remodel the whole science, yet not the less will they recognize the merit of the first work which has facilitated their labours.”—Congreve.
We shall now briefly describe Comte’s principal conceptions in sociology, his position in respect to which is held by himself, and by others, to raise him to the level of Descartes or Leibnitz. Of course the first step was to approach the phenomenaSociological conceptions. of human character and social existence with the expectation of finding them as reducible to general laws as the other phenomena of the universe, and with the hope of exploring these laws by the same instruments of observation and verification as had done such triumphant work in the case of the latter. Comte separates the collective facts of society and history from the individual phenomena of biology; then he withdraws these collective facts from the region of external volition, and places them in the region of law. The facts of history must be explained, not by providential interventions, but by referring them to conditions inherent in the successive stages of social existence. This conception makes a science of society possible. Method. What is the method? It comprises, besides observation and experiment (which is, in fact, only the observation of abnormal social states), a certain peculiarity of verification. We begin by deducing every well-known historical situation from the series of its antecedents. Thus we acquire a body of empirical generalizations as to social phenomena, and then we connect the generalizations with the positive theory of human nature. A sociological demonstration lies in the establishment of an accordance between the conclusions of historical analysis and the preparatory conceptions of biological theory. As Mill puts it:—“If a sociological theory, collected from historical evidence, contradicts the established general laws of human nature; if (to use M. Comte’s instances) it implies, in the mass of mankind, any very decided natural bent, either in a good or in a bad direction; if it supposes that the reason, in average human beings, predominates over the desires, or the disinterested desires over the personal,—we may know that history has been misinterpreted, and that the theory is false. On the other hand, if laws of social phenomena, empirically generalized from history, can, when once suggested, be affiliated to the known laws of human nature; if the direction actually taken by the developments and changes of human society, can be seen to be such as the properties of man and of his dwelling-place made antecedently probable, the empirical generalizations are raised into positive laws, and sociology becomes a science.” The result of this method, is an exhibition of the events of human experience in co-ordinated series that manifest their own graduated connexion.
Next, as all investigation proceeds from that which is known best to that which is unknown or less well known, and as, in social states, it is the collective phenomenon that is more easy of access to the observer than its parts, therefore we must consider and pursue all the elements of a given social state together and in common. The social organization must be viewed and explored as a whole. There is a nexus between each leading group of social phenomena and other leading groups; if there is a change in one of them, that change is accompanied by a corresponding modification of all the rest. “Not only must political institutions and social manners, on the one hand, and manners and ideas, on the other, be always mutually connected; but further, this consolidated whole must be always connected by its nature with the corresponding state of the integral development of humanity, considered in all its aspects of intellectual, moral and physical activity.”—Comte.
Is there any one element which communicates the decisive impulse to all the rest,—any predominating agency in the course of social evolution? The answer is that all the other parts of social existence are associated with, andDecisive Importance of Intellectual development. drawn along by, the contemporary condition of intellectual development. The Reason is the superior and preponderant element which settles the direction in which all the other faculties shall expand. “It is only through the more and more marked influence of the reason over the general conduct of man and of society, that the gradual march of our race has attained that regularity and persevering continuity which distinguish it so radically from the desultory and barren expansion of even the highest animal orders, which share, and with enhanced strength, the appetites, the passions, and even the primary sentiments of man.” The history of intellectual development, therefore, is the key to social evolution, and the key to the history of intellectual development is the Law of the Three States.
Among other central thoughts in Comte’s explanation of history are these:—The displacement of theological by positive conceptions has been accompanied by a gradual rise of an industrial régime out of the military régime;—the great permanent contribution of Catholicism was the separation which it set up between the temporal and the spiritual powers;—the progress of the race consists in the increasing preponderance of the distinctively human elements over the animal elements;—the absolute tendency of ordinary social theories will be replaced by an unfailing adherence to the relative point of view, and from this it follows that the social state, regarded as a whole, has been as perfect in each period as the co-existing condition of humanity and its environment would allow.
The elaboration of these ideas in relation to the history of the civilization of the most advanced portion of the human race occupies two of the volumes of the Positive Philosophy, and has been accepted by very different schools as a masterpiece of rich, luminous, and far-reaching suggestion. Whatever additions it may receive, and whatever corrections it may require, this analysis of social evolution will continue to be regarded as one of the great achievements of human intellect.
The third volume of the Positive Polity treats of social dynamics, and takes us again over the ground of historic evolution. It abounds with remarks of extraordinary fertility and comprehensiveness; but it is often Social dynamics in the Positive Polity. arbitrary; and its views of the past are strained into coherence with the statical views of the preceding volume. As it was composed in rather less than six months, and as the author honestly warns us that he has given all his attention to a more profound co-ordination, instead of working out the special explanations more fully, as he had promised, we need not be surprised if the result is disappointing to those who had mastered the corresponding portion of the Positive Philosophy. Comte explains the difference between his two works. In the first his “chief object was to discover and demonstrate the laws of progress, and to exhibit in one unbroken sequence the collective destinies of mankind, till then invariably regarded as a series of events wholly beyond the reach of explanation, and almost depending on arbitrary will. The present work, on the contrary, is addressed to those who are already sufficiently convinced of the certain existence of social laws, and desire only to have them reduced to a true and conclusive system.”
The main principles of the Comtian system are derived from the Positive Polity and from two other works,—the Positivist Catechism: a Summary Exposition of the Universal Religion, in Twelve Dialogues between a Woman and a Priest of Humanity;The Positivist system. and, second, The Subjective Synthesis (1856), which is the first and only volume of a work upon mathematics announced at the end of the Positive Philosophy. The system for which the Positive Philosophy is alleged to have been the scientific preparation contains a Polity and a Religion; a complete arrangement of life in all its aspects, giving a wider sphere to Intellect, Energy and Feeling than could be found in any of the previous organic types,—Greek, Roman or Catholic-feudal. Comte’s immense superiority over such prae-Revolutionary utopians as the Abbé Saint Pierre, no less than over the group of post-revolutionary Utopians, is especially visible in this firm grasp of the cardinal truth that the improvement of the social organism can only be effected by a moral development, and never by any changes in mere political mechanism, or any violences in the way of an artificial redistribution of wealth. A moral transformation must precede any real advance. The aim, both in public and private life, is to