17 dezembro 2012
Auguste Comte (for) today
It can be asked whether Auguste Comte (and Positivism) can be considered useful for today’s issues – political, philosophical, social. It’s a very interesting question, whose answer is manifold. First of all, it’s not clear at all what is “Positivism”; second, Comtean ideas are not known, so it’s quite difficult to argue if they are useful; third, there is the problem of how to “use” “ancient” philosophies today.
The first problem involves the fact that the word “Positivism” is a very misleading one, referring to individuals, groups, social and intellectual movements etc., some of them so different one to another that is hard to consider them having something in common other than the label “Positivism”. In a study published more than 30 years ago (Positivism and Sociology), Peter Halfpenny distinguished 12 different meanings to such expression.
For example, there is the philosophical – and religious – Positivism, which is the oeuvre of Comte, who initiate his thoughts in science and philosophy of sciences, then passed to the foundation of the social science – “Sociology” – and, then, founded a secular religion, the “Religion of Humanity”. There is also the Sociological Positivism, which owes very much to Comtean’s one, but is quite different from it: the works of Emile Durkheim and his French Sociological School is the best example of it.
But the most popular versions of Positivism, especially in the Angle-Saxon world, are those strictly related to the philosophy of science and to some very empiricist version of it. The ideas of the Vienna Circle, also known as Logical Empiricism, also known as Logical Positivism, also known as Neo-Positivism, are this third branch of “Positivism”. Developed during the 1920-1930’s by philosophers, physicists, mathematicians and other natural scientists like Otto Neurath, Rudolph Carnap etc., they intended to draw a clearcut line between science and metaphysics. According to them, every statement which cannot be reducible to a matter of fact cannot be considered meaningful, despite it can be considered an expression of feelings: what is reducible to matters of fact (and, so, meaningful) is scientific and acceptable; what’s not, is metaphysical and must be proscribed from the true philosophical reasoning.
Such order of reflexions reinforced some tendencies of Anglo-Saxon thoughts, especially in the USA – namely, some ultra-empiricist ways of research. Broader philosophical reasonings are frequently detached from matters of fact (because of their abstract nature) and, so, they’re considered metaphysical; conversely, the fact-gathering activity is among the supreme scientific ones: that’s how in the American academy “Positivism” has become synonym of empiricism, quantitativism – and, many times, also of anti-historicism, antiphilosophy and “methodologism”.
Studies concerning the relationships among Comtean ideas and the other varieties of “Positivism” are yet to be done (despite some researchers have done some, like Angèle Kremer-Marietti). But it’s important to note that Comte has developed a broader philosophy and he was against the ultra-empiricist approach of science – for he, science is above all the set of abstract laws; his philosophical concerns lead him to a constitution of a relativistic, humane religion, which criticized even the “scientifism”, i. e., the absolute tendencies of today’s (and XIX Century’s) science. So, many characteristics of the so-called Positivism are distant from Comtean Positivism, being considered by it absolute and metaphysical.
Despite the important differences among the many types of Positivism, the common label is an easy way to referring to them all; by metonym, some can think that they’re “all the same”, leading to a posture of avoiding a more (or a minimum) adequate knowledge of each one. As Comtean Positivism is as “Positivism” as Logical Positivism, with the problem of conducting to a mystic (religious) version of it, there is no need to read Comte’s works, which, above all, are extensive and manifold: that’s the usual way for not reading Comte and, at the same time, being capable of criticizing it. Or, as said in Portuguese: “não li e não gostei” (“I haven’t read it and haven’t liked it”).
A third sort of reasons for considering Comte inadequate for today is XIX Century rooting. For being “scientificist”, “empiricist”, “antimetaphysical”, “deterministic” etc. it would be outdated, outfashioned; his Religion of Humanity would be just another trait to reaffirm its inadequacy for today, revealing the crazy dreams of a madman. But those two orders of motives are just prejudicials, for not only the deep rooting of someone in his own time has never stopped the study of someone’s works, but also the (alleged) someone’s problematic state of mind has never stopped the study of someone’s work. Every day the ideas of philosophers and thinkers of different times are studied, not only in Philosophy and History of Ideas, but also as a means of comprehending today’s ideas and searching for new ideas and understandings: that’s why we study the books written by Plato onwards (and thinkers even more ancient) or the ideas of thinkers of other civilizations (as Anthropology does).
If the time distance is not a real problem, the (again: alleged) craziness of some thinker is even a minor problem. We could multiply the examples of thinkers, in all areas of human activities, who suffered of many mental illnesses, but only one name can end all discussions: Nietzsche was a perfect mental sickman, but not only no one tells his philosophy is not worthy of being studied, as his mental illness is no (moral, intellectual, logical) obstacle to study his philosophy.
As it concerns Comte, at the age of 30 he had a nervous breakdown, due to familiar troubles; he took two years to be healthy again, but that was his only episode of “mental illness”. What happens is that from 1848 on he developed his “Religion of Humanity”, against the main philosophical and scientific trends of his time; the very words he used, beginning with “Religion”, but also “cult”, “dogma”, “catechism”, “priest” etc., are proofs of the religious character of his late work, but none of them are proofs of dementia, craziness or anything similar. The question is that his religion was a general system of morality, ruling individual and collective behavior, based on secular, humane, relativistic basis. Of course, for Comte, “religion” and “theology” are not synonyms – and that’s one of the reasons for confusion. (Another source of confusion, not exactly innocent, is the reaffirmation of scientistic, absolute ethos, which is reaffirmed event today, even with the name of “Positivism”.)
We just examined three reasons why Comte is not studied today; all of them are based on prejudices and confusions, resulting in that his works are not even read. But what should we expect from that reading, after all?
Far from suggesting all the possibilities, we present below a non-exhaustive list of aspects Comtean thinking is very interesting for today.
1) Affirmation of importance of a balanced development, taking care of the environment
2) Autonomy of civil society vis-à-vis the State
3) Complete and radical humanism; secular ethics
4) Comprehensive, all-encompassing (“holistic”) perspective on society and the human being
5) Conception of subjective immortality
6) Concomitant affirmation of criteria of social justice and individual responsability
7) Critics of individualism, in all its forms (methodological, theoretical and moral individualism, methodological, theoretical and moral egoism)
8) Epistemology and Philosophy of Sciences
9) Freedoms of thought, expression, reunion and so on
10) Importance of ideas and values in social life
11) Perspective that combines the universal and the particular
12) Perspective that goes beyond traditional dichotomies: order-progress, materialism-idealism, agent-structure
13) Reenchantment of the world
14) Role of public opinion on public affairs
15) Scientific perspective on reality
16) Social utopia
17) Valorization of subjectivity in the knowledge (scientific, artistic, philosophic ones)
All those aspects are presented in all Comte’s works, especially in his late career ones – precisely those of his religious phase: System of positive policy, Positivist catechism, Appeal to conservative, A general view of Positivism, and also his extensive, 8-volume correspondence.
In the last two decades or so, a number of academic researchers, mainly French, has explored many aspects of Comtean thought: Angèle Kremer-Marietti, Emmanuel Lazinier, Julliete Grange, Annie Petit, Michel Bourdeau, Laurent Fedi, Mike Gane, Mary Pickering, Olaf Simons, Sérgio Tiski, Gustavo Biscaia de Lacerda – and many more. In the internet, it’s possible to know something on Comte and Comtean Positivism in some sites: Maison d’Auguste Comte (http://www.augustecomte.org), Auguste Comte et le Positivisme (http://membres.multimania.fr/clotilde) and, more recently, Positivism (http://positivists.org/).