Auguste Comte's Cours de philosophie positive (1830– 42) is a classic in the more ambiguous meaning of the term. As a canonical text in philosophy and social science it is widely referred to as the founding statement of positivism and sociology, but the Cours belongs to the category of classics that, although routinely referenced, are no longer read. Very rarely is it discussed in any detail, and references to it tend to be limited to the stereotype of positivism as a kind of generalized, somewhat naive, and in any case outdated, belief in the models and methods of the natural sciences.
In the specialized literature on Comte, furthermore, surprisingly few authors have explicitly raised the question of how to assess the content and status of the Cours. The most common qualifications amount to general assertions about positivism but remain vague as to how the six volumes of the Cours are structured, what kind of material they contain and what arguments are actually made. Moreover, what Comte aimed to achieve is most frequently described in terms that are borrowed from his later writings, if not from neo- positivist thought that emerged only decades after his death.
One of the major obstacles to understanding the Cours is that in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the theory, history and sociology of science have parted ways. Each one has become a specialized endeavor, with its own degrees, departments and journals, and exchanges across their boundaries have become increasingly difficult. In the current academic division of labor properly historical questions tend to be relegated to historians, social aspects of science to sociologists and epistemological issues to philosophers. Such a partitioning of tasks, however, produces more problems than it solves. In textbooks for the philosophy of science, for example, Comte has virtually disappeared. Positivism is identified with a later version, “logical positivism,” which has supplanted Comte's historical approach to scientific knowledge. In sociology Comte is mentioned as having introduced the word sociology, and some textbooks briefly discuss his sociological ideas, but his more encompassing theory of science is ignored. As to the history of science, Comte's writings are widely held to be outdated and are referred to seriously only by specialists of early nineteenth- century science.