Questioning Positivism

I am conducting an independent research project in preparation for a proposal submission, to Eastern State Penitentiary, for an art installation – my proposal looks at phrenology and female criminology of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.Reaching back in time, as I so often do, looking for the origins of particular societal phenomena that baffle me… I have come across a philosophy coined by Auguste Comte – Positivism. My question is: How does the concept of ‘universality’  cause systematic oppression through the creation of deviance?

Comte’s philosophy strives to recreate the universal during the temporary downfall of Catholicism after the French Revolution. In essence Positivism is believable until Comte begins to create a sociological system of hierarchy that forces people outside the universal into deviance. This system allowed criminologists like Lombroso to create a subspecies of humans as born criminals as well as profiling women and non Aryans to be more primitive. (I will write more about this later.)

POSITIVISM – The Law of the Three States – Theological, Metaphysical, and Positive (scientific & philosophical): from The Positive Philosophy by Auguste Comte, pg.26, 1855/1974

  1. Theological State (“imaginary” or “mythical”) – the human mind, seeking the essential nature of beings, the first and final causes (the original and purpose) of all effects – in short, Absolute knowledge – supposes all phenomena to be produced by the immediate action of supernatural beings.
  2. Metaphysical State (“abstract”) – only a modification of the first, the mind supposes, instead of supernatural beings, abstract forces, veritable entities (that is, personified abstraction) inherent in all beings, and capable of producing all phenomena. What is called the explanation of phenomena is, in this stage, a mere reference of each to its proper entity.
  3. Positive State – the mind has given over the vain search after Absolute notions, the origin and destination of the universe, and the causes of phenomena, and applies itself to the study of their laws – that is, their invariable relations of succession and resemblance. Reasoning and observation, duly combined, are the means of this knowledge.  What is now understood when we speak of an explanation of facts is simply the establishment of a connection between single phenomena and some general facts, the number of which continually diminishes with the progress of science.

Comte’s system of hierarchy evolves from a theological universal advancing from primitive religion ‘fetishism’ to the final religion ‘positivism’.  He equates the evolution of an individual – child to youth to man with the races of human kind.  This is where I get ethically tangled – I can not believe that one race is superior rather than being OK with social characteristics that differ from my own.  Human characteristics have value in each society or community – possibly that each community creates systems of order in direct relation to survival, maybe hierarchical, maybe not.  And if each society creates the proverbial measuring stick then deviance may always happen from one society to the next – in that case we have different truths maybe not deviant from, rather, other than.  Our needs are relative to survival in specific conditions based on, for example, natural environment – desert vs. mountain people or rural vs. urban.  Why does the other have to be bad while mine is good or the other be deviant while mine is universal?