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Webster's Dictionary [1]

(n.) A system of philosophy originated by M. Auguste Comte, which deals only with positives. It excludes from philosophy everything but the natural phenomena or properties of knowable things, together with their invariable relations of coexistence and succession, as occurring in time and space. Such relations are denominated laws, which are to be discovered by observation, experiment, and comparison. This philosophy holds all inquiry into causes, both efficient and final, to be useless and unprofitable.

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [2]

a distinct, scientific habit of mind, regulated by a characteristic principle, which was made the basis of an extensive and ambitious scheme of philosophy by Auguste Comte, (See Comte), and which has matured, according to the intention of its author, into a sect, a creed, and a church, since the article on Comte was written. The term is applied to the intellectual habit, the characteristic principle, the philosophical procedure, and the consequent body of doctrine. The English Positivists, who have latterly been the most zealous propagators of the positive philosophy, and have very recently issued a complete translation of the Systeme De La Politique Positive, revolt from some of the later speculations of their founder and hierophant, by rejecting his theological and ecclesiastical reconstructions, and all the sentimental mimicry of the papal organization, which was elaborated under the quaint influence of Mme. Chlotilde de Vaux. They adhere rigidly to the distinctive principle of the positive philosophy, which constitutes its sole Ratio Essendi and determines its consistent developments and applications. It is the first duty, then, to ascertain what this principle is.

The epithet Positive has been employed in various significations in the history of philosophy, as will be shown at the close of this notice. The term Positivism is employed by the school of the Positivists and by its founder to denote the strict confinement of speculation and the rigorous limitation of knowledge to observed facts, and to their habitual antecedences, concomitances, and sequences. It eschews all laws but those of recognized association. It involves the exclusion of causes and effects; of supernatural, spiritual, or metaphysical agencies; of hidden forces, latent qualities, and immaterial essences. It contracts the intelligible universe within the sphere of the phenomenal. It refrains from investigating the intrinsic constitution of things, and prohibits any expatiation beyond the reach of purely scientific analysis and construction. It does not deny, but it ignores, extrudes, and repudiates as inaccessible and imaginary whatever transcends the observed facts and the logical deductions there from. It is the pure method of inductive science, accepted an practically sufficient and complete, though without asserting that it is necessarily exhaustive. Whatever lies beyond this circle is not only unknown, but incognizable and inapprehensible-not merely imperfect and uncertain, but impalpable and delusive.

It is impossible to give a sharp, precise, and formal definition of Positivism, because it is chiefly discriminated from other philosophical schemes by what it exfoliates, by its limitations rather than by its comprehension. One of the most eminent and earnest of living Positivists has within the late months given an explanation of the character of the doctrine, which it may be well to cite as an authoritative testimony:

"Suffice it that we mean by the positive method of thought (and we will now use the term in a sense not limited to the social construction of Comte) that method which would) base life and conduct, as well as knowledge, upon such evidence as call be referred to logical canons of proof, which would place all that occupies man in a homogeneous system of law. On the other hand, this method turns aside from hypotheses, not to be tested by any known logical canon familiar to science, whether the hypothesis claim support from intuition, aspiration, or general plausibility. And again, this method turns aside from ideal standards which avow themselves to be lawless, which profess to transcend the field of law. We say, life and conduct shall stand for us wholly on a basis of law, and must rest entirely in that region of science (not physical, hut moral and social science) where we are free to use our intelligence in the methods known to us as intelligible logic, methods which the intellect can analyze" (Frederic Harrison, The Soul and Future Life, in The Nineteenth Century, No. 4, June, 1877, art. 7, p. 624, 625).

Mr. Harrison's contemplation is here, as will be readily conjectured, directed specially to the ethical developments of Positivism; but such language so applied reveals the severity with which everything but the processes and products of scientific observation and logical conclusion is excluded from the arena of the Positivist. This accords perfectly with the determination of the dogmatic principle originally formulated in the Philosophie Positive (tome 1, p. 4, 5). "In fine, in the Positive state the human mind, recognizing the impossibility of attaining absolute notions, renounces the investigation of the origin and destination of the universe, and inquiry into the intrinsic causes of phenomena, and attaches itself instead solely to the discovery, by judicious combination of reasoning and observation, of their effective laws-that is, to the discovery of their invariable relations of succession and resemblance. The explication of facts thus reduced to its real terms is, thenceforward, nothing more than the connection established between the diverse phenomena and certain general facts whose number tends to be constantly diminished by the progress of science."

This procedure has long been regarded as alone appropriate in the domain of physical science, and as equally appropriate, within the limits of its applicability, in speculative science. It forms what is commonly regarded as the Baconian philosophy or the Baconian redintegration of philosophy. Positivism, however, both in the conception of the father of the system and in the doctrine and practice of his followers, extends its range so as to embrace and enclose all departments of knowledge and action, to profess itself the sole and exclusive method, and to stigmatize and repudiate whatever will not submit to its jurisdiction or remains beyond its reach. Indeed, in the elaboration of the system by Comte all its applications to the exact sciences were regarded as merely preliminary to social reconstruction, and to the establishment of a comprehensive and diversified ethical doctrine for public and private guidance. In this light it is still viewed by the existing school of Positivists, notwithstanding their rejection of much of the theological reverie of Comte.

It will readily be recognized that Positivism, as so understood, revives under strangely modernized aspects the old dogma of Protagoras that man is the measure of the universe. The ancient contrast and analogy of the macrocosm and the microcosm are reproduced in quaint disguise and more plausible form by limiting the intelligible uniterse (mundus intelligibilis) to its reflection from the mirror of the human mind so far, and so far only, as an image of it can be formed through the instrumentality of the bodily senses and of reasoning on the phenomena observed thereby. We will not be tempted into the easy misrepresentation of alleging that all is denied which is not so reflected, but the practical effect is nearly the same; for it is ignored, cashiered, and extruded from the field of speculation. Thus, the universe and all its marvels, the mind of man and its measureless potencies, the heart of man with its boundless duties, its multitudinous aspirations and its unfathomable mysteries, are shriveled up into the narrow dimensions of the science of the day. Surely we require a philosophy of the unknown as well as of the known!

"Vere scire est scire per caulsas," said Aristotle, and the schoolmen after him. The maxim was unquestionably pressed by the latter to hazardous uses, and employed to authenticate hallucinations which obstructed science for centuries. "Vere scire est scire apparentias" true knowledge is the knowledge of appearances-is the shibboleth of the Positivists, and is even more dangerous than the misapprehension which it has undertaken to dethrone. It results in pure phenomenalism, and renders man and the universe alike hollow, deceptive, and spectral. This tendency of Positivism, and the length to which it may be and has been carried, are well illustrated by the remarkable and exquisitely written article of Mr. Frederic Harrison on The Soul and Future Life, from which we have already made a citation, and by the very recent discussions provoked by it. Mr. Harrison, like his Coryphleus, will not endure "thoughts that wander through eternity," except it be a human eternity. He will not suffer them to travel "extra flammantia maenia mundi." He compresses those flaming walls to the limits of the earth's horizon. He does not deny the existence of the human soul: he only starves it out and dissipates it into a technical abstraction. "The combined activity of the human powers," he says, "organized around the highest of them we call the soul." Again, "the consensus of human laculties, which we call the soul, comprises all sides of human nature according to one homogeneous theory."

"She, mouldering with the dull earth's mouldering sod,

In wrapt tenfold in slothful shame,

Lay there, exiled from eternal God,

Lost to her place and name."

The future life is still more vacant, unreal, and inapprehensible than even the sublimated soul. It is indeed the shadow of a shade. Mr. Harrison does not give such distinct utterance to his conception of the post-mortem existence as to enable us to grasp it firmly. He employs phrases which indicate his acceptance of the Panhumanistic immortality, by absorption into the aggregate humanity of subsequent generations, if he refuses to adore with Comte le Nouveau Grand-Etre-the New Supreme God- humanity itself. But the abstract term-the unsubstantial and unessential conception of humanity-does not become a more real being-a more capable receptacle of souls or extinct consensuses of human lowers-by being stripped of the tawdry trappings and tinsel fringes with which Comte had decorated it, to set it up as an idol in place of Jehovah. Strange that the Positivists should reject as unphilosophlical and invalid all that religion teaches and our instincts accept as true, and should recur to such a factitious and fictitious abstraction as this humanity must be! Waiving the divine attributes of creation, ordination, and government, and regarding only the functions of the Divinity as a moral influence exerted over men-as "the rewarder of them that diligently seek him" it may well be asked what restraint or encouragement could a deified and posthumous humanity exercise retrospectively on the conduct of men in society or as individuals. The fancy is as futile as it is absurd. Roche Boyle's comic exclamation would recur to every transgressor " What has posterity done for us!"

It may be frankly conceded that the ideas of duty, of obligation, of justice, of temporal responsibility-perhaps even of right and wrong, of righteousness and sin, of beauty and of aesthetic emotion may be translated from the language of religious belief into the language of Positivism. Mr. Comte made a travesty of the rites and ceremonial of Catholic Christianity, and commended it to his devotees as the Positive religion. This invention has been abnegated, in form at least, by his followers, but it is a similar procedure by which Mr. Harrison and the rest profess and hope to retain the essential characteristics of a divine creed, after excluding from the universe all recognition of divinity. It is mistaking the shell for the organism, after the substance and life, which were enclosed by the shell, and which informed the shell, have perished out. We can see the very nice distinction demanded by Positivism between the absolute negation of the divine and the supernatural and the mere declaration of its incognizability, and of its consequent elimination from the domain of faith, as of knowledge. But the practical effect in both cases will be nearly the same. The discrimination is very refined and theoretical, and may be perfectly valid in abstract reasoning. But it is only the purest and most intellectual natures which can perceive it and act upon it, and even they will forget it or lose their hold upon it in moments of passion and temptation. It cannot be adequately apprehended by dull minds, coarse temperaments, and undisciplined characters, and will consequently be wholly inoperative where most required. The defect the fatal defect is the absence of any imperative and extrinsic authority to secure effective responsibility and obedience to right. The injury to humanity thus portended is very evident; the advantage to be anticipated is indiscernible.

This notice proceeds on the same plane with that adopted by the Positivists, and the discussion of their principles does not travel beyond the domain of the human understanding. The danger of Positivism springs from the same source as that whence have issued the dangers of so many kindred schemes of philosophy in our daily disposition to regard a partial truth as the complete body of truth to make one principle the sufficient explanation of all things, and to render human knowledge co-extensive with all knowledge and, practically, with all truth. The unknown must always transcend the known: it must remain higher in dignity and in influence, as well as ampler in all dimensions. The temper of the present day, however, is to humanize the universe to restrict all valid knowledge to purely scientific knowledge to cramp the realm of the apprehensible within the narrow mould of the demonstrable. Positivism is true in its place and in its degree, as evolution is true under the like limitations, but it is not all-comprehending. It does not include all truth, and is far from embracing all reality. Its error and its pernicious consequences arise from the attempt to make it all-sufficient and exclusive. As a method of science it is true and valuable in all the applications of physical science, and of ethical science too, so far as the latter can appropriately employ observation and induction. But beyond all this stretch the unfathomable spaces of the unknown, including that which is known only by its effects; and we cannot wisely or safely leave this vast enclosing sphere out of our contemplation, for it is the main regulator of our conduct, by constant appeal to our highest sensibilities. If the hypothesis of the astronomer be true, that there is a mighty central sun in the unsounded depths of heavenly space, round which our sun, with all its attendant planets, revolves in a regular but measureless orbit, it would be neither logical nor prudent to deny the existence of such a centre of attraction, because it remains, and may forever remain, unattainable by human sense. It seems even more illogical and indiscreet to repudiate a moral centre of the universe, attracting and governing all things, and radiating its influences over the whole physical and rational world, because it lies beyond the limits of scientific observation, and cannot be measured, analyzed, or determined by the firms of science.

The factitious blindness or willful shortsightedness of the Positive dogma is strangely illustrated by the history of the term Positive, and of the philosophy which it has been employed to designate. St. Thomas Aquinas (Summo. Theol. 2. 57) employs Positive in accordance with its juridical usage as opposed to Natural jus naturale et jus positivum." Accordingly, he uses it to denote that which is commanded, laid down, postulated, taken for granted; hence, arbitrary, not in the sense of willful or fantastic, but of determined as a condition precedent. "Illud dicitur esse positivum quod ex voluntate humana procedit," etc. This meaning is frequently given to it by others of the schoolmen, and is sufficiently accordant with its etymology and with its classical usage. "Est haec res posita, que ab adversario non negatur" (Cicero, Pro Coecin. 11). As in the scholastic reasoning the most absolutely determined principles-the starting-points of speculation-were the dogmas of revealed truth, the positions authoritatively determined by religion, the transition was natural to the acceptance of Positive in the sense of received as a command, established by faith, in contrast to that which was believed on sensible evidence or demonstration. Hence it is found with this signification, or with one closely analogous to it, in a remarkable passage of Bacon, which furnishes an apt censure for the Positive philosophy and for the misapplication of the term, though supplying a step in the direction of Positivism. "Nil enim philosophiam peraequo corrupit, ac illa inquisitio parentum Cupidinis: hoc est, quod philosophi principia rerum, quemadmodum in natura inveniuntur, non receperunt et amplexi sunt, nt doctrinam quandam positivam, et tamquam fide experimentali" (Patrmen. Teles. et Deomocr. Phil.).

There is here a coalescence and conciliation of both the earlier and the later meanings of the term a restriction of investigation within the range of human observation, but an acceptance by faith of the principles beyond it, which must regulate human conduct and human speculation alike.

In like manner, Kant, while denying to the understanding the possibility of reaching any positive (demonstrable) knowledge in regard to things purely intelligible ( Νούμενα ), asserts the determination of the moral law in a Positive (conclusive, assured) manner, through the faculty of intuition (Kritik Der Reinen Vernunft, 1, 1).

This employment of the term in both its applications, while the conclusion is contradictory to the speculations of the Positive school, acquires peculiar significance from the fact that the scheme of Positivism had been indicated and condemned by the sage of Knigsberg as a possible but mutilated and delusive project of philosophy. The originality of Comte lay simply in the narrowness and defectiveness of his principles, and in the hardihood and vigor with which they were applied by him in his Systeme de la Philosophie Positive. His exclusion of the largest and most important half of human knowledge and experience (undefined and often shadowy as that knowledge and that experience may be) constitutes the latent and deadly malady of Positivism, and is prefigured as such in the vaticinations of Kant.

But instead of referring to the numerous passages in the Critical Philosophy in which Positivism is anticipated and censured before its appearance, we may suitably close these remarks with a citation from a scientific writer, whom we may presume to have been Sir David Brewster:

"A third dogma, which has of late been placed in prominence, much, as we conceive, to the detriment of philosophy, is that of the so-called, or rather miscalled, positive philosophy an extravagant and morphological transformation of that rational empiricism which professes to take experience for its basis, resulting from insisting on the prerogatives of experience in reference to external phenomena, and ignoring them in relation to the movements and tendencies of our intellectual nature; a philosophy which, if it do not repudiate altogether the idea of causation, goes far at least to put it out of view, and with it everything which can be called explanation of natural phenomena, by the undue predominance assigned to the idea of law; which rejects, as not merely difficult, not simply hopeless, but as utterly absurd, unphilosophical, and derogatory, all attempt to render any rational account of those abstract, equation-like propositions, in which it delights to embody the results of experience, other than their inclusion in some more general proposition of the same kind. Entirely persuaded that in physics, at least, the inquiry into causes is philosophy, that nothing else is so, and that the cause of causation upwards is broken by no solution of continuity, constituting a gulf absolutely impassable to human faculties, if duly prepared by familiarity with previous links, we are far from regarding the whole office of experimental philosophy as satisfactorily expressed by declaring it to consist in the discovery and generalization of laws" (Edinb. Rev. Jan. 1548, art. 5, p. 180,151).

Literature. To the references given at the close of the article COMTE may now be added: Comte, System of Positive Polity, or Treatise upon Sociology, transl. by Bridges, Harrison, Beesly, Congreve, and Hutton (Lond. 1876, 4 vols. 8vo); Harrison, Order and Parogress (1 vol. 8vo); Congreve, Essays, Political, Social, and Religious (1 vol. 8vo); Estasen y Cortada, El Positivismo, Sistema de las Ciencias experimentales (Barcelona, 1877, 8vo); Cordier. Expose et Critique du Positivisme prolonge (Par. 1877, 8vo); Adrian, Essais sur quelques Points de la Philosophie positive; The Nineteenth Century, No. 4, June, 1877, art. 7; No. 5, July, 1877, art. 6 (The Soul and Future Life, by Frederic Harrison); ibid. No. 7, Sept. 1877, art. 11 (A Modern Symposium, by R. H. Hutton, Prof. Huxley, Lord Blachford, Hon. Robert Noel; subj. "The Future Life"); ibid. No. 8, Oct. 1877, art. 9 (A Modern Synmposium, by Lord Selborne, Rev. Canon Barry, W. R. Greg, Rev. Baldwin Brown, Dr. W. G. Ward, Frederic Harrison; subj. [concluded] "The Soul and Future Life"). (G. F. H.)

The Nuttall Encyclopedia [3]

The philosophy so called of Auguste Comte ( q. v .), the aim of which is to propound a new arrangement of the sciences and a new theory of the evolution of science; the sciences he classes under the categories of abstract and concrete, and his law of evolution is that every department of knowledge passes in the history of it through three successive stages, and only in the last of which it is entitled to the name of science—the Theological stage, in which everything is referred to the intervention of the gods; the Metaphysical, in which everything is referred to an abstract idea; and the Positive, which, discarding at once theology and philosophy, contents itself with the study of phenomena and their sequence, and regards that as science proper. Thus is positivism essentially definable, in Dr. Stirling's words, as "a method which replaces all outlying agencies, whether Theological deities or Metaphysical entities, by Positive laws; which laws, and in their phenomenal relativity, as alone what can be known, ought alone to constitute what is sought to be known." See Dr. Stirling's "Schwegler ."