The French Tradition of Positivism: From Positive Philosophy to the Positive Polity
There is an obvious case for starting an examination of positivism in social science with the work of Comte, for it was he who ‘effectively introduced’ the word ‘positivist’ into French and it was he who coined the term ‘sociology’ (Williams, 1976, pp. 200–1; Comte, 1830–42). In many respects, however, he was the systematiser extraordinary of ideas which already enjoyed considerable currency. Of all his debts to earlier writers, the greatest, though least graciously acknowledged, was to Saint-Simon, whom Comte served as secretary and occasional ghost writer from 1817 to 1824. Saint-Simon, in fact, provides a better starting point for an analysis of the French tradition of positivism than Comte for two reasons. First, he announced the great nineteenth century project of the construction of a positive science at the start of the century, even if his own contributions to its achievement were more indicative than compelling. Second, he did so in a way that attracted a not unfavourable response from Marx. Whereas Marx dismissed Comte with contempt, and Durkheim, though respectful, took care to keep his distance, both found much to admire in Saint-Simon’s ‘socialism’ though both also judged it ‘Utopian’. Positivism in origin, then, contained within it more possibilities than later critics have sometimes given it credit for.
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