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Sunday, August 19, 2018


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.


Howie said...

All three realms lie on the same country and on the same road and though they have commerce, are at war.
We are made up in our daily lives of the physical, social and the human- and it is a bloody mess to tare them apart and put them together again in one piece

marcel proust said...

1) Decades ago, when I occasionally taught the history of economic thought (much as I had learned it), I/we began with Hobbes and a bit of Locke before taking up the Physiocrats and Smith, the last 3 being seen as a response to the first; the first taking Euclid as his model about how to think about society, the last 2, or at least Smith taking the mechanical physicists. My understanding was that this approach had been handed down, in the midsts of time, from David Levine (whom I never came into direct contact with). Anyway, it allowed for a nice coherent story to be told about the genesis of economics (ignoring the independent origins of public finance, trade theory and monetary analysis as separate, unrelated fields).

On rereading this before hitting send, I recall that it actually all began with Aristotle, before turning to Hobbes.

2) RE: the division between natural and moral philosophy --- if memory serves, it was common until the late 19th C for professors who taught economics at US colleges to hold chairs in moral philosophy, no?

LFC said...

The main point of the post is clear, and I wouldn't particularly argue with it.

However, a pedantic point and one that I make tentatively, because you're a Kant scholar and I am most definitely not, and as such you may very well know more about the relevant background than I do. With that disclaimer, I'm not sure I'd make a tight equation between the German word Geisteswissenschaft and the English term Moral Philosophy. I was taught (or gathered somewhere from reading one thing or another) that the 19th-century German methodenstreit was conducted in terms of Naturwissenschaft v. Geisteswissenschaft. Not only the philosopher Heinrich Rickert but also, if I'm not mistaken, Max Weber used these terms (while also using Sozialwissenschaft).

So I think Geisteswissenschaft may have continued to be used (to encompass history and probably also newer 'human sciences') after Moral Philosophy had pretty much stopped being used in the Anglo-American world as an umbrella term for virtually everything that was not natural science. Now it's true that university chairs in moral philosophy -- to mean economics or other social sciences -- survived into the 19th and I think 20th centuries, but that's probably partly b/c endowed chairs typically don't change their names without a lot of fuss and bother, if at all. So, in short, I'm suggesting that the German and the Anglo-American terminological developments don't run in exact parallel.

The above at any rate is my impression, admittedly not backed up at the moment by anything more, and in any case not something the students in this course need to delve into or concern themselves with. But the spirit of nitpicking is hard to extinguish...

Anonymous said...

Dear Professor Wolff: I know that you detest him, but please get his name right: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. True, his wife called him Hegel. And his close friends, when they didn't call him Hegel, called him Wilhelm (and he sometimes signed his letters, Wilhelm). But it's G.W.F. Hegel, not G.F. Hegel. No Hegel, no Feuerbach; no Feuerbach, no Marx. Or, I know, no Industrial Revolution (seen from an inverted Hegelian point of view), no Marx. And that would be a great loss.

Anonymous said...

I wish every course had an introductory rationale like this.

marcel proust said...

Aargh!!! "midsts of time" s/b "mists of time". The aurally based reasoning that I apparently rely on when typing is no match for homonyms and near-homonyms, even with rereading.

Heraclitus said...

Now *this* is the stuff we love! More please!!

s. wallerstein said...

You say that each branch of the social sciences has its own distinctive mode of mystification. That of economics is clear and was exposed by Marx, as you point out.

Could you explain what is the mode of mystification involved in psychology?

It would be useful if you outline here in the blog what you talk about in each class, class by class.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

I am excited that you are including Nussbaum's Sex and Social Justice in this course. Nussbaum in general, but that book specifically, have been hugely influential on my own views on the subject matter. I surely would not expect a dogmatic syllabus from you, Professor, but given Nussbaum's unabashed embrace of political liberalism, I would love to hear why you, as a Marxist and anarchist, find her work worth engaging with!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

The fact is that my co-teacher, Todd Gitlin, proposed the Nussbaum book, but I find much of interest in the writings of people across the political spectrum -- for example, Michael Oakeshott, the voice of British conservatism for many years.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Speaking of Nussbaum, here are two recent interviews with her, occasioned by her new book, The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis.