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Comte's Positive Philosophy is a text which develops an early notion of sociology: the analytical framework and methodology for understanding how societies evolve and organize. The main contribution of Comte's text is the concept of scientific positivism. Positivism represents a scrupulous commitment to empirical study, under the assumption that scientific observation will furnish progressively precise knowledge about the way the world works. Positivism is an epistemological concept, meaning that it tries to define the limits of what humans can "know" and "do."

The work's second biggest contribution is Comte's thesis that human knowledge-making will progress from the physical, mechanical realm to the social realm. He believed that most physical phenomena are strictly external to human bodies, minds, and societies, rendering them the starting point for empirical knowledge-seeking. He contends that, as science advances, it will gradually find tools for looking inward towards the ultimate object of science—humans themselves.


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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.”

The Law of the Three Stages

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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 has the means of breaking out of the old cycle. The negative moment, represented in European history by the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, has marked the end of a Catholic-dominated culture and, of itself, promises nothing but moral and political chaos. Coincident with the rise of libertarian thinking and laissez-faire economics and politics, however, the positive sciences have also made great gains. It is the assured results of these latter that, according to Comte, provide a remedy for metaphysics and make it possible for the human mind to move forward into a new positive stage. Like the theological stage, it will be a time when people will know what to believe. This time, however, there will be no illusion about it—and no chance that the certainties will be overthrown.

The new certainties will make possible a reorganization of society, provide a rational system of command, and inspire complete devotion in the hearts of the people. A moral regeneration will make coercive government almost a superfluity. Such regulation of life as the new society requires will rest with a managerial class arising out of industry, while ultimate authority will reside in a new spiritual class, the positive philosophers. Meanwhile, people will have cast away private ambition and personal rivalry and will have learned to consider all functions as social. They will see the “public utility in the humblest office of cooperation, no less truly than in the loftiest function of government,” and will feel “as the soldier feels in the discharge of his humblest duty, the dignity of public service, and the honor of a share in the action of the general economy.”

Comte devoted hundreds of pages to the analysis of Western history along the lines indicated. His work is, from one point of view, a speculative undertaking. He considered that he had put history on an indisputably scientific foundation with his theory of evolution.It certainly appears to me that the whole course of human history affords so decisive a verification of my theory of evolution that no essential law of natural philosophy is more fully demonstrated. From the earliest beginnings of civilization to the present state of the most advanced nations, this theory has explained, consistently and dispassionately, the character of all the great phases of humanity; the participation of each in the perdurable common development, and their precise filiation; so as to introduce perfect unity and rigorous continuity into this vast spectacle that otherwise appears desultory and confused. A law that fulfils such conditions must be regarded as no philosophical pastime, but as the abstract expression of the general reality.

From another point of view, however, this Herculean labor was a blueprint for a Brave New World. A youthful disciple of utopian socialist Claude-Henri Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon, Comte had as his ultimate purpose in developing the positive philosophy the moral and spiritual regeneration of the West. He believed that by providing an infallible system of truth, he was doing the one thing that could bring this regeneration to pass.

Sociology and the Natural Sciences

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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, according to Comte, the metaphysical stage is necessary before the positive stage can be reached: Its abstract and impersonal conceptions prepare the mind for positive knowledge, which is too radically different from theological beliefs for people to accept it immediately.

Comte maintained that different kinds of knowledge have passed through the three stages at different paces. Astronomy became a science before terrestrial physics, physics before chemistry, chemistry before biology, biology before physiology, and physiology before sociology. According to Comte, who developed a hierarchy of the sciences, it had to be this way. Not only is physics simpler than sociology—it is more general, and hence more fundamental. The principle on which this hierarchy is based is essentially that of nominalistic logic, according to which the extension of a term is inversely proportional to its intension. Physics has greater extension than biology; that is, more objects of different kinds come under its laws, including both living and nonliving bodies. In Comte’s language, physics is more general than biology. Conversely, biology has greater intension than physics; that is, although its laws apply to objects of only one kind, they comprehend more of their aspects. In Comte’s language, biology is more complex than physics.

On this principle, Comte arranged the sciences in hierarchical order. Mathematics he placed first, because it is the most general, the simplest, and the most independent of all and serves as the basis of all others. However, because of its abstract character, Comte did not regard mathematics as a “natural science.” Natural sciences he divided into inorganic and organic. That the latter are more complex than the former is self-evident, inasmuch as organization is a complexity. So, within the two divisions, on the inorganic level, astronomy is less complex than physics, and physics than chemistry; likewise, on the organic level, physiology, which relates to individuals, is less complex than sociology, which relates to aggregates. It may be observed that Comte did not leave a place for psychology in the hierarchy, a notable omission in view of the fact that John Stuart Mill, in his A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive (1843), was to maintain that associationist psychology is as fundamental to all the human sciences as mechanics is to all the physical sciences. Comte argued, however, that because psychology proceeds by the method of introspection and assumes the actuality of the self, mental states, ideas, and the like, it is a relic of the metaphysical stage. Its counterpart in the positive system is cerebral physiology, which had newly come to the fore. In fact, Comte held that it was the discovery of the physiology of the brain that brought biology to perfection and made possible for the first time the new science of sociology.

Comte said of his classification of the sciences that, although it is artificial, it is not arbitrary. It is artificial because it marks out boundaries where none exist in the actual sciences. One of Comte’s deepest concerns was to preserve the unity and integrity of intellectual pursuit, which he considered threatened to the point of sterility by increasing specialization in his day. He favored the development of a new kind of scientific worker whose task it would be to formulate the general principles of the respective sciences and to connect new discoveries with known truth. By making it possible to keep the whole structure of knowledge in view, these scientific workers would lay a new foundation for education. At the same time, they would further research by serving as consultants (for, according to Comte, investigators are often handicapped by their ignorance of what is well known by specialists in other fields).

Although Comte was eager to preserve the unity of knowledge, he maintained that the special sciences are essentially autonomous. Therefore, he insisted that the classification was not arbitrary, and he opposed the view that the sciences can eventually be reduced to one master science and all phenomena explained by a unitary law. “Our intellectual resources,” he said, “are too narrow, and the universe too complex, to leave any hope that it will ever be in our power to carry scientific perfection to its last degree of simplicity.” The only real unity to science, he said, is that of the positive method, which spurns the idea of asking questions about origins and ends (theological questions) or about essences and causes (metaphysical questions), and settles down to the business of analyzing the circumstances of phenomena and connecting them by the relations of succession and resemblance. It is this method that has led to the division of knowledge into several specialties, so that, in delineating the divisions, positive philosophy was following the requirements of the method itself.

Comte’s book derives much of its bulk from the detailed account he gives of all the natural sciences at that time. However, he said that it was not his aim to teach the sciences as such: To do so would be endless and would demand more knowledge than one person could hope to muster. In any case, it would miss the point, which was “only to consider each fundamental science in its relation to the whole positive system, and the spirit which characterizes it.” He said that his book was a course not in positive science but in positive philosophy. In his view, however, positive philosophy was “a whole, solid and entire.” From the time of Bacon, it had been slowly forming until, in the nineteenth century, only one major gap remained—social physics—that was about to be filled.


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Additional Reading

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.

Mill, John Stuart. Auguste Comte and Positivism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961. First published in 1865, this critical assessment of Comte’s ideas remains one of the most important books by an English author on Comte. Highly critical of Comte’s later writings, it slights the elements of continuity they share with the rest of his work.

Mill, John Stuart, and Auguste Comte. The Correspondence of John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte. Translated and edited by Oscar A. Haac. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1994. These eighty-nine letters, written between 1841 and 1847, address important issues of mid-nineteenth century philosophy, science, economics, and politics. Cumulatively, they provide a humanistic view of Western Europe and its social problems.

Pickering, Mary. Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. First volume of a projected two-volume intellectual biography. Offers a reinterpretation of Comte’s “first career,” the period between 1798 and 1842, when he completed the scientific foundation of his philosophy, and describes the interplay between Comte’s ideas and the historical context of postrevolutionary France.

Scharff, Robert C. Comte After Positivism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. An in-depth treatment of Comte’s ideas.

Sokoloff, Boris. The “Mad” Philosopher, Auguste Comte. New York: Vantage Press, 1961. A brief, readable biography that summarizes Comte’s chief ideas while treating more fully the biographical context within which they developed. Gives more attention to his youth and his relationships with women than to his ties to other intellectuals.

Standley, Arline Reilein. Auguste Comte. Boston: Twayne, 1981. An effort to integrate the larger pieces of Comte’s worldview. Suitable for undergraduates.

Whittaker, Thomas. Comte and Mill. London: Archibald Constable, 1908. Comte and Mill, though antithetical in some respects, sprang from the same movement in modern thought. This straightforward study is especially strong on Comte’s early writings and the transition to later work.