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Aim And Scope Of Positivism

( Originally Published 1913 )

THERE is one very injurious, though very intelligible mistake current on the subject of the Positive Philosophy. It is supposed to be a thing of dry, severe science, only interesting to scientific men—presenting only the scientific aspect of things, and leaving untouched the great questions of Emotion, of Art, of Morality, of Religion ; a philosophy which may amuse the intellect of the speculative few, but can never claim the submission of the mass. The mistake is injurious, because the thinking world happens, unfortunately, to be divided into two classes—men of science destitute of a philosophy, because incompetent for the most part to the thorough grasp of those generalities which form a philosophy; and meta-physicians, whose tendency towards generalities causes them to disdain the creeping specialities of physical science. Thus, between Science which ignores Philosophy, and Philosophy which ignores Science, Comte is in danger of being set aside altogether. These pages will probably convince the reader, that the Positive Philosophy must necessarily reconcile these discrepancies, and that, while rendering due recognition to the specialities of experimentalists, it gives full scope to the generalizing tendency of philosophers. Meanwhile, the moralist, the metaphysician, and the man of letters, may be assured, that if Comte's system has one capital distinction more remarkable than another, it is the absolute predominance of the moral point of view—the rigorous subordination of the intellect to the heart. Speculation, as a mere display of intellectual energy, it denounces; science, as commonly understood, it looks upon with something of the feeling which may move the moralist contemplating the routine of pin-makers. The half-repugnant feeling about science, in the minds of literary men, artists, and moralists, is a natural and proper insurgence of the emotions against the domineering tendency of the intellect : men know that the moral life is larger and more intense than the intellectual life—they know that this moral life has its needs, which no science can pre-tend to regulate, and they reject a philosophy which speaks to them only of the Laboratory. But in Comte, Science has no such position. It is the basis upon which the social superstructure may be raised. It gives Philosophy materials and a Method ; that is all.

If the Positive Philosophy be anything, it is a doctrine capable of embracing all that can regulate Humanity; not a treatise on physical science, not a treatise on social science, but a system which absorbs all intellectual activity. " Positivism," he says, in his recent work, " is essentially composed of a Philosophy and a Polity, which are necessarily inseparable because they constitute the basis and aim of a system wherein intellect and sociability are intimately connected." And farther on, " This then is the mission of Positivism : to generalize science, and to systematize sociality." In other words, it aims at creating a Philosophy of the Sciences as a basis for a new social faith. A social doctrine is the aim of Positivism, a scientific doctrine the means ; just as in man, intelligence is the minister and interpreter of life. "En effet, si le coeur doit toujours poser les questions, c'est toujours à l'esprit qu'il appartient de les résoudre."

So much for the aim. Let me now call attention to Comte's initial conceptions ; and first, to the luminous conception of all the sciences—physical and social—as branches of one Science, to be investigated on one and the same Method.

To say that Science is one, and that the Method should be one, may, to the hasty reader, seem more like a truism than a discovery ; but on inquiry he will find, that before Comte, although a general idea of the connection of the physical sciences was prevalent, yet, to judge from Mrs. Somerville's work, or Herschel's Discourse, it was neither very precise nor very pro-found; no one had thought of a Social Science issuing from the Physical Sciences, and investigated on the same method. In fact, to talk of moral questions being reduced to a positive science will even now be generally regarded as absurd. Men use the phrase " Social Science," "Ethical Science," but they never mean thereby that Ethics forms one branch of the great tree, rising higher than the physical sciences, but rising from the same root. On the contrary, they interpret ethical phenomena by metaphysical or theological methods, and believe History to be under the governance not of Laws, but of caprice.

The second initial conception which the reader should familiarize his mind with, is that of the fundamental Law of human development :—There are but three phases of intellectual evolution for the individual as well as for the mass—the Theological (Supernatural), the Metaphysical, and the Positive.

Hereafter this law will be illustrated in detail, and a very brief indication will be sufficient now: In the Supernatural phase the mind seeks causes it aspires to know the essences of things, and the How and Why of their operation. It regards all effects as the productions of supernatural agents. Unusual phenomena are in terpreted as the signs of the pleasure or displeasure of some god. In the Metaphysical phase, a modification takes place ; the supernatural agents are set aside for abstract forces or Entities supposed to inhere in various substances, and capable of engendering phenomena. In the Positive phase the mind, convinced of the futility of all inquiry into causes and essences, restricts itself to the observation and classification of phenomena, and to the discovery of the invariable relations of succession and similitude which things bear to each other : in a word, to the discovery of the laws of phenomena.

The third initial conception is that beautiful classification of the sciences co-ordinated by the luminous principle of commencing with the study of the simplest (most general) phenomena, and proceeding successively to the most complex and particular ; thus arranging the sciences according to their dependence on each other.

The three great conceptions just stated no one can be expected to appreciate until he has applied them. But how would he appreciate any general conception—say the law of gravitation—if it were simply presented to him as a formula which he had not verified ? Let an honest verification of the three formulas be made, and I have the deepest conviction that no competent mind will fail to recognise them as the grandest contributions to philosophy since Descartes and Bacon inaugurated the positive method.

And now a word on the part Positivism is to play in the coming years of struggle. That a new epoch is dawning, that a new form of social life is growing up out of the ruins of feudalism, the most superficial observer cannot fail to see ; and as signs of the deep unrest now agitating society, no less than as evidence of the indestructible aspiration after an Ideal which has always moved mankind, the systems of Communism so confidently promulgated attract the attention of most thinkers. But can any system of Communism yet devised be accepted as an efficient solution of the social problem ? Positivism says No ; and for this reason : Communism is simply apolitical solution of a problem which embraces far deeper and higher questions than politics. Communism is the goal towards which society tends, not a path by which the goal may be reached. Neither cooperation, nor watchwords of fraternity, however sincerely translated into action, can pretend to compass the whole problem. For let us suppose the political questions settled; let us imagine a parallelogram of harmonious success — a human bee-hive of cooperative activity,—will all be settled then ? Will not the deep and urgent questions of Religion and Philosophy still demand an answer ? Just where man most obviously rises above the bee, Communism leaves him to the care of Priests and Teachers, who cannot agree among them-selves ! and as all polity is founded on a system of ideas believed in common, as we cannot in social problems isolate the political from the moral, the moral from the religious system, Communism leaves society to its anarchy.

The present anarchy of politics arises from the anarchy of ideas. The ancient faiths are shaken where they are not shattered. The new faith which must replace them is still to come. What Europe wants is a Doctrine which will embrace the whole system of our conceptions, which will satisfactorily answer the questions of Science, Life, and Religion ; teaching us our relations to the World, to Duty, and to God. A mere glance at the present state of Europe will detect the want of unity, caused by the absence of any one Doctrine general enough to embrace the variety of questions, and positive enough to carry with it irresistible conviction. This last reservation is made because Catholicism has the requisite generality, but fails in convincing Protestants. The existence of sects is enough to prove, if proof were needed, that none of the Religions are competent to their mission of binding together all men under one faith. As with religion, so with philosophy : no one doctrine is universal; there are almost as many philosophies as philosophers. The dogmas of Germany are laughed at in England and Scotland ; the psychology of Scotland is scorned in Germany, and neglected in England. Besides these sectarian divisions, we see Religion and Philosophy more or less avowedly opposed to each other.

This, then, is the fact with respect to general doctrines :—Religions are opposed to religions, philosophies are opposed to philosophies ; while religion and philosophy are essentially opposed to each other.

In positive Science there is less dissidence, but there is a similar absence of any general Doctrine. Each science rests on a broad firm basis of ascertained truth, and rapidly improves ; but a Philosophy of the Sciences is nowhere to be found, except in the pages of Auguste Comte. The speciality of most scientific men, and their seeming incapacity of either producing or apprehending general ideas, has long been a matter of just complaint ; they are Hodmen, and fancy themselves Architects. This incapacity is one of the reasons why nebulous metaphysics still waste the fine activity of noble minds ; men see clearly enough that, however exact each separate science may be, these sciences do not of themselves constitute philosophy : bricks are not a house. In the early days of science, general views were easily attained. As the materials became more complex, various divisions took place ; one man devoted himself to one s science, another to another. Even then, general ideas were not absent. But, as the tide swept on, discovery succeeding discovery, like advancing waves, new tracks of inquiry opening vast wildernesses of undiscovered truth, it became absolutely necessary for one man to devote the labour of a life to some small fraction of a science, leaving to others the task of ranging his discoveries under their general head. The result has been, that most men of science regard only their speciality, and leave to metaphysicians the task of constructing a general doctrine. Hence we find at present abundance of ideas powerless, because they are not positive ; and the positive sciences powerless, because they are not general. The aim of Comte is to present a doctrine positive, because elaborated from positive science, and yet possessing all the desired generality of metaphysical schemes, without their vagueness, baselessness, and inapplicability.

Some remarks from Comte's introductory lecture may now we quoted.

" It is not, I believe, to the readers of this work that I require to prove that ideas govern the world, maintain it in order, and throw it into anarchy ; or, in other words, that the whole social mechanism is based ultimately upon opinions. They well know that the present great political and moral crisis in society really depends, at bottom, on our intellectual anarchy. Our greatest evil, indeed, consists in the profound divergence existing among all minds in relation to every fundamental maxim., fixity in which is the principal condition of all social order. So long as individual minds do not adhere together from a unanimous agreement upon a certain number of general ideas, capable of forming a common social doctrine, the state of the nations will of necessity remain essentially revolutionary, in spite of all the political palliatives that can be adopted; and will not permit the establishing of any but provisional institutions. It is equally certain that, if this union of minds, from a community of principles, can once be obtained, institutions in harmony with it will necessarily arise, without giving room for any serious shock,—that single fact of itself clearing away the greatest disorder. It is, there-fore, to this point that the attention of all those who perceive the importance of a truly normal state of things ought principally to be directed.

"Now, from the point of view to which the different considerations noticed in this discourse have by degrees elevated us, it is easy at once to characterize the present state of society with precision and to its inmost centre, and at the same time to deduce the means by which we can effect an essential change upon it. By means of the all-important law enounced at the beginning of this discourse, I believe I can exactly sum up all the observations made upon the present condition of society, by simply saying that the present intellectual anarchy depends, at bottom, on the simultaneous employment of three philosophies radically incompatible : the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive. It is -in fact clear, that if any one of those three philosophies really obtained an universal and complete preponderance, there would be a determinate social order, whereas our especial evil consists in the absence of all true organization what-ever. It is the co-existence of the three antagonistic philosophies that absolutely prevents a mutual understanding upon any essential question. Now, if this view is correct, we have only to ascertain which of the three philosophies can, and, from the nature of things, must prevail ; every man of sense will then feel obliged to concur in its triumph, whatever his own peculiar opinions may have been before the question was thoroughly analyzed and settled. The inquiry being at once reduced to this simple footing, it plainly cannot remain for any length of time indeterminate; since it is evident, from various reasons, that the positive philosophy is alone destined to prevail, according to the ordinary course of things. It alone, for a long series of ages, has been making progress, while its antagonists have constantly been in a state of decline; rightly or wrongly,—it matters not : the general fact is incontestable, and that is enough."

Surely no one will question this fact of scientific progress, concurrent with the decline of Religious and Metaphysical systems ? If he do question it, let him refer to the ample proofs furnished by Comte; and, as regards Metaphysics, to the Biographical History of Philosophy. This unequivocal proclamation of history must not be disregarded ; to that which Humanity has persisted in through the long course of centuries let no man shut his eyes !

These general considerations cannot be better concluded than by giving Comte's views of education.

" The establishment of the Positive Philosophy will be the presiding and influencing agent in the general re-construction of our system of Education. Already, indeed, all enlightened minds unanimously recognise the necessity of discarding our European system of education, which is still essentially theological, metaphysical, and literary, and substituting for it a positive education in harmony with the spirit of the age, and suited to the wants of modern civilization. The spontaneous conviction of this necessity has been everywhere extending itself, as we see from the varied and ever increasing attempts, for a century, and particularly of late, to diffuse positive instruction, and to augment it without limit. The different governments of Europe have always zealously joined in these efforts, when they did not happen to originate them. But while we further these useful undertakings, as far as possible, we must not conceal the fact that, in the present state of our ideas, they are utterly powerless to effect their chief object,—namely, the radical regeneration of general education. For, the exclusive speciality and too marked absence of any bond of connection, which continue to characterise our mode of regarding and cultivating the sciences, must of necessity greatly affect the manner of expounding them in our course of education. If an intelligent person at the present day studies the principal branches of natural philosophy, in order to form a general system of positive ideas, he is obliged to study each of them separately, after the same method, and in the same detail, as if his object specially were to become an astronomer, or a chemist, &c. Hence such an education is almost impossible, and necessarily imperfect, even where the intellect of the student is of the highest order, and his position, otherwise, the most favourable; and it would be altogether a chimerical proceeding, for people going through a general course of education, to attempt studying the sciences in this detailed way. And yet a general education absolutely requires an ensemble of positive conceptions upon all the great elements of natural phenomena. It is an ensemble of this sort, on a scale more or less extensive, that must henceforth become, even among the popular masses, the permanent basis of all human combinations; that must, in a word, give the general tone to the minds of our posterity. In order that natural philosophy may complete the regeneration of our intellectual system, already so far in progress, it is indispensable that its different constituent sciences (exhibited to every mind as the diverse branches of a single trunk) be, in the first place, reduced to that in which their general features consist, namely, to their principal methods and to their most important results. It is only in this way that instruction in the sciences can become among us the basis of a new and truly rational general education. And there can be no doubt that, to this fundamental course of instruction, there will be added the different special scientific studies, answering to the different special courses of education which have to succeed the general course. But the essential consideration which I wished to point out here, lies in this, that all these specialities, the accumulation of great labour, would necessarily be insufficient for thoroughly renovating our system of education, if they did not rest on the preliminary basis of this general course of instruetion, itself the direct result of the. positive philosophy as ,defined in this discourse."

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