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Auguste Comte
A Course in Positive Philosophy
...Squashed down to read in about 20 minutes
"Society... cannot be regarded as composed of individuals."

Wikipedia - Full Text - Print Edition: ISBN 0872200507

INTRODUCTION TO A Course in Positive Philosophy

Born in Montpellier, in southern France, Comte was brought up by his comfortable family to be a devout Catholic and a staunch Monarchist. But he began to doubt God in his teens and took to Republicanism not long after. In true rebel style he was thrown out of the Ecole Polytechnique, France's foremost school of science, for leading a student protest.

He coined the word 'Positivism' for his philosophy that the only authentic knowledge is that based on actual sense experience and is credited with more-or-less inventing Sociology. He thought that a philosopher should practise 'hygiène cérébrale', by cutting himself off from all life that did not concern that work. The Positive Philosophy was his first significant writing, and in it he propounds his theory that all society can be perfected if we realise that institutions are based upon the ideas of men which are formed following the 'law of three phases' - theology, metaphysics and finally from the positive.

Comte has proved a huge influence on social reformers, most notably in Brazil where there is a Humanist 'Church' movement dedicated to him, and his motto "Love as a principle and order as the basis; Progress as the goal" is incorporated in the national flag


This is the condensed version first published by Sir John Hammerton in 1919. It reduces the original 200,000 words to about 4000 or 2%


Auguste Comte, 1830
A Course in Positive Philosophy
"Society... cannot be regarded as composed of individuals.."

Human intelligence passes through three stages: (1) The theological seeks to account for the world by super-natural beings, (2) the metaphysical seeks an explanation in abstract forces, (3) the scientific or positive stage applies itself to the study of the relation of phenomena to each other.
Astronomy has already reached the positive stage, but sociology, or Social Physics is still perverted by theological and metaphysical doctrines.
The theological polity was once beneficial, but has decayed, due to its antagonism to science.
Metaphysical polity, has been useful in destroying old ideas. Its chief dogma has been liberty of conscience, though weak intellects plainly can't be competent to form social opinions. It has promoted equality, even though men aren't intellectually or physically equal. Its idea of the sovereignty of the people has condemned the superior to be ruled by the inferior.
Only positive philosophy can reorganize society by applying the scientific spirit to social matters.
Society is not individuals. The true social unit is the family. Marriage requires the subordination of the woman, which is natural.
Human progress is directed by the reason. At first man knows nothing but himself, and explains things as being like himself - theology. Then the metaphysical has substituted entities for a deity. Yet the same mind may have a theological conception of one science, a metaphysical of another and a positive of yet another; but the trend is towards the positive.
Material progress has gone through similar stages. The primitive tendency of mankind was to a military life; the present tendency is towards industrial life. Only on these three dualisms which I have established can a sound historical philosophy be based.

The Squashed Philosophers Edition of...

A Course in Positive Philosophy
Auguste Comte
Squashed version edited by Glyn Hughes © 2011


ON studying the development of human intelligence, it is found that it passes through three stages: (1) The theological, (2) the metaphysical, (3) the scientific or positive. In the theological stage it seeks to account for the world by super-natural beings. In the metaphysical stage it seeks an explanation in abstract forces. In the scientific, or positive, stage it applies itself to the study of the relation of phenomena to each other.

Different sciences have passed through these stages at different rates. Astronomy reached the positive stage first, then terrestrial physics, then chemistry, then physiology, while sociology has not even yet reached it. To put social phenomena upon a positive basis is the main object of this work; its secondary object is to show that all branches of knowledge spring from the same trunk. An integration of the sciences on a positive basis should lead to the discovery of the laws which rule the intellect in the investigation of facts, should regenerate science and reorganize society. At present the theological, the metaphysical and the positive conflict, and cause intellectual confusion.

The first step to be taken in forming a positive philosophy is to classify the sciences. The first great division we notice in natural phenomena is the division into inorganic and organic phenomena. Under the inorganic we may include the sciences astronomy, physics, chemistry; and under the organic we include the sciences physiology and sociology. These five sciences, astronomy, physics, chemistry, physiology and sociology, we may consider the five fundamental sciences.

This classification follows the order of the development of the sciences, and indicates their social relation and relative perfection. In order to reach effective knowledge, the sciences must be studied in the order named; sociology cannot be understood without knowledge of the anterior sciences.

Behind and before all these sciences, however, lies the great science of mathematics - the most powerful instrument the mind can employ in the investigation of natural law - and the science of mathematics must be divided into abstract mathematics or the calculus, and concrete mathematics embracing general geometry and rational mechanics. We have thus really six great sciences.

MATHEMATICS. Mathematics may be defined briefly as the indirect measurement of magnitudes and the determination of magnitudes by each other. It is the business of concrete mathematics to discover the equations of phenomena; it is the business of abstract mathematics to educe results from the equations Thus concrete mathematics discovers by actual experiment the acceleration which takes place per second in a falling body, and abstract mathematics educes results from the equations so discovered, and obtains unknown quantities from known.

ASTRONOMY. Astronomy may be defined as the science by which we discover the laws of the geometrical and mechanical phenomena presented by heavenly bodies. To discover these laws we can use only our sense of sight and our reasoning power, and reasoning bears a greater proportion to observation here than in any other science. Sight alone would never teach us the figure of the earth or the path of a planet, and only by the measurement of angles and computation of times can we discover astronomical laws. The observation of these invariable laws frees man from servitude to the theological and metaphysical conceptions of the universe.

PHYSICS. Physics may be defined briefly as the study of the laws which regulate the general properties of bodies regarded en masse, their molecules remaining unaltered and usually in a state of aggregation. In the observations of physics all the senses are employed, and mathematical analysis and experiment assist observation. In the phenomena of astronomy human intervention was impossible; in the phenomena of physics man begins to modify natural phenomena.

Physics includes the subdivisions statics, dynamics, thermology, acoustics, optics and electrology. Physics is still handicapped by metaphysical conceptions of the primary causes of phenomena.

CHEMISTRY. Chemistry may be briefly defined as the study of the laws of the phenomena of composition and decomposition, which result from the molecular and specific mutual action of different substances, natural or artificial. In the observations of chemistry the senses are still more employed, and experiment is of still more utility. Even in chemistry metaphysical conceptions linger.

PHYSIOLOGY. Physiology may be defined as the study of the laws of organic dynamics in relation to structure and environment. Placed in a given environment, a definite organism must always act in a definite way, and physiology investigates the reciprocal relations between organism, environment and function.

In physiology observation and experiment are of the greatest value, and apparatus of all kinds is used to assist both observation and experiment. Physiology is most closely connected with chemistry, since all the phenomena of life are associated with compositions and decompositions of a chemical character.


To place social physics on a scientific basis is a task of great difficulty, since social theories are still perverted by theological and metaphysical doctrines. All I can hope to do is to point out general principles which may serve to correct the intellectual anarchy which is the cause of the moral and political anarchy of the present day. I propose to state first how the institution of a science of social physics bears upon the principal needs and grievances of society, so that men worthy of the name of statesmen may realize that such labours are of real utility.

So far, positive philosophy has worked timidly and tentatively, and has not been bold and broad and general enough to cope with intellectual anarchy in social questions; but it is necessary now that it play a more dominant part in life, and lead society out of the turmoil in which it has tossed for three centuries.

At present, society is distracted by two conflicting influences, which may be called the theological polity and the metaphysical polity.

The theological polity at one time exercised a beneficent influence on society; but for three centuries past its influence has been essentially retrograde, and has gradually, but radically, decayed. The causes of its decline are various; but the chief present-day antagonist to the theological polity is the scientific spirit, and this spirit can now never be repressed.

The metaphysical polity is progressive, but progressive mainly in a negative way. So far, it has made for progress; but it has made for progress chiefly by removing impediments to progress, by destroying the theological conceptions which retarded the development of human intelligence and human society. Though dangerous and revolutionary, it has been necessary; for much required to be demolished to permit permanent reconstruction.

The metaphysical polity was required to combat the theological; but now it has served its destructive purpose, and tends to become obstructive, for, having destroyed the old, it will not permit the new. Its chief dogma has always been liberty of conscience with the liberty of press and speech which that implies; but liberty of conscience really means little more than absence of intellectual regulation; and even as liberty of conscience is out of the question in astronomy and chemistry, so it is out of the question in social physics.

Liberty of conscience and inquiry can only be temporary and transitional, and must be followed by positive decision on the part of those qualified to decide. It cannot be held that every man is competent to form opinions in social and political questions; it cannot be maintained that intellects of weak capacity can judge obscure and complex questions, and that all opinions are equally valuable. All society is based on faith in the opinion of others and in reciprocal confidence.

The second dogma of the metaphysical polity is equality, and, like the other dogma, it must be considered the temporary expression of a temporary need. It is indeed a corollary of the dogma of liberty of conscience; for to assume liberty of conscience without equality of intelligence would be to stultify the assumption. Having achieved its purpose, it also became an obstacle in the path of progress. Equality sufficient to permit a man to use his faculties aright is allowed by all; but men cannot be made equal physically, and much less can they be made equal intellectually and morally.

The dogma of liberty of conscience and equality resulted naturally in a third dogma, the sovereignty of the people. This also was provisionally useful, in that it permitted a series of political experiments; but it is in essence revolutionary, condemning the superior to be ruled by the inferior.

A fourth dogma, the dogma of national independence, has also been serviceable in separating the nations in preparation for a new union.

The metaphysical polity fails utterly in constructive capacity. During the first French Revolution it successfully destroyed the old social system; but its attempts to reorganize society were retrogressive. Instead of catholicism it proposed polytheism, and in the name of virtue and simplicity it condemned industry and art. Even science was condemned as aristocracy of knowledge. Nor can these blunders be considered accidental; they were inherent in the polity. It is evident that a polity that admits the need for a theological foundation, and yet destroys the foundations of theology must end in intellectual anarchy.

Satisfied with neither the theological nor the metaphysical polities, society has wavered between them, and the one tendency has served chiefly to counteract the other. Out of these oscillations a third school of political opinion, which we may call the 'stationary school,' has arisen.

This school would fix society in a contradictory position between retrogression and progress, such as is seen in the parliamentary monarchy of England. This is a last phase of the metaphysical polity, and is only a kind of placebo.

The result of all this is to produce a most unfortunate position. The theological polity would revert to old, worn-out principles; the metaphysical polity has no definite principles at all; and the stationary school merely offers temporary compromises. Everywhere there is intellectual anarchy, and in Protestant countries the disorder is increased by sectarian discord. So complex are all social questions that few are able to see them steadily and see them whole, and where individual opinion is unhampered, individual prejudice and individual ignorance must be rampant.

Intellectual anarchy and unsettled convictions, moreover, tend to political corruption. If there are no convictions and no principles to which to appeal, appeal must be made to self-interest or to fear.

A growing tendency to take a short-sighted and material view of political questions is also a disturbing sign of the times. This is due to the fact that when, three centuries ago, spiritual power was abolished, all social questions were given over to men occupied with practical affairs and influenced chiefly by material considerations.

Material views of political questions not only impede progress, but are also dangerous to order, for the view that disorders have a material cause leads to constant interference with institutions and with property. Granted there are abuses in connexion both with property and institutions, what is required is not material changes but general moral and intellectual reform.

An inadequate and material view of social physics naturally favours mediocrity, attracts political charlatans, while the most eminent minds devote their attention to science.

The theological and metaphysical philosophies having failed, what remains? Nothing remains but the positive philosophy, which is the only
gent able to reorganize society. The positive philosophy will regard social phenomena as it regards other phenomena, and will apply to the renovation of society the same scientific spirit found effective in other departments of human knowledge. It will bring to politics the conception of natural laws, and deal with delicate social questions on impartial scientific principles. It will show that certain wrongs are inevitable, and others curable; and that it is as foolish to try to cure the incurable in social as in biological and chemical matters. A spirit of this kind will encourage reform and yet obviate vain attempts to redress necessary evils.

It will thus make for intellectual order. It will likewise make for progress and for true liberty by substituting genuine convictions founded on scientific principles for constitutional artifices and the laws of arbitrary wills; it will reconcile the antagonism of class interests by moral and scientific considerations. Revolutionary outbursts there still will be, but they will merely clear the ground for positive reconstruction on a moral and intellectual basis.


THERE can be no doubt that society originated in social instincts, and was not merely the result of utilitarian considerations. Indeed, the social state could manifest its ability only when well developed, and in the early ages of humanity the advantages to the individual of association would not be obvious.

What, then, are the human instincts and requirements which give society its fundamental characters? In the first place it must be noted that in man the intellectual is subordinate to the affective. In most men the intellectual faculties are easily fatigued, and require a strong and constant stimulus to keep them at work. In the majority of cases the stimulus is derived from the needs of organic life; but in more highly endowed individuals the incitement may proceed from higher affective impulses. This subordination of the intellectual to the affective faculties is beneficent in that it gives a permanent end and aim to the intellectual activity.

In the second place it must be noted that the personal affections are stronger than the social affections, and that personal affections give aim and direction to our social actions. This is necessary, for all ideas of public good must be inferred from ideas of private advantage, and if it were possible to repress our personal affections, our social affections, deprived of necessary inspiration and direction, would become vague and ineffective. In the precept that bids us love our neighbours as ourselves the personal instinct is suggested as the pattern for the social. The only thing to be regretted is that the personal affections are apt to over-ride, instead of stimulating, the social affections.

Increase of intelligence must mean greater capacity for social affection, because of the discipline it imposes on the personal affections; and for the same reason increase of the social instinct is favourable to intelligence. To strengthen this reciprocal action of the intellect and the social affections is the first task of universal morals. And the double opposition between man's moral and material need of intellectual toil and his dislike of it, and again between man's moral and material need of the social affections and the subjection of these to his personal instincts, discloses the scientific germ of the struggle which we shall have to review between the conservative and the reforming spirit; the first of which is animated by purely personal instincts, and the other by the spontaneous combination of intellectual activity with the various social instincts.

Society, however, cannot be regarded as composed of individuals. The true social unit is the family; it is essentially on the plan of the family that society is constructed. In a family the social and the personal instincts are blended and reconciled; in a family, too, the principle of subordination and mutual co- operation is exemplified. The domestic is the basis of all social life. The modern tendency, therefore, to attack the institution of the family is an alarming symptom of social disorganization.

The sociological basis of the family depends on subordination of sexes and of ages.

MARRIAGE at once satisfies, disciplines and harmonises the strongest and most disorderly instinct of our animal nature; and though it may be attacked by the revolutionary spirit because of its theological implications, yet the institution is based on true principles and must survive. No doubt marriage has been modified, but to modify is not to overthrow, and its fundamental principle remains intact.

The fundamental principle of the institution of marriage is the natural subordination of the woman - a principle which has reappeared under all forms of marriage. Biology teaches that radical differences, physical and moral, distinguish the sexes, and sociology will prove that the much-advertised equality of sexes is a fiction, and that equality of the sexes would be incompatible with all social existence. Each sex has special functions it must perform in the family, and the necessary subordination of one sex is in no wise injurious, since the happiness of every being depends on the wise development of its proper nature. Our social system depends on intellectual activity under affective stimulus, and in power of mental labour the woman is incontestably inferior to the man, either because her mental powers are weaker, or because her lively moral and physical sensibility is unfavourable to mental concentration.

Besides the bond of marriage, which holds together society, there is the bond between parents and children. Here again we find the principle of subordination in force, and even as we find wild revolutionaries who challenge the principle of subordination in women, so there are some who would challenge the same principle in the case of children. Fortunately, popular good sense and the primary instincts resist such absurdities.

The spontaneous subordination in the human family is the best model for society. On the one hand, we see obedience and due subordination allied to gratitude, and unassociated with shame; and, on the other hand, we see absolute authority combined with affection and geniality. There are those who would take children from their parents' care, and hand them over to society, and there are those who would prevent the transmission of property from parents to children; but such extravagances need not be examined here.

Coming now to the consideration of society as constructed out of the family units, we see unity of aim associated with diversity of functions. It is a marvellous spectacle to see how in a society the individuals pursuing each their own end yet unconsciously co-operate; and this co-operation is the mainspring of society. In the family, co-operation is much less marked; for the family is founded chiefly on affection, and in affection finds its justification, quite apart from co-operation towards any end. In society the instinct of co-operation preponderates and the instinct of affection plays only a secondary part. There are exceptional men in whom the affective side of the social instinct is dominant; but such men in most cases give their affection to the race at large simply from lack of domestic sympathy.

THE principle of co-operation, spontaneous or concerted, is the basis of society, and the object of society must ever be to find the right place for its individual members in its great co-operative scheme. There is, however, a danger of exaggerated specialism; it concentrates the attention of individuals on small parts of the social machine, and thus narrows their sense of the social community, and produces an indifference to the larger interests of humanity. It is lamentable to find an artisan spending his life making pin-heads, and it is equally lamentable to find a man with mind employing his mind only in the solution of equations.

To guard against such social and intellectual disintegration must be the duty of government. It must foster the feeling of interconnexion between individuals; and such a bond of feeling must be intellectual and moral rather than material, and will always imply subordination. The social instinct of man spontaneously produces government, and there is a much stronger instinct of obedience in man than is commonly supposed. Who has not felt it good to resign the responsibility of conduct to wise and trustworthy guidance? Even in revolutionary times the people feel the need of preponderant authority, and political subordination is as inevitable as it is indispensable.


HUMAN progress consists essentially in the evolution of the moral and intellectual qualities proper to man. Various circumstances facilitate and retard this progress. Most of the occupations of civilization which deal with material things relieve man from material cares and discomforts, and permit him to use his higher faculties.

Death, too, may be considered a promoter of human progress. Youth is essentially progressive, age essentially conservative and opposed to progress, and death it is that prevents old age from too seriously impeding the progress of the world. If life were ten times as long progress would be greatly retarded.

On the other hand, death interferes with continuity of work, and by interrupting a man's work often delays its fruition. It is probable that if life were twice or thrice as long progress would be more rapid.

Human progress is directed by the reason, and the history of the progress of society is largely the history of the human mind in its progress through its three stages - the theological, metaphysical and positive. The necessity of these stages can be shown.

At first man knows nothing but himself, and it was inevitable that he should explain things as produced by a being like himself. The theological philosophy gave a basis for observation by its hypotheses that phenomena were products of actions like human acts, and that all bodies had life like human life, and that there was an invisible world with invisible agents. These hypotheses were not only intellectually necessary; they were also morally necessary, for they gave man confidence to act, and hope that he could modify anything unsatisfactory in the universe by appeals to its maker. Not only did the theological philosophy sustain man's courage, and kindle his hope and increase his sense of power, but it gave an intellectual unanimity of great social and political value; and, producing a special speculative class, made the first effective division between things of matter and things of mind.

Still, the theological philosophy was obviously only temporary. Indeed, at all times there had been glimmerings of positive belief, for at all times the simplest phenomena had been considered subject to natural laws, and all had been compelled to act in everyday affairs on the assumption of the invariability of natural law. The positive philosophy, therefore, was inevitable from the first.

Between the theological and positive philosophy naturally and necessarily has intervened the metaphysical, which has substituted entities for a deity. This philosophy has never had the social power or the consistency of the theological philosophy; its entities have been mere abstractions. It has and has had such political power simply because so elusive.

All the three philosophies I have mentioned may exist in the same mind at the same time with regard to various sciences. The same mind may have a theological conception of one science, a metaphysical of another and a positive of yet another; but the trend is towards the positive.

Material progress has gone through similar stages. The primitive tendency of mankind was to a military life; the present tendency is towards industrial life. Meantime, we are in the transitional stage between the two, for we have defensive instead of offensive military organization, which is becoming more and more subordinate to industrial production.

The military stage corresponded with the theological stage, belonged to the same regime had common antipathies and sympathies as well as general interests, and could not have worked without the aid of theological convictions to give blind confidence in military superiors. The industrial stage corresponds with the positive stage; it is akin in spirit, in origin and in destination. The transitional stage, again, corresponds with the metaphysical stage. Only on these three dualisms which I have established can a sound historical philosophy be based.

Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte
Comte's grave in the cimetiére du Pére Lachaise, Paris.

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