Auguste Comte and PositivismJune 29, 2021
Comte wanted to eliminate the confusion experienced as a result of the French revolution and aimed to reorganize society through science.
According to him, positivism is the only solution that will provide the salvation of society in an age where anarchy of thoughts causes chaos in society. The most important feature of his positivism is his rejection of the idea that natural events are directed by supernatural forces. Secondly, it is the abandonment of efforts to find its hidden causes and essences that cannot be observed by human beings, based on the facts provided by our senses.
According to Comte, who suggested that philosophy should take the empirical sciences as an example, the aim of philosophy is to find the invariable relations between phenomena or natural laws. This goal can only be achieved through observation and experimentation. Knowledge gained through observation and experimentation is positive knowledge.
Positive knowledge is knowledge that is the result of historical evolution and is the highest level humanity can reach. This knowledge corresponds to the third stage in Comte’s famous law of three states. According to Comte, societies reached this stage of scientific thinking (positive) at the end of a long historical process. According to this law, human thought progresses through three phases.
Theological stage: It is the stage in which all events and phenomena are explained by God or by beings considered sacred. It is believed that there are supernatural causes behind the events at this stage. For example, a natural disaster such as an earthquake is thought to be the result of God’s punishment of humans.
Metaphysical stage: Soul, immortality, etc. It is the stage where supernatural, abstract concepts and hidden forces are the main determinants. For example, it was explained by the falling of heavy objects, the effort to take their place in nature, or the fear of space.
Positive Phase: In this phase, man has turned to the observable only, and has searched for the constant connections and laws between events and facts. For example, it is explained by the scientific view that a river is flowing at this stage not because it wants to descend to the bottom, but because it is under the influence of the law of universal gravitation.
It can be seen that Comte places great value on positive science and aims to organize both nature and society with its help. In the meantime, he wants philosophy to become positive. The positivity of philosophy means the purification of thinking from theological and metaphysical elements. Then the subject of philosophy will be to think about the methods and principles of the sciences.
Believing that belief in a supreme being is a natural and unavoidable need for human beings, Comte argued that the place emptied from the Church in the modern society that emerged after 1789 should be filled with an otherworldly religion. Therefore, towards the end of his life, he moved from scientific positivism to religious positivism. Thus, he established the Religion of Humanity as a positive and universal religion. The supreme and blessed being in this artificial religion is humanity.
Regarding the political dimension of positivism, the following can be said: According to Comte, after the French Revolution, people were left in a way in a sense. In the new type of society that emerged, many areas formerly filled by traditional institutions such as religion/church remained empty, the society fell into an unprecedented void, and a great social-political turmoil was born. To put an end to this situation, it is necessary to reorganize the society scientifically. This task falls to sociology, the new and most advanced science. Sociology will be the guide of modern society and will enable societies to progress in order. As a matter of fact, “order and progress” is the basic principle and main slogan of positivism.
The positivism established by Comte is not a materialist thought system. Comte does not see man as composed of matter; Man does not live on bread alone. It is ideas, thoughts, that really move people.
According to Comte, society and the state are not two conflicting entities located opposite each other. These two must be in harmony. The duty of the state is to ensure the material and spiritual unity of the society. The state is the one who plans and shows the right way. In short, the state should have the authority to intervene in every field. Private property is one of these areas. While Comte is not against private property in principle, he is concerned about the abuse of this right. Therefore, the state should use its power to control private property and intervene and regulate when necessary.
On the other hand, the society is obliged to obey the state, which will display a scientific management, and to fulfill the assigned duties. Comte argues that in the scientific-positive era, it is necessary to stop talking about rights and highlight individual and social duties.
Also please see:
What is the law of three states?
Compiled by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Atatürk University Department of Sociology Lecture Notes for Year 1 “Introduction to Philosophy” and Year 3 “History of Contemporary Philosophy” (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook