Philosophy 226 - 12.1.3 Comte’s Positivism

The French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857) crafted a social theory with the goal of pushing humanity forward toward a more peaceful society—one that could weather the storms of the political revolutions that he experienced in his youth. Considered the first philosopher of science, Comte analyzed the development of the different branches of science that existed in his time. Based on this work, he proposed the law of three stages for the development of societies. In the first stage, individuals attributed the events of life to supernatural forces. In the second stage, individuals recognized that human efforts and natural forces were largely responsible for many events while still acknowledging the power of supernatural forces. In the third stage, individuals shift from focusing on causation to the scientific study of the natural world, human society, and history. In this third stage, Comte believed that humanity would reject religion and focus only on laws or postulates that can be proven. Comte called this third stage positivism.

Pencil drawing of Auguste Comte. He is seated in a relaxed posture and looks directly at the viewer.
Figure 12.2 Auguste Comte believed that society could be studied empirically and that this study could result in human progress. (credit: “Auguste Comte” by Maison d'Auguste Comte/Wikimedia, Public Domain)

Grounded in this positivist approach, Comte proposed the establishment of a science of society, which he called sociology. He believed that society, like an organism in nature, could be studied empirically and that this study could result in human progress. Comte’s conception of sociology as a field of study remained in the theoretical realm. A few decades after he first proposed it, however, his theoretical ideas for a new discipline crossed the Atlantic Ocean and found a home in universities in the United States. Here great minds—such as W. E. B. Du Bois, discussed in the next section—established sociology as a practical discipline that could inform the policies and programs of governments and institutions.

Comte believed that humanity would struggle to transition to positivism, as religions provided comforting and meaningful structure and rituals. As a result, Comte founded his own church in 1849, which has as its theoretical legacy the secular humanism of today.

Think Like a Philosopher

Comte struggled with mental health and spent much of his later years in psychiatric hospitals. During this time, he established the structure and rituals for his church. Watch Dr. Bart van Heerikhuizen from the University of Amsterdam discuss Comte’s journey and whether religions are necessary to stabilize society. Then consider how religion serves society—and whether it is necessary in the modern era. Describe the type of church or alternative social institution you would establish to serve the needs of society in the age of science.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax