Comte, Auguste

views updated May 29 2018

Comte, Auguste




Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte (1798–1857), French philosopher and sociologist, came from a Catholic and monarchical family in Montpellier. He abandoned the Catholic faith at the age of 13. In 1814 he entered the £cole Poly-technique in Paris. This school was then the center of political liberalism and of progressive thought in France; the mathematician Gaspard Monge had been one of its founders, and it remained committed to the development of mathematics and the sciences.

While it is clear that Comte soon shifted away from pure liberalism, close scrutiny is required to establish his position with respect to conservatism and liberalism. His early writings indicate that he had many ideas in common with the counterrevolutionary and conservative movements at the beginning of the nineteenth century; later, at the beginning of the fourth volume of his Cours de philosophic positive (1830–1842), he explicitly acknowledged this affinity, stating that he agreed in part with Joseph de Maistre’s philosophy without, however, accepting his political views. Contrary to some views (Hayek 1952; Salomon 1955; Spaemann 1959), this does not mean that Comte can be identified with the counterrevolutionary thinkers of his time. Indeed, his attitude differed from that of the conservatives in the same way as did Saint-Simon’s; both tried to repudiate the principles of the French Revolution without at the same time relinquishing its achievements. This twofold attitude, similar to that which Hegel had expressed somewhat earlier, is corroborated by Comte’s position during the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 and by his humanitarian philosophy, which eventually became a religion of humanity: the worship of the Grand Être.

Comte’s association with Saint-Simon, which began as early as 1817, is in itself further evidence that he does not belong with the conservatives. Despite Comte’s later protestations that he did not owe anything to Saint-Simon, it is certain that he was deeply influenced by this remarkably brilliant and inspiring aristocrat who devoted himself to building a new society based on the principle that it is the working class which is, in the broadest sense, the class of “producers.” Recent historical research (especially by Gouhier 1933–1941), has established that their collaboration during the period from 1817 to 1824 was much closer than Comte ever admitted. The change in Comte’s personal feelings toward Saint-Simon can best be followed in his correspondence with his friend Valat (1870), which shows how much he was initially stimulated by Saint-Simon and how he later withdrew from the relationship.

Saint-Simon had recorded his essential ideas, before he evermet Comte, in the most coherent of his booklets, Mémoire sur la science de I’homme and Travail sur la gravitation universelle, both written in the year 1813. These contain the famous “law of three stages”; even though Saint-Simon was incapable of developing this idea into a comprehensive and consistent philosophy of history, as Comte was to do in the Cours, the idea, nevertheless, was originally his. In general, Saint-Simon dissipated his ideas in innumerable letters, leaflets, prospectuses, and pamphlets, throwing out striking formulas and slogans rather than elaborating the ideas step by step. He was a great speaker, a vivid advocate of new conceptions, always an agitator rather than a philosopher or a disciplined scholar. Even though Comte’s early work followed the same lines as Saint-Simon’s, his mode of thinking was not only more consistent but also more profound.

An important similarity between Comte and Saint-Simon is their common negative attitude toward economic liberalism and their criticism of Adam Smith (Mauduit 1929). Here both came very near to Simonde de Sismondi and his Nouveaux principes of 1819 and sketched the first historical criticism of classical economics.

While the influence that Saint-Simon had on Comte should not be minimized, neither should the differences between them; these were differences not merely in style of thought but also in the substance of that thought. One such difference was revealed by Comte himself in his correspondence with Valat when he asserted that Saint-Simon’s advocacy of political action before the scientific system of positivism had been sufficiently developed was putting the cart before the horse. Another and more subtle difference appeared when Comte, in an article published under Saint-Simon’s name and in his journal, Industrie, called for the development of a secular system of morals and held that society is itself a system of “common moral ideas.” This was nothing less than the discovery of the normative character of social behavior, that is, of a moral system inherent in social relations. Comte asserted the relativism of moral ideas—that they vary with different cultures and social systems—in opposition to the notion that norms are rooted either in divine revelation or in a general spiritual order, separate from social life and untouched by it. This clear-cut statement of what we now call cultural relativism aroused considerable turmoil among the subscribers of the journal, and in the next issue Saint-Simon formally promised that he would “return to his first manner” (Pereire 1912). Saint-Simon had never had any doubts about the origin of moral ideas and was, indeed, genuinely convinced that the traditional Christian norms could be adapted to the new conditions of industrialism by emphasizing the importance of philanthropy (Nouveau christianisme 1825). With respect to his conception of values, then, Comte was more radical than Saint-Simon.

This is not true of Comte’s conception of the proper order of society. As has been judiciously stated by T. H. Huxley, Comte and positivism can be interpreted as “Catholicism minus Christianity,” that is, as an all-embracing hierarchical system of society, based on secular values of a mystical, humanitarian kind. This, taken together with Comte’s conception of the role of “consensus” in social processes, brings him nearer to the views of the conservative thinkers than to Saint-Simon’s revolutionary demand that the producing class (the workers) be protected from exploitation by the idle or leisure class and that la classe la plus nombreuse et la plus pauvre be emancipated. With this demand Saint-Simon became a forerunner of Marx, whereas Comte remained a believer in the efficacy of a purely spiritual order, provided only that it is purged of theological and metaphysical ideas.

It has never been contested that Comte invented the term “sociology,” which he first used in print in 1838, at the beginning of the fourth volume of his Cours. Earlier, in the general introduction to the first volume, he had used the term physique sociale just as Saint-Simon had used this term, interchangeably with such terms as physiologic sociale or système de gravitation sociale. A relatively casual reason for Comte’s change of terminology was that the Belgian statistician Quetelet published his Physique sociale in 1835. There was also, however, a deeper reason: Having accepted for some years the teachings of the great French astronomer Laplace, with whose ideas he had become acquainted at the Éicole Poly technique, Comte began to reject the leadership of mathematics in the development of the social sciences. He replaced the methodology of the sciences with the historical approach, as developed in the Cours, and thus largely repudiated the education he had received at the école Poly technique.

The development of sociology as a science occurs, according to Comte, within the framework of a general reorientation of human thought. According to the “law of three stages,” that was expounded by Comte in the first two lectures of the Cours (after previous attempts in his early writings), every single branch of human knowledge has to pass through three different theoretical (or methodological) stages before it reaches maturity: the theological or fictitious; the metaphysical or abstract; and the scientific or positive stage. The function of the second stage is to act as an intermediary, since the first and the last stages are clearly so different in their general outlook that it is impossible to pass directly from the first to the third. In the third stage all phenomena are regarded as subject to invariable natural laws that can be investigated by observation and experimentation.

Comte began the second part of this new approach to human thought with the statement that the different sciences, because of the varying degree of complexity of their respective substances, reach the stage of maturity at different times, and he then proceeded to locate all the different sciences in terms of the stage of their development. The order followed in this encyclopedic system is the “natural” or logical order, beginning with the least complex or most general phenomena, which are also most remote from humanity, and ending with those more relevant to human beings as investigated by the social science. The order of the sciences is therefore astronomy, physics, chemistry, physiology, and, finally, social physics, or sociology. The science of mathematics is presented as an introduction to the encyclopedia and somewhat apart from this order; it is the most important of all the sciences in that it is the most general formal basis of both science and philosophy. The science of psychology does not appear in this enumeration. Comte was convinced that psychology as it existed in his time had not yet passed the metaphysical stage. There is evidence that he thought of psychology as an appendix to sociology, to be developed only after sociology had reached the positive stage.

Interesting as this “law” may initially appear, it is hardly more than a set of preliminary and formalistic categories and by no means constitutes the essence of Comte’s thought. Indeed, this part of Comte’s work has proved to be the least resistant to criticism. Comte’s sociology was developed essentially as a scientific remedy for the long-lasting social, political, and cultural crisis in Europe. The 46th lesson of the Cours was devoted entirely to a sociological analysis of the contemporary crisis in France, which was the aftermath of the Revolution of 1789. What remained of the prerevolutionary system was being destroyed by the incessant and insoluble controversy between ordre and progrès. It was this “miserable oscillatory constitution of our social existence” that Comte sought to overcome by developing, with the help of scientific analysis, a third way that would eliminate the “intellectual anarchism” of his time. Since conservatism represented the party of ordre, and Jacobinism the party of progrès, Comte, following his own interpretation of history, divorced himself from both parties and tried to establish a third way, without succumbing to the eclecticism represented by Victor Cousin.

Comte’s persistent ambivalence toward the French Revolution was already at the core of his thought while he was dominated by the ideas of Saint-Simon (see, for example, his essay of 1822, “Plan des travaux scientifiques necessaires pour réorganiser la société”). What was new in the Cours was his attempt to resolve it. It has been alleged that his panacea for the crisis of his time was a rational, scientific approach, based on observation and experimentation, and that this is what he meant by “positivism.” But although there is evidence, especially if we limit ourselves to the consideration of the Cours, that this was an element in his thought, it was only one element, and perhaps not the most important one. Comte himself stated several times that empiricism per se is not equivalent to positivism (Cours, Lecture 58) and that positivism offers a synthesis of our knowledge, thereby producing a new system of thought and a new dimension of consciousness. This very significant view is made more explicit in A Discourse on the Positive Spirit (1844a), as well as in his Appeal to Conservatives (1855), where he dealt with the different meanings of the term “positivism.”

As it was presented in the Cours, however, positivism was misunderstood by contemporary admirers and critics alike, the admirers seeing it as an unequivocal endorsement of the efficacy of science and the critics deploring it as “scientism.” This misinterpretation has been given wide currency by the books on Comte by Littre (1863), Mill (1865), Ostwald (1914), and others. Having thus misconstrued the Cours, it became necessary for them to separate the Comte of the Cours from the Comte of such later writings as the System of Positive Polity (1851–1854), and the Catechism of Positive Religion (1852), since the System is permeated by reformist ideas and the Catechism by a new religion. The most common explanation of the “inconsistency” in his ideas stems from the vicissitudes of his personal life; since Comte had experienced one nervous breakdown in 1826 at the age of 28, the “change” in his outlook was attributed to the impact of another personal crisis, the dissolution of his relationship with Clotilde de Vaux in 1846 and her death in 1847. The alleged drastic shift from his positivistic and objective approach to a new “subjectivism” has been connected with this unhappy emotional experience.

The explanation would be plausible had the shift actually occurred. However, it is based on a completely distorted view of the Cours and of its general meaning, as can easily be demonstrated by noting Comte’s repeated emphasis in that work on the necessity of an all-embracing moral and intellectual reform as the prerequisite of social reform. The last lectures of the Cours (56–60) are entirely devoted to a general appraisal of the achievements of science after the stage of positivism has been fully realized. Indeed, reformist intentions rather than rational analysis are so basic to his entire philosophy that he came very near to Marx’s statement that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways, the point is to change it” (Theses on Feuerbach 1845). In fact, “praxis” was as important a goal to Comte as it was to Marx, the only difference between them being that Comte tried to combine this approach with the Cartesian heritage, whereas Marx, in his distrust of reason, destroyed the very foundation of philosophical rationalism and replaced it by revolutionary action directe.

As the British Neo-Hegelian philosopher Edward Caird (1885) rather early appreciated, Comte’s humanism and the real meaning of his “subjective synthesis” is based on the fact that “nature becomes conscious of itself in man,” so that, as Comte put it, “man sums up in himself all the laws of the world.” Therefore, “to one who has understood the full meaning of the process, this ‘subjective synthesis’ will also be objective” (see also Marvin 1936). The different terms used to define the “metaphysical stage of history” produce similar evidence. This stage was also called by Comte the “negative stage,” and its historical importance lies in the prevalence of criticism and destruction of the old conceptions of the world and of social life as well. Thus, the intellectual development of mankind had necessarily to pass through ages of anarchism and revolutionary restlessness, a true interregnum as Comte called it. The interregnum is characterized by “negative philosophy,” which is the necessary forerunner and prerequisite for the establishment of “positive philosophy,” or positivism, as Comte understood it, because a new order cannot be attained before the remains of the old system have been completely erased.

For an adequate understanding of Comte, one has to consider the whole of his intellectual career, integrating his early writings with the Cours, with the subsequent attempts at self-interpretation (1844a; 1848), with the System, and finally with his sketch of a humanitarian religion. This was his particular response to a general humanitarian trend in the philosophy, the art, and the literature of his time, which began with Honoré de Balzac and provisionally culminated in a system of humanitarian metaphysics as developed by Pierre Leroux, whose influence during the early 1840s in France was much more important than has been recognized so far (König 1931). Comte was neither a “mad” philosopher—Dumas (1905), Seilliere (1924), Maurras (1905), Sokoloff (1961), all notwithstanding— nor a partisan of “pedantocracy.” His main and vital interest was rather the systematization of the social background of human history into one body of knowledge, in preparation for a practical approach to social reform based on a lasting order, the theoretical and moral principles of which he saw in the development of a new science, sociology.

René; KÖnig

[For the historical context of Comte’s work, see Positivism; Sociology, article onTHE DEVELOPMENT OF SOCIOLOGICAL THOUGHT; and the biographies ofLa-PlaceandSaint-Simon. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, see the biographies ofBagehot; Bernard; Duguit; Durkheim; Giddings; Le Play; Mill; Sorokin; Spencer; Ward, Lester F.]


(1819–1828) 1883 Opuscules de philosophic sociale: 1819–1828. Paris: Leroux.

(1822) 1883 Plan des travaux scientifiques nécessaires pour reorganiser la société. Pages 60–180 in Auguste Comte, Opuscules de philosophic sociale: 1819–1828. Paris: Leroux.

(1830–1842) 1877 Cours de philosophie positive. 6 vols., 4th ed. Paris: Baillière. → Volume 1: Préliminaires généraux et philosophie mathématique. Volume 2: Philosophie astronomique et philosophie de la physique. Volume 3: Philosophie chimique et philosophie biologique. Volumes 4–5: Philosophie sociale. Volume 6: Complément de la philosophie sociale et conclusions générales.

(1830–1842) 1896 The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte. Freely translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau, with an introduction by Frederic Harrison. 3 vols. London: Bell. → An abridged and simplified translation of Cours de philosophie positive.

(1844a) 1903 A Discourse on the Positive Spirit. London: Reeves. → First published in French as the preamble to Traité philosophique d’astronomie populaire.

1844b Traité philosophique d’astronomie populaire. Paris: Carilian-Goeury & Dalmont.

(1848) 1957 A General View of Positivism. New York: Speller. → First published as Discours sur I’ensemble du positivisme.

(1851–1854) 1875–1877 System of Positive Polity. 4 vols. London: Longmans. → First published in French.

(1852) 1891 The Catechism of Positive Religion. 3d ed. rev. & corr. London: Routledge. → First published in French.

(1855) 1889 Appeal to Conservatives. London: Trubner. → First published in French.

(1856) 1891 Religion of Humanity: Subjective Synthesis, or Universal System of the Conceptions Adapted to the Normal State of Humanity. London: Routledge. → First published as Synthèse subjective: Ou système universel des conceptions propres à l’état normal de I’humanité.

1870 Lettres d’Auguste Comte à M. Valat: 1815–1844. Paris: Dunod.

1877 Lettres d’Auguste Comte à John Stuart Mill: 1841–1846. Paris: Leroux.

(1884) 1910 Confession and Testament of Auguste Comte and His Correspondence With Clotilde de Vaux. Liverpool: Young. → First published in French.

1889a Lettres d’Auguste Comte à Henry Edger et à M. John Metcalf. Paris: Apostolat Positiviste.

1889b Lettres d’Auguste Comte à Richard Congreve. London: Church of Humanity.

1890 Lettres d’Auguste Comte à Henry Dix Button. Dublin: Ponsonby & Weldrick.

1903–1904 Correspondance inédite d’Auguste Comte. Paris: Société Positiviste.

1932 Lettres inédites à C. de Blignières. Paris: Vrin.

1939 Nouvelles lettres inédites. Paris: Société Positiviste.


Alengry, Franck 1900 Essai historique et critique sur la sociologie chez Auguste Comte. Paris: Alcan.

Arbousse-Bastide, Paul 1957 La doctrine de I’education universelle dans la philosophie d’Auguste Comte: Principe d’unité systematique et fondement de I’organisation spirituelle du monde. 2 vols. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Aron, Raymond (1960) 1965 Main Currents in Sociological Thought. Volume 1: Montesquieu, Comte, Marx, Tocqueville: The Sociologists and the Revolution of 1848. New York: Basic Books. → First published in French.

Borchert, Heinrich 1927 Der Begriff des Kulturzeitalters bei Comte: Nach dem Cours de philosophie positive unter Mitberücksichtigung der Jugendschriften. Halle (Germany): John.

Boyer De Sainte-Suzanne, Raymond De 1923 Essai sur la pensée religieuse d’Auguste Comte. Paris: Nourry.

Cairo, Edward 1885 The Social Philosophy and Religion of Comte. New York: Macmillan.

Cantecor, Georges (1904) 1930 Comte. New ed. Paris: Mellottée. → First published as Le positivisme.

Cresson, Andre 1941 Auguste Comte: Sa vie, son oeuvre, avec un exposé de sa philosophie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Defourny, Maurice 1902 La sociologie positiviste: Auguste Comte. Paris: Alcan.

De Grange, McQuiLkiN (1923) 1930 The Curve of Societal Movement: A Study of the Nature of Sociology in the Light of the Positive Politics of Auguste Comte. Hanover, N.H. and Minneapolis, Minn.: Sociological Press. → First published in French.

De Grange, Mcquilkin 1931 The Method of Auguste Comte: Subordination of Imagination to Observation in the Social Sciences. Pages 19–58 in Social Science Research Council, Committee on Scientific Methods in the Social Sciences, Methods in Social Science: A Case Book. Univ. of Chicago Press.

DelvolvÉ;, Jean 1932 Réflexions sur la pensée comtienne. Paris: Alcan.

Deroisin, Hippolyte P. 1909 Notes sur Auguste Comte: Par un de ses disciples. Paris: Crès.

Dubuisson, Alfred 1910 ”Positivisme intégral,” foi, morale, politique, d’après les dernières conceptions d’Auguste Comte. Paris: Crès.

DucassÉ, Pierre 1939 Methode et intuition chez Auguste Comte. Paris: Alcan.

Dumas, Georges 1905 Psychologic des deux messies positivistes: Saint-Simon et Auguste Comte. Paris: Alcan.

Dupuy, Paul 1911 Le positivisme d’Auguste Comte. Paris: Alcan.

Dussauze, Walter 1901 Essai sur la religion d’après Auguste Comte. Saint-Armand (France): Chambon.

Gouhier, Henri G. 1931 La vie d’Auguste Comte. Paris: Gallimard. → A bibliography appears on pages 289–300.

Gouhier, Henri G. 1933–1941 La jeunesse d’Auguste Comte et la formation du positivisme. 3 vols. Paris: Vrin. → A bibliography of the works of Comte appears in Volume 1, pages 294–301.

Gruber, Hermann 1889 Auguste Comte, der Begründer des Positivismus: Sein Leben und seine Lehre. Freiburg im Breisgau (Germany): Herder.

Guilmain, Leon J. 1922 La sociologie d’A. Comte: Ce qu’elle doit à la biologic du début du Xixe siècle. Algiers: Gaudet.

Harris, Marjorie S. 1923 The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte. Hartford, Conn.: Case.

Hawkins, Richmond L. 1936 Auguste Comte and the United States: (1816–1853). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Lacroix, Jean 1956 La sociologie d’Auguste Comte. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

LÉvy-Bruhl, Lucien (1900) 1903 The Philosophy of Auguste Comte. New York: Putnam; London: Sonnenschein. → First published in French.

Lewes, George H. (1883) 1904 Comte’s Philosophy of the Sciences: Being an Exposition of the Principles of the Cours de philosophie positive. London: Bell.

LittrÉ, Émile (1863) 1877 Auguste Comte et la philosophie positive. Paris: Bureau de “La philosophie positive.”

LittrÉ, Émile 1866 Auguste Comte et Stuart Mill Paris: Baillière.

Lonchampt, Joseph-Victor 1900 Notice sur la vie et I’oeuvre d’Auguste Comte. Paris: Fonds Typographique de I’Exécution Testamentaire d’Auguste Comte.

Mackintosh, Robert 1899 From Comte to Benjamin Kidd: The Appeal to Biology or Evolution for Human Guidance. New York and London: Macmillan.

Marcuse, Alexander 1932 Die Geschichtsphilosophie Auguste Comtes. Berlin and Stuttgart: Cotta.

MarÉchal, Henri 1919 Les conceptions économiques d’A. Comte. Bar-sur-Seine (France): Saillard. Marvin, Francis S. 1936 Comte: The Founder of Sociology. London: Chapman & Hall.

Mauduit, Roger 1929 Auguste Comte et la science économique. Paris: Alcan.

Maurras, Charles (1905) 1925 Auguste Comte. Pages 89–127 in Charles Maurras, Romantisme et révolution. Paris: Nouvelle Librairie Nationale.

Mehlis, Georg 1909 Die Geschichtsphilosophie Auguste Comtes kritisch dargestellt. Leipzig; Eckardt.

Milhaud, Gaston S. 1902 Le positivisme et le progrés de I’esprit: Études critiques sur Auguste Comte. Paris: Alcan.

Mill, John Stuart (1865) 1961 Auguste Comte and Positivism. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press. Mill, John Stuart 1899 Lettres inédites de John Stuart Mill a Auguste Comte. Published with the responses of Comte. Paris: Alcan.

Montesquiou-Fezensac, LÉon 1907 Le système politique d’Auguste Comte. Paris: Nouvelle Librairie Nationale.

Negt, Oskar 1964 Strukturbeziehungen zwischen den Gcsellschaftslehren Comtes und Hegels. Frankfurt am Main (Germany): Europäische Verlagsanstalt.

Ostwald, Wilhelm 1914 Auguste Comte: Der Mann und sein Werk. Leipzig: Verlag Unesrna.

Roberty, EugÈne De 1894 Auguste Comte et Herbert Spencer: Contribution à I’histoire des idées philosophiques aux Xixe siècle. Paris: Alcan.

Robinet, Jean F. E. 1860 Notice sur I’oeuvre et sur la vie d’Auguste Comte. Paris: Dunod.

Rouvre, Charles De 1917 L’amoureuse histoire d’Auguste Comte et de Clotilde de Vaux. Paris: Calmann-Lévy.

Rouvre, Charles De 1928 Auguste Comte et le catholicisme. Paris: Rieder.

Roux, Adrien 1920 La pensée d’Auguste Comte: Le passé”, le present & I’avenir social. Paris: Chiron.

SeilliÉre, Ernest 1924 Auguste Comte. Paris: Alcan.

Sokoloff, Boris 1961 The “Mad” Philosopher Auguste Comte. New York: Vantage.

Style, Jane M. 1928 Auguste Comte: Thinker and Lover. London: Paul.

Uta, Michel 1928a La loi des trots états dans la philosophic d’Auguste Comte. Paris: Alcan.

Uta, Michel 1928b La théorie du savoir dans la philosophie d’Auguste Comte. Paris: Alcan.

Varney, Mecca M. 1931 L”influence des femmes sur Auguste Comte. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Waentig, Heinrich 1894 Auguste Comte und seine Bedeutung für die Entwicklung der Socialwissenschaft. Leipzig: Duncker.

Watson, John 1895 Comte, Mill and Spencer: An Outline of Philosophy. New York: Macmillan.

Whittaker, Thomas 1908 Comte and Mill. London: Constable.


Bridges, John Henry (1907) 1915 Illustrations of Positivism: A Selection of Articles From the Positivist Review in Science, Philosophy, Religion and Politics. Rev. & enl. ed. Chicago: Open Court.

DucassÉ, Pierre 1939 Essai sur les origines intuitives du positivisme. Paris: Alcan.

DucassÉ, Pierre 1940 La méthode positive et I’intuition comtienne: Bibliographie. Paris: Alcan.

Hawkins, Richmond L. 1938 Positivism in the United States: (1853–1861). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Hayek, Friedrich A. Von 1952 The Counter-revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

KÖnig, RenÉ 1931 Die naturalistische Ästhetik in Frankreich und ihre Auflösung: Ein Beitrag zur systemwissenschaftlichen Betrachtung der Kiinstlerdsthetik. Leipzig: Noske.

Pereire, Alfred 1912 Autour de Saint-Simon: Documents originaux. Paris: Champion.

Salomon, Albert 1955 The Tyranny of Progress: Reflections on the Origins of Sociology. New York: Noonday.

Spaemann, Robert 1959 Der Ursprung der Soziologie aus dem Geist der Restauration. Munich: Kosel.

Comte, Auguste

views updated May 23 2018


COMTE, AUGUSTE (17981857), French philosopher, founder of positivism. Born into a Roman Catholic, royalist family in Montpellier, France, Comte completed his early education by preparing for the École Polytechnique under the direction of Daniel Encontre, from whom Comte learned that philosophy is a complete view of reality. Comte ranked high in the Polytechnique entry competitions, but he studied there only a few years. Republican political opinions, later expressed in his memoirs, moved him to participate in the student rebellions that were instrumental in causing the royalist government to close the school for reorganization.

In 1817 Comte became secretary to Claude-Henri de Rouvroy Saint-Simon, the social philosopher. Comte's writing appeared in numerous publications edited by Saint-Simon. Indeed, Comte's Sommaire appréciation de l'ensemble du passé moderne (Summary Evaluation of the Impact of the Recent Past; 1820) came out under Saint-Simon's signature. In this work Comte describes the ancien régime as having two poles, or capacities, the theological and the military; these are being superseded by two new poles: the scientific and the industrial.

In Prospectus des travaux scientifiques nécessaires pour reorganiser la société (Prospectus of the Scientific Tasks Necessary for the Reorganization of Society; 1822), Comte presented a law of three states through which human history and each of the sciences must pass in their development; he gave one hundred examples. Revised as Système de politique positive (System of Positive Polity; 1824), this theory appeared with one thousand examples, unsigned, in a publication of Saint-Simon's. After he left Saint-Simon, Comte gave lessons in mathematics. In 1825 he married Caroline Massin.

Considérations philosophiques sur les sciences et les savants (Philosophical Considerations concerning Sciences and Scientists; 1825) and Considérations sur le pouvoir spirituel (Considerations concerning Spiritual Power; 1826) were published while Comte prepared his Cours de philosophie positive (Course on Positive Philosophy). He gave the first lesson in this course on April 2, 1826. Among those present were the zoologist Henri-Marie de Blainville, the scientist Louis Poinsot, the economist Charles Barthelemy, and the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. The course ended with its third meeting because of Comte's mental problems. Melancholic, he attempted to drown himself in the Seine, but was rescued. He took up his work again in the spring of 1828.

The course resumed, and the first volume based on these lectures was published in 1830. In this same year, Comte inaugurated a free public course on astronomy that continued for seventeen years. Beginning in 1832, he served as assistant master at the École Polytechnique, but the minister of instruction offered no reply to Comte's queries about a chair at the Collège de France. In 1842, the sixth and concluding volume of the Cours appeared, followed by Discours sur l'esprit positif, which appeared as part of his treatise on popular astronomy. Although his request for a chair in the history of positive sciences met with no success, publication of his Discours sur l'ensemble du positivisme (Discourse on the Unity of Positivism; 1848), and the creation of a subsidy by Émile Littré through Comte's Société Positiviste (founded 1848), provided financial support for the philosopher.

Comte's four-volume Système de politique positive (System of Positive Polity) appeared during 18511854. In the preface to his Catéchisme positiviste (Positivist Catechism; 1852), Comte presented himself as founder of the religion of humanity. Littré, unable to follow in this new development, broke with him. Also in 1852, the second volume of the Système was issued, which contained an important chapter on religion: "General Theory of Religion, or Positive Theory of Human Unity."

The two aims of religion, according to Comte, are regulation of the individual and unification of individuals. For him, the etymology of the Latin religio is religare: to connect and unite. This unity depends upon both an intellectual and a moral condition; the first determines dogma, the second cult. Beyond individual and social unity lies an external world, here considered as the foundation of faith, as the aim of activity, and as an object of affection. "Faith is but an auxiliary of love" (Système, vol. 2, p. 48). Moral unity rests entirely in sociability prevailing over personality (Catéchisme positiviste, in the dialogue between the priest and the woman). Positivism is a religion of relation and does not propose a merely individual synthesis. It is rather the great being, or humanity as a whole, that is loved for its perfectibility. Humanity, the positivist God, is behind and before us as the progressive realization of the ideal that reveals itself in reali-zation.

See Also



The writings of Comte can be found in his Œuvres, 12 vols. (Paris, 19681970). The works available in English translation include The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, 2 vols., a condensation of the Cours by Harriet Martineau (London, 1853); The System of Positive Polity, 4 vols., translated by J. H. Bridges et al. (London, 18751877); and The Catechism of Positive Religion, translated by Richard Congreve (London, 1858). Henri Gouhier's La vie d'Auguste Comte, 2d rev. ed. (Paris, 1965), and Joseph Lonchampt's Précis de la vie et des écrits d'Auguste Comte (Paris, 1889) are informative biographies.

New Sources

Comte, Auguste, Oscar A. Haac, and John Stuart Mill. The Correspondence of John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte. New Brunswick, 1995.

Harp, Gillis J. Positivist Republic: Auguste Comte and the Reconstruction of American. Liberalism, 18651920. University Park, 1995.

Kennedy, Emmet. "The French Revolution and the Genesis of a Religion of Man, 17601885." In Modernity and Religion. Notre Dame, Indiana, 1994.

Pickering, Mary. Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.

Scharff, Robert C. Comte after Positivism. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

Wernick, Andrew. Auguste Comte and the Religion of Humanity: The Post-Theistic Program of French Social Theory. Cambridge, U.K., 2001.

Wright, T. R. The Religion of Humanity: The Impact of Comtean Positivism on Victorian Britian. Cambridge, U.K., 1986.

AngÉle Kremer-Marietti (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Comte, Auguste

views updated May 14 2018

Comte, Auguste 1798-1857


Auguste Comte was a French philosopher best known for founding the field of sociology and the philosophical school of positivism. Born into a Catholic and monarchial family in Montpellier on January 17, 1798, he rejected Catholicism and royalism at the age of thirteen and entered the progressive École Polytechnique in Paris three years later. He soon began a close association with the French social reformer Claude Henri de Rouvroy Saint-Simon (17601825) and served as his secretary for several years. After breaking with Saint-Simon and then suffering a mental collapse in 1827, Comte recovered and published the six volumes of his seminal Course of Positive Philosophy between 1830 and 1842. He also served as a tutor and examiner at the École Polytechnique beginning in 1832, but was dismissed in 1842 as a result of a dispute with its directors. He had gained a considerable following by this point, and for much of the remainder of his life his admirers and disciples supported him financially. In the early 1850s he began formulating his own humanitarian and non-theistic religion, the Religion of Humanity. His second and final major work, the four-volume System of Positive Polity, was published from 1851 to 1854. Soon afterward Comtes perennially poor health deteriorated even further, and he died of stomach cancer on September 5, 1857.

Comte is perhaps most famous for his law of three stages, according to which intellectual and social development progresses through three chronological steps: the theological stage, in which events are attributed to the actions of gods and supernatural forces; the metaphysical stage, in which the world is explained through abstract concepts such as nature and final causes; and the final, positive stage, which is characterized by a willingness to simply observe the world without searching for a metaphysical cause or final principle that governs it. Comte believed that the positive method that had triumphed in mathematics, astronomy, and physics would eventually prevail in other fields such as economics and politics; this belief system made him an important forerunner of positivistic social science as it emerged in the mid-twentieth century, which held that mixing facts and values would entail a betrayal of scientific thinking. According to Comte, the positive method would culminate in a new science, sociology, the goal and achievement of which would be nothing less than the synthesis of all human knowledge and the resolution of the crisis of the modern world through the reorganization of society.

Comte maintained that nearly all social problems could be solved by organizing society into an all-embracing hierarchical system in which an intellectual elite helps to regulate education and public morality, an outlook which the English biologist Thomas H. Huxley (18251895) described as Catholicism minus Christianity (Pickering 1993, p. 17). The English philosopher John Stuart Mill may have overstated the case in arguing that Comte aimed at establishing a despotism of society over the individual, surpassing anything contemplated in the political ideal of the most rigid disciplinarian among the ancient philosophers (Comte 1975, p. xxviii), but it is difficult to deny that Comtes emphasis on hierarchy and obedience put him sharply at odds with liberalism and democracy.

SEE ALSO Mill, John Stuart; Positivism; Sociology


Aron, Raymond. 1965. Montesquieu, Comte, Marx, Tocqueville, the Sociologists and the Revolution of 1848. Vol. 1 of Main Currents in Sociological Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Comte, Auguste. 1975. Auguste Comte and Positivism: The Essential Writings. Ed. Gertrud Lenzer. New York: Harper and Row.

Pickering, Mary. 1993. Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Dennis C. Rasmussen

Comte, Auguste

views updated May 21 2018


French social philosopher, often called the father of modern systematic sociology; b. Montpellier, Jan. 19, 1798; d. Paris, Sept. 5, 1857.

Life. The son of devoutly Catholic and Royalist parents, from earliest school age Comte was known for his intellectual brilliance and also for habitual defiance of authority. The first quality won him many academic prizes as well as precocious admission to the famous École Polytechnique in Paris; the second, however, brought about his early dismissal for leadership of a student insurrection. Added to these was a third quality, possibly of psychotic nature, that led to a temporary mental breakdown in early manhood and, in later life, to messianic delusions that alienated all but the most zealous of his followers.

Shortly after his academic dismissal in 1816, Comte took up residence in Paris, when he became acquainted with the utopian socialist C. H. saint-simon. Although the exact influence of this extraordinary mind on Comte is subject to scholarly dispute, it was during his association with Saint-Simon that Comte acquired the interest in social reconstruction that subsequently governed his life. The two men broke in extreme bitterness, however, about 1823, and Comte, thereafter, never acknowledged Saint-Simon in any way as an influence on his work. The major intellectual influences on him (which he himself fully acknowledged) were the enlightenment, from which came his interest in social development, and the early 19th-century French Catholic conservative reaction to the Enlightenment, from which he derived his interest in order and stability (see traditionalism).

Thought. Comte's earliest writings were essays, of which the most notable was the "Prospectus of the Scientific Works Required for the Reorganization of Society," published in 1822 with an introduction by Saint-Simon. In this learned and original piece, Comte set forth germinally most of the ideas that he later incorporated in his more systematic works. He disclosed his underlying vision of a Europe disorganized and alienated by the forces of modernismnationalism, centralization, religious dissent, secularism, revolutionthat had broken up the consensus of the Middle Ages without producing anything to replace it. The prime requirement of the modern age, he declared, was a new philosophy, one rooted in science, that would do for the present and future of Europe what Christianity had done in the medieval period, that is, serve as the basis of intellectual certainty, moral consensus, and social stability. Comte had no use for the democratic ideas of the Enlightenment and the french revolution. He saw in them metaphysical fallacies that could only subvert the social order. It was his attack on the Revolution and its equalitarian ethos that made him, for all his anti-Catholic, antimonarchist ideas, a favored name of the extreme right in French politics at the end of the 19th century.

The New Science. The outlines of Comte's new sciencewhich he referred to variously as social physics or sociology, having expressly coined the latter wordare to be found in the Cours de philosophie positive, published

between 1830 and 1842. This work rests on Comte's "law of the three stages," undoubtedly the best-known of all his contributions. The "law" states that society and, within it, all disciplines of thought must pass with iron necessity through three stages of development: the religious, the metaphysical, and finally the "positive," or scientific. According to Comte, each of the natural sciencesastronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology, in precisely that orderhad already passed through these stages. Each had attained its third, that is, its scientific stage, and the intellectual scene was therefore ripe, for the first time in history, for the emergence of a science of societythe one area of knowledge still confined to the realms of religion and metaphysics. This new science of sociology Comte proposed to organize, like each of the preceding natural sciences, into a statics and a dynamics, the first sphere being the study of order and stability; the second, the study of societal movement or, as Comte called it, progress. Comte, like many other intellectuals in the 19th century, was preeminently a philosopher of progress, but, unlike the others, he posited his law of progress upon intellectual rather than social or economic factors. Because of the boldness and the extraordinary sweep of knowledge displayed in his work, Comte's philosophy (which became known far and wide as positivism) was honored by some of the leading

minds of Europe, among them Alexander von Humboldt and John Stuart mill. Mill indeed, in his Logic, made Comte's work the very basis of his own prescription of the method of the social sciences.

Maturity. The final period of Comte's intellectual life was marked by the publication of the Système de politique positive (185154). Although remarkable in its conception and its learning, it is the most bizarre and controversial of Comte's works, infused with messianic visions that were absent from his earlier writings. This vast work may be seen from any one of three perspectives: utopian, religious, or scientific.

Under the utopian perspective there is a detailed preview of life in the positivist society that Comte never doubted would develop, first in Europe, then throughout the world. Comte foresaw the positivist society as one governed by scientists and intellectuals working in close harmony with industrialists. It would be hierarchical, not equalitarian; republican, not democratic. Its underlying theme would be consensus and articulation, rather than individual rights or freedom, which Comte regarded as "metaphysical fallacies." Every possible detail of life in the positivist utopia is spelled out, down to the names of the months and days of the reformed positivist calendar and the colors of the vestments to be worn by luminaries at public assemblies.

The Positive Polity is also a religious work, for by middle age Comte's view of positivism had become suffused with a profoundly religious flavor. Much of its emphasis is on the hieratic and liturgical, and it reveals an appreciation of the Middle Ages and of Catholicism that was lacking in Comte's earlier writings. Positivism, he declared, would, in scientific fashion, carry on the work of Catholicism. Society became for him the true deity; he prescribed modes of worship and scientist-rulers called priests. It was this emphasis that produced, following the book's publication, scores of "positivist societies," especially in England and the United States, all of them founded on Comte's "religion of humanity." Not without reason, his work was called by some critics "Catholicism minus Christianity."

Nevertheless, the Positive Polity is a work of social scienceprotoscience, perhapsfor along with its messianic cast and its religious and utopian leanings, it contains frequent penetrating analyses of the social order. The division between "statics" and "dynamics," drawn from the earlier work, is carefully maintained. Under the first, Comte analyzes kinship, social class, religion, morality, language, and other elements of the social bond. Stripped of their bizarre locutions and worshipful value contexts, these analyses are incisive and sometimes profound. Comte's treatment of the political, social, and psychological character of the family was unequaled in the century, save possibly by Frédéric le play. Comte's "dynamic sociology," although it took up the familiar 19th-century theme of inevitable progress, included insights into European history, particularly into the social nature of the Middle Ages and its breakup, that were the equal of any in his age. There is, in short, ample justification for Comte's subtitling his work "a treatise on sociology," the first such use of the term to be found in European thought.

Comte cannot be placed with Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl marx, or Le Play as a foremost influence in laying the foundations on which such men as Ferdinand Tönnies, Max weber, Georg Simmel, and Émile durkheim subsequently built the structure of contemporary sociology. His unstable commitment to causes and values that subverted his own ideal of sciencesuch as his messianic utopianism and religion of humanityprevented that. But no one in the century more successfully conveyed the desideratum of a science of society and of the necessity of sciencerather than revolutionas an element in the building of the good society.

Bibliography: f. s. marvin, Comte (London 1936). f. e. manuel, The Prophets of Paris (Cambridge, Mass. 1962). m. degrange, The Curve of Societal Movement (Hanover, N.H. 1930). l. lÉvy-bruhl, The Philosophy of Auguste Comte (New York 1903).

[r. a. nisbet]

Auguste Comte

views updated May 23 2018

Auguste Comte

The French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857) developed a system of positive philosophy. He held that science and history culminate in a new science of humanity, to which he gave the name "sociology."

Born in Montpellier, Auguste Comte abandoned the devout Catholicism and royalism of his family while in his teens. He entered the École Polytechnique in 1814 and proved himself a brilliant mathematician and scientist. Comte was expelled in 1816 for participating in a student rebellion. Remaining in Paris, he managed to do immense research in mathematics, science, economics, history, and philosophy.

At 19 Comte met Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, and as a "spiritually adopted son," he became secretary and collaborator to the older man until 1824. The relationship between Saint-Simon and Comte grew increasingly strained for both theoretical and personal reasons and finally degenerated into an acrimonious break over disputed authorship. Saint-Simon was an intuitive thinker interested in immediate, albeit utopian, social reform. Comte was a scientific thinker, in the sense of systematically reviewing all available data, with a conviction that only after science was reorganized in its totality could men hope to resolve their social problems.

In 1824 Comte began a common-law marriage with Caroline Massin when she was threatened with arrest because of prostitution, and he later referred to this disastrous 18-year union as "the only error of my life." During this period Comte supported himself as a tutor. In 1826 he proposed to offer a series of 72 lectures on his philosophy to a subscription list of distinguished intellectuals. After the third lecture Comte suffered a complete breakdown, replete with psychotic episodes. At his mother's insistence he was remarried in a religious ceremony and signed the contract "Brutus Napoleon Comte." Despite periodic hospitalization for mental illness during the following 15 years, Comte was able to discipline himself to produce his major work, the six-volume Course of Positive Philosophy (1830-1842).

Positivist Thought

Positivism as a term is usually understood as a particular way of thinking. For Comte, additionally, the methodology is a product of a systematic reclassification of the sciences and a general conception of the development of man in history: the law of the three stages. Comte, like the Marquis de Condorcet whom he acknowledged as a predecessor and G. W. F. Hegel whom he met in Paris, was convinced that no data can be adequately understood except in the historical context. Phenomena are intelligible only in terms of their origin, function, and significance in the relative course of human history.

But unlike Hegel, Comte held that there is no Geist, or spirit, above and beyond history which objectifies itself through the vagaries of time. Comte represents a radical relativism: "Everything is relative; there is the only absolute thing." Positivism absolutizes relativity as a principle which makes all previous ideas and systems a result of historical conditions. The only unity that the system of positivism affords in its pronounced antimetaphysical bias is the inherent order of human thought. Thus the law of the three stages, which he discovered as early as 1820, attempts to show that the history of the human mind and the development of the sciences follow a determinant pattern which parallels the growth of social and political institutions. According to Comte, the system of positivism is grounded on the natural and historical law that "by the very nature of the human mind, every branch of our knowledge is necessarily obliged to pass successively in its course through three different theoretical states: the theological or fictitious state; the metaphysical or abstract state; finally, the scientific or positive state."

These stages represent different and opposed types of human conception. The most primitive type is theological thinking, which rests on the "empathetic fallacy" of reading subjective experience into the operations of nature. The theological perspective develops dialectically through fetishism, polytheism, and monotheism as events are understood as animated by their own will, that of several deities, or the decree of one supreme being. Politically the theological state provides stability under kings imbued with divine rights and supported by military power. As civilization progresses, the metaphysical stage begins as a criticism of these conceptions in the name of a new order. Supernatural entities are gradually transformed into abstract forces just as political rights are codified into systems of law. In the final stage of positive science the search for absolute knowledge is abandoned in favor of a modest but precise inquiry into the relative laws of nature. The absolutist and feudal social orders are replaced gradually by increasing social progress achieved through the application of scientific knowledge.

From this survey of the development of humanity Comte was able to generalize a specific positive methodology. Like René Descartes, Comte acknowledged a unity of the sciences. It was, however, not that of a univocal method of thinking but the successive development of man's ability to deal with the complexities of experience. Each science possesses a specific mode of inquiry. Mathematics and astronomy were sciences that men developed early because of their simplicity, generality, and abstractness. But observation and the framing of hypotheses had to be expanded through the method of experimentation in order to deal with the physical sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology. A comparative method is required also to study the natural sciences, man, and social institutions. Thus even the history of science and methodology supports the law of the three stages by revealing a hierarchy of sciences and methodological direction from general to particular, and simple to complex. Sociology studies particular societies in a complex way since man is both the subject and the object of this discipline. One can consider social groups from the standpoint of "social statics," which comprises the elements of cohesion and order such as family and institutions, or from the perspective of "social dynamics," which analyzes the stage of continuous development that a given society has achieved.

Later Years

By 1842 Comte's marriage had dissolved, and he was supported by contributions from various intellectuals, including the English philosopher J.S. Mill. In 1844 he met Clothilde de Vaux, and they fell deeply in love. Although the affair was never consummated because Madame de Vaux died in the next year, this intense love influenced Comte in his later work toward a new religion of humanity. He proposed replacing priests with a new class of scientists and industrialists and offered a catechism based on the cult of reason and humanity, and a new calendar replete with positivist saints. While this line of thought was implicit in the aim of sociology to synthesize order and progress in the service of humanity, the farcical elements of Comte's mysticism has damaged his philosophical reputation. He died in obscurity in 1857.

Further Reading

Comte's various writings have never been gathered into a critical edition. But Comte personally approved of Harriet Martineau's English redaction of the six volumes of his main work into The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte (3 vols., 1896). Secondary studies of Comte include J. S. Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism (2d ed. rev. 1866; 5th ed. 1907); L. Lévy-Bruhl, The Philosophy of Auguste Comte (trans. 1903); and a chapter in Frank E. Manuel, The Prophets of Paris (1962). For Comte's relationship with Saint-Simon see Manuel's The New World of Henri Saint-Simon (1956); and for his relation to the history of positivism see Leszek Kolakowski, The Alienation of Reason (trans. 1968). Also useful are the two works of Richmond Laurin Hawkins, Auguste Comte and the United States, 1816-1853 (1936) and Positivism in the United States, 1853-1861 (1938), and F. S. Marvin, Comte: The Founder of Sociology (1936).

Additional Sources

Gould, F. J. (Floyd Jerome), The life story of Auguste Comte: with a digest review of ancient, religious, and "modern" philosophy, Austin, TX: American Atheist Press, 1984.

Pickering, Mary, Auguste Comte: an intellectual biography, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Standley, Arline Reilein, Auguste Comte, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981. □

Comte, Auguste

views updated May 14 2018


COMTE, AUGUSTE (1798–1857), founder of sociology and positivism.

Although desirous to distinguish himself from the French revolutionaries and Napoleon, who had wreaked havoc in his youth, Auguste Comte shared their desire to launch a new era in European history. He envisioned a new global order based on secular republicanism and marked by an intellectual and emotional consensus.

Born in Montpellier, France, on 19 January 1798, Comte rebelled as a boy against the royalism and Catholicism of his parents. A brilliant mathematician, he marveled at the power of the sciences and studied at the Ècole polytechnique, the prestigious engineering school in Paris. After being expelled for insubordination in 1816, he began in 1817 to work for Henri de Saint-Simon, a prominent social reformer. Comte later tried to deny Saint-Simon's influence after their rupture in 1824. Nevertheless, Saint-Simon showed him that the nascent industrial society had to be based on a scientific system of knowledge—a "positive philosophy"—that had to include the study of society. Having read Montesquieu (Charles-Louis de Secondat; 1689–1755), Condorcet (Marie-Jean de Caritat; 1743–1794), and the idèologues (liberal social theorists), Comte realized the significance of Saint-Simon's scattered insights. In 1826 he made his first attempt to bring knowledge together in a public course, but after a few lectures, he went mad. When he emerged from his asylum months later, he contributed articles to a journal run by the Saint-Simonians, yet he refused to join their cult. In the 1830s, he procured a position as a tutor and administrator at the Ècole polytechnique, where he tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to obtain a chair. He was eventually fired. Living off of his disciples' contributions, he died on 5 September 1857.

Comte's masterpiece is the six-volume Cours de philosophie positive (Course of Positive Philosophy), published between 1830 and 1842. It introduced his intellectual synthesis, called positivism. According to Comte's law of three stages, the main branches of knowledge and indeed all societies, which reflect the prevailing system of ideas, go through three stages. During the theological stage, people explain events by attributing them to a god or several gods. (There are three substages: fetishism, polytheism, and monotheism.) Priests and kings run society. During the metaphysical stage, personified nonsupernatural abstractions like Nature are said to cause occurrences. Philosophers and lawyers dominate society. During the positive stage, people stop looking for first causes and seek scientific laws that describe how, not why, phenomena function. Knowledge is considered valid only if it is based on the "positive" or scientific method and is limited to what can be observed. According to Comte's classification of the sciences, the six main sciences arrived at the positive stage in the following order, which was determined by the simplicity of their subject matter and their distance from humans: mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and the study of society. The Cours discussed the development of each of these branches of knowledge, thus inaugurating the history of science.

Referring to the findings of the phrenologist Franz Gall (1758–1828), Comte maintained that because biology now was a positive science, it was time for the study of society to be wrested from the theologians and metaphysicians and to become a science. He called this new science sociology in 1839. It contained two parts: social dynamics, the study of progress (whose main historical law was the law of three stages), and social statics, the study of order. Once he established sociology as the keystone of positivism, he assumed that an intellectual revolution would commence. It would lead to a moral revolution, which would usher in a new social and political order, doing away with the anarchy from the Revolution of 1789. The government of the new positive era would comprise a temporal power composed of industrialists and a spiritual power made up of positive philosophers. Administered by these separate powers, a new secular "Occidental Republic" would work for the betterment of all in a spirit of consensus. Comte's ambitious scheme of renewal, based on a grand view of history and the creation of an organic community, appealed to leading intellectuals such as John Stuart Mill and Maximilien-Paul-Émile Littrè.

The more controversial part of Comte's life is his so-called second career, when he launched a new religion. Some scholars attribute this religion to Comte's midlife crisis. In 1845, three years after he separated from his wife, Caroline Massin, Comte fell in love with a budding novelist, who was seventeen years younger than he. Clotilde de Vaux rejected his amorous advances but grew close to him before she died of tuberculosis a year later. Crushed, Comte considered her responsible for a dramatic shift in his philosophy. Yet before meeting her, Comte had been interested in the moral reform of society. Living during the period of Romanticism, attracted to Catholic conservative thinkers such as Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821), and eager to gather the support of workers, whose marginality reminded him of his own, he never presented ideas alone as the principal motivators of people; it was important to address their feelings. In addition, as the women's movement became prominent, he tried to attract female supporters by referring to the importance of the emotions and countering the influence of the Catholic Church. In the late 1840s, thanks in part to his excitement about the Revolution of 1848, he launched a new secular religion, the Religion of Humanity, which flowed logically from positivism. People were to make society, or Humanity, not only the focus of their scientific studies but also the object of their love and activities. To encourage this new cult and the growth of sociability, or altruism, a word he coined, Comte devised prayers, a new calendar, and sacraments, many of which were derived from Catholicism. Around the same time, he came out in favor of a dictatorial state, especially as he placed his hopes on the new government of Napoleon III (r. 1852–1871), who, however, soon disappointed him. Comte discussed his religion and his plan for a new global order that would comprise five hundred republics in his four-volume Système de politique positive (1851–1854; System of Positive Polity, 1875–1877). It appealed to individuals who rejected God but felt uncomfortable with atheism. Some disciples, however, accused him of betraying his scientific agenda.

Comte's doctrine influenced philosophy, sociology, the history of science, and historiography. Because its assault on the church and monarchism appealed to the left and its defense of order and authority made it attractive to the right, positivism had diverse followers throughout Europe and Latin America. The Brazilian flag displays Comte's motto "Order and Progress."

See alsoFrance; Gall, Franz Joseph; Positivism; Saint-Simon, Henri de; Sociology.


Primary Sources

Martineau, Harriet, ed. and trans. The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte. 2 vols. London, 1853.

Secondary Sources

Pickering, Mary. Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography. Vol. 1. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.

Wernick, Andrew. Auguste Comte and the Religion of Humanity: The Post-Theistic Program of French Social Theory. Cambridge, U.K., 2001.

Mary Pickering

Comte, Auguste

views updated Jun 27 2018


One of the French founders of modern sociology, Isidore-Auguste-Marie-François-Xavier Comte, better known simply as Auguste Comte (1798–1857), was born in Montpellier on January 19 (30 Nivose Year VI in the revolutionary calendar) and tried to reconcile the ideals of the Revolution of 1789 with early nineteenth century society. Comte's higher education began at the École Polytechnique in Paris, although he was expelled after two years following a quarrel with one of his mathematics professor. He then briefly studied biology at the École de Médecine in Montpellier before returning to Paris. Among his early influences, the philosophy of the Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794) had the greatest impact. In 1817, Comte began his close association with Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), one of the founders of French socialist thought who envisaged the reorganization of society by an elite of philosophers, engineers, and scientists. After an angry break between the two in 1824, Comte spent the next twenty years delivering lectures on "social physics." He suffered periods of intense mental collapse and died isolated and bitter on September 5 in Paris.

Positive Philosophy

Building on Condorcet's theory of human progress, Comte constructed what he called a "positive philosophy." Central to his philosophy was the "law of the three stages" between theological (mythological or fictitious), metaphysical (abstract), and positive (empirical and descriptive) knowledge. Over the course of history and across a broad range of disciplines and dimensions of human culture, the myths of theology have been gradually replaced by the general principles of metaphysics that were, in Comte's own time, being superseded by positive or empirical scientific knowledge. The positive stage constitutes the highest stage of human history because it is only when science has become "positive" that human beings will truly understand the world. For Comte, astronomy was the first science to become positive, because its phenomena are universal and affect other sciences without itself being affected. Because it is so complex, the last science to become positive is "social physics" or sociology.

Comte divided social physics into statics and dynamics, order and progress. The idea of order appears in society when there is stability because all members hold the same beliefs, a stage that occurred with the triumph of medieval Christianity. The idea of progress appeared with the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution. For Comte, the contemporary challenge was to reconcile or synthesize order and progress, because revolution had destroyed the medieval sense of order but not yet created a new one to take its place. According to Comte, this new order required not only science but religion, with a new clergy to preach the laws of society. Comte eventually proposed himself as the high priest of this new scientific religion, and from 1844 signed his works, "The Founder of Universal Religion, Great Priest of Humanity."

Comte's Influence

Comte has been severely criticized for proposing that a technocratic elite was needed to educate and discipline society (see, for instance, the remarks on Comte in his contemporary John Stuart Mill's book On Liberty, 1859). But Comte was also interested in the moral improvement of humanity as a whole, and a social order in which self-interest is restrained within the bounds of an appreciation of the good of others as well as oneself. Morality for him was constituted by devotion to the whole of society. Such an idea clearly represented a critique of the unqualified competitiveness characteristic of the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, the need for some authoritarian, technocratic guidance—perhaps imbued to some degree with a religious sensibility—to facilitate the creation of a legal framework that supports qualified capitalist competition is not easily dismissed.

The importance of Comte must be placed in the historical context of a century in which vast systems of ideas were being fashioned in response to the forces unleashed by the French and Industrial Revolutions. Although the law of the three stages sounds contrived, and his plans for a new positive religion utterly fantastic, Comte succeeded in introducing the scientific study of society into nineteenth century intellectual discourse. His vision of a science of society to complement the emerging science of nature remains of fundamental importance to the relationship between science, technology, and ethics.


SEE ALSO Enlightenment Social Theory;Secularization.


Comte, Auguste. (1853). The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, trans. Harriet Martineau. London: J. Chapman.

Comte, Auguste. (1865). A General View of Positivism, trans. J. H. Bridges. London: Trübner.

Comte, Auguste. (1875–1877). The System of Positive Polity, trans. J. H. Bridges, et al. London: Longmans, Green.

Comte, Auguste. (1958). The Catechism of Positive Religion, trans. Richard Congreve. London: Kegan Paul.

Mill, John Stuart. (1866). Auguste Comte and Positivism. Philadelphia: Lippencott. One of the best introductions to Comte's work, by one of his contemporary admirers and critics.

Pickering, Mary. (1993). Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Excellent study of Comte's early life and difficulties; places his ideas within the context of the intellectual history of early nineteenth century France.

Scharff, Robert C. (1995). Comte after Positivism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. A detailed consideration of Comte's ideas and of their applicability in the early twenty-first century.

Comte, Auguste

views updated May 21 2018

Comte, Auguste (1798–1857) A French social theorist who coined the term ‘sociology’. After studying the natural sciences at the École Polytechnique in Paris, Comte became Henri Saint-Simon's secretary in 1817. In the course of what proved to be a somewhat fraught relationship (it ended acrimoniously in 1824 after a dispute over authorship credits), Comte was able to begin the development of what he described as his ‘positivist philosophy’. Many of those who have invoked Comte's name but not read his work have been misled by his use of this term. Although Comte took the natural sciences as his model, he intended the term to suggest that his approach was a positive rather than a negative one, and not (as is more commonly supposed) that he embraced any sort of empiricism.

For Comte, his Enlightenment predecessors had been too critical of the social conditions they confronted, and as a result they had failed to appreciate not simply the beneficent nature of certain institutions but also and more importantly the interrelated nature of all of them. On this basis, he came to define the object of his interest as the social whole, and to label the science of this new object initially ‘social physics’ and latterly sociology.

Between 1820 and 1826 Comte produced his first essays in this new discipline. He grounded his writings in a set of metaphysical and methodological protocols that, because of their antiscepticism as well as their appreciation of the necessity of theory, seem closer to what would be termed today scientific realism rather than empiricism. (See, for example, the collection entitled The Crisis of Industrial Civilisation
, edited and translated by Raymond Fletcher.) In these essays, he sought to explain the instability of the Europe in which he lived as the product of an interrupted and therefore incomplete transition between social structures of a ‘theological’ or ‘military’ type, and those of a ‘scientific-industrial’ type. He referred to this transitional phase of social development as the ‘metaphysical stage’, and specified its overcoming as the purpose of sociology, which as the synthetic and therefore the most difficult of the sciences he dubbed ‘the queen of the sciences’. This ‘Law of the Three Stages’ inspired numerous attempts at evolutionary sociology in the nineteenth century. In his subsequent six-volume Course in Positivist Philosophy (1830–42) he identified the specific objects of sociological inquiry as economic life, ruling ideas, forms of individuality, family structure, the division of labour, language, and religion. He organized his discussion of these topics in terms of a highly influential distinction between ‘social statics’ (the requirements for social order) and ‘social dynamics’ (the determinants of social change).

Because of what we must assume were deep and unresolved psychological problems, as well as what appears to have been a rather tragic love-life, little of what Comte wrote thereafter has proved to be of much interest to subsequent generations of sociologists. However, this judgement may yet be revised, since at the core of his later interests were the emotions, the sociological study of which has recently attracted much attention in the United States. This said, the immediate result of this interest was Comte's formation of what would be termed today a love cult, and his declaration that he was the Pope. See also POSITIVISM.

Comte, Auguste

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Comte, Auguste (1798–1857) French philosopher, the founder of Positivism. He proposed the law of the three stages (theological, metaphysical, and positive) that represent the development of the human race. In the first two stages, the human mind finds religious or abstract causes to explain phenomena. While in the third, explanation of a phenomenon is found in a scientific law. He influenced John Stuart Mill and was the founder of sociology. His works include System of Positive Polity (1830–42) and Politique Positive (1851–54).

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Auguste Comte

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Auguste Comte