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). Continue reading

Dawn and decline: Two eschatological visions in turn-of-the-century Russia

IMAGE: 19th-century Russian
premonitions of a new “Mongolism”


“People who witness the beginning of great and momentous events, who can obtain only very incomplete, inexact, and third-hand information of what is taking place, will not, of course, hazard a definite opinion until a timelier moment comes.  The bourgeois papers, which continue as of old to speak of revolt, rioting, and disturbances, cannot help seeing the truly national, nay, international, significance of these events.  Yet it is this significance which invests events with the character of revolution.  And those who have been writing of the last days of the rioting find themselves involuntarily referring to them as the first days of the revolution.  A turning-point in Russia’s history has been reached.”

Lenin, “What is Happening in Russia?” From Revolutionary Days, January 1905

It has often been noted by historians of the period that a distinctly apocalyptic mood prevailed throughout large sections of the Russian intelligentsia from the last decade of the nineteenth century up through the 1917 Revolution.  Even ideological tendencies that lay in great tension with one another (if not in direct antithesis) found a common outlook in this respect.  This observation certainly finds support in the writings of the major representatives of these movements.  Intellectual currents as far apart as Marxist materialism and religio-philosophical idealism at this time both shared the sense that one age was coming to an end and another was now appearing on the horizon.  This common understanding served as the lens through which the major events of the day were interpreted, events which in turn then helped to modify the structure of these discourses.

In a strange way, many parallels existed between these two major schools of thought, Marxist materialism and religio-philosophical idealism.  These movements, which stood in starker contrast to one another than perhaps any other pair to be found amongst the Russian intelligentsia, possessed a number of similar concerns.  Each struggled to ascertain Russia’s national character, and thus grappled with questions of the country’s unique historical development and its possible role in shaping world history.  Radical political theorists like Lenin and Trotskii and religious philosophers like Vladimir Solov’ev and Sergei Bulgakov were both interested in Russia’s relation to European modernity and to its own barbaric, “Asiatic” past.  Moreover, members from these rival camps each held that Russia was to play an important part in an impending world crisis — either as the savior of European civilization from its own spiritual degeneracy or as a gateway through which revolution would spread to the most advanced industrial nations of the West.

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