Social Science History Six essays for budding theorists

Comte's stages of historical development

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Comte's stages of historical development August Comte was a positivist. He invented this word as well as the word sociology. Some people use the word positivist to mean the same as empiricist, but this was not what Comte meant by it. Positivism, according to Comte, means trying to understand or describe the world as a sequence of cause and effect between objects that one can observe (Mill, J.S. 1865 pp 265-266). A positivist seeks to understand the world as it is, scientifically, rather than criticising it (Marcuse, H. 1955 Part 2, chapter 2, pp 323-359). Comte was quite emphatic that theories are necessary to organise and perceive the world, so we should be reluctant to call him an empiricist.
¶84 Comte divided the history of ideas into three stages: theological, philosophical (critical) and scientific (positive). He thought that humanity necessarily moves through each by a “law of human progress” which is that “each branch of our knowledge, passes successively through three different theoretical conditions: the Theological, or fictitious; the Metaphysical, or abstract; and the Scientific, or positive” (Comte, A. 1853 p.124). Here are his descriptions of each:
Theological thinking “is the necessary point of departure of the human understanding” “In the theological state, the human mind, seeking the essential nature of beings, the first and final causes (the origin and purpose) of all effects,—in short, Absolute knowledge,—supposes all phenomena to be produced by the immediate action of supernatural beings.” “The Theological system arrived at the highest perfection of which it is capable when it substituted the providential action of a single Being for the varied operations of the numerous divinities which had been before imagined.” (Comte, A. 1853 p.125).
Metaphysical thinking is “merely a state of transition”. “In the metaphysical state, which is only a modification of the first, the mind supposes, instead of supernatural beings, abstract forces, veritable entities (that is personified abstractions) inherent in all beings, and capable of producing all phenomena. What is called the explanation of phenomena is, in this stage, a mere reference of each to its proper entity”. “in the last stage of the Metaphysical system, men substitute one great entity (Nature) as the cause of all phenomena, instead of the multitude of entities at first supposed” (Comte, A. 1853 p.125).
Positivist thinking is the third and the “fixed and definite state” of human thought. In this stage “the mind has given over the vain search after Absolute notions, the origin and destination of the universe, and the causes of phenomena, and applies itself to the study of their laws,—that is, their invariable relations of succession and resemblance. Reasoning and observation, duly combined, are the means of knowledge. What is now understood when we speak of an explanation of facts is simply the establishment of a connection between single phenomena and some general facts, the number of which continually diminishes with the progress of science.” “The ultimate perfection of the Positive system would be (if such perfection could be hoped for) to represent all phenomena as particular aspects of a single general fact;—such as Gravitation, for instance”. (Comte, A. 1853 p.125).
¶85 How do we know this? If the history of human thought moves, of necessity, in these three stages, how do we know that? John Stuart Mill suggests two ways. One is the empirical way, which he said is important, but very inadequate. This, he says, will establish an empirical law. The other way is by resolving the empirical law into more general, “ultimate”, laws. (Mill, J.S. 1843 3.16.1)
¶86 The empirical law could be tentatively established if we took many examples of thought in a certain science, arranged them in chronological order and found that theological theories came first, metaphysical theories next and positivist theories next. But this would only be tentative, and it would not tell us why the types of thought come in that order. It would be tentative because we would have no reason to believe that further examples of thought that we added to our collection would fall in the same order. If, on the other hand, we knew a reason for the order in terms of a more general law, we would understand the historic succession and have reason to rely on it. We would understand why thought comes in that order. In this case, the more general laws that Mill suggests are laws of mind. He suggest that Comte's succession of historic stages can be explained in terms of the necessary development of human thought; that we can establish it as a necessary process of thought in the individual mind as well as in culture. Comte's generalisation, Mill says, “appears to me to have that high degree of scientific evidence which is derived from the concurrence of the indications of history with the probabilities derived from the constitution of the human mind” (Mill, J.S. 1843 6.10.8). In other words, if psychological laws support historical laws, we can have more confidence in the historical laws.
¶87 The following extracts from Comte's work illustrate what Mill means. First the empirical or “actual” evidence that he asserts for his laws: “Evidences of the law. Actual.—There is no science which, having attained the positive stage, does not bear marks of having passed through the others. [Also] our most advanced sciences still bear very evident marks of the two earlier periods through which they have passed. [Also] The phases of the mind of a man correspond to the epochs of the mind of the race. each of us  was a theologian in his childhood, a metaphysician in his youth, and a natural philosopher in his manhood”. (Comte, A. 1853 p.126).
¶88 Now the theoretical. These are reasons which correspond to John Stuart Mill's suggestion that, scientifically, we seek to resolve empirical laws into more fundamental ultimate laws. In this case Comte argues that imagination and theory have to be prior to observation in the development of human thought. “Theoretical.—Beside the observation of facts, we have theoretical reasons in support of this law. All good intellects have repeated, since Bacon's time, that there can be no real knowledge but that which is based on observed facts. This is incontestable, in our present advanced stage; but, if we look back to the primitive stage of human knowledge, we shall see that it must have been otherwise then. If it is true that every theory must be based upon observed facts, it is equally true that facts cannot be observed without the guidance of some theory. Without such guidance, our facts would be desultory and fruitless; we could not retain them: for the most part we could not even perceive them. Thus, between the necessity of observing facts in order to form a theory, and having a theory in order to observe facts, the human mind would have been entangled in a vicious circle, but for the natural opening afforded by theological conceptions”. (Comte, A. 1853 pp 126-127).
¶89 So, Comte argues, it is a law of the human mind, individually and collectively, that we develop from ideas about the total meaning of existence, conceived in terms that we can understand as infants (supernatural beings), then move on to abstract notions of the same (nature) before, finally, resigning ourselves to conceiving things scientifically as the cause and effect of known objects in the observed world. In other words, in the last phase of our development, we drop our attempts to claim knowledge of ultimate reality, and content ourselves with immediate reality. This general law of development is a theoretical explanation of the empirical laws of history and mind that Comte claims to have discovered.
¶90 John Stuart Mill argues that by resolving observed sequences (empirical laws) into underlying causes, we move further towards the understanding the “inner and more remote parts of nature” that Bacon spoke of as the object of science. (See above under Axioms and conceptions). I am not asking you to accept that Comte's laws of successive stages are true, empirically or theoretically. But, if they are, would it not be true that we have a more profound understanding when we grasp the alleged underlying law, than when we just had a report that this is the order in which thought has always developed?
¶91 Comte, in fact, goes on to resolve his general law of the development of the human mind into an even more general law about how we obtain knowledge. He comments on the paradox that, according to his theory, human thought starts with “the most inaccessible questions,—those of the nature of beings, and the origin and purpose of phenomena”. Why does it not start with the issues that are within our (collective) grasp? Why do humans start by speculating about supernatural beings, and only after thousands of years get on with making steam engines or (since Comte) sending men and women into space? Why do we try to solve the riddle of the universe before we try to resolve the riddle of the atom? The answer, according to Comte, is that we need meaningful theories in order to stimulate us to undertake the drudgery of intellectual inquiry. “The theological philosophy administered exactly the stimulus necessary to incite the human mind to the irksome labour without which it could make no progress. it is to the chimeras of astrology and alchemy that we owe the long series of observations and experiments on which our positive science is based”. (Comte, A. 1853 p.127).
¶92 We have ended with the conclusion that science must start in the imagination. Which is where I began, and where I wanted us to end. If you would have preferred a essay that began and ended with the necessity of starting with observation, you could either write it yourself, or read the book that John Locke has already written called An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. I discuss this book in essay three.

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Roberts, Andrew 1997 Social Science History for Budding Theorists Middlesex University: London. Available at
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