What led to the birth of sociology as a discipline? Here, I will be mainly dealing with the ideas of August Comte, who was the first to systematically conceptualize Sociology as a discipline.
We often use the word ‘modern’ as an adjective to define our liberal outlook. But, only a few of us are really aware of the importance of modernity as a historical period, which led to tremendous social change in 17th century Europe. The pedestal for modernity was prepared by the previous historical phases like the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment. Compared to the dark ages which were an epitome of despair, these subsequent phases were all about advancement of human potential.
Comte was born when France had been going through a tumultuous phase after the French revolution. His ideas are, therefore, based on the premise of finding a new, stable social order. As the French revolution was preceded by the Enlightenment, Comte got influenced by the ideas of rationality, and trust in the capability and independence of human mind. He wanted to develop a discipline which studies society using scientific principles.
Here, let us discuss about “Positivism” as it lies in the foundation of Comte’s approach. For Comte, Positivism is a philosophy which is based on three premises – first, the belief that human mind can achieve anything; second, every phenomenon operates according to natural laws; and third, science is the best way to improve human life. For him, Sociology was to be developed as a discipline to study the society based on rational, scientific principles. Only when the principles governing society are rational and scientific, people can have a mutual consensus to follow them.
It should be understandable that why Comte was seeing Sociology as a science to be the panacea to end the disturbance in then French society. The chaos was caused due to various ideologies trying to assert their supremacy. To regain order, Comte found it apt to develop a discipline, which gives people a common basis to grow together.
Comte believed that Positivism is the end result of the evolution which a society goes through. In the first stage of evolution, humans in a society invent the reasons for the natural phenomenon they see, mainly based on superstition. In next stage, they want to explore and discover things, but are not aware of the methods to do so. In the last phase, humans start using scientific, rational methods based on empirical observation for the exploration.
Thus, Sociology was born. Sociology is the queen of the sciences, according to Comte. To understand the importance of Sociology, we have to know what is society. Society, for Comte, is a separate being. It is not controlled by the individuals it consists of. Rather, it controls the individuals themselves. It is a separate living entity, governed by its own laws and regulations, laws, which are similar to the Newtonian laws which govern the physical world.
And herein lies the purpose of Sociology. Sociology is the science which can discover these laws. And by finding out the fundamental forces which govern society, we can control it. Thus, the Jacobin reign of terror of the French revolution was never to be seen again. Society wont face the apathy of the ruling class and the poverty of the underclass. We have a society which we can predict, control and govern.