Thursday, April 21, 2011

Progressivism, Narcissism and Auguste Comte

Auguste Comte was the founder of sociology. At least, he coined the terms sociology and social physics. Comte's life's work began in his adolescence and ended with his death at age 59. It is remarkable that Comte envisioned his life's work at age 13 or so and then pursued it for over 45 years. His work was divided into two parts. In the first, he created the notion of positivism, that science is based on laws, that there is a hierarchy of sciences, and, most importantly, that there have been three stages of human development. The three stages are the theological, the metaphysical and the positivist.

Comte believed that society must be united around a single vision and aimed to re-institute the theological order of the Middle Ages based on scientific grounds. It was possible to unite society in a theological setting, but the metaphysical period, which began with Aquinas and carried forward through the Enlightenment and into Comte's day (he died in 1857), was conflictual and so ought to be brought to an end by Positivism. That is, Comte argued that a new religion was necessary to unite all of society in a single faith: Positivism. In other words, he claimed that science ought to be the universal religion. He devoted the second part of his career to arguing in favor of his new Positivist religion.

One of the important points in Lucien Levy Bruhl's Philosophy of Auguste Comte is Levy Bruhl's remark that Comte did not see scientific laws as absolute. Rather, Comte had a modern view of science, which sees its laws as local and subject to reinvention. I was interested to learn how far Thomas Kuhn's ideas in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions rely on Comte's insights. Kuhn sees science as occurring under a paradigm, but the paradigms inevitably reach dead ends and self-contradictions, which lead to scientific revolutions.

If Comte wishes Positivism to be a religion, and science is ultimately based on the limits of human understanding, then Comte's Positivist religion is narcissistic. It is a religion devoted to worshiping scientists' impermanent insights. defines narcissism simply as "inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity" or, in psychoanalysis, the "erotic gratification derived from admiration of one's own physical or mental attributes, being a normal condition at the infantile level of personality development."

The worship of the scientific insights of humanity, advocated by a social scientist, constitutes this infantile pattern. Carried forward a few decades, there is a link between the ideas of Progressivism and positivism. Positivism argues that sociology can apply the methods of science to morality. Comte believed that scientific methods could be so applied, so that society could be re-engineered along a line that unites all of society in the faith in optimal, scientific approaches to re-engineering society. This is the essence of the message of Progressivism advocated by Herbert Croly and Theodore Roosevelt.

This sheds light on the refusal of Progressives to be pragmatic, and to insist on government solutions even when they repeatedly fail. Although Progressives never went so far to claim that Progressivism ought to be a religion, the same aim was adopted by several strains of Protestantism in the form of the Social Gospel, and has been carried forward in Liberation Theology and Reformed Judaism. It is only a short step from saying that religion ought to be concerned with the well being of society to saying that the well being of society is religion's ultimate end, and given that the ultimate end is found through science, that the insights of sociology are Gospel. Thus, Progressives react to questioning of the claims of The New York Times much as a fundamentalist preacher reacts to disputing the claims of the Bible.

The narcissistic fanaticism with which left wingers, Progressive liberals, and Obama supporters have resented all dissent derives from Comte's Positivism. The debate between Progressivism and libertarianism is a debate about the limits of human reason. In turn, faith in God depends in part on the recognition that our own capacities are limited. Faith in God is logically inconsistent with the unlimited Positivism to which the mainstream of American liberals adhere.

Comte's philosophy can be viewed as a prototype of today's Progressivism, and Comte can be viewed as a prophet of Progressivism. He saw that the worship of scientific insight can replace traditional religion. Although it was too jarring to be achieved in his lifetime, religion itself has served to supply the moral justification for Comte's narcissism.

Progressives believe in science; they consider the pretense of science and Gospel of the New York Times to be sacred. Even when scientists are accused of fraud, as occurred with respect to the climate change researchers last year, Progressives retain their faith in the revealed positivist scripture and defend the sacred from the profane accusation that science is subject to the same cognitive and moral limitations as all other human endeavors.

1 comment:

Doug Plumb said...

Positivism leads to moral relativism. Albert Camus says moral relativism leads to nihilism and this results in the worship of efficiency.

I think positivism is leading us to worship efficiency. We have Chinese child slaves makes our shoes and clothes because it is more "efficient" - this shows in itself we have reached a stage of nihilism.

I think that the ephemeral experience is good vs evil, and that technology has the danger of taking us out of that domain and into absolute entropy. Since justice could be everywhere man would decline into a potato chip eating television watching blob.

Camus book "The Rebel" is a great commentary on today, heard it quoted many times and finally got to reading it a few weeks ago. Both he and Kant say free speech is the solution.

I wish you would do more posts like this one. Thanks for solidifying my understanding of positivism.