Comte Study Questions
What does Comte mean by “positivity” and the “scientific spirit”?
Positivism is the application of the scientific method to the analysis of society. Comte felt
that sociology could be used to inspire social reforms and generally make a society a
better place for its members.
Positivity: Human beings now understand the scientific laws that control the world.
What does Comte mean by the “theological” and “metaphysical” polities? What
are their main attributes?
Theological: In this stage human beings rely on supernatural agencies to explain what
they can't explain otherwise.
The Theological, which is the original and spontaneous form of thought, regards the facts
of the universe as governed not by invariable laws of sequence, but by single and direct
volitions of beings, real or imaginary, possessed of life and intelligence. In the infantile
state of reason and experience, individual objects are looked upon as animated. The next
step is the conception of invisible beings, each of whom superintends and governs an
entire class of objects or events. The last merges this multitude of divinities in a single
God, who made the whole universe in the beginning, and guides and carries on its
phaenomena by his continued action, or, as others think, only modifies them from time to
time by special interferences.
Metaphysical: In this stage human beings attribute effects to abstract but poorly
Metaphysical, accounts for phenomena by ascribing them, not to volitions either
sublunary or celestial, but to realized abstractions. In this stage it is no longer a god that
causes and directs each of the various agencies of nature: it is a power, or a force, or an
occult quality, considered as real existences, inherent in but distinct from the concrete
bodies in which they reside, and which they in a manner animate. Instead of Dryads
presiding over trees, producing and regulating their phenomena, every plant or animal has
now a Vegetative Soul.
Why do political ideas remain metaphysical longer than others?
Because it requires abstract reasoning, critical thought typical to the legal and
Why do some politicians believe that social phenomena can be modified at will?
Because they believe that the human race has no spontaneous impulses but are instead always ready to yield to any influence of the legislator whether spiritual or temporal
provided that they are invested with a sufficient authority. Society regards legislators as
the organ of a supernatural and absolute power.
What does Comte mean by “prevision”? What three conditions does a scientific,
predictive, account of social phenomena suppose?
Prevision = envision, expect, foresight
In order for man to transform his nonhuman environment to his advantage, he must know
the laws that govern the natural world, "For it is only by knowing the laws of phenomena,
and thus being able to foresee them, that we can . . . set them to modify one another for
our advantage. . . . Whenever we effect anything great it is through a knowledge of
natural laws. . . From Science comes Prevision; from Prevision comes Action."
It supposes that we have:
- abandoned metaphysical ideals and instead focus on observed realities via
systematic subordination of imagination to observation
- Political conceptions have ceased to be absolute and become relative to the
variable state of civilization so that theories following natural course of facts may
admit our foreseeing them
- Permanent political action is limited by determinate laws since if social events
were always exposed to disturbance by accidental intervention of legislator
(human/divine), no scientific prevision would be possible
Explain the distinction between “order” and “progress.” What does it mean to say
that the distinction is “not between two classes of facts, but between two aspects of a
Order in a positive sense is a permanent harmony among the conditions of social
Progress is social development and the conditions in the one case and the laws of
movement in the other which constitute the statics and dynamics of social physics.
In what does the statical study of sociology consist?
Consists in the investigation of the system of laws and reaction of the different parts of
the social system apart from the fundamental movement which is always gradually
modifying them. p. 64:
What does it mean to relate political institutions and social organizations to the
“total system of civilization.”
Great thinkers recognize the mutual relation between political institutions and the rational
agreement of system of institutions with the total system of civilization. They therefor
admit a constant mutual connection between the political and civil power which means in
scientific language that social forces always end in assuming the direction of society.
What is the “scientific principle of the relation between the political and social
There must always be a spontaneous harmony between the whole and the parts of the
social system, the elements of which must inevitably be sooner or later, combined in a
mode entirely conformable to their nature
In what does the value of any political system consist?
It consists of regulating the spontaneous expansion so as to best direct it towards its
What is the link between the interconnectedness of organic phenomena and the
“master thought” of social interconnection?
All artificial and voluntary order is simply a extension of the natural and involuntary
order to which all human society tends, every rational political institution must rest upon
an exact elementary analysis of corresponding tendencies, which alone can furnish a
sufficiently solid basis. In brief it is our business to contemplate order so that we may
perfect it and not to create it which would be impossible.
What is the “master thought” of dynamical sociology? What does “dynamical”
It is in other words the master thought of continuous progress or rather the gradual
development of humanity.
What is the “true general spirit of social dynamics”?
Consists of conceiving each other the consecutive social states as the necessary result of
the preceding and the indispensable mover of the following according to the maxim of
Leibnitz. In this view, the object of science is to discover the laws which govern this continuity and the aggregate which determines the course of human development.
Essentially, social dynamics studies the laws of succession while social existence
inquiries into those of co-existence.
According to Comte, why are “men of genius” not the real engines of social
Comte believes that social development also generates social progress. What is his
evidence for this claim?
He cautions to regard it like as a subject like the development itself to limits, general and
special which science will be found to prescribe. For instance, in the Middle Ages the
progress was political.
Taking the human race as a whole and not as any one people, it spears that human
development brings after it ever growing social progress first in the radical condition of
MAN, which no one disputes, and next in his corresponding faculties which is a view
much less attended to.
What sorts of modifications of social phenomena are possible? Impossible?
Modifications act upon the intensity and secondary operation of phenomena but without
affecting their nature or their filiation. Any possible variation can affect only the intensity
of the different tendencies belonging to each social situation without any way hindering
or producing or changing the nature of those
According to Comte, what are the three main sources of social variation? Which is
They are race, climate and political action in its whole scientific extent. The most
important is the political influences because they are the only ones open to intervention.
What is the proper relation between social theory and social practice, for Comte?
While dissipating all ambitious illusions about the indefinite action of man on civilization
the principle of rational limits to political action establishes the true point of contact between social theory and practice.
Although science may be powerless during wild disorder and extravagance it may
abridge the crises by understanding their character and foreseeing their issue and by more
or less intervention whenever possible.
What is the function of social science?
It regards man as the subjects of observation, it contemplates each phenomenon in its
harmony with co-existing phenomena and in its connection with foresight and human
development, it endeavors to discover from both points of view the general relations
which connect all social phenomena, each of which is explained in the scientific sense of
What is the difference between “direct” means of investigation and “indirect”
Direct refers to those which are peculiar to itself and indirect means of investigation that
arise from the connection of sociology with other sciences.
What are the direct means of investigation in sociology?
Observation, Experiment and Comparison
What are the two obstacles to establishing observation as a means of investigation in
1. Uncertainty of human testimony
2. Observations rest upon the testimony of the original investigators
What is the role of experimentation in Social Science?
To examine cases unhappily too common in which natural laws of either harmony or
succession are disturbed by any causes, special/general, harmony/succession are
disturbed by any causes special/general, accidental/transient as in revolutionary times,
especially in our own. These disturbances are analogous to diseases in the individual
What does Comte believe are the chief benefits of comparing human society to
It allows us to estimate the social state of the higher orders of mammals allowing us to see and understand the importance of studying individual life in regards to intellectual
and moral phenomena.
Comparisons of human with animal societies will give up precious clues to "the first
germs of the social relations" and to the borderlines between the human and the animal.
Yet comparisons within the human species are even more central to sociology. The chief
method here "consists in a comparison of the different co-existing states of human society
on the various parts of the earth's surface--these states being completely independent of
each other. By this method, the different stages of evolution may all be observed at
once." Though the human race as a whole has progressed in a single and uniform manner,
various populations "have attained extremely unequal degrees of development" from
causes still little understood.
What are the two chief methods of comparing human societies that Comte
Comparison of social forms with those of lower animals, with coexisting states and past
systems generate considerable insight into the operation of the social universe. By
comparing elements that are present and absent, similar or dissimilar or even knowledge
about the fundamental properties of the social would can be achieved.
What are the chief benefits of the historical method?
"The historical comparison of the consecutive states of humanity is not only the chief
scientific device of the new political philosophy . . . it constitutes the substratum of the
science, in whatever is essential to it." Historical comparisons throughout the time in
which humanity has evolved are at the very core of sociological inquiry. Sociology is
nothing if it is not informed by a sense of historical evolution.
What is the chief danger to proper application of the historical method?
Reducing history to a mere accumulation of unconnected delineations in which all idea of
the true filiation of events is lost amidst a mass of confused descriptions.
Comte is trying to situate sociology in relation to “organic philosophy” (biology) and
inorganic philosophy (physics, chemistry). What does he see as the primary points
of contact between sociology, biology, and physics? p. 94-95:
What are some examples of the contributions biology can make to social science?
The order of biological organisms with their interdependent parts and processes of self-
maintenance offered Comte a vision of how social order should be constructed.
In what ways does Comte think biology is limited in its contribution to social
Biology tends to exalt their own science in lieu of showing regard for that which follows
it. They lose sight of historical observation all together and represent sociology as a mere
collar of the science of the man. If you neglect historical comparison, you can understand
nothing of social evolution.
What are some examples of inappropriate biological explanations of social
Incorrect belief that social modifications proper to certain periods are supposed to be
inherent to human nature and therefore indestructible. For instance, supposing that the
military tendencies of mankind are immutable notwithstanding the historical evidence
that warlike disposition diminishes as human development proceeds.
What is the chief phenomenon of sociology, for Comte? What is “original” about this
In what ways to inorganic phenomena affect social phenomena? Why are the effects
of inorganic phenomena on social life more apparent than their effects on individual
Sociology studies phenomena that distinguish it from the lower inorganic phenomena as
well as from the higher organic science of biology. Although it is an organic science,
sociology will be independent and study phenomena that exhibit in even a higher degree
the complexity, specialization and personality which distinguish the higher phenomena of
the individual life.
Social phenomena cannot be understood apart from their environment that those of
individual life. All exterior disturbances wh