Life and antecedents

Auguste Comte (1798 - 1857) is regarded as a founder of the discipline of sociology (in his native French, sociologie, although he originally called it physique sociale). His two main treatises were Course in Positive Philosophy (1830 - 1842) and System of Positive Policy (1851 - 1854).

Comte was the son of Catholic, monarchist parents (his father was a tax collector), born in 1798. He was let into the École Polytechnique in Paris, a hotbed of Republican thought and dedication to "progress". He didn't stay at the École, but instead finished his education at Montpellier medical school. Afterwards he returned to Paris under the patronage of Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon (a utopian socialist), who published some of Comte's work in his journal. Eventually their different views pushed them apart, and Comte left his position as Saint-Simon's secretary. Comte, failing to obtain an academic position, was forced to live upon the kindship of sponsers and friends.

Comte married Caroline Massin, but they divorced in 1842 - he was reportedly a violent and certainly arrogant man. From 1844 he was in love with Clotilde de Vaux, but their relationship remained platonic - after her death in 1846 this became quasi-religious, with her as his secular Virgin Mary (see below).

Work and legacy

Comte wanted to reform the moral order. He wasn't interested in creating an affluent society, but one where everyone would "live for others". He wanted to overcome class rivalry, but not by the destruction of one class (as with Karl Marx). Comte's cardinal position was thus -

"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."

Comte believed that man was progressing towards a superior state (this interpretation of the laws of history was rife in the ninteenth century), and that this state would be achieved by applying the science of sociology to human society. Thought such as this clearly underlies the twentieth century social programs of Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Lenin, Pol Pot and numerous other rulers. Lenin's attempt to create the New Soviet Man, a part of which involved asking Ivan Pavlov to do to men what he had done to dogs, is perhaps the program most strongly rooted in this theory.

Comte was the founder of French positivism. This was based on his contention that all the sciences passed through three stages, a theological, a metaphysical and a "positive". His sciences were, from simple to complex and general to particular -

  1. Mathematics
  2. Astronomy
  3. Physics
  4. Chemistry
  5. Biology
  6. Sociology
  7. Ethics

In the theological stage of each science, Comte said, explanation took the form of the will of supernatural beings. This also had three stages - in the first, each object had a will of its own (like the "spirits" in nature), then what Comte called polytheism (divine wills impose themselves on objects) then monotheism (one God imposes his will on objects) Then, in the metaphysical stage, abstract forces are used to explain the world (like the four humours or phlogiston, which were just interpretations of final causes). Finally, the postive stage involves strict observation and applying the scientific method to understand the science, abandoning the concept of absolute knowledge. Because Comte believed that sociology was the "latest" in the hierarchy of sciences (he added "ethics" later, some say while he was insane), it would eventually hit a "positivist" stage as well. Positivism and determinism became very fashionable in the latter part of the ninteenth century. The marriage of physiology, physics and psychology (in explaining the brain) at this time are a perfect example of the application of monism to the study of human behaviour.

The two branches of sociology which Comte split it into were social statics and social dynamics. Social statics was the study of socio-political systems in their current stage, as a snapshot in the developing cycle - social dynamics, on the other hand, was the study of the three-stage cycle and the evolution of institutions within it. He believed that the ultimate endpoint of social dynamics would be consensus among everyone about which were the "best" social and political ideas - people wouldn't fight over them for the same reason people don't go to war over the laws of physics.

Comte's positivism was at first inherently wary of the pretentions of absolutes in human knowledge - the positive stage of development was, after all, characterised by an acceptance of the limits to human knowledge (which had to be derived through empiricism). But towards the end of his life Comte started to imply that the three-stage law of development was cyclical, as positivism had begun to take on the attitude of a cult. The pretentions of the positivists were, like those of the priesthood in the high Middle Ages, seemingly boundless. Comte saw himself as the prophet of a new "religion of humanity", and this did much to discredit him after his death. He even produced a calender of positivist Saints such as Adam Smith, Dante and Frederick the Great. A new priesthood was needed, he believed, which would announce the laws of social dynamics to the rest of the world. He sat at the top of this technocracy.

Comte's work is seen as a forerunner to modern functionalism. In social theory, this is the idea that behaviors and institutions can be explained by the way they fulfill certain roles. Historical materialism is a type of functionalism, but the early positivists had no concept of the historical dialectic and therefore rejected all materialism. Comte's main contribution to functionalism, therefore, was his synthesis of the disparate parts of social theory. His idea of sociology as the mother of all sciences never really came to fruition, though. Emile Littré (1801 - 1881) kept positivism alive and out of murky territory, keeping out of the "humanistic religion" idea. He founded The Positivist Review in 1867, helping to spread Comte's earlier ideas and meaning that ultimately positivism had a vast impact on the third quarter of the nineteenth century, and beyond.


August Comte @

August Comte and positivism,

Bidiss, Michael D. The Age of the Masses: Pelican, 1977.

The Age of Ideologies - The World of August Comte,

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