Comte and Psychology

Washington University


Comte and Psychology.---Comte's proper place in the development of sociology is not yet settled. This is illustrated by the variant criticisms of his psychology, some going so far as to insist he had no psychology at all. But Comte's denunciation of psychology applied only to a certain type of psychology characterized by two outstanding defects: (1) its introspective method and (2) its overemphasis of the intellect. As against that kind of a psychology Comte insisted that only two possible methods could be used, namely, a study of the physiology and structure of the brain and the other organs, and a study of the products of the mind which are found in the culture and history of a people. He attempted to use both, but was primarily interested in the latter. As against the over-intellectualism of the psychologists Comte thought the "passions" or impulses should be stressed if one is to find the explanation of human conduct.


The place of Auguste Comte in the development of sociology is still one of dispute, although sufficient time has elapsed for the suggestion to be made that the year 1922 be observed as a Comtean centenary.[1] Though Comte is more often referred to, perhaps, than any other single writer as the founder of sociology, most of us are still confused as to what Comte actually thought, and much less agreed as to whether he had any real influence or made any contribution to sociology in the United States. The habit of dismissing Comte with the assumption that he was the founder of the science of sociology must be questioned until further research has been made. From the standpoint of the history of sociology there is still some opportunity for the solution and restatement of this very interesting problem, viz., the place of Comte's philosophy in the origin and development of sociology.


In order to illustrate the variety of opinions held by different writers with reference to Comte's psychology, it may be well to refer to a few such opinions selected at random. Merz, in his History of European Thought in the Nineteenth Century, says,

( 16)

"This system, the philosophy of Auguste Comte, did not seek an extension of scientific research in the direction of psychology, which it discouraged in a very peremptory fashion."[2] McDougall, in his Introduction to Social Psychology, speaking of the claim of psychology to recognition as the foundation of all the social sciences, makes this statement, "of the workers in these sciences [social sciences] some, like Comte, . . . . repudiate the claim of psychology to such recognition. "[3] Professor Mead, in an article entitled "Social Psychology as a Counterpart to Physiological Psychology,"[4] remarks: "The modern sociologists neither abjure psychology with Comte, nor determine what the value of the social character of human consciousness is for the psychology which they attempt to use." Approaching the matter from a little different angle, that of the validity of the introspective method, Woodworth, after pointing out the difficulties in the way of that method, continues thus: "Comte went so far as to assert that it made psychology impossible. The subject and the object of an observation cannot be the same, he said."[5]

On the other hand certain writers credit Comte with a great deal of psychological insight. Professor Ellwood quotes with approval Comte's statement that "Mental science must needs form far the largest part of sociology"5 and that "sociology is essentially reducible to true mental science."[6]

Frederic Harrison, after indicating Comte's rejection of a futile psychology, concludes that "Psychology, meaning the laws of mind and will, was not only an indispensable basis of Comte's system, but its rational, systematic foundation dates from Comte's suggestions."[7] In a similar vein LÚvy-Bruhl credits Comte with considerable influence in developing both physiological psychology and social psychology.[8]

One phase of the criticism of Comte calls attention to his acceptance of phrenology. The basis for such criticism is found, perhaps,

( 17) in his use of the term in his first large work, and the very important place he gives Gall in building up his own theories. With reference to the first point, his use of the term phrenology, two things may be said: first, that in Positive Polity Comte deplores the fact that such a term was ever used,[9] and secondly, that he makes no use of that phase of Gall's or Spurzheim's doctrines which had to do with skull formations and their assumed relations to the brain faculties. In other words, we use the term phrenology in a different sense from the one given it by Comte. A second basis of this criticism implies that Comte must have espoused the vagaries of phrenology because he was an avowed debtor to Gall and Spurzheim. As is well known, these two writers are sometimes referred to as the founders of phrenology. It is also well known that Comte looked upon Gall, especially, as the man who had done more to lay the foundations of his own theories than any other man in that field. We shall have more to say of this later. Just now it need only be pointed out that Comte got from Gall two main contributions, namely (i) the conception of the brain as a union of organs, each of which has its appropriate location in the brain; and (2) the dependence of all mental functions on such organs. In other words, Comte utilized the conception of brain physiology or cerebral functions without the vagaries of Gall and his followers. He had no use for the followers who had misinterpreted and degraded the real doctrines of their leader. "As is but too often the case, Gall's disciples resembled him in nothing but his errors.ö[10] With this we may dismiss the criticisms that have been made of Comte and allow the discussion of his actual theories to furnish the answer to many of the points suggested.


Comte's attitude of hostility toward the psychology of his day falls under two headings: first, a criticism of its method; secondly, an attack on some of its doctrines. Comte's attack on psychology,

( 18) as shown in these two phases, may in part explain the common impression that he had no use for psychology or did away with it altogether. It will become clear, I believe, that he had a very definite type of psychology in mind when he excoriated the method and doctrines of psychology. Let us see what his objections to the methods of psychology were.

Comte's denunciation of the method of psychology is, to my mind, the most interesting part of his whole discussion. It is especially so in view of the present-day attempts of some of the behaviorist psychologists to escape from the same difficulties by first denying the value of the same method, introspection, and then setting up another which, as will be suggested later, is not so far different from part of Comte's substitute method.

Now the essence of Comte's criticism of the psychology of his day was that it was still outside the realm of science. It was still, to use his terms, in the metaphysical or theological stages of development. What he thought he was struggling for was the bringing of it into the realm of positivity. He does not, however, claim to be original in his effort to make the study of mental phenomena positive or scientific. Gall, Spurzheim, Broussais, and Cabanis were all pioneers in introducing physiological psychology and thus laying the foundation for a scientific or positive psychology. Comte acknowledged that he was merely building on their foundations. In order to get this background of Comte's thought clearly before us it will be well to introduce some of his statements concerning this point. In an article written in 1828, reviewing a work by Broussais, Comte comes to the conclusion that the positive method is completely successful for all "who regard the study of the intellectual and moral functions as inseparably connected with that of all the other physiological phenomena, and as properly investigated by the same methods and in the same spirit."[11] Now, according to Comte, the metaphysical psychologists were still outside the scientific fold. As he phrases it, "However, some, misconceiving in this respect the actual and unalterable direction of the human mind, have endeavored during the last ten years to transplant among us German metaphysics and to found under the name of

( 19) psychology a pretended science completely independent of physiology, superior to it, and exclusively embracing the study of the phenomena termed moral."[12] It was the task of Broussais, as Comte sees it, to turn aside from his own important work long enough to "demonstrate the emptiness and nullity of psychology."[13] Broussais, Comte says, has made clear the "worthlessness of that illusory science of personified abstractions."[14] The work of Broussais, says Comte, "dissipates forever the mystical spirit, so flattering to pretentious ignorance, which inspires an instinctive repugnance towards every special and positive study, by presenting empty abstractions as superior to all real knowledge, and replunges us into the state of infancy by re-establishing, in a new form, the empire of theological conceptions." We have here the basis of an explanation of Comte's attitude toward what he called "psychology."

Comte, however, thinks that the psychologists were not entirely unaffected by the historic trend to positivism. They have made efforts to make their subject scientific and thus fall into line with the tendency developing since Bacon and Descartes. They have sought to make use of the principle of observation. In searching about for the objects which they are to observe they lay claim to a field of phenomena which they call "internal" phenomena. In that way they attempt to distinguish their science from other sciences which observe external phenomena. Thus they think they have become scientific and their science as valid as any other, distinguished only by the locus of the phenomena. They thus cease, in their own opinion, to be either theological or metaphysical.

Such an apology for their so-called science, however, will not satisfy Comte; and for the very simple reason that their method will not work. The fundamental method of the various metaphysical schools, according to Comte, is that of interior observation and he proceeds to explain why it is defective and sterile. Let us see what his objections to the method are. In the first place, he insists it is inherently defective. By that he means that the mind cannot observe itself; it cannot become both observer and observed.

( 20) Comte puts his case against the introspective method very clearly. He says:

Man can observe what is external to him and also certain functions of his organs, other than the thinking organ. To a certain extent he can even observe himself as regards the passions he feels, because the cerebral organs on which these depend are distinct from the observing organ properly so called. It is, however, evidently impossible for him to observe his own intellectual acts, for the organ observed and the observing organ being in this case identical, by whom could the observation be made? . . . . To render this possible the individual would have to divide himself into two persons, one thinking, the other observing the thoughts. Thus man cannot directly observe his intellectual operations; he can only observe his organs and their resultsThere is therefore no place for psychology, or the direct study of the soul independently of any external considerations.[15]

Some of the statements in this quotation merit a little further attention. Comte excludes the method of internal observation only from intellectual acts, not from other functions, although in another place he contends that it is not without great difficulty and discount in the latter. The kind of psychology he condemns is, as he says, that which directly, observes the intellectual observations without reference either to the organs involved or to the acts. It is such statements as the above from Comte that have given an apparent basis for the criticism that Comte condemned all psychology; for, say the critics, how can there be any psychology in a system which excludes all purely mental phenomena?

Comte seems to think that a statement of what he considers the inherent impossibility of introspection amounts to a demonstration of its fallaciousness, but he goes on to give other indications of its shortcomings. The futility of the method, he asserts, is proved by the fact that two thousand years of its use have brought its followers to no agreement even as to the fundamental elements of their supposed science. The various schools agree only in one point, namely, the use of a defective method. Furthermore, the investigations of Gall and Broussais, in the field of physiology, have effectually demolished the method. Comte approves the words of Broussais when the latter says:

Let us now examine what physiologists can find in their consciousness by adopting this sort of research. They are sure to meet with sensations pro-

( 21)

-ceeding from viscera which invariably correspond with the brain, not only hunger, [but also?] amorous desires, cold, beat, specific pains or pleasures, localized in any part of the body. They will further remark a crowd of vague undetermined sensations, disposing sometimes to sorrow, sometimes to joy, at one time to action, at another to repose, one day to hope, the next to despair and even to horror of existence. They will find all these without suspecting whence they come, for the physiologists are the only persons who can inform them about this. If they take all these internal sensations for revelations of the divinity which they name consciousness, they can increase their treasures by taking, in Oriental fashion, a certain dose of opium combined with aromatics.[16]

The implication here, of course, is that physiology, not internal observation as understood by the psychologists, is the way to the study of the mental processes.

Comte, however, has still further objections to the method. Not only is it inherently defective and sterile, but it also imposes serious limitations on the study of the mind. He points out that it excludes the study of three important types of phenomena: first, pathological cases among adults, for here internal observations are relatively worthless because the observer is untrustworthy; secondly, the mental processes of children, since children cannot introspect at all or only very inaccurately; third, it excludes animals, because they cannot make any internal observations at all. Comte, as we know, attached a great deal of importance to the study of these three types of behavior, especially the study of pathological cases and of animal psychology. To him, therefore, any method or science which necessarily excluded them from its purview was bad. A valid science or method must bring them all in.


On all points, then, Comte is led to reject the method of the psychology of his day, as he conceived it.[17] What does he propose to substitute for the discarded method of internal observation ? To this he has a ready reply. A given function can be studied in two ways only, either in "relation to the organ which fulfils it" or to

( 22) the "phenomena of its fulfilment." That is, by a study of the organ, or by observation of the function, i.e., the products. Applying this principle to the "intellectual and moral functions," Comte finds that two ways of approach to mental phenomena are open. First, we may proceed to study and determine the various organic conditions on which they depend, that is, physiological psychology. This, according to Comte, was the chief object of those who, like Gall, were attempting to build up a physiology of the brain. This is why Comte placed psychology under biology. It is interesting to note how nearly some contemporary psychologists proceed along the line suggested by Comte. This phase of a proper method was so important in Comte's mind that he devoted a great deal of time and effort in following and remodeling Gall's cerebral physiology. In the second place, on the other hand, we may take the other method of study, i.e., observe the products of the mental organs, and thus also arrive at scientific knowledge. We may also utilize both methods and combine them, as he attempted to do in his works; but to discard them both means disaster. "But when," says he, "by the pretended psychological method, the consideration of both the agent and the act is discarded altogether, what material can remain but an unintelligible conflict of words, in which merely nominal entities are substituted for real phenomena? The most difficult study of all is thus set up in a state of isolation, without any one point of support in the most simple and perfect of sciences over which it is yet proposed to give it majestic sovereignty; and in this all psychologists agree, however extreme may be their differences on other points."[18]


Turning now to Comte's objections to some of the doctrines of the psychology of his day, we may group them around the central defect, the exaggeration of the r˘le of the intellect, and the consequent neglect of what he calls the affective side of man's mental life. The psychologists, he thinks, have all made the intellect the point of departure for their studies, while the affections have been almost wholly neglected. This intellectualistic bias is con-

(23) -trary, he argues, to the true state of facts both in the case of animals and in the case of man.

For daily experience shows that the affections, the propensities, the passions, are the great springs of human life; and that, so far from resulting from intelligence, their spontaneous and independent impulse is indispensable to the first awakening and continuous development of the various intellectual facultiesThe whole of human nature is thus very unfaithfully represented by these futile systems, which, if noticing the affective faculties at all, have vaguely connected them with one single principle, sympathy, and, above all self-consciousness, always supposed to be directed by the intellect. Thus it is that, contrary to evidence, man has been represented as essentially a reasoning being, continually carrying on, unconsciously, a multitude of imperceptible calculations, with scarcely any spontaneity of action, from infancy upwards.[19]

It is interesting to observe, by the way, that a great many of our contemporary sociologists, as well as psychologists, have sought to get away from what they, too, deemed a similar intellectualistic bias, on the part of some of the social scientists and psychologists of a much later date.

Comte thought the intellectualism of the psychologists was due to two causes; first, there was the original theological notion which made it necessary to separate man from the animals. It was a relic of the tendency to invest man with a soul and preserve an impassable gulf between him and other forms of life. In the second place, though the metaphysicians were free from this older theological view, yet they had erected a new entity that must be preserved, namely, the ego, or the "I" [20] For Comte, the explanation of the unity of the ego was quite simple. Gall, he thinks, had conclusively "dissipated the nebulous mental unity of psychologists and ideologists, by demonstrating the plurality of the intellectual and moral organs."[21] While Gall had thus destroyed the imaginary problem of the unity of the ego, he had, on the other hand, laid the foundations in physiology for the correct notion that the organism, though composed of different organs, is a fundamental unity, as a result of the harmony between its chief functions. It is only here, says Comte, that we can find "the sound theory of the Ego, so absurdly perverted at present by the vain dreams of the metaphysicians; for the general sense of the I is certainly determined

( 24) by the equilibrium of the faculties, the disturbance of which impairs that consciousness so profoundly in many diseases."[22]


We come now to Comte's table of the internal functions of the brain, in which he attempts to map out the intellectual and moral functions, each of which has its appropriate location in the brain. In building up this table Comte acknowledges that he is but remodeling Gall's scheme, but he is also careful to point out the defects of the latter. Comte devoted a great deal of time to his table and considered it fundamental for his system. To us it is interesting only as an obsolete exhibit and we must pass over its details. In his table Comte sets forth eighteen items which he calls the "internal functions of the brain. "[23] Ten of the eighteen are classed as affective, five as intellectual, and three as practical functions. The ten affective functions are the propensities or motors of activity. They not only outnumber the others severally and combined, but are also the basic instincts. Comte uses the term instinct in this connection in much the same way in which it is used by some contemporary writers. As he states it, an instinct is "any spontaneous impulse in a determinate direction, independently of any foreign substance.ö[24] The organ or seat of each of these functions is assigned to a definite part of the brain. The affective organs occupy the back or lower, the practical the central, and the intellectual the forepart of the brain, in accordance with his principle that the later developed and less aggressive part of the brain lies farthest from the spinal cord. This is in keeping with his oft-repeated statement that the affections, not the intellect, constitute the dominant element in the make-up of mind.

We have time for but three observations on Comte's table. In the first place, Comte's conception of the brain as capable of division into areas, each of which has a distinguishable function, has been vindicated by subsequent experimentation. In the second place, though no one, so far as I know, at least among sociologists in the United States, has attached any importance to Comte's table, still

( 25) its fate is not much different from some more modern classifications of instincts. The speculative nature of all such schemes of classification is indicated by the disagreements among the writers who use them, and by a skeptical attitude in some quarters toward the concept "instinct" altogether. In the third place, on the other hand, it may be worth while to call attention to the agreement between Comte and a great many sociologists in America, who feel that some sort of classification of instincts or innate social forces is essential as a foundation of their sociology. Such a method of procedure has peculiar interest just now, when there is evidence from several quarters that it is to be vigorously challenged, if not abandoned, among sociologists.[25] It is not within the scope of this paper to do more than to refer to this point and to suggest that Comte's table was of primary importance to him in building his system.


Up to this point we have not considered the second alternative of the true method suggested by Comte, namely, the observation of the products, the results, of mental process or the mind. Heretofore we have been considering the first part of his method, namely, the study of the brain and its organs. LÚvy-Bruhl, in his work on The Philosophy of Comte, contends that Comte passed from one method to the other as he developed in his thinking. That is, that whereas Comte, at the time he wrote his early essays and the Positive Philosophy, was largely under the spell of Gall's physiological psychology, yet, by the time he came to write his Positive Polity, he came to emphasize and to stress the method of studying the products of the mind, that is a social psychology. The question raised is one that is entirely too large for our consideration here. It must be said, however, that one of the chief reasons why Comte felt he had to remodel Gall's work was that the latter's system was

(26) a failure because it was constructed without a sociology.,, The principle upon which Comte worked in reconstructing Gall's works was, as he expresses it, "sociological suggestion checked by zoological verification."[26]

Comte attached great importance, perhaps increasing importance, to the method of observing the products of the mind. These products are to be found in the history, thought, knowledge, science, and institutions of a people; in a word, in the life of the Great Being. These are the primary interests of sociology, and though their study is the most difficult of all phenomena, yet it is the most essential of all for a complete science.

One may not agree with LÚvy-Bruhl in crediting Comte with a very important part in stimulating the rise and development of two modern sciences of commanding importance, namely, physiological psychology and social psychology. Just what Comte's influence upon either of those subjects was, if any, we do not attempt to state; but certainly his discussion contains rather surprising suggestions of both, and fundamentally his argument admits of both. Laying aside all questions of Comte's influence on subsequent thought, it is still a striking fact that in the study of the social problem today, physiological psychology and social psychology occupy a dominant position.


  1. American Journal of Sociology, January, 1922, p. 510.
  2. III, 43.
  3. Pp. 1-2.
  4. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. VI (December 15, 1909).
  5. Lecture on "Psychology," Columbia University Lectures on Science, Philosophy, and Art, p. 6.
  6. Sociology in Its Psychological Aspects, p. 60.
  7. Introduction to LÚvy-Bruhl's Philosophy of Auguste Comte, p. xii.
  8. Philosophy of Auguste Comte, p. 208.
  9. "They invented, what he had always carefully avoided, their most unfortunate title of Phrenology, and endeavored to form their cerebral notions into a body of truth wholly dissociated from general physiology; and thus it fell into the hands of special adepts who were often destitute of the smallest scientific training, even in Biology," Positive Polity, I, 545.
  10. Positive Polity, I, 545.
  11. Positive Polity, Appendix, Part 6, p. 646.
  12. Ibid., IV, 646; Appendix, Part 6.
  13. Ibid., p. 646.
  14. Ibid., p. 649.
  15. Positive Polity, p. 647; Appendix, Part 6. Italics mine.
  16. Ibid., p. 647; Appendix, Part 6. ,
  17. In all this discussion of the psychology of his day we are allowing Comte to define it as he will. What Comte thought it was is all that we are interested in. Whether his interpretation is true or not is not of our concern.
  18. Positive Philosophy, I (1854), 462.
  19. Ibid., I, 463.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Positive Polity, I, 541.
  22. Positive Philosophy, I, 457 (1854).
  23. Positive Polity, I, facing last page.
  24. Positive Philosophy, I, 464.
  25. As examples of this tendency in some of its phases: Faris, "Are Instincts Data or Hypotheses," American Journal of Sociology (September, 1922); Josey, The Social Philosophy of Instinct; Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct; Kantor, "An Essay toward an Institutional Conception of Social Psychology," American Journal of Sociology (March and May, 1922).
  26. Positive Polity, I, 541, 573, 589.

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