1902 Encyclopedia > Political Economy (Economics) > Political Economy - The Historical School - Introduction; Auguste Comte

Political Economy
(Part 13)



The negative movement which filled the 18th century has for its watchword on the economic side of the liberation of industrial effort from both the feudal survivals and government fetters. But in the aspects of that movement, the economic as well as the rest, the process of demolition was historically only the necessary preliminary condition of a total renovation, towards which western Europe was energetically tending, though with but an indistinct conception of its precise nature. The disorganization of the body of opinion which underlay the old system outran the progress towards the establishment of new principles adequate to form a guidance in the future. The critical philosophy which had wrought the disorganization could only repeat its formulas of absolute liberty, but it was powerless for reconstruction. And hence there was seen throughout the West, after the French explosions, the remarkable spectacle of a continuous oscillation between the tendency to recur to outworn ideas and a vague impulse often taking an anarchical character.

From this state of oscillation, which has given to our century its equivocal and transitional aspect, the only possible issue was in the foundation of a scientific social doctrine which should supply a basis for the gradual convergence of opinion on human questions. The foundation of such a doctrine is the immortal service for which the world is indebted to Auguste Comte.

Auguste Comte

The leading features of sociology, as he conceived it, are the following : - (1) it is essential one science, in which all elements of a social state are studied in their relations and mutual actions ; (2) it includes a dynamical as well as a statical theory of society ; (3) it thus eliminates the absolute, substituting for an imagined fixity the conception of ordered change ; (4) its principal method, though others are not excluded, is that of historical comparison ; (5) it is pervaded by moral ideas, by notions of social duty, as opposed to the individual rights which were derived as corollaries from the jus natur_ ; and (6) in its spirit and practical consequences it tends to the realization of all the great ends which compose "the popular cause" ; yet (7) its aims at this through peaceful means, replacing revolution by evolution. The several characteristics we have enumerated are not independent ; they may be shown to be vitally connected with each other. Several of these features must now be more fully described ; the others will meet us before the close of the present survey.

In the masterly exposition of sociological method which is contained in the fourth volume of the Philosophie Positive (1839), Comte marks out the broad division between social statics and social dynamics – the former studying the laws of social coexistence, the latter those of social development. The fundamental principle of the former is the general consensus between the several social organs and functions, which, without unduly pressing a useful analogy, we may regard as resembling that which exist between the several organs and functions of an animal body. The study of dynamical is different from, and necessarily subordinated to, that of statical sociology, progress being in fact the development of order, just as the study of evolution in biology is different from, and subordinated to, that of the structures and functions which are exhibited by evolution as they exist at the several points of an ascending scale. The laws of social co-existence and movement are as much subjects for observation as the corresponding phenomena in the life of individual organism. For the study of development in particular, a modification of the comparative method familiar to biologist will be the appropriate mode of research. The several successive stages of society will have to systematically compared, in order to discover their laws of sequence, and to determine the filiation of their characteristic features.

Though we must take care that both in our statical and dynamical studies we do not ignore or contradict the fundamental properties of human nature, the project of deducing either species of laws from those properties independently of direct observation is one which cannot be realized. Neither the general structure of human society not the march of its development could be so pre cal laws, because, in the passage of society from one phase influence of past generations, which is much too complex to be investigated deductively—a conclusion which it is important to keep steadily before us now that some of the (so-called) anthropologists are seeking to make the science of society a mere annex and derivative of biology. The principles of biology unquestionably lie at t he foundation of the social science, but the latter has, and must always have, a field of research and a method of inquiry peculiar to itself. The field is history in the largest sense, including contemporary fact ; and the principal, though not exclusive, method is, as we have said, that process of sociological comparison which is most conveniently called the historical method.

These general principles affect the economic no less than other branches of social speculation ; and with respect to that department of inquiry they lead to important results. They show that the idea of forming a true theory of the economic frame and working of society apart from its other sides is illusory. Such study is indeed provisionally indispensable, but no rational theory of the economic organs and functions of society can be constructed if they are considered as isolated from the rest. In other words, a separate economic science is, strictly speaking, an impossibility, as representing only one portion of a complex organism, all whose parts and their actions are in a constant relation of correspondence and reciprocal modification. Hence, too, it will follow that, whatever, useful indications may be derived from our general knowledge of individual human nature, the economic structure of society and its mode of development cannot be deductively foreseen, but must be ascertained by direct historical investigation. We have said "its mode of development" ; for it is obvious that, as of every social element, so of the economic factor in human affairs, there must be a dynamical doctrine, a theory of the successive phases of the economic condition of society ; yet in the accepted systems this was a desideratum, nothing but some partial and fragmentary notions on this whole side of the subject being yet extant. And, further, the economic structure and working of one historic stage being different from those of another, we must abandon the idea of an absolute system possessing universal validity, and substitute that of a series of such systems, in which, however, the succession is not at all arbitrary, but is itself regulated by law.

Though Comte’s enterprise was a constructive one, his aim being the foundation of a scientific theory of society, he could not avoid criticizing the labours of those who before him had treated several branches of social inquiry. Amongst them the economists were necessarily considered ; and he urged or implied, in various places of his above named work as well as of his Politique Positive, objections to their general ideas and methods of procedure essentially the same with those which we stated in speaking of Ricardo and his followers. J. S. Mill shows himself much irritated by these comments, and remarks on them as showing "how extremely superficial M.Comte" (whom he yet regards as a thinker quite comparable with Descartes and Leibnitz) "could sometimes be,"—an unfortunate observation, which he would scarcely have made if he could have foreseen the subsequent march of European thought, and the large degree in which the main points of Comte’s criticism have been accepted or independently reproduced.


FOOTNOTE (p. 390)

1 He had already in 1822 state his fundamental principles in an opuscule which is reproduced in the Appendix to his Politique Positive.

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