(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.