In Part 1 of this post I discussed briefly the beginning of Comte’s life and the philosophy of one of his main influences, Henri de Saint-Simon. In this post, I will expound on Comte’s own thought and then comment on how his thought has influenced the world ever since.
Comte would soon break away from his teacher Saint-Simon and would develop a much more systematic philosophy that would outline how this vision of a new society would be founded on what he called a “positive philosophy”. It was this philosophy, which is now known as positivism, in which Comte would have his greatest influence on those who would come after him.
Before we begin to look at what positivism is and how Comte thought it should be used to reshape society, we must understand something very important. For a philosophy to have any sway or power it must be able to explain history in such a way that fits with its own self-identity. Thus it must place an interpretation on history so as to show how this new philosophy fits into history and will work to create the future world to come.
Comte knew this very well, and this is why throughout his work he spends much time detailing and explaining why history was the way it was, why the problems that brought the French Revolution came to be, and how positivism would work to finally create a better world then what was before. This teaches us that there is a battle for the interpretation of history. Whoever gets to place their interpretation on history will be the one who gets to write the future.
Comte’s understanding of history would be the basis in which his positivism could become the new way of knowledge for the new society. In his understanding of history, Comte developed what is known as “The Law of the Three Stages”, which he explains in his decades long work Course in Positive Philosophy.
Comte proclaimed that there are three stages by which human knowledge evolves throughout time:
1. Theological Stage: In this stage, humans describe what they don’t understand about the world by saying that some type of being is behind the control of nature. This stage has many stages in itself as people first believed in fetishism, than animism, until final monotheism, culminating in Christianity.
2. Metaphysical Stage: Humans begin to give abstract thought to the forces behind nature and begin no longer believing there is some type of being behind nature, but rather there are forces and energies that control nature and that are behind the natural phenomenon. This stage is a bridge between the theological stage and the last stage, which Comte believed humanity had finally reached.
3. Scientific Stage: This is the stage where man finally understands what is really happening in his world and he knows that the laws of nature are what truly govern the world and that the world can be described in purely natural and materialistic terms.
Thus Comte’s model is an evolution of religion and knowledge. Humanity in its infancy made up beings to help explain how the natural world around them worked.
Once humanity finally grew out of this infancy, it began to understand the world according to forces that are in the world. In this second stage, humans no longer had to say that it is a god who causes things to happen but they understood forces to be in nature, and it is these forces that are behind natural phenomena
Finally, now that humanity had finally grown it can begin to use science to understand the scientific laws that control the world. And once it has control of these laws, it can then use science to mold the world to fit human needs. Though most today would not hold to this theory of the Three Stages, it is still important to understand that underpinning the first sociologist, philosopher of science, and positivist is an inherent and complete trust in science, and a disregard for what the ancestors of humanity believed—as if all who came before were mere children until the grown ups came to save the world with science.
This now brings us to Comte’s positivism. Positivism is a form of empiricism, which states that knowledge of the world comes from natural observation and experience. But what made Comte’s philosophy unique was that he “went beyond many empiricists…in denying the possibility of knowledge of unobservable physical objects (Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed., 1999, pg. 168).”
In other words, Comte believed that the only knowledge humanity could possess is the knowledge that comes from the natural world, and the only way to understand the natural world is through science. This means that science is the true and ONLY authority for knowledge. Whatever science can tell us is what is true and everything else is to be given no consideration, especially in deciding social and public issues.
Though he is called the father of positivism, Comte himself understood positivism to be the natural assumption of all men who were men of science. Mill says that Comte “‘claims no originality for this conception of human knowledge,’” for he believed anyone who ‘made any real contribution to science’ implicitly adopted what he terms Positivism, and he considered Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo ‘as collectively the founders of the Positive Philosophy,’ which came to fruition with Newton (taken from http://www.victorianweb.org/philosophy/comte.html).”
Thus for Comte, positivism was merely the default epistemology of the new scientific world. This assumption is also made by many men of science today, such as Richard Dawkins, who seem to think that the natural conclusion to a scientific worldview is that science can tell us everything that is to be known that is of importance to man.
But here Comte was simply wrong. People like Newton and Galileo clearly believed that there was more that exists beyond the natural world and that science could not tell us about some of the deeper questions of life. For these earlier men of science there were plenty of questions that couldn’t be answered by science and thus science was not the authority of all knowledge. However, it is important to realize that the man who was influential in developing social sciences implanted this assumption in his philosophy, an assumption that excludes supernatural faith from the public realm of society while making science the beginning and end of all knowledge.
With science as the authority, Comte was now set to apply his philosophy of positivism upon the social realm. He believed that since humanity was just another natural organism, that science could be used to observe humanity and to cause humanity to form a new social order that was more natural to humanity then the societies of the past. For Comte, man is going to be analyzed by science, he’s going to be shaped by science, and he’s going to live by science.
This belief in the power of science to reshape society is seen by merely looking at the title of one of his books: Plan of Scientific Studies Necessary for the Reorganization of Society. Comte believed this reorganization was necessary because of the distress and lack of vision after the French Revolution. He asked the question: “How, does one reorganize human life, irrespectively of God and king?”
His answer was that humans needed a new system, now that they had done away with the church and their old rulers, and Comte believed his new sociology could supply this system. All the natural sciences that came before were now ready to be applied to the social realm, which Comte believed to be the highest of the sciences: the shaping of human society. Just as nature develops according to the laws of nature, so Comte believed that human societies develop according to laws of nature. This belief was developed by Karl Marx who was influenced by both Saint-Simon and Comte (Cambridge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 169).
Like Saint-Simon, Comte believed that this new society shaped by the laws of science would found a new religion. He believed this so much that he actually founded his own religion of which he was the high priest. The name of this religion was/is “the Religion of Humanity.” Though this religion would largely fail, it shows that inherent in this new trust of science was a belief in the death of Christianity and the birth of a new religion where humanity would be worshipped. This new religion was liturgical, had a calendar, priesthood and even seven sacraments. (Remember that Comte was born a Catholic so his perversion of Christianity had a particular Catholic form).
The morality of this religion of the new society would be “altruism”, a term he coined to refer to the morality of the new religion as being that of people generously giving to the poor and to others in need. The order for the religion would be the new social order of society. The idea of “progress” was central to this new religion and was very important to Comte, as he saw that humanity must keep progressing in its industrial and scientific advancements in order to evolve out of their past ignorance.
Comte believed that a human living in this new society must be brought into this new religion by being indoctrinated with its new philosophy, then admitted to the church of humanity, which was the new society, where he would then choose his career, get married, retire, die (which he called separation from the living) and after three years be incorporated into history and made part of the humanity that is worshipped. This worship was a form of ancestral worship, and the worship was centered upon worship of great men of the past that had helped to achieve this new world and society that Comte envisioned.
I can’t help but find it ironic how this is the basic view of what life is by most Westerners, although recently the idea of marriage is beginning to not be as important, likely because of women now joining this society and thus finding careers and circumventing marriage or making it superfluous. But the idea of being educated through a public education, finding your career (which is really your meaning for existence), retiring, and then dying, is obviously the assumed idea of life in our industrial society.
This is not to say that Comte is responsible for this way of life, but rather that Comte understood that this would be the way of man once he had embraced the new society. And so in this way society would itself become man’s religion, giving man his beliefs, his direciton his vocation, his meaning, his morality, and his object of worship. Even though the religion of Comte was rejected, he handed down the assumptions and principles of his religion in his handing down of the social sciences, because for Comte it all went together.
Ultimately, Comte can be seen as a Social Engineer. He saw the chaos of the French Revolution and realized that mankind would need a new type of society to deal with the loss of the authority of the church and the monarchy. He looked to science to give the answers on how to reshape human society in a scientific way that allows them to build a new society that is not centered around the old Christianity, but instead around industry and altruism.
This new society shaped by science, ran by industry, and with altruism as its morality, would be the salvation of the world as other countries would take part in this industrialization and together would create one big universal industry that would eliminate poverty by making the common people into workers in this Universal Industry.
When this philosophy first came onto the scene, its philosophers such as Saint-Simon and Comte did not hide the fact that they chiefly were concerned with forming a new society. But once that theory became part of the academic and public consciousness in the following generations, the people who inherited it soon forgot that it was a theory, and eventually this new society came to believe that this industrial, secular society was a natural path in human evolution, when yet it really began as the viewpoint and philosophy of a few academic elites.
It should be obvious that in attempting to eliminate the old boundaries, men like Comte and Saint-Simon merely made up new ones. But these new ones were more abstract. They were not a tyrannical king, or an aggressive pope. Rather these boundaries were thoughts and philosophies, which instituted science, (or rather certain elite scientists) as the new King, and this king would rule over this new society that men would be made to live under.
Comte would influence many, such as Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill (his close friend), George Elliot, along with paving the way for people like Harriet Martineau, Herbert Spencer and finally Emile Durkheim who had a great influence on modern sociology.
But Comte’s philosophy can be found anywhere in society where science is used as the first and last word, such as legal, political, or moral debates. A good example would be a recent comment I heard concerning the most recent development of a judge declaring that the morning after pill should be allowed to girls of all ages. Someone tried to give a moral and common sense argument as to why this is not good for young girls, and the other person retorted by saying “we have to take our opinion and emotions out of the equation and let science tell us the facts.” There is no room for human intuition or religious beliefs for science has spoken the only word. In this statement, and many like it, Comte’s fingerprints can be detected. Science will tell us truth, and we cannot but listen and obey.
As Christians, we must understand, that the idea of industrial society, social science, and altruism, are not Christian ideas. And that they actually came about in a time when Christianity was being rejected in favor of moral humanism. Inherent in the heart of the philosopher and the philosophy that shaped modern industrial society was a rejection of Christianity and the implementation of an alternative religion that would only keep a few of the moral elements of Christianity, namely the idea of eliminating poverty and equalizing people and the social classes.
It is our duty to then consider the obvious question: Is a rejection of Christianity built into our modern social structure? Because if it is, then the future that Comte envisioned where Christianity is no longer existent and in its place is a human made and human centered religion is a something that the society is still trying to birth.
But Christianity is stubborn and has proven time and time again that it will not go away so easily. However, the biggest threat to Christianity, is this society creeping into the hearts of a youthful generation which will confuse its altruism and morality with true Christianity, and will then give away Christianity and finally fully embrace this new world as being a much better and moral religion than Christianity. This is what Comte wanted, and as we will find out in this series on Humanism, there are many who would agree with Comte, and they have been and our still today in high places of influence.