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Auguste Comte
Auguste Comte.jpg
Auguste Comte by Tony Touillon.
Born (1798-01-19)19 January 1798
Montpellier, France
Died 5 September 1857(1857-09-05) (aged 59)
Paris, France
Nationality French
Notable ideas Positivism, law of three stages, encyclopedic law, altruism

Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte (19 January 1798 – 5 September 1857), better known as Auguste Comte (French: [oɡyst kɔ̃t]), was a French philosopher. He was a founder of the discipline of sociology and of the doctrine of positivism. He is sometimes regarded as the first philosopher of science in the modern sense of the term.[2]

Influenced by the utopian socialist Henri Saint-Simon, Comte developed the positive philosophy in an attempt to remedy the social malaise of the French Revolution, calling for a new social doctrine based on the sciences. Comte was a major influence on 19th-century thought, influencing the work of social thinkers such as Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, and George Eliot.[3] His concept of sociologie and social evolutionism set the tone for early social theorists and anthropologists such as Harriet Martineau and Herbert Spencer, evolving into modern academic sociology presented by Émile Durkheim as practical and objective social research.

Comte's social theories culminated in the "Religion of Humanity", which influenced the development of religious humanist and secular humanist organizations in the 19th century. Comte likewise coined the word altruisme (altruism).[4]


Auguste Comte was born in Montpellier, Hérault on 19 January 1798. After attending the Lycée Joffre[5] and then the University of Montpellier, Comte was admitted to the École Polytechnique in Paris. The École Polytechnique was notable for its adherence to the French ideals of republicanism and progress. The École closed in 1816 for reorganization, however, and Comte continued his studies at the medical school at Montpellier. When the École Polytechnique reopened, he did not request readmission.

Following his return to Montpellier, Comte soon came to see unbridgeable differences with his Catholic and monarchist family and set off again for Paris, earning money by small jobs. In August 1817 he found an apartment at 36 rue Bonaparte in Paris' 6ème (where he lived until 1822) and later that year he became a student and secretary to Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, who brought Comte into contact with intellectual society and greatly influenced his thought therefrom. During that time Comte published his first essays in the various publications headed by Saint-Simon, L'Industrie, Le Politique, and L'Organisateur (Charles Dunoyer and Charles Comte's Le Censeur Européen), although he would not publish under his own name until 1819's "La séparation générale entre les opinions et les désirs" ("The general separation of opinions and desires"). In 1824, Comte left Saint-Simon, again because of unbridgeable differences. Comte published a 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 post. His day-to-day life depended on sponsors and financial help from friends. Debates rage as to how much Comte appropriated the work of Saint-Simon.[6]

Comte married Caroline Massin in 1825. In 1826, he was taken to a mental health hospital, but left without being cured – only stabilized by French alienist Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol – so that he could work again on his plan (he would later attempt suicide in 1827 by jumping off the Pont des Arts). In the time between this and their divorce in 1842, he published the six volumes of his Cours.

Comte developed a close friendship with John Stuart Mill. From 1844, he had a platonic relationship with Clotilde de Vaux. After her death in 1846 this love became quasi-religious, and Comte, working closely with Mill (who was refining his own such system) developed a new "Religion of Humanity". John Kells Ingram, an adherent of Comte, visited him in Paris in 1855.

He published four volumes of Système de politique positive (1851–1854). His final work, the first volume of "La Synthèse Subjective" ("The Subjective Synthesis"), was published in 1856.

Comte died in Paris on 5 September 1857 from stomach cancer and was buried in the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery, surrounded by cenotaphs in memory of his mother, Rosalie Boyer, and of Clotilde de Vaux. His apartment from 1841–1857 is now conserved as the Maison d'Auguste Comte and is located at 10 rue Monsieur-le-Prince, in Paris' 6th arrondissement.


Comte's positivism[edit]

Main articles: Positivism and Law of three stages

Comte first described the epistemological perspective of positivism in The Course in Positive Philosophy, a series of texts published between 1830 and 1842. These texts were followed by the 1848 work, A General View of Positivism (published in English in 1865). The first three volumes of the Course dealt chiefly with the physical sciences already in existence (mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology), whereas the latter two emphasised the inevitable coming of social science. Observing the circular dependence of theory and observation in science, and classifying the sciences in this way, Comte may be regarded as the first philosopher of science in the modern sense of the term.[7] Comte was also the first to distinguish natural philosophy from science explicitly. For him, the physical sciences had necessarily to arrive first, before humanity could adequately channel its efforts into the most challenging and complex "Queen science" of human society itself. His View of Positivism would therefore set out to define, in more detail, the empirical goals of sociological method.[citation needed]

Comte offered an account of social evolution, proposing that society undergoes three phases in its quest for the truth according to a general 'law of three stages'. The idea bears some similarity to Karl Marx's view that human society would progress toward a communist peak.[citation needed] This is perhaps unsurprising as both were profoundly influenced by the early Utopian socialist, Henri de Saint-Simon, who was at one time Comte's teacher and mentor. Both Comte and Marx intended to develop, scientifically, a new secular ideology in the wake of European secularisation.[citation needed]

Comte's stages were (1) the theological stage, (2) the metaphysical stage, and (3) the positive stage.[8] (1) The Theological stage 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. Man blindly believed in whatever he was taught by his ancestors. He believed in a supernatural power. Fetishism played a significant role during this time. (2) By the "Metaphysical" stage, Comte referred not to the Metaphysics of Aristotle or other ancient Greek philosophers. Rather, the idea was rooted in the problems of French society subsequent to the revolution of 1789. This Metaphysical stage 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. This stage is known as the stage of investigation, because people started reasoning and questioning although no solid evidence was laid. The stage of investigation was the beginning of a world that questioned authority and religion. (3) In the Scientific stage, which came into being after the failure of the revolution and of Napoleon, 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. Science started to answer questions in full stretch. In this regard he was similar to Karl Marx and Jeremy Bentham. For its time, this idea of a Scientific stage was considered up-to-date, although from a later standpoint it is too derivative of classical physics and academic history. Comte's law of three stages was one of the first theories of social evolutionism.

Comte's Theory of Science – According to him whole of sciences consists of theoretical and applied knowledge. Theoretical knowledge divide on general as physics or biology, which are an object of his research and detailed such as botany, zoology or mineralogy. Main fields mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology and sociology it is possible to order according to decrescent range of research and complicatedness of theoretical tools what is connected with growing complexity of investigated phenomenones. Following sciences are based on previous, for example to methodically coll chemistry, we must imply acquaintance of physics, because all chemical phenomena are more complicated than physical phenomena, are also from them dependent and themselves do not have on them an influence. Similarly sciences classified as earlier, are older and more advanced from these which are presented as later.

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). Independently from Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès's introduction of the term in 1780, Comte re-invented "sociologie", and introduced the term as a neologism, in 1838. Comte had earlier used the term "social physics", but that term had been appropriated by others, notably Adolphe Quetelet.

"The most important thing to determine was the natural order in which the sciences stand — not how they can be made to stand, but how they must stand, irrespective of the wishes of any one....This Comte accomplished by taking as the criterion of the position of each the degree of what he called "positivity", which is simply the degree to which the phenomena can be exactly determined. This, as may be readily seen, is also a measure of their relative complexity, since the exactness of a science is in inverse proportion to its complexity. The degree of exactness or positivity is, moreover, that to which it can be subjected to mathematical demonstration, and therefore mathematics, which is not itself a concrete science, is the general gauge by which the position of every science is to be determined. Generalizing thus, Comte found that there were five great groups of phenomena of equal classificatory value but of successively decreasing positivity. To these he gave the names astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology."

Lester F. Ward, The Outlines of Sociology (1898), [9]

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. It has recently been discovered that the term "sociology" – a term considered coined by Comte – had already been introduced in 1780, albeit with a different meaning, by the French essayist Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (1748–1836).[10] The ambitious—many would say grandiose—way that Comte conceived of this special science of the social, however, was unique. Comte saw this new science, sociology, as the last and greatest of all sciences, one which would include all other sciences and integrate and relate their findings into a cohesive whole. It has to be pointed out, however, that there was a seventh science, one even greater than sociology. Namely, Comte considered "Anthropology, or true science of Man [to be] the last gradation in the Grand Hierarchy of Abstract Science."[11]

The motto Ordem e Progresso ("Order and Progress") in the flag of Brazil is inspired by Auguste Comte's motto of positivism: L'amour pour principe et l'ordre pour base; le progrès pour but ("Love as a principle and order as the basis; Progress as the goal"). Several of those involved in the military coup d'état that deposed the monarchy and proclaimed Brazil a republic were followers of the ideas of Comte.[12]

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 theories. 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."[13]

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.

The early sociology of Herbert Spencer came about broadly as a reaction to Comte; writing after various developments in evolutionary biology, Spencer attempted to reformulate the discipline in what we might now describe as socially Darwinistic terms.

Comte's fame today owes in part to Émile Littré, who founded The Positivist Review in 1867. Debates continue to rage, however, as to how much Comte appropriated from the work of his mentor, Henri de Saint-Simon.

The religion of humanity[edit]

Positivist temple in Porto Alegre

In later years, Comte developed the 'religion of humanity' for positivist societies in order to fulfil the cohesive function once held by traditional worship. In 1849, he proposed a calendar reform called the 'positivist calendar'. For close associate John Stuart Mill, it was possible to distinguish between a "good Comte" (the author of the Course in Positive Philosophy) and a "bad Comte" (the author of the secular-religious system).[7] The system was unsuccessful but met with the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) to influence the proliferation of various Secular Humanist organizations in the 19th century, especially through the work of secularists such as George Holyoake and Richard Congreve. Although Comte's English followers, including George Eliot and Harriet Martineau, for the most part rejected the full gloomy panoply of his system, they liked the idea of a religion of humanity and his injunction to "vivre pour autrui" ("live for others"), from which comes the word "altruism".[14]

Three Stages[edit]

Main article: Law of three stages

"The law is this: -that each of our leading conceptions, -each branch of our knowledge, -passes successively through three different theoretical conditions: the Theological, or fictitious; the Metaphysical, or abstract; and the Scientific, or positive." -Comte[15]

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



When Ernest Renan published his Essais philosophiques, he clearly stated in their preface that all of them were the result of dialogues between his friend Comte and him, with an impossibility to remember who of them said, developed or modified what.


  • Henri Gouhier, La vie d'Auguste Comte, Gallimard, 1931 ;
  • Jean Delvolvé, Réflexions sur la pensée comtienne, Félix Alcan, 1932 ;
  • John Stuart Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism,[16] Trübner, 1865 ;
  • 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'État, 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, Auguste Comte et l'histoire générale, in Auguste Comte, Sommaire appréciation de l'ensemble du passé moderne, L'Harmattan, 2006 ;
  • Angèle Kremer-Marietti, Auguste Comte et la science politique, L'Harmattan, 2007;
  • Angèle Kremer-Marietti, Le kaléidoscope épistémologique d'Auguste Comte. Sentiments Images Signes, L'Harmattan, 2007;
  • Realino Marra, La proprietà in Auguste Comte. Dall'ordine fisico alla circolazione morale della ricchezza, in «Sociologia del diritto», XII-2, 1985, pp. 21–53;
  • Pierre Macherey, Comte. La philosophie et les sciences, PUF, 1989 ;
  • Thomas Meaney, The Religion of Science and Its High Priest[1], The New York Review of Books, 2012
  • Jacques Muglioni, Auguste Comte: un philosophe pour notre temps, Kimé, Paris, 1995
  • 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 (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 ;
  • Wolf Lepenies, Auguste Comte: die Macht der Zeichen, Carl Hanser, München, 2010;
  • Oséias Faustino Valentim, O Brasil e o Positivismo, Publit, Rio de Janeiro, 2010. ISBN 978-85-7773-331-6.


  1. ^ Sutton, Michael (1982). Nationalism, Positivism, and Catholicism. The Politics of Charles Maurras and French Catholics 1890–1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521228689.  esp. Chapters 1 and 2
  2. ^ http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/comte/#Con
  3. ^ http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/lecture25a.html#course
  4. ^ "altruism (n .)". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 21 August 2013. 
  5. ^ "Rencontre avec Annie Petit "Auguste Comte"". Montpellier Agglomeration. 2007-10-19. Retrieved 2008-10-15. "Né à Montpellier, brillant élève du Lycée Joffre..." Translation: "Born in Montpellier, shining student of the Lycée Joffre..." 
  6. ^ Pickering, Mary (1993) Auguste Comte: an intellectual biography Cambridge University Press, pp. 192
  7. ^ a b http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/comte/ Stanford Encyclopaedia: Auguste Comte
  8. ^ Giddens, Positivism and Sociology, 1
  9. ^ Ward, Lester. 1895. The Outlines of Sociology.
  10. ^ Des Manuscrits de Sieyès. 1773–1799, Volumes I and II, published by Christine Fauré, Jacques Guilhaumou, Jacques Vallier et Françoise Weil, Paris, Champion, 1999 and 2007. See also Jacques Guilhaumou, Sieyès et le non-dit de la sociologie: du mot à la chose, in Revue d'histoire des sciences humaines, Numéro 15, novembre 2006 : Naissances de la science sociale.
  11. ^ 1874 translation of System of Positive Polity, Vol. II, pages 356–347, cited in Urbanowicz, Charles F. 1992. Four-Field Commentary, Anthropology Newsletter, Volume 33, Number 9, page 3
  12. ^ BRAZIL: Order and Progress, Ronald Hilton, World Association of International Studies Forum Q&A, 4/27/03
  13. ^ Comte, A. b (1974 reprint). The positive philosophy of Auguste Comte freely translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau. New York: AMS Press. (Original work published in 1855, New York: Calvin Blanchard, p. 27.b)
  14. ^ "Comte's secular religion is no vague effusion of humanistic piety, but a complete system of belief and ritual, with liturgy and sacraments, priesthood and pontiff, all organized around the public veneration of Humanity, the Nouveau Grand-Être Suprême (New Supreme Great Being), later to be supplemented in a positivist trinity by the Grand Fétish (the Earth) and the Grand Milieu (Destiny)" According to Davies (p. 28-29), Comte's austere and "slightly dispiriting" philosophy of humanity viewed as alone in an indifferent universe (which can only be explained by "positive" science) and with nowhere to turn but to each other, was even more influential in Victorian England than the theories of Charles Darwin or Karl Marx.
  15. ^ From The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte (trans. Harriet Martineau; London, 1853), Vol. I, pp. 1
  16. ^ John Stuart Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism at Project Gutenberg

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

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