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Isidore Auguste Marie Francois-Xavier Comte (1798–1857) was a French philosopher credited as the founder of positivism and, by many standards, considered the father of sociology. In Europe, and especially in France during his early years, there were no sociologists; rather, philosophers were beginning to venture into scientific and empirical terrain. It was Comte who laid the foundation for sociology to become a scientific discipline firmly embedded in empirical and theoretical grounds.
Though no monarchist himself, Comte was nonetheless critical of the French Revolution (1789–1799), its intellectual figures such as author Voltaire and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the chaos it unleashed. He was equally critical of the Catholic Church—which could not prevent the revolution—and what he termed the “metaphysical age (of uncertainty).” Yet Comte himself is an Enlightenment figure. His “positive philosophy” details a hierarchy of sciences in which, ultimately, sociology will become the scientific discipline through which all other sciences can be integrated into one systematic body of knowledge.
The idea of progress and development is also evident in his so-called law of three stages, which is perhaps Compte’s most famous formulation of societal change. Accordingly, all societies develop along a path that includes three stages. Presumably, all societies depart from the same stage—the theological stage—and, given the “right” (scientific-sociological knowledge), arrive at the same end point of history: The positive society, once the intermediate metaphysical stage, is overcome. Despite its simplicity and its evidently Eurocentric view of societal change and development, Comte’s law of three stages does invite serious questions from both political science and sociology: How do societies change, and what are the major forces of change? Are these forces primarily internal (domestic) or external (international)? To Comte, theological-spiritual, philosophical-metaphysical, and scientific-technological ideas are no doubt not only worldviews each in its own right; they also constitute major institutions and, as such, exert strong influence over the division of labor and the structural makeup of every society.
Due to Comte’s efforts, science and especially scientific inquiry made a major step forward. His scientific method included observation, experimentation, and comparison, all of which are important elements in any introductory methods course and certainly part of political science and sociology. Of particular interest is his comparative method, itself composed of three different types: comparisons of human and nonhuman societies, comparisons of human societies at presumably the same development level, and comparisons of societies at different development levels.
Comte also wrote on the family, the individual, and society. Among those influenced by his ideas are English social philosopher Herbert Spencer and French sociologist Émile Durkheim. Scholars continue to debate the degree that Comte’s particular understanding of positivism (especially his view of sociology and his faith in the scientific method) represents an extreme form of determinism.
- Aron, Raymond. Main Currents in Social Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1965.
- Comte, Auguste. A General View of Positivism, New York: R. Speller, 1957.
- The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte. Kitchener, Ont.: Batoche, 2000.
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