Auguste Comte in Paradise: The Ecole Polytechnique, Temporal Series, and the Birth of Sociology

John Tresch, Department of History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science

Friday, December 12, 2008 - 3:00pm

Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1314 Locust Street, Philadelphia

Time: 4:00 - 5:30 p.m., followed by social hour and light dinner Location: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street Directions: Accessibility: Please download and read the paper in advance. (John has heroically reconstructed this paper after a catastrophic computer crash and sends apologies for residual typos. If readers are pressed for time, he suggests skimming section 4 on the Nebular Hypothesis. John will summarize this paper in an extended introduction when we meet.) Auguste Comte's sociology was based on an organic conception of the "great being" of humanity; his work has been seen as a turning point in the development of a qualitative social science. Nevertheless, Comte's sociology emerged from many of the same sources as the quantitative, "astronomical" approach to society of Quetelet and others. At the Ecole Polytechnique, where Comte and other social prophets were trained, students learned to map and choreograph flows of various phenomena operating at different rates; such techniques, this paper suggests, underwrote many of the schemes of historical development and social engineering in early socialism. Comte's Religion of Society made the intersections among mathematics, engineering, human history and cosmology strikingly visible. Rather than a scheme of formalist reductionism, positivism was a revolutionary project for the coordination of series, operating at multiple rates, on a cosmic scale; the new "spiritual power" Comte announced was a power of temporalization.