V. The Sociological Paradigm: Auguste Comte: Founding Father or Maverick?


(From the Alphonsian Academy Blog)

Alasdair MacIntyre has said, with insight, that every discipline is an open debate about its own history. This is nowhere more so than in the case of sociology. Auguste Comte (1798-1857) is generally, but by no means universally, acknowledged as a kind of founding father of this discipline (in the eyes of some the main alternative candidate would be Émile Durkheim – even though he himself explicitly attributes this role to Comte). During his lifetime Comte came to be considered something of a maverick or even a madman by some of his former disciples. A consideration of Comte’s project and the reactions it produced from the beginning is one way of broaching the daunting task of defining the sociological paradigm alongside the other paradigms we have examined so far in this series.

The place to begin is with history, in particular with that of the French Revolution, of Napoleon Bonaparte and of the restoration of the monarchy in 19th century France. To this we must add the, partially parallel, history of the second industrial revolution with its obvious dependence on the history of advances in science and technology. Without at least a general awareness of these circumstances, Comte’s project cannot be understood.

Alongside the influence of the Counter-revolutionary thought of de Boland and de Maistre, as a young man Comte came under the direct and immediate influence of the socialist reformer Saint-Simon (for some years Comte was his secretary). Some combination of these main influences inspired in Comte the idea of founding a new science to which he was eventually to give the name “sociology”.

In the long and slow process of articulating what he meant by sociology Comte engaged in a massive revision of the existing sciences and, according to various competent authors, became in the process also the father of the modern philosophy of science. For Comte the new science of sociology was to be the point of arrival of a centuries-long process of social transformation that he divided into three main stages: the theological, the metaphysical and the positive (or scientific). The sociology of Comte, at least at this early stage in his career, involved the rejection of the forms of knowledge or the claims to truth of classical theological investigation and much of modern, critical thought. The way forward for him was philosophical positivism, meaning knowledge based on the observation, classification and explanation of the facts of social life. This kind of knowledge would make possible the articulation (and later, in principle, the application) of the laws of society in a way analogous to the way in which the laws of mechanics were being applied in industry. When, later in his career, he attempted to describe and prescribe a “positive polity” designed along these lines he felt the need to introduce elements (such as his so-called “Religion of Humanity”) that earned him the ridicule of many contemporaries.

For our purposes, this brief account is perhaps enough to allow us to articulate an initial version of what we have termed the sociological paradigm… fully aware that for many contemporary sociologists Comte’s later theories are extremely problematical. His project in its inspiration and design can nonetheless suggest some key features of any would-be sociological paradigm. When applied, as in our transdisciplinary course, to the person as a relational being such a paradigm might be described as follows:

From a sociological point of view the human person and his/her interpersonal relations cannot be adequately understood without reference to the laws that govern the institutional structures in which they are located. These material and cultural structures shape and at times determine the consciousness and the behaviour of such persons in ways they may not recognise or desire.

In a word, the sociological paradigm insists on broadening our understanding of the person as a “relational being” far beyond the realm of interpersonal relations (as in the personalist paradigm)and of intrapersonal relations (as in the psychological paradigm).

Fr. Martin McKeever, CSsR

featured image courtesy of Alphonsian Academy