Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Poor, Unloved Auguste Comte

... still, almost two centuries later, has no scholarly-quality English translation of his (1830-1842) magnum opus, Cours de Philosophie Positive.  This is, I think, rather a scandal for such an important philosopher.

(How important? Well, Dean Simonton's mid-20th-century measure of the historical importance of thousands of philosophers, according to textbook pages dedicated to them and similar measures, ranks him as the 17th most important philosopher in history, between Rousseau and Augustine -- though I'd guess that Anglophone philosophers in 2010 wouldn't rank him quite so high.)

The standard translation of Cours de Philosophie Positive is The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, "freely translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau" in 1896. Wait, what?!  Freely translated and condensed? What is this, the friggin' Reader's Digest version? You're not planning to quote from it, I hope.

Probably Comte's most famous contribution to philosophy of psychology is his brief argument against the possibility of a science of introspection. Here is Martineau's translation of the passage in which Comte lays out his argument:

In the same manner, the mind may observe all phenomena but its own.  It may be said that a man's intellect may observe his passions, the seat of the reason being somewhat apart from that of the emotions in the brain; but there can be nothing like scientific observation of the passions, except from without, as the stir of the emotions disturbs the observing faculties more or less. It is yet more out of the question to make intellectual observation of intellectual processes. In order to observe, your intellect must pause from activity; yet it is this very activity that you want to observe. If you cannot effect the pause, you cannot observe: if you do effect it, there is nothing to observe (vol. 1, p. 12).
I won't inflict the original French upon you (it is available in Google books here, if you're interested), but for comparison here is William James's translation in his Principles of Psychology:
It is in fact evident that by an invincible necessity, the human mind can observe directly all phenomena except its own proper states.  For by whom shall the observation be made? It is conceivable that a man might observe himself with respect to the passions that animate him, for the anatomical organs of passion are distinct from those whose function is observation. Though we have all made such observations on ourselves, they can never have much scientific value, and the best mode of knowing the passions will always be that of observing them from without; for every strong state of passion... is necessarily incompatible with the state of observation. But as for observing in the same way intellectual phenomena at the time of their actual presence, that is a manifest impossibility. The thinker cannot divide himself into two, of whom one reasons while other other observes him reason.  The organ observed and the organ observing being, in this case, identical, how could observation take place? This pretended psychological method is then radically null and void. On the one hand, they advise you to isolate yourself, as far as possible, from every external sensation, especially every intellectual work, -- for if you were to busy yourself even with the simplest calculation, what would become of internal observation? -- on the other hand, after having with the utmost care attained this state of intellectual slumber, you must begin to contemplate the operations going on in your mind, when nothing there takes place!  Our descendants will doubtless see such pretensions some day ridiculed upon the stage (1980/1981, p. 187-188).
(The ellipses above mark one phrase James omits: "c'est-à-dire précisément celui qu'il serait le plus essential d'examiner" which, in my imperfect French I would translate as "that is to say, precisely that which it would be the most essential to examine". It is perhaps also worth remarking that no emphasis on "passions" or "intellectual" appears in my edition of Comte, though "intérieure" is italicized.)

Not only does the Martineau translation lose the detail and the color of the original, it is philosophically and psychologically sloppy. For example, Comte makes no reference to the "brain" or the "seat of reason"; instead -- as James indicates -- he talks about "the organs... whose function is observation" ("les organes... destinés aux fonctions observatrices"). And what is this that Martineau says about "the stir of the emotions disturbs the observing faculties more or less"? There is no trace of this clause in the original text. Martineau has inserted into Comte's text an observation that she evidently thinks he should have made.

We should no longer cite Martineau's translation as though it were of scholarly quality. There is no scholarly translation of Comte's most important work.

No comments: