Friday, May 25, 2012

Comte-n Pickin' Positivism

Last year, a blogging friend of mine posted an encomium to Positivist philosopher Auguste Comte. Along with the joy of discovering Comte's story, my friend conveyed a sense that Comte was on the side of the angels. Some of this is understandable: Comte is associated with creating the discipline of sociology, he supported Order and Progress, and he promised a better world through Science. However, Comte was far from an anodyne purveyor of Better Living Through Science. There's a pretty ugly grasping after power that lurks in his pages.

What Comte was proposing (in deadly boring prose) was nothing short of revolutionary: to give a general view of the progress of the human mind through history, and through "positive science" to solve mankind's problems. Comte posits that human development has three phases: the Theological, the Metaphysical, and the Positive. He establishes a hierarchy of scientific knowledge, culminating in Sociology, or Social Science. He feels that "Social Physics" can connect all the sciences, and while deriving from the speculatively, it may prove to move human progress (which is, above all, scientific progress) forward more rapidly. When Sociology has been perfected, all human knowledge will be directed by it. It will remedy defects in Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy, Mathematics, etc.

There's little to suggest that Comte perfected some kind of Scientific Method that is universally utilized today. There's little or no discernible science behind it. The "scientific" nature of his goals seems more like a pose than anything else. From a modern vantage point, he reads like a marginally insane person. In observing his earnestness, I'm reminded of this quip I came across:
She spent all her life doing good to others. You could tell the others by their hunted look.
Reading through Comte's Positive Philosophy, I felt like one of the hunted others. And the hunt is part and parcel of Comte's approach. Once both the theological and metaphysical are undermined, there is nothing left but a social science and engineering that treats humankind as a material to be analyzed and manipulated. Mankind's problems are solved only once the Problem of Mankind is solved. Thanks, but no thanks.

C. S. Lewis spent much of The Abolition of Man drawing the connection between the Man's Mastery of Nature in the Enlightenment and Man's Power over Men in the contemporary world.
I am not yet considering whether the total result of such ambivalent victories is a good thing or a bad. I am only making clear what Man's conquest of Nature really means and especially that final stage in the conquest, which, perhaps, is not far off. The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall have 'taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho' and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?
The sort of Mastery Comte was after invariable leads to the sort of Power that tyrants abuse in the modern world. Interestingly, John Stuart Mill, who was initially quite taken with Comte, observed  that he attempted to "establish a despotism of society over the individual, surpassing anything contemplated in the political ideal of the most rigid disciplinarian among the ancient philosophers." Mill rightly saw Comte's system as displacing traditional religion. Mill had some sympathy with it, but even he conceded that it endangered human freedom.

I love discovering unread writers and rediscovering new things in writers I thought I knew well. I'm reading a bit of the Utilitarians now. Auguste Comte, on the other hand, is leaving me cold.
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