Auguste Comte (1856)

photo of Comte

A General View of Positivism

Source: General View of Positivism (1830-42). From A General View of Positivism, translated by J H Bridges, Robert Speller and Sons, 1957; about 15 pages from the middle of the first chapter reproduced here;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden in 1998, and proofed and corrected in February 2005.

from Chapter I: Its Intellectual Character

Our doctrine, therefore, is one which renders hypocrisy and oppression alike impossible. And it now stands forward as the result of all the efforts of the past, for the regeneration of order, which, whether considered individually or socially, is so deeply compromised by the anarchy of the present time. It establishes a fundamental principle by which true philosophy and sound polity are brought into correlation; a principle which can be felt as well as proved, and which is at once the keystone of a system and a basis of government. I shall show, moreover, in the fifth chapter, that the doctrine is as rich in aesthetic beauty as in philosophical power and in social influence. This will complete the proof of its efficacy as the centre of a universal system. Viewed from the moral, scientific, or poetical aspect, it is equally valuable; and it is the only principle which can bring Humanity safely through the most formidable crisis that she has ever yet undergone. It will be now clear to all that the force of demonstration, a force peculiar to modern times, and which still retains much of its destructive character, becomes matured and elevated by Positivism. It begins to develop constructive tendencies, which will soon be developed more largely. It is not too much, then, to say that Positivism, notwithstanding its speculative origin, offers as much to natures of deep sympathy as to men of highly cultivated intellects, or of energetic character.


The spirit and the principle of the synthesis which all true philosophers should endeavour to establish, have now been defined. I proceed to explain the method that should be followed in the task, and the peculiar difficulty with which it is attended.

The object of the synthesis will not be secured until it embraces the whole extent of its domain, the moral and practical departments as well as the intellectual. But these three departments cannot be dealt with simultaneously. They follow an order of succession which, so far from dissevering them from the whole to which they belong, is seen when carefully examined to be a natural result of their mutual dependence. The truth is, and it is a truth of great importance, that Thoughts must be systematised before Feelings, Feelings before Actions. It is doubtless, owing to a confused apprehension of this truth, that philosophers hitherto, in framing their systems of human nature, have dealt almost exclusively with our intellectual faculties.

The necessity of commencing with the coordination of ideas is not merely due to the fact that the relations of these, being more simple and more susceptible of demonstration, form a useful logical preparation for the remainder of the task. On closer examination we find a more important, though less obvious reason. If this first portion of the work be once efficiently performed, it is the foundation of all the rest. In what remains no very serious difficulty will occur, provided always that we content ourselves with that degree of completeness which the ultimate purpose of the system requires.

To give such paramount importance to this portion of the subject may seem at first sight inconsistent with the proposition just laid down that the strength of the intellectual faculties is far inferior to that of the other elements of our nature. It is quite certain that Feeling and Activity have much more to do with any practical step that we take than pure Reason. In attempting to explain this paradox, we come at last to the peculiar difficulty of this great problem of human Unity.

The first condition of unity is a subjective principle; and this principle in the Positive system is the subordination of the intellect to the heart.

Without this the unity that we seek can never be placed on a permanent basis, whether individually or collectively. It is essential to have some influence sufficiently powerful to produce convergence amid the heterogeneous and often antagonistic tendencies of so complex an organism as ours. But this first condition, indispensable as it is, would be quite insufficient for the purpose, without some objective basis, existing independently of ourselves in the external world. That basis consists for us in the laws or Order of the phenomena by which Humanity is regulated. The subjection of human life to this order is incontestable; and as soon as the intellect has enabled us to comprehend it, it becomes possible for the feeling of love to exercise a controlling influence over our discordant tendencies. This, then, is the mission allotted to the intellect in the Positive synthesis; in this sense it is that it should be consecrated to the service of the heart.

I have said that our conception of human unity must be totally inadequate, and, indeed cannot deserve the name, so long as it does not embrace every element of our nature. But it would be equally fatal to the completeness of this great conception to think of human nature irrespectively of what lies outside it. A purely subjective unity, without any objective basis, would be simply impossible. In the first place any attempt to coordinate man’s moral nature, without regard to the external world, supposing the attempt feasible, would have very little permanent influence on our happiness, whether collectively or individually; since happiness depends so largely upon our relations to all that exists around us. Besides this, we have to consider the exceeding imperfection of our nature. Self-love is deeply implanted in it, and when left to itself is far stronger than Social Sympathy. The social instincts would never gain the mastery were they not sustained and called into constant exercise by the economy of the external world, an influence which at the same time checks the power of the selfish instincts.


To understand this economy aright, we must remember that it embraces not merely the inorganic world, but also the phenomena of human life, though more modifiable than any others, are yet equally subject to invariable laws; laws which form the principal objects of Positive speculation. Now the benevolent affections, which themselves act in harmony with the laws of social development incline us to submit to all other laws, as soon as the intellect has discovered their existence. The possibility of moral unity depends, therefore, even in the case of the individual, but still more in that of society, upon the necessity of recognising our subjection to an external power. By this means our self-regarding instincts are rendered susceptible of discipline. In themselves they are strong enough to neutralise all sympathetic tendencies, were it not for the support that the latter find in this External Order. Its discovery is due to the intellect; which is thus enlisted in the service of feeling, with the ultimate purpose of regulating action.

Thus it is that an intellectual synthesis, or systematic study of the laws of nature, is needed on far higher grounds than those of satisfying our theoretical faculties, which are, for the most part, very feeble, even in men who devote themselves to a life of thought. It is needed, because it solves at once the most difficult problem of the moral synthesis. The higher impulses within us are brought under the influence of a powerful stimulus from without. By its means they are enabled to control our discordant impulses, and to maintain a state of harmony towards which they have always tended, but which, without such aid, could never be realised Moreover, this conception of the order of nature evidently supplies the basis for a synthesis of human action; for the efficacy of our action depends entirely upon their conformity to this order. But this part of the subject has been fully explained in my previous work, and I need not enlarge upon it further. As soon as the synthesis of mental conceptions enables us to form a synthesis of feelings, it is clear that there will be no very serious difficulties in constructing a synthesis of actions. Unity of action depends upon unity of impulse, and unity of design; and thus we find that the co-ordination of human nature, as a whole, depends ultimately upon the coordination of mental conceptions, a subject which seemed at first of comparatively slight importance.

The subjective principle of Positivism, that is, the subordination of the intellect to the heart is thus fortified by an objective basis, the immutable Necessity of the external world; and by this means it becomes possible to bring human life within the influence of social sympathy. The superiority of the new synthesis to the old is even more evident under this second aspect than under the first. In theological systems the objective basis was supplied by spontaneous belief in a supernatural Will. Now, whatever the degree of reality attributed to these fictions, they all proceeded from a subjective source; and therefore their influence in most cases must have been very confused and fluctuating. In respect of moral discipline they cannot be compared either for precision, for force, or for stability, to the conception of an invariable Order, actually existing without us, and attested, whether we will or no, by every act of our existence.


This fundamental doctrine of Positivism is not to be attributed in the full breadth of its meanings to any single thinker. It is the slow result of a vast process carried out in separate departments, which began with the first use of our intellectual powers and which is only just completed in those who exhibit those powers in their highest form. During the long period of her infancy Humanity has been preparing this the most precious of her intellectual attainments, as the basis for the only system of life which is permanently adapted to our nature. The doctrine has to be demonstrated in all the more essential cases from observation only, except so far as we admit argument from analogy. Deductive argument is not admissible, except in such cases as are evidently compounded of others in which the proof given has been sufficient. Thus, for instance, we are authorised by sound logic to assert the existence of laws of weather; though most of these are still, and, perhaps, always will be, unknown. For it is clear that meteorological phenomena result from a combination of astronomical, physical and chemical influences, each of which has been proved to be subject to invariable laws. But in all phenomena which are not thus reducible, we must have recourse to inductive reasoning; for a principle which is the basis of all deduction cannot be itself deduced. Hence it is that the doctrine, being so entirely foreign as it is to our primitive mental state, requires such a long course of preparation. Without such preparation even the greatest thinkers could not anticipate it. It is true that in some cases metaphysical conceptions of a law have been formed before the proof really required had been furnished. But they were never of much service, except so far as they generalised in a more or less confused way the analogies naturally suggested by the laws which had actually been discovered in simpler phenomena. Besides, such assertions always remained very doubtful and very barren in result, until they were based upon some outline of a really Positive theory. Thus, in spite of the apparent potency of this metaphysical method, to which modern intellects are so addicted, the conception of an External Order is still extremely imperfect in many of the most cultivated minds, because they have not verified it sufficiently in the most intricate and important class of phenomena, the phenomena of society. I am not, of course, speaking of the few thinkers who accept my discovery of the principal laws of Sociology. Such uncertainty in a subject so closely related to all others, produces great confusion in men’s minds, and affects their perception of an invariable order, even in the simplest subjects. A proof of this is the utter delusion into which most geometricians of the present day have fallen with respect to what they call the Calculus of Chances; a conception which presupposes that the phenomena considered are not subject to law. The doctrine, therefore, cannot be considered as firmly established in any one case, until it has been verified specially in every one of the primary categories in which phenomena may be classed. But now that this difficult condition has really been fulfilled by the few thinkers who have risen to the level of their age, we have at last a firm objective basis on which to establish the harmony of our moral nature. That basis is, that all events whatever, the events of our own personal and social life included, are always subject to natural relations of sequence and similitude, which in all essential respects lie beyond the reach of our interference.

This, then, is the external basis of our synthesis, which includes the moral and practical faculties, as well the speculative. It rests at every point upon the unchangeable Order of the world. The right understanding of this order is the principal subject of our thoughts; its preponderating influence determines the general course of our feelings; its gradual improvement is the constant object of our actions. To form a more precise notion of its influence, let us imagine that for a moment it were really to cease. The result would be that our intellectual faculties after wasting themselves in wild extravagancies, would sink rapidly into incurable sloth; our nobler feelings would be unable to prevent the ascendancy of the lower instincts; and our active powers would abandon themselves to purposeless agitation. Men have, it is true, been for a long time ignorant of this Order. Nevertheless we have been always subject to it; and its influence has always tended, though without our knowledge, to control our whole being; our actions first, and subsequently our thoughts, and even our addictions. As we have advanced in our knowledge of it, our thoughts have become less vague, our desires less capricious our conduct less arbitrary. And now that we are able to grasp the full meaning of the conception, its influence extends to every part of our conduct. For it teaches us that the object to be aimed at in the economy devised by man, is wise development of the irresistible economy of nature, which cannot be amended till it is first studied and obeyed. In some departments it has the character of fate; that is, it admits of no modification. But even here, in spite of the superficial objections to it which have arisen from intellectual pride, it is necessary for the proper regulation of human life. Suppose, for instance, that man were exempt from the necessity of living on the earth, and were free to pass at will from one planet to another, the very notion of society would be rendered impossible by the licence which each individual would have to give way to whatever unsettling and distracting impulses his nature might incline him. Our propensities are so heterogeneous and so deficient in elevation, that there would be no fixity or consistency in our conduct, but for these insurmountable conditions. Our feeble reason may fret at such restrictions, but without them all its deliberations would be confused and purposeless. We are powerless to create: all that we can do in bettering our condition is to modify an order in which we can produce no radical change. Supposing us in possession of that absolute independence to which metaphysical pride aspires, it is certain that so far from improving our condition, it would be a bar to all development, whether social or individual. The true path of human progress lies in the opposite direction; in diminishing the vacillation, inconsistency, and discordance of our designs by furnishing external motives for those operations of our intellectual, moral and practical powers, of which the original source was purely internal. The ties by which our various diverging tendencies are held together would be quite inadequate for their purpose, without a basis of support in the external world, which is unaffected by the spontaneous variations of our nature.

But, however great the value of Positive doctrine in pointing out the unchangeable aspects of the universal Order, what we have principally to consider are the numerous departments in which that order admits of artificial modifications Here lies the most important sphere of human activity. The only phenomena, indeed, which we are wholly unable to modify are the simplest of all, the phenomena of the Solar System which we inhabit. It is true that now that we know its laws we can easily conceive them improved in certain respects; but to whatever degree our power over nature may extend, we shall never be able to produce the slightest change in them. What we have to do is so to dispose our life as to submit to these resistless fatalities in the best way we can; and this is comparatively easy, because their greater simplicity enables us to foresee them with more precision and in a more distinct future. Their interpretation by Positive science has had a most important influence on the gradual education of the human intellect: and it will always continue to be the source from which we obtain the clearest and most impressive sense of Immutability. Too exclusively studied they might even now lead to fatalism; but controlled as their influence will be henceforward by a more philosophic education, they may well become a means of moral improvement, by disposing us to submit with resignation to all evils which are absolutely insurmountable.


In other parts of the external economy, invariability in all primary aspects is found compatible with modifications in points of secondary importance. These modifications become more numerous and extensive as the phenomena are more complex. The reason of this is that the causes from a combination of which the effects proceed being more varied and more accessible, offer greater facilities to our feeble powers to interfere with advantage. But all this has been fully explained in my System of Positive Philosophy. The tendency of that work was to show that our intervention became more efficacious in proportion as the phenomena upon which we acted had a closer relation to the life of man or society. Indeed the extensive modifications of which society admits, go far to keep up the common mistake that social phenomena are not subject to any constant law.

At the same time we have to remember that this increased possibility of human intervention in certain parts of the External Order necessarily coexists with increased imperfection, for which it is a valuable but very inadequate compensation. Both features alike result from the increase of complexity. Even the laws of the Solar System are very far from perfect, notwithstanding their greater simplicity, which indeed makes their defects more perceptible. The existence of these defects should be taken into careful consideration; not indeed with the hope of amending them, but as a check upon unreasoning admiration. Besides, they lead us to a clearer conception of the true position of Humanity, a position of which the most striking feature is the necessity of struggling against difficulties of every kind. Lastly, by observing these defects we are less likely to waste our time in seeking for absolute perfection, and so neglecting the wiser course of looking for such improvements as are really possible.

In all other phenomena, the increasing imperfection of the economy of nature becomes a powerful stimulus to all our faculties, whether moral, intellectual or practical. Here we find sufferings which can really be alleviated to a large extent by wise and well-sustained combination of efforts. This consideration should give a firmness and dignity of bearing, to which Humanity could never attain during her period of infancy. Those who look wisely into the future of society will feel that the conception of man becoming, without fear or boast, the arbiter, within certain limits, of his own destiny, has in it something far more satisfying than the old belief in Providence, which implied our remaining passive. Social union will be strengthened by the conception, because every one will see that union forms our principal resource against the miseries of human life.

And while it calls out our noblest sympathies, it impresses us more strongly with the importance of high intellectual culture, being itself the object for which such culture is required. These important results have been ever on the increase in ‘modern times’ yet hitherto they have been too limited and casual to be appreciated rightly, except so far as we could anticipate the future of society by the light of sound historical principles. Art, so far as it is yet organised, does not include that part of the economy of nature which, being the most modifiable, the most imperfect, and the most important of all, ought on every ground to be regarded as the principal object of human exertions. Even Medical Art, specially so called is only just beginning to free itself from its primitive routine. And Social Art, whether moral or political, is plunged in routine so deeply that few statesmen admit the possibility of shaking it off. Yet of all the arts, it is the one which best admits of being reduced to a system; and until this is done it will be impossible to place on a rational basis all the rest of our practical life. All these narrow views are due simply to insufficient recognition of the fact, that the highest phenomena are as much subject to laws as others. When the conception of the Order of Nature has become generally accepted in its full extent, the ordinary definition of Art will become as comprehensive and as homogeneous as that of Science; and it will then become obvious to all sound thinkers that the principal sphere of both Art and Science is the social life of man.

Thus the social services of the Intellect are not limited to revealing the existence of an external Economy, and the necessity of submission to its sway. If the theory is to have any influence upon our active powers, it should include an exact estimate of the imperfections of this economy and of the limits within which it varies, so as to indicate and define the boundaries of human intervention. Thus it will always be an important function of philosophy to criticise nature in a Positive spirit, although the antipathy to theology by which such criticism was formerly animated has ceased to have much interest, from the very fact of having done its work so effectually. The object of Positive criticism is not controversial. It aims simply at putting the great question of human life in a clearer light. It bears closely on what Positivism teaches to be the great end of life, namely, the struggle to become more perfect; which implies previous imperfection. This truth is strikingly apparent when applied to the case of our own nature, for true morality requires a deep and habitual conscience.


I have now described the fundamental condition of the Positive Synthesis. Deriving its subjective principle from the affections, it is dependent ultimately on the intellect for its objective basis. This basis connects it with the Economy of the external world, the dominion of which Humanity accepts, and at the same time modifies. I have left many points unexplained; but enough has been said for the purpose of this work, which is only the introduction to a larger treatise. We now come to the essential difficulty that presented itself in the construction of the Synthesis. That difficulty was to discover the true Theory of human and social Development. The first decisive step in this discovery renders the conception of the Order of Nature complete. It stands out then as the fundamental doctrine of an universal system, for which the whole course of modern progress has been preparing the way. For three centuries men of science have been unconsciously co-operating in the work. They have left no gap of any importance, except in the region of Moral and Social phenomena. And now that man’s history has been for the first time systematically considered as a whole, and has been found to be, like all other phenomena, subject to invariable laws, the preparatory labours of modern Science are ended. Her remaining task is to construct that synthesis which will place her at the only point of view from which every department of knowledge can be embraced.

In my System of Positive Philosophy both these objects were aimed at. I attempted, and in the opinion of the principal thinkers of our time successfully, to complete and at the same time co-ordinate Natural Philosophy, by establishing the general law of human development, social as well as intellectual. I shall not now enter into the discussion of this law, since its truth is no longer contested. Fuller consideration of it is reserved for the third volume of my new treatise. It lays down, as is generally known, that our speculations upon all subjects whatsoever, pass necessarily through three successive stages: a Theological stage, in which free play is given to spontaneous fictions admitting of no proof; the Metaphysical stage, characterised by the prevalence of personified abstractions or entities; lastly, the Positive stage, based upon an exact view of the real facts of the case. The first, though purely provisional, is invariably the point from which we start; the third is the only permanent or normal state; the second has but a modifying or rather a solvent influence, which qualifies it for regulating the transition from the first stage to the third. We begin with theological Imagination, thence we pass through metaphysical Discussion, and we end at last with positive Demonstration. Thus by means of this one general law we are enabled to take a comprehensive and simultaneous view of the past, present, and future of Humanity.

In my System of Positive Philosophy, this law of Filiation has always been associated with the law of Classification, the application of which to Social Dynamics furnishes the second element requisite for the theory of development. It fixes the order in which our different conceptions pass through each of these phases. That order, as is generally known, is determined by the decreasing generality, or what comes to the same thing, by the increasing complexity of the phenomena; the more complex being naturally dependent upon those that are more simple and less special. Arranging the sciences according to this mutual relation, we find them grouped naturally in Six primary divisions; Mathematics, Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Sociology. Each passes through the three phases of developments before the one succeeding it. Without continuous reference to this classification the theory of development would be confused and vague.

The theory thus derived from the combination of this second or statical law with the dynamical law of the three stages, seems at first sight to include nothing but the intellectual movement. But my previous remarks will have shown that this is enough to guarantee its applicability to social progress also; since social progress has invariably depended on the growth of our fundamental beliefs with regard to the economy that surrounds us. The historical portion of my Positive Philosophy has proved an unbroken connection between the development of Activity and that of Speculation; on the combined influence of these depends the development of Affection. The theory therefore requires no alteration: what is wanted is merely an additional statement explaining the phases of active, that is to say, of political development. Human activity, as I have long since shown, passes successively through the stages of Offensive warfare, Defensive warfare, and Industry. The respective connection of these states with the preponderance of the theological, then metaphysical, or the positive spirit leads at once to a complete explanation of history. It reproduces in a systematic form the only historical conception which has become adopted by universal consent; the division, namely, of history into Ancient, Mediaeval, and Modern.

Thus the foundation of Social science depends simply upon establishing the truth of this theory of development. We do this by combining the dynamic law, which is its distinctive feature, with the statical principle which renders it coherent, we then complete the theory by extending it to practical life. All knowledge is now brought within the sphere of Natural Philosophy, and the provisional distinction by which, since Aristotle and Plato, it has been so sharply demarcated from Philosophy ceases to exist. The Positive spirit, so long confined to the simpler inorganic phenomena, has now passed through its difficult course of probation. It extends to a more important and more intricate class of speculations, and disengages them for ever from all theological or metaphysical influence. All our notions of truth are thus rendered homogeneous, and begin at once to converge towards a central principle. A firm objective basis is consequently laid down for that complete coordination of human existence towards which all sound Philosophy has ever tended, but which the want of adequate materials has hitherto made impossible.


It will be felt, I think, that the principal difficulty of the Positive Synthesis was met by my discovery of the laws of development, if we bear in mind that while that theory completes and coordinates the objective basis of the system, it at the same time holds it in subordination to the subjective principle. It is under the influence of this moral principle that the whole philosophical construction should be carried on. The inquiry into the Order of the Universe is an indispensable task, and it comes necessarily within the province of the intellect; but the intellect is too apt to aim in its pride at something beyond its proper function, which consists in unremitting service of the social sympathies. It would willingly escape from all control and follow its own bent towards speculative digressions; a tendency which is at present favoured by the undisciplined habits of thought naturally due to the first rise of Positivism in its special departments. The influence of the moral principle is necessary to recall it to its true function; since if its investigations were allowed to assume an absolute character, and to recognise no limit, we should only be repeating in a scientific form many of the worst results of theological and metaphysical belief. The Universe is to be studied not for its own sake, but for the sake of Man or rather of Humanity. To study it in any other spirit would not only be immoral, but also highly irrational. For, as statements of pure objective truth, our scientific theories can never be really satisfactory. They can only satisfy us from the subjective point of view; that is, by limiting themselves to the treatment of such questions as have some direct or indirect influence over human life. It is for social feeling to determine these limits; outside which our knowledge will always remain imperfect as well as useless, and this even in the case of the simplest phenomena; as astronomy testifies. Were the influence of social feeling to be slackened, the Positive spirit would soon fall back to the subjects which were preferred during the period of its infancy; subjects the most remote from human interest and therefore also the easiest. While its probationary period lasted, it was natural to investigate all accessible problems without distinction; and this was often justified by the logical value of many problems that, scientifically speaking, were useless. But now that the Positive method has been sufficiently developed to be applied exclusively to the purpose for which it was intended, there is no use whatever in prolonging the period of probation by these idle exercises. Indeed the want of purpose and discipline in our researches is rapidly assuming a retrograde character. Its tendency is to undo the chief results obtained by the spirit detail during the time when that spirit was really essential to progress.

Here, then, we are met by a serious difficulty. The construction of the objective basis for the Positive synthesis imposes two conditions which seem, at first sight, incompatible. On the one hand we must allow the intellect to be free, or else we shall not have the full benefit of its services; and, on the other, we must control its natural tendency to unlimited digressions. The problem was insoluble, so long as the study of the natural economy did not include Sociology. But as soon as the Positive spirit extends to the treatment of social questions, these at once take precedence of all others, and thus the moral point of view becomes paramount. Objective science, proceeding from without inwards, falls at last into natural harmony with the subjective or moral principle, the superiority of which it had for so long a time resisted. As a mere speculative question it may be considered as proved to the satisfaction of every true thinker, that the social point of view is logically and scientifically supreme over all others, being the only point from which all our scientific conceptions can be regarded as a whole. Yet its influence can never be injurious to the progress of other Positive studies; for these, whether for the sake of their method or of their subject matter, will always continue to be necessary as an introduction to the final science. Indeed the Positive system gives the highest sanction and the most powerful stimulus to all preliminary sciences, by insisting on the relation which each of them bears to the great whole, Humanity.

Thus the foundation of social science bears out the statement made at the beginning of this work, that the intellect would, under Positivism, accept its proper position of subordination to the heart. The recognition of this, which is the subjective principle of Positivism, renders the construction of a complete system of human life possible. The antagonism which, since the close of the Middle Ages, has arisen between Reason and Feeling, was an anomalous though inevitable condition. It is now for ever at an end; and the only system which can really satisfy the wants of our nature, individually or collectively, is therefore ready for our acceptance. As long as the antagonism existed, it was hopeless to expect that Social Sympathy could do much to modify the preponderance of self-love in the affairs of life. But the case is different as soon as reason and sympathy are brought into active co-operation. Separately, their influence in our imperfect organisation is very feeble; but combined it may extend indefinitely. It will never, indeed, be able to do away with the fact that practical life must, to a large extent, be regulated by interested motives; yet it may introduce a standard of morality inconceivably higher than any that has existed in the past, before these two modifying forces could be made to combine their action upon our stronger and lower instincts.


In order to give a more precise conception of the intellectual basis on which the system of Positive Polity should rest, I must explain the general principle by which it should be limited. It should be confined to what is really indispensable to the construction of that Polity. Otherwise the intellect will be carried away, as it has been before, by its tendency to useless digressions. It will endeavour to extend the limits of its province; thereby escaping from the discipline imposed by social motives and putting off all attempts at moral and social regeneration for a longer time than the construction of the philosophic basis for action really demands. Here we shall find a fresh proof of the importance of my theory of development. By this discovery the intellectual synthesis may be considered as having already reached the point from which the synthesis of affections may be at once begun; and even that of actions, at least in its highest and most difficult part, morality properly so called.

With the view of restricting the construction of the objective basis within reasonable limits, there is this distinction to be borne in mind. In the Order of Nature, there are two classes of laws; those that are simple or Abstract, those that are compound or Concrete. In my work on Positive Philosophy, the distinction has been thoroughly established, and frequent use has been made of it. It will be sufficient here to point out its origin and the method of applying it.

Positive science may deal either with objects themselves as they exist, or with the separate phenomena that the objects exhibit. Of course we can only judge of an object by the sum of its phenomena; but it is open to us either to examine a special class of phenomena abstracted from all the beings that exhibit it, or to take some special object, and examine the whole concrete group of phenomena. In the latter case we shall be studying different systems of existence; in the former, different modes of activity. As good an example of the distinction as can be given is that, already mentioned, of Meteorology. The facts of weather are evidently combinations of astronomical, physical, chemical, biological, and even social phenomena; each of these classes requiring its own separate theories. Were these abstract laws sufficiently well known to us, then the whole difficulty of the concrete problem would be so to combine them, as to deduce the order in which each composite effect would follow. This, however, is a process which seems to me so far beyond our feeble powers of deduction, that, even supposing our knowledge of the abstract laws perfect, we should still be obliged to have recourse to the inductive method.

Now the investigation of the economy of nature here contemplated is evidently of the abstract kind. We decompose that economy into its primary phenomena, that is to say, into those which are not reducible to others. These we range in classes, each of which, notwithstanding the connection that exists between all, requires a separate inductive process; for the existence of laws cannot be proved in any one of them by pure deduction. It is only with these simpler and more abstract relations that our synthesis is directly concerned: when these are established, they afford a rational groundwork for the more composite and concrete researches. The great complexity of concrete relations makes it probable that we shall never be able to co-ordinate them perfectly. In that case the synthesis would always remain limited to abstract laws. But its true object, that of supplying an objective basis for the great synthesis of human life, will none the less be attained. For this groundwork of abstract knowledge would introduce harmony between all our mental conceptions, and thereby would make it impossible to systematise our feelings and actions, which is the object of all sound philosophy. The abstract study of nature is therefore all that is absolutely indispensable for the establishment of unity in human life. It serves as the foundation of all wise action; as the philosophia prima, the necessity of which in the normal state of humanity was dimly foreseen by Bacon. When the abstract laws exhibiting the various modes of activity have been brought systematically before us, our practical knowledge of each special system of existence ceases to be purely empirical, though the greater number of concrete laws may still be unknown. We find the best example of this truth in the most difficult and important subject of all, Sociology. Knowledge of the principal statical and dynamical laws of social existence is evidently sufficient for the purpose of systematising the various aspects of private or public life, and thereby of rendering our condition far more perfect. Should this knowledge be acquired, of which there is now no doubt, we need not regret being unable to give a satisfactory explanation of every state of society that we find existing throughout the world in all ages. The discipline of social feeling will check any foolish indulgence of the spirit of curiosity, and prevent the understanding from wasting its powers in useless speculations; for feeble as these powers are, it is from them that Humanity derives her most efficient means of contending against the defects of the External Order. The discovery of the principal concrete laws would no doubt be attended by the most beneficial results, moral as well as physical; and this is the field in which the science of the future will reap its richest harvest. But such knowledge is not indispensable for our present purpose, which is to form a complete synthesis of life, effecting for the final state of humanity what the theological synthesis effected for its primitive state. For this purpose Abstract philosophy is undoubtedly sufficient; so that even supposing that Concrete philosophy should never become so perfect as we desire, social regeneration will still be possible.


Regarded under this more simple aspect, our system of scientific knowledge is already so far elaborated, that all thinkers whose nature is sufficiently sympathetic may proceed without delay to the problem of moral regeneration; a problem which must prepare the way for that of political reorganisation. For we shall find that the theory of development of which we have been speaking, when looked at from another point of view, condenses and systematises all our abstract conceptions of the order of nature.

This will be understood by regarding all departments of our knowledge as being really component parts of one and the same science; the science of Humanity. All other sciences are but the prelude or the development of this. Before we can enter upon it directly, there are two subjects which it is necessary to investigate; our external circumstances, and the organisation of our own nature. Social life cannot be understood without first understanding the medium in which it is developed and the beings who manifest it. We shall make no progress, therefore, in the final science until we have sufficient abstract knowledge of the outer world and of individual life to define the influence of these laws on the special laws of social phenomena. And this is necessary from the logical as well as from the scientific point of view. The feeble faculties of our intellect require to be trained for the more difficult speculations by practice in the easier. For the same reasons, the study of the inorganic world should take precedence of the organic. For, in the first place, the laws of the more universal mode of existence have a preponderating influence over those of the more special modes; and in the second place it is clearly incumbent on us to begin the study of the Positive method with its simplest and most characteristic applications. I need not dwell further upon principles so fully established in my former work.

Social Philosophy, therefore, ought on every ground to be preceded by Natural Philosophy in the ordinary sense of the word; that is to say by the study of inorganic and organic nature. It is reserved for our own century to take in the whole scope of science; but the commencement of these preparatory studies dates from the first astronomical discoveries of antiquity. Natural Philosophy was completed by the modern science of Biology, of which the ancients possessed nothing but a few statical principles. The dependence of biological conditions upon astronomical is very certain. But these two sciences differ too much from each other and are too indirectly connected to give us an adequate conception of Natural Philosophy as a whole. It would be pushing the principle of condensation too far to reduce it to these two terms. One connecting link was supplied by the science of Chemistry which arose in the middle ages. The natural succession of Astronomy, Chemistry, and Biology leading gradually up to the final science, Sociology, made it possible to conceive more or less imperfectly of an intellectual synthesis. But the interposition of Chemistry was not enough: because, though its relation to Biology was intimate, it was too remote from Astronomy. For want of understanding the mode in which astronomical conditions really affected us, the arbitrary and chimerical fancies of astrology were employed, though of course quite valueless except for this temporary purpose. In the seventeenth century, however, the science of Physics specially so called, was founded; and a satisfactory arrangement of scientific conceptions began to be formed. Physics included a series of inorganic researches, the more general branch of which bordered on Astronomy, the more special on Chemistry. To complete our view of the scientific hierarchy we have now only to go back to its origin, Mathematics; a class of speculations so simple and so general, that they passed at once and without effort into the Positive stage. Without Mathematics, Astronomy was impossible: and they will always continue to be the starting-point of Positive education for the individual as they have been for the race. Even under the most absolute theological influence they stimulate the Positive spirit to a certain degree of systematic growth. From them it extends step by step to the subjects from which at first it had been most rigidly excluded.

We see from these brief remarks that the series of the abstract sciences naturally arranges itself according to the decrease in generality and the increase in complication. We see the reason for the introduction of each member of the series, and the mutual connection between them. The classification is evidently the same as that before laid down in my theory of development. That theory therefore may be regarded, from the statical point of view, as furnishing a direct basis for the co-ordination of Abstract conception, on which, as we have seen, the whole synthesis of human life depends. That coordination at once establishes unity in our intellectual operations. It realises the desire obscurely expressed by Bacon for a scala intellectus, a ladder of the understanding, by the aid of which our thoughts may pass with ease from the lowest subjects to the highest, or vice versa, without weakening the sense of their continuous connection in nature. Each of the six terms of which our series is composed is in its central portion quite distinct from the two adjoining links; but it is closely related in its commencement to the preceding term, in its conclusion to the term which follows. A further proof of the homogeneousness and continuity of the system is that the same principle of classification, when applied more closely, enables us to arrange the various theories of which each science consists. For example, the three great orders of mathematical speculations, Arithmetic, Geometry, and Mechanics, follow the same law of classification as that by which the entire scale is regulated. And I have shown in my Positive Philosophy that the same holds good of the other sciences. As a whole, therefore, the series is the most concise summary that can be formed of the vast range of Abstract truth; and conversely, all rational researches of a special kind result in some partial development of this series. Each term in it requires its own special processes of induction; yet in each we reason deductively from the preceding term, a method which will always be as necessary for purposes of instruction as it was originally for the purpose of discovery. Thus it is that all our other studies are but a preparation for the final science of Humanity. By it their mode of culture will always be influenced and will gradually be imbued with the true spirit of generality, which is so closely connected with social sympathy. Nor is there any danger of such influence becoming oppressive, since the very principle of our system is to combine a due measure of independence with practical convergence. The fact that our theory of classification, by the very terms of its composition, subordinates intellectual to social considerations, is eminently calculated to secure its popular acceptance. It brings the whole speculative system under the criticism, and at the same time under the protection of the public, which is usually not slow to check any abuse of those habits of abstraction which are necessary to the philosopher.

The same theory then which explains the mental evolution of Humanity, lays down the true method by which our abstract conceptions should be classified; thus reconciling the conditions of Order and Movement, hitherto more or less at variance. Its historical clearness and its philosophical force strengthen each other, for we cannot understand the connection of our conceptions except by studying the succession of the phases through which they pass. And on the other hand, but for the existence of such a connection, it would be impossible to explain the historical phases. So we see that for all sound thinkers, History and Philosophy are inseparable.


A theory which embraces the statical as well as the dynamical aspects of the subject, and which fulfils the conditions here spoken of, may certainly be regarded as establishing the true objective basis on which unity can be established in our intellectual functions. And this unity will be developed and consolidated as our knowledge of its basis becomes more satisfactory. But the social application of the system will have far more influence on the result than any overstrained attempts at exact scientific accuracy. The object of our philosophy is to direct the spiritual reorganisation of the civilised world. It is with a view to this object that all attempts at fresh discovery or at improved arrangement should be conducted. Moral and political requirements will lead us to investigate new relations; but the search should not be carried farther than is necessary for their application. Sufficient for our purpose, if this incipient classification of our mental products be so far worked out that the synthesis of Affection and of Action may be at once attempted; that is, that we may begin at once to construct that system of morality under which the final regeneration of Humanity will proceed. Those who have read my Positive Philosophy will I think, be convinced that the time for this attempt has arrived. How urgently it is needed will appear in every part of the present work.


I have now described the general spirit of Positivism. But there are two or three points on which some further explanation is necessary, as they are the source of misapprehensions too common and too serious to be disregarded. Of course I only concern myself with such objections as are made in good faith.

The fact of entire freedom from theological belief being necessary before the Positive state can be perfectly attained, has induced superficial observers to confound Positivism with a state of pure negation. Now this state was at one time, and that even so recently as the last century, favourable to progress; but at present in those who unfortunately still remain in it, it is a radical obstacle to all sound social and even intellectual organisation. I have long ago repudiated all philosophical or historical connection between Positivism and what is called Atheism. But it is desirable to expose the error somewhat more clearly.

Atheism, even from the intellectual point of view, is a very imperfect form of emancipation; for its tendency is to prolong the metaphysical stage indefinitely, by continuing to seek for new solutions of Theological problems, instead of setting aside all inaccessible researches on the ground of their utter inutility. The true Positive spirit consists in substituting the study of the invariable Laws of phenomena for that of their so-called Causes, whether proximate or primary – in a word, in studying the How instead of the Why. Now this is wholly incompatible with the ambitious and visionary attempts of Atheism to explain the formation of the Universe, the origin of animal life, etc. The Positivist, comparing the various phases of human speculation, looks upon these scientific chimeras as far less valuable even from the intellectual point of view than the first spontaneous inspirations of primeval times. The Principle of Theology is to explain everything by supernatural Wills. That principle can never be set aside until we acknowledge the search for Causes to be beyond our reach, and limit ourselves to the knowledge of Laws. As long as men persist in attempting to answer the insoluble questions which occupied the attention of the childhood of our race, by far the more rational plan is to do as was done then, that is, simply to give free play to the imagination. These spontaneous beliefs have gradually fallen into disuse, not because they have been disproved, but because mankind has become more enlightened as to its wants and the scope of its powers, and has gradually given an entirely new direction to its speculative efforts. If we insist upon penetrating the unattainable mystery of the essential Cause that produces phenomena, there is no hypothesis more satisfactory than that they proceed from Wills dwelling in them or outside them; an hypothesis which assimilates them to the effect produced by the desires which exist within ourselves. Were it not for the pride induced by metaphysical and scientific studies, it would be inconceivable that any atheist, modern or ancient, should have believed that his vague hypotheses on such a subject were preferable to this direct mode of explanation. And it was the only mode which really satisfied the reason, until men began to see the utter inanity and inutility of all search for absolute truth. The Order of Nature is doubtless very imperfect in every respect, but its production is far more compatible with the hypothesis of an intelligent Will than with that of a blind mechanism. Persistent atheists therefore would seem to be most illogical of theologists: because they occupy themselves with theological problems, and yet reject the only appropriate method of handling them. But the fact is that pure Atheism even in the present day is very rare. What is called Atheism is usually a phase of Pantheism, which is really nothing but a relapse disguised under learned terms, into a vague and abstract form of Fetishism. And it is not impossible that it may lead to the reproduction in one form or other of every theological phase as soon as the check which modern society still imposes on metaphysical extravagance has become somewhat weakened. The adoption of such theories as a satisfactory system of belief, indicates a very exaggerated or rather false view of intellectual requirements, and a very insufficient recognition of moral and social wants. It is generally connected with the visionary but mischievous tendencies of ambitious thinkers to uphold what they call the empire of Reason. In the moral sphere it forms a sort of basis for the degrading fallacies of modern metaphysicians as to the absolute preponderance of self-interest. Politically, its tendency is to unlimited prolongation of the revolutionary position: its spirit is that of blind hatred to the past: and it resists all attempts to explain it on Positive principles, with a view of disclosing the future. Atheism, therefore, is not likely to lead to Positivism except in those who pass through it rapidly as the last and most shortlived of metaphysical phases. And the wide diffusion of the scientific spirit in the present day makes this passage so easy that to arrive at maturity without accomplishing it, is a symptom of a certain mental weakness, which is often connected with moral insufficiency, and is very incompatible with Positivism. Negation offers but a feeble and precarious basis for union: and disbelief in Monotheism is of itself no better proof of a mind fit to grapple with the questions of the day than disbelief in Polytheism or Fetishism, which no one would maintain to be an adequate ground for claiming intellectual sympathy. The atheistic phase indeed was not really necessary, except for the revolutionists of the last century who took the lead in the movement towards radical regeneration of society. The necessity has already ceased; for the decayed condition of the old system makes the need of regeneration palpable to all. Persistence in anarchy, and Atheism is the most characteristic symptom of anarchy, is a temper of mind more unfavourable to the organic spirit, which ought by this time to have established its influence than sincere adhesion to the old forms. This latter is of course obstructive: but at least it does not hinder us from fixing our attention upon the great social problem. Indeed it helps us to do so: because it forces the new philosophy to throw aside every weapon of attack against the older faith except its own higher capacity of satisfying our moral and social wants. But in the Atheism maintained by many metaphysicians and scientific men of the present day, Positivism, instead of wholesome rivalry of this kind, will meet with nothing but barren resistance. Anti-theological as such men may be, they feel unmixed repugnance for any attempts at social regeneration, although their efforts in the last century had to some extent prepared the way for it. Far, then, from counting upon their support, Positivists must expect to find them hostile: although from the incoherence of their opinions it will not be difficult to reclaim those of them whose errors are not essentially due to pride.


The charge of Materialism which is often made against Positive philosophy is of more importance. It originates in the course of scientific study upon which the Positive System is based. In answering the charge, I need not enter into any discussion of impenetrable mysteries. Our theory of development will enable us to see distinctly the real ground of the confusion that exists upon the subject.

Positive science was for a long time limited to the simplest subjects: it could not reach the highest except by a natural series of intermediate steps. As each of these steps is taken, the student is apt to be influenced too strongly by the methods and results of the preceding stage. Here, as it seems to me, lies the real source of that scientific error which men have instinctively blamed as materialism. The name is just, because the tendency indicated is one which degrades the higher subjects of thought by confounding them with the lower. It was hardly possible that this usurpation by one science of the domain of another should have been wholly avoided. For since the more special phenomena do really depend upon the more general, it is perfectly legitimate for each science to exercise a certain deductive influence upon that which follows it in the scale. By such influence the special inductions of that science were rendered more coherent. The result, however, is that each of the sciences has to undergo a long struggle against the encroachments of the one preceding it; a struggle which, even in the case of the subjects which have been studied longest, is not yet over. Nor can it entirely cease until the controlling influence of sound philosophy be established over the whole scale, introducing juster views of the relations of its several parts, about which at present there is such irrational confusion.

Thus it appears that Materialism is a danger inherent in the mode in which the scientific studies necessary as a preparation for Positivism were pursued. Each science tended to absorb the one next to it, on the ground of having reached the positive stage earlier and more thoroughly. The evil then is really deeper and more extensive than is imagined by most of those who deplore it. It passes generally unnoticed except in the highest class of subjects. These doubtless are more seriously affected, inasmuch as they undergo the encroaching process from all the rest; but we find the same thing in different degrees, in every step of the scientific scale. Even the lowest step, Mathematics, is no exception, though its position would seem at first sight to exempt it. To a philosophic eye there is Materialism in the common tendency of mathematicians at the present day to absorb Geometry or Mechanics into the Calculus, as well as in the more evident encroachments of Mathematics upon Physics, of Physics upon Chemistry, of Chemistry, which is more frequent, upon Biology, or lastly in the common tendency of the best biologists to look upon Sociology as a mere corollary of their own science. In all cases it is the same fundamental error: that is, an exaggerated use of deductive reasoning; and in all it is attended with the same result; that the higher studies are in constant danger of being disorganised by the indiscriminate application of the lower. All scientific specialists at the present time are more or less materialists, according as the phenomena studied by them are more or less simple and general. Geometricians, therefore are more liable to the error than any others; they all aim consciously or otherwise at a synthesis in which the most elementary studies, those of Number, Space, and Motion, are made to regulate all the rest. But the biologists who resist this encroachment most energetically, are often guilty of the same mistake. They not unfrequently attempt, for instance, to explain all sociological facts by the influence of climate and race, which are purely secondary; thus showing their ignorance of the fundamental laws of Sociology, which can only be discovered by a series of direct inductions from history.

This philosophical estimate of Materialism explains how it is that it has been brought as a charge against Positivism, and at the same time proves the deep injustice of the charge. Positivism, far from countenancing so dangerous an error, is, as we have seen, the only philosophy which can completely remove it. The error arises from certain tendencies which are in themselves legitimate, but which have been carried too far; and Positivism satisfies these tendencies in their due measure. Hitherto the evil has remained unchecked, except by the theological-metaphysical spirit, which, by giving rise to what is called Spiritualism, has rendered a very valuable service. But useful as it has been, it could not arrest the active growth of Materialism, which has assumed in the eyes of modern thinkers something of a progressive character, from having been so long connected with the cause of resistance to a retrograde system. Notwithstanding all the protests of the spiritualists, the lower sciences have encroached upon the higher to an extent that seriously impairs their independence and their value. But Positivism meets the difficulty far more effectually. It satisfies and reconciles all that is really tenable in the rival claims of both Materialism and Spiritualism; and, having done this, it discards them both. It holds the one to be as dangerous to Order as the other to Progress.

This result is an immediate consequence of the establishment of the encyclopaedic scale, in which each science retains its own proper sphere of induction, while deductively it remains subordinate to the science which precedes it. But what really decides the matter is the fact that such paramount importance, both logically and scientifically, is given by Positive Philosophy to social questions. For these are the questions in which the influence of Materialism is most mischievous, and also in which it is most easily introduced. A system therefore which gives them the precedence over all other questions must hold Materialism to be quite as obstructive as Spiritualism, since both are alike an obstacle to the progress of that science for the sake of which all other sciences are studied. Further advance in the work of social regeneration implies the elimination of both of them, because it cannot proceed without exact knowledge of the laws of moral and social phenomena. In the next chapter I shall have to speak of the mischievous effects of Materialism upon the Art or practice of social life. It leads to a misconception of the most fundamental principle of that Art, namely, the systematic separation of spiritual and temporal power. To maintain that separation, to carry out on a more satisfactory basis the admirable attempt made in the Middle Ages by the Catholic Church, is the most important of political questions. Thus the antagonism of Positivism to Materialism rests upon political no less than upon philosophical grounds.

With the view of securing a dispassionate Consideration of this subject, and of avoiding all Confusion, I have laid no stress upon the charge of immorality that is so often brought against Materialism. The reproach, even when made Sincerely, is constantly belied by experience, indeed it is inconsistent with all that we know of human nature. Our opinions, whether right or wrong, have not, fortunately, the absolute power over our feelings and conduct which is commonly attributed to them. Materialism has been provisionally connected with the whole movement of emancipation, and it has therefore often been found in common with the noblest aspirations. That connection, however, has now ceased; and it must be owned that even in the most favourable cases this error, purely intellectual though it be, has to a certain extent always checked the free play of our nobler instincts, by leading men to ignore or misconceive moral phenomena, which were left unexplained by its crude hypothesis. Cabanis gave a striking example of this tendency in his unfortunate attack upon mediaeval chivalry. Cabanis was a philosopher whose moral nature was as pure and sympathetic as his intellect was elevated and enlarged. Yet the materialism of his day had entirely blinded him to the beneficial results of the attempts made by the most energetic of our ancestors to institute the Worship of Woman.

Further Reading:
Biography | Auguste Blanqui | Herbert Spencer | J S Mill | Positivism | Positivism