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Comte, Isidore-Auguste-Marie-François-Xavier (1798–1857)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC016-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 18, 2018, from

Article Summary

The French philosopher and social theorist Auguste Comte is known as the originator of sociology and ‘positivism’, a philosophical system by which he aimed to discover and perfect the proper political arrangements of modern industrial society. He was the first thinker to advocate the use of scientific procedures in the study of economics, politics and social behaviour, and, motivated by the social and moral problems caused by the French Revolution, he held that the practice of such a science would lead inevitably to social regeneration and progress.

Comte’s positivism can be characterized as an approach which rejects as illegitimate all that cannot be directly observed in the investigation and study of any subject. His system of ‘positive philosophy’ had two laws at its foundation: a historical or logical law, ‘the law of three stages’, and an epistemological law, the classification or hierarchy of the sciences. The law of three stages governs the development of human intelligence and society: in the first stage, early societies base their knowledge on theological grounds, giving ultimately divine explanations for all phenomena; later, in the metaphysical stage, forces and essences are sought as explanations, but these are equally chimerical and untestable; finally, in the positive or scientific stage, knowledge is secured solely on observations, by their correlation and sequence. Comte saw this process occurring not only in European society, but also in the lives of every individual. We seek theological solutions in childhood, metaphysical solutions in youth, and scientific explanations in adulthood.

His second, epistemological law fixed a classification or hierarchy of sciences according to their arrival at the positive stage of knowledge. In order of historical development and thus of increasing complexity, these are mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology and sociology. (Comte rejected psychology as a science, on the grounds that its data were unobservable and therefore untestable.) Knowledge of one science rested partly on the findings of the preceding science; for Comte, students must progress through the sciences in the correct order, using the simpler and more precise methods of the preceding science to tackle the more complex issues of later ones. In his six-volume Cours de philosophie positive (The Positive Philosophy) (1830–42), Comte gave an encyclopedic account of these sciences, ending with an exposition of what he regarded as the most advanced: social physics or ‘sociology’ (a term he invented). The sociologist’s job would be to discover the laws that govern human behaviour on a large scale, and the ways in which social institutions and norms operate together in a complex yet ultimately predictable system.

In his later work, Comte fleshed out his vision of the positive society, describing among other things a Religion of Humanity in which historical figures would be worshipped according to their contribution to society. Despite such extravagances, however, the broader themes of his positivism – especially the idea that long-standing social problems should be approached scientifically – proved influential both in France and, through J.S. Mill’s early support, in England.

Citing this article:
Kremer-Marietti, Angele. Comte, Isidore-Auguste-Marie-François-Xavier (1798–1857), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC016-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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