Auguste Comte Additional Biography


(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Although Comte developed the philosophic system that resulted in the establishment of sociology, he was concerned with the fate of the individual within modern society. Comte recognized the problems associated with modern society and the impact of science and the industrial order. He searched for elements of a good and ethical society that could command a consensus in the midst of varying individuals’ beliefs. Further, he looked for a common ground for agreement on values in spite of the turbulent alterations in the structures of modern society. Finally, although Comte advanced the concept of a communal or societal order, he recognized the need for personal fulfillment in this ethical society. Comte has been criticized for his pro-Catholic and anti-Protestant statements and sentiments.


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Comte was the father of positivism, a philosophy that 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 humankind, coining the word “sociology.”

Early Life

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 lycée, 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 spokesperson for the students when they supported Napoleon during his futile attempt to regain control of France in 1815. Later, Comte was judged by authorities to be 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 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 Claude-Henri Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon, borrowing the broad outlines of many of his own later doctrines while writing essays and articles that 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, by an Italian woman, an illegitimate daughter who would die at the age of nine; 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; in her mid-teens, she had been sold by her mother to a young lawyer and was by this time a registered prostitute. It was partly to help her get her name off 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 provided needed support through the difficult period when he produced his most important work, the six-volume The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte. 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.

Life’s Work

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 that 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 that 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 humankind 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 development. Thus, he held that theological societies have military political systems; metaphysical societies have a juristic social organization; and positivist societies have an industrial polity. A positivist approach to phenomena came first in the simple sciences, such as astronomy and physics, while metaphysical or even theological modes of thought linger where phenomena are more complex. Because sciences dealing with the latter must rest on the foundation of more general, simpler ones, of necessity new positive sciences emerged...

(The entire section is 2447 words.)