Auguste Comte and Positivism HTML version

PART I. The Cours De Philosophie Positive
For some time much has been said, in England and on the Continent, concerning
"Positivism" and "the Positive Philosophy." Those phrases, which during the life of the
eminent thinker who introduced them had made their way into no writings or discussions
but those of his very few direct disciples, have emerged from the depths and manifested
themselves on the surface of the philosophy of the age. It is not very widely known what
they represent, but it is understood that they represent something. They are symbols of a
recognised mode of thought, and one of sufficient importance to induce almost all who
now discuss the great problems of philosophy, or survey from any elevated point of view
the opinions of the age, to take what is termed the Positivist view of things into serious
consideration, and define their own position, more or less friendly or hostile, in regard to
it. Indeed, though the mode of thought expressed by the terms Positive and Positivism is
widely spread, the words themselves are, as usual, better known through the enemies of
that mode of thinking than through its friends; and more than one thinker who never
called himself or his opinions by those appellations, and carefully guarded himself
against being confounded with those who did, finds himself, sometimes to his
displeasure, though generally by a tolerably correct instinct, classed with Positivists, and
assailed as a Positivist. This change in the bearings of philosophic opinion commenced in
England earlier than in France, where a philosophy of a contrary kind had been more
widely cultivated, and had taken a firmer hold on the speculative minds of a generation
formed by Royer-Collard, Cousin, Jouffroy, and their compeers. The great treatise of M.
Comte was scarcely mentioned in French literature or criticism, when it was already
working powerfully on the minds of many British students and thinkers. But, agreeably to
the usual course of things in France, the new tendency, when it set in, set in more
strongly. Those who call themselves Positivists are indeed not numerous; but all French
writers who adhere to the common philosophy, now feel it necessary to begin by
fortifying their position against "the Positivist school." And the mode of thinking thus
designated is already manifesting its importance by one of the most unequivocal signs,
the appearance of thinkers who attempt a compromise or juste milieu between it and its
opposite. The acute critic and metaphysician M. Taine, and the distinguished chemist M.
Berthelot, are the authors of the two most conspicuous of these attempts.
The time, therefore, seems to have come, when every philosophic thinker not only ought
to form, but may usefully express, a judgment respecting this intellectual movement;
endeavouring to understand what it is, whether it is essentially a wholesome movement,
and if so, what is to be accepted and what rejected of the direction given to it by its most
important movers. There cannot be a more appropriate mode of discussing these points
than in the form of a critical examination of the philosophy of Auguste Comte; for which
the appearance of a new edition of his fundamental treatise, with a preface by the most
eminent, in every point of view, of his professed disciples, M. Littre, affords a good
opportunity. The name of M. Comte is more identified than any other with this mode of
thought. He is the first who has attempted its complete systematization, and the scientific
extension of it to all objects of human knowledge. And in doing this he has displayed a
quantity and quality of mental power, and achieved an amount of success, which have not