Auguste Comte was a French philosopher whose philosophy and scientific methods have greatly advanced the field of social science. He is popularly known as the founder of modern sociology and the doctrine of positivism. In some quarters, he is regarded as history’s first philosopher of science due to his habit of effectively combining philosophy with science. This unique combination resulted in the development of a philosophy of biology, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of chemistry, and philosophy of physics.
Born in January 1798, Auguste Comte grew up in the shadows of the French and Industrial Revolutions. Due to the chaos these events caused in his native France, he developed an entirely new ideology to address all the uncertainties and mistrusts that was prevalent at the time. His reason was that the existing philosophies at the time could not explain the devastations and conflicts happening around him. Comte’s philosophy was embraced by the people and became widely popular in the 19th-century. It even transformed into a political movement with massive support from the public. Comte’s philosophy of positivism has been identified as an influence by other notable philosophers such as Karl Marx, George Elliot, John Stuart Mill, and Friedrich Nietzsche. In this article, we shall examine in detail his theory of positive philosophy
What is positivism?
Comte’s positive philosophy is a school of thought that states that positive knowledge is based on the occurrence of natural phenomenon and their relations and properties. In other words, positivism believes that the world is composed of regular occurrences which when observed by a researcher can reveal knowledge about the real world. Therefore, the information that is gotten from sensual experiences and interpreted through the application of reason and logic can be the exclusive source of facts and verified information. Positivism also believes that the society functions on general laws just like the physical world operates on laws such as gravity.
Comte’s positivism has been known by several names including Logical Empiricism, Empiriocriticism, Logical Positivism, and analytic and linguistic philosophy.
The law of the three stages
Comte’s positivism is based on what he calls the law of the three stages of intellectual development. He believed that humanity passes through these three successive stages which are as follows:
- Theological stage: This is the first stage. It basically attributes the occurrence of natural phenomena to divine or supernatural powers. The religion is however not specified, as they can either be monotheistic or polytheistic. At this stage, every natural event is believed to be caused by miraculous powers. Comte criticized this stage because it was dependent on human analogies.
- Metaphysical stage: Most scholars see this stage as a depersonalized theology i.e. a simple modification of the first stage. This stage believes those natural phenomenon are caused by impersonal powers. However, it lacks verifiable facts which can only be proven in the third stage.
- Scientific or positive stage: At this stage, the mind ceases to look for the causes of natural phenomenon and restricts itself to understanding the laws governing them.
The role of science and knowledge is to majorly study the facts and regularities as general laws. According to Comte, mankind reached the apex of thoughts only after abandoning false explanations offered by the theological and metaphysical stages. And in the process, humanity adopted a strict adherence to the adoption process.
Comte’s pyramid of scientific classification
In the law of the three stages, Comte combined a logical analysis of the structural levels in science with the historical order of development. He arranged the six pure and basic sciences such as mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, sociology, physics, and biology, one on top the other in the shape of a pyramid. This action set the stage for Logical Positivism to reduce each level.
At the fundamental or ground level, he placed mathematics and then arranged the levels above it in a manner that each science is dependent on and makes use of the science below it. Each higher level of science then adds to the knowledge content of the sciences below it. In this way content is being enriched through the process of specialization.
To help you understand this better, here is a pictorial representation of Comte’s scientific pyramid:
This classification provided a way to attend to the diversity of the sciences without neglecting their unity at the same time. Its major aim was to avoid knowledge fragmentation. Through it, we can see that the sciences are all related to each other in a scale that moves from the general to the particular (mathematics to sociology) and from the simple to the complex (sociology to mathematics).
Positivism also comes in different terms which are dependent on the science it is applied on. For example, in biology it is comparison; in astronomy, it is observation; and in physics, it is experimentation.
Also, this positivism classification is the key to the theory of knowledge. The reason for this is that between complexity and modifiability, a system connection exists. In simple terms, the more complex a phenomenon is, the more it can be easily modified. And since the order of nature is modifiable, human actions thus occur within the limits set by nature which consists of replacing the natural order with the artificial order.
The characteristics of positivism
Some of the characteristics of positivism outlined by Comte include the following:
- Fact is the object of knowledge.
- Science is the only valid knowledge.
- Philosophy does not operate a method that is different from science.
- The major aim of philosophy is to find the general principles that is common to all the sciences. And when these principles are found, philosophy should use them as a basis of social organization and as a guide to human conduct.
- Positivism denies prior reasoning, intuition, metaphysical and theological knowledge.
- All scientific knowledge must be based on direct observation of a reality.
- The direct observation of a reality can be understood by the unity of a scientific method.
- The unity of a scientific method needs a common goal of making theories that can be tested.
- All scientific knowledge must have a useful purpose which should be used as an instrument of social engineering.
- Scientific knowledge has no end because science has no absolute knowledge.
The theory of positivism brought about a revolution in the area of social science. It became a combination of belief in advancement, and a passion for serving humanity. Auguste Comte gave the usage of scientific methods maximum importance. And in spite of the criticisms, his persistence on objectivity, positive approach and scientific attitude contributed tremendously to the development of the social sciences.
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