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

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

1. Life

Auguste Comte was born in Montpellier, France. He attended the École Polytechnique, from which he was expelled in 1816, for political reasons. Comte’s main concern throughout his life was resolving the political, social and moral problems caused by the French Revolution. To that end, he embarked upon an encyclopedic work, which he first conceived under the inspiration of Henri de Saint-Simon, for whom he worked as secretary from 1817 to 1824. At that time, he proposed several plans for a competition to create an encyclopedia modelled on that of Denis Diderot, but designed to bring together the ‘positive ideas’ of the period, that is, ideas conceived in their relation to modern science and free from the bonds of traditional theology and metaphysics. Comte’s encyclopedic project developed into the famous Cours de philosophie positive (Course in Positive Philosophy) (1830–42), a complete system of philosophy in six volumes which aimed to provide the foundations for political and social organization in modern industrial society. Meanwhile, he wrote a series of minor works in social philosophy, which became known as the ‘opuscules’. The third, Plan des travaux scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiser la société (Plan of the Scientific Operations Necessary for Reorganizing Society) (1822), which is often called ‘the fundamental opuscule’, presented the first outline of the concepts which would become central to Comte’s positivism – the ‘law of three stages’ and the classification of the sciences (see §3 below).

While pursuing his intellectual career, Comte earned his living first as a mathematics tutor at the École Polytechnique, then as admissions examiner at the same school. When he lost the latter job, he was forced in 1848 to seek financial support from his disciples in order to survive. All his life Comte regretted his failure to be appointed a tenured professor; he accused François Arago, among others, of deliberately blocking his academic career. He was also unsuccessful when he requested the creation of chairs at the Collège de France: in 1832 the chair of the General History of the Physical and Mathematical Sciences, and in 1846 the chair of the General History of the Positive Sciences.

Comte always linked his theoretical research to the practical aim of moral, social and political reorganization. He considered this reorganization from the theoretical aspect of political science – ‘sociology’ or ‘positive politics’ – and from the practical aspect of the union of the social classes. Moreover, it was for the benefit of the proletarians that he gave public courses in popular astronomy between 1831 and 1848. He considered these lectures the prelude to the reorganization of the intellectual system, which, thanks to the scientific knowledge of society, would finally result in ‘a politics finally freed from the arbitrary and the utopian’ (Larizza-Lolli 1993: 76). Comte wrote the Discours sur l’esprit positif (A Discourse on the Positive Spirit) (1844) as a basic introduction to this reorganization. The Discours sur l’ensemble du positivisme (A General View of Positivism), which appeared in 1848, derived from a similar intention, that of presenting to the workers a synthesized vision of positivist philosophy. From 1847, Comte devoted his lectures to the refutation of communism.

The epistemological foundation of Comte’s political project tends to be problematic. For Comte, ‘epistemology’ involved the history, philosophy and methodologies of the sciences, as well as their basic concepts and theories. His positivist politics is based, on the one hand, on historical and logical law, the law of the three stages (theological, metaphysical and positive stages) and, on the other hand, on an epistemological law: the classification or hierarchy of the sciences, fixed according to the order of their arrival at the positive stage of knowledge (mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, sociology). Thus, as a fundamental epistemological concept, ‘positivism’ designates an intellectual attitude founded on the practice of rational and experimental scientific methods. At the same time, Comte’s scientific positivism is a philosophy of the positive sciences, though initially it is also a philosophy of scientific creativity. Comte allowed certain new sciences that had not yet been fully regularized to be classed as positive: for instance, he confirmed the advance of biology to the level of a positive science. The most advanced of all positive sciences – social physics or sociology – allowed for the transformation of society based on the progress of the sciences.

Under the aegis of his Religion of Humanity, first described in the sixth volume of the Cours de philosophie positive (The Positive Philosophy) (1842), Comte articulates his vast political project in the Système de politique positive (System of Positive Polity) (1851–4). In this work, he gives his project a social and moral goal, founding it on altruism – a term he originated, according to Emile Littré. Comte’s last book was La Synthèse subjective (Subjective Synthesis) (1856). Never completed, it re-evaluates the role of the sciences from the perspective of a positivist education. Comte died, probably of stomach cancer, on 5 September 1857.

Citing this article:
Kremer-marietti, Angele. Life. Comte, Isidore-Auguste-Marie-François-Xavier (1798–1857), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC016-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

Related Articles