Saint-Simon HenriComte de

Saint-Simon HenriComte de

(1760-1825) French evolutionary and positivist social theorist who exercised a commanding influence on the development of sociology as a discipline (see EVOLUTIONARY THEORY, POSITIVISM). Saint-Simon's career was as iconoclastic as his sociology. An aristocrat of impeccable lineage, he fought in the American Revolution, and found himself imprisoned in the French Revolution. He subsequently amassed large profits from speculation in land, established a famous 'salon’ which attracted France's intellectual élite, squandered his money, and from 1804 to the end of his life lived close to poverty This period was his most productive in an intellectual sense and saw, towards its close, collaboration with Auguste COMTE.

The ideas of the Enlightenment, and especially those of MONTESQUIEU and CONDORCET, were influential in the formation of Saint-Simon's sociology. His own ideas were subsequently to inform those of Comte, and thus DURKHEIM, as well as MARX. These theorists point to the main ingredients of Saint-Simon's work: his positivism and evolutionism on the one hand, and his SOCIALISM on the other.

Saint-Simon's evolutionary law argued that society passed through three stages, each characterized by different types of knowledge: the theological, the metaphysical and the positive (see LAW OF THREE STAGES). The positive stage coincided with the emergence of INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY, a term first coined by Saint-Simon himself. For Saint-Simon, industrial society was distinct from previous stages in three ways: the emergence of a single, albeit multilayered class (i.e. all those involved in industrial production); its technology, which completed society's struggle to dominate nature; and its potential for the transformation of the state from an instrument of domination to one of enlightened welfare and reform managed on behalf of the new industrial class by an intellectual élite informed by positive sociological knowledge.

Before this benevolent, élitist version of socialism could emerge, however, a transitional period of social dislocation and deregulation would inevitably occur, as the epistemological cement of social order characteristic of previous eras (religion), weakened under the impact of industrial society's secularism. Positive, scientific sociology or social physics as Saint-Simon put it, could, however, help hasten and smooth the transition to the new positive stage, and provide the basis of a new secular moral order.

Saint-Simon's ideas continue to reverberate through sociological work. Apart from his enormous influence on the contours of classical theory, Saint-Simon's concepts (of the centrality of knowledge to industrial society, and of the necessity for compatibility between its technologies and forms of social organization) have re-emerged in recent theory in terms of the ideas of CONVERGENCE and postindustrialism (see POSTINDUSTRIAL SOCIETY).

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000