Auguste Comte

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Social positivism only accepts duties, for all and towards all. Its constant social viewpoint cannot include any notion of rights, for such notion always rests on individuality.

Isidore Marie Auguste François Xavier Comte (17 January 17985 September 1857) was a French philosopher who coined the terms "sociology" and "altruism" and developed forms of social discipline he called Positivism.


  • Social positivism only accepts duties, for all and towards all. Its constant social viewpoint cannot include any notion of rights, for such notion always rests on individuality. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. These obligations then increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service. … Any human right is therefore as absurd as immoral. Since there are no divine rights anymore, this concept must therefore disappear completely as related only to the preliminary regime and totally inconsistent with the final state where there are only duties based on functions.
    • Le Catéchisme positiviste (1852)
  • Men are not allowed to think freely about chemistry and biology: why should they be allowed to think freely about political philosophy?
    • As quoted in A Dictionary of Scientific Quotations (1991) by Alan Lindsay Mackay
  • Foreknowledge is power.
    • As quoted in A Dictionary of Scientific Quotations (1991) by Alan Lindsay Mackay

System of positive polity (1852)[edit]

System of Positive Polity, Volume II, translated by Frederic Harrison, Longman, Green & Co., London, 1875 - University of California Libraries/Internet Archive.
  • Every attempt to refer chemical questions to mathematical doctrines must be considered, now and always, profoundly irrational, as being contrary to the nature of the phenomena. . . . but if the employment of mathematical analysis should ever become so preponderant in chemistry (an aberration which is happily almost impossible) it would occasion vast and rapid retrogradation....
  • Language forms a kind of [[wealth], which all can make use of at once without causing any diminution of the store, and which thus admits a complete community of enjoyment; for all, freely participating in the general treasure, unconsciously aid in its preservation.
    • Volume II, page 213.
  • Notwithstanding the eminent difficulties of the mathematical theory of sonorous vibrations, we owe to it such progress as has yet been made in acoustics. The formation of the differential equations proper to the phenomena is, independent of their integration, a very important acquisition, on account of the approximations which mathematical analysis allows between questions, otherwise heterogeneous, which lead to similar equations. This fundamental property, whose value we have so often to recognize, applies remarkably in the present case; and especially since the creation of mathematical thermology, whose principal equations are strongly analogous to those of vibratory motion. This means of investigation is all the more valuable on account of the difficulties in the way of direct inquiry into the phenomena of sound. We may decide the necessity of the atmospheric medium for the transmission of sonorous vibrations; and we may conceive of the possibility of determining by experiment the duration of the propagation, in the air, and then through other media; but the general laws of the vibrations of sonorous bodies escape immediate observation. We should know almost nothing of the whole case if the mathematical theory did not come in to connect the different phenomena of sound, enabling us to substitute for direct observation an equivalent examination of more favorable cases subjected to the same law. For instance, when the analysis of the problem of vibrating chords has shown us that, other things being equal, the number of oscillations is hi inverse proportion to the length of the chord, we see that the most rapid vibrations of a very short chord may be counted, since the law enables us to direct our attention to very slow vibrations. The same substitution is at our command in many cases in which it is less direct.
    • Bk. 3, chap. 4; as cited in: Moritz (1914, 240)

The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte (1853)[edit]

The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte Freely Translated and Condensed by Harriet Martineau in Two Volumes (1853) - (1896 edition in the Cornell University Library Historical Monographs Collection)
  • After Montesquieu, the next great addition to Sociology (which is the term I may be allowed to invent to designate Social Physics) was made by Condorcet, proceeding on the views suggested by his illustrious friend Turgot.
    • Book VI: Social Physics, Ch. II: Principle Philosophical Attempts to Constitute a Social System
  • The mathematical thermology created by Fourier may tempt us to hope that, as he has estimated the temperature of the space in which we move, me may in time ascertain the mean temperature of the heavenly bodies: but I regard this order of facts as for ever excluded from our recognition. We can never learn their internal constitution, nor, in regard to some of them, how heat is absorbed by their atmosphere. We may therefore define Astronomy as the science by which we discover the laws of the geometrical and mechanical phenomena presented by the heavenly bodies.
    • Book II: Astronomy, Ch. I: General View

Quotes about Comte[edit]

  • M. Comte, in particular, whose social system, as unfolded in his Systeme de Politique Positive, aims at establishing (though by moral more than by legal appliances) a despotism of society over the individual, surpassing anything contemplated in the political ideal of the most rigid disciplinarian among the ancient philosophers.
  • Of M. Comte I have only read a few absurd passages.
    • Louis Pasteur, as quoted in The life of Pasteur (1902), by René Vallery-Radot, p. 163
  • The philosopher Comte has made the statement that chemistry is a non-mathematical science. He also told us that astronomy had reached a stage when further progress was impossible. These remarks, coming after Dalton's atomic theory, and just before Guldberg and Waage were to lay the foundations of chemical dynamics, Kirchhoff to discover the reversal of lines in the solar spectrum, serve but to emphasize the folly of having "recourse to farfetched and abstracted Ratiocination," and should teach us to be "very far from the litigious humour of loving to wrangle about words or terms or notions as empty".
  • The only true and scientific method according to Comte is therefore the inductive method and science is only such as is based on experiment. Secondly, the aim and apex of science is the new science of the imaginary organism of humanity or of the super-organic being-humanity: this new imaginary science being sociology. From this view of science in general it appeared that all former knowledge was false, and the whole history of humanity's knowledge of itself fell into three, or really two, periods: # The theological and metaphysical periods, lasting from the commencement of the world until Comte # and the present period of true science — positivism — which began with Comte.
    This was all very nice; there was only one error, namely, that the whole edifice was built on the sand — on the arbitrary assertion that humanity is an organism. That assertion was arbitrary because we have no more right to acknowledge the existence of an organism of humanity not subject to observation than we have to acknowledge the existence of a triune God and similar theological propositions. That assertion was fallacious because to the conception of humanity, that is, of men, the definition of an organism was incorrectly affixed despite the fact that humanity lacks the essential sign of an organism, namely a centre of sensation and consciousness. We only call an elephant or a bacterium an 'organism' because, by analogy we attribute to those beings a similar unification of sensation and of consciousness to that we are conscious of in ourselves; but in human societies and in humanity this essential indication is lacking, and therefore, however many other indications we may detect that are common to humanity and to an organism, in the absence of that essential indication, the acknowledgement of humanity as an organism is incorrect.
    But despite the arbitrariness and incorrectness of its fundamental basis the positive philosophy was accepted most cordially by the so-called educated world, so important for that world was the justification this philosophy afforded to the existing order of things by regarding the present rule of violence among men as Just. What is remarkable in this connexion is that of Comte's works which consist of two parts — the positive philosophy and the positive politics — the learned world only accepted the first: the part which, on the new experimental basis, offered a justification for the existing evil of human societies; but the second part, dealing with the moral obligations of altruism resulting from acknowledging humanity as an organism, was considered not merely unimportant but even insignificant and unscientific.
    • Leo Tolstoy, What then must we do? (1886); as translated by Aylmer Maude.
  • Kierkegaard was interested in the development of the existent, individual, concrete human personality. Its chief Kierkegaardian stages are the esthetic, the moral, and the religious, and they form a striking contrast to Comte’s trio: the theological, the metaphysical, and the scientific. For one thing Kierkegaard’s highest stage of human existence is the religious, while Comte’s is the scientific; for another, the Kierkegaardian personality’s journey through its stages is absolutely free.
    • Morton White ed. The age of analysis 20th century philosopher, Houghton Mifflin Co, 1955 p. 120-121

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