Auguste Comte

The French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857) developed a system of positive philosophy. He held that science and history culminate in a new science of humanity, to which he gave the name "sociology."

Born in Montpellier, Auguste Comte abandoned the devout Catholicism and royalism of his family while in his teens. He entered the École Polytechnique in 1814 and proved himself a brilliant mathematician and scientist. Comte was expelled in 1816 for participating in a student rebellion. Remaining in Paris, he managed to do immense research in mathematics, science, economics, history, and philosophy.

At 19 Comte met Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, and as a "spiritually adopted son," he became secretary and collaborator to the older man until 1824. The relationship between Saint-Simon and Comte grew increasingly strained for both theoretical and personal reasons and finally degenerated into an acrimonious break over disputed authorship. Saint-Simon was an intuitive thinker interested in immediate, albeit utopian, social reform. Comte was a scientific thinker, in the sense of systematically reviewing all available data, with a conviction that only after science was reorganized in its totality could men hope to resolve their social problems.

In 1824 Comte began a common-law marriage with Caroline Massin when she was threatened with arrest because of prostitution, and he later referred to this disastrous 18-year union as "the only error of my life." During this period Comte supported himself as a tutor. In 1826 he proposed to offer a series of 72 lectures on his philosophy to a subscription list of distinguished intellectuals. After the third lecture Comte suffered a complete breakdown, replete with psychotic episodes. At his mother's insistence he was remarried in a religious ceremony and signed the contract "Brutus Napoleon Comte." Despite periodic hospitalization for mental illness during the following 15 years, Comte was able to discipline himself to produce his major work, the six-volume Course of Positive Philosophy (1830-1842).


Positivist Thought

Positivism as a term is usually understood as a particular way of thinking. For Comte, additionally, the methodology is a product of a systematic reclassification of the sciences and a general conception of the development of man in history: the law of the three stages. Comte, like the Marquis de Condorcet whom he acknowledged as a predecessor and G. W. F. Hegel whom he met in Paris, was convinced that no data can be adequately understood except in the historical context. Phenomena are intelligible only in terms of their origin, function, and significance in the relative course of human history.

But unlike Hegel, Comte held that there is no Geist, or spirit, above and beyond history which objectifies itself through the vagaries of time. Comte represents a radical relativism: "Everything is relative; there is the only absolute thing." Positivism absolutizes relativity as a principle which makes all previous ideas and systems a result of historical conditions. The only unity that the system of positivism affords in its pronounced antimetaphysical bias is the inherent order of human thought. Thus the law of the three stages, which he discovered as early as 1820, attempts to show that the history of the human mind and the development of the sciences follow a determinant pattern which parallels the growth of social and political institutions. According to Comte, the system of positivism is grounded on the natural and historical law that "by the very nature of the human mind, every branch of our knowledge is necessarily obliged to pass successively in its course through three different theoretical states: the theological or fictitious state; the metaphysical or abstract state; finally, the scientific or positive state."

These stages represent different and opposed types of human conception. The most primitive type is theological thinking, which rests on the "empathetic fallacy" of reading subjective experience into the operations of nature. The theological perspective develops dialectically through fetishism, polytheism, and monotheism as events are understood as animated by their own will, that of several deities, or the decree of one supreme being. Politically the theological state provides stability under kings imbued with divine rights and supported by military power. As civilization progresses, the metaphysical stage begins as a criticism of these conceptions in the name of a new order. Supernatural entities are gradually transformed into abstract forces just as political rights are codified into systems of law. In the final stage of positive science the search for absolute knowledge is abandoned in favor of a modest but precise inquiry into the relative laws of nature. The absolutist and feudal social orders are replaced gradually by increasing social progress achieved through the application of scientific knowledge.

From this survey of the development of humanity Comte was able to generalize a specific positive methodology. Like René Descartes, Comte acknowledged a unity of the sciences. It was, however, not that of a univocal method of thinking but the successive development of man's ability to deal with the complexities of experience. Each science possesses a specific mode of inquiry. Mathematics and astronomy were sciences that men developed early because of their simplicity, generality, and abstractness. But observation and the framing of hypotheses had to be expanded through the method of experimentation in order to deal with the physical sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology. A comparative method is required also to study the natural sciences, man, and social institutions. Thus even the history of science and methodology supports the law of the three stages by revealing a hierarchy of sciences and methodological direction from general to particular, and simple to complex. Sociology studies particular societies in a complex way since man is both the subject and the object of this discipline. One can consider social groups from the standpoint of "social statics," which comprises the elements of cohesion and order such as family and institutions, or from the perspective of "social dynamics," which analyzes the stage of continuous development that a given society has achieved.


Later Years

By 1842 Comte's marriage had dissolved, and he was supported by contributions from various intellectuals, including the English philosopher J.S. Mill. In 1844 he met Clothilde de Vaux, and they fell deeply in love. Although the affair was never consummated because Madame de Vaux died in the next year, this intense love influenced Comte in his later work toward a new religion of humanity. He proposed replacing priests with a new class of scientists and industrialists and offered a catechism based on the cult of reason and humanity, and a new calendar replete with positivist saints. While this line of thought was implicit in the aim of sociology to synthesize order and progress in the service of humanity, the farcical elements of Comte's mysticism has damaged his philosophical reputation. He died in obscurity in 1857.


Further Reading on Auguste Comte

Comte's various writings have never been gathered into a critical edition. But Comte personally approved of Harriet Martineau's English redaction of the six volumes of his main work into The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte (3 vols., 1896). Secondary studies of Comte include J. S. Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism (2d ed. rev. 1866; 5th ed. 1907); L. Lévy-Bruhl, The Philosophy of Auguste Comte (trans. 1903); and a chapter in Frank E. Manuel, The Prophets of Paris (1962). For Comte's relationship with Saint-Simon see Manuel's The New World of Henri Saint-Simon (1956); and for his relation to the history of positivism see Leszek Kolakowski, The Alienation of Reason (trans. 1968). Also useful are the two works of Richmond Laurin Hawkins, Auguste Comte and the United States, 1816-1853 (1936) and Positivism in the United States, 1853-1861 (1938), and F. S. Marvin, Comte: The Founder of Sociology (1936).


Additional Biography Sources

Gould, F. J. (Floyd Jerome), The life story of Auguste Comte: with a digest review of ancient, religious, and "modern" philosophy, Austin, TX: American Atheist Press, 1984.

Pickering, Mary, Auguste Comte: an intellectual biography, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Standley, Arline Reilein, Auguste Comte, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.