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Father of Sociology

September 15, 2008

How refreshing to read Lenzer’s translation of Comte’s original work.  While driving back and forth from Arkansas to Denton once a week there is a great deal of time to reflect on classes attended and conversely attempt to project what will be covered in each upcoming class.  One thing that comes to mind this week is my experiences almost 22 years ago when I began my studies in sociology at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.  In considering my experience, which seemed at first so remote, it quickly became quite apparent that my experience had been much like that referred to by Lenzer in her introduction to Comte and Positivism: The Essential Writings (xxxi).

It seems that many of the classical theorists are no longer widely read as primary materials.  Rather, as in my educational experience to this point, secondary books and articles have replaced the theorist’s original writings.  In reading Comte, although translated, the opportunity is presented to bond with and given the interest to do so, to meld with him and his thoughts.  Perhaps our historical approach to the many theorists, especially the classic, hinders the student’s ability to expand upon and interpret the original thought fully.  For instance, many books abound that tend to group theorists and give a universal nutshell statement of their theory and reasoning.  In doing so, much of the individuality of the theorist is lost or at minimum made obscure and difficult to determine.  In this way, the intellectual works of the theorist are subdued and sterilized.  In short, they are often not as pleasant to read and lose feeling.  Perhaps to require more reading of original works will allow students of the social science to explore concepts in their own unique ways and bring about new and diverse ways to explain age old social intercourse.  For instance, in reading Comte it is easy to see his frustration with the world of his age.  No doubt, his childhood was filled with first hand accounts of the Bastille and the revolution, the streets of blood and even nostalgic recollections of Louis XVI.  He had experienced the coming of Napoleon and the ages of war and capitulation.  This is insightful in seeking to understand Comte and his eventual revelation that matures in relation to religion and altruistic social interaction.


Nature and Importance of Positive Philosophy

Comte states two purposes in his work (77).  The first is to firmly establish the science of sociology.  The second is perhaps an offensive movement to draw a comparison to study of the social and that, like the natural sciences, is a true science. 

Comte seemingly seeks explanation of an ordered society through a circle of explanation (71).  Society must be explained as a whole, as a history of events that moves through stages of progress.  History plays an integral role in social understanding, and society moves through three stages; theological, metaphysical and positive or scientific.  The theological is based in belief and seeks origin and purpose in relation to supernatural beings.  The metaphysical is a state of transition and phenomena of the society is created by the abstract nature of the mind.  The third stage is the positive in which laws of relation, perhaps cause and effect, are studied.  Reasoning and observation create knowledge.  This appears to be saying that single phenomena may be used to establish general facts.  If so, this may be similarly compared to quantitative research (72). 

            It is interesting how Comte builds his stages and eventually the predominance of sociology as the high science (74).  In doing so he seems to interweave his premise that each stage is separate yet bearing marks of the previous stage(s)(72).  Comte hinges his conclusion upon the development of the study of principal categories of phenomena, physiological and social being the last.  Hence, in the hierarchy of all science the social science is the culmination.  The reason being that social is the most individual, complicated and dependent upon the others.  Accordingly, each of the previous four categories advance from the least individual, uncomplicated and independent to the opposite spectrum (76).   The hierarchy being complete there will be universal understanding.  Not that all answers are found but advancement is complete and affected only by new knowledge.  Ironically, Comte’s statement regarding the four earlier sciences being subject only to historical existence is a memorable statement as pointed out by Lenzer in her introduction (xxxi).  In making a further observation along this line, Comte describes the advancement of new science.  He states that science goes through stages.  A new science develops by analyzing in relation to its past in historical sequence before it can begin to analyze and theorize dogmatically.  His statement “a modern geometer commonly finishes his education without having read a single original work dating further back than the most recent discoveries” resonates upon our current study of classical theory (91, 92).   

            Comte’s vision is for the call for a new student of the social to connect with all divisions of the sciences in unity and to seek betterment of the whole society (78-79).  This call to arms so to speak is quite inspiring.  This vision of progress leads directly into his establishment of four primary advantages that follow this evolution in society, these are: 1) to establish rationality through logical laws of the human mind, 2) to regenerate education; that is to say that all general instruction must be based upon positive or scientific philosophy and analysis, 3) unity in sciences, and 4) creation of a homogenous doctrine.

Hierarchy of Positive Sciences

“From science comes prevision; from prevision comes action” (88).  Comte seems to say that sciences must come to full development before a fully functioning ability to visualize can be fulfilled.   Sociology or positivism is the fulfillment of the sciences and therefore previsions or theory may be most fully realized.  From this comes action and progress.  This seems to relate to his discussion of the social static.  Once society begins to speculate it can begin to concern itself with explanation of theoretical abstract science (90, 91).  Having made this statement Comte explains the hierarchy of the sciences, which is introduced in chapter 1 (74).

            It is important to note that Comte promotes the concept that historical analysis plays an important role in development of science, but society must grow beyond mere learning of historical concepts of science and begin to experience anew.  Learning from what others teach is good, but it is more advantageous to learn what the several sciences have established and move on to invent; the dogmatic method.  This progresses in a natural and necessary fashion from study of simple and general phenomena to the more complex and particular phenomena.  This change is the social dynamic.  The simple and general are most removed from the sphere of man (93).  This enhances the social science as being the top of the hierarchy.  Within this progression of science the simple are the inorganic and move upward in organization to the organic.  Similarly are the celestial (astronomy) and the terrestrial (physics).

Social Physics – A Positive Science of Society

Correct and discerning methodology is the significant component of the study of social life.  Methodical study of the social may lead to many questions and ultimate theory which may be later tested.  An important factor in scientific study is whether it is accurate to study the specific parts to generalize about the whole, or rather examine the whole in order to understand the units, which make it up?  Likewise Comte seems to ask whether lasting order to society can come without progress, or whether progress can come without order?  In analyzing these questions, Comte turns to the discussion of the static and dynamic.  Order equates to the social static.  Progress equates to dynamics of the social.  Questions arise.  How is order maintained?  How do order and progress complement each other?  At this point, Comte seems earnestly to begin to call for organization in society and it becomes very clear that much of his quest is to bring order to a world in turmoil (388). 

            Social Statics and Social Dynamics introduced.  In the study of order (static) and progress (dynamic) of social condition, it is important to understand the complementary nature of the two.  The static provides a study of order.  It is a necessity to study the order of society, that is to say its actions and reactions.  Through this movement, it is possible to see how the social gradually modifies itself (224).  However, the multitude of segmental actions and reactions best viewed and studied in light of the whole society.  This is because society is organized and complex, that is to say organic.  Hence, comparison is to the inorganic.  Inorganic is the lower order in the hierarchy of science.  Accordingly, Comte is saying that inorganic science is less complex than the organic (94).  Therefore, the study of the inorganic is suited to study of the parts, which can then give generalizations about the whole (229).  This conclusion is not the case with the study of society.  Society is complex and better analyzed in its overall scheme. 

            In elaborating on the laws and conditions of the static Comte relies on his view of the historical development of humanity upon the analysis of the individual and the family in relation to the overall society.  Comte’s indication that the family is the critical base structure or unit of society is consistent with a society created of groups (267).  His argument that individuals are hampered by personal needs, desires, and instincts which lead to ultimate deviance or “individual divergences” is interesting and seems to correlate with the need for government and law (273). 

            In reflecting upon instant life experiences in relation to the discussion of the family, individuals and the expose on women, light more clearly shines on the personal educational past.  In the 1970’s at Sam Houston State, many classes were attended which were taught by a particular professor of sociology.  This professor often referred to Comte in his discussions and lectures.  This professor also had a dark blue tie that was part of his regular professional attire.  The tie, covered with little pink pigs often seemed to inspire him to elaborate on his social views of women.  He referred to it as his “male chauvinist pig tie” and always with a very smug air of self-efficacy.  Unfortunately, educational readings on social theory at that point in time, including the writings of Comte were of the secondary sources.  This failed to lend full appreciation to the many theorists and in particular left out much of the social analysis behind the professor’s social views.  Having now read Comte’s discussion of the role of women and men, there is a much better understanding of Comte.  And, admittedly there is a better understanding of the long ago tie scenario.  The professor no doubt held Comte in very high esteem in this venue.  Comte proposes interesting theoretical discussion regarding family and the relationship it has to the social whole on pages 267-270.  It is possible that the affinity developed between husband and wife in the “ideal” family unit would be consistent with his discussion of a domestic connection and union (271).  However, the ideal and the real often are inconsistent.  This seems to be a weakness in his argument for order of society, although from a theoretical perspective it is very functional and supportive of his thesis.  Likewise, it is logical that his view of hierarchal subordination for progeny may be debated (269).

            Having personally studied law for a number of years and practiced for eighteen years, Comte’s discussion of the social division of employment and how it provides a means to organize individuals into useful tasks that benefit the general good of society is very fascinating.  Laws do provide an element of discipline when individuals and groups deviate or diverge as he puts it (272-273).  Perhaps this is a prime example of the nature of “action” and “reaction”.

            Why does government work most of the time?  Is it that most people prefer to be followers?  Do most prefer to obey rather than command?  If so, this does seem to explain order. 

Order of society is critical however, the mode of progression is also critical.  At this point, it is interesting to note how Comte explains the dynamic (229).  Society has continuity.  It rests upon a succession of “social states” that may predict order (230).  Therefore, what Comte is saying is that there is a natural relationship for society.  This complements the developmental stages of society from theological to metaphysical to positivism.  For instance, the concept of dynamics is that society advances in an upward, advanced flow.  The rate of this flow or how quickly progression occurs is regulated by many factors some of which are the growth of the population both local and worldwide as well as the fact that humans are not perfect and they must perfect each advancement before moving on to the next (280-81).  In application for instance, the human mind at first could interpret and explain minimally and theological explanation was sufficient.  Time to master and learn brought advancement to reason.  Observations and past historical accounts lead to the metaphysical and so on to the higher level of positivism.  Human development to each stage allows for division of labor and specialization.   


Social Statics

Order and stability seems to be the outcome or vision of Comte.  Through this new science, the positivism of sociology will be as a religion, perhaps to replace all religion.  In reading pages 396 and forward, it appears that Comte comes about in a circular fashion to the basics of the theological.  Not that he bases societal understanding on divine but rather as society travels through the three stages (theological, metaphysical and scientific) it culminates in a stage governed by a new law; this time not religion, but by science, a society maintained by love not faith (397).  In essence, he seems to propose a religion of science; of order and progress.  Perhaps he proposes a utopian dream, but no less his premise is an admirable proposition for the social evolution of humanity.  

            Comte seems to be saying that everything is relative to the whole or the world about us.  Everything continues progressively as does human understanding.  Religion provides a means to harmony, both within and without, both internal and external.  Reason completes this harmony.  Harmony and reason combine to make the importance of the whole (the world) more important than the individual does.  These two elements are much like the great being of the theological stage. 

            In liking physical productions roll to social harmony Comte indicates that production and preservation of goods (things that all people want) is critical to transmission of those physical goods to society.  In this people develop desire to supply others.  This seems to be at the heart of Comte’s desire for love and a positive social science (406).  Without adequate supply, that is a result of production and preservation, there would be selfishness.  Selfishness could be an independent variable for revolution and the problems Comte so evidently wishes to end.  In discussing altruism of the specialist worker who creates his/her special product under the system of “division of labor” there seems to ring a bell for several contemporary theorists and economists.  For example, the comments by Daniel Bell in his writings about the postindustrial society and the educated professional that will work for the utopian good of all humankind, or even the similar observations of Robert Reich, exemplify the maturity of Comte’s altruistic society. (298). 


In reading Comte, a new appreciation for him has developed.  Often those who seek to explain the world and society and chart new paths for exploration are fraught with competition and saboteurs.  Comte’s intense belief in his proposal is evident in his painstaking analysis and comparison of the then established sciences and their methodologies to that of his proposed positivism of the social.

            This reading has provided a better understanding of the man Auguste Comte and the circumstances in which he writes.  With the ability to consider his prefaces and transitional materials it is more self evident of his analysis and his goal to provide a means to analyze and perhaps allow for directing society toward a dimension of order, love and ultimate progression to higher levels of humanity.

            Through this exercise I have been provided and have gained a new and at other times renewed appreciation of reading of the classics.  For without the classics what would we call the contemporary?  In essence, without the classics what would be the contemporary view?  Much like the house without the foundation, if we had not the pioneers we would have no base upon which to build and progress.  In essence, Comte ironically provides the “order” upon which the following eras of theory “progress”.


Lenzer, Gertrud, ed. 1988. Auguste Comte and Positivism: The Essential Writings. New Brunswick,: Transaction Publishers.

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