Comte’s cerebral hygiene finally rehabilited – C. P. G. Grey’s viral message on viral memes

This video has gone viral. It is wonderfully concise and designed to be both haunting and self-reflexive. We are all subjected to these viral pieces of information. We see them, they trigger an emotion, and all we have to do is press share ore like and off they go to further recipients of our tribe who are very likely to react just like us. Like viruses we catch these fragments of information, and once infected, we become contagious. The more powerful memes infect us with anger and mobilize us against other communities that are usually infected by their own production of memes. Memes interact, they create win-win situations where they mobilise groups of recipients against each other.


All this is to some extent new, mostly because we are in a new situation thanks to the present media environment that makes it so easy to share and redistribute what we find in our news streams – in news streams provided by our “friends” on the web, and many of us have hundreds of friends on the web.


All this is not that new when it comes to the metaphor of viruses. It is, far more strikingly, a strange revival of the postmodern, poststructuralist paradigm according to which we just cannot avoid to think the thoughts of others.

Roland Barthes said it in his famous essay The Death of the Author (1967). Text is surrounding us, there is no author in this environment, just a constant circulation. We are entangled in a tissue of citations:

We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture. (Translated by Richard Howard)

Whatever we say or think, it is made of the larger “text”. We would not be able to think without this web. It is odd to speak of “us” as if we could step out of this textual environment, so Raymond Federman in his Imagination as Plagiarism [An Unfinished Paper…] (1974):

We are surrounded by discourses: historical, social, political, economic, medical, judicial, and of course literary. Discourses about sports, about television, entertainment, about Watergate, about the Middle East, about the Energy Crisis, etc.

Discourses impregnate us, traverse us, guide us, influence us, determine us, confuse us — willingly or unwillingly. In fact, we are made of discourses — words: spoken and written.

Therefore, the importance of always questioning, always doubting, always challenging these discourses. But less to know what they say, or what they mean, than to find out how they function, how they are constituted, how they become possible within the complexity of our modern world. Obviously, for us here, it is the literary discourse which must be questioned, but the problems are the same.

Where and how to begin this questioning? How is a discourse written (and notice I say HOW and not WHO writes a discourse)? That is to say, what are the rules (interior and exterior), and the fundamental norms which permit the formulation of a discourse? And moreover, how is a discourse read? That is to say, what is the process by which one apprehends a discourse, what are we looking for in a discourse?

The little video avoids the fundamental problem of defining the phenomenon against the backdrop of presumably non-viral — original? — thought.


Viral information can be useful, so we learn, because we can actually have justified reasons to press on issues, which deserve to be supported and which hence deserve the assistance of viral publications.

The simple problem C. P. G. Grey seems to have with viral information is that it makes use of our emotions, our weak pre-cognitive side. Viral information uses our emotions as the gateways through which they it can infiltrate and mobilise us (against our will).


Where does an emotion end? And: Where does a serious thought begin? Is the thought that our globe is spinning around the sun no mental virus because we have reasons to assume that this is a cool paradigm?

Grey’s readiness to assume that someone is exploiting our weak side, our emotions while reason can only be improved but never be exploited… supports the overarching discourse of pathogenicity that pervades already the metaphor.


The haunting statement comes at at 6:02 – haunting in the ears of old school positivists who know of Auguste Comte’s personal practice of “cerebral hygiene” (“hygiène cérébrale”). Grey:

But if you want to maintain a healthy brain, it pays to be cautious of thoughts that have passed through a lot of other brains and that poke you where you are weakest. It’s your brain be hygienic with it!


For anyone who wonders what it is like to practice cerebral hygiene, two passages from August Comte’s letters to John Stuart Mill. The first is from Comte’s first reply to Mill. The latter has just contacted him and Comte has to explain why he tries to avoid any reading whatsoever. It is as an unwelcome infiltration of his mind – of the mind that has to be entirely devoted to producing the philosophy of positivism in its compromised purity. The excerpts come from The Correspondence of John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte, translated from the French by Oscar A. Haac (New Brunswick: Translation Publishers, 1995).

Paris, 20 November 1841

Much to my regret, countless tasks have prevented my replying immediately, Sir, to your honorable and interesting letter which I had the pleasure of receiving from you on the twelfth of this month. I am anxious to seize the first moment of leisure to express, however inadequately, my deep gratitude for such a communication; your rare modesty has kept you from appreciating its full merit.

This system of cerebral hygiene suits me too well to change now, especially since it facilitates my rising to and operating without effort in the sphere of what are usually the most abstract generalizations as well as the purest and most unbiased feelings

By preference and by rational design, I live in extreme isolation from the common crowd, even from our intellectuals. My only customary diversion is to attend the Italian opera assiduously during our musical season. For more than three years I have been systematically increasing this isolation, scrupulously abstaining from all reading of any newspapers or journals whatsoever, even monthlies and quarterlies. This system of cerebral hygiene suits me too well to change now, especially since it facilitates my rising to and operating without effort in the sphere of what are usually the most abstract generalizations as well as the purest and most unbiased feelings; but, in spite of such discipline, which I deem essential to the full realization of my life as a philosopher, I am far from indifferent to the influence of my work on our intellectual milieu, even though nowadays I rarely have the time or the means to become aware of it.

From the early days I have been so fortunate as to harbor no serious illusions concerning the degree of popularity which my philosophical work was really capable of achieving in our day. I never intended to exert direct influence on more than about a hundred thinkers, dispersed here and there throughout Europe. However, because of this very limitation in my ambitions, you can imagine, Sir, how much importance I must attach to receiving, from time to time, such spontaneous expressions of interest, as precious, decisive, and encouraging as the one with which you have just honored me. They make me feel vividly that the most advanced minds vibrate in essential unison with mine. Of necessity such rewarding moments are very few, but without them I would perhaps have great difficulty mustering up the unceasing and indispensable dedication to the long and arduous task that I have undertaken since the days of my early youth. Here I owe a special debt of gratitude to the English thinkers who, it seems to me, have accepted my work more readily than their colleagues elsewhere, even in France. The only favorable appraisal which has yet appeared, so far as I know, is the one in the Edinburgh Review of July 1838. Your honorable fellow countryman, Mr. Grote,’ in so amiable a manner, made me take note of it, in spite of my strong reticence to read such things. Even though this critical discussion concerns only my first two volumes, its perfect spontaneity showed me with what decency and nobility your great critics conceived their mission.

Today I attach even more importance to such signs of encouragement, because the nature of my philosophical enterprise has steeped me in a necessary and permanent struggle with all the theological and, particularly metaphysical thinkers, and because my sixth and final volume, to appear next spring, will also attack, though in a different way, but in a manner my opponents will perhaps be even less likely to forgive, the rudiments of positive thought already officially established in our country: I am speaking of the learned societies whose empiricism and egocentricity constitute today, especially in France, what may be the most dangerous obstacle to a definitive renewal of philosophy, for they blindly oppose all general principles whatsoever! Most unfortunately they prolong the system of provisional findings limited to narrow specialties, which for a long time has directed the preparatory development of modem science. You will understand, Sir, how comforting it is for me, surrounded as I am by all kinds of natural enemies, to feel, even though at a distance, that I am in spontaneous agreement with some eminent thinkers. Though your scrupulous modesty has led you, Sir, to overemphasize the influence of my work on your philosophical development, it comes to mind immediately that, in thinkers of true worth, such influence can only stimulate at an opportune moment an impulse in which spontaneity must be the essential element. (Google Books)

Two Years later – Mill has just encouraged Comte to do more for his public outreach and to learn some German for that purpose – Comte has to remind Mill of his regime of cerebral hygiene. The Germans will have to discover him – he can hardly promote himself, but it might be good to read some Goethe. Schiller is already dispensable. As far as Comte has heard, this Schiller is just a Rousseau epigone and Rousseau is not really worth to be read. At least Mill has proven able to appreciate Comte’s lonely thoughts. Paragraphs form the letter of March 25, 1843:

Paris, 25 March 1843

I am infinitely thankful to you for your frank and judicious appraisal of my plan to devote special study to German philosophy. Your wise advice finally makes me decide not to pursue my original intent in this matter, even though I publicly announced it. I had doubtless never expected that such a methodical reading program could really teach me anything of importance. For many years now such contacts have no longer been of any great usefulness to my philosophy. I had only intended to draw from them special ways in which to facilitate the adoption of my philosophy by the Germans. I am, incidentally, in no way disposed to modify it on their account now that it has irrevocably attained the state of full maturity. However, impelled by your wise counsel to think further about this, I have come to feel that it is not my task to spell out what is useful in my original project—that must be left to some German thinker who will naturally carry this through much better than I could myself, since he must perceive more clearly what the role of an intermediary would entail. Now, the spontaneous effect of my book in Germany will probably determine such a development without my doing anything about it. Perhaps I shall be so lucky as to find readers more eminent and especially more conscientious than our clever sophist, [Victor] Cousin, [who] has spoken for Kantian philosophy.

which indeed was not worthy of disturbing the salutary economy of my cerebral hygiene. Nonetheless, I am following your good advice and shall not abandon the idea of studying the German language

So here I am, with a clear philosophic conscience, freed from a difficult and fastidious obligation to read, one which indeed was not worthy of disturbing the salutary economy of my cerebral hygiene. Nonetheless, I am following your good advice and shall not abandon the idea of studying the German language, but in this way my plan is far less pressing. Still, I shall soon embark on it in order to complete my own system for acquiring a general appreciation of Western European literature, in which this is my only important gap; but I shall probably confine myself to reading Goethe, who seems to me to be the only really creative aesthetic genius. The famous Schiller always appeared to me, from the translations, more a kind of awkward imitator of the great Shakespeare than a great poet. Besides, his silly metaphysical sentimentality, encouraged by Rousseau’s influence, is intolerable to me.

I am happy that, in connection with such precious advice, my request caused you to develop your general idea of the intellectual influence of German philosophy in your English milieu and especially in your own personal development. (Google Books)



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