Skip to main content



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.

Hide All

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.

Hide All

1 Congreve, Richard, “The West,” in Harrison, Frederic, ed., International Policy: Essays on the Foreign Relations of England (London, 1866), 149 , at 39–40.

2 Cf. the quotation by his leading British disciple in 1866 that serves as an epigraph to this article.

3 GoGwilt, Christopher, The Invention of the West: Joseph Conrad and the Double-Mapping of Europe and Empire (Stanford, 1995), 220 .

4 On the staunch anti-imperialism of Comte's British disciples see Claeys, Gregory, Imperial Sceptics: British Critics of Empire 1850–1920 (Cambridge, 2010), 47123 . Comte's global reach and readership were enormous for some decades after his death. For a recent account see Pickering, Mary, “Conclusion: The Legacy of Auguste Comte,” in Bourdeau, Michel, Pickering, Mary and Schmaus, Warren, eds., Auguste Comte: Science, Philosophy, and Politics (Pittsburgh, forthcoming 2018).

5 Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morality, ed. by Ansell-Pearson, Keith (Cambridge, 1994), 53 .

6 Lewis, Martin W. and Wigen, Kären E., The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageorgraphy (Berkeley, 1997), 4951 .

7 See Nordholt, Jan Willem Schulte, The Myth of the West: America as the Last Empire (Grand Rapids, 1995).

8 Bavaj, Riccardo and Steber, Martina, eds., Germany and “the West”: The History of a Modern Concept (Oxford, 2015).

9 GoGwilt, The Invention of the West, 1–2, 226–7.

10 Heller, Peggy, “The Russian Dawn: How Russia Contributed to the Emergence of ‘the West’ as a Concept,” in Browning, Christopher S. and Lehti, Marko, eds., The Struggle for the West: A Divided and Contested Legacy (London, 2010), 3352 ; Kathleen Margaret (Peggy) Heller, “The Dawning of the West: On the Genesis of a Concept” (Ph.D. thesis, Union Institute and University, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2007); Trautsch, Jasper M., “The Invention of the ‘West’,” Bulletin of the GHI (German Historical Institute, Washington, DC) 53 (2013), 89102 .

11 Chaadaev, Petr Iakovlevich, “Letters on the Philosophy of History: First Letter,” in Raeff, Marc, ed., Russian Intellectual History: An Anthology (Atlantic Highlands and Brighton, 1978), 159–73.

12 Bonnett, Alastair, The Idea of the West: Culture, Politics and History (Basingstoke, 2004), 11, 14–39.

13 Crook, See D. P., Benjamin Kidd: Portrait of a Social Darwinist (Cambridge, 1984), 3, 277, 283, 295, 375, 397 n. 84.

14 Osterhammel, Jürgen, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, trans. Camiller, Patrick (Princeton, 2014), 86 .

15 Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Mistaken Identities: Creed, Country, Color, Culture,” Reith Lectures 2016, Lecture 4: Culture, lecture transcript at, accessed 3 March 2017.

16 Skinner, Cf. Quentin, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” in Skinner, , Visions of Politics, vol. 1 (Cambridge, 2002), 5789 .

17 See Baritz, Loren, “The Idea of the West,” American Historical Review 66/3 (1961), 618–40.

18 Pace Wolff, Larry, Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Stanford, 1994). See Lemberg, Hans, “Zur Entstehung des Osteuropabegriffs im 19. Jahrhundert vom ‘Norden’ zum ‘Osten’ Europas,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 33/1 (1985), 4891 ; Speck, Reto, “The History and Politics of Civilisation: The Debate about Russia in French and German Historical Scholarship from Voltaire to Herder” (Ph.D. thesis, Queen Mary University of London, 2010); Adamovsky, Ezequiel, Euro-orientalism: Liberal Ideology and the Image of Russia in France (c.1740–1880) (Bern, 2006).

19 Lemberg, “Zur Entstehung des Osteuropabegriffs”; Riccardo Bavaj, “‘The West’: A Conceptual Exploration,” Europäische Geschichte Online (2011), at, in both languages; Bernhard Struck, “In Search of the ‘West’: The Languages of Political, Social and Cultural Spaces in the Sattelzeit, from about 1770 to the 1830s,” in Bavaj and Steber, Germany and “The West”, 41–54; Schenk, Frithjof Benjamin, “Mental Maps: Die Konstruktion von geographischen Räumen in Europa seit der Aufklärung,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 28/3 (2002), 493514 .

20 Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introduction: Reason in History, trans. Nisbet, H. B., ed. Forbes, Duncan (Cambridge, 1975), 197 .

21 Bonnett, The Idea of the West, 24.

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: 397 .

25 Ibid., 406.

26 Freeman, Edward A., Historical Essays, Third Series (New York, 1969), 214–15, 230; 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) (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), 28 , 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).

32 Caritat, Jean-Antoine-Nicolas, de Condorcet, Marquis, Political Writings, ed. Steven Lukes and Nadia Urbinati (Cambridge, 2012), 55 , 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), 152 .

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

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 36.

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.

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); Musso, Pierre, ed., Le Saint-Simonisme, l'Europe et la Méditerranée (Houilles, 2008); Drolet, Michael, “A Nineteenth-Century Mediterranean Union: Michel Chevalier's Système de la Méditerranée,” Mediterranean Historical Review 30 (2015), 147–68; Figeac, Jean-François, “La géopolitique orientale des saint-simoniens,” Cahiers de la Méditerranée 85 (2012), 251–68; 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), 2949 ; Levallois, Michel and Moussa, Sarga, eds., L'orientalisme des saint-simoniens (Paris, 2006).

39 Comte, Auguste, Correspondance générale et confessions, 8 vols. (Paris and La Haye, 1973–90), 1 : 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), 91127 ; Pickering, Mary, Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography, 3 vols. (Cambridge, 1993–2009), 1: 258–61, 275–303.

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

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

42 Chevalier, Michel, Lettres sur l'Amérique du Nord, 2 vols. (Paris, 1836), 1 : 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); 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) (hereafter Cours).

48 Comte, Auguste, Système de politique positive (1851–4), 5th edn, 4 vols. (Paris, 1929) (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), 269 .

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).

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), 211 .

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), 125–45.

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) (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.

62 Saint-Simon, Henri, Oeuvres complètes, ed. Grange, Juliette, Musso, Pierre, Régnier, Philippe and Yonnet, Frank, 4 vols. (Paris, 2012), 4 : 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), 1935 ; 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), 207–18; 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), 193206 ; Sandoval, Tonatiuh Useche, “L'idée d'Europe dans la politique positive d'Auguste Comte,” Philonsorbonne 3 (2008–9), 5173 . 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).

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.

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–vii, emphasis added, 104 n.1.

94 “International Policy.”

95 Freemantle, W. H., “M. Comte and His Disciples on International Policy,” Contemporary Review 3 (1866), 477–98, 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: 493 .

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); 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), 122 , 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), 122–61, 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), 265–93.

115 Congreve, “The West,” 37.

* 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.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Modern Intellectual History
  • ISSN: 1479-2443
  • EISSN: 1479-2451
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-intellectual-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed