Auguste Comte

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Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier (1798-1857), a French philosopher and sociologist frequently called the 'father' of positivism., the theory of society, which he outlined in the 1842. Comte was a middle class French intellectual whom J. S. Mill would later accuse of devising a ‘despotism of society over the individual’, although others would trace it (both the origins of sociology, and the despotism) to Jeremy Bentham’s efforts to ground the authority of the law on the principle of maximising the happiness of the greatest number.

Comte's central concern was guiding human nature

Whatever the truth of that, it is with Comte, who had been inspired by his study of mediaeval Catholic scholars into attempting to produce a new ‘religion of humanity’ and a blueprint for a new social order, that the science of society really starts [1]. Comte apologetically coins the word 'sociology', which he calls a convenient barbarism (mixing as it does, Latin and Greek).

Comte's central concern was this: "The greatest problem, then, is to raise social feeling by artificial effort to the position which in the natural condition is held by selfish feeling." To which Sir James Fitzjames Stephen responded, "To me this is like saying, the great object of mechanics is to alter the laws of gravitation." [2]

In the Cours de philosophie positive (1892), Comte, like René Descartes and many philosophers since, starts from a position of deep admiration for the precision and authority of the natural sciences, epitomised (at least in the public mind) by the advances in physics and chemistry. His ‘positivist’ idea was that the methods of natural science were the only way to understand human nature, both in individuals and collectively, and hence the only way to find out how to organise society. And Comte wanted to actually apply these ‘scientific’, quantitative methods to society itself, dissecting it to discover the laws and the principles governing it. Of these, he considered his most important discovery to be a ‘Law of Human Progress’, (well, it sounded important) according to which, all societies pass through three stages: the theological; the metaphysical; and the scientific or positive .

The defining feature of each stage is the mental attitude of the people. During the theological stage, people seek to discover the ‘essential nature of things’ and the ultimate cause of existence, interpreted as God. Philosophers, Comte thought, were stuck at this stage, perpetually but fruitlessly pursuing these sorts of questions. Most people, however, were at the next, the metaphysical stage, which involves increasing use of abstract theory, although there is still a sense of the underlying essence of things, epitomised by broadly ethical notions of value. The final stage comes only when enough people put aside the illusions of opinion, (echoes of Plato) and confine themselves to logical deduction from observed phenomena. This is the so-called scientific (or positive) stage. ‘Now each of us is aware, if he looks back on his own history, that he was a theologian in his childhood, a metaphysician in his youth and a natural philosopher in his manhood’, Comte rather unconvincingly declares.

The stages are also supposed to correspond to periods of human history. The first relates to the pre-historical and mediaeval world, whilst the metaphysical stage is compared to the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a time when monarchies and military despots gave way to political ideals such as democracy and human rights, including, most importantly, for social life, property rights. The last stage in history will be a scientific, technological age, when all activity is rationally planned and moral rules have become universal. It is as this final stage beckons that the science of society - sociology - comes into its own, with its task both of explaining and determining social phenomena and the history of mankind.

Comte was an idealist who wrote of ‘love’ as the guiding principle and of bringing ‘feeling, reason and activity into permanent harmony’. It was left to Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), born the year after Comte’s death, Max Weber, as well as, to some extent, Mill, to carry on to develop the science of society.

Citations and References

A large part of an early version of this article was taken from the entry on Comte in 'Essentials of Philosophy and Ethics', edited by Martin Cohen, (Hodder Arnold 2006) and donated to the Citizendium by the author.

  1. From the article on Comte in 'Essentials of Philosophy and Ethics', edited by Martin Cohen, (Hodder Arnold 2006)
  2. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873) (University of Chicago Press, 1991) at p. 126