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Further Reading

DEPARTMENT: Collateral Damage

Positivism Negated

From Auguste Comte to Councillor "Bang!" in Two Easy Steps

by Terrell Clemmons

Auguste Comte was born in 1798 in Montpellier, France, to Louis and Rosalie Comte, both monarchists and devout Roman Catholics. After studying at the École Polytechnique in Paris until it closed in 1816, he earned a precarious living teaching math and journalism until he entered the employ and tutelage of Henri de Saint-Simon, an aristocratic socialist theorist nearly forty years his senior. The relationship ended in 1824 over disputed authorship of the pair's writings. Saint-Simon died the following year, and Comte went on to disseminate their work.

Comte held that, like the physical world, human society operated according to a set of laws. Rob Beamish, professor of sociology at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada, identifies the key elements of his philosophy.

First is the "Law of Three Stages." Comte said that human knowledge progresses through three stages:

I have discovered a fundamental law to which [human development] is subjected from an invariable necessity. This law is that each of our principal conceptions, each branch of knowledge, passes through three different theoretical states: the theological or fictitious, the metaphysical or abstract, and the scientific or positive. (Course in Positivist Philosophy: A Discourse on the Positivist Spirit)

Having rejected God and the Catholicism of his parents as a teen (hence the equation of theology with fiction) and any corresponding "metaphysical or abstract" basis for ethics, Comte believed he had progressed to the third and most advanced stage, the positive.

Positivism, the second key element of Comte's philosophy, is an epistemology whereby knowledge is derived exclusively through the methodology of the natural sciences. All other ways of knowing anything are disregarded. This, Comte wrote, "is the fixed and final state."

The third key element is sociology. Comte is credited with coining the term and founding it as an academic discipline. But he cast a much grander vision for sociology, his "queen science," than the mere study of societies.

Comte saw sociology as an extension of biology, which studies the "organs" in "organisms." Hence, sociology was to be the study of social organization. This emphasis forces the recognition that society is an "organic whole" whose component "organs" stand in relation to one another. (Jonathan H. Turner, Leonard Beeghley, and Charles H. Powers, The Emergence of Sociological Theory, emphasis in original)

According to Comtean thought, philosophical positivism—untrammeled by "fictitious" theology and "metaphysical" ethics and then christened academically as "sociology"—would transform traditional Europe from a social landscape plagued by primitive passions, strife, and conflict into a modern, predictable, scientifically managed body politic. In this way, Comte, "the first philosopher of science in the modern sense" (Michel Bourdeau, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), was also a proto-humanist in a religious sense.

Comtean Positivism Meets Darwinian Evolution

About the time Comte was disseminating his grandiose Plan of Scientific Studies Necessary for the Reorganization of Society in Paris, young Herbert Spencer of Derby, England, was absorbing a similar empiricism across the Channel, at the feet of his ex-Methodist, schoolmaster father. He would grow up to pick up where Comte left off.

Spencer adopted Comte's term sociology, and he, too, applied biological principles to social organizations. Heavily influenced by the pre-Darwinian concepts of biological evolution (Spencer, not Darwin, coined the phrase "survival of the fittest"), he sought to unify all systems of thought under the organizing principle of biological evolution. It was in this sense that his life's work, System of Synthetic Philosophy, was synthetic. And, like Comte, he produced an ambitiously comprehensive, "science-based" sociology that he went on to disseminate not just in Europe but also in rapidly industrializing America.

Sadly, both men died a lonely and somewhat dejected death. Comte died in 1857 after a life marked by acrimonious professional relationships, marital infidelity, and multiple psychiatric hospitalizations following a nervous breakdown. His followers for the most part rejected the full panoply of his thought, but his idea of a religion of humanity and its call to "vivre pour autrui" ("live for others") survived him and gave birth to the word altruism. Spencer too, like Comte, died after having seen many of his former followers lose faith in his life's work.

Scientific Sociology Gone to Seed

And yet, their work lives on, bearing rotten fruit to this day. Earlier this year, an elected councillor in southwest England, about a half-day's drive from Derby down the Cornwall peninsula, made international news when he advocated for a policy perfectly in keeping with Comtean-Spencerian sociology. In response to public pushback, Councillor Colin Brewer insisted he was not an "ogre" for comparing disabled children to deformed farm animals and suggesting that they be dealt with accordingly. "We are just animals. . . . You can't have lambs running around with five legs and two heads. It would be put down, smashed against the wall and be dealt with," he told Disability News Service. "If [farmers] have a misshapen lamb, they get rid of it. They get rid of it. Bang!" When asked if he believed there was a difference between putting down a lamb and putting down a child, he said, "I think the cost has got to be evaluated." He did go on to amend his comments, saying, "It will probably be aborted in some way," as if that made it more palatable.

But does it really? What exactly is the difference? If society is an organism, coolly managed according to science-based policy untrammeled by primitive notions of theology or ethics, then why not, you know, "Bang!"? Really, why not?

Meanwhile, across the pond, the social engineers are only marginally less precipitate with their language. In 2009, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, M.D., Ph.D., one of the White House's chief advisers on healthcare policy, co-authored a system of healthcare rationing based on a "complete lives system." The proposal included a stark graph plotting subjects' age in years against their "probability of receiving an intervention" in the form of healthcare services.

Indeed, the social engineers are nothing if not efficient. "It is easy to envision other, similar graphs, with your worthiness to society plotted on the Y axis, and certain personal features other than age plotted on the X axis—your income, your IQ, your disabilities, your BMI, etc.," notes Dr. Richard N. Fogoros, M.D., dryly on his blog. No report (yet) on plans for, you know, getting "rid of" subjects when they fall off the graph.

Positivist Collapse

"It is perhaps embarrassing to sociology," note scholars Turner, Beeghley, and Powers, "that its founder was, by the end of his life, a rather pathetic man, calling himself the High Priest of Humanity and preaching to a ragtag group of disciples." It should also be embarrassing that, having rejected true theology and ethics, he became a demigod and law unto himself. "We are perhaps justified," they continue, "in ignoring Comte as a theorist who contributed to our understanding of the social universe."

But we cannot ignore the rotten fruit of his theories. Fortunately, there are citizen-activists (not subjects) in both Cornwall and America who survived schooling in Comtean social doctrine with their first- and second-stage theology and ethics intact. Thanks to citizen pushback, philosophical positivism is being tried and found wanting. But some kind soul should tell the sociology professors. 


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