Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

THE STUDY OF SOCIETY -- PART THREE

One by one, the several "Social Sciences" separated off from "Moral Philosophy" and established themselves as autonomous disciplines, all in one way or other studying the newly discovered object of investigation: Society. Although it is not an essential part of our story, it is interesting to note that in this process, and in a corresponding development in the Humanities, one sees over and over again a decision to focus systematic "wissenschaftlich" [in the Continental sense, "scientific"] attention on elements of human experience previously considered beneath the notice of cultivated and educated persons.

The first example of this is Economics itself. It may seem odd today, when economists puff themselves up as scientists and compete for access to the seats of power, but in the eighteenth century, buying and selling, making and consuming, were thought of as activities not worthy of organized study. If one looks at the two great works of eighteenth century historiography that, between them, defined the modern discipline of History -- namely David Hume's six volume HISTORY OF ENGLAND and Edward Gibbon's DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE -- their pages are filled with the doings of emperors and kings, senates and parliaments, with accounts of wars and dynastic struggles. The buying and selling of commodities in the market was thought to be vulgar, not something a gentleman would concern himself with.

Anthropology, as we have seen, treated the odd habits of naked savages as worthy of serious examination and classification, not merely of amused and witty commentary. Sociology in the hands of Durkheim or Weber attended to statistics of birth and death, to the bureaucratic organization of firms and government offices, and eventually to the opinions of the masses, who for untold ages had been thought beneath the dignity of a gentleman to take notice of.

The most brilliant example of this exploration of materials beneath scientific notice was Sigmund Freud's discovery that dreams, jokes, and common slips of the tongue can serve as pathways to the unconscious, thereby serving both therapeutic and scientific ends.

An analogous movement took place in the humanistic disciplines. In the nineteenth century, novels were considered popular amusements, unfit for serious reflection and discussion by literary critics. These dignified souls concerned themselves instead with poetry and tragedy. By the middle of the twentieth century, one could earn a doctorate by engaging in a serious study of the novels of Samuel Richardson, Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Movies, however, were beyond the pale -- popular amusements not worthy of serious literary critical attention. Eventually "film studies" joined "the novel" as appropriate specializations in the Humanities, to be followed by post-Modern quasi-Marxian readings of comic books, television, graffiti, and blogs.

But back to our main story. In order to hold this tutorial within reasonable limits of space, I am going to move directly to the subject that interests me the most: the problematic nature of the concepts we employ in trying to grasp the nature of contemporary social reality. Back in the day, when I projected a trilogy of books on the thought of Karl Marx, this was to be the subject of the third and final volume. The first two volumes have long since been published -- UNDERSTANDING MARX and MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY. [I am reminded by a commentator, David Pilavin, that not every visitor to this blog has read the eight hundred page Memoir that I posted in the Spring and early Summer.] But the lack of interest in MONEYBAGS discouraged me, and I have somehow never gotten around to writing the last volume. Consider these brief remarks a promissory note.

Let us begin small, as it were, and build up to the full problem. Society is, when all is said and done, nothing more nor less than the totality of the habits, practices, rituals, institutions, beliefs, expectations, and behaviors of a group of people. Philosophers may wonder whether the tree that falls in the forest makes a sound if no one hears it, but there is no dispute that when people disappear, society disappears with them.

Now, in a small medieval village, isolated from the larger world, everyone will be personally acquainted with everyone else. If I have grown up in that village, I will know the individuals, their characteristics, their foibles, their relationships, sanctified or not by the local priest, their children, legitimate and illegitimate. I will know who is pregnant, who has just lost a child, what village elder has just passed away. I will have no need of a Bureau of Labor Statistics to tell me whether the population is growing or shrinking, nor will I need a Department of Agriculture to tell me how last year's harvest was. In an important sense, the social structure and relationships of the village are transparent to me, in much the way that my extended family is transparent to me.

But there is curious fact, of the greatest significance for our study of modern society. Even in this small social setting, in which so much is immediately clear to me that might be obscure or difficult to grasp in a nation of three hundred million souls, the concepts I use to understand my social reality are NOT transparent to me, and may indeed present problems of analysis as complex as those posed by the concepts with which I seek to grasp modern social reality. Consider such elementary social concepts as husband, wife, son, daughter, priest, lord, serf, freeman, apprentice, and master craftsman. It is with these concepts that I would describe my world to myself and make sense of it, were I living in that village. These categories would be as real to me, as objective, as the categories of rock and tree, water and wine, deer and hedgehog. And yet, husbands and wives, lords and serfs, are [as we like to say these days] social constructions. If all the deer but one die, the last living deer will still be a deer, though it may be unable to reproduce. But if all the serfs die, there will no longer be any lords. [One is reminded of the wonderful footnote in Chapter One of Das Kapital, Volume One: "One man is king only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him. They, on the contrary, imagine that they are subjects because he is a king."]

To explain this notion, and illustrate it, let me have recourse to a silly thought experiment I constructed some decades ago when I was trying to clarify Marx's claim that the legal, philosophical, and religious ideas of an age are an ideological superstructure erected on a socio-economic base. Now, I do not want to hear from all the rabbit lovers out there, please. [Nor do I want to start an argument about Historical Materialism. Just follow along.]

Imagine, if you will, a primitive society whose entire economic activity consists of running down and killing rabbits. These are folks who eat rabbits, make their clothing from rabbit skins, and even manage toothpicks from those little rabbit bones that seem to make their way into even the most carefully prepared rabbit dish. The entire clan gets up every morning and spends the day wandering through the woods running after rabbits. Since rabbits, though small, are elusive, the clan is living pretty much at bare subsistence level. One evening, sitting around the fire [they do have fire], an old woman makes a radical suggestion: "Why don't we divide the work of catching rabbits into two subordinate functions?' she says. Some of us will fan out and beat the bushes to scare the rabbits into the open. The rest will wait with their clubs [made from rabbit bones, of course] and whomp them as they run by. Well, after a good deal of deliberation, they decide not to burn the old lady as a witch, but instead to give it a try.

The plan is a rave success, and production soars [as we say nowadays]. The next day, the same people go out to beat the bushes and the same people wait to whomp the rabbits. Pretty soon, these two groups start to call themselves bush beaters and rabbit whompers. Little children, born after this experiment was first tried, grow up wondering whether they will be bush beaters or rabbit whompers, these now being thought of as eternal objective social roles, not an ad hoc division of labor suggested by an old woman [who by now has been transmogrified in the story telling of the clan into a Goddess.]

Now, when it comes to dividing up the daily catch, the rabbit whompers keep the lion's share [so to speak] of the rabbits for themselves. At first this meets with protests, since on that first day, as everyone can in the beginning still recall, it was pretty much arbitrary who did which job. But possession being nine tenths of the law, as they have not yet learned to say, the rabbit whompers grow fat and happy while the bush beaters stumble along only a little better off than they were originally. After a while, the improved diet of the rabbit whompers helps them to grow taller and live longer, and so it begins to appear that there are really two races of people in the clan. The larger, healthier group now have so many rabbits that they can afford to support several of their more introspective number as scholars and priests who, while not themselves actually whomping any rabbits, have the job of explaining to the bush beaters that it is God's will that they should live near the edge of starvation while rabbit whompers live high on the hog. When some of the more rambunctious bush beaters protest this arrangement, even going so far as to suggest that the originator of the idea was just an old lady, not a Goddess, the rabbit whompers set aside still more of their heap of rabbits to support several of their stronger and more belligerent number, who become soldiers, defending the stores of excess rabbits from the hungry horde of bush beaters.

And so modern society is born.

The point of this fable, of course, is that by the time a full scale elaboration of law courts, churches, art museums, universities, and philosophy departments has developed, all providing superb rationales for the present state of affairs, no one recalls how it all began, and all of the concepts the members of the clan use to achieve some measure of self-understanding -- lord, serf, priest, soldier, lawyer, bush beater, and rabbit whomper -- seem as solid, ancient, objective, and immutable as the concepts of their nascent natural science.

Well, enough for one day. More tomorrow, if you can stand it.

9 comments:

Rob said...

This is a great series of posts! We shouldn't let the opportunity pass to re-read and quote some of the thinkers you're discussing. This, from Durkheim's "Elementary Forms of Religious Life," seems like a good complement to some of the bigger thematic points you're making:

"The idea that societies are subject to necessary laws and constitute a realm of nature has deeply penetrated only a few minds. It follows that true miracles are thought possible in society. There is, for example, the accepted notion that a legislator can create an institution out of nothing and transform one social system into another, by fiat -- just as the believers of so many religions accept that the divine will made the world out of nothing or can arbitrarily mutate some beings into others. As regards social things, we still have the mind-set of primitives. But if, in matters sociological, so many people today linger over this old-fashioned idea, it is not because social life seems obscure and mysterious to them. Quite the opposite: If they are so easily contented with such explanations, if they cling to these illusions that are repeatedly contradicted by experience, it is because social facts seem to them the most transparent things in the world. This is so because they have not yet appreciated the real obscurity, and because they have not yet grasped the ned to turn to the painstaking methods of the natural sciences in order progressively to sweep away the darkness. The same cast of mind is to be found at the root of many religious beliefs that startle us in their oversimplification. Science, not religion, has taught men that things are complex and difficult to understand."

Robert Paul Wolff said...

What a wonderful passage! I confess I had never read it. [Being seventy-six means not having to pretend you have read everything.] Thank you for taking the time to post it as a comment. Those old guys knew a thing or two!

David Pilavin said...

"I am reminded by a commentator, David Pilavin, that not every visitor to this blog has read the eight hundred page Memoir.."

I do not seem to remember ever reminding you of that. It must have been someone else.

Thanks for the mention of my name, though :-)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Sigh. Each day reminds me that I am getting old. It was David Sucher. My apologies.

Alan Gilbert said...

Dear Bob,

A wonderful parable of Marx and a very striking set of posts. Just a note on your previous division of thinkers on the way to revolutionary or democratic social theory. The Greeks, notably Aristotle, thought a lot about the division of society into classes, class conflict (statis), and how to produce laws which would knit society together (produced a common good, when they weren't off on fantasies of the rule of the best man, philosopher-tyranny. Aristotle's ideas were taken up by Montesquieu in Spirit of the Laws, in which climate (also in Aristotle) and customs produce conditions in which the laws have their effect. These ideas are developed brilliantly by Hegel, as you suggest, and lead into Marx and the emergence of social theory. Montesquieu was, as it were, a liberal social theorist, just when liberalism was fresh, slavery still practiced, commerce something that might be thought, along with Protestantism, to lead to peace (these thoughts have already grown old in Weber's Protestant Ethic). On this categorization, Rousseau is a social theorist of the legislation in republics like Rome and Corsica, very attentive to social conditions in a way that say Hobbes or Locke was not.

On the moral side, Hegel emphasizes the unfolding of the idea of freedom. It is interesting to think about this unfolding from say Aristotle to Hegel and to try to reassess the tradition of social theory from this standpoint. You link it rightly to ideas of critique, to freedom and justice. But Weber, a German imperialist and Nietzschean (he hoped the social democrats might make Germany a Herrenvolk, in perhaps his worst moment), does not lead simply in this direction. Put differently, he fought anti-semitism, a great thing, but in general, he was not for the advancement of freedom. There is as it were a main moral thread in terms of intention and impact, but several other, quite different strains, in social and psychoanalytic theory.

Alan Gilbert said...

Dear Bob,

A wonderful parable of Marx and a very striking set of posts. Just a note on your previous division of thinkers on the way to revolutionary or democratic social theory. The Greeks, notably Aristotle, thought a lot about the division of society into classes, class conflict (statis), and how to produce laws which would knit society together (produced a common good, when they weren't off on fantasies of the rule of the best man, philosopher-tyranny. Aristotle's ideas were taken up by Montesquieu in Spirit of the Laws, in which climate (also in Aristotle) and customs produce conditions in which the laws have their effect. These ideas are developed brilliantly by Hegel, as you suggest, and lead into Marx and the emergence of social theory. Montesquieu was, as it were, a liberal social theorist, just when liberalism was fresh, slavery still practiced, commerce something that might be thought, along with Protestantism, to lead to peace (these thoughts have already grown old in Weber's Protestant Ethic). On this categorization, Rousseau is a social theorist of the legislation in republics like Rome and Corsica, very attentive to social conditions in a way that say Hobbes or Locke was not.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I actually aghree with everyone who has pointed to the antecedants in earlier writers to the development of the concept of society. I do not believe that those antecedants are more than that, but it is not something I would care to argue. I am content simply to have the concept clarified. For my purposes, that is what is important.

Thank you all for the very valuable addenda to my brief and inadequate remarks.

Scott Garren and Heather Shay said...

Nice metaphor. How about a slightly different flavor. Many poor tribes of rabbit eaters. All tried divisions of labor but conflict over splitting the proceeds prevented them from a cooperative approach. Finally one band developed a strong leader who put in place rules for splitting the proceeds. Cooperation became entrenched and the band grew. Eventually of course the band took over all the surrounding bands and a tribe was formed because of the social structures that enabled cooperation.

Cooperative social structures are more productive but cheating is always a threat. Social structures that prevent cheating and allow cooperation of ever greater scales will always win. The universal nature of religion reflects one of its roles in facilitating cooperative social structures. Likewise the rule of law, international treaties, the Internet and many of the other trappings of modern life.

JP said...

That is a very nice way to explain reification and the materialist conception of history! My students will hear it next year. Attributed, of course.