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The Contemporary Review, Volume 36, September 1879

But while synthesis is necessary




In my last article I considered the subjective synthesis of Comte, or in other words, his attempt to systematize human knowledge in relation to the moral life of man. For it is his view, as we have seen, that science can never yield its highest fruit to man unless it be systematized--_i.e._, unless its different parts be connected together and put in their true place as parts of one whole. Scattered lights give no illumination; it is the _esprit d'ensemble_, the general idea in which our knowledge begins and ends, that ultimately determines the scientific value of each special branch of knowledge. But while synthesis is necessary, it is not necessary, according to Comte, that the synthesis should be objective. The error of mankind in the past has been that they supposed themselves able to ascertain the real or objective principle, which gives unity to the world, and able, therefore, to make their system of knowledge an ideal repetition of the system of things without them. Such a system, however, is entirely beyond our reach. The conditions of our lot, and the weakness of our intelligence, make it impossible for us to tell what is the real principle of unity in the world, or even whether such a principle exists. The attempts to discover it, made by Theology and Metaphysics, have

been nothing more than elaborate anthropomorphisms, in which men gave to the unknown and unknowable reality, a form which was borrowed from their own. They saw in the clouds about them an exaggerated and distorted reflection of themselves, and regarded this Brocken spectre as the controlling power whose activity was the source and explanation of everything. Positivism, on the other hand, arises whenever men learn to recognize the nature of this illusion, and to confine their ambition within that which is really the limit of their intelligence. All that we can know is the resemblances and successions of phenomena, and not the things in themselves that are their causes; and if we seek to find a principle of unity for these phenomena, we must find it within and not without. We must organize knowledge with reference to our own wants, rather than with reference to the nature of things. We must regard everything as a means to an end, which is determined by some inner principle in ourselves--not as if we supposed that the world and all that is in it were made for us, or found its centre in us--but simply because this is the only point of view from which we can systematize knowledge, as it is indeed the only point of view from which we need care to systematize it.

It may be asked why system is necessary at all, why we should not be content with a fragmentary consciousness of the world, without attempting to gather the dispersed lights of science to one central principle. To critics like J. S. Mill, Comte's effort after system seems to be the result of an "original mental twist very common in French thinkers," of "an inordinate desire of unity." "That all perfection consists in unity, Comte apparently considers to be a maxim which no sane man thinks of questioning: it never seems to enter into his conceptions that any one could object _ad initio_, and ask, Why this universal systematizing, systematizing, systematizing? Why is it necessary that all human life should point but to one object, and be cultivated into a system of means to a single end?"[26] To this Mr. Bridges answers that unity in Comte's sense is "the first and most obvious condition which all moral and religious renovators,

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