Atheism, Like Theology, Discusses Insoluble Mysteries

This is the complete passage on “atheism, materialism, fatalism, and optimism” of Auguste Comte’s A General View of Positivism, first published in French in 1848, the English text taken from Frederick Harrison’s edition (London: Routledge & Sons, 1908), p.50-63.


In this passage Comte tries to define positivism with a look at its closest rivals. The remarks on atheism are probably the intellectual highlights, yet even these passages are today obscured by contexts no one would open in this manner any longer.

Materialism is not yet Marxist-Leninist dialectical materialism but the radical option of the French enlightenment that opposed transcendence with the claim that everything, even our sensations and thoughts have a material atomic substrate. Comte himself does not promote the linguistic turn in this confrontation, he does not consider to deal with statements rather than material corpuscles.

Fatalism and optimism are deeply rooted in the enlightenment debate of determinism and the idea of a perfect, and in that case increasingly perfect, universe under God’s rule. The sciences continue to strive for top positions on a ladder leading from lowest sciences to those that offer the cosmic understanding. Sociology, art, and the Religion of Positivism will eventually gain the top positions in Comte’s debates of the usefulness which all sciences should prove.

Comte is to some extent an aestheticist as the later logical positivists: His idea that we are studying the how and not the why shows this interest in radical theoretical austerity. Causality is moved into the realm of metaphysical theories. Pragmatism is, however, the closer relative: We are interested in theories that work. The new philosophy tries to avoid all absolute statements – the last paragraphs of the following will claim this; but Comte gives better explanations of this concept in other parts of his work.

The passage on atheism is perhaps its first deconstruction from within. Comte is applying his Law of the Three Stages – from fetishism through the theological era towards the new positive state – on Atheism and its debates. Atheism (and this will also be true for agnosticism) is under these premises a theological project, a project dealing with ultimate causes, with the absolute truth, with insoluble mysteries, with metaphysical chimeras. Comte’s statement that “politically, its tendency is to unlimited prolongation of the revolutionary position: its spirit is that of blind hatred to the past” – is a provocation, yet again not without substance if we look at 20th-century Communist states and their tendency to establish their own power as the power of the permanent revolution. The professed atheist’s “hatred of the past” is perhaps the most acute observation. Positivist historians are not interested in reading religious texts as enemy propaganda. They are openly fascinated historical sources whether of the Sumerian tax system or of ancient religious thought. Religious thought is an open concept, a concept that will embrace present secularism as an institutional ensemble with roots in the previous stages. Comte continues a line of thought opened by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry Home, Lord Kames, and of Isaak Iselin – with a model that will be deconstructed under his own claims in less than a decade.

Olaf Simons
Sr. X presents: Historical Conversations, Today: Nietzsche and Marx (out of work...)   –Amor fati, Karl... –Shut up and sell.
Sr. X presents: Historical Conversations, Today: Nietzsche and Marx (out of work…)
–Amor fati, Karl…
–Shut up and sell.
by SR. X, flickr, photostream, 20 November 2009

Error of identifying Positivism with Atheism, Materialism, Fatalism, or Optimism. Atheism, like Theology, discusses insoluble mysteries

The true Positive spirit consists in substituting the study of the invariable Laws of phenomena for that of their so-called Causes, […] in a word, in studying the How instead of the Why

Atheism, even from the intellectual point of view, is a very imperfect form of emancipation; for its tendency is to prolong the metaphysical stage indefinitely, by continuing to seek for new solutions of Theological problems, instead of setting aside all inaccessible researches on the ground of their utter inutility. The true Positive spirit consists in substituting the study of the invariable Laws of phenomena for that of their so-called Causes, whether proximate or primary; in a word, in studying the How instead of the Why. Now this is wholly incompatible with the ambitious and visionary attempts of Atheism to explain the formation of the Universe, the origin of animal life, etc. The Positivist comparing the various phases of human speculation, looks upon these|<51> scientific chimeras as far less valuable even from the intellectual point of view than the first spontaneous inspirations of primeval times. The principle of Theology is to explain everything by supernatural Wills. That principle can never be set aside until we acknowledge the search for Causes to be beyond our reach, and limit ourselves to the knowledge of Laws. As long as men persist in attempting to answer the insoluble questions which occupied the attention of the childhood of our race, by far the more rational plan is to do as was done then, that is, simply to give free play to the imagination. These spontaneous beliefs have gradually fallen into disuse, not because they have been disproved, but because mankind has become more enlightened as to its wants and the scope of its powers, and has gradually given an entirely new direction to its speculative efforts. If we insist upon penetrating the unattainable mystery of the essential Cause that produces phenomena, there is no hypothesis more satisfactory than that they proceed from Wills dwelling in them or outside them; an hypothesis which assimilates them to the effect produced by the desires which exist within ourselves. Were it not for the pride induced by metaphysical and scientific studies, it would be inconceivable that any atheist, modern or ancient, should have believed that his vague hypotheses on such a subject were preferable to this direct mode of explanation. And it was the only mode which really satisfied the reason, until men began to see the utter inanity and inutility of all search for absolute truth. The Order of Nature is doubtless very imperfect in every respect; but its production is far more compatible with the hypothesis of an intelligent Will than with that of a blind mechanism. Persistent atheists therefore would seem to be most illogical|<52> of theologists: because they occupy themselves with theological problems, and yet reject the only appropriate method of handling them. But the fact is that pure Atheism even in the present day is very rare. What is called Atheism is usually a phase of Pantheism, which is really nothing but a relapse disguised under learned terms, into a vague and abstract form of Fetichism. And it is not impossible that it may lead to the reproduction in one form or other of every theological phase as soon as the check which modern society still imposes on metaphysical extravagance has become somewhat weakened. The adoption of such theories as a satisfactory system of belief, indicates a very exaggerated or rather false view of intellectual requirements, and a very insufficient recognition of moral and social wants. It is generally connected with the visionary but mischievous tendencies of ambitious thinkers to uphold what they call the empire of Reason. In the moral sphere it forms a sort of basis for the degrading fallacies of modern metaphysicians as to the absolute preponderance of self-interest. Politically, its tendency is to unlimited prolongation of the revolutionary position: its spirit is that of blind hatred to the past: and it resists all attempts to explain it on Positive principles, with a view of disclosing the future. Atheism, therefore, is not likely to lead to Positivism except in those who pass through it rapidly as the last and most shortlived of metaphysical phases. And the wide diffusion of the scientific spirit in the present day makes this passage so easy that to arrive at maturity without accomplishing it, is a symptom of a certain mental weakness, which is often connected with moral insufficiency, and is very incompatible with Positivism. Negation offers but a feeble and precarious basis for union: and disbelief in|<53> Monotheism is of itself no better proof of a mind fit to grapple with the questions of the day than disbelief in Polytheism or Fetichism, which no one would maintain to be an adequate ground for claiming intellectual sympathy. The atheistic phase indeed was not really necessary, except for the revolutionists of the last century who took the lead in the movement towards radical regeneration of society. The necessity has already ceased; for the decayed condition of the old system makes the need of regeneration palpable to all. Persistence in anarchy, and Atheism is the most characteristic symptom of anarchy, is a temper of mind more unfavourable to the organic spirit, which ought by this time to have established its influence, than sincere adhesion to the old forms. This latter is of course obstructive: but at least it does not hinder us from fixing our attention upon the great social problem. Indeed it helps us to do so: because it forces the new philosophy to throw aside every weapon of attack against the older faith except its own higher capacity of satisfying our moral and social wants. But in the Atheism maintained by many metaphysicians and scientific men of the present day, Positivism, instead of wholesome rivalry of this kind, will meet with nothing but barren resistence. Anti-theological as such men may be, they feel unmixed repugnance for any attempts at social regeneration, although their efforts in the last century had to some extent prepared the way for it. Far, then, from counting upon their support, Positivists must expect to find them hostile: although from the incoherence of their opinions it will not be difficult to reclaim those of them whose errors are not essentially due to pride.

Materialism is due to the encouragement of the lower sciences on the domain of the higher: an error which Positivism rectifies

The charge of Materialism which is often made against Positive philo-|<54>sophy is of more importance. It originates in the course of scientific study upon which the Positive System is based. In answering the charge, I need not enter into any discussion of impenetrable mysteries. Our theory of development will enable us to see distinctly the real ground of the confusion that exists upon the subject.

Positive science was for a long time limited to the simplest subjects: it could not reach the highest except by a natural series of intermediate steps. As each of these steps is taken, the student is apt to be influenced too strongly by the methods and results of the preceding stage. Here, as it seems to me, lies the real source of that scientific error which men have instinctively blamed as materialism. The name is just, because the tendency indicated is one which degrades the higher subjects of thought by confounding them with the lower. It was hardly possible that this usurpation by one science of the domain of another should have been wholly avoided. For since the more special phenomena do really depend upon the more general, it is perfectly legitimate for each science to exercise a certain deductive influence upon that which follows it in the scale. By such influence the special inductions of that science were rendered more coherent. The result, however, is that each of the sciences has to undergo a long struggle against the encroachments of the one preceding it; a struggle which, even in the case of the subjects which have been studied longest, is not yet over. Nor can it entirely cease until the controlling influence of sound philosophy be established over the whole scale, introducing juster views of the relations of its several parts, about which at present there is such irrational confusion.|<55> Thus it appears that Materialism is a danger inherent in the mode in which the scientific studies necessary as a preparation for Positivism were pursued. Each science tended to absorb the one next to it, on the ground of having reached the Positive stage earlier and more thoroughly. The evil then is really deeper and more extensive than is imagined by most of those who deplore it. It passes generally unnoticed except in the highest class of subjects. These doubtless are more seriously affected, inasmuch as they undergo the encroaching process from all the rest; but we find the same thing in different degrees, in every step of the scientific scale. Even the lowest step, Mathematics, is no exception, though its position would seem at first sight to exempt it. To a philosophic eye there is Materialism in the common tendency of mathematicians at the present day to absorb Geometry or Mechanics into the Calculus, as well as in the more evident encroachments of Mathematics upon Physics, of Physics upon Chemistry, of Chemistry, which is more frequent, upon Biology, or lastly in the common tendency of the best biologists to look upon Sociology as a mere corollary of their own science. In all cases it is the same fundamental error: that is, an exaggerated use of deductive reasoning; and in all it is attended with the same result; that the higher studies are in constant danger of being disorganized by the indiscriminate application of the lower. All scientific specialists at the present time are more or less materialists, according as the phenomena studied by them are more or less simple and general. Geometricians, therefore, are more liable to the error than any others; they all aim consciously or otherwise at a synthesis in which the most elementary studies, those of Number, Space, and Motion, are made to regulate all|<56> the rest. But the biologists who resist this encroachment most energetically, are often guilty of the same mistake. They not unfrequently attempt, for instance, to explain all sociological facts by the influence of climate and race, which are purely secondary; thus showing their ignorance of the fundamental laws of Sociology, which can only be discovered by a series of direct inductions from history.

This philosophical estimate of Materialism explains how it is that it has been brought as a charge against Positivism, and at the same time proves the deep injustice of the charge. Positivism, far from countenancing so dangerous an error, is, as we have seen, the only philosophy which can completely remove it. The error arises from certain tendencies which are in themselves legitimate, but which have been carried too far; and Positivism satisfies these tendencies in their due measure. Hitherto the evil has remained unchecked, except by the theologico-metaphysical spirit, which, by giving rise to what is called Spiritualism, has rendered a very valuable service. But useful as it has been, it could not arrest the active growth of Materialism, which has assumed in the eyes of modern thinkers something of a progressive character, from having been so long connected with the cause of resistance to a retrograde system. Notwithstanding all the protests of the spiritualists, the lower sciences have encroached upon the higher to an extent that seriously impairs their independence and their value. But Positivism meets the difficulty far more effectually. It satisfies and reconciles all that is really tenable in the rival claims of both Materialism and Spiritualism; and, having done this, it discards them both. It holds the one to be as dangerous to Order as the other to Progress.|<57> This result is an immediate consequence of the establishment of the encyclopaedic scale, in which each science retains its own proper sphere of induction, while deductively it remains subordinate to the science which precedes it. But what really decides the matter is the fact that such paramount importance, both logically and scientifically, is given by Positive Philosophy to social questions. For these are the questions in which the influence of Materialism is most mischievous, and also in which it is most easily introduced. A system therefore which gives them the precedence over all other questions must hold Materialism to be quite as obstructive as Spiritualism, since both are alike an obstacle to the progress of that science for the sake of which all other sciences are studied. Further advance in the work of social regeneration implies the elimination of both of them, because it cannot proceed without exact knowledge of the laws of moral and social phenomena. In the next chapter I shall have to speak of the mischievous effects of Materialism upon the Art or practice of social life. It leads to a misconception of the most fundamental principle of that Art, namely, the systematic separation of spiritual and temporal power. To maintain that separation, to carry out on a more satisfactory basis the admirable attempt made in the Middle Ages by the Catholic Church, is the most important of political questions. Thus the antagonism of Positivism to Materialism rests upon political no less than upon philosophical grounds.

With the view of securing a dispassionate consideration of this subject, and of avoiding all confusion, I have laid no stress upon the charge of immorality that is so often brought against Materialism. The reproach, even when made sincerely, is constantly belied by experience,|<58> indeed it is inconsistent with all that we know of human nature. Our opinions, whether right or wrong, have not, fortunately, the absolute power over our feelings and conduct which is commonly attributed to them. Materialism has been provisionally connected with the whole movement of emancipation, and it has therefore often been found in common with the noblest aspirations. That connexion, however, has now ceased; and it must be owned that even in the most favourable cases this error, purely intellectual though it be, has to a certain extent always checked the free play of our nobler instincts, by leading men to ignore or misconceive moral phenomena, which were left unexplained by its crude hypothesis. Cabanis gave a striking example of this tendency in his unfortunate attack upon mediaeval chivalry. [See Cabanis, Rapports du physique et du moral de l’homme, Ve memoire, where he speaks of ‘les restes de l’esprit de chevalerie, fruit ridicule de l’odieuse féodalité.’] Cabanis was a philosopher whose moral nature was as pure and sympathetic as his intellect was elevated and enlarged. Yet the materialism of his day had entirely blinded him to the beneficial results of the attempts made by the most energetic of our ancestors to institute the Worship of Woman.

We have now examined the two principal charges brought against the Positive system, and we have found that they apply merely to the unsystematic state in which Positive principles are first introduced. But the system is also accused of Fatalism and of Optimism; charges on which it will not be necessary to dwell at great length, because, though frequently made, they are not difficult to refute.

Nor is Positivism fatalist, since it asserts the External Order to be modifiable

The charge of Fatalism has accompanied every fresh extension of Positive|<69> science, from its first beginnings. Nor is this surprising; for when any series of phenomena passes from the dominion of Wills, whether modified by metaphysical abstractions or not, to the dominion of Laws, the regularity of the latter contrasts so strongly with the instability of the former, as to present an appearance of fatality, which nothing but a very careful examination of the real character of scientific truth can dissipate. And the error is the more likely to occur from the fact that our first types of natural laws are derived from the phenomena of the heavenly bodies. These, being wholly beyond our interference, always suggest the notion of absolute necessity, a notion which it is difficult to prevent from extending to more complex phenomena, as soon as they are brought within the reach of the Positive method. And it is quite true that Positivism holds the Order of Nature to be in its primary aspects strictly invariable. All variations, whether spontaneous or artificial, are only transient and of secondary import. The conception of unlimited variations would in fact be equivalent to the rejection of Law altogether. But while this accounts for the fact that every new Positive theory is accused of Fatalism, it is equally clear that blind persistence in the accusation shows a very shallow conception of what Positivism really is. For, unchangeable as the Order of Nature is in its main aspects, yet all phenomena, except those of Astronomy, admit of being modified in their secondary relations, and this the more as they are more complicated. The Positive spirit, when confined to the subjects of Mathematics and Astronomy, was inevitably fatalist; but this ceased to be the case when it extended to Physics and Chemistry, and especially to Biology, where|<60> the margin of variation, is very considerable. Now that it embraces Social phenomena, the reproach, however it may have been once deserved, should be heard no longer, since these phenomena, which will for the future form its principal field, admit of larger modification than any others, and that chiefly by our own intervention. It is obvious then that Positivism, far from encouraging indolence, stimulates us to action, especially to social action, far more energetically than any Theological doctrine. It removes all groundless scruples, and prevents us from having recourse to chimeras. It encourages our efforts everywhere, except where they are manifestly useless.

The charge of Optimism applies to Theology rather than to Positivism. The positivist judges of all historical actions relatively, bur does not justify them indiscriminately
Because every government shows a certain adaptation to the civilization of its time, they make the loose assertion that the adaptation is perfect; a conception which is of course, chimerical

For the charge of Optimism there is even less ground than for that of Fatalism. The latter was, to a certain extent, connected with the rise of the Positive spirit; but Optimism is simply a result of Theology; and its influence has always been decreasing with the growth of Positivism. Astronomical laws, it is true, suggest the idea of perfection as naturally as that of necessity. On the other hand, their great simplicity places the defects of the Order of Nature in so clear a light, that optimists would never have sought their arguments in astronomy, were it not that the first elements of the science had to be worked out under the influence of Monotheism, a system which involved the hypothesis of absolute wisdom. But by the theory of development on which the Positive synthesis is here made to rest, Optimism is discarded as well as Fatalism, in the direct proportion of the intricacy of the phenomena. It is in the most intricate that the defects of Nature, as well as the power of modifying them, become most manifest. With regard, therefore,|<60> to social phenomena, the most complex of all, both charges are utterly misplaced. Any optimistic tendencies that writers on social subjects may display, must be due to the fact that their education has not been such as to teach them the nature and conditions of the true scientific spirit. For want of sound logical training, great misuse has been made in our own time of a property peculiar to social phenomena. It is that we rind in them a greater amount of spontaneous wisdom than might have been expected from their complexity. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose this wisdom perfect. The phenomena in question are those of intelligent beings who are always occupied in amending the defects of their economy. It is obvious, therefore, that they will show less imperfection than if, in a case equally complicated, the agents could have been blind. The standard by which to judge of action is always to be taken relatively to the social state in which the action takes place. Therefore all historical positions and changes must have at least some grounds of justification; otherwise they would be totally incomprehensible, because inconsistent with the nature of the agents and of the actions performed by them. Now this naturally fosters a dangerous tendency to Optimism in all thinkers, who, whatever their powers may be, have not passed through any strict scientific training, and have consequently never cast off metaphysical and theological modes of thought in the higher subjects. Because every government shows a certain adaptation to the civilization of its time, they make the loose assertion that the adaptation is perfect; a conception which is of course, chimerical. But it is unjust to charge Positivism with errors which are evidently contrary to its true spirit, and merely|<62> due to the want of logical and scientific training in those who have hitherto engaged in the study of social questions. The object of Sociology is to explain all historical facts; not to justify them indiscriminately, as is done by those who are unable to distinguish the influence of the agent from that of surrounding circumstances.

The word Positive connotes all the highest intellectual attributes, and will ultimately have a moral significance
All the languages of Western Europe agree in understanding by this word and its derivatives the two qualities of reality and usefulness

On reviewing this brief sketch of the intellectual character of Positivism, it will be seen that ll its essential attributes are summed up in the word Positive, which I applied to the new philosophy at its outset. All the languages of Western Europe agree in understanding by this word and its derivatives the two qualities of reality and usefulness. Combining these, we get at once an adequate definition of the true philosophic spirit, which, after all, is nothing but good sense generalized and put into a systematic form. The term also implies in all European languages, certainty and precision, qualities by which the intellect of modern nations is markedly distinguished from that of antiquity. Again, the ordinary acceptation of the term implies a directly organic tendency. Now the metaphysical spirit is incapable of organizing; it can only criticize. This distinguishes it from the Positive spirit, although for a time they had a common sphere of action. By speaking of Positivism as organic, we imply that it has a social purpose; that purpose being to supersede Theology in the spiritual direction of the human race.

Modern thinkers will never rise above that critical position […] except by repudiating all absolute principles

But the word will bear yet a further meaning. The organic character of the system leads us naturally to another of its attributes, namely its invariable relativity. Modern thinkers will never rise above that critical position which they have hitherto taken up towards the past, except by|<63> repudiating all absolute principles. This last meaning is more latent than the others, but is really contained in the term. It will soon become generally accepted, and the word Positive will be understood to mean relative as much as it now means organic, precise, certain, useful, and real. Thus the highest attributes of human wisdom have, with one exception, been gradually condensed into a single expressive term. All that is now wanting is that the word should denote what at first could form no part of the meaning, the union of moral with intellectual qualities. At present, only the latter are included; but the course of modern progress makes it certain that the conception implied by the word Positive, will ultimately have a more direct reference to the heart than to the understanding. For it will soon be felt by all that the tendency of Positivism, and that by virtue of its primary characteristic, reality, is to make Feeling systematically supreme over Reason as well as over Activity. After all, the change consists simply in realizing the full etymological value of the word Philosophy [Philosophy – the love of wisdom.]. For it was impossible to realize it until moral and mental conditions had been reconciled; and this has been now done by the foundation of a Positive science of society.

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