Reasons for dissenting from the philosophy of M.Comte

Reasons for dissenting from the philosophy of M.Comte

[Originally published in April 1864 as an appendix to the foregoing essay.]

While the preceding pages were passing through the press, there appeared in the Revue des Deux Mondes for February 15th, 1864, an article on a late work of mine—First Principles. To M. Auguste Laugel, the writer of the article, I am much indebted for the careful exposition he has made of some of the leading views set forth in that work; and for the catholic and sympathetic spirit in which he has dealt with them. In one respect, however, M. Laugel conveys to his readers an erroneous impression—an impression doubtless derived from what appears to him adequate evidence, and doubtless expressed in perfect sincerity. M. Laugel describes me as being, in part, a follower of M. Comte. After describing the influence of M. Comte as traceable in the works of some other English writers, naming especially Mr. Mill and Mr. Buckle, he goes on to say that this influence, though not avowed, is easily recognizable in the work he is about to make known; and in several places throughout his review, there are remarks having the same implication. I greatly regret having to take exception to anything said by a critic so candid and so able. But the Revue des Deux Mondes {119} circulates widely in England, as well as elsewhere; and finding that there exists in some minds, both here and in America, an impression similar to that entertained by M. Laugel—an impression likely to be confirmed by his statement—it appears to me needful to meet it.

Two causes of quite different kinds, have conspired to diffuse the erroneous belief that M. Comte is an accepted exponent of scientific opinion. His bitterest foes and his closest friends, have un­con­scious­ly joined in propagating it. On the one hand, M. Comte having designated by the term “Positive Philosophy” all that de­fi­nite­ly-es­tab­lished knowledge which men of science have been gradually organizing into a coherent body of doctrine; and having habitually placed this in opposition to the incoherent body of doctrine defended by theologians; it has become the habit of the theological party to think of the antagonist scientific party, under the title of “positivists.” And thus, from the habit of calling them “positivists,” there has grown up the assumption that they call themselves “positivists,” and that they are disciples of M. Comte. On the other hand, those who have accepted M. Comte’s system, and believe it to be the philosophy of the future, have naturally been prone to see everywhere the signs of its progress; and wherever they have found opinions in harmony with it, have ascribed these opinions to the influence of its originator. It is always the tendency of discipleship to magnify the effects of the master’s teachings; and to credit the master with all the doctrines he teaches. In the minds of his followers, M. Comte’s name is associated with scientific thinking, which, in many cases, they first understood from his exposition of it. Influenced as they inevitably are by this association of ideas, they are reminded of M. Comte wherever they meet with thinking which corresponds, in some marked way, to M. Comte’s description of scientific thinking; and hence are apt to imagine him as introducing into other minds, the {120} conceptions which he introduced into their minds. Such impressions are, however, in most cases quite unwarranted. That M. Comte has given a general exposition of the doctrine and method elaborated by Science, is true. But it is not true that the holders of this doctrine and followers of this method, are disciples of M. Comte. Neither their modes of inquiry nor their views concerning human knowledge in its nature and limits, are appreciably different from what they were before. If they are “positivists,” it is in the sense that all men of science have been more or less consistently “positivists;” and the applicability of M. Comte’s title to them, no more makes them his disciples, than does its applicability to men of science who lived and died before M. Comte wrote, make these his disciples. M. Comte himself by no means claims that which some of his adherents are apt, by implication, to claim for him. He says:—“Il y a, sans doute, beaucoup d’analogie entre ma philosophie positive et ce que les savans anglais entendent, depuis Newton surtout, par philosophie naturelle;” (see Avertissement) and further on he indicates the “grand mouvement imprimé à l’esprit humain, il y a deux siècles, par l’action combinée des préceptes de Bacon, des conceptions de Descartes, et des découvertes de Galilée, comme le moment où l’esprit de la philosophie positive a commencé à se prononcer dans le monde.” That is to say, the general mode of thought and way of interpreting phenomena, which M. Comte calls “Positive Philosophy,” he recognizes as having been growing for two centuries; as having reached, when he wrote, a marked development; and as being the heritage of all men of science.

That which M. Comte proposed to do, was to give scientific thought and method a more definite embodiment and organization; and to apply it to the interpretation of classes of phenomena not previously dealt with in a scientific manner. The conception was a great one; and the endeavour to work it out was worthy of sympathy and {121} applause. Some such conception was entertained by Bacon. He, too, aimed at the organization of the sciences; he, too, held that “Physics is the mother of all the sciences;” he, too, held that the sciences can be advanced only by combining them, and saw the nature of the required combination; he, too, held that moral and civil philosophy could not flourish when separated from their roots in natural philosophy; and thus he, too, had some idea of a social science growing out of physical science. But the state of knowledge in his day prevented any advance beyond the general conception: indeed, it was marvellous that he should have advanced so far. Instead of a vague, undefined conception, M. Comte has presented the world with a defined and highly-elaborated conception. In working out this conception he has shown remarkable breadth of view, great originality, immense fertility of thought, unusual powers of generalization. Considered apart from the question of its truth, his system of Positive Philosophy is a vast achievement. But after according to M. Comte high admiration for his conception, for his effort to realize it, and for the faculty he has shown in the effort to realize it, there remains the inquiry—Has he succeeded? A thinker who re-organizes the scientific method and knowledge of his age, and whose re-organization is accepted by his successors, may rightly be said to have such successors for his disciples. But successors who accept this method and knowledge of his age, minus his re-organization, are certainly not his disciples. How then stands the case with M. Comte? There are some few who receive his doctrines with but little reservation; and these are his disciples truly so called. There are others who regard with approval certain of his leading doctrines, but not the rest: these we may distinguish as partial adherents. There are others who reject all his distinctive doctrines; and these must be classed as his antagonists. The members of this class stand substantially in the same position as they would {122} have done had he not written. Declining his re-organization of scientific doctrine, they possess this scientific doctrine in its pre-existing state, as the common heritage bequeathed by the past to the present; and their adhesion to this scientific doctrine in no sense implicates them with M. Comte. In this class stand the great body of men of science. And in this class I stand myself.

Coming thus to the personal part of the question, let me first specify those great general principles on which M. Comte is at one with preceding thinkers; and on which I am at one with M. Comte.

All knowledge is from experience, holds M. Comte; and this I also hold—hold it, indeed, in a wider sense than M. Comte; since, not only do I believe that all the ideas acquired by individuals, and consequently all the ideas transmitted by past generations, are thus derived; but I also contend that the very faculties by which they are acquired, are the products of accumulated and organized experiences received by ancestral races of beings (see Principles of Psychology). But the doctrine that all knowledge is from experience, is not originated by M. Comte; nor is it claimed by him. He himself says—“Tous les bons esprits répètent, depuis Bacon, qu’il n’y a de connaissances réelles que celles qui reposent sur des faits observés.” And the elaboration and definite establishment of this doctrine, has been the special characteristic of the English school of Psychology. Nor am I aware that M. Comte, accepting this doctrine, has done anything to make it more certain, or give it greater definiteness. Indeed it was impossible for him to do so; since he repudiates that part of mental science by which alone this doctrine can be proved.

It is a further belief of M. Comte, that all knowledge is phenomenal or relative; and in this belief I entirely agree. But no one alleges that the relativity of all knowledge was first enunciated by M. Comte. Among others who have {123} more or less consistently held this truth, Sir William Hamilton enumerates, Protagoras, Aristotle, St. Augustin, Boethius, Averroes, Albertus Magnus, Gerson, Leo Hebræus, Melancthon, Scaliger, Francis Piccolomini, Giordano Bruno, Campanella, Bacon, Spinoza, Newton, Kant. And Sir William Hamilton, in his “Philosophy of the Unconditioned,” first published in 1829, has given a scientific demonstration of this belief. Receiving it in common with other thinkers, from preceding thinkers, M. Comte has not, to my knowledge, advanced this belief. Nor indeed could he advance it, for the reason already given—he denies the possibility of that analysis of thought which discloses the relativity of all cognition.

M. Comte reprobates the interpretation of different classes of phenomena by assigning metaphysical entities as their causes; and I coincide in the opinion that the assumption of such separate entities, though convenient, if not indeed necessary, for purposes of thought, is, scientifically considered, illegitimate. This opinion is, in fact, a corollary from the last; and must stand or fall with it. But like the last it has been held with more or less consistency for generations. M. Comte himself quotes Newton’s favorite saying—“O! Physics, beware of Metaphysics!” Neither to this doctrine, any more than to the preceding doctrines, has M. Comte given a firmer basis. He has simply reasserted it; and it was out of the question for him to do more. In this case, as in the others, his denial of subjective psychology debarred him from proving that these metaphysical entities are mere symbolic conceptions which do not admit of verification.

Lastly, M. Comte believes in invariable natural laws—absolute uniformities of relation among phenomena. But very many before him have believed in them too. Long familiar even beyond the bounds of the scientific world, the proposition that there is an unchanging order in things, has, within the scientific world, held, for generations, the {124} position of an established postulate: by some men of science recognized only as holding of inorganic phenomena; but recognized by other men of science, as universal. And M. Comte, accepting this doctrine from the past, has left it substantially as it was. Though he has asserted new uniformities, I do not think scientific men will admit that he has so demonstrated them, as to make the induction more certain; nor has he deductively established the doctrine, by showing that uniformity of relation is a necessary corollary from the persistence of force, as may readily be shown.

These, then, are the pre-established general truths with which M. Comte sets out—truths which cannot be regarded as distinctive of his philosophy. “But why,” it will perhaps be asked, “is it needful to point out this; seeing that no instructed reader supposes these truths to be peculiar to M. Comte?” I reply that though no disciple of M. Comte would deliberately claim them for him; and though no theological antagonist at all familiar with science and philosophy, supposes M. Comte to be the first propounder of them; yet there is so strong a tendency to associate any doctrines with the name of a conspicuous recent exponent of them, that false impressions are produced, even in spite of better knowledge. Of the need for making this reclamation, definite proof is at hand. In the No. of the Revue des Deux Mondes named at the commencement, may be found, on p. 936, the words—“Toute religion, comme toute philosophie, a la prétention de donner une explication de l’univers. La philosophie qui s’appelle positive se distingue de toutes les philosophies et de toutes les religions en ce qu’elle a renoncé à cette ambition de l’esprit humain;” and the remainder of the paragraph is devoted to explaining the doctrine of the relativity of knowledge. The next paragraph begins—“Tout imbu de ces idées, que nous exposons sans les discuter pour le moment, M. Spencer divise, etc.” Now this is one of those collocations of ideas {125} which tends to create, or to strengthen, the erroneous impression I would dissipate. I do not for a moment suppose that M. Laugel intended to say that these ideas which he describes as ideas of the “Positive Philosophy,” are peculiarly the ideas of M. Comte. But little as he probably intended it, his expressions suggest this conception. In the minds of both disciples and antagonists, “the Positive Philosophy” means the philosophy of M. Comte; and to be imbued with the ideas of “the Positive Philosophy” means to be imbued with the ideas of M. Comte—to have received these ideas from M. Comte. After what has been said above, I need scarcely repeat that the conception thus inadvertently suggested, is a wrong one. M. Comte’s brief enunciations of these general truths, gave me no clearer apprehensions of them than I had before. Such clarifications of ideas on these ultimate questions, as I can trace to any particular teacher, I owe to Sir William Hamilton.

From the principles which M. Comte held in common with many preceding and contemporary thinkers, let us pass now to the principles that are distinctive of his system. Just as entirely as I agree with M. Comte on those cardinal doctrines which we jointly inherit; so entirely do I disagree with him on those cardinal doctrines which he propounds, and which determine the organization of his philosophy. The best way of showing this will be to compare, side by side, the―

Propositions held by M. Comte. Propositions which I hold.

“. . . chacune de nos con­cep­tions prin­ci­pales, chaque branche de nos con­nais­sances, passe suc­ces­sive­ment par trois états théoriques différens: l’état théologique, ou fictif; l’état métaphysique, ou abstrait; l’état scientifique, ou positif. En d’autres termes, l’esprit humain, par sa nature, emploie successivement dans chacune de ses recherches trois méthodes de philosopher, dont le caractère est es­sen­tiel­le­ment différent et même radicalement opposé: d’abord la méthode théologique, ensuite la méthode méta­phys­ique, et enfin la méthode positive.” Cours de Philosophie Positive, 1830, Vol. i. p. 3.

The progress of our conceptions, and of each branch of knowledge, is from be­gin­ning to end intrinsically alike. There are not three methods of phi­lo­so­phiz­ing radically opposed; but one method of phi­los­o­phiz­ing which remains, in essence, the same. At first, and to the last, the conceived causal agencies of phenomena, have a degree of generality corresponding {126} to the width of the gen­er­al­i­za­tions which experiences have determined; and they change just as gradually as experiences accumulate. The integration of causal agencies, originally thought of as mul­ti­tud­i­nous and local, but finally believed to be one and universal, is a process which involves the passing through all intermediate steps between these extremes; and any appearance of stages can be but superficial. Supposed concrete and individual causal agencies, coalesce in the mind as fast as groups of phenomena are assimilated, or seen to be similarly caused. Along with their coalescence, comes a greater extension of their individualities, and a concomitant loss of distinctness in their individualities. Gradually, by continuance of such coalescences, causal agencies become, in thought, diffused and indefinite. And eventually, without any change in the nature of the process, there is reached the con­scious­ness of a universal causal agency, which cannot be conceived.14

“Le système théologique est parvenu à la plus haute perfection dont il soit susceptible, quand il a substitué l’action providentielle d’un être unique au jeu varié des nombreuses divinités indépendantes qui avaient été imaginées primitivement. De même, le dernier terme du système metaphysique consiste à concevoir, au lieu des différentes entités particulières, une seule grande entité générale, la nature, envisagée comme la source unique de tous les phénomènes. Pareillement, la perfection du système positif, vers laquelle il tend sans cesse, quoiqu’il soit très-probable qu’il ne doive jamais l’atteindre, serait de pouvoir se représenter tous les divers phénomènes observables comme des cas particuliers d’un seul fait général, tel que celui de la gravitation, par exemple.” p. 5.

As the progress of thought is one, so is the end one. There are not three possible terminal conceptions; but only a single terminal conception. When the theological idea of the providential action of one being, is developed to its ultimate form, by the absorption of all independent secondary agencies, it becomes the conception of a being immanent in all phenomena; and the reduction of it to this {127} state, implies the fading-away, in thought, of all those anthropomorphic attributes by which the aboriginal idea was distinguished. The alleged last term of the metaphysical system—the conception of a single great general entity, nature, as the source of all phenomena—is a conception identical with the previous one: the con­scious­ness of a single source which, in coming to be regarded as universal, ceases to be regarded as conceivable, differs in nothing but name from the con­scious­ness of one being, manifested in all phenomena. And similarly, that which is described as the ideal state of science—the power to represent all observable phenomena as particular cases of a single general fact, implies the postulating of some ultimate existence of which this single fact is alleged; and the postulating of this ultimate existence, involves a state of con­scious­ness in­dis­tin­guish­able from the other two.

“. . . la perfection du système positif, vers laquelle il tend sans cesse, quoiqu’il soit très-probable, qu’il ne doive jamais l’atteindre, serait de pouvoir se représenter tous les divers phénomènes observables comme des cas particuliers d’un seul fait general, p. 5. . . . . . considérant comme absolument inaccessible, et vide de sens pour nous la recherche de ce qu’on appelle les causes, soit premières, soit finales.” p. 14.

Though along with the extension of gen­er­al­i­za­tions, and concomitant integration of conceived causal agencies, the conceptions of causal agencies grow more indefinite; and though as they gradually coalesce into a universal causal agency, they cease to be representable in thought, and are no longer supposed to be comprehensible; yet the con­scious­ness of cause remains as dominant to the last as it was at first; and can never be got rid of. The con­scious­ness of cause can be abolished only by abolishing con­scious­ness itself.15 (First Principles, § 26.) {128}

“Ce n’est pas aux lecteurs de cet ouvrage que je croirai jamais devoir prouver que les idées gouvernent et bouleversent le monde, ou, en d’autres termes, que tout le mécanisme social repose finalement sur des opinions. Ils savent surtout que la grande crise politique et morale des sociétés actuelles tient, en dernière analyse, à l’anarchie intellectuelle.” p. 48.16

Ideas do not govern and overthrow the world: the world is governed or overthrown by feelings, to which ideas serve only as guides. The social mechanism does not rest finally on opinions; but almost wholly on character. Not intellectual anarchy, but moral antagonism, is the cause of political crises. All social phenomena are produced by the totality of human emotions and beliefs; of which the emotions are mainly pre-determined, while the beliefs are mainly post-determined. Men’s desires are chiefly inherited; but their beliefs are chiefly acquired, and depend on surrounding conditions; and the most important surrounding conditions depend on the social state which the prevalent desires have produced. The social state at any time existing, is the resultant of all the ambitions, self-interests, fears, reverences, indignations, sympathies, etc., of ancestral citizens and existing citizens. The ideas current in this social state, must, on the average, be congruous with the feelings of citizens; and therefore, on the average, with the social state these feelings have produced. Ideas wholly foreign to this social state {129} cannot be evolved, and if introduced from without, cannot get accepted—or, if accepted, die out when the temporary phase of feeling which caused their acceptance, ends. Hence, though advanced ideas when once established, act on society and aid its further advance; yet the establishment of such ideas depends on the fitness of the society for receiving them. Practically, the popular character and the social state, determine what ideas shall be current; instead of the current ideas determining the social state and the character. The modification of men’s moral natures, caused by the continuous discipline of social life, which adapts them more and more to social relations, is therefore the chief proximate cause of social progress. (Social Statics, chap. xxx.)

“. . . je ne dois pas négliger d’indiquer d’avance, comme une propriété essentielle de l’échelle encyclopédique que je vais proposer, sa conformité générale avec l’ensemble de l’histoire scientifique; en ce sens, que, malgré la simultanéité réelle et continue du développement des différentes sciences, celles qui seront classées comme antérieures seront, en effet, plus anciennes et constamment plus avancées que celles présentées comme postérieures.” p. 84. . . . . . . . . “Cet ordre est déterminé par le degré de simplicité, ou, ce qui revient au même, par le degré de généralité des phénomènes.” p. 87.

The order in which the gen­er­al­i­za­tions of science are established, is determined by the frequency and impressiveness with which different classes of relations are repeated in conscious experience; and this depends, partly on the directness with which personal welfare is affected; partly on the con­spic­u­ous­ness of one or both the phenomena between which a relation is to be perceived; partly on the absolute frequency with which the relations occur; partly on their relative frequency of occurrence; partly on their degree of simplicity; and partly on their degree of abstractness. (First Principles, 1st ed., § 36; or otherwise see “Essay on Laws in General and the Order of their Discovery.”)

“En résultat définitif, la mathématique, l’astronomie, la physique, la chimie, la physiologie, et la physique sociale; telle est la formule encyclopédique qui, parmi le très-grand nombre de clas­si­fi­ca­tions que comportent les six sciences fondamentales, est seule logiquement conforme à la hiérarchie naturelle et invariable des phénomènes.”17 p. 115.

The sciences as arranged in this succession specified by M. Comte, do not logically conform to the natural and invariable hierarchy of phenomena; and {130} there is no serial order whatever in which they can be placed, which represents either their logical dependence or the dependence of phenomena. (See Genesis of Science, and foregoing Essay.)

“On conçoit, en effet, que l’étude rationelle de chaque science fondamentale exigeant la culture préalable de toutes celles qui la précèdent dans notre hiérarchie encyclopédique, n’a pu faire de progrès réels et prendre son véritable caractère, qu’ après un grand développement des sciences antérieures relatives à des phénomènes plus généraux, plus abstraits, moins compliqués, et indépendans des autres. C’est done dans cet ordre que la progression, quoique simultanée, a dû avoir lieu.” p. 100.

The historical development of the sciences has not taken place in this serial order; nor in any other serial order. There is no “true filiation of the sciences.” From the beginning, the abstract sciences, the ab­stract-con­crete sciences, and the concrete sciences, have progressed together: the first solving problems which the second and third presented, and growing only by the solution of the problems; and the second similarly growing by joining the first in solving the problems of the third. All along there has been a continuous action and reaction between the three great classes of sciences—an advance from concrete facts to abstract facts, and then an application of such abstract facts to the analysis of new orders of concrete facts. (See Genesis of Science.)

Such then are the organizing principles of M. Comte’s philosophy and my reasons for rejecting them. Leaving out of his “Exposition” those pre-established general {131} doctrines which are the common property of modern thinkers; these are the general doctrines which remain—these are the doctrines which fundamentally distinguish his system. From every one of them I dissent. To each proposition I oppose either a widely-different proposition, or a direct negation; and I not only do it now, but have done it from the time when I became acquainted with his writings. The rejection of his cardinal principles should, I think, alone suffice; but there are sundry other views of his, some of them largely characterizing his system, which I equally reject. Let us glance at them.

How organic beings have originated, is an inquiry which M. Comte deprecates as a useless speculation: asserting, as he does, that species are immutable.

This inquiry, I believe, admits of answer, and will be answered. That division of Biology which concerns itself with the origin of species, I hold to be the supreme division, to which all others are subsidiary. For on the verdict of Biology on this matter, must wholly depend our conception of human nature, past, present, and future; our theory of the mind; and our theory of society.

M. Comte contends that of what is commonly known as mental science, all that most important part which consists of the subjective analysis of our ideas, is an impossibility.

I have very emphatically expressed my belief in a subjective science of the mind, by writing a Principles of Psychology, one half of which is subjective.

M. Comte’s ideal of society is one in which government developed to the greatest extent—in which class-functions are far more under conscious public regulation than now—in which hierarchical organization with unquestioned authority shall guide everything—in which the individual life shall be subordinated in the greatest degree to the social life.

That form of society towards which we is are progressing, I hold to be one in which government will be reduced to the smallest amount possible, and freedom increased to the greatest amount possible—one in which human nature will have become so moulded by social discipline into fitness for the social state, that it will need little external restraint, but will be self-restrained—one in which the citizen will tolerate no interference with his freedom, save that which maintains the equal freedom of others—one in which the spontaneous {132} co-operation which has developed our industrial system, and is now developing it with increasing rapidity, will produce agencies for the discharge of nearly all social functions, and will leave to the primary governmental agency nothing beyond the function of maintaining those conditions to free action, which make such spontaneous co-operation possible—one in which individual life will thus be pushed to the greatest extent consistent with social life; and in which social life will have no other end than to maintain the completest sphere for individual life.

M. Comte, not including in his philosophy the con­scious­ness of a cause manifested to us in all phenomena, and yet holding that there must be a religion, which must have an object, takes for his object—Humanity. “This Collective Life (of Society) is in Comte’s system the Être Suprême; the only one we can know therefore the only one we can worship.”

I conceive, on the other hand, that the object of religious sentiment will ever continue to be, that which it has ever been—the unknown source of things. While the forms under which men are conscious of the unknown source of things, may fade away, the substance of the con­scious­ness is permanent. Beginning with causal agents conceived as imperfectly known; progressing to causal agents conceived as less known and less knowable; and coming at last to a universal causal agent posited as not to be known at all; the religious sentiment must ever continue to occupy itself with this universal causal agent. Having in the course of evolution come to have for its object of contemplation the Infinite Unknowable, the religious sentiment can never again (unless by retrogression) take a Finite Knowable, like Humanity, for its object of contemplation.

Here, then, are sundry other points, all of them important, and the last two supremely important, on which I am diametrically opposed to M. Comte; and did space permit, I could add many others. Radically differing from him as I thus do, in everything distinctive of his philosophy; and having invariably expressed my dissent, {133} publicly and privately, from the time I became acquainted with his writings; it may be imagined that I have been not a little startled to find myself classed as one of the same school. That any who are acquainted with my writings, should suppose I have any general sympathy with M. Comte, save that implied by preferring proved facts to superstitions, astonishes me.

It is true that, disagreeing with M. Comte, though I do, in all those fundamental views that are peculiar to him, I agree with him in sundry minor views. The doctrine that the education of the individual should accord in mode and arrangement with the education of mankind, considered historically, I have cited from him; and have endeavoured to enforce it. I entirely concur in his opinion that there requires a new order of scientific men, whose function shall be that of co-ordinating the results arrived at by the rest. To him, I believe, I am indebted for the conception of a social consensus; and when the time comes for dealing with this conception, I shall state my indebtedness. And I also adopt his word, Sociology. There are, I believe, in the part of his writings which I have read, various incidental thoughts of great depth and value; and I doubt not that were I to read more of his writings, I should find others.18 It is very probable, too, that I have said (as I am told I have) some things which M. Comte had already said. It would be difficult, I believe, to find two men who had no opinions in common. And it would be extremely strange if two men, starting from the same general doctrines established by modern science, should traverse some of the same fields of inquiry, without their lines of thought having any points of intersection. But {134} none of these minor agreements can be of much weight in comparison with the fundamental disagreements above specified. Leaving out of view that general community which we both have with the scientific thought of the age, the differences between us are essential, while the correspondences are non-essential. And I venture to think that kinship must be determined by essentials, and not by non-essentials.19

Joined with the ambiguous use of the phrase “Positive Philosophy,” which has led to a classing with M. Comte of many men who either ignore or reject his distinctive principles, there has been one special circumstance that has tended to originate and maintain this classing in my own case. The assumption of some relationship between M. Comte and myself, was unavoidably raised by the title of my first book—Social Statics. When that book was published, I was unaware that this title had been before used: had I known the fact, I should certainly have adopted an alternative title which I had in view.20 If, however, instead of {135} the title, the work itself be considered, its irrelation to the philosophy of M. Comte becomes abundantly manifest. There is decisive testimony on this point. In the North British Review for August, 1851, a reviewer of Social Statics says―

“The title of this work, however, is a complete misnomer. According to all analogy, the phrase “Social Statics” should be used only in some such sense as that in which, as we have already explained, it is used by Comte, namely as designating a branch of inquiry whose end it is to ascertain the laws of social equilibrium or order, as distinct ideally from those of social movement or progress. Of this Mr. Spencer does not seem to have had the slightest notion, but to have chosen the name for his work only as a means of indicating vaguely that it proposed to treat of social concerns in a scientific manner.”—p. 321.

Respecting M. Comte’s application of the words statics and dynamics to social phenomena, now that I know what it is, I will only say that while I perfectly understand how, by a defensible extension of their mathematical meanings, the one may be used to indicate social functions in balance, and the other social functions out of balance, I am quite at a loss to understand how the phenomena of structure can be included in the one any more than in the other. But the two things which here concern me, are, first, to point out that I had not “the slightest notion” of giving Social Statics the meaning which M. Comte gave it; and, second, to explain the meaning which I did give it. The units of any aggregate of matter, are in equilibrium when they severally act and re-act on one another on all sides with equal forces. A state of change among them implies that there are forces exercised by some that are not counterbalanced by like forces exercised by others; and a state of rest implies the absence of such un­coun­ter­bal­anced {136} forces—implies, if the units are homogeneous, equal distances among them—implies a maintenance of their respective spheres of molecular motion. Similarly among the units of a society, the fundamental condition to equilibrium, is, that the restraining forces which the units exercise on each other, shall be balanced. If the spheres of action of some units are diminished by extension of the spheres of action of others, there necessarily results an unbalanced force which tends to produce political change in the relations of individuals; and the tendency to change can cease, only when individuals cease to aggress on each other’s spheres of action—only when there is maintained that law of equal freedom, which it was the purpose of Social Statics to enforce in all its consequences. Besides this totally-unlike conception of what constitutes Social Statics, the work to which I applied that title, is fundamentally at variance with M. Comte’s teachings in almost everything. So far from alleging, as M. Comte does, that society is to be re-organized by philosophy; it alleges that society is to be re-organized only by the accumulated effects of habit on character. Its aim is not the increase of authoritative control over citizens, but the decrease of it. A more pronounced individualism, instead of a more pronounced nationalism, is its ideal. So profoundly is my political creed at variance with the creed of M. Comte, that, unless I am misinformed, it has been instanced by a leading English disciple of M. Comte as the creed to which he has the greatest aversion. One point of coincidence, however, is recognizable. The analogy between an individual organism and a social organism, which was held by Plato and by Hobbes, is asserted in Social Statics, as it is in the Sociology of M. Comte. Very rightly, M. Comte has made this analogy the cardinal idea of this division of his philosophy. In Social Statics, the aim of which is essentially ethical, this analogy is pointed out incidentally, to enforce certain ethical considerations; and is there obviously suggested partly by the definition of life which {137} Coleridge derived from Schelling, and partly by the gen­er­al­i­za­tions of physiologists there referred to (chap. xxx. §§. 12, 13, 16). Excepting this incidental agreement, however, the contents of Social Statics are so entirely antagonistic to the philosophy of M. Comte, that, but for the title, the work would never, I think, have raised the remembrance of him—unless, indeed, by the association of opposites.21

And now let me point out that which really has exercised a profound influence over my course of thought. The truth which Harvey’s embryological inquiries first dimly indicated, which was afterwards more clearly perceived by Wolff, and which was put into a definite shape by Von Baer—the truth that all organic development is a change from a state of homogeneity to a state of heterogeneity—this it is from which very many of the conclusions which I now hold, have indirectly resulted. In Social Statics, there is everywhere manifested a dominant belief in the evolution of man and of society. There is also manifested the belief that this evolution is in both cases determined by the incidence of conditions—the actions of circumstances. And there is further, in the sections already referred to, a recognition of the fact that organic and social evolutions, conform to the same law. Falling amid beliefs in evolutions of various orders, everywhere determined by natural causes (beliefs {138} again displayed in the Theory of Population and in the Principles of Psychology); the formula of Von Baer set up a process of organization. The extension of it to other kinds of phenomena than those of individual and social bodies, is traceable through successive stages. It may be seen in the last paragraph of an essay on “The Philosophy of Style,” published in October, 1852; again in an essay on “Manners and Fashion,” published in April, 1854; and then, in a comparatively advanced form, in an essay on “Progress: its Law and Cause,” published in April, 1857. Afterwards, there came the recognition of the need for modifying Von Baer’s formula by including the trait of increasing definiteness; next the inquiry into those general laws of force from which this universal transformation necessarily results; next the deduction of these from the ultimate law of the persistence of force; next the perception that there is everywhere a process of Dissolution complementary to that of Evolution; and, finally, the determination of the conditions (specified in the foregoing essay) under which Evolution and Dissolution respectively occur. The filiation of these results is, I think, tolerably manifest. The process has been one of continuous development, set up by the addition of Von Baer’s law to a number of ideas that were in harmony with it. And I am not conscious of any other influences by which the process has been affected.

It is possible, however, that there may have been influences of which I am not conscious; and my opposition to M. Comte’s system may have been one of them. The presentation of antagonistic thoughts, often produces greater definiteness and development of one’s own thoughts. It is probable that the doctrines set forth in the essay on “The Genesis of Science,” might never have been reached, had not my dissent from M. Comte’s conception, led me to work them out; and but for this, I might not have arrived at the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of the sciences exhibited in the foregoing essay. Possibly there are other cases in which the stimulus of {139} repugnance to M. Comte’s views, may have aided in elaborating my own views; though I cannot call to mind any other cases.

Let it by no means be supposed from all I have said, that I do not regard M. Comte’s speculations as of value. True or untrue, his system as a whole, has doubtless produced important and salutary revolutions of thought in many minds; and will doubtless do so in many more. Doubtless, too, not a few of those who dissent from his general views, have been healthfully stimulated by consideration of them. The presentation of scientific knowledge and method as a whole, whether rightly or wrongly co-ordinated, cannot have failed greatly to widen the conceptions of most of his readers. And he has done especial service by familiarizing men with the idea of a social science, based on the other sciences. Beyond which benefits resulting from the general character and scope of his philosophy, I believe that there are scattered through his pages many large ideas that are valuable not only as stimuli, but for their actual truth.

It has been by no means an agreeable task to make these personal explanations; but it has seemed to me a task not to be avoided. Differing so profoundly as I do from M. Comte on all fundamental doctrines, save those which we inherit in common from the past; it has become needful to dissipate the impression that I agree with him—needful to show that a large part of what is currently known as “positive philosophy,” is not “positive philosophy” in the sense of being peculiarly M. Comte’s philosophy; and to show that beyond that portion of the so-called “positive philosophy” which is not peculiar to him, I dissent from it.

And now at the close, as at the outset, let me express my great regret that these explanations should have been called forth by the statements of a critic who has treated me so liberally. Nothing will, I fear, prevent the foregoing pages from appearing like a very ungracious response to M. Laugel’s sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly-writ­ten review. I can only hope that the gravity of the question at issue, in so far as it {140} concerns myself, may be taken in mitigation, if not as a sufficient apology.


The preceding pages originally formed the second portion of a pamphlet entitled The Classification of the Sciences: to which are added Reasons for dissenting from the Philosophy of M. Comte, which was first published in 1864. For some time past this pamphlet has been included in the third volume of my Essays, &c., and has been no longer accessible in a separate form. There has recently been diffused afresh, the misconception which originally led me to exhibit my entire rejection of those views of M. Comte, which essentially distinguish his system from other systems; and the motives which then prompted me to publish the reasons for this rejection, now prompt me to put them within the reach of all who care to inquire about the matter. The Appendix, presenting an outline of the leading propositions of the Synthetic Philosophy, will further aid the reader in forming a correct judgment.

Oct. 7, 1884.


Some fourteen or more years ago, an American friend requested me, with a view to a certain use which he named, to furnish him with a succinct statement of the cardinal principles developed in the successive works I had published and in those I was intending to publish. This statement I here reproduce. Having been written solely for an expository purpose, and without thought of M. Comte and his system, it will serve better than a statement now drawn up since it is not open to the suspicion of being adapted to the occasion.22

“1. Throughout the universe in general and in detail, there is an unceasing redistribution of matter and motion.

“2. This redistribution constitutes evolution where there is a {141} predominant integration of matter and dissipation of motion, and constitutes dissolution where there is a predominant absorption of motion and disintegration of matter.

“3. Evolution is simple when the process of integration, or the formation of a coherent aggregate, proceeds uncomplicated by other processes.

“4. Evolution is compound when, along with this primary change from an incoherent to a coherent state, there go on secondary changes due to differences in the circumstances of the different parts of the aggregate.

“5. These secondary changes constitute a transformation of the homogeneous into the heterogeneous—a transformation which, like the first, is exhibited in the universe as a whole and in all (or nearly all) its details: in the aggregate of stars and nebulae; in the planetary system; in the earth as an inorganic mass; in each organism, vegetal or animal (Von Baer’s law); in the aggregate of organisms throughout geologic time; in the mind; in society; in all products of social activity.

“6. The process of integration, acting locally as well as generally, combines with the process of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion to render this change not simply from homogeneity to heterogeneity, but from an indefinite homogeneity to a definite heterogeneity; and this trait of increasing definiteness, which accompanies the trait of increasing heterogeneity, is, like it, exhibited in the totality of things and in all its divisions and sub-divisions down to the minutest.

“7. Along with this redistribution of the matter composing any evolving aggregate, there goes on a redistribution of the retained motion of its components in relation to one another: this also becomes, step by step, more definitely heterogeneous.

“8. In the absence of a homogeneity that is infinite and absolute, that redistribution of which evolution is one phase, is inevitable. The causes which necessitate it are these:―

“9. The instability of the homogeneous, which is consequent upon the different exposures of the different parts of any limited aggregate to incident forces. The trans­for­ma­tions hence resulting are complicated by―

“10. The multiplication of effects. Every mass and part of a mass on which a force falls, sub-divides and differentiates that force, which thereupon proceeds to work a variety of changes; and each of these becomes the parent of sim­i­lar­ly-mul­ti­ply­ing changes: the multiplication of them becoming greater in proportion as the aggregate becomes more heterogeneous. And these two causes of increasing dif­fer­entia­tions are furthered by―

“11. Segregation, which is a process tending ever to separate unlike units and to bring together like units—so serving continually to sharpen, or make definite, dif­fer­entia­tions otherwise caused.

“12. Equilibration is the final result of these trans­for­ma­tions which an evolving aggregate undergoes. The changes go on until there is reached an equilibrium between the forces which all parts of the aggregate are exposed to and the forces these parts oppose to them. Equilibration may pass through a transition stage of balanced motions (as in a planetary system) or of {142} balanced functions (as in a living body) on the way to ultimate equilibrium; but the state of rest in inorganic bodies, or death in organic bodies, is the necessary limit of the changes constituting evolution.

“13. Dissolution is the counter-change which sooner or later every evolved aggregate undergoes. Remaining exposed to surrounding forces that are unequilibrated, each aggregate is ever liable to be dissipated by the increase, gradual or sudden, of its contained motion; and its dissipation, quickly undergone by bodies lately animate and slowly undergone by inanimate masses, remains to be undergone at an indefinitely remote period by each planetary and stellar mass, which, since an indefinitely distant period in the past, has been slowly evolving: the cycle of its trans­for­ma­tions being thus completed.

“14. This rhythm of evolution and dissolution, completing itself during short periods in small aggregates, and in the vast aggregates distributed through space completing itself in periods which are immeasurable by human thought, is, so far as we can see, universal and eternal—each alternating phase of the process predominating now in this region of space and now in that, as local conditions determine.

“15. All these phenomena, from their great features down to their minutest details, are necessary results of the persistence of force, under its forms of matter and motion. Given these as distributed through space, and their quantities being unchangeable, either by increase or decrease, there inevitably result the continuous redistributions dis­tin­guish­able as evolution and dissolution, as well as all those special traits above enumerated.

“16. That which persists unchanging in quantity but ever changing in form, under these sensible appearances which the universe presents to us, transcends human knowledge and conception—is an unknown and unknowable power, which we are obliged to recognize as without limit in space and without beginning or end in time.”

These successive paragraphs set forth in the most abstract way, that process of transformation going on throughout the Cosmos as a whole, and in each larger or smaller portion of it. In First Principles the statements contained in these paragraphs are elaborated, explained, and illustrated; and in subsequent volumes of the series, the purpose has been to interpret the several great groups of phenomena, Astronomical, Geological (both postponed), Biological, Psychological, Sociological, and Ethical, in conformity with these general laws of Evolution which First Principles enunciates.

If it can be shown that any one of the above propositions has been adopted from, or has been suggested by, the {143} Positive Philosophy, there will be evidence that the Synthetic Philosophy is to that extent indebted to it. Or if there can be quoted any expressed conviction of M. Comte, that the factors producing changes of all kinds, inorganic and organic, co-operate everywhere throughout the Cosmos in the same general way, and everywhere work metamorphoses having the same essential traits, a much more decided indebtedness may reasonably be supposed.

So far as I know it, however, the Positive Philosophy contains none of the special ideas above enumerated, nor any of the more general ideas they involve.


On pp. 119 and 120, I have pointed out that the followers of M. Comte, swayed by the spirit of discipleship, habitually ascribe to him a great deal which was the common inheritance of the scientific world before he wrote, and to which he himself laid no claim. Kindred remarks have since been made by others, both in England and in France—the one by Mr. Mill, and the other by M. Fouillée. Mr. Mill says:―

“The foundation of M. Comte’s philosophy is thus in no way peculiar to him, but the general property of the age, however far as yet from being universally accepted even by thoughtful minds. The philosophy called Positive is not a recent invention of M. Comte, but a simple adherence to the traditions of all the great scientific minds whose discoveries have made the human race what it is. M. Comte has never presented it in any other light. But he has made the doctrine his own by his manner of treating it.”—Auguste Comte and Positivism, pp. 8, 9.

In his Histoire de la Philosophie, 1875, M. Alfred Fouillée writes:―

“Saint-Simon voulut successivement organiser la société à l’aide de la science (prétention d’où sortit le positivisme) puis à l’aide de l’industrie, et enfin à l’aide d’une religion nouvelle, capable de ‘forcer chacun de ses membres à suivre le précepte de l’amour du prochain.’”—p. 428.

“Les doctrines sociales de Saint-Simon, jointes au naturalisme de Cabanis et de Broussais, donnèrent naissance au ‘positivisme’ d’Auguste Comte. {144} Ce dernier, comme Saint-Simon, voit dans la science sociale ou ‘sociologie’ le terme et le but de toutes les recherches scientifiques.”—p. 422.

“A cette méthode Auguste Comte ajouta des vues historiques, qu’il croyait entièrement originales, sur les trois états par où passe nécessairement selon lui la connaissance humaine: état théologique, état métaphysique, et état scientifique. Le germe de cette théorie était déjà dans Turgot.”—p. 424.

“En somme, Auguste Comte a eu le mérite d’insister sur les méthodes qui conviennent aux sciences de la nature; mais il faut avouer que ces méthodes étaient connues bien avant lui.”—p. 425.


14 A clear illustration of this process, is furnished by the recent mental integration of Heat, Light, Electricity, etc., as modes of molecular motion. If we go a step back, we see that the modern conception of Electricity, resulted from the integration in con­scious­ness, of the two forms of it involved in the galvanic battery and in the electric-machine. And going back to a still earlier stage, we see how the conception of statical electricity, arose by the coalescence in thought, of the pre­vious­ly-se­pa­rate forces manifested in rubbed amber, in rubbed glass, and in lightning. With such illustrations before him, no one can, I think, doubt that the process has been the same from the beginning.

15 Possibly it will be said that M. Comte himself admits that what he calls the perfection of the positive system, will probably never be reached; and that what he condemns is the inquiry into the natures of causes and not the general recognition of cause. To the first of these allegations I reply that, as I understand M. Comte, the obstacle to the perfect realization of the positive philosophy is the impossibility of carrying generalization so far as to reduce all particular facts to cases of one general fact—not the impossibility of excluding the con­scious­ness of cause. And to the second allegation I reply that the essential principle of his philosophy is an avowed ignoring of cause altogether. For if it is not, what becomes of his alleged distinction between the perfection of the positive system and the perfection of the metaphysical system? And here let me point out that, by affirming exactly the opposite to that which M. Comte thus affirms, I am excluded from the positive school. If his own definition of positivism is to be taken, then, as I hold that what he defines as positivism is an absolute impossibility, it is clear that I cannot be what he calls a positivist.

16 A friendly critic alleges that M. Comte is not fairly represented by this quotation, and that he is blamed by his biographer, M. Littré, for his too-great insistance on feeling as a motor of humanity. If in his “Positive Politics,” which I presume is here referred to, M. Comte abandons his original position, so much the better. But I am here dealing with what is known as “the Positive Philosophy;” and that the passage above quoted does not misrepresent it, is proved by the fact that this doctrine is re-asserted at the commencement of the Sociology.

17 In 1885, during a controversy with one of M. Comte’s English disciples, I was blamed for speaking “of Comte as making six sciences,” and was told that “in all Comte’s works, except the first, he makes seven sciences.” As I was dealing with The Positive Philosophy, I thought I could not do better than give the foregoing extract from the Cours de Philosophie Positive; and it did not occur to me that I was called upon to see whether, in any of his later voluminous works, M. Comte had made a different statement. My opponent, however, enlarged on this “blunder,” as he politely called it: apparently oblivious of the fact that if it was a blunder on my part to speak of Comte as recognizing six sciences when in his later days he recognized seven, it was a much more serious blunder on the part of Comte himself to have long overlooked the seventh.

18 M. Comte’s “Exposition” I read in the original in 1852; and in two or three other places have referred to the original to get his exact words. The Inorganic Physics, and the first chapter of the Biology, I read in Miss Martineau’s condensed translation, when it appeared. The rest of M. Comte’s views I know only through Mr. Lewes’s outline, and through incidental references.

19 In his work, Auguste Comte et la Philosophie Positive (1863), M. Littré defending the Comtean clas­si­fi­ca­tion of the sciences from the criticism I made upon it in the “Genesis of Science,” deals with me wholly as an antagonist. The chapter he devotes to his reply, opens by placing me in direct opposition to the English adherents of Comte, named in the preceding chapter.

20 I believed at the time, and have never doubted until now, that the choice of this title was absolutely independent of its previous use by M. Comte. While writing these pages, I have found reason to think the contrary. On referring to Social Statics, to see what were my views of social evolution in 1850, when M. Comte was to me but a name, I met with the following sentence:—“Social philosophy may be aptly divided (as political economy has been) into statics and dynamics” (ch. xxx. § 1). This I remembered to be a reference to a division which I had seen in the Political Economy of Mr. Mill. But why had I not mentioned Mr. Mill’s name? On referring to the first edition of his work, I found, at the opening of Book iv., this sentence:—“The three preceding parts include as detailed a view as the limits of this treatise permit, of what, by a happy generalization of a mathematical phrase, has been called the Statics of the subject.” Here was the solution of the question. The division had not been made by Mr. Mill, but by some writer (on Political Economy I supposed) who was not named by him; and whom I did not know. It is now manifest, however, that while I supposed I was giving a more extended use to this division, I was but returning to the original use which Mr. Mill had limited to his special topic. Another thing is, I think, tolerably manifest. As I evidently wished to point out my obligation to some unknown political economist, whose division I thought I was extending, I should have named him had I known who he was. And in that case should not have put this extension of the division as though it were new.

21 Let me add that the conception developed in Social Statics, dates back to a series of letters on the “Proper Sphere of Government,” published in the Nonconformist newspaper in the latter half of 1842, and republished as a pamphlet in 1843. In these letters will be found, along with many crude ideas, the same belief in the conformity of social phenomena to unvariable laws; the same belief in human progression as determined by such laws; the same belief in the moral modification of men as caused by social discipline; the same belief in the tendency of social arrangements “of themselves to assume a condition of stable equilibrium;” the same repudiation of state-control over various departments of social life; the same limitation of state-action to the maintenance of equitable relations among citizens. The writing of Social Statics arose from a dissatisfaction with the basis on which the doctrines set forth in those letters were placed: the second half of that work is an elaboration of these doctrines; and the first half a statement of the principles from which they are deducible.

22 Published many years since in America, this statement was republished in England eight years since. See Athenæum for July 22nd, 1882.