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Select: Auguste Comte - Jeremy Bentham - John Stuart Mill - Herbert Spencer
Ludwig A. Feuerbach - Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels - Ernst Haeckel - Friedrich Albert Lange
Roberto Ardigo


The broad movement of thought which marked the second half of the nineteenth century is called Positivism. The name is due to the fact that thinkers returned to the appreciation of positive facts so as to restore the world of nature, which the Idealists had reduced to a mere representation of the ego. The Positivists conceived of primordial matter as a unique reality having the power of evolving from the lower to the higher forms, mechanically and by means of immanent energy. This evolution was even extended to include man. Positivist philosophy consists in knowing the fundamental laws which govern matter in its process of evolution.

The founder of Positivism was Auguste Comte; its most representative thinkers were English; its remarkable materialistic development occurred in Germany.

Background Essay

The Transition to Positivism


In France, the Enlightenment, based on naturalistic thinking, resulted in the disturbing social and political changes of the Revolution. After the Revolution the popular materialistic theories faded and new philosophies appeared. Excessive radical liberalism aroused a conservative reaction.

The opposite to materialism appeared in the supernatural philosophy of Joseph de Maistre (1754-1821) and the current psychology of the times:

  • Cabanis, the materialist, called attention to the difficulty of explaining vital feelings, instinctive reactions, and elements of the conscious life by the external senses;
  • Maine de Biran (1766-1824) emphasized inner experience (feeling of effort) and declared it to be the central element of consciousness and basic to our notions of causality, unity, etc.;
  • Royer-Collard (1763-1845) was influenced by the common-sense philosophy of the Cambridge Platonist, Thomas Reid;
  • Victor Cousin (1792-1867), an inspirer of French education, developed an eclectic spiritualistic keynote following Reid, Schelling, Hegel, and others.

The reform of human society, based on liberty, equality, fraternity, remained a dream of French thinkers. Social evolution could be achieved through education and enlightenment.

Claude Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) conceived the idea of a new science of society that would result in the economic and intellectual emancipation of man, readjusting the inequalities of property, power, and happiness; thus, a new Christianity was needed, built not on self-denial but love of the poor and lowly, and the sciences must give foundation to this reconstruction and the sciences must be reformed to achieve this reconstruction of society. Saint-Simon regarded the medieval age as the age of construction, spiritual and social organization. To this spirit man must return. The new system of thought must be a positive philosophy based on experience and science.


Auguste Comte (1798-1857)

Auguste Comte (picture) was born in Montpellier, the son of an orthodox Catholic family. He attended the polytechnical school in Paris and acquired a knowledge of the exact sciences and the philosophy of Saint-Simon. After leaving school he studied biology and history and earned a living by giving lessons in mathematics. He became associated with Saint-Simon for a number of years, disagreed with him and worked independently. Comte tried several times to obtain a professorship but without success.

Comte's objective was the reform of society. To achieve this end he contended for a positive social science, and worked at it throughout his life. He argued that the theology and philosophy of the Middle Ages represented primitive thought. The new natural sciences indicated that a new social science should be built on observation and experience (positive knowledge). His major works are Course of Positive Philosophy and System of Positive Polity.


According to Comte, historical observations on the process of human society show that man has passed through three stages:

  • The theological state, in which nature was mythically conceived and man sought the explanation of natural phenomena from supernatural beings;
  • The metaphysical stage, in which nature was conceived of as a result of obscure forces and man sought the explanation of natural phenomena from them;
  • The positive stage, in which all abstract and obscure forces are discarded, and natural phenomena are explained by their constant relationships.

Comte extended the law of the three stages to include all reality. The progress of the sciences is subject to the same law. Comte was the founder of a "positive religion" in which there was the cult of a positive trinity -- the Great Being (humanity), the Great Medium (the world-space), and the Great Fetish (the earth) -- with temple, pontiff, and priests.

Comte advocates two phases of positivistic philosophy;

  • Social statics -- recognizing society as a fact with laws that constitute the social order;
  • Social dynamics -- recognizing the evolution of society in its history and progress.

In his later life Comte laid great stress on the emotional and practical life. Reason and science are brought into relationship. Ethics is made the highest in his hierarchy of the sciences (mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, ethics). Humanity is the "God" of positivism and the object of worship. A new Christianity is presented:

  • The first religion is a reverence for nature -- all is God;
  • The second religion is the worship of the moral law as authority;
  • The third religion is the infinite power revealed in nature which is the source and end of the moral ideal -- morality is the nature of things.

Positivism ends in dogmatism and becomes a system of metaphysics.

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The positive contributions of Auguste Comte and French Positivism to the Perennial Philosophy

None. In fact, Positivism destroys the very foundations of commonsense philosophical realism. Positivism has been one of the main contributors to today's intellectual insanity.


Positivism spread from France to England, the classic land of Empiricism, which was thus disposed not only to accept the new current of thought, but also to give it a better systematization than had the land of its origin. Hence it was in England that the greatest representatives and systematizers of Positivism arose.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

Jeremy Bentham's (picture) interest was legal and legislative reform. His major premise is a psychological individualism. General terms are fictitious; the real is the particular instance. Bentham emphasized concrete facts from which generals are derived. Pleasure, or the avoidance of pain, is the sole end of man's action and the sole content of human good. The "greatest happiness of the greatest number" is the social test of what is moral conduct. The true method of conduct is "felicific calculus," and the ablest moralist is the man who applies right calculation to conduct. Duty, conscious, ought are unimportant. The test of good or evil in an act is its utility -- the usefulness in bringing about pleasant results (Utilitarianism). Bentham's utility criterion sought to get rid of private and class interests. Man is by nature selfish and when given authority he will exploit. Hence democracy is the only remedy. Bentham's political ideal was the extension of the ballot leading to popular control.

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James Mill (1773-1836) was Bentham's most important immediate disciple. Mill gives Bentham's doctrine a more adequate psychological foundation derived from Lockean ideas. Human nature is a complex of ideas -- particular associations of ideas, which can change life by education. Social justice may be achieved by properly conducted education. James Mill is the father of John Stuart Mill, whose fame and influence would far exceed that of his father.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

Utilitarianism reached its highest form in the System of Logic of John Stuart Mill (picture).

John Stuart Mill was the son of James Mill, a secretary in the East India Company, and a writer on economic, political, sociological, and philosophical subjects. Young Mill was given a careful intellectual training from childhood by his father. He was introduced to Harley's psychology and Bentham's ethics. He studied law and later was attached to the East India Company until its abolition by Parliament in 1858. Mill entered Parliament as a Liberal in 1865. He exercised his greatest power as a political writer.


Mill recognized the Humean theory of knowledge. All we know is our ideas which follow one another according to the laws of association by similarity, contiguity, and causality. To know, therefore, means to study the sequence of ideas and to discover the permanent ideas which are correct and valid sequences. This interpretation of knowledge gives foundation to Mill's Logic: all discovery of truths not self-evident consist s of inductions and the interpretation of inductions. Mill's theory of logic is based on the laws of association. It is the first thoroughgoing attempt to do for the inductive logic of scientific inquiry what Aristotle had accomplished for logic on its formal side for formal truth (deductive, syllogistic logic). Mill's logic, like that of Francis Bacon, is the study of scientific method, seeking the relations of cause and effect among phenomena. It proceeds from a study of the actual facts of experience (particulars) and is inductive.

Mill, advancing in point of view, attempts to find a place in Utilitarian doctrine for the feelings of man which make man more than a self-seeking creature of pleasure. He introduces into ethics the notion of a differing quality in pleasures which expands Bentham's quantitative differences. Some pleasures are higher and elevate human nature and appeal to the intelligent man. Mill's general principle of individualism is central in his thinking but his ultimate concern is the fact of social ends. His case is rested on two objectives:

  • The value of freedom to man's dignity as a human being; and
  • To society through experimentation in living, that the cramping effects of custom and authority may be reasonably counteracted.

Utilitarianism contributed a demand for political and social justice. It became the ally of the new political economy of Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations), Malthus, and David Ricardo.

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The positive contributions of John Stuart Mill to the Perennial Philosophy

None in the area of epistemology (his Empiricism is opposed to commonsense philosophical realism). His ethics of Utilitarianism is fundamentally unsound (actions are good or evil in so far as they preserve us from pain or subject us to pain and the greatest pleasure of the greatest number of men is the criterion). Mill did, however, raise certain issues of political and social justice and he made some positive points regarding political liberty which helped to lay the foundation for Classical Liberalism.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)

The son of an English schoolmaster, Herbert Spencer (picture) was born at Derby in 1820. During early manhood he was employed as a railway engineer. At the age of twenty-five he abandoned this occupation, to devote himself to writing. Spencer possessed an encyclopedic culture, and this is mirrored in his works. Most of his writings are collected in A System of Synthetic Philosophy, which covers ten volumes; this work constitutes, as it were, an encyclopedia of Positivism.


According to Spencer, the universe is a result of evolution. The laws which made possible such an evolution are two:

  • Concentration, by which is meant the transition of elements from the state of instability to the state of stability;
  • Differentiation, by which is meant the passage from the homogeneity of the elements to the state of heterogeneity.

Even life is an effect of evolution. Morality is due to some principles already formed and transmitted by heredity. In regard to religion, Spencer was an agnostic: God is not an object of science. He is the Unknowable.

Spencer's philosophy is an empirical generalization ignoring most of the fundamental problems of preceding philosophy. The one point he really faces is agnosticism which is not his strongest claim to philosophic contribution. The Absolute, because it is absolute, is not relative and is therefore beyond our grasp. Although we cannot think the Absolute it somehow exists in some unknown form. Hence, Spencer's religion for the man of science is agnosticism. Beyond all positive religions there is an irreducible minimum which science does not touch.


Spencer exerted a strong influence on moral and social thinking. He was a strong advocate of individualism and liberalism in economic and political thought. Good consists fundamentally in pleasurable activity. Life must be pleasant in order to be good. Society and the good life proceed together.

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The positive contributions of Herbert Spencer to the Perennial Philosophy

None of his own. Spencer is full of self-contradiction. He professes to know the absolute truth that absolute truth is unknowable. He is dogmatic in his assertion that dogmatic assertion is unseemly. He limits science to positive sense-data, and this very theory is not capable of either expression or proof in terms of sense-data, and hence is, by his own standard, a wholly unscientific theory. His doctrine of natural evolution is a hypothesis which he proposes as absolute truth. Indeed, Spencer makes mankind a single organism which is growing steadily more diversified and perfect by the process of evolution. There is no objective evidence for this.


German Positivism emerges, first, as a reaction against Idealism in general and Hegelianism in particular; and, secondly, as a development of the Kantian theory of knowledge. Both Idealism and Hegelianism have a starting point in common with Positivism; namely, that man knows nothing except sensible data conceived of as facts of consciousness. From such a beginning it is impossible to derive any metaphysics except a materialistic and atheistic one. Such is the character of German Positivism.

The various developments of German Positivism are usually classified as follows:

  • The so-called "Hegelian Left";
  • The materialism of Ernst Haeckel;
  • The Neo-Kantianism of Friedrich Lange;
  • Immanentism.

A. The Hegelian Left

This faction developed the Hegelian principle that no reality can conserve itself, unless it denies itself and is reborn in a higher reality; in virtue of this principle, religion, the existence of God, and legitimate authority are denied.

Ludwig A. Feuerbach (1804-1872)

Both in The Essence of Christianity and Lectures on the Essence of Religion, Ludwig Feuerbach (picture) sought to reduce religion to the cult of humanity. To this end, he literally overturned the terms of Hegelian Idealism. For Hegel, nature is the outward projection of the Idea. For Feuerbach, on the contrary, nature is the true reality, and the Idea is but its faint image.

Nature consists in the real existence of individuals, and real individuals are an end in themselves. How, then, did religion arise? Man, according to Feuerbach, concretizes in the Divine whatever he desires and cannot actuate through experience. The object of religion, therefore, is not the real, transcendent Being, but the objectivation of ideals represented by imagination.

Philosophy must supplant this imaginary object with the real object, which is man or "humanity," that is, the human species, human society. Likewise, philosophy should supplant transcendent happiness with an immanent happiness. Thus Feuerbach arrives at the conclusion that Comte reached through a different path, the cult of humanity. This, of course, implies the denial of all true religion.

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Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895)

Karl Marx (picture), author of Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto, and Friedrich Engels (picture), his collaborator, strove to put into practical effect the humanitarian concept of Feuerbach. In so doing, they founded a new economic movement called Socialism.


According to Marx, the supreme end of man is an immanent and material one, and consists in happiness. This material happiness must be obtained through organized collectivism. In fact, according to Marx, reality is governed by economic needs (historical materialism). Economic reality develops according to Hegel's dialectical principles; that is, reality must deny itself in order to reach a higher degree of being. In application, this principle means that the present organization of society must be destroyed (even through violent revolution, if necessary) because only through such destruction can a better political, economic, and social organization be achieved.

To establish this new format of society, working men (the proletariat) must be organized and take up the struggle against the capitalists who defraud them. Thus the actors in this drama are the social classes -- the proletariat is arrayed against capitalism. This struggle, according to Marx and Engels, will end in victory for the proletariat, that is, in the triumph of universal Socialism.

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The positive contributions of Marx and Engels to the Perennial Philosophy

Absolutely none. Marxism is totally antithetical to commonsense philosophical realism. It does, however, in its modern version have a very sophisticated well-organized system of philosophy which can rival any philosophical system in its scope. But the philosophy, sometimes called Dialectical Materialism, is at its roots materialistic, atheistic, deterministic, and collectivistic. It doesn't work in the real world either!

B. Haeckel's Materialism

Ernst Heinrich Haeckel (1834-1919), was a monist and a materialist in the true sense of the word. For him, reality was matter animated by energy. All phenomena are only different products of the same primitive matter. Man, of course, like all other beings, is a compound of matter and energy. Human beings and animals differ only by degree of energy. God is the sum of all the forces acting in the universe; He is the moving spirit of the universe itself. True religion is knowledge and wondering admiration of the operation of the universe.

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C. The Neo-Kantianism of Lange

Friedrich Albert Lange (1828-1875)

Germany has produced very few philosophers who are as lucid, judicious and sincere as Lange, whose History of Materialism (1866) has maintained its value as a standard work and an example of philosophical historiography despite the change of time and the increase of knowledge. Lange, a leader of Neo-Kantianism, demonstrated materialism but, on the other hand, he taught us to appreciate the materialistic philosophers whose independence of idealistic traditions has often obtained sound results and has been directed by true critical insight. Above all, Lange destroyed the not uncommon prejudice that the adoption of idealistic views on metaphysics would guarantee higher moral standards than could be achieved by the conduct of life of those who professed materialism in metaphysics.

Before Lange published his history of materialism, his book The Workers' Question (1865) created quite a stir in German social politics. Lange, a professor at the University of Marburg, energetically defended the interests of the workers and their political and economic demands, and he was eager to improve their educational and cultural conditions. He often debated with the earliest leaders of German socialism, and quite as often supported them, speaking at meetings arranged by them. Lange honestly tried to ally German democrats and socialists. His premature death was mourned by intellectuals and workers alike.

In his History of Materialism, Lange demonstrates the necessity of rejecting and overcoming materialism because it presumes to derive knowledge from material motion. Raising his voice in a Spinozan psycho-physical parallelism, Lange affirms that immediate experience shows two series of parallels -- psychic and physical -- distinct from one another but unified in an absolute reality. This reality, however, escapes our comprehension. Neither of these parallels is derivable from experience -- not the psychic one, because knowledge is not a link in the chain of experience, but rather its internal aspect; not the physical one, because experience is a result of our mode of perceiving.

Matter, according to Lange (who in this follows Berkeley) is mere representation, pure sensation. Even our brain and sensory organs exist only through our knowledge of them. If we perceive in a fixed manner, the reason is because such is our "organization." It is clear that such a theory of knowledge can be parent to no metaphysics or religion.

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D. Immanentism

Ernst Lass (1837-1885) in his work Idealism and Positivism shows that science is a rational systematization of facts. By fact he means whatever is present to our consciousness, whether or not it be reducible to mechanism. Every fact, according to Laas, is characterized by the correlativity of subject and object. The subject is such because there is an object; in other words, there is a perceiving subject because there is an object perceived, and vice versa. However, the object (nature) is nothing more than a phenomenon, something that appears to our consciousness. It is impossible to know whether reality underlies these appearances. However, the object is not a mere flux of sensations in the consciousness. Sensations, in their totality, indicate a reciprocal relationship in accordance with a law which is the object of universal knowledge. The only possible metaphysics flowing from this theory of knowledge is immanentist and hence pantheistic and atheistic.


In Italy, Positivism was accepted as a method of procedure for scientific inquiry and for the solution of practical questions concerning social and individual life. Indeed, the appearance of Positivism in Italy coincides with the establishment of national unity; that is, it arrived when the time was ripe for the reorganization of economic, educational and social life on a national scale. For a solution to these problems it seemed opportune to have recourse to the positivist methodology of inquiry into the facts presented by experience. A peculiar aspect of Italian Positivism is its conflict with the Catholic Church, whose dogmas and institutions it sought to demolish in the name of positivist and materialistic science.

Roberto Ardigo (1828-1920)

The exponent of Italian Positivism was Roberto Ardigo, who accepted the evolutionist principle of reality as a passage from the "indistinct to the distinct." According to Ardigo, the primordial "indistinct" condition of being is a psycho-physical reality revealing itself in the first event of consciousness, i.e., sensation. From the sensation follows the distinction of subject from object, of ego from non-ego. Sensations are not psychical atoms, as Empiricist associationism held, but elements of a common rhythm, in which all things are united. Particular rhythms join with other particular rhythms in a more ample form, from which comes the order of nature. Such a theory of knowledge leads to agnosticism in metaphysics and to atheism in religion.

A former Catholic priest and influential leader of Italian positivism, Ardigo abandoned theology in 1869 and resigned from the Church in 1871. He was appointed a professor of theology at the University of Padua in 1881, and from that time until 1900, when an idealistic reaction had taken place, exerted considerable influence in philosophic circles.

His positivism, inspired by Auguste Comte, differed from that of his master. Ardigo considered thought more important than matter and insisted on psychological disquisitions. He stated that thought is dominant in every action, the result of every action, and that it vanishes only in a state of general corruption; according to him, thought is a natural formation, unrelated to an alleged absolute; facts are the contents of consciousness, in which the subjective and objective elements are developed from an originally indistinct state.

His principal works are Psychology As A Positive Science (1870) and The Moral of the Positivists (1879).

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The positive contributions of Positivism in general to the Perennial Philosophy

Positivism made no contributions at all in the areas of theory of knowledge, metaphysics, theory of nature, and philosophical psychology, and was manifestly unintelligible and incorrect in the area of ethics or moral philosophy. Overall, Positivism has been a negative factor in the development of philosophical truth. We still suffer from this intellectual insanity today.

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