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Auguste Comte

Comte (1798 –1857) was a French philosopher associated with the idea of positivist philosophy. Like earlier Enlightenment figures he was interested in the application of reason to solving social problems and took inspiration into the power of scientific thinking to reshape the world. In fact Comte saw a progressive development in human thought so that we began by seeking theological explanations first, then looked for more metaphysical explanation until finally settling on a search for scientific explanation.

By scientific Comte meant a concern for describing the relationship between phenomena. The goal was to uncover this relationship and (as a subsidiary goal perhaps?) reduce them to ‘the least possible number’ by establishing laws of generalisation. This meant ruling out religious and metaphysical explanation, utopianism in general and later the rejection of psychology as what went on people’s heads was not observable. Key to his thinking was the importance of working from what could be observed and he differed from Kant who was interested in a priori reasoning. However his thinking about sociological method was more subtle than sometimes portrayed. He saw observation and experiment as characteristic of social inquiry but he also introduced a concern for a comparative method (comparison over time as well as place) which helped define sociology as a new field of study.

Many people today who rail against positivism have Comte in mind, and certainly he was a strange mix of visionary, eccentric and social theorist. For example, his theory of stages could be seen as relying on intuition and imaginative generalisation more than scientific inquiry. His views on social reform seemed to result in a kind of secular religion. However like many others he left a legacy in focusing social science on addressing social problems and approaching inquiry in a more naturalist way.

For more:

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For example this is a section on the contribion of Comte to establishing the discipline of sociology:

If you want a breezy background to Comte's life and his eccentricities go to one of the School of Life philosophy videos at

If you want to access Comte's A General View of Positivism it is online for example at Project Gutenberg