Auguste Comte was born on January 20, 1798 (according to the Revolutionary calendar then used in France), in Montpellier, France. He was a philosopher who is also considered to be the father of sociology, the study of the development and function of human society, and of positivism, a means of using scientific evidence to discern causes for human behavior.
Early Life and Education
Auguste Comte was born in Montpellier, France. After attending the Lycée Joffre and then the University of Montpellier, he was admitted to the École Polytechnique in Paris. The École closed in 1816, at which time Comte took up permanent residence in Paris, earning a precarious living there by teaching mathematics and journalism. He read widely in philosophy and history and was especially interested in those thinkers who were beginning to discern and trace some order in the history of human society.
System of Positive Philosophy
Comte lived during one of the most turbulent periods in European history. As a philosopher, therefore, his aim was not only to understand human society but to prescribed a system by which we could make order out of the chaos, and thus change society for the better.
He eventually developed what he called a "system of positive philosophy," in which logic and mathematics, combined with sensory experience, could better assist in understanding human relationships and action, in the same way that the scientific method had allowed an understanding of the natural world. In 1826, Comte began a series of lectures on his system of positive philosophy for a private audience, but he soon suffered a serious nervous breakdown. He was hospitalized and later recovered with the help of his wife, Caroline Massin, whom he married in 1824. He resumed teaching the course in January 1829, marking the beginning of the second period in Comte's life that lasted 13 years. During this time he published the six volumes of his Course on Positive Philosophy between 1830 and 1842.
From 1832 to 1842, Comte was a tutor and then an examiner at the revived École Polytechnique. After quarreling with the directors of the school, he lost his post. During the remainder of his life, he was supported by English admirers and French disciples.
Additional Contributions to Sociology
Though Comte did not originate the concept of sociology or its area of study, he is credited with coining the term and he greatly extended and elaborated the field. Comte divided sociology into two main fields, or branches: social statics, or the study of the forces that hold society together; and social dynamics, or the study of the causes of social change.
By using certain tenets of physics, chemistry, and biology, Comte extrapolated what he considered to be a few irrefutable facts about society, namely that since the growth of the human mind progresses in stages, so too must societies. He claimed the history of society could be divided into three different stages: theological, metaphysical, and positive, otherwise known as the Law of Three Stages. The theological stage reveals humankind's superstitious nature, one that ascribes supernatural causes to the workings of the world. The metaphysical stage is an interim stage in which humanity begins to shed its superstitious nature. The final and most evolved stage is reached when human beings finally realize that natural phenomena and world events can be explained through reason and science.
Comte separated from his wife in 1842, and in 1845 he began a relationship with Clotilde de Vaux, whom he idolized. She served as the inspiration for his Religion of Humanity, a secular creed intended for the veneration not of God but of humankind, or what Comte called the New Supreme Being. According to Tony Davies, who has written extensively on the history of humanism, Comte's new religion was a "complete system of belief and ritual, with liturgy and sacraments, priesthood and pontiff, all organized around the public veneration of Humanity."
De Vaux died only a year into their affair, and after her death, Comte devoted himself to writing another major work, the four-volume System of Positive Polity, in which he completed his formulation of sociology.
- The Course on Positive Philosophy (1830-1842)
- Discourse on the Positive Spirit (1844)
- A General View of Positivism (1848)
- Religion of Humanity (1856)
Auguste Comte died in Paris on September 5, 1857, from stomach cancer. He is buried in the famous Pere Lachaise Cemetery, next to his mother and Clotilde de Vaux.