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Comte's Excesses

Comte wanted to call the new positivistic science of humanity ‘‘social physiology,’’ but Saint-Simon had used that term. Comte tried out the term ‘‘social physics,’’ but apparently dropped it when he found that Quetelet was using it, too. The term ‘‘sociology’’ became somewhat controversial; language puritans tried for a time to expunge it from the literature on the grounds that it was a bastardization—a mixture of both Latin (socie- tas) and Greek (logo) roots. Despite the dispute over the name, Comte’s vision of a scientific discipline that both focused on and served society found wide support.

Unfortunately, Comte, like Saint-Simon, had more in mind than just the pursuit of knowledge for the betterment of humankind. Comte envisioned a class of philosophers who, with support from the state, would direct all education. They would advise the government, which would be composed of capitalists ‘‘whose dignity and authority,’’ explained John Stuart Mill, ‘‘are to be in the ratio of the degree of generality of their conceptions and operations—bankers at the summit, merchants next, then manufacturers, and agriculturalists at the bottom’’ (1866:122).

It got worse. Comte proposed his own religion; condemned the study of planets that were not visible to the naked eye; and advocated burning most books except for a hundred or so of the ones that people needed to become best educated. ‘‘As his thoughts grew more extravagant,’’ Mill tells us, Comte’s ‘‘self-confidence grew more outrageous. The height it ultimately attained,’’ Mill continued, ‘‘must be seen, in his writings, to be believed’’ (p. 130).

Comte attracted a coterie of admirers who wanted to implement the master’s plans. Mercifully, they are gone (we hope), but for many scholars, the word “positivism” still carries the taint of Comte’s outrageous ego.

 
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