Mary Pickering, Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. 776 pp.

Review by Robert G. Perrin, University of Tennessee

In this first of a two-volume study, Mary Pickering provides a superb account of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) through 1842, the year he completed the sixth and final volume of the Cours de philosophie positive. A second volume will cover the last fifteen years of his life. Pickering's study is based on a decade of research, including three years of perusing archives in Paris. The book is richly documented and exceptionally well written. It represents the first truly comprehensive intellectual biography of Comte.

The first several chapters (1-5) set Comte's life in historical context -- viz., the disruptions and "social malaise" caused by the French Revolution -- and explore his early years through his work for the often opportunistic Saint-Simon (1817- 1824). In 1822, two years before his traumatic break with Saint-Simon, Comte produced the first version of what he called his "fundamental opuscule." (A revised edition would follow in 1824.) By 1824, Comte had enunciated the ideas and themes that he would elaborate for the rest of his life: for example, the evolutionary law of the three stages, the hierarchy of sciences, the need for a "positive" philosophy capped with a new science of society, a rejection of simplistic governmental refor ms, and a call for large-scale social remodeling by means of a spiritual regeneration and new moral consensus.

The next eight chapters (6-13) trace Comte's intellectual and personal relationships and struggles, including strained family relations, a stormy marriage, and an episode of insanity in 1826. Comte attributed his madness to "the fatal coinciden ce of great moral pains and violent excesses of work" (p. 372). He was two years recovering. Intellectually, Comte sought to buttress and flesh out his ideas by drawing on a number of thinkers and traditions. Besides French philosophical and polit ical thought, conservative and liberal, Comte drew on phrenology, German philosophy, and the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment. Personally, Comte sought recognition and a stable source of income, goals only partially achieved. His life -- famili al, marital, professional, and social -- was fraught with interpersonal strife and disappointment. His own intransigent and paranoid nature played a role in this. He often sought but could never obtain a chair at the Ecole Polytechnique. Provoke d by having his originality questioned by the Saint-Simonians and others, Comte, in 1838, took refuge in an unusual mental regimen, "cerebral hygiene": he preserved his ego and working energy by refusing to read offending materials. On 13 July 184 2, he completed the last lines of the Cours, which would run some 4,712 printed pages.

The final two chapters (14-15) constructively review the Cours. Here, Comte argues that human thought, in all its departments, necessarily passes through three stages, the theological, metaphysical, and the positive or scientific -- th at is, a final stage where knowledge claims are at last strictly scientific. Comte's "hierarchy of sciences" (mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology) is a rank-order based on ascending complexity and the proxim ity of each science to the positive stage. Sociology (initially "social physics") is the least positive, and Comte aims to usher it into the final stage and thus create the means for social renewal. In Comte's view, science seeks regularities, whi ch allow prediction, which enables constructive human action. Comte's conception of positivism is inclusive of both method (scientific) and goal (social reconstruction). Today's positivism, with its narrow emphasis on sense perception and quantifi cation, markedly diverges from Comte's idea of combining a broadly understood scientific method with normative agenda (the "improvement of Humanity"). The new science of sociology -- so named in 1839 -- systematizes knowledge and attemp ts to ameliorate social life by promoting the idea of the whole and feelings of social solidarity and continuity.

A conclusion dispels the stereotype of Comte as an arid scientist who, because of an idealistic and unrequited love, suddenly came to see himself as the saviour of humanity. In fact, Comte's sense of mission -- to restore social harmony and sta bility after the "spiritual anarchy" of the French Revolution -- was a lifelong goal, one doubtless fuelled by his failure to find peace and unity in his own life. Comte envisioned an integrated, hierarchal, and coherent social order reminiscent o f the Middle Ages -- what T.H. Huxley would call "Catholic organization without Catholic doctrine," that is, "Catholicism minus Christianity" (pp. 16-17). Other wrongheaded notions are also dispatched by Pickering. Far from championing government by intellectuals, for example, Comte recognized their attraction to power and tendency to tyranny. Because intellectuals will oppress the people whenever given an opportunity, they should be limited to consultative and educational roles .

A number of Comte's ideas are of continuing relevance in sociology and allied fields, for example:

    --Society collapses just as fast as each individual judges for himself whether his actions accord with the general welfare. Individual liberty and social order are fundamentally incompatible.
    --Enlightened self-interest cannot produce a durable social order. Moral consensus is necessary for political and economic stability.
    --Governments become centralized to check centrifugal forces unleashed by failing moral authority; the result is "administrative despotism" -- rule by an oppressive and corrupt bureaucracy.
    --Not material forces, but "ideas govern and overturn the world ... the entire social mechanism rests ultimately on opinions" (p. 565).
    --Modern social existence depends on a growing division of labour but specialization narrows both intellect and outlook, thus working to dissolve any sense of community and common good.
    --Social progress (which always presupposes order) has limits, and some social ills are simply incurable.
    --Discovery in sociology depends on imagination; "absolute empiricism" is impossible: social facts can neither be discerned (observed) nor connected without a provisional theory.
    --No matter how exact human knowledge becomes, it will still be "impossible" to quantify social phenomena. The careful study of history is preferable to social statistics and the application of probabilities to social phenomena.
    --The emotions are much stronger than the intellect and in fact energize and direct it.
    --Objectivity is an unattainable ideal in sociology.

Perhaps Comte's most enduring contribution was the formal founding of sociology. Certainly, much has come from his lead. But today's sociology, with its flagging imagination, increasing fragmentation, and sterile preoccupation with quantification, has ventured far from its roots. Now may be an appropriate time to temper certain excesses and failings by reacquainting ourselves with its founder.

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