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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 October 2017

School of History, Queen Mary University of London E-mail:
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Recent theories concerning the origins of the idea of “the West” have missed the most important link in the story, the writings and tireless propagandizing efforts of Auguste Comte. It was Comte who first developed an explicit and elaborate idea of “the West” as a sociopolitical concept, basing it on a historical analysis of the development of the “vanguard” of humanity and proposing a detailed plan for the reorganization of that portion of the world, before it could serve the rest of humanity to achieve the same “positive” state of development. Previous authors who had used “the West” did not go beyond employing it casually and interchangeably with “Europe.” Thus the modern political idea of “the West” was anything but an imperialistic project in its inception, despite widespread arguments in the literature that attribute its emergence to the needs of high imperialism. Comte's West was meant to abolish empires of conquest and establish world peace.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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For advice, assistance or encouragement in relation to this article I thank the three anonymous readers and the members of the editorial board of Modern Intellectual History, and Sophia Rosenfeld in particular, as well as David Armitage, Jérémie Barthas, Richard Bourke, Stuart Jones, Alan Kahan, Avi Lifschitz, J. P. Parry, Michael Sutton, Bella Thomas and, for generously facilitating my research in Comte's papers, Michel Bourdeau, David Labreure and the Maison d'Auguste Comte.


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22 Adamovsky, Euro-orientalism, 248–60.

23 Mill to d'Eichthal, 3 March 1837, in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. F. E. L. Priestley and John M. Robson, 33 vols. (Toronto and London, 1963–91), 12: 329, emphasis added.

24 Quoted in Webster, Charles, The Foreign Policy of Palmerston 1830–1841: Britain, the Liberal Movement and the Eastern Question, 2 vols. (London, 1951), 1: 397Google Scholar.

25 Ibid., 406.


26 Freeman, Edward A., Historical Essays, Third Series (New York, 1969), 214–15, 230Google Scholar; Second Series (NewYork, 1969), v, 176, 188, 189, 216.

27 See J. P. Parry, “Disraeli, the East and Religion: Tancred in Context,” English Historical Review 132/556 (2017), 570–604.

28 Comte praised highly both Condorcet and de Maistre: Comte, Auguste, System of Positive Policy: Or Treatise on Sociology, Instituting the Religion of Humanity, 4 vols. (London, 1875–7)Google Scholar (hereafter System (Engl.)), 1: 589, 2: 151, 369, 3: 11, 527–8, 4: 2, 262, 570–77.

29 Henry Laurens, Orientales (Paris, 2007), 16.

30 de Secondat, Charles-Louis, de la, Baron de Montesquieu, Brède et, Lettres persanes, ed. Roger, Jacques (Paris, 1992), 28Google Scholar, 52, 133, 163, 183, 241.

31 Caritat, Jean-Antoine-Nicolas, de Condorcet, Marquis, Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain, ed. Pons, Alain (Paris, 1988)Google Scholar.

32 Caritat, Jean-Antoine-Nicolas, de Condorcet, Marquis, Political Writings, ed. Steven Lukes and Nadia Urbinati (Cambridge, 2012), 55Google Scholar, 57, 58, 60, 62, 63, 66.

33 See Echeverria, Durand, Mirage in the West: A History of the French Image of American Society to 1815 (Princeton, 1968), 152Google Scholar.

34 See Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, Écrits sur les États Unis, ed. Ansart, Guillaume (Paris, 2012)Google Scholar.

35 Denis Diderot, Oeuvres, vol. 3, ed. Versini, Laurent (Paris, 1995). For the reference to “peuples d'Occident” in contradistinction to “leurs frères d'Orient,” see Diderot, “Croisades,” in ibid., 36–43, at 36Google Scholar.

36 Lamartine, Alphonse de, La question d'Orient: Discours et articles politiques (1834–1861), ed. Basch, Sophie and Laurens, Henry (Paris, 2011), 102, 154, 157–8, 183, 189, 202, 228, 230, 234, 249, 373, 375, 376.Google Scholar

37 Ibid., 102, 117, 186, 187, 188, 190, 192, 193, 194, 195, 197, 201, 202–5, 218–20, 229, 231, 234, 238, 240, 246–7, 250–51, 373, 378, 381.


38 Chevalier, Michel, Politique industrielle: Système de la Méditerranée: Articles extraits du globe (Paris, 1832)Google Scholar; Musso, Pierre, ed., Le Saint-Simonisme, l'Europe et la Méditerranée (Houilles, 2008)Google Scholar; Drolet, Michael, “A Nineteenth-Century Mediterranean Union: Michel Chevalier's Système de la Méditerranée,” Mediterranean Historical Review 30 (2015), 147–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Figeac, Jean-François, “La géopolitique orientale des saint-simoniens,” Cahiers de la Méditerranée 85 (2012), 251–68Google Scholar; Régnier, Philippe, “Le mythe oriental des Saint- Simoniens,” in Morsy, Magali, ed., Les saint-simoniens et l'Orient: Vers la modernité (Aix-en-Provence, 1989), 2949Google Scholar; Levallois, Michel and Moussa, Sarga, eds., L'orientalisme des saint-simoniens (Paris, 2006)Google Scholar.

39 Comte, Auguste, Correspondance générale et confessions, 8 vols. (Paris and La Haye, 1973–90), 1Google Scholar: 78–85, 104–10, 133–8, 140–46, 160–61; Bret, Hervé Le, Les frères d'Eichthal: Le saint-simonien et le financier au XIXe siècle (Paris, 2012), 91127Google Scholar; Pickering, Mary, Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography, 3 vols. (Cambridge, 1993–2009), 1: 258–61, 275–303CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 Comte to d'Eichthal, 23 Oct. 1836, in Comte, Correspondance, 1: 275.

41 d'Eichthal, Gustave, Les deux mondes (Paris, 1836), 2331Google Scholar.

42 Chevalier, Michel, Lettres sur l'Amérique du Nord, 2 vols. (Paris, 1836), 1Google Scholar: ix–x. “The peoples that we are used to calling Orientals, but who are not but of the Minor Orient, have ceased to be formidable adversaries for Europe. They have irrevocably surrendered their swords to her [to Europe] in Heliopolis, in Navarin, in Adrianople.”

43 Ibid., xiii.


44 D'Eichthal to Karl August Varnhagen von Ense, 25 Jan. 1837, quoted in Le Bret, Les frères d'Eichthal, 239. “You may know the work of my friend Michel Chevalier on America, which it would have been better to entitle On the West.”

45 See d'Eichthal, Gustave, De l'unité Européenne (Paris, 1840)Google Scholar; see also d'Eichthal, “L'Italie, la papauté et la confédération européenne: Six articles publiés dans le journal Le Credit les 12, 18, 25 Decembre 1848, et 1, 8, 22 et 23 Janvier 1849,” dossier 8-Z-4601, Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, Paris.

46 Pierre Laffitte, “Conversations avec A. Comte: Notes manuscrites de P. Laffitte sur des conversations entre 1845 et 1850,” 12 bis., Maison Auguste Comte manuscripts.

47 Comte, Auguste, Cours de philosophie positive (1830–42), ed. Enthoven, Jean-Paul, 2 vols. (Paris, 1975)Google Scholar (hereafter Cours).

48 Comte, Auguste, Système de politique positive (1851–4), 5th edn, 4 vols. (Paris, 1929)Google Scholar (hereafter Système).

49 Pickering, Auguste Comte, 1: 6, 691, 2: 3; Petit, Annie, Le système d'Auguste Comte: De la science à la religion par la philosophie (Paris, 2016), 269Google Scholar.

50 On 14 July 1845 Comte wrote to Mill that he had dedicated the previous two months to special studies on medieval Catholicism and mainly to reading, for the first time, Augustine's City of God. Comte, Correspondance, 3: 62.

51 See Bourdeau, Michel, Les trois états: Science, théologie et métaphysique chez Auguste Comte (Paris, 2006)Google Scholar.

52 Laffitte, “Conversations avec A. Comte,” 12 bis.

53 Comte, System (Engl.), 3: 46–55, 2: 320–24.

54 On 29 April 1848 Comte told Laffitte that from then onwards he was to use an expression much preferable to “pouvoir spirituel,” that of “pouvoir modérateur.” Laffitte, “Conversations avec A. Comte,” 20–21.

55 Comte, Auguste, Early Political Writings, ed. Jones, H. S. (Cambridge, 1998), 211CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

56 Comte, Système, 4: 420–22; Comte, System (Engl.), 4: 403.

57 Vernon, Richard, “Comte and the Withering Away of the State,” in Vernon, Citizenship and Order: Studies in French Political Thought (Toronto 1986), 125–45Google Scholar.

58 Comte, Système, 2: 310, 319–20, 4: 305.

59 Comte, Système, 2: 314–15.

60 Comte, Auguste, A General View of Positivism, trans. Bridges, J. H. (London, 1865)Google Scholar (hereafter General View), 92–3. For the French original see Comte, Discours sur l'ensemble du positivisme, ed. Annie Petit (Paris, 1998) (hereafter Discours 1848).

61 Comte, Correspondance, 1: 17. At that time Comte was seriously contemplating moving to the United States. See Rémond, René, Les États Unis devant l'opinion française 1815–1852, 2 vols. (Paris, 1962), 2: 495.Google Scholar

62 Saint-Simon, Henri, Oeuvres complètes, ed. Grange, Juliette, Musso, Pierre, Régnier, Philippe and Yonnet, Frank, 4 vols. (Paris, 2012), 4Google Scholar: 2764, 2767. “French, English, Belgians, Dutch, Danes, Swedes, Germans, Italians, Spaniards and Portuguese . . . it is to you collectively that this work addresses itself” (my translation).

63 Ibid., 2764, 2767, 2762, 2763, 2768.


64 Ibid., 2764, 2767, 2764.


65 Ibid., 1: 583, 4: 2826.


66 Ibid., 1: 582–4.


67 Comte, System (Engl.), 4: 635–6 n.; Comte, Système, 4: Appendix, 202 n. 1, emphasis added.

68 They mostly discuss Comte's writings as contributions to thinking on the idea of “Europe.” See Petit, Annie, “L'Europe positiviste: la ‘République occidentale’,” Revue de la Société d'histoire des révolutions du XIXe siècle 7 (1991), 1935Google Scholar; Grange, Juliette, “La continuité de l'idée de l'Europe,” in Drai, Raphael and Thuan, Cao-Huy, eds., Instabilités européennes: Recomposition ou décomposition? (Paris, 1992), 207–18Google Scholar; Braunstein, Jean-François, “Auguste Comte, l'Europe et l'Occident,” in Chenet-Faugeras, Françoise, ed., Victor Hugo et l'Europe dans la pensée (Paris, 1995), 193206Google Scholar; Sandoval, Tonatiuh Useche, “L'idée d'Europe dans la politique positive d'Auguste Comte,” Philonsorbonne 3 (2008–9), 5173Google Scholar. For a work that charts the transition from l'Europe to l'Occident in Comte's vocabulary, without attempting to situate Comte in the history of ideas of the West, see Useche Sandoval, “L'idée d'Occident chez Auguste Comte” (unpublished doctoral thesis, Université Paris I—Panthéon-Sorbonne, 2013). In the Conclusion, Useche Sandoval complains about the absence of Comte from works dedicated to “l'idée européenne” (my emphasis) and says that his thesis was undertaken to make up for that neglect.

69 Useche Sandoval, “L'idée d'Occident,” 112.

70 The first published work where l'Occident was formally proclaimed was the Discours of 1848. Not only was the word used innumerable times in the book, but the top of the front page read “RÉPUBLIQUE OCCIDENTALE / Ordre et Progrès.”

71 Comte to Mill, 20 Nov. 1841, in Comte, Correspondance, 2: 22, my translation.

72 Comte, Correspondance, 2: 32, 37, 61.

73 Comte, Correspondance, 2: 48. “The more our century advances, the more one will feel everywhere that all West Europeans are, in fact, fellow citizens” (my translation).

74 Comte, Correspondance, 2: 57, 91.

75 Comte to Mill, 30 Dec. 1842, in Comte, Correspondance, 2: 125, emphasis added—“phase currently reached by the totality of the European, or rather Western, revolution” (my translation).

76 Comte, Correspondance, 2: 142, 158, 203, 210, 248, 330, 3: 240, 244, 299, 4: 4, 8, 38.

77 Comte, Correspondance, 4: 20–21, 38.

78 Mill, Collected Works, 13: 692.

79 Comte to Mill, 21 Jan. 1846, in Comte, Correspondance, 3: 298–9, emphasis added. “The basic situation of the elite of humanity urgently requires everywhere the preponderance, not of an insufficient cosmopolitanism, but of an active Europeanism, or rather of a profound Occidentalism, corresponding to the necessary solidarity of the various elements of the great modern republic” (my translation).

80 Saint-Simon, Oeuvres complètes, 4: 2875–3016, 2974.

81 Comte, Système, 1: 389–90, emphasis added. “Between the simple nationality, which the social spirit of antiquity never superseded, and Humanity in its definitive conception, the Middle Ages instituted an intermediary conception too little appreciated today, by founding a free occidentality. Our first political duty now consists in reconstructing it [occidentality] on unshakeable bases, by putting right the anarchy generated by the extinction of the Catholic and feudal regime” (my translation).

82 Comte, Système, 1: 389–90, my translation.

83 Cf. Lepenies, Wolf, Auguste Comte: Die Macht der Zeichen (Munich, 2010)Google Scholar.

84 Mill, Collected Works, 10: 366

85 Congreve, “The West,” 1–49.

86 Ibid., 12.


87 Ibid., 13–14.


88 Ibid., 17–19.


89 Ibid., 35–6.


90 Ibid., 45, 47.


91 “International Policy,” North American Review 103/213 (1866), 608–9.

92 Laffitte, Pierre, The Positive Science of Morals: Its Opportunities, Its Outlines, and Its Chief Applications, trans. J. Carey Hall (London, 1908), 196–7.Google Scholar

93 Laffitte, Pierre, A General View of Chinese Civilization and of the Relations of the West with China, trans. John Carey Hall (Tokyo, London, Yokohama, Shanghai and Hong Kong, 1887), iii–viiGoogle Scholar, emphasis added, 104 n.1.

94 “International Policy.”

95 Freemantle, W. H., “M. Comte and His Disciples on International Policy,” Contemporary Review 3 (1866), 477–98Google Scholar, at 488.

96 The Athenæum 2038 (17 Nov. 1866), 642.

97 Saturday Review, 11 Aug. 1866, 176.

98 “Politics, Sociology, Voyages and Travels,” Westminster Review, 30/2 (1866), 484–5. Meanwhile, a sympathetic reviewer explained, “The idea of Humanity, which has become too familiar to need any exposition here, has given birth to an offshoot which may be called ‘the West,’ or ‘Occidentality.’” “International Policy,” The Reader, 21 July 1866, 661.

99 Comte, Cours, 2: 694 (57th lesson).

100 Comte, Auguste, The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, freely translated and condensed by Martineau, Harriet, 2 vols. (London, 1853), 2: 493Google Scholar.

101 Comte, Cours, 2: 695.

102 Comte, Positive Philosophy, 2: 494.

103 Comte, Cours, 2: 695. The rest is translated in Comte, Positive Philosophy, 2: 494.

104 Comte, Cours, 23: 695–6; Comte, Positive Philosophy, 2: 494.

105 Comte, Cours, 2: 696.

106 Comte, Positive Philosophy, 2: 495.

107 Mill, Collected Works, 13: 538, 561, 703.

108 Comte, Discours 1848, 412; Systėme, 390.

109 Comte, A General View of Positivism, 416.

110 Laffitte, A General View of Chinese Civilization, iv–vii, 106.

111 It may or may not be accidental that the three British thinkers that Bonnett, The Idea of the West, 28–31, identifies as the first to develop the idea of the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries all had close connections of varying degrees with Comtean positivism. For Ramsay Macdonald's links with the Comtists and references to their International Policy in his writings see Macdonald, James Ramsay, Imperialism: Its Meaning and Its Tendency (London, 1900)Google Scholar; and Claeys, Imperial Sceptics, 199. On Benjamin Kidd's debts to Comte see Crook, Benjamin Kidd, 3, 277, 283, 295, 375, 397 n. 84. And Francis Sidney Marvin (whose name appears in front of more titles than any other in Bonnett's bibliography) was indeed one of the most prolific authors writing on Western civilization in the early twentieth century. He was also a leading and highly active Comtist (see Wright, T. R., The Religion of Humanity: The Impact of Comtean Positivism on Victorian Britain (Cambridge, 1986), 122Google Scholar, 242–3, 246–8, 271). Already as a student in Oxford he cofounded with the classicist Gilbert Murray an Auguste Comte discussion society, and later he contributed more than a hundred articles to the Comtist Positivist Review between 1893 and 1923. He also authored a book on Comte, where he discussed Comte's projected “Western Republic” and assessed the chances of implementation of the Frenchman's pacifist scheme in the real world and through the League of Nations. Marvin, F. S., Comte: The Founder of Sociology (London, 1936), 122–61Google Scholar, 187–212.

112 Trautsch, “The Invention of the West,” 89.

113 Comte, System (Engl.), 3: 2, 4: 322–3.

114 Todd, David, “Transnational Projects of Empire in France, c.1815–c.1870,” Modern Intellectual History 12/2 (2015), 265–93Google Scholar.

115 Congreve, “The West,” 37.

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