Comte’s View Of The Three Stages Of Human Worldview Development

Auguste Comte believed that there are three stages in human mental development: 1) the Theological, 2) the Metaphysical, and 3) the Positivist.

The Theological outlook, itself, is farther divided into three progressive phases… a) Fetishism, b) Polytheism, and c) Monotheism.

In the Fetishistic phase, people believe that objects are themselves alive in someway.

In the Polytheistic phase, people think that some supernatural power motivates the activities of an object. Frequently, gods are viewed as exercising control over whole classes of phenomena, such as Poseidon ruling over the things to do with the ocean.

Eventually, people tend to realize that many gods are unnecessary, and Monotheism develops. Monotheism explains the consistency and harmonization we see in the world. If there were several gods, the argument goes, we would see signs of their inevitable contentions. Instead, it appears that the laws of Nature are not suddenly subverted or reversed or otherwise altered.

Mill, in his book upon Comte’s philosophy, states that, historically, a high degree of moral and intellectual development precede the conversion from Polytheism to Monotheism.  This is related to the increasing breadth and depth of their knowledge of Nature, which allows them to ascertain the underlying consistency behind all the incalculable variety of the world.  Of course, even in advanced civilizations, men sometimes still pray to a god to intercede on their behalf in situations beyond their direct control, such as in cases of weather or war, things which have not yet become understandable to them or within their control.  And even in supposedly Monotheistic religions, says Mill, “vestiges of the primitive mode of thought linger,” such as the Polytheistic-like beliefs in angels or demons or genies.

In the Metaphysical stage of human thought-development, people begin to believe that forces, impersonal and predicatable, control the unfolding of events in the world. One such belief is the Aristotelian contention that fire and smoke rise Up because Up is where they belong; similarly stones fall Down because they are naturally drawn to the Down.  Mill says that the assertion that “Nature abhors a vacuum” is an example of a Metaphysical outlook.

Lastly, comes the Positivist outlook, which asserts, in Mill’s words, that “all phenomena without exception are governed by invariable laws, with which no volitions, either natural or supernatural, interfere.”

However, even Comte did not claim to banish the supernatural altogether from the Universe. As Mill writes, “the laws of Nature cannot account for their own origins.” Whatever existed before Nature was, by definition, supernatural, something occurring outside Natural Laws.

Comte believed that every facet of human thought individually passed through these three stages, mirroring the overall development. Thus, the sailor’s way of thinking about the sea, historically speaking, passes from the theological to the metaphysical to the positivist, as does the doctor’s way of approaching illness.

In politics, Comte asserts that we have still not entered the Positivist phase. For instance, the law codes of many societies are based on– and retain their ultimate authority due to– Theological roots, such as the Ten Commandments. Also, many people believe in the concept of “Natural Rights,” which for Comte is really just a Metaphysical belief coming to us, via Roman jurisprudence, from the Greeks, who felt that the distinctions between right and wrong were to be found in the way forces interplayed in Nature. Ever since the French Revolution. which championed the Metaphysical “natural rights” over the Theological commandments, Comte believes that modern society has oscillated between the two viewpoints.

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