World's Great Philosophers:
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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
In reviewing the philosophers we have already treated in this volume the reader will remember, perhaps, that the history of philosophy is marked by three prominent men. Excluding the speculations of Buddha, and con-fining ourselves to the development of thought in Europe, we have observed that with Socrates came a limited reformation of speculation. Socrates attempted to found a method, and in the history of Greek thought he certainly deserves the credit of having shown the absolute necessity of definitions, if men desired to accomplish any great results in their attempts to explain the phenomena of nature and of mind.
Socrates demolished all the systems that had preceded him with his terrible questioning. Aristotle, coming almost directly after Socrates, tried to build upon the ruins which Socrates had made, by suggesting the method of Induction. This was distinctively a long step and a clear gain to thought; but Aristotle, as we know, although he had a very useful instrument with which to build, did not have the material to uprear the structure that he planned. After Aristotle, who was most unfortunate, in that his followers did not make use of the method which he suggested, or try to carry forward the work he so well began, the history of speculation in Europe ran through all the phases of thought we have considered until philosophy died in the shadow of the pyramids.
For centuries European intellect lay dormant, to be aroused only with the rise of the schoolmen of the Middle Ages. All systems had thus far failed. With the coming of Bacon a new light broke upon the mind of man, and with Bacon began the movement which has given us practically all the results that modern science has now achieved. Bacon marked the third epoch, if we may, for the sake of convenience, use this very unsatisfactory term; but the philosophers who followed Bacon, although they did much to bring about a settlement of the great dispute, did not thoroughly grasp the Baconian method. We say this with the single exception of David Hume, and, as we have found, when he applied the Baconian method to metaphysics, he utterly destroyed the power of metaphysics to do anything for human knowledge.
Our best judgment, when exerted upon the results that have been left by the German philosophers, will tell us that all these systems, likewise, have been failures. They could accomplish nothing, for that which they sought to accomplish was the impossible.
Ridiculous as many of the followers of Comte's philosophy have made the name of that great man, yet we must go to Comte to find the fourth and the last epoch in European speculative thought. This remarkable but unfortunate man was born in 1798 at Montpellier. His father was an officer of the Government, and his mother, who was possessed of a strong mind, was a devoted Royalist and an intense Catholic. Comte attended the Lyceum at Montpellier and very soon attracted attention for his remarkable studiousness, even when he was but ten years of age. He paid but little attention to the games of his fellows, but spent his time with books and in his study. He showed special proficiency in mathematics, and won entrée to the Polytechnic School at Paris, when he was one year too young to be admitted to that institution. His early life in Paris was one of a struggle for existence, and a poor existence he had with even such excellent talents as were his. He taught mathematics and now and then earned a few pennies in other occupations.
It was in 1818 that Comte came in contact with the celebrated Saint Simon. This philanthropist became warmly attached to the industrious, ambitious, and enthusiastic young Frenchman, and for six years he gave him the privilege of working with him, in the meantime helping Comte to such funds as he stood in need of. In 1824 the young and the old friend had a serious quarrel and Comte retired. The followers of Saint Simon always held that Comte owed to his patron much of the material out of which he constructed his Positive Philosophy, but this has been as vigorously denied by Comte's followers and was denied by Comte himself. It is probable that the founder of the Positive System owed nothing to his early benefactor.
The life of Comte is pathetic in every way. He himself refers to the one incomparable year of his life. That was the year which he spent in the company of Clotilde de Vaux. He was forty-seven, and at the very top of his fame as a man of science and a philosopher. She was a beautiful woman of thirty, of winning character, able and discerning mind, thorough education, and that tenderness of character and feeling which was calculated, above all, to appeal to the supersensitive mind of the philosopher. Her husband had been condemned to prison for life. Her position was one of the utmost sadness, and what she needed more than all was a sympathetic mind and a kind friend. In Comte she found both of these and she repaid his sympathy with gratitude and admiration. But the philosopher loved her, and it is hard to say what might have eventuated from this connection had not the lady died one year after the two first met. In the company of this woman Comte spent the only time of his life that was blest with any sunshine. The remainder of it was dark, stormy, full of disappointments, complications, sorrows, and irritations, through which it is hard to understand how he ever emerged whole.
In 1825 Comte was married to Caroline Massin. The letters which the pair have left throw a green light upon their domestic affairs. They were anything but happy. Her disposition was not of that kind which it should have been to match with the purely intellectual one of the founder of the Positive Philosophy. Her letters to him are full of complaint, querulous, and are for-ever thrusting at him his neglect as a husband, and lauding her own great and spotless virtues as a wife. But in spite of these facts there is one episode in the lives of these two persons which brings out the character of the woman as that of one who, although she might have had her weaknesses, was equal to a supreme occasion when the occasion came.
In 1826 Comte had already outlined his scheme, which, he says, he had mastered "after a consistent effort of thought continued during eighty hours, with few and short intervals of sleep." While he was in the middle of his lectures on Positivism, his mind became unbalanced, so much so in fact, that it was necessary to place him under the care of a specialist in nervous diseases. For the best part of a year he lived in a hospital for the insane, but it would seem that the treatment he received there only served to aggravate the disease in-stead of removing it. In this plight a friend suggested that the scenes in the asylum themselves were the cause of the retardation of Comte's recovery, and suggested that he be taken by his wife and cared for in his own home. Madame Comte readily fell in with the suggestion, but the expected recovery did not come as rapidly as was anticipated. The reaction of Comte's release from the asylum was so great that he attempted to commit suicide by throwing himself in the River Seine. Happily he was rescued, and in a few months the quiet life of his own homestead and the tender ministrations of Madame Comte restored him to his full intellectual power and capacity. Comte now worked rapidly upon his Synthetic System, with such effect that in 1830 he was able to publish the first volume of his Positive Philosophy. Five years were spent in completing the second volume, three more years in finishing the third, three years the fourth, two years the fifth, and one year the sixth.
The fulfillment of this tremendous task, involving as it did the labor of intellect and hand, which he must of necessity have bestowed upon it, is nothing short of the incredible. It is all the more wonderful when we consider the fact that while he was working upon his system, reading the books necessary for reference and data, and doing his own writing, he continued to lecture at the Polytechnic School, a work which was a necessity for the earning of his livelihood. Even this support was taken away when, in 1844, he was dismissed from his post in the school because of certain offensive references which he had made to its officers in one of the volumes of his work. In 1842 Comte and Madame Comte agreed to separate permanently. In this strait John Stuart Mill, Sir William Molesworth, Grote, the historian, and some other eminent men of England, who had admired the work of the illustrious Frenchman, sent him a small purse for the relief of his immediate necessities. This Comte cheerfully received, but when he found upon the following year that it was not renewed he severely reprimanded his friends in England, as if he had expected that the gift was merely the first payment of an annuity which he probably believed would be extended throughout his life.
During the ten years which followed the death of Madame de Vaux, Comte struggled along with the world as best he could, engaging himself with literary work and producing a few unimportant volumes. During all this time his income never exceeded more than a few hundred dollars a year. In 1852 he published the Positivist Catechism, a not improper title for an ex-position of his system, when the perfervid enthusiasm of some of his followers, not only in France but in England, will be recalled. On September 5, 1857, he died of pneumonia, which he caught while attending the funeral of a friend.
For an understanding of the philosophy of Comte it is necessary that we first understand what is meant by the word Positive. Any clear definition of the title of his philosophy was completely omitted from the six volumes in which he sought to develop it. The difficulty of arriving at a satisfactory definition of the word itself is therefore apparent, although it would seem that a thinker who undertook to reform all the philosophy and all the religion that was then in existence in Europe should have been very careful to have at least set forth in the beginning the meaning of the definitive term he used in the title of his book.
Professor Ward, who has been a very close and pro-found student of the works of the Frenchman, has writ-ten ingeniously as to the proper definition of the terni. In the introductory chapters of his Dynamic Sociology Professor Ward says : "Notwithstanding the attempts that are constantly being made, wherever it becomes proper to refer to the Positive Philosophy, to define the term positive in that connection, and notwithstanding the acknowledged ability of many of those making these attempts, and the fact that they are not generally open to the charge of incorrectness, it is nevertheless true that very few persons, who have not care-fully followed Comte in his own works and paid special attention to this chief characteristic of them, have acquired an adequate comprehension of the true meaning and scope of this term as he himself has employed it. While it is not untrue that the leading notion of the word in a Comtean sense is contained in, and conveyed by, the word phenomena, and that the general idea of the positive philosophy is the study of phenomena wholly apart from both essence and cause, still this bald and technical form of definition falls far short of conveying to the ordinary intellect the intensely active and living idea which these terms excited in the author's mind, and which animate every page of that Koran of Positivism, Philosophie Positive. Derived from the passive root of the Latin word put or place (ponere), whatever may be called positive must have been placed in a definite position.
"The intensive notion that this position is absolute or removable is no more than frequently attaches to the words seeking definite signification in derivative languages. In popular language this notion is conveyed by emphasis, and as it always accompanies this word, it becomes of itself an emphatic word. It is never used by common people except in an emphatic manner, and with a special stress on the word. The philosophical application of the term simply conveys the intensive idea, without requiring any emphasis in its utterance. The exact idea, then, of 'positive' in the Comtean sense, is merely that which is fixed or established as certain truth. It is the real, the known, the tangible or sensible in nature. The positive may be briefly defined as that which really exists, that which is positively true what is.
"It will be seen, therefore, that it does not differ from the scientific idea as commonly understood. Indeed, Comte employs the term scientific as the synonym of positive. Starting from the Cartesian idea of self as the only judge of truth, it assumes that there is something present when the senses so report; and, not stopping to discuss the correspondence of that something with the report thus made of it, the positive philosophy confines its investigations to those sense reports which alone can be known. The sum total of these reports to the senses constitute what are called phenomena, and with these and these only the positive philosophy deals. This, again, is simply the method of science."
Comte rejects metaphysics and theology totally. He would have none of them. He takes no accounting of causes either final or efficient, and in this latter he departs from the usual method of modern science.
He casts aside as perfectly useless hypotheses on which scientific investigators work out their experiments in physics, chemistry, and other sciences. He stops short with the phenomena and does not seek to go farther. Having rejected the utility of investigation into all causes, he thus deprives himself of the benefits, or of many of them, which flow from theory, and from experimentation whereby it is expected to demonstrate theory. He founds the science of Sociology by proposing to classify society or the races of man as simply the material of science, thereby at-once rejecting all theological attempts at explaining the facts connected with man and nature which we see about us. He arranges the sciences in a hierarchy, all embraced in the Positive Philosophy, pointing out that all the philosophers who had come before him had failed to do this. In a word, he brings order out of the anarchy that had prevailed in European thought up to his time. All the sciences are but branches of this Positive Philosophy, in which he proposes to unite, coördinate, and correlate them all. He insists that prevision is the test of all knowledge, and subordinates his whole system to this particular concept.
His purpose is to show the dependence and the relations of all the sciences to one another, so that the results of the investigations in each separate science may be brought together and worked out into a complete and harmonious whole. This grand result with Comte is the desideratum of his system, and if this be so, and there is no doubt of it, one can readily see that neither meta-physics nor theology can enter in any degree into his thought.
When sufficient of the phenomena of a science are known to enable certain prediction, that science may then be said to be in a position to take its place first in the hierarchy of sciences. Therefore, we find Comte placing astronomy first, because astronomy is most certainly known of all. Next to astronomy, as judged by this criterion, would come physics, because although physics is not as yet as perfect as is astronomy, nor will it bear the test of prevision so severely, yet there are many things which it can certainly and positively predict.
Next to physics he places chemistry, and for the same reason. More remotely still will come organic chemistry, for in that science far less is known than in physical chemistry. In biology prediction is still less possible. The last of the sciences, sociology, is the most complicated and the most uncertain of all. Predictions in this field are more difficult than in any of the others that have been considered.
This classification of the sciences has been criticised without end by almost all of Comte's commentators, and we find it a subject to which is given to-day the utmost concern by men who write upon sociological topics or upon science in general. In fact, the arrangement of the sciences into a pyramidal scheme will be impossible except upon the plan which was outlined by Comte him-self, and this is clear when we give the matter a little thought. Comte proposes a hierarchy by placing first that science which has accumulated the largest number of facts, and which is most certain in its prediction, and most harmonious in its own arrangement. It will be seen that if all the sciences were as accurate and as capable of using prediction as is astronomy, there could be no hierarchy of sciences at all; for what science could we place at the bottom and what science could we place at the top? Attempts at reconstructing Comte's hierarchy, therefore, or of suggesting new ones, will in no wise further knowledge, for the reason that the sciences are constantly shifting their ground, some forging a little ahead of others, some leaping forward, and some possibly standing still.
Comte says that mathematics is not a separate science, but is the basis of all scientific work, and therefore he does not place it at the head of his hierarchy. The Comtean view of mathematics has been outlined at greater length in another part of this book without attention being called to the fact that it was Comte who first suggested this very positive, and as evident, truth. The French philosopher suggests the law of evolution, and he is at great pains to elaborate the proper work of all the various sciences which he considers necessary as integral parts of his system. In treating of these branches he dismisses astronomy with comparatively few pages, and betakes himself to physics, which is the second category in his system. In going over this field he spares himself no effort to bitterly attack the physicists, who insist upon mixing up metaphysical conceptions with the order of nature. He has no patience with men who attempt to explain the phenomena of gravitation, electricity, heat, light, and other such. He will have none of the atomic theory. The wave theory of light he deems as a perfectly useless organ. In fact, all the explanations that men made of magnetism, electricity, gravitation, and other observed facts, Comte thrusts aside as worse than useless. These things he considers ultimate phenomena, beyond which the mind is incapable of going. He is careful to touch upon the various sub-sciences that he groups under physics, defining the functions of each of these and never losing an opportunity of vigorously denouncing all those who have attempted to explain the things they saw.
Biology Comte treats at some length, but this science, in his view, is at the best very obscure. For the wholesale condemnations he made of investigators who had preceded him, and who were then doing very good work, and building securely the foundations upon which the greater and newer science of biology was to arise, the French systematist has been severely condemned by his critics. He said nothing about psychology except to classify it under the general head of phrenology. This is at least remarkable. He made many errors, and his books are full of ridiculous assumptions and unwarranted assertions, and for these faults he has had to bear the full brunt. His advocacy of a scientific priesthood, after the fashion of the hierarchy of the Roman Church, was not begun until he was old in years and until long after he had finished his celebrated Cours. It is hardly fair, however, to condemn a man whose work has so largely modified philosophical investigation and speculation as has Comte's, for the vagaries of a mind which had spent its best strength in the development of a truly noble effort to do something for the human intellect.
The broad suggestions which Comte made have not yet been improved upon, and the fact that his hierarchy of the sciences is still in dispute and is still upheld by some men who are eminent in science, should be sufficient to set aside all unmanly and finical quibbling about the errors, numerous though they were, which he made. He occupies a place in the history of philosophy which is second to none, except perhaps that of Lord Bacon. He attempted to philosophize, using the Baconian Method, and the only philosopher who has followed him and who can at all be compared with him uses the very methods which Comte used, with probably no greater success at founding a solid and sure system than had his French predecessor. That philosopher is Herbert Spencer. The controversy in which so many eminent minds have been interested concerning the relations of Spencerian thought to Comtean thought is one of the most interesting in all the literature of philosophy. Comte clearly preceded Spencer. It is true that Spencer has not fallen into the errors that led the hyper-sensitive and much suffering French student away from the clear lights of science, but it should also be remembered that the life of Spencer, as compared with the life of Comte, was one of comparative ease, peace, and of happy and congenial associations.
Comte thought much and suffered much. At no time in his life did he have sufficient money to enable him to devote his whole attention to the one purpose of his existence. His books brought him no money; he had few friends. His domestic affairs were most unfortunate. He suffered from poverty and at times hunger; from disease, disappointment, failure, and even insanity. It is really pathetic to fancy that the mind which could conceive the tremendous scheme outlined in the six volumes which Comte produced within the compass of a few years, should have been driven to thoughts of self-destruction.
His attempt was one of the noblest that man ever made. It was, with one exception, the highest effort of the human intellect; for it must be remembered that Comte was no idle speculator, who proposed a universal scheme of things, and a theory of all being by simply writing down speculations which happened to come into his brain without any foundation in fact. He excluded from his problem all those things with which philosophy before him had dealt. He denied to himself the privilege of explaining the finite and the infinite. He used no words, or but few of them, which did not have a definite and clear meaning to his mind, and which could not be understood by the simplest of persons. What he proposed was to found a philosophy which would unite within itself all the definite, certain, and proved knowledge which man had come to by observation and experience into one complete, harmonious and perfect whole.
The extent of that purpose was alone sufficient to defeat him in his mission. Comte could no more do what he proposed to do than could Aristotle bring out of his method of induction the results which modern science has achieved by its use. It is not probable that Comte's plan of a philosophical system can ever be realized. It has been carried forward somewhat by the only other man who deserves to be ranked with him, but if he has not fallen as far short as did the illustrious Frenchman it is only because he had more time, more patience, and more actual data to work with than did the founder of Positivism.
In no matter what light we regard the work of Comte, we can regard it only in a spirit of commendation and praise. He wrought well. It was impossible for him to have that detailed knowledge of the various sciences which he included within his scheme that was given to the celebrated evolutionist of England. But he used the materials that were in his possession, or that he could readily acquire, with as much wisdom and as much genius as it was in him to do. The unfortunate position which Comte occupies to-day is altogether due to his intense nature, his intolerable dogmatism, and to his boundless desire to bring everything within the limits of a scheme of thought of which he was himself by no means the master.