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Auguste Comte's Law of the Three Stages of Human Nature

Auguste Comte's Law of Three Stages
One of the most influential philosophers of his time, Auguste Comte is remembered as the founder of the doctrine of positivism. This article provides more about this sociologist and his work.
ScienceStruck Staff
Last Updated: May 31, 2018
Born in Montpellier, Auguste Comte studied math and natural sciences. He became obsessed with the rigorous language and methods used in science to such a point, that he believed positivism (confidence in science) to be a form of thinking that can be applied to all aspects of life. Therefore we can observe the encyclopedic form of his work. At the time of his death in Paris, in 1857, his doctrine of positivism had gained the aspect of a humanistic religion.

The Law of the Three Stages
One of the most important ideas of his philosophical system is the law of the three stages. According to Comte, this is the law that governs the cultural development of nations. He promoted this interpretation based on the proofs that came from the state of the French society and on previous historical evidence. The law states that every branch of our knowledge successively covers three different stages:
  1. theological
  2. metaphysical (abstract)
  3. positivistic (scientific)
The first represents the starting point of knowledge. The third one is permanent, while the second one represents a period of transition between the other two.

The Theological Stage: This method of exploring the world, explains natural phenomena as a result of the actions of a divine entity that has will and is similar to man. This anthropomorphous form of knowledge expands from mankind's beginning to the Middle Ages, and it can be divided in three beliefs: fetishism, polytheism, and monotheism. Comte insists upon the transition from fetishism to polytheism, because he considers it to be one of the first attempts of understanding. The fetish gods were tied to individual objects in nature, while the polytheistic gods were capable of movement and governing a whole class of objects. This is the manner in which the transition from individual representations to general notions was made. Comte believes this transition to be the very essence of any scientific revolutions. However, he does not appreciate monotheism.

The Metaphysical Stage: This one is the most undetermined in Comte's system. It begins in the late Middle Ages, with the attempts of modern rationalism to found the world of nature and society on the pure notions of intellect. Comte criticizes the philosophical concept of nature, which he considers to be a useless replica of the idea of God, with no use from a scientific point of view. Metaphysics is, for the French philosopher, the preoccupation with problems that are impossible to resolve and therefore meaningless.

The Positivistic Stage: Comte reserves this stage exclusively to himself and his period. It marks the victory of the scientific spirit that dedicates itself to the correct observation of facts and the formulation of laws in all domains. For Comte, positivism means a form of thinking that is oriented to the principle of reality, and it is put into practice without being influenced by any arbitrary presuppositions. This stage is not only considered normal and natural, but is also the last one, and therefore, it is definite. Here rules the power of facts in which speculative representations have no place, and therefore it is impossible to fall from this stage to the metaphysical one. According to Comte, the orientation towards facts is written in the person's nature. Therefore, this stage does not do anything else than generalize an attitude that can be found since the beginning of mankind.

To conclude, positivistic philosophy is the final stage, and it concentrates on identifying the conditions that scientific investigation needs to fulfill so that it is useful from a technical point of view. According to this philosophy, all events are governed by immutable laws, and the search for the first causes is useless. The positivistic explanations do not offer any knowledge of a cause that sits at the origin of phenomena. It is necessary to investigate only the circumstances in which these phenomena appeared and their connection under the aspects of succession and resemblance. According to Comte, by limiting ourselves to experience, it is possible to obtain knowledge and formulate prognosis, thus ensuring the progress of science.