- Cours de philosophie positive by Comte


Auguste Comte (1798 -1857), born nine years after the French Revolution, lived through Napoleonic times when France was searching for political stability. Economically the Industrial Revolution had started to transform European societies from feudalism, based on landowning, to capitalism, founded on the factory production of goods. During the Revolution in France (1789) the aristocracy lost their power base in land and the peasantry were emancipated from agriculture and moved to factory jobs in the cities. Just as in the UK, thinkers were trying to make sense of the great social changes, Dickens through literature, Marx and Engels using economic theory. Comte did the same through sociology.

As a basis for his study Comte decided to apply scientific methods: specific, systematic procedures to test theories. His Positivism is the application of science to the analysis of society. Since Newton scientists had abandoned the search for first and final causes, to focus on studying the laws of nature. Relinquishing traditional authority as a reference, the new sociological science built its knowledge on observation and reasoning, combining fact and theory. Comte aimed to constitute a science of society, patterned on natural science models, in order to analyse past societies and predict future ones. Of particular interest to him and his contemporaries was the modelling of conditions which could explain social dynamics: order and stability within change.

"For it is only by knowing the laws of phenomena, and thus being able to foresee them, that we can . . . set them to modify one another for our advantage. . . . Whenever we effect anything great it is through a knowledge of natural laws. . . From Science comes Prevision; from Prevision comes Action."

Comte´s genius was his ability to synthesise divergent ideas. His thinking derived mostly from 18th and early 19th century intellectuals. From Hume and Kant he acquired the positivist concept which indicated that theology and metaphysics are imperfect sources of knowledge and that positive cognition must be based on empirical methods studying natural phenomena. From clerical thinkers he took the notion of hierarchical and disciplined social organization, as in the Catholic Church, although he believed in the need for a new, secular organisation to supplant Christian theology: a “religion of humanity”. From the Enlightenment philosophers he incorporated the idea of ​​historical progress, a sociology. Comte believed that social phenomena could be reduced to laws just as Newton had explained heavenly bodies by the law of gravity. It was from Saint-Simon that he gathered the idea of the necessity of a social science to guide planning and existing social organisation which he called 'social physics'.


Comte’s views on the concept of positivism are explained in his book The Course on Positive Philosophy written in six volumes between 1830 and 1842:

Volume 1: Introduction and mathematics. Volume 2: Astronomy and Physics.    Volume 3: Chemistry and Biology.    Volumes 4–5: Social philosophy.        Volume 6: Complement to social philosophy and general conclusiones.

He observed the phenomena of dependency between theory and observation in physical sciences, which led him to the conclusion that the science of society is no different from other natural sciences.

The Positive Sciences

 There are 3 stages in the development of human intelligence: 

- in the theological level humans explain the world through supernatural entities

- in the metaphysical stage they resort to explanations of natural forces

- in the positive phase they study how phenomena relate to each other 

The sciences also passed through these stages. The first to reach the positive level was astronomy, followed by physics, chemistry and physiology. The main goal of this Course is to put the study of society at the scientific level. It's second aim is to demonstrate that all branches of knowledge have the same roots. If the sciences were integrated on a positivist basis, then we could discover how the human mind determines facts and how to reorganise society.

Classification of the sciences is the first step in the formation of a positivist philosophy. Two classes are noticeable in nature: organic and inorganic phenomena. Under inorganic: astronomy, physics, chemistry; under organic: physiology and sociology. Founding all these sciences there is mathematics, divided into calculus and geometry, plus rational mechanics.

MATHEMATICS is the indirect measurement of magnitudes and their interrelationships. Concrete maths discovers equations through experimentation; abstract maths elicits results from the equations.

ASTRONOMY can be defined as the discovery of geometrical and mechanical laws in space. Sight and reasoning are used as methods. These laws free humanity from servitude to the theological and metaphysical conceptions of the universe.

PHYSICS studies laws which govern mass. Here human intervention is possible and humanity can change nature. However, physics still retains metaphysical concepts of primary causes.

CHEMISTRY is defined as the study of laws of composition and decomposition.These come from interactions at the molecular level. There still remain traces of metaphysics in chemistry.

PHYSIOLOGY studies the laws of organic dynamics in structure and environment. Within a specific environment an organism will react in a given way. Physiology examines the relationships between environment, organism and function.

Social physics

Social theories are still influenced by theological and metaphysical dogmas. It is possible, though, to pinpoint some general principles. The first question is to indicate how social physics relates to social needs. From this statesmen will be able to effect positive changes in society.

There are two traditional distracting elements in society: theological and metaphysical polity. Theological polity has been declining for the last three centuries and it is now faced with the scientific spirit. Metaphysical polity has attacked theological polity and so is progressive. 

Metaphysical polity has several doctrines. One is liberty of conscience, press and speech. But this implies absence of regulation and so is excluded in social physics, as it is in astronomy and chemistry. Liberty of conscience needs those qualified to decide since not everyone is competent in political and social questions. Not all opinions are of equal value.

Another metaphysical polity dogma is equality. However equality of doctrine without equality of intelligence is not assumible. Not all are equal, morally and intellectually.

The third dogma is popular sovereignty. But this is essentially revolutionary and promotes rule of the inferior over the superior 

A fourth belief held by metaphysical polity is that of national independence. It has served to separate nations and prepare for a new union.

Metaphysical polity has been a failure. It destroyed the Ancien Régime but failed to reorganise society afterwards, since it proposed polytheism instead of catholicism and banished industry and art in the name of virtue. It also censured science as aristocratic knowledge. This is not accidental, since it admitted the necessity of a theological base, yet destroyed theology. This led to intellectual anarchy.

Since theological and metaphysical polity cancel each other out, another political opinion has emerged: the stationary school. This is an intermediary position between advancement and regression. It is demonstrated in the British parliamentary monarchy, which is the final stage of metaphysical polity, but only a placebo, a temporary compromise. The present intellectual anarchy can only lead to fear or self-interest since there are no principles.

The practical and material approach to politics is a sign of the times. This view encourages the idea that disorders have their origin in material causes and solutions. This then results in meddling with institutions and property. What is necessary is intellectual and moral reform.

Positive philosophy will view society in a scientific manner, applying natural laws to solve social problems with impartiality. It will recognise what is changeable in society and not waste effort on the irremediable. It will replace arbitrary legislation and class conflict with principles founded on science. 

Social characteristics

What stamps on society its basic characteristics? 

In the first place it should be noted that in humans the intellectual faculties depend on the affective ones. The intellectual are stimulated by organic needs and,  at a higher level, by impulses.

Again, it must be observed that personal affections are more compelling than social ones. The former lend aim and direction to the latter. This is as it should be, since public good must derive from personal gains, otherwise the social affections would weaken. The moral injunction to love our neighbours as ourselves suggests that the personal is the model for the social. However it is regrettable that the personal often cancels, not stimulates, the social.

The first task of universal morality is to strengthen the relationship between the intellectual and social affections. It also needs to build up the moral and material need for intellectual work and human distaste for it, plus the need for social affections and their subjection to personal demands. These are the tensions between the reforming and the conservative spirit: one personal, the other social and intellectual.

The basic social unit is the family and there the social and personal are harmonised. This depends on the subordination of the sexes and ages. Women in marriage are subordinate to men in a natural manner. Equality of the sexes would be incompatible with a well-functioning society.

Parents and their children is another social bond. Some revolutionaries reject the parent-child subordination, but it is resisted by common sense and instinct.

In family individuals cooperate through affection; in society the instinct to cooperate takes precedence over affection. Cooperation is a fundamental part of society and its aim must be to allow individuals to cooperation within it. However, specialisation is a danger since it narrows participants' visión of social cooperation. Government's have the duty to encourage moral and intellectual relationships between individuals, not material ones. Authority, even in revolutionary times, is a necessity.

Social change

It is the moral and intellectual qualities in humans that permit progress. Relief from material problems allows people to pursue the goals of their higher faculties. Death promotes progress by allowing renewal from a younger generation. Nonetheless, if life were longer progress would be quicker. Progress among humans is guided by reason through 3 stages: theological, metaphysical and positive.

The 3 levels can be understood in the following way:

Theological philosophy promoted the theory that human reactions explained all actions and that there existed an invisible world. These hypotheses gave people confidence that they could change the world to suit themselves by calling on its maker. Further, some also speculated that matter and spirit were different. But even then positive philosophy showed through by means of the obvious natural laws.

Metaphysical philosophy replaced the divinities with elusive, abstract entities. 

The progress of material things has evolved through similar stages: first military life, then defensive military, now an industrial military system. The theological level worked like the military one with blind obedience to hierarchy. The other two stages are similar to the defensive and industrial. It is only through these 3 dual relationships that a well-founded historical philosophy can be envisaged.



Following the Enlightenment tradition Comte rejected the concept of everlasting, unchangeable truths. His relativism includes progress as a constant self-correcting effort, in accordance with the new scientific vision of natural laws.

"All investigation into the nature of beings, and their first and final causes, must always be absolute; whereas the study of the laws of phenomena must be relative, since it supposes a continuous progress of speculation subject to the gradual improvement of observation, without the precise reality ever being fully disclosed..."


Comte recognised scientific, authoritative guidance in the human endeavour, to such an extent that he rejected freedom of personal opinions in astronomy and chemistry and predicted the same for the social sciences. He even advised that these sciences "requires the renunciation by the greater number of their right of individual inquiry on subjects above their qualifications." His belief in finding fundamental social rules based on science encouraged him to disdain any speculation outside them. This credence fitted well with the 19th. century opposition between the rational and the irrational. Comte's research was directed at finding a philosophical base for the organisation of the new industrial society.

Social Evolution

The evolutionary progress of society, according to Comte, passes through the 3 main stages and ends at the scientific level. However, the flaw in his social theory is the supposition that positivism will reach a complete comprehension of the universe. On the contrary, the knowledge process is never-ending: the more we know, the more we know we don't know.


Positivism is characterised in Comte along several lines.

He believes that science and reason are the only means of imposing order in a society disrupted first by the French Revolution and later by Napoleonic imperialism. His recourse to reason for social reform is a struggle against Romanticism and the rise of irrationality led by Rousseau. His insistence on science was in opposition to Voltaire's utopianism, determinism and apparent immorality.

He promotes "social physics" to analyse and guide society through the discovery of universal laws which he asserts will be as clear and dependable as those of the known sciences.

Progress in the 19th. century was envisaged in industrial terms:the result of production. The steam train was the image of progress, faster and faster, guided on the rails of Newtonian scientific laws.


In later life Comte introduced the idea of the 'Religion of Humanity'. He continued to believe that God and science could not co-exist but still thought that religion should exist. However, in a scientific society there was a place for religion. God was dead, according to Nietzsche, but Comte believed that religion lived on. He recognised the moral value of religion and was afraid that its complete rejection would undermine social cohesion. 

So, he decided to create a new religion which would have the traditional sacraments and saints. Its values would be Altruism, selflessness and caring for others; Order, which is unspecified; Progress, through science and technology. The sacraments are 7. There are also hymns, prayers and holidays. The religious calendar consisted of 13 months with 28 days. Each month is named for a great man in history: Moses, Homer, Aristotle, Archimedes, Caesar, Paul of Tarsus, Charlemagne, Dante, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Descartes, Frederick, Bichat.

People responded to Comte's new religion welcoming the idea of secular religious thought, but there was misunderstanding about his change of theory from anti-theological to religious.

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