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How to interpret Auguste Comte?

Michel Bourdeau, Mary Pickering, and Warren Schmaus (eds), Love, Order, and Progress: The Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Auguste Comte, Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018, 416 pages.
Johan Heilbron
p. 289-292

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1This collective volume, the outcome of a conference of the International Society for the History and Philosophy of Science (HOPOS), is a timely and ambitious book on Auguste Comte. Presented as an “in-depth overview of the entirety of Comte’s thought” (p. xi), it simultaneously aspires to being the “most comprehensive English-language overview” as it is stated on the cover. The editors give two reasons for their enterprise. The “political turn” in the philosophy of science would make Comte highly relevant again as his oeuvre is a rare case of being located at the intersection of two separate strands of philosophy, one concerned with knowledge, the other with politics. The second reason given is that although the notion of “positivism” is widely used, it has a great variety of meanings, and is often associated with the better-known brand of “logical positivism”, which has historically developed largely independently of Comte’s work.

2The first part of the book tackles Comte’s philosophy of science. After the introduction of the editors, Warren Schmaus provides a general overview of Comte’s historical approach to the sciences, which is contrasted with the dominant philosophy in France at the time: the spiritualism of the Victor Cousin school. Schmaus makes additional comparisons with contemporary authors (John Stuart Mill, William Whewell), discusses comments by later writers (Charles Renouvier, Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper), and in the final part returns to the question whether normative lessons can be drawn from Comte’s analysis of the sciences.

3The next chapters are concerned with particular sciences. Michel Blay’s chapter on the mathematical sciences focusses on the exemplary role of analytical mechanics. Blay writes that for Comte “science can only be analytical” and that everything which is “not subjected to analysis must be expelled from science” (pp. 56-57). That is an unfortunate beginning, because Blay equates science with rational mechanics, or more generally with mathematical physics, thus taking one part of Comte’s epistemology for the whole. As the following chapters make clear, however, Comte’s understanding of biology and the social sciences was not at all based on the model of analytical mechanics. Reviewing what Comte wrote on certain branches of physics (kinematics, optics), Blay argues that Comte had a “naïve” and instrumental appraisal of mathematics. In the case of optics, furthermore, Comte’s understanding of the status of hypothetical entities (particles or waves) was unsatisfactory according to Blay. Without being bothered by anachronistic judgments, Blay argues this point by invoking twentieth century developments (in particular De Broglie’s wave-particle duality), which would have demonstrated the “superficialness” of Comte’s conception of hypothetical entities.

4The three chapters that follow show that Comte’s work was not about “positive science” in the singular, as Blay assumes, but about the positive sciences in the plural. Anastasios Brenner thus presents a concise overview of Comte’s views on astronomy in respectively the Cours de philosophie positive (1830-42), the Traité philosophique d’astronomie positive (1844) and the introductory part of the Système de philosophie positive (1851-54). In the following chapter, Laurent Clauzade similarly reconstructs Comte’s conceptualization of biology. Rather than being merely an interpretation of the life sciences as they were practiced at the time, Comte’s views of biology played a strategic part in the unification and institutionalization of the discipline. Members of the Société de biologie (1848) mostly followed Comte’s categories and architecture of the discipline. Vincent Guillin’s chapter on the social sciences presents a well-constructed outline of the principles of Comtean sociology clarifying issues such as Comte’s rejection of psychology and political economy.

5The second part of the book, devoted to Comte’s social and political thought, opens with a chapter by Michel Bourdeau on Comte’s principles of positive politics (that there is no society without government, and that “spiritual” and “temporal power” need to be separated). Bourdeau indicates some of the unexpected consequences of these views for issues of colonialism and the relations between humans and animals. Jean Elisabeth Pedersen’s contribution disentangles the evolving views of Comte on art, the emotions and the social significance of gender. Andrew Wernick examines Comte’s efforts to found a secular religion, the religion of humanity, which would provide a fundamental bond among members of society after the death of God, by strengthening fellow-feeling and “altruism” (another word that Comte coined).

6The concluding chapter by Mary Pickering, author of the monumental three-volume Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography (1993-2009), is—as her biography—a tour de force. Mapping Comte’s legacy, Pickering traces Comte’s influence in philosophy and related fields and outlines its remarkable impact on secular political movements in Europe, Latin America, and Asia.

  • 1 Harriet Martineau (edition and translation), The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, London, J. C (...)
  • 2 Auguste Comte, Cours de philosophie positive [1830-1842], sous la direction de Michel Serres, Franç (...)

7For the “most comprehensive English-language overview” of Comte’s work, it is regrettable that there is no section on the problematic editorial state of Comte’s work. As the editors remark, there is no proper English translation of the Cours de philosophie positive, only an abridged and condensed version by Harriet Martineau.1 The standard reference used in the volume is the two-volume French edition that was produced under the responsibility of Michel Serres.2 Pretending to be the “first scientific edition”, this edition in reality suffers from amateurism and negligence: parts of Comte’s original text were omitted, the added notes abound in anachronistic judgments, and contrary to Littré’s 19th century edition the volumes have no index. Given these editorial problems, a critical review of the English as well as the French editions would have been beneficial.

  • 3 See for example Johan Heilbron, “Auguste Comte and the Second Scientific Revolution,” in Andrew Wer (...)

8Beyond the individual chapters, the volume has two general aims. Both are controversial. The first aim is to provide “a more faithful image of Comte rather than a new one” (p. xi). Given the widespread caricatures of Comte that has probably been a gratifying task, but the question of what a more “faithful image” of a thinker is, raises questions that are not addressed. The vivid debates about different approaches to intellectual history (Cambridge school contextualism, conceptual history, social history of intellectuals, etc.) have left hardly any traces in this book. It remains unclear as to what kind of textual, intertextual, or, more broadly, historical inquiry the authors favor, and by simply presenting their work as “more faithful” to Comte’s work, issues of selection and interpretation are underestimated. In the chapter by Warren Schmaus, for example, Comte’s theory of science is presented as a break with “the eclectic spiritualist tradition of philosophy”. That is no doubt a legitimate point of view, but it could also be argued3 that the primary context of Comte’s theory of science was not the academic philosophy of Cousin and his companions, but rather the struggles within and about the field of the natural sciences. If one follows such an interpretation, Comte was in debate primarily with physicists like Pierre-Simon de Laplace and theorists of the life sciences, and only secondarily with philosophers like Cousin. Whatever one might think about these issues, contextualization requires to be explicit about which context is taken as most appropriate for the understanding of the work discussed. That is a question of selection and interpretation, not simply of “faithfulness”.

9The other aim of the volume raises the same issue in a slightly different manner. The second objective of the book is to demonstrate the continuity in Comte’s thinking. The title of the volume, Love, Order, and Progress, obviously refers to the positivist creed: “l’amour pour principe, l’ordre pour base, et le progrès comme but”. But that was the slogan of Comte’s “second career” as he called it, not of his first. It was formulated after 1848 and marked the subjective point of view that Comte later embraced. Defined by “the continuous preponderance of the heart over the mind”, as Comte stated in 1848, it implied the primacy of feeling over all other human capacities and inclinations, of the “heart” over mind and character, or – in a slightly different vocabulary again – of morality over science and politics. Since that position differs markedly from the point of view from which the Cours de philosophie positive was conceived, the continuity of his work is far from self-evident. In their introduction, the editors address the issue only briefly by stating that the second part of Comte’s life “flowed naturally from the first part of his career” (p. 20). Not only do they see “no break” in his development, Comte’s later interest in religion is characterized as a “natural outgrowth” of his earliest interest in moral regeneration (p. 20). That seems another way of underestimating the interpretative issues involved, and of largely ignoring the debates these have provoked. Ever since Comte himself presented his later work as the continuation of his youthful aspirations that view has been contested. Depicting Comte’s development as a merely “natural” process is, in fact, a way of denying that there are issues of interpretation at all.

10But despite various questions one might raise, this book is a clearly written and well-informed contribution to the Comte scholarship that has burgeoned over the past years. In France, a significant number of new studies have appeared since the 1990s to which two important titles were recently added: Jean-François Braunstein, La philosophie de la médecine d’Auguste Comte (2009) and Annie Petit, Le système d’Auguste Comte (2016). In the English speaking world, interest has been less outspoken, but simultaneously with the volume under review, two other collective volumes appeared: Andrew Wernick (ed), The Anthem Companion to Auguste Comte (2017) and Johannes Feichtinger, Franz Fillafer, and Jan Surman (eds), The Worlds of Positivism: A Global Intellectual History, 1770-1930 (2018). Wernick’s volume, which includes a chapter by Mary Pickering, is somewhat similar to Love, Order, and Progress in that it covers Comte’s epistemology as well as his later work. The Feichtinger (et al.) volume focuses on the international reception of positivism and adds much new material to Mary Pickering’s concluding chapter in Love, Order, and Progress. The debates on Comte’s work and its legacy are not closed yet.

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1 Harriet Martineau (edition and translation), The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, London, J. Chapman, 1853, 2 vol.

2 Auguste Comte, Cours de philosophie positive [1830-1842], sous la direction de Michel Serres, François Dagognet, Allal Sinaceur et Jean-Paul Enthoven, Paris, Hermann, 1975, 2 tomes.

3 See for example Johan Heilbron, “Auguste Comte and the Second Scientific Revolution,” in Andrew Wernick (ed), The Anthem Companion to Auguste Comte, London/New York, Anthem Press, 2017, pp. 23-41.

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Bibliographical reference

Johan Heilbron, « How to interpret Auguste Comte? », Revue d’histoire des sciences humaines, 34 | 2019, 289-292.

Electronic reference

Johan Heilbron, « How to interpret Auguste Comte? », Revue d’histoire des sciences humaines [Online], 34 | 2019, Online since 27 May 2019, connection on 15 September 2019. URL :

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About the author

Johan Heilbron

Centre européen de sociologie et de science politique (CESSP, EHESS/CNRS)

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Revue d’histoire des sciences humaines

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