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Comte, Auguste (1798–1857)


Auguste Comte was a French positivist philosopher. Positivism may be viewed as either a philosophical system and method or as a philosophy of history. In the latter aspect, Comte's work was almost an early history of science. He has a good claim to having originated the new science of sociology; certainly, he coined the term. His political philosophy, elaborated on the basis of his positive sociology, was a noteworthy attempt to reconcile science with religion, and the ideals of the Revolution of 1789 with the doctrine of the counterrevolution of his own time. His influence on nineteenth-century thought was strong, he had numerous disciples, such as Émile Littré, and sympathetic supporters, such as John Stuart Mill. His ideas still have important meaning and interest.


Comte was born in Montpellier, France. Although his family were ardent Catholics, he announced at the age of fourteen that he had "naturally ceased believing in God." At this time he also seems to have abandoned his family's royalism and to have become a republican.

Comte's relations with his family were strained throughout his life. His mother, twelve years older than her husband, clutched at the son. She once wrote asking for word from him "the way a beggar asks for bread to sustain life" threatening that he would know what he had lost only when she was dead. His father and sister constantly complained of ill health; the latter appears to have suffered from hysteria. Comte portrayed them all as covetous and hypocritical and accused them of keeping him in financial distress. The facts, however, suggest that they did what they could for the son and brother whom they loved and admired but found so strange. It is necessary, in order to understand Comte's philosophy and polity, to comprehend his family's compelling influence on him. Although he rejected the ties to his parents and sister (he also had a brother), with their Catholic royalism and their strong emotional demands, these ties reasserted themselves in altered form in his later life and thought. These same family bonds also become important in understanding his nervous breakdown.


Two events are outstanding in Comte's early life: his attendance at the École Polytechnique and his service as secretary to Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon. The École Polytechnique, founded in 1794 to train military engineers and rapidly transformed into a general school for advanced sciences, was the product of both the French Revolution and the rise of modern science and technology, and it became the model for Comte's conception of a society ordered by a new elite. Although he was there for only a short period, from 1814 to 1816, he immersed himself in the scientific work and thought of such men as Lazare Carnot, Joseph Lagrange, and Pierre Simon de Laplace. Indeed, it was Lagrange's Analytical Mechanics that inspired Comte to expound, by means of a historical account, the principles animating each of the sciences.

Expelled from the École at the time of its royalist reorganization, Comte remained in Paris instead of returning home, as his parents desired. He came under the influence of the idéologues (Comte de Volney, Pierre-Jean Georges Cabanis, and Comte Destutt de Tracy) and, through his wide reading, of the political economists Adam Smith and J. B. Say, as well as of such historians as David Hume and William Robertson. Of major importance was the Marquis de Condorcet, whom Comte called "my immediate predecessor," and whose Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind provided an outline of history in which developments in science and technology played a prominent role in humankind's rise through various stages to a period of enlightened social and political order. Then, in August 1817, he became secretary to Saint-Simon. This crucial relationship lasted seven years, until it dissolved in acrimony.

comte and saint-simon

The question of what Comte owed his patron, and what he added to the latter's ideas, is vexed. Both men were responding to the same intertwined challenges of the French, scientific, and industrial revolutions. Both sought a science of human behavior, called social physiology by Saint-Simon, and both wished to use this new science in the effort to reconstruct society. Saint-Simon, the older man, had priority in some of the ideas: He was first to announce the law of the three stages, talked of organic and critical periods, and called for a new industrial-scientific elite. Moreover, Comte's early work, including the fundamental opuscule, "Prospectus des travaux scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiser la société," appeared as the last part of a work that also included two of Saint-Simon's writings.

However, Comte's development of the ideasfor example, the encyclopedic range of data with which he supported the idea of the three stageswent far beyond Saint-Simon and ultimately established a qualitative difference in their systems. Further, where Saint-Simon hoped to deduce his new social science from existing knowledge, such as the law of gravitation, Comte saw each science as having to develop its own method. Comte also perceived that such a development came historically; that is, only in the course of the progress of the human mind. And whereas Saint-Simonianism evolved toward a vague socialism, Comte's thought emerged as a philosophical or scientific position.

later life

After the angry break with Saint-Simon, Comte, who could never obtain a satisfactory university post, supported himself primarily by tutoring in mathematics. Gradually, beginning in 1826, he also lectured on his new philosophy to a private audience composed of many of the outstanding thinkers of his time: Henri Marie de Blainville the physiologist, Jean Étienne Esquirol the psychologist, Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier the mathematician, and others. From these lectures came Comte's major work, the six-volume Cours de philosophie positive (18301842).

Meanwhile, Comte entered into connubial arrangements, which were only later formalized in a macabre religious ceremony (Comte was then in the midst of his nervous breakdown) insisted upon by his mother. Although Comte was nursed back to health by his wife, the marriage was unhappy and was finally dissolved in 1842. Two years later, Comte met Mme. Clothilde de Vaux and fell deeply in love, and from this love may have come his new emphasis on a universal religion of humanity. In any case, after the Cours, which forms the core of Comte's positivismthe part that had the most influence on subsequent philosopherscame such various attempts to set up the religion of humanity as the Système de politique positive (18511854), and the Catéchisme positiviste (1852). In 1857, worn out from his labors, Comte died in wretchedness and isolation. Behind him he left only his monumental attempts at synthesis of many of the most important intellectual strands of his period.

Positive Philosophy

Comte's positive philosophy emerged from his historical study of the progress of the human mindthe western European mind. India and China, he claimed, had not contributed to the development of the human mind. Indeed, by mind he really meant the sciences: astronomy, physics, chemistry, and physiology (biology). Mathematics, for Comte, was a logical tool and not a science.

the three stages

The history of the sciences shows that each goes through three stages: the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive. The progress of each field through the three stages is not only inevitable but also irreversible; it is, in addition, asymptoticthat is, we always approach, but never obtain, perfect positive knowledge.

Briefly, Comte's view of each of the three stages is as follows: In the theological stage, man views everything as animated by a will and a life similar to his own. This general view itself goes through three phases; animism, or fetishism, which views each object as having its own will; polytheism, which believes that many divine wills impose themselves on objects; and monotheism, which conceives the will of one God as imposing itself on objects. Metaphysical thought substitutes abstractions for a personal will: Causes and forces replace desires, and one great entity, Nature, prevails. Only in the positive stage is the vain search for absolute knowledgea knowledge of a final will or first causeabandoned and the study of laws "of relations of succession and resemblance" seen as the correct object of man's research.

Each stage not only exhibits a particular form of mental development, but also has a corresponding material development. In the theological state, military life predominates; in the metaphysical state, legal forms achieve dominance; and the positive stage is the stage of industrial society. Thus, Comte held, as did G. W. F. Hegel, that historical development shows a matching movement of ideas and institutions.

According to Comte, the first science to have gone through the triadic movement was astronomy, whose phenomena are most general and simple, and that affects all other sciences without itself being affected. (For instance, chemical changes on Earth, while they affect physiological phenomena, do not affect astronomical or physical phenomena.)


In the Cours, Comte attempted to demonstrate, by a mass of detail, that each science is dependent on the previous science. Thus, there can be no effective physics before astronomy, or biology before chemistry. Further, the history of the sciences reveals the law that as the phenomena become more complex (as biological phenomena are more complex than astronomical), so do the available methods by which those phenomena may be treatedfor example, the use of comparative anatomy in contrast to simple observation of planetary movement.

In this part of his work, Comte demonstrated the real power and flexibility of his approach. In contrast to René Descartes, who saw only one right method of conducting the reasonthe geometrical methodComte believed that each science develops by a logic proper to itself, a logic that is revealed only by the historical study of that science. He explicitly named Descartes as his predecessor and claimed to have fulfilled Descartes's work by studying the mind historically instead of merely abstractly. In Comte's view, the logic of the mind cannot be explained in a priori fashion, but only in terms of what it has actually done in the past. In this respect, Comte's position implies a fundamental revolution in philosophy.

Himself a mathematician, Comte objected to the overextended use of mathematics. In his view, mathematics was simply one tool among many. He admitted that while in principle all phenomena might be subject to mathematical treatment, in practice those phenomena far up the scale in complexity, such as biology or his hoped-for new science of sociology, were not amenable to such an approach. On the other hand, Comte sharply dissociated the positive method from the inquiry into first causes; as we have seen, this would be metaphysical, not positive, knowledge.


The first means of scientific investigation, according to Comte, is observation. We observe facts, and Comte would agree with the logical positivists of our day that a sentence that is not either a tautology or an assertion of empirical facts can have no intelligible sense. However, by the observation of a fact, Comteperhaps more sophisticated than many of his latter-day followersdid not mean having a Humean sensation or a complex of such sensations. He meant an act of sensing that was connected, at least hypothetically, with some scientific law. Comte admitted that the simultaneous creation of observations and laws was a "sort of vicious circle" and warned against the perverting of observations in order to suit a preconceived theory. However, he insisted that the task of the scientist was to set up hypotheses about invariable relations of phenomena, concomitantly with their verification by observation.


After observation, understood in this sense, experimentation is the next available method. Since it can be resorted to only when the regular course of a phenomenon can be interfered with in an artificial and determinate manner, the method is best suited to physics and chemistry. In biology, interestingly enough, Comte suggested that diseasethe pathological casewhile not determined beforehand, could serve as a substitute for experimentation.


For the more complex phenomena of biology and sociology, the best available means of investigation is comparison. In biology this might be comparative anatomy. In social science, the method might take the form of comparing either coexisting states or consecutive states: The first method anticipated anthropology; the latter comprised historical sociology.


Comte described the study of consecutive social states as a "new department of the comparative method." This "new department" was the final science to be developed by man, and the only one that had not yet entered the positive stage: sociology. As the last phenomena to be considered as falling under invariant laws, social phenomena were the ones that would give meaning to all the rest. Only by perceiving through the new science of sociology that man is a developing creature who moves through the three stages in each of his sciences could we understand the true logic of his mind.

Comte acknowledged both Baron de Montesquieu and Condorcet as his predecessors in the science of sociology, for they, too, had perceived that social phenomena appear to obey laws when correctly considered. However, the task of bringing sociology into the positive stage, or at least up to its threshold, was performed by Comte alone. He officially announced the advent of the new science in the fourth volume of the Cours, 47th lesson, when he proposed the word sociologie for what Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quételet had named physique sociale.

Statics and dynamics

Comte divided sociology into two parts: statics and dynamics. Social statics is the study of political-social systems relative to their existing level of civilization; that is, as functioning cultural wholes. Social dynamics is the study of the changing levels of civilization; that is, the three stages. The division into statics and dynamics is merely for analytic purposes: The distinction is one between two different ways of organizing the same set of social facts (just as, for example, in biology students of comparative anatomy and of evolution classify the same facts in different ways).

Order and progress

Statics and dynamics, then, are branches of the science of sociology. To this classification, Comte added a division between order and progress, which he conceived as abstractions about the nature of the society studied by sociology. (He further complicated the matter by using the terms organic and critical or negative to describe various periods.) Thus, order exists in society when there is stability in fundamental principles and when almost all members of the society hold similar opinions. Such a situation prevailed, Comte believed, in the Catholic feudal period, and he devoted numerous pages to analyzing the ideas and institutions of medieval social structure.

In contrast to the concept of order, and using images that remind one of the Hegelian dialectic, Comte posited what he called the idea of progress. He identified this progress with the period bounded by the rise of Protestantism and the French Revolution. What was now needed, Comte told his readers, was the reconciliation or synthesis of order and progress in a scientific form. Once a science of society had been developed, opinions would once again be shared and society would be stable. According to Comte, people did not argue over astronomical knowledge, and, once there was true social knowledge, they would not fight over religious or political views. Liberty of conscience, Comte declared, is as out of place in social thought as in physics, and true freedom in both areas lies in the rational submission to scientific laws.

The gradual becoming aware of and understanding of these invariable laws was what Comte meant by progress. (One of these invariable laws, incidentally, was that society must develop in a positive direction.) Thus, in the Middle Ages, when society found its order in terms of shared religious ideas, sociology was in the theological stage, and the French Revolutionary period witnessed the emergence of the metaphysical stage. As has been explained, Comte denigrated the period of progress, from the rise of Protestantism to the French Revolution, while from the point of view of social dynamics, he had to praise the progressive movement toward positivism that took place during this "negative" period. Comte's classification was neither always clear nor consistent.

political philosophy

Comte's sociology was overly intertwined with his conception of the right polity. In Comte's view, society had broken down with the French Revolution. The Revolution had been necessary because the old order, based on outdated "theological"Catholicknowledge, no longer served as a respectable basis for shared opinions; it had been undermined by the progress of the sciences. The Revolution itself offered no grounds for the reorganization of society because it was "negative" and metaphysical in its assumptions. The task, therefore, was to provide a new religion, and a new clergy, that could once again unify society. Comte's solution was a science on which all could agree. In place of the Catholic priesthood, Comte proposed a scientific-industrial elite that would announce the "invariable laws" to society. It was a bold effort to synthesize the old regime (as conceived by Comte) and the Revolution, and to meet the problems of a modern industrial society with the insights about the need for order and shared certainty that were revealed in the theological-feudal period. These insights, religious in nature and intuitive in form, were now to be reformulated by Comte and his followers in terms of positive science.

positive religion

Comte, in responding to the actual problems of his time, was also working out a synthesis of two bodies of thought. Montesquieu and Condorcet have already been mentioned as the sources of Comte's conception of social statics and social dynamics. Comte's views on organic and critical periods, and his dislike of Protestantism as negative and productive only of intellectual anarchy, were undoubtedly derived from the Catholic counterrevolutionary thinkers Vicomte de Bonald and Comte Joseph de Maistre, whom he began to read around 1821. It was Bonald, in fact, who first announced that one did not argue over social truths any more than one argued over the fact that 2 plus 2 equals 4, and de Maistre stated that Protestantism is a negative ideology. Comte rewarded de Maistre by putting his name in the calendar of positivist saints.

Now the positivist calendar was a product of Comte's increasing turn from his earlier mainly philosophical and scientific interests to a form of mysticism. Comte appointed himself the high priest of a new religion of humanity. The new "religion"based on Comte's positive sciencehad its holy days, its calendar of saints (which included de Maistre, Adam Smith, Frederick the Great, Dante Alighieri, and William Shakespeare), and its positive catechism. It was nontheistic, for Comte never reverted to a belief in God or in Catholic dogma. As an effort to replace the Catholic religion with a new version of the cult of reason of 1793, it is of great interest, but it was not this aspect of Comte's work that influenced such important figures as Littré and J. S. Mill and it is not what is generally meant when one speaks of Comte's Positivism.

educational theory

It was on the basis of the earlier, rather than the later, parts of his work that Comte sought to regenerate education. To know a given science, Comte believed, one must know the sciences anterior to it. According to this scheme, the sociologist must first be trained in all the natural sciences, whose knowledge has already gone through the three stages and become positive. (A by-product of this approach to education was Comte's conviction that the proposed method of studying would aid each science by suggesting answers to its problems from other fields.) Positive education was a necessary foundation for the positive polity, as well as for the positive sociology.

comte and socialism

To round off this presentation of Comte's thought, a brief word is in order on the relationship of his views to the emerging proletarian movement. The goal of Comte's polity was never the affluent society, although he believed that every social measure ought to be judged in terms of its effect on the poorest and most numerous class. He sought, instead, a moral order, with the positive religion enjoining everyone "to live for others." The two classes from which Comte expected the greatest moral influence were women and proletarians, and he relied on their respective charms and numbers to soften the selfish character of the capitalists. In this way, class conflict would be abolished, and the owners of industry would be moralized instead of eliminated. Comte was against the abolition of private property; on the other hand, he joined Karl Marx in attacking the individualist attitudes and behavior of the property-owning classes. In this context, it is interesting to note that Marx, who claimed not to have read Comte until 1866, when he judged his work "trashy," had as a friend the Comtian Professor E. S. Beesly, who chaired the 1864 meeting establishing the International Workingmen's Association.

Criticism and Assessment

Against Comte's entire system, various criticisms may be lodged. J. S. Mill took Comte to task for not giving a place in his series of sciences to psychology (instead, Comte concentrated on phrenology) and commented that this was "not a mere hiatus in M. Comte's system, but the parent of serious errors in his attempt to create a Social Science."

Perhaps there is a connection between Comte's disregard of introspective psychology and his unquestioned faith in the possibility of an ultimate positive stage of society and knowledge. For example, Comte did not even consider the question of how we can be sure that the positive stage is the last one. Since the human mind and its logical procedures, in Comte's own view, can be known only in terms of experience, it is at least theoretically possible that another stage might be reached. And how can we be sure that, although the positive method has been extended to all natural phenomena, it can be extended to human phenomena? Even if we grant thisand admittedly it is an appealing and useful assumptiondoes the discovery of laws regulating human phenomena put us in possession of a final science of humanity? At this point, are we not still without a science of ethics, a science that will tell us with complete positive certainty what end to pursue? Comte considered none of these questions, nor, with his neglect of introspective psychology, the further question of whether man's moral disposition is necessarily improved by the pursuit of science.

On another level, both Comte's sociology and his political philosophy can be criticized as embodying a wrong view of scientific procedure. In his best moments, he knew that science proceeds by free inquiry and constant redefinition of its "laws." However, in setting up a scientific elite, who were to announce fixed and stable laws to society, he betrayed his own insight. The polemic needs of his polityordered, organic, and positivetriumphed over the philosophic and scientific method he had so painstakingly elaborated in the Cours.

Along this same line of criticism, Comte can be charged with serious errors of fact. His anti-Protestant, pro-Catholic feelings led him to make sweeping and unexamined statements, such as that Protestantism was "anti-scientific" (a conclusion supported, perhaps, by Martin Luther's views, but undermined, for example, by the Puritan involvement in the Royal Society) and that Catholicism was a nonaggressive religion. Thus, speaking of the Crusades, Comte asserted, as a matter of fact: "All great expeditions common to the Catholic nations were in fact of a defensive character." Throughout his work, especially in the last three volumes of the Cours, which are devoted to his sociology rather than to the natural sciences, similar remarks are to be found.

Yet, with all the criticisms of either a conceptual or factual nature that can be leveled against Comte's position, one must not lose sight of his essential contributions. He did grasp the notion that knowledge in the various sciences is unified and related. His law of the three stages, while too rigid and schematized, did point to the different ways of viewing the world and to the fact that men at different stages of history have emphasized one way of ordering society more than another. And, most important, Comte did prepare the way for a new science, sociology, that would help study the interrelations of men in society and how these interrelations change in the course of history.

See also Bonald, Louis Gabriel Ambroise, Vicomte de; Cabanis, Pierre-Jean Georges; Condorcet, Marquis de; Dante Alighieri; Descartes, René; Destutt de Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude, Comte; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hume, David; Laplace, Pierre Simon de; Littré, Émile; Maistre, Comte Joseph de; Marx, Karl; Mill, John Stuart; Montesquieu, Baron de; Positivism; Saint-Simon, Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de; Smith, Adam; Volney, Constantin-François de Chasseboeuf, Comte de.


There is no critical edition of Comte's works. His most important writings, all published in Paris unless otherwise stated, are as follows: Opuscules de philosophie sociale 18191828 (1883), which includes the 1822 "Plan des travaux scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiser la société"; Cours de philosophie positive, 6 vols. (18301842), and Harriet Martineau's English condensation of Cours, The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, 2 vols. (London: John Chapman, 1853), which was personally approved by Comte; Discours sur l'esprit positif, prefixed to the Traité philosophique d'astronomie populaire (1844); Discours sur l'ensemble du positivisme (1848); Calendrier positiviste (1849); Système de politique positive, 4 vols. (18511854), translated by J. H. Bridges, Frederic Harrison, et al. as The System of Positive Polity, 4 vols. (London: Longmans, 18751877); Catéchisme positiviste (1852), translated by Richard Congreve as The Catechism of Positive Religion (London: John Chapman, 1858); Appel aux conservateurs (1855); and La synthèse subjective (1856).

In addition, see P. Valat, ed., Lettres d'Auguste Comte à M. Valat (1870); Lettres d'Auguste Comte à John Stuart Mill, 18411846 (1877); Testament d'Auguste Comte (1884); Lettres à des positivistes anglais (London: Church of Humanity, 1889); Correspondance inédite d'Auguste Comte, 4 vols. (19031904); and Nouvelles Lettres inédites. Textes présentés par Paulo E. de Berredo-Carneiro (1939).

The most important work on Comte, essential to a study of his intellectual development, is Henri Gouhier, La jeunesse d'Auguste Comte et la formation du positivisme, 3 vols. (Paris: Vrin, 19331941). The same author's La vie d'Auguste Comte (Paris: Gallimard, 1931) is the best biography. For an analysis of Comte's philosophical ideas, J. S. Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism (London: Trubner, 1865) is still obligatory. See also Thomas Whittaker, Comte and Mill (London: A. Constable, 1908); Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, La philosophie d'Auguste Comte (Paris: Alcan, 1900), translated by Kathleen de Beaumont-Klein as The Philosophy of Auguste Comte (New York: Putnam, 1903); Émile Littré, Auguste Comte et la philosophie positive (2nd ed., Paris: Hachette, 1864); J. Delvolvé, Reflexions sur la pensée comtienne (Paris: Alcan, 1908); and Pierre Ducassé, Méthode et intuition chez Auguste Comte (Paris: Alcan, 1939).

On Comte's religious attitudes, see George Dumas, Psychologie de deux Messies positivistes: Saint Simon et Auguste Comte (Paris: Alcan, 1905).

Jean Lacroix, La sociologie d'Auguste Comte (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1956) is one of the most interesting books on Comte. For a critical view of Comte's sociology in relation to morality, H. B. Acton, "Comte's Positivism and the Science of Society," in Philosophy 26 (October 1951) is valuable.

Treating Comte as a historian of science are Paul Tannery, "Comte et l'histoire des sciences," in Revue générale des sciences 16 (1905), and George Sarton, "Auguste Comte, Historian of Science," in Osiris 10 (1952). In this connection, John C. Greene, "Biology and Social Theory in the Nineteenth Century: Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer," in Critical Problems in the History of Science, edited by Marshall Clagett (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1959) is interesting. Frank Manuel, The Prophets of Paris (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), Ch. 6, and F. A. Hayek, "Comte and Hegel," in Measure 2 (1951), are rewarding; the Hayek article treats Comte as a historicist.

Bruce Mazlish (1967)

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