Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Comte, Auguste

core definition

Comte is credited with being the founder of positivist sociology; claiming scientific status for the study of society.

explanatory context

The view that sociology is a science was first presented by Auguste Comte. Comte was born in Montpellier on 20 January 1798. Comte led a varied life, begining as a mathematician, becoming secretary to St.Simon, disputing with him and then establishing himself, first as the author of the six volume Cours de Philosophie Positive (1830–42) and secondly as leader of a positivist religion. In the intervening periods he had occasional periods of delusion (or insanity). Comte was in almost permanent conflict with the academic establishment but his contribution to the development of sociology is substantial.

He agreed with St Simon that a science of social phenomena was necessary to resolve and eliminate the chaos and disorder that had been experienced in France, first, during the French Revolution(1789) and, second, during the development in France of the industrial revolution. This disorder was antithetical to progress for progress depended upon order and order is clearly manifested in the progress human beings had already made.

The progress of human beings could be expressed as 'the law of three stages'. Simply expressed this law identifies history as the succession of three stages of human development: theological, metaphysical, and scientific (or the positive stage as he referred to the latter). Each stage comprises particular forms of social organisation, particular forms of thought and a particular spirit.

Thus, the metaphysical spirit 'is incapable of organising; it can only criticize'. However, the positive stage which succeeds metaphysics, is expressed in scientific forms of thought. These forms of thought are hierarchically arranged in order of complexity and generality. Social physics is at the apex of this structure of thought and comprises the science of human conduct.

Positivism supplies the ground plan for sociology. Like biology, sociology employs (or uses) concepts that are 'synthetic' in character. It is divided into social statics and social dynamics: social statics being the study of the functional interrelationships of institutions within society; dynamics being the study of the process of social evolution. The process of social evolution manifests itself in the law of the three stages.

The method of sociology is positive, comprising three elements: observation, experiment and comparison. The method is directed by theory, for theory directs our attention towards certain facts rather than others. Comparison is of great significance in this method and the general aim of Comte's positive philosophy when applied to the science of human conduct is to realise the following precept: 'savoir pour prevoir, prevoir pour pouvoir' (to know in order to predict, to predict in order to control).

Comte's influence is substantial: the whole direction of structural functionalism (Durkheim, Parsons, etc) is established by the introduction of this biological analogy. Further, the view that sociology is a science of order and control is heavily dependent upon Comte's insight that the progress of history is a process of social evolution which can be divided into stages. Whether this is an adequate or accurate view of sociolgy is the subject of continuing debate.


[Much of this entry is an amended version of Peter Tetley's unpublished notes, c. 1985, which draws on the following sources:

Andreski, S., (Ed.), The Essential Comte, is a useful source.

Bottomore and Nisbet, Eds, A History of Sociological Analysis, pp 237–86.

Martindale, D., The Nature and Types of Sociological Theory. Part Two, pp. 29–47 and pp. 51–123.]

analytical review

Bourdeau (2011) described Comte and his contributionas follows:

Auguste Comte (1798–1857) is the founder of positivism, a philosophical and political movement which enjoyed a very wide diffusion in the second half of the nineteenth century. It sank into an almost complete oblivion during the twentieth, when it was eclipsed by neopositivism. However, Comte's decision to develop successively a philosophy of mathematics, a philosophy of physics, a philosophy of chemistry and a philosophy of biology, makes him the first philosopher of science in the modern sense, and his constant attention to the social dimension of science resonates in many respects with current points of view. His political philosophy, on the other hand, is even less known, because it differs substantially from the classical political philosophy we have inherited....

The structure of the Course explains why the law of the three stages (which is often the only thing known about Comte) is stated twice. Properly speaking, the law belongs to dynamic sociology or theory of social progress, and this is why it serves as an introduction to the long history lessons in the fifth and sixth volumes. But it equally serves as an introduction to the work as a whole, to the extent that its author considers this law the best way to explain what positive philosophy is.

The law states that, in its development, humanity passes through three successive stages: the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive. The first is the necessary starting point for the human mind; the last, its normal state; the second is but a transitory stage that makes possible the passage from the first to the last. In the theological stage, the human mind, in its search for the primary and final causes of phenomena, explains the apparent anomalies in the universe as interventions of supernatural agents. The second stage is only a simple modification of the first: the questions remain the same, but in the answers supernatural agents are replaced by abstract entities. In the positive state, the mind stops looking for causes of phenomena, and limits itself strictly to laws governing them; likewise, absolute notions are replaced by relative ones. Moreover, if one considers material development, the theological stage may also be called military, and the positive stage industrial; the metaphysical stage corresponds to a supremacy of the lawyers and jurists.

This relativism of the third stage is the most characteristic property of positivism. It is often mistakenly identified with scepticism, but our earlier remark about dogmatism prevents us from doing so.

For Comte, science is a “connaissance approchée”: it comes closer and closer to truth, without reaching it. There is no place for absolute truth, but neither are there higher standards for the fixation of belief. Comte is here quite close to Peirce in his famous 1877 paper....

associated issues


related areas

See also


structural functionalism


Bourdeau, M., 2011, 'Auguste Comte', in Zalta, E.N. (Ed.) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), first published 1 October 2008, revised 2 Jun 2011, available at, accessed 7 March 2013. Substantively revised version 16 October 2014, accessed, 14 December 2016, substantive revision 8 May 2018, available 1 June 2019. Quoted sections above are unchanged in revised versions.

Comte, A, 1830-1842, Cours de Philosophie Positive. Paris. There is a translation of Comte's Cours de Philosophie Positive by Harriet Martineau condensed and published in two volumes in 1853, as The positive philosophy of Auguste Comte, London: J. Chapman.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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