POSITIVISM AND THE POSITIVISTS

Auguste Comte

Auguste Comte (1798-1856) was a French philosopher who is sometimes considered to be the founder of modern sociology. Born during the French Revolution, he grew up in a world which was dramatically transformed by the political and industrial transformations that changed the face of Western Europe. Caught somewhere between his desire to preserve a lasting order and his recognition that the Old Regime could never be restored, Comte elaborated a political philosophy designed to simultaneously promote order and progress and announced the development of a new Religion of Humanity to provide an emotional and spiritual foundation for his philosophy. To promote order and progress, Comte posited the need to subordinate the individual to society and the desirability of only very gradual social change. He believed that political problems should be subject to the same procedures scientists used to resolve scientific questions, that is, that politics, should be in the hands of experts and technicians who could form expert opinions and thereby mediate between people and their rulers. In other words, he wanted to create a technical elite of political experts, who were above politics, hence, above the blind desires of "the public."

Although Comte's ideas influenced progressive conservatives in Europe, his ideas were much more important in Latin America. Brazil, alone, formed one of the most important Positivist Churches. To some extent, Positivism played a more progressive role in Latin America than it did in Europe because those who embraced it believed in bringing the most important manifestations of technical progress--railroads and industrialization--to their counties. Brazilian elites studied French and visited Paris and came to admire everything which was French. By the end of the Nineteenth Century these elites wanted to import or copy everything they associated with France. At this time, Positivism became particularly important in Brazil's technical schools and military academies, where many middle class children studied. Comte's emphasis on progress through gradual change appealed to a new elite who saw in Positivism a way of incorporating themselves into the national elite without threatening the social order upon which the old elite depended. They were attracted by the idea of using military and government officials to plan economic development for progress and industrialization. They believed that by expanding economic opportunities and education, they could incorporate the disenfranchised into society without the necessity of widespread social or political change. They saw in Positivism the posibility of ending foreign economic domination and colonialism in Brazil.

The Positivists superficially regarded women as superior to men, but it is necessary to deconstruct their argument to demonstrate the masculinist nature of their thinking. As Joan Landes has shown, Comte praised "women as the vehicles of feeling over reason, morality over politics." But his praise came from his insistence that the public sphere of political action be controlled by male social engineers and scientific experts, whereas women's ability to speak abstractly for humanity came from their almost complete exclusion from the public world of politics, where they might have spoken for themselves individually. Indeed, Positivism was perhaps attractive to many Latin American men because it asserted the significance of a very patriarchal structure of society as the source of order. Not only did this patriarchy involve the primacy of men over women, but of fathers over children and of bosses over their workers and slaves. In short, unlike the promises made in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, Comte dispensed with liberal individualism and claims for universal rights, for he saw no need for such rights in the positivist order. As Comte argued, "The most important object of this regenerated politity will be the substitution of Duties for Rights, thus subordinating personal to social considerations." He wanted to exclude the word Right from political language. For him, "Rights . . . are possible only so long as power is considered as emanating from a superhuman will. In their opposition to these theocratic rights, the metaphysicians of the last centuries introduced what they called the rights of man; a conception the value of which consisted simply in its destructive effects." As Comte argued, both men and women had duties not rights, but women had the greatest duty of all, to complement men's moral education and keep alive the flame of sentimental love.

Clotilde de VauxOften drawing on his own love for Clothilde de Vaux, Comte worshipped women, not so much because of any capacities that they had but as a romantic and sentimentalized ideal. Only by keeping women economically dependent upon men could women be free of the base instincts that led men to compete with each other for meager material benefits. Yet by protecting women from the vaguries of daily struggles, they could achieve the greatest rewards civilization could bestow. As Comte wrote, woman "merits always our loving veneration, as the purest and simplest impersonation of Humanity, who can never be adequately represented in any masculine form." It was precisely for this reason that when the Brazilian Republic was proclaimed, men tried to represent it as a woman.


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