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Auguste Comte: regards croisés

Aspects of scientific explanation in Auguste Comte

Vincent Guillin
p. 17-41


According to the received view, the positivist conception of explanation primarily consists in the idea that a good explanation should aim at promoting the unification and understanding of phenomena through the discovery of their empirical laws. Although Auguste Comte undoubtedly subscribed to such a view, his positions on the matter were somewhat more complex. In my paper, I propose an outline of his ideas with respect to explanation that draws particular attention to the limits he set to it, to the causal considerations he made room for and to the ways his general explanatory framework applied to the study of social phenomena.

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1. Modes of explanations
2. The astronomical model
3. Against universal explanations
4. The positive theory of hypotheses
5. Explanation without causation?
6. Explanation and abstraction
7. Sociological explanations
8. Principal and subordinate causes in sociology
Conclusion: explanation as development

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Boasting aside, Auguste Comte was surely right in considering his discovery of the “law of the three states” a most outstanding philosophical achievement. For that generalization about the development of human intelligence, which claimed that “each branch of our knowledge […] passes in succession through three different theoretical states”, namely “the theological or fictitious state, the metaphysical or abstract, and the scientific or positive state” (Comte, 1975 [1830-1842], vol.1, l.1, p.21), was not only to be seen as a proper explanation of the mental evolution of mankind, thereby paving the way for the advent of a science of social phenomena. It also provided, through the comparison of these “three methods of philosophizing” (ibid.), the various criteria according to which the scientific value of that very explanation, and in fact of any explanation whatsoever, could be assessed. Accordingly, since the “law of the three states” was indeed, with respect both to its ...

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Electronic reference

Vincent Guillin, « Aspects of scientific explanation in Auguste Comte », Revue européenne des sciences sociales [Online], 54-2 | 2016, Online since 30 November 2019, connection on 18 February 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ress.3589

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About the author

Vincent Guillin

Université du Québec à Montréal, CIRST

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© Librairie Droz

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