France, nineteenth century, positivism, auguste comte, gustave le bon, emile durkheim, gender, philosophy, sociology, modernity, history


This thesis discusses the philosophy of positivism in nineteenth century France. Based on an empirical vision of society, positivism advocated values of rationality, progress, and secularization. In that way, it stood as one of the defining systems of thought of the modern era. I discuss, however, an undercurrent of anxiety about those same values. Positivism's founder, Auguste Comte, argued that all sciences would become unified and organized under universal principles and empirical standards. He viewed the human mind as becoming more rationalized throughout history. In his later career, however, he argued that rationalism was a destructive force and that a new form of secular religion as necessary to establish morality and order. I argue that this transition from science to religion represents an underlying anxiety of the nineteenth century. Intellectuals from different sides of the political spectrum viewed progress as positive, but also limited. They argued that something beyond science, in the realm of the religious, the metaphysical, or the subjective, was necessary for society. They expressed these concerns through the language of gender. Comte argued that women would be at the center of his religion. They would socialize and moralize men, making them part of a new unified, pacifist and orderly social whole. I also discuss two later intellectuals, social psychologist Gustave Le Bon and pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim. Le Bon represented the fin-de-siecle rejection of positivism. He began with positivist principles, but later argued that humanity was irrational and violent. He viewed the modern masses as a powerful force which threatened to destroy civilization. The other figure, Durkheim, rejected Le Bon's form of nationalist right-wing thought and formed theories of social harmony, altruism, and a solidarity. He sought to reconcile egalitarian republican principles with positivist science. Despite their diverging theories, however, Le Bon and Durkheim employed similar assumptions about modernity and gender. Le Bon argued that European men were superior, and that all other groups shared an undeveloped mentality. Durkheim argued that men were social while women were simpler and mentally limited. Their views, far from establishing an unproblematic hierarchy of gender and race, in fact expressed anxieties about the state of modernity. They identified women, the lower classes, and other societies with values of simplicity, unity, and tradition. They identified the modern, Western male individual with the problems of modern society: excessive rationalization, instability, and secularization. This sense of ambivalence about modernity reveals the central importance of positivism to understanding nineteenth century thought. Positivism sought to reconcile seemingly antithetical principles of order with progress, individualism with social unity, and morality with rationalization. In doing so, it established anxieties about the forces of change. Positivists advocated the most modern of principles, and sought to further the progress of civilization, but also identified those rationalized forces as problems in need of control. Positivism thus established its own undoing, which would come at the beginning of the twentieth century. In that era, intellectuals rejected purely scientific visions of the world in favor of subjective thought. I locate the origins of that rejection at the very foundations of positivist theory.


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Lyons, Amelia


Master of Arts (M.A.)


College of Arts and Humanities



Degree Program









Release Date

May 2014

Length of Campus-only Access


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Masters Thesis (Open Access)


Arts and Humanities -- Dissertations, Academic; Dissertations, Academic -- Arts and Humanities

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