Comte (full name Isidore Marie Auguste François Xavier Comte)
was a French positivist thinker and came up with the term of sociology
to name the new science made by Saint-Simon.
Known as the 'grandfather of sociology', he was born in Montpellier,
in southwestern France. After attending school there, Comte was
allowed to study at the École Polytechnique in Paris. The
École Polytechnique was a place adhering to the French
republican ideals and to progress. In 1816, the École closed
for re-organization. Students could apply for readmission at a
later date. Thus Comte had to leave the École and continued
his studies at the medical school in Montpellier. When the École
was reopened, he did not try to gain readmission.
Soon he saw unbridgeable differences with
his Catholic and Monarchist family and left again for Paris, earning
money by small jobs. Then he became a student and secretary for
Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, who brought Comte
into intellectual society. In 1824, Comte left Saint-Simon, again
because of unbridgeable differences.
Comte now knew what he wanted to do: work
out the philosophy of positivism. This plan he published as Plan
de traveaux scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiser
la société (1822) (Plan of scientific studies necessary
for the reorganization of society). But he failed to get an academic
position. His day-to-day life depended on sponsors and financial
help from friends.
He married Caroline Massin, but divorced
in 1842. Comte was known as an arrogant, violent and delusional
man. In 1826 he was brought into a mental health hospital, but
left it without being cured -- only stabilized by Massin -- so
that he could work again on his plan. In the time between this
and their divorce, he published the six volumes of his Cours.
From 1844, Comte was involved with Clotilde
de Vaux, a relationship that remained platonic. After her death
in 1846 this love became quasi-religious, and Comte saw himself
as founder and prophet of a new "religion of humanity".
He published four volumes of Système de politique positive
(1851 - 1854).
He died in Paris on September 5th, 1857
and is buried at the famous Cimetière du Père Lachaise.
One universal law that Comte saw at work in all sciences he called
the 'law of three phases'. It is by his statement of this law
that he is best known in the English-speaking world; namely, that
society has gone through three phases: Theological, Metaphysical,
and Scientific. He also gave the name "Positive" to
the last of these because of the polysemous connotations of the
The Theological phase was seen from the
perspective of 19th century France as preceding the Enlightenment,
in which man's place in society and society's restrictions upon
man were referenced to God. By the "Metaphysical" phase,
he was not referring to the Metaphysics of Aristotle or any other
ancient Greek philosopher, for Comte was rooted in the problems
of French society subsequent to the revolution of 1789.
This Metaphysical phase involved the justification
of universal rights as being on a vauntedly higher plane than
the authority of any human ruler to countermand, although said
rights were not referenced to the sacred beyond mere metaphor.
What he announced by his term of the Scientific phase, which came
into being after the failure of the revolution and of Napoleon,
was that people could find solutions to social problems and bring
them into force despite the proclamations of human rights or prophecy
of the will of God. In this regard he was similar to Karl Marx
and Jeremy Bentham. For its time, this idea of a Scientific phase
was considered up-to-date, although from a later standpoint it
is too derivative of classical physics and academic history.
The other universal law he called the
'encyclopedic law'. By combining these laws, Comte developed a
systematic and hierarchical classification of all sciences, including
inorganic physics (astronomy, earth science and chemistry) and
organic physics (biology and for the first time, physique sociale,
later renamed sociologie).
This idea of a special science—not
the humanities, not metaphysics—for the social was prominent
in the 19th century and not unique to Comte. The ambitious—many
would say grandiose—way that Comte conceived of it, however,
Comte saw this new science, sociology,
as the last and greatest of all sciences, one that would include
all other sciences, and which would integrate and relate their
findings into a cohesive whole.
Comte’s explanation of the Positive
philosophy introduced the important relationship between theory,
practice and human understanding of the world. On page 27 of the
1855 printing of Harriet Martineau’s translation of The
Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, we see his observation that,
“If it is true that every theory must be based upon observed
facts, it is equally true that facts can not be observed without
the guidance of some theory.
Without such guidance, our facts would
be desultory and fruitless; we could not retain them: for the
most part we could not even perceive them. (Comte, A. (1974 reprint).
The positive philosophy of Auguste Comte freely translated and
condensed by Harriet Martineau. New York, NY: AMS Press. (Original
work published in 1855, New York, NY: Calvin Blanchard, p. 27.)
He coined the word "altruism"
to refer to what he believed to be a moral obligations of individuals
to serve others and place their interests above one's own. He
opposed the idea of individual rights, maintaining that they were
not consistent with this supposed ethical obligation (Catechisme
As already mentioned, Comte formulated
the law of three stages, one of the first theories of the social
evolutionism: that human development (social progress) progresses
from the theological stage, in which nature was mythically conceived
and man sought the explanation of natural phenomena from supernatural
beings, through metaphysical stage in which nature was conceived
of as a result of obscure forces and man sought the explanation
of natural phenomena from them until the final positive stage
in which all abstract and obscure forces are discarded, and natural
phenomena are explained by their constant relationship. This progress
is forced through the development of human mind, and increasing
application of thought, reasoning and logic to the understanding
During his lifetime, Comte's work was
sometimes viewed skeptically because he elevated Postivism to
a religion and named himself the Pope of Positivism. Comte coined
the term "sociology", and is usually regarded as the
first sociologist. His emphasis on the interconnectedness of different
social elements was a forerunner of modern functionalism. Nevertheless,
like many others from his time, certain elements of his work are
regarded as eccentric and unscientific, and his grand vision of
sociology as the center-piece of all the sciences has not come
emphasis on a quantitative, mathematical basis for decision-making
remains with us today. It is a foundation of the modern notion
of Positivism, modern quantitative statistical analysis, and business
decision-making. His description of the continuing cyclical relationship
between theory and practice is seen in modern business systems
of Total Quality Management and Continuous Quality Improvement
where advocates describe a continuous cycle of theory and practice
through the four-part cycle of plan, do, check, and act. Despite
his advocacy of quantitative analysis, Comte saw a limit in its
ability to help explain social phenomena.