Herbert Spencer (1864)
Source: from Reasons for Dissenting from the Philosophy of M. Comte (c. 1862-96). About 15 pages from the first chapter, concentrating more on his criticism of Comte, rather than his own views.
Two causes of quite different kinds, have conspired to diffuse the erroneous belief that M. Comte is an accepted exponent of scientific opinion. His bitterest foes and his closest friends, have unconsciously joined in propagating it. On the one hand, M. Comte having designated by the term "Positive Philosophy" all that definitely-established knowledge which men of science have been gradually organising into a coherent body of doctrine; and having habitually placed this in opposition to the incoherent body of doctrine defended by theologians; it has become the habit of the theological party to think of the antagonist scientific party, under the title of "positivists." And thus, from the habit of calling them "positivists," there has grown up the assumption that they call themselves "positivists," and that they are the disciples of M. Comte. On the other hand, those who have accepted M. Comte's system, and believe it to be the philosophy of the future, have naturally been prone to see everywhere the signs of its progress; and wherever they have found opinions in harmony with it, have ascribed these Opinions to the influence of its originator. It is always the tendency of discipleship to magnify the effects of the master's teachings; and to credit the master with all the doctrines he teaches. In the minds of his followers, M. Comte's name is associated with scientific thinking, which, in many cases, they first understood from his exposition of it. Influenced as they inevitably are by this association of ideas, they are reminded of M. Comte wherever they meet with thinking which corresponds, in some marked way, to M. Comte's description of scientific thinking; and hence are apt to imagine him as introducing into other minds, the conceptions which he introduced into their minds. Such impressions are, however, in most cases quite unwarranted. That M. Comte has given a general exposition of the doctrine and method elaborated by Science, is true. But it is not true that the holders of this doctrine and followers of this method, are disciples of M. Comte. Neither their modes of inquiry nor their views concerning human knowledge in its nature and limits, are appreciably different from what they were before. If they are "positivists," it is in the sense that all men of science have been more or less consistently "positivists;" and the applicability of M. Comte's title to them, no more makes them his disciples, than does its applicability to men of science who lived and died before M. Comte wrote, make these his disciples. M. Comte himself by no means claims that which some of his adherents are apt, by implication, to claim for him. He says:- "There is, doubtless, a strong analogy between my positive philosophy and what the English scientists, especially since Newton, mean by natural philosophy;" (see Avertissement) and further on he indicates the "great movement impressed on the human mind, two centuries ago, by the combined action of the precepts of Bacon, the conceptions of Descartes, and the discoveries of Galileo, as the moment when the spirit of positive philosophy began to be expressed in the world." That is to say, the general mode of thought and way of interpreting phenomena, which M. Comte calls "Positive Philosophy," he recognises as having been growing for two centuries; as having reached, when he wrote, a marked development; and as being the heritage of all men of science.
That which M. Comte proposed to do, was to give scientific thought and method a more definite embodiment and organisation; and to apply it to the interpretation of classes of phenomena not previously dealt with in a scientific manner. The conception was a great one; and the endeavour to work it out was worthy of sympathy and applause. Some such conception was entertained by Bacon. He, too, aimed at the organisation of the sciences; he, too, held that "Physics is the mother of all the sciences;" he, too, held that the sciences can be advanced only by combining them, and saw the nature of the required combination; he, too, held that moral and civil philosophy could not flourish when separated from their roots in natural philosophy; and thus he, too, had some idea of a social science growing out of physical science. But the state of knowledge in his day prevented any advance beyond the general conception: indeed, it was marvellous that he should have advanced so far. Instead of a vague, undefined conception, M. Comte has presented the world with a defined and highly-elaborated conception. In working out this conception he has shown remarkable breadth of view, great originality, immense fertility of thought, unusual powers of generalisation. Considered apart from the question of its truth, his system of Positive Philosophy is a vast achievement. But after according to M. Comte high admiration for his conception, for his effort to realize it, and for the faculty he has shown in the effort to realize it, there remains the inquiry - Has he succeeded? A thinker who re-organises the scientific method and knowledge of his age, and whose re-organisation is accepted by his successors, may rightly be said to have such successors for his disciples. But successors who accept this method and knowledge of his age, minus his re-organisation, are certainly not his disciples. How then stands the case with M. Comte? There are some few who receive his doctrines with but little reservation; and these are his disciples truly so called. There are others who regard with approval certain of his leading doctrines, but not the rest: these we may distinguish as partial adherents. There are others who reject all his distinctive doctrines; and these must be classed as his antagonists. The members of this class stand substantially in the same position as they would have done had he not written. Declining his re-organisation of scientific doctrine, they possess this scientific doctrine in its pre-existing state, as the common heritage .bequeathed by the past to the present; and their adhesion to this scientific doctrine in no sense implicates them with M. Comte. In this class stand the great body of men of science. And in this class I stand myself.
Coming thus to the personal part of the question, let me first specify those great general principles on which M. Comte is at one with preceding thinkers; and on which I am at one with M. Comte.
All knowledge is from experience, holds M. Comte; and this I also hold - hold it, indeed, in a wider sense than M. Comte: since, not only do I believe that all the ideas acquired by individuals, and consequently all the ideas transmitted by past generations, are thus derived; but I also contend that the very faculties by which they are acquired, are the products of accumulated and organised experiences received by ancestral races of beings (see Principles of Psychology). But the doctrine that all knowledge is from experience, is not originated by M. Comte; nor is it claimed by him. He himself says - "All the good minds repeat, since Bacon, that there is no real understanding other than that based on observed facts." And the elaboration and definite establishment of this doctrine, has been the special characteristic of the English school of Psychology. Nor am I aware that M. Comte, accepting this doctrine, has done anything to make it more certain, or give it greater definiteness. Indeed it was impossible for him to do so; since he repudiates that part of mental science by which alone this doctrine can be proved.
It is a further belief of M. Comte, that all knowledge is phenomenal or relative; and in this belief I entirely agree. no one alleges that the relativity of all knowledge was first enunciated by M. Comte. Among others who have more or less consistently held this truth, Sir William Hamilton enumerates, Protagoras, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Boethius, Averroes, Albertus Magnus, Gerson, Leo Habraeus, Melancthon, Scaliger, Francis Piccolomini, Giordano Bruno, Campanella, Bacon, Spinoza, Newton, Kant. And Sir William Hamilton, in his "Philosophy of the Unconditioned," first published in 1829, has given a scientific demonstration of this belief. Receiving it in common with other thinkers, from preceding thinkers, M. Comte has not, to my knowledge, advanced this belief. Nor indeed could he advance it, for the reason already given - he denies the possibility of that analysis of thought which discloses the relativity of all cognition.
M. Comte reprobates the interpretation of different classes of phenomena by assigning metaphysical entities as their causes; and I coincide in the opinion that the assumption of such separate entities, though convenient, if not indeed necessary, for purposes of thought, is, scientifically considered, illegitimate. This opinion is, in fact, a corollary from the last; and must stand or fall with it. But like the last it has been held with more or less consistency for generations. M. Comte himself quotes Newton's favorite saying- "O! Physics, beware of Metaphysics!" Neither to this doctrine, any more than to the preceding doctrines, has M. Comte given a firmer basis. He has simply re-asserted it; and it was out of the question for him to do more. In this case, as in the others, his denial of subjective psychology debarred him from proving that these metaphysical entities are mere symbolic conceptions which do not admit of verification.
Lastly, M. Comte believes in invariable natural laws absolute uniformities of relation among phenomena. But very many before him have believed in them too. Long familiar even beyond the bounds of the scientific world, the proposition that there is an unchanging order in things, has, within the scientific world, held, for generations, the position of an established postulate: by some men of science recognised only as holding of inorganic phenomena; but recognised by other men of science, as universal. And M. Comte, accepting this doctrine from the past, has left it substantially as it was. Though he has asserted new uniformities, I do not think scientific men will admit that he has so demonstrated them, as to make the induction more certain; nor has he deductively established the doctrine, by showing that uniformity of relation is a necessary corollary from the persistence of force, as may readily be shown.
These, then, are the pre-established general truths with which M. Comte sets out-truths which cannot be regarded as distinctive of his philosophy. "But why," it will perhaps be asked, "is it needful to point out this; seeing that no instructed reader supposes these truths to be peculiar to M. Comte?" I reply that though no disciple of M. Comte would deliberately claim them for him; and though no theological antagonist at all familiar with science and philosophy, supposes M. Comte to be the first propounder of them; yet there is so strong a tendency to associate any doctrines with the name of a conspicuous recent exponent of them, that false impressions are produced, even in spite of better knowledge. Of the need for making this reclamation, definite proof is at hand. In the No. of the Revue des Deux Mondes named at the commencement, may be found, on p. 936, the words - "All religion, like all philosophy, pretends to give an explanation of the universe. The philosophy called positive is distinguished from all philosophies and religions in that it has renounced this ambition of the human mind;' and the remainder of the paragraph is devoted to explaining the doctrine of the relativity of knowledge. The next paragraph begins - "Imbued with these ideas. which we present without discussing for the moment, M. Spencer divides, etc." Now this is one of those collocations of ideas which tends to create, or to strengthen, the erroneous impression I would dissipate. I do not for a moment suppose that M. Laugel intended to say that these ideas which he describes as ideas of the "Positive Philosophy," are peculiarly the ideas of M. Comte. But little as he probably intended it, his expressions suggest this conception. In the minds of both disciples and antagonists, "the Positive Philosophy" means the philosophy of M. Comte; and to be imbued with the ideas of "the Positive Philosophy" means to be imbued with the ideas of M. Comte - to have received these ideas from M. Comte. After what has been said above, I need scarcely repeat that the conception thus inadvertently suggested, is a wrong one. M. Comte's brief enunciations of these general truths, gave me no clearer apprehensions of them than I had before. Such clarifications of ideas on these ultimate questions, as I can trace to any particular teacher, I owe to Sir William Hamilton.
From the principles which M. Comte held in common with many preceding and contemporary thinkers, let us pass now to the principles that are distinctive of his system. Just as entirely as I agree with M. Comte on those cardinal doctrines which we jointly inherit; so entirely do I disagree with him on those cardinal doctrines which he propounds, and which determine the organisation of his philosophy. The best way of showing this will be to compare, [in sequence], the propositions held by M. Comte and the propositions which I hold.
"...each of our principal conceptions, each branch of our knowledge, passes successively through three different theoretical stages: the theological, or fictional stage; the metaphysical, or abstract stage; the scientific, or positive, stage. In other words, the human mind, by its nature, uses successively in each investigation three methods of reasoning, whose character s essentially different, even radically opposed: first the theological method, next the metaphysical, and finally the positive method." Cours de Philosophie Positive, 1830, Vol. i. p- 3
The progress of our conceptions, and of each branch of knowledge, is from beginning to end intrinsically alike. There are not three methods of philosophising radically opposed; but one method of philosophising which remains, in essence, the same. At first, and to the last, the conceived causal agencies of phenomena, have a degree of generality corresponding to the width of the generalisations which experiences have determined; and they change just as gradually as experiences accumulate. The integration of causal agencies, originally thought of as multitudinous and local, but finally believed to be one and universal, is a process which involves the passing through all intermediate steps between these extremes; and any appearance of stages can be but superficial. Supposed concrete and individual causal agencies, coalesce in the mind as fast as groups of phenomena are assimilated, or seen to be similarly caused. Along with their coalescence, comes a greater extension of their individualities, and a concomitant loss of distinctness in their individualities. Gradually, by continuance of such coalescences, causal agencies become, in thought, diffused and indefinite. And eventually, without any change in the nature of the process, there is reached the consciousness of a universal causal agency, which cannot be conceived.
"The theological system has reached the highest perfection of which it is capable, when it has substituted the providential action of a single being for the varied play of numerous independent divinities who had been conceived in primitive times. Similarly, the end point of the metaphysical system consists of conceiving, in place of separate particular entities, a single great general entity, nature, seen as the unique source of all phenomena. Likewise, the perfection of the positive system, towards which it is continually reaching, although it be very probable that it must never attain it, would be to be able to see all the observable diverse phenomena as particular cases of a single general fact, such as that of gravitation, for example. p. 5.
As the progress of thought is one, so is the end one. There are not three possible terminal conceptions; but only a single terminal conception. When the theological idea of the providential action of one being, is developed to its ultimate form, by the absorption of all independent secondary agencies, it becomes the conception of a being immanent in all phenomena; and the reduction of it to this state, implies the fading-away, in thought, of all those anthropomorphic attributes by which the aboriginal idea was distinguished. The alleged last term of the metaphysical system - the conception of a single great general entity, nature, as the source of all phenomena - is a conception identical with the previous one: the consciousness of a single source which, in coming to be regarded as universal, ceases to be regarded as conceivable, differs in nothing but name from the consciousness of one being, manifested in all phenomena. And similarly, that which is described as the ideal state of science-the power to represent all observable phenomena as particular cases of a single general fact, implies the postulating of some ultimate existence of which this single fact is alleged; and the postulating of this ultimate existence, involves a state of consciousness indistinguishable from the other two.
"...the perfection of the positive system, towards which it is continually reaching, although it may be very probable that it must never reach it, would be to be able to see all the diverse observable phenomena as particular cases of a single general fact. p 5.......... considering as, absolutely inaccessible and devoid of sense for us, the search for what are called causes, be they first or final." p. 14
Though along with the extension of generalisations, and concomitant integration of conceived causal agencies, the conceptions of causal agencies grow more indefinite; and though as they gradually coalesce into a universal causal agency, they cease to be representable in thought, and are no longer supposed to be comprehensible; yet the consciousness of cause remains as dominant to the last as it was at first and can never be got rid of. The consciousness of cause can be abolished only by abolishing consciousness itself. (First Principles, Section 26.)
"It is not to the readers of this work that I will ever have to prove that ideas govern and overthrow the world, or in other words that the entire social mechanism rests finally on opinions. They know above all that the great political and moral crisis of contemporary societies is related in the last analysis to intellectual anarchy." p. 48.
Ideas do not govern and overthrow the world: the world is governed or overthrown by feelings, to which ideas serve only as guides. The social mechanism does not rest finally upon opinions, but almost wholly upon character. Not intellectual anarchy, but moral antagonism, is the cause of political crises. All social phenomena are produced by the totality of human emotions and beliefs of which the emotions are mainly pre-determined, while the beliefs are mainly post-determined. Men's desires are chiefly inherited but their beliefs are chiefly acquired, and depend on surrounding conditions; and the most important surrounding conditions depend on the social state which the prevalent desires have produced. The social state at any time existing, is the resultant of all the ambitions, self-interests, fears, reverences, indignations, sympathies, etc., of ancestral citizens and existing citizens. The ideas current in this social state, must, on the average, be congruous with the feelings of citizens; and therefore, on the average, with the social state these feelings have produced. Ideas wholly foreign to this social state cannot be evolved, and if introduced from without, cannot get accepted - or, if accepted, die out when the temporary phase of feeling which caused their acceptance, ends. Hence, though advanced ideas when once established, act upon society and aid its further advance; yet the establishment of such ideas depends on the fitness of the society for receiving them. Practically, the popular character and the social state, determine what ideas shall be current, instead of the current ideas determining the social state and the character. The modification of men's moral natures, caused by the continuous discipline of social life, which adapts them more and more to social relations, is therefore the chief proximate cause of social progress. (Social Statics, Chapter xxx.)
"...I must not neglect to show in advance, as an essential property of the encyclopedic scale which I am going to propose, its general conformity with the whole of scientific history; in the sense that, in spite of the real and continued simultaneity of the development of the different sciences, those which will be classed as anterior will be, in fact, older and consistently more advanced than those presented as posterior." p. 84 "This order is determined by the degree of simplicity, or, in other words, by the degree of generality of the phenomena." p. 87.
The order in which the generalisations of science are established, is determined by the frequency and impressiveness with which different classes of relations are repeated in conscious experience; and this depends, partly on the directness with which personal welfare is affected; partly on the conspicuousness of one or both the phenomena between which a relation is to be perceived; partly on the absolute frequency with which the relations occur; partly on their relative frequency of occurrence; partly on their degree of simplicity; and partly on their degree of abstractness. (First Principles, Section 36.)
"As a definitive result, mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, physiology, and social physics; such is the encyclopedic formula which, among the great number of classifications which the six fundamental sciences include, is solely in logical conformity with the natural and invariable hierarchy of phenomena." p. 115.
The sciences as arranged in this succession specified by M. Comte, do not logically conform to the natural and invariable hierarchy of phenomena; and there is no serial order whatever in which they can be placed, which represents either their logical dependence or the dependence of phenomena. (See Genesis of Science)
"We conceive, in fact, that the rational study of each fundamental science requiring the previous culture of all those that precede it in our encyclopedic hierarchy, has made real progress and taken on its true character only after a great development of anterior sciences relative to more general, more abstract, less complicated phenomena, independent of the others. It is thus in this order that the progression, albeit simultaneous, must have taken place." p. 100.
The historical development of the sciences has not taken place in this serial order; nor in any other serial order. There is no "true filiation of the sciences." From the beginning, the abstract sciences, the abstract-concrete sciences, and the concrete sciences have progressed together: the first solving problems which the second and third presented, and growing only by the solution of the problems; and the second similarly growing by joining the first in solving the problems of the third. All along there has been a continuous action and reaction between the three great classes of science - an advance from concrete facts to abstract facts, and then an application of such abstract facts to the analysis of new orders of concrete facts. (See Genesis of Science.)
Such then are the organising principles of M. Comte's philosophy. Leaving out of his "Exposition" those pre-established general doctrines which are the common property of modern thinkers; these are the general doctrines which remain -these are the doctrines which fundamentally distinguish his system. From every one of them I dissent. To each proposition I oppose either a widely-different proposition, or a direct negation; and I not only do it now, but have done it from the time when I became acquainted with his writings. This rejection of his cardinal principles should, I think, alone suffice; but there are sundry other views of his, some of them largely characterising his system, which I equally reject. Let us glance at them.
How organic beings have originated, is an inquiry which M. Comte deprecates as a useless speculation: asserting, as he does, that species are immutable.
This inquiry, I believe, admits of answer, and will be answered. That division of Biology which concerns itself with the origin of species, I hold to be the supreme division, to which all others are subsidiary. For on the verdict of Biology on this matter, must wholly depend our conception of human nature, past, present, and future; our theory of the mind; and our theory of society.
M. Comte contends that of what is commonly known as mental science, all that most important part which consists of the subjective analysis of our ideas, is an impossibility
I have very emphatically expressed my belief in a subjective science of the mind, by writing a Principles of Psychology, one half of which is subjective.
M. Comte's ideal of society is one in which government is developed to the greatest extent - in which class-functions are far more under conscious public regulation than now-in which hierarchical organisation with unquestioned authority shall guide everything - in which the individual life shall be subordinated in the greatest degree to the social life.
That form of society towards which we are progressing, I hold to be one in which government will be reduced to the smallest amount possible, and freedom increased to the greatest amount possible - one in which human nature will have become so moulded by social discipline into fitness for the social state, that it will need little external restraint, but will be self-restrained - one in which the citizen will tolerate no interference with his freedom, save that which maintains the equal freedom of others - one in which the spontaneous co-operation which has developed our industrial system, and is now developing it with increasing rapidity, will produce agencies for the discharge of nearly all social functions, and will leave to the primary governmental agency nothing beyond the function of maintaining those conditions to free action, which make such spontaneous co-operation possible - one in which individual life will thus be pushed to the greatest extent consistent with social life; and in which social life will have no other end than to maintain the completest sphere for individual life.
M. Comte, not including in his philosophy the consciousness of a cause manifested to us in all phenomena, and yet holding that there must be a religion, which must have an object, takes for his object- Humanity. "This Collective Life (of Society) is in Comte's system the Etre Supreme; the only one we can know, therefore the only one we can worship."
I conceive, on the other hand, that the object of religious sentiment will ever continue to be, that which it has ever been -the unknown source of things. While the forms under which men are conscious of the unknown source of things, may fade away, the substance of the consciousness is permanent. Beginning with causal agents conceived as imperfectly known; progressing to causal agents conceived as less known and less knowable; and coming at last to a universal causal agent posited as not to be known at all; the religious sentiment must ever continue to occupy itself with this universal causal agent. Having in the course of evolution come to have for its object of contemplation, the Infinite Unknowable, the religious sentiment can never again (unless by retrogression) take a Finite Knowable, like Humanity, for its object of contemplation.
Here, then, are sundry other points, all of them important, and the last two supremely important, on which I am diametrically opposed to M. Comte; and did space permit, I could add many others. Radically differing from him as I thus do, in everything distinctive of his philosophy; and having invariably expressed my dissent, publicly, and privately, from the time I became acquainted with his writings; it may be imagined that I have been not a little startled to find myself classed as one of the same school. That those who have read First Principles only, may have been betrayed into this error in the way above shown, by the ambiguous use of the phrase "Positive Philosophy," I can understand. But that any who are acquainted with my previous writings, should suppose I have any general sympathy with M. Comte, save that implied by preferring proved facts to superstitions, astonishes me.
It is true that, disagreeing with M. Comte, though I do, in all those fundamental views that are peculiar to him, I agree with him in sundry minor views. The doctrine that the education of the individual should accord in mode and arrangement with the education of mankind, considered historically,. I have cited from him; and have endeavoured to enforce it. I entirely concur in his opinion that there requires a new order of scientific men, whose function shall be that of coordinating the results arrived at by the rest. To him I believe I am indebted for the conception of a social consensus; and when the time comes for dealing with this conception, I shall state my indebtedness. And I also adopt his word, Sociology. There are, I believe, in the part of his writings which I have read, various incidental thoughts of great depth and value; and I doubt not that were I to read more of his writings, I should find many others. It Is very probable, too, that I have said (as I am told I have) some things which M. Comte had already said. It would be difficult, I believe, to find any two men who had no opinions in common. And it would be extremely strange if two men, starting from the same general doctrines established by modern science, should traverse some of the same fields of inquiry, without their lines of thought having any points of intersection. But none of these minor agreements can be of much weight in comparison with the fundamental disagreements above specified. Leaving out of view that general community which we both have with the scientific thought of the age, the differences between us are essential, while the correspondences are non-essential. And I venture to think that kinship must be determined by essentials, and not by non-essentials.