Article abstract: One of the greatest systematic thinkers of nineteenth century France, Comte was the father of positivism, a philosophy which saw the evolution of new ideas as the shaping force in history and regarded the empirical method of science as the only valid basis of knowledge. Comte sought to extend the method of science to the study of man, coining the word “sociology.” His later thought took a Romantic swing, emphasizing the primacy of the feelings, glorifying religion in a secular guise, and proposing a highly regulated social order.
Isidore-Auguste-Marie-François-Xavier Comte, the eldest of four children, was born in the French university town of Montpellier on January 19, 1798. His father, Louis-Auguste Comte, was a tax official, a man of strict habits and narrow interests; his mother, Félicité-Rosalie Boyer, twelve years older than her husband, was a warm, emotional person who devoted her life to her children. Both parents were devout Catholics and royalists.
Young Comte was nearsighted and small—his head and trunk seemed too large for his limbs. He had an extraordinary memory, however, and proved to be a brilliant student in the local lycée, winning prizes in Latin and mathematics, on occasion substituting for his teacher. At the age of fifteen, he was admitted to the prestigious École Polytechnique in Paris. There his diligence and acuteness led his awed classmates to nickname him “the philosopher.” Napoleon I had given this school, like Comte’s lycé, a military tone and discipline. Yet Comte, who at age fourteen had already rebelled against the religion of his parents by becoming an atheist, was one of the most unruly students at the school. Comte was a prominent spokesman for the students when they supported Napoleon during his futile attempt to regain control of France in 1815. Later, Comte was judged by authorities a ringleader of a student effort to oust an unpopular professor, a conflict so heated that it served as a pretext for temporarily closing the school. He was sent home and was placed under police surveillance.
In 1817, Comte returned to Paris, studying independently and tutoring students in mathematics to support himself. The possibility of an offer to teach in a new American polytechnical school led Comte to immerse himself in the writings of Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, but the project was not funded. Comte therefore became secretary to the exuberant social philosopher Henri Saint-Simon, borrowing the broad outlines of many of his own later doctrines while writing essays and articles which appeared under Saint-Simon’s name. Comte served Saint-Simon for seven years, but was uncomfortable with the religious bent of Saint-Simon’s late writings and believed that his social theory needed a more systematic theoretical foundation. A critical preface by Saint-Simon to an essay Comte published under his own name precipitated the end of the relationship in 1824.
By then, the headstrong Comte had dropped his first name, Isidore, in favor of Auguste; had fathered an illegitimate daughter, who would die at the age of nine, by an Italian woman; and was living with Caroline Massin, herself the offspring of an unmarried provincial actress, whom he had known for three years and would marry in 1825. He praised her kindness, grace, wit, and cheerful disposition; she had been sold by her debauched mother to a young lawyer when in her mid-teens and was by this time a registered prostitute. It was partly to help her get her name off of police rolls that he agreed to the marriage. Their union was marred by his seeming indifference to their straitened economic circumstances and her occasional disappearances. A final separation came in 1842. Nevertheless, she had provided needed support through the difficult period when he produced his most important work, the six-volume Cours de philosophie positive (1830-1842; course on positive philosophy). The most important part of this support came shortly after he had begun the series of seventy-two lectures out of which this book grew, when he had a nervous breakdown so severe that he was incapacitated for more than a year (1826-1827), was judged incurably insane by one physician, and attempted suicide.
Comte wanted to be a philosopher-prophet, like Francis Bacon, Nicolas Condorcet, or his mentor Saint-Simon. Living in an era scarred by deep social antagonisms and warring ideologies, he dreamed of creating a persuasive philosophical synthesis which could restore both spiritual and social order to European society. Such solid intellectual underpinning was lacking, he believed, in Saint-Simon’s thought. Comte reasoned that if the method of science could be extended to every aspect of life, the intellectual unity which had characterized medieval Europe could be restored on a more lasting basis, and unity of thought would bring social order.
Comte interpreted the rise of science and its extension to the study of man in the context of a general theory of human intellectual development he borrowed, via Saint-Simon, from the eighteenth century economist and statesman Jacques Turgot. The “law of the three stages” held that as positive knowledge of nature gradually replaces earlier tendencies to attribute much in life to unseen powers, thought moves from a theological to a metaphysical stage, replacing imagined divinities with nonobservable abstractions. Yet they too fall to skepticism, and a scientific or positive outlook triumphs. For Comte, this concept constituted a general theory of history, accounting for institutional as well as intellectual...
(The entire section is 2321 words.)