Comte, Isidore-Auguste-Marie-François-Xavier (1798–1857)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC016-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 05, 2021, from

2. Speculation and action

Following the example of Francis Bacon, who stressed the efficacy of combining knowing (scire) and doing (posse), Comte held that power is proportionate to knowledge: ‘From science, comes foresight; from foresight, comes action’ ([1830–42] 1975 I: 45). Even though he clearly separates theory and practice in the scientific study of phenomena, Comte orients his positive philosophy towards a constant interrelationship between speculation and action, while keeping it equidistant between rationalism and empiricism.

The pragmatic aspect of Comte’s thought goes back to ideas he first expressed in 1816, while still a student at the École Polytechnique. He affirmed the necessity of pragmatism in a letter of 28 September 1819 to his best friend, Pierre Valat, declaring that he could not conceive of a scientific work that would have no useful goal for humanity. Conversely, he added that political research would have to be intellectually challenging in order to interest him; otherwise, it would have no validity in his eyes. This also explains why he underlined the necessity of basing political studies on a scientific foundation.

On the one hand, Comte was interested in a discipline that would soon be known as ‘epistemology’. For him, it encompassed the history and philosophy of the sciences, the various methodologies which they used, fundamental scientific concepts and theories, and what he as well as Bacon called ‘primary philosophy’, which constituted the synthesis of the regular means of scientific knowledge and their principal, universally valid results. His epistemological concerns later led Comte to establish a ‘Table of the Fifteen Universal Laws’ in the fourth volume of the Système de politique positive (see §§2, 3 below), settling three groups of universal laws about (1) laws formation, (2) static and dynamic theories of understanding, and (3) movement/existence, action/reaction classification and relation. Yet he never worried about defining ‘facts’, ‘scientific verification’ or ‘observation’. Nor did the problem of the origin of knowledge concern him. Robert C. Scharff rightly emphasizes Comte’s insistence ‘that such issues [could] not even be understood as issues without recourse to philosophy’s history’ (1991: 193).

On the other hand, Comte was very conscious of the political, social and cultural problems posed by the French Revolution. As the third opuscule clearly states, he placed himself politically between ‘the people’ and ‘the kings’ (1970a: 57), between the ‘retrograde’ ideas of the latter and the ‘critical’ ones of the former; in effect, he had rebelled against the royalism and Catholicism of his parents, but at the same time opposed the destructive spirit of the revolutionaries. Similarly, he did not favour the mixture of the retrograde and critical currents advocated by the ‘doctrinaires’ such as Pierre Royer-Collard, François Guizot, Charles de Rémusat, and Prosper Duvergier de Hauranne, whom Comte grouped in the ‘stationary school’ (1970a: 69; 1975 II: 43), characterized by ‘organic emptiness’. From 1822, after the fading of the spiritual power of the Church, Comte reproached the French body politic for neglecting to create an organization with analogous power. In spite of French politicians’ efforts to recast a temporal power, they had, according to Comte, also failed here. He pointed to the absence of any explicit positive theory as proof of the double failure of French politics.

Before his encyclopedic enterprise was sufficiently developed to become the Cours de philosophie positive, Comte, in his role of secretary to Saint-Simon and with his approval, edited some research projects which he called ‘Programmes’. One example is the Programme d’un travail sur les rapports des sciences théoriques avec les sciences d’application (Programme of work on the relations between the pure and applied sciences), which he published in 1817. From 1817 to 1820, he began a certain number of preparatory works, which were at least initially encouraged, if not conceived, by Saint-Simon. They would continue after 1820, but in a totally different form.

Just as in the fundamental opuscule of May 1822, Comte resolutely insisted on linking his theoretical work to the practical goal of social reorganization in the Cours de philosophie positive, the two Discours of 1844 and 1848, the Système de politique positive and his last writings. Very early, in fact, he had made a definitive and fundamental observation that the development of human intelligence was closely tied to the history of societies, which he formulated as follows: ‘intelligence arrives at a higher stage of development when altruism itself is more developed’ (1851: 693). It closely connected the development of intelligence with that of the individual’s interest in his or her peers, intelligence and altruism both being clear signs of the progress of humanity.

Comte considered the theoretical discipline of sociology to be concerned with the real nature of humanity, and so he gave a higher status to its method, which was originally objective, defining it instead as ‘subjective’, that is, as situated beyond objective cosmological observation. The objective method employed in the Cours de philosophie positive had permitted the passage from the world to humankind. Now it was necessary to go from humankind to the world; hence the designation of this method as ‘subjective’, that is, as dependent on the real nature of humankind.

Citing this article:
Kremer-marietti, Angele. Speculation and action. Comte, Isidore-Auguste-Marie-François-Xavier (1798–1857), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC016-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

Related Articles