Comte’s Positivism and the Historical Phases

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Comte proposed a new scientific outlook, positivism, and explains how societies pass through different stages or processes to reach modern thought and philosophy.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) is a founding father of the study of sociology and has been known for the scientific worldview and philosophy he called “positivism”. Comte tried to explain the history of society by using scientific methods and found a common denominator among the sciences, which he called the “law of three phases”. There are, according to Comte, three phases or historical processes, the theological, the metaphysical, and the scientific stage.

Theological or Fictitious Stage

At this phase people use myth and supernatural entities, such as gods, angels and souls to explain and understand natural phenomena. Thunder, for example, comes to represent an angry invisible deity, such as Dyeus, the Proto-Indo-European precursor of Zeus, and the Sun is worshipped as the Egyptian Sun God Ra.

During this phase the priests form the government. They are regarded as the ultimate authority in philosophical, political and social matters. They claim to be able to communicate with God or the gods and thus represent intermediaries between the divine or celestial entities and the people on Earth.

Metaphysical or Abstract Stage

Although at this point events are still explained by unseen forces, they are no longer anthropomorphized as gods and take more abstract or philosophical forms, such as Aristotle’s concepts of essences or the existence of hidden purposes in all things.

During the metaphysical stage, the refined or elite parts of society, such as aristocrats or intellectuals who are instructed or educated in the “higher arts”, are in control and become the authority figures.

Scientific or Positive Stage

At this point, there is no recourse to invisible entities or hidden structures. They are replaced by acute observation of facts and cause and effects with precise mathematical principles, all of which end up giving humanity control over predicting and eventually manipulating nature and society.

In the scientific stage, the scientist is in power and creates what Comte called “sociology”, a study of society that is based on scientific facts and precise descriptions and theories. Both superstition and religion are said to give way to a rational and naturalistic approach to the world, a kind of scientific religion of (and for) humanity.

Comte’s rigorous stance of equating science, in particular social science, as religion, has drawn criticism from various sources. It has also been shown that the term “sociology”, purported to be coined by Comte, had already existed and been used by the French essayist Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, although the latter’s definition was different from Comte’s positivist interpretation.

However, Comte’s greatest legacy exists in looking at social and political issues not as simple abstract knowledge, but as something observable and directly applicable to the people of his generation. It showed the various transitions that societies had to surpass to arrive at what he thought as the highest and most commendable point of evolution, the positive stage of science.

Source:

  1. Hardy Leahey, Thomas. A History of Psychology: Main Currents in Psychological Thought. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1997.