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Auguste Comte and Positivism

proclaimed with great emphasis, and a knowledge of which is almost indispensable to an
apprehension of the characteristic difference between his second career and his first. It
should be known that during his later life, and even before completing his first great
treatise, M. Comte adopted a rule, to which he very rarely made any exception: to abstain
systematically, not only from newspapers or periodical publications, even scientific, but
from all reading whatever, except a few favourite poets in the ancient and modern
European languages. This abstinence he practised for the sake of mental health; by way,
as he said, of "hygiène cerebrale." We are far from thinking that the practice has nothing
whatever to recommend it. For most thinkers, doubtless, it would be a very unwise one;
but we will not affirm that it may not sometimes be advantageous to a mind of the
peculiar quality of M. Comte's - one that can usefully devote itself to following out to the
remotest developments a particular line of meditations, of so arduous a kind that the
complete concentration of the intellect upon its own thoughts is almost a necessary
condition of success. When a mind of this character has laboriously and conscientiously
laid in beforehand, as M. Comte had done, an ample stock of materials, he may be
justified in thinking that he will contribute most to the mental wealth of mankind by
occupying himself solely in working upon these, without distracting his attention by
continually taking in more matter, or keeping a communication open with other
independent intellects. The practice, therefore, may be legitimate; but no one should
adopt it without being aware of what he loses by it. He must resign the pretension of
arriving at the whole truth on the subject, whatever it be, of his meditations. That he
should effect this, even on a narrow subject, by the mere force of his own mind, building
on the foundations of his predecessors, without aid or correction from his contemporaries,
is simply impossible. He may do eminent service by elaborating certain sides of the truth,
but he must expect to find that there are other sides which have wholly escaped his
attention. However great his powers, everything that he can do without the aid of
incessant remindings from other thinkers, is merely provisional, and will require a
thorough revision. He ought to be aware of this, and accept it with his eyes open,
regarding himself as a pioneer, not a constructor. If he thinks that he can contribute most
towards the elements of the final synthesis by following out his own original thoughts as
far as they will go, leaving to other thinkers, or to himself at a subsequent time, the
business of adjusting them to the thoughts by which they ought to be accompanied, he is
right in doing so. But he deludes himself if he imagines that any conclusions he can
arrive at, while he practises M. Comte's rule of hygiène cerebrale, can possibly be
Neither is such a practice, in a hygienic point of view, free from the gravest dangers to
the philosopher's own mind. When once he has persuaded himself that he can work out
the final truth on any subject, exclusively from his own sources, he is apt to lose all
measure or standard by which to be apprized when he is departing from common sense.
Living only with his own thoughts, he gradually forgets the aspect they present to minds
of a different mould from his own; he looks at his conclusions only from the point of
view which suggested them, and from which they naturally appear perfect; and every
consideration which from other points of view might present itself, either as an objection
or as a necessary modification, is to him as if it did not exist. When his merits come to be
recognised and appreciated, and especially if he obtains disciples, the intellectual