Auguste Comte had two distinct aims in writing The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte. The first and “special” aim was to put the study of society on a positive foundation like those on which the natural sciences rested. The second and “general” aim was to review the natural sciences in order to show that they are not independent of one another but are “all branches from the same trunk.” The two aims are inseparable.
Comte divided the study of society—sociology or “social physics,” as he called it—into two parts, following a distinction that he believed runs through all the sciences: social statics and social dynamics. The former seems not to have interested him especially. He maintained that in its broader aspects, at least, it was deducible from human physiology, which demands that people live in society, that they form families, and that they obey political authorities. On these grounds, he held that woman is inferior to man and bound to subservience, and that some people and races are constitutionally suited to obey and others to command.
However, Comte dealt with these matters only in passing. His interest was not so much in the generic traits that are found in all human societies as in the laws that govern the transition of a society from one condition to another. This is what he intended by the term “social dynamics.” His work was to be nothing less than a science of history. History, said Comte, had compiled many facts but had been unable to contribute anything of importance to understanding humankind’s condition because, like the data of meteorology, its facts needed a law to become significant. Comte thought that he had discovered that law; he called it the “law of the three stages.”
According to this law, in the first, or theological, stage, people invent gods in order to explain the world to themselves, and in so doing, they create the conditions that make possible the specifically human kind of society. Belief in gods gives people some purpose in living beyond the satisfaction of mere bodily wants. At first, the gods are merely tribal fetishes, which do not demand much by way of social organization. As these are exchanged for astral deities, and eventually for a single god, discipline and order are imposed on the whole community. Authority characteristically comes to be vested in a priesthood. A military caste arises, with responsibility for defense, and agricultural labor becomes the foundation of the economy. From the sociological point of view, it is a happy, prosperous condition. A common faith and goal give coherence and strength to the community.
There is, however, a serpent in the garden. The intellectual turn of mind that made people invent the gods is never content with its creation. Turning critical, it denatures divinity into a set of first principles and eternal essences. Comte called this the metaphysical stage. Intellect practically deifies itself, owning allegiance only to truths of reason. Not only theological beliefs but theological institutions come under criticism. The principle of authority is challenged, and notions of equality and popular sovereignty are offered in its place. As the new attitude permeates the masses, individuals abandon their social responsibilities and compete with one another to improve their private conditions. Religion becomes sectarian; peasants drift to the cities; military might declines. Sociologically, it is a negative moment, a time of dissolution and decay.
According to Comte, these two stages have appeared again and again in the history of the world, and hitherto there has been no way of saving a society that has passed into the metaphysical stage. However, modern Western civilization...
The second aspect of Comte’s philosophy was his review of the natural sciences. All the sciences, with the exception of sociology, had already achieved the status of positive knowledge in Comte’s time, but their true significance could not be discerned without sociology because, according to Comte, it was a function of the positivist philosopher (himself a sociologist) to trace out the unities and analogies of the sciences. Thus, sociology completes the body of philosophy, not merely by being the last of the sciences but by “showing that the various sciences are branches from a single trunk; and thereby giving a character of unity to the variety of special studies that are now scattered abroad in a fatal dispersion.” Had people been endowed with an angelic intelligence, all the sciences would have sprung into being at the same time, and their hierarchical relation would be evident in an a priori fashion. However, because people have slowly and painfully arrived at the truth, the only intelligible account of the relationship between the sciences is the empirical one that traces their development. Thus, “all scientific speculations whatever, in as far as they are human labors, must necessarily be subordinated to the true general theory of human evolution,” which, being the proper study of sociology, is the warrant for “the legitimate general intervention of true social science in all possible classes of human speculation.”
Comte’s science of history declared that the social evolution of humankind is a function of intellectual evolution and that, broadly speaking, the knowledge of humankind has passed through three stages—theological, metaphysical, and positive. It is not surprising, therefore, that the same cycle governs the development of particular sciences as governs the evolution of knowledge as a whole.
According to Comte, this development is clear on empirical grounds. Every science that has reached the positive stage bears the marks of having passed through the others. Astronomy, for example, became truly scientific in Hellenistic times, when observations of the heavens were first coordinated by means of geometrical principles. However, myth and astrology are reminders of times when celestial phenomena were explained in terms first of divine will and afterward of impersonal fate. In fact, the more primitive beliefs linger among less progressive parts of the population; according to Comte, they are recapitulated in the development of the mind of each civilized person, who in childhood is a theologian, in youth a metaphysician, and in adulthood a natural philosopher.
However, Comte held that the empirical account could be supported by reflection and that it is a priori evident (post factum) that knowledge must pass through three stages. Like philosopher Francis Bacon, he held it as a fundamental principle that mere facts are not sufficient to arrive at truth—the mind must form theories; but because intelligent theories cannot be formed without facts, one seems to be confronted with a vicious circle. At least, according to Comte, here is the reason why primitive people did not arrive at scientific truth. Caught, as it were, “between the necessity of observing facts in order to form a theory, and having a theory in order to observe facts, the human mind would have been entangled in a vicious circle but for the natural opening afforded by theological conceptions.” Granted that primitive people’s speculations owed more to imagination than to experience and reason—what matters is that, by hypothesizing about the gods, they were launched on the intellectual enterprise that could not have been started in any other way. Similarly,...
Gould, F. J. Auguste Comte. London: Watts, 1920. This biography, though brief, provides a balanced survey of Auguste Comte’s life and thought. It provides information on his intellectual circle and a full treatment of his ideas. The curious positivist calendar is appended.
Harp, Gillis J. Positivist Republic: Auguste Comte and the Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1920. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995. This book examines how Comte’s thoughts influenced the political arena.
Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien. The Philosophy of Auguste Comte. Translated by Kathleen de Beaumont-Klein. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1903. A thorough and sympathetic treatment of Comte’s thought by a highly regarded French scholar. Takes issue with John Stuart Mill’s contention that there are serious discrepancies between Comte’s early and later writings.
Manuel, Frank. The Prophets of Paris. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961. This survey of a number of important French social philosophers devotes an illuminating chapter to Comte and provides a good perspective from which to assess Comte in relation to his intellectual milieu. Seen in the company of other visionaries, his detailed prescriptions are somewhat less puzzling.