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date: 27 February 2020

Abstract and Keywords

Comte’s ideas were spread in Britain through the medium of J S Mill’s System of Logic. Positivism in this version was much like the original in France: it was an historical theory about the classification of knowledge through three progressive stages (theological, metaphysical, and scientific). Progress referred to both scientific knowledge and civilisation. Comte’s system omitted the subject of psychology, but Mill’s followers, G H Lewes and Alexander Bain, remedied this by incorporating this discipline into the Comtean canon as an evolutionary doctrine.Comte had excluded psychology from the ranks of the sciences because it lacked independence. That is, the mind’s ability to alter its environment by use of volition or will meant that it was not the sort of phenomenon that was analyzable using scientific method. Lewes, in countering this idea, based psychology in biology so as to emphasise those aspect of the discipline that were analogous to other sciences. Lewes saw the mind as the brain and regarded volition as very much like a reflex action or an instinct that might be beyond the mind’s control. Lewes also faulted Comte or classifying knowledge in an intellectual system that was not drawn from science. In place of Comte’s stages, Lewes substituted Herbert Spencer’s empirically-based notion of “ascending complexity”. This developmental thesis was not based upon natural selection, but upon the theory that both biological organism and the mind developed increased functionality as they evolved.Leslie Stephen’s positivism, unlike Lewes’, was not based upon data from neurophysiology. Instead it was a philosophical defence of a secular school of philosophy that began with Hume and Bentham and stretched forward to Lewes and Spencer. Rather perversely for a self-proclaimed member of a school that included Bentham, Stephen’s chief purpose was to attack utilitarianism, which he regarded as the opposition to evolutionary philosophy. Utilitarianism, Stephen argued, attributed too great a role to the intellect at the expense of the feelings. In his view, the latter were the important factors in decision-making and they were analogous to instincts and not subject to a utilitarian calculus.

Keywords: Lewes, G H, Leslie Stephen, Auguste Comte, J.S.Mill, Herbert Spencer, Positivism/positivist, Progress/progressive, Darwinian/Non-Darwinian, Charles Darwin, Lamarckian, Evolution, Biology, Neurophysiology, Vitalism/vitalists, Romantic/romanticism, Embryolo

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