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Sunday, October 3, 2010


A little experience with the world of blogs has reminded me that I am more comfortable in the role of teacher than in that of polemicist. That may surprise those who have come only recently to my blog, but it will not surprise faithful readers of my Memoir. So I was happy to be invited to step away from the heated world of blogging polemics, and instead try my hand at a little teaching.

In response to one series of comments, "Luke's Mom" asked whether I could say something of a simple and preliminary sort about the study of society. That is a bit like asking whether a physicist can say a little something simple about the study of nature, but it got me thinking. So here goes. This is going to take a while -- quite probably several days of blog posts. I have one request. If Luke's Mother is still out there, please check in with a short comment, so that I know that I am not just talking to myself [a common problem for philosophers.]

Inasmuch as I am, before all else, a Professor of Philosophy, let me begin, as we like to do, with Plato. In the great Platonic dialogue, THE PHAEDO, which records the conversations Socrates had with his circle of followers on the last night of his life, there is a famous passage in which Socrates reminisces about his early study of the natural sciences, and his eventual dissatisfaction with what they had to teach him. [For those who own a copy of the PHAEDO, the passage begins at page 95, as the pages are numbered in the standard edition of the Greek text, and continues for several pages. Most translations put the original pagination in the margin so that everyone can refer to passages easily.] When he was a young man, Socrates says, he studied the physicists, who were quite capable of telling him what movement of muscles and bones explained his sitting there that evening in prison, waiting for the dawn to drink the poison hemlock and die, but who were completely unable to explain WHY he was there - which is to say, what good reasons there were for him to choose to accept his fate, rather than to escape, as in fact he could have done [this is all elaborately gone into in a previous dialogue, the CRITO.]

If I may take a certain literary license, we may say that from this passage spring the two great divisions of human enquiry, which later on, in the eighteenth century, were routinely referred to as Natural Philosophy and Moral Philosophy. Natural Philosophy encompasses everything that we would refer to as the natural sciences. Newton's great treatise, PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, [Latin for "Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy"] for example, was , as the title indicates, a work of "natural philosophy." Moral Philosophy, by contrast, consisted both of consideration of what today we call Ethics or Political Philosophy, and also what today is called Psychology -- that is to say, the nature of the mind.

Now for the point of all this reminiscing. Notice that there is no room in this classification for the study of society, as we understand that notion today. Pretty much up through to the last quarter of the eighteenth century, no one had a clear, workable idea of Society as a distinct sphere of investigation sharply set off from Natural Philosophy on the one hand and Moral Philosophy on the other. Discussions of the State or the Law or such institutions as Parliament were understood to be reducible, in a manner of speaking, to, accounts of the character and workings of the individual mind or personality [or "psyche," in the Greek sense of that term.] There were of course many writers who talked about the manners and national characteristics of of the French as opposed to the English, or about the strange doings of the "primitive" peoples who were happened upon by travelers during their voyages of discovery or colonization. But though much was made of these accounts, they did not yield a workable concept of Society as an object of autonomous investigation.

The first appearance of the notion in a significant fashion, so far as I know, is in Adam Smith's great work, AN INQUIRY INTO THE NATURE AND CAUSES OF THE WEALTH OF NATIONS, usually referred to by the last four words of the title. Smith, looking at a market newly freed from traditional and legal constraints, and hence "free," observes that there seem to be certain "natural prices" that underlie the daily fluctuations caused by momentary variations in the supply or demand for goods and services. Corn may be cheap on a given day because many farmers have brought their harvest to market, or dear on another because rain has kept them away. As Smith says in the seventh chapter, "The actual price at which any commodity is commonly sold is called its market price. It may be above, or below, or exactly the same with its natural price." And then, two pages later, Smith makes an observation that is of the most profound significance, for all that it is, in his hands, quite inadequately theoretically explained. "The natural price, therefore, is, as it were, the central price, to which the prices of all commodities are continually gravitating." The invocation of the concept of the force of gravity in 1776, when the book was published, is of obvious significance. Smith is writing at a time when, by universal agreement, Newton's theories were the gold standard of theoretical explanation. Smith is suggesting that there is a sphere of human activity -- the economic -- that is governed by laws as rigorous and objective and irresistible as the force of gravity that rules the physical universe.

The laws of this sphere are not reducible, Smith seems to be suggesting, either to the laws governing the natural world or to the laws governing human character and behavior -- neither to Natural Philosophy nor to Moral Philosophy. It seems there is need of a third branch of knowledge -- Social Philosophy, or the Study of Society.

It takes a long time for this notion of win acceptance, and there are many writers in the early and middle nineteenth century who insist that what has come to be thought of as the realm of society must be reducible either to physical laws or to laws of individual psychology. In this debate, one of the most interesting figures is the great French sociologist, Emile Durkheim. In his fascinating study of the incidence of suicide in a number of European and Asian countries [published under the title Suicide in 1897], Durkheim explicitly argues for the existence of an autonomous object of study not reducible to the physical or the psychological.

Using newly available detailed statistics of the incidence of suicide, and correlating the figures with age, sex, religion, nationality, and even time of the day, week, month, and year, Durkheim is able to establish pattern whose consistency, he insists, cannot be explained in any fashion by an appeal to the laws of individual psychology. The only explanation is the existence of a group mind, or group unconscious, which must then be the appropriate study of a distinct science, Sociology.

OK, Enough for today. If anyone out there is interested, I will continue with a discussion of Marx's contribution to this investigation, the contributions of Tyler's PRIMITIVE CULTURE, and then a discussion of some very interesting more modern work, all dealing in one way or another with Luke's Mother's question about the study of society.


David Pilavin said...

"...if anyone out there is interested..."

I am out there and am interested.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

It only takes one

Amato said...

Love it. Very interesting. Looking forward to the next installment.

luft said...

Jamais deux sans trois.

Rosa said...

Most interested, and enthused.

Chris said...

also interested

GTChristie said...

I will read along as far as you want to go.

Marinus said...

Isn't it still the case that methodological individualism (believing that group activity is reducible to individual activity) is the dominant position regarding the study of society? It's not the position I hold -- Bernard Williams is one person who has presented what I take to be a knockdown argument -- but it's the default position in the literature.

wallyverr said...

I too am interested, particularly in your proposal to look at "some very interesting more modern work", to follow up the usual suspects from the canon.

M said...

Very interesting. I'm definitely interested in hearing more.

ADG said...

Please count me in as well.

luke's mother said...

Thank you! Your answers are exactly what I was hoping for.

wallyverr said...

I was a little surprised (though as a onetime economist I should be pleased) by your choice of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations as "the first appearance of the notion [of society as an object of autonomous investigation] in a significant fashion." I can see an argument for giving priority to Hume's Treatise and to Montesquieu.

And taking Wealth of Nations on its own terms: before the chapter 7 passage you cite, is Chapter 2 where Smith states that "the division of labour... is the necessary...consequence of a certain propensity in human nature... to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another." This sounds more like a basis in individual psychology than the autonomous basis urged by Durkheim.