Friday, December 30, 2011
KIERKEGAARD'S PHILOSOPHICAL FRAGMENTS: AN APPRECIATION CONCLUSION
Thursday, December 29, 2011
A HARD DAY'S NIGHT
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
KIERKEGAARD'S PHILOSOPHICAL FRAGMENTS: AN APPRECIATION PART ONE
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Sunday, December 25, 2011
COME OUT, COME OUT, WHEREVER YOU ARE
The big political news is that Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry failed to get the 10,000 signatures required to put them on the Virginia Primary ballot. I think this means that Gingrich is toast, not so much because of the inability to accumulate any delegates in Virgina, but because it demonstrates that he in fact has no real campaign organization. [By comparison, the folks seeking to recall Governor Walker have alrerady paassed the 500,000 mark in signatures with plenty of time to go.] What with Ron Paul's appalling racism, homophobia, and conspiracy mongering now getting the attention it deserves, this may in fact mean that the Republicans are stuck with their strongest candidate, Romney. I wait to see whether this will trigger a serious third party move.
Can it be that Gingrich's campaign really was, all along, no more than an adjunct to his book tour?
I reach my seventy-eighth birthday in two days, so it will be a bit before I begin the first Appreciation, devoted to Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments. However, I passed the time on the long flight [when I was not watching the Mia Wassikowska Michael Fassbender Jane Eyre] starting to write the Appreciation in my head. so I should be ready to go in a couple of days.
Merry Christmas all.
Saturday, December 24, 2011
AND HOME AGAIN
Friday, December 23, 2011
SWIFT'S TURING MACHINE
"The king, although he be as learned a person as any in his dominions, had been educated in the study of philosophy, and particularly mathematics; yet when he observed my shape exactly, and saw me walk erect, before I began to speak, conceived I might be a piece of clock-work (which is in that country arrived to a very great perfection) contrived by some ingenious artist. But when he heard my voice, and found what I delivered to be regular and rational, he could not conceal his astonishment. He was by no means satisfied with the relation I gave him of the manner I came into his kingdom, but thought it a story concerted between Glumdalclitch and her father, who had taught me a set of words to make me sell at a better price. Upon this imagination, he put several other questions to me, and still received rational answers: no otherwise defective than by a foreign accent, and an imperfect knowledge in the language, with some rustic phrases which I had learned at the farmer's house, and did not suit the polite style of a court."
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
It was my older son, Patrick, the famous International Chess Grandmaster, who first suggested that I try my hand at a blog. It was an inspired suggestion. I have found the perfect format in which to continue my lifelong career as a teacher, while in retirement [or "en retrait," as the French say, which is to say, "In retreat"!]
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
While I wasn't paying attention, Newt Gingrich has apparently started to crater. Enter Ron Paul, the only honest man in the Republican zoo, for all that he wants to return to the sixteenth century. You cannot hate a man who inveighs against American military adventures and supports legalizing marijuana, even if he does think that sick people who have neglected to buy health insurance should be left to die at the hospital door.
I have been invited to visit with the Occupy Chapel Hill folks, and will of course do so as soon as I return to America. I have also been invited by an ebulliant second year student to speak at Balliol College, Oxford, and if Susie and I can work out the combination of a direct flight to Heathrow and the Chunnel train to Paris, I hope to do so in April. At the moment, while working my way slowly through Gulliver's Travels, which continues to delight, I am starting to read the papers for a conference on law and the corporation that will be held in January at the A. A. Berle Center, in the law school of Seattle University. I am delivering my paper entitled "The Future of Socialism," and judging from the program of paper titles, which I have just received, I am afraid I am going to stand out like a skunk in a flower garden. By way of contrast, yesterday I picked up a copy of a special Le Monde supplement devoted to the thought of Karl Marx. It is hard to imagine the NY TIMES doing such a supplement to the Sunday edition. Needless to say, the one American represented in the 122 page booklet is Frederick Jameson. Oh well.
Yesterday evening, we tried a Chinese restaurant touted as one of the best in Paris. Despite the fact that we were the sole non-Orientals in the establishment, the food was not as good as can be had in Amherst, MA or Chapel Hill, NC. I have long been fascinated by the relationship between the imperial adventues of European nations and the ethnic food available in their capital cities. How surprising is it that one can get great Indian food in London, or first-rate Vietnamese food in Paris -- or, indeed, great Chinese food in New York and San Francisco?
This evening, I shall once again prepare cuisses de canard, cooked for several hours in a slow oven. Even the rainy weather cannot cast a pall over the charms of Paris.
Monday, December 19, 2011
AN INTERESTING LINK
This link [which I cannot seem to make a genuine link -- copy and paste it] will take you to a new website created by my old Harvard colleague William Polk, a distinguished progressive expert on diplomatic and international affairs. A series of working papers will be posted on the site that you may find useful.
Saturday, December 17, 2011
Here are some of the titles that have occurred to me as candidates for the Appreciations:
Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments
Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Every-day Life
Paul Goodman, Empire City
C. I. Lewis, Mind and the World Order
Leon Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long
e. e. cummings, Collected Poems
William Golding, The Inheritors
Erich Auerbach, Mimesis
What do you think?
A RESPONSE TO SOME COMMENTS
It is a lazy Saturday afternoon here in
Scaling Factor asks me to say something about Christopher Hitchens, who died the day before yesterday at the age of 62, after a long struggle with cancer. I never met Hitchens, and so cannot reminisce about him as have many of the people who were his friends or colleagues. His death has occasioned a re-posting of some of his most acerbic and brilliant disquisitions, including one memorable take-down of Mother Teresa. What follows is rather a free-form meander through the undergrowth of my mind, and is offered not as a comment on Hitchens but as a bit of shameless self-revelation.
My only contact with Hitchens came some years ago when, out of the blue, I received a letter from him asking me for a copy of or reference to my review of Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind. I have already described the review on this blog, so I shan’t repeat what I said. The review, despite appearing in a rather obscure publication [the house organ of the American Association of University Professors] became something of a cult classic.
As I thought about Hitchens’ early death, a line came to mind: ”Only the good die young.” I mistakenly thought that it was a line from John Dryden’s great poem, Alexander’s Feast, written to be set to music in honor of St. Cecelia. Google informed me, to my horror, that it is actually the title of a Billy Joel hit song [I am barely marginally aware of who Billy Joel is, or was.] But this bit of failed memory put me in mind of a line that I had long cherished from Gregory of Tours’ great sixth century work, The History of the Franks. [For those who have not read Gregory lately – hem, hem – I will just note that this long, rambling, circumstantial account of the doings of the godawful fifth and sixth century Franks is our best, and in some cases only, source of information abut the Merovingian dynasty that flourished after the fall of the Western half of the Roman Empire and before the advent of Charlemagne, whose coronation on Christmas Day, 800 A. D. inaugurated the relatively glorious Carolingian period and eventually bestowed on Europe the Holy Roman Empire.] The line, as I recalled it, came at the end of Gregory’s narration of the appalling doings of a particularly sadistic, brutal, amoral Frankish Count, who swashbuckled his way across one bit of Middle Europe for an unconscionably long time. Gregory, who was a Bishop and always on the lookout for evidences of God’s mercy and justice, concluded his account of this malefactor by remarking [or so I remembered it] that “he died in his bed at the age of eighty-four, and so God’s divine justice was once more proved.” What I loved was of course the notion that in a society that regularly cut people off in their twenties and thirties, an evil man dying in bed in his eighties could be construed as an example of divine retribution.
By a natural process of association, this led me to think of more recent deservers of divine punishment, like Dick Cheney, who has survived three or four heart attacks and yet still lives. “Only the good die young.” Like Hitchens, I am quite sure there is no God, but I would appreciate from time to time to see some sort of balance in nature’s allocation of long life.
Well, I thought that if I were going to blog about Gregory’s pious utterance, I ought first to find it. Naturally, The History of the Franks is online [what is not?], and I spent quite a long time speed-reading all ten books, without, alas, turning up the remembered quote.
C. Rossi asks for a tutorial on Erving Goffman. I think I will do that, after I return home, where my copies of Goffman’s books are located. It will not really be a tutorial, a term that surely implies I have something to teach. Perhaps I should start a separate series called “Appreciations,” whose purpose is simply to recommend to my readers books that I have found especially suggestive or enlightening.
As for a tutorial on W. E. B. Du Bois, I think my lengthy tutorial on Afro-American Studies has pretty well done that – available on box.net.
Which brings me finally to High Arka. For some time now, this person has been hiding behind a web-handle and posting abusive comments about me on this site. A little investigation reveals that he [it is a he] has his own web site. To this person, I say: Either come out of hiding and identify yourself, or retire to your own website and say anything you please. I think it is cowardly of you to conceal yourself, and I am not amused. So if you insist on remaining anonymous, then just go away.
Friday, December 16, 2011
A number of persons have posted comments on this blog that call for responses from me, which I hope to provide today or tomorrow. John S. Wilkins suggests that I try my hand at a satire, but I must confess that re-reading Gulliver’s Travels does not encourage me in that direction, any more than listening to Itzhak Perlman inspires in me a desire to play the violin! If there are any among you who have not read Gulliver’s Travels, or perhaps have forgotten much of the detail, as I had, let me remind you of the central conceit in the first two books. Swift very carefully works out the contrast between Gulliver and the Lilliputians on the one hand and the Brobdingagians on the other. Lemuel Gulliver is twelve times as large as a man of Lilliput, and one-twelfth the size of a man of Brobdingnag. Thus, the Lilliputians appear tiny, precious, lovely, and exquisite to Gulliver, but also small and petty. The Brobdingnagians appear large and gross and ugly to him – the pores of their skin are so large that they seem like great holes – but also as generous, great-hearted, and large-spirited. The Lilliputians, recall, are torn by a religious dispute, as violent and irreconcilable as that between Catholics and Protestants in
“Golbasto Momarem Evlame Gurdilo Shefin Mully Ully Gue, most mighty Emperor of Lilliput, delight and terror of the universe, whose dominions extend five thousand BLUSTRUGS (about twelve miles in circumference) to the extremities of the globe; monarch of all monarchs, taller than the sons of men; whose feet press down to the centre, and whose head strikes against the sun; at whose nod the princes of the earth shake their knees; pleasant as the spring, comfortable as the summer, fruitful as autumn, dreadful as winter:”
There is one odd error in Swift’s text, which could be deliberate, but perhaps not. The Lilliputians are ordered by the king to provide Gulliver with 1724 times as much food each day as one of their number would consume, and Gulliver, the narrator, explains to the reader that this reflects the precision and advanced state of Lilliputian mathematics. But twelve cubed is of course 1728, not 1724. Is there a scholar of eighteenth century English literatgure out there with some wisdom on this minor matter?
Well, if I were to reproduce all of the deliciously funny satirical passages in which Swift ridicules the English monarchy, I would, I fear, be reduced to copying out the entirety of Book One.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
THE OLD WAYS ARE BEST
Sure enough, it is available on-line, and I have now started reading it on my Paris laptop. I am only a few pages into Book One -- Gulliver has awakened to find himself tied down by the slender threads of the Liliputians -- but already, the wit and acerbity of the satire is a delight. In these absurd and dangerous times, when reality threatens to make satire impossible, it is good to return to one of the immortal masters of the genre.
At seventy-eight, I have long since put aside my youthful dreams of a just and rational society. But if I cannot change the world, I can at least in my mind expose the follies and evils that flourish these days.
SHAKESPEARE AND CO.
In his comment on yesterday’s post, Jim reported that George Whitman, owner of the legendary
My wanderjahr, as I have recounted in Volume One of my Autobiography, started in the summer of 1954, shortly after I completed my preliminary work for the doctorate, and lasted until well into the summer of 1955, at which point I returned home to write my dissertation. After time in
In those days, the bookshop, which had been opened four years earlier, was called Le Mistral. It was only some years later that it took over the name “Shakespeare and Company” from Sylvia Beach, who had been running a bookshop of that name in a different location. That year the shop was being managed by a young couple from Harvard – Ted Cumming, my classmate, and his wife, Patsy Arens. [I hope I am remembering the names correctly – it was a long time ago.] Ted later died tragically at a young age, I think in a boating accident.
The quartier around the bookstore is now ground zero for tourists. The tiny ancient streets running from rue St. Jacques to Boulevard St. Michel are jammed with cheap fast food joints and shops selling schlock trinkets, but in 1955 it was the Algerian section of town, with a handful of inexpensive restaurants featuring North African food. My most vivid memory of those little restaurants is that when you wanted the check, you called out “plashta ici.” I have no idea what language “plashta” is.
I was much too poor actually to buy books, but Le Mistral was a place where one could be sure of finding some English language conversation, and inasmuch as my French then was no better than it is now, that was quite an attraction for me. Mike Jorrin did show up, and for the better part of a month, we hung out at Le Mistral. I had found a very cheap room in the Algerian House of the cite universitaire, a big dormitory complex in the 14th at the very southern most edge of
Generally speaking, not much happened as the days passed, but on one occasion, I stumbled into a quite extraordinary little adventure, which has curious filiations with Woody Allen’s charming film, Midnight in Paris, starring Owen Wilson. Among the folks frequenting Le Mistral were two very attractive young English women with whom Mike and I had struck up a casual friendship. One evening, we were sitting in the chairs set out in front of the bookshop, idly looking over at Notre Dame and watching the world go by, when a fancy car pulled up and stopped. A young Frenchman hopped out, very nicely dressed, and asked the two English women if they would like to go to a party. The liked the idea, but were apprehensive about going off with a man they did not know, so the agreed on condition that Mike and I came too. [I should explain that no one looking at me would imagine I was much protection from white slavers or the like, but Mike is a tall, muscular guy – even now – and I imagine they thought he could protect them.]
Off we went, all together in the car, to a very up market apartment building, and into an elegant flat where there was indeed a party under way. For the next several hours, we danced, drank wine, and rubbed shoulders with some of
Shakespeare and Co. is one of two major English language bookstores in
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
By the time we returned home, we were somewhat battered, but unbowed. I then put together a crevette stew, incorporating the carrots, mushrooms, and onions and flavored with curry powder and some chicken buillion. I say with no tinge of false modesty that it was fantastic! One of my most successful creations.
This evening, I shall rest on my laurels and just whip up a simple dinner of fresh tuna and sauteed zucchini, washed down with a Sauterne blanc for Susie and a Gigondas for me. Having brought my Durkheim micro-tutorial to a close today, I shall turn my attention tomorrow to the next challenge. All suggestions are gratefully received.
DURKHEIM'S SUICIDE A MICRO-TUTORIAL CONCLUSION
Before I begin today’s Part of this Micro-tutorial, I must correct an appalling omission in the antepenultimate paragraph of the last Part [i.e., in the third paragraph from the end.] I omitted the words “suicide varies,” thus rendering the sentence meaningless [humph, humph, on one commented on that!] The sentence should read: “He finds that suicide varies inversely with the degree of integration of religious society, of domestic society, and of political society.” OK, now let us continue.
There are some societies, Durkheim suggests, in which social integration has been carried to such an extreme degree that individuals do not sufficiently distinguish themselves from the social order. In such cases, the individual may believe that he or she has a social obligation to commit suicide as a consequence of having failed to conform sufficiently to some social norm. Suicide becomes obligatory in these cases, Durkheim argues, and thus one can actually speak of “obligatory altruistic suicide.” For the most part, he imputes this excessive social integration to “primitive” societies, but he does remark, in a sentenced that I consider one of the most unintentionally funny in the classical sociological literature, “The readiness of the Japanese to disembowel themselves for the slightest reason is well known.” Once started, Durkheim cannot easily let the subject drop, and he actually distinguishes “three varieties” of altruistic suicide: “obligatory altruistic suicide, optional altruistic suicide, and acute altruistic suicide.” I shall spare you the details, but he does produce some interesting statistics of military as opposed to civilian suicides, showing that military men [at that time there were no military women] are very much more likely than civilians to commit suicides, and noncommissioned officers more likely than commissioned officers [wouldn’t you know?]
Finally we come to yet a third species of suicide, to which Durkheim attaches the suggestive label “anomic suicide.” His discussion is especially interesting because it was written more than a century ago, and yet reads as though it were a commentary on economic and political developments of the last decade or so.
Durkheim begins his discussion with a statement that must be read with great precision: “No human being can be happy or even exist unless his needs are sufficiently proportioned to his means.” At first, this seems to mean simply that human beings cannot long survive in a situation of such destitution that the available food and other necessaries fail to meet their basic physical needs. But it turns out that Durkheim has something quite different in mind. Recall that he is living and writing at the end of a long period, extending almost a century by 1897, of an economic expansion of produced by unfettered capitalism. As Marx suggests in the opening line of Capital, the period is characterized by a cornucopia-like outpouring of commodities. Individual human beings, Durkheim believes, are incapable of imposing upon themselves restraints on their desires. “It is not human nature,” he writes, “which can assign the variable limits necessary to our needs. They are thus unlimited so far as they depend on the individual alone.” Desires are by their nature “insatiable,” and it is a source of torment to be in the grip of insatiable desire, even when the actual quantity of goods one is consuming far exceeds what was available in an earlier time. “Thus, the more one has, the more one wants,” Durkheim observes, “since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs.”
To be in such a condition is to be without a law or constraint imposing limits on desire. It is thus to be a-nomic [i.e., literally, lacking in law. Compare the pair of terms from Kantian moral philosophy: autonomy, or giving law to oneself, and heteronomy, or having law imposed on oneself by another.] Under normal and healthy circumstances, it is society that imposes limits on appropriate desire, thus protecting us from the psychological disorientation of ever-expanding desire. But, Durkheim says in what really sounds like a cri de coeur, “[f]or a whole century, economic progress has mainly consisted freeing industrial relations from all regulation…. [G]overnment, instead of regulating economic life, has become its tool and servant. The most opposite schools, orthodox economists and extreme socialists, unite to reduce government to the role of a more or less passive intermediary among the various social functions.” [I confess I find this characterization of “extreme socialists” puzzling. I am uncertain to what Durkheim is making reference.]
“From top to bottom of the ladder, greed is aroused without knowing where to find ultimate foothold. … The longing for infinity is daily represented as a mark of moral distinction, whereas it can only appear within unregulated consciences which elevate to a rule the lack of rule from which they suffer.”
The result of this “lawlessness’ or anomie is, in its most extreme manifestations, suicide.
There is a great deal more in the book, of course, both in the elaboration of detailed statistics of rates of suicide in a wide range of social groupings and in the analysis of those statistics, but I think the thrust of the argument should be clear by now. Near the end of his discussion, Durkheim returns to the theme he enunciated in the Preface. Here, in two lengthy quotations from Book Three, is the essence of his position.
“Usually when collective tendencies or passions are spoken of, we tend to regard these expressions as metaphors or manners of speech with no real significance but a sort of average among a certain number of individual states. They are not considered as things, as forces sui generis which dominate the consciousness of single individuals. None the less, this is their nature, as is brilliantly shown by statistics of suicide.”
“Collective tendencies have an existence of their own; they are forces as real as cosmic forces [he means physical forces, forces of nature Ed.], though of another sort; they, likewise, affect the individual from without, though through other channels. The proof that the reality of collective tendencies is no less than that of cosmic forces is that this reality is demonstrated in the same way, through the uniformity of effects. When we find that the number of deaths varies little from ear to year, we explain this regularity by saying that mortality depends on the climate, the temperature, the nature of the soil, in brief on a certain number of material forces which remain constant through changing generations because independent of individuals. Since, therefore, moral acts [i.e., psychological acts Ed.] such as suicide are represented not merely with an equal but with a greater uniformity, we must likewise admit that they depend on forces external to individuals. Only, since these forces must be of a moral order and since, except for individual men, there is no other moral order of existence in the world but society, they must be social.”
Needless to say, Durkheim does not think that the agency of collective tendencies is restricted to suicide. The operation of collective tendencies, he believes, is seen throughout the sphere of social life, and hence constitutes an appropriate independent realm of phenomena worthy to be the subject of an independent scientific discipline, namely Sociology.
Is Durkheim right? I believe he is, so long as we understand his thesis in the temporally longitudinal fashion that I outlined above in Part Three of this Micro-tutorial. Indeed, the approach championed by Durkheim in Suicide is now so widely accepted that his claims have become commonplaces. There are contemporary theorists who resist this appeal to collective tendencies and invoke the models of Game Theory and Rational Choice Theory to provide individualist micro-foundations for their discussions of such societal phenomena as politics. I have had my say about these authors in a number of publications, and will not repeat here what I have said elsewhere. [See my critique of Elster, at box.net, for one extended example.] For those who would like to see a shorter statement of essentially the same point of view, take a look at my re-posting, on September 24th of this year, of my Credo.
With that, I conclude this Micro-tutorial. I hope it has proved of interest to some readers. When I return to
Monday, December 12, 2011
DURKHEIM'S SUICIDE A MICRO-TUTORIAL PART THREE
The central idea of Durkheim’s analysis, and indeed of much of his theoretical work, is that human beings exist in, and are in some sense the products of, a collective social order. He posits this in contradistinction to the methodologically individualist thesis that society is nothing more than the summation of the beliefs, purposes, and actions of the individuals who compose it, and that all explanation therefore must begin with propositions about individuals and move from there to conclusions about collections of individuals, or societies.
Stated thus baldly, Durkheim’s thesis seems patently false, for it is manifestly the case that if one eliminates the individuals from any situation, there does not remain something social, like the smile of the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. But if we examine individuals in a temporally longitudinal fashion, and ask of each one how she or he becomes an individual person, then Durkheim’s claim appears not merely true but obviously true. Here is what I mean.
Each person is born into an already formed social situation, in which gender roles, family structures, religious beliefs, norms, world views, economic categories, political structures, and even styles of bodily self-presentation – ways of walking, sitting, standing, and gesturing – are well established. As the infant develops, she internalizes the particular pattern of norms that characterize the society into which she has been born. Very quickly, we can tell that a child is nineteenth century English or Second Century Roman or eighteenth century Masaii or twenty-first century Chinese, and so forth. The norms, expectations, and modes of behavior that are internalized so completely form the child that there is no sense at all in which the child first grows to maturity and then chooses a social lifestyle. The child who internalizes no set of norms and modes of being is not a free spirit but what used to be called a “wolf child.” Even rebellion has its social styles and norms, so that a rebel is as easily placed in his or her social context as a docile conformist.
It is in just this sense that the social precedes the individual. To be sure, every social role, every style of being, every norm is the product of the choices and actions of previous generations of individuals [think of the way in which language, a quintessentially human activity, evolves.] But to any given individual, almost everything has been formed before he or she comes on the scene. Ask a young child what she wants to be when she grows up, and she will reply by naming some already well established social role – “I want to be a doctor, an astronaut, a revolutionary, a bus driver.”
Now, social roles are not immutable, as Durkheim well knew. Indeed, they are always changing, evolving, being transformed, sometimes by the deliberate and intentional choices of individuals, sometimes without anyone being aware of the process of transformation. But at any moment in the history of a society, one finds individuals who are embedded in a structure of social relations that has shaped them—a structure that is thus temporally and causally prior to the individual, and hence also prior in the order of explanation.
With this as his methodological background, Durkheim addresses the phenomenon of suicide, and concludes that the different modes or forms of suicide correspond to different degrees of the integration of individuals into society. He begins by examining variations in the incidence of suicide among the several religious groupings of nineteenth century
First of all, Durkheim observes that “as a rule suicide increases with knowledge.” But immediately he adds that “Knowledge does not determine this progress. It is innocent; nothing is more unjust than to accuse it. … Man seeks to learn and man kills himself because of the loss of cohesion in his religious society.” Durkheim then issues a stern defense of knowledge, in a fashion that is peculiarly apposite to the anti-scientific temperament of so many Americans today:
“Far from knowledge being the source of the evil, it is its remedy, the only remedy we have. Once established beliefs have been carried away by the current of events, they cannot be artificially reestablished; only reflection can guide us in life, after this. Once the social instinct is blunted, intelligence is the only guide left to us and we have to reconstruct a conscience by its means. Dangerous as is the undertaking there can be no hesitation, for we have no choice. Let those who view anxiously and sadly the ruins of ancient beliefs, who feel all the difficulties of these critical times, not ascribe to science an evil it has not caused but rather which it tries to cure!”
Durkheim draws the following conclusion” “If religion protects man against the desire for self-destruction, it is not that it preaches the respect for his own person to him with arguments sui generis; but because it is a society. What constitutes this society is the existence of a certain number of beliefs and practices common to all the faithful, traditional and thus obligatory. The more numerous and strong these collective states of mind are, the stronger the integration of the religious community, and also the greater its preservative value. The details of dogmas and rites are secondary. The essential thing is that they be capable of supporting a sufficiently intense collective life.”
Having examined the effect of religious belief on rates of suicide, Durkheim turns to two other spheres of social integration – family life and politics –and draws analogous conclusions from his data. He finds that inversely with the degree of integration of religious society, of domestic society, and of political society. “Social man,” he concludes, “is the essence of civilized man; he is the masterpiece of existence.”
All of this, recall, is intended by Durkheim as a refutation of the methodological individualism that dominated so much of nineteenth century thought, and as a justification for the existence and autonomy of a separate intellectual discipline, Sociology, whose object of investigation is the distinctively and irreducibly social character of human existence.
Social integration protects human beings from the isolation that can provoke self-destruction, but is social integration, to whatever a degree, an unalloyed benefit for human beings? By no means, Durkheim argues. Indeed, the statistics, he claims, reveal an alternative and contrary tendency to which he gives the label “altruistic suicide.” Tomorrow we shall see what he means by that provocative term.
Sunday, December 11, 2011
Now, why is this? Is it the wheat? The oven? The water? Does anyone know? If I could reproduce a standard French baguette in America I think I could make a fortune.
This afternoon, we shall attend a concert of medieval music at the Musee de Cluny just a short walk from our apartment, and then, this evening, I shall be slow-cooking cuisses de canard with 5 spices.
All in all, a typical Paris day.
There is not a great deal to say about the race for the Republican presidential nomination, save that Gingrich continues to soar and the Republican establishment tears its hair in despair. I have on occasion remarked that Obama is lucky, but my son, who is wiser in these matters, says that luck has nothing to do with it. "How on earth does he contrive to seduce his opponents into defeating themselves?" I ask. He replies, "It may sound like a joke, but he is a Jedi master." I am becoming a believer. Use the force, Luke, use the force.
Saturday, December 10, 2011
DURKHEIM'S SUICIDE A MICRO-TUTORIAL PART TWO
Suicide is divided into three Books. Durkheim’s strategy is quite straightforward. In Book One, he considers any non-social causes of suicide, and one by one dismisses them as inadequate to account for the data on the incidence of suicide that he has collected. In Book Two, he identifies three different types of socially caused suicide, which he labels “Egoistic suicide,” “Altruistic suicide,” and “Anomic suicide.” Each of these species of suicide, he argues, can only be explained by appeal to collective social causes. In Book Three, he discusses what he understands to be the general significance of what he has discovered in Book Two.
Durkheim begins Book One by exploring the claim that suicide is a consequence of insanity. He calls into question the common wisdom concerning madness, and offers some data to show that even on the assumption that some suicide is traceable to forms of insanity, such an explanation at best accounts for only a small proportion of the reported suicides. [An historico-philosophical aside: Spinoza argued that suicide could never be the act of a sane person, because all human beings are guided by rational self-love, and hence could not possibly fully understand what they are doing when they take their own lives. This strikes me as a shrewd psychological insight, whatever its larger sociological importance.]
He then asks whether suicide is in any way rooted in racial differences, or is hereditary, concludes that race is a very questionable scientific category in general, and that race and heredity are simply not satisfactory explanatory causal factors in the case of suicide. Nor, he decides, does climate explain the incidence of suicide. Seasonal variations are equally inconclusive. Surprisingly, he produces data showing that the rate of suicides actually increases as the day gets longer. I confess I would have expected the opposite. So much for “seasonal affective disorder,” or SAD, as it is now commonly referred to. Nor do the data support the hypothesis that suicide peaks when the weather first gets hot [or cold]. Durkheim concludes Book One with a discussion of imitation as a significant causal factor.
All of this is rather fun – a kind of throat-clearing as Durkheim prepares for his serious discussion in Book Two. His methodology is one with which we are all now quite familiar, but which was new and important when he was writing. To put it simply, with regard to each hypothesis, he examines statistical records to see whether there is a correlation between variations in the thing to be explained – the incidence of suicide, in this case – and concomitant variations in the proposed explanation. Excessively hot days cause people to kill themselves? Check whether the rate of suicide in a city rises as the temperature goes up and falls as things cool off. We are now so familiar with this mode of argument that it requires a little historical imagination to recall a time when it was not commonplace at all.
Durkheim’s conclusion to the last chapter of Book Two, on imitation as a cause of suicide, is worth quoting, because imitation is a mode of explanation of a social phenomenon that seems to offer a way of reducing the social to the individual. This, as we have seen, would in Durkheim’s view undermine the independence and legitimacy of the discipline of Sociology.
“[W]hat this chapter chiefly shows is the weakness of the theory that imitation is the main source of collective life. No fact is more readily transmissible by contagion than suicide, yet we have just seen that this contagiousness has no social effects. [He means that although one person may be moved to commit suicide by imitating someone else who has done so, this imitation does not alter the social statistics in any significant fashion. Ed.] If imitation is so much without social influence in this case, it cannot have more in others; the virtues ascribed to it are therefore imaginary. Within a narrow circle it may well occasion the repetition of a single thought or action, but never are its representations sufficiently deep or extensive to reach and modify the heart of society.”
And so, by eliminating a wide variety of physical and individual factors, we are brought, as Book Two opens, to the conclusion that suicide “must necessarily depend upon social causes and be in itself a collective phenomenon.” [First paragraph of Book Two.] However, Durkheim suggests, there is not a single species of socially caused suicide, but several different types – what he will go on to identify as egoistic, altruistic, and anomic suicide.
Immediately upon launching his exploration of the types of socially caused suicide, Durkheim enunciates a methodological principle that seems to me deeply flawed. I am not sure the mistake infects his conclusions, but because it is so striking, it is worth looking at for a moment. He begins by acknowledging with some regret that there simply are not useful data on the suicides of sane persons “But,” Durkheim continues, “our aim may be achieved by another method.”
“Let us reverse the order of study. Only in so far as the effective causes differ can there be different kinds of suicide. For each to have its own nature, it must also have special conditions of existence. The same antecedent or group of antecedents cannot sometimes produce one result and sometimes another, for, if so, the difference of the second from the first would itself be without cause, which would contradict the principle of causality. Every proved specific difference between causes therefore implies a similar difference between effects. Consequently, we shall be able to determine the social types of suicide by classifying them not directly by their preliminarily described characteristics, but by the causes which produce them. Without asking why they differ from one another, we will first seek the social conditions responsible for them; then group these conditions in a number of separate classes by their resemblances and differences, and we shall be sure that a specific type of suicide will correspond to each of these classes. In a word, instead of being morphological, our classification will from the start be aetiological.”
Now this is just plain wrong. It is certainly true that different effects must flow from different causes. But it does not at all follow from this that different causes must have different effects. The motion of a ball on a pool table – the observed effect – can perfectly well be the consequence of an infinite number of combinations of forces striking it -- the causes --, so long as all those combinations resolve themselves, by what we used to call the “parallelogram of forces” in high school physics, into the same vector of force. Same causes, same effects – true. Same effects, same causes – false.
Well, enough for today. Tomorrow I shall describe briefly the three types of socially caused suicides identified by Durkheim and bring this Micro-tutorial to a close.