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
 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
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].
 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
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].
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
(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.
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
R. Fletcher, Auguste Comte and the Making of Sociology.
J. S. Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism.