Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Philosophy Weekend: The Disappeared Auguste Comte

By Levi Asher on Saturday, September 24, 2011 09:50 am

There once lived a giant of philosophy, a rock star of ethics, now almost completely forgotten, named Auguste Comte. Born in Montpelier in southern France amidst the tumult of the French Revolution, he made it his life's mission to integrate the Revolution's better ideas into a scientific structure, Positivism, that sought rational principles to guide our understanding of both the physical and the moral world.

His scientific writings would gain wide favor in the Darwinian era, but he challenged his readers to follow his arguments beyond science into the thorny arena of culture and politics. He is often cited as the founder of Sociology, and he invented the word "altruism" (in French, altruisme, based on the Latin root for "other"). With a deft perception that often eludes us today, Comte described altruism as a basic fact of human nature -- not an illusory by-product of selfish interests, but a primary, inviolable element of the soul.

Auguste Comte was vastly admired during the late 19th Century, not only by his peers and followers (philosopher John Stuart Mill, novelist George Eliot, theologian Richard Congreve) but also by the public at large. He was a rare intellectual celebrity of international proportions, and his fame grew even greater after his death in 1857. Basking in popularity towards the end of his life, he went so far as to found his own "religion", a scientific and philosophical "Church of Humanity" that would last for decades (one elegant church building is now a tourist attraction in Brazil). He and his followers were so sure that they had found the key to a happy and peaceful world society that they decided to invent a new calendar, the Positivist Calendar, with months and days named after great thinkers (today, according to this calendar, is the 15th of Shakespeare). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Auguste Comte's influence at its peak:

It difficult today to appreciate the interest Comte's thought enjoyed a century ago, for it has received almost no notice during the last five decades. Before the First World War, Comte's movement was active nearly everywhere in the world. The best known case is that of Latin America: Brazil, which owes the motto on its flag ‘Ordem e Progresso’ (Order and Progress) to Comte and Mexico are two prominent examples. The positivists, i.e., the followers of Comte, were equally active in England, the United States and India. And in the case of Turkey, its modern secular character can be traced to Comte's influence on the Young Turks.

Philosophical history is littered with defunct geniuses, but a quick perusal of Comte's work leaves a surprising impression: this is one lost philosopher who should not have been lost. His once-controversial scientific method is now common practice, and his "sociology" has grown into a standard (though, lately, dull) academic discipline. But Comte's idealistic visions of a rational society -- progressive, liberal, egalitarian, pacifist -- caused him to fall out of favor in the century that followed his own, a century dominated by the bitter technology and propaganda of war, racism and genocide. An optimistic Auguste Comte book can seem like a trivial and inconsequential thing in a world that has largely given up on hope for itself.

The sentence that follows the paragraph above in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says it all:

None of this activity survived the First World War.

Indeed, what of humanity did survive the First World War? The Church of Positivism never completely closed its doors, and you can still visit the Maison d'Auguste Comte et Chapelle de l'Humanite in Paris today (these great photos were taken by dalbera). He is no longer taught in schools, and only a few budget-bin editions of his selected writings are available in book form today. His invention of the word "altruism" may seem like a questionable honor in a world that often identifies altruism with weakness.

But there's a problem here: Auguste Comte's ideas were good ones, and some of his insights seem to stand in advance of common wisdom today. His concept of natural altruism has been beaten down by free-market capitalists and followers of Ayn Rand, but the beating has not been fatal. His belief in the possibility of a future world society bound by mutual respect and love has never been refuted in words; it has only been refuted by actions, by the world's descent into worse depths of cruelty and barbarism throughout the 20th Century.

Indeed, the very obscurity of Auguste Comte's legacy today seems to indicate something hopeful. How is it possible for such an influential thinker to be completely "disappeared" from modern awareness? His memory does not seem to have faded; rather, it was buried under a mound of corpses. It may be a testament to the potency of Auguste Comte's ideals that their traces have been so fully erased in our current times. It's amazing what treasures can be found if we only look into our own intellectual past.


This article is part of the Philosophy Weekend series. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Why Steven Pinker's Book is Important. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: The Starkest Question.


9 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: The Disappeared Auguste Comte"

by Alan on

Hi Levi,

Thanks for the link to Auguste Compte's Church of Humanity. More than three decades of twice-daily meditations have gradually dissolved all of my spiritual and religious beliefs. They just wouldn't stay; scary for a former Catholic altar boy.

But I can appreciate the tendency to ritualize our collective hopes for a better society. And, although I do believe that preaching to the conscious side of our minds to love one another is an admirable endeavor, (moral logic being very convincing) I fear it won't prevail for someone who feels personally stressed. I favor daily small doses of a natural stress relief technique (NSR) that slips behind the conscious mind and allows the brain and nervous system to normalize, letting our happiness naturally flow.

The depth of my compassion for others seems to depend on how I'm feeling at the time. When stressed, I'm naturally more absorbed in myself. When I feel good, I'm free to to respond more altruistically towards other people. I think the tendency to lend a hand is etched on our nervous system at the instinct for pack survival and is reinforced by an increase in our happiness.

Indries Shah once said that we already have the knowledge and the tools we need, it's only the application that we lack. But there is also this-- to remember what's already been figured out.
Thank you for this post.

by Claudia on

Levi, we're on the same wavelength about Comte! He's gotten a bad rap from some for being a positivist, but actually, as you point out, he's a humanist at heart despite his (semi) scientific framework. I wrote about him in my dissertation, Gender and Citizenship, where I credit him for giving credit to women and their important roles in modern citizenship. Although he's the father of sociology, he's probably disappeared from view in modern times because he's not quantitative/scientific enough for some and too much so for others. Claudia

by tolmsted on

Levi -

Thanks for the introduction, can you recommend a book to start with?

Your post reminded me of another philosopher whose writings were buried in the first quarter of the 20th century: Peter Kropotkin. While I wouldn't call myself an anarchist, I'm fond of his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Are you familiar with it? It was his response to Social Darwinism and "survival of the fittest". He took the opposite track, focusing instead on cooperation within a species as the mechanism for survival.

Isn't it strange how society seems to be more comfortable with embracing negative definitions, and dismissing the positive ones as idealistic nonsense?

by Levi Asher on

Good question, Tara -- I wish I could recommend a book of Comte's but I've only read about him -- I have not read any of his original works. I only began reading about him recently, when I started looking into the history of sociology. There's a lot of good information available online about Comte.

And, yes, I am definitely interested in Peter Kropotkin -- thanks for reminding me about that book, which is very relevant to these discussions!

Well, we are not quite that dead, are we?

Levi,

As a long-time---40 years or so--admirer of Comte, your post came to me as a happy surprise. Your account of the positivist philosopher is so much more complete and accurate than most of what I routinely find either in print or on the Web! And I just can't believe you could write it without a direct acquaintance with Comte's books!

I would have only one (minor) point of disagreement--about the title and main thread of the post. I just don't think Comte ever disappeared--for the reason that, arguably, he never appeared!

I would contend--contrary to Michel Bourdeau whose article I find somewhat misleading in this respect--that the time has yet to come when Comte will be widely celebrated and--above all--read!

No, Comte's writings didn't gain "wide favor in the Darwinian era". Alongside with the fact that almost all analyses of Comte's doctrines of that period (and indeed up to the present) are wide of the mark, the fact that it's next to impossible to find 19th- as well as early 20th-century editions of Comte's books on the used/antiquarian book market suggests to me just the contrary*.

No, Comte wasn't "vastly admired during the late 19th Century"**. During his life, he was but an obscure teacher of mathematics who attained no status--academic or other. Far from "basking in popularity towards the end of his life", at his death he was still a nobody, as may be inferred from a document I recently ran into (http://picus.sns.it/index.php?page=Filosofo&id=222&lang=de). In the wake of Comte's death, as an auction of his belongings was annouced, members of the imperial administration contemplated purchasing the stock of his printed works, which he kept in his own lodging--with the intent of destroying it! And at the same time they wondered if that wouldn't be just a waste of money, for didn't these illegible, crazy books carry with them their own refutation?

Arguably, Comte would have remained totally unknown if he had not temporarily gained the admiration of two prominent intellectual figures of his days: J.S. Mill in Britain and Emile Littré in France. Unfortunately, both ended up rejecting and calumniating him, the former accusing him of having grown into a dangerous totalitarian, and the latter of having ended his life in downright madness!

As for "the public at large", he was mostly informed by these renegade disciples, added to a host of others detractors from all quarters: religious as well as irreligious, conservative as well as revolutionary, scientific as well as litterary. Everything that could deter from reading him was put to use: he was--and still is--branded a shallow thinker, a terrible writer, a madman, an irresponsible revolutionary or a die-hard reactionary, a materialist or a mystical person, a totally incompetent scientist, etc.

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* Maurice Siegelbaum, a foremost parisian dealer and expert in antiquarian books once told me apropos of Comte's books "C'est introuvable... et c'est invendable !" (That's impossible to come by..., and impossible to sell!)

** See Walter Michael Simon, European positivism in the nineteenth century: an essay in intellectual history, Kennikat Press, 1972. For that book Simon surveyed the literature of the period and concluded that Comte's direct influence was negligible. See also, for an survey of the few who where in some degree influenced, my Web pages on Comte's Disciples and Admirers http://membres.multimania.fr/clotilde/disciple/index.xml

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May I also signal a few minor inaccuracies?

Comte's birthplace, Montpellier isn't a village but a major city of southern, Occitan, France. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montpellier

Richard Congreve can't be labeled a theologian, since he was for most of his intellectual life an orthodox disciple of Comte. Indeed he was an evangelical minister before his conversion to comtism, but not long enough to make a name as a theologian. See http://membres.multimania.fr/clotilde/disciple/britain/c_gb.xml#Congreve

Tara -

I would recommend that you delve directly into Comte's major treatise, the System of Positive Polity, or Treatise of Sociology Instituting the Religion of Humanity (1851-1854).

Although, as I say elsewhere, printed copies of it are very rare, digitized versions are now easy to come by. See, for example:

- vol 1 - General View of Positivism and Introductory Principles: http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924092570591 - detailed TOC: http://archive.org/stream/cu31924092570591#page/n49
- vol 2 - Social Statics: http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924092570609 - detailed TOC: http://archive.org/stream/cu31924092570609#page/n15
- vol 3 - Social Dynamics: http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924092570617 - detailed TOC: http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924092570617#page/n49/
- vol 4 - Theory of the Future of Man - Early Essays on Social Philosophy: http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924092570625 - detailed TOC: http://archive.org/stream/cu31924092570625#page/n57
- Index to the 4 volumes: http://archive.org/stream/cu31924092570625#page/n741

Some outstanding sections (among many others)
- Theory of cerebral functions (where alruism is invented): http://archive.org/stream/cu31924092570591#page/n603
- Theory of religion : http://archive.org/stream/cu31924092570609#page/n42

Among the Early Essays, you might consider reading the seminal Plan of the Scientific Operations Necessary for Reorganizing Society (1822): http://archive.org/stream/cu31924092570625#page/n613

by Levi Asher on

Dear Emmanuel Lazinier -- thank you for the feedback and suggested corrections. After going over your suggested corrections, I did change my text to remove the reference to Montpelier as a village, but I decided to leave my reference to Congreve as a theologian as is, because I am not convinced that the term theologian should have a specific meaning with regard to organized religion.

And as for whether or not Comte was widely admired or famous before his death or during the 19th century, I am finding conflicting information about this. I will let my original words stand, and will let your words stand here as well, so the readers can evaluate both.

I do think you clearly know more about Comte than I do, though, so thank you for taking the time to post your comment!

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