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Auguste Comte and Positivism

Auguste Comte and Positivism

Author: Zach Lamb

Recognize how Auguste Comte's theory of positivism contributed to the field of sociology.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello and welcome to sociological studies. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to study society with me.

The topic of today's lesson is going to be the origins of sociology. You may be wondering how sociology came to be a coherent discipline with methodologies, research questions, and things like that. How did we get out of the fog and get focused?

Well this guy, Auguste Comte, took this a long way for us. Comte was a French philosopher who lived in the late 1700s to the mid 1800s. He had this idea that society passed through stages on its way towards an evolution.

So for Comte, the first stage was the theological stage , where everything was God's will. Society was an expression of God's will. So if you were rich, it was because god wanted you to be. If you were poor, it's because God bestowed that fate upon you. Nothing was questioned, everything was answered by God.

So for instance, you've heard of the bubonic plague. People went around thinking that if they got the plague, they were struck down by God. This is an example of theological knowledge making.

Comte's next stage was the metaphysical stage where society was seen as nature. God as an explanation for everything begins to drop out of the picture here with the Copernican revolution. We had Newton, we had Galileo, we had these people showing us a new way to know the world, to understand things. This period was called the enlightenment. And it's about that time we have the metaphysical stage, according to Comte.

And then finally we have the scientific, or positive, stage where we know things based upon scientific facts. Based upon our observations, going out and looking at things. And this is what Comte called positivism, which is a scientific approach to knowledge based on observable facts, as opposed to speculation. Everything has to be observable, which is called empirical. We can go out we can document it, look at it, and know it.

It's all sensory experience, anything we can see, hear, smell, and touch. These are how we know things. We observe, we document, and document some more.

So for example, like, how do we know the grass grows? Well, you know what, you're going to go out and you're going to watch the grass grow, and you're going to take a measurement. And you're going to go back the next day and you're going to take another measurement. This is what we're talking about. This is observable empirical knowledge. And this kind of knowledge making is what Comte called positivism.

With positive thinking our intuition and our gut feelings are essentially rejected. You can't base knowledge off of that. In order for knowledge to occur. We have to go out and test, and catalog, and understand that way.

So what Comte did was to take this positivist way of knowing that the natural sciences had developed and were using, and he gave it to sociology. He in fact coined the term sociology in 1838.

So for Comte then, we study society in the same way as a chemist would study the cell. Society is law-bound and rule-bound just like physics has laws. Just like chemistry has laws when you combine two elements. This is the way Comte looked at society.

So what the sociologists then wanted to do was to go out and look for these laws of society. Society always happens this way and occurs because of this, this, and this. Just like the law of gravity. I mean, this way of thinking was hugely influential in sociology.

So today's takeaway message then, we have Auguste Comte, founder of sociology. Lived from 1798 to 1857. He gave us positivism-- a way of looking at the world, a way of knowing, which is knowledge based on empirical observation.

As always, thank you for joining me today and I'll see you again soon.

Terms to Know

​A scientific approach to knowledge based on observable facts.

People to Know
Auguste Comte

​French philosopher who founded sociology and looked for laws of society.