Philosophy Auguste Comte
Michel Bourdeau
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0246


Auguste Comte (b. 1798–d. 1857) is the founder of positivist philosophy: he coined the term positivism, a word he understood to mean not only a philosophy of science, but also a political philosophy. His posthumous fate is a strange one. In the early 20th century, it had become somewhat of an academic exercise to compare Hegel and Comte: both wrote all-embracing philosophies of history, both were encyclopedic thinkers, and, at least as far as the late Comte is concerned, both were fond of synthesis. As to the difference, it was easy to point out: the former was educated at the Tübingen Stift, the latter at the École Polytechnique, and, in spite of his attacks against “polytechnician hybris,” Hayek ranked him higher than Hegel. However, while a Hegel revival has taken place, nothing similar has yet happened to the founder of positivism. In everyday language today “positivist” has become more or less synonymous with “blind admirer of science,” which Comte most assuredly was not, while for most contemporary philosophers, positivism means logical positivism. Instead of presenting, for instance, Carnap as a neopositivist, one could present Comte as a “paleopositivist” or as a postpositivist in as much as postpositivists often come back to some of Comte’s stronger intuitions. And if it is so, why care about Comte? A possible answer could be because his work lies at the intersection of two lines of thought. In the first line of thought, we find philosophers such as Poincaré, Duhem, Carnap, or Kuhn; in the second one, sociologists such as Tocqueville, Marx, or Durkheim. In the first case, he may be viewed as the first philosopher of science in the modern sense since he explicitly acknowledges the disunity of science and deals successively with the philosophy of mathematics, of astronomy, of physics, and so on without, however, neglecting the general philosophy of science. In the second case, he was less successful. His contributions to social science are mostly forgotten, not to speak of positive polity. The truth is that he was deeply antimodern. As Michel Houellebecq has noted: “Everything in the political and moral thought of Comte seems to have been made in order to exasperate the contemporary reader” (Préliminaires au positivisme, in A. Comte, Théorie générale de la religion, Paris, 1001 nuits, 2005, p. 5).

General Overviews

Comtian studies are still dominated by the masterful books of Henri Gouhier, such as Gouhier 1943 or Gouhier 1997. Bréhier 1968 underlines a crucial point to any sound understanding of Comte’s philosophy: It challenges our best-entrenched ways of thinking. Comte cannot be considered simply as a sociologist or as a philosopher of science. It is essential to see clearly from the start that he always rejected such one-sided views: The political theory we need must be in keeping with the industrial era in which we live, one in which science is becoming more and more important; conversely, philosophers of science cannot ignore that science is a social activity, strongly dependent on society. Due to the eclipse of Comte in the second half of the 20th century, some of the best general overviews were written more than one hundred years ago, including Mill 2006 (originally published in 1865), Morley 1886, and Ravaisson 1983 (originally published in 1867). Among up-to-date accounts. Pickering 2011 provides a good starting point; Bourdeau 2006 is aimed at the intermediate level. See also Pickering 1998, cited under Further Topics.

  • Bourdeau, Michel. Les trois états: Science, théologie et métaphysique chez Comte. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 2006.

    Takes as its main thread the law of three states but tries to disentangle it from philosophy of history in order to give an analytical account of Comte’s main ideas. Presents not only the received view, but also the ill-famed second philosophy.

  • Bréhier, Émile. The History of Philosophy. Vol. 6, The Nineteenth Century: Period of Systems, 1800–1850). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

    English translation of Histoire de la philosophie, first published from 1926 to 1932. The chapter on Comte shows an understanding unexpected from a scholar mostly known for his works on ancient philosophy.

  • Gouhier, Henri, ed. Œuvres choisies d’Auguste Comte. Paris: Aubier, 1943.

    Gouhier’s foreword is perhaps the best short introduction to Comte’s philosophy. In forty pages, everything is put in place. Gouhier succeeds in giving a general and well-balanced view of Comte’s philosophy as a whole. Provides an excellent overview of the bibliography at that time.

  • Gouhier, Henri. La vie d’Auguste Comte. Paris: Vrin, 1997.

    First published in 1931. Gouhier was a talented writer and the book is very easy reading. It justifies what Comte said once: “my life is a novel.” His life and his thoughts are intimately related; thus, the book describes also his main philosophical ideas.

  • Mill, John Stuart. “Auguste Comte and Positivism.” In Essays on Ethics, Religion and Society. Edited by J. M. Robson, 261–368. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2006.

    Published in 1865, this book has been more or less continuously available. Mill was for a time very close to Comte, as shown by their correspondence. Written just after Comte’s death, the book strongly contributed to establish a strong opposition between two Comtes, namely the author of the Cours and the author of the Système.

  • Morley, John. Critical Miscellanies. Vol 3. London: Macmillan, 1886.

    The chapter on Comte is a fair and well-balanced survey, which also provides a good account of the extent of Comte’s audience in Victorian England.

  • Pickering, Mary. “Auguste Comte.” In the Wiley-Blackwell Companion of Major Classical Social Theorists. Vol. 1, Classical Social Theorists. Edited by George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, 30–60. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444396621

    Covers all the important topics (the theory, person, social context, impact, assessment); includes a useful “reader’s guide.”

  • Ravaisson, Felix. La philosophie en France au XIXe siècle. Paris: Vrin, 1983.

    Written by request of the ministry of education and first published in 1867, this report contains forty pages on Comte, placed in relation to the English tradition (Scottish Enlightenment and Mill). A leading spiritualist, Ravaisson stressed the changes introduced after 1848. Helps to understand the existence of a spiritualist positivism.

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