Comte Advances His Theory of Positivism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Auguste Comte’s theory of positivism advocated a strictly empirical approach to the study of society that laid the basis for the modern discipline of sociology.

Summary of Event

Auguste Comte crusaded against system builders and others who indulged in unsupported speculations about the nature of humanity, the meaning of life, or what ought to be. In his four-volume Système de politique positive (1851-1854; System of Positive Polity, 1875-1877), he outlined a scientific “positivist” attack on social problems that was based on observation of facts and objective analysis. His views have had a great effect on social theorists down to the present. These views developed from precedents that went back at least a century before his birth; thus, he may also be seen as a link in a long chain of thinkers and theorists. Comte, Auguste Positivism Sociology Philosophy;Auguste Comte[Comte] Philosophy;French [kw]Comte Advances His Theory of Positivism (1851-1854) [kw]Advances His Theory of Positivism, Comte (1851-1854) [kw]Theory of Positivism, Comte Advances His (1851-1854) [kw]Positivism, Comte Advances His Theory of (1851-1854) Comte, Auguste Positivism Sociology Philosophy;Auguste Comte[Comte] Philosophy;French [g]France;1851-1854: Comte Advances His Theory of Positivism[2800] [c]Philosophy;1851-1854: Comte Advances His Theory of Positivism[2800] [c]Sociology;1851-1854: Comte Advances His Theory of Positivism[2800] Bacon, Francis Saint Simon, Henri de Durkheim, Émile

Although a great many people might be included in a list of Comte’s predecessors, his most direct associations began with Sir Francis Bacon Bacon, Francis , the early seventeenth century English philosopher who suggested a moratorium on scientific speculation until all the experiments that anyone could think of had been performed. He believed that a process of induction applied to the resulting mass of data would reveal obvious natural laws without much need for theorizing. This spirit of avoiding prior assumptions and letting the data speak for themselves was at the heart of Comte’s system, although he applied the idea to a study of society rather than the physics and biology Bacon had in mind.

Comte received much of his perception of society from his colleague and teacher, Henri de Saint Simon. Saint Simon, Henri de In 1817, three years after graduating from the prestigious École Polytechnique, Comte became Saint-Simon’s secretary and quickly became his collaborator until 1824, when the two quarreled and parted company. According to Saint-Simon, the industrial age marked the culmination of human development. The time had at last arrived when machinery could do the difficult work, while people could engage in more ennobling pursuits than the drudgery and hard labor of making daily livings. However, the social system had not developed as quickly or as satisfactorily as the industrial economy.

The means for a good life for all were at hand during the early nineteenth century, but an antiquated political-social system prevented society from realizing or enjoying it. Saint Simon Saint Simon, Henri de suggested that the entire royal family of France and its leading politicians were superfluous. They would hardly be missed if they were to disappear. Industrial managers, on the other hand, would be sorely missed, for they were the true elite who not only kept society and the economy functioning, but also were the source of hope for technological progress. His proposal was to organize society so that industrial managers and scientists were in complete charge. There would be little room for individual freedom because such freedoms give rise to the conflicts that must be avoided if the new industrial society is to flourish. Several Saint-Simonian societies were attempted, but they went the way of all utopian schemes.

August Comte.

(Library of Congress)

Comte did not attempt to plan utopian societies, but he did have a grand scheme for the salvation of humanity. According to his analysis, there have been three stages of history—the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive. In the first stage, people explained natural phenomena with reference to the gods, with such assertions as “Thor caused lightning” or “God created the earth.” As people became more advanced, they entered the metaphysical stage and devised “natural” explanations: Real objects are reflections of Ideal forms that exist in some otherworldly place, or everything is made up of some compressed simple substance such as air. With the arrival of the so-called scientific revolution and the demonstration that the physical universe functions according to discoverable laws, an uncluttered “true” vision of nature was possible. Investigation by means of the scientific method, in contrast to the idle speculation of the metaphysical stage, would reveal these laws. In fact, he believed he had discovered one such law embodied in this three-stage development. He called it the law of the three stages.

Science, Science;and positivism[Positivism] then, is Comte’s answer—actually his religion. He classified the sciences according to their increasing complexity and importance beginning with mathematics and proceeding to astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and, finally—the most important—sociology. Each of the sciences was dependent upon, and incorporated the knowledge of, those ranking lower in the scale of importance. Sociology was, therefore, the most comprehensive as well as the most important science of all. In his later years, Comte added a yet more important science of religion after sociology. However, his concept was unlike most religions in that it involved the worship of humanity and the scientific approach rather than supernatural beings.

Comte’s attitude toward a science of society differed from that of his eighteenth century predecessors, the Philosophes philosophes, because he did not believe any truths to be self-evident. He also did not believe that society could be engineered to make people better. He wanted to determine what the natural laws governing human society were by empirical observation. Value judgments and wishful thinking were to be excluded from the process. After humans determined their actual nature and behavior and discovered the rules governing their interaction, they could arrange their economic, political, social, and cultural affairs in such ways as to avoid conflict and enjoy the benefits of the resulting harmonious society.

Comte believed that any attempt to make people “better” is futile and pointless and that it would be as futile as human efforts to defy the law of gravity because they would like to fly. The object is not to change human nature or nature but to discover the natural laws governing them and adjust one’s actions to live in accord with those laws. It may be too bad that people cannot defy the law of gravity and fly, but, once they accept the fact that they must accede to the law of gravity in order to exist, humans learn to accommodate themselves. Comte believed that humans must make similar accommodations to natural laws of society even if they find them unpleasant. To do otherwise leads to failure and frustration. The job of the “positivists” in this positive age is to use science to put all aspects of life on a rational basis.

Comte was familiar with the latest biological scientific work of his day, and this probably influenced him to place biology next to sociology in importance. He saw society as a living organism. In his system it is, therefore, very important to consider the whole in addition to the parts of society. From his perspective, this was where economists failed. They blindly considered only the economic aspect of society. Science;and positivism[Positivism]

Comte made many analogies between his new sociology and biology. Anatomy corresponds to what he called “social statics,” or studying social order, while physiology corresponds to “social dynamics,” or social progress. He compared cells to families, classes to tissues, and cities to organs. The sociologist would serve as physician to the organism of society. As soon as individuals can find their proper role in the new industrial society, they can specialize in a true division of labor just as various cells and organs specialize. “Moral scientists” and industrialists will be the natural leaders in this smoothly functioning society.


Later sociologists, such as Émile Durkheim, Durkheim, Émile realized that Comte had not been able to break away from the “self-evident” approach as he had claimed. Comte was still a system builder, who tried to create a grand scheme without performing the experiments or making the empirical observations that he claimed so much to admire. Durkheim and others realized that theories had to be built piecemeal and had to represent the findings of small-scale research. Nevertheless, Comte’s influence as one of the founders, if not the father, of modern sociology is undeniable.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Charlton, D. G. Positivist Thought in France During the Second Empire, 1852-1870. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1959. Deals with the specific period of Comte’s direct influence and puts him in the intellectual context of his era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Comte, Auguste. The Essential Comte: Selected from “Cours de philosophie positive.” Edited by Stanislav Andreski. Translated and annotated by Margaret Clarke. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1974. Useful broad selection of Comte’s writings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Introduction to Positive Philosophy. Translated and edited by Frederick Ferre. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970. New translation of the first two chapters of Cours de philosophie positive.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. System of Positive Polity. New York: B. Franklin, 1968. This work presents Comte’s general view of positivism, his abstract theory of human order, his theory of human progress, and his theory of the future of humanity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Manuel, Frank. The New World of Henri Saint-Simon. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956. Although somewhat dated, this is still the best and most comprehensive study of Comte’s mentor, Saint-Simon, by an intellectual historian who situates him culturally and politically.
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    xlink:type="simple">Musso, Pierre, ed. L’actualité du Saint-Simonisme. Paris: Press Universitaires de France, 2004. Collection of French-language essays from a 2003 colloquium that offer twenty-first century interpretations of Saint-Simon and trace the international influence of Saint-Simon and the Saint-Simonians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scharff, Robert C. Comte After Positivism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Reconsideration of Comte’s philosophy. In the first part of the book, Scharff analyzes Comte’s philosophy and explains how it was misinterpreted by John Stuart Mill. The second part of the book places Comte within the history of Positivism, with Scharff arguing that Comte is the only positivist who remains relevant today.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Kenneth. Auguste Comte: The Foundation of Sociology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1975. Helpful introduction and analysis followed by extracts from Comte’s works, including his correspondence with John Stuart Mill.

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