Contra Comte

In Aspects of Sociology, a primer in social theory released by the Institute for Social Research (often referred to as the Frankfurt School), Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer explain the bastard etymology of the term “sociology” and its origin in the positive philosophy of Auguste Comte:

The word “sociology” — science of society — is a malformation, half Latin, half Greek. The arbitrariness and artificiality of the term point to the recent character of the discipline. It cannot be found as a separate discipline within the traditional edifice of science. The term itself was originated by Auguste Comte, who is generally regarded as the founder of sociology. His main sociological work, Cours de philosophie positive, appeared in 1830-1842.The word “positive” puts precisely that stress which sociology, as a science in the specific sense, has borne ever since. It is a child of positivism, which has made it its aim to free knowledge from religious belief and metaphysical speculation. By keeping rigorously to the facts, it was hoped that on the model of the natural sciences, mathematical on the one hand, empirical on the other, objectivity could be attained. According to Comte, the doctrine of society had lagged far behind this ideal. He sought to raise it to a scientific level. Sociology was to fulfill and to realize what philosophy had striven for from its earliest origins. (Aspects of Sociology, pg. 1)

Somewhere I remember hearing the quip that the term “sociology” was such an ugly combination that only a Frenchman could have concocted it. Not sure who was supposed to have said it, or if it factually took place, but there seems to be a ring of truth to the assertion. Anyway, Adorno points out in his lecture course Introduction to Sociology that “Marx had a violent aversion to the word ‘sociology,’ an aversion that may have been connected to his very justified distaste for Auguste Comte, on whom he pronounced the most annihilating judgment” (Introduction to Sociology, pg. 143).

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, an enduring influence on Marx and classical Marxism

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, an enduring
influence on Marx and classical Marxism

For some time since I first read this remark years ago I’d been wondering where Marx made this pronouncement, and what the gist of it was. Yesterday I finally discovered its source, from a letter Marx wrote to Engels in 1866:

I am studying Comte on the side just now, as the English and French are making such a fuss of the fellow. What seduces them about him is his encyclopedic quality, la synthèse. But this is pitiful when compared with Hegel (although Comte is superior to him as a mathematician and physicist by profession, i.e., superior in the detail, though even here Hegel is infinitely greater as a whole). And this shitty positivism came out in 1832!

Marx to Engels in Manchester, July 7 1866.
First published in Der Briefwechsel zwischen
F. Engels und K. Marx, Bd. 3, Stuttgart, 1913.
Collected Writings, Volume 42. Pg. 291.

Don’t know how I missed it, all these years. Adorno even says at one point that Herbert Spencer’s sociology is more worth studying than Comte’s, and that Durkheim’s sociology in fact owed more to Spencer than his mentor Comte. Both were positivists, as Adorno mentions, though Spencer paid more attention to social dynamics. Splitting hairs over their differences is somewhat pointless, however, as Lenin wrote in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism that “to drag in the names of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer is again absurd, for Marxism rejects not what distinguishes one positivist from another, but what is common to both and what makes a philosopher a positivist instead of a materialist.”

2 thoughts on “Contra Comte

  1. Pingback: Does "contra Comte" mean "rebellious philosopher"?

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