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

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC016-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 05, 2021, from

3. Comtean epistemology

Comte’s epistemology focused on considering and evaluating the social phenomena that the fundamental sciences recognized as subject matter for a ‘positive science’ – a science based on observation with a legitimate place in the system of recognized sciences. His epistemology reverses the accepted hierarchy of the sciences – astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology, all of which were traditionally subordinated under mathematics – and places them under the domination of sociology. Comte thought that once the principle of sociality was accepted by scientists, the new science should be called ‘anthropology’; he presents this in the Discours sur l’esprit positif (1844), where he defines the underlying nature of the scientific approach as necessarily social. First, a ‘semiotic principle’ justifies it as social, because it originates in the constitution of the different systems of signs produced by society, especially the society of scientists. Second, it is social because it obeys a ‘principle of homology’ (Kremer-Marietti 1980: 53–69), which applies to all relations and then expresses the possibility of applying the scientific norm of theoretical unification – a norm that Comte shared with Henri Poincaré. The principle of ‘classification’, which would also be recognized by Pierre Duhem, is justified by the principle of homology; the latter belongs logically to a more general thesis (which Poincaé would later formulate) according to which ‘it is illegitimate to take into consideration a single isolated hypothesis in order to verify it’ (Duhem 1914: 393; Kremer-Marietti 1992: 372). In Comte’s case, it gives rise to the conception of the ‘Table of the Fifteen Universal Laws’; the theoretical unity achieved by Comtean epistemology thanks to this table is due to the organization of all laws through a classification of scientific facts. Comte distrusted a logic isolated from science, a fact isolated from theory, a doctrine isolated from method, and a method isolated from its object. It was necessary to have a theory in order to locate the observations which, if isolated, would have no scientific value. Comte never stopped saying that the ‘crudest’ phenomena explain the ‘noblest’ ones.

Oddly enough, without this holistic type of explanation ordering the homology of the concepts of the world and man, abstract morality could not gain access to the positive system. For Comte, the reference to a system obeying the principle of homology was a universally practicable theoretical necessity – a criterion of verification which he could use to assess the value of experiments and conclusions.

In his ‘Oral Course in Positive Philosophy’, given from 1826, Comte developed his general review of the positive sciences, which he subjected to the historical and logical law of three stages. His teaching plan followed the classification or hierarchy of the sciences, which he saw as a fertile classificatory model. Henceforth he would elevate this model to the status of a key or grid of concepts. Not only did he depend on it to determine, according to the law of three stages, the historical and logical necessity of sociology, a new discipline dealing with social, historical and political points of view, but even more important, this classification permitted him to proceed in certain areas where observation was not yet possible. It is on this principle of classification that Comte established his ‘cerebral theory’ (see §4 below). He also drew the necessity of ‘abstract morality’ (the seventh fundamental science) from his view that the order of the individual, concerned with abstract morality, is at the very heart of sociology, where it is subordinate to the social order, exactly as the social order is subordinate to the vital order and as the latter in its turn is subordinate to the material order. In Comte’s eyes, these successive subordinations do not exclude either the specificity or the originality peculiar to the different orders of phenomena and their respective sciences. The seventh degree of the series of sciences ‘arrives’, according to Comte, ‘at man envisaged in the most precise fashion’. Because the double weight of the material and vital orders is in reality borne by the social order, which helps to modify them, the ‘order of the individual’, the most dependent of all, becomes the ‘immediate regulator of our destinies’ at the same time that it experiences the pressure of all the orders through the social order, to which it is subordinate.

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