Sociology and positivism in nineteenth-century France : the vicissitudes of the Société de Sociologie (1872-1874)
Little is known about how the world’s first sociological society, Émile Littré’s Société de sociologie (1872-1874), was formed and operated. This article, based primarily on prosopographic research, offers an interpretation of the society’s founding, its political-intellectual orientation and its early demise. As indicated by recruitment and texts by founding members, the Société de sociologie was conceived more as a political club than a scholarly or scientific society. Guided by Littré’s heterodox positivism and the redefinition of sociology he proposed around 1870, the Society was intended first and foremost to provide intellectual accompaniment for the political changes that Littré considered imperative at the start of the Third Republic. His hopes and expectations did not particularly resonate with Society members at large, and it seems to have been Littré himself and his closest associates who put an end to Society meetings. Some members’ general studies on the status and division of the social sciences were further developed in the framework of the journal La philosophie positive (1867-1883), but the authors who were most committed to those studies were positioned on the margins of the Littré network. Neither the dominant republican current of thinking, centered around Littré and Dubost, nor more generalist thinking on sociology by the furthest removed collaborators (Mesmer, Roberty, Vitry) represented an important contribution to academic sociology in France. However, given that the Société de sociologie worked to diffuse the project of a sociological science and developed forms of sociology coherent enough to be rejected by the Durkheimians, the group constitutes a significant case of failure in the history of the discipline.