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General Spirit Of Sociology

( Originally Published 1913 )

AFTER these general indications, intended to show the urgency and opportuneness of social science, Comte enters upon the characteristics of the positive Method in the rational study of social phenomena.

On considering the present state of social science, it is impossible not to recognize the combination of the various characters which have always distinguished the theologico-metaphysical infancy of all other branches of philosophy. This situation of political science exactly reproduces before our eyes the analogy of what Astrology was to Astronomy, Alchemy to Chemistry, and the research after the universal panacea to Medicine. The peculiarity which theological politics and metaphysical polities have in common, consists principally, as to Method, in the preponderance of imagination over observation, and as to Doctrine, in the search after absolute notions ; whence results the tendency to exercise an arbitrary and indefinite action on phenomena, which are not believed to be subject to invariable laws. In a word, the general spirit of all speculations in the theological-metaphysical state is necessarily ideal in its course, absolute in its conception, and arbitrary in its application. Now it is impossible to doubt that such are still at the present day the predominant characteristics of social speculations.

Positive philosophy follows a very different course; it is characterised by that necessary and permanent subordination of the imagination to observation which specially constitutes the scientific spirit, in opposition to the theological or metaphysical spirit. By virtue of their superior complexity, and their more intimate connection with human passions, it was natural that political speculations should be plunged deeper and longer than any other in this deplorable philosophic situation, in which they still languish, whilst more simple and less stimulating studies have been successively freed from it during the last three centuries. As Hobbes sarcastically remarked, even the axioms of geometry would be disputed if men's passions were implicated in them.

If, instead of considering the general spirit of positive philosophy, we consider the character of scientific conceptions, it is easy to perceive that Positivism is principally distinguished from the theologico-metaphysical philosophy by a constant and irresistible tendency to render relative all the notions which at first were absolute. The relative character of scientific conceptions is inseparable from the true notion of natural laws; the chimerical tendency to absolute knowledge spontaneously accompanies the use of theological fictions or metaphysical entities. Although man's power of modifying phenomena at his own pleasure can only result from knowledge of their natural laws, it is nevertheless incontestable that the infancy of human reason necessarily coincided with the characteristic pretension of exercising an unlimited action upon corresponding phenomena. The history of human opinion clearly verifies this aberration with regard to stronomical, physical, chemical, and even biological phenomena. The error now only survives in social phenomena. Indeed, it is evident that notwithstanding the tendency of the public mind towards a healthier philosophy, the preponderating disposition of statesmen and even of civilians, whether of the theological or meta-physical school, still habitually consists in conceiving social phenomena as indefinitely and arbitrarily modifiable, by continuing to suppose the human species as deficient in all spontaneous impulse, and always ready passively to endure the influence of a legislator, whether temporal or spiritual, provided he be invested with sufficient authority. It is perfectly impossible to establish any stable and general notion on politics, whilst human society is regarded as moving without free will of its own, under the arbitrary impulsion of the legislator. In, the future, therefore, no order or agreement are possible in political philosophy without subjecting social phenomena to invariable natural laws ; that is to say, without introducing into the study of social phenomena the same positive spirit which has already regenerated and disciplined all other branches of human speculation.

The principle of Sociology consists in conceiving social phenomena as inevitably subjected to natural laws. We must first fix the peculiar character of these laws. To obtain this result, we must extend a truly scientific distinction to social phenomena, by considering separately, but always with a view to an exact systematic co-ordination, the static and dynamic aspect of each subject of positive study. In Biology, this indispensable analysis enables us to distinguish between the purely anatomical or static point of view, relative to organization, and the physiological or dynamic point of view, directly relating to life. In Sociology, this analysis must play an analogous part, distinguishing between the study of the conditions whereby Sociology exists, and that of the laws of its continuous movement. This scientific dualism corresponds with the twofold connection of Order and Progress; for it is evident that the static study of the social organism must coincide with the positive theory of Order ; and the dynamic study of the collective existence of Humanity must constitute the positive theory of social Progress.

Sociology thus unites the two equally fundamental ideas of Order and Progress, the radical opposition of which we have perceived to constitute the principal characteristic symptom of the profound perturbation of modern society.

Social anatomy, Static Sociology, has for its object the positive study, at once experimental and rational, of the mutual action and reaction which all the portions of the social system continually exercise upon each other.

Without here establishing the theory of Authority, it is evident from the very nature of the social state that all power is necessarily owing to a corresponding assent (either spontaneous or premeditated, explicit or implied) of the various individual wills, concurring in a general course of action, of which this power is at first the organ, and afterwards the regulator. Thus Authority results from agreement, not agreement from Authority ; so that no great power could result but from strongly preponderating inclinations in the society in which it is established ; and when nothing strongly preponderates, the authorities are feeble and languishing.

This consensus of social organization is the principle of static sociology. We have only to conceive the political system according to its relation, some, times special, sometimes general, with the corresponding civilization. Positive philosophy, by indicating the spontaneous conformity of each effective political system with a corresponding civilization, also teaches that this natural Order must often be very imperfect, in consequence of the extreme complication of phenomena. Far from forbidding human intervention, such a philosophy eminently demands its wise and active application, by directly representing social phenomena as being by their very nature at once those most easily modified, and those which most need modifying.

Although the static conception of social organization must constitute the basis of all Sociology, we must nevertheless acknowledge that not only do social dynamics form the part most directly interesting, especially in our day, but that they alone give to the new science its most decisive philosophical character, by clearly developing the notion which distinguishes Sociology from Biology ; that is to say, the idea of continuous progress, or of the gradual development of Humanity.

For the more facile appreciation of this idea, it is necessary to establish the hypothesis of a single people, to which all the consecutive social modifications observed among distinct populations should he referred. This done, the true spirit of dynamic sociology consists in conceiving each of those consecutive social conditions as the necessary result of the one preceding it, and the indispensable impulse to the one following it, in accordance with the luminous axiom of the great Leibnitz : I he present is pregnant with the future. The object of science is therefore to discover the constant laws which rule this continuity, and determine the march of human development. In a word, in social dynamics we study the laws of succession, whilst in social statics we study the laws of co-existence ; so that the application of the former is to furnish the real theory of Progress to practical politics, whilst the latter spontaneously forms that of Order.

At all times, and in all places, the ordinary course of individual life, notwithstanding its extreme brevity, has enabled men to perceive certain notable modifications which have taken place in the social state. Now, it is the gradual but continuous accumulation of these successive changes which constitute the social movement. Under whatever aspect we consider society, its successive modifications will always be found subjected to a determined order, of which the rational explanation is already possible in a sufficient number of cases for us to hope that we shall ultimately be able to detect it. This order presents moreover a remarkable fixity, which is very apparent when we compare the parallel developments observed among distinct and independent populations. It is a conception without which no real social science can exist ; and it presents the most incontestable reality. No discussion is possible with those blind to it; any more than with those who reject the fundamental notions of any other science ; for example, of the organic series in Biology, of which the Sociologic series constitutes the philosophic equivalent. This preliminary conception of human development must spontaneously produce the general disposition to consider the social state as having been as perfect at each epoch, as the corresponding age of humanity permitted, combined with the correlative circumstances, under the empire of which its actual evolution was accomplished.

This philosophic conception, without which history would remain radically incomprehensible, naturally be-comes the complement to the one before noticed in static Sociology. One is to Progress what the other is to Order ; and both necessarily result from the same evident principle, i. e., from that predominance of the relative over the absolute point of view, which principally distinguishes positive philosophy. Such a philosophic consideration only tends to bring into the habitual examination of social phenomena, whether past or present, that wise scientific indulgence which disposes to the better appreciation, and even to the more easy perception, of the true historic filiation of events. By such preliminary notions, static and dynamic, the general spirit of the new political philosophy seems sufficiently characterized so as to fix the , rational position of sociological questions. Without either admiring or reprobating political facts, seeing in them, as in all other sciences, simple subjects for observation, Social Science considers each phenomenon from the double point of view of its harmony with co-existing phenomena, and of its connexion with anterior and posterior states of human development.

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