Durant 1926: Comte and Darwin (Herbert Spencer)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VIII Section 1 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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I. Comte and Darwin

The Kantian philosophy which announced itself as “prolegomena to all future metaphysics,” was, by malicious intent, a murderous thrust at traditional modes of speculation; and, contrary to intent, a damaging blow to all metaphysics whatsoever. For metaphysics had meant, throughout the history of thought, an attempt to discover the ultimate nature of reality; now men learned, on the most respectable authority, that reality could never be experienced; that it was a “noumenon,” conceivable but not knowable; and that even the subtlest human intelligence could never pass beyond phenomena, could never pierce the veil of Maya. The metaphysical extravagances of Fichte, Hegel and Schelling, with their various readings of the ancient riddle, their Ego and Idea and Will, had canceled one another into zero; and by the eighteen-thirties the universe was generally conceded to have guarded its secret well. After a generation of Absolute intoxication, the mind of Europe reacted by taking a pledge against metaphysics of any kind. 

The Kantian philosophy determined that reality could never be experienced; that it was a “noumenon,” conceivable but not knowable. After a generation of Absolute intoxication, the mind of Europe reacted by taking a pledge against metaphysics of any kind. 

Since the French had made a specialty of skepticism, it was natural that they should produce the founder (if there are such persons in philosophy, where every idea is hallowed with years) of the “positivist” movement. Auguste Comte—or, as his parents called him, Isidore Auguste Marie Francois Xavier Comte—was born at Montpellier in 1798. The idol of his youth was Benjamin Franklin, whom he called the modern Socrates. “You know that at five-and-twenty he formed the design of becoming perfectly wise, and that he fulfilled his design. I have dared to undertake the same thing, though I am not yet twenty.” He made a fair start by becoming secretary to the great Utopian, Saint-Simon, who passed on to him the reforming enthusiasm of Turgot and Condorcet, and the idea that social, like physical phenomena, might be reduced to laws and science, and that all philosophy should be focused upon the moral and political improvement of mankind. But, like most of us who set out to reform the world, Comte found it difficUlt enough to manage his own home; in 1827, after two years of marital infelicity, he suffered a mental breakdown, and attempted suicide in the Seine. To his rescuer, therefore, we owe something of the five volumes of Positive Philosophy which appeared between 1830 and 1842, and the four volumes of Positive Polity which appeared between 1851 and 1854. 

Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857) started the “positivist” movement with the idea that social, like physical phenomena, might be reduced to laws and science, and that all philosophy should be focused upon the moral and political improvement of mankind. 

This was an undertaking which, in scope and patience, was second in modern times only to Spencer’s “Synthetic Philosophy.” Here the sciences were classified according to the decreasing simplicity and generality of their subject matter: mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology; each rested on the results of all the sciences before it; therefore sociology was the apex of the sciences, and the others had their reason for existence only in so far as they could provide illumination for the science of society. Science, in the sense of exact knowledge, had spread from one subject matter to another in the order given; and it was natural that the complex phenomena of social life should be the last to yield to scientific method. In each field of thought the historian of ideas could observe a Law of Three Stages: at first the subject was conceived in the theological fashion, and all problems were explained by the will of some deity—as when the stars were gods, or the chariots of gods; later, the same subject reached the metaphysical, stage, and was explained by metaphysical abstractions—as when the stars moved in circles because circles were the must perfect figure; finally the subject was reduced to positive science by precise observation, hypothesis, and experiment, and its phenomena were explained though the regularities of natural cause and effect. The ”Will of God” yields to such airy entities as Plato’s “Ideas” or Hegel’s “Absolute Idea,” and these in turn yield to the laws of science. Metaphysics is a stage of arrested development: the time had come, said Comte, to abandon these puerilities. Philosophy was not something different from science; it was the coordination of all the sciences with a view to the improvement of human life. 

Ideas developed in three stage: (a) theological, where all problems were explained by the will of some deity; (b) metaphysical, where a subject was explained by metaphysical abstractions; and (c) positive, where a subject was reduced to science by precise observation, hypothesis, and experiment. Philosophy was the coordination of all the sciences with a view to the improvement of human life. 

There was a certain dogmatic intellectualism about this positivism which perhaps reflected the disillusioned and isolated philosopher. When, in 1845, Mme. Clotilde de Vaux (whose husband was spending his life in jail) took charge of Comte’s heart, his affection for her warmed and colored his thought, and led to a reaction in which he placed feeling above intelligence as a reforming force, and concluded that the world could be redeemed only by a new religion, whose function it should be “to nourish and strengthen the feeble altruism of human nature by exalting Humanity as the object of a ceremonial worship. Comte spent his old age devising for this Religion of Humanity an intricate system of priesthood, sacraments, prayers, and discipline; and proposed a new calendar in which the names of pagan deities and medieval saints should be replaced by the heroes of human progress. As a wit put it, Comte offered the world all of Catholicism except Christianity. 

In his later life Comte placed feeling above intelligence as a reforming force, and concluded that the world could be redeemed only by a new religion that exalted Humanity as the object of a ceremonial worship. 

The positivist movement fell in with the flow of English thought, which took its spirit from a life of industry and trade, and looked up to matters of fact with a certain reverence. The Baconian tradition had turned thought in the direction of things, mind in the direction of matter; the materialism of Hobbes, the sensationalism of Locke, the skepticism of Hume, the utilitarianism of Bentham, were so many variations on the theme of a practical and busy life. Berkeley was an Irish discord in this domestic symphony. Hegel laughed at the English habit of honoring physical and chemical equipment with the name of “philosophical instruments”; but such a term came naturally to men who agreed with Comte and Spencer in defining philosophy as a generalization of the results of all the sciences. So it was that the positivist movement found more adherents in England than in the land of its birth; adherents perhaps not so fervent as the generous Littré, but endowed with that English tenacity which kept John Stuart Mill (1806-73) and Frederick Harrison (1831-1923) faithful all their lives to Comte’s philosophy, while their English caution kept them aloof from his ceremonious religion. 

The positivist movement fell in with the flow of English thought, which took its spirit from a life of industry and trade, and looked up to matters of fact with a certain reverence, while the English caution kept them aloof from Comte’s ceremonious religion.

Meanwhile the Industrial Revolution, born of a little science, was stimulating science in return. Newton and Herschel had brought the stars to England, Boyle and Davy had opened the treasures of chemistry, Faraday was making the discoveries that would electrify the world, Rumford and Joule were demonstrating the transformability and equivalence of force and the conservation of energy. The sciences were reaching a stage of complexity which would make a bewildered world welcome a synthesis. But above all these intellectual influences that stirred England in the youth of Herbert Spencer was the growth of biology, and the doctrine of evolution. Science had been exemplarily international in the development of this doctrine: Kant had spoken of the possibility of apes becoming men; Goethe had written of “the metamorphosis of plants; Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck had propounded the theory that species had evolved from simpler forms by the inheritance of the effects of use and disuse; and in 1830 St. Hilaire shocked Europe, and gladdened old Goethe, by almost triumphing against Cuvier in that famous debate on evolution which seemed like another Ernani, another revolt against classic ideas of changeless rules and orders in a changeless world.

Meanwhile the Industrial Revolution, born of a little science, was stimulating science in return. But above all these intellectual influences was the growth of biology, and the doctrine of evolution.

In the eighteen-fifties evolution was in the air. Spencer expressed the idea, long before Darwin, in an essay on “The Development Hypothesis” (1852), and in his Principles of Psychology’ (1855). In 1858 Darwin and Wallace read their famous papers before the Linnaean Society; and in 1859 the old world, as the good bishops thought, crashed to pieces with the publication of the Origin of Species. Here was no mere vague notion of evolution, of higher species evolving somehow from lower ones; but a detailed and richly documented theory of the actual mode and process of evolution “by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life.” In one decade all the world was talking about evolution. What lifted Spencer to the crest of this wave of thought was the clarity of mind which suggested the application of the evolution idea to every field of study, and the range of mind which brought almost all knowledge to pay tribute to his theory. As mathematics had dominated philosophy in the seventeenth century, giving to the world Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Leibnitz and Pascal; and as psychology had written philosophy in Berkeley and Hume and Condillac and Kant; so in the nineteenth century, in Schelling and Schopenhauer, in Spencer and Nietzsche and Bergson, biology was the background of philosophic thought. In each case the epochal ideas were the piece-meal production of separate men, more or less obscure; but the ideas are attached to the men who coordinated and clarified them, as the New World took the name of Amerigo Vespucci because he drew a map. Herbert Spencer was the Vespucci of the age of Darwin, and something of its Columbus too. 

In the eighteen-fifties evolution was in the air. Biology was the background of philosophic thought. Spencer provided the clarity of mind which suggested the application of the evolution idea to every field of study. 

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