Auguste Comte, Excerpt from The Positive Philosophy, pp. 186-200 in Bierstedt (ed.) The Making of Society.  New York: Modern Library.

Original was six volume work appearing between 1830 and 1842.

Concepts to Remember

three stages
   religious = single cause, big questions, ultimate/absolute knowledge
   methaphysical = abstractions, forces, a conceptual system of ideas
   positive = facts and laws about relationships among them
social statics = social statistics, parts of system in relation to one another
social dynamics = evolution/development of society over time


  1. To understand positive philosophy, we must review "general progress of the human mind" (note influence of Condorcet here) (186.3)
  2. All disciplines/sciences pass through three stages -- theological/fictitious, metaphysical/abstract, scientific/positive (186.5)
    1. Theological : seeking absolute knowledge we propose single cause (186.9)
    2. Metaphysical : explanation in terms of abstract personified forces (187.1)
    3. Positive : instead of ultimate explanations, we look for laws, relationships between facts (187.3-4)
    4. Culmination of each stage is a sort of "monotheism" or "unified theory" of everything (187.6)
  3. Evidence: both sciences and the human mind bear traces of stages they've passed through (DJR -- cf theories of atavism that show up in later criminology?)
  4. Theoretical evidence I : how did we start "thinking"
    1. at present time we obviously do use theories to make sense of facts (188.7-8)
    2. every theory must be based on observable facts, but without a theory, one cannot observe facts
    3. early humans would have been stuck in a vicious circle (but they were not since we are where we are now)
    4. how did we break out?  Religious thinking. (188.9)
    5. problem was how to get primitives started down the road of thinking (189.2-3)
    6. in theological stage we ask ridiculously big questions, these excite us, make us feel like we can dominate the world, make us start developing our faculties (cf. alchemy and astrology as "spontaneous" philosophy)
  5. Theoretical evidence II : metaphysical as transition stage
    1. theological and positive so different that something had to come in between
    2. substituting "concepts" for gods is a step toward the abstraction from observations necessary for positive science
  6. So, what is character of positive philosophy? Look for laws and relationships not nature and essences of things (190.4ff)
  7. History : different sciences pass through the different stages at different rates.  This depends on the complexity of their subject matter.  Social is perhaps most complex of all (191.5ff)
  8. Thus, let's propose a new department: sociology!  Note, though, that this branch of knowledge is still rather primitive: lots of theological and metaphysical methods still in use

  9. Social physics (192.8ff) : it's going to take some work.  
    1. At theory level we need to push beyond theological and metaphysical thinking.  
    2. Also need to overcome common confusion early in a science between theory/science and practice/art (cf. biology and medicine).  In social science this means pushing beyond need to always have a practical application in public policy, etc.  Comte wants a "pure" theory of the social.  (195.4)

  10. Ideas about social system : progress? oscillations? succession of identical phases?  Post French revolution, there's a real interest in trying to clarify whether progress per se is the rule or the exception (194.5ff)
  11. Origins of "progress" in Pascal.  Then Montisquieu and Condorcet who built on ideas of Turgot.  Lots of research that tries to document stages of history.
  12. So what should social science be? (197.2ff)
    1. Point is that social phenomena ARE subject to natural laws and that prediction (rational prevision) is possible
    2. Approach will distinguish statics ("conditions" -- cf. anatomy) and dynamics ("development" -- cf. physiology)
  13. Statics (197.7ff) 
    1. look at elements in relation to one another (cf. philosophers who look at something like "law" or "race" or "gender" separately -- Simmel makes a point that resonates with this later when he says that philosophers try to study "love" in it's pure form which is exactly how it does not exist (always comes with hate -- cf. Freud on "ambivalence")).  
    2. "laws of coexistence"  
    3. furnishes a theory of "order" (199.6)
  14. Dynamics (198.3)
    1. basically about social change, evolution, etc.  
    2. "laws of succession"
    3. furnishes a theory of "progress of political practice" (199.6)
  15. "Produced by Natural Laws" : stages are necessary result of what preceded them and the cause of what follows.  


  1. Comte is seen as the founder of "positivism" in sociology.  How do we understand "positivism" in light of this reading?
  2. What is positivism an alternative to?
  3. Does Comte's rigidity about succession of stages invalidate his ideas?
  4. What is here that you can use?