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Auguste Comte

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Auguste Comte (full name: Isidore Marie Auguste François Xavier Comte; January 17, 1798 - September 5, 1857) was a French thinker who coined the term "sociology." He is remembered for being the first to apply the scientific method to the social world.


Comte was born at Montpellier, in southwestern France. After attending school there, he was admitted to the École Polytechnique in Paris. The École Polytechnique was notable for its adherence to French ideals of republicanism and progress. In 1816 the École closed for reorganization. Thus Comte had to leave the École, and continued his studies at the medical school at Montpellier. When the École Polytechnique reopened, he did not request readmission.

Soon he saw unbridgeable differences with his Catholic and Monarchist family and left again for Paris, earning money by small jobs. Then in August of 1817 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 travaux 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. 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. To the last of these he also gave the name "Positive," because of the polysemous connotations of that word.

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, but 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 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, was unique.

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 obligation 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 Positiviste).

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 the human mind, and increasing application of thought, reasoning and logic to the understanding of the world.

In Comte's lifetime, his work was sometimes viewed skeptically because he had elevated Positivism to a religion and had named himself the Pope of Positivism. He coined the term "sociology" to denote the new science of society. He had earlier used the expression, "social physics," to refer to the positive science of society; but because others, notably the Belgian statistician Adolphe Quetelet, had begun to use that term in a different meaning, Comte felt the need to invent the neologism, "sociology," a hybrid of the Latin "socius" ("friend") and the Greek "λόγος" (logos, "word").

Comte is generally regarded as the first Western sociologist (Ibn Khaldun having preceded him in the East by nearly four centuries). Comte's emphasis on the interconnectedness of social elements was a forerunner of modern functionalism. Nevertheless, as with many others of Comte's time, certain elements of his work are now viewed as eccentric and unscientific, and his grand vision of sociology as the centerpiece of all the sciences has not come to fruition.

His 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.

Three StagesEdit

"Each department of knowledge passes through three stages. The theological stage; the metaphysical or abstract stage, and positive stage" -Comte

  1. Theological Stage
    1. Fetishism
    2. Polytheism
    3. Monotheism
  2. Metaphysical or Abstract Stage
  3. Positive Stage

See alsoEdit


  • Henri Gouhier, La vie d'Auguste Comte, Gallimard, 1931 ;
  • Jean Delvolvé, Réflexions sur la pensée comtienne, Félix Alcan, 1932 ;
  • Laurent Fedi, Comte, Les Belles Lettres, 2000, réédition 2005 ;
  • Laurent Fedi, L’organicisme de Comte, in Auguste Comte aujourd’hui, M. Bourdeau, J.-F. Braunstein, A. Petit (dir), Kimé, 2003, pp. 111-132 ;
  • Laurent Fedi, Auguste Comte, la disjonction de l’idéologie et de l’Etat, Cahiers philosophiques, n°94, 2003, pp. 99-110 ;
  • Laurent Fedi, Le monde clos contre l’univers infini : Auguste Comte et les enjeux humains de l’astronomie, La Mazarine, n°13, juin 2000, pp. 12-15 ;
  • Laurent Fedi, La contestation du miracle grec chez Auguste Comte, in L’Antiquité grecque au XIXè siècle : un exemplum contesté ?, C. Avlami (dir.), L’Harmattan, 2000, pp. 157-192 ;
  • Laurent Fedi, Auguste Comte et la technique, Revue d’histoire des sciences 53/2, 1999, pp. 265-293 ;
  • Henri Gouhier, La jeunesse d'Auguste Comte et la formation du positivisme, tome 1 : sous le signe de la liberté, Vrin, 1932 ;
  • Henri Gouhier, La jeunesse d'Auguste Comte et la formation du positivisme, tome 2 : Saint-Simon jusqu'à la restauration, Vrin ;
  • Henri Gouhier, La jeunesse d'Auguste Comte et la formation du positivisme, tome 3 : Auguste Comte et Saint-Simon, Vrin, 1941 ;
  • Henri Gouhier, Oeuvres choisies avec introduction et notes, Aubier, 1941 ;
  • Georges Canguilhem, « Histoire des religions et histoire des sciences dans la théorie du fétichisme chez Auguste Comte », Études d'histoire et de philosophie des sciences, Vrin, 1968 ;
  • H.S. Jones, ed., Comte: Early Political Writings, Cambridge University Press, 1998;
  • Angèle Kremer-Marietti, Auguste Comte et la théorie sociale du positivisme, Seghers, 1972 ;
  • Angèle Kremer-Marietti, Auguste Comte, la science sociale, Gallimard, 1972 ;
  • Angèle Kremer-Marietti, Le projet anthropologique d'Auguste Comte, SEDES, 1980, réédition L'Harmattan, 1999 ;
  • Angèle Kremer-Marietti, L'anthropologie positiviste d'Auguste Comte, Lib. Honoré Champion, 1980 ;
  • Angèle Kremer-Marietti, Entre le signe et l'histoire. L'anthropologie positiviste d'Auguste Comte, Klincksieck, 1982, réédition L'Harmattan,1999 ;
  • Angèle Kremer-Marietti, Le positivisme, Coll."Que sais-je?", PUF, 1982 ;
  • Angèle Kremer-Marietti, Le concept de science positive. Ses tenants et ses aboutissants dans les structures anthropologiques du positivisme, Méridiens Klincksieck, 1983 ;
  • Angèle Kremer-Marietti, Le positivisme d'Auguste Comte, L'Harmattan, 2006 ;
  • Angèle Kremer-Marietti, Auguste Comte et la science politique, in Auguste Comte, Plan des travaux scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiserla société, L'Harmattan, 2001;
  • Angèle Kremer-Marietti, L'humanisme entre positivisme et nihilisme in L'Art du Comprendre , 2006, N°15.
  • Angèle Kremer-Marietti, Auguste Comte et l'histoire générale, in Auguste Comte, Sommaire appréciation de l'ensemble du passé moderne, L'Harmattan, 2006 ;
  • Pierre Macherey, Comte. La philosophie et les sciences, PUF, 1989 ;
  • Gertrud Lenzer, Auguste Comte: Essential Writings (1975), New York Harper, Paperback, 1997 ;
  • Raquel Capurro, Le positivisme est un culte des morts : Auguste Comte, Epel, 1999 (traduit en français en 2001) : l'étude la plus récente sur la vie d'Auguste Comte, la vision sans complaisance d'une psychanalyste de l'école de Lacan ;
  • Auguste Comte, Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, Part I (1855), translated by Harriet Martineau, Kessinger Publishing, Paperback, 2003 ; Also available from the McMaster Archive for the History of Economic Thought, Volume One Volume Two Volume Three
  • Pierre Laffitte (1823-1903): Autour d'un centenaire, in Revue des Sciences et des Techniques en perspective, 2ème série, vol. 8, n°2, 2004, Brepols Publishers, 2005 ;
  • Zeïneb Ben Saïd Cherni, Auguste Comte, postérité épistémologique et ralliement des nations, L'Harmattan, 2005 ;
  • Mary Pickering, Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography, Cambridge University Press (1993), Paperback, 2006 ;

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