The law of three stages is an important contribution of Auguste Comte within the field of social thinking. He wished to find out and know the rules that governed the low journey of human society from the time of tree – dwelling ape – man to contemporary man. From his studies Auguste Comte came to the conclusion that just as human mind developed, so the mind of society too developed. He uses human body as a metaphor. As children go from childhood to teenage and then to adulthood. Similarily knowledge has progressed, so has the society on the whole.
Also read: stages-of-development-of-sociology
Law of Three Stages of Development
By 1822 Comte had brought out the law of three stages. By studying man’s intellectual development it became clear that there are three chronological stages of development of society. These stages are
1. Theological / Religious Stage
2. Metaphysical Stage
3. Scientific or Positive Stage
Comte has written “After studying human intellectual development in all societies and ages, we discover the fundamental rule whose solid proof we find on one hand in the reality of our organisations, and secondly they are present in our historical experiences. This rule is as such: all our important/ main beliefs, every branch of our knowledge, one by one have to pass through three theoretical stages – religious or imaginative stage, metaphysical or abstract stage and scientific or positive stage”.
The definition of The law of three stages is clear from Comte’s above mentioned statements. Let us discuss these stages in detail
1. Theological Stage
In this stage, all things are considered as an image of God. They are believed and understood as the resulting form of activities of some divine beings. It is the belief that the active principle in all things are divine powers (the spirit of gods and goddesses), and this force exist in all things whether living or material. According to Comte,” During the religious stage, searching for nature of the world (creation) or the premier and end reasons of the happenings of natural reasons (production and objective) man, in trying to understand them, accepts that all events are the results of the present activities of divine, other worldly beings.” This means during this stage it is believed that flora and fauna, flow of water, living or material, the divine force exist. and is active in everything. Comte has divided this stage into three substages
In Fetishism, the life force is experienced in every object. There is complete trust on magic and miracles
In second substage ie. In Polytheism, human mind is better organised. As a result, man is irritated of numerous gods and magic etc. The feeling arises that he should see them in united form. Hence Gods and goddesses are created who represents the different aspects of life.
In Monotheism, because of numerous gods and goddesses, psychological confusion continues. For this reason the man endows one God with all united power. He wishes to give that god – head all his ecstatic devotion and faith. In this stage man believes that behind every event and object, the action of single god exist. Thus with the expansion of human view-point, his thinking powers become serious and deepen. And so the faith in monotheism becomes clear and determined. Monotheism is the climax of the theological stage.
2. Metaphysical Stage
According to Comte,” Metaphysical Stage is a mere amendment of the first stage. Man’s mind now believes that not divine powers, but abstract, unseen mischievous which exist in every living creature are active behind every event.”
This means that, now the belief in the individual power of god is diminished. God is thought as an abstract form rather than personified form. In this stage, social organisations are more progressive than those of the first stage. Whatever is happening in the world is not more ascribed to the form of single god. But is attributed to an abstract formless force. This formless force is not resultant from any special person or body. Also it is believed to be eternal and complete in itself. The special qualities of this stage lies between the Theological and Scientific stage.
3. Scientific or Positive Stage
Thinking itself can be complete and eternal, but cannot be based on real reason, logic and facts. When a person leaves behind Metaphysical thinking, and tries to understand the world on the basis of observation and reasoning, he enters the Scientific or Positive Stage . Comte claims that the formative mixture of observation and reasoning is the foundation of true knowledge. When we describe an event, we try to find the relationship between ordinary facts and that particular event. Hence according to him, to understand different facts and events of this world, the true and dependable method is observation and classification.
In Scientific stage man does not make imaginary castles, nor tries to give metaphoric interpretation to various facts of this world. The collection of knowledge is his one and only end to his objectives. Comte says that these three stages, though completely different follow one after the other. On the religious matters, we can be in a religious stage, in relation to ideals of life, in the metaphysical stage. Similarly in matters of life resources, we can be in a scientific stage. Therefore the three stages of human thinking or knowledge cannot be isolated from each other.
This concept of Comte can be clarified with an example of a scientist, who trust science in all aspects. Suppose his only son dies, then it is possible that he would not be able to console himself by taking scientific position here. At such time metaphysical thoughts would be helpful. Like meeting and parting, happiness sorrow are emotions one has to face in this world. Or he can console himself by coming to the conclusion on religious basis that whatever god does, that is for our good. Hence the three stages of human knowledge can be found in same mind or same society