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

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

3. Sociology, the law of three stages, and the classification of the sciences

In 1839, Comte first called the science of society ‘sociology’. It was the keystone of positivism because sociology’s main law, the law of three stages, explained its evolution. According to this law, there were three stages of history, which reflected different ways people explained the world around them. In the first, theological stage, people attributed occurrences to one or more gods. (There were three sub-stages: fetishism, polytheism, and monotheism.) In the second, metaphysical stage, which was a transitional stage, people tied events to essences or abstractions, such as Nature. The third stage was the positive stage. Given that the mind naturally sought homogeneity, people applied the positive, that is, scientific method to more and more fields of knowledge and inevitably tackled the last field of knowledge dominated by theology and metaphysics, that is, the study of society. In this third, positive stage, which was just beginning, it would be illegitimate to base explanations on gods, first causes, or metaphysical essences, which went beyond the capability of human observation. People would rely instead on explanatory scientific laws. Because they embraced the same positive or scientific method and had the betterment of society as their common goal, all fields of knowledge would be homogeneous and unified. In effect, the law of three stages demonstrated the necessary triumph of positivism and the start of the positive era. (Based on his own experience during his mental illness, he asserted that each individual also went through all three stages of development, theological, metaphysical, and positive.)

Six sciences made up positivism, that is, legitimate knowledge based on scientific observation. They went through the first two stages and attained the last one according to the generality and simplicity of the phenomena they studied and the distance of these phenomena from human beings. The sciences developed in the following order: mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and the new science of society, sociology, which was now entering the positive stage. The Cours, which covered their development, stressed the historical context to emphasise that the sciences were social products, not the products of isolated individual geniuses. It also showed the relationships between the sciences as they evolved, especially the dependence of each of them on the sciences that came before it in the scientific hierarchy. A science could not advance to the positive stage until the preceding ones had reached it. Though reliant on other sciences, each science, including sociology, had its own distinctive subject matter and developed its own methods, which it contributed to scientific investigation. Biology, for example, contributed the comparative method. Because of the distinctiveness of each science, no science could be reduced to any other science. Comte particularly decried the use of statistics in sociology, which was too complex to be reduced to mathematical models. His historical approach to the sciences and his classification of the sciences became very influential. Some critics criticised the latter for excluding psychology, but he had no respect for how it was construed at the time because the introspection of the mind served as the basis of Victor Cousin’s dominant philosophy, which struck him as metaphysical nonsense.

Sociology was the last science (at least in the Cours) because it dealt with the most specific and complex phenomena and those closest to humans. One reason it was the key to the positive philosophy was that as the last science, it had to coordinate the others, which had prepared its way. Once established, sociology had to make sure that all the sciences were directed at the improvement of society. Comte called this taking into account of the whole of society ‘the subjective method’, as it meant that all of knowledge was related to the observer, the human species. Its opposite, the objective method, dealt with the external world, which was observed by humans. It was more analytical and dealt with details. Though important in preparing the way for sociology, the objective method could not achieve unification around one general natural law. Positivism would be unified thanks not only to the application of the positive or scientific method to all fields of thought but to the triumph of the subjective method, which synthesised knowledge by directing it to the needs of society.

Sociology focused on the distinctiveness of social phenomena and revealed how they were related in time and space. Thus it was composed of two parts. Social dynamics was the study of the history of society, stressing continuity. Its historical method was sociology’s special contribution to scientific investigation. Social statics examined what contributed to social solidarity. One crucial element was the family, which first taught the importance of love and prepared the individual for life in society. One of Comte’s key insights was that all social phenomena are interrelated. This division in sociology generated Comte’s principal slogan ‘Order and Progress’, the first corresponding to social statics and the second to social dynamics. Comte maintained that once sociology was established, social theory would have the authority enjoyed by other scientific theories and could be used to reconstruct the post-revolutionary world.

Citing this article:
Pickering, Mary. Sociology, the law of three stages, and the classification of the sciences. 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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