Article

Auguste Comte

Michael Bourdeau

in Philosophy

ISBN: 9780195396577
Published online September 2014 | | DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0246
Auguste Comte

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Auguste Comte (b. 1798–d. 1857) is the founder of positivist philosophy: he coined the term positivism, a word he understood to mean not only a philosophy of science, but also a political philosophy. His posthumous fate is a strange one. In the early 20th century, it had become somewhat of an academic exercise to compare Hegel and Comte: both wrote all-embracing philosophies of history, both were encyclopedic thinkers, and, at least as far as the late Comte is concerned, both were fond of synthesis. As to the difference, it was easy to point out: the former was educated at the Tübingen Stift, the latter at the École Polytechnique, and, in spite of his attacks against “polytechnician hybris,” Hayek ranked him higher than Hegel. However, while a Hegel revival has taken place, nothing similar has yet happened to the founder of positivism. In everyday language today “positivist” has become more or less synonymous with “blind admirer of science,” which Comte most assuredly was not, while for most contemporary philosophers, positivism means logical positivism. Instead of presenting, for instance, Carnap as a neopositivist, one could present Comte as a “paleopositivist” or as a postpositivist in as much as postpositivists often come back to some of Comte’s stronger intuitions. And if it is so, why care about Comte? A possible answer could be because his work lies at the intersection of two lines of thought. In the first line of thought, we find philosophers such as Poincaré, Duhem, Carnap, or Kuhn; in the second one, sociologists such as Tocqueville, Marx, or Durkheim. In the first case, he may be viewed as the first philosopher of science in the modern sense since he explicitly acknowledges the disunity of science and deals successively with the philosophy of mathematics, of astronomy, of physics, and so on without, however, neglecting the general philosophy of science. In the second case, he was less successful. His contributions to social science are mostly forgotten, not to speak of positive polity. The truth is that he was deeply antimodern. As Michel Houellebecq has noted: “Everything in the political and moral thought of Comte seems to have been made in order to exasperate the contemporary reader” (Préliminaires au positivisme, in A. Comte, Théorie générale de la religion, Paris, 1001 nuits, 2005, p. 5).

Article.  6796 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy ; Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art ; Epistemology ; Feminist Philosophy ; History of Western Philosophy ; Metaphysics ; Moral Philosophy ; Non-Western Philosophy ; Philosophy of Language ; Philosophy of Law ; Philosophy of Mathematics and Logic ; Philosophy of Mind ; Philosophy of Religion ; Philosophy of Science ; Social and Political Philosophy

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