This monument to the philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857), by the sculptor Jean-Antonin Injalbert (1845-1933), is on the Place de la Sorbonne, close to Boulevard Saint Michel in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Comte was the founder of a new science, sociology, which attempted to use the same scientific methods as the physical sciences. He was also (in the words of the international Auguste Comte Society) “the inventor of a philosophical system, Positivism, which was very influential at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century”. Positivism in Comte’s view (at least in his younger years) meant basing knowledge on empirical evidence and mathematical proof, rather than belief or dogma.
Since the Comte monument is prominently located in front of the Sorbonne, the traditional main university building in Paris, I always assumed that he had been a professor there, but that turns out not to have been true at all. In his lifetime, he was an outsider whose ideas found acceptance only quite slowly.
Though he did not teach at the Sorbonne, Comte lived nearby for the last sixteen years of his life, in an apartment in this building at 10 rue Monsieur-le-Prince in the 6th arrondissment, just four blocks (400 meters) from where his monument now stands. Amazingly, his apartment has been preserved for the past 160 years by his ‘disciples’, who even bought the entire building just to keep the apartment intact. The apartment is now a museum which is open to the public (but only once or twice a week for a few hours).
My first try at visiting Comte’s apartment was on a Tuesday evening, when it was supposed to be open but wasn’t. My second try was on a Wednesday afternoon and was more successful. A sign directed visitors to come to an office on the first floor (one flight up), where a young man collected my admission fee (€ 4.00 as of 2018) and took up to the second floor, where he unlocked the apartment and let me in.
In some of the rooms there are now text panels such as this one (“Who is Auguste Comte?”) which are very useful for people like me who are only slightly acquainted with Comte and quite confused about the concept of Positivism. I should explain that I enrolled in the Goethe University in Frankfurt shortly after the end of the “Positivism Quarrel” (Positivismusstreit) that had raged in German universities for several years. The sociology professors of the ‘Frankfurt School’, such as Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas, were strongly opposed to the ‘positivism’ of Karl Popper and Hans Albert, who insisted that they were not positivists at all. To me as a newly arrived student from overseas this was all rather mystifying, though I did understand that important issues were under discussion.
In one of the corridors of Comte’s apartment there are now some text panels about people who were influenced by Comte’s ideas. The British philosopher John Stuart Mill is described here as “the first important philosopher to have understood the thinking of August Comte.” Starting in 1841, Mill provided moral, intellectual and financial support for Comte, and publicized his philosophy in Great Britain.
The other three, Jules Ferry, Léon Gambetta and Georges Clemenceau, were French politicians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who implemented some of Comte’s aspirations, such as universal, free and secular schooling for all French children, and the separation of church and state.
When I went to Comte’s apartment I think I had a vague expectation that I would be fascinated by his personality and start reading all his books. Well, that’s not the way it worked out.
The one aspect of his career that I can relate to (since I have been working for the past forty-five years in the field of adult education) is that Comte was the co-founder of the Polytechnical Association for free instruction. For years he gave a free course in astronomy for working class adults at the City Hall of the 3rd arrondissement. (Come to think of it, Simone de Beauvoir also had a phase as a young woman when she went over to Belleville every week and gave free philosophy classes for adults.)
On the other hand, Comte seems to have been a notorious grouch and once spent several months as a patient in an insane asylum, where he was released with the verdict “not cured”.
But what really put me off about Comte was that in later years he started his own religion, which he called the Positivist Church or the Religion of Humanity, with a ‘positivist catechism’ and a ‘positivist calendar’ (each day named after a deserving person, sort of like saint’s days) and with drab, sad-looking temples.
The only decoration in these temples was a painting of a young women for the parishioners to gaze at when they were in need of consolation. The young woman was Clotilde de Vaux (1815-1846), who was 30 when Comte met her and 31 when she died of tuberculosis. She was the love of his life, but he not of hers, though she did write polite responses to his letters.
She was a devout Catholic and would no doubt have been horrified if she had known that after her death she would become Sainte Clotilde in Comte’s religion and be venerated like the Virgin Mary.
Location, aerial view and photo of Comte’s house on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2015 and 2018. I wrote the text in 2018.
See also: Clotilde de Vaux.