Thursday, 16 September 2010

The dead govern the living

Two quotes from Auguste Comte. "The dead govern the living" and "A science is not completely known as long as one does not know its history"

Comte, often described as the father of sociology - a quantitative approach to the study of human beings, as he would have it -  introduced into the new subject of social science the concept that all bodies of knowledge evolved.  Though he died two years before the publication of Darwin's great work, the concept of a kind of progressive evolution - for example as expressed in the works of Lamarck  and Hegel
- was in the intellectual atmosphere. An interesting side note: Hegel was a major participant at that moment in history in applying the idea of the arrow of progress to the world of ideas.  But his own contemporary inspiration for this  (ignoring the undoubted influence of the Greek philosophers for a moment) lay in the work of Christian mystic Jacok Bohme.  The 25 year old Bohme, a cobbler by trade, became transfixed by the beauty of a beam of sunlight shining on a dish and experienced an intense mystical experience which he 'Christianised'.  As a Christian thinker, after meditating on the story of Adam and Eve - the splitting of one into two and the likewise fracturing of good and bad behaviour - and the separation of Lucifer from heaven - Bohem proposed that man himself was destined to experience a separation from God before evolving to new, higher state of unity with God.  God  himself desired this kind of separation and unification as a means to reach full self-awareness.  This idea had its origin in Plato's concept of the soul mate. In a sense, the classic Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis operation of progress is a de-mystified version of an ancient creation myth.  No doubt Comte would have approved with this move.  The idea that God enacts this force in the universe in order to reach a kind of self-realisation has itself resurfaced in a de-mystified form in modern science.  I'm thinking here of the digital philosophy movement, including Wolfram, Chaitin and Fredkin.

Comte thought he'd found the three stages of all forms of scientific endeavours.  He applied the idea of progressive evolution to the world of ideas.  The first stage: in the absence of an effective and disciplined epistemology, indeed in the absence of the possibility of questioning received ways of doing things, we accept the pre-existing body of practical knowledge.  He called this the theological stage (and by it, he meant pre-Enlightenment, though we might jokingly call it the antediluvian approach), though perhaps the structures of power embodied in religion were only the most obvious (and most relevant) ones  to him and his time.  But he would have accepted any structure of power which oppressed the search for knowledge (totalitarianism, cultural strictures).  As each proto-sceince matured,
a questioning, metaphysical stage emerged.- participants began to raise questions about received practice, but they lacked  the mechanisms of a formal science in place to best answer them.  Finally, the freedom to ask questions, no matter where they may lead, together with the institutions and practices of a science resulted in the positive approach to our accumulation of knowledge.  This  positivist and mathematical bent has been with the subject of modern economics ever since.  The intellectual lineage is direct, since Mill was a close intellectual acquaintance of Comte, and of course a student of Bentham, while Mill senior was a close friend of Ricardo.

Since that time, this foundation myth of modern philosophy of science has experienced its own Boehmian degeneration, first through Kuhn (in a sense the Darwin to Comte's Lamarck - i.e. evolution without as dominant a focus on monotonic evolutionary progress) and downward to Feyerabend (epistemological anarchism and no promise of progress at all).  The quote about the dead governing the living has two subtle meanings for me.  One is a point Jonathan Aldred makes concerning the moral justification of the current population imposing higher costs on future generations (a point I'm sure I will return to in another post).  The second sense is the same sense that Keynes meant in his famous quote about economists: "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist"  Perhaps it isn't too far a stretch to imagine that Keynes's quotation is itself an example of the dead (Comte) governing the living (Keynes, at the time he wrote it).  As with science, so too with philosophy - an idea is not completely known unless you know its history.


  1. I appreciate Comte's perspective on the history of an idea. I agree wholeheartedly.

    However, I disagree that something in science can be "completely known." First, we can't "completely" accurately predict advances in knowledge. For example, in my field of cancer research, it's well known that tumors are a result of cancerous cells, requiring vascularization for growth etc. The community has just recently learned/verified that tumors often contain a group of Cancer Stem Cells (CSC) that may be particularly responsible for metastasis (one of cancer's greatest dangers). Was this advance expected? Some astute researchers aware of stem cells and cancer may have made the connection earlier, but what about before categories like stem cells? Ideas in science, in practice, are inherently delimited by their potential, almost inevitable, growth.

    Second, the imperfections of knowing "complete" history. In the cancer case- which researchers made the connection, where did they record it, how thoroughly was it explored? These are the forefathers of an important field of study, and for that I'm grateful to Comte for bringing historical knowledge to bear.

    But in science at least, no idea can be completely known. Maybe in self-contained fields like math/logic?

    Anyways, it sounds like you studied Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at Oxford. Did I guess correctly?

  2. One thing is definitely clear. My exposition could use a little brushing up.

    I don't really think you believe that something is "completely knowable." Do you?

  3. I certainly don't think we reach 'complete knowability'. And regarding Comte, see also this other post I made which you might find interesting :

    But please also have a read of this posting of mine, where I come to some kind of a conclusion on the very subject you raised:

    Thanks for stopping by!