Social Life and Cultural Change

Social Life and Cultural Change

Social Life and Cultural Change

Social Life and Cultural Change


The crisis in the current theory of social and cultural change is intimately bound up with the entire history of the social sciences. The social sciences arose in the nineteenth century in a burst of enthusiasm that marked the final stages in the systematic transformation of the outlook of Western man in terms of views pioneered in the natural sciences.

The entire rationale for sociology in the mind of Auguste Comte was its discovery of the laws of a scientific theory of progress. In the words of Bury:

Auguste Comte did more than any preceding thinker to establish the idea of Progress as a luminary which could not escape man's vision.

The "law of Three Stages" is familiar to many who have never read a line of his writings. That men first attempted to explain natural phenomena by the operation of imaginary deities, then sought to interpret them by abstractions, and finally came to see that they could only be understood by scientific methods, observation, and experiment -- this was a generalization which had already been thrown out by Turgot. Comte adopted it as a fundamental psychological law, which has governed every domain of mental activity and explains the whole story of human development. Each of our principal conceptions, every branch of knowledge, passes successively through these three states which he named: the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive or scientific. In the first, the mind invents; in the second, it abstracts; in the third it submits itself to positive facts; and the proof that any branch of knowledge has reached the third state is the recognition of invariable natural laws.

The central aim of Comte, and his great achievement in his own opinion was to raise the study of social phenomena from the second to the third stage.

The idea of progress was quickly combined with the idea of evolution made popular by the development of nineteenth-century biology. The combined progress-evolution formula looked, for a time, as if it would sweep everything before it.

But there were buried problems in the progress-evolution formula. Progress does not mean much unless one decides where it is to start and from what it starts. But the decision as to the origin and the goal of history is capable of very different constructions depending on one's values. Moreover, while it has been assumed that all men travel the same route from sav-

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