Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 October 2017
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.
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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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.”
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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.
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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.
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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).
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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.
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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.
84 Mill, Collected Works, 10: 366
85 Congreve, “The West,” 1–49.
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105 Comte, Cours, 2: 696.
106 Comte, Positive Philosophy, 2: 495.
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