Auguste Comte Essay

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As Saint-Simon’s secretary from 1817 to 1824, Comte drew heavily from his mentor’s ideas but Comte was a strong, independent thinker who passionately pursued his own grand agenda. His 1822 Plan de travaux scientifiques necessaires pour reorganiser la societe outlined how the moral, intellectual, and social landscape of Europe should be changed.

Comte believed that human societies and the knowledge forms that structured them progressed through three stages — the theological, metaphysical, and positivist. The development of knowledge proceeded along the hierarchy of complexity — from astronomy and physics, the least complex, to chemistry and physiology, ultimately reaching social physics (Comte’s initial term for social science).

Comte’s six-volume Cours de philosophie positive (1830—42) was to establish positivism – systematic, observationally based knowledge — in all realms of study. In volume four of the Cours, written in 1839, Comte combined the Latin socius (companion, associate) with the Greek logos (logic, thought) to identify ”sociology” as the highest, most encompassing and complex form of knowledge. Sociology was the queen of the sciences. Some think Adolphe Quetelet’s 1835 Physique sociale spurred the change in terminology but the deeper reason was an increasing appreciation for history in Comte s thought. The Latin/Greek neologism indicated that sociology focused on the logic of, and thought about, human association in more than mathematical terms.

Since social physics consisted of social statics and social dynamics, Comte sought change through scientifically informed, ordered progress. These conceptions complemented Comte s use of organic analogies as he discussed society s anatomy and physiology. The law of the three stages, the triumph of positive science, the conceptions of order, progress, social statics and dynamics, and social anatomy and physiology made Comte an early, passionate advocate for the unity of the sciences — the use of the scientific method in the study of both natural and social phenomena.


  • Comte, A. (1974) The Essential Comte, trans. M. Clarke. Croom Helm, London.

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