Auguste Comte

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Conflict Theory
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Deviant Behaviour
Auguste Comte
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Max Weber

Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte (January 19, 1798 - September 5, 1857) is regarded as a philosopher, is best known as the father of positivism, and was the first to utilize the scientific method in exploration of the social world. It was Comte who coined the term sociology.

Friedrich Hayek was highly critical of Comte's totalitarian ideas.[1]

Early life

Auguste Comte was born at Montpellier France on the 19th of January, 1798, and entered college at the age of nine years. Before Auguste Comte attaining his fourteenth year he had already felt the need of fundamental reconstruction in politics and philosophy. This maturity is all the more remarkable that philosophical minds mature slowly. In 1814 he entered the Polytechnic School. When Louis XVIII. suppressed it, Comte, not having graduated, found himself without a career. At the age of twenty he came in contact with Henri de Saint-Simon, whose devoted disciple he became. The attraction mutually felt by them was due to their common conviction of the need of a complete social reform, based on a widespread mental renovation.[2]


August Comte

There was now no place in the national system of education for freethinkers, and Comte, cut off from all hope of employment in that direction, turned to private instruction for support. At the age of twenty-two, in a pamphlet entitled 'System of Positive Polity,' he announced his discovery of the laws of sociology. The work had no success, and Comte bent his energies during a meditation of twenty-four hours to the conception of a system which would force conviction on his readers. This he so far elaborated that in 1826 he published a plan of the work, - a plan requiring twelve years for its execution.

As his ideas were being appropriated by other people, he now began a dogmatic exposition of Positivism in a course of lectures delivered in his own home. These lectures opened under encouraging auspices, but after the third, Comte's mind gave way. The determining cause of this collapse lay in the excessive strain of his method of work, aided by a bad digestion and mental irritability growing out of the violent attacks made upon him by Saint-Simon's followers. In 1827 he was sufficiently recovered to take up intellectual work again, and the following year he resumed his lectures at the point of their interruption. After the accession of Louis Philippe, Comte was appointed assistant teacher of mathematics at the Polytechnic, and later, examiner of candidates, while he taught in a private school.

Unshakable firmness in philosophical matters and great disinterestedness were characteristic of this social critic, who cared nothing for the money his books might bring. His early sympathies were with the Revolution; he defended the socialist Marrast, though his position in a government school might have been compromised thereby. When in 1830 the Committee of the Polytechnic undertook to give free lectures to the people, he assumed the department of astronomy and lectured on that subject weekly for sixteen years.

Positive Philosophy

The second and great period of Comte's life extends from his recovery in 1828 to the completion of his 'Positive Philosophy' in 1848; though what he calls his "second life" began after that. The intense satisfaction which he felt on the completion of that work became infatuation. He was no longer capable of judging his position sanely, and by his attacks antagonized the scientists.

In 1842 John Stuart Mill gave his adherence to Positivism. When Comte lost his tutorship in the Polytechnic, and shortly after, his position as examiner, Mill raised a small sum for him in England. Afterward Littre organized a subscription, and this formed henceforth Comte's sole resource. He now threw himself more completely than before into the problems of social life, elucidating them in his 'Positive Polity,' whose really scientific elements are almost crowded out of sight by a mass of extravagant theories.

The Positive Calendar, in which the names of great men replace the saints of the Catholic Church, was adopted by Comte in his correspondence. He consecrated an altar to his friend Madame de Vaux, entitled himself High Priest of Humanity, married people, called his letters his briefs, administered the sacraments of his cult in commemoration of birth, the choice of a profession, marriage, etc. He subordinated the intellect to the feelings, wished to suppress independent thought, to center a dictatorship in a triumvirate of bankers, and to concentrate the entire spiritual power of the world in the hands of a single pontiff. He acquired a hatred of scientific and purely literary pursuits, and considered that men reasoned more than was good for them. Comte's absolute faith in himself passes belief. He lauds the moral superiority of fetishism, pronounces the aesthetic civilization of the Greeks inferior to the military civilization of the Romans; is indifferent to proof, provided he attains theoretic coherency; and pushes his spiritual dictatorship to the length of selecting one hundred books to constitute the library of every Positivist, recommending the destruction of all other books, as also that of all plants and animals useless to man. He associates science with sentiment, endows the planets with feeling and will, calls the Earth "le grand fetiche," includes all concrete existence in our adoration along with "le grand fetiche," and names space "le grand milieu," endowing the latter with feeling as the representative of fatality in general. Many of these conceits can be attributed to his ardor for regulating things in accordance with his peculiar conception of unity.

Death and Legacy

He died in Paris at the age of fifty-nine years, on September 5, 1857.

Throughout life, Comte's method of work was unprecedented. He thought out his subject in its entirety before writing down a word, proceeding from general facts to secondary matters, and thence to details. The general and detailed sketch outlined, he considered the work done. When he began to write, he took up his ideas in their respective order. His memory was wonderful; he did all his reading in his early youth, and the provision then amassed sufficed to elaborate a work for which he had to bear in mind an unusual number of scientific and historical facts. In consequence of his abstention from contemporary literature he became less and less in touch with the age, and missed the corrective force of friction with other minds.

The word "religion," when applied to Comte's later speculations, must not be taken in its ordinary sense. His attitude towards theology was and continued to be purely negative. The obligation of duty was towards the human race as a continuous whole, to whose providence we owe all the benefits conferred by previous generations. If he has not succeeded in suppressing the Absolute, he has co-ordinated all the abstract sciences into one consistent system. Some of them he found ready to hand, and merely revised and rearranged in their philosophical relation, eliminating all non-positive elements. The first three volumes of the 'Positive Philosophy' are devoted to this task. The other three volumes, as well as the last two of the 'Positive Polity,' are dedicated to the solution of the problems of sociology unattempted until then. While they may not have solved these, they have a scientific value independent of any absolute results.

The distinctive characteristic of Positivism is that it subjects all phenomena to invariable laws. It does not pretend to know anything about a future life, but believes that our ideas and intelligence will go to swell the sum total of spirituality, just as our bodies go to fertilize matter.

The complaint has been made that there has been very little serious criticism of the 'Positive Polity,' which Comte regarded as the most original and important of his works. If the form in which he reproduces metaphysics and theology has any value, it is because he has come to see that they are based on perennial wants in man's nature. In the 'Positive Philosophy' he excludes the Absolute; in the 'Positive Polity' he substitutes Humanity in lieu thereof; but his moral intention, however misguided at times, is passionately sincere, and his conviction that his mission was to exalt humanity through all time, sustained him during the course of a long life devoted to a generous ideal, fraught with disappointment, saddened by want of recognition and by persecution and neglect.

Positive Philsophy

The Evolution of Belief

Each of our leading conceptions passes through three different theoretical conditions: the Theological, or fictitious; the Metaphysical, or abstract; and the Scientific, or positive. Hence arise three philosophies, or general systems of conception's on the aggregate of phenomena, each of which excludes the others. The first is the necessary point of departure of the human understanding, and the third is its fixed and definite state. The second is merely a state of transition.

In the theological state, the human mind, seeking the essential nature of beings, the first and final causes of all effects,- in short, absolute knowledge,- supposes all phenomena to be produced by the immediate action of supernatural beings.

In the metaphysical state, which is only a modification of the first, the mind supposes, instead of supernatural beings, abstract forces, veritable entities (that is, personified abstractions) inherent in all beings, and capable of producing all phenomena. What is called the explanation of phenomena is, in this stage, a mere reference of each to its proper entity.

In the final, the positive state, the mind has given over the vain search after absolute notions, the origin and destination of the universe, and the causes of phenomena, and applies itself to the study of their laws,- that is, their invariable relations of succession and resemblance. Reasoning and observation, duly combined, are the means of this knowledge. What is now understood when we speak of an explanation of facts, is simply the establishment of a connection between single phenomena and some general facts, the number of which continually diminishes with the progress of science.

The Theological system arrived at the highest perfection of which it is capable, when it substituted the providential action of a single Being for the varied operations of numerous divinities which had been before imagined. In the same way, in the last stage of the Metaphysical system, men substitute one great entity (Nature) as the cause of all phenomena, instead of the multitude of entities at first supposed. In the same way, again, the ultimate perfection of the Positive system would be (if such perfection could be hoped for) to represent all phenomena as particular aspects of a single general fact,- such as gravitation, for instance.

There is no science which, having attained the positive stage, does not bear marks of having passed through the others.

The progress of the individual mind is not only an illustration but an indirect evidence of that of the general mind. The point of departure of the individual and of the race being the same, the phases of the mind of a man correspond to the epochs of the mind of the race. Now each of us is aware, if he looks back upon his own history, that he was a theologian in his childhood, a metaphysician in his youth, and a natural philosopher in his manhood.

The Study of Law Substituted for that of Causes

The first characteristic of the Positive Philosophy is, that it regards all phenomena as subjected to invariable natural Laws. Our business is - seeing how vain is any research into what are called Causes, whether first or final - to pursue an accurate discovery of these Laws with a view to reducing them to the smallest possible number. By speculating upon causes we could solve no difficulty about origin and purpose. Our real business is to analyze accurately the circumstances of phenomena, and to connect them by their natural relations of succession and resemblance. The best illustration of this is in the case of the doctrine of Gravitation. We say that the general phenomena of the universe are explained by it, because it connects under one head the whole immense variety of astronomical facts; exhibiting the constant tendency of atoms towards each other in direct proportion to their masses, and in inverse proportion to the square of their distances; whilst the general fact itself is but a mere extension of one which is familiar to us, and which we therefore say that we know - the weight of bodies on the surface of the earth. As to what weight and attraction are, we have nothing to do with that, for it is not a matter of knowledge at all. Theologians and metaphysicians may imagine and refine about such questions; but Positive Philosophy rejects them. When any attempt has been made to explain them, it has ended only in saying that attraction is universal weight and that weight is terrestrial attraction: that is, that the two orders of phenomena are identical; which is the point from which the question set out.

Before ascertaining the stage which the Positive Philosophy has reached, we must bear in mind that the different kinds of our knowledge have passed through the three stages of progress at different rates, and have not therefore reached their goal at the same time. Any kind of knowledge reaches the positive stage early in proportion to its generality, simplicity, and independence of other departments. Astronomical science, which is above all made up of facts that are general, simple, and independent of other sciences, arrived first; then terrestrial physics; then chemistry; and at length physiology.

It is difficult to assign any precise date to this revolution in science. It may be said, like everything else, to have been always going on, and especially since the labors of Aristotle and the school of Alexandria; and then from the introduction of natural science into the west of Europe by the Arabs. But if we must fix upon some marked period to serve as a rallying-point, it must be that about two centuries ago,- when the human mind was astir under the precepts of Bacon, the conceptions of Descartes, and the discoveries of Galileo. Then it was that the spirit of the Positive Philosophy rose up, in opposition to that of the superstitious and scholastic systems which had hitherto obscured the true character of all science. Since that date, the progress of the Positive Philosophy and the decline of the other two have been so marked that no rational mind now doubts that the revolution is destined to go on to its completion,- every branch of knowledge being, sooner or later, within the operation of Positive Philosophy.

Positive Polity

Subjection of Self-Love to Social Love

It is one of the first principles of Biology that organic life always preponderates over animal life. By this principle the sociologist explains the superior strength of the self-regarding instincts, since these are all connected more or less closely with the instinct of self-preservation. But although there is no evading the fact, Sociology shows that it is compatible with the existence of benevolent affections which Catholicism asserted were altogether alien to our nature, and entirely dependent on superhuman grace. The great problem, then, is to raise social feeling by artificial effort to the position which in the natural condition is held by selfish feeling. The solution is to be found in another biological principle; viz., that functions and organs are developed by constant exercise and atrophied by long inaction. Now the effect of the social state is, that while our sympathetic instincts are constantly stimulated, the selfish propensities are restricted; since if free play were given to them, human intercourse would very soon become impossible. Both of the tendencies naturally increase with the progress of humanity, and their increase is the best measure of the degree of perfection that we have attained. Their growth, however spontaneous, may be materially hastened by organized intervention both of individuals and of society; the object being to increase all favorable influences and to diminish unfavorable ones. This is the aim of the science of Morals. Like every other science, it is restricted within certain limits.

The first principle of Positive morality is the preponderance of social sympathy. Full and free expansion of the benevolent emotions is made the first condition of individual and social well-being, since these emotions are at once the sweetest to experience, and the only feelings which can find expression simultaneously in all. This doctrine is as deep and pure as it is simple and true. It is essentially characteristic of a philosophy which by virtue of its attribute of reality subordinates all scientific conceptions to the social point of view, as the sole point from which they can be co-ordinated into a whole.

The Cult of Humanity

The cult of Positivism is not addressed to an absolute, isolated, incomprehensible Being whose existence cannot be demonstrated or compared with reality. No mystery surrounds this Supreme Being. It is composed of the continuous succession of human generations.

Whereas the old God could not receive our homage without degrading himself by a puerile vanity, the new God will only accept praise which is deserved and which will improve him as much as ourselves. This reciprocity of affection and influence can belong only to the final cult, modifiable and perfectible, addressed to a relative being composed of its own adorers, and better subjected than another to law which permits of foreseeing its wishes and tendencies.

The superiority of demonstrated over revealed religion is shown by the substitution of the love of Humanity for the love of God. To love Humanity constitutes all healthy morality, when we understand the character of such a love and the conditions exacted by its habitual ascendency.

The universal reign of Humanity is to replace the provisory reign of God. Demonstrated religion has its dogmas, its regimen, and its cult corresponding respectively to three fundamental attributes; viz., thoughts, acts, and sentiments.

The Religion of Humanity transforms the coarse idea of objective immortality into the real objective immortality common to the whole race. The first hypothesis is anti-social; the latter constitutes real sociability.

The Domination of the Dead

Always and everywhere, the living are more and more dominated by the dead. This irresistible domination represents the unmodifiable element in all social existence, and regulates the total human movement.

When the "Grand Etre" shall occupy the whole planet, each city will live more and more under the weight of preceding generations, not only of its defunct citizens but of the total sum of terrestrial ancestors.

This ascendency was long ignored, and a dominating principle was sought elsewhere, by transporting the human type to external beings, first real, then fictitious. So long as the search for Causes predominated over the study of Law, it was impossible to recognize the true Providence of the race, owing to thus diverting the attention to chimerical influences. At the same time continuous conflicts and discordance made the conception of a collective being impossible. When these fictitious struggles exhausted themselves, Humanity, prepared during their domination, became aroused, and founded on peace and truth the advent of the new religion.

The Cult of Woman

Woman's function in society is determined by the constitution of her nature. As the spontaneous organ of feeling, on which the unity of human nature entirely depends, she constitutes the purest and most natural element of the moderating power; which while avowing its own subordination to the material forces of society, purposes to direct them to higher uses.[3]

First as mother, afterwards as wife, it is her office to conduct the moral education of Humanity.

Woman's mission is a striking illustration of the truth that happiness consists in doing the work for which we are naturally fitted. Their mission is always the same; it is summed up in one word,- Love. It is the only work in which there can never be too many workers; it grows by co-operation; it has nothing to fear from competition. Women are charged with the education of sympathy, the source of real human unity; and their highest happiness is reached when they have the full consciousness of their vocation and are free to follow it. It is the admirable feature of their social mission, that it invites them to cultivate qualities which are natural to them, to call into exercise emotions which all allow to be the most pleasurable. All that is required of them in a better organization of society is a better adaptation of their circumstances to their vocation, and improvements in their internal condition. They must be relieved from outdoor labor, and other means must be taken to secure due weight to their moral influence. Both objects are contemplated in the material, intellectual, and moral ameliorations which Positivism is destined to effect in the life of women. But besides the pleasure inherent in their vocation, Positivism offers a recompense for their services which Catholic Feudalism foreshadowed but could not realize. As men become more and more grateful for the blessing of the moral influence of women, they will give expression to this feeling in a systematic form. In a word, the new doctrine will institute the Worship of Woman, publicly and privately, in a far more perfect way than has ever been possible. It is the first permanent step towards the worship of Humanity; which is the central principle of Positivism viewed either as a philosophy or as a polity.


Notable followers of Comte include Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, and David Croly.


  1. The Road to Serfdom
  2. The Warner Library, Charles Dudley Warner
  3. Encyclopedia of Social Theory

External links