In This Article Auguste Comte

  • Introduction
  • Biographies
  • Comte and His Generation

Sociology Auguste Comte
by
Andrew Wernick
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0163

Introduction

Auguste Comte (1798–1857), mathematician, philosopher of science, grand systematizer of positivism, and in later years founder and High Priest of the Church of Humanity, coined the term sociology, a branch of knowledge he claimed to have established as a positive science. Positive, in Comte’s sense, meant abandoning absolute for relative truth, and the search for the real nature or cause of things, in favor of discovering laws, defined as predictable regularities in the behavior of observable phenomena. Comte’s sociology, divided into statics (laws of social order) and dynamics (laws of historical progress), was integral to his wider positivist system. Its founding completed the “encyclopedic scale” of the fundamental sciences (mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, sociology) and made finally possible, he claimed, both a scientific politics and an all-embracing positive philosophy that was destined—following the “law of three states”—to supersede previous worldviews based on theology and metaphysics, together with their corresponding societal forms. Positive philosophy, complemented after the mid 1840s by positive religion, was the cornerstone of Comte’s program for social reform in post-Revolutionary France, and for the global establishment of an industrial-scientific order. Comte’s politics, like his philosophy, aimed to transcend the split between Enlightenment progressives and Counter-Enlightenment traditionalists. In addition to Bacon, Leibnitz, and Hume, he cited both Condorcet and de Maistre as major influences. Although the social sciences have long since abandoned Comte’s search for historical laws together with his wider system and project, the Durkheim tradition bears some of Comte’s imprint as do related currents in French thought like historical epistemology (Bachelard, Canguilhem) and structural Marxism (Althusser). Interest in Comte (influential in the 19th century but long considered a marginal figure) has revived in recent years among philosophers, social theorists, and students of religion, and his voluminous oeuvre has begun to be more sympathetically re-assessed. The rebellious elder son of a conservative provincial tax official and a devoutly Catholic mother, Isidore Auguste Marie Francois Xavier Comte was born in Montpellier in the penultimate year of the Directory before Napoleon came to power. By his mid teens he was a staunch atheist and republican. After winning admission in 1814 to the elite École Polytechnique in Paris to study mathematics and the physical sciences, he was expelled in 1816 together with his classmates after a conflict with school authorities. Following a year studying biology in the faculty of medicine at Montpellier, he returned to Paris, refused the loyalty oath to the restored monarchy that would have re-admitted him to the École, and joined the Saint-Simonian circle. He became Saint-Simon’s secretary and principal collaborator until they acrimoniously split in 1824. Between 1826 and 1840 (interrupted by a mental breakdown in 1826–1827) Comte presented a celebrated lecture series, sixty in all, with a number of eminent scientists in attendance. Published in six volumes—the last three devoted to sociology—the Cours de philosophie positive established Comte as a major intellectual figure, winning the support of John Stuart Mill in England and Émile Littré in France. However, his subsequent Systême de politique positive (1851–1854)—with its religious frame, neo-medieval social program and prayerful dedication to Clotilde de Vaux (their tragically short-lived Platonic affair in 1844–1845 had catalyzed his religious turn)—divided his followers and dimmed his reputation. In his final years he continued his writings, including the never completed Synthèse subjective, lobbied rulers including the Czar and Ottoman Sultan for reform from above, and organized his church. Recurrently in ill-health, he died in Paris in 1857.

General Overviews

Included in this section are studies, commentaries, and critiques that focus on Comte’s oeuvre as a whole. The more recent items (post-1960s) are listed separately, and contain the most useful overview material for contemporary readers. Items in the pre-1960s list, while of more historical interest, contain classic statements and remain important reference points in current discussion about Comte and his place in Western thought. Scholarly interest in Comte, it may be noted, has fluctuated greatly in the more than 150 years since his death. After a period of great influence and controversy that lasted through the end of the 19th century, Comte became increasingly regarded as a marginal figure and, with some notable exceptions, his work received little further serious attention until the latter decades of the 20th century. Since then, a re-examination has gathered pace and studies, both general and thematic, have proliferated. Whatever the period or approach, a persistent issue in general treatments of Comte’s thought has been the relation between positive philosophy and positive religion, and more generally between the earlier and later (post-1844 writings. For this reason and also because of the vastness and complexity of Comte’s system(s), overviews of his thought tend not to be purely introductory. Many are also significant in their own right as interpretations, responses, or interventions.

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