, coincide in general with those which are made use of in action.
Moreover, in the human species, for the most part, the individual
expresses his affections in order to satisfy them better, by inducing
his fellow-creatures to second him. It is an appeal to sympathy. If
then the expression results from the feeling, it tends, conversely
to develop and to consolidate it. The origin of language is thus
affective, that is to say _æsthetic_, since “we only express ourselves
after having felt strongly.” Language therefore translates feelings
before thoughts, and this is what the followers of the ideologist
theory did not see. Even to-day, in our most developed language, we can
still trace this origin. It reveals itself by the musical accent of the
slightest speech. Expression is always inspired and maintained by some
affection, even in cases where it is apparently limited to a simple
scientific or technical exposition. The affective source of language,
dissimulated as it is by the intellectual operations of which it is the
instrument, reveals itself in the inflexions of the voice.

Language is made up of signs. According to what has just been said,
natural signs are spontaneously produced by the play of the emotions.
As a voluntary manifestation language is always artificial. The
involuntary signs have been gradually divided into their component
parts and simplified, while remaining intelligible. All artificial
signs, says Comte, even in our species, spring from a voluntary
“imitation” of the natural signs which are spontaneously produced. In
this way both the formation and the interpretation of these signs are

Hobbes used to define a sign as a constant relation between two
phenomena, seen by the subject. The two phenomena are here a state
of consciousness and a motion. Sometimes the state of consciousness
determines the motion, sometimes the motion causes the reappearance
of the state of consciousness. The institution of a system of signs
is a means of “connecting the within with the without.” Language is
thus for man a means of making the series of his intellectual states
participate in the regularity which characterises external order. The
logical function of language therefore springs from its very essence
in which the phenomena of the objective world and the phenomena
which belong to the feeling and thinking subject are joined. It is
equivalent to a system for rendering the mental life objective.[219]
Being thus made objective, these phenomena can henceforth be preserved
and communicated, without man or the animals having had each an end
in view, since the institution of the first signs is involuntary, and
arises from “the combination between the muscular and nervous systems.”
External order here acts as a regulator, even before thought has
grasped it.

The signs which are spontaneously produced are not all transformed into
voluntary signs. Those which appeal to sight or to hearing present
special advantages for this use, and as a matter of fact, the two
classes of signs are concurrently used by the higher animals. Gestures
and cries are the origin of what later becomes the system of artificial
signs. By degrees, the communication of emotions gives way to the
expression of thoughts. Among very civilised populations it even came
to be believed that song had come from speech. But, on the contrary,
speech came from song. To be convinced of this a glance at the animal
world is sufficient.

Up to this point the theory of language has been biological, and the
acquired facts can thus be summed up: 1, Man does not express his
thought in order to communicate it, but he communicates because he
expresses it. 2, What is first expressed is emotion, not thought.
By degrees language becomes intellectualized, as the mental life
itself. 3, Expression is spontaneous and primary. It arises from the
relation between the nervous and muscular systems. In the progressive
transformation where, from being involuntary, the signs gradually
become voluntary, they are at once causes and effects.

The essential condition for this transformation to take place is
social life. Undoubtedly, language appears very quickly, as soon as
individuals of the same species find themselves in constant relations
with one another. Each one learns to attribute the character of signs
to the movements which accompany his emotions. Similar beings in whom
the same phenomena take place, become equally capable of interpreting
those signs. From this moment a language is born; and this is true for
the animal species as for man. But human evolution follows an evolution
which is peculiar to itself, and which determines that of language. Our
language would not have far exceeded the period in which it especially
expresses emotions, if human societies had remained purely domestic
groupings, without any other organisation than that of the family. “The
institution of human language,” says Comte, “appears, in sociology, as
the chief continuous instrument of the necessary reaction of political
upon domestic life.”[220]

Henceforth we can picture to ourselves, in its broad outlines, the
prehistoric evolution of language. Originally it comprised gestures
and cries. Gestures predominated in the first place as being more
immediately expressive. By degrees they took a second place. As the
natural signs became divided up so as to become artificial, the
superiority of vocal signs appeared. Among other reasons it was due
to the “spontaneous correspondence” between the voice and hearing
which allows everyone to develop his own education. We hear young
children practising for long hours, playing with the articulate sounds
which they begin to emit. From this more or less organised singing,
still a melody of vocal signs, poetry was born. Finally from poetry,
much later, springs, what is commonly called prose, that is, the
use of non-rhythmic phrases. Three great evolutions in the history
of humanity: how many centuries have not been required for their

Writing is to drawing what speaking is to singing. Originally it
was not an artifice invented to help vocal language. Here again the
ideological theory aggravates the part played by reflection. Man was
obeying an instinct when by drawing he reproduced the familiar objects
which met his gaze, occupied his imagination, and caused his strongest
and most frequent emotions. Gradually, these spontaneous endeavours
at imitation assumed the character of signs, became divided up and
simplified, and finally were co-ordinated with vocal sounds which
themselves had gone through a separate evolution.

Thus language and art have a common origin, which is the _æsthetic_,
that is to say, the affective expression. Comte does not separate these
two terms. He takes the word “æsthetic” at once in its etymological
and in its modern sense. Our movements, at first involuntary, then
voluntary, translate our impressions and react upon them, because they
spring from them; that is the humble source from which everything else
is derived. With animals it only gives rise to inarticulate vocal
sounds, and to a more or less expressive mimicry. In man, it is the
principle of language and of art. The latter begins by being a simple
imitation. Then the reproduction of objects is perfected. It becomes
more faithful “by bringing out better the chief features which were
at first obscured by an empirical mixture.” “Idealisation” consists
in this. Finally “expression” properly so called is developed, and

Thus, if we call language the whole of the means suitable for the
transmission beyond ourselves of our various impressions, this whole
forms a system in which the most customary and least expressive
portion, language, was at first mingled with the portion which bears
the name of art, taking art in its most primitive elements: song and
drawing. These two parts became differentiated in evolution. Our social
requirements have continually increased the use and extension of the
vocal and visual signs which are made use of in active life and in
speculative thought. These signs have become simpler and simpler and
even abstract: to such an extent that their origin ended by being
considered the result of a convention.[222]

The primitive parentage of language and of art accounts for many
facts which current theories do not explain. For instance, language
is not only created but preserved by the people. Grammarians, “even
more absurd than logicians,”[223] in general have understood nothing
about it. Their claim to authority is amusing. But it is to popular
spontaneity, at once conservative and progressive, that our languages
owe their admirable rectitude. The basis of each language collects
what is essential and universal in the æsthetic evolution of humanity.
Hence the magic charm of poetry, the most ancient of all the arts.
Words possess a power of evoking images from which the artist draws
inexhaustible effects. Often during the long childhood of human reason
even the power of words must have seemed to be supernatural: _Nomina
Numina_. By dint of considering language as ideologists and logicians,
we have forgotten that its nature is emotional and æsthetic. However,
even to-day the mysterious power of words has not disappeared. How
great is the action of forms of prayer on tender souls, even when faith
has deserted them! Next to action itself, language is the most powerful
of the exciting causes of feeling, and religions are well aware of
this fact. They know how to make use of it to conquer or to retain


The logical function of language is the only one which has been
studied by philosophers; that is, by the “ontologists” and the
“metaphysicians.” But even their study has remained incomplete.
Condillac and his school have solely considered the language which
lends itself to logical analysis. Consequently, they only saw a single
kind of combination which may be called the logic of signs. But, in
reality, the logic of signs rests upon the logic of images, and this
one on the logic of feelings. The so-called logicians thus conceive
a narrow and false idea of our intellectual mechanism, when they
concentrate all their attention “upon the most voluntary, but the least
powerful of the three essential modes of which the mental combination

The logic of feelings is the art “of facilitating the combination
of notions according to the connection between the corresponding
emotions.” It is the most instinctive: it is the source of all the
great inspirations of our intelligence. We can think nothing which
contradicts it, or even which is not implied in it. But it has two
grave defects. Its elements are not precise enough, and it is not at
our disposal. It only operates under certain given conditions, and
the appearance of these conditions does not rest with us. We see it
at work, for instance, among animals, who occasionally provoke our
admiration for the marvels suggested to them by this logic which is
so closely bound up with the emotions. The logic of images, though
less strong, is more free and precise than the logic of feelings.
Nevertheless if we only had these two we should still be incapable
of realising combinations conceived and prepared by us. This office
belongs to the logic of signs. For to us almost entirely belongs the
disposal of these signs, and it is this which has allowed of the
development of abstract language and of the sciences.

But we must not separate this last logic from the two others. The
laws of our nature always cause the logical use of feelings and
images to prevail over that of signs. Undoubtedly, the union between
signs and thoughts may become direct, and moreover in the case of
abstract notions, it could not be otherwise. Thus our inner world
is artificially united to the outer world. We have an abstract and
symbolical representation of it, without going through the feelings, or
even, strictly speaking, through the images. But this relation has far
less consistency than the one which is established by the involuntary
intervention of images and of feelings. As the abstract sign has its
origin in the sign appreciated by the senses, which itself proceeds
from the relation of the muscular system with the nervous system; so,
the relations between signs have their origin in the relations between
images, and these, in their turn, proceed from the relations between

The facility with which we manipulate signs hides this truth from us:
it is none the less certain that these signs are united to our thoughts
in a far less intimate and less spontaneous manner than the feelings
and even the images.

The positive theory further allows us, not indeed to solve, but to
adjourn the question of a universal language. Indeed are we concerned
with a purely scientific language? Mathematical analysis in part
fulfils this _desideratum_. It allows us to express the laws of the
simplest phenomena by symbols which are at everyone’s disposal. But if
it is a question of a complete language, destined to be in common use
among all men, who does not see that this conception is incompatible
with the present state of humanity? How could we establish a universal
language, while allowing the prevalence of “divergent beliefs and of
hostile customs.”[225] The unification of tongues will arise from the
unification of peoples. When the latter has been realised, under the
action of positive philosophy, the other will follow as a necessary

Moreover, from the present time, a universal language exists! It
is Art, “the only form of language which is universally understood
at once in the whole of our species.”[226] Truly this universal
language has its dialects. Comte’s remark is none the less strikingly
accurate. The masterpieces of Greek sculpture, Rembrandt’s paintings,
Beethoven’s symphonies are accessible to millions of human beings who
have never known a word of Greek, of Dutch, or of German. To teach
all children music and drawing, as Comte requires in his positivist
plan of education, is not to make them participate in the luxury
of “accomplishments.” It is placing within their reach works which
appeal to the whole of humanity; it is giving them a stronger sense
of the solidarity which is the essential characteristic of human
society; finally it is teaching them the universal language of which
they possess the instinctive rudiments, and whence have sprung the
very languages which to-day appear as frigid systems of symbols and
graphic representations. Is it not fair to allow them the enjoyment of
a patrimony as ancient perhaps as humanity herself? Somewhere, Comte
compares language to property.[227] Like it, language has facilitated
acquisitions and preserved social wealth. But it has an advantage over
property, that of admitting of equal possession by all at the same
time. Art presents this advantage no less than language. Works of art
are the common property of the whole of humanity and no one should be
deprived of that inheritance.


[204] Cours, III. 661.

[205] Pol. pos., I, 602.

[206] Pol. Pos., I. 638-9.

[207] Cours, I. 81.

[208] Cours, IV, 498-500.

[209] Cours, III, 624-5.

[210] Pol. pos. II, 229-30.

[211] Pol. pos. I, 613-4.

[212] Cours, V. 30.

[213] Pol. pos. II, 348-9.

[214] Cours, V, 100-1.

[215] Cours, III, 563.

[216] Pol. Pos. II, 248-52.

[217] Pol. Pos. I, 722-3.

[218] Pol. Pos. II, 226.

[219] Pol. Pos. II, 220-1.

[220] Pol. Pos. II, 217.

[221] Pol. pos. I, 288-9.

[222] Pol. pos., II, 250-1.

[223] Pol. pos., II, 254-6.

[224] Pol. pos., II, 240-1.

[225] Pol. pos., II, 260-2.

[226] Pol. pos., II, 237.

[227] Pol. pos., II, 254-6.



Social science had at first been called social physics by Comte. Later
on he invented the name of “sociology”[228] for it. It stands at the
summit of the encyclopædic ladder of the sciences. Accordingly, it
offers certain characteristics which the other sciences do not present.

Undoubtedly, by the definition of its object and by its method, it is
perfectly homogeneous with the rest of positive knowledge. Sociology
studies the laws of social phenomena as mathematics inquires into the
laws of geometrical phenomena. In this sense, between these extreme
sciences there are no other differences than those which arise from
the diversity of the phenomena which are studied. But mathematics, and
the other fundamental sciences, excepting sociology, are distinctly
preliminary. Sociology is final. Each of the preliminary sciences
should be cultivated only in the measure necessary in order that the
following one may in turn assume the positive form. Social science,
which is not preparatory to any other, establishes the principles
of morals and of politics. It is, as has been seen, the key-stone
of positive philosophy. It is in it, and through it, that positive
philosophy acquires the universality which hitherto it had lacked.

Finally, there is a last difference which Comte likes to think he is
successfully removing; the other sciences are more or less formed;
everything has to be done for social science. Not that many trials have
not been attempted. Comte does not ignore them, and he prides himself
upon doing justice to his precursors. He goes back to Aristotle, in
whom he admires an incomparable scientific and philosophical genius.
In him he sees the inventor of social statics. His _Politics_ are
still read with profit.[229] But Aristotle could have no idea of a
sociology, and in particular of positive social dynamics. For that he
lacked (without speaking of the fundamental sciences which excepting
mathematics were yet to be born), a sufficiently wide and varied
knowledge of history and the idea of progress.

Montesquieu was in advance of his time, when, by the insight of his
genius, he generalised the idea of natural law so as to bring under
it the political, judicial, economical, and, generally speaking, all
social phenomena. He really conceives the idea of social science. But
the execution did not respond to the conception. How could Montesquieu
have succeeded, since he was still without two indispensable elements:
in the first place, the positive science of man from the biological
point of view, and then the idea of progress, a vital necessity for
every positive philosophy of history? Having failed to apprehend the
fundamental laws of social dynamics, Montesquieu made too much use
of the comparative method. Consequently, he took secondary laws for
essential laws, such as the laws relating to the influence of climate.
In the same way he has exaggerated the importance of various forms of
political constitution.[230]

Condorcet came after Montesquieu and Turgot, and had been formed in the
school of d’Alembert. He came nearer than anyone to the social science
which was to be founded. He understood admirably that the evolution of
the human race, considered as a single being, is subject to laws. He
brought the idea of progress into full daylight. But, nevertheless,
positive sociology does not owe to him its origin. He shared the
prejudice of his time on the subject of the indefinite perfectibility
of man; this prejudice was only to disappear before the positive
science of intellectual and moral man. Moreover, in the heat of the
revolutionary conflict, he misunderstood the concrete reality of the
progress, whose abstract necessity he had so well realised. By painting
the centuries preceding the XVIII. century, in the darkest colours, he
made the progressive evolution of humanity a kind of miracle, “doubly
inadmissible in a doctrine which does not imply a Providence.”[231]

But soon Cabanis and Gall bring forward the positive theory of the
moral and intellectual faculties of man. The French revolution throws a
vivid light upon the period which separates us from the Middle Ages. At
last, the theorists of the counter-Revolution show that the philosophy
of the XVIII. century, if it excelled in the power of demolishing,
was incapable of reconstructing, and they also show that order must
be inseparable from progress. Comte regards himself as a Condorcet
who has profited by these lessons of experience. He has worked with
Saint-Simon, he has read De Maistre. In short, he is possessed of all
the necessary elements for the foundation of sociology.

At the moment when he undertakes it, theological and metaphysical
philosophy is still dominant over the contemporary conception of social
facts. In it imagination is not subordinated to observation. Men do
not apply themselves to the analysis of facts in order to discover
their relations and their laws; they prefer to construct philosophies
of history, which appear as non-scientific hypotheses, that is to
say, which are not verifiable. Absolute results are sought for, as
if in this order of facts, as in all the others, the absolute was not
inaccessible. From the practical point of view, nobody doubts that
man can modify social facts as he pleases, and that his action can be
exercised there without any definite limits being placed upon it. It is
supposed, in a word, that political society has no laws which regulate
its natural development.

The same prejudices and the same false ideas have already predominated
in the past on the subject of the more simple phenomena, which
afterwards became objects of positive science. Should not this analogy
cause philosophers to conceive “the rational hope of also succeeding
in the dissipation of those errors of conception and of method in the
system of political ideas.”[232] Nothing is more natural than that
the science of the most complex phenomena should be the last to reach
the positive stage. It would even have been impossible for it to have
been otherwise. Finally, beyond the difficulties which belong to the
complexity of its object, sociology had to overcome others, which arise
from political passions. Problems of this kind are indifferent to no
one. In them the interests of each one are involved, and they influence
even without our knowledge, the direction taken by our thoughts.
Political parties excel in framing plausible theories adapted to their
requirements. Thus a constant effort at disinterestedness is necessary
on the part of any one who purposes to take up the science of abstract

At any rate, if these reasons make us understand that sociology should
make its appearance last among the fundamental sciences, none of them
imply that it would not have arisen in its turn. On the contrary,
beside “vital physics” and “inorganic physics,” “social physics”
was one day to take its place. From 1824, Comte had a very clear
idea of this. We do not see, he says, why the phenomena which the
development of a social species presents should not have laws like the
others, why these laws should not be capable of being discovered by
observation, like those of the other phenomena, with this reservation
only that the nature of this section of philosophy makes its study more
difficult. “I will make it felt by the very fact that there are laws as
determined for the development of the human species as for the falling
of a stone.”[233] Comte later on attenuated the rigidity of these
expressions. He recognised that the social phenomena were of all others
the most “modifiable.” But he none the less maintained that they were
ruled by laws.


Sociology, an abstract and wholly theoretical science, only sets itself
the task of discovering the laws of phenomena, without first taking
into account any possible applications. I shall not have, says Comte,
to concern myself directly with political anarchy.[234] Here, more than
anywhere else, science must be separated from the corresponding art.
The same reasons which led to physiology being constituted apart from
medicine, with which it had for so long been confused, also require
that social science should be distinguished from politics, of which,
up to the present time, it has only been a more or less empirical or
arbitrary interpretation.

Comte who took such pains to define the physical fact, the chemical
fact, the biological fact, has not given a definition of the
sociological fact. The reasons for this are not difficult to see. In
the first place, this fact defines itself so to speak, by elimination.
As there are no phenomena accessible to us more complicated than those
of the social life, all the phenomena which are not studied by the
preceding sciences are of course the subject of sociology. Moreover,
there might be a reason to seek for a definition of the sociological
fact, if we started from the consideration of the individual to rise
to that of society. But Comte’s conception is radically different.
For him it is the individual who is an abstraction; and society is
the true reality. He must not explain humanity by man, but on the
contrary, man by humanity. From this moment, all the human phenomena
properly so-called are _ipso facto_ sociological. It is an essential
characteristic of Comte’s system that man, considered individually,
is not an object of science. The science of man belongs for one part
to biology, for the other to sociology. To define the sociological
fact amounts then to establishing the relations between biology and

We have already seen that these relations are extremely close. On the
one hand, sociology could not be constituted so long as higher biology
had not reached a certain degree of development. History has furnished
us with a proof of this: the state of infancy of biology contributed
largely to the failure of Montesquieu’s and Condorcet’s sociological
attempts. But, on the other hand, the study of the intellectual and
moral functions, that is to say, the highest part of biology, can only
be made from the sociological point of view. Here we have a kind of
mixed domain, which properly belongs neither to the one nor to the
other of the sciences.

Could we not then consider sociology as a simple extension of biology,
an extension which would be far more important in the case of the human
species than in any of the others? Do we not do this implicitly when we
attribute the study of the intellectual and moral functions to biology,
since everything which bears the name of “moral science,” history, law,
political economy, etc., finally rests upon these functions? What is
the use of a new fundamental science for the study of phenomena which
at bottom reduce themselves to biological phenomena?

Comte protested against this interpretation of his doctrine.[235]
According to him, sociology is no less irreducible to biology, than
the latter is to chemistry. The sociological phenomena, independently
of the more general laws which are common to them with the subjacent
orders, have laws of their own which regulate them. If animal societies
only existed as we see them to-day, it would perhaps not be impossible
to consider sociology as an appendix of biology. But human society
excludes any attempt of this kind. For it is social life which has
made the extraordinary development of the intellectual and moral
functions possible in man, and this development is the very definition
of humanity. Now, the first consequence of this development is that
biology properly so-called, no longer suffices for studying it. We need
a new method in it, the method of historical observation. Already,
were it for this reason alone, there can be no question of reducing
sociology to biology.

In the second place, when we pass from the individual to the collective
organism, “the continued expansion and the almost indefinite
perpetuity” of the latter makes it almost impossible not to separate
it from the former in a scientific study.[236] Comte is not deceived
by the analogy between the two kinds of organism. To speak accurately,
sociology with him, hardly ever considers anything except a single
organism. Let us leave aside the little that it says of animal
societies. It represents the human race as constituting, in time
and in space, “an immense and eternal social unity, whose various
organs, individuals and nations, united by universal solidarity, each,
according to a determined manner and degree concur in the evolution of

One of the ideas which Comte most admires in Condorcet, and which
he regards as indispensable to social science, is that which makes
a single being in process of evolution of the totality of the human
species.[237] Henceforth, the parallelism between this immense “social
unity,” and the organisms studied by biology could not be a strict one.
“The complex nature of the former,” says Comte himself, “deeply differs
from the indivisible constitution of living beings.” We must then
know how to restrain comparison wisely, “in order that it should not
give rise to faulty approximations, instead of precious indications.”
Comte has sometimes failed in carrying out this prudent precept, for
instance, when in the social organism he looks for what is analogous
to tissues, organs, and systems studied by the anatomists. But he has,
none the less, traced very firmly the limits beyond which the use of
analogy here becomes an abuse.

These limits are determined by the specific character of the social
reality, which escapes the grasp of the biological method. For the
principal phenomenon in sociology, the one which establishes most
evidently its scientific originality, is the gradual and continuous
influence of human generations upon one another. Now our intelligence
cannot “guess the principal decisive phases of such a complex evolution
without an historical analysis properly so-called.”[238] Here is the
final word: no history, no sociology. Comte had already written in
1822: To reduce sociology to biology is to annul the direct observation
of the social past. Undoubtedly the reason for man’s superiority over
the other animals lies in the relative perfection of his organisation.
In this sense, social physics, that is to say, the study of collective
development of the human species, is really a branch of physiology.
In this sense, the history of civilisation is but the sequel and the
indispensable complement of the natural history of man. But, important
as it is to form a proper conception, and never to lose sight of this
relation, yet it would be a mistake to conclude from it that no clear
division should be established between social physics and physiology
properly so-called. For, in the case of the human race, there is
history _which cannot be reached by a process of deduction_.[239]


Already, in biology the nature of the object had compelled scientific
men to start from the consideration of the whole to reach that of the
parts, to proceed from the complex to the simple. With still greater
reason, the same inversion of method imposes itself in sociology. For,
although the individual elements of society appear to be more separable
than those of the living being, the social _consensus_ is still closer
than the vital _consensus_.[240]

The spirit of the sociological method will then be always to consider
simultaneously the various social aspects, whether in statics, or in
dynamics. Undoubtedly each of them can be the object of a special
study, by the way of “preliminary elaboration.” But, as soon as the
science is sufficiently advanced, the correlation of phenomena will
serve as a guide for their analysis. Political economy has proved
by facts that the isolated study of a series of social phenomena is
condemned to remain irrational and barren. Those then who, in the
system of social studies, wish to imitate “the methodical parcelling
out, which belongs to the inorganic sciences,” misunderstand what the
essential conditions of their subject require. Here the most general
laws must be known first. It is from them that science must then
descend to the more particular laws.

The more complex the phenomena, the more numerous are the processes
of method at our disposal for studying them. This law of compensation
is verified again in the present case. Sociology, over and above the
processes made use of by the preceding sciences possesses some which
are peculiarly its own. To put it more plainly, in its capacity of
final science, the whole positive method belongs to it. As method is
only learnt by practice, the sociologist will therefore have to be
formed by a complete scientific education from mathematics, which will
give him the feeling of positivity, to biology which will teach him
the comparative method. The _Cours de philosophie positive_ precisely
retraces this methodical ascent, which leads the human mind, by
successive degrees, up to social science. And, since the intellectual
evolution of the individual reproduces that of the species, the
sociologist will cover the same ground to reach the same end.

At any rate, if a mathematical education is indispensable so as to
accustom him to the positive mode of thought, he will, however,
acknowledge that social phenomena do not allow of the use of numbers
or of mathematical analysis, nor more especially of the calculation
of probabilities. Comte treats Laplace’s attempt upon this point
as absurd, an attempt which has been taken up again by other
mathematicians. He likes to quote it as a proof of the lack of the
philosophical spirit among geometers. Indeed, according to him, to
apply the calculation of probabilities to historical events, implies a
failure to understand that these phenomena are subject to invariable
laws like all other phenomena.

In default of the powerful instrument furnished by mathematics,
sociology makes use of the methods employed in the physical and natural
sciences. Of these observation is the first. Social phenomena seem easy
to observe, because they are very common, and the observer takes part
in them more or less. But, on the contrary, these two circumstances
render sociological observation very difficult. We only observe well
on condition that we place ourselves outside what we observe.[241]
Sociological facts ought then to appear objective to us, detached from
us, independent of the state of our individual consciousness. Nothing
is more difficult to realise. In order to obtain, and more especially
to maintain, “such an inversion of the spontaneous point of view,”
the mind must already have partly constructed what it wishes to see.
Were it not already provided with a preliminary theory, for the most
part the observer would not know what he must look for in the fact
which is taking place under his eyes. It is therefore by the preceding
facts that we learn to see the following ones. There lies “the immense
difficulty” of sociology, in which we are thus obliged, in a certain
measure, to determine simultaneously the facts and the laws. If we are
not already possessed of the necessary speculative indications to grasp
them, the facts remain barren and even unseen, although we are, so to
speak, immersed in them.

Consequently, a social fact can have no scientific significance if
it is not brought into relation with another fact. In an isolated
condition, it remains in the state of a simple anecdote, capable at
most of satisfying “idle curiosity,” but unfit for any rational use.
An infinite number of facts may be useful to sociology, apparently
very insignificant customs, all kinds of monuments, the analysis and
the comparison of languages; but the mind must be provided for their
observation with general points of view. Only on this condition will
a mind, well prepared by rational education, be able to transform
the actions which take place beneath its eyes into sociological
indications, “according to the more or less direct points of contact,
which he will be able to discern in these actions with the highest
notions of science, in virtue of the connexion of the various social

There can be no question of experimenting in sociology.[242] Not that
we cannot act upon the social phenomena: they are, on the contrary,
the most modifiable of all. But an experiment properly so-called
consists in comparing two cases which differ from each other by a
certain definite circumstance, and by that one alone. We have no means
of determining two cases of this kind in sociology. It is true that in
the absence of direct experiments nature presents indirect ones. They
are the pathological cases, unfortunately too frequent in the life of
societies, the more or less serious perturbations which they undergo
through accidental or passing causes. Such are the revolutionary
periods which correspond to diseases in living bodies. If we properly
extend Broussais’ principle to sociology, that is to say, if we admit
that morbid phenomena are produced by the effect of the same laws as
normal phenomena, then social pathology will in some measure replace
experiments. It will be said that this study has been fruitless up
to the present time. But the reason of this is, according to Comte,
that direct or indirect experimenting ought, like simple observation,
to be subject to rational conceptions. Both are only productive in a
sociology already possessed of its essential laws.

The comparative method, so useful to the biologist, is also precious
for the sociologist. It draws together the various states of human
society which coexist on the different parts of the earth’s surface,
and among peoples independent of one another. Undoubtedly, if the total
development only is considered, the evolution of Humanity is one.
It nevertheless remains true that very considerable and very varied
populations have as yet only reached the more or less inferior degrees
of this evolution. We can thus observe them simultaneously and compare
their successive phases. From the Fuegians to the most civilised
nations in Europe, we can imagine no “social shade” which is not at
present realised on some portion of the globe. Frequently, within the
same nation, the social condition of the various classes represents
states of civilisation which are very far removed from one another.
Paris to-day contains more or less faithful “survivors” of nearly
all the anterior degrees of social evolution, especially from the
intellectual point of view.[243] This comparative process holds good
for social statics as for social dynamics. Even in statics a comparison
can be established between animal societies and human society.

However, this type of method is not devoid of inconvenience in
sociology. It does not consider the necessary succession of the various
phases in the social evolution: it seems on the contrary to consider
them all as simultaneous. Consequently, it prevents us from seeing
the filiation of social forms. It also runs the risk of falsifying
the analysis of the cases which are observed, and of causing simple
secondary factors to be taken for main causes. This is what happened
to Montesquieu who compared indifferently the cities of antiquity,
the France of the Middle Ages, the England of the XVIII. century, the
republic of Venice, the government of Byzantium, the Empire of the
Sultan, and that of the Shah of Persia.

So the comparative method is only an auxiliary process in sociology.
Like observation and experiment, it has to be made subordinate to a
rational conception of the evolution of humanity. The latter in turn
depends upon the use of an original method of observation, belonging
to social phenomena, and free from the dangers presented by the
preceding ones. This specific sociological method, this “transcendent”
process, by which the positive method is completed, is, says Comte, the
historical method.[244]


Sociology is an abstract science: history, which is its essential
method, cannot therefore be history merely considered as a narrative.
There are two ways of conceiving history, the one abstract and the
other concrete. The latter dominates in the historical works written
up to the present time. Their end is to relate and to array in
chronological order a certain sequence of events. Undoubtedly in the
XVIII. century efforts were made to co-ordinate political phenomena
and to determine their filiation. But for all that this kind of work
has not ceased to be descriptive and literary. The other form of
history, which does not exist up to the present, has for its end the
research of the laws which regulate the social development of the human

Difference of object leads to difference of method. If an historian
proposes to himself to compose exact “annals,” to relate things as
they took place, he will begin by the special history of the various
peoples, which, in its turn, is founded upon the chronicles of the
provinces and the towns. It will be necessary for him to investigate
documents in detail, and to neglect no source: the work of combination
will only come subsequently. But if our end is the abstract science
of history, that is to say the linking together of social phenomena,
quite a different course will have to be followed. Indeed all the
classes of these phenomena are simultaneously developed, and under the
mutual influence of one another. We cannot explain the line of advance
followed by anyone among them, without having first conceived in a
general way “the progression of the whole.” Before all things then we
must set ourselves to conceive the development of the human species in
its widest generality, that is to say, to observe and to link together
among themselves the most important steps towards progress which it
has successively taken in the various fundamental directions. Then
we shall subdivide the periods and the classes of the phenomena to be

These “various fundamental directions” correspond to what Comte
called later the “social series.” By this he indicates the groups of
social phenomena arranged for a scientific study. Once these groups
are formed, then, according to the totality of historical facts, the
sociologist seeks to determine the continuous growth of each, physical,
moral, intellectual or political disposition or faculty, combined
with the indefinite decrease of the opposite disposition or faculty:
for instance, the tendency of human society to pass from the warlike
form to the industrial form, from revealed religion to demonstrated
religion, etc. From this will be drawn the scientific forecast of
the triumph of the one and the fall of the other, provided that this
conclusion is also in conformity with the general laws of the evolution
of Humanity.

Such a forecast could never be founded upon the knowledge of the
present alone. For the present exposes us to the danger of confusing
the principal with the secondary facts, of “placing noisy passing
demonstrations above deep-seated tendencies,” and of regarding
institutions or doctrines as growing which are really on the decline.
Our statesmen scarcely look back beyond the XVIII. century, our
philosophers beyond the XVI. This is too little. It does not even
suffice to make us understand the French revolution. The study of the
“historical series” alone allows the understanding of the present
and the prevision of the future. The sociologist will even exercise
himself in predicting the past, that is to say, in acquiring a rational
knowledge of it, and in deducing each historical situation from the
whole of its antecedents. He will thus become familiar with the spirit
of the historical method.

However, if this abstract historical method were used by the
sociologist to the exclusion of every other, he would sometimes
come to a wrong conclusion, and take the continuous decrease in a
natural faculty for a tendency to total extinction. For instance, as
civilisation becomes more refined, man eats less than formerly. Nobody
concludes from this that he tends not to eat at all. But the absurdity
which is palpable here, might, in other cases pass unperceived. That
is why the historical method in sociology requires to be controlled by
the positive theory of human nature. All the inductions which might
contradict this theory are to be rejected. Indeed, the whole social
evolution is at bottom but a simple development of humanity, without
the creation of new faculties. The germ, at any rate, of all the
dispositions or effective faculties which sociological observation,
(and in particular, history), may make known, must then be found in the
primordial type which biology has constructed beforehand for sociology.
Accordance between the conclusions of historical analysis and the
preliminary notions of the biological theory is the indispensable
guarantee of sociological demonstrations.[247]


Thus conceived the historical method rests upon the postulate
given by Comte, as we have seen, as a basis to his sociology. This
postulate is thus enunciated: _The nature of man evolves without being
transformed._ The various physical, moral and intellectual faculties,
must be found the same at all the degrees of historical evolution, and
always similarly co-ordinated among themselves. The development which
they receive in the social state can never change their nature, nor
consequently destroy or create any one of them, nor even intervene in
the order of their importance.

In a word, the chief regulator of sociology is the science of human
nature. It can even be said, without forcing the meaning of Comte’s
thought, that sociology is really a psychology:[248] not indeed, it
is true, a psychology founded upon the introspective analysis of the
individual subject, but a psychology whose object is the analysis by
history, of the universal subject, that is to say, of Humanity.

Comte endeavours to bring the complexity and the extreme variety of
social phenomena into an intelligible unity. This complexity is such
that we could not determine the laws by starting from the observation
of the simplest phenomena to reach the more complex ones afterwards.
Moreover, these facts only possess sociological significance if the
observer is already provided with a general theory before he ascertains
them. But, on the other hand, history cannot be deduced. Given an
already positive knowledge of human nature and of the “_milieu_” in
which it evolves, we could not say _a priori_ how it will evolve.
History must then teach us how, as a matter of fact, social life has
developed Humanity. Nevertheless, once this concession has been made
to observation the method becomes again deductive. Since sociology is
a science it ought, like the other sciences, to be able to substitute
rational prevision to the empirical establishment of facts.

To complete the characterising of this final science, it must be at
once positive, like the subjacent fundamental sciences, and universal
like philosophy, which alone up to the present time has looked at
things from “the point of view of the whole.” Henceforth these two
conditions are fulfilled. In the first place, the positivity of
sociology cannot be doubted. In it social facts are conceived as
subject to laws, and Comte abstains from any research as to their mode
of production. Then, sociology, in spite of the extreme difficulties
of its object, has assumed the deductive form, and has brought
secondary laws under more general laws. Comte is even convinced that
his sociology comes nearer to the perfect scientific form than physics
or chemistry. By his discovery of the great dynamic law of the three
states, has he not given it a unity which is to be found as complete
nowhere else but in astronomy? But, at the same time, it is truly
universal, since it is a philosophy of history, or, in other words,
the science of humanity considered in its evolution. As this science
presupposes biology, and as biology in turn presupposes the science of
the “_milieu_” in which living beings are immersed, sociology becomes
at once the summary and the crown of the sciences which precede it.

Thus in replacing man in Humanity, and Humanity in the system of its
conditions of existence, Comte constructs a final science which is at
the same time the supreme science, the only science, that is to say,
philosophy. “If the laws of sociology could be sufficiently known
to us, they alone would suffice to replace all the others, save the
difficulties of deduction.”[249] The science of Humanity is the centre
around which the others range themselves in order.

Already with Descartes, the anthropological character of philosophy
was strongly marked. After him, philosophical speculation took man for
its centre more and more. This tendency also predominates in Comte’s
doctrine. But in it it assumes a social character. Here the “universal
subject” is no longer the intellectual consciousness of Kant, or the
absolute “ego” of Fichte; it is Humanity evolving in time, whose unity
is displayed through the succession of generations connected in strict
solidarity with each other. Henceforth the philosophical problems,
no longer present themselves from the point of view of man conceived
in the abstract or in himself apart from time. The consideration of
history necessarily intervenes. Problems are formulated in social
terms. There lies the deep significance of the doctrine systematised
by Comte.


[228] Cours, IV, 200.

[229] Cours, IV, 191-2.

[230] Cours, IV, 193-99; Pol. pos., IV, Appendice, p. 106.

[231] Cours, IV, 200-205; Pol. pos. IV, Appendice, p. 109.

[232] Cours, IV, 243-4.

[233] Lettres à Valat, p. 138-9 (8 septembre, 1824).

[234] Cours, IV, 2-3.

[235] Cours, IV, 391; VI, 775-6; Pol. pos., IV, Appendice, p. 124-7.

[236] Pol. pos., II. 288-9.

[237] Cours, IV. 326.

[238] Cours, IV. 387.

[239] Pol. pos., IV. Appendix, p. 124-7.

[240] Cours, IV. 279-80.

[241] Cours, IV. 337.

[242] Cours, IV, 342-44.

[243] Cours. IV. 354-sq.

[244] Cours, IV, 360.

[245] Cours. IV, 225.

[246] Cours, IV., 366 sq; Pol. pos., IV. Appendice, p. 135 sq.

[247] Cours, IV, 371-3; Pol. pos., I, 624-6.

[248] Pol. pos., III, 47-48.

[249] Pol. pos., I, 442.



As biology distinguishes the anatomical point of view, “relating to
the ideas of organisation,” and the physiological point of view,
“relating to the ideas of life,” so sociology separates the study of
the conditions of existence of a society (social statics), and that of
the laws of its movements (social dynamics).

This distinction has the advantage of corresponding exactly to that
of order and progress, from the practical point of view, while it is
closely allied to the encyclopædic law called “the principle of the
conditions of existence.”

Comte will not admit that he is making two distinct sciences of
social statics and social dynamics. Sociology, according to him, is
constituted by the constant drawing together of these two corresponding
studies. However, they each have their own object, and Comte has
treated them separately. Indeed, social statics and dynamics are far
from having the same importance in his work.

The essential part, on his own showing, is dynamics.[250] When he
makes history the characteristic process of the Sociological method,
when he shows that the tradition transmitted from every generation
to the following one is pre-eminently the sociological phenomenon,
when finally he considers the new science as having been founded
from the day when the law of the three states was discovered, is
he not placing himself at the dynamic point of view? After having
demonstrated that dynamic laws of social phenomena exist, he concludes
that these phenomena are also subject to static laws: there would be a
contradiction in admitting the one set of laws without the other. In
Comte’s mind then dynamics preceded statics. Even from an objective
point of view, dynamics seem to be the most important. For, if we knew
the dynamic laws it would not be impossible to deduce the static laws
from them, while to do the reverse would be impracticable, at any rate
for minds constituted like ours.

So, in the _Cours de philosophie positive_, social statics holds a very
small place compared with that occupied by dynamics. It is true that it
takes up the whole of the second volume of the _Politique positive_.
But there Comte brings into it many considerations which arise more
from ethics and religion than from sociology properly so called.


The idea of the social _consensus_, more restricted than that of the
vital _consensus_, dominates the whole of social statics. The science
sets itself to study the continual actions and reactions which the
various parts of the social system exercise upon one another. Each
of the numerous elements of this system, instead of being observed
by itself, must be conceived as in relation with all the others,
with which it has constant solidarity. From whatever social element
we start, it is always connected, in a more or less direct way, with
the whole of the others, even with those which at first sight appear

What are the ultimate “social elements?” In biology, anatomical
analysis was to stop at the tissue, or at least at the cell. In
sociology, statical analysis will stop at the family. “Human society
is made up of families and not of individuals: it is an elementary
axiom in statical sociology.” In the eyes of social science, the
individual is an abstraction. All social strength is the result of a
“more or less extended co-operation,” that is to say of the combined
action of a greater or smaller number of individuals. There is nothing
purely individual except physical force. But what is the physical force
of a man alone, without arms or tools? (for these already imply a
co-operation of social activities). Intellectual power is of value only
when others participate in it: so it is with moral power.

On the other hand, if all social force is the result of union, all
social force is, nevertheless represented by an individual. The
social organism is “collective in its nature, and individual in its
functions.”[252] In this way the part played by the individual again
becomes a very considerable one. If the individual, in so far as he
is a social force, always represents some group, he is none the less
possessed of his own personality which may precisely have taken a great
part in the formation of such or such a group. We know that the social
organism must not on all points be compared with the living organism.
If the family is the ultimate element for social statics, this element
is however itself made up of persons who are naturally independent, and
who cannot be compared to cells.

The positive theory of the family is founded upon the biological theory
of the physical and moral nature of man. This nature is sociable. The
human species belongs to the category of those in which individuals
not only live in more or less permanent bands, but form definite and
durable societies. This is a fact in our experience. The social state
is, for men, the state of nature. The “contract” theory cannot then
be maintained. Comte does not stop to criticise it. The theorists of
the counter-Revolution have sufficiently refuted Rousseau. According
to Comte, sociability is spontaneous in the human species, in virtue
of the instinctive leaning towards common life, “independently of any
personal calculation, and often against the most immediate interest of
the individual. Society is not then founded upon utility, which could
moreover only appear in a state of society already established.”[253]

Thus, the family is the ultimate social element. Being preoccupied
by this idea, Comte, who had such a deep, clear-sighted feeling of
the evolution of societies, does not ask himself whether the family
has evolved from something which existed previously. For him it is
something natural, that is to say something given, beyond which we
should not go back, and of which only the biological conditions can
be determined. It is from this point of view that Comte defines the
relations of man and woman in the family. He bases himself upon
biology (that is to say both upon physiology and psychology), to
represent the female sex as living in “a kind of state of continuous
childhood.” Whence he concludes to the natural subordination of woman.
This inferiority does not moreover extend to the whole of her moral
nature, for, “in general, women are as superior to men by the natural
development of sympathy, and sociability, as they are inferior to
them where intellect and reasoning powers are concerned.”[254] On
this last point, John Stuart Mill held the contrary opinion, and this
disagreement contributed not a little to alienate him from positive
philosophy. Later on, in his “second career,” Comte, who more and
more came to subordinate the intellect to the heart, still more
extolled the moral excellence of woman, and ended by considering her
as “intermediary between humanity and man.” But even then, while
proclaiming the sentimental, moral, and æsthetic superiority of woman,
he persisted in maintaining that, from the intellectual point of view,
by reason of immutable biological conditions, she remains inferior to

From analogous motives, Comte regards marriage as a “universal natural
disposition, the first necessary basis of all society.” Every thing
which tends to weaken marriage tends to disorganise the family, and,
consequently, to destroy society in its constitutive elements. Comte
will thus condemn divorce, of which he himself had the best reasons
for appreciating the advantages. Generally, Comte’s theory of the
family is modelled upon the Christian family. According to his constant
practice, he seeks to detach the institutions of Catholicism, which he
admires, from its dogmas which he believes to be almost dead. These
institutions, excellent in themselves only suffer from being bound up
with beliefs which are disappearing. So long, he says, as the family
continues to have no other intellectual basis than religious doctrines,
it will necessarily participate in their growing discredit. Positive
philosophy “can alone henceforth establish the spirit of the family
upon an immoveable foundation, with the modifications suitable to the
modern character of the social organism.”[255] This new intellectual
basis is established by positive psychology and social statics. The
constitution of the family remains the same. But its foundation is
henceforth positive dogma instead of religious dogma, demonstrated
belief instead of revealed faith.

Perhaps we must recognise in the energetic defence made by Comte of
the family and of marriage as he found them established by the side of
Catholic influence, a desire not to be confused with the followers of
Saint Simon, of Fourier, and the other reformers of his time. These did
not hesitate to contradict current and traditional customs. In Comte’s
view, this contradiction is a sign of error. Scientific truth is found
in the prolongation of public reason and of common sense. Here Comte
sees a new, and not one of the least, important arguments, in support
of his own theory.


A society is composed of families: it is not itself a greater family.
Neither is it an assemblage of contiguous families living together.
The family and society are distinguished from each other by very clear
differential characteristics.

The family is a “union” of an essentially moral nature, and secondarily
intellectual.[256] The chief constituent of the family is found in the
affective functions, (the mutual tenderness of husband and wife, of
the parents for the children, etc.). Society is, on the contrary, not
a union, but a co-operation” of an essentially intellectual nature,
and secondarily moral. Undoubtedly, an association of men cannot be
conceived as subsisting without their sympathetic feelings being
interested in it. Nevertheless, when we pass from the consideration
of the single family to the co-ordination of several families, the
principle of co-operation necessarily ends by prevailing. So Rousseau’s
theory is not false on all points. Metaphysical philosophy, especially
in France, says Comte, has undoubtedly committed an error of capital
importance by attributing the very creation of the social state to
this principle, for it is evident that co-operation, far from having
been able to produce society, presupposes it. But if we confine this
assertion to society properly so-called (the family being set aside)
it is not so startling. For, if co-operation could not “create”
human societies, it alone at least, has been able to “communicate to
these spontaneous associations a definite character and a lasting

This co-operation is called to-day “the division of labour.” Comte
knew this expression: Adam Smith had already made it famous. If Comte
did not make use of it, it is because economists had limited the idea
and the term to “merely material usages.” He wishes, on the contrary,
to consider co-operation in the whole of its rational extension. It
then becomes an extremely general principle, dominating the whole of
social statics, and finding its application in the greatest as in the
most limited social groups. This principle leads us to regard not only
individuals and classes, but also, in many respects the different
peoples, “as participating together in a suitable way and a determined
degree, in an immense common work whose development unites those
actually co-operating with the series of their successors and their
predecessors.” Thus we see the relation between the dynamical and the
statical laws of social continuity which binds successive generations,
with social solidarity which unites men living in the same period. This
solidarity arises especially from the division of labour. The latter is
the “primitive cause” of the extension and of the growing complexity of
the social organism, which may be conceived as comprising the whole of
our species.

The founder of social statics, Aristotle, had formulated its most
general principle: “separation of offices and combination of
efforts.”[257] Without the “separation of offices” there would only be
an agglomeration of families and not a society. But the indispensable
counterpart of the separation of offices is the combination of efforts,
that is to say a general thought which directs them, in a word, a

Thus, the ideas of society and of government are implied in one
another. Indeed, there is no society properly so-called without
the division of social labour, a division immediately generating
consequences which make government a necessity. Society in developing
grows more and more complex. Instead of a small group of a few
families, it ends by numbering hundreds, thousands, and even millions
of them. At the same time the division of labour often gives rise
to individual differences, at once intellectual and moral. Minds
are developed, but each one according to its special line, at least
according to that of his profession or of his class. The communion
of feeling and of thought tends to become weaker. This last is not
the least serious inconvenience. Smith had already pointed it out
from the economical point of view, and the utopian reformers, Fourier
especially, have shown strongly its extent and its dangers.

This is, according to Comte, what it is the mission of a government
to remedy. Its social function consists in repressing and in opposing
as far as possible the tendency to the scattering of ideas, of
feelings, and of interests. This tendency is the result of the very
development of society, and left to itself, it would end by stopping
this development. Government may thus be defined in its abstract and
elementary function as “the necessary reaction of the whole upon the

Government, at first, appears “spontaneously.” As Hobbes clearly saw,
it is then in the hands of those to whom force belongs. But it soon
becomes regularised and organised into a definite social function.
As, in the development of the sciences, the growing differentiation
of their object rendered research more and more special, and at last
caused the appearance of a particular class of learned men, (the
philosophers), whose own function is to attempt the synthesis of human
knowledge; so, in the division constantly more ramified of social
functions, a new one had to be constituted, “capable of intervening in
the accomplishment of all the others, unceasingly to recall in them the
thought of the whole, and the feeling of common solidarity.”

We are then entirely mistaken, when we want to reduce the function of
government to “vulgar attributions of material order.” Government is
not a simple institution of police, a guarantee of public order, nor,
as was said in the XVIII. century, a necessary evil which will reduce
itself to a minimum with progress, or even will tend to disappear. On
the contrary, the more a society is developed, the more indispensable
the function of government becomes in it, the more importance it
assumes. Progress in the future will make a more and more considerable
place for it in social life. Although it does not itself realise any
determined social progress, government necessarily contributes to
whatever progress society can make.

If the idea of the division of labour is not to be understood in
a purely material and economical sense, the principle of _social
cohesion_, which Comte calls government, cannot any more be founded
upon a single conformity of interests. This would not suffice to
maintain a human society. For such a society to subsist, there must
be a certain “communion” of beliefs, and feelings of sympathy, which
themselves depend in a certain measure upon these beliefs. Undoubtedly,
society could not resist a deep and durable divergence of interests.
But it would still less resist incompatibility of feelings, and
especially of beliefs among its members. In a word, the basis of human
society is intellectual before all things. And, as the first object of
the mind of man is the interpretation of the world which surrounds him,
the constitutive basis of human society is religion. The groups which
are united in the same general conception of the universe are part of
the same society. Hence, in the past, we see endless conflicts between
the societies whose religions were different; hence, in the future, the
unity of the human species will finally become entirely rallied around
positive religion.

If this is the case, government, which is by definition the highest
and most general social function which represents the “spirit of the
whole,” cannot be confined to temporal action. Its object is not only
to assure the security of property and of persons. It must at the same
time strengthen and preserve that “communion” of beliefs which is the
basis of human society. It must guarantee the union of intellects, by
establishing and teaching universally accepted principles. It must, in
a word, be a “spiritual power.” In this capacity, in positive society,
it will exercise an action at least equal to that enjoyed by the
catholic clergy in the Christendom of the Middle Ages, as long as the
Popes preserved its supreme direction.

These consequences are legitimately drawn from Comte’s principles. His
philosophy made social reorganisation dependent upon the reorganisation
of morals, and the reorganisation of morals upon that of ideas. He was,
therefore, in social statics, to seek for the foundation of society in
the harmony of intellects and to define government by its spiritual as
much as by its temporal function.


Comte’s social statics are far from fulfilling the programme which he
indicated in a word when he called it “social anatomy.” Undoubtedly
he is right in not pushing the comparison between living beings and
society to dangerous or childish attempts at precision. But, in
sociology as in biology, he separates the study of the organs from
that of the functions, and we must admit that he insisted very little
upon the analysis of the social organs. From the statical point of
view he only distinguishes the individual, the family, and society
taken as a whole. Moreover the consideration of the individual is only
preliminary, since the families represent the real social elements. He
therefore sees, or at least he studies nothing intermediary between
these elements and the totality of the social body, that is to say
the human species. He limits himself to indicating the separation
of offices which increases with the extension of the social body.
But what is the structure of this body, what diversity of organs and
apparatus does it contain? Social statics tells us nothing of this. The
_Politique positive_ scarcely gives us a few brief indications on this
point. The collective organism would be composed first of families,
which constitute its real element, then of the classes or castes which
form its tissues, and finally of towns or villages which are its real

This is very vague. Only in the dynamics shall we find views a little
more precise on the appearance, the structure, and the functions of
the different social forms. Even then Comte does not really take the
physiological point of view, any more than in statics he takes the
really anatomical point of view. Before all things, his sociology
remains a philosophy of history. It analyses the past of humanity, that
it may find in it the interpretation of its present and the rational
prevision of its future.

This science differs profoundly then from the fundamental sciences
which precede it, in that it studies a single being, of which it cannot
analyse the phenomena or discover the laws except by considering it in
the first place in its totality. Comte hardly ever in social statics
(and far less in dynamics) says society, as in biology he said, animals
and vegetables. He says the _collective organism_: a simple, immense
organism, whose life indefinitely extends into the past and into the
future, in a word, Humanity. This conception representing humanity as a
single Being which is an hypothesis for science, becomes an ideal for
ethics, and an object of love for religion. Insensibly Comte passes
from one of these points of view to the other. At the same time the
character of social statics changes. From being an abstract science in
the _Cours_, in the _Politique_ it is transformed into a picture of
future Humanity.


[250] Cours, IV, 430.

[251] Cours, IV. 258.

[252] Pol. pos., II, 265.

[253] Cours, IV, 432-6.

[254] Cours, iv, 459. Correspondance de Comte et de John Stuart Mill,
p. 219-288.

[255] Cours, IV, 450.

[256] Cours, IV, 472 sq.

[257] Pol. pos., II, 281-3; IV, Appendice, p. 67.

[258] Cours, IV, 482-5.



For Comte, social dynamics is the chief part of sociology. He tells us
that it occupied his attention “in a preponderating and even almost
exclusive manner.”[259] This preference is easily explained. In the
first place the idea which best distinguishes sociology from biology,
the idea of the gradual development of humanity belongs to social
dynamics. Then, the method which particularly belongs to sociology,
the historical method, applies especially to dynamics. Finally, the
very conception of a social science became fixed in Comte’s mind by the
discovery of the law of the three states which is a dynamic law.

Social dynamics is defined as “the science of the necessary and
continuous movement of humanity,”[260] or, more briefly, the science
of the laws of progress. Here, as in social statics, and even still
more exclusively, a single case is studied, namely, the case of the
human species, regarded as a single individual, and considered in
the whole of its past and future development. Henceforth, without
misunderstanding the distinction between biology and sociology, should
we not in the first place seek some of the conditions of social
progress in the physical and moral nature of the individual man? This
question did not escape Comte, and he says that it would be right to
begin a methodical treatise on social science with it. However, he
did not expressly deal with the question. He contented himself with
indicating “this fundamental instinct which is the complex result of
the necessary co-operation between all our natural tendencies, which
urges man ceaselessly to ameliorate his condition in all respects, and
always to develop the whole of his moral, intellectual, and physical
life in every way as much as the system of conditions in which he finds
himself placed allows of it.”[261] This indication is completed by the
study of the conditions which determined the first efforts of man, when
he had to overcome his natural laziness, at the dawn of civilisation.
It suffices at least to show the close union which exists in Comte’s
thought between social dynamics and psychology. It is true that the
sociological laws cannot be _deduced_ from the biological laws. Nothing
can replace a direct observation of social phenomena. But the very fact
of progress, which is the object of social dynamics, would not exist
without the “individual impulses which are its own elements.”


Under the name of progress Comte understands a “social advance towards
a definite although never attained termination, by a series of
necessarily determined stages.” This idea was never clearly defined
in antiquity.[262] The men of ancient times were more inclined to
represent social movements as oscillatory or circular. Upon special
points, for instance in morals, they had a foreshadowing of the idea of
progress.[263] They conceived an effort towards improvement. But the
scientific idea of social progress in its entirety remained foreign to
them. For this idea is only formed by observation and by the analysis
of history. Their historical outlook was yet too narrow for such a

The idea of progress appears with the philosophy of history taught
by Christianity; for, this religion gives a rational explanation of
universal history considered as a whole. It proclaims the superiority
of the Christian world over the pagan world, and of the new law
over the old.[264] But, scarcely has the idea of progress thus come
into existence when it becomes clouded over and tends to fade away.
Catholicism clearly sees progress in the series of events which
caused it to succeed a former state, but it denies the progress which
continues from that moment. It considers itself as final. It “limits
onward progress to the advent of Christianity.” It claims to fix an
invariable dogma which contains immutable and absolute truth. This is
the very negation of the positive idea of progress. In order to find
this idea clearly conceived and scientifically formulated, we must come
to Condorcet, and even to the XIX. century, that is to say, to the
foundation of social science by Comte. He was especially led to it,
he says, by the historical study of the development of the sciences.
For, of all the social series, this is the one whose evolution is most
advanced. No other suggests so clearly the idea of a “progression”
whose terms succeed each other by virtue of a necessary filiation.
Pascal already gave a very fine formula of it, in his _Préface du
Traité du Vide_. Is it not remarkable that, in his sketch of the
positive idea of progress, he should have been led at once to the
essential hypothesis of social dynamics, that is to say, to consider
the whole succession of generations as a single man, always living,
continually learning?[265]

Nevertheless, the idea of progress, so well applied to the evolution of
the sciences in the XVII. century, could not then be extended to all
social facts. It had met with an insurmountable obstacle in the Middle
Ages. Men considered that period as one of retrogression and barbarism,
although, as a matter of fact, it was “characterised by the universal
perfecting of human sociability.” The idea of progress therefore
remained a special one. Thus originated the quarrel of the Ancients and
the Moderns[266] whose importance has not been sufficiently understood.
The “eminent” Fontenelle and the “judicious” Perrault have very clearly
shown in respect to intellectual activity generally considered, what
Pascal had already established for science properly so-called.[267]

The XVIII. century was full of the idea of progress. But, failing to
follow a positive method, it gave a false direction to this idea.
It believed in the indefinite perfectibility of man and of society.
Now, this notion does not coincide with that of progress. It is even
fundamentally opposed to it. Progress signifies “development subject
to fixed conditions, and operating in virtue of necessary laws, which
determine its advance and its limitations.” It is precisely the
ignorance of these conditions and of these laws which gives rise to the
idea of indefinite perfectibility. If Helvetius and Condorcet had had
a positive knowledge of human nature, they would not have entertained
so many illusions and unreasonable hopes. Biology, that is to say,
scientific psychology, would have taught them that human nature is
invariable in its basis, that the preponderance of the selfish over the
altruistic instincts is essential to this nature, and that, if progress
favours the development of the altruistic feelings, it cannot, however,
overturn the natural equilibrium of our inclinations. In a word,
indefinite perfectibility is a metaphysical idea. Imagination plays a
greater part in it than observation. The philosophers who conceived it
did not realise the relations which bind the intellectual and the moral
life of man to the structure of his organism.

In order that the idea of progress should reach its final form it was
necessary, in the first place, that positive psychology should have
put an end to the dreams of indefinite perfectibility. It was also
necessary that the French Revolution should come to render the course
of the history of humanity intelligible. Indeed, according to Comte, a
“progression” cannot be understood, so long as we do not know at least
three of its terms. Two terms do not suffice to define it. Now, up to
the time of the French Revolution, several “progressions” or social
series undoubtedly offered the required number of terms to scientific
reflection; for instance, the evolution of such and such a science or
of such and such an art. But, in sociology, the knowledge of secondary
laws is subordinated to that of primary laws, and the advance of such
and such a social series can only be understood if the development
of society in general is known in its fundamental law. To discover
this law then, we must possess at least, three terms of the general
“progression.” Now, before the French Revolution two terms only were
given: the _régime_ of the societies of antiquity, and the Christian
_régime_ (that is to say, the one which attained its highest degree of
perfection in the Catholic organisation of the Middle Ages.) The French
Revolution came to furnish the third term. It brought the idea of a
new _régime_. As Kant had said, in terms which were certainly unknown
to Comte, it gave men the idea of a social organisation founded upon
principles different from those of the existing societies. Henceforth
the idea of progress could apply itself to the whole of the historical
development of humanity. “It is to this salutary disturbance,” says
Comte, “that we owe the strength and the audacity to conceive a notion
upon which rests the whole of social science, and consequently the
whole of positive philosophy, of which this final science alone could
constitute the unity.”[268]

This social science remained to be constructed. It will be the special
work of Auguste Comte. According to him, the French Revolution only
brought an imperfect idea of social progress. It helped to bring
about the conception of the idea of a different _régime_, but without
actually founding it. The functions of the new philosophy will be
to realise the positive idea of social progress. In a word, the
revolutionary impulse made this philosophy possible. It has not done
away with its utility.[269]


Sociology being an abstract and speculative science in the same way
as the other fundamental sciences, progress in it is not understood
in a utilitarian or moral sense. From 1826 Comte exerted himself
to prevent any equivocation on this point. The insufficiency of
language, he says, obliges him to make use of the words “improvement”
and “development,” of which the former and even the latter, although
clearer, recalls ideas of absolute good and of indefinite amelioration,
which Comte has no intention of expressing. These words for him have
the simple scientific object of indicating, in social physics, a
certain succession of states of the human species, “being effected
according to determined laws: a usage exactly analogous to the one
which physiologists make of them in the study of the individual
organism, to indicate a succession of transformations with which no
idea of continuous amelioration or deterioration is connected.”[270]
It would be easy to treat of the whole of social physics without once
using the word improvement, and always replacing it by the scientific
term development. For the question is not to appreciate the respective
value of successive states referred to an ideal state, but simply to
establish the laws of their succession. “The present is full of the
past and big with the future.” Liebnitz’s formula thus expresses the
general idea of progress. Comte only makes it positive by discovering
the general laws of this progress, and by showing that they are
correlated to the laws of social statics.

As a matter of fact, does the development of humanity lead to
improvement or progress, in the moral and practical sense of the word?
Social science has not to answer this question. However, Comte thinks
that this improvement takes place, and that progress, so understood,
can be shown at once in our condition and in our nature.[271] As proofs
of this, in the first place, he gives the increase in the population,
at least in that portion of humanity which he nearly always considers
alone, the white race; then he mentions the law--according to which
exercise perfects the organs. This progress is fixed by heredity. Comte
thus admits this principle laid down by Lamarck, with this reservation,
that evolution never transforms “natural dispositions.”

As to our condition, it is improved according to the measure in which
we can act upon natural phenomena, and this power in turn depends upon
the knowledge we have acquired of the laws of phenomena. “Vision brings
prevision and thus facilitates provision.” Progress is here manifested
by the extension of our scientific knowledge and by the improvement of
the arts founded upon this knowledge. If scientific knowledge, which
is necessarily abstract, has to be separated from practice in order
to seek for the general laws which regulate phenomena, science, once
constituted, makes possible a system of reasoned applications which
reaches immeasurably farther than empirical art. Like Descartes, Comte
founds the most ambitious hopes upon the positive science of nature.

Now, the most “modifiable” phenomena, those in which our intervention
is most efficacious, are the human phenomena, be they individual or
collective. On the other hand, our action upon the external world
especially depends upon the dispositions of the agent. In every way
then we must improve these dispositions. The most important improvement
will be that of our internal nature. It will consist in bringing about
the greater and greater prevalence of the attributes which distinguish
man from the animals, that is to say, intelligence and sociability,
correlated faculties, which are at once as a means and as an end to one
another. We know, moreover, that there are limits to this progress. The
perfect preponderance within ourselves of humanity over animality is a
_limit_, nearer to which our efforts must ever bring us, without ever
actually reaching it.[272]

Whether it be a question of our condition or of our nature the
improvement, in both cases, can only be very slow. It is never easy
to substitute to natural order an artificial order resting upon the
scientific knowledge of the former. Of those different forms of
progress, the first, which Comte calls the material progress, because
it is the easiest, is the most advanced. The great attraction which
it has for the men of to-day is thus explained, but the importance
given to it is quite exaggerated. If our nature could be brought to a
higher degree of perfection it would assuredly be preferable. But it
is perhaps necessary that our material conditions of existence should
first have been ameliorated?

The improvement in our nature may be physical, intellectual, or moral.
The first would consist in an addition to the average duration of human
life; it depends upon the progress of biology, and, consequently,
of medicine and hygiene. Intellectual (scientific and æsthetic)
improvement, would be still more desirable. It “means a greater
soaring upwards” than is represented by all physical improvements or
_a fortiori_ by any material improvements: for the intellect is a
“universal tool” whose uses have a universal application. But human
happiness depends far more upon moral progress “over which we have,
also more command, although it is more difficult.” No intellectual
improvement could be equal in value to an increase in goodness or in
courage. If we were wise our whole endeavour therefore would be in this
direction. At any rate we ought always to remember that other forms of
progress are desirable simply as means, and moral progress alone as an


The theory of progress is the “principle” of social dynamics, itself
the essential part of sociology, while sociology lies at the heart
of positive philosophy. It was therefore to be expected that the
adversaries of this philosophy would especially seek to ruin the theory
of progress, which supports everything else. Indeed the objections have
been numerous and pressing. Of these objections Comte had foreseen the
two most important, and he had endeavoured to answer them beforehand.
According to him, the theory of progress implies neither fatalism nor
optimism, nor the quietism which has been represented as a consequence
of it.[274]

On the first point, Comte draws our attention to the fact that the
necessary consequence of his principle of laws is not the absolute
determinism of phenomena, whether it be a question of social or
other phenomena. Positive philosophy admits nothing absolute.
Determinism, like free-will, is a metaphysical thesis, Comte is not
compelled to take sides either with one or the other: he leaves them
to mutually refute each other. The positive conception of the moral
and intellectual faculties of man, as Gall clearly established, does
not imply that human actions might not be otherwise than they are.
Similarly, if in general natural phenomena are subject to laws, this
does not prevent us from conceiving these phenomena as modifiable by
man’s intervention. Now, of all natural phenomena, social phenomena are
precisely the most modifiable; so much so that for a long time it was
possible to ignore that they were governed by laws.

There is then no contradiction in affirming the reality of these laws,
and in considering at the same time the intervention of human activity
in social phenomena as efficacious. As early as 1824 Comte wrote to
his friend Valat: “It would be misunderstanding my thought to conclude
from it that I forbid all improvement, since, on the contrary, I
formally establish that every government must change in consequence
of the progress of civilisation, and that it is in no way a matter of
indifference that these changes should take place by the mere force of
circumstances, or by calculated planes based upon observation. I do not
deny the power of political measures, I limit it.”[275]

It belongs to social science to determine the limits of the useful
action of man upon social phenomena. These limits are narrow enough.
Man can only modify, from the static point of view, the intensity,
and from the dynamic point of view, the speed of social phenomena.
Indeed, here as elsewhere, modifications can only be produced in
conformity with laws. To suppose the contrary would be to deny the very
existence of these laws. Now, the fundamental law of statics is the
intimate solidarity and the mutual dependence of all social elements,
at all the moments of their common evolution. There is, therefore, no
disturbing influence, whatever its origin may be, which can “cause
unsympathetic opposing elements to coexist in a given society.”[276]
Rather would it destroy this society. All that is possible is to modify
the respective tendencies which indeed coexist in this society, but
without causing the appearance or disappearance of any of them. In the
same way, from the dynamic point of view, the order of the successive
phases of progress is determined by laws. No external influence (nor
in particular that of man), could overturn or disturb this order, or
“skip” one of the stages. The evolution could only be made more rapid,
that is to say, easier. The statesman, infatuated with his power,
will perhaps find this a very humble part to play. But, even within
these limits, human intervention could still be of capital importance
provided that it were directed by science.

History confirms these views. In it we never see social phenomena
modified by man otherwise than in their intensity, or in their speed.
Where we best know their evolution, that is to say, in the social
series, which includes the history of the sciences, of the arts, of
morals and institutions, the verification of this law is constant. For
instance, among the scientific men at Alexandria astronomy stopped at
a certain point, because the further development of this science was
not compatible with the general conditions of society at that time. And
if Montesquieu’s attempt to subject social facts to laws failed, it is
because, before sociology, positive biology had first to be founded.
Analogous examples abound, and a contrary case has never presented

Three secondary factors, race, climate, and man’s political action
especially modify progress, in the measure which has just been
indicated. In the present state of science it is impossible to arrange
them in the order of their importance. Montesquieu, made too much of
climates: others have made too much of races.[277] Those elements of
social evolution have not yet been studied by the positive method.
Until the foundation of social dynamics their part was, of necessity,
wrongly conceived. It was not known that the essential law, the law of
the three states, is independent of these secondary factors, whilst on
the contrary the secondary factors can only act in conformity with this
law, without ever suspending it. In order that the modifications which
they produce should become intelligible, it was necessary that the
normal type of evolution should first be known. To study the influence
of climates and of races before first possessing the general laws of
social dynamics, was, almost, to pretend to establish pathology without
having first constituted physiology.

As to man’s political action, it too has been wrongly understood. In
the absence of a positive conception of social phenomena, some denied
the efficacy of this action, others exaggerated it. When it was used
in the direction of progress, it almost necessarily appeared to be
the principal cause of the results which social evolution would have
brought about in any case. The illusion was all the more inevitable
from the fact that social forces are always personified in individuals.
On the other hand, how often have the most vigorous political efforts
only been successful for a day, because the general evolution of
society was proceeding in the contrary direction!

So long as the theological and metaphysical period lasts, man does not
hesitate to ascribe to himself an almost boundless action upon natural
phenomena. Having reached the positive period, he knows that phenomena
are only, modifiable within certain limits, determined by their
laws, and that he can only aspire to relative results. Once positive
sociology is established it wholly transforms the familiar idea of
political art. But because it entertains less great and less gratifying
ambitions, this art will only be all the more effective. Compare what
medicine and surgery are able to do to-day for the good of the sick
with what they could do before chemistry and biology became positive

But, it is said, admitting that man can modify social phenomena, what
reason has he to interfere with them, since progress takes place
of itself? Why not allow the natural evolution which most certainly
realises it to work itself out?

This objection confuses progress understood as a succession of states
which unfold according to a law, with progress understood in the sense
of indefinite improvement. On this point again the comparison of
society with living organisms is instructive. Do not these develop in
conformity with invariable laws? Yet, Comte regards them as extremely
imperfect, and in what concerns the human body, the intervention of the
doctor or the surgeon is often useful and even indispensable. When we
reproach the sociological theory of progress with having optimism as
its consequence, we take _the scientific notion of spontaneous order
for the systematic justification of any existing order_.[278] There is,
however, a very long distance from one to the other. Spontaneous order
may often be a very rough form of order.

Here, as everywhere else, positive philosophy substitutes the
scientific principle of the conditions of existence to the metaphysical
principle of final causes. It admits that spontaneously, according
to natural laws, a certain necessary order is established; but it
acknowledges that this order offers serious and numerous disadvantages,
modifiable, in certain degrees, by man’s intervention. The more
complex these phenomena, the more are the imperfections multiplied and
intensified. The biological phenomena are “inferior” in this respect
to those of inorganic nature. By reason of their complication, which
is _maxima_, social phenomena must be the most “disorderly” of all.
In a word if the idea of a natural law implies that of a certain
order, the notion of this order must be completed by the “simultaneous
consideration of its inevitable imperfection.”

The theory of progress is then incompatible neither with the
ascertainment of social evil, nor with the effort to remedy it. The
most complex of all organisms, the social organism, is also the one
most subject to diseases and to crises. Thus, Comte foresees in a near
future great internal struggles in our society, in consequence of our
mental and moral anarchy.[279] To-day, only that is systematised which
is destined to disappear, and what is not yet systematised, that is to
say all that lives, will not be organised without violent conflicts. It
is enough here to think of the relations between masters and workmen.

Revolutions occur which nothing can prevent. It is an inevitable evil,
and Comte gives a striking psychological reason for it. Our mind is too
weak and our life too short for us ever to form a positive idea of a
social system other than the one in which we were born and in which we
live. It is from this one that, willingly or unwillingly, we draw the
elements of our political and social ideas. Even men of a utopian turn
of mind do not escape this necessity. Their dreams always reflect, at
bottom, either the past, or a contemporary social state. In order that
a new political system should appear, and especially for it to find
access to men’s minds, the destruction of the preceeding system must be
already very far advanced. Until then “even the most open minds could
not perceive the characteristic nature of the new system hidden from
all eyes by the spectacle of the old organisation.”[280] Hence, the
lengthy processes of decomposition of worn-out _régimes_, the no less
lengthy birth of new institutions, and the cruel periods of transition,
full of troubles, of wars, and of revolutions.

With this same cause are connected what we may call the phenomena of
survival. Institutions, powers, as also doctrines, have a tendency to
subsist beyond the function which the general advance of the human mind
had assigned to them.[281] Conflicts then take place which it is beyond
anybody’s power to prevent: happy is he who can make them shorter and
less acute! The solution only comes with time when the vanquished ideas
fall into “disuse.” The combat never ceases except from the lack of

All this in no way excludes the possibility for man to exercise a
beneficent or a detrimental action. To understand is not always to
justify. It is true that a comprehensive view of history disposes us
to be indulgent, because it brings out the close solidarity of all
the social elements of the same period. The responsibilities being
shared, and so to speak diffused, appear to be less serious for each
individual. Nevertheless this philosophy allows praise and blame for
the past, and active intervention in social phenomena for the present.

But this intervention will only produce the desired results if it rests
upon social science. The positive polity does not propose to direct the
human race towards an arbitrarily selected end. It knows that humanity
is moved by its own impulse, “according to a law no less necessary,
although more modifiable than that of gravitation.”[282] It is only a
question for politics to facilitate this advance by throwing light upon
it. It is a very difficult thing to undergo the action of a law without
understanding it, or to submit to it with a full knowledge of the case.
It remains in man’s power to soften and to shorten crises, as soon as
he grasps their reasons and foresees the issue. He will not pretend to
govern the phenomena, but only to modify their spontaneous development.
“This demands that he should know their laws.”[283]

Let us also know how to own that in respect to many of these phenomena,
and not the least important of them, we are absolutely powerless.
Their conditions escape our grasp. For instance, the duration of human
life is far from being as favourable to social evolution as might be
conceived.[284] On the contrary, after the extreme imperfection of our
organism, the brevity of life is one of the causes of the slowness of
social development. How many powerful minds have died before their full
maturity had yielded all its fruit! What would not have been expected
of their genius if they had been in full possession of their faculties
during three or four centuries!

The positive theory of progress therefore entails neither optimism nor
quietism. The intervention of man being excluded, the social state,
which evolves, according to laws, at each period is just as good and
as bad as it can be, “according to the whole of the situation.”[285]
More than one pessimist would be satisfied with this formula. It is
legitimately drawn from the principle of the conditions of existence.
But, truly, from the point of view of this principle, that is to say,
from the point of view of positive and relative philosophy, there can
be no question either of optimism or of pessimism. Metaphysics alone
can offer an absolute judgment upon the whole of the social reality.
The positive doctrine, here as elsewhere, only seeks the statical and
dynamical laws of phenomena. It is true, that it finds that the social
evolution is, as a matter of fact, accompanied by improvement. But this
improvement is so slow, so laborious, interrupted by so many crises,
disturbed by so many conflicts, that if humanity aspires to a better
condition, it is mainly from her own efforts that she must expect a
slightly more rapid progress.


[259] Cours, IV, 430.

[260] Cours, IV, 299. See also chapter II in Book I.

[261] Cours, IV, 290-7.

[262] Cours, IV, 182-6.

[263] Pol. pos., II, 332-3.

[264] Cours, V, 366.

[265] Cours, IV, 185-7.

[266] This referred in the Author’s mind to the famous quarrel in
French literature between the admirers of ancient poetry like Boileau,
who declared it to be superior to modern poetry, and their opponents
like Perrault and Fontenelle, who took the contrary view.

[267] Cours, IV, 257-9.

[268] Pol. pos., I, 60-3.

[269] Cours, IV, 188.

[270] Pol. Pos., IV, Appendice, p. 199.

[271] Cours, IV, 304-6.

[272] Discours sur l’esprit positif, p. 59-60.

[273] Pol. Pos., I, 106-8.

[274] Pol. Pos., I, 54-56.

[275] Lettres à Valat, p. 140 (8 septembre, 1824).

[276] Cours, IV, 314-20.

[277] Pol. pos. II, 450.

[278] Cours, IV, 273.

[279] Cours, VI, 825.

[280] Cours, IV, 30-1; V, 241-2.

[281] Cours, IV, 266.

[282] Pol. pos., IV, Appendice, p. 95.

[283] Cours, IV, 326.

[284] Cours, IV, 510-12.

[285] Cours, IV, 310-11.



If social dynamics is a science, and if the law of the three states,
discovered by Comte, is its fundamental law, this law (and those which
proceed from it), must explain the successive phases of humanity,
from the first dawn of civilisation, to the present condition of the
most advanced nations. They must “introduce unity and continuity into
this immense spectacle, where in general we see so much confusion
and incoherence.”[286] Thus the counterpart of social science is
a philosophy of history. In it, social science finds its concrete
expression and its verification. In the absence of the prevision of
social facts for the future, a prevision which is rendered almost
impossible by the extreme complication of these facts, social science
at least allows of the “rational co-ordination” of the whole of the

In order to establish this philosophy of history, Comte gave himself
two postulates. The first is common to him and to all those who
endeavoured to set forth the evolution of humanity from its beginnings,
especially before the recent progress made by anthropology. Comte
“constructs” primitive man and the society in which he lived. The
second postulate consists in considering, instead of the history of
the whole of humanity, “the most complete and the most characteristic
evolution,” that is to say, that of the white race; and in this race,
only the populations of western Europe.[287] Comte will almost confine
himself to the periods dealt with by Bossuet in the _Discours sur
l’histoire universelle_, which, moreover, he greatly esteems. His
philosophy of history only embraces Egyptian civilisation, very little
known in his time, then Greece and Rome, and finally after the fall of
the Roman Empire, the development of some Latin and Germanic peoples in

We can understand that Bossuet should have so limited universal history
as to include in it only a small portion of humanity gathered on the
shores of the Mediterranean. He was obliged to do so by the leading
idea in his work which makes the appearance of Christianity the
culminating point in the human drama. All that precedes it must tend
to bring it about, all that comes after it must arise from it. But is
Auguste Comte, like Bossuet, justified in leaving out of universal
history the great civilisations of the far east, almost the whole of
Africa, and the whole of the new world? Since, according to him, there
is no chosen people, nor “providential direction,” must he not consider
the total evolution of humanity? He has no right to isolate a part of
it in an arbitrary manner, and to neglect the rest. He has it all the
less in that he considers the species in its entirety as an individual,
and that this hypothesis of Condorcet has become a principle of social
science with him.

But Comte believes his postulate to be as well justified by his
definition of sociology, as Bossuet’s plan could have been by his
theological doctrine. Resembling on this point the other positive
sciences, sociology is made of laws not of facts. The pure and
simple knowledge of facts is only an end from the point of view of
scholarship. Science only seeks for this knowledge in the measure in
which it is indispensable for the determination of laws. Consequently,
if the evolution of human society proceeded simultaneously at different
points on the globe, as, this evolution takes place, as we suppose,
everywhere according to invariable laws, and as climate and race can
only modify it within very narrow limits, the sociologist is not bound
to study all the societies of the past and of the present. He will
only do so in order to make use of the comparative method, in the
measure which is judged useful and within the limitations permitted by
this method. In the second place, among those historical evolutions,
up to the present time independent of one another, to which will he
give the preference to seek in it the verification of abstract social
dynamics? Evidently to the most complete and the most characteristic:
for there he will have least difficulty in disengaging the laws from
the extraordinary complexity of facts. Have we not seen that the
idea of progress, without which sociology cannot be constituted, has
only been definitely formulated since the French Revolution? Comte
then thought himself authorised to “limit his historical study to
the sole examination of a homogeneous and continuous series, which
was nevertheless justly qualified as universal.” At every moment in
history, the people whose evolution is most advanced represent the
whole of humanity since the rest of humanity is destined, sooner or
later to pass through the same phase. Hence the idea, which is found
equally in Hegel and in Renan, of a “mission” of races and of peoples.
A temporary mission which, while it lasts, constitutes their might and
their right, but which, too often, they have the misfortune to survive.


The positive philosophy of history takes as its guiding principle
the idea of unity. In virtue of a postulate which is an audacious
anticipation concerning an uncertain future, the human species, in
it, is regarded as an immense social unity. Similarly, in it, the
evolution of humanity is regarded as ending in the moral and religious
unity of all men. Humanity goes from spontaneous religion where it
begins, to demonstrated religion where it becomes finally established.
Between the two lies the domain of history. The successive states
through which humanity passes in evolving are not homogeneous. The
theological and the positive spirit are mingled in them at various
degrees. They struggle one against the other. These states then contain
within themselves the principle of their own destruction. Each one
necessarily prepares the appearance of the following one, until the
final state in which the positive spirit alone will predominate.

The spring of these concrete views of history is the logical need
of unity. It is this which determined the initial movement. For the
primitive religions, unity was never perfect. Even at the period when
fetichism rules without question, some rudiments of the positive spirit
exist. Human nature, being invariable, the germ of its final state was
already contained in a primitive state. From that time it was certain
that, if humanity emerged from its primitive state, it would evolve
until it found unity in the final religion.

If this be so, how is it that Comte did not regard the succession of
religious forms as the supreme dynamic law, as the principle of the
philosophy of history? Why did he believe rather that he had found this
principle in the law of the evolution of philosophies? It is because,
according to him, the evolution of religious forms is a function
of intellectual evolution. It is even subordinate to intellectual
evolution, in this sense, that progress in the knowledge of the laws
of nature sooner or later brings about a religious revolution. In the
second place, if the philosophy of history had chosen the succession
of religious forms as its chief axis, it would only have studied the
process of decomposition of beliefs, which, up to the present time, has
led them from the period when all thought is religious (fetichism), to
that when no thought seems to be so any more (philosophical deism). It
would not show at the same time the inverse and simultaneous process
of the positive spirit, which not only determines this progressive
decomposition, but also prepares the elements of a new faith. It would
not show how by degrees, by means of science, this spirit establishes
a conception of nature which by becoming social will become universal,
and which will be the basis of the final religion. This is why Comte,
while making religion the chief element in individual and social human
life, was nevertheless to take the evolution of the intellect, that is
to say, the sciences and the philosophies, as the “guiding thread” of
his philosophy of history.


It does not come within the purpose of this work to give even a summary
outline of the philosophy of history developed by Comte first in the
_Cours de philosophie positive_, and then in the third volume of the
_Politique positive_. Neither shall we disengage the ingenious or
profound views of detail with which it abounds. It will suffice for us
to show how, according to Comte, the laws of social dynamics are always
verified, and how apparent exceptions end by being interpreted in the
direction of these laws.

Fetichism, properly so-called, was succeeded by astrology, then by
polytheism, which was first conservative (the régime of castes in
Egypt), then intellectual (Greece), and social (the Roman empire).
With the Christian religion monotheism comes to be substituted to
polytheism. But does not the theory of progress soon meet with an
insurmountable obstacle? How does it explain the Middle Ages, that
long succession of centuries which Voltaire and the philosophers had
described as full of darkness, of superstition, and of ignorance,
as the disgrace of history? How to reconcile this lamentable
“retrogression” with the “continuity” of progress affirmed by social

Auguste Comte’s answer is presented in two forms.

In the first place the “retrogression” was never complete. At the time
when the Middle Ages were at their darkest in Europe, Arab civilisation
was going through its most brilliant period. In it many of the sciences
were going beyond the extreme point reached by them in antiquity.
The continuity of evolution was then not interrupted. It suffices to
understand, in conformity with the postulate laid down by Comte at the
beginning of social dynamics, that, at this period, the Arabs were the
part of humanity whose intellectual evolution was most advanced, and
who, consequently, represented the rest.

But, above all, the current opinion concerning the Middle Ages is
erroneous. The philosophers of the XVIII. century did not know it.
They only saw this period through their prejudices, or rather they did
not deign to look at it. Nevertheless, the whole spiritual movement
of modern centuries goes back to those “memorable times, unjustly
qualified as dark by metaphysical criticism, of which Protestantism was
the first organ.”[288]

In the first place--and this is a capital proposition in historical
philosophy[289]--the feudal _régime_ as a temporal organisation, was
the natural result of the situation of the Roman world. In any case
it would have been formed, even if the invasions had not taken place.
In virtue of the _consensus_ which is the fundamental principle of
social statics, the other series of phenomena which accompanied the
establishment of the feudal _régime_ were then also produced as a
“natural development,” and it is a misunderstanding to see in them
an interruption of “progress.” The superiority of Antiquity over
the Middle Ages, especially in the fine arts, will be raised as an
objection. But Comte only recognises this superiority in the plastic
arts, and especially in sculpture.[290] According to him, it is
explained by certain features in Greek customs which were sure to
make the people of antiquity incomparable in the art of expressing
the beauty of the human form. For the rest, the æsthetic education of
humanity “progressed during the Middle Ages. Architecture produced
marvels of which antiquity had no idea. Dante is a unique poet.
Modern music has its origin in the old Gregorian. Finally, the art
of the Middle Ages presented two characteristics which the art of
the aristocratic societies of antiquity did not possess, at least in
the same degree. It was spontaneous, that is to say, in full natural
harmony with the whole of the surrounding conditions. Consequently, it
was popular, it expressed marvellously for the people, the very soul of
the people.

If then it be true that “the mainspring of the fine arts is to be found
under the sway of polytheism,” none the less has the development of
our æsthetic faculties been continuous: and the law of progress has
not been reversed. It is true that since antiquity these faculties
have not found a combination of such favourable circumstances, such a
direct and energetic stimulus; but that proves nothing “against their
intrinsic activity, nor against the real merit of their productions.”
The æsthetic spirit has become more widespread, more varied, and even
more complete than it could ever have been in antiquity.[291] Hence
it is that the Renaissance did more harm than good to the fine arts.
It inspired an exclusive and servile admiration for the masterpieces
of antiquity, which are related to an absolute social system. “In
this sense,” says Comte, “the appreciation of the present romantic
school only sins in the direction of historical exaggeration; but its
recriminations are far from being groundless.”[292]

Similarly, the intellectual activity of the Middle Ages has been very
unjustly treated. Certainly, positive philosophy cannot be suspected of
partiality in favour of theological dogmas and metaphysical subtleties.
But, just as in physics we distinguish the material changes, which are
within reach of our senses, and the molecular movements which escape
them, so at certain periods the human intellect produces outside
itself works which testify to its activity, and at other moments,
without being less active its labour remains an internal one. There are
periods of secret and silent preparation. Such, for instance, was the
first portion of the Middle Ages. Far from the human mind remaining
stationary and inactive at that time it did, on the contrary, a very
considerable work: it was creating the modern languages, that is to
say, the indispensable instrument for subsequent progress of thought.

We must also be fair to two immense series of labours, (alchemy and
astrology), which have contributed so greatly and for so long to
the development of human reason. In coming after the astrologers
and the alchemists, modern scientific men not only found “science
roughly outlined by the perseverance of these bold precursors,”[293]
they further received from them the indispensable principle of the
invariability of natural laws. Astrology tended to suggest a high view
of human wisdom. Alchemy restored the feeling of man’s power, which had
been lowered by theological beliefs. In speaking of Roger Bacon, Comte
goes so far as to say that the greater number of the scientific men of
to-day who despise the Middle Ages so much, would be incapable not only
of writing but even of reading “the great composition of this admirable
monk,” on account of the immense variety of views on all orders of
phenomena contained in it.[294]

Comte further enlarges with pleasure upon the mutual obligations
of feudal tenure, “an admirable combination of the instinct of
independence and of the feeling of devotion,” upon the appearance
of chivalry, upon the raising of the condition of women, upon the
enfranchisement of the commons upon the formation of the _tiers état_,
etc.[295] Like the romantic school, being preoccupied with the duty
of fighting the systematic detractors of the Middle Ages, he goes to
the opposite extreme. He no longer sees the famines, the the plagues,
the stakes, the interminable wars. He is not content with showing
that, in spite of all, the Middle Ages was a period of progress. He
wants it to be a model period, in which we should find the indication,
_in all essential aspects_, of the programme which we are to realise

The secret of Comte’s partiality for the Middle Ages is not hard to
discover. He never tires of praising the Catholic organisation of this
period, the separation of the temporal from the spiritual power,[297]
last of all “the miracle of the papal hegemony.” Nothing of the
kind was known in antiquity. That alone suffices to establish the
superiority of the Middle Ages. Positive philosophy will restore this
separation of the two powers to-day. It will complete the “admirable
sketch” drawn of old by the Catholic Church.

Positivism, says Huxley, is “Catholicism minus Christianity.” Comte
would not have protested very violently against this definition.
Indeed, in the Catholicism of the Middle Ages, he distinguishes
between the doctrine and the institutions. The doctrine is on the
decline and will disappear. But the institutions were masterpieces of
political wisdom, and they have only been ruined by having seemed to be
inseparable from this doctrine. They ought to be re-established upon
intellectual bases at once broader and more permanent.[298] Positive
philosophy furnishes these bases. It will know how to restore the
“government of souls,” according to the model left by the Catholic
Church of the Middle Ages.

It has often been said that the social action of Catholicism was
especially due to its moral teaching. Comte reverses this proposition.
The moral efficacy of Catholicism principally depended upon the
constitution of the Church, and only in an accessory way upon its
doctrine.[299] Without the constant action of an organised spiritual
power, a religion, however pure it may be, cannot have much power over
the conduct of men. Catholicism had understood this. It had founded
a system of common education which was equally received by rich and
poor. Morality thus acquired the “ascendency which belongs to it.”
The feelings were subjected to an admirable discipline, which exerted
itself to uproot even the smallest seeds of corruption.[300]

To conclude, “the eternal honour”[301] of Catholicism is to have
brought a decisive improvement into the theory of the social
organism, by the separation of the two powers. Many causes have
contributed to its being misunderstood; the excessive admiration of
the modern historians for the city of classical times, the partiality
of Protestants for the early Church, and finally the contempt of
philosophers for the supposed darkness of the Middle Ages. We judge
of it better to-day. Positive philosophy does not confine itself to
rehabilitating the Catholic organisation: it takes it up again on its
own account. “The more I investigate this immense subject,” writes
Comte to John Stuart Mill, “the more confirmed I become in the view
which I already held twenty years ago, at the time of my work upon the
spiritual power, of regarding ourselves, we, systematic positivists,
as the real successors of the great men of the Middle Ages, by taking
up the social work again at the point to which Catholicism had carried
it.”[302] Undoubtedly the conditions are not the same to-day, and we
must take the differences into account. But as to the extent and the
intensity of action, we may say that for each of the social relations
on which the Catholic clergy had to pronounce, an analogous attribution
exists for the modern spiritual power.[303] In a word, excepting for
the dogma, Comte borrows from the Catholicism of the Middle Ages
almost everything, its organisation, its _régime_, its worship, and,
if he could, its clergy and its cathedrals. His religion will be a
Catholicism raised upon another basis.


The separation between the temporal and spiritual power realised by
Catholicism in the Middle Ages marks a decisive progress in the history
of humanity. But it was not finally established. The _régime_ of
which it formed a part was bound to disappear, because of the “mutual
antipathy” between the elements included within it. The Catholic
organisation of the thirteenth century was first shaken and then
destroyed by the advancing ascendancy of the positive spirit, and the
resistance of theological dogma. From this “organic” period European
society has passed to a “critical” period which has filled centuries,
and which positive philosophy alone is able to bring to a close. The
whole of modern history, political, religious, scientific, æsthetic,
economic, etc., is, at bottom, merely the succession of the necessary
stages in this double work; the decomposition of the _régime_ of the
Middle Ages, and the preparation for the positive period. In a first
phase, which occupies the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the
movement remains a spontaneous one. It ignores the end to which it is
tending. In the second, which extends to the end of the eighteenth
century, the disorganisation becomes deeper under the influence of an
entirely negative philosophy.[304]

The first signs of the decomposition which was beginning were of an
economic order. The phenomena of this order are indeed a factor of
the highest importance in the whole of social life. The economic
evolution, according to Comte, necessarily precedes the æsthetic and
scientific evolution. It is the former, far more than the two latter,
which characterises our civilisation in contrast with the societies of
antiquity.[305] Through it the organisation of modern societies was to
begin. The freeing of the serfs, the foundation of independent urban
communes, the transformation of industry which arose from this, are
described by Comte almost in the same terms as those used by Augustin
Thierry, (who like him had worked by the side of Saint-Simon). It is
the ending of an economic organisation, and the heralding of a new

When this spontaneous decomposition had reached a certain point, the
critical doctrines could appear and push it further. But, to see in
these doctrines the original cause of this great movement, is to credit
them with an exaggerated influence, and even, strictly speaking, an
incomprehensible one. In order that doctrines may arise and prosper
they must find favourable ground. The contrary opinion exaggerates
“beyond all possibility” the political influence of the intellect, and
creates a kind of vicious circle.[306]

The principle of “free examination” was at first, in the XVI century,
only a natural result of the new social situation gradually brought
about by the two preceding centuries. For this principle corresponds to
a state of “non-government” of minds. And this state, in turn, comes
from the progressive dissolution of mental discipline. It lasts so long
as a spiritual power has not been reconstituted upon new foundations.
In a society where spiritual power is normally exercised, that is to
say, where it governs the universality of minds, united by a body of
common beliefs, the need of intellectual liberty is not developed in
individuals. At any rate it does not challenge unanimously accepted
principles. But, when this power is weakened, the principles begin
to be discussed. Each one soon claims to be a judge of their value.
Everything then depends on the combination of social conditions. We can
no more produce than we can stifle this disposition of minds, “outside
the conditions which are favourable or unfavourable to it.” It is only
developed during the periods which are not “organic.” “It is through
having misunderstood this law of social statics that so many historical
errors have been committed, in which the symptom is mistaken for the
cause, and the result for the principle.”[307]

The first general form of the principle of freedom of examination
expressed itself in Protestantism. In it this freedom at first remained
confined within the more or less narrow limits of Christian theology.
The spirit of criticism at first especially endeavoured, in the very
name of Christianity, to ruin the admirable system of the Catholic
hierarchy, which was its social realisation. This is the characteristic
inconsequence of the metaphysical spirit, which always denies the
logical deductions while claiming to maintain the principles, and
which, in this particular case, aspired to reform Christianity at the
same time that it destroyed the necessary conditions of its existence,
that is to say, its organisation.

In the same way, as in the Catholicism of the Middle Ages, Comte
chiefly admires “the masterpiece of political wisdom,” which knew how
to separate the attributes of temporal power from those of spiritual
power; so in Protestantism he especially sees the destructive principle
of this masterpiece. He unceasingly reproaches it with having
subordinated the spiritual to the temporal power in the whole of
Europe. This “chief perturbation” was the origin of all the others.
In accordance with the leaders of the traditionalist school, with
de Maistre and de Bonald in France, with Haller in Germany, Comte
insists upon the close relationship between the Protestant spirit and
the revolutionary spirit. Once it has been demanded, the right of
examination spreads by a necessity which is at once mental and social
and cannot be overcome, to all individuals and all questions. The name
of Protestantism should not be restricted to religious reform. It is
no less suitable for the whole of the revolutionary philosophy. For
this philosophy, from Lutheranism to the Deism of the XVIII. century,
“without excluding Atheism which constitutes its extreme phase” is
a _protestation_, at first against the principles of the old social
order, and then against any organisation, whatever.[308]

The “absolute and indefinite” dogma of free examination sets up each
individual judgment as an arbiter upon all social questions. From this
dogma gradually emerge absolute liberty in speaking and writing, the
political sovereignty of the masses at will creating or destroying
institutions, the equality of all men, the isolation of nations: in
a word, as Haller has said, “social and political atomism.” These
consequences had become inevitable from the day when Protestantism
gave the supreme decision in religious questions to every one, without
taking into account conditions either of competence, or authority. This
first step was a decisive one. If, supposing an impossibility, modern
society were replaced in the state in which it was when Protestantism
succeeded in becoming established, the same necessary succession of
social and political consequences would again unfold themselves.

After that, it matters little that Protestantism should have fought
against the revolutionary spirit, and that it should have disavowed
“anarchical” philosophy. It matters little that it should have made
repeated efforts to constitute a spiritual authority, and that it
should have produced a multitude of sects “of which each pitied the
preceding one and abhorred the one which followed it.”[309] Whatever
it may do, Protestantism remains purely critical, negative and
disorganising. Consequently the part it plays can only be transitory.
It contains no element which the positive organisation should preserve.
It naturally ends in philosophical Deism.

This Deism appears as early as the XVII. century in England, and in
Holland with Hobbes, Spinoza and Bayle. The right of examination is
henceforth recognised as indefinite in principle, but in fact, it is
thought possible to maintain the metaphysical discussion within the
more general limits of monotheism.[310] At bottom they continue “to
destroy religion in the name of the religious principle.” A “rational
theology” is constructed; and the natural religion, dear to the XVIII.
century, is finally reached.

Now, in Comte’s eyes, rational theology is an “incoherent
expression,”[311] and natural religion “a monstrous drawing together
of terms.” As if every religion (with the exception of the positive
one), was not necessarily supernatural! The harmony between
reason and belief, even when sought for with perfect sincerity,
is deadly for faith. For the strength of theological conceptions
lies in their spontaneity. Logical proof, even admitting that it
be really demonstrative, never fortifies and can only weaken them.
The innumerable proofs of the existence of God which have appeared
since the XII. century, not only state the bold doubts of which this
existence has been the object: it can also be asserted that they
have largely contributed to the propagation of those doubts, “either
through the contempt which the weakness of many of these arguments
was bound to reflect upon ancient beliefs, or even by consideration
of the strongest of these arguments.”[312] Popular instinct was not
mistaken in calling the metaphysicians who were working at these proofs
atheists. Their work was essentially anti-theological. Our century sees
it in another light. As the decay of theology still continues, that
which formerly was judged by public opinion as impious, may to-day
appear to be a pious occupation.

The criticism of religious beliefs has been developed and spread
without giving too much offence to temporal power, thanks to the care
taken by philosophers in general to reassure it upon the immediate
consequences of their labours. Hobbes in the XVII. century, Voltaire
in the XVIII. are as conservative from the political point of view
as they are revolutionary from the religious point of view. The
precaution was a very wise one on their part. But it did not arrest the
consequences which arose from their principles. Critical philosophy,
urging the dogma of the freedom of examination to the assault of all
the principles of the established régime, shook and ruined them one
after the other, until the “final explosion” of the French Revolution.
This was the conclusion in fact of the long work of decomposition which
had been going on during five centuries. The old régime was rotten; the
Revolution overturned it, meaning to clear the ground.

But did it lay down the basis of the régime which was to succeed
this one? It did not, replies Comte with Saint-Simon and de Maistre.
He admires the energy of the political gifts of the Convention.
Nevertheless it was wrong in believing that “critical” principles could
take the place and carry out the functions of “organic” principles. So
long as the struggle lasted, the critical principles had been all the
more effective in that they were credited with an absolute value. Thus
the dogma of boundless liberty of conscience had served to destroy the
spiritual power of the catholic clergy, the dogma of the sovereignty
of the people to upset the temporal government, finally the dogma of
natural equality to decompose the system of social classes. But, once
the old régime was abolished the error of taking these dogmas as the
basis of “reorganisation” was committed.

It was not seen that they were incompatible not only with the régime
which they had just destroyed, but _with any social system whatever_.
In this way it is moral and political disorder which was upheld as
the end of social perfection. For, each of the dogmas of the critical
doctrine, when it is taken in an organic sense, “comes exactly to lay
down as a principle that in this particular respect society _must not
be organised_.”[313]

What becomes of government, for instance in this system? “By a direct
and total supervision of the most fundamental political notions,”
government is represented, the necessary enemy of society.[314] The
latter must always hold it in a state of suspicion and of supervision,
it must more and more restrict its modes of activity, and finally only
leave it functions of general police, without its contributing in any
way to the direction of the collective life and social development.
In a word, with no action upon ideas, upon beliefs or feelings, the
government would only have charge of the protection of interests.
But is not this formally denying the very idea of government, which
by definition, should on the contrary represent “the spirit of the
whole,” and the “directing function” of society? Is it not giving up
at the same time the great progress realised by the Middle Ages, that
is to say a spiritual power independent of the temporal power? Even
considering interests alone, this system only maintains order with
great difficulty. It is obliged to have recourse to corruption, and it
leads to continual increase in public expenditure.

The principles of critical philosophy cannot then be used as a
foundation for a new social organisation. The attempt has been made
and has been condemned by history. This failure could have been
foretold. For, being essentially metaphysical, this philosophy implies
a contradiction which necessarily renders it powerless. It tends to
preserve the general bases of the old political system, whose chief
conditions of existence it has however destroyed.[315] There is a very
close relationship between the natural religion of philosophers and
the political conceptions of the revolutionists. The latter are still
connected by their deepest roots with the old order of beliefs which
they have fought against with all their strength. Liberty, equality,
the sovereignty of the people, the whole of the “absolute” rights which
constitute the basis of the revolutionary doctrine is shielded, in the
last place, by a kind of “religious although vague consecration.” The
French Revolution was the work of the Deists. Comte has set apart the
thinkers of the XVIII century whom he considers as his precursors,
that is to say, as the anticipatory representatives of the positive
spirit: Fontenelle, Hume, Montesquieu, Diderot, and d’Alembert, Turgot,
Condorcet and a few others. He judges the rest of the philosophy of
the century more severely. He does not spare the _Encyclopédie_,
and in the majority of the philosophical writings of this period he
finds little but “a frivolous and feeble sophistic argumentation.”
Circumstances almost alone have made its success. This philosophy is
incomparably inferior to that which the counter-revolution opposed to
it. In the logical respect _which finally predominates_, says Comte,
the revolutionary criticism cannot to-day resist the system of the
“retrograde school.” In a regular discussion, the latter would soon
have compelled it to admit that it allows the essential principles
of the old régime while refusing to accept their most indispensable

The inmost contradiction from which the revolutionary philosophy
suffers will become more and more apparent. A not far distant moment
will arrive when the effort to restore the past will include a
large number of those who have contributed to its destruction. The
partisans of natural religion, and even those of the most advanced
Deism will rally to Catholicism as to the real foundation of the
social organisation which they defend. The alternative will then be
set up between the only two solutions which are logical and organic:
either the old régime, with the Catholic organisation, or the new,
with the positive organisation. Between these two there is no room for
the critical, liberal, metaphysical, revolutionary system, which, by
whatever name it may be called, signifies “no organisation at all.”


The old régime was bound to perish because in it, the social
organisation was connected with a system of beliefs and of dogmas
which could not withstand the spirit of investigation. In order that
the new régime may escape this cause of death, must it be able without
suffering to bear the indefinite exercise of an absolute freedom
of examination?——No, replies Comte, there is no system capable of
enduring under these conditions. But it suffices that in constituting
itself, the new faith, which is the basis of social order, should have
undergone the test of free examination as we see it practised in the
positive sciences. It suffices that, instead of a revealed faith, we
should have a demonstrated faith which will then be immovable, and
which will no more have to be called in question.

Comte then admits the preliminary test, but he is opposed to free
examination indefinitely renewed. This distinction allows us to
reconcile some of his declarations which otherwise would appear
contradictory. His language differs according as he speaks of the
positive dogma in the process of formation, or of that dogma once
it has been formed. When it is in process of formation the dogma is
subject to criticism, and if it is not victorious in resisting it
it does not become an object of belief. No matter how much we may
deplore the ever-dissolving energy of the spirit of analysis and of
examination, it remains beneficial none the less, by compelling,
for the intellectual and moral reorganisation, the production of
a philosophy capable of sustaining the decisive test of a deep
discussion, “freely prolonged until the entire conviction of public
reason” has taken place. This is a condition from which nothing
henceforth can exempt us.[317] The spiritual reorganisation, says
Comte, will be the result of purely intellectual action. It supposes
a voluntary and unanimous assent at the end of complete discussion
without the intervention of the spiritual powers to hasten the

But does it follow that freedom of examination should _remain_
indefinitely without limits? Undoubtedly it has been a good thing that
men should see in this liberty an indefeasible right which they were
all to enjoy. The dissolution of old beliefs in this way was easier and
more rapid. The better this “singular phase” in our social development
is analysed, the more will the conviction gain ground that without
the conquest and use of this unlimited freedom social reorganisation
could not have been prepared. But this singular phase was a transitory
one. When it has been gone through, when common principles have again
become universally accepted, “after sufficient verification,” the
right of examination will again return within its normal and permanent
limits, which consist in discussing the connection of consequences
with fundamental and uniformly respected rules, but without again
questioning these rules themselves.[318]

The question then reduces itself to knowing when the test may be
legitimately considered as at an end. Will the individual approbation
of all the members of society be required, and a kind of consecration
by universal suffrage? As a matter of fact, such unanimity will perhaps
never be realised. In justice it is not necessary. When we demand it we
forget that Politic science is a positive science, the highest and most
complicated of all. No one possesses any authority in the sciences if
he is not competent. The people has no thought of making its opinion
prevail in them; and, in matters of science, all who are not in a
condition to understand demonstrations are the people. The convergence
of intellects presupposes the voluntary and intentional renunciation
on the part of the greater number of their “sovereign right of

In this way the right is taken from no one. The use of it is simply
intrusted by those who are incompetent to the competent ones. This
intrusting, freely accepted by all, lasts as long as the conditions
which made it necessary. No moral order could be compatible with
the “wandering liberty of minds at the present time,” if it were to
persist indefinitely. It is not possible that any man, whether he be
competent or not, should every day call into discussion the very bases
of society. “Systematic tolerance cannot exist, and has never really
existed, except on the subject of opinions which are regarded as
indifferent or as doubtful.”[320]

Such is the meaning of the celebrated passages on liberty of conscience
with which Comte has so often been reproached. He had written it in
1822, and quoted it himself in the fourth volume of the _Cours de
philosophie positive_,[321] never suspecting that anything could be
said against it. “There is no liberty of conscience in astronomy,
in physics, in chemistry, in physiology, in the sense that everyone
would deem it absurd not to take on trust the principles established
in these sciences by competent men. If it is otherwise in politics,
it is because the old principles have fallen, and, as the new ones
are not yet formed, there are, properly speaking, in this interval no
established principles.” It is then in no way a question of imposing
beliefs upon men of which they are not to judge, by a kind of spiritual
despotism. Comte merely wishes to extend to politics, _considered as
a positive science_, what is admitted in the other sciences by common


Without much trouble, it is easy to see whence originate the essential
features of this philosophy of history. In so far as it represents the
development of humanity as subject to a law of evolution, which causes
it to go through a succession of phases whose order is rationally
determined, in a word as _progress_, the leading-idea is due to Comte’s
“spiritual father,” to Condorcet.

For the interpretation of more recent events, and for the judgment
passed upon the Middle Ages, Comte draws his inspiration from Joseph
de Maistre, from the traditionalist school, and from Saint-Simon. To
the latter, among other ideas, Comte owes the distinction between the
critical and the organic periods. But, on Comte’s own confession,
Joseph de Maistre’s influence over his mind was especially decisive.
Like de Maistre, he thinks that the entirely negative philosophy of
the XVIII. century knew very well how to destroy, but showed itself
powerless to construct. Like de Maistre again, he is persuaded of the
fact that social order requires a spiritual power beside the temporal
power, and that the régime of the Middle Ages was a “masterpiece of
political wisdom” precisely because at that period the Catholic Church
had brought about the independence of the spiritual power. Finally,
like de Maistre, he makes the salvation of humanity in the future
depend upon their return to a unity of beliefs.

Comte then equally proceeds from the learned ideologist with whom the
philosophical effort of the XVIII. century ends, and from the ardent
traditionalist for whom this very century is the abhorred period of
error and of moral perversion. He undertakes, not indeed to reconcile
them (who can reconcile things which exclude each other?), but to
found a more comprehensive doctrine in which he will combine what he
has received from the one and the other. As such his own task appears
to him, and he does not believe it to be above his power; he feels
himself in a position to avoid the mistakes which his predecessors
were bound to make. Condorcet had a clear idea of social science;
but that did not prevent him from misunderstanding the real onward
movement of the human mind, and only to estimate his own century justly
at the expense of preceding periods. De Maistre in his turn, no less
prejudiced, though in another way, does not understand history any
better. To restore society, to re-establish it in the state in which
it was in the XIII. century, he goes to absurd lengths. He claims to
take no notice of the advance of civilisation, and of the development
of the sciences. Condorcet, who brought to light the idea of progress,
understood nothing in the Middle Ages. De Maistre, who so clearly saw
the excellence of the Middle Ages, denies the glaring fact of progress.

Both are excusable, because they were still too close to the French
Revolution to grasp its full meaning. In the heart of the fray they
were still partially blinded. Comte, who sees things from a greater
distance, also sees them from a higher standpoint. He especially has
at his disposal an instrument which neither Condorcet nor de Maistre
possessed: he has completed the positive method, and he applies it
to the science of historical phenomena. In a word, he has founded

If he did not push social science as far forward as he believed, at any
rate he was right in thinking that his originality lay in this attempt.
The problem was clearly set: to blend into a new and positive science
the social ideas proceeding from the speculation of the XVIII. century
with the historical truths brought to light by the adversaries of this
philosophy. The solution given by Comte is the very soul of his system.
By a twofold and vigorous effort, he created “social physics.” On the
one hand, he carries to the past the idea of progress which Condorcet
could only apply to the future, and this allowed him to institute a
positive philosophy of history. At the same time, he projects into the
future that spiritual order which de Maistre had only seen in the past,
and this furnishes him with the frame for his “social reorganisation”.

This philosophy of history, which no longer contains anything
metaphysical, is social dynamics; this “reorganisation” of society, by
means of a spiritual power, will be the positive polity.


[286] Cours, VI, 457.

[287] Cours, V, 4-5.

[288] Cours, V, 360-1: VI, 50.

[289] Cours, V, 318.

[290] Cours, V, 124-7.

[291] Cours, VI, 148.

[292] Cours, VI, 156-7.

[293] Cours, VI, 248.

[294] Cours, VI, 194.

[295] Cours, V, 325.

[296] Pol. pos., II, 121-131.

[297] Cours, V, 306 sq.

[298] Cours, V, 362.

[299] Cours, V, 335.

[300] Pol. pos., II.

[301] Cours, V, 541-5.

[302] Correspondance de Comte et de John Stuart Mill, p. 458 (14,
juillet 1845.)

[303] Pol. pos., IV, Appendice, p. 193.

[304] Cours, V, 413.

[305] Cours, VI, 23.

[306] Cours, V, 414.

[307] Cours, V, 314-16.

[308] Cours, V, 431-33; 467-8; 511-13.

[309] Cours, V, 531.

[310] Cours, V, 435.

[311] Cours, VI, 236.

[312] Cours, V, 589.

[313] Pol. pos., IV, Appendice, p. 180-1.

[314] Cours, VI, 36.

[315] Cours, IV, 60.

[316] Cours, IV, 159.

[317] Cours, IV, 75 sq.

[318] Cours, IV, 40.

[319] Cours, IV, 100.

[320] Cours, IV, 46.

[321] Cours, IV, 46.




In Comte’s system Ethics occupies an intermediate place between
theoretical philosophy and politics. Ethics rests upon the philosophy
as Politics rests on the principles of Ethics.

Ethics is not an abstract speculative science; it does not therefore
belong to the hierarchy of the fundamental sciences. It is true that,
at the end of his life, Comte added a seventh to the six sciences of
the early list,[322] which precisely was ethics, that is to say the
science of the laws which govern the emotions, passions, desires, etc.,
of man considered as an individual. But here it is more a question of
ethical psychology than of ethics understood in the sense usual with
philosophers. The latter, in Comte’s eyes, never constituted the object
of a special science. As a matter of fact, either the laws of moral
phenomena are studied, and this research, founded upon the positive
knowledge of individual and collective human nature, forms a part
of sociology. Or, starting from the knowledge of these laws, we ask
ourselves what would be the best use for the power possessed by man
of modifying phenomena; in this case it is an art whose rules must be
determined. But for these rules to be rationally established, social
science itself must be rationally founded. Thus, from the practical
as from the speculative point of view, positive ethics depends upon


In the XVIII. cent. Comte distinguishes three schools of Ethics: the
utilitarian school, especially represented in his view by Helvetius;
the Kantian School, which he knows through Cousin; and finally the
philosophy of the moral sentiment; that is to say, the Scottish school;
by none of the three is he fully satisfied. The Utilitarianism of
Helvetius rests upon an inadequate psychology, which distorts human
nature by denying against all evidence the existence of altruistic
inclinations. He involuntarily tends to “reduce all the social
relations to low coalitions of private interests.” The ethics of
duty, as presented by Cousin, at any rate, organises “a kind of
mystification, in which the so-called permanent disposition of each
one to direct his conduct according to the abstract idea of duty would
end in a small number of clever schemers taking advantage of the human
race.” These remarks, in Comte’s mind address themselves less to the
doctrine than to the person of Cousin. Finally the Scottish school was
nearer to the truth than the others, since it admitted the existence
of the altruistic tendencies beside the selfish ones. But it lacked
precision and strength.

These various schools of ethics had a common failing by which they
stood condemned as erroneous: they were constituted before the science
of human nature had become positive. Thus utilitarian morality is
quite deducible from a psychology such as that of Condillac: but
this “metaphysical” psychology treated man chiefly as a reasoning
and calculating being, and misunderstood the preponderance of the
affective faculties. In the same way, the “german,” that is to say
Cousin’s philosophy, represents the _ego_ as being free, of an absolute
freedom, and as being subjected to no law whatever: hence a strange and
metaphysical system of ethics of duty.

Theological doctrines of ethics hitherto have been very superior
to those which have been produced by philosophical speculation. The
reason for this is simple. Without any scientific apparatus, religion
implies a far more exact psychology than that of philosophers up to
the present time. It deals with man “concrete” and real. It was bound
not to misunderstand the relative importance of his faculties, and the
respective power of his inclinations and his passions. The priest very
often has a better knowledge of men than the metaphysician.

Comte especially admires Christian morality or, more precisely, the
teaching of this morality as it was given by the Catholic church in
the Middle Ages. “All the different branches of this morality have
received most important improvements from Catholicism.” In saying “Love
thy neighbour as thyself,” in making charity the supreme virtue, in
fighting against selfishness as the source of all vices, Christian
morality has taught what above all other things must be engraved upon
men’s hearts. Positive philosophy will use the same language. “For
anyone who has gone deeply into the study of humanity, universal love
as Catholicism conceived it is still more important than the intellect
itself in the economy of our individual or social existence, because to
the gain of each one and of all, love makes use even of the least of
our mental faculties, while selfishness disfigures or paralyses even
the best dispositions.”[323]

But the greatest merit of Catholicism has been that it considered
ethics as “the first of social necessities.” Everything is subordinated
to it: it is subordinated to nothing. It dominates the entire life
of man so as ceaselessly to direct and control all his actions. In
ancient society, morals depended upon politics. In Christian society
even politics borrows its principles from morals. That was the finest
triumph of “Catholic wisdom,” which instituted a spiritual power
independent of the temporal power.

Unfortunately this pure and lofty morality has linked its destinies
with those of Catholicism. Now, Catholicism has been unable to keep
pace with the progress of the intellect and of the positive method.
At first it gave proof of “admirable liberality.” Later it became
indifferent, and then hostile, to scientific progress. Finally it
showed itself to be “retrograde,” when it had to struggle for its own
existence. Catholic dogmas underwent a decomposition the necessary
stages of which have been already described[324] as it was bound to
happen, and as a matter of fact did happen, the morality itself came
to be affected by the attacks which were loosening the foundations of
dogma. The work of criticism, after having successively ruined all the
foundations of the old intellectual system, was subsequently to attack
those of ethics. So we see the family, marriage, heredity, “assailed by
senseless sects.”[325] To be sure, private morality depends upon other
conditions than those of unanimous opinions immovably established.
Natural feeling speaks in it. Nevertheless it is not beyond the reach
of “corrosive discussion,” when opinions of this kind are lacking, but
public morality is all the more threatened. Here, without naming them,
but clearly pointing them out, Comte attacks the schools of Saint-Simon
and Fourier. “While dreaming about reorganisation of society they only
developed the most dangerous anarchy.” Saint-Simonism endeavoured to
ruin the family which the revolutionary storm, “with a few exceptions,”
had respected. Fourierism denies the most general and the commonest
principle of individual morality: the subordination of the passion to

Must we then go back, as the retrograde school would have us do, and
in order to save morality base it once again upon revealed religion?
But the remedy, if it be not worse than the disease, is at least
powerless to cure it. How could the religious dogmas be used as a
support for morality when they cannot sustain themselves? What, in
the future, can we expect from beliefs which have not withstood the
progress of reason? Far from being able to furnish a solid basis for
morality to-day, religious beliefs tend more and more to become doubly
detrimental to it. On the one hand they are opposed to the human mind
placing it on a more solid foundation; and, on the other hand, they are
not active enough, even among those who believe in them, to exert a
marked influence upon conduct. The clearest result of these dogmas is
to inspire the greater number of men who are still imbued with them,
with an instinctive and insurmountable hatred of those who have shaken
them off.


Being founded upon positive science, Comte’s ethics will reproduce its
essential characteristics. In the first place it will be “real,” that
is to say it will rest upon observation and not upon imagination. It
will consider man as he is and not as he fancies himself to be. It will
then rest, not upon the abstract analysis which he may make of his own
heart, but upon the proofs given by humanity of its inclinations and
of the usual motives for its actions, during the centuries made known
to us by history. In a word, through the use of an objective and truly
scientific method, it will avoid serious causes for mistakes.

Being positive, this morality will be relative. For the immediate and
necessary consequence of the relativity of knowledge is the relativity
of morality. Kant, whom Comte himself called “the last of his great
precursors,” attempted to preserve an absolute character for ethics: it
is because, at bottom, he also preserved metaphysics. The moral law,
says Kant, is universally valid for every free and reasonable being.
But the only species of beings of this kind which we know, the human
species, is developed in time according to the laws of a necessary
progress. At every stage in this development it was not possessed of
an equal aptitude for understanding a moral law. The most we can say
is that, with time, the aptitude becomes greater and greater. Then,
the existence of our species depends upon a great number of natural
conditions--astronomical, physical, biological, sociological. If these
conditions were different, which is not an absurd hypothesis, our
morality would be different also. It is then relative at once to our
situation and to our organisation.”

The idea of a relative morality is still a source of anxiety to many
minds, who take it to be a preliminary step towards the negation of all
morality. They think that, either good is absolute or the distinction
between good and evil vanishes; there is no middle course. However,
history shows that there is a way out of such deadlocks. Was not a
similar dilemma put on the subject of knowledge? Was it not even said:
either truth is absolute, or there is not truth at all? The dilemma was
a false one. The human mind has become accustomed to relative truths;
and an analogous solution will end by being also accepted for ethics.
The acknowledgment of its relativity will not be any more fatal for it
than it has been for science.

As the distinction between the true and the false subsists, although
good is no longer conceived as absolute and immutable, so the
distinction between good and evil subsists, although good is no longer
conceived as a supreme theological or metaphysical reality, but as a
“progress” towards an end indefinitely approached but never reached.
The evolution of morality corresponds to that of knowledge. Both go
through successive phases, of which each one implies the preceding
ones, and preserves while modifying them. There are then “goods” as
there are “truths,” provisional and temporary. Positive philosophy can
thus give a reason for moral ideas, sometimes so poor and even so
horrible, upon which humanity formerly lived. It does not judge the
ethics of the past as compared with the ideals of to-day. It gives full
justice to the theological and philosophical ethics which it replaces,
and of which it proclaims itself the legitimate heir.

Finally it claims neither to be moral nor original in morality. Already
positive science is “a prolongation of public reason.” In its nature it
does not differ from simple commonsense, to which it owes its essential
ideas: only in science these ideas assume a more systematic definition,
and an abstract character which allows us to make the most thorough
use of them. In the same way systematic morality is a prolongation of
spontaneous morality.[326] It simply disengages the principles which,
as a matter of fact, have directed the moral development of humanity.
Does it follow from this that it only has, so to speak, an interest for
curiosity, and that moral progress takes place of itself as rapidly
and as completely as possible, even if philosophical reflection is not
applied to it? But Comte has already replied to this form of inept
sophism. What is true of the evolution of humanity in general is true
of the moral evolution included in it. This evolution allows of crises,
of diseases, of stoppages in development, etc. It is then not at all
a matter of indifference that systematic morality should bring out
strongly the end towards which man’s efforts must tend, according to
his nature and to the whole of the conditions in which he is placed. By
throwing light upon its advance it helps progress as effectually as it
is in man’s power to help it.


In its positive form the enunciation of the moral problem is as much
as possible to make the sympathetic instincts predominate over the
selfish impulses, “sociability over personality.”[327]

That human nature admits of sympathetic instincts, or, according to the
name given them by Comte, _altruistic_ instincts, is not a postulate
but a fact. Positive psychology proves it. It is one of the solid
portions of Gall’s doctrine. To be convinced of this it is enough to
observe men, children, and even animals. Without these instincts,
moreover, society would not subsist. Metaphysicians who considered
man as a being acting chiefly through reasoning, may have imagined a
society founded upon the expressed or tacit consent of the contracting
parties. In reality, before all things men obey their inclinations. If
they live in society, it is assuredly because their affective faculties
lead them to it. Without inborn altruistic tendencies there can be no
society and no morality.

But biology has proved that, since organic life preponderates
over animal life, the selfish instincts are naturally stronger
than the sympathetic ones. How could the latter succeed first in
counter-balancing and then in dominating the former? This problem
would have no solution if the progressive ascendency of the altruistic
instincts, very weak originally, were not favoured by two orders of
conditions, the one subjective, the other objective, whose action is
unceasingly felt.

The following development of domestic and social affection is, in
the first place, the result of the fact that man lives in society,
and, consequently, in continual relation with his neighbours and his
fellows. For, as we know, habitual exercise favours the development
of organs and of functions. Further, the natural inferiority of the
altruistic inclinations is compensated for by their aptitude for
“indefinite extension.” They can grow in all the members of a group at
the same time. Far from their being obstacles in each other’s way,
the stronger altruism in one awakens and encourages nascent altruism
in others. On the contrary, forms of selfishness tend to exclude each
other. Save in the case of a more or less durable coalition, their
rival claims clash with each other, to the peril of social peace.
They are bound to make mutual concessions. They are never altogether
repressed; however, social life obliges them to dissimulate and to
restrain their most violent outbursts.

Add to this that the benevolent affections find in themselves their own
satisfaction, and that this satisfaction is inexhaustible. We tire of
acting, said Comte, we even tire of thinking; we never tire of loving.
The affections which it is sweetest to experience have also a tendency
to occupy a larger and larger place in the heart of man. Moreover the
question for them is not to take the place of egoism but to hold it
more and more in check. If human nature evolves it is, as we know,
without any essential transformation. The preponderance of selfishness
in us is connected with organic reasons which are beyond our power
and which will never change. To wish to uproot egoism is folly; _qui
veut faire l’ange fait la bête_. Whatever efforts we make, we cannot
permanently change the relations between our altruistic and egoistic
instincts. The latter will always be the strongest. But we can regard
this change as an ideal which we shall approach always without ever
actually reaching it.[328]

Finally, it is rare that our selfish instincts do not awaken some
altruistic feeling as a counter-result. For example, the sexual
instinct determines the development of maternal love. The desire to
impose one’s will generates devotion to the common weal. Once the
benevolent affection has arisen it persists and grows, and, after the
selfish instinct has ceased to operate, it is sometimes sought after
for its own sake. This fact, says Comte, greatly facilitates the
“solution of the great human problem.”[329]

This solution would however remain exceedingly uncertain and very
precarious if its only guarantee were the whole of the subjective
conditions which have just been analysed. For, in order that it may
become established and last, this group of conditions itself requires
what Comte calls an “objective basis.” The moral order within us must
be united to the order of the world outside ourselves.

It is true that, including the altruistic ones, our inclinations
tend to become spontaneously developed. But it is also true that the
external world tends constantly to modify them, through the medium
of the impressions which it makes upon us. For the development of
these inclinations is necessarily affected by the direction of our
conceptions and by the success of our undertakings. Now both are ever
becoming more subordinated to external order, since the end of science
is to know this order, and that of the useful arts is to modify it. In
this way, independently of ourselves, order tends in a twofold manner
to regulate our instincts, “either by the excitement resulting from
the notions which it procures, or by exercise corresponding to the
efforts which it demands.”[330] In a word, the laws of the “_milieu_”
in which we live act like a regulation upon our inclinations. Although
an indirect one, the influence of these laws upon them becomes in the
long run irresistible.

And further, in order to be felt, this action does not require that we
should have a more or less clear knowledge of it. Even at the time when
man knew almost nothing of the laws of nature, his activity was more
or less controlled by them. The ends sought after by man have always
depended upon his moral and physical nature: the reason of the failure
or the success of his efforts have always been found in the natural
laws. Gradually positive knowledge was developed. Man became conscious
of the order by which he is himself surrounded, of which he feels
himself to be a portion, and in which his intellect collaborates in a
measure difficult to determine but yet certain. The external regulator
which, whatever our will may be, imposes itself upon our activity is
thus revealed to our mind. The last degree to be reached is that it
should finally be accepted by our feeling. This is precisely the result
obtained by positive philosophy. For it makes us know our individual
and social nature. It has shown us that humanity must not be explained
by man, but man by humanity. It has explained the growing development
of social life and that of altruism, which is at once its condition and
its consequence. We now understand that our benevolent affections find
themselves “spontaneously in conformity with the natural laws which
govern the development of society.”[331]

Thus it is the continual pressure of external order which makes our
egotistic instincts capable of being trained. They would undoubtedly
get the mastery, if our sympathetic inclinations did not find without,
in the laws of nature, a constant support which reason ends by

Moral perfection would be harmony realised among all men, by their
mutual goodwill, according to the principle: _Live for others_, and,
at the same time, harmony realised in each individual soul, by the
subjection of egoism to the altruistic sentiments. But this harmony is
not what is produced in the first place. On the contrary, war rages
between the social groups, discord between the members of the same
groups, the passions in each individual soul. Sometimes one, sometimes
another of our tendencies influences us, according to circumstances
whose details vary to infinity. No stable order of subordination is
established among our tendencies: human nature, considered by itself,
does not contain any principle which could maintain such an order.
Left to itself, the human soul would remain in the state called
by Spinoza “fluctuation.” The moral problem would have no durable
solution. Hence the necessity of a “universal brake,” to make sure of
the development of the altruistic tendencies. This brake is no other
than the inevitable and continual pressure of the order of the world
upon our conduct, and in the long run, _upon our motives_.

When the human mind wishes to direct its own phenomena, it
instinctively seeks, in the general system of intelligible facts which
constitutes the world, a group of well combined data, in order to
refer its own less stable phenomena to it. We have already seen an
example of this kind in the formation of language. Man “consolidates”
his thought by coordinating it with a combination of signs which
themselves are movements, and, as such, are subject to the general
laws of the universe. In ethics we find something analogous. The main
artifice in moral perfection, writes Comte, lies in diminishing the
inconsistency, indecision and divergency in our purposes, by connecting
our moral and practical intellectual habits with external motives. The
mutual links between our various tendencies are incapable of securing
their stability, until they have found an immovable fulcrum outside
themselves. To endure, the harmony of the soul must be realised by
itself as founded on reason, that is to say, upon the order of the


What place must we assign to this positive ethics, in the usual
classification of ethical doctrines? It is often considered as a
theory of the moral sentiment. And, as a matter of fact, Comte himself
characterises his ethics by “the direct preponderance of the social
feeling.” In its origin also it belongs to this group. Comte makes use
of Adam Smith and of Hume, when he affirms the existence of inborn
altruistic tendencies within the soul. He indicates these tendencies,
in his _Cerebral Table_, under the general name of “sympathy,” which
comes from the Scottish school. Establish these altruistic feelings, he
says, and morality is given, take them away, and morality disappears.

But these philosophers did not push analysis any further. They
neglected to inquire how morality is developed in fact, although
the altruistic tendencies are less powerful than the others. Comte
reproaches the ethics of the Scottish school with its superficial
character and its lack of systematic strictness. He praises their
psychology which is less incomplete than that of their contemporaries;
he is not satisfied with their theory of human activity. If the
existence of sympathetic inclinations is a fact, their evolution must
none the less be explained. The latter only becomes intelligible
through the continued action of the objective order upon the soul of
man, an action which becomes all the more decisive as man becomes more
conscious of it, by the discovery of the laws of nature.

Thus, in order to give an account of human morality, Comte adds a
rational element to the feeling-elements. Undoubtedly it is not an _a
priori_ element. But it is that which for Comte is the substitute of
the _a priori_ in metaphysical doctrines: that is the invariableness
of the laws of phenomena, which makes the world intelligible. From the
speculative point of view this intelligibility, under the name of “the
principle of laws,” is the basis of our science. From the practical
point of view, the order of the world alone can guarantee the lasting
harmony of our inclinations. In this way it becomes the foundation of

In spite of the more than evident differences of all kinds which
separate Comte from Malebranche and from Leibnitz, it then appears that
in his philosophy as in theirs, the idea of _order_ is made use of
to pass from the domain of knowledge to that of action. Undoubtedly,
with Comte, from theological or metaphysical this idea has become
positive. He does not intend to go beyond experience, and affirms
nothing which cannot be verified as a fact. But, like the philosophers
his predecessors, he is none the less anxious to find the unity of
the soul beneath the diversity of its modes of activity, and to show
that theoretical reason and practical reason are one and the same.
Malebranche solved the problem by appealing to the idea of divine
perfection, expressed everywhere by order. Comte explains that the
pressure exercised by external order generates order in our mind (which
moreover collaborates in it), then, as a consequence, in our feelings
and finally in our actions. The stoics had already said something
similar on this subject. Briefly, Comte’s ethics may be presented as
the positive form of the ethics of universal order.

Shall we then say that, being sentimental and rational at once, this
morality is not definite in character? Is it merely an eclectic attempt
at conciliation?--Eclecticism in a certain sense would not frighten
Comte. Positive philosophy flatters itself on being just in regard
to its predecessors. It takes pleasure in praising each of them for
the portion of truth which it contains. But, in the present case
there is no occasion for it to be eclectic. It suffices for it to be
relative, and, since it is a question of moral and social things, to
appeal to history. Thus we see that the sentimental and the rational
principles in no way exclude each other. From the historical point
of view, that is to say, if we consider the genesis of morality, the
latter finds birth in the sympathetic _feelings_ which man, like many
other animals, experiences, and which are spontaneously developed in
domestic affection and in social life. How is it that subsequently this
morality evolves, that friendly relations grow indefinitely in relative
importance, in spite of the inborn strength of selfishness, that
humanity, in a word, should gradually rise above animality? Without
any doubt, that is due to the development of _intelligence_, itself
bound up with the efforts which man is obliged to make to adapt himself
to the “_milieu_” in which he lives.

Instinctive in its animal origin, morality becomes rational in its
human evolution. We can say as much of language, of art, of science,
and even of religion. All this was in embryo in the primitive nature
of man, since nothing absolutely new ever appears in it. All this
only manifested itself under pressure from external order, which,
consciously or unconsciously, is always being exercised. Only when we
know this order, we can make use of our science to turn the natural
forces to our own ends, which in themselves are rational. It is in this
way that systematic morality is substituted to spontaneous morality.

If we were more intelligent, says Comte, it would be equivalent to our
being more moral. Understanding better the intimate connection which
in a thousand ways, at every moment, binds each one of us to the whole
of our fellows, we should more surely observe the precept: “Live for
others.” And, if we were more moral, it would be equivalent to our
being more intelligent. We would then act precisely as a more open and
a deeper intelligence than our own would lead us to act. Now, we cannot
become more moral by an immediate modification of our inclinations.
Positive psychology has established that we exercise no direct action
upon the affective part of our nature. But we can endeavour to become
more intelligent: every successful effort that we make to understand
the order of nature affords us the means of making fresh attempts.[332]
In this indirect manner morality can grow. Finally, it grows still more
surely, when the intellect has understood that it does not contain
its end within itself, that it must be subordinated to the heart, and
that the only happiness compatible with the nature of man is found in
devotion and in love.


[322] Pol. pos., II, 436-7; III, 46-50; IV, 233, Catéchisme
positiviste, 57-59, 121-123.

[323] Cours, V, 345-6.

[324] Cours, IV, 103-8.--See Book III, chapter V.

[325] Cours, IV, 104.

[326] Pol. pos., I, 9.

[327] Pol. pos., I, 92.

[328] Catéchisme positiviste, p. 10.

[329] Catéchisme positiviste, p. 138.

[330] Pol. pos., II. 26-30.

[331] Pol. pos., I, 23.

[332] Pol. Pos., IV, appendix, p. 18.



“Live for others”: such is the supreme formula of positive ethics.
Feeling bears witness to its justice; science discloses its
far-reaching importance and its deep consequences. But this formula
is not only applied in a general way to the natural society formed by
men among themselves, a society in which Comte even includes animals
capable of affection and of devotion, whose services deserve our
gratitude. The moral law finds a precise application in the definite
relations established among men by civic society, that is to say in
the rights and in the mutual duties of individuals. If it be true that
ethics and politics are distinct from each other, politics is none
the less closely subordinated to ethics. The spiritual power does not
govern; however it directs those who govern as well as those who are
governed. It is this power which gives to all the sum of common beliefs
and feelings which enable Society to live. Thus to ethics belongs the
task of determining the principles according to which positive politics
will regulate the relations between men.

Now, as a matter of fact, these relations are in a very unsettled
condition to-day. Public order is unstable, revolutions are
frequent, suffering is excessive. Are we to lay the blame upon
public institutions? They are rather an effect than a cause. In
order to understand the present condition it is necessary to grasp
the law of the general evolution of humanity, and in particular
that of European Society. It then becomes apparent that the actual
disturbances proceed from the great conflict inaugurated by the
French revolution. This conflict is still going on. The old régime
has not yet quite disappeared, and the régime which is to take its
place is not yet organised. The struggle is prolonged between the
theologico-metaphysical spirit and the positive spirit, between
revealed belief which is becoming weaker and demonstrated belief which
is being formed, and finally between the old economic landmarks and an
industrial activity whose laws have not yet been discovered.

The relations between masters and workmen are at the present time
“anarchical.” The advance of industry, as it grows, oppresses the
majority of those whose co-operation in it is indispensable. And the
ever more strongly marked division between “brains and hands” is far
more due to the political incapacity, the social thoughtlessness,
and especially to the blind selfishness of the masters than to the
inordinate demands of the workmen.[333] The capitalists have not dreamt
of organising a liberal education for the people to defend it against
the seductions of the revolutionary propaganda. They seem to fear that
the people should receive instruction. As far as they can, they take
the place of the ancient chiefs whose social rank they covet. But they
do not inherit their generosity. They do not understand that “noblesse
oblige.” In this way the great masters of industry too often tend to
utilise their political influence to the detriment of the public, to
appropriate important monopolies and to take the advantage of the power
of capital to make the claims of the masters predominate over those
of the workers, without any regard for equity, since the right of
coalition which is allowed to the former is refused to the latter.

Comte saw the _bourgeoisie_ at work during Louis-Philippe’s reign,
and he passes severe judgment upon it. Its political conceptions,
he says, refer not to the aim and exercise of power, but especially
to its possession. It regards the revolution as terminated by the
establishment of the parliamentary _régime_, whereas this is only an
“equivocal halting place.” A complete social reorganisation is not less
feared by this middle class than by the old upper classes. Although
filled with the critical spirit of the XVIII. century, even under a
Republican form it would prolong a system of theological hypocrisy,
by means of which the respectful submission of the masses is insured,
while no strict duty is imposed upon the leaders.[334] This is hard
upon the proletariat, whose condition is far from improving. It
“establishes dungeons for those who ask for bread.”[335] It believes
that these millions of men will be able to remain indefinitely
“encamped” in modern society without being properly settled in it with
definite and respected rights.[336] The capital which it holds in its
hands, after having been an instrument of emancipation, has become one
of oppression. It is thus that, by a paradox difficult to uphold, the
invention of machinery, which _a priori_, one would be led to believe,
would soften the condition of the proletariat, has, on the contrary,
been a new cause of suffering to them, and has made their lot a doubly
hard one.[337]

Here, in brief, we have a formidable indictment against the middle
classes, and in particular against the political economy which has
nourished them. Comte has in view sometimes the classical economists of
the end of the XVIII. century, sometimes their orthodox successors in
the XIX. Those of the XVIII. he regards as having collaborated in the
great revolutionary work. They took part in the diffusion of critical
doctrines and of negative philosophy. In this capacity they have, no
doubt, rendered certain services. They contributed to the decomposition
of the old régime. Political economy had succeeded in convincing the
governments themselves of their unfitness to direct the commercial and
industrial movement.[338]

The affinities between the philosophers and the economists of the
XVIII. century are evident enough: is it necessary to recall the spirit
of “individualism” of the economists, and their characteristic tendency
to restrict the functions of government as much as possible? Despite
the efforts of a great number among them, conservatives by temperament
or by political tendencies, the logical consequences of their
principles were bound to come to light. Thus “the superfluity of all
regular moral teaching, the suppression of all official encouragement
of science and the fine arts; even the recent attacks against the
fundamental institution of property find their origin in economical
metaphysics.” It was with this doctrine as with the other parts of
negative philosophy; after having accomplished its work of destruction,
it sought to transform its critical principles into organic ones,
without realising that this amounted to repudiating beforehand any
positive organisation.

The famous formula, “Laissez faire, laissez passer,” is no more a
real principle in political economy than liberty itself is one in
politics properly so-called. Comte vigorously opposes the dogma of
non-intervention. Because in some particular and secondary cases
political economy has ascertained “the natural tendencies of societies
in the direction of a certain necessary order, it concluded from this
that any special institution is useless.” But this order is extremely
imperfect. The knowledge of sociological laws will give us the power
of improving it, as we already do in the case of medicine and surgery.
Merely to admit the degree of order which is spontaneously established
in practice is equivalent to “a solemn dismissal in the case of every
difficulty which arises.” Look at the social crisis brought about by
the development of machinery. In reply to the just and urgent claims
of the workmen suddenly deprived of their means of livelihood, and
unable in a day to find another, our economists can only repeat, “with
merciless pedantry,” their barren aphorism about absolute industrial
liberty. To all complaints they dare to answer that it is a question of
time! And this to men who require food to-day! “Such a theory proclaims
its own social impotence.”[339]

And so neither is political economy a science yet, nor, so far, are
economists men of science. Originally being nearly all barristers
or men of letters, they were strangers to the idea of scientific
observation, to the precise notion of a natural law, and finally to
the sense of what constitutes a demonstration. If we make an exception
of Adam Smith and of a few others, how could they apply the positive
method which they did not know to the most difficult cases of analysis?
Destutt de Tracy placed political economy between logic and ethics. And
this was not without reason: for it is nearer to metaphysics than to
positive science. In it, work preserves its personal character, schools
contend with each other, the discussions as to the elementary notions
of value, of utility, etc., savour of scholasticism. The very idea of
studying economical phenomena separately is not scientific, since the
various “social series” are interdependent, and since in sociology
more particular laws depend upon more general laws.[340] There is no
scientific study of economical facts unless we first look at them from
the sociological point of view. We can no more isolate the laws which
regulate the material existence of societies than we can describe man
as an essentially calculating being, only actuated by the motive of
personal interest.

The same objections naturally hold good against the adversaries of the
economists, since, in general, socialists and communists have confined
themselves to an analogous conception of their science. However, while
criticising them, Comte recognises the fact that they have established
some truths. Everything they say is not false. Thus, they justly claim
the right for the government to intervene in economical relations. And,
if it be absurd to wish to abolish private property, as certain sects
demanded, it is very true that property is of a social nature, and
that it is necessary to regulate it.[341] To endow it with an absolute
character is, says Comte, an “anti-social” theory. No property can
be created, nor even transmitted, by its mere possessor without the
concurrence of society. Thus always and everywhere the community has
intervened in the exercise of the right of property. The tax makes the
public a partner in every private fortune.

In discussing the essential problems of property, the communists
(whom Comte confuses with the socialists), to-day render an important
service. The very dangers called forth by the solution they propose
concur in fixing the general attention upon this great subject,
“without which the metaphysical empiricism and the aristocratic
selfishness of the leading classes would cause it to be set aside or
disdained.” Merely to state the problem without the solution with which
the communists associate it, would not suffice. Our weak intellect
does not fasten upon a question for long, unless a reply to it, be it
true or false, which we must accept or reject is forthcoming at the
same time. Moreover, are the communist “aberrations” more useless,
and at bottom, more dangerous than the current illusion according to
which the Revolution is ended by the establishment of the parliamentary

But, this being admitted the innovating schools have all fallen into
grave mistakes. In general, being devoid of the historic sense, and on
the other hand, ignoring the principles of social statics, they do not
see that man’s action upon social phenomena is only usefully exercised
within certain limits. The idea that a revolution can, in a moment,
transform the _régime_ of property and all the social conditions
which depend upon it is destined to disappear, when the “positive
mode of thought” shall have extended to the social phenomena in the
same way as it has to all others. Then the “extravagant proposals”
of the socialists will find no adherents, and the demand for what is
recognised as impossible will no longer be made by anyone.[343]

Finally, Comte reproaches communism with its tendency to restrain
individuality. This objection, coming from him, is remarkable, for it
has very often been made in his own case. As an organiser of despotism,
John Stuart Mill has compared him to Ignatius of Loyola. But Comte
reminds us that, according to him, the collective organism, or society,
differs from the individual organisms, or living beings, by the fact
that in it the elements live an independent life. The problem consists
in conciliating, as much as possible, this free division with the
convergence of the activities. Neither of the two must be sacrificed
to the other. To restrain individualities would tend to destroy the
dignity of man by doing away with his responsibility, while the want
of independence, and the subjection to a community indifferent to him
would make life intolerable. “Such is the immense danger of all utopias
which sacrifice real liberty to an anarchical equality, or even to an
exaggerated fraternity.”[344] On this point, positive philosophy on its
own account takes up again the “decisive criticism” of communism made
by our economists.


Positive philosophy does not confine itself to refuting the orthodox
economists and the socialists by the help of their own arguments. In
its turn it takes up all the questions raised by them, and, for their
solution, takes its stand upon the results obtained by sociology.

In the first place it states the problem of “social reorganisation”
in its most general form. Socialists, in the same way as their
adversaries, are only concerned with riches as if they were the only
ill-divided and ill-administered social forces. But there are others.
The reform of economical conditions depends, in conclusion, upon that
of morals. Before all things then we must “reorganise” morals. We
must determine the rights and mutual duties of citizens, and inspire
everyone with the feeling of his duty and with respect for the rights
of others.

The two ideas of right and of duty are not dealt with by Comte in the
same manner. He accepts the idea of duty without subjecting it to a
special criticism. Duty is the rule of action prescribed to each one
both by feeling and by reason. It is our duty to do what we recognise
as most suitable to our individual and social nature. On the contrary,
the idea of right “disappears” in the positive state. The word “right”
must be removed from political language, in the same way as the word
“cause” is from philosophical language. They are two metaphysical
notions. Everyone has duties, and towards all. No one has any right
properly so-called. “The idea of right is as false as it is immoral,
because it presupposes an absolute individuality.”[345]

These formulæ called forth strong protests, particularly from M.
Renouvier and his disciples. Indeed, in the constitution of civil
society, they appear to neglect justice entirely, to establish the
relations between men merely upon charity and feeling. However, if we
look into it closely, Comte’s thought as is often the case, has been
forced and warped, by its expression. But the comparison between the
ideas of right and of cause suggested by him, satisfactorily throws a
light upon his meaning.

Positive science has given up the search after causes, in order to
confine itself to establishing the invariable relations between
phenomena. But these relations correspond to what was formerly called
causal action. They represent what was real in this supposed action.
The only difference--but it is important--consists in the fact that the
human mind has forsaken the absolute point of view for the relative
one, and is henceforth content to establish the connection between
phenomena, without imagining “connecting entities” according to
Malebranche’s strong expression.

The idea of right has gone through an analogous transformation. In the
same way as the idea of cause, it was theological for a long time, and
then metaphysical. In antiquity it was closely allied to religion. In
modern times the rights of peoples, and even the rights of individuals,
are conceived according to the ancient standard of the rights of
princes and masters. But, having become established by triumphing over
the rights of princes, the rights of peoples and individuals ultimately
rest, as they did, upon a supernatural and mystical basis. The rights
which every citizen claims are the change in small coin of the absolute
right formerly possessed by the sovereign who represented the whole
nation. Having become metaphysical in the XVIII. century, the idea of
absolute, intangible, indefeasible right, which attaches to the human
person, has been most useful for the decomposition of the old _régime_.
But, once this work has been accomplished, it cannot be made use of
in the work of reorganisation any more than the other metaphysical
principles. Positive philosophy admits nothing absolute. Everything
in society is at once subject to conditions, and places conditions
upon all things. Nothing is unconditional; and sociology teaches that
we must go not from the individual to society, but from society to the

In consequence, here again we must give up endeavouring to transform a
critical principle into an organic one. Undoubtedly rights will remain,
as the constant connections between phenomena subsist. But we shall
cease to base these rights upon a metaphysical conception of human
nature, in the same way as we have ceased to refer the connections
between phenomena to metaphysical entities called causes. Instead of
making individual duties consist in the respect of universal rights,
we shall conceive inversely the rights of each one as the result of
the duties of others towards him. In a word, duty is established
before right. This principle is of the highest importance in Comte’s
eyes. In it he sees an expression and a proof of the predominance of
the positive over the metaphysical spirit, and of the subordination
of politics to ethics. He likes to say that “the consideration of
duty is bound up with the spirit of the whole.” On the contrary, the
consideration of right, if it be conceived as absolute, leads to a
denial of all government and of all social organisation.

The new philosophy will tend more and more to replace “the vague and
stormy discussion of rights, by the calm and strict determination of
respective duties.” Henceforth, the problem raised by the communists
assumes a new aspect. That there should be powerful industrial masters
is only an evil if they use their power to oppress the men who depend
upon them. It is a good thing, on the contrary, if these masters
know and fulfil their duties. It is of little consequence to popular
interests in whose hands capital is accumulated, so long as the use
made of it is beneficial to the social masses.[346] Now this essential
condition “depends far more upon moral than upon political measures.”
The latter can undoubtedly prevent the accumulation of riches in a
small number of hands, at the risk of paralysing industrial activity.
But these “tyrannical” proceedings would be far less efficacious than
the universal reproof inflicted by positive ethics upon a selfish
use of the riches possessed. The reproof would be all the more
irresistible, because of the fact that the very people who would have
to submit to it could not challenge its principle, inculcated in all
by the common moral education.” It is thus that in the Middle Ages,
excommunication was not less feared by the princes who incurred it than
it was by the peoples who witnessed it.

Once common education was established, under the direction of the
spiritual power, the tyranny of the capitalist class would be no more
to be feared. Rich men would consider themselves as the moral guardians
of public capital. It is not here a question of charity. Those who
possess will have the “duty” of securing, first, education and then
work for all.

These ideas seem perhaps paradoxical and chimerical. But, says Comte,
this is because modern society has not yet got its system of morality.
Industrial relations which have become immensely developed in it are
abandoned to a dangerous empiricism, instead of being systematised
according to _moral_ laws. War, more or less openly declared, alone
regulates the relations between capital and labour. In a normal state
of humanity these relations, on the contrary, are “organised.” Strength
does not generate oppression. Every citizen is a “public functionary,”
whose well-defined functions determine at once his obligations and
his claims (that is to say his rights). Property is a function like
any other, and not a privilege. It serves for the formation and
administration of capital by means of which each generation prepares
the work of the next. Those who hold it must not turn it from its
public use to their own individual advantage.[347]

In the same way as the capitalists, the workers are public
functionaries, and they perform a no less important service.
Independently of their salary, they are deserving social gratitude.
Our customs already admit of this feeling in the case of the liberal
professions in which the salary does not dispense with gratitude. This
feeling will have to be extended to all work which contributes to the
common weal. The service of humanity, says Comte, is a gratuitous
one. The salary, whatever it may be, only pays for the material part
in every office. It serves to repair the consumption demanded by the
organ and the function. As to the essence of service itself it allows
of no other reward than the very satisfaction of performing it, and the
gratitude which it arouses.[348]

Consequently in a “truly organised” society (note this expression
which M. de Bonald often uses), the vulgar distinction between public
and private functionaries is destined to disappear. As, in an army,
even the private soldier has his own dignity which comes from the
close solidarity of the military organisation, and from this fact,
that all share the same honour in it; so, when positive education has
made evident to all the part played by each one in the social work,
professions which are humblest to-day will become ennobled.[349] The
industrial _régime_ of to-day, which shows us little else than the
conflict of rival egoisms, is an anarchical _régime_, or, to put it
better, an “absence of _régime_.”

Modern society has not yet got its morals. It will form them gradually,
in the same way as military society did. Military life, more than
any other, is ruled by the predominating selfish inclinations.
Nevertheless, as it could only be developed by the spirit of
union, this condition alone sufficed for it to determine admirable
devotion.[350] Why should it not be the same in industrial life which
rests upon the peaceful and constructing instinct? Otherwise, if the
present “anarchy” of morals were to last, modern society would remain
below the level of the Middle Ages, which really was organised by
its spiritual power. It would even be below the level of military
societies. What would be the use of substituting monopoly to conquest,
and a despotism based upon the right of the richest to the despotism
resting upon the right of the strongest?[351]

Everything then depends upon the common moral education, which itself
depends upon the establishment of a spiritual power. The superiority of
the positive doctrine lies in the fact that it has restored this power.
The innovating schools all wish to secure normal education and regular
work for the proletariat. But they want both at once, or work before
education. Positivism wishes to organise education _first_.[352]

Naturally, in positive education duties will be presented in their
social aspect. Thus the elementary virtues of temperance, of chastity,
etc., are recommended by positive morality;--but not from the point of
view of their usefulness to the individual. Even if “an exceptionally
constituted nature should shield the individual from the consequences
of intemperance or debauchery,” soberness and continence would be
no less strictly required of him as being indispensable for the
fulfilment of his social duties.[353] In the same way, the object of
domestic morality is not to form “a selfishness shared by several,”
but to develop the sympathetic affections which, from the family
will gradually extend to the social group, and then to humanity.
The principle is to get man into the habit of subjecting himself to
humanity, even in his smallest actions, and in all his thoughts.
Once this point is reached, modern society will spontaneously become
organised and the positive _régime_ will of itself be established.


[333] Cours, VI, 376.

[334] Pol. pos. I, 128-9.

[335] Cours, V, 357.

[336] Pol. pos., II, 410-12.

[337] Cours, VI, 268-9.

[338] Cours, V, 608; Pol. pos. III, 585.

[339] Cours, IV, 218-24.

[340] Cours, IV, 212-15.

[341] Pol. pos. I, 154.

[342] Pol. pos. I, 160-3.

[343] Cours, IV, 97-9.

[344] Pol. pos. I, 159.

[345] Cours, VI, 480; Pol. pos. I, 361-3; II, 87.

[346] Cours, VI, 543-6.

[347] Pol. pos. 156-64.

[348] Pol. pos. II, 409.

[349] Cours, VI, 511-15.

[350] Pol. pos. II, 16.

[351] Pol. pos. IV, Appendice, p. 211.

[352] Pol. pos. I, 169.

[353] Pol. pos. I, 97-8.



In this world there is nothing absolute, everything is relative;
Comte wrote this to his friend Valat as early as 1818.[354] But as a
matter of fact, there exists a supreme reality to which all others
are subordinated, the idea of which is the principle of a rational
conception of the world. Comte calls this reality _humanity_. Instead
of being the ultimate end of all thought and all action “in itself,” it
is the ultimate end “for us.” But this difference simply signifies that
the new philosophy leaves the metaphysical for the positive point of
view. With these limitations the idea of humanity “corresponds” to the
old idea of the absolute. It takes its place and fulfils its religious
part. It is truly, if one dares to say so, a “relative absolute.”

In Comte’s doctrine, the idea of humanity is presented under several
successive aspects, or, to put it better, the development of his system
has brought to light, in turns, the various attributes of this “Great
Being.” In his first career, Comte prefers to consider humanity as an
object of science. In his second career, it rather appears to him as
an object of adoration and of love. Here we can follow the progress of
the mystical and religious feeling which, especially from 1846, filled
his thoughts and modified his language, his philosophical doctrine,
nevertheless, remaining essentially the same.


We must not, says Comte, define Humanity by man, but on the contrary
man by Humanity. In general this formula is understood in a moral and
social sense. It is understood as a condemnation of “individualism,”
and one of the directing principles of the positivist _régime_. This
interpretation is not a false one, and consequences of this kind can
indeed be drawn from Comte’s formula. But they are only consequences.
The immediate object of the formula is not to subordinate the
individual to the multitude. In the first place it expresses a fact. If
we consider a man by himself, positive science only allows us to define
him as an animal, in whom as in all others, the end of animal life is
to insure organic life. Do we wish to define him by what is essentially
human in him, that is to say, by intellect and sociability? One must
then pass from the consideration of the individual to that of the
species. From the strictly biological point of view M. Bonald’s saying
must be reversed; we must say that man is an organism served by an
intellect. It is only if we leave the biological for the social point
of view, if we look upon the human species as a single “immense and
eternal” individual (a conception which is justified by the continued
development of intelligence and sociability),[355] that we can consider
the voluntary and systematic subordination of vegative to animal life
as the ideal type towards which civilised humanity is tending. We can
then make use of this subordination to refine it. In a word, we are
really men only _by our participation of humanity_.

The essential attributes of this “immense and eternal social unity” are
solidarity and continuity.[356] These attributes are at once social and
moral and it could have no others. The attributes of the theological
and metaphysical absolute had reference to the categories of substance,
of cause, of time, of space, etc. It was one, simple, infinite, etc.,
all often incomprehensible and contradictory expressions of this idea
that the supreme principle is “absolute.” On the contrary, positive
philosophy admits that in the scale of beings, dependence grows with
dignity. Humanity, which is the most “complex” and the “noblest” of all
beings known to us, is therefore also the most dependent. Its existence
will necessarily end with that of the planet which it inhabits. Its
unity is one of “collection.” It is imperfect and subject to crises of
all kinds. Such as it is, however, science and morality show us in it
the highest term which our mind can reach, the loftiest ideal which our
heart can love, and finally the object most worthy of our devotion.

Human solidarity has been studied by statical sociology. We have
seen with what admiration the social _consensus_ inspired Comte, a
consensus, according to him, even closer and more intimate than the
vital _consensus_. Positive education will develop the feeling of
solidarity and make it the principle of moral instruction. Every
individual in all his ways of thinking and acting, will be imbued with
two convictions which imply one another. In the first place he will
know that he is only really a man by his participation in humanity,
since his intelligence and his morality are essentially social things.
He will also know that the life of humanity is in part made up of
what he brings to it, and that each of his actions, independently of
his will has a social interest and a social counterpart. Once we are
thoroughly persuaded that we live in humanity and by humanity, we shall
also become convinced that we must live for humanity. Malebranche said
that God is the _locus_ of intellects: Comte would readily say that
humanity is the _locus_ of good wills.

As, in sociology, dynamics is more important than statics, so among
the attributes of humanity, continuity is placed above solidarity.
Not only are the individuals and the peoples of the same epoch bound
by a common solidarity, but the successive generations co-operate
in the same work. Each one has its “determined participation” in
it: and their combination in time produces “a still nobler and more
perfect conception of human unity.” This is the conception which Comte
admired so much in Condorcet, which he borrowed from him, and which he
developed in the positive idea of progress.

Humanity so understood will inspire us with the strongest feelings of
gratitude. Do we not owe to her all that is good, precious and human in
us? Man will see “co-operators” in the men of all time.[357] Each of
us has to reflect only upon his physical, intellectual and moral being
to realise what he owes to the whole of his predecessors. The man who
would think himself independent of others could not even formulate this
error (which in Comte’s eyes becomes blasphemy) without contradicting
himself; for is not language itself a collective and social work?[358]

History will become the “sacred science” of humanity. To put it more
simply, it will be the ever clearer consciousness which humanity
will have of itself, through the study of its intellectual and moral
activity in the past. Gradually, with the progress of the historical
spirit, the idea of an evolution subject to laws, the idea of “order
conceived as capable of development,” will become substituted to the
prejudice which attributes to man boundless power of action upon social
facts. It will become apparent that the part played by each generation
in the common work of humanity is necessarily a very small one, as
compared with what is transmitted to it by previous generations. To
refuse this inheritance would be to refuse to be what we are: it would
be an absurd and immoral pretention, and, moreover, entirely fruitless.
It is impossible for man to disown humanity without ceasing to exist.
He necessarily represents, while he lives, a long past of intellectual
and moral efforts. And this is the most essential attribute of human
life, although we meet with more or less developed solidarity also
among other animal species. But continuity belongs to humanity alone.
In a word, according to Comte’s fine formula: “Humanity is made up more
of the dead than of the living.”

However, neither the “yoke” which presses upon the living with all
the weight of history and of prehistoric times, nor the _consensus_
which makes of humanity a great “collective organism” take from
man his liberty of action. The consequence of human solidarity and
continuity is not a kind of fatalism. Individuals remain responsible.
We must regard them neither as the wheels in a machine, nor as the
cells in an organism, nor as the members of an animal colony. Humanity
is not a polyp. This comparison, says Comte, “shows a very imperfect
philosophical appreciation of our social solidarity, and a great
biological ignorance of the kind of existence peculiar to polypi.”[359]
It likens a voluntary and deliberate association to an involuntary
and indissoluble participation. Humanity, as a collective organism,
stands out, on the contrary, as distinct by its own characteristics
from animal colonies. In these colonies, the individuals are physically
bound together and physiologically independent. In humanity, the
individuals are independent physically, and are only bound together in
space and in time by their highest functions.

Thus this “immense organism” is especially distinguished from other
beings in that it is made up of separable elements, of which each one
can feel its own co-operation, can will it, or even withhold it, so
long as it remains a direct one.[360] The individual undoubtedly cannot
“unhumanise” himself: that is too evident. But he retains a partial
independence. As he can collaborate in the collective work by free
consent, he is also free to impede it in the measure of his strength.
Briefly, although the evolution of the Great Being is subject to laws,
every individuality, far from being annulled,[361] plays its part and
can have its merit in it. The very knowledge of sociological laws is a
rule for human activity and not a tyranny.


In the latter part of his life, Comte drew out precisely the features
of what he henceforth called the new Great Being. Although we were not
here to undertake to write an account of positive religion, we must
nevertheless, in a few words, indicate the form which this supreme idea
ended by assuming in Comte’s mind.

Firstly, humanity is not conceived simply as the sum of all the
individuals or human groups present, past and future. For all men
are necessarily born children of humanity; but all do not become her
servants. Many remain in the condition of parasites. All those who are
not or were not “sufficiently assimilable,”[362] all those who were
only a burden to our species, do not form a part of the Great Being. A
selection takes place among men. Some finally enter into humanity never
to leave it; others leave it never to return. The selection takes place
according to the life they have preferred. Those who have lived in the
purely biological sense of the word, that is to say, those in whom the
higher faculties have been made to serve the organic function, those
whom with brutal energy Comte calls “producteurs de fumier,”[363] will
only have been part of humanity in a transitory manner. Death for them,
as for their anatomical system, will be an end without further appeal.
Those in whom the “sublime inversion” has been accomplished, or at
least those who have made an effort to subordinate the organic to the
higher functions, those finally who have worked for a pre-eminently
human end: to make the intellect predominate over the inclinations,
and altruism over egoism; those having lived for humanity will always
live in her. human end: to make the intellect predominate over the
inclinations, and altruism over egoism; those having lived for humanity
will always live in her.

As the conduct of each one can only be finally judged after his death,
humanity is essentially made up of the dead and “the admission of the
living within her will hardly ever be more than provisional.”[364] Each
generation, while it lives, furnishes the indispensable physiological
substratum for the exercise of the superior human functions. But this
privilege which momentarily distinguishes it from the others, soon
slips away from it, as it slipped away from the preceding ones, and
from the men of which they were composed; they alone who are worthy of
it are incorporated into humanity. Moreover, they are only incorporated
in it by their noblest elements. Death causes them to pass through a

This theory allows Comte to attain at the same time two results, which
he considers equally desirable. In the first place, the religious idea
of humanity remains in perfect accordance with the idea given of it
by biology and sociology. Humanity conceived as the Great Being, is
a kind of hypostasis of the functions by which man tends to become
distinguished from the animal. It is the progressive realisation
through time, of the intellectual and moral potentialities contained
in human nature: it is also its ideal impersonation. In this last
sense, it becomes an object of love and adoration. Thus, the positivist
religion naturally leads to a “commemoration” of great men, the
benefactors of humanity. Here we have one of the ideas which were
defined very early in Comte’s mind.

On the other hand, the desire for immortality is very strong in the
heart of man. On principle Comte recognised at any rate a provisional
value in all that arises spontaneously from human nature. In science
he saw a prolongation of “public reason,” in systematic morality a
development of spontaneous morality. He was thus led to take into
account the almost irresistible tendency which impels man to desire
to triumph over death.[365] This tendency, up to the present time,
has satisfied itself by means of illusions. But beliefs of this kind
have become incompatible with the progress of our mental evolution.
Moreover, the social efficacy of hopes and fears concerning the future
life has been much exaggerated. As a matter of fact, says Comte (and
the science of religions bears him out on this point), the tendency to
desire, and consequently to accept the idea of an ultimate survival,
existed for a long time before it was made use of to support religious
beliefs or to preserve public order. Here, again, positive philosophy
does not deny, does not destroy: it transforms. To the chimerical
and vulgar notion of _objective_ immortality, it substitutes the
notion, which is alone acceptable, of _subjective_ immortality. The
same doctrine which takes from us the consolations so dear to past
generations, gives us an adequate compensation, by allowing each one to
hope that he may be united to the Great Being.

“To continue to live in others,” is a very real mode of existence.[366]
It is the only one which we can hope for after death; but it is also
the only one which we ought to desire, if it be true that what most
constitutes ourselves in us does not consist in the individual in the
biological sense of the word, but truly in intelligence and good will,
that is to say, in the social and human element. He who has only lived
for himself, who has selfishly sought for life, has lost it: for death
takes him away altogether. He who has lived for others, he who has not
sought life for himself, has found it: for he survives in others. In
the religions of the past, salvation was found in union with God: in
the positive religion, salvation is found in union with humanity.

Once incorporated in the Great Being, the individual becomes
inseparable from it.[367] Being from that time withdrawn from the
influence of all the physical laws, he only remains subjected to the
higher laws which regulate directly the evolution of humanity. Being
even withdrawn from the influence of the laws of time and space,
he can live again at the same time in several organisms. Do we not
see that the thought of a poet, of an artist, of a man of science
revives in a great number of living men at the same time on the most
distant points of the globe? Subjective immortality, renewed by an
uninterrupted sequence of successive resurrections, will last as long
as humanity itself. “To live with the dead,” says Comte “constitutes
one of our most precious privileges.”[368] But, in the same way, the
dead live with us. They live in us, and those who have been most truly
men, those who have made humanity by the effort of their intellect
and their will, they are within us the best and most lasting part of
ourselves. For, when our generation disappears, it is this part of us
which will survive. We shall also survive in the measure in which we
have contributed to the increase of this inheritance, in the measure
in which we shall have deserved well of our contemporaries and our
successors. The present life is a trial. The “subjective” life, that
is to say, incorporation into humanity, is at once a liberation and a
reward for those who have passed victoriously through this trial.[369]
We see to what extent the old moral and religious ideal subsists in
the positive conception. We are little surprised at this, when we know
that, towards the end of his life, Comte made the _Imitation_ his daily

It is then towards the idea of humanity as their centre that the
scientific, social and religious ideas of Auguste Comte converge. If
this convergence be perfect, his work is accomplished. Henceforth
mental and moral anarchy is cured; political and religious anarchy
is about to disappear. Unity will be everywhere re-established.
This is already done in the understanding, since henceforth all our
conceptions are homogenous, that is to say positive, since the same
method is made use of in all our researches, since finally the whole
sum of the sciences is regulated from the social point of view. Unity
is also accomplished in the whole soul, since the intellect, henceforth
conscious of its laws and of its essential functions, subjects itself
to the heart, to be directed by love. Finally, unity will be brought
about in society, since a new spiritual power, possessed of universally
admitted principles, will give to all men and women a common education,
will teach them all the same morality, and will rally them all within
a same religion of love and goodness. The harmony which is realised in
the individual soul is the symbol and, as it were, the guarantee of
the harmony which will be established in the social body. Undoubtedly,
obstacles remain to be overcome. The positive spirit must still
struggle to become altogether universal. The old mental _régime_ will
not disappear without struggles which, Comte foresees, will be both
formidable and bloody. But these crises, however acute they may be,
cannot prevent the human evolution from taking place in accordance with
its law.


[354] Lettres à Valat, p. 54, (15 mai 1818).

[355] Cours, III, 232 sq.

[356] Cours, IV, 810-11; Pol. pos. I, 363-5.

[357] Cours, IV, 365.

[358] Pol. pos. I, 221.

[359] Cours, IV, 351.

[360] Pol. pos., II, 59.

[361] Pol. pos., I, 341.

[362] Pol. pos., I, 411.

[363] Catéchisme positiviste, p. 30-31.

[364] Pol. pos., I, 411.

[365] Discours sur l’esprit positif, 75-6.

[366] Pol. pos., I, 346-7.

[367] Pol. pos. II, 60-62.

[368] Pol. pos., 262.

[369] Pol. pos., IV, 36.


At the end of the _Cours de philosophie positive_ Comte has himself
summed up the results which he believed himself to have established. In
the first place it is, from the intellectual point of view (which at
first takes precedence of all others, although, in the positive state,
the mind must be subject to the heart), a “perfect mental coherence
which, as yet, has never been able to exist in a like degree,” not
even in the primitive period when man explained the phenomena of
nature by the action of wills. For already, in this period, although
imperceptibly, the positive spirit was making itself felt, while,
in the positive period, nothing will subsist of the theological and
metaphysical mode of thought. From the moral point of view, which
comes next, the agreement of minds upon speculative problems, and in
particular upon the relations between man and humanity, will allow of
a common education, which will bring about ardent moral conviction
in all. Powerful “public prejudices” will develop, and with them,
such irresistible fulness of conviction, according to Comte, that
Humanity will be able to realise what our penal system is incapable of
achieving: to prevent instead of punishing, at least in the majority
of cases. From the political point of view, the two spiritual and
temporal powers will be duly separated, and a lasting organisation will
at once insure order and progress. Finally, from the æsthetic point
of view, a new art will appear. No longer an aristocratic and learned
art like the one which has been with us since the Renaissance, but an
art closely connected with the convictions and the life of all, which
will be accessible and familiar to all, as was the case with the art of
the Middle Ages. The positive conception of man and of the world, will
become an “inexhaustible spring” of poetical beauty.

All these results will be ordered, protected and sanctified by the
positive religion, or religion of Humanity, of which Auguste Comte, in
his “second career” established the dogma, the worship and the _régime_.

Without entering into the details of this religious construction we see
that, like the ethics and the politics, it depends upon the “perfect
mental coherence” founded, in the first place, by positive philosophy.
In its turn, this perfect mental coherence, reduces itself to the unity
of the understanding, whose necessary and sufficient conditions are
“homogeneity of doctrine and unity of method.” Now, when Comte began
to write, this homogeneity and this unity already existed for all the
categories of natural phenomena. The moral and social phenomena alone
were still an exception. In conclusion everything was reduced to this
question: “can moral and social facts be studied in the same way as the
other natural phenomena?” If not, we must be resigned to the indefinite
duration of the disorder of minds, and consequently of the disorder
of customs and institutions. But, if the contrary is true, then the
human understanding reaches the unity to which it aspires. Is sociology
impossible? then we have no politics and no religion. Is sociology
founded? then all the rest is based upon it.

Thus, the creation of social science is the decisive moment in Comte’s
philosophy. Everything starts from it and comes back to it. As in
Platonism, all paths lead to the theory of ideas, so, from all the
avenues of positivism we see sociology. Here, as in a common centre,
are joined the philosophy of the sciences, the theory of knowledge,
the philosophy of history, psychology, ethics, politics and religion.
Here, in a word, is realised the unity of system, a unity which, in
Comte’s eyes, is the best proof of its truth.

If, in sociology, we chiefly consider the end which Comte proposes to
attain by its means, it is true that this doctrine is principally a
political one, and the very title of Comte’s second great work bears
this out. But, considered in itself, it is essentially a speculative
effort, and the principle of a philosophy in the proper sense of the
term. What Kant called a totality of experience is made possible by the
creation of social science.

Before Comte, this totality had been attempted many times. But
those who attempted it started from this postulate that philosophy
is specifically distinct from scientific knowledge proper. Whether
philosophy were dogmatic or critical, whether it had bearings upon the
essence of things or rather upon the laws of the mind, it none the less
presented characteristics of its own, which seemed to separate it from
positive science, and even allowed it to dominate over this science,
and to “explain” its principles. Comte rejects this postulate. He is
going to endeavour to see if, by taking the contrary postulate as his
foundation, he will not succeed better than his predecessors.

In order to reject the postulate admitted by philosophers before
him, he appeals at the same time to arguments founded on facts and
demonstration; but we must notice that, in his doctrine, these two
orders of arguments logically reduce themselves to one another. Indeed
he says, up to the present time no philosophy which commands acceptance
by all minds has been established. Idealisms, materialisms, pantheisms
from all sources and in every shape have never done more than ruin
the doctrines opposed to them, without becoming finally established
themselves. Those systems claimed to give a rational knowledge of that
which by nature is beyond the reach of science. They prided themselves
upon explaining the essence, the cause, the end and the order of the
phenomena of the universe. Thus they could only build up temporary
conceptions which were undoubtedly indispensable at the time but which
were doomed to die. Metaphysics is never anything but a rationalised
theology which is weakened by this very fact, and deprived of what
constituted its strength during the period when it was an object of

But in the name of what principle can Comte discern what is and what is
not “beyond the reach of science?” In order to justify a distinction
of this kind should he not before everything begin by a criticism of
the human mind, that is to say by a theory of knowledge similar to
that proposed by Kant in his “Criticism of Pure Reason”? M. Renouvier
endeavours to show that, through the absence of this preliminary
criticism, with which Comte dispensed, his philosophy remains
superficial. Mr. Max Muller expressly says that there is no need to
take into account a philosophical doctrine which proceeds as if the
“Criticism of Pure Reason” had not been written.

On the whole the objection reduces itself to reproaching Comte with
not having attempted to do what he considered to be impracticable:
namely, not to have determined the intellectual laws by the analysis
of the mind reflecting upon itself. But, it is said, by what right
does he affirm that this is impossible? Because, like all the others,
these laws can only be discovered by means of the observation of facts,
and because the only method which is suitable for the discovery of
intellectual facts is the sociological method: the nature of these
facts being such that, especially from the dynamic point of view,
they can only be grasped in the evolution of humanity. The theory of
knowledge demanded by M. Renouvier and Mr. Max Muller is not wanted
in positive philosophy. It is not seen in this philosophy, because it
is not presented in its traditional form. It is there none the less;
but, instead of consisting in an analysis _a priori_ of thought, as
a preliminary to philosophy, it is not separated from the philosophy
itself. It is one of the many aspects of sociology.

In the positive doctrine, as in all the others, there are
dialectics--dialectics which are no longer abstract and logical, but
real and historical. They do not seek to see the laws of the human
mind through an effort at reflection in which the mind, beneath the
phenomena, apprehends its very essence. They endeavour to discover
these laws in the necessary sequence of periods which constitute the
progress of the human mind. They, in their turn, study the “universal
subject” whose forms, categories and principles have been determined
by Kant _a priori_. But this universal subject is no longer reason
grasping itself, so to speak, outside and above the conditions of time
and of experience: it is the human mind becoming conscious of the laws
of its activity through the study of its own past. Instead of the
“absolute ego” of “impersonal reason,” or of the “conscience of the
understanding,” positive philosophy analyses the intellectual history
of humanity. It has then neither ignored nor neglected the problem. It
has put it in new terms, and has been obliged to deal with it by a new

The critic is free to point out the defects of this method and the
insufficiency of these terms. But, to reproach positive philosophy
with not having dealt with the problem in the usual form in which it
is taken by metaphysicians, and, for this reason, to put it aside
unexamined, is to commit a kind of “petitio principii.” If Comte
abstains from attempting an abstract theory of knowledge, he gives
philosophical reasons for his refusal to do so. Before condemning
him, it is but right to examine them. Had he done what M. Renouvier
and Mr. Max Muller reproach him with having omitted, he would have
contradicted himself. There would have been no reason for the existence
of his system. He claimed to have reformed the very conception of
philosophy: can we reproach him with the fact that his conception does
not coincide with the view preferred by his adversaries? Briefly that
which, according to Comte, characterises positive philosophy, is that
it no longer requires for its constitution what in the judgment of M.
Renouvier and Mr. Max Muller on the contrary, is indispensable. Are
they or is he in the right? The question cannot evidently be solved
by the mere affirmation of those interested. The examination of the
doctrines themselves is necessary.


The position taken by Comte may be briefly defined in a few words.
Seeing that philosophy, such at least as it had been conceived until
the XIX. century, could not assume the characteristics of science, he
asks himself whether one would not succeed better by endeavouring to
give the characteristics of science to philosophy. Like Kant, he might
have compared the revolution he was attempting to that accomplished by
Copernicus in astronomy, had he not preferred to present it as prepared
and gradually brought about by the very “progress” of science and

According to his own expression then he endeavours “to transform
science into philosophy.” But on what conditions will the
transformation be effected? If science were to lose in it its
characteristics of positiveness, of reality, and of relativity, to
assume those of a metaphysical doctrine, this change would be neither
desirable nor possible. The transformation will simply consist in
giving to science the philosophical character which it does not yet
possess, namely universality. While thus acquiring a new property,
positive science should lose none of those which it already possesses,
and which constitute its value.

Thus, in the “transformation of science into philosophy,” what is
transformed at bottom is not science which remains itself while
becoming general from being special: it is philosophy rather which
is transformed. The latter will henceforth undoubtedly be conceived
as the highest and most comprehensive form of positive knowledge,
but as constituting a part of that knowledge. It has been said that
Comte does away with philosophy, by reducing it to being merely the
“generalisation of the highest results of the sciences.” This is not a
proper interpretation of his thought. Up to the present time the duties
performed by the philosophical doctrines have been indispensable.
Comte intends that his system shall fulfil them in future. Beside
science properly so-called, which is always special, philosophy which
represents the “point of view of the whole” must arise. On this
condition alone can the government of minds and the “perfect logical
coherence” become possible.

Philosophy will then not merely be a “generalisation of the highest
results of the sciences.” The synthesis of the sciences must be brought
about according to a principle to which they will be all related. It
must really be a “summing up of experience.” But if this philosophy
thus coalesces with science it must also be _real_ like it, and
all real knowledge is necessarily positive and relative. In short,
the distinction between science and philosophy implies no specific
difference between these two kinds of speculation. On the contrary,
there exists between them homogeneity of doctrine and unity of method.

Therein lies the novelty of Comte’s system. The question was, without
leaving the scientific point of view, to discover a single universal
conception of the whole of Reality as we find it in experience. The
solution of this problem was found on the day when Comte created
social science. For indeed, in the first place, sociology makes the
positive method universal by extending it to the highest order of
natural phenomena accessible to us. Moreover, once it is established as
a special science, _ipso facto_ it assumes the character of a universal
science, and consequently of a philosophy. Under a certain aspect,
sociology is the sixth and last of the fundamental sciences. Under
another aspect it is the only science, since the other sciences may be
regarded as great sociological facts, and since the whole of what is
given to us is subordinated to the supreme idea of humanity.

Such is the way in which the transformation of science into philosophy
takes place. If it dates from the foundation of sociology, it is
because, once this last positive science has been created, nothing
remains in nature of which we conceive the possibility of obtaining an
absolute knowledge. “The relative character of scientific conception is
necessarily inseparable from the true notion of natural laws, in the
same way as the chimerical tendency to absolute knowledge spontaneously
accompanies whatever use we make of the logical fictions or of
metaphysical entities.”[370]

Considered as a whole, the object of positive science, according to
Comte, necessarily coincides with that of philosophy. For both of them
it is the whole of the reality given to us. The human mind cannot exert
itself in a vacuum. What it might draw from itself, without the help of
experience, (if such a conception be not absurd), is purely fictitious,
and has no objective value. If then the human mind remains attached to
a metaphysical philosophy, this can only be in so far as the mind still
conceives the whole or a part of reality from the absolute point of
view, that is to say in so far as it still fails to understand that the
laws of phenomena alone are within its reach, and persists in seeking
the essence and the first or final cause for some among them. There
was a time when the whole of reality was so understood. The conception
of the world was then entirely metaphysical or partly theological. But
the human mind has gradually constituted the positive science, first
of the more simple and more general phenomena, and then of the more
complicated ones. Finally the most complex of all, that is to say, the
moral and social phenomena alone remained untouched by the scientific
form. Let us suppose that this last order of facts is conquered by
the positive method: the metaphysical mode of thought being no longer
possessed of real objects, _ipso facto_ disappears. At the same time
the positive mode of thought becomes universal, and positive philosophy
is founded.

In this way two great connected facts which occupy a considerable
place in the philosophical history of our century are explained. We
understand: 1. that the fate of metaphysics appears to be closely bound
up with that of psychology, of ethics of the philosophy of history
and of the moral sciences in general, while the connection between
physics, for instance and metaphysics seems to be very weak; 2. that
the foundation of sociology determines that of positive philosophy. So
long as psychology speculates upon the nature of the soul and upon the
laws of thought; ethics, upon the final cause of man, the philosophy
of history, upon the final cause of humanity; metaphysics remains
standing. Indeed it seems better able than positive knowledge to lead
the human mind to a conception of the whole of the real. It appears
to be all the more appropriate for doing this in that the point of
view of the Absolute can be easily made to harmonise with the point of
view of the Universal, in the same way as the conception of substance,
whatever it may be, leads without any difficulty to the conception of
the unity of substance. But, from the day when we no longer should seek
anything but the laws of psychical, moral and social facts, refraining
from any hypothesis as to causes and essences, (a method already made
use of for all the other categories of phenomena), three results would
be obtained at a single blow: metaphysical philosophy would disappear,
social science would be created, and positive philosophy would be

According to the essential law of social dynamics, the metaphysical
stage is never anything but a transitory one between the theological
and the positive stages. The human intellect could not pass immediately
from the former to the latter. The metaphysical stage which can assume
an endless number of forms and of degrees, insensibly leads it from
one to the other. Metaphysical philosophy partakes of the theological
in so far as it claims to “explain” the totality of the Real by means
of a first principle, and of the positive, in so far as it endeavours
to demonstrate its “explanations,” and to bring them into accordance
with the real knowledge already acquired. It originates in theology
and it ends in science. But, however near it may come to positive
knowledge, its original theological brand is never effaced. Were
they compelled to choose between the theological and the positive
doctrines, metaphysicians would certainly adopt the former. The essence
of metaphysical philosophy is to tend towards the absolute, whilst
positive philosophy only seeks the relative. In favouring the progress
of positive science, metaphysical philosophy was working to make itself

To those then who reproach him with not leaving any function proper to
philosophy, Comte would answer that, in his doctrine, philosophy is
on the contrary better defined and more fully constituted than in any
other. Indeed metaphysical philosophy has never been anything but a
compromise, destined to satisfy more or less, the needs of theological
explanation and of rational science. But positive philosophy is pure
and unalloyed with heterogenous elements. It gives to the whole of
experience all the intelligibility which we can hope for, through
the discovery of laws, and, in particular, of the encyclopædic laws.
By making humanity the supreme end at once of our speculation and
of our activity, it furnishes morality and politics with a definite
basis, and gives religion an object. In this way, according to Comte,
positive philosophy is more truly a philosophy than metaphysics,
since it secures the homogeneity of knowledge and the “perfect mental
coherence,” and it is also more truly religious since, as its final
conclusion, it shows that the end of the intellect itself lies in
devotion to humanity.


Every new philosophical doctrine is in general guided by a double
tendency. At the same time it seeks to establish its originality and
to find out its antecedents. In order to reach the former result, it
criticises preceding and contemporary doctrines, and shows that, better
than any of the others, it succeeds in “summing up experience.” But, at
the same time, it discovers a pedigree for itself in history which is
never very difficult to establish.

Like the others, positive philosophy fulfils this twofold requirement,
in such measure, however, as its particular nature and the definition
of its object reasonably allow. Properly speaking, it does not
undertake to refute the metaphysical systems which it deems itself
destined to replace. Those systems in refuting positive philosophy,
are faithful to their principle; and positive philosophy is faithful
to its own principle in not following their example. It suffices for
it to “locate” them in the general evolution of the human mind, and
to show, according to this law of evolution, how the very necessity
which brought them into being is also the cause of their disappearance.
Their office is fulfilled, their part is ended. It matters little that
they should seek to prolong an ebbing existence; cases of survival
may slacken the rate of progress, but they are powerless to arrest
it. And so positive philosophy is the only one which can be perfectly
just towards its adversaries. “It ceases,” says Comte, “being critical
in regard to the whole of the past.” In order to be established, it
does not require to combat and to supplant the philosophies which
have preceded it. With itself, it places all doctrines in history. It
substitutes the historical genesis to abstract dialectics.

Undoubtedly Comte recognises a long series of his precursors properly
so-called, in the double line of philosophers and scientific men who
have contributed to the progress of the positive spirit from Aristotle
and Archimedes to Condorcet and Gall. But positive philosophy, none the
less, looks upon itself as heir to all the philosophies, even to those
which are most opposed to its principle. For they, like the others,
have been necessary moments in the progress which was to end in the
positive system.

Thus considered in its relation to the metaphysical speculation
which preceded it, this system does not refute it, for it is
neither necessary nor even possible for it to do so. Neither does
it incorporate it within itself, for it could not do so without a
formal contradiction. Still, according to Comte’s own confession, it
proceeds from metaphysics as much as from science properly so-called.
In what then does this relation consist, if positive philosophy neither
opposes nor adopts previous doctrines?--It _transposes_ them. What its
predecessors had studied from the absolute point of view, it projects
upon the relative plane.

As we proceeded we have noted more than one of these _transpositions_.
It may perhaps not be useless to make a recapitulation of them here,
without, however, claiming for it perfect completeness.

  _Metaphysical Philosophy._            _Positive Transpositions._
  I. Distinction between            I. Distinction between the statical
  potentiality and reality.         and the dynamical points of
                                    view, or between order and progress.
  II. Principle of finality.        II. Principle of the conditions
                                    of existence.
  III. Theory of innateness.        III. Definition of human
                                    nature as immutable, evolution
                                    creating nothing, but bringing
                                    out the latent potentialities in
                                    that nature.
  IV. The idea of the universe.     IV. The idea of the world.
  V. All the phenomena of           V. The idea of humanity is
  the universe are related to       the only really universal conception,
  one another.                      because the conditions of
                                    existence of human societies are
                                    in a necessary relation, not only
                                    with the laws of our organisation,
                                    but also with all the physical
                                    and chemical laws of our planet,
                                    and the mechanical laws of the
                                    solar system.
  VI. The Aristotelian theory       VI. Science consists in substituting
  of science, (knowledge            rational prevision to the
  through causes, _a priori_),      empirical establishment of facts.
  and Cartesian theory, (deductive
  knowledge starting from the
  VII. The principles of            VII. Geometry and mechanics
  mathematics are synthetical _a    are natural sciences, and pure
  priori_ propositions. (Kant).     analysis can never establish their
  VIII. The order of the universe   VIII. The conduct of man
  is the basis of moral order:      is regulated externally by the
  (Stoics, Spinoza, Leibnitz).      whole of the laws of the world in
                                    which he lives.
  IX. The history of humanity       IX. The evolution of humanity
  is directed by a providential     is accomplished according to a
  wisdom.                           law.
  X. The notion of a natural        X. The various orders of
  law does not necessarily          natural phenomena are irreducible
  imply a mechanism.                and nevertheless convergent,
                                    the real becoming richer at each
                                    new degree.
  XI. Theory of the immortality     XI. Theory of the “subjective
  of the soul.                      existence,” or of survival in the
                                    consciousness of others.
  XII. Rational theology.           XII. The positive science of

This list might easily be prolonged. Once again it shows us that, in
the history of philosophy as in history in general, the result of the
most apparently radical revolutions is not so much to abolish as to
transform. Thus, Kant’s philosophy might seem to be entirely opposed to
that of Leibnitz. Yet we see that the metaphysics of Leibnitz is to be
found almost in its entirety in Kant. Of this dogmatic philosophy Kant
has preserved the doctrine. He only rejected its dogmatism; which, as
a matter of fact, was of capital importance. In the same way, positive
philosophy has often been presented as the formal negation of the
philosophy which preceded it. When we verify this, we nearly always
find them both concerned with the same problems, and often reaching
analogous solutions. Here again it is only a question of transposition;
an extremely serious one it is true, on account of all that it implies.

Errors of interpretation are very often due to a lack of historical
perspective. Once they have been formulated and adopted by current
opinion they are difficult to rectify. Time is needed in order that
beneath superficial differences, deep seated resemblances may appear.
During many years Kant was in all sincerity looked upon as a sceptic in
France. Those who criticised him could not conceive how any one could
give up metaphysical dogmatism, without at the same time abandoning
the doctrines which had been cast in the metaphysical form before
Kant. In the same way, in the eyes of most of his adversaries, Comte’s
system must have appeared as the very negation of philosophy, because
the terms “philosophy” and “relative” seemed incompatible to them. But
this system, which is an effort to realise, from the point of view of
positive science, the unity of the understanding, and the “perfect
logical coherence,” in reality ends by putting the traditional problems
of philosophy in a form suitable to the spirit of our age.


If the relationship between Comte’s philosophy and the doctrines
which preceded it is sufficiently evident, it does not follow that
this philosophy has brought with it nothing new. On the contrary, the
“transposition” of problems and the constant effort to substitute the
relative to the absolute point of view, entails serious consequences
with very far reaching effects. Some of these were at once apparent,
and first served to characterise positive philosophy in the eyes of
the public. Others, more remote, but no less important, appeared more

The negative consequences almost alone attracted attention at first.
The chief characteristic of the new philosophy seemed to be the denial
of the legitimacy and even of the possibility of metaphysics in all its
forms: rational psychology, the philosophical theory of matter and of
life, rational theology, etc. It seemed also to deny the possibility
of introspective psychology, of ethics in its traditional form, as
well as of logic. In a word, one after another, it excluded all the
parts of what constituted a “course of philosophy.” No wonder, then, if
this doctrine which took the name of “positive” appeared to be chiefly

However, in reality, the negation only affected the so-called
“rational” or “philosophical sciences.” Comte reproached them with what
Aristotle calls τὸ κένως ζητεῖν. Stringently applying the principle of
the relativity of knowledge, he refused to admit anything absolute. He
was therefore perfectly true to himself in rejecting doctrines founded
upon metaphysical principles. But this entirely negative aspect of
his philosophy is very far from being the one according to which we
can best understand it. Truly speaking, it is only preparatory, and
historians have often committed the mistake of allowing people to
believe that it is essential. “_We only destroy what we replace_,” said

The question was not to ruin but to transform the psychological, moral
and social sciences. As we have seen, positive philosophy does not deny
the possibility of a psychology.

On the contrary, it establishes that psychical phenomena, like the
others, are subject to laws, and that these laws must be looked for by
the positive method. It only rejects the psychology of the ideologists
as abstract, and that of Cousin as metaphysical. It claims that, in
presence of the phenomena which he is studying, the psychologist should
assume the same attitude as the biologist or the physicist, that
any search after cause or essence should be carefully avoided, that
any metaphysical or ethical after-thought should be set aside. Then
a science of physical phenomena will be established; still it will
only be able to study the highest mental functions in the “universal
subject,” in humanity. If we wish to do so, we may continue to call it
by its traditional name, although it is to the old psychology only what
the chemistry of our day is to alchemy.

A similar transformation gives rise to social science. Here again,
the indispensable condition for the scientific knowledge of facts and
of laws is a new attitude of mind in presence of these facts. We must
set aside what interests us subjectively in them, and consider what
is “specifically social” in them, just as the physiologist studies
what is “specifically biological” in the phenomena of the organism.
M. Durkheim, as a real heir of Auguste Comte, reasonably maintains
that this is a condition _sine qua non_ of positive sociology. This
only exists as a science if there are facts which are properly social,
subject to special laws, besides the more general laws of nature
which rule them also, and if these facts, by constant objective
characteristics, are sufficiently distinct from the phenomena called

Positive psychology is now already constituted. Positive sociology is
being formed. The science of language, the science of religions, the
history of art are also assuming a positive form. The movement which
has begun, and of which we only see the beginnings, will probably
extend much further than we think. It supposes at least a provisional
separation between the scientific interest and the political, moral
and religious interests. Being already constituted for a considerable
part of our knowledge, this separation for the remainder is still
distasteful to the traditional habits of the majority of minds. We are
accustomed to speculate upon physical or chemical nature with perfect
disinterestedness as to the metaphysical consequences of the results
which we may obtain. For we are convinced that the laws of these
phenomena do not necessarily imply any consequences of this kind, or
that they can be almost indifferently brought into accord with any form
of metaphysics we may be pleased to adopt. What do physics, chemistry,
natural philosophy _prove_, as to the destiny of man or the supreme
cause of the universe? Nothing, and it does not occur to us to be
surprised at it. We consider that these sciences are in accordance with
their definition if they give us a knowledge of the laws of phenomena,
and if this knowledge enables us within certain limits to exercise a
rational and efficacious action upon nature.

Are we in the same position in what concerns psychology and the
moral and social sciences? This is doubtful. The very name of “moral
sciences” is significant enough on this point. We cannot refrain from
thinking that these sciences “prove” something outside themselves. For
several of the schools of this century, psychology is still the path
that leads to metaphysics. Spirituality and the immortality of the
soul seem to have a direct interest in it. In a more or less conscious
manner orthodox political economy has found itself “proving” the
legitimacy of the modern capitalist _régime_, and has represented it as
being in conformity with the immutable laws of nature. The historical
materialism of Marx “proves” the necessity of collectivism. History too
often serves national interests, or political parties.

Comte’s most interesting and fertile leading idea is that the sciences
conceived in this way are still in their infancy and do not deserve
their name. Those who take them up should, in the first place,
convince themselves of the fact that they prove no more in favour of
spiritualism or materialism, of protection or of free exchange, than
physics or chemistry prove in favour of the unity or the plurality
of substances in the universe. In the school of the more advanced
sciences men may be taught to distinguish between the objects of
positive research and the metaphysical or practical questions. They
will see also that the human mind did not begin by making this
distinction in the case of inorganic and of living nature. For a long
time it could only think of physical phenomena religiously. Without
the admirable effort of the Greek men of science and philosophers, we
might yet find ourselves in this period, and positive philosophy might
still be awaiting the hour of its birth. To-day this philosophy has
come into being. In order to prove finally established, it requires
that individual and social human nature should become the object
of a science as disinterested as physics and biology have already
become. From that day alone will the “Social sciences” be definitely

It is true that since in a certain way the object of these sciences is
ourselves, it seems paradoxical to look upon them in the same way as
if it were a question of salts or of crystals. We persist in believing
that any knowledge of this order, as soon as it is acquired, admits
of immediate applications to our condition or conduct. But this is an
illusion. Is not the importance of the “_milieu_” in which we find
ourselves, and of the forces which affect us from without for our
welfare and even for our preservation which depends upon them at every
moment, a simple matter of evidence? Nevertheless, we seek a purely
abstract, scientific knowledge of the laws of phenomena, because we
know that our effective power upon natural forces is subordinate to
science. In the same way we separate physiology from therapeutics
and medicine, and we especially await the progress of these from
physiology. So in the same way, pædagogy, rational economy, politics,
and in general all the social arts in the future will be subordinated
to the theoretical science of the individual and social nature of man,
when this science has been constituted by means of a purely positive
method, and is no longer expected to “prove” anything but its laws.

This may perhaps be the work of centuries. We are only witnessing
its early beginnings. We still have only a vague idea of a polity
founded upon science; and we do not yet know what individual and
social psychology will yield as a positive science. Comte anticipated
results which could not be immediate. This is yet another feature
which he has in common with Descartes, to whom we have so often had
occasion to compare him. Having conceived a certain mathematical ideal
of physical science, Descartes pictured the problems of nature, and
especially of living nature, as being infinitely less complex than they
are. Our scientific men to-day no longer venture to put to themselves
the biological questions whose solution appeared to Descartes to be
comparatively easy. In the same way, Auguste Comte, having recognised
that moral and social phenomena should be objects of science, just as
those of inorganic and living nature, believed this new science to be
far more advanced by his own labours than it was in reality.

It is easy to understand his mistake. He was anxious to proceed to
the “social reorganisation,” in view of which he was constructing
his philosophy. Then, given the conception he had formed of social
science, he was bound to think that the discovery of the great dynamic
law of the three States was sufficient to finally constitute it. In
his eyes “the hardest part of the work was done.” Sociologists at
present believe that almost everything remains to be done. But, here
again, we may renew the comparison between Descartes and Comte. In
the work of both, without much difficulty, we can distinguish what
is done by the scientific man properly so-called and what is done by
the philosopher. It is the same with Comte the sociologist as with
Descartes the physicist. Their hypotheses have met with the fate common
to scientific labours, of which Comte himself has so well set forth the
necessary transitoriness. The other portion of their work, more general
in character, is possessed of more enduring qualities. In this sense,
and setting aside his political and religious views, which belong to
another order, the speculative philosophy of Comte is living still, and
pursues its evolution even within the minds of those who are engaged
in opposing it.


_W. Jolly & Sons, Printers, Albany Press, Aberdeen._


[370] Cours, IV, 237.

       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber's Notes

Obvious typographical errors have been silently corrected. Variations
in hyphenation and accents have been standardised but all other
spelling and punctuation, in particular the inconsistent punctuation of
the footnotes, remains unchanged.

Opening or closing quotation marks are frequently omitted. Where these
are obvious they have been inserted, otherwise they have been left

In Book I Chapter VI, part II the quotion “the work of the species
gradually developed in the long sequence of centuries.” is referenced
as a footnote, but no footnote is present.

Italics are represented thus _italic_.

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