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THE BISHOP OF CARLISLE ON COMTE.
ONLY the high office and good name of the Bishop of Carlisle could justify serious notice of his article in this Review, entitled 'Comte's famous Fallacy.' His piece is based on a misconception-a typical example, indeed, of ignorantia elenchi-nay, a misconception which has often before been made by theologians, and which has been over and over again exposed. Yet such is the persistence of the theological stage,' even in the nineteenth century, that here the old primitive 'fiction' about the meaning of Comte's 'law of the three states' crops up again after twenty or thirty years, apparently under the impression that it is a new discovery. To any serious student of philosophy it might be enough to cite half-a-dozen passages from Comte, Mill, Lewes, and others, to show that the law of the three states' has no such meaning as the Bishop puts into it. But when a writer, who has won in other fields a deserved reputation, gravely puts forth a challenge to his philosophical opponents, although rather by way of sermon and for edification than by way of strict logic, perhaps it is respectful to do more than cite a few passages from the author whom he attacks.
Two main misconceptions pervade the whole of the Bishop's criticism on Comte's law.
I. First; he understands the theological' state to mean, a belief in a Creator; the metaphysical' state to mean, general philosophy; and the 'positive' state to mean, the denial of Creation, or atheism. Now, that never was, and never was understood to be, Comte's meaning.
II. Secondly, the Bishop assumes Comte to have said, that men, or a generation of men, are necessarily at any given time, in one or other of the three states exclusively, passing per saltum, and as a whole, from one to the other; and that one mind cannot combine any two states. Now, Comte expressly said that men do exhibit traces of all three states at the same time, in different departments of thought.
This last remark of his obviously proves that Comte could not have meant by the theological state,' believing in God, and by the 'positive state,' the denial of God; because no man can believe and deny the same thing at the same time. Again, had Comte said
that every man up to his age' can remember that he believed in God in his childhood, and that he denied his existence in manhood, he would have said something so transparently false, that it would hardly be needful for a bishop forty years afterwards to write an essay to expose so very famous a fallacy.' Had Comte's law of the three states implied what the Bishop takes it to mean, it never would have received the importance attached to it by friends and opponents of Positivism alike; it never would have been a famous fallacy' at all; it would have been the obvious fallacy,' and would have called forth no admiration from eminent thinkers. It must be remembered that the value of the law of the three states' has been acknowledged by men who have been as far as possible from being • Positivists' in any special sense of the term, and who have been foremost in repudiating Comte's social and religious scheme. Mr. Mill, who wrote a book to that effect, expressed his profound admiration for this particular law of philosophy. So did Mr. G. H. Lewes in his History of Philosophy. Miss Martineau, Professor Caird, Mr. John Morley, who have written upon the system of Comte, have given us no criticism upon the principle involved in this law of the three states.' It is, to say the least, unlikely that writers like these would have missed so obvious a criticism as that now put forth by the Bishop, had they understood Comte as he does.
Forty years ago, Mr. Mill gave an admirably lucid account of the law of the three states,' and at the same time expressed his agreement with it, in words that are remarkable as coming from so cautious and measured a mind. He says:
Speculation, he [Comte] conceives to have, on every subject of human inquiry, three successive stages; in the first of which it tends to explain the phenomena by supernatural agencies, in the second by metaphysical abstractions, and in the third or final state confines itself to ascertaining their laws of succession and similitude. This generalisation appears to me to have that high degree of scientific evidence, which is derived from the concurrence of the indications of history with the probabilities derived from the constitution of the human mind. Nor could it be easily conceived, from the mere enunciation of such a proposition, what a flood of light it lets in upon the whole course of history. (Logic, vol. ii. chap. x.)
I. By the term 'theological state,' Comte does not mean the ultimate belief in God. He means, as Mr. Mill says in the words quoted, a state in which the mind 'tends to explain (given) phenomena by supernatural agencies.' Comte first put forth his law in an essay published so early as 1822, where he states the theological stage to be one where, the facts observed are explained, that is to say, conceived à priori, by means of invented facts.' (Pos. Pol. iv. App. iii.) In his General View of Positivism, he calls the theological stage that' in which free play is given to spontaneous fictions admitting of no proof. In the Positive Polity, he usually calls it the Fictitious stage. The theological state of mind is one where
the phenomena we observe are supposed to be directly caused by vital agencies which we imagine, but of the activity of which we have no real proof. This state is certainly not identical with a belief in God; it includes all forms of Fetichism, of Nature-worship, Ghost-worship, or Devil-worship: and all the habits of mind out of which these forms of worship spring. The nonsense known as Spiritualism, Spirit-rapping, Raising the Dead, and the like, is a typical form of the theological state, in which men give free play to fictions admitting of no proof.' And men, otherwise eminent in science and letters, have been known so to play, even when they have ceased to believe in God.
Not only is Comte's 'theological stage' something widely different from ultimate belief in a Creator, but few educated men, however deeply they hold such belief, are now in what Comte calls the 'theological stage.' To all minds up to the level of their age,' even if theologians by profession, the phenomena of nature and of society are associated with regular antecedents, capable of being explained by known laws, physical, social, or moral. That is in fact the 'positive,' or scientific state of thought. If a man has a fit, or if smallpox breaks out, or two nations go to war, intelligent Christians do not cry aloud that it is a special judgment, or the wrath of God, or the malice of Devil. They trace the disease or the war to its scientific causes, or rather to its positive conditions. Men in the true theological stage attribute ordinary phenomena to the direct and special interposition of a supernatural being of some kind. This was done by devotees in the Middle Ages; is still done by Fetichists everywhere; and by the negroes the other day during the earthquake at Charlestown. But cultivated Englishmen do not so reason. In fact, very few thoughtful men in our age can be said to be, properly speaking, in the theological stage at all. They reason about life and man on the basis of both being amenable to observed laws, and not on the basis that both are directly subject to the caprice of supernatural wills.
The habitual reference of facts to observed conditions of nature, physical or human, does not prevent strong minds from believing in Creation and a Personal Creator. That is a very different thing. They refer all observed facts to observed antecedents; and behind this enormous mass of observations, they assume an ultimate source, as First Cause. Mr. Mill indeed insists that it is quite compatible with the Positive state in Comte's sense, to believe that the Universe is guided by an Intelligence. Comte himself warmly repudiates the atheistical hypothesis of the origin of the Universe from Chance. He calls Atheism a form of Theology: meaning that Dogmatic Atheism, as a theory of the Universe, is a spontaneous fiction admitting of no proof.' He thought that a mind perfectly attuned to scientific habits in all forms of observed facts, would cease to busy itse'f with any
theory of Origins, and would be entirely absorbed in theories of growth. But he would not have regarded as being in the theological stage, any mind which, taking a scientific view of all observed phenomena, clung to the ultimate solution of their origin in Creation.
II. By the 'positive' stage, Comte certainly does not mean Atheism, the denial of a possible Creator. In the first place, he repudiates that hypothesis, as itself a form of Theological figment. And secondly, he says that the Positive stage is that 'which is based on an exact view of the real facts of the case.' That is what he means: neither more nor less. And the Bishop is quite mistaken in constantly assuming that Positive is either Positivist or Atheist. Comte neither said, nor imagined, that any man who takes an exact view of the real facts' in each case is a Positivist or a believer in the Religion of Humanity. Dr. Martineau in the passage cited with approval by the Bishop, does indeed make Comte say that every cultivated man is a Positivist in his maturity. That, however, is only a bit of careless rhetoric. Comte says nothing of the kind. Comte says that a cultivated man becomes a natural philosopher' in his maturity:-meaning a man whose habit of mind is to accept scientific evidence in each subject.
III. It is no objection at all to the law of the three states,' to argue, as the Bishop does, that many men of science are not atheists, but believers in God. Even if the theological stage' and the 'positive stage' had this meaning (and they have not) Comte has carefully guarded himself by saying that many persons exhibit all three stages at the same time, on different subject matters. His law is not that each human mind passes through three stages': but that each class of human speculations does.' If that were Comte's meaning, the whole of the Bishop's criticism falls to the ground. And it is easy to show that this was Comte's meaning.
Had the Bishop pursued his study of Comte a little beyond the opening pages of a translation of one of his works, he would have found this. In the second volume of the Positive Philosophy (1st ed. p. 173), we read :
During the whole of our survey of the sciences, I have endeavoured to keep in view the great fact that all the three states, theological, metaphysical, and positive, may and do exist at the same time in the same mind in regard to different sciences. I must once more recall this consideration, and insist on it; because, in the forgetfulness of it, lies the only real objection that can be brought against the grand law of the three states. It must be steadily kept in view that the same mind may be in the positive state with regard to the most simple and general sciences; in the metaphysical with regard to the more complex and special; and in the theological with regard to social science, which is so complex and special as to have hitherto taken no scientific form at all.
Again in the Positive Polity, iii. p. 34.
Although each class of speculations really passes through these three successive stages, the rate of progress is not the same for all. Hence while some speculations
have already become Positive, others still remain Metaphysical or even Theological; and so it will be till our race has entirely accomplished its initiation. This temporary co-existence of the three intellectual states furnishes backward thinkers with their only plausible excuse for denying my law of filiation. Nothing will completely clear away this difficulty but the complementary rule, which lays down that the unequal rate of progress is caused by the different nature of the phenomena in each class.
In the Positivist Catechism, he says, (Engl. tr. p. 174):—
Certain theories remain in the metaphysical stage; whilst others of a simpler nature have already reached the positive stage; others again, still more complicated remain in the theological stage.
It is thus abundantly clear that Comte intended his law of the three states to be applied not to the mind as a whole, nor to ages as a whole, but to different classes of speculation, and to the prevalent tendencies in different ages. And so he has been always understood by his exponents. Mr. Mill in his book, Auguste Comte and Positivism, to meet an objection such as the Bishop now urges, writes thus:that the three states were contemporaneous, that they all began before authentic history, and still co-exist, is M. Comte's express statement' (p. 31).
And so, Mr. G. H. Lewes, in his more lively manner, replying to similar objections, tells us in his History of Philosophy (vol. ii. p. 715):
To these causes of opposition must also be added the licence men permit themselves of pronouncing confidently on questions which they have not taken the preliminary trouble of understanding. Two-thirds of the objections urged against this law of the three stages are based on a radical misapprehension of it; and there is something quite comic in the gravity with which these misconceptions are advanced.
The law does not assert that at distinct historical periods men were successively in each of the three stages, that there was a time when a nation or even a tribe was exclusively theological, exclusively metaphysical, or exclusively positive; it asserts that the chief conceptions man frames respecting the world, himself, and society, must pass through three stages, with varying velocity under various social conditions, but in unvarying order. Any one individual mind, inheriting the results of preceding generations, may indeed commence its thinking on some special topic, without being forced to pass through the stages which its predecessors have passed through; but every class of conceptions must pass through the stages, and every individual mind must, more or less rapidly, in the course of its evolution from infancy to maturity, pass through them.
Another eminent theologian, once Regius Professor of History in the University of Oxford, fell into the same error as the Bishop, as long ago as 1861, and he was corrected at the time. In those days Professor Goldwin Smith used to rage about Comte as furiously as he now rages about Mr. Gladstone, and, as a polemist is apt to do, he walked into this open pit. This is how the blunder was corrected in the Westminster Review N. S. xl. Mr. Smith replied to the Review with some warmth; but he did not establish his view as to the law of the three states.