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Positivism is a system of philosophical and religious doctrines elaborated by Auguste Comte. As a philosophical system or method, Positivism denies the validity of metaphysical speculations, and maintains that the data of sense experience are the only object and the supreme criterion of human knowledge; as a religious system, it denies the existence of a personal God and takes humanity, "the great being", as the object of its veneration and cult. We shall give a brief historical sketch of Positivism, an exposition of its fundamental principles, and a criticism of them.
The founder of Positivism was Auguste Comte (born at Montpellier, 19 Jan., 1798; died at Paris, 5 Sept., 1857). He entered the Ecole polytechnique at Paris in 1814, was a disciple of Saint-Simon until 1824, and began to publish his course of philosophy in 1826. About this period he became temporarily deranged (1826-27). After recovering, he was appointed instructor (1832-52) and examiner in mathematics (1837-44) at the Ecole polytechnique, giving meanwhile a course of public lectures on astronomy. The unhappiness of his married life and his strange infatuation for Mme Clotilde de Vaux (1845-46) greatly influenced his naturally sentimental character. He realized that mere intellectual development is insufficient for life, and, having presented Positivism as the scientific doctrine and method, he aimed at making it a religion, the religion of humanity. Comte's chief works are his "Cours de philosophie positive" [6 vols.: Phiosophie mathématique (1830), astronomique et physique (1835), chimique et biologique (1838), partie dogmatique de la philosophie sociale (1839), partie historique (1840), complément de la philosophie sociale et conclusions (1842); translated by Harriet Martineau (London, 1853)] and his "Cours de politique positive" (3 vols., Paris 1815-54). Various influences concurred to form Comte's system of thought: the Empiricism of Locke and the Scepticism of Hume, the Sensism of the eighteenth century and the Criticism of Kant, the Mysticism of the Middle Ages, the Traditionalism of De Maistre and de Bonald, and the Philanthropy of Saint-Simon. He maintains as a law manifested by history that every science passes through three successive stages, the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive; that the positive stage, which rejects the validity of metaphysical speculation, the existence of final causes, and the knowableness of the absolute, and confines itself to the study of experimental facts and their relations, represents the perfection of human knowledge. Classifying the sciences according to their degree of increasing complexity, he reduces them to six in the following order: mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology. Religion has for its object the "great being" (humanity), the "great medium" (world-space), and the "great fetich" (the earth), which form the positivist trinity. This religion has its hierarchical priesthood, its positive dogmas, its organized cult, and even its calendar on the model of Catholicism (cf. Comte, "Catéchisme positiviste").
At the death of Comte, a division arose among the Positivists, the dissident group being formed with Littré as its leader, and the orthodox group under the direction of Pierre Laffitte. Emile Littré (q.v.) accepted Positivism in its scientific aspect: for him Positivism was essentially a method, viz, that method which limits human knowledge to the study of experimental facts and neither affirms nor denies anything concerning what may exist outside of experience. He rejected as unreal the religious organization and cult of Positivism. He considered all religions from the philosophical point of view, to be equally vain, while he confessed that, from the historical point of view, Catholicism was superior to all other religions. The true end of man, he maintained, was to work for the progress of humanity by studying it (science and education), loving it (religion), beautifying it (fine arts), and enriching it (industry). The official successor of Comte and leader of the orthodox group of Postivists was Pierre Laffitte, who became professor of the general history of sciences in the Collège de France in 1892. He maintained both the scientific and the religious teaching of Positivism with its cult, sacraments, and ceremonies. Other orthodox groups were formed in England with Harrison as its leader and Congreve, Elliot, Hutton, Morrison etc. as its chief adherents; in Sweden with A. Nystrom. An active and influential group was also founded in Brazil and Chile with Benjamin Constant and Miguel Lemos as leaders and a temple of humanity was built at Rio Janeiro in 1891. The principles of Positivism as a philosophical system were accepted and applied in England by J. Stuart Mill, who had been in correspondence with Comte (cf. "Lettres d'Aug. Comte à John Stuart Mill, 1841-1844", Paris, 1877), Spencer, Bain, Lewes, Maudsley, Sully, Romanes, Huxley, Tyndall etc.; in France by Taine, Ribot, de Roberty etc.; in Germany by Dühring, Avenarius etc. Thus, the principles and spirit of Positivism pervaded the scientific and philosophical thought of the nineteenth century and exercised a pernicious influence in every sphere. They had their practical consequences in the systems of positive or so-called scientific morality and utilitarianism in ethics, of neutrality and naturalism in religion.
The fundamental principle of Positivism is, as already said, that sense experience is the only object of human knowledge as well as its sole and supreme criterion. Hence abstract notions or general ideas are nothing more than collective notions; judgments are mere empirical colligations of facts. Reasoning includes induction and the syllogism: induction has for its conclusion a proposition which contains nothing more than the collection of a certain number of sense experiences, and the syllogism, taking this conclusion as its major proposition is necessarily sterile or even results in a vicious circle. Thus, according to Positivism, science cannot be, as Aristotle conceived it, the knowledge of things through their ultimate causes, since material and formal causes are unknowable, final causes illusions, and efficient causes simply invariable antecedents, while metaphysics, under any form, is illegitimate. Positivism is thus a continuation of crude Empiricism, Associationism, and Nominalism. The arguments advanced by Positivism, besides the assertion that sense experiences are the only object of human knowledge, are chiefly two: the first is that psychological analysis shows that all human knowledge can be ultimately reduced to sense experiences and empirical associations; the second, insisted upon by Comte, is historical, and is based on his famous "law of the three stages", according to which the human mind in its progress is supposed to have been successively influenced by theological preoccupations and metaphysical speculation, and to have finally reached at the present time the positive stage, which marks, according to Comte, its full and perfect development (cf. "Cours de philosophie positive", II, 15 sqq.).
Positivism asserts that sense experiences are the only object of human knowledge, but does not prove its assertion. It is true that all our knowledge has its starting point in sense experience, but it is not proved that knowledge stops there. Positivism fails to demonstrate that, above particular facts and contingent relations, there are not abstract notions, general laws universal and necessary principles, or that we cannot know them. Nor does it prove that material and corporeal things constitute the whole order of existing beings, and that our knowledge is limited to them. Concrete beings and individual relations are not only perceptible by our senses, but they have also their causes and laws of existence and constitution; they are intelligible. These causes and laws pass beyond the particularness and contingency of individual facts, and are elements as fundamentally real as the individual facts which they produce and control. They cannot be perceived by our senses, but why can they not be explained by our intelligence? Again, immaterial beings cannot be perceived by sense experience, it is true, but their existence is not contradictory to our intelligence, and, if their existence is required as a cause and a condition of the actual existence of material things, they certainly exist. We can infer their existence and know something of their nature. They cannot indeed be known in the same way as material things, but this is no reason for declaring them unknowable to our intelligence (see AGNOSTICISM; ANALOGY). According to Positivism, our abstract concepts or general ideas are mere collective representations of the experimental order — for example, the idea of "man" is a kind of blended image of all the men observed in our experience. This is a fundamental error. Every image bears individual characters; an image of man is always an image of a particular man and can represent only that one man. What is called a collective image is nothing more than a collection of divers images succeeding one another, each representing an individual and concrete object, as may be seen by attentive observation. An idea, on the contrary, abstracts from any concrete determination, and may be applied identically to an indefinite number of objects of the same class. Collective images are more or less confused, and are the more so as the collection represented is larger; an idea remains always clear. There are objects which we cannot imagine (e.g. a myriagon, a substance, a principle), and which we can nevertheless distinctly conceive. Nor is the general idea a name substituted as a sign for all the individual objects of the same class, as stated by Taine (De l'Intelligence, I, 26). If a certain perception, says Taine, always coincides with or follows another perception (e.g. the perception of smoke and that of fire, the smell of a sweet odour and the sight of a rose), then the one becomes the sign of the other in such a way that, when we perceive one, we instinctively anticipate the presence of the other. So it is, Taine adds, with our general ideas. When we have perceived a number of different trees, there remains in our memory a certain image made up of the characters common to all trees, namely the image of a trunk with branches. We call it "tree", and this word becomes the exclusive sign of the class "tree"; it evokes the image of the individual objects of that class as the perception of every one of these evokes the image of the sign substituted for the whole class.
Cardinal Mercier rightly remarks that this theory rests upon a confusion between experimental analogy and abstraction (Critériologie générale l, III c. iii, § 2, pp. 237 sqq.). Experimental analogy plays indeed a large part in our practical life, and is an important factor in the education of our senses (cf. St. Thomas, "Anal. post.", II, xv). But it should be remarked that experimental analogy is limited to the individual objects observed, to particular and similar objects; its generality is essentially relative. Again, the words which designate the objects correspond to the characters of these objects, and we cannot speak of "abstract names" when only individual objects are given, Such is not the case with our general ideas. They are the result of an abstraction, not of a mere perception of individual objects, however numerous; they are the conception of a type applicable in its unity and identity to an indefinite number of the objects of which it is the type. They thus have a generality without limit and independent of any concrete determination. If the words which signify them can be the sign of all the individual objects of the same class, it is because that same class has first been conceived in its type; these names are abstract because they signify an abstract concept. Hence mere experience is insufficient to account for our general ideas. A careful study of Taine's theory and the illustrations given shows that the apparent plausibility of this theory comes precisely from the fact that Taine unconsciously introduces and employs abstraction. Again, Positivism, and this is the point especially developed by John Stuart Mill (following Hume), maintains that what we call "necessary truths" (even mathematical truths, axioms, principles) are merely the result of experience, a generalization of our experiences. We are conscious, e.g. that we cannot at the same time affirm and deny a certain proposition, that one state of mind excludes the other; then we generalize our observation and express as a general principle that a proposition cannot be true and false at the same time. Such a principle is simply the result of a subjective necessity based on experience. Now, it is true that experience furnishes us with the matter out of which our judgments are formed, and with the occasion to formulate them. But mere experience does not afford either the proof or the confirmation of our certitude concerning their truth. If it were so, our certitude should increase with every new experience, and such is not the case, and we could not account for the absolute character of this certitude in all men, nor for the identical application of this certitude to the same propositions by all men. In reality we affirm the truth and necessity of a proposition, not because we cannot subjectively deny it or conceive its contradictory, but because of its objective evidence, which is the manifestation of the absolute, universal, and objective truth of the proposition, the source of our certitude, and the reason of the subjective necessity in us.
As to the so-called "law of the three stages", it is not borne out by a careful study of history. It is true that we meet with certain epochs more particularly characterized by the influence of faith, or metaphysical tendencies, or enthusiasm for natural science. But even then we do not see that these characteristics realize the order expressed in Comte's law. Aristotle was a close student of natural science, while after him the neo-Platonic School was almost exclusively given to metaphysical speculation. In the sixteenth century there was a great revival of experimental sciences; yet it was followed by the metaphysical speculation of the German idealistic school. The nineteenth century beheld a wonderful development of the natural sciences, but we are now witnessing a revival of the study of metaphysics. Nor is it true that these divers tendencies cannot exist during the same epoch. Aristotle was a metaphysician as well as a scientist. Even in the Middle Ages, which are so generally considered as exclusively given to a priori metaphysics, observation and experiment had a large place, as is shown by the works of Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus. St. Thomas himself manifests a remarkably keen spirit of psychological observation in his "Commentaries" and in his "Summa theologica", especially in his admirable treatise on the passions. Finally, we see a harmonious combination of faith, metaphysical reasoning, and experimental observation in such men as Kepler, Descartes, Leibniz, Paschal etc. The so-called "law of the three stages" is a gratuitous assumption, not a law of history.
The positivist religion is a logical consequence of the principles of Positivism. In reality human reason can prove the existence of a personal God and of His providence, and the moral necessity of revelation, while history proves the existence of such a revelation. The establishment of a religion by Positivism simply shows that for man religion is a necessity.
ROBINET, Notice sur l'œuvre et la vie d' A. Comte (Paris, 1860); Testament d' A. Comte (Paris, 1884); MILL, A. Comte and Positivism (London. 1867, 1882); CARE, Littré et le positivisme (Paris, 1883); CAIRD, The Social Philosophy and Religion of Comte (Glasgow, 1885); LAURENT, La philos. de Stuart Mill (Paris. 1886); GRUBER, A Comte, der Begrunder d. Positivismus (Freiburg, 1889); IDEM, Der Positivismus vom Tode A. Comte's bis auf unsere Tage (Freiburg, 1891); Stimmen aus Maria-Laach, supplements xiv and lii; RAVAISSON, La philos. en France, au XIXe Siécle (Paris, 1894); MERCIER, Psychologie (6th ed., Louvain, 1894); IDEM, Critériologie générale (4th ed., Louvain, 1900); PEILLLAUBE, La théorie des concepts (Paris, 1895); PIAT, L'idée (Paris, 1901); MAHER, Psychology (5th ed., London, 1903); BALFOUR, Defense of Philosophic Doubt (London, 1895); TURNER, Hist. of Philos. (Boston, 1903); DEHERME, A. Comte et son œuvre (Paris, 1909).
APA citation. (1911). Positivism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12312c.htm
MLA citation. "Positivism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12312c.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.