As early as 1822, when he was still an apprentice to Saint-Simon, Comte set himself the task "to discover through what fixed series of successive transformations the human race, starting from a state not superior to that of the great apes, gradually led to the point at which civilized Europe finds itself today." Applying what he conceived to be a method of scientific comparison through time, Comte emerged with his central conception, The Law of Human Progress or The Law of Three Stages.
The evolution of the human mind has paralleled the evolution of the individual mind. Phylogeny, the development of human groups or the entire human race, is retraced in ontogeny, the development of the individual human organism. Just as each one of us tends to be a devout believer in childhood, a critical metaphysician in adolescence, and a natural philosopher in manhood, so mankind in its growth has traversed these three major stages.
Each of or leading conceptions--each branch of our knowledge, passes successively through three different theoretical conditions: the Theological or ficticious; the Metaphysical or abstract; and the Scientific or positive. . . . In the theological state, the human mind, seeking the essential nature of beings, the first and final causes (the origin and purpose) of all effects . . . supposes all phenomena to be produced by the immediate action of supernatural beings. In the metaphysical state . . . the mind supposes . . . abstract forces, veritable entities (that is, personified abstractions) . . . capable of producing all phenomena . . . In the final, the positive state, the mind has given over the vain search after Absolute notions, the origin and destination of the universe, and the causes of phenomena, and applies itself to the study of their laws--that is, their invariable relations of succession and resemblance.
For Comte, each successive stage or sub-stage in the evolution of the human mind necessarily grew out of the preceding one. "The constitution of the new system cannot take place before the destruction of the old," and before the potentialities of the old mental order have been exhausted. "The highest order of minds cannot discern the characterizations of the coming period till they are close upon it."
Although Comte focused mainly on stages in the development and progressive emancipation of the human mind, he stressed that these stages correlated with parallel stages in the development of social organization, of types of social order, of types of social units, and of the material conditions of human life. All these, he thought, evolved in similar manner as the changes in progressive mental developments.
It would be a mistake, Comte averred, to expect a new social order, any more than a new intellectual order, to emerge smoothly from the death throes of an old: "The passage from one social system to another can never be continuous and direct." In fact, human history is marked by alternative "organic" and "critical" periods. In organic periods, social stability and intellectual harmony prevail, and the various parts of the body social are in equilibrium. In critical periods, in contrast, old certainties are upset, traditions are undermined, and the body social is in fundamental disequilibrium. Such critical periods--and the age in which Comte lived, seemed to him preeminently critical--are profoundly unsettling and perturbing to men thirsting for order. Yet they are the necessary prelude to the inauguration of a new organic state of affairs. "There is always a transitional state of anarchy which lasts for some generations at least; and lasts the longer the more complete is the renovation to be wrought."
It can hardly be questioned that Comte's Law of Three Stages has a strongly mentalistic or idealistic bias. Yet, as has been noted, he correlated each mental age of mankind with its characteristic accompanying social organization and type of political dominance. The theological stage is dominated by priests and ruled by military men (Comte subdivides this stage, as he does others, into a variety of substages, but discussions of these are not pertinent for an understanding of the Law.) The metaphysical stage--which corresponds very roughly to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance--was under the sway of churchmen and lawyers. The positive stage, just dawning, will be governed by industrial administrators and scientific moral guides. Similarly, in the first stage the family is the prototypical social unit, in the second the state rises into societal prominence, and in the third the whole human race becomes the operative social unit.
Furthermore, though Comte insists repeatedly that "intellectual evolution is the preponderant principle" of his explanation of human progress, he nevertheless admits other causal factors. Increases in population, for example, are seen as a major determinant of the rate of social progress. The "progressive condensation of our species, especially in its early stages" brings about
such a division of employment . . . as could not take place among smaller numbers; and . . . the faculties of individuals are stimulated to find subsistence by more refined methods . . . . By creating new wants and new difficulties, this gradual concentration develops new means, not only of progress but of order, by neutralizing physical inequalities, and affording a growing ascendancy to those intellectual and moral forces which are suppressed among a scanty population."
Comte sees the division of labor as a powerful impellent of social evolution.
From Coser, 1977:7-8.
Forward to "Hierarchy of the Sciences"
Back to "Methods of Inquiry"
Back to the Index