Auguste Comte: Proponent of Positivism and Evolutionary Thought

By Delaney, Tim | Free Inquiry, October-November 2003 | Go to article overview

Auguste Comte: Proponent of Positivism and Evolutionary Thought


Delaney, Tim, Free Inquiry


Auguste Comte was born January 19, 1798, in the southern French city of Montpellier during the height of chaos and instability in France. He lived for fifty-nine years. Math teacher and former Protestant pastor Daniel Encontre was the only teacher who impressed him during his formal education. It was perhaps Encontre who stimulated the intellect of the young Comte and inspired his wide-ranging pursuit of interests. Comte's knowledge of mathematics would help him in his latter years, when he attempted to establish the validity of "laws" governing society. Comte was as extraordinary student, excelling primarily in math and physics. He was able to demonstrate unusual feats of memory, such as reading a page of text and immediately reciting it backwards.

Comte is known as the "founder" of sociology. In the fourth volume of the Course of Positive Philosophy, Comte in 1854 proposed the word sociology for his new positivist science. The word sociology is a hybrid term compounded of Latin and Greek parts. It was Comte's second choice; he had preferred to call his new social science "social physics," bar discovered that the Belgian social statistician Adolphe Quetelet had "stolen" that term from him. The term social physics makes it clear that Comte wanted to model sociology after the "hard sciences."

Comte felt strongly that science must free itself from the grip of theology and religious dogma. Above al, the reorganization of society required intellectual reform. It would involve replacing Catholicism with his positive philosophy. Comte believed that, although many individual sciences such as physics, chemistry and biology had been developing at a steady pace, no one had yet synthesized the basic principles of these sciences into a coherent system of ideas. Comte envisioned a system that, was built on mi intellectual and moral basis and allowed for science to intervene on behalf of the betterment of society.

There are social thinkers who believe that the social world can be studied in the same manner as the natural sciences. They believe in the existence of natural laws. This approach is generally referred to as "positivism." Social positivists seek to discover social laws that will enable them to predict social behavior. Through observation of behavior, certain social relationships and arrangements should become identifiable; these observations could be explained as "facts" and in causal terms, without the interference of the researchers' value judgments. Therefore, positivism claims to be the most scientific and objective research tradition in sociology.

Comte is remembered to this day in sociology For his championing of positivism. Comte's idea of positivism is based on the premise that everything is society is observable and subject to patterns or laves. These laws could help to explain human behavior. Comte did not mean that human behavior would always be subjected to these "laws"; rather, he saw positivism as a way of explaining phenomena apart from supernatural or speculative causes. Laws of human behavior could only be based on empirical data. Thus, positivism was based on research guided by theory, a premise that remains the cornerstone of sociology today. Comte believed that positivism would create sound theories based on sufficient factual evidence and historical comparisons to predict future events. The discovery of the basic laws of human behavior would allow for deliberate courses of action on the part of both individuals and society. Decision making guided by science would, indeed, be positive.

In the summer of 1817, Auguste Comte was introduced to French utopian socialist Claude-Henri Saint-Simon, than the director of the periodical Industri. Comte became Saint-Simon's secretary, or, more accurately, his protege. The two social thinkers would collaborate on a number of works, until Comte broke from the master over a quarrel involving publication rights and intellectual issues. …

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