Auguste Comte - Biography
Auguste Comte (b. 1798), the French philosopher and social theorist, is known as the originator of both ‘positivism’ and sociology. His philosophical system sought to discover and perfect the proper political and social arrangement for then-modern industrial society. Comte’s positivism rejected outright any claims to knowledge not based on direct observation. His ‘positive philosophy’ had, at its core, two fundamental laws: the historical or logical law of the three stages, and an epistemological law of the classification and hierarchy of sciences. Throughout his working life there was a sole primary concern, and a single overarching principle, which governed his life and thought, that is, the concern with resolving the social, political and moral problems brought on by the French Revolution, and the unification of theory and practice, namely, the practical aim of moral, social and political reorganization. A man of his word, this principle was not merely a frame for this thought, but also a rule for his actions: even as a student he could neither conceive, nor approve of a scientific work that had no useful goal for humanity; later, from 1831 until 1848, Comte would tirelessly give public seminars to proletarians; in 1844 and 1848, Comte would publish two short introductions of his work (A Discourse on the Positive Spirit, and A General View of Positivism), in a style intended for the workers.
Born in Montpellier, France, in 1798, Comte died on September 5th 1857. Between 1830 and 1842 he would publish his magnum opus, The Positive Philosophy, in six volumes.
A pragmatic aspect cuts through all of Comte’s philosophical and sociological writings. The unity of knowing and doing places Comte into a lineage with Francis Bacon – a man who admittedly had a great influence on the young Comte. An interrelationship between, what he called, speculation and action, is a constant in Comte’s thought, as is an adamancy to keep empiricism and rationalism equidistant.
Comte’s emphasis on theory and practice, and their unity, manifested itself in his study of ‘epistemology’ and the political, cultural and social consequences of the Revolution, or more accurately, of the counter-Revolution. Epistemology, for Comte, included the history and philosophy of sciences, fundamental scientific concepts and theories, the various scientific methodologies, and what Francis Bacon referred to as ‘primary philosophy’, which, in short, was the synthesis of regular scientific knowledge and their induced universal validity. In The Positive Philosophy, Comte articulated the ‘Table of Fifteen Universal Laws’, which was subdivided into three groups: laws of formation, dynamic and static theories of understanding, and movement/existence, action/reaction, classification and relation.
The practical element of his thought, as has been repeated, gravitated around a re-organization of society in light of the consequences of the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, and the counter –Revolution in the early 19th century. Before the publication of The Positive Philosophy, Comte, under the guidance and support of Saint Simon, wrote a series of opuscules, which he entitled Programmes; the third of which explicitly outlines Comte’s political position, namely, between the kings and the people. He opposed himself to the reactionary ideas of both sides, as espoused by what he called the ‘stationary school’, which included, among others: Pierre Royer-Collard, Charles de Remusat, and Prosper Duvergier se Hauranne. Comte also criticized the state for failing to provide a substitute, in the 1820’s, for the fading spiritual power of the church. Although Comte opposed himself to Catholicism, he nonetheless admitted a certain social function of the church. The link between his theoretical work and practical goal, that is, of providing a template for the re-organization of the social, is announced in The Positive Philosophy, the two discourses published for the workers in 1844 and 1848, as well as in the course he gave to the proletarians throughout the 1830’s and 1840’s. Comte’s observation was of a symbiotic relationship between human intelligence and the history of societies, especially the development of altruism. Comte’s notion of altruism, is not limited to today’s definition, but includes a much broader notion of men’s interest in one another, namely, not just their material well being and equality, but also interest in their thoughts, practices and etc.
Sociology, Comte claimed, sat atop the hierarchy of sciences, in so far as it concerned itself with human nature and behavior on the collective level. This new science could not be adequately practices with objective observation, which for Comte meant a method that passed from the world to human kind, but required a subjective method, which moved from humankind to the world. Subjective, therefore, designated a method, which admitted its dependence on the real nature of humankind.
Comte concerned himself with the history of human logics, insisting on a necessary connection between systems and the institution of signs, namely, languages and social systems. Social history, he claimed, was directly effected by historical systems of logic, which he classified into three levels: the logic of sentiments, the logic of images, and the logic of signs. This tripartition contains the semiotic elements recognizable in mid 20th century semiotics, most notably in the work of Charles Peirce.
Language, Comte argued, was a dynamic system linking political and domestic life. It acted as the condition for the possibility of positive science, which was based not merely on observation but also on the ideal of a mathematical language, which itself, he claimed, arose out of the logic of signs. Physical science too, depended on both observation and the proper use of the model provided by language, which in its ideal form was mathematical. This emphasis on the role of language and signs is evident in Comte’s work from the very beginning, for example his 1819 texts Essays on the Philosophy of Mathematics. The logic of the system of signs is omnipresent, he thought, to the extent that it is the foundation of both science and aesthetics. Social sciences, which he claimed to be necessary for modern society, too were founded on and ruled by a logic of systems, which falls under the law of the three stages. The law of three stages, in its most fundamental articulation, proceeds from the theological stage, to the metaphysical stage, and finally to the scientific or positive stage. In Comte’s philosophy there is undeniably a process of sublation, as evidenced from his explicit claims in The Positive Philosophy, that positive logic is nothing more than a combination of systems of signs, namely, affective, imaginary and intellectual, all of which are subjected to a unification of the three systems governing sentiments, images, and linguistic or mathematical symbols. Every logic of signs, he argued, must be derived, and contain, the logic of images and sentiments. The sublative development of logics and systems, was not only a historical process, but a practical necessity, for it was only with a conjecture of signs, images and sentiments, he claimed, that allowed the creation of conceptions adequate to our moral, intellectual and physical needs. The movement from one stage to another was not a substitution, but an addition, which maintained a unity between the old and the new. Comte applied, or discovered, his three stage law in theology also. Arguing that while the logic of sentiment originated in theological fetishism, the logic of images found its source in polytheism, and finally, the logic of signs arose from monotheism.
Semiotics played a huge role in Comte’s thought and works on political, social and moral reconstruction or re-organization. There is, for Comte, an undeniable relation and determinacy between semiotics and the three stages, including the theological stages. For example, Comte claimed that theological fetishism provided the ground for language, while polytheism and monotheism allowed the consideration of purely ideal existences, and thereby conditioned the origin of both science and abstract thought.
In short, mental states have their ontological foundation in their corresponding social state. It is, Comte taught, impossible to consider society or particular intellectual or mental states abstractly, and moreover, it is thereby improper to speak of them as such. Man and society irrevocably advance, exist and develop together. Comte’s project of positive philosophy, accordingly, studied the different methods of learning and thinking, through a knowledge of their various forms of civilization.
Comte considered social solidarity crucial for the existence of social cohesion. Consequently, his positive philosophy demanded that men act so as to attain and maintain a harmony between theory and practice, insofar, as only such a harmony can guarantee a harmony between men, men and their society, and their knowledge of and reaction to their environment.
The relation between knowledge and power, which was accepted in Comte’s time, lead him to the claim that industrial society, with its developments and modernizations, must and should be able to realize an equivalent political project. Such a political project, he claimed, is possible only on the basis of an all-embracing moral project. A social project is incomplete if its use of science is limited to industry or a select few. Comte speculated that ‘the final science’, an abstract morality made concrete, would systematize our biological knowledge of individuals with sociological knowledge. In this sense, Comte wasn’t a vulgar historicist, that is, he did not prescribe to a natural and automatic progress of history. Abstract morality, for example, proceeds concrete morality; and it is only though the work of men that we pass from the first into the second.
After the publication of The System of Positive Philosophy, in 1851, Comte considered his philosophical work complete, and began what he considered the necessary second element, namely, religion. In his words, intellectual positivism (i.e. his epistemology) was complete, so it was time for social positivism (i.e. the new religion). Moreover, Comte considered both elements of his positivism to be the culmination of the French revolution and counter-Revolution, in so far as they purported not a mix, but a necessary harmony between retrogression and anarchy, otherwise put, between order and progress. Comte was convinced that - following the experiences of social extremes - the reign of solidarity had finally arrived. Social sciences, specifically, sociology and abstract morality, were necessities for the maintenance and advancement of social harmony.