A System of Logic

John Stuart Mill

Book 6, Chapter 10, Footnote #02
Comte's generalization defended against Whewell's objections

This great generalisation is often unfavourably criticised (as by Dr. Whewell, for instance) under a misapprehension of its real import. The doctrine that the theological explanation of phenomena belongs only to the infancy of our knowledge of them, ought not to be construed as if it was equivalent to the assertion that mankind, as their knowledge advances, will necessarily cease to believe in any kind of theology. This was M. Comte's opinion; but it is by no means implied in his fundamental theorem. All that is implied is, that in an advanced state of human knowledge, no other Ruler of the World will be acknowledged than one who rules by universal laws, and does not at all, or does not unless in very peculiar cases, produce events by special interpositions. Originally all natural events were ascribed to such interpositions. At present every educated person rejects this explanation in regard to all classes of phenomena of which the laws have been fully ascertained; though some have not yet reached the point of referring all phenomena to the idea of Law, but believe that rain and sunshine, famine and pestilence, victory and defeat, death and life, are issues which the Creator does not leave to the operation of his general laws, but reserves to be decided by express acts of volition. M. Comte's theory is the negation of this doctrine.

Dr. Whewell equally misunderstands M. Comte's doctrine respecting the second or rnetaphyical stage of speculation. M. Comte did not mean that ``discussions concerning ideas'' are limited to an early stage of inquiry, and cease when science enters into the positive stage. (Philosophy of Discovery, p. 226 et seq.) In all M. Comte's speculations as much stress is laid on the process of clearing up out conceptious as on the ascertainment of facts. When M. Comte speaks of the metaphysical stage of speculation, he means the stage in which men speak of ``Nature'' and other abstractions as if they were active forces, producing effects; when Nature is said to do this, or forbid that; when Nature's horror of a vacuum, Nature's non-admission of a break, Nature's vis medicatrix were offered as explanations of phenomena; when the qualities of things were mistaken for real entities dwelling in the things; when the phenomena of living bodies were thought to be accounted for by being referred to a ``vital force''; when, in short, the abstract names of phenomena were mistaken for the causes of their existence. In this sense of the word it cannot be reasonably denied that the metaphysical explanation of phenomena, equally with the theological, gives way before the advance of real science.

That the final, or positive stage, as conceived by M. Comte, has been equally misunderstood, and that, notwithstanding some expressions open to just criticism, M. Comte never dreamed of denying the legitimacy of inquiry into all causes which are accessible to human investigation, I have pointed out in a former place.

[Back to:]
Sol, Book 6, Chapter 10 Of the Inverse Deductive, or Historical Method.