It is now only sixteen days until the first meeting of the course Todd Gitlin and I shall be offering in the Columbia University Sociology Department this fall. On this lazy, muggy Sunday, I thought I would take a break from Giuliani and Omarosa and other tropical diseases and spend a few moments putting down in an organized way the thoughts with which I shall introduce the course and its rationale to such students who show up on September 4th.
The students will all have completed the mainstay of Columbia’s required General Education program, a course somewhat confusingly called Contemporary Civilization – confusing because it begins with Plato and does not reach the eighteenth century until the second semester. I thought therefore that I would take as an entry point a famous passage from the Phaedo. About two-thirds of the way through the dialogue, Socrates pauses to reflect on his own intellectual development. As a young man, he reports, he was much taken with the speculations of the physicists who wrote about the behavior of physical particles and such matters. They could explain well enough how he, Socrates, came to be sitting in this prison awaiting his imminent death. They could speak of the muscles and bones whose movements and disposition accounted for his sitting there with his legs crossed in the prison cell. But they could say nothing of why he was there, what reasons had led him to conclude that inasmuch as the people of Athens had voted to condemn him to death, he thought it right to submit to their decision rather than escape and go into exile, as his disciple Crito had urged him to do [in the dialogue of that name.]
Just at this moment, I will explain to the students in the class, we can see drawn a distinction that would come to form the fundamental dividing line of theoretical investigations for the next two millennia and more of Western Civilization: the distinction between investigations of nature, which by the seventeenth century were called Natural Philosophy, and investigations of the purposive doings of human beings, which were called Moral Philosophy, or, in German, Naturwissenschaft and Geisteswissenschaft.
But near the end of the eighteenth century, there began to emerge a third sphere of investigation, reducible neither to the objects of natural philosophers nor to those of moral philosophers: Society.
This new object of study made its appearance first in the writings of a group of French and English thinkers who eventually came to be called Political Economists: the Physiocrats Turgot and Quesney and the Scotsman Adam Smith, most notably. These thinkers sought in the affairs of the marketplace some semblance of the order and regularity that Galileo, Kepler, and Newton had found in the motions of terrestrial and celestial bodies. Indeed, in an effort to borrow in his investigations the authority of those famous Natural Philosophers, Smith, in his greatest work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, distinguished between the fluctuating prices at which goods sold from day to day and the stable, expectable “natural” prices that experienced commercial men came to expect, and described those natural prices, or values, as “centers of gravity” drawing the variable market prices to them.
Thus was born a third branch of investigation to take its place next to Natural Philosophy and Moral Philosophy, namely Social Philosophy, or Sozialwissenschaft. Over the next century, this new sphere of investigation differentiated itself into special sub-fields. Anthropology, Sociology, Political Science, and Psychology took their place beside Economics. Eventually, all of these branches of study took up residence in universities as the Faculties of Natural Science and Mathematics, Humanities and Fine Arts, and Social and Behavioral Sciences.
However, although for purposes of bureaucratic university organization, these three branches of inquiry were treated as equal and coordinate, the new sphere, Social Sciences, differed fundamentally from its elder cousins, Natural Philosophy and Moral Philosophy. The ground of this distinction was not at first recognized by the thinkers who brought the Social Sciences into existence. It fell to Karl Marx to recognize the mark of difference and to make of it the centerpiece of his revolutionary thought. For Marx saw, as no one before him had in true depth and clarity, that Society, the object of investigation of the new discipline, is fundamentally, essentially mystified. Its true nature is systematically concealed from our view in the interest of those men and women who exercise power and control in society. Taking over a term that had gained currency in German thought through the work of Georg Friedrich Hegel, Marx revealed the fundamental laws of society to be ideologically distorted and concealed from view beneath a mystified surface misrepresentation.
Marx’s object of study was the political economy of capitalism, but each branch of the new Social Sciences has its own distinctive mode of mystification. And it is those mystifications of social reality that we shall study in this course.
We begin, as we must, with Marx’s greatest work, Volume I of Capital, which shall occupy us for three weeks. Then we shall read some of the writings of the three greatest thinkers of the field known as Sociology: Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Mannheim. Mannheim will introduce us to the structure and nature of Ideology, and we shall then apply this concept to the discipline known as Ethnology by an intensive study of an ideological critique of that discipline, Land Filled With Flies, by the Marxist ethnologist Edwin Wilmsen. Following our engagement with Ethnology, we shall turn to Political Theory, and read an excoriating critique of the classical theory of the social contract by the Jamaican philosopher Charles Mills, The Racial Contract. The semester will conclude with Martha Nussbaum’s critique of gender studies, Sex and Social Justice.