Intellectual history Think Piece

A Positivist Critique of “Positivism”: Re-reading Auguste Comte

By Giovanni Minozzi

By Giovanni Minozzi

In one of the first ever television broadcasts devoted to the teaching of philosophy, French philosopher Georges Canguihem argued that one cannot distinguish between “true” and “false” philosophies, but only between “great” and “modest” ones; and that, in the end, “a great philosophy is a philosophy that left behind an adjective in popular language”. If we adopt this criterion, we must recognize that if there is one philosophy that was influential for the socio-political reality of his time as well as ours it is that of Auguste Comte (1798-1857). Despite having introduced the words “altruism” and “sociology”, as well as the motto “Order and Progress” which can still be read on the Brazilian flag, the adjective we tend to associate with Comte, and for which he is so (in)famous, is another: positivist. But why, then, is he such an obscure, misunderstood, if not entirely forgotten character?

Since Stuart Mill’s interpretation and its surreptitious conflation with neo-positivism, the term has been progressively reduced to a doxastic meaning and identified with empiricist epistemologies, scientistic conceptions of politics as technocratic administration, or with an optimistic, determinist and evolutionary ideology embedded in the “solutionist” faith in the technological capabilities of mankind. By adopting a historico-conceptual perspective, this piece will discuss how Comtean thought departs from this simplifying picture. Contrary to common representations of positivism, it will reactivate what the epistemologist Gaston Bachelard called the “sense of the problem” that originally animated Comte’s thought.  Namely, the all-modern problem, at least since Hobbes, of conceiving a political thought that is able to reflect in scientific terms while accounting for the political role of such science(s). In this respect, we will contend that Comte himself provides us with the tools to critique the form of “scientism” with which positivism has been equated.

In fact, Comte can be defined the “first modern epistemologist”, insofar as he refused to identify this discipline with the psychological description of a fixed set of cognitive operations ascribed to a universal subject, or with a theory of “science” (in the singular), conceived as a metalinguistic and normative paradigm to which the empirical sciences should conform. On the contrary, Comte advocated his positive philosophy was a historical and pluralistic model for understanding the sciences. In his eyes, defending the specificity of their objects and the diversity of their methods was a prerequisite for grasping their constitution and their mutual influences, as well as their convergence towards a “positive method” that, against Descartes, could only be known a posteriori.

Although Comte claimed that “ideas govern the world”, and that the progress of the sciences was the key for comprehending history, his conception of the latter was by no means intellectualistic. Sciences emerged from the complex interplay of social, political, economic, and technological processes with the increasing capacity to re-orient such processes. Though the evolutionary and teleological traits of Comte’s philosophy have often been reduced to a caricatural form of historicist eschatology, his account of the history of sciences was actually much more akin to what Althusser would call an “overdetermined” process. The “progress” of sciences is therefore neither neutral nor linear and, to that extent, positivism is actually the opposite of a scientism, insofar as it was able to anticipate some crucial themes of what would become the sociology of knowledge, as Norbert Elias noted.

This has important consequences for the “politics of science” that positivism seems to imply, which is surrounded by some major misunderstandings. Since Comte was the first to systematically describe the ideological function that the sciences and scientists had come to play in post-revolutionary societies, that is, as social forces capable of replacing the hegemony of theological thought, his vision has often been mistaken as that of a counterrevolutionary thinker, proposing an authoritarian cult of science.

The misunderstanding stems from the fact that, as he developed his sociology, Comte was actually building a radically critical science that discussed the conceptual impasses of representative democracy. The “logical mechanism” it built through concepts such as the sovereignty of the people, unlimited freedom of conscience, social contract, general will, were for Comte mere reversals of the dogmas of theological thought. Such pivotal concepts for western constitutionalism as well as for current political imagination were originally mobilized by the metaphysical rationalism of jurists [légistes] and philosophies of natural right –noticeably that of Hobbes– to disrupt an increasingly oppressive traditional authority. Rather than build a lasting political order, Comte believed these concepts gave rise to a new “despotism” that sprang from the tension between the absolute nature of laws enacted by parliaments, as representatives of the will of the people, and the increasingly unchallenged assertion of private interest, theorized by political economy which sought to be the sole regulator of society.

In other words, since the very first development of his positive philosophy, Comte became aware of the organic link between the establishment of democracy, the consolidation of the bourgeoisie and the accumulation of capital. He witnessed how the societies that emerged from the French Revolution tended to remove the question of political authority by dissolving it into that of democratic legitimacy. As a political system based on a consensual concept of public opinion and on the disparity of material assets, it emerged from the aggregation of individual interests. While such historical and political transformations took place, Comte perceived that science could provide humanity with the means to progressively overriding such kinds of representative legitimacy. His positivist philosophy sought to pave the way for the construction of a new kind of authority at a time when science was gradually contesting and disagreeing with the ideal of an abstract “freedom of thought” and the decision-making mechanisms characteristic of modern democracies.

At first, Comte seemed to pin all his hopes on a new class of scientists. He attributed sociologists with the capacity of positively studying social phenomena and, consequently, orienting the political decisions of rulers. This has led notorious liberal critics such as Hayek to reduce Comte’s positivism to a technocratic and authoritarian form of “social engineering”. Following such line of thought, we could affirm Comte actually foresaw a trend that was destined to explode in the 20th century, even foreshadowing current debates that question the relationship between scientific knowledge and political decision-making today, such as discussions on epistocracy. If we attend his writings, however, we notice that Comte never proposed a simplistic idea of “scientific rule”. In fact, he saw the populist implications of sovereignty and the elitist tendencies of Guizot’s (but also Mill’s and Tocqueville’s) capacity-based liberalism as two sides of the same coin. The sociology he was conceiving had other was of interplaying and dialoguing with the transformations of power mechanisms and their relation to the society of his time.

Recovering the medieval distinction between temporal and spiritual power, which had been apparently overcome by modern democracy, Comte entrusted sociologists, “specialists of generalities” who should have a monopoly on education, with a role of intellectual guidance of the people and moral restraint towards rulers. But as he advanced in his work, he gradually became more critical of the scientific class. Indeed, scientists themselves were prey to the contemporary division of labor. Abandoned to its dynamics of self-regulation as conceived by political economists, scientific work ended up isolating science’s individuals more and more from the rest of society. Far from justifying a neutral idea of science, or a sectarian conception of “expertise”, Comte insisted on the social nature of all sciences. With an extravagant clarity, he posed the problem of articulating the relationship between their necessary autonomy while posing the need for them to respond to social concerns that could respond and be accessible to common sense.

This insistence on the “popular nature of spiritual power” became crucial during the Revolution of 1848, when Comte went so far as to propose a “spiritual coalition” between philosophers, proletarians, and women. As the classes which were systematically excluded from participation in political government, his concept of spiritual power sought to render them the source of moral authority, according to which the new “sociocracy” ought to be governed. Paradoxically, this invocation of a spiritual dimension of politics, which Comte takes up in part from counterrevolutionary thinkers but mainly from his earliest Saint-Simonian collaborations, has nothing nostalgic about it: there is no turning back from the modern revolution. On the contrary, his sociology even showed how the supposedly “secular” democratic concepts fell victim to an implicit theology, which assigned them a providential and absolute character. Rather than advocating a form of technocracy, Comte denounced it in advance as a risk inherent to the conceptual structure of nascent democracies, caught in the contradiction between the formal nature of sovereignty and the concrete exercise of power.

It is nonetheless undeniable that after the bloody June Days of 1848 and the 1851 coup d’état, Comte’s thought took a more authoritarian turn. During the first years of Napoléon III’s Empire, he increasingly placed his hopes in a form of dictatorship that would enable humanity to overcome the “great crisis” of the modern transition. Although the dictatorship could be headed by a proletarian elite, it would forcibly have to be enlightened by a growing control of spiritual power, coordinated by a positivist pope, who would be none other than Comte himself. But even in this sort of “mental degeneration”, Comte undoubtedly grasped some decisive issues, whether by anticipating debates that took place during the 20th century, or even contemporary problems that only today are appearing to us in their full extent.

As the last phase of his intellectual production shows, Comte presented the need for a new science, which he called “morality” or “anthropology”, capable of bridging the individual to his society, as well as understanding man in his complexity. This implied the need to conceive mankind’s symbolic production as a manifestation of universal laws that cut across cultures. By doing so, Comte increasingly broke with the evolutionary premises of his (in)famous “law of the three stages” (or rather states). Instead, he emphasized the role of fetishism, conceived no longer as a “primitive” form of thought, but as a logical-affective power of comprehension and invention that lingers even in the self-proclaimed advanced societies, therefore seeking to reconciling it with positivism. This may explain why an author like Lévi-Strauss would see in Comte the forerunner of a structural approach to anthropology, capable of confronting what Mauss called the “total social fact”.

Such an appreciation of fetishism, coupled with the value he attached to the life sciences as a historical threshold (let us not forget that the first Société de biologie was founded by two of Comte’s own disciples), also makes him an forerunner of ecological issues. Between science and religion, it is biology that both provides the basis for the study of the human species and establishes the limits of its actions upon a given environment without irreparably altering its “conditions of existence”. Comte’s biology was thus conceived as a modern form of cult which does not forget its scientific roots, incorporating fetishism to establish a relationship of harmonic polarity between humanity as a transformative agent and the “Great-Fetish” that is the Earth. A topic that seems to reappear, without being explicitly noticed, in the work of contemporary sociologists like Latour. Finally, by envisioning a sociocracy that would finally enable humanity to govern itself on a global level, Comte’s critique of democracy essentially turned out to be a fervent anti-slavery and anti-colonialist critique of that very “metaphysical” notion of progress with which we tend to associate it. In his eyes, such an abstract notion of progress was nothing more than an ideology that conceived of its relationship with the other in terms of predation and assimilation. As humanity united on a spiritual level, he predicted that the very modern States responsible for such policies were destined to crumble into a federation of small homelands.

In short, it is in the very movement of Comte’s thought that the critique of scientism, usually associated with positivism, is manifested. And if all his philosophy is animated by the question of what it means to be modern, we might say that positivism is, in the most proper sense, the symptom of this unresolved tension within modernity: that between sciences, and social sciences in particular, as vectors of society’s self-understanding and emancipation, or as instruments of their disciplining and technocratic control.

Giovanni Minozzi holds a joint PhD degree in political philosophy by the University of Padova and the Laboratoire interdisciplinaire d’études sur les réflexivités – Fonds Yan Thomas (LIER-FYT) at the EHESS (Paris). His dissertation focused on the relationship between epistemology and politics in the thought of Auguste Comte. His main areas of interest are French historical epistemology, the history of social sciences, and the concept of ideology.

Edited by Matias X. Gonzalez

Featured Image showing Auguste Comte by Rocco Taglialegne (Courtesy of the author).

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