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

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

6. The human sciences and the standard conduct of nations

A fundamental question remains: How does Comte’s epistemological system make it possible for him to create a political project?

The analysis of the human psyche (§5 above) showed that the need for love transcends natural egoism by means of altruism. The cerebral chart claimed that both speculation and action are dominated by affection and that social consensus depends on the affective life. Comte, who recognized the permanence of affectivity, expressed it by the phrase, ‘One tires of thinking and even acting; one never tires of loving’, a progressive division in intermediate items between extreme terms. Using a process of binary decomposition, Comte was able to derive the scale of all the intermediary affections between complete egoism and pure altruism. His analytical method was inherent in the taxonomic method that he usually used. It permitted him to maintain that altruism ‘when it is energetic, is always better able than egoism to direct and stimulate the intelligence, even among the animals’ (1851–4: 1, 693). The cerebral theory thus represents the fundamental order of our natural make-up and can be applied to social existence.

Social statics deals with the play of the permanent social forces revealed by Comte. What is the material power of Western society? Comte answered that it is ‘number’ (the proletariat) and ‘wealth’ (the administrators of capital). What is its intellectual power? It is the aesthetic and scientific spirit (its representatives in society). What about sentiment? Sentiment is concerned with the heart, which is both masculine and feminine, for man and woman share masculine and feminine traits. Even if Comte considers women intellectually inferior to men, he recognizes in them a superiority in terms of sensibility and makes them the guardians of universal morality; yet women remain auxiliary to men. No doubt it was from his romantic love for Clotilde de Vaux, which lasted a year (1845–6), that Comte obtained his experience of the feminine condition. Theoretically, Comte applies an Aristotelian principle governing the different forces of society: the double principle of the separation of functions and the combination of efforts.

Property, family and language are the necessary elements of social statics, which owes its unity to ‘religion’. To Comte, religion is a synthesis of ‘dogma’, which represents the philosophical unity of scientific theories; ‘worship’, which directs sentiments; and ‘regulations’, which govern behaviour. Worship and regulations form the subjective domain of love, which is subordinated to the objective realm of philosophical dogma. Social dynamics can be summarized in the law of three stages; it is the permanent substratum of human action. The harmony between the social static and the social dynamic expresses itself in the principle of progress, which is conceived as the development of order. The postulate of harmony is evoked in the perspective of that which governs and rallies, that is, religion, which is destined to ‘bind the interior and to link it to the outside’.

The Cours deals with the creation of the system of scientific systems as does the Système de philosophie positive, which also proposes the new construction of a political synthesis inspired by religion. This completes the human unity to which the synthesis tends through loving, thinking and acting. Religion thus becomes a super-theory of the immediately applicable unity; it permits human intervention in the historical and social dynamic, for it puts morality and politics in the service of social progress. The Religion of Humanity is ‘proven’ because it is founded on cosmological and human knowledge, and is thus the only answer to moral and political questions. Civil society cannot answer these questions even if its mechanisms permitted it, and it would in any case be unable to set its solutions in motion, since it is nothing but a battleground for divergent opinions. The same criticism is found in the works of Hegel, who limits the civil objective to the satisfaction of needs. While the Hegelian state is called upon to transcend the egoistic civil society by an objective moral idea, Comte wants to orient the will towards the superior reality of humanity, a subjective moral idea. For ‘Humanity breaks up first into Cities, then into Families, but never into individuals’ (1851–4: 4, 31). Morality takes the individual into consideration; families and homelands are, nevertheless, still important to it as the necessary introduction to Humanity. In terms of its composition, the Great Being is defined as ‘the continuous totality of converging beings’.

Comte envisages a future where positive morality determines the discipline of existence. His concept of altruism recalls the principle of friendship or philia, which Aristotle made the cement of the ancient cities. While earlier Comte assigned temporal power to the proletarians, he later entrusts it to those who favoured the ‘universal union’. From 1842, he foresees that the spiritual power has to be ‘the true philosophical class’; he therefore gives it the title of ‘Western Positive Committee’ and already imagines it to be a ‘Positive Church’. Comte intends it to direct the intellectual and moral regeneration of modern societies, with the assistance of the proletariat, at least after the latter has ended the transitional dictatorship towards positivism. Just as with all women (who do not form a class), the proletariat is the servant of the spiritual power; it watches over the temporal power to see that it respects the general principles of the social regime.

As for the positive economy, Comte hoped that it would be nothing other than the ‘universal and continuous systematization of human toil’. He wanted work to be systematized for the sake of future generations. Capitalization supported the sociocracy, which, according to the evidence of those who recognized its inner workings, involved the collaboration of the social classes based on the model of the functions and organs of the body. (Sociocracy was related to regulation, while sociolatry dealt with worship. Both were founded on sociology, which served as their dogma.) Comte’s positivist economic theory was summed up in two laws: first, that each man can produce more than what he consumes, and second, that the products obtained can be preserved beyond the time required for their reproduction. The institution of capital is justified by the preponderance of human work over consumption. Comte’s detractors, such as Herbert Marcuse, did not understand his view of the origin and social destination of capital funds. Yet Comte maintained that these capital funds made each active citizen the agent of all the others: each one had to function above all for others by applying the positivist motto ‘Live for others’. Others’ obligations emanated naturally from the social consensus.

Once the altruistic sentiments were recognized and generalized, Comte thought it possible to treat the three principal obligations – moral, judicial and civic – as one. But there was also an economic obligation to work, and to sustain the products of that work as long as possible; for the importance of solidarity among people would only become clear from the perspective of future generations.

Citing this article:
Kremer-marietti, Angele. The human sciences and the standard conduct of nations. 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.

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