Sociology and Anthropology Monday: Auguste Comte


Auguste Comte (1798-1857) was born to conservative, royalist and Catholic parents. A precocious student with a photographic memory he graduated with top honours from the Lycée at Montpellier at the age of 14 ½. He passed the entrance examinations for the EcolePolytechnique with the highest marks in southern and central France, yet he was not yet 16 and had to wait a year to begin his studies at the Ecole. Comte became a student activist and was expelled for his activities when government troops moved in and closed the school. He briefly studied biology at medical school. Shortly thereafter he returned to Paris and gave private lectures when he met Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon the utopian thinker serving as his private secretary for 16 years. After falling out with Saint-Simon Comte gave a series lectures, interrupted by a nervous breakdown, which were published in 6 volumes between the years 1830-1842 under the title Cours de Philosophie Positive. Comte was a philosopher but also the founder of Sociology, a term which he coined in the late 1830s and of Positivism in philosophy , although subsequent generations of positivists wandered far from Comte’s understanding of it. Comte’s philosophy was both a philosophy of science (he organized the sciences in a hierarchy according to chronology of the passing of bodies of knowledge to science and according to the degree of complexity) and an articulation of the development of the stages of the growth of the human mind. (The Law of the Three Stages of the Growth of Human Mind.) “This law consists in the fact that each of our principle conceptions, each branch of our knowledge, passes in succession through three different theoretical states: the theological or fictitious state, the metaphysical or abstract state, and the scientific or positive state.” Many of Europe’s greatest minds became followers of Comte, including John Stuart Mill in England. Positive or scientific thinking gives up the attempt to look behind phenomena for first and final causes and instead seeks to discover the laws of nature by studying the invariable relations linking phenomena in a systematic fashion. Comte’s philosophy was thus a philosophy of modern science. But it was also a system of ideas that would provide the underpinnings of the modern moral, intellectual, social and political order. Comte’s influence was not only theoretical but practical influencing colonists in Latin America. The flag of Brazil, for example, has the Comtean slogan “Order and Progress” inscribed on its banner. Comte’s normative system was outlined in System of Positive Polity in 4 volumes. Sociology was, in Comte’s view the Queen of the Sciences because it was the latest body of knowledge to become scientific and it was at the same time the most complex of the sciences. Comte also separated science from theology, arguing that science ought to go hand in hand in the new positive polity with a kind of religion, the Religion of Humanity. Europe was to be divided into parish-like units and to be served by sociologist-priests not only as scientists but as moral guides. Huxley once referred to Comte’s Religion of Humanity as “Catholicism without Christianity.” The object of religious adoration or its equivalent for Comte was what he called the Great Being which consists of all human beings past, present and future. It was Comte who divided his sociology into Social Statics and Social Dynamics. He influenced the thinking (mostly negatively) of Herbert Spencer and (more positively) of Emile Durkheim who mostly sided with Comte against Spencer on important issues.

On Comte see:

See also Harriet Martineau, The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, 3 vols. London: G. Bill and Sons 1896; Auguste Comte. System of Positive Polity or Treatise on Sociology, Instituting the Religion of Humanity. 4 vols. Translated by John Henry Bridges, Frederic Harrison, Edward Spencer Beesly, Samuel Lobb, Fanny Hertz, Vernon and Godfrey Lushington, London: Longmans, Green and Co. 1875-76; Auguste Comte. General View of Positivism. Translated by J. H. Bridges. Edited by Frederic Harrison. London: George Routledge& Sons Ltd. 1908.

Cyril Levitt





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