The Rise of Objectivity
Control of Nature and the Promise of Science
To Soothe the Savage Beast
The Enlightenment was the dawning of a new era that promised those living through its development to lead to a peaceful and orderly human existence. I would now like to reconsider my earlier observation that by eliminating the role of deities from the ideological fabric of society it became necessary to find a replacement for an external force outside of the individual that could serve to provide social cohesion and order. It was in this context that Montesquieu (1689-1755) expressed the view that laws were not divinely inspired. Instead, he believed that laws arose from a wide variety of concrete human experiences that evolved through stages of savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Concomitantly, the shift towards the notion of biological evolution was being introduced by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). Further, the most significant proponent of this emerging sense of objectivity and the role it played in the development of modernist ideology finds expression in the works of Auguste Comte (1798–1857) and the development of his “Positivist” philosophy. By revisiting these key elements in the historical development of modernist ideology we shall be better able to understand the underlying shifts towards a refinement of scientific objectivity that would serve as a foundation for the framing of social stratification. Let us consider each of these key elements in their turn.
Montesquieu (Charles-Louis de Secondat – born Jan. 18, 1689)
At each stage in the development of our story we have sought to gain our understanding of the entrenchment of modernist ideology into the fabric of Western European ideology by identifying the historical pivot point upon which our chosen scholars have established their respective world views. In the case of Montesquieu, I am not interested in focusing on the major influence of his work on political ideology. It is a well known fact that Montesquieu began travelling the world in 1726 for the purpose of examining differing societies across time and cultures. It is also understood that these travels provided the basis for his most influential work, The Spirit of the Laws, which in many respects became a cornerstone in the foundation of our American democracy. For the purpose of our story, the historical pivot point with which I am concerned centers on two major premises that served as an ontological or axiomatic foundation for the development of his major work. First, I am interested in his belief that laws are not divinely inspired but evolve naturally out of the influences and experiences through which a country can be said to develop over time. For Montesquieu, such influences would include traditions, economics, religions and even climate. Secondly, I will want to consider that laws arose from a wide variety of concrete human experiences through stages of savagery, barbarism, and civilization. In addition to such views, we shall also touch upon his political philosophy to determine if a relationship might be established between Montesquieu’s understanding of politics and the social stratification that makes up the current fabric of our existence.
When considering how it is that laws evolve within a given society, Montesquieu believed that they arose from a wide variety of concrete human experiences through stages of savagery, barbarism, and civilization. In fact, Montesquieu’s understanding of human nature represented the very reason why laws had to be structured in such as way as to safeguard against the advantage of the few over the many. Even under the best of conditions, he believed that laws would still have to be periodically adjusted to ensure and increase liberty for all. The concept of liberty for Montesquieu required that a government be constituted to protect citizens against their ever possible oppression from their rulers as well as from their own aggression toward each other. It was in this context, then, that Montesquieu expressed his fondness for the separation of powers between the legislative, the executive and the judicial. Finally, I wish to make note of the significance of the inverse of Montesquieu’s political theories. That is, there is a way in which we can say that Montesquieu’s political theory anticipated the inevitable social stratification of today’s society. I believe that if you read between the lines of Montesquieu’s political theory you will be able to perceive the seeds being planted for our own self-reflexive understanding of the foundation of social stratification as known throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck – August 1, 1744)
As an historical pivot point, the concept of “stages of development” to which Montesquieu referred in the evolution of society finds its biological counterpart in the works of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. In fact, it was Lamarck who first used the term biology to refer to the study of the staged development of living organisms. For the purpose of our story we merely wish to point out that for Lamarck, “staged development” also served as an historical pivot point in the entrenchment of modernist ideology. Lamarck believed that living organisms exhibited a staged development that ranged from a basic state to a more perfect state within its own evolution. Crudely stated, as an organism interacts with its environment it may use some of its physical attributes or features while ignoring others. As it develops over time it will lose those features or attributes that are not used and gain a more highly developed set of features or attributes that will better facilitate its interaction with its environment. My point here, of course, is not in arguing for or against Lamarck’s theories but merely in placing him within the context of the historical pivoting taking place at the time of his writing. Additionally, it should not be that difficult to see how I have been laying the foundation for using notions such as “staged development” or the advancement from the more “primitive” to the more “highly developed” to argue that such sentiments are at the base of social prejudice and inequality.
(Setting the Stage: A Brief Interlude)
I feel the need to give a sort of preamble to the part of our story were we consider the contributions of Auguste Comte. The reason why I feel this way is actually quite simple. Since the beginning of our story we have been moving away from the “Dark Ages” and towards an achievement of “Scientific Objectivity” that, in Auguste Comte, can be said to have arrived. This historical pivot point shall constitute the intellectual nexus of the modernist ideology. Let us briefly review what has transpired thus far.
The first historical pivot point with which we began our story was the rejection of the mystery and superstition of the Dark Ages that paved the way in favor of more rationally or empirically based explanations of natural phenomenon. As a rather subsequent corollary of these newly realized Western European percepts we then witnessed the rejection of the rule of monarchies and the eventual birth of nations over a series of civil wars and revolutions that made up our second historical pivot point. Our next pivot point introduced the advent of the dialectic which, in epistemology, served to bring together the rational and the empirical while, in the social arena we began to discern the historical impetus (with apologies to Hegel) that led to the entrenchment of the modernist ideology into the social fabric of Western European society. It was upon the realization of these accomplishments that the role of governance itself came under scrutiny with a protracted consideration of the social contract, political structures and constitutional governments. The entire sequence of these historical pivot points can be portrayed as stemming from one single goal; the overcoming of ignorance by developing the control of nature and society to produce good for the betterment of humanity. This, then, was the promise of science expressed by Sir Francis Bacon in his book “Novum Organum” and it serves to provide us with the preconditions that set the stage for the arrival of what can be considered the first instance of scientific objectivity.
Since I am the one telling this story and I get to say whatever I want, I feel the need to point out at this point that all of these types of claims by Western European scholars are totally Eurocentric. That is, there are entire civilizations on the Asian, African, and American continents (and others) that have their own way of looking at our shared physical existence. Why must we believe that what the European scholar says is true for all of mankind, is in fact an absolute truth. For example, the Aztec and Mayan empires were certainly aware of the difference between rational and empirical knowledge in the development of their own epistemology. As an iconic representation of the dialectic, how many thousands of years do our indigenous pyramids predate the Enlightenment of Immanuel Kant? It is in what we do with our knowledge that we differ. While Western European societies sought to control nature while believing that their ability to do so entailed their superiority to those not able or willing to do so, my indigenous ancestors sought to live in harmony with nature while celebrating the precarious balance of our human existence. Can we not conclude similarly about Asian and African cultures and societies? Do we not all equally deserve respect? At the time of this writing in the early twenty-first century, Western European societies, which, by ideological considerations include the United States, are now desperately searching for their lost connection to nature.
Auguste Comte 1798–1857
Comte is known as the father of sociology and is credited for having coined the term itself as well as for being the founder of the school of philosophy known as positivism. In his major work, The Course of Positive Philosophy, (1896, ed.) Comte provides an analysis of social evolution by way of one universal law that Comte saw at work in all sciences that he called the ‘law of three phases’: The Theological; The Metaphysical, and; The Scientific. Taken together, these three phases represent the intellectual development of man. In other words, these three phases of social evolution constitute Comte’s way of talking about the historical pivot points to which we have been referring throughout this story.
In Comte’s view, the theological phase of man’s intellectual development was seen as preceding the Age of Enlightenment and therefore its view of society should be understood as shrouded in mystery and superstition or, more simply put, attributed to God. We should note here that in Comte’s view, as opposed to the views expressed in our story, the historical pivot point discussed in the work of Kant and Voltaire is lost in what amounts to historical generalization. In all fairness to Comte, this is no doubt due to the fact that in the beginning of the twenty-first century, when I am writing this story, it is so much easier to access large volumes of information. Alternatively, in Comte’s time such a cursory review of history would surely have required a prohibitive investment of time and resources to survey intellectual developments in quite the same fashion.
Comte understood the metaphysical phase of intellectual development to involve the justification of universal human rights and therefore considered it to be a higher plane of development and beyond the authority of any human ruler. It is clear to me that Comte is here referring to the historical pivot point which in our story was described as the nation building stage of Western European society wherein we move from the rule of kings to that of an approximated civil order.
In the scientific phase, Comte believed that people could find solutions to social problems in contradistinction to the theological or the metaphysical phases of development through which Western European society had evolved. That is, rather than using a theological basis in which events were largely attributed to supernatural forces or a metaphysical basis in which natural phenomena are thought to result from fundamental energies or ideas as he put it, a “positive science” would seek to explain social phenomena in relation to observation, hypotheses, and experimentation.
We see then that the views of Auguste Comte benefited greatly from the historical convergence of having all philosophical and intellectual cylinders firing in sequence, as it were. That is, the original programmatic for scientific discourse that was espoused in the work of Sir Francis Bacon had finally come to what was considered global fruition in the intellectual development of Western European societies.