Lucien Lévy-Bruhl.

The Philosophy of Auguste Comte online

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_Maître de Conférences de Philosophie à la Faculté des Lettres
de l’Université de Paris,
Professeur à l’Ecole libre des Sciences politiques_.


_Honorary Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford_






The publication in 1900 of Professor Lévy-Bruhl’s volume _The
Philosophy of Auguste Comte_ was an event in the history of the
Positive movement. The eminent position in the University of Paris
and in recent philosophical history that is held by Prof. Lévy-Bruhl
gave great interest and importance to a systematic judgment from his
pen such as the present work. The commemorative festival of Comte held
this year, when the statue in the Place de la Sorbonne was unveiled
by the Minister of War, in presence of an international gathering of
delegates from the civilised world, has called fresh attention to
the lifework of the philosopher who died 45 years ago. Accordingly,
a translation of Professor Lévy-Bruhl’s book was urgently demanded.
When I was invited to add to this translation, which I can confidently
recommend to students of philosophy, a slight introductory essay, I
proposed to use a piece which I wrote on the publication of the French
work. It appeared in “The Speaker,” (14 April, 1900;) and, as I see no
reason to modify my opinion of this masterly book, I leave it nearly
as then written. I may add that the learned Professor was a member of
the International Committee with many eminent representatives of the
government of France and of the Universities of the Old and New World,
which in May last raised the monument to Auguste Comte in Paris.

Professor Lévy-Bruhl followed up his _History of Modern Philosophy in
France_ by a substantial work on the philosophy of Auguste Comte. It
forms a volume of the _Bibliothèque de Philosophie Contemporaine_,
which has already devoted four other works to the Positive Philosophy.
It is as well to premise that this treatise dealt solely with the
_philosophy_, not with the polity, or any part of the religious scheme
of Comte. Professor Lévy-Bruhl writes as a student, but not as an
adherent of Auguste Comte. His entire work is rather an exposition, not
a refutation, or a criticism, or an advocacy of Comte’s philosophical
system. But it may be said at once that no one abroad or at home,
certainly neither Mill, nor Lewes, nor Spencer, nor Caird, has so truly
grasped and assimilated Comte’s ideas as M. Lévy-Bruhl has done.

In his _Introduction_ M. Lévy-Bruhl very clearly states the scope of
his work, and his own general attitude. He traces the origin of Comte’s
philosophy in the mental effervescence of the first generation of
the present century towards a reorganisation of society, after the
upheaval left by the Revolution and its consequences. He correctly
states the relation of St. Simon to Comte as being that of an initial
stimulus. The cardinal difference between Comte and all the socialists
and founders of social and religious Utopias consisted in this,
that Comte saw the necessity of a new system of philosophy as the
indispensable preliminary to any reorganisation of society. In 1824, at
the age of twenty-six, Comte wrote:—“Discussions about institutions are
pure folly until the spiritual reconstitution of society is effected
or much advanced.” The construction of an intellectual reorganisation,
before any social restoration was possible, occupied twenty or thirty
years of Comte’s life. And when he opened his _Polity_, or social and
religious scheme, the conditions had much changed: the public and its
interests were no longer what they had been in 1820-30.

M. Lévy-Bruhl effectively disposes of the objection of Littré, to which
Mill gave countenance, that the _Polity_, with the whole of Comte’s
second or social system, was in contradiction with his first and
philosophic system as propounded in the _Philosophy_. As M. Lévy-Bruhl
proves, the six _Opuscules_ dating from 1819 to 1826, some years before
the _Cours_, which only began in 1830 and occupied twelve years,
contain in germ the scheme ultimately elaborated in the _Politique_,
from 1851 to 1854. Besides this, the _Letters to Mill_, which M.
Lévy-Bruhl edited in 1899, and the _Letters to Valat_, which are long
antecedent to the _Politique_, show the same governing design. To the
unity of Comte’s doctrine M. Lévy-Bruhl bears emphatic testimony:—

“His whole life was the methodical execution of his programme.... He
had but one system, not two. From the _Opuscules_ of his twentieth
year, to the _Synthèse_ of his last year, it is the development of one
and the same conception.”

M. Lévy-Bruhl then explains that, whilst recognising the entire
coherence of Comte’s collective labours, he proposes to confine his
present study to the earlier and principal work, the _Philosophy_,
which in M. Lévy-Bruhl’s opinion is the dominant and more fruitful

This he regards as the representative work of the nineteenth century,
as shown by the intellectual history of the period. He points to its
influence on thought in England, in Europe, and in America. It will
surprise many persons to learn that in M. Lévy-Bruhl’s opinion two
eminent French writers, who assuredly neither were, nor were supposed
to be, Positivists, “have done more for the diffusion of the ideas and
method of Comte than Littré and all the other Positivists together.”
These two are Taine and Renan, much as they differed from Comte’s
actual scheme and doctrines. Renan indeed spoke of Comte as destined
to prove one of the typical names of the century. The present writer
remembers Renan saying to him with a most genial welcome, “I too am a
believer in the religion of humanity.” History, romance, poetry, says
M. Lévy-Bruhl, have all reflected the positive spirit:—

“Contemporary sociology is the creation of Comte; scientific
psychology, in a certain degree has sprung from him. It is not rash
to conclude that the Positivist Philosophy expresses some of the most
characteristic tendencies of the age.”

It is clear that, if M. Lévy-Bruhl is in no sense an adherent of Comte,
he is a most sympathetic and discerning master of the positive system.

M. Lévy-Bruhl opens his analysis of Comte’s philosophy by examining
his main conceptions:—(1) The law of the three states, theological,
metaphysical, and positive, through which all human ideas pass; (2) the
Classification of the Sciences; (3) the scheme of each science in turn.
And he closes with an explanation of the general doctrines of Humanity,
as the centre of human thought, feeling, and activity.

The law of the three states announced by Comte in 1822, is thoroughly
explained and entirely assimilated by M. Lévy-Bruhl. Its demonstration,
he thinks, is complete when we recognise that, although many orders
of ideas have not finally reached their positive state, all of them
exhibit the tendency to the same evolution, and there is no single
instance of a conception of a positive science ever retrograding
into unverified figment. Of course the terms _theological_ and
_metaphysical_ have to be understood in the sense adopted by
Comte - _i.e._ “anthropomorphic” and “hypothetical,” a bare hypothesis
wearing a scientific form. M. Lévy-Bruhl himself regards the law
as irrefutable and of capital importance, “the corner stone of the
positive system.”

Our professor is equally conclusive in his estimate of Comte’s
classification of the sciences. He quite demolishes the objections
made to it by Mr. Herbert Spencer in his essay with that title. M.
Lévy-Bruhl repeats the criticisms to which Spencer has been exposed in
this country and abroad by Littré, Lewes, Mill, and others. And he has
no difficulty in showing that Mr. Spencer’s objections are due to his
very slight acquaintance with Comte’s text, and his own superficial
study of the English abridgments. In proposing a classification of
the _concrete_ sciences, Mr. Spencer enters on a task which Comte
distinctly repudiates, and which on good grounds he treats as
philosophically impracticable for purposes of evolutionary sequence.
Comte’s strictly _relative_ theory excludes such a scale of _concrete_
science; whilst Spencer’s _absolute_ theory of the universe forces
him to attempt it in vain. If it be objected that Comte’s ascending
scale of the sciences is “anthropocentric,” the answer is that, when
reasonably understood as a philosophic device for sorting human
ideas, not as a statement of _absolute_ truth, the “anthropocentric”
arrangement of human knowledge is the only one which is at once
possible and useful.

It would need a long essay even to sketch M. Lévy-Bruhl’s analysis of
Comte’s conception of _science_, of _law_, and of the six dominant
sciences. He has thoroughly assimilated the positive spirit, that
_science_ implies a co-ordination of _laws_, not an encyclopædia of
facts, that it is _relative_ to our powers of observation and reasoning
and not an _absolute_ explanation of the universe in itself. He goes
through the sciences, physical, social, and moral, in turn, as treated
by Comte, and justly explains that Comte never attempted or conceived
a _vade-mecum_ or handbook of contemporary scientific knowledge, but
a scheme for the co-ordination of general ideas of science. A real
“philosophy of the sciences” is something wholly distinct from a
compendium of all the sciences - a thing which in 1840 was far less
possible than it might be now. Controversialists have reproached Comte
with the obvious fact that his concrete science is now sixty years
old. In dealing with these shallow criticisms, M. Lévy-Bruhl has shown
how little able is any narrow specialist to understand the abstract
conceptions of a real philosopher.

One of the most common of these misconceptions is the ignorant charge
that Comte repudiated “psychology,” in the sense of the laws of man’s
intellectual and moral nature. “_Psychologie_,” as M. Lévy-Bruhl
shows, when Comte wrote, meant Cousin’s futile introspection of the
_ego_. Comte certainly rejected that as idle, as do all competent
psychologists of our time. Psychology, meaning the laws of mind and
will, was not only an indispensable basis of Comte’s system, but its
rational, systematic foundation dates from Comte’s suggestions. His
signal contribution to psychology lies, not in his doctrine of its
physiological basis, but in his referring it to sociology as its guide
and inspiration.

M. Lévy-Bruhl concludes his study with a co-ordinate table of twelve
contrasted propositions of the metaphysical and of the positive
systems respectively. These show how simple and rational a transition
is that between Positivism and the older theological and metaphysical
hypotheses of the universe and of Man. We welcome a book which all
positivists will regard as fair, learned, and instructive, and which
all students of philosophy must regard as a masterly study of a
comprehensive subject.

_45th Anniversary of the death of Comte_,
(5th SEPTEMBER, 1902.)


Fifty years have now elapsed since Auguste Comte’s monumental work,
the _Cours de Philosophie Positive_, was first introduced to English
readers by Miss Harriet Martineau. But her work was much more than a
translation. It was a condensed exposition of Comte’s doctrines, done
with such mastery that it obtained the emphatic approval of Comte
himself who, in such matters, was not very easily satisfied.

In Harriet Martineau’s case, both the substance of the book and
the English form in which it was offered to the public, were her
work. In the case of the present volume, while a woman is once more
responsible for the translation, the substance of the book, that is
the comprehensive exposition of Comte’s system in the light of all his
published works, is from the pen of Professor Lévy-Bruhl, and readers
who are acquainted with Harriet Martineau’s book will be all the more
in a position to appreciate the importance of this fresh contribution
to the elucidation of the thought of Auguste Comte.

We fear that the clearness of style, the richness of expression, the
power of condensed thought which characterise our author will be found
to have been often weakened, if not sometimes altogether obliterated,
in this translation. The striking simplicity of the text at first
deceived me into the belief that I could do justice to it. I was often
tempted to sacrifice the literal sense in order to preserve some of the
graces of the original. Yet I hope to be forgiven for having uniformly
preferred to err through too much faithfulness to the letter. My sole
object has been to enable the English reader to get at the meaning of
the text.

But, while I have only too much reason to solicit the indulgence of
my readers, conscious as I am of the many defects of this translation,
I feel that no apology is needed for bringing that of which it is a
translation within the reach of the English-speaking public.

We live in times when the intimate relation between the natural
sciences and social questions is increasingly felt. Old landmarks
are disappearing, new foundations are being laid, new problems are
constantly arising, generating doubts and perplexities for which the
solutions of other days supply no adequate answer.

Meanwhile, as the facts of science reveal to us more of the conditions
of human life, we give, more or less consciously, a larger place to
sociology in our mental preoccupations. Thus renewed interest is being
felt in the writings of the Founder of the Science of Sociology. The
most conflicting schools of thought study the works of Auguste Comte
and many ask: who is that man whose ideas appear to contain a clearer
message to our generation than they did to his own? For such inquirers
Professor Lévy-Bruhl’s book should prove singularly useful and timely.
It is a plain, independent account of what Comte really taught, written
by one possessed of the fullest qualifications for such a task, and
no work of recent date will enable students to understand so clearly
the solution given by the French philosopher to the perplexing moral,
social, and religious problems of our time.

Here, as elsewhere, “il s’agit de tout comprendre, non de tout
admirer,” and Professor Lévy-Bruhl is himself too much of a philosopher
to forget that golden rule; but, nevertheless, by his free, independent
judgment of Comte’s teaching, he helps us to realise to what an extent,
in these days, Comte is inspiring many who are not perhaps conscious of
following him.




Note by Mr. Frederic Harrison v.

Translator’s Preface xiii.

Introduction by Professor Lévy-Bruhl 1


CHAPTER I. - The Philosophical Problem 23

“ II. - The Law of the Three States 35

“ III. - The Classification of the Sciences 49

“ IV. - Science 60

“ V. - Science (continued) Phenomena and Laws 79

“ VI. - Science (continued) Positive Logic 103


INTRODUCTION. - The Philosophy of the Sciences 121

CHAPTER I. - Mathematics 125

“ II. - Astronomy 142

“ III. - Sciences of the Inorganic World 154

“ IV. - Biology 171

“ V. - Psychology 188


CHAPTER I. - Transition from Animality to Humanity - Art
and Language 213

“ II. - General Considerations on Social Science 230

“ III. - Social Statics 249

“ IV. - Social Dynamics 260

“ V. - The Philosophy of History 276


CHAPTER I. - The Principles of Ethics 303

“ II. - Social Ethics 319

“ III. - The Idea of Humanity 334





Every new system of philosophy, however original in appearance, is
more or less directly related to the doctrines which have preceded
it. But it is also connected with more general conditions in a manner
no less close, if not so immediately obvious. It depends upon a whole
set of social conditions. The influence of the religious, political,
economical, intellectual phenomena, in a word of the contemporary
_milieu_ upon this system is as indisputable as its own influence
upon the _milieu_. It is therefore not enough to study it as a
self-sufficient whole. This whole which is in itself but a part, must
be restored to its place within the greater whole which alone explains
its essential characteristics.

This rule of historical method, which Comte likes to recall, applies
very well to his own system. In order to reach as complete an
understanding as possible of his doctrine, to appreciate exactly
its general orientation, to understand the importance which the
author attaches in it to this or that part, the study of the text
will not suffice. We must further take into account the historical
circumstances in which the doctrine found its birth, the general
movement of contemporary ideas, and the manifold influences which have
reacted upon the mind of the philosopher.

Now one great fact, above all others, dominates the period in which the
positive philosophy appeared. It is the French Revolution, as Comte
expressly states: without it, neither the theory of progress, nor
consequently social science, nor consequently again positive philosophy
would have been possible. Was it not, moreover, inevitable that this
extraordinary social upheaval should by reflex action have determined a
vast and prolonged movement in philosophical and political speculation?
The effects of this reflex action varied according to the value and the
originality of the minds which experienced them. But in the greatest as
in the most mediocre we recognise infallibly certain common features.
For instance, men and women, in the rising generation at the beginning
of the XIX. century, never fail to put the same question to themselves:
“What social institutions should be established after the Revolution?”
and by this all understand not only the political form of government,
but the very principles of social order: a problem which appeared as
urgent from the practical point of view, as it was supreme from the
theoretical point of view. It is this problem in various forms which
preoccupies Chateaubriand as well as Fourier and Saint-Simon, and
Joseph de Maistre as well as Cousin and Comte.

All agree upon the first point. We must “reconstruct.” An “organic”
period must succeed the “critical” period which has just come to
an end. According to Saint Simon’s striking expression, humanity
is not made to inhabit ruins. The revolutionary storm had been so
formidable, the din so deafening, the social back-wash so violent,
that no one exactly measured the effect which had been produced. Many
institutions which had only been shaken seemed to be overthrown. A
good part of the old régime had even gone through the crisis without
being too greatly damaged, and had survived. But this fact, which was
very well appreciated by the men of 1850, could not yet be discovered
by the first generation of the century. It conscientiously believed
that the old régime had crumbled altogether, and that the task either
of restoring it, or of again laying down the very bases of society
belonged to it. In this the first generation remained faithful to the
spirit of the Revolution, which had considered itself as an effort to
institute an entirely new social and political system, a thought in
which the civilised world had shared. Now, in spite of the labours of
the revolutionary assemblies, in spite of the power and of the great
talent which the Convention had at its command, this ambitious hope
had not been realised. The question remained open after the Directoire
and after the Empire. When the old régime was supposed to have been
destroyed, how was society to be “reorganised”?

Thus, at the opening of the XIX. century, philosophical speculation
was at first to be directed towards the religious and social problems.
Undoubtedly the influence of the uninterrupted advance of the positive
sciences was also felt at the same time. A study of Auguste Comte’s
system could hardly fail to recognise the fact. But, even with Comte,
scientific interest, however active it may be, is subordinated to the
social interest. What he asks of philosophy is the rational settlement
of the bases of modern society. Thus, he means to discover the elements
of a religion which can be substituted to Catholicism, whose mission he
considers as at an end.

“The XIX. century,” Ranke has said, “is especially a century of
restoration.” A deep saying, which exactly expresses one of the leading
features in the historical physiognomy of this century. It is precisely
thus that it was conceived by those who inaugurated it. Such indeed
is the main tendency of the greater number of philosophical doctrines
which have expressed its most intimate characteristics. Only, as is
generally the case, this restoration absorbs and consolidates a large
part of the results acquired during the crisis. At the same time new
problems, raised especially by the development of industry in its
larger aspects, made clear-sighted men feel that the revolutionary
period, however desirable it might be to bring it to a close, was
really only beginning.


Like many of his contemporaries Auguste Comte thought himself
singled out for the mission of formulating the principle of “social
reorganisation.” But this is where he differs from them. Each of the
reformers begins by proposing his own solution of the social problem,
and all his efforts only tend to justify it. As this problem is the
most urgent one in their eyes, it is also the only one which they have
put directly to themselves. Now this method, according to Comte, is a
bad one, and in following it they court certain failure. For a social
problem is such that its solution cannot be obtained immediately; other
problems, more theoretical in character, must be solved beforehand.
It is therefore these which must first be dealt with, if we seek
anything else than the lengthening of the history of political dreams
and of social chimeras. “Institutions,” Comte says, “depend on morals,
and morals, in their turn, depend on beliefs.” Every scheme of new
institutions will therefore be useless so long as morals have not been
“reorganised,” and so long as, to reach this end, a general system
of opinions has not been founded, which are accepted by all minds as
true, as was, for instance, the system of Catholic dogma in Europe in
the Middle Ages. Therefore, either the social problem admits of no

Online LibraryLucien Lévy-BruhlThe Philosophy of Auguste Comte → online text (page 1 of 28)