Auguste Comte (1798-1857), a French thinker, enunciated the Positivist Philosophy. He followed the Enlightenment tradition which believed in universalism. The Enlightenment thinkers believed that what was applicable to one society was valid for all the others. They, therefore, thought that it was possible to formulate universal laws which would be valid for the whole world.
Comte also favored this universal principle and was opposed to individualism which the Romanticists were preaching. Comte was a disciple of Henri Saint- Simon (1760-1825), a Utopian socialist, from 1814 to 1824. Apart from Saint-Simon, the other influences on him were those of John Locke (1632-1704), David Hume (1711-1776) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). All these influences went into the making of his own system of philosophy. The main books he published were titled: The Course of Positive Philosophy and The Course of Positive Politics.
It is in the first book, published in six volumes from 1830 to 1842′ that he elaborated his theoretical model about history.
According to Comte, there was a successive progression fill conceptions and knowledge through three stages. These stages are in chronological sequence: ‘the Theological or fictitious; the Metaphysical or abstract; and the scientific or Positive’. Of these three stages the first one is the primary stage through which the -human mind rust necessarily pass. The second stage is transitional, and the third stage is the final and the ‘fixed and definite state’ of human understanding.
Comte also sees a parallel between this evolution of thought in history and the development of an individual from childhood to adulthood. According to him, the first two stages were now past while the third stage, that is, the Positive stage, was emergent. Comte considered that the Positive stage was dominated by science and industry. In this age the scientists have replaced the theologians and the priests, and the industrialists, including traders, managers and financiers, have replaced the warriors.
Comte believed in the absolute primacy of science. In the Positive stage, there is a search for the laws of various phenomena. ‘Reasoning and observation’, Comte said, ‘are the means of this knowledge.’ Ultimately, all isolated phenomena and events are to be related to certain general laws. For Comte, the Positivist system would attain perfection if it could ‘represent all phenomena as particular aspects of a single general fact; such as gravitation, for instance’.
Positivism, therefore, upheld that knowledge could be generated through observation. In this respect, Positivism had very close resemblance to the Empiricist tradition which emphasized the role of sense experience. Thus observation and experience were considered as the most important and essential function. Facts were the outcome of this process. However, at its most fundamental level, the Positivist philosophy was not concerned with individual facts. They, instead, believed in general laws.
These laws were to be derived through the method of induction, that is, by first determining the facts through observation and experience and then derive laws through commonness among them. For Positivists, therefore, general laws are only colligation of facts derived from sense experience. Thus, facts are determined by sense experience and then tested by experiments which ultimately lead to the formation of general laws. These general laws, like those in the sciences, would be related to the basic laws of human development.
Once discovered (and formulated), these laws could be used to predict and modify the patterns of development in society. In such a scheme, individual facts, or humans for that matter, were of no consequence. Comte, therefore, looked down upon the historians as mere collectors of facts which were of no relevance to him once general laws were known.
There were three major presuppositions in Comte’s system of philosophy:
1) He envisaged that the industrial society, which Western Europe had pioneered, was the model of the future society all over the world.
2) He believed that scientific thinking, which he called the positivist philosophy, was applicable both for the sciences and for the society. Moreover, he thought that this thinking, and by implication the positivist philosophy, would soon become prevalent in the whole world, in all societies.
3) Comte believed that the human nature was the same everywhere. It was, therefore, possible to apply the general laws of development, discovered by him, to all societies.
Some of these ideas were common in Comte’s age. The belief that the age of religion was over and the age of science and industry had arrived was shared by many. Comte’s main ideas derived from two sources – principle of determinism found in thoughts of Montesquieu (1689-1755), a French political philosopher, and the idea of inevitable progress through certain stages propounded by Condorcet (1743- 1794), another French philosopher. Thus Comte’s central thesis can be stated in Raymond Aaron’s words as follows;
‘Social phenomena are subject to strict determinism which operates in the form of an inevitable evolution of human societies – an evolution which is itself governed by the progress of the human mind.’
Armed with this principle, Comte strove to find in the human world a basic pattern which would explain everything. Thus, for him, ‘a final result of all our historical analysis’ would be ‘the rational coordination of the fundamental sequence of the various events of human history according to a single design’.
The Positivist method, as envisaged by Comte, would consist in the observation of facts and data, their verification through experimentation which would finally lead to the establishment of general laws. This method was to be applied in the sciences as well as in humanities such as sociology, history, etc. And, as in the sciences, the individual had not much role in determining the process of development. Thus, for the historians, Comte’s method could have following implications:
1) History, like sciences, is subject to certain general laws which could explain the process of human development.
2) Human mind progresses through certain stages which are inevitable for all societies and cultures.
3) Individuals cannot change the course of history.
4) The inductive method, which Comte believed was applicable in sciences, consisting of observation of facts, experimentation and then formulation of general laws, should be applied in the writing of history as well.