December 7, 2010
1. The Disappearance of Metaphysics
We still haven’t quit the state of metaphysics. Never have we had less intention of quitting it. If you look at the number of magazines headlined “the return of God,” a satirist could well ask if we were not about to surrender to metaphysics. More seriously, we might ask ourselves whether the metaphysical state, far from being a transitory phase that dissolves all preceding theologies, does not instead keep them artificially alive by means of the uncertainty inherent in all metaphysics.
It’s with Descartes that the metaphysical age really began. The astonishing scientific and technical progress of the Renaissance was accomplished in a sort of philosophical innocence, without any guiding thought to structure it. No doubt for this reason the Catholic Church didn’t immediately recognize the danger, and reacted too late, when the basis of its spiritual authority had already been eroded. Charting his own course through the ruins, Descartes made a major innovation when, for the first time, he decisively separated physics from metaphysics. By putting the useless categories of matter and spirit in opposition to each other, he at one stroke created the conditions for most of the philosophical errors that followed.
Designed expressly to quarantine problems without content (God, the human soul, etc.), the category of spirit experienced a tumultuous decline, marked by various attempts to give it a semblance of real existence. Some attempts, like Kantianism, were grandiose; others, like psychology, were miserable.
The category of matter, for its part, seemed to enjoy success after success. Demagogic and simplistic, Cartesian thought still imposes itself on us today. We still occasionally confuse it with the scientific method, or with positivism — a pitiful mistake that only encourages its progress. At the outset, Cartesianism was tempted to oppose Newtonian physics. For a materialist, the idea that an action can take place in a vacuum seems inconceivable. Only experimental evidence made it see reason in the end. The 20th-century arguments concerning the interpretation of quantum mechanics can only be explained by a similar desire to safeguard this materialist, causal ontology. From the positivist point of view, after all, neither Newtonian mechanics nor quantum mechanics posed particular problems. They both produce laws that permit us to model phenomena and predict results based on experience. Entities are not multiplied beyond necessity. Where is the problem?
Pascal had already warned us (he had scientific fluency before he sank into his night of mysticism): “We must say it straight: ‘This is made by figure and motion,’ for it is true. But to say what these are, and to compose the machine, is ridiculous. It is useless, uncertain, and painful.” This quotation, characteristically insolent, and trenchant as Occam’s razor, is already inspired by positivism. Matter, no more than God, finds grace in the eyes of positivist thinking. Ontological modesty; submission to the march of experimental science; willingness first to predict, and to explain only if possible: a new style of thinking was born. But, while it has allowed the scientific discoveries of the past five centuries, it has not yet seduced a more widespread public.
If even the scientific community has not completely abandoned the search for all metaphysical phantoms, what can we expect of the rest of society?
2. A Belief that Society Can Be Reorganized on an Entirely New Basis in the Space of a Few Years
Since Auguste Comte wrongly assumed that the positivist stage of the physical and life sciences had already been reached, he proposed to extend positivism to the social sciences. All of his philosophy, in other words, is made possible only by a giant failure of historical understanding. With his premises not yet realized — and not about to be realized, either — the solutions he proposed have to be relegated to an indefinite future.
Comte’s curious historical optimism is characteristic of the period; we have a hard time today recapturing the extraordinary élan, barely slowed down by the Napoleonic interlude, that took hold of Europe after the French Revolution. It is certainly true of the literature of the period. If we consider that in 1830 (to limit ourselves only to France, and even to Paris), authors such as Balzac, Châteaubriand, and Hugo were at the height of their powers (to name only a few of a considerable number), we see extraordinary creative power bubbling in all directions. Such activity had its equivalent in philosophy. This is well-known about Germany, but much less appreciated about France.
It may seem surprising to compare Comte and Fourier, as their systems stand in radical opposition to each other. But they have much more in common than the depth of their megalomania, if it wasn’t in fact madness (of the delirious type in Fourier; of the manic type in Comte). They both believed with certainty that society could be reorganized on an entirely new basis in the space of a few generations — in a few years even, after the necessary social interest had been established.
The great subject of Fourier — the one at which he excels, where he promises dazzling improvements over the mere time span of a human life — is what we could call the motivation of the producers . Comte doesn’t have much to say about this (here he’s like Proudhon and Marx, and in truth all the social reformers, except Fourier). Fourier’s second innovation, which he envisaged in the longer term, turns on the family, on marriage, and sexual mores in general. Here too, Comte (if we can except his strange anticipation of the Virgin Mother) is content to reproduce old ideas.
The omissions of Charles Fourier, for his part, are considerable in other areas. He doesn’t deal with the problem of property, or inheritance, or even of the right political system. Above all, he barely deals with religion at all. At a time when the religious foundations of society were collapsing in France, Fourier contents himself with vague proclamations against atheism. He and Comte also both wrote too much, too quickly — and treated even the most fundamental stylistic conventions with complete disdain. Today both authors are considered unreadable, except by certain perverse types, who have come to love their oddities, which they take as a sign of their genius: the burlesque diversions in Fourier; the obsessive repetitions in Comte.
Fourier, right up to the present, has had more commentators, no doubt because our sexual obsessions have continued to grow throughout the 20th century. But the public at large, they say, now has a new spiritual thirst. The proclamation seems to me a bit premature: sexual needs seem to me more urgent today than spiritual needs. But suppose the former are satisfied, and that, as a result, the spiritual needs take over? Then we will have an interest in plunging back into Comte. For that was his real subject — religion. And here at least we can say he was an innovator.
3. The Establishment of Religion
Man is a social animal. This fact is at the root of Comtian thought, and we must never lose sight of it if we want to understand its branches. In examining the social formations of the human species, along with its diverse organizations, Comte is nearly exhaustive: property, family, the system of production, teaching, science, art — nothing escapes his beautiful systematism. But of all the structures a society produces - and on which it is, in turn, founded – religion strikes him at once as the most important, the most characteristic, and the most threatened. Man, according to Comte, can, roughly speaking, define himself as a social being of the religious type .
Before Comte, religion, above all else, was seen as a system for explaining the world — the rest more or less followed from it. As one of the first to sense that this system was irremediably outdated, Comte was also among the first to realize that the foundations of the social world would collapse. As one of the first to see that the rational explanation of the universe would, therefore, have to limit itself to a more modest form of discourse from now on, he was the very first to attempt to give the social world a new religious basis.
To say the least, Comte failed. The positivist religion had only a few followers, very few, and then it disappeared. Such a failure, in the case of a philosopher who didn’t want merely to live in the land of speculation, but also in the world of practical affairs, should make us wonder.
Comte understood well that religion, without ceasing to integrate itself into a world system acceptable to reason, has the goal of binding men and ruling their actions. He went ahead and planned the sacraments, along with the religious calendar. But he never grasped the depth of man’s desire for immortality — there are captivating passages where he raises this problem for himself, and then ends up diverting it in discussions about prayer, are captivating. Since he probably didn’t have the time to reread what he wrote, he left his doubts about immortality rest on the page in their native state . The abstract immortality which he promises in the form of the “Great-Being” failed to convince his contemporaries (not to mention us) — who were drunk on the promise of a more material form of survival.
But let’s suppose the prerequisites of Comte’s system were in place — which would take, perhaps, many centuries. Suppose that all theisms are extinguished, that materialism is debunked, that positivism reigns supreme as the only mode of thought in the scientific age. Suppose furthermore that the “irreplaceable and unique” character of the individual human being is recognized as a stale fiction, and man’s social character soberly taken into account. Suppose that this fact was not the subject of polemics or broadsides, but rather regarded as objective fact, beyond doubt as the postulates of genetics are today. In what respect would we then have made progress towards the establishment of a communal religion? In what way would the belief in Humanity, or the “Great-Being,” be more desirable for individuals? And how could they — conscious of their individual disappearance — take satisfaction from their participation in this new theoretical fetish? Who, in the end, could be interested in a religion that doesn’t hold out any guarantee against death?
Comte didn’t answer these questions. He probably didn’t have an answer. Only the promise of physical immortality, made possible by technology, could once again make religion possible. What Comte helps us see is that such a religion — a religion for immortals — is still necessary.
This piece was originally published in France as “Préliminaires au Positivisme.”
Michel Houellebecq has won the prestigious Prix Novembre in France as well as the lucrative International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His book Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take on the World (with Bernard-Henri Levy) will be published this January by Random House. He lives in Ireland.