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Taken from the Compton Encyclopedia:
COMTE, AUGUSTE (christened ISIDORE AUGUSTE MARIE
FRANCOIS XAVIER, 1798-1857), the founder of positivism (q.v.), was born at
Montpellier, France. At school he displayed a phenomenal memory, an unusual
intellect and a distaste for all authority. In 18I4 he passed to the Ecole
Polytechnique in Paris, but was expelled in 1816 for taking the lead in
demanding the dismissal of one of the tutors. After a few months he
returned to Paris to shape his own life, supporting himself chiefly by
private teaching and giving himself up, with the fierce concentration of an
ascetic, to long years of reading and thinking. As early as 1818 he
attached himself to Saint-Simon, sharing his ideas of social reform, but
after about five years the scientist broke with the dreamer, the rebel with
By 1822 the main lines of his positivist system had been
worked out, and were published in a pamphlet of 191 pages, Plan des
travaux scientifiques necessaires pour reorganiser la societe
(the text of the revised edition of 1824 is reprinted in vol. 4 of his
Politique positive, 1854). In 1826 he began in his private rooms
a course of public lectures on his system, but after the fourth lecture had
to stop; the long and lonely intensity of his studies brought on a complete
mental breakdown. He was seven months in an asylum, and after his release
threw himself into the Seine.
In 1829 he was able to resume his public
lectures, attended by scientists of note. The six volumes of his chief
work, Cours de philosophic positive, appeared at intervals between
1830 and 1842 (abridged Eng. trans. 1853); in the fourth volume 1839) he coined
the term 'sociology' for what he had hitherto called social
physics. Unfortunately, in the preface to the final volume he vehemently
attacked several persons who had opposed his advancement in the
academic world, and in consequence he was dismissed from two posts which he
held at the Polytechnique (a tutorship since 1832, an examinership since 1837).
He was rescued from utter destitution by the initiative of J. S.
Mill, who procured from George Grote and two other friends a donation, which
was soon expanded by wider subscription into a regular subsidy that enabled
him to devote the rest of his life to his philosophical interests. Mill's
intervention was one sign of a quicker appreciation of Comte in England than in France.
A new stage in Comte's inner life began soon after his wife's
desertion of him in 1842 (they had married in 1825, to their common
misery). In 1845 he fell passionately in love with Clothilde de Vaux, who
reciprocated with admiring friendship only, but admitted him to her house,
insisting, however, on complete chastity of relation. This uplifting
friendship loosened Comte's long-repressed emotional nature. Her death the
following year made him acutely aware of his debt to her; every week he
visited her tomb, and every morning and evening made it an exercise, which
he called prayer, to commune with her spirit.
Thereafter his hitherto
secular conception of society took on a religious coloring and warmth.
Social reform had been his ultimate aim from the outset, but to the
scientific instruments on which he had always pinned his faith for its
realization he now added the religion of humanity. This is the big new
element in his second large work, Systeme de politique positive
(185I-54; Eng. trans. 1875-79), though it had been indicated in the
Discours sur 1'ensemble du positivisme (1848; Eng. trans. 1865,
best ed. 1908) and in the Catechisme positivists (1852; Eng. trans.
1858). His last work, unfinished, was Synthese subjective (1856;
Eng. trans. 1891), which is an exposition of positivist logic.