Auguste (Comte) And Everything After

17Apr07

Constraints are essential to the creation of any great work. No book would ever be published if its author spent a lifetime trying to choose the ideal format. The great American pop song is about three and a half minutes long because each side of early records couldn’t hold much more music than that.

In the same way, this project needs a starting point and bounded realms of inquiry. We’re going to start in the 18th Century, and we’ll follow three threads: Social Research, Design and Strategy. Because research is fun and has a significantly more tortured path than any of the rest, I’m going to begin there.

Meet Auguste Comte. Isidore Marie Auguste François Xavier Comte, at that. Sorry. Couldn’t resist. He is the father and creator of sociology, and he’s the first guy who had the crazy idea that people could be scientifically studied the way anything else could be. He’s got a lot to answer for, doesn’t he?

Born in 1798, Comte, a native of Montpelier, France, came of age at the dawn of two revolutions: The Scientific and the Republican. At the time of his birth, France was in the grips of a violent cataclysm that tore down existing institutions and erected new ones on a rapid cycle. So what inspired him to see the world so differently? Well, maybe it was the time he grew up in. Maybe he had the spark for change. Maybe it was just something in the water. At any rate, Comte concerned himself most significantly with understanding the patterns in human behavior and thinking. (Most of his work occurred between 1824 and 1854, by the way).

Here’s what he saw: Every form of science — a term he applies quite broadly — whether chemistry, earth science or biology, has three phases. The theological comes first. During this level of thought, man’s relationship to nature is dictated by external divine forces. The church, if it has developed, is infallible. Questioning is not appropriate or even particularly possible.

The metaphysical era succeeds the theological. Put simply, the divine transfers to the human. Nothing is more important that the discovery and elevation of innate and universal human rights. The metaphysical school of thought reigned during the 18th Century through thinkers like Locke and Jefferson. The questioning of divinity and the elevation of landed men gave rise to the American and French revolutions, to name but two.

The ultimate phase is the Positive Scientific. Natural phenomena can be explained through scientific inquiry and concrete observation. Abstract speculation should be rejected. Experience trumps interesting philosophical wool-gathering.

Why does this matter? Comte suggested that in order to understand the progress of the existing sciences, we needed a new field that would study society and humanity from an empirical, verifiable perspective. He wanted to replace philosophy’s abstractions with cold, hard fact. This was extremely misguided, as you can imagine. But it matters to any of us trying to understand what people need.

Think about it. For millennia, philosophers and theologians had speculated about the nature of humanity. And after thousands of years, a breakthrough. Real people matter. Not users, not consumers or customers. But people. All of us in this industry should be here because we genuinely care about people and believe we can understand them and figure out ways to make their lives better. It’s not about assumptions, it’s about hearing their stories and understanding what lies beneath.

That’s the entry point for social research. Even 150 years ago, the groundwork had been laid. The specific outputs of that baseline and most of the associated processes were far from sophisticated by today’s standards. It was, however, a window toward change. In the ensuing decades, we started to get somewhere. But there are many miles to walk yet.

Chapter 2: The Visible Hand of the Invisible Hand

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