Auguste Comte I: Positivism

Auguste Comte - General Site Photo

Auguste Comte was a French Sociologist born in 1798 AD (-1857 AD), who coined the term Sociology, so he is also known as Father of Sociology. Like other thinkers of his time, he was greatly disturbed by the anarchy, chaos and disorder that French Revolution had brought throughout the society. To combat this negative and destructive philosophy of Enlightenment and to bring order and harmony in society, he developed his scientific view called “Positivism” or Positive Philosophy.

The main aim of Comte’s Positive Philosophy was to realise the following principle “savoir pour prevoir, prevoir pour pouvoir” (which means to know in order to predict, to predict in order to control). He thought social action beneficial to mankind will become possible once the laws of motion of human evolution are established and the basis for social order and consensus is identified.

To meet his aim of finding the laws of social progress and of social order, he developed the term Social Physics, after being inspired by the progress that Physics and other natural sciences were making during that time but later renamed it Sociology.

Similar to natural sciences, he also mentioned three method of scientific investigation; Observation, Experimentation and Comparison to understand the laws of progress and social order. According to Comte, observation of Social facts should be guided by the theory otherwise it will prove useless. And such social facts should be connected with other facts by the preliminary theory to give it scientific meaning. As per Comte experimentation isn’t possible in human world but study of pathological cases like disturbance in society is equivalent to scientific experimentation, which helps to understand normal. Similarly, Comparison helps in comparison of human with animal societies but it mainly means comparison of different coexisting states of human societies on the various parts of earth.

Among the natural sciences, Auguste Comte’s work was particularly inspired by biology, esp. the concept of Homeostasis, the way that all the parts of the system reorganize to bring things back to normal or how the organism tries to maintain the balance and equilibrium. For example, when we cut ourselves, our blood clot in that area, scab gets formed and the healing process starts, after few days the wound gets healed, things will be normal again. Similarly, in society when some kind of disaster occurs, then whole society works together to brings things back to normal, we can see this behavior during natural disaster, when people help each other, government deploys armies, resources and other personnel depending upon the situations, until things come back to normal again. Comte saw the great connection between sociology and biology. He even made comparative analogy between biological concepts with specific types of the social structures; Families with Cells, Classes and Castes with tissues and cities and communities with organs.

This new science was to be concerned with both Social Statics (the existing social structure, it’s stability) and Social Dynamics (the Social Change).

His particular interest was in Social Dynamics, so beside these three conventional methods of scientific inquiry, he also included the fourth one, the historical method. For this he formulated the Law of Human Progress or the Laws of Three Stages based on the Intellectual Evolution and Knowledge and Method used by society to explain, predict and control the world: Theological Stage, Metaphysical Stage and Positive Stage are the three stages of society. In Theological Stage people blindly believed supernatural entities are responsible for all the earthly events, In Metaphysical Stage people replace Gods with abstract causes, fundamental principles based on questioning, investigations, logic and reason And in Positive Stage people develop law based on empirical evidence, observation, comparison and experiment.

But despite these breakthroughs and new ideas, all wasn’t good for our Father of Sociology, in 1826 AD he suffered from Nervous Break Down, tried to commit suicide in 1827 AD and died in 1857 AD because of Stomach Cancer.

Nevertheless, he laid the basic foundation for the Sociology, paved the path for other Future Sociologists to follow and improve upon.


Essential Readings

George Ritzer: Sociological Theory (PP. 14-17)

Lewis A. Coser: Master of Sociological Thought (PP. 3-8)

Jonathan Turner: The Structure of Sociological Theory (PP. 38 – 41)

Ruth A. Wallace and Alison Wolf: Contemporary Sociological Theory – Expanding the Classical Tradition (PP. 17 – 19)

George Ritzer: Sociological Theory (PP. 230 – 235)

Piotr Sztompka: The Sociology of Social Change (PP. 101 – 102)