Positivist Worldmakers: John Stuart Mill’s and Auguste Comte’s Rival Universalisms at the Zenith of Empire

  • Franz Leander FillaferEmail author
Part of the Studies in History and Philosophy of Science book series (AUST, volume 53)


Seeking to highlight the intricacies of the relationship between universalism and globality, my paper focuses on the universals of nineteenth-century positivism. Auguste Comte’s universalism was firmly grounded in general laws of human historical development whose formulation was, however, rooted in specific social milieus and therefore insusceptible to impartial liberal scrutiny. In John Stuart Mill’s liberal scheme, on the other hand, universality was created by the method applied to attain knowledge about this world: a set of techniques predicated on basic assumptions about human psychology, volition and selfhood. What did this imply for the recognition of cultural differences and for nineteenth-century imperialism? Comte and his followers acknowledged and appreciated cultural distinctions, while Milleans tended to affirm the superiority of European civilization, and to regard cultural divergences as something to be gradually suspended or obliterated. For Mill, the universality of method was both epistemic and socio-political: There is only one way of emancipation for mankind, its enlightenment through European liberalism and education. Comte, on the contrary, relentlessly criticized colonial rule, Christian proselytizing and assumptions about the racial inferiority of non-Europeans. My paper dissects the Millean and Comtean varieties of universalism and recovers their functions for imperial rule and anticolonial resistance. Beyond that, it offers a genealogy of cultural difference, tracing its emergence as a spinoff from liberal imperialism.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Austrian Academy of SciencesViennaAustria

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