Auguste Comte (full name Isidore Marie Auguste François Xavier Comte) (1798 – 1857) was a French philosopher and proto-sociologist of the early Modern period.
Although perhaps best known for coining the terms “sociologie” (“sociology”) and “altruisme (“altruism”), his most lasting contribution to philosophy is as the founder of the 19th Century Positivism movement, which was based around the belief that the only authentic knowledge is knowledge based on actual sense experience and strict application of the scientific method.
Comte was born to a strongly Catholic and Monarchist family in Montpellier, southwestern France, on 17 January 1798. He attending the University of Montpellier (one of Europe’s oldest universities), and then the École Polytechnique in Paris (a leading scientific institution, noted for its adherence to the French ideals of republicanism and progress). He was expelled from the École in 1816 after leading a student protest, and he was forced to continue his studies at the medical school at Montpellier.
Conscious of unbridgeable political and religious differences with his family (he had stopped believing in God and taken up the republican cause around the age of fourteen), he returned to Paris in 1816. Here the young eighteen year old encountered a group of radical French thinkers, collectively known as the “idealogues”, including the Comte de Volney (1757 -1820), Georges Cabanis(1757 – 1808) and Marie Antoine Condorcet (1743 – 1794).
Supporting himself with odd jobs, including tutoring in mathematics, in 1817 he became a student and secretary of the utopian Socialist thinker Henri de Saint-Simon (1760 -1825), who brought Comte into the wider intellectual society of Paris. Both men were searching, in their different ways, for a science of human behaviour, and Comte stayed with Saint-Simon until irrevocably breaking with him in 1824. He failed to get the academic position he needed to pursue his own ideas, and depended to a large extent on sponsors and financial help from friends during this period.
In 1825, he married Caroline Massin, but the union proved unhappy and they eventually divorced in 1842. During this period, he began to lecture to private audiences of French thinkers, and worked on the six volumes of his master work, the “Cours de philosphie positive” (“Course of Positive Philosophy”), which was published between 1830 and 1842. He lived in penury, attempting suicide on at least one occasion.
In 1845, he fell violently in love with a married woman, Clotilde de Vaux (1815 – 1846), and although she insisted that their relationship could never be physical, she cooperated with him and encouraged him to develop his ideas further. When she died of consumption the very next year, Comte was pushed close to insanity, and it was during his mystical phase after this that he began to develop a new universal “religion of humanity”.
In 1849, he founded the Positivist Society (still in existence today), and he published the four volumes of his “Système de politique positive” between 1851 and 1854, and the “Catechisme Positiviste” in 1852, but neither work captured his audience as the “Course” had.
Worn out from his intellectual labours and personal tragedies, he died in wretchedness and isolation in Paris on 5 September 1857, and is buried at the famous Cimetière du Père Lachaise.
Comte’s main legacy is his influential theory of Positivism, the idea that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method. He saw the scientific method as replacing Metaphysics and theology in the history of thought, and believed that Metaphysics should be replaced by a hierarchy of sciences, from mathematics at the base to sociology at the top.
Based on his discussions with Condorcet and Saint-Simon, Comte developed his theory of a universal law, which was at work in all societies and sciences, and through which progress is inevitable and irresversible. He called this the Law of Three Phases, the three phases being:
- the theological (the pre-Enlightenment phase in which man’s place in society was referenced to God or nature, in which the divine will subsumed human rights, and man blindly believed in whatever he was taught by his ancestors);
- the metaphysical (the post-Enlightenment humanist phase, referenced to explanations by impersonal abstract thought, and where the universal rights of humanity are most important);
- the positive (the final scientific stage in which the search for absolute knowledge is abandoned, scientific explanation is based on observation, experiment and comparison, and individual rights are considered more important than the rule of any one person).
Comte saw the Law of Three Phases as a kind of social evolutionism. Like G. W. F. Hegel before him and Karl Marx after him, he believed that historical development revealed a matching movement of ideas and institutions, and that each stage, or each science as he formulated it, is necessarily dependent on the previous one (e.g. the science of physics was dependent on the earlier science of astronomy). Comte claimed that the final, as yet undiscovered, science, which had not yet entered its positive stage but which would give ultimate meaning to all the other sciences, was what he called “sociology”, the study of socio-political systems and social dynamics.
For Comte, the goal of Positivism had always been moral order and the reformation of the social order it would bring, rather than material advances or affluence. He saw the need for a scientific-industrial elite to oversee the post-French Revolution industrial society which was evolving, and so, as well as the concept of “positive science”, he also constructed a non-theistic, pseudo-mystical “positive religion”, with a hierarchical priesthood (with himself as high priest), positive dogmas and catechism, and even a calendar of “positive saints” (which included Archimedes, Aristotle, Descartes, Adam Smith, Frederick the Great, Dante, Gutenberg and William Shakespeare, among others).
His most ardent disciple, Emile Littre (1801 – 1881), who founded the “Positivist Review” in 1867, however, refused to follow Comte into the grey area of this religious fervour, which he saw as a product of Comte’s tired and disturbed mind. Others, led by Pierre Laffitte maintained both the scientific and the religious teachings of Positivism in the schism which developed after Comte’s death.
Comte’s ethical doctrine usually receives less attention, but he summed it up in the phrase: “Live for others”. He was one of the better known proponents of Altruism, a term he coined (or at least popularized) himself, and he believed that individuals had a moral obligation of to serve others and place their interests above one’s own. He opposed the idea of individual rights, on the grounds that they were not consistent with this ethical obligation.