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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 consisted of observation and it consisted of experimentation such as altering a segment of society to study its effects. Also it consisted of comparative research, such as animal societies compared to human society and comparing different human societies around the globe. 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. And together these did not tell people definitively what should be done about it. Comte's sociology produced no blueprint for action that would be accepted widely enough to be politically effective. A sociological reality not adequately considered by Comte was conflicting values. These values might be measured statistically, but they could not be manipulated. Marxists in power and believing in scientific socialism would try, but with something less than absolute success. The scientific socialists would themselves disagree about what was to be done and make a bloody mess of their conflict with each other. Science was one thing; values another.

Philosophical differences were not slow in developing among sociologists themselves. 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 assumed that societies had formed by individuals coming together for mutual self-defense and that they remained tied together by a natural sympathy and concern for each other. Humans, he believed, had an innate sense of morality and had developed a compassion for their fellow humans that extended beyond the family unit. Spencer believed that men were political creatures, that no man was an island. 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 belief in the fittest fit well with the free-wheeling capitalism of his day. He is said to have delayed factory inspections, and he opposed various labor laws. The state, he believed, should not be involved in education, religion, the economy or in providing any kind of welfare. He believed in cold science and heaped scorn upon the study of the liberal arts.

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