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The Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists

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The Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists

The Blackwell Companion to Major
Classical Social Theorists
Edited by
George Ritzer
The Blackwell Companion to Major Classical
Social Theorists
BLACKWELL COMPANIONS TO SOCIOLOGY
The Blackwell Companions to Sociology provide introductions to emerging
topics and theoretical orientations in sociology as well as presenting the scope
and quality of the discipline as it is currently configured. Essays in the Compan-
ions tackle broad themes or central puzzles within the field and are authored by
key scholars who have spent considerable time in research and reflection on the
questions and controversies that have activated interest in their area. This
authoritative series will interest those studying sociology at advanced under-
graduate or graduate level as well as scholars in the social sciences and informed
readers in applied disciplines.
1The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, Second Edition
Edited by Bryan S. Turner
2The Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists
Edited by George Ritzer
3The Blackwell Companion to Political Sociology
Edited by Kate Nash and Alan Scott
4The Blackwell Companion to Medical Sociology
Edited by William C. Cockerham
5The Blackwell Companion to Sociology
Edited by Judith R. Blau
6The Blackwell Companion to Major Classical Social Theorists
Edited by George Ritzer
7The Blackwell Companion to Major Contemporary Social Theorists
Edited by George Ritzer
8The Blackwell Companion to Criminology
Edited by Colin Sumner
9The Blackwell Companion to Sociology of Families
Edited by Jacqueline Scott, Judith Treas, and Martin Richards
Forthcoming
The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements
Edited by David Snow, Sarah Soule, and Hanspeter Kriesi
The Blackwell Companion to Social Inequalities
Edited by Mary Romero and Eric Margolis
The Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Culture
Edited by Mark Jacobs and Nancy Hanrahan
The Blackwell Companion to Major
Classical Social Theorists
Edited by
George Ritzer
#2000, 2003 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd
except for editorial material and organization #2000, 2003 by George Ritzer
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First published 2003 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd
This edition and The Blackwell Companion to Major Contemporary Social Theorists
originally published together as The Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists in 2000
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Contents
Preface vii
List of Contributors ix
Introduction: Narratives, Geistesgeschichtes, and the History
of Social Theory 1
Douglas J. Goodman
1 Auguste Comte 13
Mary Pickering
2 Harriet Martineau 41
Susan Hoecker-Drysdale
3 Herbert Spencer 69
Jonathan H. Turner
4 Karl Marx 93
Robert J. Antonio
5 Max Weber 132
Stephen Kalberg
6E
Âmile Durkheim 193
Robert Alun Jones
7 Georg Simmel 239
Lawrence A. Scaff
8 Charlotte Perkins Gilman 267
Charles Lemert
9 George Herbert Mead 290
Dmitri N. Shalin
10 W. E. B. Du Bois 333
Charles Lemert
11 Alfred Schutz 355
Mary Rogers
12 Talcott Parsons 376
Victor Lidz
Index 421
vi Contents
Preface
The publication of this two-volume paperback edition is a welcome event. While
many social scientists and libraries added the original hardback, single-volume
edition of The Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists to their collec-
tions, its price put it beyond the reach of all but the most well-heeled students.
Thus instructors were unable, by and large, to assign it to their classes. The
publication of these two volumes in paperback solves that problem by making
the books much more affordable. Furthermore, dividing the original volume
more-or-less in half allows those who teach classical theory to assign volume I,
The Blackwell Companion to Major Classical Social Theorists, and those who
teach contemporary theory to use volume II, The Blackwell Companion to
Major Contemporary Social Theorists. In addition, for those who teach general
courses in theory, both volumes can be assigned. The books can be used as basic
texts, or as supplements to more conventional textbooks in social and socio-
logical theory. Since the essays are original contributions authored by experts on
particular theorists, the two volumes should also be useful to scholars looking
for up-to-date and authoritative overviews of the work of the major social
theorists.
Some minor changes have been made to the text, but in the main the essays are
the same as those that appeared in the original hardback edition. One major
change is that the original introductory essay has been used as the basis for new
introductory essays, each directed at the unique concerns of the volume in which
it appears. Thus the volume of the classics opens with an essay by Douglas
Goodman entitled, ``Narratives, Geistesgeschichtes, and the History of Social
Theory.'' Goodman's essay outlines five narrative approaches to the history of
sociology, making the case for critical and effective histories of social theory that
place classical theoretical perspectives in dialogue with present-day theoretical
orientations and challenge the ideal of theoretical progress. The volume on
contemporary theory begins with an essay by Todd Stillman, ``Metatheorizing
Contemporary Social Theorists.'' Stillman catalogues the forces that contribute
to intellectual breakthroughs and develops a systematic approach to the intel-
lectual and social factors that have influenced contemporary social theorists.
Overall, these volumes present essays by leading contemporary social theorists
on their classical predecessors and contemporary peers. Having written chapters
or essays on many of the people covered here, I have a great appreciation for
these essays. In fact, I learned a great deal from each of them and I believe that
most, if not all, readers will find these essays edifying.
Beyond the contributors, there are a number of other people to thank. I begin
with Susan Rabinowitz, who proposed that I undertake this project and was of
great help throughout its creation and development. Ken Provencher at Black-
well helped to put the paperback volumes into print. I could not have done these
books without the help of Douglas Goodman, who not only wrote the intro-
ductory essay to the classical volume but read and commented on all of the
essays and helped with the innumerable details involved in bringing this project
to fruition. I also need to thank Todd Stillman, who authored the introduction to
the contemporary volume and kept track of the revisions. My undergraduate
research assistants Zinnia Cho and Jan Geesin also provided valuable research
assistance.
George Ritzer
viii Preface
Contributors
Robert J. Antonio is Professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas.
He works in classical, critical, and contemporary social theory. Among his
publications are: ``Nietzsche's Antisociology: Subjectified Culture and the End
of History,'' American Journal of Sociology; ``The Normative Foundations of
Emancipatory Theory: Evolutionary vs. Pragmatic Perspectives,'' American
Journal of Sociology; and ``Mapping Postmodern Social Theory,'' in What Is
Social Theory?
Douglas J. Goodman completed his dissertation, ``The Sociology of Freedom,'' at
the University of Maryland at College Park, and is now an assistant professor
at the University of Puget Sound, WA. He has published pieces on Lacan,
Luhmann, and Habermas, and has written on the sociology of consumption
and postmodernism.
Susan Hoecker-Drysdale is Adjunct Professor of Sociology, Department of
Sociology and Anthropology, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec; Visiting
Fellow, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 1997±8. Her publica-
tions include: Harriet Martineau: First Woman Sociologist (1992); ``Harriet
Martineau (1802±1876): Kritische Sozialforschung: Theorie und Praxis,'' in
Frauen in der Soziologie: Neun PortraÈts (edited by Claudia Honegger and
Theresa Wobbe, 1998); ``The Enigma of Harriet Martineau's Letters on Science,''
Women's Writings: the Elizabethan to Victorian Period (1995); ``Sociologists in
the Vineyard: the Careers of Everett Cherrington Hughes and Helen MacGill
Hughes,'' in Creative Couples in the Sciences (edited by Helena Pycior et al.,
1996); ``Women Sociologists in Canada: the Careers of Helen MacGill Hughes,
Aileen Dansken Ross and Jean Robertson Burnet,'' in Despite the Odds: Essays
on Canadian Women and Science (edited by Marianne G. Ainley, 1990). Her
current research and writing focuses on Harriet Martineau, selected women in
the historical emergence of sociology, and the history of feminist sociological
theory. She is a founding member of the British Martineau Society and the
Harriet Martineau Sociological Society.
Robert Alun Jones is Professor of Religious Studies, History, and Sociology at
the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He also has an appointment
with the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and is a member of
the Campus Honors Faculty. He was the founder and director of the Advanced
Information Technologies Laboratory, and is Senior Research Scientist for the
Humanities at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. His
research interests include the French philosopher and social theorist E
Âmile
Durkheim and his intellectual context, the methodology of the history of ideas,
and the scholarly use of electronic documents and networked information sys-
tems. He is the author of Emile Durkheim: an Introduction to Four Major
Works (1986), The Development of Durkheim's Social Realism (1999), several
edited volumes, and numerous journal articles on Durkheim. He has been editor
of E
Âtudes durkheimiennes, and is also responsible for the Durkheim site on the
Internet. He is writing a book on the study of primitive religion between 1865
and 1914.
Stephen Kalberg is Associate Professor of Sociology, Boston University. His
major publications include Max Weber's Comparative-Historical Sociology
(1994), Max Weber's Sociology of Civilizations (forthcoming), and, as editor,
Weber and Modernity: Key Readings and Commentary (forthcoming); his trans-
lation of Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was pub-
lished in 2002. His research interests include classical and contemporary
sociological theory, comparative-historical sociology, political sociology, and
comparative political cultures, especially German and American.
Charles Lemert teaches sociology at Wesleyan University. He has written many
books and articles on various subjects, most recently Postmodernism Is Not
What You Think and Social Things. He is completing Dark Thoughts, a study of
the troubles race has caused in social thought and culture over the course of the
past century.
Victor Lidz was taught by Talcott Parsons at Harvard, and, after graduation in
1962, entered the Department of Social Relations there as a graduate student to
continue studies in sociological theory. From 1963 to 1968, he served as Par-
sons's research assistant. In the 1970s, he taught seminars on new developments
in the theory of social action with Parsons at both the University of Chicago and
the University of Pennsylvania. Lidz received his doctorate in sociology from
Harvard University in 1976. He is presently Acting Director of the Institute for
Addictive Disorders, Department of Psychiatry, MCP Hahnemann University in
Philadelphia.
xContributors
Mary Pickering is an associate professor of history at San Jose State University.
She received a DEA from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in 1984 and a PhD
from Harvard in 1988. Cambridge University Press published in 1993 the first
volume of her major work, Auguste Comte: an Intellectual Biography. Thanks to
a NEH fellowship, she has almost completed the second volume.
George Ritzer is Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, where he
has been a Distinguished Scholar-Teacher and won a Teaching Excellence
Award. He has chaired the American Sociological Associations's sections on
Theoretical Sociology and Organizations and Occupations. George Ritzer has
held a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship, has been a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute
for Advanced Study and the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social
Sciences, and has held the UNESCO Chair in Social Theory at the Russian
Academy of Sciences. His major areas of interest are sociological theory and
metatheory, as well as the application of theory to the sociology of consumption.
In the former, his major publications are Sociology: a Multiple Paradigm Science
(1975/1980), Toward an Integrated Sociological Paradigm (1981) and
Metatheorizing in Sociology (1991). In the latter, he has written The McDonal-
dization of Society (1993, 1996), Expressing America: a Critique of the Global
Credit Card Society (1995), The McDonaldization Thesis: Explorations and
Extensions (1998) and Enchanting a Disenchanted World: Revolutionizing the
Means of Consumption (1999). His work has been translated into many lan-
guages: The McDonaldization of Society alone has been, or is being, translated
into more than a dozen languages. He is currently co-editing the Handbook of
Social Theory with Barry Smart.
Mary Rogers is Professor of Sociology at the University of West Florida. Her
publications include Barbie Culture (1999), Contemporary Feminist Theory: a
Text/Reader (1998), Multicultural Experiences, Multicultural Theories: a Text/
Reader (1996), Novels, Novelists, and Readers: toward a Phenomenological
Sociology of Literature (1993), and Sociology, Ethnomethodology, and Experi-
ence: a Phenomenological Critique (1983).
Lawrence A. Scaff is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of
Liberal Arts at Wayne State University, Detroit. He teaches political and social
theory, and he is the author of Fleeing the Iron Cage: Culture, Politics and
Modernity in the Thought of Max Weber. He has published numerous essays
in modern social theory, including recent work on Weber, Simmel, the problem
of historicism, and issues in cultural sociology. He has also served on the faculty
of the University of Arizona, Pennsylvania State University, and as a Fulbright
scholar at the University of Freiburg.
Dmitri Shalin is Professor of Sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas,
and received his first PhD from the Institute of Sociology, Russian Academy of
Science, and the second from Columbia University. He has published extensively
Contributors xi
in the areas of sociological theory, the history of sociology, and Russian society.
He was the editor of special issues of Symbolic Interaction, on ``Self in Crisis:
Identity and the Postmodern Condition'' and ``Russian Society in Transition.''
Jonathan H. Turner is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of
California at Riverside. He is the author of twenty-four books and many articles
on sociological theory, ethnic relations, institutional systems, stratification
dynamics, and evolutionary processes. His most recent research has been on
the biology and sociology of human emotions.
xii Contributors
Introduction: Narratives,
Geistesgeschichtes, and the History
of Social Theory
Douglas J. Goodman
One of the purposes of this volume is to contribute to the narrative history of
social theories. In other words, to tell stories about theories and theorists. This
seems harmless and academic, at least until one realizes that neither theories
about society nor stories about theories of society are confined to professional
academics. Indeed, social change that is not merely reactive requires theories.
Pragmatic agents engaged in changing their society cannot avoid thinking about
how their society works and how the society affects the way that individuals
think. It is but a short step from there to considering how others have thought a
society works and how they were affected by their society. Such considerations
only become useful when we have developed a story that connects the way that
we think about society to the way that others have thought about society. Thus
we move naturally from wanting to change society, to developing a social theory,
to studying other social theories, to developing narratives about social theories.
This collection contributes to the narrative history of social theories in at least
three ways. First, and most obviously, the chapters themselves are narratives
about social theorists. They are biographies related to tales of intellectual
disputes set within epic social histories. The stories move from the theorists'
social and intellectual context to present-day impacts and assessments. Second,
the selection of the twelve classical theorists covered in this volume implies a
narrative of social theory because this cast of characters was selected to fit if not
a specific plot, then at least a mise-en-sce
Áne. Finally, and perhaps most impor-
tantly, this volume provides a source book for constructing not only new
theories, but also new narratives of social theory. Retellings and reinterpreta-
tions, such as those in this volume, have always been more than a resource for
present controversies. They have been an intrinsic part of most of social theory's
paradigmatic shifts. Therefore, although any list of theorists covered in a collec-
tion such as this one can be read as an official canon, the editor intends that this
book be used as ``canon fodder'' in an open, contestable process of theory
construction and reconstruction.
To say, however, that these are narratives, or that they are meant to contribute
to narrative reinterpretations is not to say enough, because there are many ways
in which the story of social theory can be told and not all of them fit the
intention of this collection. In what follows, I will use Richard Rorty's
1
genres
of historiography to analyze four types of narrative histories of social theory
represented in these chapters. Focusing on one of Rorty's types, I then employ a
typology derived from Donald Levine's work to analyze several of the ways in
which sociological narratives connect the past to the present in order to suggest
progress and continuity. I will close by making the case for the addition of a fifth
type of narrative: critical and effective histories (derived from the work of
Michel Foucault).
Richard Rorty discusses four genres of historiography and, although he is
dealing with narrative histories of philosophy, his typology can be applied to
social theory. Let us begin with the genre that Rorty refers to as ``most familiar
and dubious,'' doxography. A doxography is an old familiar story or the com-
monsense version of history. In social theory, this would be an approach that
enumerates what various authors traditionally called sociologists have had to
say about topics traditionally defined as sociological. This type of narrative takes
a list of supposedly timeless sociological issues such as order, control, organiza-
tion, etc., and cites the exemplary contributions made by an equally timeless list
of social theorists. It makes the mistake of taking both central sociological issues
and exemplary social theorists as natural rather than contestable constructions.
Rorty sees this genre as a degenerate form fit only for the most basic pedagogical
purposes.
It would be easy in a collection such as this to accept a timeless list of social
theorists and simply offer new interpretations of these people and their contri-
butions. While there are certainly a number of such essays here, there are also
essays on thinkers who would traditionally not be covered in such a volume:
Martineau, Gilman, and Du Bois. The editor made a conscious effort to extend
the net and include thinkers who have not heretofore been considered part of the
canon. More importantly, the idea that there can be such a timeless list is
rejected. All such lists are provisional and it is my expectation that future
collections will offer somewhat different rosters. The list of thinkers dealt with
in this book tells us much about the state of social theory at the beginning of the
twenty-first century (and undoubtedly about the person doing the selecting), but
in a decade or two, the list of authors covered will almost certainly be very
different.
The idea that there is a timeless list of social theorists can become a strait-
jacket. At the very least, it quickly becomes dated, because both the social world
and social theory are continually changing. For example, a similar book a few
decades ago would probably have not included any women. That this collection
does indicates both a change in society and in theoretical thinking. While this
2Douglas J. Goodman
particular choice ± indeed all choices ± is open to debate and disagreement, what
is indisputable is the fact that lists of our centrally important social theorists are
open to continual change.
Although it may offend the sacred priests of what Robert Alun Jones
2
calls the
``Nacirema Tsigoloicos,'' the work of no theorist is timeless. Marx, Weber,
Durkheim, and a few others have been of great importance for a century or
more, but the time will come when they, too, will be relegated to the dustbin of
history. At some point in the future, the social world will be so different that even
Marx, Weber, and Durkheim will prove to be of little relevance in thinking about
it. In fact, were this not to be the case, one would be forced to reconsider the
whole enterprise of social theory. Changes in both society and social theory are
inevitable and necessary. Doxographies obscure this fact.
Similarly, a belief in a timeless list of sociological problems restricts our vision
to a horizon defined by a wish to remain still. It obscures the vistas opened up by
unpredictable historical movements. For example, the topics of industrialization
and modes of production were among the founding problems of modern sociol-
ogy, but many have argued that the continued focus on them has led to the
neglect of important changes in modes of consumption.
3
A recent sociological
theory text organized around subjects begins with rationality because it ``has
been at the foundation of dominant conceptions of modernity.''
4
However, even
where the topic appears to be abiding, as rationality certainly has, a closer look
reveals that its meaning is not. The Kantian concept of reason that structured the
debates around rationality at the end of the eighteenth century bears only a
genealogical relation to postmodern contestations. The current controversy
around rationality has inherited the name and a faint family resemblance, but
it is not at all clear that the previous participants ± for example, Durkheim and
Kant or Weber and Marx ± would recognize their progeny. Furthermore, there
are certainly a number of theorists, especially those associated with a postmo-
dern approach, who would argue that it is irrationality rather than rationality
that characterizes large portions of contemporary society.
The second genre discussed by Rorty is called rational reconstructions. This
is a presentist project that treats predecessors as contemporaries with whom one
can exchange views. However, since the ``founders'' of sociology often had little
to say about the problems we now regard as fundamental, this approach usually
involves imagining what they would have said if only they had understood
the importance of these issues. For example, Lemert, in his chapter on Charlotte
Perkins Gilman, reconstructs some of her writings as an intervention in the
debate around essentialism, even though the ambiguity of Lemert's citations
from her work suggest that this was an issue that held little interest for her. It
is not that Lemert is arguing that Gilman really meant to assert a position on
essentialism, but rather that her approach can provide a resource for a move
in this current debate in which Lemert is himself involved. Another example
would be Hoecker-Drysdale calling Harriet Martineau's analysis an ``immanent
critique,'' thereby locating Martineau's method within the debate over the rela-
tive ground of normative criticism, although Martineau clearly had no such
intent. But, of course, simply because Martineau's naturalistic assumptions did
Introduction 3
not require a critique that emerged from the system being examined does not
mean that her reasoning cannot contribute to our current discussions.
For the purpose of rational reconstructions, it must be assumed that debates as
well as concepts are more or less stable. In order to reconstruct the answers of
past theorists, we must assume that they would understand today's questions.
Furthermore, engaging in a rational reconstruction often means correcting what
appear to us now to be their obvious mistakes; for example, reconstructing
Durkheim's sacred/profane dichotomy in light of our present anthropological
knowledge (see the discussion in chapter 6). This, of course, assumes that we
now know better than they do. While this can often be said in the natural
sciences, it is not always so obvious in social theory. The primary difference is
that in social theory ± Rorty makes this same point with regard to philosophy ±
the people that we assume we know better than are not just predecessors, but
include our colleagues. To reconstruct what Marx would say about capitalist
classes now that the proletariat revolution looks less than inevitable is to call not
just Marx mistaken but also a number of our colleagues who are still waiting for
the proletariat to cast off their chains.
The presentism, and assumptions of stable concepts and of knowing better
than our predecessors are all serious problems with this approach, but Rorty
argues that they are not fatal as long as we are aware of them. These assump-
tions contribute to a certain necessary reassurance that there is the possibility of
progress because the problems we are working on are part of a tradition and not
just trivial ephemera. Also, these rational reconstructions provide what disci-
plinary structures there are in sociology. Without rational reconstructions there
would be no neo-Weberians, neo-Marxists, neofunctionalists, or any of the
schools of sociology, since they all derive their vitality from reconstructing
their received traditions.
There is one final point to be made regarding rational reconstructions, and this
has an impact on the cohesiveness of sociological schools. Rational reconstruc-
tions do not necessarily converge. Parsons's rational reconstruction of Weber
is radically different from Marcuse's.
5
This means that some neo-Weberians may
have more in common with neo-Marxists than with other neo-Weberians.
Furthermore, since reconstructions are always to some extent fictions, it is not
possible to say that one is wrong and it is even difficult to say that one is better
than another.
The third genre is historical reconstructions. Here, rather than trying to
understand what theorists might have said about our present controversies, the
goal is to try to understand what they did say in the context of their contempor-
ary controversies. Theoretical pronouncements are situated in their dialogic
context and placed in relation to other texts of the period that address similar
issues and use comparable rhetorical strategies. Doing a historical reconstruction
usually means bracketing later developments and suspending judgments about
what we now know better. Although a historical reconstruction is analytically
distinct from a rational reconstruction, they are regularly conjoined in practice.
The rational reconstruction of what sociologists would have said usually begins
4Douglas J. Goodman
with what they did say and involves an interpretation of our present context
based upon their reconstructed historical context.
From the historical reconstructor's viewpoint, exemplary theorists may be
most valuable where they seem most strange and alien. In other words, they
are most useful when they are most difficult to rationally reconstruct. Such
extraordinary ideas expose our ``essential'' questions and ``timeless'' issues as
contingent socio-historical products. Historical reconstructions help us to recog-
nize that there are other conversations than those we think are important today.
Rather than assuring us of our progress, the historical reconstruction contributes
to understanding our own socio-historical embeddedness.
One of the leading advocates of this approach in social theory has been Robert
Alun Jones, author of the chapter on Durkheim in this volume. As he points out,
it is a difficult undertaking, since it requires ``a considerable breadth of know-
ledge of economic, political and social as well as intellectual history; a reading
knowledge of relevant foreign languages; and at least some understanding of the
principles of the philosophy of social science.''
6
It is, as Alan Sica notes, ``risky
for the most able scholars, foolhardy for many others.''
7
Even where successful,
it can, as Sica points out, be professionally counterproductive. Mary Pickering,
for example, argues in her chapter that our understanding of Comte is much too
simplistic. However, the revelation of Comte's ambiguous relation to modernity
may simply remove him from the canon, thereby devaluing Pickering's cultural
capital. This is why a scholar may prefer to do a rational reconstruction such as
Jonathan Turner's chapter on Spencer in order to increase the value of his or her
intellectual investment.
Jones's chapter on Durkheim demonstrates that historical reconstructions are
far from reductionist. Rather than seeing Durkheim's ideas as determined by
social forces that are working behind the back of the theorist, Durkheim is
presented as involved in debates with his contemporaries and as pursuing
specific and concrete projects. Consequently, Jones is able to argue, for example,
that it is absurd to read the Division of Labor as a challenge to Marx, since it is
unlikely that Durkheim would have thought Marx to be a serious antagonist.
The question as to whether we should take it as a challenge to Marx despite
Durkheim's intent is not raised in this approach.
Kalberg's chapter on Weber demonstrates how important a historical recon-
struction can be for understanding the limits of the theorist's concepts. While
Weber is often portrayed as a theorist of a universal process of rationalization,
Kalberg's historical reconstruction reveals rationalization to be a concept that
Weber developed in order to explain the uniqueness of Western culture rather
than as a universal drive. Weber's major works analyze specific and complex
developments through a historical-comparative approach. Weber never intended
his analysis to be applied to world-historical universals.
Finally, we come to the genre that Rorty champions and which he calls
Geistesgeschichte. Like a rational reconstruction, it involves the idea of progress,
but here progress is not simply assumed; instead it is narrated as an explicit part
of the story. In addition, it is a narrative of continuity. Our connection to a set of
Introduction 5
predecessors gives us hope that our project will be continued by our intellectual
descendants. It provides the field with a necessary self-assurance and legitimacy
without concealing its constructed nature.
AGeistesgeschichte works at the level of paradigms and problematics. It gives
plausibility to a certain image of social theory rather than a particular solution of
a given sociological problem. It defines which projects are sociological and
distinguishes them from, for example, social philosophy. A Geistesgeschichte
would argue for (rather than simply assume) a list of exemplary contributors to
this reinterpreted project and it would narrate a story of progress and continuity
in that endeavor.
Parsons's The Structure of Social Action includes a Geistesgeschichte, even
though his professed intent was to provide a rational reconstruction. In the
second edition of that book, Parsons insisted that it ``was intended to be primar-
ily a contribution to systematic social science and not to history, that is the
history of social thought.''
8
But in order to legitimate his focus on the problem of
social action and to be able to refer to economists, philosophers and, at that
time, marginal sociologists, Parsons had to construct a Geistesgeschichte which
became more influential and enduring than his particular theories. Indeed, the
selection of classical theorists for this volume is still indebted to Parsons' Geis-
tesgeschichte.
In fact, both rational and historical reconstructors rely upon an assumed
Geistesgeschichte even when they do not find it necessary to construct one
themselves. Rational reconstructors do not really want to bother reconstructing
and engaging with minor sociologists. Historical reconstructors would like
to reconstruct sociologists who are currently relevant or who, they argue, can
be. In both cases, there needs to be a narrative that constructs a connection
between what was important and what is important. For example, Pickering
is most persuasive when she places her historical reconstruction within a
Geistesgeschichte that connects Comte's complexity to present sociological
problems.
AGeistesgeschichte is intrinsically related to canon formation. The fight over
who fits into the history of a discipline is connected to controversies over the
image of the field. It is not just a question of who is discerning enough or original
enough to be an exemplary figure, but more importantly, who is sociological
enough. For instance, one of Lemert's chapters convincingly argues that Du
Bois's ideas are important, but we could still question whether they are social
theory. Even though such debates seem to be about the honor of the designation,
they are more prescriptive than is usually acknowledged. It is not about who
deserves the honor of belonging to a predefined category, but about what the
definition of the category should be. First, what criteria should distinguish a
social theorist; second, what are the criteria that mark a classic in that field?
Unlike rational reconstructions, Geistesgeschichtes must concern themselves
with anachronisms. The question of who belongs in the canon cannot be decided
merely by present concerns. And unlike historical reconstructions, they cannot
stay within the context of the past. Geistesgeschichtes must narrate a bridge to
the present. Most importantly, this connection between the past and the present
6Douglas J. Goodman
cannot be simply assumed. When that occurs, when the Geistesgeschichte no
longer appears to be controversial, we have degenerated into doxology.
To the list of drawbacks of living in our present age must be added this one
advantage: Geistesgeschichtes are less likely to degenerate into doxologies. The
narratives, the canon and the image of the field seem, in our current condition,
to be incorrigibly unstable. Rorty states the invitation that this book intends to
offer to its readers. ``He or she should be free to create a new canon, as long as
they respect the right of others to create alternative canons. . . . They should be
urged to try it, and to see what sort of historical story they can tell when these
people are left out and some unfamiliar people are brought in.''
9
A Typology ofA Typology of
GeistesgeschichtesGeistesgeschichtes
Of the narrative forms that Rorty delineates, Geistesgeschichtes are those that
explicitly construct a story of progress and continuity that connects the past to
the present. Its central trope is a specific image of the field and its illocutionary
effect is to create a canon. Since so many of the chapters in this collection offer
this type of narrative, it may be useful to refine the typology. We don't intend to
use this to pigeonhole these essays, since, like all good stories, they use multiple
narrative techniques. Rather, we will use the refined typology as ``sensitizing
concepts'' for the analysis of theoretical narratives.
10
We see in the essays five different ways in which the past is connected to the
present in order to suggest progress and continuity: (a) classical; (b) positivist; (c)
pluralist; (d) convergent; and (e) contextualist. Donald Levine's perceptive book,
Visions of the Sociological Tradition, is the source of some of these labels, if not
of the precise formulation given them here.
11
In a classical approach, past theorists are seen as foundational for the disci-
pline and current theoretical approaches are built upon traditions that can rarely
be completely superseded. Progress is recognized in the refinement and develop-
ment of this foundation. A classic has been defined as ``a book to be read partly
because it is regarded as having been widely read.''
12
Put this way, the status of
the classic appears circular, but this in no way diminishes its importance. There is
a circular relation between the present and the past. What is important in the
past is a function of our present questions, but our present questions are, to a
significant degree, determined by our past. Such, for example, is our relation
with Marx. As Antonio's chapter in this volume makes clear, Marx is still a vital
resource for our current theoretical problems. But, just as clearly, Marx's rele-
vance for current controversies has as much to do with his prescience as it does
with the fact that he helped to delineate what the controversies are; he defined
them and brought them to our attention as social theorists. Just as it has been
said that all of philosophy is a series of footnotes on Plato, it could be said that
social theory, to date, consists of a series of footnotes on Marx.
Continuity and progress is guaranteed by the founding traditions of our field.
According to the classical approach, these traditions will be criticized, but they
are difficult to entirely supplant, because the criticism usually ends up taking a
Introduction 7
form that is profoundly influenced by the tradition that is the target of criticism.
For example, Marx's theories are sometimes criticized as reflections of the early
industrialized capitalist mode of production of his society, and therefore of less
relevance to our current mode of production. A moment's reflection will reveal
that this criticism is still within the Marxist model. Whatever its intent, this type
of criticism does more to perpetuate Marx's ideas by demonstrating their poten-
tial for self-criticism than any so-called orthodox appropriation.
With the second type, the positivist approach, past theories are seen as
containing dispersed true empirical knowledge mixed in with virtually useless
speculation. Progress is seen in the identification, collection, and systematization
of this empirical knowledge. The positivist Geistesgeschichte tells the story of
social theory's progression from a speculative philosophy through a plurality
of theoretical approaches and finally entering, or about to enter, its true phase of
rigorously empirical investigations. Classical theories represent either specula-
tive philosophy (Comte, Spencer) or one-sided theoretical viewpoints (Dur-
kheim, Simmel, Weber) that have been absorbed and surpassed by a coherent
body of scientifically grounded theoretical conceptions. These previous theorists
represent a transitional stage on the way to the subordination of ideas to
controlled observation.
Merton (see volume II) is often taken as a model for a positivist approach,
especially since he began his much cited work on the classics with a quote from
Whitehead that seemed to sum up the positivist view. ``A science which hesitates
to forget its founders is lost.''
13
However, Merton interprets this warning some-
what differently than his positivist followers. In the foreword to the second
edition of Coser's Masters of Sociological Thought, Merton argues that engage-
ment with the classics must include more than simply distilling verifiable hypoth-
esis: ``The direct study of masterworks helps us to acquire intellectual taste and
style, a sense for the significant problem and for the form of its solution.''
14
It should come as no surprise that Jonathan Turner, who has championed the
positivist cause in sociological theory, should present Herbert Spencer through a
positivist narrative. Turner argues that we can ignore Spencer's speculation
about social Darwinism and his ``organismic analogy'' and focus on Spencer's
use of cross-cultural data and his testable functionalist predictions.
A third type is the pluralist narrative. This approach views the past as a
repository of diverse ideas and theoretical standpoints that can contribute to
the manifold theories necessary for analyzing a pluralistic society. Here progress
is identified with the growth of multiple perspectives, which are necessary for
analyzing something as complex and multilayered as society. Social theory is
viewed as a collection of paradigms with differing methodological, philosoph-
ical, and political assumptions. Often these paradigms are seen as having intimate
and necessary relations with other disciplines, such as psychology, literature,
philosophy. In this narrative, exemplary theorists are paradigm builders who
provide incisive summaries of alternative approaches. What makes their work
classic is its inherent plurality and openness to rereadings.
In this collection, Mary Rogers presents Schutz within a pluralist narrative.
Schutz is praised for his transdisciplinary theory, which provides a difficult to
8Douglas J. Goodman
categorize alternative for such varied subsequent theoretical approaches as queer
theory, feminism, multicultural theory, and ethnomethodology. Schutz is seen as
enabling a non-reductive dialogue between a European philosophical tradition
and an increasingly scientized American sociology. Indeed, one cannot help
wondering if Schutz's own plural influences ± not only philosophy and sociology,
but also law and banking ± led to his theory of irreconcilable multiplicities and
overlapping but distinct experiential worlds. Neither in his life nor in his theory
did these spheres ever converge. At most, Schutz found only bridging concepts to
negotiate the overlapping borders.
Simmel is, in many ways, the pluralist par excellence. Consequently, it is only
from the pluralist approach that his contribution to sociology can be appre-
ciated. As Scaff notes, Simmel never founded a school or movement and never
intended to. Instead he contributed daring, impressionistic perspectives. These
are practically useless from the classical viewpoint and contain only the faint
possibility of providing positivistic hypotheses, but for a pluralist, ``it is precisely
these alleged deficiencies that have once again made Simmel an engaging pre-
sence'' (chapter 7).
Convergence is the fourth type of narrative. From this viewpoint, pluralism
represents an early stage of partial attempts that we are now able to see as
contributing to a coherent totality. Exemplary early theorists are those who
identified problems and offered partial solutions that now converge and are
surpassed.
Parsons's convergence thesis is a famous example of this. Parsons saw himself
as bringing together and developing the views of Durkheim, Pareto, Weber, and
Alfred Marshall, among others. Indeed, he argued in the opening chapter of his
The Structure of Social Action, that one of the main arguments in favor of
his own theory was that it could be found in partial and undeveloped form in
these previous thinkers.
Shalin's chapter on Mead shows most clearly the importance of the conver-
gence of acknowledged and unacknowledged influences. Mead explicitly
engaged the theories of Kant and Hegel in order to show that they were partial
solutions that now converged in a new pragmatist social philosophy. Driving this
theoretical convergence, as well as driving the convergence between theory and
political reform, was the influence of Mead's religious upbringing. Shalin sug-
gests that Mead's social theories were, in many ways, an attempt to transform a
failed religious belief into a partial solution that converged with some of the very
ideas (e.g. Darwinism) that originally contradicted it.
A fifth narrative type is a contextual approach that sees the history of theory
and the status of classics as primarily due to forces that are external to their
intellectual content. Social theories are seen as tightly connected to the social
context from which they emerge and which they try to describe. Progress and
continuity are guaranteed by society ± the subject and context of the theories
rather than the theories themselves. In many cases, the contextual approach is
not a Geistesgeschichte; that is, it is not a progressive, self-assuring story that
connects what was important in the past to what is important in the present.
Instead it functions as an ideology critique, revealing the way in which the
Introduction 9
cognitive substance of the social theory is subordinate to its political context,
whether that political context is a macro one of industrial rationalism
15
or the
micro situation of academic reputation of Harvard.
16
Nevertheless, there are two ways that a contextualist approach can be used
within a Geistesgeschichte. First, a contextualist analysis can help to explain
historical facts that seem to contradict a progressive and self-assuring story.
For instance, although Pickering points out the originality of Comte's sociology,
which seems to transcend his sociohistorical position, she invokes the ``binary
logic of his times,'' and his fragile mental health to explain his views on women.
Second, what was important in the past and what is important now can
be connected through their relation to an evolving social context. For example,
Scaff argues that Simmel is an important representative of fin de sie
Ácle Vienna.
This would seem to make him of merely historical interest, except that
Scaff makes the further argument that the type of intellectual whirl in Vienna
that was marginal to Western society a hundred years ago has become central
to ours. This typology suggests the variety of forms that a Geistesgeschichte
can take. They all have in common the themes of self-assurance and progress
that Rorty argues is necessary. Natural scientists can look to increased control of
the natural environment as evidence of progress and be assured that they
participate in an endeavor that is going somewhere. Funding agencies can be
similarly assured that they are making a good investment. Disciplines that can
cure illness, provide energy, and feed people may have little need of legitimating
narratives, but Rorty suggests that social theory does need Geistesgeschichtes,
so that those who devote their lives to such a suspect pursuit maintain their
psychological well-being and continue to receive even the slight institutional
support that they have now. This is a persuasive argument until we notice
that Rorty's own historical studies cannot be located in his typology. Philosophy
and the Mirror of Nature, for example, could hardly be called a Geistes-
geschichte. It pursues no theme of progress and self-assurance. Let us then use
the phrase that Mitchel Dean
17
borrows from Foucault to describe a fifth
genre of narrative ± effective and critical histories ± to put alongside Rorty's
doxologies, rational reconstructions, historical reconstructions, and Geistes-
geschichte.
Effective and Critical HistoriesEffective and Critical Histories
Instead of a self-assuring narrative of progress, an effective and critical history is
problematizing. Furthermore, it is pragmatic, using historical analysis to under-
stand the basis for practical transgressive experiments. Its goal is to discover
what ideas, dialogues, and practices are still necessary and what can now be seen
as merely contingent. For example, Foucault's History of Sexuality (discussed in
Barry Smart's chapter in volume II), investigated whether the connection
between identity and sexuality was still necessary and what new experimental
practices involving bodies and pleasure are now possible. We do not find in
Foucault the notion that the new experiments represent progress over the old
10 Douglas J. Goodman
regime. The aim of his historical analysis is to open up novel possibilities, not to
establish advancements.
An effective and critical history of sociology is not simply a response to a more
pluralist, more postmodern, or even more cynical social context. It is a project
that is internal to sociology, ``a strategic reformation of the complex relations
between sociology and history that are the conditions of existence of sociology
as a discipline.''
18
In this narrative, the study of exemplary theorists is used to
oppose, undermine, or qualify present directions instead of support them. The-
orists will find little assurance here since their own contributions will be simi-
larly opposed, undermined, and qualified. Like the Geistesgeschichte,an
effective and critical history is related to both historical and rational reconstruc-
tions. Historical reconstructions are used to challenge our present concerns
while rational reconstructions allow historical reconstructions their greatest
impact. It is, after all, not a general history, but a history of the present that is
being pursued: a history that traces the tricks, ruses, and reversals that have led
to what we now consider to be necessary.
This, for example, is what we see in Lemert's chapter on Gilman. Lemert
problematizes our relation to social theory by questioning the division between
theory and fiction. He positions Gilman's work ± both theory and fiction ± as
practical transgressions meant to shake ``the gendered foundations of modern
life.'' And yet we see in Lemert no description of progress in theoretical under-
standing. Indeed, it is precisely this belief in progress that Lemert rejects in
Gilman's thinking.
In his chapter, Lemert does not suggest novel possibilities, but he does praise
the imagination that would open up such possibilities, and perhaps that is all
that is proper for the author in such a collection. It is certainly all that is proper
for the author of an introduction. The real work must be done by the reader.
Notes
1 Richard Rorty (1984) The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres. In R. Rorty,
J. Schneewind, and Q. Skinner (eds), Philosophy in History: Essays on the Historio-
graphy of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 49±76.
2 Robert Alun Jones (1980) Myth and Symbol among the Nacirema Tsigoloicos: a
Fragment. American Sociologist, 15, 207±12.
3 For an excellent overview see Don Slater (1997) Consumer Culture and Modernity.
Cambridge: Polity Press. For an application see George Ritzer (1999) Enchanting a
Disenchanted World: Revolutionizing the Means of Consumption. Thousand Oaks,
CA: Pine Forge Press.
4 Shane O'Neill (1999) Rationality. In F. Ashe, A. Finlayson, M. Lloyd, I. Mackenzie,
J. Martin, and S. O'Neill (eds), Contemporary Social and Political Theory. Philadel-
phia: Open University Press.
5 See the essays by Parsons, Marcuse, and others in O. Stammer (ed.) (1971) Max
Weber and Sociology Today. New York: Harper & Row.
6 Robert Alun Jones (1983) On Merton's ``History'' and ``Systematics'' of Sociological
Theory. In L. Graham, W. Lepenies, and P. Weingart (eds), Functions and Uses of
Disciplinary Histories. Dordrecht: D. Reidel, p. 126.
Introduction 11
7 Alan Sica (1997) Acclaiming the Reclaimers: the Trials of Writing Sociology's
History. In C. Camic (ed.), Reclaiming the Sociological Classics: the State of Scholar-
ship. Malden, MA: Blackwell, p. 296.
8 Talcott Parsons (1969) Preface to Second Edition. In The Structure of Social Action.
New York: Free Press, pp. xv±xvi.
9 Rorty, (1984), p. 67, n. 2.
10 Herbert Blumer (1969) What is Wrong with Social Theory? In H. Blumer, Symbolic
Interaction: Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, p. 148.
11 Donald Levine (1995) Visions of the Sociological Tradition. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
12 Michael Levin (1973) What Makes a Classic in Political Theory? Political Science
Quarterly, 88(3), 469.
13 Robert K. Merton (1967) On the History and Systematics of Sociological Theory. In
On Theoretical Sociology. New York: Free Press, p. 1.
14 Robert K. Merton (1977) Foreword to L. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought:
Ideas in Historical and Social Context. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
p. viii.
15 Bruce Mazlish (1989) A New Science: the Breakdown of Connections and the Birth
of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.
16 Charles Camic (1992) Reputation and Predecessor Selection. American Sociological
Review, 57, 421±45.
17 Mitchell Dean (1994) Critical and Effective Histories: Foucault's Methods and
Historical Sociology. New York: Routledge.
18 Ibid., p. 10.
12 Douglas J. Goodman
1
Auguste Comte
Mary Pickering
Love for the principle and Order for the
base; Progress for the goal.
Auguste Comte, SysteÁme de politique
positive
In our postmodern world, where doubts about the inevitability of progress and
the value of rationalism have weakened utopian impulses, Auguste Comte
appears at first glance to be a quaint, outmoded figure. The ``founder'' of
sociology and positivism seems to evoke a faraway era, when the benefits of
social planning and the validity of knowledge went largely unquestioned. Yet as
Robert Scharff (1995, p. 6) has recently suggested, the theories of this important
nineteenth-century French philosopher have perhaps never been so relevant.
Comte foreshadowed many issues that contemporary thinkers are grappling
with today: the basis of truth, the role of politics in modern society, the root of
moral crises, the significance of memory, and the problem of gender, class, and
racial identities. More complex than is commonly assumed, Comte's contribu-
tion to social theory bears renewed examination.
The TheoryThe Theory
Comte's reputation rests on his dual achievement of establishing a new discip-
line, sociology, and closely connecting it to a novel philosophical system, which
he called positivism. In the Cours de philosophie positive, published in six
volumes between 1830 and 1842, Comte argued that because theory always
precedes practice, the reconstruction of the post-revolutionary world could be
accomplished only by extending the scientific, or ``positive,'' method to the study
of politics and society, the last stronghold of theologians and metaphysical
philosophers. To adopt the positive method meant tying scientific laws to the
observation of concrete facts, especially by avoiding speculations, which were
invariably ``metaphysical'' in nature. In his Discours sur l'esprit positif of 1844,
Comte further explained that ``the positive'' designated the real, the useful, the
certain, the precise, the relative, and the constructive (as opposed to the
``negative'') (Comte, 1963, pp. 126±30). Once the positive science of society
was established, positivism, the system embracing scientific knowledge, would
be unified and complete because all our ideas would be scientific and thus
homogeneous. Moreover, the science of society would unite all knowledge
because it would focus people's attention on humanity, which was also the object
of study of the natural sciences. As a result, everyone would agree on the most
essential intellectual and moral principles. Eliminating the anarchy that had
ruled since 1789, the new social consensus would become the basis of a stable
industrial order.
The science of society was thus the keystone of positivism. Comte asserted
that because it would be based solely on the observation of social facts, without
reliance on theological and metaphysical dogmas, it would have the certainty
and unquestionable authority of the natural sciences. Following Francis Bacon's
precept that knowledge is power, Comte assumed that a firm grasp of the
scientific laws of society would lead to greater control over this organism. Like
other scientific laws, sociological laws would allow one to predict social phe-
nomena and thus formulate suitable social policies. Comte gave the new science
of society a specific mission to provide the principles necessary to end the moral,
social, and political turmoil caused by the French Revolution of 1789.
To prove that the coming of the positive study of society was inevitable,
Comte invented the classification of the sciences. This schema demonstrated
that the order in which the sciences were created depended on the simplicity of
their phenomena and the distance of these phenomena from man. Astronomy
first became a science because it studied the simplest phenomena, those that were
farthest from man. The positive method was then extended to disciplines whose
subjects were increasingly complex and closer to man: physics, chemistry, and
biology, in that order. Each more complex science depended on knowledge
provided by the simpler sciences, which had to become positive first. Comte
maintained that now that astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology were
positive sciences, it was time for the positive method to be applied to the study
of society, which was the most complex science and focused entirely on man. He
rejected the arguments of those who sought to reduce the study of society
completely to another science, whether it be mathematics (especially statistics),
biology, or political economy. To mark the birth of this new independent science,
Comte coined a new term for it in 1839: ``sociology'' (Comte, 1975, volume 2,
p. 88).
In keeping with his skepticism regarding metaphysics, he warned sociologists
that they could not discover the source or nature of society; they could explain
only the way its phenomena were related in space and time. For this reason,
14 Mary Pickering
sociology comprised two parts, social statics and social dynamics. Both stressed
the interconnectedness of the members of the human species in order to counter
the egoism of the modern age.
Social statics was the study of the social order. It focused on what kept society
together. One crucial aspect of the social order was the family, which taught the
importance of love as the basis of moral self-improvement. This love was
transferred later to one's family and finally to humanity as a whole. Thus social
statics cultivated a person's feelings of solidarity with other members of society.
Although his atheism was unorthodox for the early nineteenth century, Comte's
views on the sanctity of the family and other moral issues were conventional ± in
contrast to those of the Saint-Simonians and Fourierists who questioned social
institutions.
Giving people a sense of connection with past and future generations of
the human species, social dynamics analyzed social development, which Comte
represented as continuous, necessary, orderly, and limited. Each social state grew
out of the preceding one and generated the next social configuration. The salient
feature of this development was that, through exercise, the unique characteristics
of the human species ± intelligence and sociability ± became more dominant
within both the individual and society.
Besides delineating the two divisions of sociology, Comte outlined the meth-
ods of this new science: observation, comparison, and experimentation. Because
every aspect of society had multiple connections, Comte believed the areas of
sociological observation were very diverse. Sociologists should study ordinary
events, common customs, diverse types of monuments, languages, and other
mundane social phenomena. Comte's insights into the significance of everyday
life have been verified by recent social and cultural history.
As for experimentation, the second means of scientific investigation, Comte
felt its use was problematic in sociology because of the impossibility of isolating
any of the circumstances or consequences of a phenomenon's actions. He main-
tained that like a biologist, a sociologist must study pathological cases, which
were forms of indirect experimentation. Because the pathological was simply a
variation of the ordinary, examining periods of chaos, such as a revolution,
provided clues to normality. The study of social disorder was an important
means of gaining insights into the laws of social harmony and history.
Comparison was sociology's third method of scientific investigation. In socio-
logy, there were three types of comparison. One could compare human and
animal societies, different existing states of human society (i.e. savage and
civilized peoples), or consecutive social states. The latter involved the historical
method, which was related to social dynamics and constituted sociology's chief
means of scientific investigation. History gave people a sense of social solidarity
and continuity, in short a feeling for humanity in the world and their own role in
its evolution.
The principal scientific law of sociology was a historical one: the law of three
stages. Comte first ``discovered'' this law in 1822 and revealed its intricacies in
his ``fundamental opuscule,'' the Plan des travaux scientifiques ne
Âcessaires pour
re
Âorganiser la socie
Âte
Âof 1824 (Comte, 1929, volume 1, p. 1). According to this
Auguste Comte 15
law, each branch of knowledge (e.g. each science) and the mind itself passed
through three modes of thinking: the theological, metaphysical, and positive.
Such paradigms arose because all aspects of knowledge were interrelated and the
mind naturally sought to make all ideas homogeneous.
Each of the three theoretical systems affected politics and society, for in
Comte's view all of society represented an organic being in the process of a
development influenced by intellectual progress. Intellectual evolution ± espe-
cially scientific development ± was the most advanced form of progress and
served as the stimulus to historical change. In an important passage reflecting his
idealism, Comte pointed out ``that ideas govern and overturn the world, or in
other words, that the entire social mechanism rests ultimately on opinions.'' Like
Hegel, he believed that history was the story of the ``emancipation of human
reason'' (Comte, 1975, volume 1, pp. 38, 379). Moreover, as all aspects of
society were interrelated, a change in one feature, such as intellectual life, led
to changes in other facets of the social organism. Comte wrote, ``In effect . . . all
the classes of social phenomena develop simultaneously and under each other's
influence'' (Comte, 1929, volume 4, ``Appendice,'' p. 135).
In short, the law of three stages was a global one; it referred not only to
intellectual evolution but to social and political developments as well. It depicted
the different stages of progress that every civilization had to experience as well as
a future positive age of social cooperation that was definitive, but not perfect.
(Although society would see an increase in both intelligence and altruism, Comte
believed ordinary man's moral and intellectual weaknesses ± his natural egoism
and mental lethargy ± would never completely disappear.) The law of three
stages also pertained to the intellectual trajectory of every person as he or she
went through life. In addition, Comte recognized that the three stages actually
represented three mentalities that could coexist at various times in a person's or
civilization's history.
In the theological stage, man untangled the mystery of natural occurrences by
relating them to supernatural beings, whose character was like his own. The
notion that gods represented the first cause of all happenings and were in
complete control of the universe was the theory that the mind needed in its
infancy to link its observations. There were three substages in this first era of
history: the fetishist, polytheistic, and monotheistic. In the first, gods resided in
concrete objects. In the second, the gods became independent of the objects. In
the third, a single god became the ruling principle. In a society that embraced the
theological mode of explanation, priests and military men ruled. The theory of
divine right was the reigning political doctrine.
The metaphysical stage of history, which began in the fourteenth century, was
a transitional period. In searching for first and final causes, people started to
connect observed facts with personified essences or abstractions, such as Nature,
which were neither supernatural nor scientific. In the process, metaphysicians
replaced priests as the spiritual power. Military men ceded their role as the
temporal power to lawyers, for society began to direct its activities toward
production, not simply conquest. The state of politics was embodied in the
doctrines of popular sovereignty and natural rights.
16 Mary Pickering
In the positive stage of history, no discussion of first causes or origins was
allowed because the existence of supernatural beings and essences could not be
proved. Instead, intellectual discourse was characterized by scientific laws
explaining how, not why, phenomena worked. These descriptive laws expressed
the ``relations of resemblance and succession that facts have among themselves''
(Comte, 1929, volume 4, ``Appendice,'' p. 144). Moreover, because production
replaced conquest as the goal of society, social relations were based entirely on
industry. Politically, industrialists constituted the temporal leaders of this secular,
peaceful society. Positive philosophers held the spiritual power.
Contrary to scholarly opinion, Comte did not argue that there should be a
dictatorship of scientists in control of the future positive republic. He feared that
if the mind grew too powerful, it would stifle progress, for it needed stimulation
from the active life. Though an idealist, Comte never maintained that intellectual
progress could be separated from material development. Furthermore, he recog-
nized that practical enterprises would always remain most important in society
because most men were drawn to the active life, not the intellectual one. If a
minority of intellectuals took over the material realm, they would oppress
society, lose all motivation, and wallow in admiration of the society they
produced. Borrowing a term from his close friend John Stuart Mill, Comte
called a technocratic society governed purely by philosophers or intellectuals a
``pedantocracy'' (Comte, 1975, volume 2, p. 656).
The rise of such a regime could be prevented only by the separation of powers.
The industrialists would control the practical, material activities of society,
which were dangerous because the requisite specialization led to pride and
egoism. These men would be checked by positive philosophers, who would be
in charge of ensuring morality and encouraging the growth of ideas and feelings.
Positive philosophers were not necessarily scientists, whose tendency to spe-
cialize made them as uncaring and socially indifferent as industrialists. Comte
wanted positive philosophers to be men who had a general knowledge of all the
sciences, especially sociology. In this way, they would understand the impact of
the natural environment and human nature on society and the application of the
positive method to social phenomena. Moreover, Comte assumed that intellec-
tual well-roundedness was linked to ``altruism,'' a word he also coined. Thus,
because positive philosophers possessed general knowledge and consequently
had the widest views and sympathies, they would have the interests of all of
society at heart. The breadth of their knowledge and sympathies gave them the
legitimacy to speak for the entire community.
Forbidden to rule directly, they would especially advise the industrialists on
how to solve the ``social question''; that is, the difficulties faced by the working
class. Although critics contend that Comte was an apologist for the status
quo, he was in truth extremely critical of capitalism for promoting a selfish
and materialistic culture. Like Marx, he argued that the appalling class
struggle was not due to the workers but to ``the political incapacity, social
indifference, and especially blind egoism of the entrepreneurs'' (Comte, 1975,
volume 2, p. 620). Calling for the ``personal liberation of workers,'' he cam-
paigned to resolve the class question by incorporating the proletariat into society
Auguste Comte 17
(Comte, 1929, volume 3, p. 402). The positive philosophers would be their
biggest allies.
These philosophers would also take control of the educational system to
improve people's intellectual development and to give them common ideas and
values. Countering man's natural egoism, which was exacerbated by the special-
ization of the modern age, they would persuade people to develop their inherent
sociability and contribute to the common welfare. In short, positive philosophers
would direct ideas, feelings, and images toward the improvement of Humanity,
which would replace God and Nature as the object of people's respect. Serving
humanity would be an imperative for everyone, from housewives to scholars.
The idea of humanity would thus hold society together. Comte wrote that the
principal result of history was ``the spontaneous convergence of all modern
conceptions toward the great notion of humanity'' (Comte, 1975, volume 2,
p. 785).
Though highly schematic, the law of three stages allowed Comte to pull
together the natural and social sciences. Unlike Saint-Simon, he rejected the
conventional approach of basing the sciences on a single method or on universal
logical principles; to him, scientific knowledge itself had to be regarded as a
historical process (Heilbron, 1990, pp. 155, 161). Indeed, Comte was the only
philosopher of the sciences who was more concerned with their social and
political ramifications than their theoretical success and practical results
(Grange, 1996, p. 17). In his view, the most effective way to consider the sciences
and their consequences was to place them in a historical perspective.
Together with Comte's classification of the sciences, the law of three stages
ultimately demonstrated the triumph of sociology and completion of positivism.
By providing a program ensuring intellectual rigor and encouraging social
cooperation, positivism would lead to a political and social revolution that
would be far more efficacious than a mere change in the form of government
in bringing about a new, harmonious order. To Comte, practical, institutional
reforms could never launch a new era, for they were ineffective and often
premature. They did not take into account the fact that the disorganization of
postrevolutionary society was due primarily to intellectual and moral anarchy.
Although Comte believed that a firm grounding in the sciences was essential to
proper reasoning, he did not support a purely scientistic interpretation of posit-
ivism. Indeed, Comte would never recognize the simplistic version of positivism
that exists today as his own formulation. For years, scholars have commonly
equated positivism with scientism; that is, a naive faith in science's ability to
solve all problems through the use of empirical, experimental, and quantitative
methods of research. Ju
Èrgen Habermas claimed that ``positivism stands and falls
with the principle of scientism'' (Habermas, 1971, p. 67). Gertrud Lenzer
accused positivism of being naively reductionist: ``The triumph of the positive
spirit consists in the reduction of quality to quantity in all realms of existence ±
in the realm of society and man as well as in the realm of nature'' (Lenzer, 1975,
p. xxi).
Yet Comte never displayed an excessive faith in the power of the sciences to
modify nature and society in a boundless fashion. Respectful of the environment
18 Mary Pickering
and of the slow pace and direction of change, he argued against using the
sciences to satisfy man's love of power and conquest. As suggested above, he
was more of a historicist in his approach to the sciences than an enthusiast of
scientism (Grange, 1996, p. 139).
The Cours is therefore a paradoxical work. It called for a social philosophy
based upon the sciences, but as reflected in his concept of the spiritual power,
Comte deeply distrusted the regenerative capabilities of the purely scientific
spirit. His disillusionment is evident at the end of the Cours, where he con-
demned ``the prejudices and passions of our deplorable scientific regime''
(Comte, 1975, volume 2, p. 791). The Cours, an apparently scientistic tract,
was intended to counter the scientific spirit ± that is, the ``positivity'' ± of the
modern age, whose specialization, egoism, and social indifference caused
immeasurable moral harm.
In his hatred of the hubris of scientists, Comte always maintained that even
in the realm of what was understandable, scientific knowledge was deficient.
He opposed, for example, the statistical approach to scientific research, which
he believed overlooked the complexity of human existence and threatened
the autonomy and individuality of each science. To him, the power of
reason was limited. He wrote that ``it was necessary to recognize that . . . our
means for conceiving new questions . . . [was] much more powerful than our
resources for solving them, or in other words the human mind . . . [was]
far more capable of imagining than of reasoning'' (Comte, 1975, volume 1,
p. 99).
In fact, Comte did not believe in absolute truth, for he was a relativist: ``It is no
longer a question of expounding interminably in order to know what is the best
government; speaking in an absolute sense, there is nothing good, there is
nothing bad; the only absolute is that everything is relative; everything is relative
especially when social institutions are concerned'' (Comte, 1970, p. 71). His
relativism was connected to his belief that ``exact reality can never, in any way,
be perfectly unveiled'' to our weak mind (Comte, 1975, volume 2, pp. 103±4). It
was particularly impossible to have a complete grasp of social reality, which was
extremely complex and involved men's prejudices.
Comte never lost sight of the fact that the emotions were of utmost impor-
tance in human existence. This realization was partly due to his recognition that
he suffered from depression and could not work if he had emotional troubles.
Since his youth, he had considered the emotions the motor of existence; their
dominance was necessary to rouse the intellect from its natural torpor and give it
moral direction. Indeed, he maintained that love, not reason, was the basic
principle of social existence. In the Cours, he wrote that:
universal love, such as Catholicism conceived it, is certainly far more important
than the intellect itself in . . . our individual or social existence, because love spon-
taneously uses even the lowest mental faculties for the profit of everyone, whereas
egoism distorts or paralyzes the most eminent dispositions, which consequently are
more often disturbing than efficacious in regard to true private or public happiness.
(Comte, 1975, volume 2, p. 362)
Auguste Comte 19
Realizing that reason could not satisfy all human needs, Comte also emphasized
that the imagination was crucial to both the creation and propagation of scien-
tific theories. Although he recommended observation as a method of sociological
research, he pointed out that complete empiricism was impossible and sterile, for
accumulating discrete observable facts about a reality that could not be fully
grasped was unproductive. To him, facts could not be perceived or connected
without first formulating an a priori theory, which required imaginative work.
Revealing an awareness of the mind's limitations, he wrote:
Man is incapable by his nature not only of combining facts and deducing from
them several consequences, but of even simply observing them with attention and
retaining them with certainty if he does not attach them immediately to some
explanation. He cannot have connected observations without some theory any
more than [he can have] a positive theory without regular observations. (Comte,
1929, volume 4, ``Appendice,'' p. 144)
Social facts were the most difficult to observe. Because social scientists lived in
society, it was impossible for them to notice the significance of familiar social
phenomena and to be impartial. To be creative, scientific investigation of all
phenomena, especially social phenomena, had to rest on the use of both induc-
tion and deduction, rely on rationalism as well as experimentation, and employ
man's imaginative capacities.
Moreover, for laws to be scientific, they had to be predictive; that is, they had
to display the capability to go from the present to the future and from the known
to the unknown (Laudan, 1971, pp. 37±40). Comte wrote, ``from science comes
prediction; from prediction comes action'' (Comte, 1975, volume 1, p. 45). Facts
in themselves with no connection to general laws had no predictive value. They
were thus not useful.
Comte advocated the use of provisional hypotheses as convenient, artificial
devices to link facts and formulate natural laws. These hypotheses could not be
considered scientific theories until they were verified by induction and deduc-
tion. Comte's representation of hypotheses as useful and respectable tools that
serve a crucial function in scientific discovery was an influential idea. His
appreciation of the aesthetic considerations in scientists' construction of hypo-
theses anticipated the work of Thomas Kuhn.
To free scientists from being slaves to direct evidence, Comte also advocated
the use of imagination in creating types of ``scientific fiction'' ± hypothetical
cases ± to elucidate tentatively different scientific problems until the discovery of
better evidence. For example, a biologist could insert ``purely fictive organisms''
between already known organisms in order to make the biological series more
homogeneous, continuous, and regular (Comte, 1975, volume 2, p. 728). As
reflected in his approach to hypotheses and scientific fictions, Comte intended to
offer imagination the ``most vast and fertile'' field for discovering, observing, and
coordinating facts (Comte, 1975, volume 2, p. 102). To avoid giving reason
excessive importance in scientific research, he deliberately refused to offer elab-
orate, universal, ahistorical rules of scientific procedure; he never produced an
20 Mary Pickering
organon of proof. To him, purely abstract rationalist rules not only made
scientific research less flexible but came dangerously close to metaphysical
practices (Scharff, 1995, pp. 7, 65). Indeed, a few months before he died in
1857, Comte wrote, ``The present . . . evolution of positivism . . . depends on
sentiment and imagination, and reasoning will henceforth be secondary''
(Comte, 1973±90, volume 8, p. 502). His point was to offer scientists of society
the widest possible variety of resources that would allow them to construct
theories that did not require them tediously to observe facts to no purpose.
They must be allowed to go beyond direct evidence without forgetting that
ultimately every positive theory had to refer to real, concrete phenomena.
Comte's call to resist relying excessively on rationalism to grasp a ``real'' world
has been recently echoed by Jean Baudrillard, who shows a similar appreciation
of the symbolic and the poetic (Gane, 1991, pp. 201±2).
Humanity was the most fundamental component of reality. In a famous
passage, Comte wrote: ``Considered from the static and dynamic points of
view, man properly speaking is at heart a pure abstraction; there is nothing
real except humanity, especially in the intellectual and moral order'' (Comte,
1975, volume 2, p. 715). Comte reinforced the importance of all people being
socialized and educated to work for this ``real'' phenomenon by constructing the
Religion of Humanity, whose roots were evident in his early writings. He
discussed this religion and introduced the final science of morality in his four-
volume Syste
Áme de politique positive, published between 1851 and 1854. Many
scholars have asserted that this book was a repudiation of his previous scientific
program. Yet in reality there was no significant break in his intellectual evolu-
tion. The Religion of Humanity was foreshadowed in the Cours, where Comte
referred specifically to the need to create a ``Positive Church'' (Comte, 1975,
volume 2, p. 696). The Syste
Áme merely carried forth the program for the
intellectual, moral and political regeneration of society that Comte had formul-
ated in the early 1820s.
Whereas the Cours dealt with the systematization of ideas and provided a
common belief-system, the Syste
Áme covered the organization of feelings as well
as the political restructuring of society that would result from the intellectual
and moral revolution he hoped to achieve. He explained that because he had
already established ``fundamental ideas,'' he now had to describe their ``social
application,'' which would consist of ``the systematization of human sentiments,
[which was] the necessary consequence of that of ideas and the indispensable
basis of that of institutions'' (Comte, 1973±90, volume 3, p. 61). In view of the
fact that the needs of society were not only intellectual but emotional, its
spiritual reorganization had to involve the heart at least as much as the mind.
As Donald Levine has written, ``Comte's positive philosophy . . . eliminates theo-
logy. . . but retains religion,'' thus bridging the gap ``between the rational imper-
atives of modern science and the emotional imperatives of societal order''
(Levine, 1995, pp. 163, 165). Convinced that a general doctrine and institutional
networks were not sufficient to ensure social cohesion, Comte believed that his
religion would provide the moral adhesive necessary to hold society together.
Ultimately, human unity rested on the sympathies, for it was clear to him that the
Auguste Comte 21
``essential principle of modern anarchy'' consisted of ``raising reason against
sentiment'' (Comte, 1855, p. 10). The positive philosophy would bring about
the intellectual and emotional consensus necessary to end anarchy and build the
stable industrial society of the future.
The main task of the Religion of Humanity would be to cultivate altruism;
replacing Christianity with ``a system of terrestrial morality,'' it was a secular
religion of love (Comte, 1970, p. 40). Defending his choice of names for his
moral system, Comte explained in 1849 that he had ``dared to join ... the name
[religion] to the thing [positivism], in order to institute directly an open competi-
tion with all the other systems'' (Comte, 1973±90, volume 5, p. 22). He wanted a
clear-cut doctrinal battle with Catholicism to precipitate the triumph of positiv-
ism and the start of a new order.
To challenge Catholicism, Comte invented positivist sacraments for baptism,
marriage, and death. He also created a special commemorative calendar, with
primarily secular saints (Aristotle, Caesar, and Dante), one of whom was to be
glorified each day as a servant of Humanity. Comte's theory anticipated the ideas
of the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, who underscored the importance of
collective memory in unifying society. Private and public acts of commemoration
in the form of worshipping important figures from one's own past and that of
Western civilization (highlighted in the calendar) would create a sense of con-
tinuity between past and present generations. Such a system of commemoration
would also satisfy people's natural ``need for eternity'' and stimulate them to
contribute to the progress of humanity, especially through ``benevolent actions''
and ``sympathetic emotions'' (Comte, 1975, p. 778). As Henri Gouhier pointed
out, ``The Religion of Humanity is essentially a cult of dead people'' (Gouhier,
1965, p. 212).
The Syste
Áme also described rituals that would rejuvenate people's emotional
life, bring them back into contact with the concrete, and stimulate the arts.
Comte was creating an entirely new religious culture, which he felt was crucial
for holding society together. He recognized that political action in the new age
would consist of using religion, the arts, and education to form collective
sentiments, beliefs, and representations.
In outlining the Religion of Humanity, Comte particularly aspired to revive
the concreteness, intense emotional spontaneity, and poetic aptitudes of the
earliest stage of religious life, that of fetishism (Pickering, 1998, pp. 57±66).
Of all the intellectual systems, fetishism, according to Comte, most encouraged
the growth of sociability because it inspired ``toward all beings, even inert,
dispositions [such as veneration, trust, and adoration] that were eminently
proper to cultivating . . . our best affections'' (Comte, 1929, volume 3, p. 108).
This growth of the emotions destroyed man's animal instincts and fortified his
basic sense of humanity.
Although Comte is known as an apostle of progress, he feared the effects of
science and abstract thought, which made people proud and egoistic, and he
believed the West needed an injection of primitive religion to continue to
advance. He was one of the first thinkers to celebrate fetishism, which he
connected with the black race and hoped to incorporate into positivism. To
22 Mary Pickering
him, ``the humble thinkers of central Africa'' were more rational about human
nature and society than the ``superb German doctors,'' with their ``pompous
verbiage.'' Comte maintained ``The touching logic of the least negroes is ... wiser
than our academic dryness, which, under the futile pretext of an always imposs-
ible impartiality usually strengthens suspicion and fear'' (Comte, 1929, volume
3, pp. 99, 121). Unlike modern men, the fetish worshippers admired what was
concrete and useful and respected the natural world. Comte tried to replicate this
kind of worship by encouraging people to devote themselves to Humanity, the
``Great Being.'' The purpose of his neo-fetishist religion was to stress the import-
ance of humility and self-effacement by demonstrating that all peoples were
related to each other and to the earth, which at the end of his life he called the
``Great Fetish.'' Positivism had to emulate fetishism by recognizing what was
beneficial to others in a concrete sense in this world. In 1855, Comte wrote to a
friend to explain the ``absorption of fetishism by positivism.''
There exists essentially for us only two beings, both of which are eminently
composite: the Earth, including the stars as appendices, and Humanity, of which
the animals capable of association and even the useful vegetables are auxiliar-
ies. . . . These are our two masters, which are closely connected at least to us; one
is superior in power, the other in dignity, but both are worthy of our continual
respect. (Comte, 1973±90, volume 8, p. 39)
In Comte's mind, the highest stage of civilization represented a return to the
beginning. ``Human reason'' at the height of its ``virility'' must include a ``degree
of poetic fetishism'' (Comte, 1973±90, volume 3, p. 212). Comte was thus one of
the first philosophers to contend that fetishism did not belong exclusively to the
primitive age and did not always represent a type of false consciousness or
prelogical mindset. Condemning racism and imperialism for dividing humanity
instead of uniting it, he challenged racial stereotypes when he asserted that one
day a ``negro thinker'' might study his works and lend him his support (Comte,
1929, volume 3, p. 156).
Comte imagined that the chief auxiliaries of the positive philosophers, who
epitomized reason, would be women, who embodied feeling, and workers, who
represented activity. These two oppressed groups had interested Comte since he
was a young man. Unlike the ruling male bourgeoisie, whom he called ``extre-
mely gangrenous,'' women and workers were preserved from the artificial,
materialist culture of the day (Comte, 1973±90, volume 6, p. 188). He increas-
ingly appealed to them for support, after being rebuffed by scientists and other
luminaries of his day.
In the aftermath of the Revolution of 1848, Comte joined the issues of class
and gender; he maintained that the liberation of both the proletariat and women
was necessary for the advent of positivism. But once he discovered the strength
of the proletariat's loyalty to socialism, Comte decided in 1851 that the most
``important work of positivism'' was to persuade women to join him (Comte,
1973±90, volume 6, p. 188). He was weary of the ``depressing regime'' of men,
who were shallow and narrow-minded (Comte, 1973±90, volume 7, p. 158).
Auguste Comte 23
Repelled by the ``disorders of male reason'' and its futile political machinations,
Comte found women to represent the best way to unify an increasingly frag-
mented society (Comte, 1973±90, volume 6, p. 183).
Scholars frequently accuse Comte of being a ``phallocrat'' desirous only to
preserve the current outlines of the patriarchal society (Kofman, 1978, p. 233).
He certainly did not approve of feminism and repeatedly condemned bluestock-
ings and the ``liberated woman'' as aberrant, sexless creatures. Nevertheless,
having read Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a
young person, he criticized men who employed ``the horrible law of the stron-
gest'' to lord it over women, whom they regarded as a ``domestic animal'' or ``toy
destined for all eternity for the good pleasure and usage of his Majesty Man''
(Comte, 1973±90, volume 1, p. 56). In the 1840s, he finally recognized that the
problem of anarchy would not be resolved ``as long as the revolution does not
become feminine'' (Comte, 1973±90, volume 6, p. 108). He feared his own
reform movement would be discredited without female support. He begged
women not to misunderstand the gist of his thought:
The fatal antagonism . . . between the mind and the heart can be resolved only by
the positive regime; no other is capable of subordinating in a dignified fashion,
reason to sentiment. . . . In its vain present supremacy, the mind is ultimately our
principal trouble maker. . . . Better judges than we in moral understanding, women
will feel in several regards that the affective superiority of positivism . . . is even
more pronounced than its speculative preeminence, which is henceforth incontest-
able. They will soon come to this conclusion when they have stopped confusing the
new philosophy with its scientific preamble. (Comte, 1929, volume 1, 224)
Trying to take advantage of ``the feminine revolution'' that he believed was about
to begin, and appropriating aspects of the contemporary women's movement for
his own purposes, Comte put woman at the center of his schemes for renovation
in two of his last works, the Syste
Áme de politique positive and the Cate
Âchisme
positiviste (Comte, 1973±90, volume 6, p. 109). Whereas in the Cours he had
declared that women were far from the ``ideal type of the race'' ± the male ± he
declared in the Syste
Áme the need to establish a ``cult of Woman,'' which would
make her into a kind of goddess (Comte, 1929, volume 1, p. 259). The Cate
Â-
chisme, which consisted of a dialogue between a woman and a positivist priest,
specifically addressed a female audience. It aimed to develop the alliance
between positive philosophers and women that Comte was certain would spur
the regenerative process.
Although Comte never supported the notion of the equality of the sexes, he did
give women a positive identity; they were not simply harlots or housewives as
Pierre Proudhon proclaimed, or permanent invalids as Jules Michelet contended.
Comte referred to the ``feminine genius'' in terms of its important function not
solely to propagate but to participate in the public sphere and aid the spiritual
power in reorganizing society along moral lines (Comte, 1975, volume 2, p. 300).
Experts in the emotions, women made men more sociable, complete human
beings. To fulfill this mission, they needed to be able to mold public opinion,
24 Mary Pickering
preferably in the salons, whose revival he favored. Women also required freedom
from economic and sexual exploitation. Comte envisioned the ``utopia of
women,'' where they would gain ``independence'' from men, even in their ``phy-
sical role,'' by taking control of their own bodies and having children without any
male participation whatsoever (Comte, 1929, volume 4, pp. 66±7, 286). More-
over, because they were endowed with the best human characteristic, that of
sociability, women, he insisted, should represent Humanity itself. In the positivist
temples, Humanity would be always depicted as a woman accompanied by her
son. This daring displacement of God the Father in the positivist system reflects
Comte's conviction that women were morally superior and would be ``in first
place in the normal society'' of the future (Comte, 1973±90, volume 7, p. 160).
Agents of social unity, women were the key to completing the positive revolution
and saving the increasingly fragmented West from complete dissolution. Their
role illustrates Comte's goal of placing nurturing and empathy at the center of
public life in order to create a new, more compassionate and harmonious society.
In his effort to make feeling of paramount importance, Comte also developed
a greater interest in art. In the Syste
Áme, he argued that art's power of idealization
encouraged the growth of feeling and social solidarity; because it developed the
sympathies, art should have a higher place in society than science, whose work
was primarily preparatory. He wrote, ``Art corresponds better than science to
our most intimate needs. It is both more sympathetic and more synthetic''
(Comte, 1929, 51). Ideally, it would be possible to blend the scientific spirit
with the aesthetic spirit.
Comte tried to fuse the two in his last work, Synthe
Áse subjective (1856), which
was devoted to mathematics. Here he argued that the scientific spirit was
considered dry because the modern specialization that it engendered hurt
moral and aesthetic growth. To him, the ``abstract habits of clarity, precision,
and consistency, which are normally acquired in the mathematical domain,''
could be fruitfully applied to religious institutions and art (Comte, 1856, p. xi).
To demonstrate his principle, Comte set down rules to ensure that future positive
philosophers would be poets celebrating Humanity in verse. The poetic age of
his doctrine could then commence. In some respects, Comte's views seem to
foreshadow those of Max Weber, who also considered rationalization a global
process and lamented the ``disenchantment'' of the modern world.
In sum, Comte's positivist system was never morally neutral or value-free as
some scholars have asserted in equating positivism with a quest for objectivity.
From the beginning, Comte embraced social activism and a moral goal, for he
was convinced that impartiality was inappropriate and indeed impossible in
studying society, whose phenomena were close to us; a viable social theory had
to depict a better form of social organization. Comte sought to shape the world
of action indirectly by molding people's ideas and opinions. Because he believed
that intellectual well-roundedness was linked to altruism, he declared that the
adoption of the positivist mental outlook would lead first to a new moral order
marked by the bonding together of individuals through sympathy, and then to a
political transformation that would launch a new positivist era of social con-
sensus, association, and stability.
Auguste Comte 25
The PersonThe Person
Comte was eager for this new era to begin, for he was profoundly disenchanted
with his own period. Throughout his life, he had trouble fitting into the society
around him and always felt he was an outsider. He later admitted that he sought
in ``public life the noble but imperfect compensation of the unhappiness of his
private life'' (Comte, 1973±90, volume 3, p. 36).
In his youth he experienced the disruptive effects of civil war within both his
family and his native city. He was born in 1798 in Montpellier, which was one of
the southern centers of the Counter-Revolution, the movement that resisted the
reforming zeal of the French Revolution of 1789. Comte's bourgeois parents
were Catholic royalists also opposed to the Revolution. His childhood was thus
full of bitter memories caused by the ordeals of this tumultuous period. In the
``Personal Preface'' to the sixth volume of the Cours, which included an auto-
biographical sketch, he pointed out that the French Revolution made a profound
impression on him, especially because it was rejected by his family. Comte did not
get along with his father, who was a bureaucrat in the tax collection office.
Though he was closer to his mother, he alienated her by his unconventional
beliefs and behavior. Like many members of his generation with whom he studied
at the new Montepellier lyce
Âe, established by Napoleon, Comte was eager to
display his defiance and rebelliousness ± a questioning attitude encouraged by his
republican teachers. At thirteen or fourteen he announced that he no longer
believed in God or Catholicism. Soon afterward, rejecting his parents' royalism
and following the example set by the revolutionaries, he became a republican.
A brilliant student with a phenomenal memory, Comte in 1814 gained admis-
sion to the E
Âcole Polytechnique, the prestigious Parisian engineering school.
Taught by the best scientists of the day, he learned the importance of the sciences
in improving social conditions. He also imbibed the republican, reform-oriented
atmosphere of the school. Yet in April 1816 the new royalist government had
him expelled for his republicanism and insubordinate behavior. Despite his
abridged stay at the E
Âcole Polytechnique, he remained forever marked by its
scientific mindset.
After his expulsion, Comte took courses in biology at the famous medical
school in Montpellier, studied history, and read the works of Condorcet and
Montesquieu on the ``moral and political sciences'' (Comte, 1973±90, volume 1,
p. 19). In June 1816, he wrote his first essay, which was never published: ``Mes
Re
Âflexions: Humanite
Â, verite
Â, justice, liberte
Âpatrie. Rapprochements entre le
re
Âgime de 1793 et celui de 1816, adresse
Âs au peuple francËais.'' Horrified at the
royalists' vengeful series of massacres, he condemned the new Bourbon mon-
archy as well as other oppressive despotisms, namely those of Robespierre and
Napoleon, which had had their own share of atrocities. Like other liberal
republicans of this period, Comte called for a government based on the ``national
will''; that is, popular consent (Comte, 1970, p. 421). In his view, enlightened
men, such as philosophers and scientists, should lead the way. From the start,
there was a certain tension between his elitist and populist impulses.
26 Mary Pickering
A year later, back in Paris, Comte began working for Henri de Saint-Simon, an
older social reformer, whose ``liberalism was . . . well known'' (Comte, 1973±90,
volume 1, p. 27). The extent of Saint-Simon's influence on Comte is still con-
troversial today. It is undoubtedly true that in his many works published during
the Napoleonic Empire, Saint-Simon had shown that the creation of a new
unified system of scientific knowledge ± a ``positive philosophy'' ± centered on
the study of society would lead to a new stage of history, where industrialists and
scientists would replace military leaders and the clergy. Yet he scattered such
critical seminal ideas haphazardly throughout his various writings, along with
other less viable notions, such as the necessity of unifying society by means of a
single natural law, Newton's law of gravity, which would replace God as ``the
sole cause of all physical and moral phenomena'' (Saint-Simon, 1966, volume 6,
pp. 121n1, 154). When Comte started working for him in 1817, Saint-Simon
had grown less interested in establishing the theoretical basis of social recon-
struction and was turning toward the practical, industrial reorganization of
society. He had dropped his faith in scientists and increasingly praised industriels
(people involved in productive work) for preparing the new order. Comte,
however, took up Saint-Simon's original mission of founding the scientific sys-
tem ± that is, the positive philosophy ± together with its keystone, the science of
society.
It is evident that Saint-Simon gave Comte's thought a certain direction.
Although he later denied Saint-Simon's influence, immediately after their
break-up Comte was more forthright: ``I certainly owe a great deal intellectually
to Saint-Simon, that is to say, he has powerfully contributed to launching me in
the philosophical direction that I have clearly created for myself today and that I
will follow without hesitation all my life'' (Comte, 1973±90, volume 1, p. 90).
Gifted with a disciplined, methodical mind, Comte built on the legacy given to
him by Saint-Simon and achieved an originality of his own. While Saint-Simon
was an incoherent autodidact who constantly revised his concept of the science
of humanity, Comte had a talent for system-building and synthesis, which he
used to develop sociology as a coherent discipline.
Intellectual differences as well as generational tensions soon led to a rupture.
Comte broke with Saint-Simon in 1824 after accusing his mentor of trying to
take credit for his seminal essay, the Plan des travaux scientifiques ne
Âcessaires
pour re
Âorganiser la socie
Âte
Â. In this work, Comte had revealed his latest ``dis-
covery'' ± the law of three stages. This law was in fact indebted to Saint-Simon's
view that each science passed through three stages ± a conjectural stage, a half-
conjectural and half-positive stage, and a positive stage ± according to its degree
of complexity. Yet unlike Saint-Simon, Comte gave this law a new role as the
basis of sociology. It was the key to understanding humanity's development in
the past, present, and future. Excited about his findings, Comte felt ready to
launch his own career.
Despite this rupture, Comte wrote for Le Producteur, the journal founded by
Saint-Simon's disciples after the old reformer's death in May 1825. He did not
join the Saint-Simonian sect, for he maintained purely literary relations with its
members. In the two series of articles that he wrote for the journal in 1825 and
Auguste Comte 27
early 1826, Comte developed his concept of the spiritual power. He was pres-
cient in claiming that the key to power in modern society lay in controlling
opinions and ideas. As soon as natural scientists and social scientists took over
the educational system, he believed, they would exert enormous influence over
society. They would be especially important in checking the corrupt ``adminis-
trative despotism'' that marked the modern age (Comte, 1929, volume 4,
``Appendice,'' p. 187). Henceforth Comte devoted himself to founding the posit-
ivist priesthood.
In early 1826 he offered a course on positive philosophy at his apartment,
which was attended by many of the great scientists of the day. Yet after the third
lecture, he went mad. A paranoid manic depressive, he spent eight months in an
asylum. As a result, he could never completely eliminate the suspicion that he
was ``crazy'' ± a term often used by his critics to discredit him. Finally recovering
with the help of Caroline Massin, an administrator of a reading room who had
married him in 1824, he was henceforth always concerned about preserving his
mental well-being. His struggles with mental illness made him distrust skepti-
cism as corrosive and strengthened his conviction that a ``normal,'' sane existence
necessitated a certain prescribed harmony and a rigid order.
After his convalescence, Comte worked as a mathematics tutor and journalist.
Then in 1832 he procured a subordinate teaching and administrative position at
the E
Âcole Polytechnique. He was a re
Âpe
Âtiteur (teaching assistant) and admissions
examiner. This non-taxing work left him time to finish the Cours de philosophie
positive in 1842. Its purpose was to establish sociology, to stimulate the reorgan-
ization of society, and to create the foundation for the reform of the sciences to
meet the educational needs of modern civilization. One of the founders of the
history of science, Comte analyzed the development of each science and its close
relationship to the growth of other sciences. The first three volumes covered the
history of mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology. The last
three volumes treated his new science of sociology. All in all, the Cours set down
the basic program of study that he had undergone and that he believed the
new spiritual power had to master in order to lead society to a new ethic of
cooperation.
When Comte began volume 4 in 1838, he experienced another prolonged
period of mental illness, which he ascribed not only to the immense intellectual
effort required to introduce sociology but to his wife's infidelity. To improve his
mental health, Comte underwent an ``aesthetic revolution'': he suddenly devel-
oped an interest in music and poetry. He hoped to use the arts to cultivate his
feelings and thereby enlarge his comprehension of society, the new object of his
studies. At the same time, he adopted a regime of ``cerebral hygiene.'' To preserve
his ego from attacks from critics and to maintain his sense of originality, he
abstained from reading newspapers, books, and journals. He allowed himself
only the pleasures of great poetry. Cutting himself off from other scholars, whom
he accused of disregarding his work, he increasingly retreated from the world.
This tendency toward isolation was strengthened when his wife suddenly left
him in 1842 after he neglected her advice not to publish the ``Personal Preface''
to the sixth volume of the Cours, which viciously attacked his colleagues at the
28 Mary Pickering
E
Âcole Polytechnique for slighting him. Her departure almost caused another
mental breakdown.
Several years later another woman entered his life. In early 1845 Comte fell in
love with Clotilde de Vaux, the sister of one of his students. She was seventeen
years younger than Comte. Having been abandoned by her husband, she was an
aspiring writer trying to gain independence from her parents, who were struggling
to support her. Comte pursued her in a very calculated fashion to develop his
feelings, which he worried were stunted due to his poor relations with his family
and wife. Now that he was about to write the Syste
Áme, which dealt with the
emotional side of human existence, he believed he needed more depth in this arena.
Comte represented Vaux as a perfect lady, an angel who made him more
virtuous. Moral improvement, he asserted, was imperative for a philosopher
because ``no great intellect'' could develop ``in a suitable manner without a
certain amount of universal benevolence,'' the source of lofty goals (Comte,
1975, volume 2, p. 181). He maintained that his adoration for Vaux made him
love all of Humanity.
Although Comte now prided himself on being a model of both intellectual and
moral strength, he lusted ironically after her body. Considering him only a close
friend, Vaux resisted his advances. Yet she was forced to increase her reliance on
his good will and financial resources as she began to lose her battle against
tuberculosis. In April 1846, she died. During this period, from mid-1845 to
1846, Comte again almost went mad. To immortalize her name, he decided to
dedicate to her his next significant work, the Syste
Áme de politique positive
(1851±4).
The extent of Vaux's influence on Comte is controversial. Comte claimed she
was responsible for his ``second career.'' Scholars from John Stuart Mill to Ray-
mond Aron have usually agreed that there was indeed a break in his intellectual
evolution. Yet they considered what he wrote after her death to be far inferior to
the Cours. The Religion of Humanity, which he erected in her honor, allegedly
discredited his earlier scientistic program. Yet just as Comte's earlier work was not
completely scientistic, his later career was not entirely sentimental and illogical.
His last work, the Synthe
Áse subjective (1856), focused almost entirely on the
sciences, especially mathematics; it reinterpreted their role from the perspective
of the kind of moral education and logic required during the positive age. All of
Comte's works form a consistent whole; from the beginning, his concerns were
``spiritual'' in that he was trying to create a credible general doctrine that would
replace Catholicism and still satisfy the human need for beliefs and values.
Although Vaux did not change the direction of Comte's thought, she did
reinforce his growing interest in the feelings, and her struggles to establish herself
revived his interest in the ``woman question,'' which his bitter relationship with
Massin had squelched. The alliance between women and positive philosophers
that he had promoted in the closing volume of the Cours now became central to
his doctrine, as reflected in the Cate
Âchisme positiviste.
When the Revolution of 1848 broke out, Comte became eager to gain greater
popularity with the common people. Prompted by the belief that every educated
person had a duty to enlighten those who wanted to learn, he had given since
Auguste Comte 29
1831 a highly successful public course on astronomy to workers. Now seeking to
entice the workers from socialism, especially the ``communist'' doctrines of
Etienne Cabet, he founded the Positivist Society to launch the positivist move-
ment and wrote a manifesto, the Discours sur l'ensemble du positivisme. In this
work, which later formed the opening section of the Syste
Áme, he argued that
although positivism did not seek to abolish private property, it absorbed and
strengthened the basic principles of communism, in that it agreed that the
community should ``intervene to subordinate [property] to the needs of society''
(Comte, 1929, volume 1, p. 155). Comte also supported the workers' demands
for the right to work and a republic where they would hold the reins of power.
However, he soon feared the revolutionaries were becoming too violent and
anarchic, and he ended by preferring the dictatorial regime of Louis Napoleon.
In 1855 he wrote Appel au Conservateurs to persuade all conservatives, includ-
ing Catholics, to unite with positivists against the Left. Comte's growing con-
servatism cost him the support of liberals, such as Emile Littre
Â, a leading scholar
who had been his most important French supporter. Nevertheless, Comte still
had fifty or so faithful disciples in the Positivist Society, which continued to meet
once a week. They supported him financially. Such assistance was especially
necessary after Comte lost his last job at the E
Âcole Polytechnique in 1851.
His resentment at not being promoted to mathematics professor had led to
friction with his colleagues, who finally dismissed him. He depended on his
disciples until his death in 1857.
In the last years of his life, Comte ruled the positivist movement in a dictator-
ial manner, refusing to allow any dissension, especially in matters pertaining to
the Religion of Humanity, whose cult he meticulously organized. He also wrote
his Testament, which enclosed a ``Secret Addition''; it was to be used against his
wife if she challenged his will and tried to downplay the importance of this
religion. The note accused Massin of having been a prostitute ± an allegation
that has been generally accepted as true. Yet Comte was falling into the binary
logic of his time. If Vaux was an angel, Massin, whom he now hated, had to be
the opposite, a demonic force, whose representation in the mid-nineteenth
century was a prostitute. When Massin did challenge the will and the case
went to court, she was shocked to read the ``Secret Addition,'' whose truth she
vigorously denied. Just as Comte succeeded in marrying his name with that of
Vaux, he forever sullied the reputation of Massin.
Auguste Comte was a brilliant visionary but a difficult, egoistic person. The
certainty that he was right, his intolerance of criticism, and his paranoia led to
one rupture after another. He lost many important friends, such as Saint-Simon,
FrancËois Guizot, Emile Littre
Â, and John Stuart Mill. He broke with his wife and
his family. He alienated his colleagues. He had difficulty retaining disciples. It is
paradoxical that the man who founded the science that specialized in social
relations could not get along with other people. And yet, perhaps because of his
manic depressive condition, he imagined himself the savior of the world, the
``Great Priest'' of Humanity, to which he claimed to be devoted. In a sense, he
sought in his social philosophy the stability, harmony, and love that eluded him
in his private life.
30 Mary Pickering
The Social ContextThe Social Context
Generating a series of dramatic transformations, the French Revolution seemed
to make dreams of salvation plausible. Comte's aspirations cannot be entirely
understood without a proper appreciation of the social context in which he
wrote. His sociological theory was a direct response to the upheavals caused
by the French and Industrial Revolutions, two turning points in Western history
that rendered social conditions uncertain and unstable.
The French Revolution was a cataclysmic event that threw into question the
legitimacy of the government and the religion upon which traditional society
rested. Henceforth, the basis and ends of power were matters of debate. During
the sixty-odd years that Comte lived, France experienced nine different govern-
ments and revolutions. In their search for a new government, the French people
seemed unsuccessful at avoiding the twin problems of mob rule and dictatorship.
The various constitutions setting down the rules of government were discarded
one right after another. Different social groups, impelled by the new forces of
financial and industrial capitalism, manipulated events to their own advantage
and to the detriment of the lower classes, who were trying to adjust to a new
machine-based economy that threatened their traditional, artisanal ways of life.
Having watched political experimentations wreak havoc in his country, Comte,
like many of his countrymen, had little faith in purely political solutions to the
anarchy of his time and looked with skepticism on such conventional abstrac-
tions as the ``rights of man'' and ``popular sovereignty,'' which he believed had
led to this confusion. Like others, from traditionalists on the Right to repub-
licans on the Left, he craved a moral community.
For him, as for the revolutionaries, the idea of regeneration had to be a global
program that touched on politics, the economy, morality, philosophy, and reli-
gion. Commending the revolutionaries for presiding over the necessary work of
destruction, he looked forward to the day when there would be a new, more
profound revolution, a constructive one instituting a more virtuous society, not
just in France but everywhere. By the mid-nineteenth century, he was well aware
that all parts of the world were interconnected. Partaking of the Eurocentrism of
his time, he assumed that the other areas of the globe would follow European
patterns of development. Deeply affected by the disunity and anarchy surround-
ing him, he created sociology and positivism to give the world the stability, order,
and harmony it needed in an industrial, secular age that he recognized would no
longer be dominated by nobles and clergymen.
Eliminating the questionable abstractions of both religion and conventional
philosophy, positivism would serve as the basis of a new social consensus. To
create a grand philosophical synthesis that would appeal to both the Left and
Right and thus transcend party politics, Comte drew from many intellectual
traditions. Despite his embrace of ``cerebral hygiene,'' he was also deeply
affected by developments going on around him. Comte wanted his system to
represent not only the completion of the French Enlightenment but the endpoint
of a more wide-ranging, European intellectual evolution as well. To him, this
Auguste Comte 31
great comprehensiveness made his work even more serious and significant. As a
result, his doctrine represents a delicate balancing act.
The Intellectual ContextThe Intellectual Context
Comte's approach to epistemology and the scientific method was influenced by
Francis Bacon, Rene
ÂDescartes, Immanuel Kant, and David Hume. In scientific
investigations, Comte recommended achieving a balance between Bacon's stress
on induction and Descartes's emphasis on rationalism (or deduction) in order to
come up with useful laws. Such laws were to be limited to describing facts, for
they had to be constructed in accordance with Hume's warning to avoid the
absurd pursuit of first and final causes. Like Kant, who, Comte believed, had
elaborated on the British philosopher's conclusions, Hume had stressed the
``fundamental dualism between the spectator and spectacle'' and had brought
mankind closer to the triumph of relativism and nominalism (Comte, 1929,
volume 3, p. 588). By showing that an artificial logic provisionally linked our
thoughts, both Hume and Kant had taught Comte that people could never know
more than what appeared to them through their senses and categories. They thus
contributed to Comte's theory of the subjective synthesis, which maintained that
knowledge was not comprehensive or objective but rested on the nature of man.
Comte also took a great interest in biology, a science that was in a crucial era
of development during his lifetime. It deeply influenced his conception of socio-
logy, especially his idea that society formed an organism. Comte frequently used
biological terms, such as ``social illness,'' ``pathological case,'' and ``chronic
epidemic,'' to characterize French society (Comte, 1975, volume 2, pp. 16, 48,
50). Four biologists in particular had a large impact on Comte. FrancËois Brous-
sais's theory that the pathological was simply a variation of the normal was the
source of Comte's concept of the use of experimentation in social studies. Henri
Ducrotay de Blainville interested Comte in the influence of the environment on
living bodies and turned his attention to the difference between statics and
dynamics. Marie FrancËois Xavier Bichat's concept that there were three types
of human skills ± rational, emotive, and motor ± inspired Comte's idea that the
spiritual power consisted of philosophers, women, and workers. The phrenolo-
gical doctrine of Franz Gall offered Comte a materialist replacement for the
religious explanation of the world and human existence. Comte enthusiastically
embraced Gall's principle that sympathy, or sociability, was an innate disposition
in every individual because this theory strengthened the positivist argument that
people simply needed to be socialized to become more altruistic. Both Gall and
Bichat were considered by Comte to be his main scientific predecessors.
A wide variety of social thinkers and philosophers in France and abroad also
influenced Comte's development. Montesquieu, Saint-Simon, Johann Gottfried
Herder, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel taught him that society ultimately
represented an application of ideas, particularly moral principles, because a
common world view united people. Once the dominant philosophy changed,
so did morality and politics. Montesquieu inspired Comte to look for social
32 Mary Pickering
laws. Saint-Simon recommended the scientific study of society based on a priori
and a posteriori ideas and the history of progress. Making Comte aware that
they were living in an age of transition requiring a radical new approach to
reconstruction, Saint-Simon also delineated the new temporal and spiritual elites
that would take over the emerging industrial-scientific society and direct it
toward working productively for the happiness of man on earth. Herder em-
phasized the importance of a feeling of humanity, and Hegel reinforced Comte's
organicism and deterministic approach to history.
Political economists, such as Adam Smith and J. B. Say, turned Comte's
attention to the problems associated with industrialization and made him see
both the benefits and disadvantages of the division of labor. Comte recognized
that the division of labor was crucial to progress. However, he lamented that
specialization, which was one of its components, led to a withering of the spirit
and a breakdown of the community.
The Scottish Enlightenment philosophers (Hume, William Robertston, Adam
Ferguson, and Adam Smith) and the Ide
Âologues (Condorcet, Pierre-Jean-Georges
Cabanis, Antoine-Louis Claude de Destutt de Tracy, and J. B. Say) also were
influential because of their respective efforts to launch a scientific study of
society. Comte appreciated the Scottish philosophers' attempt to establish
moral principles on a secular, empirical basis in order to reinforce the progress
of the human species from rudeness to civilization. They stressed the importance
of studying how government and society developed gradually from man's inher-
ently social nature, not from a contract between strong individualists. Contra-
dicting social contract theory, this emphasis on man's natural feeling of
sympathy for others, which was also found in Gall's phrenological doctrine,
had a large impact on the positivist concept of human nature. As a means of
combating ``egoistic metaphysics'' ± that is, doctrines of individualism ± the
Scottish theory of man's natural sociability as the basic unifying force in society
contributed to Comte's own doctrine of altruism and to the establishment of
morality as a seventh science based on the social psychology of man.
Carrying on the legacy of the Enlightenment in the early nineteenth century,
the Ide
Âologues tried to develop a social science that would lead to social stability
while remaining faithful to the essence of liberalism, the movement that had
been salient during the first stages of the Revolution. They imagined a secular,
educated elite leading a republic according to the findings of a rational, all-
encompassing science of man, not according to vague, potentially dangerous
political principles, such as inalienable natural rights. Comte was most
impressed by the philosopher who inspired this movement: Condorcet. He
admired Condorcet's attempt to establish the science of society on the basis of
history, particularly the law of progress of the mind, which was the source of the
improvement of humanity. Moreover, Comte acknowledged that he borrowed
Condorcet's concept of humanity as a single people experiencing the various
stages of history. He thus considered Condorcet his ``essential precursor''
(Comte, 1966, p. 32).
Comte regarded Joseph de Maistre as ``the only thinker'' after Condorcet and
Gall to whom he owed ``something important'' (Comte, 1973±90, volume 6,
Auguste Comte 33
p. 325). Maistre was part of the ``reactionary'' or counter-revolutionary school
of social thought, which included Louis de Bonald. In the pursuit of a synthesis
that would transcend stale ideological debates and appeal to people tired of
party politics, Comte staked his claim to the liberal tradition by linking his
philosophy to that of Condorcet and the Ide
Âologues. Recognizing the force of
the Catholic revival that occurred in France after the end of the Napoleonic
Empire, Comte also felt obliged to appeal to the conservative sector of the
population. He frequently acknowledged his great debt to the doctrine of the
theocrats. He agreed with their assessment that ``moral anarchy'' was the ``great
scourge'' of the nineteenth century and stemmed from the absence of a general
unifying doctrine. Inspired by the conservative thinkers' romanticization of the
Middle Ages and their organicism, he looked back fondly on the dogmas and
structured spiritual order that he believed formed the basis of medieval social
unity. Though a severe critic of Catholicism, Comte conceded that the decline of
religion had destroyed this harmonious society and had led to ``the most abject''
individualism and social fragmentation (Comte, 1973±90, volume 1, pp. 147,
156). He blamed the Protestant Revolution in particular for this state of affairs.
It had embraced individualism, which influenced the Enlightenment thinkers and
the French revolutionaries and formed the basis of liberalism. According to
Maistre, the concept of the autonomous, free individual endowed with natural
rights was alarming because man could not be understood apart from the
organic society in which he lived. Comte concurred with Maistre's arguments
against liberalism, finding it an anti-social doctrine, one that contributed to the
atomization, materialism, and corruption of modern society. Impressed by
Maistre's assessment that the stress on the sovereignty of reason had left people
suffering in an abnormal state of unbelief, Comte agreed that to fulfill the
``spiritual condition for the continued existence of human society,'' people
needed ``fixed, positive, and unanimous principles,'' which had to be firmly
established by a strong spiritual authority ruling a hierarchial society (Comte,
1973±90, volume 1, p. 147). Maistre argued in particular that social solidarity
rested on the unlimited power of the Pope, the source of all valid authority.
Appreciating his demonstration of the importance of an institution to the power
of a religion, Comte strongly endorsed Maistre's concept that a powerful spiri-
tual authority had to remain independent of the temporal government to ensure
a moral order. In short, Comte's system reflected Maistre's stance that a unifying
spiritual doctrine and structure represented the key to social cohesion.
Yet Comte by no means adopted Maistre's system in its entirety, for he did not
wish to return to the past as the theocrats did. Comte recognized the benefits of
progress and the new needs of the future industrial-scientific society. He was
deeply influenced by contemporary movements promoting change. As a young
man, he had been influenced by liberalism and belonged to various republican
organizations before he lost faith in political solutions to the anarchy of his
times. Despite his turn to the Right, he was a critic of the status quo and
remained an opponent of traditional religion and a monarchical form of govern-
ment. As mentioned previously, he was also much affected by the women's
movement and socialism.
34 Mary Pickering
Moreover, Comte was touched by the contemporary romantic movement,
many of whose themes came to him through the Saint-Simonians, whom he
closely watched. Like the romantics, he despised the bourgeois commercialism of
his age, argued in favor of spontaneity, and revelled in his eccentricity, which he
considered a source of creativity. At the same time, he shared the romantics'
interest in the spiritual aspect of human nature and participated in their celebra-
tion of women and the emotions. Comte believed that although the intellectual
faculties would become stronger with the advance of civilization and would
exert more influence on the emotions, they would still need the superior power
of the affections to rouse them from their habitual torpor, give them direction,
and subject them to the control of reality. Finally, like the romantics, he looked
favorably on the Middle Ages. For this reason, he was most drawn to Sir Walter
Scott and Alexander Manzoni, who idealized the medieval period in historical
epics. The two writers seemed to epitomize the power of the poet or artist to
enchant and ennoble. Such aesthetic power would be important in the positivist
republic.
ImpactImpact
With such a rich, all-encompassing doctrine predicting a harmonious future,
Comte attracted numerous followers on both the Left and the Right in France,
Britain, the United States, and Latin America. Pierre Laffitte, one of Comte's
disciples, became head of the international positivist movement after his master's
death. The ``orthodox'' disciples in the movement compelled him to develop the
religious strain of positivism that had preoccupied Comte at the end of his life.
Yet the ``unorthodox'' Littre
Ârejected Comte's religious construction and trans-
formed positivism into a powerful scientific manifesto for a new generation of
anti-clerical republicans, who sought legitimacy for their materialist beliefs and
hoped to remake the world with the help of science. In this guise, the doctrine
became very compelling to Latin American republicans, especially in Brazil,
whose flag displays Comte's motto ``Order and Progress.''
In France, positivism became the semi-official doctrine of the Third Republic.
It was a significant weapon in the republic's battle against the Catholic Church,
especially in the struggle surrounding the control of schools. Both Jules Ferry and
Le
Âon Gambetta, who were leaders in the Third Republic, were enthusiasts, as
was Emile Zola, the famous writer. However, another devotee of positivism was
Charles Maurras, who in 1898 founded the Action FrancËaise, a proto-fascist
movement that denounced ``un-French'' elements such as Protestants and Jews
and claimed support for its authoritarian nationalism on the basis of a scientific
study of the ``facts.''
In England, John Stuart Mill actively corresponded with Comte from 1841 to
1847 and came close to becoming his disciple. He absorbed the essential aspects of
Comte's conception of a social science, including the positive method and the law
of history. He also responded to Comte's call for educated men to provide con-
structive leadership to a society undergoing a period of transition. Mill and
Auguste Comte 35
George Henry Lewes helped to popularize the positivist doctrine, as did Harriet
Martineau, who wrote an abridged translation of the Cours (1853), which Comte
preferred to his own book. The effects of his theories can be seen in the novels of
George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and George Gissing. Richard Congreve and Frederic
Harrison set up rival centers of worship dedicated to the Religion of Humanity,
whose secular, scientific principles and humanism had wide appeal as an alter-
native to Christianity. The Fabian Socialists Beatrice and Sidney Webb were taken
with Comte's scientific approach to the study of society, his notion of altruism,
and his stress on the role of enlightened leaders of opinion (Wright, 1986).
Comte's concern for the common good and his elitism also proved tantalizing
to many American liberals, who found in positivism a new naturalistic philoso-
phy that could replace religion as the foundation of society. In the midst of the
professionalization of society, these educated elites appreciated the large role
that Comte's new science of society entrusted to well-rounded intellectuals to
correct the social problems caused by the concentration of corporate power.
Henry Edger, David Croly, Thaddeus Wakeman, Edward Bellamy, Herbert
Croly, and Lester Ward were some of the American reformers of the Gilded
Age and Progressive Era who were influenced by Comte. They turned liberal
ideology away from its traditional libertarian, laissez-faire position and made it
far more receptive to the idea that an organic community could be created by an
interventionist state managed by a professional elite of experts devoted to ser-
ving humanity (Harp, 1995).
Comte's influence extended to the science he created, sociology. His interest in
preserving social cohesion and harmony was echoed by E
Âmile Durkheim, who
adopted Comte's idea that society itself is a reality with its own laws and should
be studied in a scientific manner. As reflected in his concept of ``anomie,'' he too
measured social health in terms of social solidarity. Durkheim's functionalist
approach in the end triumphed over alternative schools of sociology, such as
those of his competitors Gabriel Tarde and Rene
ÂWorms, and thus ensured the
further diffusion of Comte's ideas in the social sciences (Levine, 1995, p. 168).
Lucien Le
Âvy-Bruhl introduced positivist ideas into anthropology. His studies of
the primitive mentality may have been inspired by Comte's interest in fetishism,
for Comte was the first European thinker to look favorably upon this religion.
Other social scientists influenced by Comte include Alfred Espinas, Thomas
Buckle, Herbert Spencer, Hippolyte Taine, Ernest Renan, Charles Booth, Patrick
Geddes, Leonard Hobhouse, and Lewis Mumford.
Scientists and philosophers, especially philosophers of science, have been
affected by Comte's explanation for the uniqueness of science, especially its
difference from metaphysics. Comte's recognition of the importance of hypo-
theses as useful, convenient devices to be used in scientific research fore-
shadowed the later work of Hans Vaihinger and Henri Poincare
Âand may have
also influenced Claude Bernard, Marcelin Berthelot, Paul Janet, Ernst Mach,
Wilhelm Ostwald, and Pierre Duhem. Indeed, in the early twentieth century, the
philosophy of science was almost thoroughly positivist (Manicas, 1987, p. 185).
There was in particular a connection between Comte's positivism and logical
positivism; both took a similar approach to the problems of determining
36 Mary Pickering
meaningfulness, distinguishing scientific from nonscientific knowledge, and
using the principle of verifiability to criticize metaphysicians. Both argued that
the natural and social sciences share common logical bases and a superiority to
other forms of knowledge. The leading logical positivists included A. J. Ayer,
Otto Neurath, Rudolf Carnap, Moritz Schlick, and Hans Reichenbach.
In many respects, the influence of positivism has been more widespread than
that of either Marxism or Freudianism. A great many people today are unknow-
ingly positivists in that they claim to believe only statements supported by
tangible evidence. Yet the name of Comte is not a household word, for he has
always been subject to severe criticism.
AssessmentAssessment
Comte is easy to ridicule. He was pedantic, dogmatic, and authoritarian. His
treatment of others was invariably harsh and egotistical. His writing is dry,
austere, and convoluted, which makes reading his work a struggle. As for
sociology, many of Comte's ideas are not very scientific and seem to be merely
assumptions. For example, there is no basis for his schema that there are three
stages of history, each of which is rigidly determined and inevitable everywhere
in the world. He supported this law of three stages by carefully selecting only
those facts that would demonstrate it. His depiction of the third stage of history,
the positive one, seems fanciful and ``utopian,'' a reflection of his love of system-
building. His epistemology has been criticized for not providing a formal logic of
proof; however, Comte's omission was deliberate, for he did not believe one
could adequately or usefully define facts, scientific observation, or rules of
verification. His rejection of psychology has also been regarded as unwarranted,
although critics again have failed to see that his remarks were directed against
the speculations of Victor Cousin (Scharff, 1995, p. 11).
Comte's basic impulse to synthesize seems misguided in many respects. In his
embrace of French, English, and German philosophical traditions, he betrayed a
certain eclecticism, simplicity, and even superficiality. He appeared anxious to
synthesize philosophical movements no matter how different they might be. Like
his contemporary FrancËois Guizot, Comte was trying to find a ``juste milieu''
which would accommodate all opinions. Positivism, in Comte's eyes, would
triumph because it would present a doctrine that was even ``more organic''
than that espoused by the reactionaries and ``more progressive'' than that advoc-
ated by the revolutionaries (Comte, 1975, volume 2, p. 40). In other words, it
would create social harmony by combining the traditionalism of the Right and
the rationalism of the Left. Comte believed that the Left would be attracted by
his hostility toward the Church and established religions; his republicanism; his
faith in reason, relativism, and progress; his emphasis on the importance of
freedom of discussion to change the world; his concept of radical social recon-
struction in the interest of the working class; and his vision of a new industrial
and secular order. The Right would allegedly approve of his promotion of
traditional values; his stress on a strong spiritual power, duties, hierarchy,
Auguste Comte 37
order, and stability; and his opposition to equality, popular sovereignty, and
individualism. In the end, his synthesis made him highly vulnerable; because he
did not cater to one specific group as Marx did, he had no inherent supporters.
The Right attacked his anti-religious, anti-monarchical views and his worship of
a secular abstraction, Humanity. The Left criticized his brand of illiberalism,
which disregarded the rights of the individual and egalitarian impulses.
As a careful reader of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Comte made the needs of
society paramount. The society that he depicted was a highly regimented one,
where people were forced to conform to the Religion of Humanity, an artificial
creation that substituted Humanity for God as an object of worship, while
keeping most of the ceremonies of Catholicism. Consensus would be achieved
through uniformity, not by working out differences of opinion. To a certain
extent, Comte sacrificed freedom and pluralism for social control, thus exacer-
bating the problem of the abuse of power. Yet considering his preoccupation
with uniting humanity through the recognition of its manifestations in different
singularities (individuals, nations, cultures, and religions), Juliette Grange has
argued that Comte was not a proto-totalitarian intent on eliminating individu-
alism; indeed, in an effort to reconcile pluralism and holism, he maintained that
humanity developed only through the individual. Humanity was a spiritual or
moral community, not an institutionalized political construct demanding blind
submission and conformity from each member. The unity of humanity rested on
the participation of all its individual members, who were necessarily diverse and
specialized (Grange, 1996, pp. 270±6).
Despite the defects in Comte's semi-authoritarian solution to the turmoil of
the modern era ± defects that reflect the tensions of his own time and his fragile
personality ± his attempt to cure society of its ills continues to be a central
objective of the science of society. Comte's admonitions about the dangers of
sociology succumbing to the ``positivity'' of the scientific age are still highly
relevant today, when the model of the physical sciences continues to hold great
appeal and some sociologists and other scholars remain attracted to an empir-
ical, jargon-laden discourse, one fearful of grand theories. Sociology has become
a fragmented discipline that Comte would never recognize as his own, consider-
ing his repeated condemnation of modern specialization. Nor would he approve
of the direction that philosophy has taken. As Robert Scharff has shown, the so-
called ``post-positivists,'' such as Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam, err today in
fostering a detachment from history in their desire to proclaim the beginning of a
new era; they never question the legitimacy of their belief in their own maturity,
originality, and correctness. They would benefit from taking a new look at
Comte's suggestions about the relativism and tentativeness of knowledge ±
especially the impossibility of validating epistemological proofs ± and his
demonstration of the importance of reflecting on prescientific practices and
their kinship with positivism. Emphasizing Comte's statement that ``no concep-
tion can be fully understood without its history'' (Comte, 1975, volume 1, p. 21),
Robert Scharff has maintained that Comte promoted a ``historico-critical reflect-
iveness'' among philosophers that is highly relevant today (Scharff, 1995, p. 16).
Put into its historical context in a Comtean fashion, the postmodern world may
38 Mary Pickering
not be as innovative as it prides itself on being. It may well heed Comte's call for
moral commitments to the other members of humanity and to the earth, and his
recognition of the power of religion. As Juliette Grange suggests, Auguste Comte
may well be the sociologist for the twenty-first century (Grange, 1996, p. 15).
Bibliography
Writings of Auguste Comte
Ecrits de jeunesse 1816±1828: Suivis du Me
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Cours de philosophie positive (ed. Michel Serres, FrancË ois Dagognet, Allal Sinaceur, and
Jean-Paul Enthoven), 2 volumes. 1830±42. Paris: Hermann (1975).
Discours sur l'esprit positif. 1844. Paris: Union Ge
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