Auguste Comte 1798-1857
Auguste Comte is mostly known as the creator of the science of sociology, the foundations of which he laid in his two main treatises, the Course in Positive Philosophy (1830-1842) and the System of Positive Policy (1851-1854).
He coined himself the word sociology, which appeared for the first time in a footnote to the 47th lesson of the Course.
Auguste Comte was born on January 19, 1798, on the first of Pluviose in the Sixth Year of the Republic, in the southern French city of Montpellier. His father, a fervent Catholic and discreet Royalist, was a petty government official, an earnest, methodical, and straightlaced man, devoted to his work, his religion, and his family, whose only pastime was to cultivate his garden. The older Comte despised the Revolution and decried the persecution of Catholicism it had brought in its wake but never forgot that he was in the service of the government, no matter how quickly its form and composition changed in these turbulent times. He was, above all, a man attached to order.
Small, delicate, and subject to many illnesses, the young Auguste Comte nevertheless proved to be an outstanding student at the imperial lycee of his native town, which he had entered at the age of nine. He was studiously devoted to his work, but he was also among the most recalcitrant and rebellious of the students. Very early in his school career he lost the faith of his parents and substituted for it a fervent republican faith in liberty. He hated the reigning Emperor and dreamed of a revival of the glorious days of the Revolution.
The only teacher who made a very strong impression on the young Comte was his professor of mathematics, a former Protestant pastor named Daniel Encontre, a man of broad learning and catholic concerns. It was probably he who awoke in the young Comte his interest in mathematics and also served as a role model for the wide-ranging intellectual that Comte was to become.
In August 1814, Comte entered the competition for the entrance examinations of the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique, a kind of governmental M.I.T., but even more difficult to enter, and was admitted as the fourth man on the entrance list. He registered in October and moved to Paris--a city he was never to leave again, except for relatively short periods.
The Emperor had never been very popular in the Ecole Polytechnique, which had been created by the Convention as a scientific school. He had reorganized it on a military model and had it directed by a military governor and his general staff. From the point of view of Napoleon, the school ought to have trained mainly officers, even though it was also set up to furnish engineers for the major public services. The students, still having the original scientific character of the school clearly in their minds, saw themselves as budding scientists and disagreed with Napoleon's practical emphasis.
Early in 1814, when the Allies attacked Paris, young polytechnicians fought in the suburbs against the enemy, but in November the school operated again as usual, and the young Comte, though a bit bored, could enjoy the privilege of sitting at the feet of many of the eminent scientists of France. He soon felt that this was his school, a school from which he not only wished to graduate with honors, but where he hoped to teach after the end of his studies. Yet the young Comte, whom most of his comrades already considered the leader of his class, continued the disorderly and unruly behavior of his Montpellier lycee days. Then the ardent hater of Napoleonic tyranny, he now found the restoration of the Bourbon kings even less to his taste. He shared the Republican faith of the majority of his schoolmates; with the reestablished monarchy and its mediocre servants, even the Napoleonic Empire appeared beautiful.
When Napoleon returned, the school as a whole enthusiastically joined his camp, and Comte was one of the leaders of his revolutionary fellows. But the hundred days passed quickly. After Waterloo and the capitulation of Paris, order was reestablished and the school routine began all over again. Comte returned to his course of studies--and to his usual insubordinate and insolent behavior toward the school authorities.
In April 1816, six students protested to the administration against its antiquated mode of examination. When these six were to be punished, the whole student body expressed its solidarity. The administration appealed to the minister in charge. Soon the governor announced that the school was to be closed. It was to be reorganized, and those students who had behaved themselves could apply for readmission at a later date. Boiling with rage, Comte went home. But Montpellier did not hold him long. The action was in Paris.
Returning to the capital in July, Comte supported himself by tutoring and lived in hopes of the imminent overthrow of the Bourbon oppressors. He met a general who had a number of connections in the United States and who promised to find him a position in an American version of the Ecole Polytechnique, which was about to be organized. Comte, full of Republican ardor, dreamed of emigrating forever to the land of the free. But the project fell through. Congress approved in principle the idea of creating an American Polytechnique but postponed the opening indefinitely.
Comte continued to give private lessons in mathematics and helped translate a book on geometry from the English, but the future looked bleak. He did not even try to gain readmission to the Ecole Polytechnique, which was being reopened. And then came the coup de foudre, which was to change the direction of his life.
From Coser, 1977:13-15.
(Special acknowledgement to Larry R. Ridener and The Dead Sociologists' Society) http://raven.jmu.edu/~ridenelr/personal/VITA.HTML
The Alliance with Saint-Simon
In the summer of 1817 Comte was introduced to Henri Saint-Simon, then director of the periodical Industrie, a creative, fertile, disorderly, and tumultuous man who was to have a major and lasting influence on Comte's life and works. Saint-Simon, at this point nearly sixty years old, was attracted by the brilliant young man who possessed a trained and methodical capacity for work, which Saint-Simon so conspicuously lacked. Comte became his secretary and close collaborator.
The two men worked for a while in intimate conjunction. In the beginning Comte was paid three hundred francs a month, but when Saint-Simon again experienced those financial straits with which he was frequently afflicted, Comte stayed on without pay both for intellectual reasons and in hopes of future reward.
A number of scholars have argued the question of who benefited the most from the close collaboration, Comte or Saint-Simon. There is no need to take sides in this somewhat byzantine quarrel. It suffices to say that Comte was influenced in a major way by his patron, even though his close contact with Saint-Simon may have brought to fruition ideas that had already germinated in Comte's mind. It is certain, in any case, that the young Republican advocate of equality was converted to an elitist point of view soon after meeting Saint-Simon; one of Comte's first essays, written in July 1819, testifies to this fact. The elitist conception stayed with him throughout his career.
The sketches and essays that Comte wrote during the years of close association with Saint-Simon, especially between 1819 and 1824, contain the nucleus of all his later major ideas. One finds here not only the major scientific ideas he was to develop in his Cours de philosophie positive, but also, and this is often overlooked, the beginnings of his later conceptions concerning the need for a unifying communal order based on a newly instituted spiritual power.
In 1824 Comte finally broke with his master. The immediate cause concerned a somewhat involved and rather squalid fight over the form in which one of Comte's essays was to be published. Should it be under Saint-Simon's name as in the past? Or as Auguste Comte's Systeme de politque positive, first volume, first part? Comte was given one hundred copies of his work under his own name. At the same time, Saint-Simon put out one thousand copies entitled Catechisme des industriels by Henri de Saint-Simon, Third Installment, a work that included Comte's essay, with an unsigned preface written by Saint-Simon in which he found fault with his disciple. Comte now repudiated the master whose name became anathema to him during the rest of his life. The master once denied was rejected over and over again.
The quarrel had intellectual as well as material causes. To be sure, Comte had begun to chafe under the pretension of the old man who continued to treat him as the obedient pupil he had once been rather than as a member of a kind of competitive alliance. Comte had already begun to make a name for himself in the world of liberal journalism and among an elite of scientists. But the two collaborators now also diverged in regard to the strategy to be used for winning consent and influence among the public. Saint-Simon, ever the activist, wished to emphasize the need for immediate reform. What he wanted above all was to inspire the liberal industrialists and bankers who were his backers to take prompt steps for the reorganization of French society. Comet, in contrast, emphasized that theoretical work had to take precedence over reform activities, and that establishing the foundations of the scientific doctrine was more important for the time being than effecting any practical influence. Furthermore, and such are the ironies of intellectual history, Comte, the future High Priest of Humanity, objected strenuously to the religious cast that Saint-Simon now began to give to his doctrine.
And so, although he now basked in the glory of having received letters of admiration and encouragement for his last work from such eminent scientists as Cuvier and von Humboldt, as well as from a variety of liberal deputies and publicists, Comte again stood alone--a marginal intellectual, only tenuously connected with the Parisian world of letters and science. There was now a Comtean system, but its author was without position or office, without chair or salary.
In the meantime, Comte thought that he had at least found some security in his personal life. In February 1825, he decided to marry Caroline Massin, a young woman whom he had known for several years, more recently as the owner of a small bookstore and earlier as a streetwalker in the neighborhood of the Palais Royal. The marriage was a tempestuous one-- they separated several times and finally parted ways forever--but for a time Comte felt that he had found domestic anchorage, although he was still adrift in his search for professional recognition and social position.
Comte refused to accept a proffered position as a chemical engineer, continuing instead to eke out a meager living by giving private lessons. In this way he could devoted himself to theoretical rather than practical problems and was sometimes able to establish close ties with the high-born families whose sons he taught. For a while he also gained some additional income from writing, more particularly for the Producteur, a journal founded by the spiritual sons of Saint-Simon after the death of their master.
During these years Comte's major preoccupation was centered in the elaboration of his positive philosophy. When the work seemed advanced enough to be presented to a wider audience, Comte, having no official chair from which to expound his theories, decided to offer a private course to which auditors would subscribe in advance and where he would disclose his summa of positive knowledge. The course opened in April, 1826. Some illustrious men graced the audience. Alexander von Humboldt, several members of the Academy of Sciences, the economist Charles Dunoyer, the duc Napoleon de Montebello, Hippolyte Carnot, the son of the organizer of the revolutionary armies and brother of the great scientist Sadi Carnot, and a number of former students of the Ecole Polytechnique were in attendance.
Comte gave three of his lectures, but when the audience came for the fourth, they found the doors closed. Comte had fallen ill, having suffered a serious mental collapse. For a while he was treated for "mania" in the hospital of the famous Dr. Esquirol, where this author of a Treatise on Mania attempted to cure him by cold-water treatment and bloodletting. When Madame Comte finally decided to bring him back to their home, Esquirol objected. The register of discharge of the patient had a note in Esquirol's hand, "N.G." (Non Geuri--not recovered.)
After returning home, Comte fell into a deep melancholic state, and he even attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Seine. But in the course of the year 1827, and after an extended trip to his native Montpellier, the patient slowly recovered. In August 1828, he symbolized his victory over the illness by writing a review of a book entitled Irritation and Folly.
The course of lectures was resumed in 1829, and Comte was pleased again to find in the audience several great names of science and letters. Yet, the small reputation he enjoyed proved a fragile support. A number of eminent men continued to stand by him, but as time went on he gradually became an object of ridicule in the scientific community. Specialists of every field united in condemnation of a man who seemed to have the promethean ambition to encompass the development of all the sciences in his encyclopedic enterprise.
Comte now resumed his wretched life in neglect and isolation. During the years 1830-1842, when he wrote his masterwork, the Cours de philosophie positive, he continued to live miserably on the margin of the academic world. All attempts to be appointed to a chair at the Ecole Polytechnique or to a position with the Academy of Sciences or the College de France were of not avail. He only managed in 1832 to be appointed "repetiteur d'analyse et de mecanique" at the Ecole; five years later he was also given the positions of external examiner for the same school. The first position brought a meager two thousand francs, the second little more. He also taught mathematics at a private school, and these three positions, together with unused per diem fees paid him as a traveling examiner for the Ecole, allowed him to live just above the margin of poverty.
During the years of intense concentration when he wrote the Cours, he not only was troubled by financial difficulties and continued academic rebuffs, but by increasing marital difficulties. Slowly Comte withdrew further and further into his shell. The system he elaborated began to dominate the man. For reasons of "cerebral hygiene," he no longer followed the current literature in all the many fields he wrote about. In fact, he decided in 1838 that he would no longer read any scientific work, limiting himself to the reading of fiction and poetry. In his last years the only book he read over and over again was the Imitation of Christ.
Yet despite all these adversities, Comte slowly began to acquire disciples. Perhaps more gratifying than the conversion of a few remarkable French disciples, such as the eminent scholar Emile Littre who became his close follower, was the fact that his positive doctrine now had penetrated across the Channel and received considerable attention there. Sir David Brewster, an eminent physicist, welcomed it in the pages of the Edinburgh Review in 1838 and, most gratifying of all, John Stuart Mill became a close admirer and spoke of Comte in his System of Logic (1843) as "among the first of European thinkers." Comte and Mill corresponded regularly, and Comte told his British correspondent not only of his scientific work but of the trial and tribulations of his marital life and the difficulties of his material existence. Mill even arranged for a number of British admirers of Comte to send him a considerable sum of money to tide him over his financial difficulties.
Soon after the Cours was finally finished, Comte's wife left him forever. Lonely and isolated, he continued to assail those scientists who refused to recognize him. He complained to ministers, wrote quixotic letters to the press, needled his enemies, and taxed the patience of his few remaining friends. In 1844, having created too many enemies at the Ecole Polytechnique, his appointment as examiner was not renewed. Hence, he lost about half of his income. (He was to lose his other position with the Ecole in 1851.)
The year 1844, when he had been publicly humiliated by not being reappointed at the Ecole, was also, it turned out, the year of his greatest elation. He fell in love with Clothilde de Vaux, an upper-class woman not yet thirty years old, who had been abandoned by her husband, a petty official. He had absconded with government funds and gone to Brussels, leaving her, as well as his gambling debts, in Paris. Comte met her at a young disciple's house and fell passionately in love with her. Suddenly the cool and methodical mask that Comte had presented to the outside world seemed to dissolve. Comte in love was a Comte transformed. All the previously repressed passionate elements of his nature now came to the fore. The encounter with Clothilde, short as it was to be, proved as important to the middle-aged Comte as the encounter with Saint-Simon had been to the young man.
The grande passion never led to physical fulfillment. Clothilde resisted all his entreaties and kept the affair on a lofty platonic and romantic plane. And, only a few months after they had exchanged their first love letters, Clothilde took to her bed, stricken by that most romantic of illnesses, tuberculosis. Almost a year after the beginning of the affair she died.
Comte now vowed to devote the rest of his life to the memory of "his angel." The Systeme de politique positive, which he had begun to sketch in 1844, was to become a memorial to his beloved. In its pages, Comte now hailed the primacy of emotion over intellect, of feeling over mind; he proclaimed over and over the healing powers of warm femininity for a humanity too long dominated by the harshness of masculine intellect.
When the Systeme finally appeared between 1851 and 1854, Comte lost many, if not most, of those rationalist followers he had acquired with so much difficulty over the last fifteen years. John Stuart Mill and Emile Littre were not willing to concede that universal love was the solvent for all the difficulties of the age. Nor could they accept the Religion of Humanity of which Comte now proclaimed himself the High Priest. The multiple ritual observances, the special calendar, the whole elaborate rigmarole of the cult now unveiled appeared to them a repudiation of Comte's previous message. The prophet of the positive stage seemed to fall back into the darkness of the theological stage. The intimation of things to come, which can already be found in his earliest writings, had not commanded their attention.
Comte was undismayed by the loss of disciples. Let them go; he would attract others to the bosom of the new Church. Comte decided that he would henceforth sign all his circulars "The Founder of Universal Religion, Great Priest of Humanity." From the seat o the new pontiff now poured letters to the powerful of the world--the Czar Nicholas, the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, the head of the Jesuits--trying to convert them to the new order. And at home, Comte now lectured to diverse audiences, more particularly the working class, to convert them to the new creed. He wrote appeals to the workers, a Positive Catechism, Appeals to Conservatives--in fact, appeals to anybody and everybody who seemed at all disposed to listen.
In 1848, a few days after the February Revolution, he had founded the Societe Positiviste, which became in the early fifties the main center of his teaching. The members tithed themselves to assure the livelihood of the master and vowed to spread his message. Comte now sent weekly messages to his disciples in the provinces and abroad, which he compared to Saint Paul's epistles. Missions functioned in Spain, England, the United States, and Holland. Every evening, from seven to nine, except on Wednesday when the Societe Positiviste had its regular meeting, Comte received his Parisian disciples at home. Former polytechnicians and future politicians, intellectuals and manual workers, here intermingled in their great love for the master. He who had been denied so often finally found rest in the knowledge that he had at last found disciples who, unlike the former false friends, did not come together admiring his intellect alone, but basked in the emanation of his love and loved him in return.
Comte had travelled far from the republican and libertarian enthusiasms of his youth. The rebellious student from Montpellier now preached the virtues of submission and the necessity of order. The twin motto of the Positive Church was still Order and Progress, but in these last years ten need for order assumed ever greater weight in the eyes of its founder. Revulsion from the bloody events of the June days of 1848 had finally brought Comte into the camp of Napoleon III, and it was this rage for order that now made him see Czars and Grand Viziers, even the head of the Jesuits, as brothers under the skin.
On the seventeenth of June, 1857, Comte, for the first time in eleven years, failed to visit the grave of Clothilde at the Pere Lachaise cemetery. The early symptoms of an internal cancer kept him at home. The illness progressed swiftly, and he died on the fifth of September. The following Tuesday, a small group of disciples, friends, and neighbors followed his bier to the Pere Lachaise. Here his tomb became the center of a small positivist cemetery where, buried close to the master, are his most faithful disciples.
From Coser, 1977:15-20.
Comte's aim was to create a naturalistic science of society, which would both explain the past development of mankind and predict its future course. In addition to building a science capable of explaining the laws of motion that govern humanity over time, Comte attempted to formulate the conditions that account for social stability at any given historical moment. The study of social dynamics and social statics--of progress and order, of change and stability--are the twin pillars of his systems.
The society of man, Comte taught, must be studied in the same scientific manner as the world of nature. It is subject to basic laws just as is the rest of the cosmos, even though it presents added complexities. Natural science, Comte argued, had succeeded in establishing the lawfulness of natural phenomena. It discovered that these phenomena, from the falling of stones to the movement of planets, followed ordered sequences of development. In the world of nature, science had succeeded in progressively contracting the realm of the apparently nonordered, the fortuitous and the accidental. The stage was now set for a similar endeavor in the study of society.
Natural scientists, since the days of Newton and his immediate predecessors, had developed explanatory schemes in which the previous vain quest for first and final causes had been abandoned and had been replaced by the study of laws, that is, of "invariable relations of succession and resemblance." Instead of relying on the authority of tradition, the new science relied on "reasoning and observation, duly combined" as the only legitimate means of attaining knowledge. Every scientific theory must be based on observed facts, but it is equally true that "facts cannot be observed without the guidance of some theory."
The new social sciences that Comte sought to establish he first called "social physics;" later, when he thought that the term had been "stolen" from him by the Belgian social statistician, Adolphe Quetelet, he coined the word "sociology," a hybrid term compounded of Latin and Greek parts. It was to be patterned after the natural sciences, not only in its empirical methods and epistemological underpinnings, but also in the functions it would serve for mankind. Far from being of theoretical interest alone, the social sciences, like the natural sciences, must ultimately be of concrete benefit to man and play a major part in the amelioration of the human condition.
In order for man to transform his nonhuman environment to his advantage, he must know the laws that govern the natural world, "For it is only by knowing the laws of phenomena, and thus being able to foresee them, that we can . . . set them to modify one another for our advantage. . . . Whenever we effect anything great it is through a knowledge of natural laws. . . From Science comes Prevision; from Prevision comes Action." (Savoir pour prevoir et prevoir pour pouvoir.) In a like manner, social action beneficial to mankind will become possible once the laws of motion of human evolution are established, and the basis for social order and civic concord is identified.
As long as men believed that social events "were always exposed to disturbance by the accidental intervention of the legislator, human or divine, no scientific previsions of them would be possible." As long as they believe that social actions followed no law and were, in fact, arbitrary and fortuitous, they could take no concerted action to ameliorate their lot. Under these circumstances men naturally clashed with one another in the pursuit of their differing individual interests. When this was the case, a Hobbesian model of society, in which only power and the willing acceptance of power permit a semblance of order, seemed appropriate and plausible. But things are different once sociology can teach men to recognize the invariable laws of development and order in human affairs. At that time men will learn to utilize these laws for their own collective purposes. "We shall find that there is no chance of order and agreement but in subjecting social phenomena, like all others, to invariable natural laws, which shall, as a whole, prescribe for each period, with entire certainty, the limits and character of social action."
The discovery of the basic laws will cure men of overweening ambition; they will learn that at any historical moment the margin of societal action is limited by the exigencies of the proper functioning of the social organism. But at the same time, men will also be enabled to act deliberately within given limits by curbing the operation of societal laws to their own purposes. In the realm of the social, as elsewhere, "the office of science is not to govern, but to modify phenomena; and to do this it is necessary to understand their laws." Above all, once the new scientific dispensation comes into its own, men will no longer think in absolute terms, but in terms relative to a particular state of affairs in society. It is impossible, for example, to talk about political aims without considering the social and historical context of political action. By recognizing and acknowledging the constraint that any social order imposes on action, men will at the same time be enabled freely to order their society within the bounds imposed by necessity.
The new positive science dethroned the authority of perennial tradition. Comte's oft- repeated insistence that nothing is absolute but the relative lies at the very core of his teaching. Instead of accepting canonical truths as everlastingly valid, he insisted on the continued progress of human understanding and the self-corrective character of the scientific enterprise. "All investigation into the nature of beings, and their first and final causes, must always be absolute; whereas the study of the laws of phenomena must be relative, since it supposes a continuous progress of speculation subject to the gradual improvement of observation, without the precise reality ever being fully disclosed. . . . The relative character of scientific conceptions is inseparable from the true idea of natural laws.
By no means did Comte reject all authority. Once men recognize the overriding authority of science in the guidance of human affairs, they will also abandon the illusory quest for an unfettered "right of free inquiry, or the dogma of unbounded liberty of conscience." Only those willing to submit themselves to the rigorous constraints of scientific methodology and to the canons of scientific evidence can presume to have a say in the guidance of human affairs. Freedom of personal opinion makes no sense in astronomy or physics, and in the future such freedom will be similarly inappropriate in the social sciences. It is an insufferable conceit on the part of ordinary men to presume that they should hold opinions about matters of scientific fact. The intellectual reorganization now dawning in the social sciences "requires the renunciation by the greater number of their right of individual inquiry on subjects above their qualifications." Just as is the case in the natural sciences today, so in the sociology of the future, "the right of free inquiry will abide within its natural and permanent limits; that is, men will discuss, under appropriate intellectual conditions, the real connections of various consequences with fundamental rules universally respected." The exigent requirements of scientific discourse will set firm limits on vain speculation and unbridled utopianism.
From Coser, 1977:3-5.
Methods of Inquiry
What then are the resources upon which sociology can draw when it sets itself the task of explaining the laws of progress and of social order? They are, first of all, the same that have been used so successfully in the natural sciences: observation, experimentation, and comparison.
Observation does not mean the unguided quest for miscellaneous facts. "But for the guidance of a preparatory theory," the observer would not know what facts to look at." "No social fact can have any scientific meaning till it is connected with some other social fact" by a preliminary theory. Hence, observation can come into its own only when it is subordinated to the statical and dynamic laws of phenomena. But within these limits it remains indispensable.
The second scientific method of investigation, experimentation, is only partly applicable in the social sciences. Direct experimentation is not feasible in the human world. But "experimentation takes place whenever the regular course of the phenomenon is interfered with in any determinate manner. . . . Pathological cases are the true scientific equivalent of pure experimentation." Disturbances in the social body are "analogous to diseases in the individual organism," and so the study of the pathological gives, as it were, privileged access to an understanding of the normal.
The scientific method of inquiry of central importance to the sociologist is comparison, above all, because it "performs the great service of casting out the . . . spirit [of absolutism]." Comparisons of human with animal societies will give up precious clues to "the first germs of the social relations" and to the borderlines between the human and the animal. Yet comparisons within the human species are even more central to sociology. The chief method here "consists in a comparison of the different co-existing states of human society on the various parts of the earth's surface--these states being completely independent of each other. By this method, the different stages of evolution may all be observed at once." Though the human race as a whole has progressed in a single and uniform manner, various populations "have attained extremely unequal degrees of development" from causes still little understood. Hence, certain phases of development "of which the history of [Western] civilization leaves no perceptible traces, can be known only by this comparative method," that is, by the comparative study of primitive societies. Moreover, the comparative method is of the essence when we wish to study the influence of race or climate on human affairs. It is indispensable, for example, to combat fallacious doctrines, "as when social differences have been ascribed to the political influence of climate, instead of that inequality of evolution which is the real cause."
Although all three conventional methods of science must be used in sociology, it relies above all on a fourth one, the historical method. "The historical comparison of the consecutive states of humanity is not only the chief scientific device of the new political philosophy. . . it constitutes the substratum of the science, in whatever is essential to it." Historical comparisons throughout the time in which humanity has evolved are at the very core of sociological inquiry. Sociology is nothing if it is not informed by a sense of historical evolution.
From Coser, 1977:5-6.
The Law of Human Progress
As early as 1822, when he was still an apprentice to Saint-Simon, Comte set himself the task "to discover through what fixed series of successive transformations the human race, starting from a state not superior to that of the great apes, gradually led to the point at which civilized Europe finds itself today." Applying what he conceived to be a method of scientific comparison through time, Comte emerged with his central conception, The Law of Human Progress or The Law of Three Stages.
The evolution of the human mind has paralleled the evolution of the individual mind. Phylogeny, the development of human groups or the entire human race, is retraced in ontogeny, the development of the individual human organism. Just as each one of us tends to be a devout believer in childhood, a critical metaphysician in adolescence, and a natural philosopher in manhood, so mankind in its growth has traversed these three major stages.
Each of or leading conceptions--each branch of our knowledge, passes successively through three different theoretical conditions: the Theological or ficticious; the Metaphysical or abstract; and the Scientific or positive. . . . In the theological state, the human mind, seeking the essential nature of beings, the first and final causes (the origin and purpose) of all effects . . . supposes all phenomena to be produced by the immediate action of supernatural beings. In the metaphysical state . . . the mind supposes . . . abstract forces, veritable entities (that is, personified abstractions) . . . capable of producing all phenomena . . . In the final, the positive state, the mind has given over the vain search after Absolute notions, the origin and destination of the universe, and the causes of phenomena, and applies itself to the study of their laws--that is, their invariable relations of succession and resemblance.
For Comte, each successive stage or sub-stage in the evolution of the human mind necessarily grew out of the preceding one. "The constitution of the new system cannot take place before the destruction of the old," and before the potentialities of the old mental order have been exhausted. "The highest order of minds cannot discern the characterizations of the coming period till they are close upon it."
Although Comte focused mainly on stages in the development and progressive emancipation of the human mind, he stressed that these stages correlated with parallel stages in the development of social organization, of types of social order, of types of social units, and of the material conditions of human life. All these, he thought, evolved in similar manner as the changes in progressive mental developments.
It would be a mistake, Comte averred, to expect a new social order, any more than a new intellectual order, to emerge smoothly from the death throes of an old: "The passage from one social system to another can never be continuous and direct." In fact, human history is marked by alternative "organic" and "critical" periods. In organic periods, social stability and intellectual harmony prevail, and the various parts of the body social are in equilibrium. In critical periods, in contrast, old certainties are upset, traditions are undermined, and the body social is in fundamental disequilibrium. Such critical periods--and the age in which Comte lived, seemed to him preeminently critical--are profoundly unsettling and perturbing to men thirsting for order. Yet they are the necessary prelude to the inauguration of a new organic state of affairs. "There is always a transitional state of anarchy which lasts for some generations at least; and lasts the longer the more complete is the renovation to be wrought."
It can hardly be questioned that Comte's Law of Three Stages has a strongly mentalistic or idealistic bias. Yet, as has been noted, he correlated each mental age of mankind with its characteristic accompanying social organization and type of political dominance. The theological stage is dominated by priests and ruled by military men (Comte subdivides this stage, as he does others, into a variety of substages, but discussions of these are not pertinent for an understanding of the Law.) The metaphysical stage--which corresponds very roughly to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance--was under the sway of churchmen and lawyers. The positive stage, just dawning, will be governed by industrial administrators and scientific moral guides. Similarly, in the first stage the family is the prototypical social unit, in the second the state rises into societal prominence, and in the third the whole human race becomes the operative social unit.
Furthermore, though Comte insists repeatedly that "intellectual evolution is the preponderant principle" of his explanation of human progress, he nevertheless admits other causal factors. Increases in population, for example, are seen as a major determinant of the rate of social progress. The "progressive condensation of our species, especially in its early stages" brings about
such a division of employment . . . as could not take place among smaller numbers; and . . . the faculties of individuals are stimulated to find subsistence by more refined methods . . . . By creating new wants and new difficulties, this gradual concentration develops new means, not only of progress but of order, by neutralizing physical inequalities, and affording a growing ascendancy to those intellectual and moral forces which are suppressed among a scanty population."
Comte sees the division of labor as a powerful impellent of social evolution.
From Coser, 1977:7-8.
Hierarchy of the Sciences
Comte's second best known theory, that of the hierarchy of the sciences, is intimately connected with the Law of Three Stages. Just as mankind progresses only through determinant stages, each successive stage building on the accomplishments of its predecessors, so scientific knowledge passes through similar stages of development. But different sciences progress at different rates. "Any kind of knowledge reaches the positive stage early in proportion to its generality, simplicity, and independence of other departments." Hence astronomy, the most general and simple of all natural sciences, develops first. In time, it is followed by physics, chemistry, biology, and finally, sociology. Each science in this series depends for its emergence on the prior developments of its predecessors in a hierarchy marked by the law of increasing complexity and decreasing generality.
The social sciences, the most complex and the most dependent for their emergence on the development of all the others, are the "highest" in the hierarchy. "Social science offers the attributes of a completion of the positive method. All the others . . . are preparatory to it. Here alone can the general sense of natural law be decisively developed, by eliminating forever arbitrary wills and chimerical entities, in the most difficult case of all." Social science "enjoys all the resources of the anterior sciences" but, in addition, it uses the historical method which "investigates, not by comparison, but by gradual filiation." "The chief phenomenon in sociology . . . that is, the gradual and continuous influence of generations upon each other--would be disguised or unnoticed, for want of the necessary key--historical analysis."
Although sociology has special methodological characteristics that distinguish it from its predecessors in the hierarchy, it is also dependent upon them. It is especially dependent on biology, the science that stands nearest to it in the hierarchy. What distinguishes biology from all the other natural sciences is its holistic character. Unlike physics and chemistry, which proceed by isolating elements, biology proceeds from the study of organic wholes. And it is this emphasis on organic or organismic unity that sociology has in common with biology. "There ca be no scientific study of society either in its conditions or its movements, if it is separated into portions, and its divisions in its conditions or its movements, if it is separated into portions, and its divisions are studied apart." The only proper approach in sociology consists in "viewing each element in the light of the whole system. . . . In the inorganic sciences, the elements are much better known to us than the whole which they constitute: so that in that case we must proceed from the simple to the compound. But the reverse method is necessary in the study of Man and Society; Man and Society as a whole being better known to us, and more accessible subjects of study, than the parts which constitute them."
From Coser, 1977:9.
Social Statics and Dynamics
Just as in biology it is useful to separate anatomy from physiology, so it is desirable to make a distinction in sociology between statics and dynamics. "The distinction is not between two classes of facts, but between two aspects of theory. It corresponds with the double conception of order and progress: for order consists . . . in a permanent harmony among the conditions of social existence, and progress consists in social development." Order and Progress, statics and dynamics, are hence always correlative to each other.
In order to supplement his theory of stages, Comte set out to investigate the foundations of social stability. "The statical study of sociology consists in the investigation of the laws of action and reaction of the different parts of the social system--apart, for the occasion, from the fundamental movement which is always gradually modifying them." It studies the balance of mutual relations of elements within a social whole. There must always be a "spontaneous harmony between the whole and the parts of the social system." When such harmony is lacking, we are confronted by a pathological case.
When Comte deals with the components of a social system, he emphatically refuses to see individuals as elementary parts. "The scientific spirit forbids us to regard society as composes of individuals. The true social unit is the family--reduced, if necessary, to the elementary couple which forms its basis. . . Families become tribes and tribes become nations." A social science that takes as its point of departure the needs and propensities of individuals is bound to fail. In particular, it is erroneous to derive man's social tendencies, "which are now proved to be inherent in his nature," from utilitarian considerations. In the early ages of humanity the individual advantages of association were doubtful. "It is thus evident that the social state would never have existed if its rise had depended on a conviction of its individual utility."
It is within the family that the elementary egotistical propensities are curbed and harnessed to social purposes. "It is by the avenue [of the family] that man comes forth from his mere personality, and learns to live in another, while obeying his most powerful instincts." The family is the most elementary social unit and the prototype of all other human associations, for these evolve from family and kinship groups. "The collective organism is essentially composed of families which are its true elements, of classes and castes which form its true tissue, and finally of cities and townships which are its true organs."
Although Comte conceived of society by analogy with a biological organism, he was aware of the difficulties that such analogical thinking brings in its wake. A biological organism is, so to speak, encased in a skin and hence has material boundaries. The body social, however, cannot be held together by physical means, but only by spiritual ties. Hence, Comte assigned central importance to language, and above all, religion.
Language is the vessel in which the thought of preceding generations, the culture of our ancestors, is stored. By participating in a linguistic universe, we are part of a linguistic community. Language binds us to our fellows and at the same time connects us to the long chain that links a living community to its remote ancestors. Human society has more dead than living members. Without a common language men could never have attained solidarity and consensus; without this collective tool no social order is possible.
A common language is indispensable to a human community, but it is only a medium, not a positive guide, to behavior. What is needed in addition is a common religious belief. Religion furnishes the unifying principle, the common ground without which individual differences would tear society apart. Religion permits men to overcome their egoistic propensities and to transcend themselves in the love of their fellow men. It is the powerful cement that binds a society together in a common cult and a common system of beliefs. Religion is at the root of social order. It is indispensable for making legitimate the commands of government. No temporal power can endure without the support of spiritual power. "Every government supposes a religion to consecrate and regulate commandment and obedience."
Beyond language and religion, there is a third factor that links man to his fellows: the division of labor. Men are
bound together by the very distribution of their occupations; and it is this distribution which causes the extent and growing complexity of the social organism.
The social organization tends more and more to rest on an exact estimate of individual diversities, by so distributing employments as to appoint each one to the destination he is most fit for, from his own nature . . . , from his education and his position, and, in short, from all his qualifications; so that all individual organizations, even the most vicious and imperfect . . . , may finally be made use of for the general good.
Comte believed in principle that the division of labor, while it fostered the development of individual gifts and capacities, also contributed to human solidarity by creating in each individual a sense of his dependence on others. Yet at the same time, he was perturbed by what he considered certain negative aspects of the modern industrial division of labor.
If the separation of social functions develops a useful spirit of detail, on the one hand, it tends on the other, to extinguish or to restrict what we may call the aggregate or general spirit. In the same way, in moral relations, while each individual is in close dependence on the mass, he is drawn away from it by the expansion of his special activity, constantly recalling him to his private interest, which he but very dimly perceives to be related to the public. . . . The inconveniences of the division of functions increase with its characteristic advantages.
As a result, Comte expressed the fervent hope that in the future both temporal and spiritual power would unite "to keep up the idea of the whole, and the feeling of the common interconnection."
Comte always considered social institutions, whether language or religion or the division of labor, not so much in their own right as in terms of the contribution they make to the wider social order. To this extent, he must surely be regarded as one of the earliest functional analysts of society, for he not only considered the consequences social phenomena have on social systems, but he stressed the interconnectedness of all these phenomena. "There must always be a spontaneous harmony between the parts and the whole of the social system . . . . It is evident that not only must political institutions and social manners, on the one hand, and manners and ideas on the other, be always mutually connected; but further that this consolidated whole must always be connected, by its nature, with the corresponding state of the integral development of humanity."
To Comte, the study of social statics, that is, of the conditions and preconditions of social order, was inevitably linked to the study of social dynamics, which he equated with human progress and evolution. Though he failed to specify this link and to show how it operated concretely, he reiterated this position in programmatic form. Despite the fact that it seemed desirable for methodological and heuristic purposes to separate the study of statics and dynamics, in empirical reality they were correlative. Functional and evolutionary analyses, far from contradicting each other, were in effect complementary.
From Coser, 1977:10-12.
The Normative Doctrine
To the preceding outline of Comte's scientific writings must be added a summary of his normative theory, which he sketched out in his earliest papers and developed in his later work, from the Positive Philosophy on. He elaborated a complex blueprint of the good positive society of the future, a society directed by the spiritual power of priests of the new positive religion and leaders of banking and industry. These scientific sociologist-priests would be, as were their Catholic predecessors in the theological age, the moral guides and censors of the community, using the force of their superior knowledge to recall men to their duties and obligations; they would be the directors of education and the supreme judges of the abilities of each member of society. In the positive sociocracy of the future, the scientist-priests of the religion of humanity, having acquired positive knowledge of what is good and evil, would sternly hold men to their collective duty and would help suppress any subversive ideas of inherent rights. Saint-Simon had suggested that in the future the domination of men over men would be replaced by the administration of things. Comte now argued that the "things" to be administered were in fact human individuals. Human relations would become "thingified." Just as in the eleventh century Pope Hildebrand had for a brief moment extended his spiritual power over all temporal power, so the High Priest of Humanity, armed with a scientific knowledge the Pope could not yet command, would institute a reign of harmony, justice, rectitude, and equity. The new positivist order, to quote some of Comte's favorite formulae, would have Love as its Principle, Order as its Basis, and Progress at its Aim. The egoistic propensities to which mankind was prone throughout previous history would be replaced by altruism, by the command, Live for Others. Individual men would be suffused by love for their fellows, and they would lovingly venerate the positivist engineers of the soul who in their wisdom would incarnate the scientific knowledge of man's past and present and the lawfully determined path into a predictable future.
Comte, especially in his later years, considered himself not only a social scientist but also, and primarily, a prophet and founder of a new religion that promised salvation for all the ailments of mankind. These normative aspects of Comte's thought, although important for the historian of ideas, are only of peripheral concern here, where the focus is on sociology as a scientific enterprise. Yet this aspect of Comte's work must be kept in mind in relation to his life and to the social and intellectual context in which his work emerged.
From Coser, 1977:12-13.
On the Positivistic Approach to Society
From Auguste Comte, The Positive Philosophy (translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau), Vol. 2 (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1854), 68-74 and 95-1 10.
If we look with a philosophical eye upon the present state of social science, we cannot but recognize in it the combination of all the features of that theologico-metaphysical infancy which all the other sciences have had to pass through. . . .
If we contemplate the positive spirit in its relation to scientific conception . . . we shall find that this philosophy is distinguished from the theologico-metaphysical by its tendency to render relative the ideas which were at first absolute. This inevitable passage from the absolute to the relative is one of the most important philosophical results of each of the intellectual revolutions which has carried on every kind of speculation from the theological or metaphysical to the scientific state. In a scientific view, this contrast between the relative and the absolute may be regarded as the most decisive manifestation of the antipathy between the modern philosophy and the ancient.
Men were long in learning that Man's power of modifying phenomena can result only from his knowledge of their natural laws; and in the infancy of each science, they believed themselves able to exert unbounded influence over the phenomena of that science . . . We see the metaphysical school . . . attributing observed events to chance, and sometimes, when that method is too obviously absurd, exaggerating ridiculously the influence of the individual mind upon the course of human affairs . . . It represents the social action of Man to be indefinite and arbitrary, as was once thought in regard to biological, chemical, physical, and even astronomical phenomenona, in the earlier stages of their respective sciences . . . There is no chance of order and agreement but in subjecting social phenomena, like all others, to invariable natural laws, which shall, as a whole, prescribe for each period, with entire certainty, the limits and character of political action--in other words, introducing into the study of social phenomena the same positive spirit which has regenerated every other branch of human speculation. Such a procedure is the true scientific basis of human dignity; as the chief tendencies of man's nature thus acquire a solemn character of authority which must be always respected by rational legislation; whereas the existing belief in the indefinite power of political combinations, which seems at first to exalt the importance of Man, issues in attributing to him a sort of social automatism passively directed by some supremacy of either Providence or the human ruler . . .
The last of the preliminary considerations that we have to review is that of the scientific prevision of phenomena, which, as the test of true science, includes all the rest. We have to contemplate social phenomena as susceptible of prevision, like all other classes, within the limits of exactness compatible with their higher complexity. Comprehending the three characteristics . . . we have been examining, prevision of social phenomena supposes first, that we have abandoned the region of metaphysical idealities, to assume the ground of observed realities by a systematic subordination of imagination to observation; secondly, that political conceptions have ceased to be absolute, and have become relative to the variable state of civilization, so that theories, following the natural course of facts, may admit of our foreseeing them; and, thirdly, that permanent political action is limited by determinate laws, since if social events were always exposed to disturbance by the accidental intervention of the legislator, human or divine, no scientific prevision of them would be possible. Thus, we may concentrate the conditions of the spirit of positive social philosophy on this one great attribute of scientific prevision . . .
The next step . . . is to examine . . . the means of investigation proper to Social Science . . . We may expect to find in Sociology a more varied and developed system of resources than in any other, in proportion to the complexity of the phenomena, while yet this extension of means does not compensate for the increased imperfection arising from the intricacy. The extension of the means is also more difficult to verify than in any prior case from the novelty of the subject; and I can scarcely hope that such a sketch as I must present here will command such confidence as will arise when a complete survey of the science shall have confirmed what I now offer.
As Social Physics assumes a place in the hierarchy of sciences after all the rest and therefore dependent on them, its means of investigation must be of two kinds: those which arise from the connection of sociology with the other sciences; and these last, though indirect, are as indispensable as the first. I shall review . . . the direct resources of the science.
Very imperfect and even vicious notions prevail at present as to what Observation can be and can effect in Social Science. The chaotic state of doctrine of the last century has extended to Method; and amidst our intellectual disorganization, difficulties have been magnified; precautionary methods, experimental and rational, have been broken up; and even the possibility of obtaining social knowledge by observation has been dogmatically denied; but if the sophisms put forth on this subject were true, they would destroy the certainty, not only of social science, but of all the simpler and more perfect ones that have gone before. The ground of doubt assigned is the uncertainty of human testimony; but all the sciences, up to the most simple, require proofs of testimony: that is, in the elaboration of the most positive theories, we have to admit observations which could not be directly made, nor even repeated, by those who use them, and the reality of which rests only on the faithful testimony of the original investigators; there being nothing in this to prevent the use of such proofs, in concurrence with immediate observations. In Astronomy, such a method is obviously necessary; it is equally, though less obviously necessary even in mathematics; and, of course, much more evidently in the case of the more complex sciences. How could any science emerge from the nascent state--how could there be any organization of intellectual labor, even if research were restricted to the utmost, if every one rejected all observations but his own? The stoutest advocates of historical skepticism do not go so far as to advocate this. It is only in the case of social phenomena that the paradox is proposed; and it is made use of there because it is one of the weapons of the philosophical arsenal which the revolutionary metaphysical doctrine constructed for the intellectual overthrow of the ancient political system. The next great hindrance to the use of observation is the empiricism which is introduced into it by those who, in the name of impartiality, would interdict the use of any theory whatever. No logical dogma could be more thoroughly irreconcilable with the spirit of the positive philosophy, or with its special character in regard to the study of social phenomena, than this. No real observation of any kind of phenomena is possible, except in as far as it is first directed, and finally interpreted, by some theory: and it was this logical need which, in the infancy of human reason, occasioned the rise of theological philosophy, as we shall see in the course of our historical survey. The positive philosophy does not dissolve this obligation, but, on the contrary, extends and fulfils it more and more, the further the relations of phenomena are multiplied and perfected by it. Hence it is clear that, scientifically speaking, all isolated, empirical observation is idle, and even radically uncertain; that science can use only those observations which are connected, at least hypothetically, with some law; that it is such a connection which makes the chief difference between scientific and popular observation, embracing the same facts, but contemplating them from different points of view: and that observations empirically conducted can at most supply provisional materials, which must usually undergo an ulterior revision. The rational method of observation becomes more necessary in proportion to the complexity of the phenomena, amid which the observer would not know what he ought to look at in the facts before his eyes, but for the guidance of a preparatory theory; and thus it is that by the connection of foregoing facts we learn to see the facts that follow. This is undisputed with regard to astronomical, physical, and chemical research, and in every branch of biological study, in which good observation of its highly complex phenomena is still very rare, precisely because its positive theories are very imperfect. Carrying on the analogy, it is evident that in the corresponding divisions, statical and dynamical, of social science, there is more need than anywhere else of theories which shall scientifically connect the facts that are happening with those that have happened: and the more we reflect, the more distinctly we shall see that in proportion as known facts are mutually connected we shall be better able not only to estimate, but to perceive those which are yet unexplored. I am not blind to the vast difficulty which this requisition imposes on the institution of positive sociology--obliging us to create at once, so to speak, observations and laws, on account of their indispensable connection, placing us in a sort of vicious circle, from which we can issue only by employing in the first instance materials which are badly elaborated, and doctrines which are ill-conceived. How I may succeed in a task so difficult and delicate, we shall see . . ., but, however that may be, it is clear that it is the absence of any positive theory which at present renders social observations so vague and incoherent. There can never be any lack of facts; for in this case even more than in others, it is the commonest sort of facts that are most important, whatever the collectors of secret anecdotes may think; but, though we are steeped to the lips in them, we can make no use of them, nor even be aware of them, for want of speculative guidance in examining them. The statical observation of a crowd of phenomena can not take place without some notion, however elementary, of the laws of social interconnection: and dynamical facts could have no fixed direction if they were not attached, at least by a provisional hypothesis, to the laws of social development. The positive philosophy is very far from discouraging historical or any other erudition; but the precious night-watchings, now so lost in the laborious acquisition of a conscientious but barren learning, may be made available by it for the constitution of true social science, and the increased honor of the earnest minds that are devoted to it. The new philosophy will supply fresh and nobler subjects, unhoped-for insight, a loftier aim, and therefore a higher scientific dignity. It will discard none but aimless labors, without principle and without character; as in Physics, there is no room for compilations of empirical observations; and at the same time, philosophy will render justice to the zeal of students of a past generation, who, destitute of the favorable guidance which we, of this day, enjoy, followed up their laborious historical researches with an instinctive perseverance, and in spite of the superficial disdain of the philosophers of the time. No doubt, the same danger attends research here as elsewhere: the danger that, from the continuous use of scientific theories, the observer may sometimes pervert facts, by erroneously supposing them to verify some illgrounded speculative prejudices of his own. But we have the same guard here as elsewhere--in the further extension of the science: and the case would not be improved by a recurrence to empirical methods, which would be merely leaving theories that may be misapplied but can always be rectified, for imaginary notions which can not be substantiated at all. Our feeble reason may often fail in the application of positive theories, but at least they transfer us from the domain of imagination to that of reality, and expose us infinitely less than any other kind of doctrine to the danger of seeing in facts that which is not.
It is now clear that Social Science requires, more than any other, the subordination of Observation to the statical and dynamical laws of phenomena: No social fact can have any scientific meaning till it is connected with some other social fact; without which connection it remains a mere anecdote, involving no rational utility. This condition so far increases the immediate difficulty that good observers will be rare at first, though more abundant than ever as the science expands; and here we meet with another confirmation of what I said at the outset . . .--that the formation of social theories should be confided only to the best organized minds, prepared by the most rational training. Explored by such minds, according to rational views of co-existence and succession, social phenomena no doubt admit of much more varied and extensive means of investigation than phenomena of less complexity. In this view, it is not only the immediate inspection or direct description of events that affords useful means of positive exploration; but the consideration of apparently insignificant customs, the appreciation of various kinds of monuments, the analysis and comparison of languages, and a multitude of other resources. In short, a mind suitably trained becomes able by exercise to convert almost all impressions from the events of life into sociological indications, when once the connection of all indications with the leading ideas of the science is understood. This is a facility afforded by the mutual relation of the various aspects of society, which may partly compensate for the difficulty caused by that mutual connection: if it renders observation more difficult, it affords more means for its prosecution.
It might be supposed beforehand that the second method of investigation, Experiment, must be wholly inapplicable in Social Science; but we shall find that the science is not entirely deprived of this resource though it must be one of inferior value. We must remember . . . that there are two kinds of experimentation--the direct and the indirect: and that it is not necessary to the philosophical character of this method that the circumstances of the phenomenon in question should be, as is vulgarly supposed in the learned world, artificially instituted. Whether the case be natural or factitious, experimentation takes place whenever the regular course of the phenomenon is interfered with in any determinate manner. The spontaneous nature of the alteration has no effect on the scientific value of the case, if the elements are known. It is in this sense that experimentation is possible in Sociology. If direct experimentation had become too difficult amidst the complexities of biology, it may well be considered impossible in Social Science. Any artificial disturbance of any social element must affect all the rest, according to the laws both of co-existence and succession; and the experiment would therefore, if it could be instituted at all, be deprived of all scientific value, through the impossibility of isolating either the conditions or the results of the phenomenon. But we saw . . . that pathological cases are the true scientific equivalent of pure experimentation, and why. The same reasons apply, with even more force, to sociological researches. In them, pathological analysis consists in the examination of cases, unhappily too common, in which the natural laws, either of harmony or of succession, are disturbed by any causes, special or general, accidental or transient; as in revolutionary times especially; and above all, in our own. These disturbances are, in the social body, exactly analogous to diseases in the individual organism: and I have no doubt whatever that the analogy will be more evident (allowance being made for the unequal complexity of the organisms) the deeper the investigation goes. In both cases it is . . . a noble use to make of our reason, to disclose the real laws of our nature, individual or social, by the analysis of its sufferings. But if the method is imperfectly instituted in regard to biological questions, much more faulty must it be in regard to the phenomena of Social Science, for want even of the rational conceptions to which they are to be referred. We see the most disastrous political experiments for ever renewed, with only some insignificant and irrational modifications, though their first operation should have fully satisfied us of the uselessness and danger of the expedients proposed. Without forgetting how much is ascribable to the influence of human passions, we must remember that the deficiency of an authoritative rational analysis is one of the main causes of the barrenness imputed to social experiments, the course of which would become much more instructive if it were better observed. The great natural laws exist and act in all conditions of the organism; for as . . . in the case of biology, it is an error to suppose that they are violated or suspended in the case of disease: and we are therefore justified in drawing our conclusions, with due caution, from the scientific analysis of disturbance to the positive theory of normal existence. This is the nature and character of the indirect experimentation which discloses the real economy of the social body in a more marked manner than simple observation could do. It is applicable to all orders of sociological research, whether relating to existence or to movement, and regarded under any aspect whatever, physical, intellectual, moral or political; and to all degrees of the social evolution, from which, unhappily, disturbances have never been absent. As for its present extension, no one can venture to offer any statement of it, because it has never been duly applied in any investigation in political philosophy; and it can become customary only by the institution of the new science which I am endeavoring to establish. But I could not omit this notice of it, as one of the means of investigation proper to social science.
As for the third of those methods, Comparison, the reader must bear in mind the explanations offered, in our survey of biological philosophy, of the reasons why the comparative method must prevail in all studies of which the living organism is the subject; and the more remarkably, in proportion to the rank of the organism. The same considerations apply in the present case, in a more conspicuous degree; and I may leave it to the reader to make the application, merely pointing out the chief differences which distinguish the use of the comparative method in sociological inquiries.
It is a very irrational disdain which makes us object to all comparison between human society and the social state of the lower animals. This unphilosophical pride arose out of the protracted influence of the theologico-metaphysical philosophy; and it will be corrected by the positive philosophy, when we better understand and can estimate the social state of the higher orders of mammifers, for instance. We have seen how important is the study of individual life, in regard to intellectual and moral phenomena--of which social phenomena are the natural result and complement. There was once the same blindness to the importance of the procedure in this case as now in the other; and as it has given way in the one case, so it will in the other. The chief defect in the kind of sociological comparison that we want is that it is limited to statical considerations; whereas the dynamical are, at the present time, the preponderant and direct subject of science. The restriction results from the social state of animals being, though not so stationary as we are apt to suppose, yet suceptible only of extremely small variations, in no way comparable to the continued progression of humanity in its feeblest days. But there is no doubt of the scientific utility of such a comparison, in the statical province, where it characterizes the elementary laws of social interconnection, by exhibiting their action in the most imperfect state of society, so as even to suggest useful inductions in regard to human society. There can not be a stronger evidence of the natural character of the chief social relations, which some people fancy that they can transform at pleasure. Such sophists will cease to regard the great ties of the human family as factitious and arbitrary when they find them existing, with the same essential characteristics, among the animals, and more conspicuously, the nearer the organisms approach to the human type. In brief, in all that part of sociology which is almost one with intellectual and moral biology, or with the natural history of Man; in all that relates to the first germs of the social relations, and the first institutions which were founded by the unity of the family or the tribe, there is not only great scientific advantage, but real philosophical necessity for employing the rational comparison of human with other animal societies. Perhaps it might even be desirable not to confine the comparison to societies which present a character of Voluntary cooperation, in analogy to the human. They must always rank first in importance: but the scientific spirit, extending the process to its final logical term, might find some advantage in examining those strange associations, proper to the inferior animals, in which an involuntary cooperation results from an indissoluble organic union, either by simple adhesion or real continuity. If the science gained nothing by this extension, the method would. And there is nothing that can compare with such an habitual scientific comparison for the great service of casting out the absolute spirit which is the chief vice of political philosophy. It appears to me, moreover, that, in a practical view, the insolent pride which induces some ranks of society to suppose themselves as, in a manner, of another species than the rest of mankind, is in close affinity with the irrational disdain that repudiates all comparison between human and other animal nature. However all this may be, these considerations apply only to a methodical and special treatment of social philosophy. Here, where I can offer only the first conception of the science, in which dynamical considerations must prevail, it is evident that I can make little use of the kind of comparison; and this makes it all the more necessary to point it out, lest its omission should occasion such scientific inconveniences as I have just indicated. The commonest logical procedures are generally so characterized by their very application, that nothing more of a preliminary nature is needed than the simplest examination of their fundamental properties.
To indicate the order of importance of the forms of society which are to be studied by the Comparative Method, I begin with the chief method, which consists in a comparison of the different coexisting states of human society on the various parts of the earth's surface-- those states being completely independent of each other. By this method, the different stages of evolution may all be observed at once. Though the progression is single and uniform, in regard to the whole race, some very considerable and very various populations have, from causes which are little understood, attained extremely unequal degrees of development, so that the former states of the most civilized nations are now to be seen, amid some partial differences, among contemporary populations inhabiting different parts of the globe. In its relation to Observation, this kind of comparison offers the advantage of being applicable both to statical and dynamical inquiries, verifying the laws of both, and even furnishing occasionally valuable direct inductions in regard to both. In the second place, it exhibits all possible degrees of social evolution to our immediate observation. From the wretched inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego to the most advanced nations of western Europe, there is no social grade which is not extant in some points of the globe, and usually in localities which are clearly apart. We shall find that some interesting secondary phases of social development, of which the history of civilization leaves no perceptible traces, can be known only by this comparative method of study; and these are not, as might be supposed, the lowest degrees of evolution, which every one admits can be investigated in no other way. And between the great historical aspects, there are numerous intermediate states which must be observed thus, if at all. This second part of the comparative method verifies the indications afforded by historical analysis, and fills up the gaps it leaves: and nothing can be more rational than the method, as it rests upon the established principle that the development of the human mind is uniform in the midst of all diversities of climate, and even of race; such diversities having no effect upon anything more than the rate of progress. But we must beware of the scientific dangers attending the process of comparison by this method. For instance, it can give us no idea of the order of succession, as it presents all the states of development as coexisting: so that, if the order of development were not established by other methods, this one would infallibly mislead us. And again, if we were not misled as to the order, there is nothing in this method which discloses the filiation of the different systems of society; a matter in which the most distinguished philosophers have been mistaken in various ways and degrees. Again, there is the danger of mistaking modifications for primary phases; as when social differences have been ascribed to the political influence of climate, instead of that inequality of evolution which is the real cause. Sometimes, but more rarely, the mistake is the other way. Indeed, there is nothing in the matter that can show which of two cases presents the diversity that is observed. We are in danger of the same mistake in regard to races; for, as the sociological comparison is instituted between peoples of different races, we are liable to confound the effects of race and of the social period. Again, climate comes in to offer a third source of interpretation of comparative phenomena, sometimes agreeing with, and sometimes contradicting the two others; thus multiplying the chances of error, and rendering the analysis which looked so promising almost impracticable. Here, again, we see the indispensable necessity of keeping in view the positive conception of human development as a whole. By this alone can we be preserved from such errors as I have referred to, and enriched by any genuine results of analysis. We see how absurd in theory and dangerous in practice are the notions and declamations of the empirical school, and of the enemies of all social speculation: for it is precisely in proportion to their elevation and generality that the ideas of positive social philosophy become real and effective--an illusion and uselessness belonging to conceptions which are too narrow and too special, in the departments either of science or of reasoning. But it is a consequence from these last considerations that this first sketch of sociological science, with the means of investigation that belong to it, rests immediately upon the primary use of a new method of observation, which is so appropriate to the nature of the phenomena as to be exempt from the dangers inherent in the others. This last portion of the comparative method is the Historical Method, properly so called; and it is the only basis on which the system of political logic can rest.
The historical comparison of the consecutive states of humanity is not only the chief scientific device of the new political philosophy. Its rational development constitutes the substratum of the science, in whatever is essential to it. It is this which distinguishes it thoroughly from biological science . . . The positive principle of this separation results from the necessary influence of human generations upon the generations that follow, accumulating continuously till it constitutes the preponderating consideration in the direct study of social development. As long as this preponderance is not directly recognised, the positive study of humanity must appear a simple prolongation of the natural history of Man: but this scientific character, suitable enough to the earlier generations, disappears in the course of the social evolution, and assumes at length a wholly new aspect, proper to sociological science, in which historical considerations are of immediate importance. And this preponderant use of the historical method gives its philosophical character to sociology in a logical as well as a scientific sense. By the creation of this new department of the comparative method, sociology confers a benefit on the whole of natural philosophy; because the positive method is thus completed and perfected, in a manner which, for scientific importance, is almost beyond our estimate. What we can now comprehend is that the historical method verifies and applies, in the largest way, that chief quality of sociological science--its proceeding from the whole to the parts. Without this permanent condition of social study, all historical labor would degenerate into being a mere compilation of provisional materials. As it is in their development, especially, that the various social elements are interconnected and inseparable, it is clear that any partial filiation must be essentially untrue. Where, for instance, is the use of any exclusive history of any one science or art, unless meaning is given to it by first connecting it with the study of human progress generally? It is the same in every direction, and especially with regard to political history, as it is called; as if any history could be other than political, more or less! The prevailing tendency to speciality in study would reduce history to a mere accumulation of unconnected delineations, in which all idea of the true filiation of events would be lost amid the mass of confused descriptions. If the historical comparisons of the different periods of civilization are to have any scientific character, they must be referred to the general social evolution: and it is only thus that we can obtain the guiding ideas by which the special studies themselves must be directed.
In a practical view, it is evident that the preponderance of the historical method tends to develop the social sentiment, by giving us an immediate interest in even the earliest experiences of our race, through the influence that they exercised over the evolution of our own civilization. As Condorcet observed, no enlightened man can think of the battles of Marathon and Salamis without perceiving the importance of their consequences to the race at large. This kind of feeling should, when we are treating of science, be carefully distinguished from the sympathetic interest which is awakened by all delineations of human life--in fiction as well as in history. The sentiment I refer to is deeper, because in some sort personal; and more reflective, because it results from scientific conviction. It can not be excited by popular history in a descriptive form; but only by positive history, regarded as a true science, and exhibiting the events of human experience in coordinated series which manifest their own graduated connection. This new form of the social sentiment must at first be the privilege of the choice few; but it will be extended, somewhat weakened in force, to the whole of society, in proportion as the general results of social physics become sufficiently popular. It will fulfill the most obvious and elementary idea of the habitual connection between individuals and contemporary nations, by showing that the successive generations of men concur in a final end, which requires the determinate participation of each and all. This rational disposition to regard men of all times as fellow-workers is as yet visible in the case of only the most advanced sciences. By the philosophical preponderance of the historical method, it will be extended to all the aspects of human life, so as to sustain, in a reflective temper, that respect for our ancestors which is indispensable to a sound state of society, and so deeply disturbed at present by the metaphysical philosophy.
As for the course to be pursued by this method--it appears to me that its spirit consists in the rational use of social series; that is, in a successive estimate of the different states of humanity which shall show the growth of each disposition, physical, intellectual, moral, or political, combined with the decline of the opposite disposition, whence we may obtain a scientific prevision of the final ascendency of the one and extinction of the other--care being taken to frame our conclusions according to the laws of human development. A considerable accuracy of prevision may thus be obtained, for any determinate period, and with any particular view; as historical analysis will indicate the direction of modifications, even in the most disturbed times. And it is worth noticing that the prevision will be nearest the truth in proportion as the phenomena in question are more important and more general; because then continuous causes are predominant in the social movement; and disturbances have less power. From these first general aspects, the same rational certainty may extend to secondary and special aspects, through their statical relations with the first; and thus we may obtain conclusions sufficiently accurate for the application of principles.
If we desire to familiarize ourselves with this historical method, we must employ it first upon the past, by endeavoring to deduce every well-known historical situation from the whole series of its antecedents. In every science we must have learned to predict the past, so to speak, before we can predict the future; because the first use of the observed relations among fulfilled facts is to teach us by the anterior succession what the future succession will be. No examination of facts can explain our existing state to us, if we have not ascertained, by historical study, the value of the elements at work; and thus it is in vain that statesmen insist on the necessity of political observation, while they look no further than the present, or a very recent past. The present is, by itself, purely misleading, because it is impossible to avoid confounding principal with secondary facts, exalting conspicuous transient manifestations over fundamental tendencies, which are generally very quiet; and above all, supposing those powers, institutions, and doctrines, to be in the ascendant, which are, in fact, in their decline. It is clear that the only adequate corrective of all this is a philosophical understanding of the past; that the comparison can not be decisive unless it embraces the whole of the past; and that the sooner we stop, in travelling up the vista of time, the more serious will be the mistakes we fall into. Before our very eyes, we see statesmen going no farther back than the last century, to obtain an explanation of the confusion in which we are living; the most abstract of politicians may take in the preceding century, but the philosophers themselves hardly venture beyond the sixteenth; so that those who are striving to find the issue of the revolutionary period have actually no conception of it as a whole, though that whole is itself only a transient phase of the general social movement.
The most perfect methods may, however, be rendered deceptive by misuse: and this we must bear in mind. We have seen that mathematical analysis itself may betray us into substituting signs for idea, and that it conceals inanity of conception under an imposing verbiage. The difficulty in the case of the historical method in sociology is in applying it, on account of the extreme complexity of the materials we have to deal with. But for this, the method would be entirely safe. The chief danger is of our supposing a continuous decrease to indicate a final extinction, or the reverse; as in mathematics it is a common sophism to confound continuous variations, more or less, with unlimited variations. To take a strange and very marked example: if we consider that part of social development which relates to human food, we can not but observe that men take less food as they advance in civilization. If we compare savage with more civilized peoples, in the Homeric poems or in the narratives of travellers, or compare country with town life, or any generation with the one that went before, we shall find this curious result. . . . The laws of individual human nature aid in the result by making intellectual and moral action more preponderant as Man becomes more civilized. The fact is thus established, both by the experimental and the logical way. Yet nobody supposes that men will ultimately cease to eat. In this case, the absurdity saves us from a false conclusion; but in other cases, the complexity disguises much error in the experiment and the reasoning. In the above instance, we must resort to the laws of our nature for that verification which, taken all together, they afford to our sociological analysis. As the social phenomenon, taken as a whole, is simply a development of humanity, without any real creation of faculties, all social manifestations must be found, if only in their germ, in the primitive type which biology constructed by anticipation for sociology. Thus every law of social succession disclosed by the historical method must be unquestionably connected, directly or indirectly, with the positive theory of human nature; and all inductions which can not stand this test will prove to be illusory, through some sort of insufficiency in the observations on which they are grounded. The main scientific strength of sociological demonstrations must ever lie in the accordance between the conclusions of historical analysis and the preparatory conceptions of the biological theory. And thus we find, look where we will, a confirmation of that chief intellectual character of the new science--the philosophical preponderance of the spirit of the whole over the spirit of detail.
This method ranks, in sociological science, with that of zoological comparison in the study of individual life; . . . the succession of social states exactly corresponds, in a scientific sense, with the gradation of organisms in biology; and the social series, once clearly established, must be as real and as useful as the animal series. When the method has been used long enough to disclose its properties, I am disposed to think that it will be regarded as so very marked a modification of positive research as to deserve a separate place; so that, in addition to Observation, properly so called, Experiment, and Comparison, we shall have the Historical Method, as a fourth and final mode of the art of observing. It will be derived, according to the usual course, from the mode which immediately precedes it: and it will be applied to the analysis of the most complex phenomena.
I must be allowed to point out that the new political philosophy sanctioning the old leadings of popular reason, restores to History all its scientific rights as a basis of wise social speculation, after the metaphysical philosophy had striven to induce us to discard all large consideration of the past. In the foregoing departments of natural philosophy we have seen that the positive spirit, instead of being disturbing in its tendencies, is remarkable for confirming, in the essential parts of every science, the inestimable intuitions of popular good sense; of which indeed science is merely a systematic prolongation, and which a barren metaphysical philosophy alone could despise. In this case, so far from restricting the influence which human reason has ever attributed to history in political combinations, the new social philosophy increases it, radically and eminently. It asks from history something more than counsel and instruction to perfect conceptions which are derived from another source: it seeks its own general direction, through the whole system of historical conclusions.
Slide Presentation of Auguste Comte (PowerPoint format)