Tag Archives: Auguste Comte


Kloe Fowler took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2015. In this post she writes about ‘Humanism’ as a philosophical keyword.

Professor Richard Dawkins on a London bus displaying the Atheist message. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA

Professor Richard Dawkins on a London bus displaying the Atheist message.
Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA

You may remember, back in 2009, seeing London buses adorned with a message reading ‘there probably is no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’. The campaign was the creation of the British Humanist Association (BHA), a national Humanist group whose campaigners felt that the adverts would be a ‘reassuring antidote’ to religious adverts which ‘threaten eternal damnation’ to passengers.

The word ‘humanist’ preceded the word ‘humanism’ and began life with different connotations to its present day meaning. The word umanista was first employed in fifteenth century Italy as a slang term to describe a university professor of the studia humanitatis – the humanities. However the word ‘humanism’, in roughly the same context we speak of it today, first appeared in the German form humanismus as late as 1808.[1]

To define… humanism briefly, I would say that it is a philosophy of joyous service for the greater good of all humanity in this natural world and advocating the methods of reason, science, and democracy. – Corliss Lamont.[2]

The roots of humanist philosophy lie with the ‘fathers of humanism’. The early fourteenth-century Italian scholar, Francesco Petrarch, is often accredited with being one of the first humanists. Petrarch rejected traditional medieval scholarship in favor of a revival of Classical authors like Aristotle, Plato and Tacitus and, by doing so, Petrarch laid the foundations for a philosophy which would eventually manifest in a formally recognized movement, punctuated by national organizations and institutions.[3]

Desiderius Erasmus's Collectanea Adagiorum (1518) Photograph: Bavarian State Library

Desiderius Erasmus’s Collectanea Adagiorum (1518)
Photograph: Bavarian State Library

Petrarch’s ideas were developed further during the Renaissance. The word ‘Renaissance’ derives from the French term for ‘rebirth’ and it is accepted by most to mean the revival of classical scholarship and learning in Western Europe between 1400 and 1600.[4]  Renaissance humanists were followers of literary, Christian humanism, where the pursuit of self-knowledge was seen as a way of getting closer to God whilst also emphasising the principles of the Holy Trinity, namely the role of Jesus as the human son of God the Father.[5] The popularity of humanism during the Renaissance can be seen in the rising popularity of humanist literature. Desiderius Erasmus, for example, emphasised the importance of Greek scholarship via manuscripts like the Adagia. The Adagia began life in 1500 as a collection of eight-hundred and eighteen Greek proverbs. By the death of Erasmus in 1536, the collection had grown to around four-hundred and fifty-one proverbs.[6]

The eighteenth century witnessed a departure from Christian humanism. The age of Enlightenment was characterised by scientific discovery, which consequently ushered in a new definition of humanism. Eighteenth century humanism became fixated on ideas of rationality, reason and the natural order. Auguste Comte, the ‘father of sociology,’ even attempted to rationalise the twelve-month Gregorian calendar by devising a new thirteen-month calendar with an extra day to worship the dead and a system for leap years. Finally, Comte proposed that each month be named after a Classical graeco-Roman scholar hence, March would become ‘Aristotle’.[7]

The philosophy of ‘Positivism’ was the brainchild of Comte. It stipulated that any attempts to prove truths about the world were futile unless they were based on sense perception or empirical scientific evidence.[8] Over time, Comte combined his Positivist ideals with existing humanist ones and embodied them in the formation of the ‘Religion of Humanity’. The Religion of Humanity was an atheistic religion which aimed to eliminate transcendence and superstition but maintain religious rituals and ethical teaching.

A Positivist Church in Porto Alegre, Brazil (2014) Photograph: the Science University of Iceland

A Positivist Church in Porto Alegre, Brazil (2014)
Photograph: the Science University of Iceland

 “On or about December 1910, human nature changed… all human reactions shifted… and when human relations change, there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics and literature” – Virginia Woolf.[9]

The early disasters of the early twentieth century resulted in widespread pessimism and disillusionment in Europe. People began to identify that humanism had been unable to prevent any of the disasters which had affected them.[10] However, post-war disillusionment was endemic only to wartime and the humanist philosophy made a quick recovery, particularly among the Allied nations. In 1952, in Amsterdam, the humanist movement became formally recognised as the ‘International Humanist and Ethical Union’ (IHEU).

At around the same time, Marxist principles were brought to bear on Humanism. Karl Marx’s early writings, like The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology, concentrated on Marx’s theory of ‘alienation,’ the idea that humans had lost their natural attributes and abilities as a result of living in an artificial, class-based society. In 1953 Nikita Khrushchev espoused these ideas at a party congress and consequently delivered a current of class-conscious ‘Marxist Humanism’ across Western Europe. By 1966, Erich Fromm and several other Marxist and ‘new left wing’ Humanists had outlined their world-view in An International Symposium of Socialist Humanism.

In 1961 Julian Huxley (grandson of ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ Thomas Huxley, and brother of novelist Aldous Huxley), further consolidated the Humanist world-view by compiling works by himself and twenty-five other leading thinkers into a comprehensive volume called The Humanist Frame. Unusually, Huxley was a somewhat fanatical believer of Humanism. He viewed Humanism as a revolutionary, world-unifying philosophy. Huxley says ‘Humanism is seminal. We must learn what it means and then disseminate humanist ideas and finally inject them where possible into practical affairs as a guiding frame’.[11]

“Because humanists believe in the unity of humanity and have faith in the future of man, they have never been fanatics” – Erich Fromm.[12]

As we emerge into the twenty-first century, for the first time in history, mankind has been brought together by worldwide global problems. Issues like international security, the population explosion and the needs of third-world countries have recently begun to be addressed.[13] The international climate of humanitarian humanism has been most recently demonstrated by the global response to the ongoing Ebola epidemic in Western Africa.

However, Humanism has still not acquired the recognition it deserves. Since the millennium, western society has been dogged by the threat of terrorism. The paradoxical rise of religious fundamentalism in the Middle East not only threatens the west with disruption and violence but it also threatens the west with the internal indoctrination of its peoples. Since the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, reports of atrocities committed by the radical Islamic group Islamic State (IS) have appeared daily in British news. Moreover, the UK Foreign Office estimates that around four-hundred Britons have travelled to Syria to fight for IS.

A motif which embodies the contemporary definition of Humanism (2014) Photograph: International Humanist and Ethical Union

A motif which embodies the contemporary definition of Humanism (2014). Photograph: International Humanist and Ethical Union

In light of this threat it seems to me that now is the perfect time for British society to adopt the principles of humanism. The atheist, collectivist and humanitarian qualities of humanism are invaluable to a modern nation tormented by the threat of violence and radicalism. The Atheist Bus campaign was launched six years ago and the BHA has not launched a repeat campaign since. Unfortunately, the marketing department at the BHA seems to be redundant at a time when British society is desperate for the reassurance of a shared, rational belief system.

Whilst writing this post I stumbled upon a motif which was of great interest to me. To my understanding, it perfectly exemplifies our contemporary understanding of the word Humanism. It advocates knowledge, rationalism, human rights, liberty and collectivism and is contextualised by the recent Charlie Hebdo tragedy and cast in front of the universally-recognised humanist logo.

So, I will conclude with a proposal. I propose that the BHA awake from their redundancy and advocate the updated definition of Humanism. I suggest that they renew their campaign and use this motif, combined with public transport, as a vehicle for disseminating humanist ideas. With the help of evolved humanist philosophy, perhaps the East and West will one day be able to reconcile their differences in a rational and humanitarian way.

Further Reading

A. Bullock, The Humanist Tradition in the West (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 1985).

N. Everitt, The Non-Existence of God (London: Routledge, 2004).

E. Fromm (ed) An International Symposium of Socialist Humanism (New York: Anchor Books, 1966).

P. O. Kristeller, Renaissance Thought and the Arts: Collected Essays (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1964).

C. Lamont, The Philosophy of Humanism, Eighth Edition (New York: Humanist Press, 1997).

J. S. Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism (London: Trubner and Co, 1865).

L. and M. Morain, Humanism as the Next Step (Washington: The Humanist Press, 2012) (Click here to download your free copy from the American Humanist Association)


[1] A. Bullock, The Humanist Tradition in the West (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 1985) p.12.

[2] C. Lamont, The Philosophy of Humanism, Eighth Edition (New York: Humanist Press, 1997) pp.12-13.

[3] R. Morris, ‘Petrarch, the first humanist’ The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/29/style/29iht-conway_ed3__0.html [accessed: 14/02/2015 01:05].

[4] W. R. Estep, Renaissance and Reformation (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1986) p.20.

[5] J. Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism: A Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2012) p.118.

[6] J. McConica, ‘Erasmus Disiderius, c.1467-1536’ in H. G. Matthew and B. Harrison (eds) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[7] E. Asprem, ‘Positivism and the Religion of Humanity’ Heterodoxology, http://heterodoxology.com/2010/03/08/positivism-and-the-religion-of-humanity/ [accessed: 14/02/2015 01:35].

[8] H. B. Acton, ‘Comte’s Positivism and the Science of Society’ Philosophy, Vol.26, No.99 (1951) pp.291-310.

[9] Bullock, The Humanist Tradition in the West, p.133.

[10] J. Vanheste, Guardians of the Humanist Legacy: T. S. Eliot’s Criterion Network and its relevance to our Postmodern World (Leiden: Brill, 2007). p.3.

[11] J. Huxley (ed)The Humanist Frame (New York: George Allen and Unwin, 1961) pp.11-49.

[12] E. Fromm (ed) Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium (New York: Anchor Books, 1966) p.vii.

[13] H. J. Blackham, Humanism (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1968) pp.22-23.


This post by Thomas Dixon is the first in a series on Philosophical Keywords, exploring the changing historical uses, meanings and impacts of philosophical terms which have taken on broader cultural resonance. 

A couple of years ago, travelling on the Central Line to Mile End on the London underground, I started to notice a series of posters and images like the one below – using the familiar imagery of the London tube map to suggest connections being made between people – the red line was now not linking Liverpool Street to Bank but ‘self’ to ‘other’.

'Fellow Feeling' copyright © Michael Landy 2011

‘Fellow Feeling’ copyright © Michael Landy 2011

This struck me as an interesting expression of the philosophy of altruism – the idea that the essence of moral goodness is a devotion not to self (egoism) but to others (altruism). The term ‘altruism’ ultimately derives from the Latin word alter, meaning ‘other’. Intrigued by the artworks on the tube, I searched online to find out more about them. It turned out that they were part of a project called ‘Acts of Kindness’ by the artist Michael Landy who said about the project, ‘I want to find out what makes us human, and what connects us, beyond material things. For me the answer is compassion and kindness.’

There is now a kindness movement, with followers all over the world celebrating the value of what are sometimes referred to as ‘random acts of kindness’ towards others – often strangers. Such acts are also recommended by proponents of ‘positive psychology’ such as the UK organization Action for Happiness. The kindness and happiness movements are quite recent phenomena, and they tend to recommend altruism – doing good to others – on the apparently paradoxical basis that it is good for our own mental health. The ideal of altruism to which these movements appeal, however, has a longer, and quite surprising history.

‘Altruism’ entered the English language in 1852. Before then, there were all sorts of moral virtues, philosophical isms, charitable intentions, and perhaps even random acts of kindness too, but no ‘altruism’. The term had been coined just a year before in French – altruisme – by the pioneering philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte (1798–1857), in his System of Positive Polity (1851-1854). Altruisme was the name Comte gave to the other-regarding social instincts, and he located them physically towards the front of the human brain. ‘Altruism’ was a keyword not just in Comte’s speculative early brain science, but also in the atheistic religion that he founded, with himself as its High Priest – the Religion of Humanity – which was designed as a substitute for Catholicism, complete with its own calendar of secular saints and festivals, and humanistic hymns. The main aim of the Religion of Humanity, along with Comte’s envisaged re-organisation of society (things would be run mainly by bankers and scientists) was to see egoism subordinated to his new ideal of ‘altruism’ throughout the civilized world.

A gallery of some of the secular saints - including men of science and Madame Clotilde de Vaux - in the Comte's Chapel of Humanity in Paris. J.P. Dalbéra WikiCommons/ FlickR.

A gallery of some of the secular saints – including men of art, science and politics and a figure representing Comte’s belief in the moral superiority of women – in Comte’s Chapel of Humanity in Paris. Picture credit:  J.P. Dalbéra WikiCommons/ FlickR.

In the decades following its coinage, ‘altruism’ really took off. It became a fashionable term first among scientific atheists sympathetic to Comte’s ‘Religion of Humanity’. Later, British philanthropists and socialists of various kinds found it a convenient term to express their devotion to all classes of society and even to the whole human race.[1] The word was initially resisted by clergymen as an unnecessary scientific neologism – one pertinently asked whether it was really a ‘sweeter or better word than charity’ – but eventually it was even appropriated by Christians too, most notably the Scottish evangelical Henry Drummond in the 1890s, as nothing less than a synonym for Christian love.[2] Today ‘altruism’ is a modern philosophical keyword of quite wide appeal, and it still retains a flavour of its scientific and its humanistic origins: it is used both as a technical term in evolutionary biology and as an approving term within those systems of secular thought for which devotion to one’s fellow human beings, or to Humanity as a whole, is the foundation of ethics.

It is pretty surprising that Comte’s ‘altruism’ was such a successful neologism in the English-speaking world. The Religion of Humanity, although it had some followers in Britain, was widely mocked by leading British intellectuals, such as the evolutionist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) . Comte had been a respected historian and philosopher of the sciences, but as his career wore on, he became obsessed not only with his new religion, but also with the sacred memory of a married woman – Madame Clotilde de Vaux, to whom he had become spiritually and affectionately devoted before she died. In the British press Comte was ridiculed as eccentric, egotistical, tedious and humourless.

Several British visitors to Auguste Comte’s flat in Paris, including the philosophers Alexander Bain and Herbert Spencer, formed very unfavourable impressions of the man. Indeed, the British reputation of Comte in his later years in some ways foreshadows the very negative reception of ‘Continental’ philosophy in Britain during the twentieth century, as something both foreign and dangerous.[3] In his classic work, On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill described the social and religious system envisaged by Comte as ‘a despotism of society over the individual, surpassing anything contemplated in the political ideal of the most rigid disciplinarian among the ancient philosophers’.[4]

The two figures who probably had the most impact in spreading the use of ‘altruism’ as a term of both science and ethics in Britain in the century and a half since Comte’s death were both popular writers devoted to the theory of evolution and hostile to religion: the philosopher Herbert Spencer (1825–1903), and the scientific atheist Richard Dawkins (born 1941).

Herbert Spencer depicted as 'Philosophy' in Vanity Fair magazine in 1879.

Herbert Spencer depicted as ‘Philosophy’ in Vanity Fair magazine in 1879.

Herbert Spencer was the most famous philosopher of his day. When he was caricatured for Vanity Fair in 1879, the illustration was captioned simply ‘Philosophy’. Spencer was the embodiment of the English philosopher in the mid-Victorian period. He was hugely critical of almost all aspects of Comte’s thought, but borrowed from him the terms ‘sociology’ and ‘altruism’, which he defended as useful coinages.[5] In his book, The Data of Ethics (1879), Spencer gave his own new definition to the term ‘altruism’, using it not to name a kind of moral intention or humanistic ideal, as Comte had done, but to refer to animal behaviour.

Spencer redefined ‘altruism’ to mean ‘all action which, in the normal course of things, benefits others instead of benefiting self.’ Such altruism, Spencer claimed, had been in evidence from the very dawn of life, in the lowest and simplest creatures, and especially in the evolution of the parental instincts which ultimately evolved into social sympathy. In Spencer’s broad defition, ‘acts of automatic altruism’ were to be included along with those with some conscious motivation. The splitting of the simplest single-celled organism, such as an infusorium or a protozoon in an act of reproduction, was also to qualify as an act of ‘physical altruism’.[6]

Cover of The Selfish Gene, (c) Oxford University Press, 1976.

Cover of The Selfish Gene, (c) Oxford University Press, 1976.

Almost exactly a hundred years later, Richard Dawkins shot to fame when his book The Selfish Gene, published in 1976. Whereas Spencer had taught that altruism was inherent in all animals throughout the evolutionary process, Dawkins wrote that those hoping to build a more cooperative society could expect ‘little help from biological nature’. Instead, Dawkins exhorted his readers: ‘Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.’ ‘We, alone on earth,’ Dawkins wrote, ‘can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators’.[7] The story does not end there, however, as Dawkins had second thoughts about altruism and, in his atheistic manifesto The God Delusion (2007), argued that altruism towards non-relatives was a ‘misfiring’ of a hardwired instinct that evolved through ‘kin selection’ to favour organisms who co-operated with close relatives. We used to live in groups mainly comprised of close relatives, the argument goes, and so our kindness and altruism would almost always be favouring our genetic kin. Nowadays we continue to feel pity and show generosity towards those around us, even though they are generally not our close relatives. This is a misfiring – a Darwinian mistake, but Dawkins adds, a ‘blessed’ and ‘precious’ mistake. [8] Now, it seems, Dawkins thinks we are born altruistic.

Dawkins may have changed his ideas about the naturalness of altruism, but in both cases his writings illustrate a general philosophical problem – namely the difficulty of getting by rational argument from an observation about nature to an ethical imperative – making the journey from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. This problem faces anyone trying to construct an ‘evolutionary ethics’. In the case of the quotation from The Selfish Gene, we might ask why not cultivate individualism rather than altruism? And readers of The God Delusion might reasonably wonder why Dawkins considers altruistic urges to constitute a ‘blessed’ and ‘precious’ misfiring rather than an inconvenient and undesirable malfunction. In both cases, Dawkins’s own ethical preference for altruism seems to have been imported without justification into a purportedly scientific discussion.

So, whether we are contemplating works of art on the tube, or reading popular science books, we might at any time find philosophical ideas and assumptions seeping through. Knowing a bit about the philosophical history of our everyday language can help to keep us alert.


[1] Thomas Dixon, The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2008).

[2] Frederic W. Farrar, The Witness of Christ to History (London: Macmillan, 1871), pp. 144–146; see also Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, chapters 3 and 7.

[3] Thomas L. Akehurst, The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy: Britishness and the Spectre of Europe (London: Continuum, 2010), especially chapter 1.

[4] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859), in Collected Works of John Start Mill, 33 vols, ed. John M. Robson et al. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963–1991), vol. 18, p. 227.

[5] Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, pp. 202–206.

[6] Herbert Spencer, The Data of Ethics (London: Williams and Norgate, 1879), pp. 201–202; see also Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, chapter 5.

[7] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, new edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 3, 200–201; original publication 1976.

[8] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006), p. 253.

Further Reading

Helena Cronin, The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Thomas Dixon, The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2008).

Fern Elsdon-Baker, The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin’s Legacy (London: Icon, 2009).

Jules Evans, ‘Set the controls for the heart of happiness’, Philosophy for Life Blog, 19 October 2012.

Martin A. Nowak and Sarah Coakley (eds), Evolution, Games, and God: The Principle of Cooperation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013),

Samir Okasha, ‘Biological Altruism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta.

Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, On Kindness (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2009).