Auguste Comte’s “Theory of Positivism”

Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A(Socio, Phil) B.Se. M. Ed, Ph.D

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India


The older positivism of Auguste Comte viewed human history as progressing through three stages: the religious, the metaphysical, and the scientific. His positivism was presented as articulating and systematizing the principles underlying this last (and best) stage. Law, morality, politics, and religion were all to be reconstituted on the new scientific basis. Traditional religion, for instance, was to be replaced by a religion of humanity and reason, with rituals and symbols appropriate to the new doctrine (Simon 1963). Comte’s evolutionary and scientistic perspectives were shared by such men as Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley, but contemporary movements of thought have been very little influenced by the older positivism.


Positivism  a philosophical movement in sociology, holds  the view that social phenomena ought to be studied using only the methods of the natural sciences. The system of Auguste Comte designed to supersede theology and metaphysics and depending on a hierarchy of the sciences, beginning with mathematics and culminating in sociology.

So, positivism is a view about the appropriate methodology of social science, emphasizing empirical observation. It is also associated with empiricism and holds that the view that knowledge is primarily based on experience via the five senses, and it is opposed to metaphysics — roughly, the philosophical study of what is real — on the grounds that metaphysical claims cannot be verified by sense experience. Positivism was developed in the 19th century by Auguste Comte, who coined the term “sociology.”

Positivism as a term is usually understood as a particular way of thinking. For Comte, additionally, the methodology is a product of a systematic reclassification of the sciences and a general conception of the development of man in history: the law of the three stages. Comte, , was convinced that no data can be adequately understood except in the historical context. Phenomena are intelligible only in terms of their origin, function, and significance in the relative course of human history.

Positivism is a way of thinking is based on the assumption that it is possible to observe social life and establish reliable, valid knowledge about how it works. This knowledge can then be used to affect the course of social change and improve the human condition. Positivism also argues that sociology should concern itself only with what can be observed with the senses and that theories of social life should be built in a rigid, linear, and methodical way on a base of verifiable fact. It has had relatively little influence on contemporary sociology, however, because it is argued that it encourages a misleading emphasis on superficial facts without any attention to underlying mechanisms that cannot be observed.

Comte held that there is no Geist, or spirit, above and beyond history which objectifies itself through the vagaries of time. Comte represents a radical relativism: “Everything is relative; there is the only absolute thing.” Positivism absolutizes relativity as a principle which makes all previous ideas and systems a result of historical conditions. The only unity that the system of positivism affords in its pronounced anti metaphysical bias is the inherent order of human thought. Thus the law of the three stages, attempts to show that the history of the human mind and the development of the sciences follow a determinant pattern which parallels the growth of social and political institutions. According to Comte, the system of positivism is grounded on the natural and historical law that “by the very nature of the human mind, every branch of our knowledge is necessarily obliged to pass successively in its course through three different theoretical states: the theological or fictitious state; the metaphysical or abstract state; finally, the scientific or positive state.”

The thoughts of Auguste Comte continue in many ways to be important to contemporary sociology. First and foremost, Comte’s positivism — the search for invariant laws governing the social and natural worlds — has influenced profoundly the ways in which sociologists have conducted sociological inquiry. Comte argued that sociologists (and other scholars), through theory, speculation, and empirical research, could create a realist science that would accurately “copy” or represent the way things actually are in the world. Furthermore, Comte argued that sociology could become a “social physics” — i.e., a social science on a par with the most positivistic of sciences, physics. Comte believed that sociology would eventually occupy the very pinnacle of a hierarchy of sciences. Comte also identified four methods of sociology. To this day, in their inquiries sociologists continue to use the methods of observation, experimentation, comparison, and historical research. Many contemporary thinkers criticize positivism, claiming for example that not all data is empirically observableWhile Comte did write about methods of research, he most often engaged in speculation or theorizing in order to attempt to discover invariant laws of the social world.

Comte also used the term positivism in a second sense; that is, as a force that could counter the negativism of his times. In Comte’s view, most of Western Europe was mired in political and moral disorder that was a consequence of the French Revolution of 1789. Positivism, in Comte’s philosophy, would bring order and progress to the European crisis of ideas.

In Comte’s view, the evolution of thought throughout history paralleled his “three phases of intellectual development” for individuals as they mature throughout their lifetimes. The first is the theological phase, where natural phenomena are seen as the results of divine power(s). The second, or metaphysical phase sees these as manifestations from vital forces or takes natural processes to be imperfect imitations of eternal ideas. The positive phase is the last in the sequence, and consists of scientific inquiry, as governed by the scientific method. In this phase, one seeks explanations that are descriptive laws; generalizations over several instances that are based on a foundation of positive facts. This phase forms the basis of Comte’s idea of positivism (Positivism). For Comte, it was a rejection of metaphysics in favor of scientific reason . Even his view on the arts shows this preference; he believed that the arts enforced the truths of science . It is important to note that Comte’s positivism was different in many ways to logical positivism. He rejected the idea that there are universal criteria that can be used to distinguish scientific statements from nonscientific ones, and also discarded the reductionist ideal of the logical positivists

The final important thing to know about Comte’s theories in sociology is that he believed the general approach of the field should be one called positivism. For Comte, positivism is the belief that societies have their own scientific principles and laws, just like physics or chemistry. Positivism assumes there are truths about society that can be discovered through scientific studies and that our understanding of society should be based on actual data and evidence.

Comte’s positivist philosophy has an important role in shaping modern sociologists because the general perspective today is that theories and ideas in sociology should be based on scientific studies. It’s the general belief that true knowledge is only found through science. In short, Comte’s idea of positivism is definitely a product of the final stage of society, the scientific stage.

Comte’s positivist philosophy has an important role in shaping modern sociologists because the general perspective today is that theories and ideas in sociology should be based on scientific studies. It’s the general belief that true knowledge is only found through science. In short, Comte’s idea of positivism is definitely a product of the final stage of society, the scientific stage.

Comte believed that positivism could both advance science (theory) and change the ways people live their lives (practice). He argued that the upper classes of his time were far too conservative to advocate positivistic change. Women and the members of the working class, however, were well situated to advocate positivism and help to implement its programs of change. Comte viewed the working class as agents of positivistic change because of their ties of affection to their families, respect for authority, exposure to misery, and propensity for self-sacrifice. Comte thought of his positivism as a counter-force against communism, although the latter could provide a foundation for the former. Comte thought that women would support his positivist program for change largely because women, in his view, were more affectionate, altruistic, and feeling than men. He tended to view men as superior in intellectual and practical matters, and thus better suited to planning and supervising change, while women are better suited to moral matters. Comte did not believe in the equality of the sexes. He saw himself and his protégés as the “priests of humanity” who would oversee the religion of positivism. Some of Comte’s most amusing ideas are found in his plans for the future. Comte envisioned a positivist calendar, public holidays, and temples. He elaborated a plan for his positivist society that included important roles for bankers and industrialists, positivist priests, merchants, manufacturers, and farmers. Comte also envisioned a positivist library of 100 books — titles that he personally selected. He argued that reading other works would contaminate the minds of the people. He also planned to restructure the family to include a father, mother, three children, and paternal grandparents.

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