Herbert Marcuse
Reason & Revolution. Part II, The Rise of Social Theory

II The Foundations of Positivism and the Rise of Sociology

1. Positive and Negative Philosophy

IN the decade following Hegel’s death, European thought entered an era of ‘positivism’. This positivism announced itself as the system of positive philosophy, taking a form quite different from that which later positivism assumed. Comte’s Cours de philosophie positive was published between 1830 and 1842, Stahl’s positive philosophy of the state between 1830 and 1837, and Schelling began in 1841 his Berlin lectures on the positive Philosophie that he had been elaborating ever since 1827.

While there can be no doubt about Comte’s contribution to positivism (Comte himself derived the positivistic method from the foundations of positive philosophy), it may seem preposterous to relate Schelling’s and Stahl’s positive philosophy to that movement. Was Schelling not an exponent of metaphysics in its most transcendent form, and did Stahl not expound a religious theory of the state? True, Stahl is recognised as a representative of positivism in legal philosophy, but what has Schelling’s philosophy of mythology and revelation-which furnished some basic concepts for Stahl’s doctrine-to do with positivism?

We find, however, in Schelling’s Philosophie der Offenbarung the opinion that the traditional metaphysics, since it was occupied only with the notion of things and their pure essence, could not get at their actual existence and thus could not provide real knowledge. In contrast, Schelling’s philosophy aims at the truly actual and existent, and by that token claims to be ‘positive’. He raises the question whether the rationalistic metaphysics was not a purely ‘negative’ philosophy, and whether, following Kant’s destruction of this metaphysics, ‘the positive should not now organise itself, free and independent of the former, into a science of its own’. Moreover, in 1827, at the conclusion of his lectures on the history of modern philosophy, Schelling undertook to justify the emphasis laid upon experience by the British and French philosophers and defended this empiricism against its German foes. He went so far as to declare that, ‘if we had only a choice between empiricism and the oppressive apriorism [Denknotwendigkeiten] of an extreme rationalism, no free mind would hesitate to decide for empiricism’. He ended by stating that the great task German philosophy would have would be to overcome aprioristic metaphysics through a ‘positive system, which would finally transform philosophy into a true ‘science of experience’.

In its fundamental aspects, Schelling’s positive philosophy is certainly greatly different from Comte’s. The ‘positives,’ to Comte, are the matters of fact of observation, while Schelling stresses that ‘experience’ is not limited to the facts of outer and inner sense. Comte is oriented to physical science and to the necessary laws that govern all reality, while Schelling attempts to expound a ‘philosophy of freedom’ and maintains that free creative activity is the ultimate matter of fact of experience. Nevertheless, despite these essential differences, there is a common tendency in both philosophies to counter the sway of apriorism and to restore the authority of experience.

This common tendency might best be understood by considering what the new positive philosophy was directed against. Positive philosophy was a conscious reaction against the critical and destructive tendencies of French and German rationalism, a reaction that was particularly bitter in Germany. Because of its critical tendencies, the Hegelian system was designated as ‘negative philosophy’. Its contemporaries recognised that the principles Hegel enunciated in his philosophy led him ‘to a critique of everything that was hitherto held to be the objective truth’. His philosophy ‘negated’ – namely, it repudiated any irrational and unreasonable reality. The reaction saw a challenge to the existing order in Hegel’s attempt to measure reality according to the standards of autonomous reason. Negative philosophy, it was claimed, tries for the potentialities of things, but is incapable of knowing their reality. It stops short at their ‘logical forms’ and never reaches their actual content, which is not deducible from these forms. As a result, so the critique of Hegel ran, the negative philosophy can neither explain nor justify things as they are. This led to the most fundamental objection of all, that negative philosophy, because of its conceptual make-up, ‘negates’ things as they are. The matters of fact that make up the given state of affairs, when viewed in the light of reason, become negative, limited, transitory – they become perishing forms within a comprehensive process that leads beyond them. The Hegelian dialectic was seen as the prototype of all destructive negations of the given, for in it every immediately given form passes into its opposite and attains its true content only by so doing. This kind of philosophy, the critics said, denies to the given the dignity of the real; it contains ‘the principle of revolution’ (Stahl said). Hegel’s statement that the real is rational was understood to mean that only the rational is real.

Positive philosophy made its counter-attack against critical rationalism on two fronts. Comte fought against the French form of negative philosophy, against the heritage of Descartes and the Enlightenment. In Germany, the struggle was directed against Hegel’s system. Schelling received an express commission from Frederick William IV to destroy the ‘dragon seed’ of Hegelianism, while Stahl, another anti-Hegelian, became the philosophic spokesman of the Prussian monarchy in 1840. German political leaders clearly recognised that Hegel’s philosophy, far from justifying the state in the concrete shape it had taken, rather contained an instrument for its destruction. Within this situation, positive philosophy offered itself as the appropriate ideological saviour.

The history of post-Hegelian thought is characterised by this twofold thrust of positive philosophy, which we have just summarised. [In the following discussion, we shall disregard Schelling’s positive philosophy, since it had no relevance to the development of social thought and influenced the political philosophy only through the use which Stahl made of it.] Positive philosophy was supposed to overcome negative philosophy in its entirety, that is, to abolish any subordinating of reality to transcendental reason. Moreover, it was to teach men to view and study the phenomena of their world as neutral objects governed by universally valid laws. This tendency became particularly important in social and political philosophy. Hegel had considered society and the state to be the historical work of man and interpreted them under the aspect of freedom; in contrast, positive philosophy studied the social realities after the pattern of nature and under the aspect of objective necessity. The independence of matters of fact was to be preserved, and reasoning was to be directed to an acceptance of the given. In this way positive philosophy aimed to counteract the critical process involved in the philosophical ‘negating’ of the given, and to restore to facts the dignity of the positive.

This is the point at which the connection between positive philosophy and positivism (in the modern sense of the term) becomes clear. Their common feature, apart from their joint struggle against metaphysical apriorism, is the orientation of thought to matters of fact and the elevation of experience to the ultimate in knowledge.

The positivist method certainly destroyed many theological and metaphysical illusions and promoted the march of free thought, especially in the natural sciences. The positivistic attack on transcendent philosophy was reinforced through great strides in these sciences around the first half of the last century. Under the impact of the new scientific temper positivism could claim, as Comte put it, to be the philosophic integration of human knowledge; the integration was to come through the universal application of the scientific method and through excluding all objectives – that, in the last analysis, could not be verified by observation.

The positivistic opposition to the principle that the matters of fact of experience have to be justified before the court of reason, however, prevented the interpretation of these ‘data’ in terms of a comprehensive critique of the given itself. Such a criticism no longer had a place in science. In the end, positive philosophy facilitated the surrender of thought to everything that existed and manifested the power to persist in experience. Comte explicitly stated that the term ‘positive’ by which he designated his philosophy implied educating men to take a positive attitude towards the prevailing state of affairs. Positive philosophy was going to affirm the existing order against those who asserted the need for ‘negating’ it. We shall see that Comte and Stahl emphatically stressed this implication of their work. The political alms thus expressed link the positive philosophy with the doctrines of the French counter-revolution: Comte was influenced by De Maistre, Stahl by Burke.

Modern social theory got its greatest impetus from positivism during the nineteenth century. Sociology originated in this positivism and through its influence developed into an independent empirical science. Before we continue this line of analysis, however, we must briefly consider the trend in social theory exemplified by the so-called early French socialists, who had different roots from those of the positivists and who led in another direction, although, in their beginnings, they associated themselves with the positivist position.

The early French socialists found the decisive motives for their doctrines in the class conflicts which conditioned the after-history of the French Revolution. Industry made great strides, the first socialist stirrings were felt, the proletariat began to consolidate. The social and economic conditions that prevailed were seen by these thinkers to constitute the real basis of the historical process. Saint-Simon and Fourier focused their theoretical implements upon the totality of these conditions, thus making society, in the modern sense of the word, the object upon which their theory worked. Sismondi concluded that the economic antagonisms of capitalism were the structural laws of modern society; Proudhon saw society as a system of contradictions. A number of English writers, beginning in 1821, carried their analyses of capitalism so far that they saw the class struggles as the driving motor of social development.

All these doctrines aimed at a critique of the prevailing social forms, with the fundamental concepts serving as instruments for transforming and not for stabilising or justifying the given order.

Between the positivist and the critical streams, however, there lay a connecting link in the form of a systematic attempt to fuse the principle of class struggle with the idea of objective scientific sociology. Von Stein’s work, Geschichte der sozialen Bewegung in Frankreich von 1789 bis auf unsere Tage (1850) made this attempt. He conceived the social antagonisms in terms of the dialectic – the class struggle was the negative principle by which society proceeds from one historical form to another. Von Stein considered himself an orthodox Hegelian. Building on Hegel’s separation of state from society, he found that the actual content of historic progress was made up of changes in social structure and that the objective of the warring classes was to possess state power. But he interpreted these tendencies as general sociological laws, so that it was by virtue of some ‘natural’ mechanism that the class conflicts were supposed to lead to social order and to progress on ever higher levels. The force of the dialectic was thus neutralised and made part of a sociological system in which social antagonisms were just means for establishing social harmony. In the end, von Stein’s doctrine is not so far removed from the social theory of positive philosophy.

We shall begin our discussion of the development of post-Hegelian social thought with a brief sketch of the main trends in Saint-Simon’s work and in the critical social theory that developed in France. We shall then turn to an analysis of the two most influential writings of the positivist social school: Comte’s Sociology and Stahl’s Philosophy of Right, ending with von Stein’s study, which reconciles Hegel’s dialectical conceptions with the system of positive philosophy.

2. Saint-Simon

Saint-Simon, like Hegel, begins with the assertion that the social order engendered by the French Revolution proved that mankind had reached the adult stage. In contrast to Hegel, however, he described this stage primarily in terms of its economy; the industrial process was the sole integrating factor in the new social order. Like Hegel, again, Saint-Simon was convinced that this new order contains the reconciliation of the idea and reality. Human potentialities are no longer the concern of theory apart from practice; the content of theory has been transferred to a plane of rational activity carried on by individuals in direct association with one another. ‘Politics, morals, and philosophy, instead of terminating in leisurely contemplation detached from practice, have eventually arrived at their veritable occupation, namely, to create social happiness. In a word, they are ready to realise that liberty is no longer an abstraction, nor society a fiction’. The process of realising this is an economic one. The new era is that of industrialism, which brings with it a guarantee that it can fulfil all human potentialities. ‘Society as a whole is based on industry. Industry is the only guarantor of its existence, and the unique source of all wealth and prosperity. The state of affairs which is most favourable to industry is, therefore, most favourable to society. This is the starting point as well as the goal of all our efforts’. The progress of economic conditions necessitates that philosophy pass into social theory; and the social theory is none other than political economy or ‘the science of production’.

At first Saint-Simon contented himself with proclaiming the principles of radical liberalism. Individuals had been set free in order that they might work, while society was the natural integer that served their independent efforts into a harmonious whole. Government was an evil necessary to cope with the danger of anarchy and revolution that lurk behind the mechanisms of industrial capitalism. Saint-Simon began with a predominantly optimistic view of industrial society - the rapid progress of all productive forces, he thought, would soon blot out the growing antagonisms and the revolutionary upheavals within this social system. The new industrial order was above all a positive one, representing the affirmation and fruition of all human endeavour for a happy and abundant life. It was not necessary to go beyond the given; philosophy and social theory needed but to understand and organise the facts. Truth was to be derived from the facts and from them alone. Saint-Simon thus became the founder of modern positivism.

Social theory, Saint-Simon held, would use ‘the same method that is employed in the other sciences of observation. In other words, reasoning must be based upon the facts observed and discussed, instead of following the method adopted by the speculative sciences, which refer all facts to reasoning’. Astronomy, physics, and chemistry had already been established on this ‘positive basis’; the time had now come for philosophy to join these special sciences and make itself entirely positive.

Saint-Simon promulgated this positivism as the ultimate principle of his philosophy: ‘In all portions of my work, I shall be occupied with establishing series of facts, for I am convinced that this is the only solid part of our knowledge’. Theology and metaphysics, and, moreover, all transcendental concepts and values were to be tested by the positivistic method of exact science. ‘Once all our knowledge is uniformly founded on observations, the direction of our spiritual affairs must be entrusted to the power of positive science’.

The ‘science of man,’ another name for social theory, thus was launched on the pattern of a natural science; it had to be impressed with a positive character, by founding it on observation and by treating it with the method ‘employed by the other branches [!] of physics’. Society was to be treated like nature. This attitude involved the sharpest deviation from and opposition to Hegel’s philosophic theory. The interest of freedom was removed from the sphere of the individual’s rational will and set in the objective laws of the social and economic process. Marx considered society to be irrational and hence evil, so long as it continued to be governed by inexorable objective laws. Progress to him was equivalent to upsetting these laws, an act that was to be consummated by man in his free development. The positivist theory of society followed the opposite tendency: the laws of society increasingly received the form of natural objective laws. ‘Men are mere instruments’ before the omnipotent law of progress, incapable of changing or charting its course. The deification of progress into an independent natural law was completed in Comte’s positive philosophy.

Saint-Simon’s own work did contain elements that ran counter to the tendencies of industrial capitalism. According to him, the progress of the industrial system presupposed that the struggle between classes was first transformed and diverted into a struggle against nature, in which all the social classes joined. The form of government he envisaged was not one in which rulers command their subjects, but one in which the government exercises a technical administration over the work to be done. We might say that Saint-Simon’s philosophy developed in just the reverse way to Hegel’s. It began with the reconciliation of idea and reality and ended by viewing them as irreconcilable.

Economic crises and class struggles intensified in France as the revolution of 1830 approached. By 1826 it was evident that the nation and the monarchy were moving in opposite directions; the monarch was preparing to establish a despotism while the nation was drifting toward revolution. The lectures that Saint-Simon’s pupil, Bazard, gave in these years on his master’s doctrine turned it into a radical critique of the existing social order.

Bazard’s presentation holds to the basic assumption that philosophy must be made identical with social theory, that society is conditioned by the structure of its economic process, and that rational social practice alone will eventually produce a genuine social form oriented to human needs. The given form of society is no longer adequate to progress and harmony as far as Bazard is concerned. He stigmatises the industrial system as one of exploitation, as the last but by far not the least example of the exploitation of man by man, which has run the gamut of civilisation’s history. In all its relations, the industrial system is moulded by the inevitable struggle between the proletariat on the one hand and the owners of the instruments and machinery of production on the other.

The whole mass of workers is today exploited by those whose property it utilises ... The entire weight of this exploitation falls upon the working class, that is, upon the immense majority who are workers. Under such conditions, the worker has become the direct descendant of the slave and the serf. He is, as a person, free, and no longer attached to the soil, but this is all the freedom he has got. He can exist in his state of legal freedom only under the conditions imposed upon him by that small class which a legislation born of the right to conquest has invested with the monopoly of wealth, with the power to command the instruments of labor at will and at leisure. [Doctrine Saint-Simonienne, 1854]

Saint-Simon’s positivism was thus turned into its opposite. Its original conclusions had glorified liberalism, but it now knew that the system underlying this liberalism holds within it the seed of its own destruction. Bazard showed, as Sismondi had before him, that the accumulation of wealth and the spread of poverty, with their attendant crises and growing exploitations, follow from the economic organisation in which ‘the capitalists and proprietors’ are the ores to arrange the social distribution of labor. ‘Every individual is left to his own devices’ in the process of production, and no common interest or collective effort exists to combine and administer the multitude of works. When ‘the instruments of labor are utilised by isolated individuals’ subject to the rule of chance and the fact of power, industrial crises are made inevitable. The social order, then, Bazard said, has become general disorder ‘as a result of the principle of unlimited competition’. Progressive ideas like the ones with which capitalist society justified its social scheme at the beginning, ideas of general freedom and of the pursuit of happiness within a rational scheme of life, can reach fruition only with a new revolution ‘that will finally do away with the exploitation of man by man in all its insidious forms. That revolution is inevitable, and until it is consummated all the glowing phrases so oft repeated about the light of civilisation and the glory of the century will remain mere language for the convenience of privileged egoists’. The institution of private property will have to come to an end, for if exploitation is to disappear the scheme of property by which exploitation is perpetuated must also disappear.

The Doctrine Saint-Simonienne reflects the social upheavals caused by the progress of industrialism under the Restoration. During this period, machines were introduced on an ever larger scale (especially in the textile mills), and industry began to concentrate. However, France experienced not only the industrial and commercial growth which Saint-Simon’s early writings extol, but the reverse of this as well. Costly crises shook the entire system in 1816-17 and in 1825-7. Workers banded together to destroy the machines that caused them so much misery and unemployment. ...

Sismondi repudiated the philosophy of progress together with the entire panoply of optimistic glorification. He called upon the state to exert its protective authority in the interest of the oppressed mass. ‘The fundamental dogma of free and general competition has made great strides in all civilised societies. It has resulted in a prodigious development of industrial power, but it has also brought terrifying distress for most classes of the population. Experience has taught us the need for the protective authority [of government], needed lest men be sacrificed for the advancement of a wealth from which they will derive no benefit’.

Only a short decade after the publication of Sismondi’s work, social philosophy fell back upon the dogma of progress, and, characteristically enough, relinquished political economy as foundational for social theory. Comte’s positive philosophy ushered in this regress. We shall deal with it now.

3. The Positive Philosophy of Society: Auguste Comte

Comte severed social theory from its connection with the negative philosophy and placed it in the orbit of positivism. At the same time he abandoned political economy as the root of social theory and made society the object of an independent science of sociology. Both steps are interconnected: sociology became a science by renouncing the transcendent point of view of the philosophical critique. Society now was taken as a more or less definite complex of facts governed by more or less general laws - a sphere to be treated like any other field of scientific investigation. The concepts that explain this realm were to be derived from the facts that constitute it, while the farther-reaching implications of philosophical concepts were to be excluded. The term ‘positive’ was a polemical term that denoted this transformation from a philosophic theory to a scientific one. To be sure, Comte wished to elaborate an all-embracing philosophy, as the title of his principal work indicates, but it is readily visible that, in the context of positivism, philosophy means something quite different from what it meant previously, so much so that it repudiates the true content of philosophy. ‘Philosophie positive’ is, in the last analysis, a contradiction in adjecto. It refers to the synthesis of all empirical knowledge ordered into a system of harmonious progress following an inexorable course. All opposition to social realities is obliterated from philosophic discussion.

Comte summarises the contrast between the positivist and the philosophic theory as follows: positive sociology is to concern itself with the investigation of facts instead of with transcendental illusions, with useful knowledge instead of leisured contemplation, certainty instead of doubt and indecision, organisation instead of negation and destruction. In all these cases, the new sociology is to tie itself to the facts of the existing social order and, though it will not reject the need for correction and improvement, it will exclude any move to overthrow or negate that order. As a result, the conceptual interest of the positive sociology is to be apologetic and justificatory.

This has not been true of all positivist movements. At the beginning of modern philosophy, and again in the eighteenth century, positivism was militant and revolutionary. Its appeal to the facts then amounted to a direct attack on the religious and metaphysical conceptions that were the ideological support of the ancien régime. The positivist approach to history was developed then as proof positive that the right of man to alter the social and political forms of life accorded with the nature and progress of reason. ...

Further reading:

Philosophy of Right, Hegel, 1821
Historical Fate of Hegel’s Doctrine, Andy Blunden
Political community and individual freedom in Hegel’s philosophy of state, Pelczynski, 1984
Hegel & Modern Society , Avineri