Comte, Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier

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Comte, Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier

(b. Montpellier, France, 19 January 1798; d. Paris, France, 5 September 1857),

philosophy, sociology, mathematics.

The eldest of the three children born to Louis Auguste Xavier Comte and Rosalie Boyer, Comte came from a Catholic and royalist family, his father being a civil servant of reasonable means. An exceptional and rebellious youth, Comte at an early age repudiated the Catholicism of his parents and took up the republican cause in politics. He entered the École Polytechnique in 1814, took part in the disturbances connected with the defense of Paris, and was one of many “subversive” students expelled in the royalist reorganization of the school in 1816. From 1817 to 1823 he was private secretary to Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon, an intellectual association that was profoundly to affect Comte’s later development. In 1825 he married a prostitute named Caroline Massin, a most unhappy union that was dissolved in 1842.

Comte’s economic position was always an unstable one; he never acquired a university post and survived largely on money earned from the public lectures he gave in Paris, from school examiner’s fees, and from the benevolence of admirers (such as Mill and Grote), who were periodically called on to subsidize Comte’s researches. In 1830 he founded the Association Polytechnique, a group devoted to education of the working classes. In the early 1840’s, he met Mme. Clothilde de Vaux, an intellectual and emotional experience which—even more profoundly than his earlier association with Saint-Simon—was to change his intellectual orientation. In 1848 he founded the Societe Positiviste, devoted to the promulgation of the “Cult of Humanity.” The last years of his life were spent in developing a godless religion, with all the institutional trappings of the Catholicism that he had repudiated as an adolescent. Abandoned by most of his friends and disciples (usually because of his abuse of them), Comte died in relative poverty and isolation.

Comte’s writings exhibit a remarkable scope and breadth, ranging from mathematics to the philosophy of science, from religion and morality to sociology and political economy. What unifies them all is Comte’s concern with the problem of knowledge, its nature, its structure, and the method of its acquisition. Positivism, the official name Comte adopted for his philosophy, was primarily a methodological and epistemological doctrine. Traditionally, writers on the theory of knowledge had adopted a psychologistic approach in which the nature and limitations of the human mind and the senses were examined and knowledge treated as a function of certain mental states. Comte’s approach to this locus of problems was substantially different. Believing that knowledge could be understood only by examining the growth of knowledge in its historical dimension, he insisted that it is the collective history of thought, rather than the individual psyche, that can illuminate the conditions and limits of human knowledge. It was not knowledge in its static dimension which interested Comte, but the dynamics of man qua knower, the progressive development of knowledge. In general outline, this approach was inspired (as Comte acknowledges) by Condorcet and Saint-Simon. What Comte added to this tradition was a firm commitment to studying the history of scientific knowledge, since science was for him (as it was for Whewell) the prototypical instance of knowledge.

The most famous result of this approach is Comte’s law of three states. The importance of this law to Comte’s theory is crucial, for not only does it provide him with a solution to the problem of the growth of knowledge, but it also serves as an example of the fruitfulness of applying scientific methods to the study of human development. In Comte’s eyes the law of three states is as valid—and on the same footing—as the laws of the inorganic world.

Basically, the law (first formulated in 1822) states that human thought, in its historical development, passes successively through three distinct phases: the theological (or fictional) state, the metaphysical (or abstract) state, and the positive (or scientific) state. In the theological state, man explains the world around him in anthropomorphic terms, reducing natural processes to the whims of manlike gods and agencies. Final causes are especially symptomatic of this stage. In the metaphysical state, deities are replaced by powers, potencies, forces, and other imperceptible causal agencies. The positive state repudiates both causal forces and gods and restricts itself to expressing precise, verifiable correlations between observable phenomena. While Comte believes that the theological and metaphysical states are based on a misconception of natural processes, he insists that they were essential preliminaries to the emergence of positive knowledge. Thus, the theological state is a natural one for a civilization which has neither the mathematical nor the experimental techniques for investigating nature, and its importance is that it provides a pattern, however crude, for introducing some element of order into an otherwise capricious world. The metaphysical state, which is purely transitional, contains positive elements which it clothes in the language of powers and forces so as not to offend the sensibilities of theologically inclined minds.

It is not only knowledge in general but every branch of knowledge which evolves through these three states. Different forms of knowledge evolve at different rates, however, and one of Comte’s major critical tasks was to assess the degree of progress toward the positive stage in each individual science, a task that occupies most of the six-volume Cours de philosophie positive (1830–1842).

This task of assessment led immediately to Comte’s hierarchy of sciences. No mere taxonomical exercise, his classification of the sciences is meant to reflect several important characteristics. While most other schemes (for example, those of Aristotle, Bacon, and Ampere) had classified the sciences with respect to their generality or relations of logical inclusion and reduction, Comte arranged the sciences in the hierarchy according to the degree to which they have attained the positive state. On this ranking, the sciences (in order) are (1) mathematics, (2) astronomy, (3) physics, (4) chemistry, (5) biology, and (6) sociology (or “social physics”). Of these, Comte believed that only mathematics and astronomy had reached full positive maturity, while metaphysical and theological modes of thought were still prominent in the others.

Although Comte’s classification is based on the “degree of positivity” of the various sciences, it also captures other important characteristics. Neglecting mathematics, the sequence from astronomy to sociology represents an increasing complexity in the phenomena under investigation. Thus, the astronomer is concerned only with motions and positions, the physicist needs forces and charges as well, while the chemist also deals with configurations and structures. The Comtean hierarchy of the sciences reflects moreover important methodological characteristics of each science. Astronomy has only the method of observation, physics can both observe and experiment, and the biologist employs comparison and analogy as well as observation and experiment. It was necessary for Comte to establish the fact that different sciences utilize different methods, since his conception of sociology required a unique method (the “historical method”) which none of the other sciences exemplify. Comte was manifestly not a reductionist in the sense of using a classificatory scheme to render one science logically subordinate to another. His scientific beliefs, as well as his insistence on the diversity of methods, made him an outspoken critic of reductionism. The unity of the sciences was not, for Comte, to be found in the identity of concepts, but rather in the positive mentality which he hoped would unite the sciences.

Comte’s major impact on his contemporaries was methodological. The Cours de philosophie positive is simultaneously a methodological manifesto and an incisive critique of the science of the early nineteenth century. Comte was convinced that a careful analysis of the logic of science would lead him to far-reaching insights into the character of positive (that is, scientific) method. In practice, however, most of his methodological strictures derive from the doctrine of the three states rather than from an objective study of scientific procedures.

Comte claimed that discussion of scientific method had too long been dominated by the naive division between what he called empiricists and mystics-the former purporting to derive all scientific concepts from experience and the latter from a priori intuition of the mind. He wanted a middle course which recognized the active, acquisitive role of the mind but which at the same time put rigid empirical checks on the conjectures that the mind produces. His approach to this problem was singularly perceptive.

Comte’s quarrel with the empiricists had two aspects. By requiring that the scientist must purge his mind of all preconceived ideas and theories in order to study nature objectively, the empiricists demanded the impossible. Every experiment, every observation has as its precondition a hypothesis in the mind of some experimenter. Without theories, Comte insisted, scientific experiments would be impossible. He also urged that the empiricists misunderstood the place of experience in the scientific scheme. The function of experiments is not to generate theories but to test them. It is by subjecting theories to the scrutiny of empirical verification that they are established as scientific.

The stress on verification is a persistent theme in Comte’s writings. It is a fundamental principle of the positive philosophy that any idea, concept, or theory that has any meaning must be open to experimental verification. Verification has been the vehicle whereby progress has been made from the metaphysical to the positive state. The forces, powers, and entelechies of the metaphysical epoch were repudiated precisely because they were finally recognized to be unverifiable. Comte’s repeated criticisms of many of the physical theories of his own day (for instance, fluid theories of heat and electricity) were grounded largely in his requirement of verifiability. Although Comte was not the earliest writer to stress empirical verification, there is no doubt that it was largely through his influence (especially on such figures as Claude Bernard, J. S. Mill, Pierre Duhem, and C. S. Peirce) that the doctrine of verifiability enjoys the wide currency it has had in recent philosophy and science.

Closely connected with the requirement of verification was another important and influential dogma of Comte’s methodology: the unambiguous assertion that the “aim of science is prediction.” Since genuinely positive science offers only correlations between phenomena rather than their causes (in the Aristotelian sense of efficient causes), a theory is positively valid only insofar as it permits the scientist to reason from known phenomena to unknown ones. The sole object of the theoretical superstructure of science is to put the scientist in a position to predict what will happen, to substitute ratiocination for direct experimental exploration. The ideal science, for Comte, is one which, given certain empirically determined initial conditions, can deduce all subsequent states of the system. Clearly, it is the science of Laplace and Lagrange rather than that of Buffon or Fourcroy upon which Comte modeled his theory of science.

On other questions of scientific method and the philosophy of science, Comte’s views were more traditional. He insisted on the invariability of physical law, argued that scientific knowledge was relative rather than absolute, and believed that scientific laws were approximate rather than precise (a point Duhem was to develop seventy years later). His treatment of the problem of induction, particularly in his Discours sur l’esprit positif (1844), is taken largely from Mill’s System of Logic (1843).

Insofar as Comte identified himself as a natural scientist, it was mathematics which he knew best. Having been a tutor in mathematics for the École Polytechnique in the 1830’s, Comte published two straightforward scientific works, the Traité élémentaire de geometrie (1843) and the Traité philosophique d’astronomie populaire (1844). Both were popular works that grew out of his public lectures in Paris.

Of considerably greater significance was Comte’s examination and critique of scientific theories in his Cours de philosophie positive. Having laid a solid methodological foundation in the early parts of the Cours, Comte devoted the second and third volumes of that work to a scrutiny of the “inorganic” sciences.

Among all the empirical sciences astronomy was closest to the positivist ideal. Concerning themselves exclusively with the position, shape, size, and motion of celestial bodies, astronomers (more from necessity than choice) had restricted themselves to studying the observable properties of the heavens. Astronomy had achieved this positive state because it was not concerned with speculation on the internal constitution of the stars, their elemental composition, or their genesis. (No doubt Comte would have viewed the rise of spectral analysis of stellar objects as a retrograde development, representing the incursion of a metapliysical spirit into an otherwise positive science.) Comte went so far as to assert that astronomy should limit its domain to the solar system—which lends itself to precise mathematical analysis—and should forgo any attempt at the construction of a sidereal astronomy.

If Comte was generally satisfied with the state of contemporary astronomy, his attitude to the physical theories of his day was generally antagonistic. He saw lurking in every elastic fluid and subtle medium a vestige of the metaphysical state. In electricity, heat, light, and magnetism, natural philosophers were attempting to explain observable phenomena by resorting to unobservable, unverifiable, and unintelligible entities. To Comte such entities were not only inconceivable but unnecessary. Since the laws of phenomena are the object of science, only those laws are necessary and causal theories may be dispensed with as Fourier’s treatment of heat had demonstrated. Phenomenal laws are valid independently of the theories from which they might be derived. In chemistry, on the other hand, Comte was willing to allow—even to insist on—the use of the atomic hypothesis, which, in many respects, seems as nonphenomenal as an optical ether. The difference between the two is that the properties which the atomic theory attributes to atoms are well-defined and coherent, while the properties attributed to the ether (for example, imponderability) are both inconceivable and unverifiable.

Comte believed chemistry to be in a state of “gross imperfection” with chemists having no clear sense of the aims or the limitations of their science. He believed that organic chemistry was a branch of biology rather than chemistry and that much of what we should now call physical chemistry was in fact physics. The sole function of chemistry, in his eyes, was to study the laws governing the combinations of the various elemental bodies. He likened chemists to the empiricists who were so interested in haphazardly synthesizing new compounds that they completely ignored the rational and theoretical side of the discipline.

Consistent with his classification of the sciences, Comte believed that biological processes (or at least a subset of them known as vital processes) could not be explained by means of physicochemical concepts. Biology, properly conceived, would integrate physiology and anatomy by relating structure to function. Moreover, a legitimate biological theory must study the connection between the organism and its environment, its milieu. He stated the basic problem of biology in the formula, “Given the organ, or the organic modification, find the function or the action, and vice versa.”

Methodologically, Comte places biology on a very different footing from the higher sciences. One major difference concerns the amenability of biological phenomena to mathematical treatment. Comte says that life processes are generally too complex to treat quantitatively. This is compensated, however, in that biology has more methods at its disposal than astronomy, physics, or chemistry. Specifically, the biologist can utilize the method of comparison which, in order to understand the life processes in a given organism, successively compares that organism with similar ones of less complexity. If the function of the lungs in man is difficult to ascertain, their function can perhaps be determined by studying the function of lungs or lunglike organs in simpler species. For the method of comparison to have any validity, it is necessary to have a sequence of organisms whose differences from one to the next are very minor. Clearly, an accurate biological taxonomy is crucial to the utilization of this method. Like Cuvier, Comte maintained the fixity of the species, although he confessed that this doctrine was not fully established.

Comte found biology, like physics and chemistry, to be still dominated by the metaphysical mode of thought. Theories of spontaneous generation, mechanistic physiology, materialism, and spiritualism are all manifestations of a prepositive mentality.

The last element in the chain of the sciences is “social physics” or, as he called it after 1840, sociology. Indeed, Comte is often considered the founder of sociology, and his treatment of this topic is his most original and probably his most influential. In his view previous thought about man’s social nature had been speculative and a priori, rather than cautious and empirical. Certain moral perspectives and prejudices had stood in the way of an objective philosophy of history, and the subject had been dominated by crude theological and metaphysical perspectives. While social statics had been treated by such writers as Aristotle (especially in the Politics) and Montesquieu, social dynamics had been almost completely ignored. The birth, growth, and general life-cycle of a social ensemble were what Comte made the subject matter of sociology. In part, of course, the characteristics of a society (for instance, its family structure, politics, institutions, and so forth) are a function of the biological and physiological characteristics of the men who compose the society. To this extent, sociology is dependent on biology.

But there is another important dimension of sociology that has nothing to do with man’s biology—the historical component. What distinguishes the social entity from the physical and biological is that it is uniquely a product of its own past. The structures and institutions of any society—intellectual, political, and economic—are determined by the previous conditions of the society. History thus becomes the heart of sociology, and the aim of the sociologist becomes that of determining the laws of human social progress by an empirical study of the evolution of human institutions. To understand the present and to predict the future, we must know the past. The sociologist seeks to find predictive laws by working in two directions simultaneously—he studies history in order to discover empirical generalizations about social change; while at the same time he attempts to explain these generalizations by deducing them from known laws of human nature, whether biological or psychological. This in essence is the famous “historical method” that Comte advocates in the fourth volume of his Cours de philosophie positive.

The basic social unit was, in Comte’s view, the family, for the family is the main source of social cohesion. But the basic concept of sociological analysis was that of progress. Comte’s theory of progress, while dependent upon the Enlightenment theory of progress, was nonetheless very different from it. He criticized Condorcet for thinking that man was infinitely perfectible and that continous progress could occur if man would simply decide that he wanted it. Comte, on the contrary, maintained that progress is governed by strict laws, which are inviolate. The churchmen of the middle ages could not have discovered Newtonian astronomy even if they had set their minds to it, for the general social, moral, and intellectual conditions of the Latin West were not capable of embracing such a positive theory. Again, the law of the three states functions as the basic determinant of social change. The primary cause of social change is neither political nor economic, but intellectual. Sophisticated and complex economic and political institutions are possible only when man’s intellectual progress has reached a certain level of maturity. To this extent, the sociology of knowledge is the cornerstone of sociological theory.

For most of the last twenty years of Comte’s life, he was preoccupied with the problem of formulating the tenets of a “positive religion.” Convinced that Christianity was doctrinally bankrupt, he felt nonetheless that formal, organized religion served a vital social and even intellectual function. He believed that egoism must be subordinated to altruism and maintained that this could be achieved only by a “religion of humanity.” Such a religion, founded essentially on a utilitarian ethic, dispenses entirely with a deity, substituting mankind in its place. Otherwise, the trappings of traditional religion remain more or less intact. Churches are formed, a priesthood is trained, and sacraments, prayer, and even the saints are preserved, although in a very different guise.

Comte’s fanaticism in this matter was a cause of profound dismay to many scientists and men of learning who had been greatly influenced by him in the 1830’s and 1840’s. It also made it easier for Comte’s critics to discredit his earlier ideas by ad hominem arguments against the cult of humanity. In spite of his growing estrangement from the intellectual community, however, Comte persisted in his religious speculations, and established more than a hundred positivist congregations in Europe and North America.

The question of Comte’s place in history, both as regards the influences on him and his influence on others, is still largely a matter of undocumented conjecture. Certain influences on Comte are virtually undeniable. Comte himself admitted to having learned much from the philosophes (especially Condorcet) and from the physiologist Barthez. Of equal authenticity was the role Saint-Simon played in directing Comte’s attention to the problem of intellectual progress and its relevance to a philosophy of science. At a less explicit, but probably more pervasive, level of influence was the French tradition of analytic physics. The physics of Laplace and Lagrange, of Fourier and Ampère, was thoroughly positivistic in spirit, with its emphasis on quantitative correlations of phenomena (at the expense of abandoning microreductive theories). Comte himself often suggested that his mission was to extend the methods of mathematical astronomy and physics to the other sciences, especially social physics.

Comte’s influence on his contemporaries and successors is a more complicated problem. In his own time, he had numerous disciples, including the literary figures Harriet Martineau, John Stuart Mill, G. H. Lewes, and É. Littré, as well as such scientists as Dumas, Audiffrent, and Claude Bernard, who were sympathetic to Comte’s analysis. At the end of the nineteenth century, Comtean positivism became a powerful force in the philosophical critique of the sciences, represented by such figures as J. B. Stallo, Ernst Mach, Pierre Duhem, and A. Cournot. In certain respects, the twentieth-century movement known as logical positivism was a continuation of the philosophical tradition Comte founded.


I. Original Works . There is no collected edition of Comte’s writings, nor even a full bibliographical list. Among Comte’s more important works are Appel aux conservateurs (Paris, 1883; English trans. London, 1889); Calendrier positivists (Paris, 1849; English trans. London, 1894); Catéchisme positivists (Paris, 1852; English trans. London, 1858); Cours de philosophie positive, 6 vols. (Paris, 1830–1842; partial English trans, in 2 vols., London, 1853); Discours sur l’ensemble du positivisme (Paris, 1848; English trans. London, 1865); Discours sur l’esprit positif (Paris, 1844; English trans. London, 1903); Essais de philosophie mathématique (Paris, 1878); Opuscules de philosophie sociale 1819–1828 (Paris, 1883); Ordre et progrès (Paris, 1848); The Philosophy of Mathematics, W. M. Gillespie, trans. (New York, 1851); Synthèse subjective (Paris, 1856; English trans. London, 1891); Système de politique positive (Paris, 1824); Système de politique positive, ou Traité de sociologie, 4 vols. (Paris, 1851–1854; English trans. London, 1875–1877); Testament d’Auguste Comte (Paris, 1884; English trans. Liverpool, 1910); Traité élémentaire de géométrie analytique (Paris, 1843); and Traité philosophique d’astronomie populaire (Paris, 1844).

Comte was a prolific correspondent and many of his letters have been preserved and published. The most important editions of Comte’s correspondence are Correspondence inédite dAuguste Comte (4 vols., Paris, 1903); Lettres à des positivistes anglais (London, 1889); Lettres d’Auguste Comte… à Henry Edger et à M. John Metcalf (Paris, 1889); Lettres d’Auguste Comte… à Richard Congreve (London, 1889); Lettres d’Auguste Comte à Henry Dix Hutton (Dublin, 1890); Lettres d’Auguste Comte à John Stuart Mill, 1841–1846 (Paris, 1877); Lettres d’Auguste Comte à M. Valat… 1815–1844 (Paris, 1870); Lettres inédites à C. de Blignières (Paris, 1932); and Nouvelles lettres inédites (Paris, 1939). A chronological list of almost all Comte’s correspondence has been compiled by Paul Carneiro and published as a supplement to the Nouvelles lettres.

II. Secondary Literature. The most important studies of Comte’s biography are Henri Gouhier, La vie d’Auguste Comte (Paris, 1931) and La jeunesse d’Auguste Comte et la formation du positivisme, 3 vols. (Paris, 1933–1941), of which vol. III contains a list of Comte’s writings before 1830, 421 ff. Other biographical works include H. Gruber, Auguste Comte… sein Leben and seine Lehre (Freiburg, 1889); C. Hillemand, La vie et l’oeuvre d’Auguste Comte (Paris, 1898); H. Hutton, Comte’s Life and Work (London, 1892); F. W. Ostwald, Auguste Comte: Der Mann and sein Werk (Leipzig, 1914); and B. A. A. L. Seilliera, Auguste Comte (Paris, 1924).

The most valuable general works on Comte’s philosophy are Jean Delvolvé, Rèflexions sur la pensée comtienne (Paris, 1932); Pierre Ducassé, Essai sur les origines intuitives du positivisme (Paris, 1939); P. Ducassé, Méthode et intuition chez Auguste Comte (Paris, 1939); L. Lévy-Bruhl, The Philosophy of Auguste Comte (New York, 1903); É. Littré, Auguste Comte et la philosophie positive (Paris, 1863); and J. S. Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism (London, 1865).

Specialized studies of various aspects of Comte’s works include J. B. G. Audiffrent, Appel aux médicins (Paris, 1862); E. Caird, The Social Philosophy and Religion of Comte (Glasgow, 1893); G. Dumas, Psychologie de deux messies positivistes: Saint-Simon et Auguste Comte (Paris, 1905); F. von Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science (London, 1964); Jean Lacroix, La sociologie d’AugusteComte (Paris, 1956); L. Laudan, “Towards a Reassessment of Comte’s ‘Méthode Positive’,” in Philosophy of Science, 37 (1970); G. H. Lewes, Comte’s Philosophy of the Sciences (London, 1853); F. S. Marvin, Comte: the Founder of Sociology (New York, 1937); George Sarton, “Auguste Comte, Historian of Science,” in Osiris, 10 (1952); and Paul Tannery, “Comte et I’Histoire des Sciences,” in Revue generale des sciences, 16 (1905).

Comte’s influence on later science and philosophy has been studied by D. Charlton, Positivist Thought in France During the Second Empire, 1852–1870 (Oxford, 1959); L. E. Denis, L’oeuvre d’A. Comte, son influence sur la pensée contemporaine (Paris, 1901); R. L. Hawkins, August Comte and the United States, 1816–1853 (Cambridge, Mass., 1936); Positivism in the United States, 1853–1861 (Cambridge, Mass., 1938); and R. E. Schneider, Positivism in the United States (Rosario, Argentina, 1946).

As an intellectual movement, positivism generated numerous journals and periodicals, many of which contain lengthy discussions of various aspects of Comet’s work. Chief among these are Philosophie positive (Paris, 1867–1883), El Positivismo (Buenos Aires, 1876–1877 and 1925–1938), The Positivist Review (London, 1893–1923), Revue occidentale (Paris, 1878–1914), and Revue positiviste internationale (Paris, 1906–1940). Most of Comte’s still unpublished manuscripts are kept in the library of the Archives Positivistes in Paris.

Laurens Laudan

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Comte, Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier

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