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Classical Sociological Theory, 4/e
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August Comte
Classical Sociological Theory

Chapter Summary


The thoughts of Auguste Comte (1798-1857), who coined the term sociology, while dated and riddled with weaknesses, continue in many ways to be important to contemporary sociology. First and foremost, Comte's positivism — the search for invariant laws governing the social and natural worlds — has influenced profoundly the ways in which sociologists have conducted sociological inquiry. Comte argued that sociologists (and other scholars), through theory, speculation, and empirical research, could create a realist science that would accurately "copy" or represent the way things actually are in the world. Furthermore, Comte argued that sociology could become a "social physics" — i.e., a social science on a par with the most positivistic of sciences, physics. Comte believed that sociology would eventually occupy the very pinnacle of a hierarchy of sciences. Comte also identified four methods of sociology. To this day, in their inquiries sociologists continue to use the methods of observation, experimentation, comparison, and historical research. While Comte did write about methods of research, he most often engaged in speculation or theorizing in order to attempt to discover invariant laws of the social world.

Comte's famed "law of the three stages" is an example of his search for invariant laws governing the social world. Comte argued that the human mind, individual human beings, all knowledge, and world history develop through three successive stages. The theological stage is dominated by a search for the essential nature of things, and people come to believe that all phenomena are created and influenced by gods and supernatural forces. Monotheism is the ultimate belief of the theological stage. The metaphysical stage is a transitional stage in which mysterious, abstract forces (e.g., nature) replace supernatural forces as the powers that explain the workings of the world. The positivist stage is the last and highest stage in Comte's work. In this stage, people search for invariant laws that govern all of the phenomena of the world.

Comte also used the term positivism in a second sense; that is, as a force that could counter the negativism of his times. In Comte's view, most of Western Europe was mired in political and moral disorder that was a consequence of the French Revolution of 1789. Positivism, in Comte's philosophy, would bring order and progress to the European crisis of ideas. Comte's philosophical idealism thus separates his views from those of his contemporary Karl Marx (1818-1883), who was a materialist.

Comte's Sociology

Comte separated social statics from social dynamics. Social statics are concerned with the ways in which the parts of a social system (social structures) interact with one another, as well as the functional relationships between the parts and to the social system as a whole. Comte therefore focused his social statics on the individual, as well as such collective phenomena as the family, religion, language, and the division of labor.

Comte placed greater emphasis on the study of social dynamics, or social change. His theory of social dynamics is founded on the law of the three stages; i.e., the evolution of society is based on the evolution of mind through the theological, metaphysical, and positivist stages. He saw social dynamics as a process of progressive evolution in which people become cumulatively more intelligent and in which altruism eventually triumphs over egoism. This process is one that people can modify or accelerate, but in the end the laws of progressive development dictate the development of society. Comte's research on social evolution focused on Western Europe, which he viewed as the most highly developed part of the world during his times.

Theory and Practice and Comte's Vision of the Future

Comte believed that positivism could both advance science (theory) and change the ways people live their lives (practice). He argued that the upper classes of his time were far too conservative to advocate positivistic change. Women and the members of the working class, however, were well situated to advocate positivism and help to implement its programs of change. Comte viewed the working class as agents of positivistic change because of their ties of affection to their families, respect for authority, exposure to misery, and propensity for self-sacrifice. Comte thought of his positivism as a counter-force against communism, although the latter could provide a foundation for the former.

Comte thought that women would support his positivist program for change largely because women, in his view, were more affectionate, altruistic, and feeling than men. He tended to view men as superior in intellectual and practical matters, and thus better suited to planning and supervising change, while women are better suited to moral matters. Comte did not believe in the equality of the sexes. He saw himself and his protégés as the "priests of humanity" who would oversee the religion of positivism.

Some of Comte's most amusing ideas are found in his plans for the future. Comte envisioned a positivist calendar, public holidays, and temples. He elaborated a plan for his positivist society that included important roles for bankers and industrialists, positivist priests, merchants, manufacturers, and farmers. Comte also envisioned a positivist library of 100 books — titles that he personally selected. He argued that reading other works would contaminate the minds of the people. He also planned to restructure the family to include a father, mother, three children, and paternal grandparents.

Comte's Positive Contributions and Weaknesses

Ritzer and Goodman identify eight positive contributions that Comte made to sociology:

  • Comte coined the term "sociology" and may be viewed as its founder.
  • Comte thought of sociology as a positivistic science.
  • He elaborated four methods of sociology.
  • He distinguished social statics from social dynamics.
  • He was a macrosociologist.
  • He viewed social structures as taming individual egoism.
  • He offered a dialectical view of structural change.
  • He attempted to integrate theory and practice.

Ritzer and Goodman also identify ten basic weaknesses of Comte's work:

  • Comte's thought was distorted by his own experiences in life.
  • He was out of touch with the real world.
  • He was out of touch with other thinkers of his times.
  • His empirical work is laughable, and his theoretical work far too generalized.
  • His work is only marginally sociological.
  • He made no original contributions to sociology.
  • His sociology was primitive in its organicism — i.e., he crudely viewed society in terms of the workings of the human body.
  • Comte heavy-handedly imposed his theoretical frameworks on the data he was analyzing.
  • His self-conceit led him to make many ridiculous pronouncements and blunders.
  • His positivist religion is strangely similar to Catholicism, which casts doubt on his scientific intentions.
  • His plans for the future appear totalitarian and bizarre.