Auguste Comte

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Comte, Auguste

(ōgüst` kôNt), 1798–1857, French philosopher, founder of the school of philosophy known as positivismpositivism
, philosophical doctrine that denies any validity to speculation or metaphysics. Sometimes associated with empiricism, positivism maintains that metaphysical questions are unanswerable and that the only knowledge is scientific knowledge.
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, educated in Paris. From 1818 to 1824 he contributed to the publications of Saint-Simon, and the direction of much of Comte's future work may be attributed to this association. Comte was primarily a social reformer. His goal was a society in which individuals and nations could live in harmony and comfort. His system for achieving such a society is presented in his Cours de philosophie positive (1830–42; tr. The Course of Positive Philosophy, 1896 ed.). In this work Comte analyzes the relation of social evolution and the stages of science. He sees the intellectual development of man covered by what is called the Law of the Three Stages—theological, in which events were largely attributed to supernatural forces; metaphysical, in which natural phenomena are thought to result from fundamental energies or ideas; and positive, in which phenomena are explained by observation, hypotheses, and experimentation. The sciences themselves are classified on the basis of increasing complexity and decreasing generality of application in the ascending order: mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology. Each science depends at least in part on the science preceding it; hence all contribute to sociology (a term that Comte himself originated). A sociology developed by the methods of positivism could achieve the ends of harmony and well-being which Comte desired. Another work, Le Système de politique positive (1851–54; tr. System of Positive Polity, 1875–77), placed religion above sociology as the highest science; it was, however, a religion shorn of metaphysical implications, with humanity as the object of worship. For a modern edition of part of this work see A General View of Positivism (1957). Important among his other writings are Catechisme positiviste (1852, tr. 1858) and Synthèse subjective (1856). Published posthumously were his Testament (1884) and his letters (1902–05).


See F. S. Marvin, Comte, the Founder of Sociology (1937, repr. 1965); M. Pickering, Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography (3 vol., 1993–2009).

Comte, Auguste

French social thinker who coined the term 'S ociology’. Whether Comte should be seen as the founder of sociology is debatable, and depends on how one regards precursors to Comte's own sociology (including MONTESQUIEU, SAINT-SIMON or 18th-century Scottish thinkers such as Adam FERGUSON), whose thought was certainly sociological, although they did not use the term.

Born in the revolutionary era in France, and living through the post-revolutionary turmoil, Comte also witnessed the beginnings of the industrial revolution in that country. Associated with the foundation of modern POSITIVISM and the founder of a social movement dedicated to positive social reform, Comte's goal can be summed up by his own motto: ‘Order and Progress’. A sign of his widespread influence is that today this is still the motto on the Brazilian Flag. His objective was to establish a new social science which would be both the basis of understanding society and bring about its radical reform. Always eccentric, and in later life at times considered actually mad, Comte at one stage confidently expected the Pope to resign in his favour. For all this, his contribution to modern social thought has been highly significant.

Comte's approach to sociology drew upon the work of Saint-Simon, the no-less-eccentric social thinker who once employed Comte as his secretary. The idea that society evolved through set stages, with European society as the pinnacle of this development, was current in the period of the French Enlightenment (see AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT) in which Saint-Simon lived, and to which Comte was heir (see also CONDORCET). Comte's version of this view was his LAW OF THE THREE STAGES of social and intellectual development, a law which he advanced as one ‘as firmly based as any in the sciences’. In terms of this, Comte saw society as progressing through ‘Theological’ and ‘Metaphysical’ stages, before finally reaching the modern ‘Positive’ age, an age to be ushered in by Comte's own positivism and sociology. In the Positive stage, an era of‘reliable’ knowledge, new rational government and a ‘Religion of Humanity’, Comte expected society to be ruled by industrialists and bankers who would be educated and guided by sociologists. He described the new era as ‘positive’ to contrast it with the ‘negative’, critical revolutionary and speculative, ‘Metaphysical’ era, the function of which was merely to bring to an end the earlier ‘Theological’ (and monarchical) one. Parliaments would have no relevance in this new era; and no one would have any rights to stand against the new scientific morality which would be established; freedom would come from acting in conformity with the requirements of the laws of nature, including those discovered by sociology.

In his general sociological theory Comte distinguished between 'S tatics’ and ‘dynamics’. His 'S tatics’, which states the requirements for social order, is echoed in later Durkheimian and FUNCTIONALIST sociology. He regarded the family as the ‘social cell’ and women's natural place as in the home; religion is seen as performing essential social functions. His account of ‘dynamics’, which emphasized the increasing importance of the DIVISION OF LABOUR in modern societies, also strongly influenced DURKHEIM.

It is Comte's earlier work, Cours de philosophie positive (1830-42), that is today regarded as his most serious contribution to the subject. His later writings, including Système de politique positive (187 5-77) are regarded as more eccentric. The most accessible form in which to read Comte's work today is in collections of extracts such as those by Thompson (1975) and Andreski (1974).

It is easy to poke fun at Comte's sociology given some of his obvious excesses, but in his lifetime he was highly influential. John Stuart MILL, a notably sober scholar, admired and sponsored his work, and Herbert SPENCER followed in his footsteps in adopting the term 'S ociology’, despite a markedly different view of society Nor should his modern legacy simply be dismissed. His emphasis on the importance of both careful observation and comparative and historical study in sociology remains relevant. His conception of a HIERARCHY OF THE SCIENCES, each with its own appropriate approaches to knowledge, shows that he was far from slavish in applying a general model of'S cientific’ knowledge to social science. The general view would probably be that Comte nevertheless underestimated the differences between the social sciences and the natural sciences. Thus, there are no strictly Comtean sociologists in modern sociology, although some are prepared to sing his praises (e.g. ELIAS, 1970).

Comte, Auguste


Born Jan. 19, 1798, in Montpellier; died Sept. 5, 1857, in Paris. French philosopher; one of the founders of positivism and bourgeois sociology.

From 1817 to 1822, Comte was secretary to H. de Saint-Simon. Subsequently, he became an examiner and tutor at the École Polytechnique in Paris. Later he lived on funds collected by his followers. His main writings, which were produced during the early period of his career (up to the mid-1840’s), laid the foundation for positivism. He is most famous for his Course in Positive Philosophy (vols. 1–6, 1830–42; Russian translation, vols. 1–2, 1899–1900).

Comte considered positivism the middle road between empiricism and mysticism. In his opinion, neither science nor philosophy could or should raise the question of the causes of phenomena; they were to deal only with how things took place. Thus, Comte argued that science can know only the appearance of things, not their essence. Following Saint-Simon, he developed the idea of the three stages of the intellectual evolution of mankind and of each individual. These stages determined, in the final analysis, the entire development of society. In the first, or theological, stage all phenomena are explained on the basis of religious ideas. In the second, or metaphysical, stage essences and causal factors discovered within things replace supernatural factors in the explanation of natural phenomena. The task of this stage is a critical and destructive one that prepares for the final, positive, or scientific, stage. At this point the science of society emerges and contributes to the rational organization of society. Comte’s sociology may be divided into a social stasis that deals with the stable or “natural” factors in the existence of any social structure and a social dynamics that involves the natural laws of social development. His system devotes considerable attention to the classification of the sciences, which are placed in a hierarchy of decreasing abstractness and increasing complexity.

The basic work of the second period of Comte’s career was his System of Positive Polity (vols. 1–4, 1851–54), which is imbued with religiosity and mysticism. In Comte’s opinion, sociology is a kind of “social physics” which ought to provide the basis for a scientific politics that reconciles the principles of order and progress, restoration and revolution. Thus, sociology is a “positive morality” that is related not to the individual but to humanity. Comte announced the creation of a new “religion of humanity” whose cult and catechism he described in detail.

Comte’s sociological and political ideas were severely criticized by Marx and Engels (Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 33, p. 138; vol. 39, pp. 326–27). His positivist ideas became very popular among naturalists in the 19th century, chiefly through their exposition in the works of E. Littré (France) and the English positivists J. S. Mill and H. Spencer.


In Russian translation:
Dukh pozitivnoi filosofii. St. Petersburg, 1910. [Works and extracts] In the collection Rodonachal’niki pozitivizma, issues 2,4,5, St. Petersburg, 1910–13.


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Lévy-Bruhl, L. La Philosophie d’A Comte. Paris, 1900.
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Mauduit, R. A. Comte et la science économique. Paris, 1929.
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