Auguste Comte (1798-1857) is known as the founder of sociology and the father of the paradigm of positivism. He was born Isidore Marie Auguste Francois Xavier Comte on January 17, 1798, at Montpellier, in southwestern France, at the culmination of the French Enlightenment. As a scholar, Comte wrote about the historical development of the special sciences in general, and the historical development of the interpreting human mind in particular. He saw each science and each explanation of it unfolding through time, passing from a religious stage (theology), through a metaphysical stage (philosophy), to an ever more empirical stage (science).
As a young man, Comte excelled in his studies. In August 1814 he entered competition for the entrance exams and was admitted to the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, an elite school that espoused the French Enlightenment ideals of republicanism and progress. Although he found Napoleonic tyranny distasteful, he preferred it to the restoration of the monarchy, and thus supported Napoleon during his years at the school. However, in April 1816 his studies were halted when the school closed owing to conflict between students and administration over the school’s outmoded methods of examination. Comte did not reapply for admission when the school reopened and instead supported himself by tutoring in Paris.
In the summer of 1817, Comte made a social connection invaluable to his career as a scholar. He met Henri Saint-Simon, the 60-year-old director of the periodical L’Industrie, whom he then began to work for, in his own mind as a collaborator but apparently in the mind of Saint-Simon as a protege and disciple. By 1824 this difference of perspectives erupted into a disagreement about whether or not one of Comte’s essays ought to be published in his own name or under the name of Saint-Simon. They also disagreed about the importance of activism and theory, Saint-Simon favoring the former and Comte favoring the latter, and Comte disagreed with the tinge of religiosity that Saint-Simon gave his thought and writing. The differences were irreconcilable, and the two parted ways.
After some tumultuous years following the split with Saint-Simon, Comte became ever more ambitious in his thought. This is the point at which he began to develop his conceptions of positivism, the “law of three stages,” and social science as the dominant unifier of all other sciences, all of which he discussed in his masterpiece, Cours de philoso- phie positive, written from 1830 to 1842.
Comte’s positivism can be seen as a paradigm commensurate with the values and ideals developed during the Age of Enlightenment. One premise of the paradigm is that knowledge comes from the positive affirmation of theories through scientific methods such as observation. However, it is important to note that he felt it was necessary for theory to precede any type of observation so as to inform the observer what to look for.
For Comte, scientific positivism was the capstone of human social evolution. It is the third stage in his law of three stages, being preceded by the metaphysical stage, which is preceded by the theological stage. The theological stage itself was divided into three phases those being fetishism (object worshipping), polytheism, and monotheism. The theological stage, Comte argued, embodied man’s earliest social existence. It is during this stage that humankind uses God or supernatural forces as an explanation for things and as an apex from which societal order descended. Thus, nature was mythically conceived and humans made no accurate causal connections between phenomena in nature. Comte thought that humanity had been in this stage until the French Enlightenment, and thus that this stage comprised the bulk of human history up to 1750 CE.
The second stage Comte discussed is the metaphysical stage, in which God, or supernatural beings, as an explanation for phenomena is replaced by rational explanations, and during which society is ordered according to rational principles rather than assumptions of divine intention. Philosophers began to theorize about the way the world works and to formulate postulations about the relationships of phenomena to each other. It was during this stage that humans began to have a conception of universal human rights existing on a higher plane than the whims of a monarchical ruler, and during which philosophers began to design forms of society in which the state would serve the people rather than vice versa.
Comte’s third stage was positivism, which was characterized by the proliferation of science, especially morally charged science meant to restructure and perfect society as a whole. Thus positivism marked a development beyond the metaphysical stage because rational explanations themselves were no longer sufficient unless supported by empirical observations. Essentially, positivism meant the development of science, and then science leading humankind into a better future. He also believed that this stage would be characterized by the abandonment of the human rights developed during the metaphysical stage in order to serve society in the best way possible. He coined the word altruism to describe the responsibility of the individual to put the interest of the many above the one. He believed society at the positivist stage would function more as a single unified body than a collection of individuals.
Mirroring Comte’s hierarchical view of stages in human social evolution was the hierarchy he ascribed to the sciences, which he termed the “encyclopedic law.” According to this law, the sciences developed in a linear order and were necessarily built upon one another. Comte viewed inorganic physics such as astronomy, earth science, and chemistry as the crudest of the sciences, and thus the base of what one might envision as a scientific pyramid. Built upon these sciences was organic physics or biology, which marked the second stage in the development of scientific thinking. Finally, Comte felt that social science, which he first named social physics and then sociology, would be the apex of this scientific pyramid, encompassing all previous sciences to make for the superior science of society that would guide human action toward perfecting society.
By the end of his life, Comte had attached more than just a tinge of religiosity to his thought and to his vision of human history and future. By 1846 he had begun believing himself to be a sort of prophet of the religion of humanity that he believed positivism to be. By the end of his life he began declaring himself the Pope of Positivism. While in retrospect this may seem like folly, it is important to note that his contributions to human thought were invaluable. His focus on the interconnectedness of social elements was a precursor to functionalist theory, and his bold ambition laid the groundwork for the discipline of sociology within academia today.
See also Cognition; Diderot, Denis; Enlightenment, Age of; Evolution, Cultural; Evolution, Social; Humanism; Materialism; Metaphysics; Progress; Values and Time
Comte, A. (2003). Positive philosophy of Auguste Comte (Vols. 1-2). (H. Martineau, Trans.). Kila, MT: Kessinger.
Comte, A. (2000). The catechism of positive religion. Boston: Adamant Media.
Comte, A. (1988). Introduction to positive philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Hackett.
Hubbard, E. (2005). Auguste Comte. Kila, MT: Kessinger.