Originally organised by the English Positivist Society in the 1930s, the Auguste Comte Memorial Lectures are now hosted by LSE Philosophy, where they provide a public platform for some of the world’s leading philosophers and social scientists.

 

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) was a French philosopher who made central contributions to modern philosophy of science. He also played an influential role in the development of the social sciences. In his six volume work Course on Positive Philosophy (1830-1842), Comte provided both a systematisation of the then existing sciences and an outline for the foundations of sociology (or “social physics” in his parlance). Bound up in his work on the Course was an elaboration of Positivist Philosophy. Positivism for Comte was the view that scientific observation and theorising provides the epistemological underpinning of an “ultimate” (science based) stage in social development, replacing earlier “theological” and “metaphysical” stages. This association between science and progress provided the motivation for the form of scientific investigation of social phenomena which has become essential to our modern understanding of the world.

The publication of the Course was a major intellectual event, influencing philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Émile Littré. A positivist movement became established in England in the late 19th Century led by Richard Congreve, who founded the London Positivist Society. As a result of disagreement over tactics, Frederick Harrison, E. S. Beesly, and J. H. Bridges, all disciples of Congreve, split and founded the London Positivist Committee, which focused on public education. Harrison and Beesly also became involved in the Fabian society, which illustrates the ways in which positivism and the work of Comte played a role in the intellectual movements that led to the creation of LSE.

An annual lecture “dealing with the work of Comte” was first proposed in 1933, with the first lecture being held in 1935 in the Ethical Church in Bayswater. This lecture series ran until 1940 and was the result of an initiative from members of the English Positivist Committee.

In 1949, the idea of reinstituting the annual Comte lecture in collaboration with LSE was raised and two years later the Committee had its first meeting with the School. A Trust Deed was drawn up into which the investments of the English Positivist Committee were transferred. The minutes from a meeting held in May 1951 state that purpose of the funds lie in

 

… the promotion and encouragement of study and research in social science and philosophy as a perpetual memorial to Auguste Comte in appreciation of his pioneering work in positive philosophy, sociology, and humanism, and more particularly for the endowment of a periodic lecture, upon any aspect of scientific or philosophical thought or of human activity preferably approached from a broad historical, positive and humanist standpoint.

 

The first lecture was given by Sir Isaiah Berlin on the 12th of May 1953 entitled “History as an Alibi”, later to be published under the title Historical Inevitability. The lecture was chaired by Michael Oakeshott, the newly appointed Chair of Political Science at the School, whose conservatism and capacity for irony made for a humorous contrast both to the political aims of positivism (the scientific reform of society) and Berlin’s liberalism. In the introduction, Oakeshott begun with a jab at Comte and proceeded swiftly to poke fun at Berlin, whose recent fame was largely due to a lecture series broadcast on BBC, by accusing him of showmanship. This, in Berlin’s own words, “bitchy” introduction upset him to such an extent that “he abandoned his usual custom of speaking extemporaneously” (Franco, p.15) which resulted in him giving “the worst lecture of [his] life” (Ibid.)

The following speakers, who gave lectures in less calamitous circumstances, included Morris Ginsberg, Raymond Aron, Gilbert Ryle, A. J. Ayer, Ronald Fletcher, Julius Gould, Donald Gunn, H. B. Acton, and André Béteille. The English Positivist Committee ceased to exist in 1969 with the death of its final member, Mr. D. G. Fincham. The remaining funds were subsequently transferred to the School. The Memorial Lecture Series continued until the 1980s.

The current lecture series was reinstated in 2006 and recent speakers have included Jon Elster, Will Kymlicka, Philippe Van Parijs, Allen Buchanan, Frances Kamm, Joshua Cohen, John Simmons, Jeff McMahan, Donald MacKenzie, and Dan Hausman. It continues to honour the terms of the Auguste Comte Memorial Trust by exhibiting and supporting pioneering work in the social sciences and philosophy.

 

Sources

Minutes of meeting of the English Positivist Committee on 5.5.1951, LSE Archives.

Budd, Susan, (1974), “Notes on the origins and history of the London Positivist and English Positivist Committees”, Auguste Comte Memorial Lectureship Trust. (With additional notes by P. D. C. Davis).

Franco, Paul, (2004), Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, Yale University Press.

Bourdeau, Michel, “Auguste Comte”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2015/entries/comte/>.

 

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