Saturday, 6 November 2010

Earnest Comtian eschatology loses against ironic Rortian contingency

When I first started studying Comte, I was under the impression that his later writings were not worth bothering about, and that his earlier writings more or less set the modern conception of the evolutions of the  various sciences.  Now that I've come back to his work I've found out that his conception of science was  dangerously final and his later writing contains some important (mainly negative) lessons for the way we approach modelling human phenomena. It is clear to me now that even from the very beginning he saw a definite end shape to the brief evolution of the sciences, and this final state was influenced by an essentially religious or metaphysical belief in the existence of such an end point.  In fact, you could even call it positive, so weakened has that term become to me now.

First let me sketch a picture of how Comte behaved during this period - this description largely through Mill's useful little book on Comte's two intellectual periods.   Comte had stopped reading newspapers, periodicals, and books, with the exception of a couple of favourite poems.  This you might expect from a rigorous systematiser who thought he'd found his own final vocabulary, to use a Rortian phrase.  This he did to achieve 'cerebral hygiene' - contrast this to Rorty's untrammelled love of the writings of others.  Cutting yourself off like that allows you to become the deluded master of your own model; it allows you to follow your systematising designs to their ridiculous limit.  The object of his later religion was a sense of duty towards the abstract concept of the human race.  In this sense he shares with Rorty the belief in the desirability of solidarity.  This concept of the human race certainly includes all our ancestors, descendants.  I'm reminded of one of the phrases he's famous for: "the dead govern the living" and how he really means it - especially in the final state of humanity - since most of our ways of seeing the world will have been discovered by thinkers of the past and these final conceptions will and should govern all of humanity for ever.  What a horrible thought - much more open is the Keynesian twist to the idea, pointing out that in the realm of economics and politics, often there's a long-dead thinker determining our approach, even if we delude ourselves into thinking we're practical men.  There's more of a sense that this influence should be discovered and overcome in Keynes than with Comte.  And that's a better attitude to have.