Usually labeled the “founder of sociology and positivism,” Auguste Comte was one of the most important 19th-century French philosophers. Born Isidore-Auguste-Marie-François-Xavier Comte on January 19, 1798, in Montpellier, he began life in the chaos of the last years of the French Revolution and spent his life dealing with the problems the revolution had bequeathed.
Sharing the bourgeois values of frugality, routine, and work, Comte’s family was profoundly Catholic and counterrevolutionary. Comte had two younger siblings but apparently was no closer to them than he was to his parents. “The correspondence between him and his family members is characterized by constant feuding, demands, reproaches, and slights” (Pickering, 1993, p. 17).
Admitted to the exclusive École Polytechnique in Paris in 1814, he developed a lifelong interest in mathematics. An intellectually superior but rowdy student, Comte was expelled 2 years later.
Living an ascetic life in Paris, Comte studied the writings of Benjamin Franklin and became enamored with the new nation of the United States, where he expected to teach geometry. He also absorbed the works of Montesquieu and Condorcet. The position in the United States never materialized, and instead he went to work for Comte de Saint-Simon as a political journalist. Despite having acquired a mistress, daughter, mentor, and occasional teaching positions that allowed him to write, Comte was often depressed.
Around 1820, Comte began refining his famous concept of the three evolutionary stages of explanation, the theological, metaphysical, and positivist. In 1824, the first signed publication of Comte’s signaled his break with the elderly Saint-Simon. About this time Comte became impressed with the German philosophers, especially Johann Gottfried Herder and Immanuel Kant, as well as with the Scottish philosophers.
In 1825, Comte married a strong woman who was not awed by his intelligence. He described his married life as painful, and his writings became rather misogynous. He had a nervous breakdown in 1826 and attempted suicide a year later. His interpretation of his mental problems became incorporated into his three-stage system, and in 1830, he sent the first volume of his magnum opus (often referred to simply as the Cours) to the Academy of Sciences.
Comte’s mother died in 1837, and he unsuccessfully attempted a reconciliation with his family. His difficulties with his wife and friends continued as he worked on the remaining volumes of the Cours. In 1838, he had a second nervous breakdown, but in 1841, he began a remarkable correspondence with John Stuart Mill. Within a few years, Comte was well-known among English intellectuals, and Mill published an influential book on Comte and positivism (1866). He completed the Cours in 1842, though his wife left him in the same year.
In 1845, he became emotionally involved with a young woman, who died 16 months later. The last stage of his life has been described as “rapture and absorption in the ideal” (Marvin 1937, p. 43), and nothing of note in positivism came from this period.
Almost always in poor health, constantly in debt, and often dealing with the scandals of his family and his wife’s family, Comte died in Paris on September 5,1857.
- Marvin, F. S. (1937). Comte: The founder of sociology. New York: Wiley.
- Pickering, M. (1993). Auguste Comte: An intellectual biography (Vol. 1). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Thompson, K. (1975). Auguste Comte: The foundation of sociology. New York: Wiley.