Auguste Comte's Attempt to build up a Synthetic Philosophy.--The causes of his failure: the religious explanation of the moral sense in man.
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It was natural that, as soon as science had attained such generalizations, the need of a synthetic philosophy should be felt; a philosophy which, no longer discussing "the essence of things," first causes," the " aim of life," and similar symbolic expressions, and repudiating all sorts of anthropomorphism (the endowment of natural phenomena with human characteristics), should be a digest and unification of all our knowledge; a philosophy which, proceeding from the simple to the complex, would furnish a key to the understanding of all nature, in its entirety, and, through that, indicate to us the lines of further research and the means of discovering new, yet unknown, correlations (so-called laws), while at the same time it would inspire us with confidence in the correctness of our conclusions, however much they may differ from current superstitions.
Such attempts at a constructive synthetic philosophy were made several times during the nineteenth century, the chief of them being those of Auguste Comte and of Herbert Spencer. On these two we shall have to dwell.
The need of such a philosophy as this was admitted already in the eighteenth century-by the philosopher and economist Turgot and, subsequently, even more clearly by Saint-Simon. As has been stated above, the encyclopædists, and likewise Voltaire in his "Philosophical Dictionary," had already begun to construct it. In a more rigorous, scientific form which would satisfy the requirements of the exact sciences, it was now undertaken by Auguste Comte.
It is well known that Comte acquitted himself very ably of his task so far as the exact sciences were concerned. He was quite right in including the science of life (Biology) and that of human societies (Sociology) in the circle of sciences compassed by his positive philosophy; and his philosophy has had a great influence upon all scientists and philosophers of the nineteenth century.
But why was it that this great philosopher proved so weak the moment he took up, in his "Positive Politics," the study of social institutions, especially those of modern times? This is the question which most admirers of Comte have asked themselves. How could such a broad and strong mind come to the religion which Comte preached in the closing years of his life? Littré and Mill, it is well known, refused even to recognize Comte's "Politics" as part of his philosophy; they considered it the product of a weakened mind; while others utterly failed in their endeavors to discover a unity of method in the two works.1
And yet the contradiction between the two parts of Comte's philosophy is in the highest degree characteristic and throws a bright light upon the problems of our own time.
When Comte had finished his "Course of Positive Philosophy," he undoubtedly must have perceived that he had not yet touched upon the most important point--namely, the origin in man of the moral principle and the influence of this principle upon human life. He was bound to account for the origin of this principle, to explain it by the same phenomena by which he had explained life in general, and to show why man feels the necessity of obeying his moral sense, or, at least, of reckoning with it. But for this he was lacking in knowledge (at the time he wrote this was quite natural) as well as in boldness. So, in lieu of the God of all religions, whom man must worship and to whom he must appeal in order to be virtuous, he placed Humanity, writ large. To this new idol he ordered us to pray that we might develop in ourselves the moral concept. But once this step had been taken--once it was found necessary to pay homage to something standing outside of and higher than the individual in order to retain man on the moral path--all the rest followed naturally. Even the ritualism of Comte's religion molded itself very naturally upon the model of all the preceding positive religions.
Once Comte would not admit that everything that is moral in man grew out of observation of nature and from the very conditions of men living in societies,--this step was necessary. He did not see that the moral sentiment in man is as deeply rooted as all the rest of his physical constitution inherited by him from his slow evolution; that the moral concept in man had made its first appearance in the animal societies which existed long before man had appeared upon earth; and that, consequently, whatever may be the inclinations of separate individuals, this concept must persist in mankind as long as the human species does not begin to deteriorate,---the anti-moral activity of separate men inevitably calling forth a counter-activity on the part of those who surround them, just as action causes reaction in the physical world. Comte did not understand this, and therefore he was compelled to invent a new idol--Humanity--in order that it should constantly recall man to the moral path.
Like Saint-Simon, Fourier, and almost all his other contemporaries, Comte thus
paid his tribute to the Christian education he had received. Without a struggle
of the evil principles with the good--in which the two should be equally
matched--and without man's application in prayer to the good principle and its
apostles on earth for maintaining him in the virtuous path, Christianty cannot be
conceived. And Comte, dominated from childhood by this Christian idea, reverted
to it as soon as he found himself face to face with the question of morality and
the means of fortifying it in the heart of man.
None that know the author's fairness of mind will be likely to accuse him of
partiality in the scathing criticism he here makes of the Apostle of Positivism.
Lest any reader be inclined to do so, however, it may not be amiss to cite on
this point the opinion of a critic unquestionably conservative and, presumably,
impartial--an opinion I came upon by mere chance while engaged on this
translation. Scattered through pages 560 to 563 of Falckenberg's "History of
Modern Philosophy" (Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1893), I find the following
estimate of Comte and his uneven work: "The extraordinary character of which
[Comte's philosophy] has given occasion to his critics to make a complete
di-vision between the second, 'subjective or sentimental,' period of his
thinking, in which the philosopher is said to be transformed into the high priest
of a new religion, and the first, the positivistic period....Beneath the surface
of the most sober inquiry mystical and dictatorial tendencies pulsate in Comte
from the beginning....The historical influence exercised by Comte through his
later writings is extremely small in comparison with that of his chief
work....Comte's school divided into two groups--the apostates, who reject the
subjective phase and hold fast to the earlier doctrine, and the
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