Raymond Aron as historian of sociology



How can we best tell the story of the development of sociology as an empirical social science? Raymond Aron undertook to do so in Main Currents in Sociological Thought (2 volumes) by reviewing the main sociological ideas of the greats: Montesquieu, Comte, Marx, Tocqueville, Durkheim, Pareto, and Weber. The book was first published in France in 1965 as Les étapes de la pensée sociologique, and in its English translation in the United States in the same year. Much has changed in sociology in the intervening half century; so how does Aron’s work hold up? Is this still a valuable approach? And can we learn something important about the thinking of these particular sociologists, or about sociology more generally, by re-reading Aron? 

Here is one aspect of his approach that is distinctly dated: Aron attempts to place post-war sociology within a space defined by Soviet sociology and academic American sociology.

Marxist sociology is essentially an inclusive interpretation of modern societies and of the evolution of social types. The primary object of sociological investigation, according to our colleagues in Moscow, is the discovery of the fundamental laws of historical evolution….  A sociology of the Marxist kind is synthetic, in the sense that Auguste Comte assigned to this term: it comprehends the whole of each society; unlike the specific social sciences, it is distinguished by its all-encompassing design. It seems to grasp society in its totality, rather than any particular aspect of society. (2-3) 

American sociology reveals, in general, exactly the opposite characteristics. American sociologists, in my own experience, never talk about laws of history, first of all because they are not acquainted with them, and next because they do not believe in their existence…. American sociology is fundamentally analytical and empirical; it proposes to examine the way of life of individuals in the societies with which we are familiar. Its energetic research is aimed at determining the thoughts and reactions of students in a classroom, professors in or outside their universities, workers in a factory, voters on election day, and so forth. American sociology prefers to explain institutions and structures in terms of the behavior of individuals and of the goals, mental states, and motives which determine the behavior of members of the various social groups. (5) 

These two schools … do not include the whole of what is practiced all over the world under the name of sociology. But these two schools, which are the most typical ones, form the opposite poles between which fluctuates what is called sociology today. (6)

This is obviously simplistic; it is a Cold War interpretation of sociology that doesn’t hold up well for the subsequent several decades of research and theory development in the disciplines of sociology. But what about the substantive accounts he offers of these seven theorists? Here are a few snippets:


Montesquieu was much more of a sociologist than Auguste Comte. The philosophical interpretation of sociology present in The Spirit of the Laws is much more “modern” than the same interpretation in the writings of Auguste Comte…. I do not consider Montesquieu a precursor of sociology, but rather one of its great theorists. (13) 

What is [Montesquieu’s] aim? Montesquieu made no secret of it. His purpose was to make history intelligible. He sought to understand historical truth. But historical truth appeared to him in the form of an almost limitless diversity of morals, customs, ideas, laws, and institutions. His inquiry’s point of departure was precisely this seemingly incoherent diversity. The goal of the inquiry should have been the replacement of this incoherent diversity by a conceptual order. (14)


Marx’s thought is an analysis and an interpretation of capitalistic society in terms of its current functioning, its present structure, and its necessary evolution. (149) 

What is the basis of this antagonism characteristic of capitalist society? It is the contradiction between the forces and the relations of production. The bourgeoisie is constantly creating more powerful means of production. But the relations of production — that is, apparently, both the relations of ownership and the distribution of income — are not transformed at the same rate. The capitalist system is able to produce more and more, but in spite of this increase in wealth, poverty remains the lot of the majority. (151) 

The aim of his science is to provide a strict demonstration of the antagonistic character of capitalist society, the inevitable self-destruction of an antagonistic society, and the revolutionary explosion that will put an end to the antagonistic character of modern society. (153) 

In my opinion, the center and the originality of Marxist thought lies precisely in this avowal of a necessity which is, in a sense, human but at the same time transcends all individuals. Each man, acting rationally in his own interest, contributes to the destruction of the interest common to all. (173)


Tocqueville is a comparative sociologist par excellence; he tries to determine significance by comparing types of societies belonging to the same species. Now, since I personally consider the essential task of sociology to be precisely this comparison of types within the same species, I feel it is worthwhile to set forth briefly the leading ideas of a man who in Anglo-Saxon countries is regarded as one of the greatest political thinkers of the nineteenth century, … and yet who, in France, has always been neglected by sociologists. (238)

Each volume closes with a sort of “conclusion” — the first volume in the form of a discussion of how Marx and Tocqueville understood the Revolutions of 1848, and the second in the form of a substantive comparison of Durkheim, Pareto, and Weber.

So how does Aron’s history of sociological thought measure up? His chapter on Marx is a very good exposition of Marx’s key ideas — historical materialism, exploitation, alienation, and the relationships that exist between Marx’s thought and his predecessors.  There is also a serious effort to see how these ideas relate to the current (post-war) realities of capitalism in Europe and North America. For example, he explores how the workings of the modern corporation relate to the theories of private property that Marx presupposes (200 ff.). This ninety-page chapter serves as a very good introduction to Marx’s thinking as a social scientist.

Likewise, Aron’s discussions of the other figures he treats are stimulating and insightful and give an accurate presentation of the sociologist’s thought. His discussions of Durkheim and Weber are particularly good. This kind of discursive summary and discussion of the theories is valuable for the reader who is just beginning his or her study of the great figures of sociological theory.

What the work does not provide is a view of the sociology of knowledge that might be pertinent to these theories — what problematics the thinkers were driven by, what assumptions they made about the empirical investigation of a contingent social reality, and how they fit into their contemporary research communities. The theories are treated as finished systems rather than bodies of thought that developed out of consideration of particular problems of social understanding. Partly this may reflect the fact that these “founders” were not actually “professional” social scientists and were often driven by issues deriving from large philosophical theories as much as they were guided by specific empirical problems.

The question of how to define “a science of society” is a deeply important one, and it would be very interesting to try to interpolate answers to this question into Aron’s narrative. In this respect Steven Lukes’s intellectual biography of Durkheim, Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work: A Historical and Critical Study, provides a much more probing examination of this issue in Durkheim’s thought and context.

(Here is an earlier post on the discipline of the history of sociology, here is a post on Durkheim’s status as a “professional” sociologist, and here is a post on the development of sociology in France after World War II. Here is a short biographical sketch of Aron’s professional life provided by the European Graduate School; link.)


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