Auguste Comte Essay - Critical Essays

Comte, Auguste


Auguste Comte 1798-1857

(Full name Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte) French philosopher.

Auguste Comte was best known for founding positivism, a philosophical system that acknowledges only observable, natural phenomena and that attempts to use scientific law as the basis for comprehending relationships between observable facts. Comte also is recognized as one of the originators of the science of sociology, believing that human societies are natural systems whose order and progress can be studied through scientific methodology. A deliberate and rationalistic thinker, Comte hoped to use his science of sociology to achieve spiritual and social reform and, ultimately, a new social system. He had several proponents in England and on the continent, including, most notably, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

Biographical Information

Born in Montpellier in January, 1798, Comte was raised in a fervently royalistic and Catholic household. His relationship with his family was strained, however, and he eventually broke ties with them, rejecting Catholicism and adopting republicanism over monarchism. In 1814 he entered the École Polytechnique in Paris, where he excelled in science and mathematics before being expelled in 1816 for leading a student revolt against the newly established royalist regime. The following year he became secretary to Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), a social scientist who taught Comte the possibility of studying society and religion with scientific objectivity. Biographers have speculated that Comte may have written much of what was published under Saint-Simon's name, and in 1824 the two severed their relationship over disputed authorship. Comte then began tutoring in mathematics, as well as giving public lectures on his positive philosophy to many of the leading thinkers of his time. He was soon forced to stop due to a mental breakdown, which led to an attempt to drown himself in the Seine; he was hospitalized for mental illness periodically over the next fifteen years. In 1829 he resumed his lectures on positivism, which were later published in his six-volume Cours de philosophie positive (1830-42; The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, 1853). He also took up minor teaching posts in astronomy, mathematics, and history, including a position as examiner at the École Polytechnique, but lost these due to personal misfortunes and business and political difficulties. He continued his research with financial backing from Mill and É mile Littré (1801-1881), a French scholar, though the support dwindled as Comte increasingly appeared to take their assistance for granted. In the mid-1840s he befriended Clotilde de Vaux, for whom he developed a deep passion and who he claimed taught him to subordinate the intellect to the heart. After de Vaux's death in 1846, his writings began to emphasize the importance of a "Religion of Humanity," of which Comte was to be the high priest. In 1849 he established the Universal Church of the Religion of Humanity. He continued to write books on the subject until his death in 1857.

Major Works

As early as 1824, when he was in his mid-twenties, Comte advanced his Law of Three States, a theory conceiving of humankind's intellectual development—and thus the development of all human societies—as progressing through three periods: theological, metaphysical, and scientific (or the "positive" state). This Law of Three States remained the foundation for all his subsequent work. He further outlined his epistemology in his magnum opus, Cours de philosophie positive, published from 1830 to 1842, in which he laid the foundation of a new science, first called "social physics," then "sociology." Comte criticized traditional metaphysical investigations that employ baseless speculations and assumptions, and instead argued for a scientific method of organizing experience. His sociology, consisting of the dynamics of society, is based on the sciences that precede it—mathematics, astronomy, physics and chemistry, and biology. Comte believed that intellectual development was the primary cause of social change, which mirrored scientific development. He also believed that the metaphysical stage in which he lived was marked primarily by anarchy; this metaphysical stage precedes the positive era, in which scientists would engender a more spiritual, ordered society. Comte's later writings, including Catéchisme positiviste (1852; The Catechism of Positive Religion, 1858), and the four-volume Système de politique positive (1851-54; The System of Positive Polity, 1875-77), develop a positivist "Religion of Humanity" that further develops the humanism and positivism of his earlier writings.

Critical Reception

Comte's Cours de philosophie positive attracted many followers during his lifetime, including Mill, Littré, and Hyppolyte Adolphe Taine (1828-1893), but he lost many of these later in his career: some could not accept his new religion of humanity, finding his views extremist; others he managed to alienate. He thus died in virtual isolation. Comte's theories and writings, though, have continued to generate criticism. Questioning his assumptions about his new social science, philosophers have pointed out that, although he possessed no observable evidence, he was convinced that the positivist stage is the last in human development. Echoing one of Mill's criticisms, other scholars have pointed out that Comte neglected to consider psychology in the formulation of his theories, leading to many unanswered questions regarding morality and ethics. Historians have also found errors of fact as well as unsupported assertions in his works. In addition, his writing style has come under attack, with several scholars finding him a poor writer who elaborated excessively and obsessed over detail. Regardless of the conceptual or stylistic censures of his work, Comte's positive philosophy and his ideas on ordering society are nevertheless recognized as greatly contributing to and influencing the course of philosophy and sociology.

Principal Works

Cours de philosophie positive. 6 vols. (philosophy) 1830-42; published as The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte. 2 vols. [translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau] 1853

Calendrier positiviste (philosophy) 1849; published as The New Calendar of Great Men [translated by Frederic Harrison] 1892

Système de politique positive. 4 vols. (philosophy) 1851-54; published as The System of Positive Polity. 4 vols. [translated by J. H. Bridges, Frederic Harrison, and others] 1875-77

Catéchisme positiviste (philosophy) 1852; published as The Catechism of Positive Religion [translated by Richard Congreve] 1858

Testament (autobiography) 1884

Correspondence. 4 vols. (letters) 1903-4


David Brewster (review date 1838)

SOURCE: Review of Cours de philosophie positive, in The Edinburgh Review, Vol. LXVII, No. CXXXVI, July, 1838, pp. 271-308.

[In the following review, Brewster outlines a "sketch of the objects and methods of positive knowledge," focusing especially on Comte's theism and cosmology]

The competitors for the honours of science may be divided into several classes, actuated by very different motives, and pursuing very different objects;—those who investigate by observation and experiment the phenomena and the laws of nature; those who arrange the facts and expound the doctrines of science; those who record at different epochs the history of its progress; and those who attempt to explain the mental progresses by which discoveries have been made, and prescribe for every branch of knowledge the most appropriate methods of research.

Though the love of posthumous fame supplies these different classes with their earliest and their strongest impulse, yet this principle of action is often modified and replaced by less noble incitements, and those who have begun their career under its generous influence, have been seduced by advantages of more immediate adjudication and enjoyment.

The first of these classes of the cultivators of science, comprehends all those to whom the name of philosopher is strictly applicable. But as no sound knowledge can exist, but that which either rests immediately on facts, or is deduced from them by mathematical reasoning, this class is necessarily subdivided into two—those who observe facts, and those who reason from them—those who make experiments, and those who deduce from their results the law of phenomena, and the more general principles to which these laws may be ultimately referred.

The history of science furnishes us with many distinguished instances in which these two qualities of mind have been in a singular manner united; but the instances are doubtless more numerous where the observer and the experimentalist have confined themselves to their own sphere of labour, and where minds of a less practical and a more discursive capacity have found a more congenial exercise in the higher processes of combination and analysis. Although the last of these orders of enquirers have been generally supposed to belong to a higher rank of intelligence, yet this erroneous appreciation of mental value can be founded on no other principle than that the laws of phenomena are necessarily higher steps in the scale of knowledge than facts and observations.

The two conditions of mind by which these two classes of philosophers are characterised, are in reality incommensurable. Facts may sometimes be discovered, and observations made which demand but little attention, and involve no extraordinary exertion of the mind; but the great facts and experimental results, which form the basis of modern science, have been generally obtained from processes of reasoning at once ingenious and profound, and have called forth the highest functions of our intellectual frame. Even when the fruits of experimental philosophy are merely simple facts, their value is inestimable, and no revolution in science will ever deprive their discoverer of the honours which belong to them. But when he who discovers new facts, detects also their relation to other phenomena, and when he is so fortunate as to determine the laws which they follow, and to predict from these laws phenomena or results previously unknown, he entitles himself to a high place among the aristocracy of knowledge.

Such men are in truth the real functionaries of science. They are the hewers of its wood and the drawers of its water—the productive labourers who furnish to less industrious and more speculative minds, not only the raw material, but the embroidered fabric of intellectual luxury and splendour.

Previous to the sixteenth century the active explorers of science were few in number, and even these few had scarcely thrown off the incubus of the scholastic philosophy. Speculation unrestrained and licentious threw its blighting sirocco over the green pastures of knowledge, and prejudice and mysticism involved them in their noxious exhalations. This condition of knowledge had been long ago subverted, and in the present day the ascendancy of observation and experiment has been universally recognised. There is still, however, a body of men, insignificant in number and, with some exceptions, in talent, who, impatient of the labour of continuous research, or perhaps unfitted for its exercise, have sought to storm the temple of science, and possess themselves of its treasures. The members of this brotherhood are, generally speaking, imperfectly acquainted with the facts and laws by which modern physical science is upheld. They feel the force neither of mathematical nor of physical reasoning; and regarding the noblest doctrines of science as founded only in speculation, they are ambitious of the honour of placing them on a surer and more extended basis. Those who are thus blind to the force of physical truth, are not likely to discover the errors which their own minds create and cherish. Embarrassed by no difficulties, the stream of their speculations flows on without eddies or currents. Such a class of speculators have no position in the lists of science, and they deserve none; but in thus denouncing their labours, we must carefully distinguish them from a higher order of theorists, whose scientific acquirements are undoubted; but who, in place of employing their talents in the substantial labours of research, are ambitious of becoming the legislators of science, the adjudicators of its honours, and the arbiters of its destiny. Self-constituted and irresponsible, this legislative tribunal owed to science all the tenderness which was compatible with justice, and all the diligence and solicitude of research which perplexing details and conflicting interests demand. To the dead it owed the gratitude which belonged to great achievements, and that respectful homage which is the birthright of exalted genius; and to the living that delicacy of criticism, and that courteous acknowledgment of their services, which to sensitive minds is the highest reward for their past, and the most powerful stimulus to their future labours.

In the history of science, and in the distribution of its honours, we must not expect to find that minute accuracy, or that nice appreciation of evidence to which we are accustomed in legal adjudications. All that is due from the historian is depth of research and honesty of purpose, and we must pronounce that judge to be righteous who holds evenly the scales of justice. The historian cannot record facts which are not within the sphere of ordinary research, and the judge is not responsible for the mathematical equipoise of his balance.

In applying these principles to those efforts of scientific legislation which are alone deserving of the name, we are confined within a very narrow range. The subject was almost exhausted by the great reformer of philosophy; and though it has been casually discussed by authors who flourished in subsequent periods, yet the only works of any distinction which are devoted to the subject are The History of the Inductive Sciences by Mr. Whewell, which we have examined in a previous Number, and the Cours de Philosophie Positive by M. Comte, which stands at the head of this article. The three volumes of Mr. Whewell's are indeed only introductory to his code of reformed philosophy; but he has indulged his readers with a foretaste of its enactments; and from the labours and decisions of the historian, we have no difficulty in anticipating the character of the lawgiver, and the temper of the judge.

The first volume of M. Comte's work was published in 1830, about seven years, and the second volume in 1835, about two years before that of Mr. Whewell; and yet no reference whatever is made by the latter to the previous labours of the French philosopher. We presume, therefore, notwithstanding several similarities of sentiment and expression, that the Cours de Philosophie Positive had not found its way to Cambridge, although it was well known and highly appreciated in London, before the publication of Mr. Whewell's work.

In alluding to these points of resemblance, which are, of course, merely accidental, we do not mean to convey the idea that there is any similarity between the two works in their leading and essential features. With the single exception of some just views on the value and use of hypotheses which Mr. Whewell seems to have borrowed without acknowledgment from an English work, the History of the Inductive Sciences, and the Course of Positive Philosophy, stand strongly opposed to each other; not only in the tone and temper in which they are written, and in the motives by which their authors seem to have been guided, but, to as great an extent, in the results at which they have arrived, and in the decisions which they have pronounced on the great points of scientific controversy. Such a contrariety of sentiment, while it casts a just opprobrium over the pretensions of our scientific lawgivers, has a tendency to bring science itself into disrepute; for when the Solons and the Lycurguses of philosophy are as contradictory in their enactments as the Mackenzies and Murphys of meteorology are in their predictions, men of ordinary capacity are apt to place the physical sciences on the same level with that weather wisdom which has been recently agitating the metropolis.

Before we proceed to a comparison of these works, and to a discussion of the subjects which they have brought into the arena of controversy, we must make our readers acquainted with the nature and object of M. Comte's researches. There is, however, a preliminary topic which forces itself upon out attention, and which, were it possible, we would pass by unnoticed. But as some of our readers might be led by this Article to study the original work, we must warn them beforehand that M. Comte avows himself an Atheist; and we think that we cannot more effectually remove this stumbling-block which he has placed in our way, and deprive it of all its danger, than by presenting his observations at once to our readers.

To our minds unacquainted with the study of the heavenly bodies, though often otherwise well informed in other branches of natural philosophy, astronomy has still the reputation of being a science eminently religious, as if the famous verse,—Coeli enarrant gloriam Dei (The heavens declare the glory of God), had preserved all its force. It is, however, certain, as I have proved, that all real science stands in radical and necessary opposition to all theology; and this character is more strongly indicated in astronomy than in any other; precisely, because astronomy is, so to speak, more a science than any other, according to the comparisons already made. No science has given such terrible blows to the doctrine of final causes, generally regarded by the moderns as the indispensable basis of all religious systems, though it is in reality but the consequence of them. The knowledge of the motion of the earth ought alone to destroy the first real foundation of this doctrine—the idea of a universe subordinate to the earth, and consequently to man, as I shall more particularly show in treating of this motion. But, independent of this, the exact exploration of our solar system cannot fail to put an end essentially to that blind and boundless admiration which the general order of nature inspires, by showing in the distinctest manner, and under a great number of different aspects, that the elements of this system were certainly not arranged in the most advantageous manner, and that science allows us to conceive easily a better arrangement. In short, under another point of view, still more important, by the development of the true celestial mechanics since the time of Newton, all theological philosophy, even the most perfect, has been henceforth deprived of its principal intellectual office; the most regular order being now conceived as necessarily established and kept up in our world, and even throughout the whole universe, by the simple mutual attraction of its different parts.

Our author then proceeds to support these feeble and innocuous arguments by a reference to the stability of the solar system; though he seems fully sensible that this doctrine of modern astronomy may be used as a powerful weapon in the hands of his opponents. 'The grand doctrine,' says he,

when presented under a suitable aspect, may doubtless be easily made the basis of a series of eloquent declamations, having an imposing appearance of solidity. Yet, nevertheless, an arrangement so essential to the continuous existence of animal species, is a simple necessary consequence (from the mechanical laws of the world), of certain characteristic circumstances of our solar system;—the extreme smallness of the planetary masses in comparison of the central mass, the slight eccentricity of their orbits, and the moderate mutual inclination of their planes;—characters which in their turn may, with much probability, as I shall afterwards show, according to the indication of Laplace, be derived, quite naturally, from the mode of formation of the system. But besides we ought, à priori, to expect in general such a result from this single reflection, that since we exist, it follows of necessity that the system, of which we form a part, be arranged in such a manner as to permit this existence, which would be incompatible with the total absence of stability in the principal elements of our system. In order properly to appreciate this consideration, we ought to observe that this stability is by no means absolute, for it does not take place with regard to comets, whose perturbations are much greater, and may even increase almost indefinitely, from the want of those conditions of restriction which I have mentioned, and which hardly allows us to suppose them to be inhabited. The pretended final cause will therefore be reduced in the present case, as we have already seen on all analogous occasions, to this puerile remark—that there are no stars inhabited in our solar system but those which are habitable. . . . Such .. . are the immense and fundamental services which the development of astronomical theories has rendered to the emancipation of human reason.

Although we intended, in quoting these passages, to have left the refutation of them to the common sense of our readers, yet it may be proper to make a few observations on the new argument which our author has founded on the Cosmogony of Laplace. Admitting, as M. Comte does, that the stability of the solar system is essential to the continued existence of Animal Species, and aware of the powerful support which such an admission lends to the theological argument for design, he endeavors to show that this arrangement is the simple necessary consequence, through the operation of mechanical laws, of certain properties of the planetary orbits, and certain relations between the solar and planetary masses. Here he is again aware that such an adjustment of forms and magnitudes, is itself an extraordinary proof of design; and he strives to show that this effect may, with much probability, be deduced from the mode of formation of the system, as suggested by Laplace—one of the boldest speculations of modern fancy, but one which does not, when properly viewed, afford the smallest aid to those who are desirous of finding any substitute for the agency of an all-directing mind.

But though we consider the Cosmogony of Laplace as merely an ingenious speculation, we shall permit M. Comte to make it the basis of his argument; and we shall suppose, with its distinguished inventor, that the sun's atmosphere, expanded by heat, reached the limits of our system—that it gradually contracted in cooling, and that during the revolution of this immense system of vapour round the sun's axis, the Georgium Sidus, Saturn, Jupiter, and the other primary planets were gradually thrown off from it into their present orbits, and with the velocity of the atmosphere, of which they formed a part; that they contracted into solid globes by cooling, having previously in their turn thrown off their Satellites; and that the characteristic circumstances in the system thus formed, which produce stability, are the necessary consequences of this mode of formation. After all these admissions, the argument for design remains unshaken, and the mind still turns itself to the great first cause. Who created and planted a sun in the centre of what was to become a system of future worlds? Who supplied the due portion of heat to expand his atmosphere through that region of space in which it was to deposit the future abodes of life and intelligence? Who added the rotatory impulse, and adjusted it to that precise velocity which would throw off planets revolving in harmonious stability, in place of comets wheeling in eccentric and unstable orbits? By what power was that heat withdrawn, so as to permit the zones of the solar atmosphere to contract successively into solid planets? Who separated the 'light from the darkness' which brooded over the revolving chaos? Who gathered into the ocean's bed its liquid elements? Who decked the earth with its rich and verdant embroidery? Who conjured up the forms of animal life? And, above all, who placed over this fair empire—MAN—godlike and intellectual—breathing the divine spirit, and panting with immortal aspirations?

The Cosmogony of Laplace, even if admitted as a physical truth, would only carry us back to an earlier epoch in the history of creation, and exhibit to us the wonders of Divine power, condensed into a narrower compass, and commanding a more intense admiration.

But even if science could go infinitely farther, and trace all the forms of being to their germ in a single atom, and all the varieties of nature to its development, the human mind would still turn to its resting-point, and worship with deeper admiration before this miracle of consolidated power.

Had the opinions which we have been combating been maintained by those rash speculators who are permitted, at distant intervals, to disturb the tranquillity of the religious world, we should not have allowed them to interfere with ours. But when a work of profound science, marked with great acuteness of reasoning, and conspicuous for the highest attributes of intellectual power—when such a work records the dread sentiment that the universe displays no proofs of an all directing mind, and records it, too, as the deduction of unbiased reason, the appalling note falls upon the ear like the sounds of desolation and of death. The life-blood of the affections stands frozen in its strongest and most genial current; and reason and feeling but resume their ascendancy when they have pictured the consequences of so frightful a delusion. If man is thus an orphan at his birth, and an outcast in his destiny—if knowledge is to be his punishment and not his prize—if all his intellectual achievements are to perish with him in the dust—if the brief tenure of his being is to be renounced amid the wreck of vain desires—of blighted hopes and of bleeding affections—then, in reality as well as in metaphor, is life a dream!

Unwilling as we are to dwell upon such a subject, our readers should be informed that M. Comte is a Teacher in the Polytechnic School, and our country congratulated on possessing Institutions which prevent opinions like his from poisoning the springs of moral and religious instruction.

We are informed by M. Comte that from the time of his quitting the Polytechnic School in 1816, he was constantly occupied, during ten years, in the preparation of his 'Lectures on Positive Philosophy.' In the spring of 1826 his course was opened to the public; but a severe malady prevented him from continuing it; and this misfortune was greatly aggravated by the circumstance, that he numbered among his auditors Baron Humboldt, M. Blainville, M. Poinsot, and other celebrated and distinguished members of the Academy of Sciences. In the winter and spring of 1829, M. Comte resumed his course before a brilliant audience; among whom were Baron Fourier, perpetual Secretary of the Academy of Sciences, M. M. Blainville, Poinsot, and Navier, members of the Academy, and Professors Broussais, Esquirol, and Binet.

The 'Course of Positive Philosophy,' of which the two published volumes placed at the head of this Article form the principal part, comprehends Mathematics, Astronomy, Physics, and Chemistry, or the sciences of Inorganic Bodies; and Physiology, and Social Physics, or the sciences of Organic Bodies. MATHEMATICS are subdivided into the Calculus, Geometry, and Rational Mechanics. The six lectures on the Calculus contain a general view of mathematical analysis, the Calculus of direct and indirect functions, the Calculus of variations, and that of finite differences. The five lectures on Geometry contain a general view of geometry, the geometry of the ancients, the fundamental conception of analytical geometry, and the general study of lines, and of surfaces. The four lectures on Rational Mechanics, embrace the fundamental principles of mechanics, a general view of statics and dynamics, and the general theorems of mechanics.

After some general considerations on ASTRONOMY, he divides his subject into Geometrical and Mechanical Astronomy. Under the first division he gives a general exposition of the methods of observation; and he treats of the elementary geometrical phenomena of the heavenly bodies, of the theory of the earth's motion, and of the laws of Kepler. Under the second division, he treats of the law of universal gravitation; and after a philosophical appreciation of this law he applies it to the explanation of celestial phenomena.

The great department of PHYSICS is divided into Barology, Thermology, Acoustics, Optics, and Electrology. CHEMISTRY is divided into Inorganic and Organic Chemistry. PHYSIOLOGY embraces the structure and composition of living bodies, the classification of living bodies, vegetable physiology, animal physiology, and intellectual and affective physiology; and under SOCIAL PHYSICS, our author treats of the general structure of human societies, of the fundamental natural law of the development of the human species, and of the progress of civilization. This last section is subdivided into three heads,—the theological epoch, the metaphysical epoch, and the positive epoch, the first of these epochs embracing Fetichism, Polytheism, and Monotheism.

The two volumes now before us contain only Mathematics, Astronomy, and Physics, and other two will doubtless be necessary to complete the work.

In explaining the exact meaning of the term Positive Philosophy, M. Comte remarks that it bears a strong analogy to the term Natural Philosophy, as used by English writers since the time of Newton; but as the latter includes only the sciences of observation, and excludes the subject of social physics as well as Physiology, and all the branches of natural history, he was compelled to adopt the more general though vague expression of Positive Philosophy. He conceives, however, that the term positive removes, to a certain degree, the objection which might otherwise be urged against the application of the term philosophy to the sciences of observation.

In studying the 'total development' of human intelligence in its various spheres of action, from its earliest and simplest effort to the present time, M. Comte believes that he has discovered a grand fundamental law to which that development is subjected by an invariable necessity; and which he conceives to be firmly established, not only by arguments furnished by the knowledge of our own organization, but by an attentive study of the history of science. 'This law,' says he,

consists in this, that each of our principal conceptions, each branch of knowledge, passes successively through three different theoretical states—the theological or fictitious state, the metaphysical or abstract state, and the scientific or positive state; in other words, the human mind, by its nature, employs successively in each of its researches three methods of philosophizing, the character of which is essentially different, and is even radically opposite;—at first the theological method, next the metaphysical method, and lastly, the positive method. Hence we have three kinds of philosophy, or general systems of conceptions relative to phenomena, which mutually exclude each other. The first is the necessary point of departure of human intelligence, the third its fixed and definite condition, while the second is destined only to be a state of transition.

In the theological state the human mind, directing its researches to the intimate nature of things, to the first and final causes of all the effects which we witness, in a word, to absolute knowledge, represents the phenomena as produced by the direct and continued actin of supernatural agents, whose arbitrary intervention explains all the apparent anomalies of the universe.

In the metaphysical state, which is, in reality, only a simple modification of the theological one, the supernatural agents are replaced by abstract forces, real entities (personified abstractions) inherent in the different bodies of the universe, and conceived to be capable of generating by themselves all the observed phenomena; the explanation of which then consists in assigning to each a corresponding entity.

Finally, in the positive state the human mind, recognising the impossibility of obtaining absolute notions, renounces the attempt of enquiring into the origin and destination of the universe, and of detecting the intimate causes of phenomena, in order to set itself only to discover, by a judicious combination of reasoning and observation, their effective laws; that is, their invariable relations of succession and similitude. The explanation of facts, then reduced to real terms, is henceforth but the connexion established between different individual phenomena and some general facts, the number of which becomes more and more diminished in the progress of science.

The theological system has reached the highest degree of perfection of which it is susceptible, when it has substituted the providential action of one being, instead of the varied agency of numerous independent divinities which had been at first imagined. In like manner the last term of the metaphysical system consists in conceiving, in place of different individual entities, a single great general entity, viz., nature viewed as the only source of all phenomena. In the same way the perfection of the positive system towards which it unceasingly tends, though it is very probable that it will never reach it, will be the power of representing all the different phenomena, capable of being observed as particular cases of a single general fact; such, for example, as that of gravitation.

Although M. Comte has reserved his demonstration of this fundamental law, and his discussion of the results to which it leads, for that part of his work which treats of social physics, yet we have no hesitation in admitting its general accuracy. The quaint though expressive terms in which it is announced [are] apt to prejudice an English reader against its reception; but when this prejudice is removed by the study of the early history of science, he cannot fail to recognise its truth and importance. In thus perceiving the general character of the steps by which science has been gradually attaining its more perfect and final condition, he cannot but feel that the study of its past history must indicate the general tendency of its future progress, and may probably furnish some safe, if not infallible rules of investigating truth.

Since the time of Galileo, Bacon, and Newton, every branch of knowledge has been steadily advancing towards a fixed and positive state. The precepts of Bacon, and the methods actually used by Galileo and Newton, have established it as a fundamental truth, that there can be no real knowledge but that which is founded on observation and experiment. Facts and observations, however, when standing alone and unconnected, afford no permanent satisfaction to the philosopher who has discovered them. He knows, indeed, their high value and their ultimate importance; but this conviction does not assuage the thirst of philosophy; and the mind instinctively seeks to determine the relations of the facts which it has discovered, and turns to some pole to which they appear to converge, or some general principle to which they point, and by which they may be explained. Hence it is, that in the infancy of knowledge, the mind would be compelled, were it not its natural tendency, to invent some theory by which a collection of insulated facts might be fixed in the memory, and thus presented to the judgment under a single aspect.

In the infancy of science this natural passion for generalization is easily gratified. Supernatural power offers an immediate and a complete solution of every difficulty. Metaphysical abstractions gradually replace theological agents, and in the process of time these gradually disappear, and the phenomena themselves become the principal object of our notice. In this manner the theological gradually passes into positive philosophy, the nature of which is thus described by M. Comte.

The fundamental character of Positive Philosophy is to regard all phenomena as subjected to invariable natural laws, the precise discovery of which, and their reduction to the least possible number, are the object of all our researches, regarding as senseless and absolutely inaccessible the enquiry into what are called causes. It would be unprofitable to insist much upon a principle which has become so familiar to all who study profoundly the sciences of observation. Every one, indeed, knows that in our most perfect explanations of phenomena we never pretend to explain their generating causes (for this would be only driving back the difficulty), but only analyze with accuracy the circumstances of their production, and connect them by the relations of succession and similitude. Thus, in order to give the best of all examples, we say, that the general phenomena of the universe are explained as much as they can be by the Newtonian law of gravitation; because, on the one hand, this fine theory exhibits to us all the immense variety of astronomical facts as only one and the same fact seen in different points of view—the constant tendency of all the particles of matter towards one another in the direct ratio of their masses, and the inverse ratio of the squares of their distances; whilst, on the other hand, this general fact is presented to us as the simple extension of a phenomenon which is eminently familiar to us, and by it alone we consider as perfectly explained the gravity of bodies at the surface of the earth. With regard to the determination of what this attraction and that gravity are in themselves, or what are their causes, these are questions which we regard as incapable of solution—which are not within the domain of positive philosophy, and which we justly abandon to the imagination of theological speculators, or to the subtleties of metaphysicians. The most obvious proof that such solutions are impossible is, that whenever the greatest philosophers have endeavored to say anything truly rational on this subject, they have been able only to define one of these principles by the other—in saying for attraction that it is nothing else than universal gravity, and for gravity that it consists simply in terrestrial attraction.

M. Comte has given us another illustration of what he means by positive philosophy, deduced from the beautiful researches of Baron Fourier on the Theory of Heat, which he considers as affording a very happy verification of the preceding general remarks. 'In this work,' says he,

the philosophical character of which is so eminently positive, the most important and precise laws of thermological phenomena are developed without the slightest enquiry into the intimate nature of heat, and without mentioning, for any other purpose than to point out its inutility, the long agitated controversy between the partisans of calorific matter and those that make heat consist in the vibrations of an universal Ether. And, nevertheless, the highest questions several of which have not even been previously discussed, are treated of in Baron Fourier's work—a palpable proof that the human mind without wasting its strength on unapproachable problems, and by limiting itself to researches of an absolutely positive nature, may find inexhaustible materials for the most profound activity.

Having thus indicated the general spirit and character of positive philosophy, our author proceeds to examine the degree of progress which it has made, and to ascertain the steps which are yet necessary for its establishment. The phenomena of astronomy, of terrestrial physics, of chemistry, and of physiology, he considers as reduced to positive theories; and he ascribes to the combined precepts of Bacon, the conceptions of Descartes, and the discoveries of Galileo, the first grand movement by which 'positive conceptions' were distinctly separated from the superstitious and scholastic alloy which disguised the labours of preceding philosophers. Notwithstanding, however, the great progress of the physical sciences, M. Comte admits that Social Physics, which forms the last division in his arrangement, has not yet acquired any positive character; and though he does not suppose that the observations which he has to offer on this subject can give to it the same degree of perfection as the older sciences, he yet hopes that they will impress upon this branch of knowledge the same positive character. When this object is once attained, he conceives that all our fundamental conceptions will become homogeneous,—that philosophy will be definitively constituted in its positive state, and, that without changing its character it will gradually develop itself by constantly increasing acquisitions which necessarily result from new facts and more profound meditations.

In proceeding to give a distinct view of the plan of his 'Course of Lectures on Positive Philosophy,' our author warns his readers that they must not expect a series of special treatises on each of the principal branches of Natural Philosophy. Without considering the time which such an enterprise would require, M. Comte modestly states, that the task could not be accomplished by him or by any person whatever, in the present state of education. He proposes merely to give a course of Positive Philosophy, and not a course of Positive Science; and his object is only to consider each fundamental science in its relation to our whole positive system of knowledge, and to the spirit which characterizes it;—that is, under the twofold view of its essential methods and its leading results.

Having thus explained the object of his course, our author proceeds to give an account of the plan of it, or to expound his general views on what he calls the hierarchy of the positive sciences. The classification of the different branches of knowledge, as given by Bacon and D'Alembert, and founded on a supposed distinction of the different faculties of the mind, becomes an untenable one, from the very circumstance that such a distinction has no solid foundation; because in every mental effort all our principal faculties are simultaneously employed. With regard to other classifications, our author pronounces them to be fundamentally erroneous, from the very circumstance, that every speculator has given a new one of his own, and that all men of rightly constituted minds entertain a strong prejudice against any attempt to arrange and define the different branches of knowledge. In confirmation of these sound views, we cannot avoid referring to the singular subdivision of the sciences which so distinguished an individual as Dr. Thomas Young has adopted in his valuable work on Natural Philosophy. Even at a time when he regarded the undulatory theory of light with some distrust,—when it had not attracted that attention and acquired that importance which it now enjoys,—and when, indeed, he himself was about its only abettor, he did not scruple to make such a theory the basis of part of his classification by introducing the science of OPTICS as a branch of Hydrodynamics! In such a procedure the sound principles of classification were set at nought, and it remained only to divide fluids into ponderable and imponderable, and then to tack to Hydrodynamics the sciences of Magnetism, Electricity, Galvanism and Thermology.

Such an attempt to make a mere hypothesis the basis of a philosophical arrangement points out, in a striking manner, the necessity and the value of that severe discussion by which M. Comte has established his classification of the sciences. The general theory of classification now adopted in natural history he considers as a sure guide in the classification of the sciences,—the classification arising out of the study of the objects to be classified, and depending on the real affinities and the natural connexion which they present; so that it shall be itself the expression of the most general fact developed by an elaborate comparison of the objects which it embraces. Hence it follows that the different positive sciences must be arranged in reference to their mutual dependence, and this dependence can only be deduced from that of their corresponding phenomena. In this way our author is led, by a rigorous and philosophical survey of the different branches of knowledge, to the following arrangement of the six fundamental sciences—Mathematics, Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Physiology, and Social Physics—an arrangement which forms a part of the more general one to which we have already directed the attention of the reader.

In arriving at this result our author has discussed several important topics which, limited as our space is, we cannot altogether overlook. Considering all human works as bearing reference either to speculation or to action, he divides our real knowledge into theoretical and practical. The first of these departments, embracing the whole system of our fundamental conceptions on the different orders of phenomena, he conceives to be analogous to the prima philosophia of Bacon; and to form the basis of all that practical knowledge by which man acts upon external nature, and exercises a power over the material universe. But though in this respect knowledge is power, and though every branch of industry and the arts has derived from scientific theories the richest benefits, we must not suppose for a moment that the value of our enquiries can be measured by their bounty to the arts. Philosophy, while she condescends to be their landmaid, and the willing dispenser of domestic benefits, aims at a nobler and loftier object. Her insatiable spirit cherishes a paramount interest in determining the laws and detecting the causes of phenomena, even when they have no apparent application to the wants of our species; nor would that interest be at all diminished were such an application found to be impossible. The whole history of science has established the incontrovertible fact that speculations the most abstract often lead, in the course of time, to practical results of high value;—and as Condorcet has beautifully remarked, 'the sailor who has been preserved from shipwreck by an accurate observation of the longitude, owes his life to a theory conceived two thousand years before by men of genius who had in view only simple geometrical speculations.'

In pursuing the researches of science, however, we must renounce all consideration either of their immediate or contingent application; we must concentrate our undivided energies upon the subject with which we are grappling, and bequeath as a legacy to posterity any germ of usefulness which may sometimes lie hidden among our theoretical deductions.

But this view of the subject acquires new force when we consider the faculties of man as not limited in their exercise to his present sphere of activity. The capacities and cravings of our intellectual appetite are not given us merely that they might administer to our own corporeal wants, or to the vulgar necessities of our species. Is our knowledge of the heavenly bodies—of their nicely balanced actions and harmonious movements—to have no other end than to regulate a timekeeper or determine a ship's place upon the ocean? Is our study of the sun, which rules by day, and the moon, which rules by night, to have no higher aim than if they were merely to replace the pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night? Is man to be forever a shepherd pilgrim in this lovely Oasis, treading on its green pastures and listening to the music of its quiet waters? Or is he, in the perfection of mechanism, to be forever flying over its surface with the speed of Camilla, visiting every clime, greeting every individual of his race, and compressing into the diminished span of his being all the events of an antediluvian existence? Such suppositions stand...

(The entire section is 17215 words.)

John Stuart Mill (essay date 1841)

SOURCE: A letter to Auguste Comte on November 8, 1841, in The Correspondence of John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte, edited and translated by Oscar A. Haac, Transaction Publishers, 1995, pp. 35-6.

[In the following letter to Comte, Mill discusses his intellectual indebtedness to Comte and his system.]

I don't know, Sir, whether someone completely unknown to you may take a few moments of time as precious as yours, to tell you about himself and the great intellectual debt he owes you; but with the encouragement of my friend, Mr. Marrast, and believing that, in the midst of your great philosophical enterprises, you would perhaps not be entirely displeased to receive an...

(The entire section is 796 words.)

G. H. Lewes (essay date 1853)

SOURCE: "The Future," in Comte's Philosophy of the Sciences: Being an Exposition of the Principles of the Cours de philosophie positive of Auguste Comte, 1853. Reprint by George Bell and Sons, 1878, pp. 327-38.

[In the following essay, Lewes considers Comte's Law of Three States and his class system.]

Guided by his logical principles of the general extension of the Positive Method to the rational study of social phenomena, Comte has gradually applied to the whole of the past his fundamental law of the evolution at once mental and social, consisting in the passage of humanity through three successive states: the preparatory Theological state, the transitory Metaphysical...

(The entire section is 3404 words.)

Emile Durkheim (essay date 1895)

SOURCE: "Sociology and the Social Sciences (1903)," in The Rules of Sociological Method, and Selected Texts on Sociology and Its Method, edited by Steven Lukes, translated by W. D. Halls, The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1982, pp. 175-208.

[In the following essay, originally written in 1895, Durkheim discusses Comte's conception of sociology.]

Engendered within a philosophy, sheer necessity obliged sociology from the beginning to display the distinctive character of any philosophical discipline: a leaning towards general, overall views and, in contrast, a certain indifference to factual details and specialist investigations. Consequently it was natural for it to develop...

(The entire section is 1818 words.)

L. Levy-Bruhl (essay date 1900)

SOURCE: "Conclusion," in The Philosophy of August Comte, Swan Sonnenschein & Co. Lim., 1903, pp. 343-63.

[In the following essay, Levy-Bruhl contrasts Comte's philosophy with the metaphysics that preceded it.]

At the end of the Cours de philosophie positive Comte has himself summed up the results which he believed himself to have established. In the first place it is, from the intellectual point of view (which at first takes precedence of all others, although, in the positive state, the mind must be subject to the heart), a "perfect mental coherence which, as yet, has never been able to exist in a like degree," not even in the primitive period when...

(The entire section is 6191 words.)

Jane M. Style (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: "After Days," in Auguste Comte: Thinker and Lover, Kegan Paul, Trench Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1928, pp. 196-205.

[In the following essay, Style discusses the legacy of Comte's religion of Humanity.]

Before Comte died he felt that the religion of Humanity had been proclaimed to the world, and believed that fervent disciples would be found to preach and perfect it. How has his prophecy been fulfilled in the years since his death? As to the date of its systematic acceptance it has certainly failed, but the ablest seaman, while he can tell the date at which a ship should reach its destination, cannot tell what tempests, head winds, undercurrents or other causes...

(The entire section is 2573 words.)

Etienne Gilson (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: "The Sociology of A. Comte," in The Unity of Philosophical Experience, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1937, pp. 248-70.

[In the following essay, Gilson considers Comte's sociologism to be "one of the most striking philosophical experiments recorded by history."]

On the third day of the month of Dante in the sixty-sixth year of the Great Western Crisis, the French philosopher Auguste Comte was completing the list of the one hundred fifty volumes that make up his "Positivist Library." In the Positivist Calendar, the third day of the month of Dante is the feast of Rabelais. Yet the "Positivist Library" was not a joke; it was a catalogue of the books which it is...

(The entire section is 6079 words.)

Eric Voegelin (essay date 1950?)

SOURCE: "The Apocalypse of Man: Comte," in From Enlightenment to Revolution, edited by John H. Hallowell, Duke University Press, 1975, pp. 136-59.

[In the following essay, Voegelin contends that Comte's political philosophy is an apocalyptic vision that establishes Comte as an authoritarian figure.]

After a century of misunderstanding we are approaching today, on the basis of more recent experiences, a more adequate understanding of Comte both in his quality as an astute philosopher of history and in his more sinister quality as a spiritual dictator of mankind. The history of the misunderstanding of Comte and of the gradual dissolution of these misunderstandings is, at...

(The entire section is 10044 words.)

Arline Reilein Standley (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Conclusion," in Auguste Comte, Twayne Publishers, 1981, pp. 154-58.

[In the following essay, Standley discusses the paradoxical legacy of Comte and his philosophy.]

The space of more than a century between us and Comte has done little to clarify his image. Now, the paradoxes of his own nature are overlaid with the multiple reflections, compounded of everything from firmly delineated parts to free-floating myth. We are challenged to define the impact on society of a man whose characteristics could be so negatively summed up as they are by Sir Isaiah Berlin: "His grotesque pedantry, the unreadable dullness of his writing, his vanity, his eccentricity, his...

(The entire section is 1775 words.)

Mary Pickering (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Cours de philosophie positive: Positivism and the Natural Sciences," in Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography, Volume I, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 561-604.

[In the following essay, Pickering outlines Comte's positive philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology.]

Let us not forget that in almost all minds, even the most elevated, ideas usually remain connected following the order of their first acquisition and that it is, consequently, a failing, which is most often irremediable, not to have begun by the beginning. Each century allows only a very small number of capable thinkers at the time of...

(The entire section is 15450 words.)

Angèle Kremer-Marietti (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Introduction: Comte and Mill: The Philosophical Encounter," in The Correspondence of John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte, edited and translated by Oscar A. Haac, Transaction Publishers, 1995, pp. 1-23.

[In the following essay, Kremer-Marietti chronicles the relationship between Comte and Mill, documenting possible mutual influences.]

On November 8, 1841, when John Stuart Mill (1806-1872) first wrote to Auguste Comte (1798-1857), he introduced himself as a devoted disciple with such humility, that Comte replied: "Your scrupulous modesty had led you, Sir, to overemphasize the influence of my work on your philosophical development." A close friendship and sincere...

(The entire section is 8489 words.)

Further Reading


Kent, Christopher A. "Higher Journalism and the Promotion of Comtism." Victorian Periodicals Review XXV, No. 2 (Summer 1992): 51-56.

Claims that "Comte's English disciples became a force largely through the practice of journalism."

Martí, Oscar R. "August Comte and the Positivist Utopia." In The Utopian Vision: Seven Essays on the Quincentennial of Sir Thomas More, edited by E. D. S. Sullivan, pp. 93-114. San Diego State University Press, 1983.

Examines Comte's philosophy as it prescribes a positivist utopia, focusing on its legacy abroad and critiquing its...

(The entire section is 151 words.)