New Historian

The Positive Philosophy of August Comte

August Comte

<![CDATA['The Positive Philosophy of August Comte' is a fascinating academic exercise and a valuable historic artefact. Written during a time of drastic social, political and historic change, it reflects the upheavals of its context, and the dramatic strides which were taking place in academia in the nineteenth century. Comte is popularly called the 'father of sociology', and the reasons for this accolade are clearly apparent in The Positive Philosophy. Comte pioneered the use of scientific method in the study of history and societies. He believed that the process of observable laws which were applied to the natural sciences could and should be applied to social science. 'Positivism', the idea that logical and mathematical treatments combined with sensory experience is the only way to develop true, authoritative knowledge, is central to The Positive Philosophy. Written at a time when traditional ideas of politics, the state and society were being bent and twisted like never before, Comte believed that the positivist approach was the only way to make sense of the chaos. He also believed that it could serve as a basis around which to change and develop society - to perfect it. This is one of the key aims of The Positive Philosophy. Born in Montpellier, France, in 1798, Comte witnessed first hand the great shifts in society. Raised in the aftermath of the French Revolution, he lived in a country where the established aristocracy had lost their money and status, while the traditionally powerless in society found themselves with previously unheard of levels of influence. Shortly after, the Industrial Revolution accelerated dramatically during the nineteenth century, bringing with it mass migration to the ever expanding cities, a growing group urban poor and a host of new social problems. In The Positive Philosophy Comte aimed to account for the transitions that society underwent, something he referred to as 'Social Dynamics'. Fulfilling his positivist ambition, he believed he had found a scientific law that could be applied to the historical facts he had observed. Much of the book is devoted to defining this "Law of Three Stages". Comte argued that repeatedly through human history societies had made a transition, from the basic belief in supernatural beings which forged social bonds, into systems which questioned the nature of divine authority and became interested in private gain. Comte argued that in the nineteenth century mankind was entering the third stage for the first time, one where positivist reasoning could be applied to improve society for the benefit of its members. There are of course controversies in the approach Comte deployed and the conclusions he reached in The Positive Philosophy. His purely empirical narrative of society led to some highly reactionary conclusions, including the assertion that women were destined to be subservient, and some people were born to rule while others were not. Such controversial conclusions perhaps highlight the failings in Comte's purely rationalised analysis. Comte's work is valuable as the crucial starting point in the development of sociology. Many may argue against the validity of a purely scientific approach to the study of history and society, but it is still important to know how such an approach came to be developed.

Related Books

The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte
Vol. 1 of 2Vol. 1 of 2
by Harriet Martineau

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