His full name was Isidore Auguste Marie Francois Xavier Comte, but let’s just stick with “Comte.” He was an optimistic thinker and one of the founders of positivism (a movement that, despite its name, has nothing to do with optimistic or positive thinking). Like modern positivists, Comte argued that the only valid truths were objective, measurable, and verifiable observations. Although that might seem like a strong endorsement of science (to the exclusion of everything else), Comte was actually skeptical of certain kinds of science. In some sciences, he believed that the positive stage had been reached, but in others he argued that scientists were still invoking semi-theological ideas such as “nature” and not yet thinking in terms of verifiable laws.
Comte is best known for his concept of inevitable social progress, which was rigidly pre-determined to go through three stages: a theological phase, a metaphysical phase, and a positive phase. Like other deterministic models of social change, Comte’s model has not been supported by subsequent history. Today, Comte can seem like a somewhat comic figure, coming up with pet theories and presenting them as universal truths. But he had a major influence on later philosophy, especially in the work of post-Enlightenment thinkers like John Stuart Mill, who rejected some of Comte’s more ludicrous ideas but found inspiration in his broader image of ever-advancing social progress. He also inspired early sociologists like Herbert Spencer and Emile Durkheim to establish a new branch of science – “Sociology” – concerned with an empirical understanding of social phenomena.
For someone so philosophically optimistic, Comte’s personal life was bleak. Born in France at the end of the French Revolution, he was raised by a conservative Catholic family during a time of intense social upheaval. Although he was not as bitterly opposed to Catholicism as some of his contemporaries, he did reject his parents’ views and decided to leave his family for Paris.
Arriving in the capital at 19 with no money and no prospects, he was lucky to find a job working as a secretary for the writer Henri Saint-Simon, who was famous for his utopian visions of a perfect, eternally virtuous society. He ultimately left that job – some sources say it was a dispute over authorship, others simply that they didn’t see eye-to-eye on Saint-Simon’s ideas. (Saint-Simon, of course, may have felt that it was not his secretary’s job to argue about those ideas.) It was his last regular job. He sought work as a professor of philosophy, but no department would hire him. He published books, but they didn’t sell well enough to support him. He found occasional work as a math teacher, but mostly lived on gifts from friends and supporters.
At age 28 he was admitted to a mental hospital, and he attempted suicide a year later. He spent many years in an unsuccessful marriage, went through a divorce and almost immediately fell in love with a married woman who was unwilling to leave her husband. He died of stomach cancer at age 59, still trying to get his new religion off the ground. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy describes Comte as having led “an appallingly miserable life, of which misery he was the chief author.”
The Law of Three Stages
Comte argued that all societies pass through three stages:
- Theological: explains events in terms of supernatural causes
- Metaphysical: explains events in terms of ostensibly natural but poorly-understood, mysterious, and unobservable causes
- Positive: explains events in terms of laws and empirical connections
Although societies pass through these stages as a whole, certain aspects of society might run ahead of the progression and others behind. So at the time he was writing, Comte argued that astronomy and physics had already achieved the positive stage, thanks to the work of Galileo and Newton, respectively. Newton, in particular, seemed to have gathered all of physics together in a perfect, unified, and wholly law-based system. (Later work, though, notably by Einstein, would show the fundamental flaws in Newton’s system.) Chemistry was just starting to reach the positive stage, while biology was stuck in the metaphysical stage, still invoking a mysterious pseudo-divine “nature” to explain its observations.
The Religion of Humanity
Comte rejected religion, but he also thought its absence was a cause of violence and social turmoil. He rejected the actual beliefs of Catholicism, especially the idea of a supernatural god, but he believed its rituals and institutions were necessary to maintain a stable society. So he tried inventing a new religion: the Religion of Humanity. The religion was almost a shot-for-shot remake of Catholicism, including versions of baptism (called “Presentation”), confirmation (“Initiation”), and even a pope (Comte himself, obviously). Instead of saints and martyrs, there would be a hierarchy of scientific heroes like Newton and Aristotle.
Comte’s Religion of Humanity went nowhere – no one seemed to be interested in its particular combination of secular ideology and religious ritual. But today there are many people who identify as “Humanists” because they share Comte’s idea that ritual is important even if God isn’t real. Humanists are often found as part of the congregation at Unitarian Universalist churches, which seek to provide a structure of ritual for all people regardless of their theological views.
In the final, positive state, the mind has given up the vain search after Absolute notions, the origin and destination of the universe, and the cause of phenomena, and applies itself to the study of their laws – that is, their invariable relations of succession and resemblance. Reasoning and observation, duly combined, are the means of this knowledge.
Much of Comte’s writing hasn’t aged well, but this quote is an apt summary of positivism as it came to be developed after Comte’s death. Logical Positivists like Carnap did not necessarily cite Comte as a direct influence, but they would dedicate their careers to pursuing a definition of truth that he would have liked.
Social positivism only accepts duties, for all and towards all. Its constant social viewpoint cannot include any notion of rights, for such notion always rests on individuality.
Comte was writing in the 19th century, when the French and American revolutions had just brought the notion of individual universal rights into the forefront of political thought. Comte already thought that idea was out of date. He argued that the single, inviolable individual was a metaphysical fiction like “nature,” and that in his fully-developed positivistic society there would be talk only of duties, not rights.
In Pop Culture
During an episode of Metalocalypse, Murderface decides to get religious after a near-death incident. He tries every church he can find, including the Church of Atheists, where the priest stands up and says, in somber tones: “Oh God, whom we do not believe in, let us…not pray to you whom does not exist.” The church doesn’t call itself Humanist as Comte would have preferred, but it does have all the trappings of a traditional religion with only the God taken out – not unlike Comte’s Church of Humanity.