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Comte, Isidore-Auguste-Marie-François-Xavier

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Comte, Isidore-Auguste-Marie-François-Xavier




(1798-1857) The French philosopher and social theorist Auguste Comte is known as the originator of sociology and ‘positivism', a philosophical system by which he aimed to discover and perfect the proper political arrangements of modern industrial society. He was the first thinker to advocate the use of scientific procedures in the study of economics, politics and social behaviour, and, motivated by the social and moral problems caused by the French Revolution, he held that the practice of such a science would lead inevitably to social regeneration and progress. Comte's positivism can be characterized as an approach which rejects as illegitimate all that cannot be directly observed in the investigation and study of any subject. His system of ‘positive philosophy' had two laws at its foundation: a historical or logical law, ‘the law of three stages', and an epistemological law, the classification or hierarchy of the sciences. The law of three stages governs the development of human intelligence and society: in the first stage, early societies base their knowledge on theological grounds, giving ultimately divine explanations for all phenomena; later, in the metaphysical stage, forces and essences are sought as explanations, but these are equally chimerical and untestable; finally, in the positive or scientific stage, knowledge is secured solely on observations, by their correlation and sequence. Comte saw this process occurring not only in European society, but also in the lives of every individual. We seek theological solutions in childhood, metaphysical solutions in youth, and scientific explanations in adulthood. His second, epistemological law fixed a classification or hierarchy of sciences according to their arrival at the positive stage of knowledge. In order of historical development and thus of increasing complexity, these are mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology and sociology. (Comte rejected psychology as a science, on the grounds that its data were unobservable and therefore untestable.) Knowledge of one science rested partly on the findings of the preceding science; for Comte, students must progress through the sciences in the correct order, using the simpler and more precise methods of the preceding science to tackle the more complex issues of later ones. In his six-volume Cours de philosophie positive (The Positive Philosophy) (1830-42), Comte gave an encyclopedic account of these sciences, ending with an exposition of what he regarded as the most advanced: social physics or ‘sociology' (a term he invented). The sociologist's job would be to discover the laws that govern human behaviour on a large scale, and the ways in which social institutions and norms operate together in a complex yet ultimately predictable system. In his later work, Comte fleshed out his vision of the positive society, describing among other things a Religion of Humanity in which historical figures would be worshipped according to their contribution to society. Despite such extravagances, however, the broader themes of his positivism - especially the idea that long-standing social problems should be approached scientifically - proved influential both in France and, through J.S. Mill's early support, in England. 1 Life Auguste Comte was born in Montpellier, France. He attended the École Polytechnique, from which he was expelled in 1816, for political reasons. Comte's main concern throughout his life was resolving the political, social and moral problems caused by the French Revolution. To that end, he embarked upon an encyclopedic work, which he first conceived under the inspiration of Henri de Saint-Simon, for whom he worked as secretary from 1817 to 1824. At that time, he proposed several plans for a competition to create an encyclopedia modelled on that of Denis Diderot, but designed to bring together the ‘positive ideas' of the period, that is, ideas conceived in their relation to modern science and free from the bonds of traditional theology and metaphysics. Comte's encyclopedic project developed into the famous Cours de philosophie positive (Course in Positive Philosophy) (1830-42), a complete system of philosophy in six volumes which aimed to provide the foundations for political and social organization in modern industrial society. Meanwhile, he wrote a series of minor works in social philosophy, which became known as the ‘opuscules'. The third, Plan des travaux scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiser la société (Plan of the Scientific Operations Necessary for Reorganizing Society) (1822), which is often called ‘the fundamental opuscule', presented the first outline of the concepts which would become central to Comte's positivism - the ‘law of three stages' and the classification of the sciences (see §3 below). While pursuing his intellectual career, Comte earned his living first as a mathematics tutor at the École Polytechnique, then as admissions examiner at the same school. When he lost the latter job , he was forced in 1848 to seek financial support from his disciples in order to survive. All his life Comte regretted his failure to be appointed a tenured professor; he accused François Arago, among others, of deliberately blocking his academic career. He was also unsuccessful when he requested the creation of chairs at the Collège de France: in 1832 the chair of the General History of the Physical and Mathematical Sciences, and in 1846 the chair of the General History of the Positive Sciences. Comte always linked his theoretical research to the practical aim of moral, social and political reorganization. He considered this reorganization from the theoretical aspect of political science - ‘sociology' or ‘positive politics' - and from the practical aspect of the union of the social classes. Moreover, it was for the benefit of the proletarians that he gave public courses in popular astronomy between 1831 and 1848. He considered these lectures the prelude to the reorganization of the intellectual system, which, thanks to the scientific knowledge of society, would finally result in ‘a politics finally freed from the arbitrary and the utopian' (Larizza-Lolli 1993: 76). Comte wrote the Discours sur l'esprit positif (A Discourse on the Positive Spirit) (1844) as a basic introduction to this reorganization. The Discours sur l'ensemble du positivisme (A General View of Positivism), which appeared in 1848, derived from a similar intention, that of presenting to the workers a synthesized vision of positivist philosophy. From 1847, Comte devoted his lectures to the refutation of communism. The epistemological foundation of Comte's political project tends to be problematic. For Comte, ‘epistemology' involved the history, philosophy and methodologies of the sciences, as well as their basic concepts and theories. His positivist politics is based, on the one hand, on historical and logical law, the law of the three stages (theological, metaphysical and positive stages) and, on the other hand, on an epistemological law: the classification or hierarchy of the sciences, fixed according to the order of their arrival at the positive stage of knowledge (mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, sociology). Thus, as a fundamental epistemological concept, ‘positivism' designates an intellectual attitude founded on the practice of rational and experimental scientific methods. At the same time, Comte's scientific positivism is a philosophy of the positive sciences, though initially it is also a philosophy of scientific creativity. Comte allowed certain new sciences that had not yet been fully regularized to be classed as positive: for instance, he confirmed the advance of biology to the level of a positive science. The most advanced of all positive sciences - social physics or sociology - allowed for the transformation of society based on the progress of the sciences. Under the aegis of his Religion of Humanity, first described in the sixth volume of the Cours de philosophie positive (The Positive Philosophy) (1842), Comte articulates his vast political project in the Système de politique positive (System of Positive Polity) (1851-4). In this work, he gives his project a social and moral goal, founding it on altruism - a term he originated, according to Emile Littré. Comte's last book was La Synthèse subjective (Subjective Synthesis) (1856). Never completed, it re-evaluates the role of the sciences from the perspective of a positivist education. Comte died, probably of stomach cancer, on 5 September 1857. 2 Speculation and action Following the example of Francis Bacon, who stressed the efficacy of combining knowing (scire) and doing (posse), Comte held that power is proportionate to knowledge: ‘From science, comes foresight; from foresight, comes action' ([1830-42] 1975 I: 45). Even though he clearly separates theory and practice in the scientific study of phenomena, Comte orients his positive philosophy towards a constant interrelationship between speculation and action, while keeping it equidistant between rationalism and empiricism. The pragmatic aspect of Comte's thought goes back to ideas he first expressed in 1816, while still a student at the École Polytechnique. He affirmed the necessity of pragmatism in a letter of 28 September 1819 to his best friend, Pierre Valat, declaring that he could not conceive of a scientific work that would have no useful goal for humanity. Conversely, he added that political research would have to be intellectually challenging in order to interest him; otherwise, it would have no validity in his eyes. This also explains why he underlined the necessity of basing political studies on a scientific foundation. On the one hand, Comte was interested in a discipline that would soon be known as ‘epistemology'. For him, it encompassed the history and philosophy of the sciences, the various methodologies which they used, fundamental scientific concepts and theories, and what he as well as Bacon called ‘primary philosophy', which constituted the synthesis of the regular means of scientific knowledge and their principal, universally valid results. His epistemological concerns later led Comte to establish a ‘Table of the Fifteen Universal Laws' in the fourth volume of the Système de politique positive (see §§2, 3 below), settling three groups of universal laws about (1) laws formation, (2) static and dynamic theories of understanding, and (3) movement/existence, action/reaction classification and relation. Yet he never worried about defining ‘facts', ‘scientific verification' or ‘observation'. Nor did the problem of the origin of knowledge concern him. Robert C. Scharff rightly emphasizes Comte's insistence ‘that such issues [could] not even be understood as issues without recourse to philosophy's history'. On the other hand, Comte was very conscious of the political, social and cultural problems posed by the French Revolution. As the third opuscule clearly states, he placed himself politically between ‘the people' and ‘the kings' (1970a: 57), between the ‘retrograde' ideas of the latter and the ‘critical' ones of the former; in effect, he had rebelled against the royalism and Catholicism of his parents, but at the same time opposed the destructive spirit of the revolutionaries. Similarly, he did not favour the mixture of the retrograde and critical currents advocated by the ‘doctrinaires' such as Pierre Royer-Collard, François Guizot, Charles de Rémusat, and Prosper Duvergier de Hauranne, whom Comte grouped in the ‘stationary school', characterized by ‘organic emptiness'. From 1822, after the fading of the spiritual power of the Church, Comte reproached the French body politic for neglecting to create an organization with analogous power. In spite of French politicians' efforts to recast a temporal power, they had, according to Comte, also failed here. He pointed to the absence of any explicit positive theory as proof of the double failure of French politics. Before his encyclopedic enterprise was sufficiently ...


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