Was Renouvier as Scientifically Conservative as Comte?

Warren Schmaus

Illinois Institute of Technology

Over the course of his career, Renouvier moved progressively further from Comte’s positivism, defining his own philosophy of science in opposition to Comte’s. Among Renouvier’s criticisms were that Comte was not au courant in the sciences of his day, did not appreciate the directions that the sciences and mathematics were taking during his lifetime, and thus gave very conservative advice, proscribing research in sidereal astronomy, psychology, and mathematical probability and statistics. Furthermore, Renouvier claimed that Comte provided little argument in support of these opinions. However, some would argue that this was a case of the pot calling the kettle black. For instance, Laurent Fedi (1998) reports that Renouvier opposed non-Euclidean geometries and overlooked the significance of such developments in late-nineteenth century mathematics as Cantor and Dedekind’s work on transfinite numbers, infinite sets, and the continuum hypothesis. And Daniel Becquemont (2003) finds that Renouvier resisted the theory of evolution through natural selection and the idea of deep geological time, and saw little reason to pursue prehistoric archaeology. Given Fedi and Becquemont’s claims, one could argue that Renouvier was thus unfair to Comte. To answer the question whether Renouvier was justified in his criticisms of Comte would involve the analysis of many detailed and complex arguments of both Comte and Renouvier. In this paper, I will consider just Renouvier’s views on the sciences on which Fedi and Becquemont have argued that he held conservative positions. Renouvier’s allegedly conservative views concerned theories and research programs that were controversial in his day and many of the objections he raised were not unlike those of his contemporaries and not unreasonable given what was known at the time. For instance, his argument that Darwin lacked evidence that selective breeding ever produced a new species was also raised by Darwin’s supporter T. H. Huxley, and Darwin himself was acutely aware of the problem. Renouvier’s reticence about some recent developments in mathematics had to do largely with mathematicians’ philosophical interpretations of their theories and concepts, rather than with the work itself. He considered Helmholtz and Lobachevsky mistaken in regarding geometrical postulates as empirical hypotheses and he opposed realist interpretations of many of the concepts in number theory. However, Renouvier never translated any of his negative views concerning the research programs of his day into proscriptions against their pursuit. He realized that philosophy was no less fallible than the sciences themselves and thought it best to grant scientists free reign to their intellectual curiosity and the liberty to deliberate among themselves about what lines of research to pursue, even when he considered their ideas and theories to be wrong. For instance, although he considered the Euclidean axioms to be synthetic a priori truths, he reasoned that he was in no position to rule out the possibility that alternatives to these axioms would find some useful applications at some future time. He held that even a false theory could provide a stimulus to useful research that leads to new discoveries.