University of Virginia Library

Search this document 
Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
collapse sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 

TO 1900


The word “positivism” was coined by Auguste Comte
in the 1820's. To understand the history of the idea
behind the word, however, it is necessary to look at
the eighteenth and even at the seventeenth century
for at least three reasons. First, because significant
component elements of the idea are to be found in
those periods; secondly, because Comte himself owed
important intellectual debts, both acknowledged and
unacknowledged, to earlier figures; and thirdly, be-
cause he elaborated his positivist synthesis in response
to problems peculiar to his generation.

In a sense which is not merely trivial, positivism as
an intellectual attitude characteristic of Auguste
Comte is as old as the Platonic tradition in philosophy.
In practice, however, it is sufficient to start with the
seventeenth century. Without necessarily subscribing
to a recent positivist view, expressed by Pierre Ducassé,
that the only precedent for Comte's synthesis of the
sciences was that of Descartes, we can still say that
Descartes as the classic French representative of the
Esprit de système was a part of the air that Comte
breathed. More widely than that, the scientific revolu-
tion of the seventeenth century in general was an
indispensable condition for positivism, although the
discoveries and results of the scientific revolution, and
even its assumptions and methods, were less important
in this connection than the enormously enhanced pres-
tige of the natural sciences and of its practitioners.

It was, however, only in the eighteenth century that,
especially in France, this new prestige made itself felt
throughout educated society, and this is the first and
most general respect in which Comtean positivism, as
one expression of the scientism of the nineteenth cen-
tury, owes a debt to the Enlightenment. Voltaire, whom
Comte did not acknowledge, d'Alembert and Con-
dorcet whom he did, and many other philosophes made
strenuous and successful efforts to familiarize polite
salon society with the achievements of French and


foreign scientists, Equally important for positivism,
they preached and practiced the application of the
methods of the natural sciences to social problems in
order to create “social physics” (i.e., social science).
They were not always clear, and certainly not always
agreed, on what exactly “scientific method” consisted
of, particularly as to the relative importance of induc-
tion and deduction, experiment and mathematics. They
tended, especially on social questions, to be less
empirical than they professed themselves to be, and
in this respect, also, Comte resembled them.

It is both possible and necessary, however, to be
more specific concerning Comte's debt to the philoso-
From Montesquieu, as he acknowledged, Comte
derived the fundamental insight that society was
governed by historical and other laws analogous to the
laws governing natural phenomena. The great Ency-
(1751-72) of d'Alembert and Diderot had
pioneered the project of a coordination of all knowl-
edge free from theological presuppositions and rein-
forced the notion of the unity of the natural and social
sciences. D'Alembert and Turgot between them had
sketched more than rudimentary models of two of
Comte's most fundamental assumptions, the Classifica-
tion of the Sciences and the Law of the Three Stages.
The Idea of Progress Implicit in the latter and in much
Enlightenment thinking generally had been elaborated
by Condorcet, of whom Comte called himself the
“spiritual son.”

Although he eventually became a victim of the
French Revolution, Condorcet constituted an impor-
tant link between the Enlightenment and the intellec-
tual climate of the revolutionary era. In the plans for
educational reform that he produced during the first
years of the Revolution, Condorcet pressed on the one
hand for a greater emphasis on mathematics and the
natural sciences in secondary and higher education, and
on the other hand for a more intense application of
the method of the natural sciences to moral and social
problems. Himself a mathematician by profession,
Condorcet deliberately cultivated personal as well as
intellectual connections both with the tradition of the
philosophes and with practicing contemporary scien-
tists such as J. L. Lagrange. After Condorcet's death
this role was taken up by the group of so-called
Idéologues, led by Cabanis and Destutt de Tracy, who
were particularly concerned with the social and politi-
cal application of the ideas of Condillac and who
disseminated their teachings in an educational system
reformed, from 1795, on lines not unlike those sug-
gested by Condorcet, especially in the new École

These links are important because they sustained the
momentum of the Enlightenment and particularly of
the idea of “social science” until the day when Auguste
Comte himself entered the École Polytechnique. At
the same time Comte was at least as much a rebel
against the Enlightenment and the Revolution as he
was their heir and the beneficiary of one of their insti-
tutions. So far as the École Polytechnique was con-
cerned, Comte was not alone in making the inference
from an advanced training course for a highly selected
group of future engineers to the idea of social engi-
neering by a managerial political élite. So far as the
wider issues were concerned, Comte took as his point
of departure the premiss that the Enlightenment and
the Revolution had undermined the intellectual and
the social bases of the ancien régime without having
put anything viable in their place. (Later, one of his
famous aphorisms ran: “You can destroy only what you
replace.”) He shared, therefore, with men otherwise
as far apart as Hegel, Victor Cousin, the “Theocrats”
J. M. de Maistre and L. G. A. de Bonald, and Henri
de Saint-Simon the conviction that the urgent and
paramount task after 1815 was to repair this defect,
to reconstruct, to supply new institutions and particu-
larly a new ideology—for social and political anarchy
could be remedied only after intellectual anarchy:
political authority could be restored only on the basis
of general acceptance of a new doctrine.

It would be going too far afield here to investigate
Comte's relationship with Hegel, but a discussion of
the similarities and differences between Comte and
Cousin, Maistre and Bonald, and Saint-Simon should
be instructive by leading to a clearer definition of
Comte's place in the politics and culture of the French
Restoration. Victor Cousin was Comte's senior by a
few years and therefore already a teacher at both the
École Normale and the Sorbonne when Comte was still
a student at the Polytechnique. A brilliant man of
letters and master of rhetoric, Cousin was the idol of
the liberal youth of the Restoration, and well connected
with the liberal political Opposition, especially under
Charles X, while Comte wrote in a crabbed style,
lectured to tiny audiences, and was despised by such
men as F. Guizot both in opposition and in power.
Cousin thus was bound to be Comte's chief enemy
quite apart from their doctrines, and despite their
agreement that what France and Europe needed was
a new intellectual and moral consensus to replace
orthodox religion. Cousin set out to supply it with a
characteristically eclectic philosophy, historically
oriented, with an emphasis on introspective psychology
and on the autonomy of the mind and man's spiritual
nature—a consciously moderate system deliberately
designed to serve as support for the political doctrine
of the juste milieu cspoused by the orthodox liberal
constitutional monarchists of the Restoration. Cousin


had little use for the natural sciences, whose success
from Francis Bacon to Condillac, he said, had drawn
attention away from human problems. A technocrat
and intellectual hermit who read nothing after he
began to write his own large works, Comte was the
adulator of “science” as he understood it. He thought
that a “scientific” psychology must be physiological
(here he based himself on the work of such biologists
as M. F. X. Bichat and F. J. V. Broussais, and in partic-
ular on the phrenology of Franz Gall), scorned eclecti-
cism, and prided himself on the originality and the
rigor of his own projected synthesis. Comte could have
nothing but contempt for Cousin's “spiritualism” which
he regarded as dishonest as well as shallow.

He had far more sympathy for the authoritarian
approach to the intellectual, moral, and social legacy
of the Enlightenment and the Revolution propounded
by Maistre and Bonald. He agreed with them that the
fundamental trouble arose from the individualism
unleashed by all the loose—and, he would add, meta-
physical—talk about “liberty” for two generations or
more. This heady wine had done nothing but confuse
and excite people and make them unamenable to dis-
cipline. Comte agreed with the conception of
“counter-revolution” (as distinguished from reaction)
advanced by Maistre and particularly by Bonald, who
was the more sociologically oriented of the two. Bonald
added a new dimension to the social analysis be-
queathed by Montesquieu and the Enlightenment—
some would say that it was he who discovered the
“sociology” that Comte was to place at the pinnacle
of his hierarchy of the sciences—by using it in order
to shore up the restored Bourbons. Rather than taking
seriously the idea of a literal “restoration” (which
derived from the Swiss Haller), Bonald argued that
since the ancien régime had been totally destroyed it
was necessary to reconstruct from the ground up. Soci-
ology, not philosophy, could reveal the human condi-
tion in all its aspects and thus lead to a discovery of
the eternal laws of society which would form the basis
of a tradition so firm as to be invulnerable to future
enlightenments or attempted revolutions.

While erecting this perfectly rationalistic structure,
Bonald shared with Maistre a pessimism about human
reason which justified an authoritarianism ultimately
backed up by religious sanctions administered by a
Church in a Throne-and-Altar alliance with the mon-
archy, although Bonald was less prepared than Maistre
to bother himself with the metaphysics of theism.
Comte went farther than either of them in this respect:
he subjected religion as well to sociological analysis
and integrated it into his political synthesis. Above all,
he differed from Maistre and Bonald (as well as from
Cousin) in insisting on the natural sciences as a model
and basis for social prescription. Nevertheless, the
significance of the emergence of sociology in an at-
mosphere and with the purpose of “restoration” in
some sense should not be underestimated.

Although Comte owed a considerable debt—which
he acknowledged—to Maistre and Bonald, particularly
in reinforcing his “theocratic” inclinations, there can
be little doubt that his real master was Saint-Simon
whom, by contrast, he disowned after he left service
as his secretary. If it seems strange that the same man
could be significantly influenced by such diverse figures
as Maistre and Bonald on the one hand and the early
socialist Saint-Simon on the other—stranger still if one
takes the view that Karl Marx, also, owed his greatest
(and likewise unadmitted) debt to Saint-Simon—the
answer may be found, not only in Comte's own power-
ful intellect which enabled him to discern and absorb
what he needed and, in contrast to Cousin, to refashion
it for his own synthesis, but also in what Maistre,
Bonald, Saint-Simon, and Comte himself all shared: the
politics of reconciliation, the aim of establishing a
consensus and, based on it, an authority above parties
and factions, characteristic more recently of the advo-
cates of “presidential” government in the last years
of the Weimar Republic and in the Fifth Republic in
France. This was a social goal that could be striven
for by radicals as well as by counter-revolutionaries.
It was, however, precisely Saint-Simon's radicalism
that Comte dropped from his intellectual armory.

In almost every other substantive respect, even in
the chronology and pattern of his development, Saint-
Simon served as Comte's model, however much the
latter decried it, and however much Saint-Simon had
himself merely been reflecting or summing up a general
“pre-positivist” climate. The subordinate role assigned
to academic or traditional philosophy; the professed
rejection of metaphysics in particular; the Law of the
Three Stages and the idea of a hierarchy of the sci-
ences; the worship of natural science and of technol-
ogy; the commitment to a physiological view of the
mind; the subjection of the historical process to laws
of human nature; the interweaving and interdepend-
ence of scientific and historical method; the increas-
ingly emphatic view of themselves in messianic terms,
and the development of a full-blown religion to replace
orthodox Christianity, complete with disciples—all
these and other teachings were common to the two
men. What separated Saint-Simon and Comte above
all from the earlier figures on whom they both drew
was the French Revolution and their consequently far
more urgent insistence that doctrine was merely a
means to achieving social ends, an insistence commen-
surate with the magnitude of the crisis that they con-
ceived the Revolution to have created. But this sense


of urgency was combined in Comte with the Cartesian
Esprit de système. Unlike the auto-didact Saint-Simon,
who wrote down ideas as they came into his head,
Comte had the patience, the self-discipline, and the
scholarship to wish to lay down a solid scientific foun-
dation before erecting on it the political and religious
synthesis whose prescriptions would rescue a stricken
society. For this reason Comte's main teachings are
contained in two prolix works of six and four large
volumes respectively, although the summary of them
in the next section is considerably aided by shorter and
sometimes occasional works intended for popular


Appreciation of the sources on which Comte drew
for his doctrine should not obscure or detract from his
originality. This consisted not in inventing an entirely
new system but in assembling many already current
ideas in a new arrangement or cluster and adding a
few new ideas and emphases. Comte's great strength
lay in the uniqueness and internal logic of his system;
his great weakness lay in the unaccustomed and uneasy
relationship among the ideas making up the system.
The strength and the weakness were thus two sides
of the same coin minted by Comte's sheer energy and
persistence (or obstinacy, according to taste) which
derived, in turn, from the strength of his motivation:
the urgency of the social problem as he saw it; the
need for a complete intellectual system as the means
of solving it; and his conception of his own messianic
mission. These considerations inspired him throughout
a career of almost continuous personal hardship which
never diverted him from his ultimate goals. Neither
did he change any fundamental aspect of his teachings;
alterations of detail, of attitude, and of emphasis
appeared, but these never ran counter to his initial
premisses. They were a result of the chronological
coincidence of a profound personal experience with
the completion of his intellectual substructure in 1842
and represented, not a sharp caesura in his thought
but merely a change of gear before he embarked on
the politico-religious superstructure. Comte himself,
when taxed with inconsistency, indignantly pointed out
that he had sketched his basic social design in his
earliest writings and reprinted them as an appendix
to his second magnum opus, the System of Positive
Any attempt to separate the often absurd pre-
scriptions of the latter from the scientific analysis of
the earlier Positive Philosophy was and is doomed to
failure. For better or (as almost all unbiased observers
agree) for worse, Comte's doctrine from first to last
was a unity. Science to him was never an end in itself;
a mathematician by profession, he did not really even
understand contemporary science in his infatuation
with it for practical social purposes.

An exposition of the doctrine must, however, begin
with the “scientific” foundations, and at the center of
these, as already indicated, were the interlocking Law
of the Three Stages and the Classification of the Sci-
ences. The first of these (in Comte's version) described
the inevitable progression of the human mind through
three methods of explaining the world: the first, “theo-
logical,” in terms of the will of anthropomorphic gods;
the second, “metaphysical,” in terms of philosophical
abstractions; and the third, “positive,” in terms of
scientific truth. Comte substantiated this scheme, and
its many subdivisions, with an elaborate though rather
arbitrary discussion of the history of universal thought,
with emphasis on the development of scientific ideas.
The order of subject-matter in which the mind reached
the third stage was disclosed by Comte's second funda-
mental proposition, which arranged the sciences in a
hierarchy according to their decreasing generality and
increasing interdependence and complexity. With
mathematics at the base, this hierarchy set on top of
it astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology, with
sociology (a word also invented by Comte, who had
little respect or feeling for language) at the pinnacle.
Taken together, the two propositions show that sociol-
ogy is the last discipline to reach the positive or scien-
tific stage; and Comte's specific historical analysis indi-
cated that this development, which would constitute
the climax of the evolution of the human mind, was
imminent, biology having recently reached the positive
stage. Moreover, it would occur in the mind of the
man who first recognized the process, Auguste Comte

But—and this was perhaps the most crucial respect
in which Comte's vision went beyond Saint-Simon's—it
was not only a climax but also a beginning. The con-
version of the last and highest of the sciences, sociol-
ogy, into a positive discipline did not yet overcome
the separateness of the six sciences and therefore could
not yet yield the synthesis of all the positive sciences
which would establish positivism as a total system, as
a “conception of the world and of man.” Only such
a synthesis deserved the name “philosophy.” In con-
trast to Saint-Simon, for whom philosophy became
positive when the sciences had shed everything that
was not verifiable, Comte's view was that this purifica-
tion was only an essential preliminary to a recoil or
converse movement, so that the sciences become truly
positive, and truly unified, only when a philosophy
makes them aware of their positiveness. This view
involved, in practice, making positive sociology, that
is to say the knowledge of mankind (or Humanity, as
the positivists preferred) and of the laws of its develop-


ment, into the point of departure for the construction
of a second and this time “subjective” synthesis, an
edifice even more imposing than the first, “objective,”
scientific, and only partial synthesis.

It was subjective because knowledge of mankind
included knowledge of its needs. It was a true synthesis
or a “philosophy” because it was not merely a coordi-
nation of the objective findings of the several sciences
but a coordination of them from a “human” and “so-
cial” point of view. Conversely, only this subjective
synthesis, this coordination of the content of the infe-
rior sciences in the light and from the point of view
of positive sociology, the highest of the individual
sciences, could avail to solve the pressing problems of
the day. But even this, of course, was not enough: the
solution had to be not only discovered but also im-
posed. Since fashioning of the intellectual consensus
must precede the reformation of society, the creation
of a new spiritual power must precede the establish-
ment of a new political order. This new spiritual power
or priesthood was to serve, not some outmoded theol-
ogy, but Humanity itself; and from there it was only
a small further step to the idea of a Religion of Hu-
manity and to Comte's casting of himself in the role
of its first High Priest.

This entire construction was contained in the first
of Comte's two major works and in the early opuscules.
It was a work as remarkable for its symmetry as it
was formidable in its content. Everything cohered,
everything balanced, every loss was compensated by
a gain. Progress was the development of order, order
was the goal of progress, and positivism alone could
reconcile them. The superior sciences, owing to their
greater complexity, yielded less reliable knowledge
than the inferior, but in return the phenomena with
which they dealt were more amenable to human inter-
vention. The word “positive” itself was defined in
mutually counterbalancing terms. Whereas on the one
hand it meant “precise,” “certain,” “real,” it meant
also not only “useful” (reconcilable with rationalism
as in the Enlightenment tradition), but in addition,
“organic” (i.e., coherent, constructive, systematic) and,
finally, “relative,” indicating the reverse traverse of the
sciences back down from sociology, which made them
not merely positive but positivist and established
positivism as a total system.

It was after completing this system in the six volumes
of the Positive Philosophy (1830-42) that Comte, a
recluse separated from his wife, fell in love with
Clotilde de Vaux, a lady of good family, whom he tried
to make his mistress, carried on a platonic relationship
with her when she refused, and elevated her to the
status of patron saint of the Religion of Humanity when
she died young within a year of their meeting. This
“incomparable year” of his life undoubtedly contrib-
uted to the more pronounced sentimental and authori-
tarian characteristics (a most dangerous combination)
of his last years and of the four volumes of the System
of Positive Polity
with the minute regulations of reli-
gious ritual and of social life which caused John Stuart
Mill to compare Comte's tyranny with that of Loyola.
But even before this episode Comte had often conven-
iently forgotten the relatively low predictive value
of conclusions in sociology, the most complex of the
sciences, and had made not only unproved assumptions
but also “useful fictions” and “artificial hypotheses”
into the bases of subsequent deductions. When he
sometimes declared that in the last analysis positivism
was nothing but systematized common sense, this
device had both the rhetorical advantage of appealing
when necessary from the rigors of scientific reasoning
to some axiom of “common sense,” and the practical
advantage of facilitating his call for the support of
workmen and women, who at least did not need to
unlearn metaphysical philosophy.


Nevertheless, there were those among Comte's dis-
ciples who found the details of the System so repellent
that they set out to depict them as mere embroidery
and to rescue both his reputation and his doctrine by
repudiating that part of it, the Religion of Humanity
including its social and political as well as its ritualistic
aspects, at which he had quite overtly been aiming
all along. They sought to distinguish Comte's first,
valid, “scientific” phase from his second, “subjective”
phase, besotted by Clotilde de Vaux and to be dis-
creetly ignored. Comte would certainly have excom-
municated these dissidents even if it had not been the
case that their leader, Émile Littré, was also cham-
pioning the rights of Comte's estranged wife. Littré,
at one time Comte's chosen successor as High Priest
of Humanity, was instead cast into outer darkness, and
when Comte died, far short of the life-span of
Fontenelle (1657-1757) which he had counted on in
order to preach positivism from the pulpit of Notre
Dame, no new, more worthy successor had in fact been

It would be inappropriate here to become involved
with the many intricate internecine squabbles among
Comte's disciples. Two principal matters, instead, re-
main to be discussed: first, the nature of and reasons
for discipleship; and secondly, the effectiveness of
Comte and of his disciples in spreading his doctrine
into the world at large. It should be clear that the word
“disciples” is applicable here in no mere figurative
sense. Comte himself used it to denote (and demand)
not only philosophical agreement, and not only reli-


gious dedication, but also personal devotion to himself
(so that, for example, he came to assume that he had
a right to full financial support). Comte's disciples,
totalling perhaps a thousand each in France and
England, a scattering elsewhere in Europe and in the
United States, and a following of considerable political
influence in Latin America, particularly in Brazil
(which is outside the scope of this article), were the
propagators of a faith which for them filled a need
partly intellectual, partly emotional. They were, to
begin with, all emancipated, of course, from traditional
religion, although they ranged from renegade Anglican
priests who had lost their faith to confirmed secularists
in search of one.

In France, positivism in addition filled a political
as well as a religious vacuum, appealing to those who,
like Comte himself, thought that neither the Revolution
nor the Restoration nor the bourgeois monarchy pro-
vided any constructive political or social framework;
although later the disciples fell out among themselves
over the attitude to be adopted toward Louis Napoleon
and then the Third Republic. In England the positivists
were exercised chiefly over two public issues, colonial-
ism and the “condition-of-England” question. The first
leader of the English positivists, Richard Congreve,
urged the government to give up Gibraltar, and later
there were serious cross-Channel disagreements when
the French brethren did not take a sufficiently militant
attitude against their government's policy in Tunisia.
In social matters the English positivists were among
the earliest, most active, and most effective supporters
of the trade-union movement so long as it was concili-
atory and unpolitical but, in accordance with Comte's
teaching, shied at the first hint of class struggle and
became markedly conservative. In both countries there
was a sizable number of working-class disciples, and
particular efforts were made by the leadership to re-
cruit more, in view of Comte's emphasis on the un-
spoiled minds of “proletarians”; but the bulk of the
membership and nearly all of the leadership of the
movements were middle-class, and mostly academic or
professional. In the second rank of the most active
positivists, especially in France, were to be found a
good many medical men, particularly those interested
in psychopathology, for Comte, who railed at ordinary
doctors both in his books and in person, had, despite
his semi-commitment to the phrenology of Gall and
some odd notions on the “cerebral faculties,” some very
remarkable things to say about the nature and treat-
ment of mental illness and had anticipated something
of the assumptions and practices of what we should
nowadays call psychosomatic medicine.

When they propagated positivism the disciples did
not, however, stick to their specialties but ranged over
most if not all of the immense field of knowledge which
the master had striven to coordinate, so that much of
their literary output is woefully weak. Partly because
of their attempt at being as encyclopedic as Comte
himself; partly because, with few exceptions, they were
not original thinkers even within their specialties;
partly because of the fact that the doctrine to whose
propagation they were dedicated was a closed system;
and partly, no doubt, because they were busy men,
the disciples of positivism tended merely to repeat and
defend Comte's formulas rather than enrich them. The
exceptions were Frederic Harrison (1831-1923), a man
of quite obviously independent mind, of immense en-
ergy, and of quick temper even in advanced old age,
who rejected a few of Comte's most extreme liturgical
and social injunctions but built a private chapel in his
garden; the mathematician Pierre Laffitte, eventually
evolving as High Priest in succession to Comte, admin-
istratively inefficient but the only man who thought
Comte's system through for himself in its entirety and
expressed it with great erudition and lucidity; and
Littré, an eminent scholar and man of letters who
probably did more than anyone else to make Comte's
work and ideas (albeit excluding those of the “second
phase”) generally known.

Since Comte himself during his lifetime made little
impression on the world apart from the circle of per-
sonal devotees, with the notable exception of John
Stuart Mill who for about five years accepted most of
Comte's earlier writings, the task of spreading the
gospel was in fact left mostly to the disciples after the
master's death. To this task they dedicated themselves
most resolutely: journals were launched, free courses
of lectures were given, societies, discussion groups,
women's auxiliaries and committees were formed,
services of positivist worship and of commemoration
of Comte were held, books were written, money was
raised, Comte's apartment and, later, the house of
Clotilde de Vaux were made into shrines. Actually the
disciples were undecided whether to concentrate on
recruiting more disciples, building up the positivist
organization, and preaching to the converted, or on
reaching out among the heathen to infiltrate the doc-
trine; and the two purposes often conflicted with each
other, which exacerbated the schisms within the
positivist camp which, in turn, reduced the effective-
ness of positivist propaganda. In view of this endemic
sectarianism, added to the intrinsic abortiveness of
Comte's system, the fact that the movement was de-
cidedly not without influence is testimony to the disci-
ples' valiant perseverance.

Even their efforts, of course, would have availed
little without a climate of opinion in the late nine-
teenth century favorable to the absorption of elements,


at least, of positivism. Relevant features of this climate
of opinion included the more general scientism of
which positivism was one expression; the anticlerical
heritage of the Enlightenment, especially in France;
the decline in the hold over “progressive” opinion in
France exercised by the dominant spiritualist philoso-
phy of Victor Cousin, exposed as insufficiently in touch
with the natural sciences; the preparatory work per-
formed, in England, by utilitarianism in accustoming
people to secular and pragmatic views; and the general
sense of social unease brought on by the French and
industrial revolutions. Like almost all intellectual sys-
tems or clusters of ideas, positivism could usually only
reinforce latent tendencies or support existing move-
ments and impart to them new overtones or deviations
in direction. The political and social effects already
mentioned serve as instances. Similarly, it is doubtful
whether positivism gave more nourishment to the gen-
eral adulation of science than it took from it, but it
definitely strengthened a “scientific” outlook, in some
sense of the word, in certain specific fields, particularly
in ethics and psychology. In France it gave support
to anticlericalism and to lay education, and in a number
of ways infiltrated the educational system of the Third
Republic; in England it increasingly joined forces with
the Ethical movement and other humanist and secu-
larist organizations. In France and particularly in
Germany small groups of artists and aestheticians
adopted Comte's ideas on the social origin and function
of art. There is a tenuous link with twentieth-century
logical positivism through Ernst Mach as intermediary.

By far the most important intellectual legacy of
Comte and his followers, however, is due to his ap-
proach to history as a preliminary to a predictive and
scientific sociology. This was fundamentally what
appealed to Mill. None or almost none of Comte's
specific notions about the past have withstood critical
scrutiny, but his conception on the one hand of sociol-
ogy as a unifying and normative discipline, and his
insistent emphasis on the other hand on the history
of science and of scientific thought, have been enor-
mously fruitful well into the twentieth century.
Comte's vision of sociology was blurred by his often
absurd prejudices, and his distinctive and genuinely
pioneering work in the history of science was marred,
like everything he did, by his egocentric point of view
and by the necessity of fitting it into his general
scheme; but his influence on the foundation of these
two academic subjects cannot well be doubted. It is
enough to mention here that the first chair in the
history of science in France was established specifically
for Pierre Laffitte, that George Sarton dedicated Isis
“à refaire l'oeuvre de Comte,”
among other purposes,
and that the first chairs of sociology in France and
England respectively were occupied by Émile
Durkheim and L. T. Hobhouse, for both of whom
Comte's work was avowedly an inspiration and a point
of departure.

Still, when all this has been said perhaps the most
important aspect of Comte's influence, both positively
and negatively, has not been sufficiently emphasized.
This is the religious aspect and the emotional needs
to which it appealed, the aspect of Comte himself
which he likened to Saint Paul rather than Aristotle.
For all that his new religion was in some respects a
pastiche of the Roman Catholicism that he had aban-
doned in his youth—so that T. H. Huxley could ridicule
the Religion of Humanity as “Catholicism minus
Christianity,” and Beatrice Webb could describe a
speech of her friend Frederic Harrison as “a valiant
effort to make a religion out of nothing; a pitiful
attempt by poor humanity to turn its head round and
worship its own tail” (Simon [1963], p. 226)—it still
evoked a certain response in some quarters, a response
which Comte himself explained by his declaration that
“mankind is becoming more and more religious,”
coupled with his emphasis on the etymology of the
word “religion” in the sense of “binding together.” His
Religion of Humanity must take its place among a
whole outcropping of “substitute religions” beginning
with the new creeds of the French Revolution itself.
Comte tried to have it both ways by generating an
emotional appeal on behalf of an allegedly scientific
religion; but, predictably, he fell instead between
stools, since most people who welcomed the “scien-
tific” basis would not accept the ritual or the emotional
incantations, while those who came to have their
emotional needs satisfied for the most part either did
not understand or did not accept the intellectual sub-

These needs, nevertheless, existed. Cris de coeur at
the void left when doubt replaced faith are scattered
about the letters, essays, and autobiographies of the
period. Such a man as Théodore Jouffroy, a disciple
of Comte's archenemy Victor Cousin, in a famous
essay, part historical, part autobiographical, wrote an
obituary of Christian dogma which was at the same
time a blackly pessimistic account of the consequences
of its demise; and there were plenty of other educated
people to whom Christianity was no longer convincing
but who still had a need or a hankering for some sort
of religion all the same. The disciples of positivism
were certainly among them, and many of the other
thousands who read positivist literature or who came
to positivist meetings without becoming disciples must
also be included in this category.

Nevertheless, the difference between the disciples
and those who were merely disposed to accept one


or more parts of Comte's historical or sociological
analysis must not be blurred. Mill, who did more than
any other Englishman during Comte's lifetime to
spread his reputation and large parts of his teaching
and even helped him financially, in the end could not
stomach Comte's intellectual arrogance and sacerdotal
pretensions. John Morley, the later statesman and
biographer of Gladstone, as editor of the Fortnightly
gave generous hospitality to essays by Harrison
and other positivists and himself praised Comte's intel-
lectual achievement, but would have nothing to do
with the Religion of Humanity. Perhaps the most
striking case is that of the novelist George Eliot, who
was of a profoundly religious temperament and, having
lost her old faith, clung for many years to the Religion
of Humanity in the hope of finding in it a satisfactory
substitute; but in the end she felt obliged to withdraw:
“I cannot submit my intellect or my soul to the
guidance of Comte...” (Simon [1963], p. 213). The
desire for intellectual independence had proved even
stronger than the need for spiritual solace. In George
Eliot's good friend Frederic Harrison the balance had
just tipped the other way.


The principal texts include J. H. Bridges, Illustrations of
(London, 1915); Richard Congreve, Essays: Polit-
ical, Social, and Religious,
3 vols. (London, 1874-1900);
Frederic Harrison, Autobiographic Memoirs, 2 vols. (London,
1911); Émile Littré, Auguste Comte et la philosophie positive
(Paris, 1864); and the following works of Auguste Comte:
Appeal to Conservatives (London, 1889), The Catechism of
Positive Religion
(London, 1858), Cours de philosophie posi-
6 vols. (Paris, 1830-42) or the abridged translation The
Positive Philosophy,
3 vols. (London, 1896), System of Posi-
tive Polity,
4 vols. (London, 1875-77), the Introduction of
which has been published separately as A General View
of Positivism
(London, 1865; various reprints). Consult:
Isaiah Berlin, Historical Inevitability (London, 1954); D. G.
Charlton, Positivist Thought in France during the Second
Empire, 1852-1870
(Oxford, 1959), and Secular Religions in
France, 1815-1870
(Oxford, 1963); Henri Gouhier, La
jeunesse d'Auguste Comte et la formation du positivisme,

3 vols. (Paris, 1933-41), and La vie d'Auguste Comte (Paris,
1931); L. Lévy-Bruhl, The Philosophy of Auguste Comte
(London, 1903); J. E. McGee, A Crusade for Humanity
(London, 1931); F. E. Manuel, The Prophets of Paris
(Cambridge, Mass., 1962); J. S. Mill, Auguste Comte and
(London, 1866); W. M. Simon, European Positiv-
ism in the Nineteenth Century
(Ithaca, 1963), and “The 'Two
Cultures' in Nineteenth-Century France: Victor Cousin and
Auguste Comte,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 26 (1965),


[See also Classification of the Sciences; Enlightenment;
Historicism; Positivism in Latin America; Progress.]