Sociology, Department of


Date of this Version



Hill, Michael R. 1995. Review of Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography, Volume I, by Mary Pickering. Contemporary Sociology 24 (6): 837.


Copyright 1995 Michael R. Hill


The appearance of a comprehensive biography of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) deserves our alert attention if for no other reason than the ubiquitous citations to his foundational work, Cours de philosophie positive, that fortify the footnotes of virtually every introductory textbook in the discipline of sociology. Without the extraordinary work of English sociologist Harriet Martineau (1802-1876), however, Comte's vision of a systematic, lawful science of society would in all probability remain buried in the encyclopedic French in which it was originally written and published. Martineau, in 1853, published her English translation and condensation of Comte's six-volume opus, and it is Martineau's version that the English-speaking world embraced and to which we are largely indebted for our knowledge of Comte's ideas today. Indeed, Comte was so impressed with Martineau's rendition that he encouraged its translation back into French, recommending it to French speakers having little time or need for the extensive digressions in his full-blown Cours. The unfortunate paradox is that whereas Comte's name became commonplace in the annals of American sociology, Martineau's moniker languishes interminably, despite her prodigious outpouring of insightful theoretical, methodological, and empirical studies that so often outshine the likes of Durkheim and de Tocqueville-and, yes, even Comte.