First published Wed Oct 1, 2008; substantive revision Mon Sep 30, 2013 Auguste Comte (1798–1857) is the founder of positivism, a philosophical and political movement which enjoyed a very wide diffusion in the second half of the nineteenth century. It sank into an almost complete oblivion during the twentieth, when it was eclipsed by neopositivism. However, Comte's decision to develop successively a philosophy of mathematics, a philosophy of physics, a philosophy of chemistry and a philosophy of biology, makes him the first philosopher of science in the modern sense, and his constant attention to the social dimension of science resonates in many respects with current points of view. His political philosophy, on the other hand, is even less known, because it differs substantially from the classical political philosophy we have inherited.
Comte's most important works are (1) the Course on Positive Philosophy (1830-1842, six volumes, translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau as The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte); (2) the System of Positive Polity, or Treatise on Sociology, Instituting the Religion of Humanity, (1851-1854, four volumes); and (3) the Early Writings (1820-1829), where one can see the influence of Saint-Simon, for whom Comte served as secretary from 1817 to 1824. The Early Writings are still the best introduction to Comte's thought. In the Course, Comte said, science was transformed into philosophy; in the System, philosophy was transformed into religion. The second transformation met with strong opposition; as a result, it has become customary to distinguish, with Mill, between a “good Comte” (the author of the Course) and a “bad Comte” (the author of the System). Today's common conception of positivism corresponds mainly to what can be found in the Course.
3. The Formative Years: The Collaboration with Saint-Simon and the Early Writings 4. The Course on Positive Philosophy and the Friendship with Mill 4.1 The law of the three stages
4.2 The classification of the sciences and philosophy of science 4.3 Sociology and its double status
4.4 Comte and Mill
5. The System of Positive Polity and the Complete Positivism 5.1 The mind as a servant of the heart
5.2 Positive politics
5.3 The religion of Humanity
5.4 Ethics and sociology
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It difficult today to appreciate the interest Comte's thought enjoyed a century ago, for it has received almost no notice during the last five decades. Before the First World War, Comte's movement was active nearly everywhere in the world (Plé 1996; Simon 1963). The best known case is that of Latin America: Brazil, which owes the motto on its flag ‘Ordem e Progresso’ (Order and Progress) to Comte (Trindade 2003) and Mexico (Hale 1989) are two prominent examples. The positivists, i.e., the followers of Comte, were equally active in England (Wright 1986), the United States (Cashdollars 1989; Harp 1994) and India (Forbes 1975). And in the case of Turkey, its modern secular character can be traced to Comte's influence on the Young Turks.
None of this activity survived the First World War. The new balance of power created by the Russian Revolution left no room for positive polity, and Comtean positivism was taken over by neo-positivism in philosophy of science. The term ‘post-positivism’, used in the second half of the 20th century, demonstrates the complete disappearance of what one might call, in retrospect, “paleo-positivism”. As a matter of fact, post-positivism is a kind of “post-neo-positivism”, since the well-known criticisms launched by Kuhn and Feyerabend were directed at Carnap's neopositivism, not Comte's positivism, about which they seem to have known very little. This shows that their use of “positivism” forgets totally Comte, who is nevertheless the man who coined the term. Moreover, in a number of cases, the...
Bibliography: 2. Biography
Comte was born in Montpellier on January 20, 1798 (‘le 1er pluviôse de l 'an VI’, according to the Revolutionary calendar then in use in France)
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