Teaching and Learning Guide for: ‘George Eliot, Harriet Martineau and the Popularisation of Comte’s Positive Philosophy



This guide accompanies the following article: Scholl, Lesa. ‘George Eliot, Harriet Martineau and the Popularisation of Comte’s Positive Philosophy’. Literature Compass 9/11 (2012): 764–773. DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2012.00906.x

Further Reading

Mary Pickering’s comprehensive Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography, volume 1 (Cambridge UP 1993), has been followed by volumes 2 and 3 of the collection in 2009. In these later volumes, Pickering explores in further depth the influence of Comte’s philosophy upon European thought, as well as the dissemination of Comtist Positivism throughout many parts of the globe. The volumes focus more on the Religion of Humanity and Comte’s second masterpiece, Système de Politique Positive and Comte’s position within the second Napoleonic Empire. I would also recommend Charles D Cashdollar’s The Transformation of Theology, 1830–1890: Positivism and Protestant Thought in Britain and America (Princeton 1989), which takes a useful transatlantic approach to Comte’s influence, as well as the influence of those who took an active part in the evolution and transformation of Positivism throughout the nineteenth century. Cashdollar examines the connections between Positivism, Darwinism and Religion in the development of Sociology, offering a historical foundation to modern and postmodern debates concerning the relationship between religion and science. Roger A Salerno’s Beyond the Enlightenment: Lives and Thoughts of Social Theorists (Praeger 2004) is also pertinent in this regard, with particular chapters on Auguste Comte and Harriet Martineau, as well as Thomas Dixon’s chapter “The Invention of Altruism: Auguste Comte’s Positive Polity and Respectable Unbelief in Victorian Britain” in David M Knight (ed) Science and Beliefs: From Natural Philosophy to Natural Science, 1700–1900 (Ashgate 2005), which positions Positivism within the broader modernist and historical paradigms of religious and secular beliefs, and the influence of the scientific world upon modernity.

Useful Links

Comte and Positivism of the Web: A (Would-Be) Complete Survey contains articles and essays, timelines and biographical information on Comte in French and English: http://membres.multimania.fr/clotilde/urls.xml


This article would be most effectively utilised in courses in Literary Culture and Cultural History, as well as the Culture of the Mind. It would play a significant role in the understanding of Victorian intellectual culture, and the dissemination of that culture through fiction, by being placed alongside Darwinist readings of texts. The interrelations between Darwinism and Positivism could be substantially explored to extend students’ understanding of the battles between religion and science that emerged within the nineteenth-century European context. In this context, it could easily be incorporated into standing Victorian Literature courses, as well as courses on the development of the novel. The essay provokes questions as to the transformation and translation of truth through the fictional narrative, and the way these narratives, particularly in the realist novel, often have a greater potential to penetrate the readers’ understanding and core beliefs by reconstructing a verisimilitude of the world as they already know it. Useful nineteenth-century articles that could be included in this regard are Edward Bulwer Lytton’s “On Moral Fictions” in New Monthly Magazine 37 (1833): 146–51 and George Eliot’s review “The Morality of Wilhelm Meister” in the Leader, 21 July, 1855. Both essays deal with the effectiveness of translating political and philosophical ideas through literature.