The Nineteenth Century [Routledge History of Philosophy, V. 7]

By C. L. Ten | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6

Comte and positivism

Robert Brown


COMTE’S AIMS

The chief aim of all of Auguste Comte’s publications, and the constant mission of his entire working life, was the improvement of human character through the perfecting of human society. He was convinced that the scientific knowledge available in his own lifetime—the first half of the nineteenth century—was rapidly making possible, and in a sense inevitable, the creation of the most suitable society for the ‘social regeneration of Western Europe’. Born in Montpellier in 1798, Comte was both literally and intellectually a child of the eighteenth century who became an adult during the Napoleonic aftermath of the French Revolution. In searching for social salvation by means of the application of science to political and economic questions, Comte was a perfectibilist of a sort that he helped to make typical of his period. The set of beliefs about society that perfectibilists of his kind had inherited from the eighteenth century have been well summarized by John Passmore in The Perfectibility of Man:

Man had until that time been a mere child in respect of knowledge and, in consequence, of virtue; he was now at last in a position, as a result of the development of science, to determine how human nature develops and what is the best thing for human beings to do; this new knowledge could be expressed in a form in which all men would find it intelligible; once they knew what it is best to do, men would act accordingly and so would constantly improve their moral, political and physical condition. Provided only, then, that ‘sinister interests’ did not prevent the communication of knowledge, the development of science was bound to carry with it the constant

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