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Sociologist Auguste Comte

Updated on December 23, 2012

Methods of Inquiry

Law of Human Progress Auguste Comte, along with Montesquieu, Henry Saint Simon, Herbert Spencer among others, can be regarded as one of the founding fathers of Sociology. It is he who gave the discipline its name, Sociology by taking two parts from two different languages, Greek and Latin. He first called the new discipline he wanted to establish as Social Physics. Later, he changed it to Sociology after discovering that a Belgian Statistician, Quetelet had made use of the same term to designate a different discipline.

Auguste comte was born on January, 19, 1798 in Montipellier in a Catholic family. His father was attached to order. Comte was an outstanding and at the same time a rebellious student. He entered the Ecole polytechnique in Paris in 1814. He came into contact with Henry Saint-Simon in 1817. Their association continued till 1824. Comte was influenced in a major way by Saint Simon.

Comte was a positivist. His aim was to create a naturalistic science of society, studying the society in the same way as the natural sciences studies nature. He attacked the negative philosophy developed by the eighteenth century individualist philosophy. According to him, the negative philosophy of the previous century had only destroyed rather than laid the foundations for the new edifice. Comte attempted to explain the laws of motion that characterize social dynamics and the conditions that account for social statics and thus, both progress and order, and change and stability form the twin pillars of his system.

He published the first volume of his major work, the course of positive philosophy in 1830. The sixth and the last volume was published in 1842. Comte's purpose was to work out a scientific scheme or reorganization of human society and of social analysis. He believed that the foundation of

social progress, or reorganisation of society must rest upon a spirit of tolerance and justice. Believing that the evolution of the human mind proceeded according to definite laws, he set out to demonstrate them by scientific processes, with the help of historical verification. This was the aim of his great work, Course of positive philosophy.

Comte's second important work System of Positive Policy was published during 1851-1854. It consisted of four volumes. He began to give more prominence to the emotional side of humanity. He hailed the primacy of emotion over intellect, of feeling over mind. He proclaimed the healing powers of warm femininity for a humanity long dominated by the harshness of masculine intellect. He sought to establish the Religion of Humanity of which Comte proclaimed himself the High Priest. With this he wanted to unify all the divergent beliefs and practices of humanity. He now appeared to repudiate his previous doctrines. The prophet of the positive stage seemed to fall back into the darkness of the theological stage. Hence, he lost some of his disciples and admirers such as J.S. Mill! and Emile Littre.

J.S. Mills regarded Comte as among the first of European thinkers and the first to institute a new social science. Mill admits he owes many valuable ideas to Comte. Harriet Martineau, translator of Comte's work into English, summarizes Comte's career as follows. There can be no question but that his whole career was one of the most intense concentration of mind, gigantic industry rigid economy, and singular punctuality and exactness in all his habits.

Methods Of Inquiry: Society, according to Comte, must be studied on the same scientific lines as the world of nature. Though the social world presents added complexities, it follows basic laws just as the rest of the cosmos. The idea that society should be studied in the same manner as the natural phenomena are studied in the natural sciences, constitutes the essence of his positivism.

It is anti-metaphysical, factual and inductive. It lays emphasis on observation and classification in its investigation of social phenomena. It abandons the search for an absolute idea and replaces it by a basic interpretation that social movements are necessarily subject to invariant physical laws, rather than being generated by some kind of will.

Sociology should discover the inevitable laws of development and order in human affairs. As long as people believed that social actions are arbitrary, and that they followed no laws, no scientific study of society .would be possible. The aim is to subject social phenomena, like all others, to invariable natural laws which prescribe the limits and character of social action for each period.

But what are the methods which this new science has to use in discovering the laws of social order and social progress? Auguste Comte's answer is that it must make use of the same methods as have been used in the natural sciences. They are:

  1. Observation
  2. Experimentation
  3. Comparison and
  4. Historical method.

Observation: Observation is indispensable to the scientific method. But observation does not mean the haphazard search for any and every fact. If the observer does not have a theory to guide him in his observation, he will not be a position to know that facts to look for. Further, no social fact can have any scientific meaning till it is connected with other social fact by preliminary theory. So observation is fruitful if it is aided by a statical and dynamic laws.

Experimentation: Comte is of the opinion that experimentation is only partly applicable in the social sciences. According to him, direct experimentation is not feasible in the human world. But he thinks that a sort of experimentation usually takes place whenever there is determined interference with the regular course of the phenomena. He regards pathological cases as the true equivalent of pure experimentation. Disturbances in society are comparable to diseases in the individual organisms. The normal can be understood by studying the pathological.

Comparison: The comparative method is the chief weapon of the sociologist. It broadens our understanding of the social laws. This method is most useful when we want to study the influence of heredity or climate on human affairs. The comparative method, according to Comte, reveals that social differences are due to the inequality of evolution rather than due to climate.

Comparison of human societies to animals is not as important to Comte as it is to Sgencer. But such a comparison would show the way to the first germs of the social relations and to the borderlines between the human and the animal. Comte regards comparisons within and between the human societies as more central to sociology. There are many societies on earth which are at various levels of evolution. These societies are complete by independent of each other. Thus the comparative method yields a way of observing all the different stages of evolution at once.

Comte thinks that the human race has progressed in single and uniform manner, various societies have attained extremely unequal degrees of development. The reasons for this unequal progress are little understood. The comparative study of primitive societies would help in unearthing certain stages in the development of mankind which have been permanently buried in the past.

Historical Method: In addition to the above conventional methods of science, sociology has the added advantage of being capable of using the historical method. Sociology, according to Comte, would be nothing it is not informed by sense of historical evolution.

The historical comparison of the successive stages of humility is the core of sociological inquiry.

The Law of Human Progress

The Law of three stages or the law of human progress is one of the most famous of Comte's contributions. He makes use of what he calls as scientific comparison to arrive at this law.

This law is based mainly on the development of human intelligence and the progress of ideas. Through this law, Comte intends to interpret the genesis of our knowledge of nature. He tries to describe the necessary and actual connections between ideas at different stages in the history of human kind.

According to this law, human knowledge evolves through three different stages - each of our leading conceptions - each branch of our knowledge, passes successively through three different theoretical conditions. The Theological or fictitious; the Metaphysical or abstract, and the Scientific or positive.

The evolution of the human mind parallels the evolution of the individual mind, phylogeny, the development of human groups is retraced in ontogeny, the development of the individual.

The Theological Stage: It is that stage in which men see and judge everything in terms of some supernatural beings. Primitive men explain everything in terms of some supernatural beings. They find god in everything and everywhere.

Comte subdivides the theological stage into three sub-stages-fetishism, polytheism and monotheism. The theological stage begins with fetishism, which regards all objects in nature as animate. But too many fetishes are a constant source of confusion. Man gradually gets rid of the fetishes. He begins to believe in different Gods pertaining to different aspects of life.This is the stage of polytheism. Monotheism is the final sub-stage of the theological stage.

Man in this stage believes in only one god. He puts faith in a single abstract will with all the attributes of deity. He believes that all phenomena are produced by the immediate action of the one God; that is, there is only one God the other things are His Creatures.

The Metaphysical Stage: In this stage, man drops the idea of a supernatural personal will. It supposes all phenomena to be produced by abstract forces. Things are explained with the help of metaphysical abstractions. Plato's Ideas or Hegel's Absolute Idea are examples of such metaphysical abstractions. In this stage, it is no longer a god that causes and directs nature; it is no a power or a force or an occult anality, which is inherent in matter. This stage does not exhibit any definite characteristics because it is only a link between the theological and the positive stage, it is a stage of. arrested development.

The Positive Stage: The metaphysical abstractions are not based on facts. So they cannot stand the test of actual observation and reasoning. Man reaches the positive stage when he drops the metaphysical absolute and proceeds on the path of reasoning and observation. Comte writes: reasoning and observation, duly combined, are the means of this knowledge. What is now understood when we speak of an explanation of facts is simply the establishment of a connection between single phenomena and some general facts the number of which continually diminishes with the progress of Science.

The three ways of thinking characteristic of the three different stages may coexist in the same mind or the same society with regard to different sciences. He writes, It must be steadily kept in view that the same mind may be in the positive state with regard to the most simple and general sciences; in the metaphysical with regard to the more complex and special; and in the theological with regard to social science, which is so complex and special as to have hitherto taken no scientific form at all.

For Comte, each successive stage or sub-stage necessarily grows out of the proceeding one. The new system cannot establish itself before the destruction of the old and before the potentialities of the old order have been exhausted. Even the greatest minds cannot come upon the characteristics of the coming period till they are close to it.

The passage from one stage to another is never continuous and direct. Human history consists of organic and critical periods. The organic periods are characterized by social stability and intellectual harmony and equilibrium among the different parts of society. In the critical periods the old certainties are upset, traditions are undermined and social disequilibrium sets in. These critical periods are very disturbing, but necessary for the birth of a new organic stage.

Further, Comte stressed that each type of human thinking in each stage is correlated with a particular type of social organization.

In the theological stage, political events were explained by the will of god and political authority was based on devine right. This stage is dominated by priests and ruled by military men. The key note of the theologicl stage was military and monarchical social organisation. Family is the basic social unit in this stage.

In the metaphysical stage, the absolute authority of the king decreases. Devine rights are dropped. Legal aspects tend to dominate, resulting in the domination of churchmen and lawyers. The state becomes predominant in this stage.

The positive stage disposes of all the conflicting philosophies giving rise to the unity of all humanity. This stage aims at continuous increase in the material, intellectual and moral weljbeing of all human societies. Society enters the industrial era. This stage will be governed by industrial administrators and scientists. The whole human race becomes the operative social unit.

Though intellectual evolution is the guiding principle of human progress, Comte admits other casual factors also. Increasing population, the resulting concentration of the human species, the increasing division of labor all help in unfolding the intellectual forces which had been hitherto suppressed among a scanty population.


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    • mathira profile image

      mathira 6 years ago from chennai

      A thorough analysis of Auguste Comte.