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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


COMTE

(1798 — 1857)

 

POSITIVISM/ HISTORICISM

Auguste Comte was born in Montpellier. His father was a staunch Royalist and Roman Catholic. He was educated at the local lycée (during which time he renounced his faith and also became a Republican) and at the École Polytechnique, where he studied science, politics, economics, and history. In 1818 he came under the influence of Saint-Simon, having been appointed his secretary, but broke off the relationship in 1824. He spent his life thereafter tutoring, lecturing, and writing, but never had a university post. After the publication of the final volume of his major work he became friendly with J. S. Mill, who also helped him financially.

 

EPISTEMOLOGY/ SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY

[1] Comte's "positive philosophy" [see Course of Positive Philosophy] is essentially an anti-metaphysical philosophy of "popular good sense" (common sense). Central to this is the claim that human history progresses through three stages of development [a] (which he compares fancifully to the three stages of an individual's life — infancy, youth, and maturity). These are, however, general tendencies; he recognises the need for some flexibility in his classification, in the light of actual facts.

(1) The theological stage. This is the period when early man, after an animistic or 'fetishist' stage, sought to find ultimate causes of phenomena in the decisions or wills of superhuman beings (later of only one such being).

(2) The metaphysical stage. In this stage man no longer thinks in terms of a supernatural personal God but of an 'abstraction', such as all-embracing Nature, and looks to such notions as ether, vital principles, forces to explain phenomena.

(3) The positive stage. Explanation in the final stage is supposed to be found by bringing facts of experience under general descriptive laws. These are arrived through a process of testing by direct observation — verification shows the hypotheses to be genuine. Such laws will then enable man to predict and control nature. At a higher level philosophy seeks to achieve a synthesis of all the sciences [b]. Positive knowledge, though certain, is only relative in that it is of the world as appearance. It is also confined to the phenomena; we can know nothing of any ultimate causes or metaphysical principles [c]. Comte's three stages are thus represented as a sequence of progressively more mature or sophisticated kinds of explanation of phenomena.

Corresponding to each of the three periods are also, Comte says, three kinds of social organizations (though again he allows for a degree of flexibility in the application of his classification).

(1) In the Ancient world and the Middle Ages we find an acceptance of an absolute authority, divine right of kings, or militarism. The ethos of such societies might be said to be conquest.

(2) The Enlightenment era is characterized by belief in abstract rights, popular sovereignty, the rule of law. The emphasis is on defence.

(3) The modern period is that of the industrial society, in which the emphasis is on a centralized economy organized by a 'scientific' elite. The key word is now labour [d].

[2] If this third (and for Comte final) type of society is to be developed so as to ensure its mutually peaceful qualities are exhibited, a new science of man will be required. This is sociology. [See further System of Positive Philosophy.] It is needed to formulate the basic laws which underlie human society, a knowledge of which will enable man to reorganize society so that it will satisfy his needs and enable him to maximize his progress [a]. Although all sciences are alike in that they organize phenomena under general laws, each individual science has its own particular set of phenomena and characteristic procedures [b] (though there is some overlap) which lead to their perfection within the general context of scientific methodology. These can be placed in a kind of hierarchy of development, starting with the simplest and most general and ending with the most complex and least abstract. Thus we have mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, physiology, biology, and social physics, that is, sociology (to which Comte later added ethics as 'social psychology' in the sense of the study of man's social behaviour: he did not, however, find a place for psychology as such — largely on account of his rejection of the possibility of introspection). A higher science may make use of mathematics to achieve great precision, but he will not allow that, say, biology can be assimilated to a deductive science in the way physics is. Comte regards sociology as the ultimate synthesizing science. He says this is achieved by reference to the idea of humanity and human needs; sociology determines each science's contribution in this respect [c]. He also distinguishes between social statics and social dynamics. Social statics examines the general laws which relate to social cohesion or order. The latter is concerned rather with what is needed for the development of order, that is, progress — as exhibited in the three stages of social organization [d] which, according to Comte, correspond to the three stages of intellectual development.

While Comte claims that scientific laws are descriptive, it might seem from his account of the three stages of intellectual development and social organization that he is proposing an account of history as a determined and teleological process. His answer is that, although the order of the stages cannot be changed, man's actions considered in the light of sociological laws can accelerate or slow down the historical process. Moreover, the historical laws themselves must be understood in the light of our understanding of human nature. Thus, while operating within broad historical constraints, social planning is entirely possible, indeed required [e].

As for the forms of government society should have, Comte favoured rule by the knowledgeable experts (positivist scientists and philosophers) whose decisions, exercised through government, would have to be obeyed by the people because the rulers know best. There is thus no place in his scheme for rights of individuals in so far as they are subordinate to society, indeed humanity as a whole; and it is therefore only in this context, which emphasizes duties, that the concept of 'rights' can have any application [f]. Humanity, the "Great Being", takes the place of God, and is the basis of all morality [g].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Comte was the first and major representative of positivism. He is notable for his espousal of the doctrine of historicism, his account of three stages of development, and for his scientific/ empiricist and anti-metaphysical standpoint. He is significant also for his contribution to the philosophy of the social sciences. The main problems with his thought include the following.

(1) The three stages are either theoretical or drawn from an inadequate empirical base. They therefore do not always seem to fit the facts: the theoretical scheme does not work in practice (even allowing, as he does, for some overlapping of the stages).

(2) There would appear to be an implicit determinism in his system. It is debatable whether this can be reconciled with human freedom and agency, or with Comte's commitment to social planning.

(3) Is his socio-historical process progressive? What he understands by progress is questionable.

(4) His view of ethics as a social psychology is a limited one and provides a basis for standards in relation only to needs. Moreover, he rejects individual natural rights, the individual being subordinated to social norms for the common good. This is of course a legitimate position to hold, but many philosophers would reject it as leading to abuse (a 'liberal' view) or (from a 'conservative' absolutist standpoint) to relativism.

(5) His concept of 'Humanity' as the 'Great Being' (the positivist substitute for God) arguably has metaphysical overtones which would seem to be inconsistent with his premisses — though his approach can admit of being more appropriately judged by utilitarian or pragmatic criteria.

 

READING

Comte: Cours de philosophie positive (1830-42) (Course of Positive Philosophy); Systéme de philosophie positive (1851-4) (System of Positive Philosophy). Harriett Martineau made a translation of the former, which Comte himself approved of. A translation of the latter by J. H. Bridges and F. Harrison, and others appeared in 1875-7. See also G. Lenzer, Auguste Comte: Essential Writings, and H. S. Jones (ed.) Comte: Early Political Writings.

Studies

R. Fletcher, Auguste Comte and the Making of Sociology.

J. S. Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Comte

 

Note: The influence on Comte of Charles-Louis de Montesquieu (1689-1755), Joseph de Maistre (1754-1821), and especially Claude-Henri Saint-Simon (1760-1825) should also be mentioned.

 

[1a] Human history has three stages of development — theological, metaphysical, positive

   Vico

   Hegel

Mill

Popper

[2a]

[7d 9a]

[1n]

[3a]

 

[1b] Positive (empiricist) philosophy: general laws arrived at through verification of hypotheses by observation can then facilitate prediction and control of nature; philosophy provides higher synthesis

   Bacon (Francis)

   Condillac

Mill

Dilthey

Peirce

   Nietzsche

Habermas

[1e 2e]

[2a]

[1kl]

[2a]

[1f 2c]

[2a b]

[2a]

 

[1c] Positive knowledge certain but relative (to phenomenal appearances) — no knowledge of metaphysics possible

   Hume

   Condillac

Spencer

Dilthey

[1a c]

[2a 3a]

[1a]

[2a]

 

[1d; cf. 1a] Three kinds of social organization; the last is modern industrial (central concept of labour)    Marx [1c]

 

[2a] Sociology the new science of man — to formulate basic laws underlying order, human needs and progress in society; no one 'perfect' type of society

   Plato

   Aristotle

   Posidonius

   Hume

Mill

Spencer

Dilthey

Habermas

[sec. 14]

[22a]

[2d]

[1a]

[1k]

[2a]

[2b]

[1b]

 

[2b] Each science has its own set of phenomena and characteristic procedures; no universal methodology

   Aristotle

   Descartes

Mill

Dilthey

[7c]

[1d]

[1k]

[2b]

 

[2c]

Sociology as ultimate synthesizing science — determines contribution made by each science to human needs and idea of humanity. (He did not examine psychology; rejection of 'introspection')

Mill

Dilthey

Brentano

[1k]

[2b]

[1a]

 

[2d; cf. 2a] Social statics (order) and dynamics (progress)

   Aristotle

Mill

[22a]

[1m]

 

[2e] Social planning operates only within constraints of the historical process — but this in turn is to be understood with reference to knowledge of human nature

   Hegel

Mill

Popper

[9a]

[1l]

[3a]

 

[2f] Rights only in context of society and with reference to duties    Bentham [1c]

 

[2g] 'Humanity' as substitute for God — and as basis for morality Mill [5b]