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The Sociologists Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer

Earlier in the century, a Frenchman, Auguste Comte (1798-1857), advocated a philosophy that tied together everything that was knowable through the senses. Comte believed that history had passed through stages of religiosity and was coming into what he called the positivist stage, an age of science. Comte lumped together history and politics, biology and anything else that could be studied empirically into what he called sociology.

His sociology by observation included experimentation such as altering a segment of society to study its effects, and it consisted of comparative research such as animal societies compared to human society, and the comparison of different human societies. By using sociology, he believed, a new and stable society could be created on scientific principles.

It was an illusion. Science was about measuring, categorizing and seeing connections, but together these produced no blueprint for action that would be accepted widely enough to be politically effective. Sociology was an attempt at complete knowledge that would provide politicians with an excuse not to act, to ask instead for a study. A social reality not adequately considered by Comte was conflicting values. These values might be measured statistically, but the values themselves were not easily manipulated, nor value conflicts readily resolved.

Philosophical differences were not slow in developing among the sociologists. Those who followed Comte were less optimistic about their discipline producing the perfect society. Among them was a British philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), an avowed "agnostic." He had been an evolutionist before Darwin's publication of Origins of the Species but without an effective theory of natural selection. Spencer wrote of organisms developing from simple to more complex forms and spoke of this as progress. Spencer, not Darwin, coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," and Darwin, in later editions of his Origins of the Species employed Spencer's phrase.

Spencer believed that human behavior was primarily organized toward self-preservation. He recognized that people were social and acted together for mutual self-defense and remained tied together by a natural sympathy and concern for each other. Humans, he believed, had an innate sense of morality and had a compassion for their fellow humans that extended beyond the family unit. Spencer believed that men were political creatures. Like Aristotle he believed that societies functioned best when they allowed a degree of liberty to individuals. The only liberty that should be restricted, he held, was that which was necessary to preserve liberty in general.

Spencer's "survival of the fittest" fit well with the free-wheeling capitalism of his day. He believed in competition unfettered by government interference. He moved from societies surviving through empathy and cooperative self-defence to competition among individuals. Let the most able rise, he believed.

Some exceptional people were rising, and some fools were falling. Spencer spoke in opposition to any interference in economic matters by the state. He was anti-regulation. He was opposed to factory inspections. He opposed various labor laws or the state providing any kind of welfare. And the state, he believed, should not be involved in education. These views he saw as a product of his science, and he heaped scorn upon study that involved choice that included emotions and value judgments: the liberal arts. But contrary to Spencer's support for unfettered competition, people as a group were to make choices in the form of laws as to what was of benefit for the many against what was a criminal interest for a few.

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.