Chapter1: Introduction: Sociological Theory

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History Comte limited his study to Western Europe (and the "white race") because it had evolved the most and because it was, in his view, the "elite" of humanity. We need not go into great detail here about his historical theory because it is of little lasting significance. Furthermore, because it is more central to Comte's underlying theory, we will focus on the changing nature of ideas rather titan on more material transformations (for example, Comte sees society as evolving from the warfare characteristic of the theological stage to industry, which was to dominate the positivist stage). Comte begins with the theological stage, which he traces to antiquity. He divides the theological stage into three succeeding periods--fetishistic, polytheistic, and monotheistic. In the early fetishistic stage, people personify external objects (for example, a tree), give them lives like their own, and then deify those objects. Much later, polytheism in Egypt, Greece,and Rome developed. Finally, Comte analyzes the rise of monotheism, especially Roman Catholicism, in the Middle Ages. Although all of these are part of the theological stage, Comte is careful to show that they also possess the germs of the positivism that was to emerge at a much later point in history.

Comte sees the fourteenth century as a crucial turning point, as theology began a long period of enfeeblement and decline. More specifically, Catholicism was undermined and eventually replaced by Protestantism, which Comte sees as nothing more than a growing protest against the old social order's intellectual basis (theology). This, for Comte, represents the beginning of the negativity that he sought to counteract with his positivism, a negativity that did not begin to be systematized into a doctrine until the mid-seventeenth century. Protestantism laid the groundwork for this negativity by encouraging unlimited free inquiry. This change in ideas, the development of a negative philosophy, led to a corresponding negativity in the social world and to the social crisis that obsessed Comte. This negative doctrine was developed by French thinkers such as Voltaire (1649-1778) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), whom Comte did not see as systematic thinkers; as a result, he believed they were incapable of producing coherent speculations. Nevertheless, these incoherent theories gained a following among the masses because they appeared at a time when theology was greatly weakened and positivism was not yet ready to take its place. Most generally, this entire period was the transitional period, the metaphysical stage, between theology and positivism.

Comte himself was writing during what he believed to be the close of the metaphysical stage: "We find ourselves therefore living at a period of confusion, without any general view of the past, or sound appreciation of the future, to enlighten us for the crisis prepared by the whole progress yet achieved" (Comte, 1830-42/1855:738-739). Negativity had far outstripped positivity, and there was, as yet, no available intellectual means to reorganize society. Everywhere Comte turned there was crisis--art was "adrift," science was suffering from overspecialization, and philosophy had fallen into "nothingness." Overall, Comte describes the situation as "the philosophical anarchy of our time" (1830-42/1855:738). This philosophical anarchy prepared the way for social revolution, especially the French Revolution, which while negative in many senses, was salutary in that it paved the way for the positivistic reorganization of society. As a social event it demonstrated "the powerlessness of critical principles to do anything but destroy" (Comte, 1830-42/1855:739).

Not only was France the site of the major political revolution, but it was to take the lead in the reorganization of Western Europe. It had the most advanced negative ideas and developments, and it had gone furthest in positive directions. In terms of the latter,its industrial activity was most "elevated," its art was most advanced, it was "foremost" in science, and it was closer to the new, positive philosophy (and, of course, his eminence, Auguste Comte, lived there). Although Comte saw signs during this period of the development of positivism, he recognized that in the short run, metaphysics (and the metaphysical stage) had won out. He described the effort in France to develop a constitutional government as being based on metaphysical principles, and he felt that at a philosophical level Rousseau's "retrograde" philosophy had won out. He felt that Rousseau sought to emulate older societies, in which people were freer and more natural, rather than provide a basis for modem society. This negative development held sway for half a century in France, but Comte also saw within it positive developments in industry, art, science, and philosophy.

Comte saw this period as dominated by a focus on the individual and the metaphysical notion of individual rights. Concern for the individual led only to disorder; in its place, Comte, as we have seen, urged a focus on collective phenomena like the family and society. In addition, a focus on individual rights furthered the tendency toward disorder and chaos; Comte sought a society based on what he viewed us the positive idea of duties rather than on individual rights. The idea of duties was seen as a positive notion both because it was more scientific (for example, more "precise") and because it bad a "calming" influence on people's egoism as well as on the rampant negativity of the day. Instead of focusing on their individual rights, people were urged to concentrate on their duties to the larger society. This emphasis on duties would enable society to control individual egoism and to better bring out the altruism innate in people. These new duties were to help form the basis of a new spiritual authority that would help regenerate society and morality. This new spiritual authority was, of course, positivism.


The discussion of the previous section, in broad outline, is Comte's theory of social dynamics. Yet Cmnte (like Marx) wanted to do more than theorize. He wanted his theoretical ideas to lead to practical social changes; he explicitly and self-consciously sought the "connection between theory and practice" (Comte, 1851/1968:46). To this end, Comte sees two objectives for positivism. The first, covered in the preceding sections,is to generalize scientific conceptions--in other words, to advance the science of humanity. The second, covered in this section, is to systematize the art and practice of life (Comte, 1851/1957:3). Thus, positivism is both a scientific philosophy and a political practice; the two "can never be dissevered" (Comte, 1851 / 1968:1 ).

Who Will Support Positivism?

One of the first political questions addressed by Comte is: Which social groups are likely to support the new doctrine of positivism? It was assumed by Comte that many philosophers would be ardent supporters of this new set of ideas, but philosophers are limited in terms of their ability to implement their ideas. What of the groups of people who are more actively engaged in the social world?

Comte begins by excluding the upper classes because they are in the thrall of metaphysical theories, are too self-seeking, occupy positions too overly specialized to understand the total situation, are too aristocratic, are absorbed in fighting over remnants of the old system, and are blinded by their educational experiences. Overall, he sees the wealthy as more likely than other social groups to be characterized by "avarice, ambition, or vanity" (Comte, 1851/I 957:144). Comte also did not expect too much help from the middle classes because they are too busily involved in trying to move into the upper classes.

Comte did expect help from three groups: in addition to the philosophers, who would supply the intellect, the working class would bring the needed action, and women would provide the required feeling. The philosophers, especially those attracted to positivistic ideas, would be involved, but the major agents of political change would be women and members of the working class: "It is among women, therefore,and among the working classes that the heartiest supporters of the new doctrine will be found" (Comte, 1851/1957:4). Both groups are generally excluded from government positions and thus will be more likely to see the need for political change. Furthermore, discrimination against them in the educational system ("the present worthless methods of instruction by words and entities" [Comte, 1851/1957:142]) is less likely to blind them to the need for such change. Comte also sees both women and the working class as possessing "strong social instincts" and "the largest stock of good sense and good feeling" ( 1851/1957:142).

The Working Class In Comte's view, the members of the working class are better able to think during the workday because their jobs are not as fully absorbing as those of people in the higher social classes. Presumably this means that the working class has more time and energy to reflect on the benefits of positivism than do the upper classes. The working class is superior not only intellectually, at least in the preceding sense, but also morally. Comte offers a highly romanticized view of the morality of the working class: "The life of the workman.., is far more favourable to the development of the nobler instincts" ( 1851/1957:144-145). More specifically, Comte attributes a long series of traits to members of the working class, including more affectionate ties at home; the "'highest and most genuine types of friendship"; "sincere and simple respect for superiors"; experience with life's miseries, which stimulates them to nobler sympathies; and a greater likelihood of engaging in "prompt and unostentatious self-sacrifice at the call of a great public necessity" (Comte, 1851/1957:145-146).

Comte sees the spread of communism among the working classes in his day as evidence that the trend toward social revolution is focusing in on moral issues. But Comte reinterprets communism as a moral rather than an economic movement so that it fits into his scheme. He argues that communism must be separated from the "numerous extravagant schemes" (presumably Saint-Simon's socialism or Marx's call for a communist revolution) that were being discussed at the time (Comte, 1851/1957:167). To Comte,communism was "a simple assertion of the paramount importance of Social Feeling"(1851/1957:169). To show how far he is willing to water down the idea of communism,Comte argues that "the word Republican expresses the meaning as well, and without the same danger" (1851/1957:169). Clearly, this is a very different meaning of the term communism than the one used by Marx (see Chapter 5) and by most other thinkers who have employed the term.

Comte sees positivism as the alternative to communism: positivism is the "only doctrine which can preserve Western Europe from some serious attempt to bring Communism into practical operation" (1851/1957:170). Comte offers a number of contrasts between positivism and communism. First, positivism focuses on moral responses rather than on political responses and economic issues. (Here Comte clearly recognizes that communism, at least as it was being practiced in his time, was an economic and political, rather than a moral, system). Second, communism seeks to suppress individuality, whereas positivism seeks both individuality and cooperation among independent individuals. Third, communism seeks the elimination of the leaders of industry, whereas positivism sees them as essential. (Thus, while the leaders of industry cannot play a role in the positivist revolution, they do play, as we will see later, a central role, along with bankers, in Comte's vision of the revamped positivist society.) Fourth, communism seeks to eliminate inheritance, whereas positivism sees inheritance as important because it provides for historical continuity from generation to generation. In spite of his rejection of communism, Comte sees it as important as another, largely negative, force providing the groundwork for the emergence of positivism.

Women Comte's interest in the working class as a revolutionary force is not unusual, but his attraction to women as such a group is. Comte had some extraordinary views about women. His major position was that women brought to politics the needed subordination of intellect to social feeling. And Comte came to believe that feeling was preeminent, far more important than intellect or action: feeling is "the predominating principle, the motive power of our being, the only basis on which the various parts of our natures can be brought into unity" (1851/1957:227). Women are "the best representatives of the fundamental principle on which Positivism rests, the victory of social over selfish affections" (Comte, 1851/1957:232). Comte sometimes gushes with his admiration for women in general (as he did more specifically for his beloved "Saint" Clotilde)."Morally... she merits always our loving veneration, as the purest and simplest impersonation of Humanity, who can never be adequately represented in any masculine form"(1851/1957:234). Or even more strongly, "Woman is the spontaneous priestess of Humanity" (Comte, 1851/1957:253). (Of course, this means that men in general, and Comte in particular, are the priests of humanity.) Nevertheless, in spite of his admiration for women, he clearly sees men as superior practically and intellectually. On the intellectual issue Comte contends, "Women's minds no doubt are less capable than ours of generalizing very widely, or of carrying on long processes of deduction.., less capable than men of abstract intellectual exertion" (1851/1957:250). Because of their intellectual and practical superiority, it is men who are to take command in the actual implementation of positivism.

On the one hand, Comte clearly admired the moral and affectual aspects of women,and as a result, he was willing to accord them a key revolutionary role. On the other hand, he felt that men excelled in intellect and action, and he tended to demean the intellectual and active capacities of women. In terms of implementing their role in the positivist revolution, women were supposed to alter the educational process within the family and to form "salons" to disseminate positivistic ideas. In spite of his veneration of women, Comte did not believe in equality: "Equality in the position of the two sexes is contrary to their nature" (1851/1957:275). He defended this view on the basis of the fact that positivism has discovered the following "axiom": "Man should provide for Woman" (Comte, 1851/1957:276). More practically, positivism would institute a new doctrine: "Worship of Woman, publicly and privately" (Comte, 1851/1957:283).

Thoughts, Feelings, and Actions Comte's focus on women, and his emphasis on their capacity for feeling, represented a general change in perspective from his earlier positions. As we have seen, Comte emphasized order in social statics and progress in social dynamics. To order and progress he now added the importance of feeling (love),which he associated with women. As a result he came to proclaim the "positivist motto,Love, Order, Progress" (Comte, 1851/1957:7). Positivism was no longer important just intellectually but morally as well. Similarly, Comte added the emotional element to his previous commitment to thought and action by arguing that positive philosophy represented a comprehensive perspective encompassing "Thoughts, Feelings, and Actions" (1851/1957:8).

Comte went further than simply according feeling equal status with thought and action; he gave feeling the preeminent place in his system. Feeling was to direct the intellect as well as practical activity. In particular, Comte argued that "individual happiness and public welfare are far more dependent upon the heart than upon the intellect" (1851/1957: [5]. It is this kind of viewpoint that led the.champion of positivist intellectual life to the anti-intellectualism that is one of the problems we will discuss later in this chapter.

The emphasis on feeling and love led Comte in his later work to add the science of morality (the study of sentiment) to his list of sciences. "Morals is the most eminent of the Sciences" (Comte, 1853/I968:41). Morality was a science, which in his system exceeded even sociology. "The field of Morals is at once more special, more complex, and more noble than that of Sociology" (Comte, 1853/1968:40). Not only was morality the most important science, but it was also crucial in giving direction to political changes.In Comte's terms, morality is "the ultimate object of all Philosophy, and the starting point of all Polity" (1851/1957:101). In other words, morality lies at the center of the relationship between theory and practice. Comte sees a natural morality in the world, and it is the task of the positivist to discover its laws. It is these underlying laws of morality that guide our intellectual thoughts and our political actions. Comte concludes, "It is henceforth a fundamental doctrine of Positivism, a doctrine of as great political as philosophical importance, that the Heart preponderates over the Intellect" (1851/1957:18).

Having added morality to the list of his major concerns, Comte returns to his Law of the Three Stages to look at each stage from the point of view of thoughts, feelings, and actions. He sees the theological stage as being dominated by feeling and imagination,with only slight restraint from reason. Theology operated on a purely subjective level,with the result that it was out of touch with the objectivity of practice in the real world."Theology asserted all phenomena to be under the dominion of Wills more or less arbitrary," but in the real world people were, of course, led by "invariable laws" (Comte,1851/1957:10). The transitional metaphysical stage continued to be dominated by feeling, was muddled in its thoughts, and was even less able to deal with the practical world.However, positivism finally offered the unity and harmony of thought, feeling, and action. The ideas of positivism are derived from the practical world and are certainly a monumental intellectual achievement. And positivism also came to comprehend the moral sphere. Only when positivism incorporates morality "can the claims of theology be finally set aside" (Comte, 1851/1957:13). Among other things, morality (feeling) is important for giving direction to thought and action. For example, without the direction of morality, positivism is prone to be too specialized and to deal with "useless or insolvable questions" (Comte, 1851/1957:21 ). Under the guidance of morality, positivism comes to focus on the broadest, most important, most pressing, and most solvable problems of the day.

With morality added to positivism, it is but a short step for Comte to declare positivism a religion: "Thus Positivism becomes, in the true sense of the word, a Religion;the only religion which is real and complete; destined therefore to replace all imperfect and provisional systems resting on the primitive basis of Theology" (1851/1957:365).And this means that Comte and his principal followers become priests of humanity, with far greater influence than any other previous priesthood. In fact, Comte, with customary humility, declared himself the "founder of the Religion of Humanity" (1853/1968:x).The object of worship in the new religion of positivism is not a god or gods but humanity, or what Comte later referred to as the "Great Being," that is, "the whole constituted by the beings [including animals], past, future, and present, which co-operate willingly in perfecting the order of the world" (1854/1968:27). The Great Being lies at the base of the positivist religion: "The Positive Religion inspires all the servants of the Great Being with a sacred zeal to represent that Being as fully as possible" (Comte,1852/1968:65).


Given Comte's exaggerated conception of positivism, as well as of his own position in it, it should come as little surprise that he ultimately conceived a grand visionary plan for the future of the world. It is here that we find most of Comte's most outrageous and ridiculous ideas. (It might be that one should take his earlier theories more seriously than his later vision of the future.) Standley calls Comte's vision of the future a "'Memorable Fancy" (1981:158). We do not want to go into too much detail, so we will merely suggest the lengths to which Comte went in proposing ways of implementing his positivistic ideas.

For example, he suggested a new positivistic calendar which was to be composed of thirteen months, each divided into twenty-eight days. He created a large number of public holidays to reaffirm positivism, its basic principles, and its secular heroes. He even got into the question of the design of new positivistic temples. He specified the number of priests and vicars required in each temple. Forty-two of the vicars were to be chosen as the priests of humanity, and from that group the high priest ("the Pontiff') of positivism was to be chosen (in contrast to the Catholic pontiff, who resided in Italy, the positivist pontiff was normally supposed to reside in Paris). (Comte saw himself as the current pontiff and worried over the fact that there was no clear successor on the horizon.) All these religious figures were to be freed of material cares and therefore were to be supported by the bankers! Comte even specified incomes for religious figures—240 pounds for vicars, 480 pounds for priests, and 2400 pounds for the high priest. Given Comte's views on the positive influence of women, all the priests were to be married so that "'they may be under the full influence of affection" (Comte, 1854/1968:224). However, in spite of his high esteem for women, they were not permitted to serve as priests,vicars, or the pontiff. These positions were reserved for men.

While he did not see them as revolutionary forces, Comte eventually accorded members of the upper class, such as bankers and industrialists, central roles in the new positivist society. It was specified that Western Europe was to have "two thousand bankers, a hundred thousand merchants, two hundred thousand manufacturers, and four hundred thousand agriculturists" (Comte, 1854/1968:269). Merchants, manufacturers, and industrialists were to be apportioned an adequate number of members of the proletariat. Bankers would be both the centers of the commercial world and the suppliers of re quired funds to the positivist priesthood. Furthermore, from those bankers who are most distinguished for "breadth of thought and generosity of feeling" would be derived the supreme triumvirate (bankers representing merchants, manufacturers, and agriculturalists), which was to handle governmental functions (Comte, 1854/1968:301). However,overseeing and directing the operation of this government would be the pontiff and his priests, armed with the religion of positivism.

Turning to other matters, Comte urged the adoption of a positivist library of 100 titles (already specified by him). Additional reading was to be discouraged because it hampered meditation. This, too, is reflective of Comte's growing anti-intellectualism (see the next section).

Given Comte's negative views on individual passion, he urged chastity within the positivist family. He felt that positivism would "discredit and repress the most troublesome of the egoistic instincts [sex!]" (Comte, 1854/1968:251). To deal with the problem of sex, Comte espoused virgin birth. While he did not yet know how virgin birth was to be accomplished (could he have anticipated artificial insemination?), he seemed confident that others would be able to solve the problem eventually. He also favored eugenics, in which only the "higher types" of people (women) would be allowed to reproduce.Such a plan "would improve the human race" (Comte, 1854/1968:244). He said that we should devote "the same attention to the propagation of our species as to that of the more important domestic animals" (Comte, 1891/1973:222).

The positive family was to be composed of a husband, a wife, ordinarily three children, and the husband's parents. The latter were included to bring the wisdom of the past into the family of the present. The mother of the husband, possessing not only the wisdom of advanced age but also the feeling inherent in the female sex, would become the "'goddess" of the positivist family.

These are just a few of the myriad of highly detailed proposals Comte put forth on the basis of his positivist theory. He was careful to point to a division of labor in the development of these guidelines. The positivist philosopher was to come up with the ideas,but he was not to intervene himself in the social world. Such interventions are left to the politician, guided, of course, by the positivist priesthood.


From the previous discussion of a few of Comte's ideas about the future, the reader might conclude that Comte ought to be dismissed out of hand. In fact, it might even be asked again why a chapter on Comte is included in this book. Thus, we will begin this concluding section with an overview of Comte's most important contributions to sociology. Later we will turn to the far more numerous weaknesses in Comte's work weaknesses that lead us to conclude that it is safe for the science of sociology to forget much of Comte's work and get on with its own development, which has forged far ahead of Comte's ideas.

Positive Contributions

First, of course, Comte was the first thinker to use the term sociology; he can be seen as the "founder" of sociology. Although it is certainly the case that thinkers throughout the course of human history have dealt with sociological issues, Comte was the first to make such a focus explicit and to give it a name.

Second, Comte defined sociology as a positivistic science. Although this is, as we will see later, a mixed blessing, the fact is that the majority of contemporary sociologists continue to see sociology as a positivistic science. They believe that there are invariant laws of the social world and that it is their task to discover those laws. Many search for such laws empirically, whereas others (for example, J. Turner, 1985a) follow Comte's model and go about the search for such laws theoretically. Much of contemporary empirical sociology, and a significant segment of sociological theory, continues to accept Comte's positivistic model of sociology.

Third, Comte articulated three major methods for sociology---observation, experiment, and comparison (the historical comparative method is sufficiently important to be distinguished as a fourth methodology)--which continue to be widely used in sociology.Although Comte's work is badly dated in most respects, it is surprisingly contemporary in terms of its methodological pronouncements. For example, there has been a substantial resurgence of interest in historical studies in contemporary sociology (see, for example, Mann, 1986; Wallerstein, 1989).

Fourth, Comte differentiated in sociology between social statics and social dynamics. This continues to be an important differentiation in sociology, but the concepts are now called social structure and social change. Sociologists continue to focus on society as it is presently constituted as well as on its changing nature.

Fifth, although again a mixed blessing, Comte defined sociology in macroscopic terms as the study of collective phenomena. This was to take clearer form in the work of Durkheim, who defined sociology as the study of social facts (see Chapter 6). More specifically, many of Comte's ideas played a key role in the development of a major contemporary sociological theory--structural functionalism (see Chapter 15).

Sixth, Comte stated clearly his basic ideas about the domination of human nature, if left on its own, by egoism. Because he is clear about such basic views, the reader gets a sound understanding of where Comte's thoughts on the larger structures of society come from. Basically, those larger structures are needed to control individual egoism and to permit the emergence of individual altruism.

Seventh, Comte offered a dialectical view of macro structures. He saw contemporary macro structures as being the product of past structures and as possessing the seeds of future structures. This view gave his work a strong sense of historical continuity. His dynamic, dialectical view of social structure is superior to positions taken by many later, even contemporary, theorists of social structure who have tended to adopt static, ahistorical perspectives.

Eighth, Comte was not content with simply developing abstract theory, but he was interested in integrating theory and practice. Although this ambition was marred by some of his ludicrous ideas for the future society, the integration of theory and practice remains a cherished objective among contemporary sociologists. In fact, there is a growing interest in what is now called applied sociology, and the American Sociological Association has a section on sociological practice.

Basic Weaknesses in Comte's Theory

We can begin the discussion of Comte's specific weaknesses with a quotation from one of his severest critics, Isaiah Berlin:

His grotesque pedantry, the unreadable dullness of his writing, his vanity, his eccentricity, his solemnity, the pathos of his private life, his insane dogmatism, his authoritarianism, his philosophical fallacies... [his] obstinate craving for unity and symmetry at the expense of experience ..with his fanatically tidy world of human beings joyfully engaged in fulfilling their functions, each within his own rigorously de freed province, in the rationally ordered, totally unalterab|e hierarchy of the perfect society.

(Berlin, 1954:4-5, 22)

One is hard-pressed to think of a more damning critique of any social theorist, yet much of it is warranted. The issue here is: Where and how did Comte go wrong in his social theorizing?

First, Comte's theory was overly influenced by the trials and tribulations of his own life. For one thing, very much ignored in his lifetime, Comte became increasingly grandiose in his theoretical and practical ambitions. For another, his largely unfulfilled relationships with women, especially his beloved Clotilde, led him to a series of outrageous ideas about women and their role in society. This problem was amplified by a sexism that lad him to accord feelings to women, while men were given intellectual capacities and political and economic power. Then we must add the fact that Comte was deeply troubled psychologically; one often feels, especially in regard to the later works, that one is reading the rantings of a lunatic.

Second, Comte seemed to fall increasingly out of touch with the real world. After Positive Philosophy his theories were characterized by a spinning out of the internal logic of his own ideas. One reason is that despite his claims, Comte actually did no real empirical research. His idea of doing empirical research was to offer gross generalities about the historical stages and the evolution of the world. Comte's looseness about data analysis is reflected in the following statement: "Verification of this theory may be found more or less distinctly in every period of history" (1851/1957:240; italics added). Had Comte been a better data analyst, and had he been more generally in touch with the historical and cotemporary world.% ins theories might not have become so outrageous.

Third, Comte also grew progressively out of touch with the intellectual work of his time. Indeed, he is famous for practicing cerebral hygiene rather early in his life. He systematically avoided reading newspapers, periodicals, and books (except for a few favorite poems) and thereby sought to keep the ideas of others from interfering with his own theorizing. In effect, Comte was increasingly anti-intellectual. This ultimately became manifest in his substantive work, m which he urged such things as the abolition of the university and the withdrawal of economic support for science and scientific societies. It is also manifest in his positivist reading list of 100 books. Presumably, this limited list meant that all other books did not need to be read and could be safely burned.Comte's anti-intellectualism is also found in other aspects of his substantive work. For example, in making the case that strong affect helps lead to important scientific findings,Comte downgrades the importance of rigorous scientific work: "Doubtless, the method of pure science leads up to it also; but only by a long and toilsome process, which exhausts the power of thought, and leaves little energy for following out the new results to which this great principle gives rise" (1851/1957:243). The clear lesson of Comte's errors is that a theorist must remain in touch with both the empirical and the intellectual worlds.

Fourth, he failed as a positivist, both in his empirical and in his theoretical work. As to his empirical work, we have seen that he did woefully little of it and that the work he did was really little more than a series of gross generalizations about the course of world history. There was certainly little or no induction from dam derived from the real world. Regarding his theoretical work, it is hard even to think of many of his bizarre generalizations about the social world as sociological laws. Even if we take Comte's word that these were, in fact, laws, it remains the case that few, if any, social thinkers have confirmed the existence of these invariant laws. Although Comte argued that his laws should be reflections of what actually transpired hi the social world, the fact is that he

most often seemed to impose his vision on the world.

Fifth, although Comte is credited with creating sociology, there is very little actual sociology in his work. His sketchy overviews of vast sweeps of history hardly qualify as historical sociology. His admittedly weak statements on a few elements of social statics contributed little or nothing to our understanding of social structure. Thus, little, if any,of Comte's substantive sociology survives to this day. John Smart Mill was quite tight when he argued, "Comte has not, hi our opinion, created sociology.., he has, for the first time, made the creation possible" (1961:123-124). Comte's lasting legacy is that he created some domains sociology, positivist sociology, social statics, social dynamics--which his successors gave filled in with some genuine substantive sociology.

Sixth, it can be argued that Comte really made no original contributions. Mill clearly minimizes Comte's contribution in tiffs domain: "The philosophy called Positive is not a recent invention of M. Comte, but a simple adherence to the traditions of all the great scientific minds whose discoveries have made the human race what it is" (1961:8-9; see also Heilbron, 1990). Mill also argues that Comte was well aware of his lack of originality: "M. Comte claims no originality for his conception of human knowledge" (1961:6). Comte readily acknowledged his debt to such renowned positivists as Bacon,Descartes, and Galileo. A similar point could be made about Comte's contribution to sociology. Comte clearly recognized important forerunners hi sociology, such as Charles

de Montesquieu (1689 1755) and Giovanni Vico (1668-1774). He may have invented the term sociology, but he certainly did not create the practice of sociology.

Seventh, whatever sociology Comte did have to offer was distorted by a primitive organicism (Levine, 1995b), in which he saw strong similarities between the workings of the human and the social body. For example, Comte argues that composite groups such as social classes and cities are "the counterpart of animal tissues and organs in the organisation of the Great Being" (1852/1968:153). Later, he contends that the family is the social counterpart of cells in an organism. Furthermore, Comte sees an analogy between social disorder and disease in organisms. Just as medicine deals with physical diseases, it "is left for Positivism to put an end to this long disease [social anarchy]" (Comte, 1852/1968:375). This kind of organicism has long been eliminated from sociology.

Eighth, Comte tended to develop theoretical ways of thinking and theoretical tools that he then imposed on whatever issue he happened to be analyzing. For example,Comte seemed to be fond of things that came in threes, and many of his theoretical ideas had three components. In terms of theoretical tools, he was not content to apply his Law of the Three Stages to social history; he also applied it to the history of sciences, the history of the mind, and the development of individuals from infancy through adulthood.A particularly bizarre example of this tendency to apply the Law of the Three Stages to anything and everything is Comte's application of it to his own mental illness:

I will confine myself to recording here the valuable phenomena I was able to observe in the case of my own cerebral malady in 1826.... The complete course.., enabled me to verify twice over my then recently discovered Law of the Three Stages; for while 1 passed through those stages, first inversely, then directly, the order of their succession never varied. During the three months in which the medical treatment aggravated my malady, I descended gradually from positivism to fetishism, halting first at monotheism, and then longer at polytheism. In the following five months... 1 reascended slowly from fetishism to polytheism, and from that to monotheism, whence I speedily returned to my previous positivism...thus furnishing me with a decisive confirmation of my fundamental Law of the Three Stages.

(Comte, 1853/1968:62-63)

Ninth, Comte's "outrageous," "colossal" self-conceit (Mill, 1961) led him to make a series of ridiculous blunders. On the one hand, his never powerful theoretical system grew progressively weak as he increasingly subordinated the intellect to feeling. One manifestation of this is his unrealistic and highly romanticized view of the working class and women as agents of the positivist revolution. This decline in intellect is also manifest in his practice of cerebral hygiene as well as in his limiting of the number of positive books. On the other hand, and more important, his oversized ego led him to suggest a series of social changes, many of which, as we have seen, are ludicrous.

Tenth, Comte seemed to sacrifice much of what he stood for in his later turn toward positivist religion. In the framing of this religion, Comte seemed to be most influenced by the structure of Catholicism. In fact, T. H. Huxley called Comte's system "Catholicism minus Christianity" (cited in Standley, 1981:103). Comte acknowledged his debt to Catholicism when he argued that positivism is "more coherent, as well as more progressive, than the noble but premature attempt of medieval Catholicism" (1851/1957:3).His positivist religion minored Catholicism with its priests, vicars, and even its pontiff.Clearly, positivist religion has had no lasting impact, and it certainly served to subvert Comte's scientific pretensions.

Finally, there is the issue of the totalitarian implications of Comte's plans for the future. For one thing, these were highly detailed plans in winch Comte personally sought to dictate what the various agents in ins system would do. For another, his plans even extended to specific institutions such as the family. Particularly notable here are his ideas on the application of the principles of animal husbandry to humans. Ultimately, of course, his plans encompassed religion, with his notion of a supreme pontiff who would rule over the positivist empire.


This is not an unbiased presentation of Comte's ideas. It is clear that contemporary sociology has moved far beyond Comtian theory, and this chapter underscores that point.Although there are a number of useful derivatives from Comte's theory, the main point is that there are innumerable weaknesses in that theory. This chapter is concerned with the limited number of positive derivatives from Comte's theories and. more important.the negative lessons that can be of utility to the modern sociologist.

On the positive side, Comte offers us a positivist perspective, and many contemporary sociologists continue to accept the idea of the search for invariant social laws.Comte has also given us the term sociology, and his focus within that field on social statics and social dynamics remains a viable distinction. His basic methods of social research----observation, experimentation, comparison, and historical research—remain major methods of social research. Within his work on social statics, he made a number of contributions (a focus on structures, functions, equilibrium) that were important hi the development of the contemporary theory of sructural functionalism. Also within social statics, it is to Comte's credit that he laid out a detailed view of human nature on which he then erected his macrosociological theory. At the macro level Comte offers a dialectical sense of structural relations, and his social realism anticipates that of Durkheim and many other later theorists. His work on social dynamics was relevant to later evolutionary theorists. Finally, Comte was not content simply to speculate, but he was interested in linking theory and practice.

Although these are important accomplishments, there are far more things to be critical of in Comte's work. He allowed his theoretical work to he distorted by his personal experiences. He lost touch with both the social and intellectual worlds. His empirical and theoretical work was lacking, given his own positivistic standard. There is really little substantive sociology in his work. and that which he offers is distorted by a primitive organicism. There is little hi his work that was new at the time. Comte tended to impose his theoretical schemes on anything and everything, no matter how good the fit. His oversized ego led him to a number of outrageous theoretical blunders as well as many ludicrous suggestions for reforming the social world. His reform proposals were further undermined by his increasing preoccupation with positivism as a religion and his role as the pontiff of this new religion. Finally, his blueprint for the future positivist society had many totalitarian implications.

Chapter3: Herbert Spencer and Evolutionary Theory



Evolutionary Theory


Defining the Science of Sociology

Sociological Methods


Simple and Compounded Societies

Militant and Industrial Societies

In the theoretical ideas of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) we see a considerable advance over those of Auguste Comte. Not only was Spencer's work important in the development of sociological theory, but many of his theoretical ideas stand up well from the vantage point of contemporary sociological theory, fu spite of this, Jonathan Turner (t985b), who is strongly in sympathy with many of Spencer's ideas, paints out that modem sociological theorists have been disinclined to lake Spencer seriously, relegating him, like Comte, to the "dustbin" of history.(Actual, in superheated terms, Turner argues that contemporary social theorists have been inclined to "spit on die grave of Spencer" [1985b:71 ].) This negativity is, to a large extent, traceable to Spencer's highly conservative libertarian (not liberal) politics and to his belief in a sociological version of survival of the fittest. Although we d~ not fully share Turner's enthusiasm for Spencer, there is much of merit in Spencer's work. It will be demonstrated that a number of Spencer's theoretical ideas continue to be important and relevant to sociological theory.However, there are also serious problems with Spencer's theory that lead to the conclusion that while it represents an advance over Comtian theory, it is not quite up to the standard of the other major early theorists Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Simmel—to be discussed in the ensuing four chapters.

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