Alfred North Whitehead famously remarked, “A science that hesitates to forget its founders is lost.” Whether sociology is a science, and in what sense, used to be hotly debated. Today, perhaps, it has ceased to matter. Sociology has become too multi- tendency, too divided into specialisms and too overtaken by a general interdisciplinary movement to have any single epistemological stance. It would in any case be hard to argue that it ever could be the kind of science that Whitehead had in mind: one marked, that is, by an accumulating body of discoveries and laws that could be passed on in abstraction from the history that produced them. Indeed, the dictum could be reversed. If sociology forgets its founders, it not only cuts itself off from a rich store of concepts, interpretations and paradigms that can be continually mined for insight and creative re- combinations; it also forgets the large- scale questions with which they were engaged, and shrinks its own ambitions. Be that as it may, few modern thinkers have been more forgotten, or had vaster horizons, than the one who lived in what is now a small musée in Paris at 10 Monsieur- le- prince.
Auguste Comte, the grand systematizer of positivism and, in later years, selfproclaimed Grand- prêtre de l'Humanité, coined the term sociology and was the first to attempt to establish a systematic science of society. A controversial but highly influential nineteenth- century figure, his ideas left their imprint on an extraordinary range of thinkers, writers and tendencies.2 These included John Stuart Mill, Emile Littré, Herbert Spencer, Lucien Lévy- Bruhl, George Eliot, Ernest Renan, Charles Maurras, Lester Ward and Emile Durkheim. Comte's work gave impetus to the establishment of sociology as an academic discipline in France, Germany and the United States. His philosophy of the sciences attracted the praise of many leading scientists of the day. He did much to organize biology into a coherent field (Canguilhem 1994: 237– 61). His Religion of Humanity established branches in several European and New World countries (Wartelle 2001) and was a major ingredient in the “invention of altruism” in Victorian England (Dixon 2008).