In that year of revolutions 1848, Auguste Comte published his book
GENERAL VIEW OF POSITIVISM;
SYSTEM OF THOUGHT AND LIFE,
ADAPTED TO THE
GREAT WESTERN REPUBLIC,
FORMED OF THE
FIVE ADVANCED NATIONS,
THE FRENCH, ITALIAN, SPANISH, BRITISH, AND GERMAN,
WHICH, SINCE THE TIME OF CHARLEMAGNE, HAVE ALWAYS CONSTITUTED A POLITICAL WHOLE.
or, (A) General view of Positivism for short. We'll ignore that Comte is taking his mouth a bit too full here, since the main point is that clearly Comte considered some nations to be "advanced", and we may safely conjecture that he considered som other nations to be "primitive" (though possibly advancing).
At the top of the frontispiece is written:
REPUBLIC OF THE WEST - ORDER AND PROGRESS
Apparently Comte was already operating with a united Western Europe; but the real meat is anyway the words "Order and Progress" - the idea being that there's only progress where there is order, not in chaos.
Below the title field we have these pretty words:
Réorganiser, sans dieu ni roi, par le culte systématique de I'Humanité.
Nul n'a droit qu'à faire son devoir.
L'esprit doit toujours être le ministre du coeur, et jamais son esclave.
Reorganization, irrespectively of God or king, by the worship of Humanity, systematically adopted.
Man's only right is to do his duty.
The Intellect should always be the servant of the Heart, and should never be its slave,
The French word 'culte' may not have quite the same connotations as English 'worship'; but we'll ignore that and focus on the last line. Comte's accusation against Christianity is exactly that it had made the intellect slave to the heart, and Comte wanted to liberate the intellect, yet keep it as the servant of the heart.
While Comte therefore turned against Christianity, he did not consider atheism to be the last step, as willi be more detailed below. Instead of the purely negative approach of atheism, Comte wanted to establish a new positive philosophy, the basis of which is the order that is to be found in the external, natural world, an order to be discovered by science and formulated in scientific laws. Scientific progress, therefore, is the search for order in nature, and the object of science is to present a systematic view of human life as a basis for modifying its imperfections, these imperfections being due to selfishness, selfishness in turn being caused by ignorance. Therefore the proper function of intellect is the service of the social sympathies, which is what Comte means by "the heart". Compare this to Darwin's mentioning of social instincts in The Descent of Man and his focus on sympathy as the charateristic of civilized nations.
We owe the word sociology (sociologie, but originally called physique sociale) to Comte. He developed a hierarchical systematics of sciences, with inorganic sciences at the bottom, followed by organic sciences, and with sociology at the top integrating all the others. As the intellect, the pursuit of science, is to be subservient to the heart, lower sciences are to be subservient to higher sciences, it all ending in sociology, which directly would serve ethical and social progress. For Comte, the frequent "reductionist" view of scientists is turning things the wrong way around; but we'll look closer at this later.
According to Comte, each science would pass through three phases: Theological, Metaphysical, and Scientific or "Positive". These phases were closely tied with the changes brought through the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. By Theological is meant the pre-Enlightenment view of society, where each individual human's place in society and society's restrictions upon each individual human were referenced to God. By Metaphysical is meant the introduction of universal human rights following the French revolution of 1789. These rights, while certainly on a higher plane than the authority of any human ruler, which therefore could not deny or manipulate them, were only metaphorically referenced to God. It's worth here to notice that Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651) had mentioned unalienable rights, so the idea wasn't new. By Scientific or Positive is meant the human ability as exemplified by Napoléon to find solutions to social problems and bring them into force despite the proclamations of universal human rights or prophecy of the will of God. So, might makes right, if it serves social progress.
Science, then, is not speculative or merely observatory, but manipulating, and part of scientific progress is to investifate the limits of manipulation, what can be changed. Comte's epistemological view of the relationship between facts, theory and practice therefore is that every theory must be based on facts, but it's also only within a theory that facts make any sense, indeed will be noticed, and practice is the application of a theory, an experiment, whereby new facts may be learned, which in turn may lead to modification of the theory.
As mentioned, for Comte, selfishness which is based on ignorance is to be overcome by the scientific progress, and it is actually Comte that coined the word 'altruism' to refer to the moral obligation of individuals to serve others and place their interests above one's own. Therefore, Comte opposed individual human rights since they were considered not to further altruism. As an aside, for Ernst Haeckel it was more a question of balance between selv-love and love for others - love thy neighbor like you love yourself; that is, you need to love yourself as well to love your neighbor. For Hitler, in return, the duty of the individual was to serve the nation unconditionally, because it was only through membership of the nation any individual was that individual.
To sum up, for Comte the purpose of science is not the disinterested accumulation of knowledge, but science is subservient to society, subservient to social change and progress, from which science in turn will benefit, since social change will be a scientific experiment.
Now, let's look at some excerpts from A General View of Positivism, Chapter 1, "The Intellectual Character of Positivism". Comte writes:
Our doctrine, therefore, is one which renders hypocrisy and oppression alike impossible. And it now stands forward as the result of all the efforts of the past, for the regeneration of order, which, whether considered individually or socially, is so deeply compromised by the anarchy of the present time. It establishes a fundamental principle by which true philosophy and sound polity are brought into correlation; a principle which can be felt as well as proved, and which is at once the keystone of a system and a basis of government.
Note here the phrase "regeneration of order"; that is, there had been an order (under Napoléon), but currently that order is compromised by anarchy. To many it may appear strange to claim that the reign of Napoléon was a reign of order; wasn't it just one long war? But Napoléon wasn't just the great military leader, he was also a great organizer with a very clear understanding of the importance of logistics and engineering in war as well as in peace. For instance, we owe the invention of house numbers - to facilitate the post service - to Napoléon.
For Comte, instead of anarchy, what was needed was unity, human unity, both individually and collectively. And the first condition for unity is the subordination of the intellect to the heart. Comte writes:
Without this the unity that we seek can never be placed on a permanent basis, whether individually or collectively. It is essential to have some influence sufficiently powerful to produce convergence amid the heterogeneous and often antagonistic tendencies of so complex an organism as ours. But this first condition, indispensable as it is, would be quite insufficient for the purpose, without some objective basis, existing independently of ourselves in the external world. That basis consists for us in the laws or Order of the phenomena by which Humanity is regulated. The subjection of human life to this order is incontestable; and as soon as the intellect has enabled us to comprehend it, it becomes possible for the feeling of love to exercise a controlling influence over our discordant tendencies. This, then, is the mission allotted to the intellect in the Positive synthesis; in this sense it is that it should be consecrated to the service of the heart.
The order existing in the external world is objective in that it is not an order we can choose; it exists independently of ourselves. In short, realizing the existence of this order as a common pre-condition is what enables us to overcome our "discordant tendencies".
I have said that our conception of human unity must be totally inadequate, and, indeed cannot deserve the name, so long as it does not embrace every element of our nature. But it would be equally fatal to the completeness of this great conception to think of human nature irrespectively of what lies outside it. A purely subjective unity, without any objective basis, would be simply impossible. In the first place any attempt to coordinate man’s moral nature, without regard to the external world, supposing the attempt feasible, would have very little permanent influence on our happiness, whether collectively or individually; since happiness depends so largely upon our relations to all that exists around us. Besides this, we have to consider the exceeding imperfection of our nature. Self-love is deeply implanted in it, and when left to itself is far stronger than Social Sympathy. The social instincts would never gain the mastery were they not sustained and called into constant exercise by the economy of the external world, an influence which at the same time checks the power of the selfish instincts.
That is, human nature should not be studied by isolating the individual human from its external world; the move should be from a study of that external world to an understanding of the individual. This is why Comte has sociology to be the integrating science of all other sciences. In short, sociology should not be understood as multiplied anthropology, but the individual human should be understood within its external world, which exercises its influence on the individual. Note here the use of the phrases "social instincts" and "selfish instincts", the former frequently used by Darwin in The Descent of Man.
The "economy of the external world" is what enables the check on the selfish instincts, because it functions as an external power:
The possibility of moral unity depends, therefore, even in the case of the individual, but still more in that of society, upon the necessity of recognising our subjection to an external power. By this means our self-regarding instincts are rendered susceptible of discipline. In themselves they are strong enough to neutralise all sympathetic tendencies, were it not for the support that the latter find in this External Order. Its discovery is due to the intellect; which is thus enlisted in the service of feeling, with the ultimate purpose of regulating action.
So, again, the study of nature is not only to satisfy philosophical speculations, but the study of the laws of nature needs to acknowledge the influence of the "External Order":
Thus it is that an intellectual synthesis, or systematic study of the laws of nature, is needed on far higher grounds than those of satisfying our theoretical faculties, which are, for the most part, very feeble, even in men who devote themselves to a life of thought. It is needed, because it solves at once the most difficult problem of the moral synthesis. The higher impulses within us are brought under the influence of a powerful stimulus from without. By its means they are enabled to control our discordant impulses, and to maintain a state of harmony towards which they have always tended, but which, without such aid, could never be realised. Moreover, this conception of the order of nature evidently supplies the basis for a synthesis of human action; for the efficacy of our action depends entirely upon their conformity to this order.
The recognition of an external power that limits our possibilities is what makes a society possible
Suppose, for instance, that man were exempt from the necessity of living on the earth, and were free to pass at will from one planet to another, the very notion of society would be rendered impossible by the licence which each individual would have to give way to whatever unsettling and distracting impulses his nature might incline him. Our propensities are so heterogeneous and so deficient in elevation, that there would be no fixity or consistency in our conduct, but for these insurmountable conditions. Our feeble reason may fret at such restrictions, but without them all its deliberations would be confused and purposeless.
That is, absolute freedom is anarchy, and it's even unworkable, because
[w]e are powerless to create: all that we can do in bettering our condition is to modify an order in which we can produce no radical change. Supposing us in possession of that absolute independence to which metaphysical pride aspires, it is certain that so far from improving our condition, it would be a bar to all development, whether social or individual. The true path of human progress lies in the opposite direction; in diminishing the vacillation, inconsistency, and discordance of our designs by furnishing external motives for those operations of our intellectual, moral and practical powers, of which the original source was purely internal. The ties by which bur various diverging tendencies are held together would be quite inadequate for their purpose, without a basis of support in the external world, which is unaffected by the spontaneous variations of our nature.
In short, a society cannot be based on wishful thinking, but must be based on something in the external world, some condition that is common to the members of that society.
While humans cannot change the External Order by simply wishing it to be changed, discovering laws enables them to some limited intervention in that order. But also here Comte issues a warning aginst relying too much on such laws, since they are not perfect:
At the same time we have to remember that this increased possibility of human intervention in certain parts of the External Order necessarily coexists with increased imperfection, for which it is a valuable but very inadequate compensation. Both features alike result from the increase of complexity. Even the laws of the Solar System are very far from perfect, notwithstanding their greater simplicity, which indeed makes their defects more perceptible. The existence of these defects should be taken into careful consideration; not indeed with the hope of amending them, but as a check upon unreasoning admiration. Besides, they lead us to a clearer conception of the true position of Humanity, a position of which the most striking feature is the necessity of struggling against difficulties of every kind. Lastly, by observing these defects we are less likely to waste our time in seeking for absolute perfection, and so neglecting the wiser course of looking for such improvements as are really possible.
That is, as science progresses through the discovery of new laws, the complexity of what is studied increases, and therefore the imperfection of the laws also increases.
Note the words "the true position of Humanity, a position of which the most striking feature is the necessity of struggling against difficulties of every kind." This "struggle for survival" theme so important in Darwin's The Origin of Species for evolution leads Comte to suggest that social unions provide the solution to that struggle:
In all other phenomena, the increasing imperfection of the economy of nature becomes a powerful stimulus to all our faculties, whether moral, intellectual or practical. Here we find sufferings which can really be alleviated to a large extent by wise and well-sustained combination of efforts. This consideration should give a firmness and dignity of bearing, to which Humanity could never attain during her period of infancy. Those who look wisely into the future of society will feel that the conception of man becoming, without fear or boast, the arbiter, within certain limits, of his own destiny, has in it something far more satisfying than the old belief in Providence, which implied our remaining passive. Social union will be strengthened by the conception, because every one will see that union forms our principal resource against the miseries of human life.
In a Darwinian perspective this would correspond to the claim that social instincts have evolved, because social unions improve survival. For Comte as for Kant (cf. the categorical imperative) it is more a question of reason. The point being that humans can through insights into their own dependency on a common External Order control their own "destiny", whereby is simply meant "future", not a God-given destiny.
So, it's not that Comte doesn't operate with a purpose of human life; but for him it is a struggle to become ever more perfect within the limits of perfection:
Thus the social services of the Intellect are not limited to revealing the existence of an external Economy, and the necessity of submission to its sway. If the theory is to have any influence upon our active powers, it should include an exact estimate of the imperfections of this economy and of the limits within which it varies, so as to indicate and define the boundaries of human intervention. Thus it will always be an important function of philosophy to criticise nature in a Positive spirit, although the antipathy to theology by which such criticism was formerly animated has ceased to have much interest, from the very fact of having done its work so effectually. The object of Positive criticism is not controversial. It aims simply at putting the great question of human life in a clearer light. It bears closely on what Positivism teaches to be the great end of life, namely, the struggle to become more perfect; which implies previous imperfection. This truth is strikingly apparent when applied to the case of our own nature, for true morality requires a deep and habitual conscience.
If Comte is to be trusted, then it isn't the "antipathy to theology" anymore that drives the criticism of "nature in a Positive spirit". The main point here being that the sentiments of "antipathy to theology" exhibited by Charles Darwin to some extent and by Ernst Haeckel to a greater extent were nothing new, although, contrary to Comte's claim, neither were they a stage passed by. We'll return to this subject in a short while.
While we are at it, Comte writes:
Social Philosophy, therefore, ought on every ground to be preceded by Natural Philosophy in the ordinary sense of the word; that is to say by the study of inorganic and organic nature. It is reserved for our own century to take in the whole scope of science; but the commencement of these preparatory studies dates from the first astronomical discoveries of antiquity. Natural Philosophy was completed by the modern science of Biology, of which the ancients possessed nothing but a few statical principles
Biology as a more systematic discipline was indeed fairly new, and as astronomy around year 1600 would conflict with theology, biology would as well in the 19th century. As Comte has it, this is simply science taking over areas under control by theology. The final step then is sociology, science taking over humans from theology. It's interesting here to note that Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species published 1859 did not deal with humans, and first when he felt that that book had gained some acceptance, he published The Descent of Man in 1871.
So Weikart's dividing line between the Judeo-Christian worldview and the evolutionary worldview set at the publishing of Origins would appear to be too artificial. Even just limiting oneself to intellectual history, there were important precursors that need to be taken into consideration.
While positive science is a liberation from theology, according to Comte, it should not be confused with atheism:
The fact of entire freedom from theological belief being necessary before the Positive state can be perfectly attained, has induced superficial observers to confound Positivism with a state of pure negation. Now this state was at one time, and that even so recently as the last century, favourable to progress; but at present in those who unfortunately still remain in it, it is a radical obstacle to all sound social and even intellectual organisation. I have long ago repudiated all philosophical or historical connection between Positivism and what is called atheism.
Elaborating on the difference between positivism and atheism, comte writes:
Atheism, even from the intellectual point of view, is a very imperfect form of emancipation; for its tendency is to prolong the metaphysical stage indefinitely, by continuing to seek for new solutions of Theological problems, instead of setting aside all inaccessible researches on the ground of their utter inutility. The true Positive spirit consists in substituting the study of the invariable Laws of phenomena for that of their so-called Causes, whether proximate or primary – in a word, in studying the How instead of the Why. Now this is wholly incompatible with the ambitious and visionary attempts of Atheism to explain the formation of the Universe, the origin of animal life, etc.
That is, in positivism some questions - the questions of ultimate origins and purpose - are no longer valid and not to be replaced by atheistic speculations.
Continuing, Comte writes:
The Positivist, comparing the various phases of human speculation, looks upon these scientific chimeras as far less valuable even from the intellectual point of view than the first spontaneous inspirations of primeval times. The Principle of Theology is to explain everything by supernatural Wills. That principle can never be set aside until we acknowledge the search for Causes to be beyond our reach, and limit ourselves to the knowledge of Laws. As long as men persist in attempting to answer the insoluble questions which occupied the attention of the childhood of our race, by far the more rational plan is to do as was done then, that is, simply to give free play to the imagination.
Charles Darwin didn't speculate over the origins of the universe, and he suggested that life was seeded by the Creator, but then evolved without divine intervention, so he followed this maxim. Later, however, free play was indeed given to the imagination.
A few sentences later, Comte writes:
If we insist upon penetrating the unattainable mystery of the essential Cause that produces phenomena, there is no hypothesis more satisfactory than that they proceed from Wills dwelling in them or outside them; an hypothesis which assimilates them to the effect produced by the desires which exist within ourselves. Were it not for the pride induced by metaphysical and scientific studies, it would be inconceivable that any atheist, modern or ancient, should have believed that his vague hypotheses on such a subject were preferable to this direct mode of explanation. And it was the only mode which really satisfied the reason, until men began to see the utter inanity and inutility of all search for absolute truth. The Order of Nature is doubtless very imperfect in every respect, but its production is far more compatible with the hypothesis of an intelligent Will than with that of a blind mechanism. Persistent atheists therefore would seem to be most illogical of theologists: because they occupy themselves with theological problems, and yet reject the only appropriate method of handling them.
So, according to Comte, we should simply accept the apparent intelligent design without explaining it, because the only appropriate explanation would be more compatible with "the hypothesis of an intelligent Will than with that of a blind mechanism". Oh, well, back to the future.
Continuing, Comte writes:
But the fact is that pure Atheism even in the present day is very rare. What is called Atheism is usually a phase of Pantheism, which is really nothing but a relapse disguised under learned terms, into a vague and abstract form of Fetishism. And it is not impossible that it may lead to the reproduction in one form or other of every theological phase as soon as the check which modern society still imposes on metaphysical extravagance has become somewhat weakened. The adoption of such theories as a satisfactory system of belief, indicates a very exaggerated or rather false view of intellectual requirements, and a very insufficient recognition of moral and social wants. It is generally connected with the visionary but mischievous tendencies of ambitious thinkers to uphold what they call the empire of Reason. In the moral sphere it forms a sort of basis for the degrading fallacies of modern metaphysicians as to the absolute preponderance of self-interest. Politically, its tendency is to unlimited prolongation of the revolutionary position: its spirit is that of blind hatred to the past: and it resists all attempts to explain it on Positive principles, with a view of disclosing the future. Atheism, therefore, is not likely to lead to Positivism except in those who pass through it rapidly as the last and most shortlived of metaphysical phases.
It is interesting to compare this with Haeckel's monism, which he himself claimed to be a rationalistic pantheism; but apparently that kind of things existed already before 1859.
So, positivism isn't atheism, and, as Comte later writes, it isn't materialism either. It only seems so, because as science progresses, each level - from those studying inorganic matter to those studying organic matter to those studying human society - tends to absorb the following level:
Thus it appears that Materialism is a danger inherent in the mode in which the scientific studies necessary as a preparation for Positivism were pursued. Each science tended to absorb the one next to it, on the ground of having reached the positive stage earlier and more thoroughly. The evil then is really deeper and more extensive than is imagined by most of those who deplore it. It passes generally unnoticed except in the highest class of subjects. These doubtless are more seriously affected, inasmuch as they undergo the encroaching process from all the rest; but we find the same thing in different degrees, in every step of the scientific scale.
Any person skeptical towards sociobiology will love this:
To a philosophic eye there is Materialism in the common tendency of mathematicians at the present day to absorb Geometry or Mechanics into the Calculus, as well as in the more evident encroachrnents of Mathematics upon Physics, of Physics upon Chemistry, of Chemistry, which is more frequent, upon Biology, or lastly in the common tendency of the best biologists to look upon Sociology as a mere corollary of their own science.
Again we must say that apparently, from a philosophical point of view, nothing really new has happened during the last more than 150 years. And what is the problem here? According to Comte:
In all cases it is the same fundamental error: that is, an exaggerated use of deductive reasoning; and in all it is attended with the same result; that the higher studies are in constant danger of being disorganised by the indiscriminate application of the lower. All scientific specialists at the present time are more or less materialists, according as the phenomena studied by them are more or less simple and general. Geometricians, therefore are more liable to the error than any others; they all aim consciously or otherwise at a synthesis in which the most elementary studies, those of Number, Space, and Motion, are made to regulate all the rest. But the biologists who resist this encroachment most energetically, are often guilty of the same mistake. They not unfrequently attempt, for instance, to explain all sociological facts by the influence of climate and race, which are purely secondary; thus showing their ignorance of the fundamental laws of Sociology, which can only be discovered by a series of direct inductions from history.
The "climate and race" thing mentined here, while not quite the state of the art today, was the general explanation back then for differences between human races. But for Comte, this is confusing sociology with biology.
The main thing to notice from this exposition is that much of, what creationists and IDists claim to be associated with one particular person, namely Charles Darwin, already existed before the publishing of Origins, and that much of today's discussions about reductionism and intelligent design also existed before that, so maybe it doesn't make all that much of a difference, whether you are a post-Darwinist or a pre-Darwinist.