Auguste Comte

The Work

Comte's aimwas to create a naturalistic science of society, which would bothexplain the past development of mankind and predict its future course. In addition to building a science capable of explaining the laws ofmotion that govern humanity over time, Comte attempted to formulate theconditions that account for social stability at any given historicalmoment. The study of social dynamics and social statics--ofprogress and order, of change and stability--are the twin pillars of hissystems.

The society of man, Comte taught, must be studied in thesame scientific manner as the world of nature. It is subject to basiclaws just as is the rest of the cosmos, even though it presents addedcomplexities. Natural science, Comte argued, had succeeded inestablishing the lawfulness of natural phenomena. It discovered thatthese phenomena, from the falling of stones to the movement of planets,followed ordered sequences of development. In the world of nature,science had succeeded in progressively contracting the realm of theapparently nonordered, the fortuitous and the accidental. The stage wasnow set for a similar endeavor in the study of society.

Naturalscientists, since the days of Newton and his immediate predecessors, haddeveloped explanatory schemes in which the previous vain quest for firstand final causes had been abandoned and had been replaced by the studyof laws, that is, of "invariable relations of succession andresemblance." Instead of relying on the authority of tradition, the newscience relied on "reasoning and observation, duly combined" as the onlylegitimate means of attaining knowledge. Every scientific theory mustbe based on observed facts, but it is equally true that "facts cannot beobserved without the guidance of some theory."

The new socialsciences that Comte sought to establish he first called "socialphysics;" later, when he thought that the term had been "stolen" fromhim by the Belgian social statistician, Adolphe Quetelet, he coined theword "sociology," a hybrid term compounded of Latin and Greek parts. Itwas to be patterned after the natural sciences, not only in itsempirical methods and epistemological underpinnings, but also in thefunctions it would serve for mankind. Far from being of theoreticalinterest alone, the social sciences, like the natural sciences, mustultimately be of concrete benefit to man and play a major part in theamelioration of the human condition.

In order for man totransform his nonhuman environment to his advantage, he must know thelaws that govern the natural world, "For it is only by knowing the lawsof phenomena, and thus being able to foresee them, that we can . . . setthem to modify one another for our advantage. . . . Whenever we effectanything great it is through a knowledge of natural laws. . . FromScience comes Prevision; from Prevision comes Action." (Savoir pourprevoir et prevoir pour pouvoir.) In a like manner, social actionbeneficial to mankind will become possible once the laws of motion ofhuman evolution are established, and the basis for social order andcivic concord is identified.

As long as men believed that socialevents "were always exposed to disturbance by the accidentalintervention of the legislator, human or divine, no scientific previsionsof them would be possible." As long as they believe that social actionsfollowed no law and were, in fact, arbitrary and fortuitous, they couldtake no concerted action to ameliorate their lot. Under thesecircumstances men naturally clashed with one another in the pursuit oftheir differing individual interests. When this was the case, aHobbesian model of society, in which only power and the willingacceptance of power permit a semblance of order, seemed appropriate andplausible. But things are different once sociology can teach men torecognize the invariable laws of development and order in human affairs. At that time men will learn to utilize these laws for their owncollective purposes. "We shall find that there is no chance of orderand agreement but in subjecting social phenomena, like all others, toinvariable natural laws, which shall, as a whole, prescribe for eachperiod, with entire certainty, the limits and character of socialaction."

The discovery of the basic laws will cure men ofoverweening ambition; they will learn that at any historical moment themargin of societal action is limited by the exigencies of the properfunctioning of the social organism. But at the same time, men will alsobe enabled to act deliberately within given limits by curbing theoperation of societal laws to their own purposes. In the realm of thesocial, as elsewhere, "the office of science is not to govern, but tomodify phenomena; and to do this it is necessary to understand theirlaws." Above all, once the new scientific dispensation comes into itsown, men will no longer think in absolute terms, but in terms relativeto a particular state of affairs in society. It is impossible, forexample, to talk about political aims without considering the social andhistorical context of political action. By recognizing andacknowledging the constraint that any social order imposes on action,men will at the same time be enabled freely to order their societywithin the bounds imposed by necessity.

The new positive sciencedethroned the authority of perennial tradition. Comte's oft- repeatedinsistence that nothing is absolute but the relative lies at the verycore of his teaching. Instead of accepting canonical truths aseverlastingly valid, he insisted on the continued progress of humanunderstanding and the self-corrective character of the scientificenterprise. "All investigation into the nature of beings, and theirfirst and final causes, must always be absolute; whereas the study ofthe laws of phenomena must be relative, since it supposes a continuousprogress of speculation subject to the gradual improvement ofobservation, without the precise reality ever being fully disclosed. . .. The relative character of scientific conceptions is inseparable fromthe true idea of natural laws.

By no means did Comte reject allauthority. Once men recognize the overriding authority of science inthe guidance of human affairs, they will also abandon the illusory questfor an unfettered "right of free inquiry, or the dogma of unboundedliberty of conscience." Only those willing to submit themselves to therigorous constraints of scientific methodology and to the canons ofscientific evidence can presume to have a say in the guidance of humanaffairs. Freedom of personal opinion makes no sense in astronomy orphysics, and in the future such freedom will be similarly inappropriatein the social sciences. It is an insufferable conceit on the part ofordinary men to presume that they should hold opinions about matters ofscientific fact. The intellectual reorganization now dawning in thesocial sciences "requires the renunciation by the greater number oftheir right of individual inquiry on subjects above theirqualifications." Just as is the case in the natural sciences today, soin the sociology of the future, "the right of free inquiry will abidewithin its natural and permanent limits; that is, men will discuss,under appropriate intellectual conditions, the real connections ofvarious consequences with fundamental rules universally respected." Theexigent requirements of scientific discourse will set firm limits onvain speculation and unbridled utopianism.

From Coser,1977:3-5.

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