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

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC016-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved April 20, 2021, from

2. Positivism

Shaped by Enlightenment thinkers such as Condorcet, his admiration for the French Revolution, and his republican professors at the Ecole Polytechnique, Comte at an early age became familiar with the idea of taking a secular, scientific approach to reforming society. Saint-Simon revealed to him that they were transitioning to an industrial, scientific age that required a new unified system of scientific knowledge – a ‘positive philosophy’ – based on the study of society. Rather than develop this system, Saint-Simon became distracted by other projects. A disciplined synthesiser, Comte took up Saint-Simon’s ideas and achieved his own originality. Yet he denied having been influenced by Saint-Simon, a position taken by some of his biographers.

Positivism stipulated that all legitimate knowledge was based on observations of phenomena. Influenced by Bacon, Hume, and Descartes, Comte insisted that scientific investigation required the use of both induction and deduction and included experimentation as well as rationalism. Observations of phenomena could be direct or indirect, and facts could not be observed or connected without first formulating a hypothesis. Without a theory, one would not know what to look for. Verification was, however, crucial in order to avoid metaphysical speculations and excessive rationalism, that is, rationalism without any basis whatsoever in experience. Besides pure rationalism, Comte condemned pure empiricism, which he found pointless because it condoned the collection of facts for their own sakes and omitted the key intellectual process of abstraction. Facts should be used to make fruitful generalisations, that is, scientific laws. However, laws were provisional because all knowledge was relative. The only absolute was that there was no absolute. A scientific law should explain how, not why, phenomena operated, shed light on their spatial and temporal relationships in terms that were as certain and precise as possible, and make predictions about the future to guide actions. One of Comte’s stock phrases was ‘from science comes prediction; from prediction comes action’.

Positivism was often attacked. Some critics alleged it was ‘value-free’. Yet it always aimed to be useful and practical because Comte insisted that scientific laws should relate to our needs and improve the human condition. Taking a cue from Saint-Simon, who contrasted organic and critical periods of history, Comte prided his philosophy on being constructive, unlike the Enlightenment philosophy, which helped tear down society during the Revolution. Other critics faulted positivism for its hazy ideas of epistemology and verification, but Comte was deliberately vague and avoided issuing universal rules of scientific procedure in order to give scientists as much latitude as possible. Still other critics accused Comte of favouring scientism and a dictatorship of scientists. But he argued against using the sciences to satisfy men’s quest for power; recognised the limits of science, which he said could never grasp all of reality; and decried the rule of scientists, whose tendencies towards specialisation made them narrow-minded, egoistic, and indifferent to the common good. Though known for promulgating a scientific system, he sought to limit the scope of the sciences.

Citing this article:
Pickering, Mary. Positivism. Comte, Isidore-Auguste-Marie-François-Xavier (1798–1857), 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC016-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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