Auguste Comte and Positivism HTML version

only won but retained the high admiration of thinkers as radically and strenuously
opposed as it is possible to be, to nearly the whole of his later tendencies, and to many of
his earlier opinions. It would have been a mistake had such thinkers busied themselves in
the first instance with drawing attention to what they regarded as errors in his great work.
Until it had taken the place in the world of thought which belonged to it, the important
matter was not to criticise it, but to help in making it known. To have put those who
neither knew nor were capable of appreciating the greatness of the book, in possession of
its vulnerable points, would have indefinitely retarded its progress to a just estimation,
and was not needful for guarding against any serious inconvenience. While a writer has
few readers, and no influence except on independent thinkers, the only thing worth
considering in him is what he can teach us: if there be anything in which he is less wise
than we are already, it may be left unnoticed until the time comes when his errors can do
harm. But the high place which M. Comte has now assumed among European thinkers,
and the increasing influence of his principal work, while they make it a more hopeful task
than before to impress and enforce the strong points of his philosophy, have rendered it,
for the first time, not inopportune to discuss his mistakes. Whatever errors he may have
fallen into are now in a position to be injurious, while the free exposure of them can no
longer be so.
We propose, then, to pass in review the main principles of M. Comte's philosophy;
commencing with the great treatise by which, in this country, he is chiefly known, and
postponing consideration of the writings of the last ten years of his life, except for the
occasional illustration of detached points.
When we extend our examination to these later productions, we shall have, in the main,
to reverse our judgment. Instead of recognizing, as in the Cours de Philosophic Positive,
an essentially sound view of philosophy, with a few capital errors, it is in their general
character that we deem the subsequent speculations false and misleading, while in the
midst of this wrong general tendency, we find a crowd of valuable thoughts, and
suggestions of thought, in detail. For the present we put out of the question this signal
anomaly in M. Comte's intellectual career. We shall consider only the principal gift
which he has left to the world, his clear, full, and comprehensive exposition, and in part
creation, of what he terms the Positive Philosophy: endeavouring to sever what in our
estimation is true, from the much less which is erroneous, in that philosophy as he
conceived it, and distinguishing, as we proceed, the part which is specially his, from that
which belongs to the philosophy of the age, and is the common inheritance of thinkers.
This last discrimination has been partially made in a late pamphlet, by Mr Herbert
Spencer, in vindication of his own independence of thought: but this does not diminish
the utility of doing it, with a less limited purpose, here; especially as Mr Spencer rejects
nearly all which properly belongs to M. Comte, and in his abridged mode of statement
does scanty justice to what he rejects. The separation is not difficult, even on the direct
evidence given by M. Comte himself, who, far from claiming any originality not really
belonging to him, was eager to connect his own most original thoughts with every germ
of anything similar which he observed in previous thinkers.