Humans are social creatures and live every moment under the influence of the society. Their thoughts, actions, sayings, dress code, and everything else is determined by their interactions with others. They live their lives as part of a group and they assimilate themselves based on the norms of the group. This is known as sociology, and is defined as an overarching unification of all studies of human kind, including history, psychology, and economics (The American Sociological Association). Simply put, sociology is the attempt to understand how society works. The practice of sociology involves the ability to think imaginatively and to detach oneself from any preconceived ideas about social life. This paper outlines the major contributions made by one of sociology’s earliest philosophers Auguste Comte.
Isidore Marie Auguste Francois Xavier Comte, known as Auguste Comte, was born in 1798 on 19 January. He died on 5 September 1857 from stomach cancer. Auguste Comte was French philosopher who founded the discipline of praxeology and the ideology of positivism. He is regarded to as the first philosopher of science in the modern sense of the term. Greatly influenced by the Utopian socialist Henri Saint-Simon, Comte developed the positive philosophy in an attempt to remedy the social malice of the French revolution, calling for a new social doctrine based on the sciences. Comte was a major influence in the 19th century thought, influencing the work of social thinkers.
Auguste Comte is seen as a key founder of the subject due to his coinage of the term, sociology. According to Comte, sociology is concerned both with social statics (social structures) and social dynamics (social changes). He felt that social dynamics were more important than social statics, which reflected his interests in social reform, particularly the ills created by the French Revolution. Often deemed eccentric, Comte’s thoughts reflected the turbulent events of his age. As the founder of positivism, the idea that the only true knowledge is scientific knowledge, Comte set up the law of three stages. ‘The Law of Three Stages’ is considered to be the corner stone of Comtian thought. This theory has the influence of Charles Darwin’s theory of “Organic Evolution”. Auguste Comte organized and classified the social thought prevailing before his times. Comte gave birth not only to a specific methodology of studying knowledge but also analyzed the evolution of human thinking at its various stages. The Law of Three Stages states that society as a whole, and each particular science, develops through three different mentally conceived stages: theological, metaphysical, and positive. The main aim of this principle is that it provides the basis of sociological thinking. These stages, he thought, characterized the development of both human knowledge and of society, which correspondingly developed from a military to a legal, and finally to an industrial stage. According to Comte, the evolution of human mind has paralleled the evolution of the individual mind. Just as an individual tends to be a staunch believer in childhood, a critical metaphysician in adolescence, and a natural philosopher in manhood, so also humanity in its growth has followed three major steps. This claimed that human effects to understand the world have passed through a theological stage, the belief that society was an expression of God’s will, a metaphysical stage, that society has seen to be natural not supernatural, and a positive stage, encouraging the application of scientific technique to the social world. Comte regarded sociology as the final science to develop.
Auguste Comte’s progression of the laws of three stages began with the theological stage. In the theological stage, he explained that it referred to personified deities. During the earlier stages, people believe that all the phenomena of nature are the creation of the divine or supernatural. Moreover, Men and Children failed to discover the natural causes of various phenomena and hence attributed them to a supernatural or divine power. Comte broke this stage into three categories: Fetishism, Polytheism, and Monotheism.
Fetishism was the primary stage of the theological stage of thinking. Throughout this stage, primitive people believe that inanimate objects have living spirit in them, also known as animism. People worship inanimate objects like trees, stones, and a piece of wood, volcanic eruptions and so on. Through this practice, people believe that all things root from a supernatural source.
Polytheism, at one point, Fetishism began to bring about in the minds of its believers. As a result, people turned towards polytheism the explanation of things by many Gods. Primitive people believe different gods control all natural forces; a few examples would be god of water, god of rain, god of fire, god of air, god of Earth and so on.
The third category, monotheism, means believing in one God or God in one that is attributing all to a single, supreme deity. Primitive people believe a single theistic entity is responsible for the existence of the universe.
In the preceding stage, the metaphysical stage, that is the extension of the theological stage. Metaphysical stage refers to explanation by impersonal abstract concepts. In particular, rationalism started growing instead of imagination. In addition, it was believed that the abstract power or force guides and determines the events in the world. Metaphysical thinking discards belief in concrete god. Reasoning helped man to find out some order in the natural world. The continuity, regularity, and infallibility found in the natural order were attributed to some principles or power. Thus, principles and theories gained ascendancy over feelings and speculations.
The positivity stage, also known as the scientific stage, refers to scientific explanation based on observation, experiment, and comparison. Positive explanations rely upon a distinct method, the scientific method, for their justification. Today people attempt to establish cause and effect relationships. Positivism is a purely intellectual way of looking at the world; as well, it emphasizes observation and classification of data and facts. This is the highest most evolved behavior according to Comte.
Positivism is also depicted as the view that all true knowledge is scientific and that all things are ultimately measurable. Because of its close association with reductionism, positivism and reductionism involve the view that entities of one kind are reducible to entities of another, such as societies to numbers, or mental events to chemical events. It also involves the contention that processes are reducible to physiological, physical, chemical events and even those social processes are reducible to relationships between actions of individuals, or that biological organisms are reducible to physical systems.
Comte not only identified three stages in the development of human thinking but also observed three stages in the development of society or social organization. All these modes of thinking-theological, metaphysical, and positive-determine and correspond to a particular type of social organization. This explanation of Comte can be viewed as another important contribution of his sociological thought.
Comte declared that theological thinking leads to a military and monarchical social organization. Here the God would be the head of the hierarchy and is represented as a mighty warrior. The individuals would be arranged in a military organization. Divine sanctions are the rules that can hardly be questioned or challenged. Moreover, Dogmatism would prevail here and its challengers would be punished or threatened with severe punishment.
Metaphysical thinking produces a political system in which the power of the king becomes restricted. The constitutional system of government gets priority. The constitutional changes are gradual and there is a movement towards decentralization of power. It corresponds to a legalistic social organization. The medieval social organization clearly represented this kind of society. Here the natural rights are substituted for divine rights. Priesthood is furthered. Society becomes legalistic, structured and formal. In Europe, nation-states emerged during this stage.
Positive thinking produced a society dominated by industrialists. It leads to an industrial society in which men inquire into the nature and utilization of the natural resources and forces. Here the main stress is on the transformation of the material resources of the Earth for human benefit, and production of material inventions. In this positive or scientific stage, the great thought blends with the great power.
Furthermore, Comte’s second best-known theory, which is the theory of hierarchy of sciences, is intimately connected with the ‘law of three stages’, just as mankind passes through determinant stages, scientific knowledge also passes through similar stages of development. Nevertheless, different sciences progress at different rates. Any kind of knowledge reaches the positive stage early in proportion to its generality, simplicity, and independence of other departments. Comte put forth a hierarchical arrangement of the sciences in a way that coincided with; the order of the historical emergence and development, order of dependence upon each other, their decreasing degree of generality and the increasing degree of complexity of their subject matter and increasing degree of modifiability of the facts that they study.
The social order of sciences based on their emergence and increasing complexity were Mathematics, chemistry, Astronomy, physics, Biology, and Sociology.
As can be seen from the diagram above, the classification became clear that Mathematics according to Comte’s view, was the first science to reach positive stage, followed by Astronomy, physics and Chemistry, and after these sciences had reached the positivistic stage, thought organic phenomena could become more positivistic. The first organic science to move from the metaphysical stage to the positive stage was Biology. This paved the way for Sociology that could move away from the metaphysical speculations of the 17th and 18th century towards a positivistic mode of thought. Sociology was the last to emerge because it is more complex and because it had to wait for the other basic sciences to reach the positive stage.
Sociology was the most complex social science because it had to study society, the most complex matter. The other sciences concentrated on comparatively simpler subjects than society. Sociology thus emerged because human beings recognized a new set of objective facts concerning their society like social disorganization, development of slums, poverty etc. which they could not explain, but which they needed to explain in order to deal effectively with them. When Comte spoke of Sociology to crown the hierarchy of sciences, he had the general unifying nature of science in his mind. He did not claim that Sociology is superior to all other sciences. He only felt that with the growth of positive knowledge all sciences can be brought into relationship with each other.
According to Comte, all science passes through the three stages, the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive. However, the individual sciences do not move through these three stages simultaneously. In fact, the higher a science stands in the hierarchy, the later it shifts from one stage to the other. With the growth of positive knowledge, he also advocated the use of positive methods for Sociology.