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Auguste Compte

Auguste Comte (1798–1857) was born in the French city of Montpellier. Comte, described as “small, delicate, and subject to many illnesses” (Coser 1977, 18) was an excellent student and exhibited an early proficiency in mathematics. He even planned to teach mathematics, but found that the income was unsatisfactory (Marvin 1965, 35).

Comte was considered a leader among his classmates. However, his usual behavior was “insubordinate and insolent behavior toward the school authorities,” and he was constantly revolting against authority (Coser 1977, 15). Comte was also involved in revolutionary activities while a student, which ultimately resulted in his dismissal, and he never completed a university degree. He did, however, lecture for a period at the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, eventually losing that position after criticizing the institution.

Comte’s intellectual life can be divided into three periods (Marvin 1965, 43–46). The first period encompassed six years he spent with the much older Claude Henri de Rouvroy Comte de Saint-Simon. Starting as Saint-Simon’s secretary and later his collaborator, Comte worked with Saint-Simon even during periods when the elder mentor could not pay him. Their collaboration ended in 1824 due to a quarrel over whose name would appear on a major publication and developing intellectual differences. The rift between the two men was never repaired (Coser 1977, 15).

It was during the second period that Comte produced most of his intellectual writings. It is also the period during which he became known for developing the scientific view of positivism. He thought sociology could draw on the same resources as the natural sciences, namely observation, experimentation, and comparison (Coser 1977, 5).

In the third period of Comte’s intellectual life, he did not add to his scientific material. Rather, he became head of a new religious organization, which he foresaw as someday being led by sociologist-priests. He also practiced “cerebral hygiene,” which “consisted in abstention from the reading of current literature, especially of periodicals, and the exclusive study of a few masterpieces of the past” (Marvin 1965, 45). The result was that he became increasingly out of touch with scientific and intellectual developments.

In 1826, in the midst of a lecture series, Comte suffered from a mental breakdown. He spent time in an asylum and was then treated at home. He continued to suffer from mental problems throughout his life. Comte died in 1857. He was 60 years old.

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