Late Nineteenth Century Social Philosophy
Positivism of Comte

The French Revolution ended in a very different way from the other great revolution of the eighteenth century, the American Revolution. The American Revolution was an uprising of a population distanced from the sources of authority, the British Empire. Having been lightly ruled, the Americans became “America,” rather than members of the British Empire. They went into their revolution with a well-developed set of ideas of human rights and political rights that were immediately codified when the War was over. The Americans decided upon a loose union of states, governed by an over arching Constitution, a meta document of democracy. For the Americans, the political issues and the social questions the brought on the rebellion were satisfied by their documents, and, for a six decades, problems were repressed and ignored. In contrast, the French did not settle their problems with authority, nor did the Revolution produce a form of government in which the people had a representative voice. Instead, surrounded by monarchical nations, angry at the execution of a legitimate king and queen and an entire aristocratic class, the French eventually turned to a “strong leader,” Napoléon. To the extent that any reformist ideas of equality had been tried post-Revolution, the newly minted Emperor snuffed them out, restoring autocratic rule, with a minor role for those who survived the Revolution. Lacking an authoritative document, like the Constitution, the French people had no clearly formed concept of a government by the people. Living under a series of monarchs and emperors, French philosophers turned their talents towards considering society itself. How should it be studied and what was the best way for people to live together?

The post-Revolutionary philosophers of the early nineteenth century were prescient in foreseeing the social problems of the Industrial Age. By mid-century, the philosophical emphasis had shifted from social reform to epistemological reform of philosophy itself, shifting philosophy away from idealism to materialism. New philosophers began to base their ideas upon empirical ideas and objective reasoning borrowed from science.  Even Hegel, one of the last of the idealist philosophers, stated that, “Philosophy must assume a regular structure as teachable as geometry,” and he wanted philosophy to be based upon a “definite methodical procedure.” The new approach that took the place of Idealism and the early nineteenth century dreams of utopian societies was Positivism. Isidore Marie Auguste François Xavier Comte (1798-1857) was a disciple of Henri Saint-Simon (Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon)  (1760-1825), who shifted from Utopian thinking about society to a scientific study of society.  As the founder of “sociology,” Comte rationalized the study of human behavior by using scientific methodology. People and their actions could be examined, facts could be gathered, hypothesis could be formed, and theories could be put forward and tested. The goal was to study society as it was and not to imagine society, as it should be. The importance of the Positivism of Comte is that the philosopher stressed actual observation and careful study of society. However, there were definitive links to the utopian ideas of Saint-Simon, for Positivism put forward a system of rule from technocrats or business and industrial leader who would explain to people how to live. Once again, the contrast with American is clear: the French wanted to create a layer of rulers who would oversee the lower classes supposedly for the purposes of control, combined with a bit of improvement in their lives.

Comte contemplated emigrating American but decided to remain in France and take up the career of political journalism in the 1829s. A critic of the appearance of a new aristocracy of power, he complained, “Luxury! Ah! How revolting it is when so many individuals lack absolute necessities.” Like Owen, Comte was hostile to religion, a distaste he expressed as early as 1817 in l’Industrie, where he put forward the scientific method as the means of reorganizing society. The ideals of Enlightenment philosophy faded in France and, in Comte’s vision, Positivism would create a signal and universal moral code so that everyone would have similar ideas. Based upon science positivism would transcend opinion and feeling and, thus, abolish political parties which would become unnecessary when people were confronted with the materialism of scientific fact. Unlike Americans who believed in a merit system, in which supposedly, everyone would have an equal chance to succeed, Comte felt that only the most competent people (men) should be allowed to lead. Indeed, he had a low opinion of the masses, and as an elitist, Comte believed that society should be ruled by scientists who would rule over the workers via ideas put forward  in his 1821 book, Prospectus on the Scientific Work Required for Society’s Reorganisation. He defined positivism as a combination of philosophy and social ideas, stating “Its primary is twofold: to generalize our scientific conceptions and to systematize the art of social life.” Comte’s book A General View of Positivism began with a simple statement: “Positivism consists essentially of a Philosophy and a Polity. These can never be disservered; the former being the basis, and the latter then end of one comprehensive system, in which our intellectual faculties and our social sympathies are brought into close correlation with each other. For, in the first place, the science of Society, besides being more important than any other, supplies the only logical and scientific link by which all our varied observations of phenomena can be brought into one consistent whole.”

In writing of Comte and his impact upon English philosophy, John Stuart Mill wrote in Auguste Comte and Positivism, “The fundamental doctrine of a true philosophy, according to M. Comte, and the character by which he defines Positive Philosophy in the following–We have no knowledge of anytime but Phenomena; and our knowledge of phenomena is relative, nor the real mode of production, of any fact, but only its relations to other facts in the way of succession or of similitude. These relations are constant; that is, always the same in the same circumstances. the constant resemblances which link phenomena together, and the constant sequences which unite them as antecedent and consequent, are termed their laws. The laws of phenomena are all we know respecting them. Their essential nature, and their ultimate causes, either efficient or final, are unknown and inscrutable to us.” In other, words, we can only know what we see and therefore we must proceed from a materialistic perspective. Although the word “sociology” has been used in relation to Comte, the term should not be understood in its modern sense. in the early nineteenth century, the idea of “studying” a social group did not extend to actual contact, as in the contemporary era. Comte was a positivist, yes, but he needs to be understood in relation to idealism in philosophy which he attempted to reform through the scientific method.  In contrast to Comte’s more scientific approach, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) was more political in his critique of society in his What is Property? (1840) and The Philosophy of Poverty (1846).  Rather than putting forward utopian ideals, Proudhon anticipated Marx by examining society and expressing outrage (“Property is theft.”) at the growing class stratification, as the industrialist class enjoyed runaway wealth and the lower classes enjoyed endless repetitive labor.  Like Saint-Simon, Proudhon imagined the disappearance of the state, but he wanted to substitute the authority of the state with the direct participation of the people who would decide their own affairs. His later reputation suffered due to Marx’s attacks on hid methodology; his over version of the dialectic, borrowed from Hegel, his “serial dialectic,” the “queen of thought, he sole type and generator of every idea the absolute condition of truth, the criterion of evidence.”

In the article, “Signs, Ideas, Windows: Interpretation and they Proudhonian Series,” Jesse Cohn wrote that in Proudhon’s own work, De la Création de l’order dans l’Humanité, he defined science as: “What I call SCIENCE is the clear, complete, certain and rational comprehension of order.”  Although Proudhon sounded a bit less totalitarian than Hegel who believed that the nation and the state were one and the same and morally superseded the community, he, too, was an authoritarian.  Women, he believed, should be submissive to men and take care of them, and while, serving men, women should also should have children and nurture them as well.  He was typical of men of his age in his ideas about women and the use of authority.  Proudhon, as a non-too-successful professional publisher and writer, also had strong opinions about accumulated wealth.  He equated slavery with murder and property with robbery.  As Proudhon stated in What is Property? “ and robbery are synonymous terms; that every social advantage accorded or rather usurped in the name of superior talent or service, in inequality and extortion..” Cohn noted that Proudhon “declared war” on “all things and everywhere, on the Absolute,” and suggested that science was “a means of purging the ideas.” According to the author, Proudhon said that science “is not to be invented but discovered.” The philosopher continued, “In the reality f things, the perfect stability of reason is never encountered: the smoothest plane, seen under the microscope, present hollows an bumps, the straight line is always a little bent, no animal is in conformity with its type, no sound perfectly right..” As Cohn concluded, “If positivism aims at achieving an absolute identity between model and reality, Proudhon’s post-positivism assumes that they can never be identical.” 

Most socialists (and anarchists) defined socialism as direct government achieved through suffrage.  Putting aside the fact that women and people of color could not vote, suffrage had its problems, because the mass of people were not well-educated or informed, they would not know how to vote for their own interests.  Proudhon preferred to create a form of government that would create an equilibrium between freedom of the people and the role of the government.  Arrested during the Revolution of 1848, sent into exile to Belgium during the Second Empire, Proudhon took the idea of equilibrium and applied it to war, advocating force to bring about equilibrium among nations, much to the dismay of his admirers. “Reforms always,” he stated, “Utopias never,” announcing pragmatism and positivism.  A prolific letter writer and self-publisher of his many works, Proudhon was a native of Montpellier, in Franche-Comté, the territory of Gustave Courbet.  Sometimes writing as an art critic, Proudhon published his ideas about Courbet’s paintings of a region that was very familiar to him.   Proudhon is perhaps better known for his association with Courbet than for his philosophical ideas today, because he was overshadowed by his one-time colleague, Karl Marx.

Karl Marx brushed Proudhon aside as a “bourgeois socialist,” who would not advocate revolution.  It is difficult today to ascertain Proudhon’s knowledge of German philosophy.   Hegel had yet to be translated into French, however, Victor Cousin was teaching about Kant, for example, at the Sorbonne, and, from Proudhon’s own words, it would seem Cousin would have been his source of German thought.  However, the main difference between Kant, Hegel and Marx and the socialists was that the Germans created structured models for their philosophical thought and the socialists were less systematic. The social philosophers were futurist; they looked forward, envisioning a better life. They were less idealist than materialist in that they dealt with real social problems in a relatively practical fashion.  Hegel and Marx, in contrast, were determinists.  The future they posited was determined by the triadic forces of the dialectic.  It was Marx, who dominates the discussion of social theory and philosophy today with his application of the Hegelian dialectic to economics, to the “secret engine” of culture. As Marx stated,

“…New relations in production, superior to the former ones, never come into being before their material reason for existence has developed in the womb of old society.  Humanity puts to itself only the riddles that it can solve, for on looking closely at the matter, one will find that the riddle is put only when the material conditions of its solution already exists…”

Although Karl Marx 1818 – 1883) wrote often with Frederic Engels, (1820 –95) it is Marx who is the better-known philosopher.  Together Marx and Engels wrote The German Ideology, 1846 and the Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1846.  On his own, Marx wrote Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844, Wage-Labor and Capital, (usually referred to as Das Capital) 1849, The Eighteenth Brumarie of Louis Bonaparte, 1852, Grundrisse, 1857-88, Wages, Price and Profit, 1865, The Civil War in France, 1871, and Critique of the Gotha Program, 1875.  Although Marx would live in bourgeois comfort in suburban London, his place of exile, and spent his days writing in seat G7 in the British Museum Library, he wrote movingly on the plight of the working classes during the Industrial Revolution.  By the time Marx was forced out of his native Prussia for his revolutionary ideas, industry and capitalism had been the basis of modern society for over one hundred years and its consequences were plain to see. Vast new wealth had been accumulated by the new commercial class, and an abyss of poverty subjugated the lower classes.  Like many observers of his time, Marx foresaw a pending social and economic revolution—for human misery can be contained only so long.  As a German national living in England, Marx would have witnessed the activities of Reformists, politicians and writers, such as Charles Dickens, and philosophers, such as Jeremy Bentham.  The British thinkers repeatedly warned of the consequences of the environmental and social horrors that had descended upon the so-called “advanced” industrial nations.

Kant and Hegel are considered idealists, reaching towards some kind of absolute or universal.  Marx, on the other hand, was a thoroughgoing materialist: for him, reality was grounded in existence, knowledge was the result of reality, and therefore the mind could never be independent of history.  If the mind constructed reality, then the constructions must always be changing, along with history.  If this was the case, then consciousness could never be absolute or universal and must be subjected to changing conditions.  For Marx, these conditions were capitalism, the greatest social change since the breakdown of the Roman Empire into feudalism, and the middle class, the first new class since the beginning of human history.  Capitalism had created a society based upon the abstraction of money, labor, goods, value, and, ultimately—human beings.

Also read: “Early Nineteenth Century Utopian Philosophy”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

[email protected]



If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

Get in Touch!

4 + 6 =