The Law of Human Progress

As early as 1822, whenhe was still an apprentice to Saint-Simon, Comte set himself the task"to discover through what fixed series of successive transformations thehuman race, starting from a state not superior to that of the greatapes, gradually led to the point at which civilized Europe finds itselftoday." Applying what he conceived to be a method of scientificcomparison through time, Comte emerged with his central conception, TheLaw of Human Progress or The Law of Three Stages.

Theevolution of the human mind has paralleled the evolution of theindividual mind. Phylogeny, the development of human groups or theentire human race, is retraced in ontogeny, the development of theindividual human organism. Just as each one of us tends to be a devoutbeliever in childhood, a critical metaphysician in adolescence, and anatural philosopher in manhood, so mankind in its growth has traversedthese three major stages.

Each of or leadingconceptions--each branch of our knowledge, passes successively throughthree different theoretical conditions: the Theological or ficticious;the Metaphysical or abstract; and the Scientific or positive. . . . Inthe theological state, the human mind, seeking the essential nature ofbeings, the first and final causes (the origin and purpose) of alleffects . . . supposes all phenomena to be produced by the immediateaction of supernatural beings. In the metaphysical state . . . the mindsupposes . . . abstract forces, veritable entities (that is,personified abstractions) . . . capable of producing all phenomena . . .In the final, the positive state, the mind has given over the vainsearch after Absolute notions, the origin and destination of theuniverse, and the causes of phenomena, and applies itself to the studyof their laws--that is, their invariable relations of succession andresemblance.

For Comte, each successive stage orsub-stage in the evolution of the human mind necessarily grew out of thepreceding one. "The constitution of the new system cannot take placebefore the destruction of the old," and before the potentialities of theold mental order have been exhausted. "The highest order of mindscannot discern the characterizations of the coming period till they areclose upon it."

Although Comte focused mainly on stages in thedevelopment and progressive emancipation of the human mind, he stressedthat these stages correlated with parallel stages in the development ofsocial organization, of types of social order, of types of social units,and of the material conditions of human life. All these, he thought,evolved in similar manner as the changes in progressive mentaldevelopments.

It would be a mistake, Comte averred, to expect anew social order, any more than a new intellectual order, to emergesmoothly from the death throes of an old: "The passage from one socialsystem to another can never be continuous and direct." In fact, humanhistory is marked by alternative "organic" and "critical" periods. Inorganic periods, social stability and intellectual harmony prevail, andthe various parts of the body social are in equilibrium. In criticalperiods, in contrast, old certainties are upset, traditions areundermined, and the body social is in fundamental disequilibrium. Suchcritical periods--and the age in which Comte lived, seemed to himpreeminently critical--are profoundly unsettling and perturbing to menthirsting for order. Yet they are the necessary prelude to theinauguration of a new organic state of affairs. "There is always atransitional state of anarchy which lasts for some generations at least;and lasts the longer the more complete is the renovation to be wrought."

It can hardly be questioned that Comte's Law of Three Stages has astrongly mentalistic or idealistic bias. Yet, as has been noted, hecorrelated each mental age of mankind with its characteristicaccompanying social organization and type of political dominance. Thetheological stage is dominated by priests and ruled by military men(Comte subdivides this stage, as he does others, into a variety ofsubstages, but discussions of these are not pertinent for anunderstanding of the Law.) The metaphysical stage--which correspondsvery roughly to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance--was under the swayof churchmen and lawyers. The positive stage, just dawning, will begoverned by industrial administrators and scientific moral guides. Similarly, in the first stage the family is the prototypical socialunit, in the second the state rises into societal prominence, and inthe third the whole human race becomes the operative social unit.

Furthermore,though Comte insists repeatedly that "intellectual evolution is thepreponderant principle" of his explanation of human progress, henevertheless admits other causal factors. Increases in population, forexample, are seen as a major determinant of the rate of social progress. The "progressive condensation of our species, especially in its earlystages" brings about

such a division of employment . . .as could not take place among smaller numbers; and . . . the facultiesof individuals are stimulated to find subsistence by more refinedmethods . . . . By creating new wants and new difficulties, this gradualconcentration develops new means, not only of progress but of order, byneutralizing physical inequalities, and affording a growing ascendancyto those intellectual and moral forces which are suppressed among ascanty population."

Comte sees the division of labor asa powerful impellent of social evolution.

From Coser,1977:7-8.


Forward to "Hierarchy of theSciences"
Back to "Methods of Inquiry"
Back to the Index