The name “positivism” comes from the writing of Auguste Comte, the 19th century philosopher of science and founder of sociology. In his Course of Positive Philosophy, published from 1830 through 1842, Comte described human history as progressing through three distinct stages which he called the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive – the final stage corresponding to the ordering of society by modern science. Comte’s positive philosophy was quite influential in the nineteenth century. According to Michel Bourdeau:
It is difficult today to appreciate the interest Comte’s thought enjoyed a century ago, for it has received almost no notice during the last five decades. Before the First World War, Comte’s movement was active nearly everywhere in the world. The best known case is that of Latin America: Brazil, which owes the motto on its flag ‘Ordem e Progresso’ (Order and Progress) to Comte and Mexico are two prominent examples. The positivists, i.e., the followers of Comte, were equally active in England, the United States and India. And in the case of Turkey, its modern secular character can be traced to Comte’s influence on the Young Turks.
Like Marxism, Comtean positivism heralded a new age — an age in which the superstition and religion of the past would be replaced by a society organized entirely upon scientific principles. Comte’s philosophy was less a philosophy of science than a social and political movement with a program for human progress. Unsurprisingly, it gradually turned itself into a sort of religion — with public worship services, a liturgy derived from Catholicism, and a calendar of positivist saints. The Comtean movement survived the century but was eventually extinguished by the First World War.
- Michel Bourdeau, “Auguste Comte”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010). [↩]
- Bourdeau notes that Comte’s founding of the Religion of Humanity, in 1849, accomplished “a tour de force by uniting both believers and non-believers against him.” The theoretical justification for this direction was the “complete positivism” of the System of Positive Polity in 1851-1854, in which Comte argued that the claims of science should become subservient to “the continuous domination of the heart.” [↩]