Auguste Comte, 1798 to 1857, was a French philosopher known as the founder of sociology. He is widely regarded as the first philosopher of science, a discipline that pays attention to the social dimension of science, as well as the innately pure and provable aspects, including the fields of mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. He is also the founder of positivism. His work came out of his serious study of Aristotle, as well as a firm belief in the power of the scientific method. Comte’s work influenced other thinkers, including Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill, as well as formative work in social anthropology. Comte believed it was possible to apply scientific principles to human beliefs and interactions to predict behaviors.
The Law of the Three Stages
The Law of the Three Stages states that society as a whole develops through three mentally conceived stages: theological, metaphysical and positive. Comte believed these three stages could also be applied to each particular branch of science.
The Theology stage is all about personified deities, and explains the development of religious principles and spiritual beliefs. Comte believed that the Theological Stage had three separate parts: animism, polytheism and monotheism.
Animism is seen in many nature-based spiritual practices, where everyday objects become infused with spiritual or religious purpose. For example, during this stage, animal bones, skins or feathers are revered as sacred. Cave paintings of successful hunts are believed to bring good fortune to the hunter. The sacred is part of the everyday experience. In animism, some objects may even take on godlike qualities. Ancient Norsemen, for example, carried bones that personified their god, Odin, as they migrated.
Greeks, Romans and Egyptians provide good examples of polytheism, though many other cultures had a large pantheon of gods, as well. A polytheistic culture explains all aspects of their lives and of the natural world by assigning qualities or duties to a specific goddess or god. If the god of war rejected an offering, for example, Greek and Roman soldiers believed the outcome of a battle would not be in their favor. Gods explained why the sun rose and set, why the seasons changed and what happened when they died.
Monotheistic cultures attribute all things to a single supreme deity. Whether this deity is Allah, Yahweh or the Christian God, a single being is responsible for everything that happens. In monotheistic cultures, some believers wait for signs to tell them what to do next or how to act. For others, the supreme deity is a force present in every moment of their lives.
During Comte’s time, phenomena were understood in terms of a set of perceived philosophical values. These values were applied to different branches of science, as well as the development of society as a whole. The scientific method was applied to specific experiments in all branches of science, as well as a way to predict how society would develop. As time went on, it became apparent that applying pure science to the study of human behavior did not provide absolute results and some of the questions explored in metaphysics shifted into the realm of philosophy. Pure applied science and metaphysics diverged.
This stage refers to a time when scientific explanations of events are based on observation, experiments and comparisons. Positive explanations rely on the scientific method for their justification. Comte believed all the sciences must pass through each of these three stages of development. He further proposed that areas of mechanical and physical knowledge, the simplest sciences, developed first, essentially laying the groundwork for the more complex sciences to build upon that knowledge. According to Comte’s Three Laws, the sciences developed in this order: mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and sociology. Comte believed the science of human cultures and relationships was the most complex of all the sciences and, through the study of sociology, everything that is wrong with society could be addressed and cured.