The Routledge Companion to Nineteenth Century Philosophy

By Dean Moyar | Go to book overview

15
COMTE’S POSITIVIST
DREAM, OUR
POST-POSITIVIST
BURDEN

Robert C. Scharff


Introduction

Given his view of humanity’s future, Auguste Comte might be considered the poster child for scientific optimism. Scientific (i.e. “positive”) knowledge is, for him, the only real knowledge; its application to real-world situations will make us safe and happy; and becoming fully aware of these facts about science and about technology (he would have approved of calling them, together, “technoscience”) will make safety and happiness come all the more quickly. In other words, for Comte technoscience is nothing short of a consummating occurrence or world event – that is, the practical as well as theoretical “ending” or fulfillment of the Western intellectual tradition. According to his famous “law of the three stages,” we all begin as theologians, and under the right conditions we graduate first to abstract or metaphysical thinking, and then finally to science. Following after this intellectual development, given the necessary time lag, come the appropriate socio-political transformations – from primitive, militaristic, and theocratic communities, to societies reflecting increasingly secular and material interests organized by abstract principles, and finally to peaceful, fully industrial societies guided by a genuine knowledge of the human condition and supported by a Religion of Humanity. The task for philosophers in the current age is therefore to become positivists – that is, to become fully and reflectively aware of the historically palpable, ever more pervasive character of the emerging technoscientific era, to explain it, justify it, and see that this is taught to others.

Yet Comte’s positivist interpretation of history and its three-stage theory of development have been widely misunderstood. On the one hand, because he is famously the “founder” of sociology (he originally called it “social physics”), his account of the rise of science and its technologies is often assumed to be a causal account. It is not. Comte does not think the coming technoscientific age entails either the

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