Auguste Comte’s Law of Three Stages: What It Is, Why the Third Stage is Dying, What Comes Next. (A Major Statement.)

[Note: this may be the longest blog post I have ever made on this site. The result of several weeks of effort, it may be read as a progress report on what may turn into my life’s work: if I have anything final and definitive to say to the world, or to that remnant that cuts through the information clutter and pays attention to such things, it will be found in the culmination of the ideas found here, and in related tracts to come.] 

In this post we outline Auguste Comte’s Law of Three Stages, with commentary. I’ve perceived, whether in my own work or in the occasional comments that I find myself wanting to leave on comment-threads, that having a succinct statement of the idea in one place to refer back to might be a good idea. Why? Because even if we disagree about where he ended up, there are reasons to believe Comte was onto something, and that a stages views of civilization might be instructive today. The post is divided into sections to make the discussion easier to follow. The early sections are adapted from a core section of the second chapter of a book I am writing entitled What Should Philosophy Do? A Vision for the Discipline’s Future. The full expression of the ideas near the end will have to wait for The Fifth Stage of Civilization: Beyond Modernity, Postmodernity, and Scarcity.

Auguste Comte and the Law of Three Stages.

Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857) is best known for two things: founding sociology as a special science with its own identity, and establishing a new school of thought about the nature of proper inquiry, in philosophy or otherwise: positivism. The former applied the latter, which advocated applying methods of empirical science to the study of society or parts of society such as specific populations or institutions or problem situations. Data-driven studies soon came out of this, so it’s hard to dismiss the idea as irrelevant.

Comte developed a conceptual framework for understanding Western society’s intellectual development. He called it the Law of Three Stages (Course in Positive Philosophy, 1838). He didn’t invent the idea that we can isolate “states” or “conditions” or “stages” through which a civilization passes. Earlier versions can be found in Vico and Condorcet. But Comte gave the idea its most concise expression. It is important to note that Comte’s stages are not historical epochs: they both can and do exist side by side in the same civilization: uneasily at best, sometimes in open conflict. It will not be hard to see why.

The first stage or state — First Stage thinking, we will call it — Comte calls “theological or fictitious.” In his words:

the human mind, seeking the essential nature of beings, the first and final causes (the origin and purpose) of all effects — in short, absolute knowledge — supposes all phenomena to be produced by the immediate action of supernatural beings…. The theological system arrived at the highest perfection of which it is capable when it substituted the providential action of a single Being for the varied operations of the numerous divinities that had been before imagined.

First Stage thinking could be called the state of Primitive Faith. It looks to multiple inscrutable, supernatural agencies as causes of events ranging from diseases to storms to earthquakes. At its most advanced state of development, says Comte, it consolidates these in a single, specific Supreme Being (e.g., the Christian God; or for Muslims, Allah). This Supreme Being remains mostly inscrutable, but may have revealed Himself and His will through texts such as the Old and New Testaments, or the Quran. First Stage political thinking tends to be theocratic and authoritarian. In civilizations advanced enough to support strong central governance, a priestly class dominates, usually within a monarchy. There are enforcers with police powers. These all rule the public mind through fear of hellfire and damnation (or of execution by some spectacularly nasty and painful means).

First Stage thought does not, in the long run, survive the influence of intellectually curious souls who don’t accept the authority of a priesthood on its word that they have a monopoly on what God wants, or exact knowledge of His will. Historically, philosophers tended to throw cold water on such notions as the “divine right of kings,” a prevalent notion in cultures where First Stage thought dominates. Thus the beginnings of the next stage.

Second Stage thinking is “metaphysical and abstract”:

In the metaphysical stage, which is only a modification of the first, the mind supposes, instead of supernatural beings, abstract forces, veritable entities (that is, personified abstractions) inherent in all beings, and capable of producing all phenomena. What is called the explanation of phenomena is, in this stage, a mere reference of each to its proper entity….  In the same way, in the last stage of the metaphysical system, men substitute one great entity (Nature) as the cause of all phenomena, instead of the multitude of entities at first supposed (ibid.)

Simplifying: Second Stage philosophy, beginning with Thales of Miletus (“Water is the first principle of all things”) and seeing its first full expression (or at least the first to survive) in the sweeping, systematic philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, develops systematic and comprehensive accounts of reality, knowledge, morality, etc. These are based on some set of first principles deduced by the philosopher’s reason. St. Thomas Aquinas, with his attempt to merge Aristotelian philosophy into Christianity, also exemplifies Second Stage philosophy which became, in his hands, a “handmaiden to theology.” Modern Second Stage philosophy could be called the stage of Pure Reason, reaching its highest development in the philosophies of Descartes, Locke, Kant, Hegel, and Whitehead.

Second Stage thinkers may conclude on the basis of very detailed reasoning that God exists, or that He doesn’t, or that the problem of His existence lies beyond proof or disproof. Descartes believed the first. Julien de la Mettrie and Baron D’Holbach concluded the second; Immanuel Kant, the third. In its moral and political expression, Second Stage thought, in the Anglo-American and Austrian worlds anyway, saw the individual human being as fundamental, and individual rights as grounded in the relationship human beings bear to Nature and to the conditions for human flourishing independent of legal structures: natural rights (God given or not). In this world Nature is the arbiter of the conditions of life, to which individuals and societies either conform or perish.

As should be clear just from the above, Second Stage thinkers are very different from one another. David Hume’s brand of British empiricism reached far different conclusions about the possibility of justifying our claims to knowledge; and he rooted morality in a combination of social sentiment and utility. In many respects, his rejection of metaphysical thinking with his celebrated remark at the end of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (orig. 1748) powerfully anticipated the next stage:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Thus the misty beginnings of Third Stage thinking, we will call it. Comte’s words again:

In the final, the positive state, the mind has given over the vain search after absolute notions, the origin and destination of the universe, and the causes of phenomena, and applies itself to the study of their laws — that is, their invariable relations of succession and resemblance. Reasoning and observation, duly combined, are the means of this knowledge. What is now understood when we speak of an explanation of facts is simply the establishment of a connection between single phenomena and some general facts, the number of which continually diminishes with the progress of science….  In the same way, again, the ultimate perfection of the positive system would be (if such perfection could be hoped for) to represent all phenomena as particular aspects of a single general fact — such as gravitation, for instance.

With this, we are on the way towards a view of philosophy to which Hume would probably have been sympathetic: as, at best, a “handmaiden” to natural science. Third Stage thought could be called the state of Empirical Science and Utility. And with intellectuals looking more and more to science for explanations, in a Third Stage intellectual ordering of disciplines, philosophy’s epistemic authority rapidly declines.

Comte’s Law of Three Stages encourages us to think of First Stage thought as possessing a civilization in its childhood, looking to a god for explanations and security, analogous to small children in a nuclear family who see their parents as godlike beings whose powers and motivations they cannot begin to comprehend.

Second Stage thought becomes the product of a civilization’s adolescence: its philosophers’ ambitions exceed their grasp given their a priori methods. Just as adolescents with new drives, sensations, and ambitions, will take chances and break rules whose purposes they don’t understand, vaguely resent, and will circumvent if they can. The immature, adolescent mind impatiently “wants it all, and wants it right now.”

Third Stage thinking, in this case, signals that a civilization is outgrowing childish fantasies and adolescent extravagances. Entering adulthood, it embraces adult realities and responsibilities. The intellectual centers of Third Stage civilization relinquish supernaturalism in all forms, be they First Stage Primitive Faith or Second Stage apriorism and “divine watchmaker” reasoning. They repudiate philosophers’ “quest for certainty” as futile because it is unsound methodologically. They accept, based on the history of its rise, that empirical science is more likely to deliver the answers philosophers have sought, because its method of patient, empirical observation and hypothesis-testing is superior to all that has gone before.

Figures from Sir Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin and Ernst Mach, to Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, stand at the culmination of this trajectory. Among professional philosophers, the first exemplar is probably Bertrand Russell, although one may also look to John Stuart Mill who was instrumental in introducing many of Comte’s ideas to the English-speaking world.

Third Stage Thought: Science and Morality.

Among the “adult realities” science had revealed long before Comte’s time is that Earth appears to occupy no special place in the universe, or even in the solar system. Copernicus had “decentered” our planet from the privileged place Aristotle had assigned it, and which Christianity had assumed, as the literal center of Creation. Galileo had produced empirical evidence that Venus orbited the sun, not the Earth, and that the heavens did not disclose Christian-Aristotelean perfection. Newton had showed, contra Aristotle, that physical reality could be understood without a division into terrestrial and celestial realms. Both are governed by universal gravitation, expressed mathematically. Newton placed physics and astronomy on a new foundation with his Principia (1687). Science seemed to advance by subsuming more and more of the world under fewer and fewer basic physical principles.

Thus came the unprecedented revolution that led to modern science, a revolution that proved unstoppable when it began to deliver technological and commercial fruits. Thus also the Western Enlightenment, as philosophers expressed what they saw as their achievement of Third Stage maturity which they sought to spread to the rest of Western civilization.

Darwin, whose ideas were circulating before On the Origin of Species (1859) appeared,  appeared to “decenter” us from our privileged place at the center of biological Creation. The human race, according to the theory of evolution by natural selection, may be the most complex species in existence. But according to Darwinism we are just the most advanced of many species in the complicated tree of life. We emerged over a long period of time as a result of a continuous natural process that had no goals, much less the production of beings like ourselves. One of the culminations of Third Stage thought is that there is no need to posit a god to explain human existence, or the existence of life or of the world generally. We are, at best, a fortuitous accident in a vast cosmos.

Arguably, the removal of morality from the province of the divine followed: morality, according to Third Stage thinking, was neither handed down by a supernatural agency nor originates in a transcendent Platonist realm nor even through Kantian rational agency. Hume, again looking across the bridge toward Third Stage thought, had opened the door to what ensued with his idea that morality was based on the sensitive rather than the cognitive side of our nature, i.e., was grounded in our natural sentiments toward what is useful in society, i.e., social utility, or what improves human lives materially or brings about greater happiness.

For Third Stage thinkers morality is just one of many distinctively human traits that had survival value. First, because it benefited social hunter-gatherer groups of various sizes. Later, because it brought benefits to developing societies such as stability and predictability through the building of trust among their members. Community is not sustainable if its members cannot trust one another at least most of the time, and if they have no rules for dealing with those who prove themselves untrustworthy. Hence truth-telling and promise-keeping became moral imperatives, and expected behaviors (habits) in most cultures.

Perhaps, for the Third Stage moral philosopher, ethical perspectives rest on little more than such down-to-earth realizations that our actions affect others, that happiness spread to others is more beneficial and productive than unhappiness (or happiness just for oneself), that alleviating suffering is better than allowing it, and that the future can be better (more pleasant, more efficient, more prosperous) than the past. This can happen if we work to improve ourselves through education and specific business and cultural activities, guided within a protective sphere of governance which will tend more and more to respond to the will of its people (the origin of liberal democracy as an ideal).

Third Stage thinking thus embraces meliorism, the idea that we can improve ourselves morally — actually becoming better people — through our own concerted efforts. This ran counter to what the West had inherited from Christianity: human nature is inherently sinful, and this will invariably hold us back. Against this, Comte and future positivists were optimistic — in a word, positive — about human potential. They were optimistic and positive about our capacity to discover more and greater truths. Years of careful study in subject domains (physics, biology, psychology, etc.) gave its experts a final say in providing a consensus on what was true in those domains. They were optimistic about our chances of building a better world independent of outworn beliefs about gods and divine commands.

According to positivism, empirical science both has, and ought to have, the final say in matters epistemic (dealing with knowledge): Settled Science, one might call it. It was not an issue that Settled Science shifted its opinions from time to time, since its methods were always turning up new findings. These rationally compelled scientists to revise their consensuses, and this was a good thing. Scientific inquiry was not about attaining epistemic perfection, or absolute certainty (First and Second Stage obsessions). It was about improving knowledge and the material conditions of life piecemeal. And it seemed to be succeeding brilliantly!

By the twentieth century, new inventions flooded the market and improved the lives of millions: the electric power grid, the telegraph, automobiles, refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, microwave ovens; the transistor, which led in turn to radio, television, and eventually to telecommunications and early computing machinery.

What Third Stage thinking offers is a world, and worldview, based on science, technology, commerce, public education, and responsible governance. This was not precisely what Comte had in mind. In terms of political economy, he, like his mentor Henri de Saint-Simon, was basically a socialist (of the utopian variety Marx ridiculed). Neither he nor anyone else properly estimated the resilience capitalism would have, including its capacity to embrace socialistic elements in order to achieve an adaptive balance between what its elites wanted and what its masses would accept. More and more, society judged itself moral to the extent it protected the interests of its weakest members and prevented people from falling through the economy’s cracks.

The question before us: does Third Stage civilization offer prospects for indefinite betterment of the human condition, moral as well as material? Its defenders have said, and still say, that its era of dominance has seen more improvements than in all previous centuries put together.

Gathering Doubts about the Third Stage: A Prelude.

At first glance, this is hard to argue with. The most advanced and accomplished civilization in human history sent men to the moon and returned them safely to Earth! It came to span the globe, with no end in sight, especially with the end of perversions of its basic ideas such as Soviet Communism.

Evaluating Third Stage thinking and civilization obviously goes beyond a single blog post (which is why I am writing a book).

But we can safely make a few concise and occasionally pithy observations.

Reiterating, just to be clear: Third Stage civilization, especially its power centers and its intellectual centers, privileges science, technology, commerce, public education, and responsible government.

Its worldview is that of materialism, meaning by that both a theory of the universe (that no gods or other supernatural entities have real existence outside our imaginations) and a focus of the bulk of human energies on matters of this world, not some other.

Third Stage thinking sees progress as inevitable, provided we stay the course and recognize that we were bound to fall and skin our knees a few times. There may be no Utopias up ahead in the sense of someone like Plato, or Saint-Simon, or Marx, or any of those guys … but things will continue to get better and better!

The solutions to whatever problems are created by science, technology, and commerce are found in better science, better technology, and better commerce!

All these are open to challenge, and have been challenged. Some of the challenges have been obvious products of history themselves. Others are more subtle.

The two most violent and destructive wars in human history (World Wars I and II) challenged the idea that the Third Stage mindset was somehow serving up better humans in the moral sense.

Add to these the acts of genocide committed by totalitarian dictatorships.

These amount to something more than skinned knees, one might say.

One could argue, of course, that the latter weren’t truly Third Stage in their orientation, if one wanted. Because mature Third Stage societies do not do such things.

Except when they do.

Abortion, anyone?

But that gets us ahead of ourselves.

Third Stage Science and the Fate of the Enlightenment. 

More subtle issues arose in challenge to Third Stage thinking well before we get to our present global era.

Enlightenment philosophers envisioned Universal Human Rights (UHR), whether developed along Kantian lines (suggesting something Second Stage about such notions), or along those of the British utilitarians such as Bentham and Mill. It was the age of secular moral theories, one might call them.

But no single discovery in any science suggests a basis for any UHR. If anything, anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict (cf. her Patterns of Culture, 1936) leave us with the conclusion that morality is, at best, a cultural artifact. In this view, moral agency is limited to one’s own, and does not include the other who looks and acts differently, speaks a different language, and might prove a danger. Within one’s own culture, whatever rights one has, one has because common belief says so. Governing authorities may or may not back up common belief. What the government gives, of course, the government can take away, and sometimes does.

The epistemic problem for ethics in Third Stage thought: science has simply not found a basis for a universal morality the way it has uncovered unifying principles, or prospects for such, in physics. Among academic philosophers, this prompted bizarre theories such as ethical emotivism, the idea that moral judgments are expressions of emotion, and that is all. Such theories accepted the handmaiden-to-science view of Third Stage philosophy: never challenge the premises of Settled Science.

One of the goals of What Should Philosophy Do?, however quixotic this might be, is to do just this, when it needs to be done. Materialism is, after all, a worldview and set of premises, not the result of any specific set of scientific findings. According to materialism, reality is exhausted by spatio-temporal reality, and there is no transcendent God to prescribe eternal verities. Within these premises we find no basis for a universal morality. This is because there is no universal culture. There can only be (mostly futile) gestures of ungrounded stipulation: commands we may choose to give ourselves, or to approve behaviors we like while condemning those we dislike. The Libertarian injunction against initiating physical force is one of these. The social justice warriors’ demand for equality of all groups is a competing gesture. The majority of the cultures of the world find both unintelligible.

The slow and agonizing collapse of UHR in the face of the neo-tribalism of identity politics over the past three decades or so surely supports this thesis.

But are the fundamental metaphysical premises of Third Stage thinking even correct? Sooner or later, we have to ask this question.

In some respects, a number of academic philosophers of science have done us the courtesy of opening the door for us. For the Third Stage account of reifying science has largely collapsed under their analyses. Much of their work is difficult and technical (to be discussed in part in the book to come). It involves such conclusions as that scientific observation never occurs independently of theory (Norwood Russell Hanson), that mature science is always paradigm-bound (Thomas S. Kuhn), or that major scientific advances do not conform to any philosophical theory of the rationality of scientific progress at all (Paul Feyerabend).

These came on the heels of mental adventures such as the Paradoxes of Confirmation: courtesy of Nelson Goodman, any observation that confirms a scientific generalization (e.g., All emeralds are green) also confirms a potentially infinite number of aberrent predicates, we might call them (e.g., All emeralds are grue, where grue is understood as green before time t and blue after t, for any t we want to postulate). Unless we postulate an a priori principle of uniformity, or simplicity, there is no rational way to rule out such predicates even if they are never formulated, much less tested, much less confirmed, by actual science. As a logical empiricist, Goodman would not go there. But supposing we do, why should the non-designed, godless universe of Third Stage thought be uniform, or simple, or intelligible to the human mind?

The upshot of all this work has been the slow deconstruction of many Third Stage epistemological ideals about science bringing us ever closer to something called “the truth,” if by that we mean something akin to a complete, theory-neutral and culture-neutral account of reality. If indeed our fundamental premises about what exists, or of specific ways in which the world (or the part of it being explored by a particular science) is intelligible to us are wrong, then we are moving progressively deeper into error, whatever our findings seem to be.

To be clear, we do not deny those scientific findings we can validate because they are right under our noses: findings in physics, chemistry, medicine, and so on, that we make use of everyday. This would not make sense.

But can anyone truthfully say the idea of life coming from nonlife has been validated? This is not something anyone has observed. Even the laboratory creation of something that could interact with its surroundings in such a way as to replicate itself, would not show that this happened under uncontrolled conditions that we cannot know ever existed, e.g., a “primordial soup” of lifeless chemicals experiencing electrical discharges. The credibility of extrapolations about such states of affairs depend entirely on the credibility of the materialist premise. Since this premise is among the things at issue, that is circular reasoning.

Yet Third Stage Settled Science has no other options! If life was not the creation of a deity, it had to come about through some form of abiogenesis, the technical term for the chemical evolution of life. There is no third option!

The bottom-line: once we look at the fine details about what must happen for abiogenesis to occur, scientists are pretty much clueless about the origins of life. Anyone who says otherwise is lying to you. (Cf. The Mystery of Life’s Origins: Reassessing Current Theories, by Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley, and Roger L. Olsen, 1984.)

So is materialism true? Is it believable? What we know is that one of its most important necessary conditions disintegrates when we look at it up close, and in detail.

What of other Third Stage preoccupations, e.g., in political economy (it has been a long while since I have been comfortable with the artificial academic separation between political science and economics)? Do they fare any better?

The Unsustainability of Third Stage Political Economy.

No one can deny that we have creature comforts our ancestors could never have dreamt of in their wildest imaginings. To that extent, the principles behind technology are at least reliable in the here and now. But then again, not all technological changes have worked to our advantage. Some have come with a price tag. Consider the changes in food technology under the assumption that artificial is superior to natural (the former can be patented!), and in pharmaceuticals.

Consider factory farming, in which animals are forced-fed grain with hormones to stimulate artificial growth and fattening. More meat means higher profits for food corporations, of course. But the growth hormones used have made their way into our food, and from there into our body systems, one of the milder results being children entering puberty at progressively younger ages, long before they are emotionally ready.

Are such practices damaging our health, not to mention what they are doing to the water table and the food chain?

A good resource to begin exploring these issues is Randall Fitzgerald’s The Hundred Year Lie: How Food and Medicine Are Destroying Your Health (2006).

Much of the direction food technology and pharmaceuticals have taken over the past century or so have occurred because of the market-driven or profit-based system. One of the reasons we have crises in public health is that we now have modestly unhealthy populations beset with chronic conditions. These need not be cured, but rather are managed for profit. A healthy population does not, after all, need doctors, hospitals, prescription drugs, managed care, health insurance, etc. We find ourselves with a state of affairs in which “health care” is not really about public health but about how (increasingly expensive!) care is to be paid for.

Think Obamacare!

Many pharmaceuticals, moreover, leave those taking them worse off!

Such observations bring us to commerce within Third Stage civilization, and to a mares nest, as I don’t plan to get into a lengthy discussion of “capitalism” versus “socialism.”

Here is a Cliff Notes version: Third Stage political economy, which in practice aimed to address specific problems rather than build the holistic Utopians of philosophers and some economists, has become a mixture of the two abstractions, but with the capitalist side of the mix the dominant one because of who has the money (corporations).

The mixed economy, responding to a variety of pressures, appears to evolve naturally into a culture based around mass consumption and convenience, the latter a lure corporations use to entice desirable forms of behavior on the part of the masses. The state tries to regulate corporate behavior, but rarely succeeds as more than a blunt instrument.

So what? (some might ask). Is it not true that the masses’ standard of living has been greatly increased? Even the poor are better off, poverty always having been a relative concept.

Again, Third Stage thought never promised holistic solutions. It is pragmatic, always balancing improvements against costs.

Unfortunately, matters are not as simple as that. It is true enough that Third Stage political economy satisfies needs through advancing technology and improved access, leaving most of us better off than were royalty just a few short centuries ago.

But once the majority of basic needs are satisfied for the bulk of the population, what occurs next?

Third Stage political economy (whether we call it capitalism or a mixed economy) cannot stand still. Companies must continue to produce and sell, otherwise they fail and must lay people off. That means the masses must buy what the companies produce, or the marketplace is glutted, prices fall, again profits cannot be made, and the system falls into crisis. Thus the obsession with economic growth as a sign of economic health, despite finite space and finite resources, even if everyone must take on debt to make it work. The masses need jobs, after all. Entrepreneurs need buyers. Economic growth supplies both, within a system that is constantly changing and churning. Joseph Schumpeter referred to this last as creative destruction (see his Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 1947). Economists tend to approve. So do advertisers! Advertising schemes are devised to create artificial needs in advanced political-economies so that people will buy! (Individuals are often better off, of course, if they keep their money!)

The alienating features of Third Stage life — the literature of which fills bookshelves! — suggested reasons to Schumpeter, all those decades ago, why the system could not survive in the long run. When it falls into crisis, some kind of government intervention is inevitable as a pragmatic solution to get things moving again. The Keynesians figured out how to do this, even if their solutions were short-term (their downfall). Financialization eventually arose during the final third of the last century. Financial institutions had known all along that they could inject capital into the system to keep it growing and changing. The creation of money through fractional banking has systematically devalued it, while redistributing wealth upward, one might say. A few reaped windfalls from this, and continue to do so. That would be those often called the cosmopolitan or globalist (or bicoastal) elites in the largest investment banks (think: Goldman Sachs).

That subpopulation within the masses known as the middle class began to fall behind long ago as wages failed to keep up with inflation. Working class people have not had true representation in government in a long time now, at least not since corporatism took control of the Democratic Party (it had long controlled Republicans).

This is all well known, and I need not use more bandwidth space to recount it here.

Suffice it to say: at present the entire global economy rides atop an ocean of red ink, the product of several decades of borrowing against the future to stave off, as long as possible, the inevitable crash that is the fate of all unsustainable systems. In the meantime, the world has experienced lesser crashes of increasing severity, the worst to date having happened in 2008. Many financial writers believe a far worse crash is right around the corner.

Third Stage Civilization and Covert Authoritarianism.

The real zinger, however, is that contrary to all the bluster about “liberal democracy,” Third Stage civilization is fundamentally authoritarian. Perhaps Sheldon Wolin’s concept of inverted totalitarianism applies, in which systemic demands replace dictatorial decrees. Third Stage authoritarianism manifests itself in carefully directed incentives (e.g., tax breaks for corporations, discounts for consumers) and economically-grounded pressures of various sorts instead of overt police powers of the sort seen in full-fledged dictatorships. Third Stage civilization began to centralize around heavy industry in the late 1800s, backed by financial institutions. Eventually our central bank, the Federal Reserve, was created to control the money supply and further centralize the economy. Centralized systems cannot work without introducing authoritarianism at some level, because there is no visibility of the bottom from the top; the systems are too large and expansive. Hence the necessity of command-and-control, however structured and implemented.

The ideal, therefore, became socially engineering masses that would accept increasing encirclements without question or complaint. This is precisely what public education set out to produce, replacing real education (which emphasizes liberal arts learning) with socialization to encourage conformity and vocationalism to produce compliant workers (and taxpayers). Subjects like critical thinking were ratcheted down. What was left was watered down. (Philosophy students were taught formal logic, but not told that the systems encircling them discouraged rational thinking.)

Again, that story is a long one, but abundant documentation exists. Start with John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education (2001).

Or consider this, the opening paragraph of Edward Louis Bernays’s 1928 tract on Propaganda (recently republished):

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this matter if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society….

…. Whatever attitude one chooses toward this condition, it remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons — a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty million — who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.

Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, was the founding father of public relations and advertising. He became a multimillionaire developing advertising campaigns for major corporations who sought him out. It was Bernays who hit on the idea of using celebrities in advertisements. The odds are very good that he knew exactly what he was talking about, and that as the technology of advertising systems improved, their capacity to exert subtle pressures on individual consumers via appeals to emotions ranging from vanity to the fear of missing out increased proportionally.

I trust no one who has read this far thinks all this is a “conspiracy theory” of recent history and society!

It was against the latent systemic authoritarianism of evolving Third Stage systems that significant fractions of a generation rebelled (late 1960s), even if what that generation served up in response was sometimes worse.

The point is, in our time, democracy appears to have been unmasked as the sham it has been for a very long time now. The reality is that the U.S. is a plutocratic oligarchy (Gilens & Page 2014), as is the case with all the other Western powers.

Eastern powers are somewhat different. China is openly oligarchic, the product of its having embraced many trappings of Western capitalism — for China’s Communist Party remains solidly in control of Chinese corporations (with the likely exception of the country’s central bank). Singapore has proven that one can have flourishing and wealth-generating (for its elites) capitalism without any trappings of democracy.

Arguably, the Eastern mindset is more honest!

Interlude: Crisis Yesterday Versus Crisis Today.

A sense of crisis is stirring throughout the advanced world. That admittedly sounds like a cliché. We’ve been in crises before, of course, many of them more painful than anything occurring at present (if we could ask those who lived through the Great Depression, I am sure we would find out). The U.S. was severely divided in the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially by a war favored by the Establishment but opposed by that significant fraction of a generation of youth who had learned how to use the platforms of their time to become mouthpieces of dissent.

Their dissent was the dissent of idealism, however. What is different now is that the idealism that prevailed in those years is largely gone, or at least greatly muted by the information explosion. There are exceptions (cf. Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist), but these appear to be exceptions to a general pessimism, leading more and more people to turn inward and tend their own gardens, as it were. Their focus is not on high ideals. It is frequently on earning enough devalued money to survive. This is the plight of the millennials, graduating from universities often with worthless degrees but with five and sometimes six figures of student loan debt.

More recent writers speak openly of the slow collapse of American society and how you as a person can prepare to survive it, even if you live in the U.S. (see, e.g., Dmitry Orlov, The Five Stages of Collapse). The arguments of such authors are compelling and not to be casually dismissed.

Upshot: Third Stage civilization, and its worldview, are dying. We see the reasons every day.

We find ourselves in what we might call a Comtean Fourth Stage, something Comte could not have envisioned.

Postmodernity: Our Present Fourth Stage Condition (with an Aside on Abortion).

Extending the metaphor used earlier, the Fourth Stage of a civilization is evidenced not by the supposed maturity of adult responsibility but rather advancing age and infirmity, perhaps even cognitive deterioration. In the West, Fourth Stage thought is filled with alienation, cultural pessimism, disillusionment, and sometimes rage. Think first of the existentialists, especially their fiction (but sometimes nonfiction works such as Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus). The most advanced Fourth Stage thinking could be identified with postmodernity in a broad sense: once aware of itself, it questions all the narratives and metanarratives that have gone before, including its own first principles. Its writers include French philosophers such as Michel Foucault (“knowledge / power”) and the Austrian-born iconoclastic philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend (Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge, orig. 1975).

Postmodern epistemology is clearly not an intellectual fad (although its spirit has been incorporated into numerous academic fads).

Fourth Stage thinkers, who invented “sociology of science” with flourishes of irony, wonder how much of actual science is able to find truths in the old, Third Stage sense, independent of a money economy. Actual science after all is just human communities dependent on university and peer support (including the same desire for job security as nonscientists), corporate sponsorship, grantsmanship, etc., and therefore embedded in the market-based system and no less vulnerable to its vagaries. In this case, in the Fourth Stage world, is supposed truth more than what has been bought and paid for by those who can command the necessary resources, the same as any other mass commodity?

How did we get here? Although there were strong hints of a Fourth Stage in writers such as Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, arguably it was Nietzsche who did the most to kick open the door to Fourth Stage thought. When he called for a revaluation of all values and warned against a future “advent of nihilism,” he was telling us that when God was erased from our philosophical and cultural map of reality, the conceptual support for everything God’s existence gave meaning to and empowered was also removed.

The ideas behind Enlightenment ideals of UHR were rooted in the Christian sensibility, after all, along with all the moral gestures that came in its wake. Belief that all persons were created in the image of God was UHR’s original basis for support. Once that support was gone, like a ladder kicked out from under a worker atop a high wall leaving him hanging by his fingernails, UHR’s days were numbered.

Eventually the Enlightenment itself would be eclipsed. Today we read anguished articles by elite authors about how “democracy is dying” at the hands of so-called populists like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and America’s Donald Trump.

There is, finally, the rage of writers such as Pankaj Mishra, author of Age of Anger: A History of the Present: rage against colonialism, against the fact that many of the world’s populations have not enjoyed the fruits of Third Stage modernity, but also against the tendency of the latter to embrace the Orbáns and Trumps of the world out of their own misguided resentments.

This didn’t just happen.

The twentieth century, bit by bit, art school by art school (think: Dadaism), literary figure by literary figure (think: Hemingway and Camus), and philosopher by philosopher, worked out the consequences of life in a godless cosmos, especially if we faced our predicament honestly instead of evading it. What predicament are we talking about?

That our lives have been shorn of meaningful value other than exchange value, that they are reduced to an empty and absurd nothingness against the vastness of a dead cosmos: that our choices lie between suicide (pondered by Camus in Sisyphus; Hemingway did commit suicide), or an authentic existence (as the existentialist uses this phrase) which stares the absurdity of life in the face but elects to enjoy whatever momentary experiences and memories life can bring us.

Except that if you are not a flamboyant artist or a famed existentialist writer or a member of the political or corporate class or a celebrity, and if your life is one of cubicle-job drudgery or worse, as has proven to be the case for the majority even in advanced, Third Stage conditions, then if you remain solely within the realm of reality, you might not have much to enjoy. Camus did not do much to articulate the choices of this majority, which are to bury themselves in private activities (including sexual fetishes), fly into some fantasy world of which there are plenty, or devote one’s entire existence to some political cause, usually a futile one.

The ephemeral and contingent value of human life can be seen in the abortion epidemic, in which over 60 million unborn babies have been killed in their mothers’ wombs, and sometimes on the abortionist’s table if by some chance they survive the procedure, since 1973. These, on any accurate scientific reading of the situation, are the most vulnerable human beings on the planet!

But is a fetus human?

When I once asked students this in a contemporary moral issues class, one quipped sarcastically, “Well, they aren’t goldfish.”

But are they persons and therefore members of the moral community? And don’t women have a right to control their bodies (the standard response)?

How does one product nonarbitrary criteria for admission into the moral community in the Third Stage intellectual environment? We have only biology to go by: if X has a complete set of human DNA, then X is human; and if X is human then X is a person and a member of the moral community.

There. I’ve done it. The roof hasn’t yet caved in, so we can drop the real bombshell.

If a fetus is human, then we can tell the feminist: it isn’t your body alone, but also the body of your unborn child, a human being whose vulnerability is as close to being absolute as you are going to find in this world.

What we can say is that if the morality of a society is indeed measured by its willingness to institute protections of its most vulnerable members, then ours fails as badly as any form of overt genocidal totalitarianism!

Materialism as a worldview provides no final social protections, much less intellectual arguments, against simply writing entire populations with human DNA out of the moral community! The Nazis did it with the Jews; the Soviets did it with even larger populations that resisted collective farming; American feminists and other left-liberals do it with the unborn!

Forward to a Fifth Stage of Civilization? The Case for a Technology of Abundance.

Although limits of space and time preclude a full development of the ideas here (many of which are not finished, anyway), I would close by asking whether the Fourth Stage thinking in which we have found ourselves is any more sustainable than Third Stage thinking.

I do not think it is. I will not state my full reasons here, as they are even longer than this has been (this is not a topic for short attention spans, obviously). They will be found in the two book-length manuscripts on which I am at work, and I can only hope and pray that my present and future resources will enable them to be finished, published, and that they find their audience.

I will only state that Third Stage thinking, if it takes itself seriously and faces its consequences for human life honestly, generated Fourth Stage thinking. Among the remnant of thinking people, it cannot do otherwise.

The telos of Fourth Stage thinking is suicide: if not personal, then cultural and cognitive. We probably have an explanation here for why fantasy of various sorts (not always labeled as such!) is so popular on today’s world, especially among the young. Not to mention why suicide is one of the leading causes of preventable death in the advanced world, especially among the young.

What I would argue: we cannot simply go back to an earlier stage, although we can identify features of those earlier stages which were fundamentally sound, and from which we can still learn.

We can only go forward. We refers here to that forward-thinking remnant.

I would therefore urge you to think about the possibilities of a Fifth Stage of civilization, one which recognizes, as did all its predecessors, the weaknesses of what came before, and resolves not to make those mistakes again. I hope to characterize this Fifth Stage more fully in future work. I will only say here what it will not do: it will reaffirm God, restoring him to our philosophical and cultural map of what is real, but not evince the “blind” faith in Him characteristic of First Stage thought which empowers theocrats. It will recover God through the realization of human folly (Biblical sin) and through realizing that purging Him from our world has been disastrous.

Fifth Stage thought will not be abstract and dichotomous as was Second Stage thought, but will preserve the commitment to systematic thought through ideas made available though systems theory and by recognition of the importance of process. It will note the organic nature of communities and the beliefs that animate them and give them meaning, including belief in a God. It will not be positivist and scientistic, and ultimately elitist, as was Third Stage thought. It will recognize where science and technology have given us genuine advances and insights, and under the right circumstances can continue to do so. What it will deny is that science and technology either are or should be thought capable of solving every human problem.

What technology might be capable of doing, given the right liberating circumstances, is creating abundance, rather than maintaining systems based on scarcity. The keys here are energy and its production, alongside the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence (understood by this as expert systems we have now that are capable of replacing human workers en masse). I do not wish to spell out the totality of what I am thinking at this moment regarding the former. But I invite any readers who have followed me this far to investigate for themselves what Nikola Tesla might have been working on that caused J.P. Morgan to pull his funding, and the U.S. federal government to classify all his research papers following his death. The bulk of Tesla’s later work remains classified to this day. The question: are there forms of energy a few technologists already know about that would not just end our dependence on oil but put all existing energy corporations out of business, even as they generated sufficient abundance to make the basic necessities of life readily available to all?

This, of course, would end the threat of technological unemployment, which is really just the threat of homelessness and starvation. A technologically-produced abundance of food, clean water, housing, etc., would end the near-absolute need of people to work in order to obtain money to pay for those basic necessities.

Would this not be potentially the end of involuntary poverty, period?

And given that most wars and more limited conflicts are waged over presumably scarce resources, would not a world in which technology has created abundance have a better hope of eliminating war, and building the kinds of bridges a realistic conception of UHR requires, than anything we are doing at present?

And finally, would not an end to our dependence on oil and its products do more than a thousand treaties and UN-sponsored agendas to alleviate our fears about what Third Stage industrial civilization might have done to the climate?

Utopia? Or Oblivion?

With apologies to R. Buckminster Fuller, who came up with these ideas long before I did.

Such thinking may seem utopian in the present environment. I don’t believe it is, but given the prevailing cynicism, or just the prevalence of those locked into a favored ideology, whether of the so-called left or the so-called right, what is being proposed here probably looks utopian. But Fifth Stage thinking, if it comes to be, will not be negativist, cynical, neo-tribalist, and anger-driven, as so much Fourth Stage thought has turned out to be. Nor will it cling to “moral principles” that amount to no more than abstract stipulations, as do Libertarians whose ideals owe more to Second than Third Stage thought.

My view, for whatever it is worth, is that we have no choice. This is for reasons stated above: our present course, and the assumptions behind it, is/are unsustainable. If you think I am wrong, then go back and read those sections, and consult the works I reference. Then feel free to leave your critical observations in a comment below.

Nor am I alone in thinking these goals might be achievable, if we adopt and engage the proper mindset. Fuller, genius inventor and systems thinker, made the observation a half-century ago that we have the technological ability to feed everyone on Spaceship Earth.

That was 1970 or thereabouts. The question I asked, all those years ago, was Why aren’t we doing it?

Today, with new technologies like 3D Printing, we are close to having the means to offer the world decent housing, and at a negligible cost! (Every economist will tell you that as you increase the supply of anything, you lower its cost; abundance will bring that cost to nothing or almost nothing. What, then, of the need to make money? The answer is, this must happen in a political economy in which people do not need to earn profits or money in order to live! I do not think of this as socialism, since socialists still operate within a conceptual framework based on a presumption of eternal scarcity. They just want scarce resources distributed equitably. I want to eliminate the presumption of scarcity, conceptually and technologically, thus taking us beyond capitalism-socialism disputes!)

Having said all this, I want to be clear: at present there is more than one possible outcome here. The actual outcome, obviously, will be based on decisions made now, or within the next decade. As a people we will either decide to pursue some variant on the kinds of goals discussed here, or at the appointed time, once our present debt-fueled economic bubble will run its course and collapses. When the dirt settles, we will have found ourselves returning, by necessity, to a fundamentally feudal type of society, advanced technology notwithstanding, in which a chronic lack of good-paying work will render the majority impoverished, struggling, and dependent in large measure on the good graces of their elders or on a shrinking population of fortunate haves.

Those who flocked to cities believing them to be havens of opportunity might find themselves in serious trouble. For our urbanized masses long ago forgot how to grow food; they believe it comes from grocery stores. Most cannot make simple home or car repairs. Without a car in a typical American urban or suburban environment, you are effectively stranded. In the case of an extended power outage as the result of a major emergency, most would have no idea how to heat their homes in cold weather without risking starting dangerous fires and taking their apartment-bound neighbors out with them.

In such a world, philosophy as a professional activity would probably have no future.


We have surveyed Auguste Comte’s Law of Three Stages, which converged on Third Stage philosophy and civilization as its ideal. With a 20-20 hindsight Comte could never have mustered, we found this ideal wanting on numerous grounds.

A civilization with its eyes exclusively on this world, based around science, technology, commerce, public education, governance of whatever sort, and presuming the givenness of progress and meliorism (the idea that we can make ourselves morally better by our own efforts) has turned out to be unsustainable in practice.

The wars, genocides … declines in public health, with an abundance of evidence that the central priorities of both government and corporations are solely with how managed care is paid for  … worsening educational systems that turn out functional illiterates … the epidemics of suicide … the sense that in the face of rapid technological change driven by a handful of leviathan corporations we have lost control over information and over our lives … all further the sense of unsustainability.

We have this sense of impending crisis. While crises are nothing new, the cultural optimism that resolved them in the past is gone. We have a strong sense that with our personal, corporate, and national debt climbing, we are living on borrowed time no less than on borrowed money.

In that past, we used technology to send men to the moon and return them safely. Today we use it to follow celebrities, take selfies, and chat mindlessly. We are all wired into technology, but as persons we have never been lonelier. We kid ourselves into thinking our “Facebook friends” are really friends.

Are we wired into online “communities” because real communities, in which people who care deeply about one another and interact face-to-face, are dying if not already dead?

Postmodernity is a kind of Fourth Stage … in art, philosophy, literature, commerce, technology, and in numerous other arenas.

Unlike Third Stage thought, it questions whether objective truth is any more obtainable than objective morality, while not denying that an abundance of (often conflicting) truth claims (like moral claims) can be bought and sold like any other commodity.

The challenge for the future is to conceptualize, and move towards, a Fifth Stage of thought and civilization, and do it amidst the present information glut, in which the first challenge any thinker and writer faces is to have his/her work actually seen.

The Fifth Stage of civilization — if it can be made to happen — will have turned to first premises and foundations where we find them, and where we find ourselves.

Where we find ourselves is lost without any sense of a God. Perhaps we should consider (I am speaking figuratively, of course) restoring Him to His rightful place in the world, as the Creator and therefore the Center of all value, with all that this requires of us.

A Fifth Stage of civilization will then be the scene of positive boots-on-the-ground work to recover our health and rebuild our lives and communities. All lives will matter, because all lives were made in the image of God.

Science and technology will become our servants, not our masters.

Perhaps at the end of whatever path a Fifth Stage mind goes down, it will find genuine freedom within communities whose members have not been thrown into ruthless and divisive competition with one another for an increasingly limited number of jobs amidst an artifically-maintained scarcity.

This may create conditions for a spreading peace of mind that will come from knowing what one knows (while recognizing and deeply appreciating mystery), doing what one can do (recognizing limitations), and simply being what one is (recognizing that, in the end, we are not God).



About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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5 Responses to Auguste Comte’s Law of Three Stages: What It Is, Why the Third Stage is Dying, What Comes Next. (A Major Statement.)

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