Auguste Comte – Positivism

This article first provides a brief introduction to the term ‘positivism’ and then explains it in detail in terms of its relevance to Auguste Comte and its historical background.

Positivism is an ideology that reliable and authentic knowledge can only be obtained by using the scientific method such as experiments, measurements, observations, testing and verification.

Positivism emerged as a scientific approach in the 19th century and challenged the traditional style of acquisition of knowledge which was primarily based on speculation, imagination and guesswork rather than the scientific method.

The main assumptions of positivism are as follows.

  1. Only reliable and authentic knowledge can be called positive or scientific knowledge.
  2. Positive knowledge is the knowledge that is obtained using the scientific method. The term positive knowledge simply means scientific knowledge, and this is why this ideology is called positivism.
  3. Positivism advocates the use of scientific methods (e.g., experiments, measurements, observation, testing and verification) to generate positive or scientific knowledge which is scientifically testable and verifiable.
  4. This approach challenged the traditional style of building knowledge based on speculations, imagination and guesswork because the knowledge generated that way cannot be called positive or scientific knowledge.

   Auguste Comte – the founder of Positivism

Auguste Comte, a French sociologist, is widely seen as the founder of modern Positivism. He was the first philosopher who presented the theory of positivism by giving criteria for building scientific knowledge. The above-mentioned assumptions of positivism draw their insight from the published work of Auguste Comte where he emphasized the application of the scientific method for the acquisition of positive or scientific knowledge. 

Comte’s theory of positivism originates from his ideas in two major works, as follows:

  1. The Course of Positive Philosophy, published in 6 volumes from1830 to 1842.
  2. His book A General View of Positivism, published in 1848.

In the first three volumes of ‘The Course of Positive Philosophy’, Comte discussed the physical sciences such as Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology and Astronomy. In the latter three volumes, Comte discussed some newly emerging social sciences of that time such as Sociology. In all these six volumes, Comte highlighted the importance of the utilization of the scientific method for acquiring knowledge in all disciplines. In his book ‘A General View of Positivism’, Comte discussed what should be the nature of a scientific method to be used as a systematic technique for gathering knowledge that stands true in all situations and can be verified with evidence. 

   Positivism and Sociology

Auguste Comte (1788-1857) was a French philosopher and is known as the father of Sociology. He coined the term Sociology for the first time in 1838. Before 1838, sociology was not an independent science but was seen as a part of general philosophy. Comte laid the foundation of the discipline of Sociology and established it as an independent science.

He believed that positivism is indispensable for all sciences, e.g., natural sciences, social science and so on. However, he was a social philosopher who wanted to establish the newly emerging discipline, sociology, as a science. Therefore, his major focus on the application of positivism deeply relates Sociology so that Sociology can be widely acknowledged as a purely scientific discipline like other established sciences such as Physics, Chemistry and so on.

Having the above goal in mind, Comte defined Sociology as a science of human society – scientific study of the structure and function of society. He emphasized the application of positivism in sociology because he wanted that human society must be studied in a scientific manner to generate knowledge that can contribute to social prosperity and development. In other words, sociological knowledge should be based on reliable and authentic facts rather than speculation or guesswork which was previously seen as a basis for knowledge in different parts of philosophy.

The main points of Comte’s positivism in relation to sociology are as follows.

  1. Sociology is a scientific discipline and must use scientific modes of inquiry for the generation of valid, authentic and verified sociological knowledge.
  2. The sociological knowledge and theories should not be based on speculation, imagination or guesswork.
  3. Sociology is exactly like any other pure science and has the protentional of generating its knowledge with the help of systematic scientific procedures. Comte termed sociology as social physics in the early years of his life because he believed principles of obtaining knowledge used in physics can also be applied in sociology.
  4. It was a general notion that natural sciences are more exact and precise compared to social sciences. However, Comte challenged this general notion by arguing that like natural phenomena, social phenomena can also be studied in a scientific manner to generate exact, precise and objective knowledge.
  5. Comte emphasized the use of systematic procedures in the discipline of sociology, such as experiments, measurements, observations, testing and verification.
  6. Comte also pointed to address the common issue of value judgment in social sciences. He emphasized that sociologists must not involve their personal emotions and values while exploring a social phenomenon. Thus, every finding should be based on objectivity.  
  7. Comte also presented his theory of the three stages of development of human thought as a basis for positivism. He believed that human thought has developed in three stages. In the first stage, the theological stage, human beings viewed the divine powers as the only causative factor of all happenings and events in their surroundings. In the second stage, the metaphysical stage, human beings believed that the happenings and events are caused partially by divine powers and partially by rational factors. In the third stage, the positive stage, human beings started to think that the happenings and events in their surroundings are only driven by rational factors. In this last stage, human thought has become fully advanced where human beings believe only in those facts which can be proved scientifically and thus, they discard all those assumptions which cannot be proved scientifically. Therefore, in this scientific stage, only positivism must prevail for the true exploration of social phenomena.

   Background of Positivism

The branches of knowledge, such as Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics, Economics, Psychology, and Geology have undergone some changes throughout history. In the very beginning, all these branches of knowledge were viewed as a single body of knowledge collectively known as Philosophy. The term Philosophy means love of wisdom which was used by ancient Greek philosophers to refer to the group of all branches of knowledge in the pre-Socratic period.

Though the history of Philosophy can be traced back to the pre-Socratic period, the ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates (470 BC – 399 BC), Plato (428 BC – 348 BC) and Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) are nowadays widely viewed as the founders of the Philosophy. Philosophy was initially divided into its three main divisions 1) Natural Philosophy (Physics), 2) Moral Philosophy (Ethics), and 3) Metaphysical Philosophy (existence of things in the world). Later on, other areas of Philosophy, such as Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics and others, emerged as separate and independent disciplines at various points in history till the 18th century.

The subject matter of each branch of knowledge was expanded and shaped by the contributions of thinkers and philosophers at various stages in history. Until the 12th Century, most thinkers and philosophers would come up with theories and ideas based on their personal experience and wisdom. These theories were based on speculations of wise and learned people but were not products of a scientific method involving systematic procedures such as experimentation, measurement, observation, test and statistical verification. Though some of these theories stand valid today, most of these theories were proved wrong when they were tested scientifically over time. For this reason, the traditional style of building knowledge was criticized and challenged by various philosophers at various points in history, particularly when systematic tools and procedures began to develop and to enable scholars to test the old theories.

Many philosophers realized the need for the application of the scientific method for the acquisition of valid, reliable and verified knowledge which can be called a science in a true sense. It happened when the period of the Dark Ages came to an end and the period of Renaissance (age of reawakening) started to emerge after the 12th Century. The community of scholars and scientists started to grow with the passage of time. Albertus Magnus (1193-1250), Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Roger Bacon (1210-1293), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) were some of the renowned initial scholars and scientists who influenced the world for the acquisition of knowledge through the scientific procedure. The proper application of scientific tools for the acquisition of knowledge due to scientific advancement was seen in the period from 16th Century to the 17th Century, which is also known as the period of the Scientific Revolution. For instance, in the 17th Century, the microscope was advanced enough to magnify human cells to study them properly which became the basis for cell theory in Biology.

Similarly, the scholars and scientists in the Age of Enlightenment (age of reason) in the 18th century highlighted the significance of scientific knowledge based on rational reasoning. Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Renee Descartes and other thinkers of the period of Scientific Revolution were the notable figures who worked for introducing new a paradigm exploring the world through scientific inquiry.

Inspired by these scholars of the Age of Enlightenment, Auguste Comte (1788-1857) published six volumes of ‘The Course of Positive Philosophy’ in 1830, 1835, 1838, 1839, 1841 and 1842 respectively to emphasize the utility of scientific techniques for investigation and acquisition of knowledge for natural as well as social sciences. Comte also published a book titled ‘A General view of Positivism’ in 1848 to describe the correct nature of scientific procedures of inquiry. He suggested that the scientific method should involve experiments, measurements, observation, testing and verification. Using these techniques would enable one to obtain knowledge that can stand true in all situations and is verifiable with evidence. These ideas of Comte as presented in his ‘The Course of Positive Philosophy’ and ‘A General View of Positivism’ of Auguste Comte, serve as the basis for modern Positivism.