13 August 2013

Review: Comte's Philosophy of the Sciences: Being an Exposition of the Principles of the Cours de Philosophie Positive of Auguste Comte by G. H. Lewes

PDF eBook, 351 pages
Published 1871 (originally 1853)

Read November 2012
Comte's Philosophy of the Sciences: Being an Exposition of the Principles of the Cours de Philosophie Positive of Auguste Comte by G. H. Lewes

George Henry Lewes presented a vision of how society might be reconstructed partially on scientific lines, with this, which summarized and partially translated the positivist philosophy of Auguste Comte. Comte’s work (originally published in 1838, translated by Lewes in 1853) aims to dispel the conceptions that some had about a scientific plan for society: according to Lewes, positivism’s distinguishing feature is “the absolute predominance of the moral point of view—the rigorous subordination of the intellect to the heart” (8-9). The kinds of objections that writers like Charles Dickens had raised are dismissed when Lewes goes on to say, “The half-repugnant feeling about science, in the minds of literary men, artists, and moralists, is a natural and proper insurgence of the emotions against the domineering tendency of intellect… they reject a philosophy which speaks to them only of the Laboratory. But in Comte, Science has no such position” (9). Science, according to Comte and Lewes, is a tool used by the hands of morality to help all of humanity. The vision of scientific detachment as a force that overrides and destroys morality is argued against by the positivists.

In the new sciences of psychology and sociology, science turns its operations from the material to the realm of the human, of thoughts, of consciousness, of society. Comte calls for the same observational rigor in observing humanity as in observing stars or particles. Lewes hopes for “the study of Comparative Psychology, with a view to the clearer appreciation of our psychical condition” (213). This is important, because just as better understanding the physical universe lets us manipulate and control it, better understanding human thought lets us improve it: Lewes argues that the “foremost portion of mankind is now approaching the positive state… and now only await their general co-ordination to constitute a new social system” (328). Though Lewes later states that he finds Comte’s suggested reorganization of society “premature” (339), he still comes across as sympathetic to the general long-term reform goals of positivism.

Good observation of humans and human nature becomes key to the success or failure of positivism. If sociology and psychology do not adequately understand how human beings thinks, either individually or in large groups, then it would be impossible to reform society on a scientific basis. Lewes makes interesting reading alongside the many utopian texts of the nineteenth century, such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000–1887 (1888) or George Griffith’s The Angel of the Revolution: A Tale of the Coming Terror (1893), as well as the ones that examine means of reformation to point out their flaws, like Anthony Trollope’s The Fixed Period (1882) or William Morris’s News from Nowhere, or An Epoch of Rest (1890). And then there is George Eliot’s Middlemach: A Study of Provincial Life (1871-72), which I would argue is in fact a novel with a utopian project, because it examines the ways in which the ideals of positivism do and do not work.

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