Auguste Comte and the Monistic Positivism of Ernst Mach
A comparison between Ernst Mach and Auguste Comte is perfectly relevant: they both belong to the history of positivism. However relevant, such a comparison is complicated by three main difficulties. Firstly and secondly the scientific and the philosophical contexts are deeply different; thirdly, there is only a small number of direct (and often opaque) references to Comte in the works of Mach. From these issues it appears that the comparison between the two authors is necessarily a reconstruction, and not a commentary on explicit passages from Mach’s works.
In this chapter we discuss two problems: on the one hand the question of the relationship between the history of science and the theory of knowledge and on the other hand the status of positivist explanation. The result of our enquiry, on both topics, is paradoxical. If we leave aside the system in which they are integrated, many claims endorsed by the two authors have the same ‘positivist’ sound and the area of agreement seem very large. However, if we link these claims with the systems they respectively belong to, it appears that such an agreement rests on a misunderstanding. The definition of the notion of “phenomenon” and the problem of the analysis of sensations will be the core of the disagreement. Such a disagreement explains in particular the non-reception of the Analysis of Sensations in the French twentieth century epistemology.