Positivism in Brazil
An exhibition curated by Rex Nielson and Patricia Figueroa
November 1 - December 21, 2007
Introductory Essay on Positivism
Positivism is a nineteenth-century system of philosophy elaborated and made famous by Auguste Comte (1798–1857). Comte asserted that all knowledge should be grounded in verifiable facts, that is, in the “positive” affirmation of scientific methods rather than metaphysical abstraction. Disaffected by the failure of French Revolution ideals to bring about real social change, Comte developed a philosophical system based on scientific methods in pursuit of broad social reforms, and he coined the term “sociology” to describe this new discipline. Comte advocated this new field as the “last and greatest of all sciences”—a religion for humanity—that would integrate all knowledge and truth into one great whole.
Comte found eager disciples at the time in a group of young Brazilian intellectuals studying in Paris who viewed Positivism as a social theory that could modernize and transform their country. Positivism quickly gained currency in Brazil not because it advocated revolution through social upheaval, but rather because it sought desirable reforms through a process of social evolution within already established social structures. The Positivist Church of Brazil was founded in 1881 in Rio de Janeiro and its progressive dictum “O amor por princípio, a ordem por base e o progresso por fim” [Love is the beginning, order is the foundation, and progress is the end] held such widespread influence and appeal that it was memorialized in the motto of the Brazilian flag.
The exhibit highlights the multiple interests and activities of the Positivist movement in Brazil by displaying Positivist holdings from the John Hay Library. The collection reveals not only the varied concerns of Positivist thinkers, which range from immigration and women’s rights to orthographic standardization, but also the systematic approach and extent to which the Positivist Church in Brazil carried forth its plans for social reformation.
In the fall of 2006, the Library acquired from Benjamin Moser, a Brown alumnus, a collection of pamphlets published by the Positivist Church of Brazil. The exhibit focuses on materials from this collection.