Apr 202010

The name “positivism” comes from the writing of Auguste Comte, the 19th century philosopher of science and founder of sociology.  In his Course of Positive Philosophy, published from 1830 through 1842, Comte de­scribed human history as progressing through three distinct stages which he called the theological, the meta­physical, and the positive – the final stage corresponding to the ordering of society by modern science. Comte’s positive philosophy was quite influential in the nineteenth century. According to Michel Bourdeau:

It is difficult today to appreciate the interest Comte’s thought enjoyed a century ago, for it has received almost no notice during the last five decades. Before the First World War, Comte’s movement was active nearly everywhere in the world. The best known case is that of Latin America: Brazil, which owes the motto on its flag ‘Ordem e Progresso’ (Order and Progress) to Comte and Mexico are two prominent examples. The positivists, i.e., the followers of Comte, were equally active in England, the United States and India. And in the case of Turkey, its modern secular character can be traced to Comte’s influence on the Young Turks.[1]

Like Marxism, Comtean positivism heralded a new age — an age in which the super­stition and religion of the past would be replaced by a society organized entirely upon scientific principles. Comte’s philosophy was less a philosophy of science than a social and poli­tical movement with a program for human progress. Un­sur­prisingly, it gra­du­ally turned itself into a sort of religion — with public wor­ship ser­vices, a liturgy derived from Ca­tholicism, and a calendar of posi­tivist saints.[2] The Comtean move­ment survived the century but was eventually extin­guished by the First World War.

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  1. Michel Bourdeau, “Auguste Comte”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010). []
  2. Bourdeau notes that Comte’s founding of the Religion of Humanity, in 1849, accomplished “a tour de force by uniting both believers and non-believers against him.”  The theoretical justification for this direction was the “complete positivism” of the System of Positive Polity in 1851-1854, in which Comte argued that the claims of science should become subservient to “the continuous domination of the heart.” []
Nov 012008

I am not much interested in the hidden intentions Shakespeare had in writing Macbeth, whether he was striving to portray the immortal torment of the human soul or merely to flatter the self-importance of an English King. I’ll leave that to the scholars and hecklers of the human spirit who can find nothing better to do than to dig around in the dust-bins of history. I am interested in the play as it stands. In particular, I am interested in the “weird sisters.” I think we should take the damn witches seriously.

Readers have scoffed for centuries at the three witches in Macbeth. But nowadays we are not satisfied with scoffing at witches, and we seek to go further. Nowadays our literary critics herald “the death of the author” as Nietzsche once spoke of “the death of God.” There is only the text, they say, and the doer behind the deed is a metaphysical fiction. But if skepticism is our value we should also show skepticism about our skepticism. We should be suspicious of the grandiose claims of Nietzsche and our contemporary literary critics and suspect, in the spirit of Mark Twain, that reports of the death of God and of authorship are greatly exaggerated. Authors and gods are tough things to kill. As Shakespeare wove the witches into Macbeth in diverse and subtle ways, gods and authors weave themselves into the fabric of our world. Perhaps in time we could “kill them,” but should we? Would life be better, more worth living, in a disenchanted world?

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Oct 162008

Philosophers have never felt comfortable speaking about silence. Why should they? At best such efforts are ironic; undertaking them literally is generally thought to involve performative contradictions, since the content of what we are trying to say contradicts the fact that we are saying it. When mystics claim to have an ineffable, or inexpressible, knowledge of ultimate realities, philosophers are naturally curious to hear more about it, but of course anything intelligible the mystics may say, including the very idea of the ineffable, is by definition not ineffable but expressed, and hence self-refuting. It seems that the best solution is for mystics to maintain total silence. But even then Hegel does not leave the mystics alone. He dismisses their silent knowledge as “the night in which all cows are black” – in other words, as a pre­sumptuous and ultimately empty achievement.

Trying to speak about silence is akin to the ontological task of trying to get something from nothing. Maybe God can create ex nihilo, but the rest of us find this hard to understand, and doing it is totally beyond us. Most philosophers cannot even bake a cake. Even ordinary people find it hard to argue with the principle ex nihilo, nihil fit (from nothing, nothing comes) — and when philo­sophers are asked to make something of nothing, they seem compelled to employ humor to effect their escape. For example, in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy P. L. Heath writes:

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