Friday, 19 October 2012

Comte on Positivism

Comte is often the first contact that undergraduates have with social theory.

His Positive Philosophy offers plenty to think about in terms of grouping sociology as a ‘social science’. His hope, it might be summarized, is that sociologists will approach the study of social phenomena and societies with a view to shaping their understandings around ‘laws’ akin to those of the more classical sciences.

He argues that there are three philosophical phases or “consecutive states of humanity” through which the individual – and societies – come to understand their environs.
  1. the theological wherein “the human mind, seeking the essential nature of beings … supposed all phenomena to be produced by the immediate action of supernatural beings”.
  2. the metaphysical, a point of departure from religion, in which people transpose explanations onto “abstract forces, veritable entities”. Comte proffers the example of Nature as an example of what a  highly developed metaphysical purview might use to explain social and societal issues.
  3. the scientific or positivist stage, which Comte holds as the pinnacle of the human consciousness of the world. Here, the human mind “applies itself to the study of their laws… [T]he establishment of a connection between single phenomena and some general facts, the number of which continually diminishes with the progress of science”.
When talking to new undergraduates about this idea, I am keen to highlight to them that what Comte says here must be unpicked. In what ways, I ask them, is it problematic that Comte frames this philosophical phases linear but exclusive approaches to understanding human sociality and societal construction?

Comte calls these three positions “incompatible philosophies”. This year, I offered students this video:

This video is of Rep. Paul Broun, who sits on the US Science and Technology Committee and is also a practising Southern Baptist. It provides a good inlet into discussion about – amongst other things – the difficulty in framing religion as separate from scientific enquiry.

The below offers a useful inroad into discussions about globalisation, eurocentrism and postcolonialism.

“To indicate the order of importance of the forms of society which are to be studied by the Comparative Method, I begin with the chief method, which consists in a comparison of the different coexisting states of human society on the various parts of the earth’s surface, those states being completely independent of each another. By this method, the different stages of evolution may all be observed at once. Though the progression is single and uniform, in regard to the whole race, some very considerable and very various populations have, from causes which are little understood, attained extremely unequal degrees of development”.

In my classes, students discussed Dubai, an emirate with the highest buildings in the world that Comte might have considered to be a state not as far a long on its trajectory of intellectual and scientific progression as Western countries.

There are so many different examples, and this quote definitely seems to spur students into thinking about the problematic nature of Comte’s writing.