HB Acton’s version of Marxism

H. B. Acton gained celebrity with the publication of Illusion of the Epoch in 1955, supposedly as a serious philosopher’s even-handed exposition of the philosophy expressed in Marx’s writings. Acton was not an especially influential philosopher, and he certainly does not stand in the first ranks of post-war British philosophy. He taught philosophy at the London School of Economics, Bedford College (London), the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Chicago. (It is difficult to find biographical information about Acton; for example, where did he complete his doctoral studies, and who were his primary influences?) And the book misses much that is of interest in Marx in the interest of tying Marx to Hegel at one end and to Lenin and Stalin at the other.

It seems likely that much of the celebrity of the book derived from its title, “Illusion of the Epoch”, which seemed to imply that Acton would unveil Marxism as the illusion of the epoch of the 1930s through 50s. But he never explains the title, and in fact it is borrowed from the German Ideology in an entirely different context. The conservative foundation and publisher Liberty Fund republished the book in 1962, and it is easy to speculate that “the Marxist illusion” was a major selling point of the book to the New Liberty editorial board. Certainly Acton’s book falls far short in two crucial ways: it is not a credible interpretation of Marx’s philosophical ideas, and it does not expressly say why Marxism is an illusion. We can guess, but the book doesn’t provide an argument or explanation.

Most fundamentally, Acton’s premise in Illusion was … illusory. He began with the assumption that the philosophy expressed in Marx’s writings is fully and adequately expressed in the writings of Lenin and Stalin; in fact, he treats “Marxism” as “Marxist-Leninism”. As a result, he vastly overestimates the importance of “dialectical method” in Marx’s writings — let alone the coherence or importance of “dialectical materialism” for Marx, since this is not a phrase that Marx used anywhere in his corpus. (The phrase was coined by a follower of Marx four years after his death, in 1887.) This takes us off on a wild-goose chase in the book, since the reader came with an interest in Marx’s thinking as a philosopher, and what the reader got instead was a rowboat piloted by Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. But if — as I believe — Marx put aside the philosophical claptrap of Hegelian dialectics when he turned to thinking seriously about history and political economy, then the elaborate exposition that Acton provides interpreting Hegel on the one hand and Lenin on the other hand is entirely useless when it comes to interpreting Marx’s philosophical and theoretical thinking.

The superficiality of Acton’s treatment of Marx is evident throughout the book. Here are a few broad, sweeping, and silly statements:

We have now seen that, on the Marxist view, everything is changing, and that periods of gradual change are interspersed with sudden changes in which new types of being come to birth. Marxists regard it as a merit of their theory that it is also capable of explaining why nature changes at all. (85)

We have not so far discussed the proposition that all things are ‘‘organically connected with, dependent on, and determined by each other.’’ That things are not so connected is the thesis of ‘‘metaphysics,’’ in Engels’ sense of the word. What sort of unity of the world, then, do Marxist philosophers assert? It is easy to see that, on their view, nature is one, inasmuch as it is fundamentally material—there is nothing in nature that is not based in matter. (91)

These are certainly not Marx’s views. Whether it is a credible interpretation of Engels’ view or Lenin’s view, I’m not sure. But Engels and Lenin are not Marx. And it is hard to see how a person who has read Capital could seriously suggest that these views underlie Marx’s effort to understand capitalism.

Part I of Illusion is therefore fundamentally irrelevant to Marx’s approach to understanding the contemporary world (capitalism). What about Part II, where Acton turns to “historical materialism”? Here Acton adopts another red herring — the idea that historical materialism is meant as a serious effort to explain religion and religious consciousness and ideology (100). These are highly subordinate concerns for Marx, and he gives little specific attention to how material social institutions influence or “determine” ideological frameworks. Rather, Marx is interested in explaining the large systemic changes in history.

Finally, after dozens of pages, Acton arrives at a sensible statement of Marx’s theory of historical materialism:

The main point, then, of the Materialist Conception of History is as follows. The basis of any human society is the tools, skills, and technical experience prevalent in it, i.e., the productive forces. For any given set of productive forces there is a mode of social organization necessary to utilize them, i.e., the productive relationships. The sum total of productive relationships in any society is called by Marx its ‘‘economic structure.’’ This, he holds, is the real basis on which a juridical and political superstructure arises, and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond. Radical changes in the basis sooner or later bring about changes in the superstructure, so that the prime cause of any radical political or moral transformation must be changes in the productive forces. In effect, the idea is that human society has a ‘‘material basis’’ consisting of the productive forces and associated productive relationships. This is also called the ‘‘economic structure.’’ This, in its turn, determines the form that must in the long run be taken by the legal and political institutions of the society in question. Less directly but no less really dependent on the economic structure of society are its moral and aesthetic ideas, its religion, and its philosophy. The key to the understanding of law, politics, morals, religion, and philosophy is the nature and organization of the productive forces. (128-129)

This is a reasonable statement of Marx’s general theory of historical materialism; but it is no more than a close paraphrase of the summary offered by Marx in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) (link). No subtle reinterpretation of Marx’s meaning is required; Acton’s paragraph simply paraphrases the parallel text in the preface to the Contribution. And, once again, Acton defeats his own goal (to interpret Marx’s philosophical ideas) by turning immediately to Stalin’s and Lenin’s counterpart ideas.

In Part III Acton turns to what he calls “Marxist Ethics”. Here again, much of the discussion has to do with what Lenin and Stalin had to say about ethics. But, as above, this is a different subject. Here is an example:

It will be remembered that in Chapter I of Part One of this book I called attention to the fact that one of Lenin’s arguments against phenomenalism was that phenomenalism is a form of idealism, that idealism is a disguised form of religion, that religion is dangerous to communism, and that therefore phenomenalism should be rejected. Basic to this argument is the assumption that it is legitimate to reject a philosophical theory on the ground that it appears to be a hindrance to the victory of the proletariat under Communist Party leadership. In still more general terms, Lenin’s argument assumes that it is legitimate to reject a philosophical theory on the ground that it appears to conflict with a political movement supposed to be working for the long-term interests of mankind. (191)

As a treatment of Marx’s thought, there is almost nothing to recommend in Acton’s book. So why dwell on a book that has so little philosophical insight into its subject matter? Because this book is one of the texts from the 1940s and 1950s that set the terms for philosophers’ understanding of Marx; and because the book is a bumbling trivialization of Marx’s ideas. A much better introduction and overview of Marx’s thought was provided by Isaiah Berlin in 1939 in Karl Marx: His Life and Environment. And Berlin was a much more penetrating philosopher than Acton. (Using Google NGram tool, it emerges that book mentions of Isaiah Berlin are more than 1000 times more frequent than for Harry Acton since 1950.) Even Sherwood Eddy’s introduction to Marx in the 1934 volume The Meaning of Marx, short though it is, does a much better job of introducing the reader to Marx’s central ideas (link). On the other hand, if we want to understand why Stalinism was a moral catastrophe, we would do better to read The God That Failed, including autobiographical essays by Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Richard Wright, Andre Gide, Louis Fischer, and Stephen Spender. (Richard Wright’s essay is particularly powerful.) These personal statements make much more vivid the appeal of Marxism for intellectuals concerned about social justice in the 1930s, and shed much more light on the totalitarian disaster that doctrinaire Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism led to at every level — from Moscow and Kiev to Berlin to Milan to Chicago.

Acton’s book reflects the very low level of interest or knowledge that analytic philosophers of the 1950s had in Marx as an original thinker, as opposed to a talisman and predecessor for totalitarian communist regimes in the USSR and its satellites. A return to serious, critical study of Marx would have to wait for another generations of philosophers in the 1980s.

Machiavelli and the totalitarian state

Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Machiavelli in Against the Current is penetrating and detailed, valuable both for the specialist and the general philosophical reader. Berlin demonstrates an uncanny knowledge of the range of interpretations and criticisms that have been offered for the ideas presented in The Prince and the many wildly contradictory interpretations that have arisen. Was Machiavelli an amoral political realist? Is The Prince intended to be a value-free “science of politics”? Did he write The Prince simply as a user’s manual for the rulers of states in his own time and the future? Was he indifferent to the appeal to bloody violence and deception by the ruler for the sake of maintaining power? What was his attitude towards Christian morality? Was Machiavelli’s position “humanist”? Berlin dissects the competing answers that have been given to these questions for several hundred years, and his account makes for fascinating reading. More impressive, though, is Berlin’s effort to provide a coherent interpretation of the “originality of Machiavelli” that makes sense of the texts and also shows the weaknesses of historic claims about Machiavelli’s intentions. Berlin provides an intellectual-moral location for Machiavelli’s short essay that provides answers to these questions. And his answers are profoundly disturbing. Berlin believes that Machiavelli’s text contains the makings of a fundamental “impossibility” theorem for political philosophy, as radical as the wave-particle dichotomy in fundamental physics.

Key to Berlin’s interpretation is his view that Machiavelli has a particular political ideal in mind in writing The Prince. It is the ideal of a republic or polis, well regulated by a strong government, and consisting of citizens embodying courage, virtue, and intelligence. Periclean Athens, the Roman Republic, and certain periods of the Roman Empire provide the key exemplars. “The only freedom [Machiavelli] recognises is political freedom, freedom from arbitrary despotic rule, that is, republicanism, and the freedom of one State from control by other States, or rather of the city or patria … The need for absolute centralised power (if not for sovereignty) is taken for granted” (47).

And the need for ruthless exercise of power follows from the need to maintain the effective centralized state:

In order to cure degenerate populations of their diseases, these founders of new States or Churches may be compelled to have recourse to ruthless measures, force and fraud, guile, cruelty, treachery, the slaughter of the innocent, surgical measures that are needed to restore a decayed body to a condition of health. (55)

But according to Berlin, this does not mean that Machiavelli dismisses moral values when he analyzes political necessity. Instead, his reasoning is justified by a conception of the kind of politics the ruler is seeking to create for the citizens of the state. According to Berlin, Machiavelli’s central discovery was that “pagan” (Roman) values and “Christian” values were fundamentally incompatible, and this incompatibility is irresolvable.

One is the morality of the pagan world: its values are courage, vigour, fortitude in adversity, public achievement, order, discipline, happiness, strength, justice, above all assertion of one’s proper claims and the knowledge and power needed to secure their satisfaction; that which for a Renaissance reader Pericles had seen embodied in his ideal Athens, Livy had found in the old Roman Republic, that of which Tacitus and Juvenal lamented the decay and death in their own time. These seem to Machiavelli the best hours of mankind and, Renaissance humanist that he is, he wishes to restore them. (56)

The ideals of Christianity are charity, mercy, sacrifice, love of God, forgiveness of enemies, contempt for the goods of this world, faith in the life hereafter, belief in the salvation of the individual soul as being of incomparable value – higher than, indeed wholly incommensurable with, any social or political or other terrestrial goal, any economic or military or aesthetic consideration. (57)

And, Berlin argues, the second set of values makes the republic constituted by the first set of values impossible to achieve:

But if history, and the insights of wise statesmen, especially in the ancient world, verified as they have been in practice (verità effettuale), are to guide us, it will be seen that it is in fact impossible to combine Christian virtues, for example meekness or the search for spiritual salvation, with a satisfactory, stable, vigorous, strong society on earth. Consequently a man must choose. To choose to lead a Christian life is to condemn oneself to political impotence: to being used and crushed by powerful, ambitious, clever, unscrupulous men; if one wishes to build a glorious community like those of Athens or Rome at their best, then one must abandon Christian education and substitute one better suited to the purpose. (58)

The general effect of Christian teaching has been to crush men’s civic spirit, and make them endure humiliations uncomplainingly, so that destroyers and despots encounter too little resistance. Hence Christianity is in this respect compared unfavourably with Roman religion, which made men stronger and more ‘ferocious’. (59)

Christians as he knew them in history and his own experience, that is, men who in their practice actually follow Christian precepts, are good men, but if they govern States in the light of such principles they lead them to destruction. Like Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, like the well-meaning Gonfalonieri of the Florentine Republic, like Savonarola, they are bound to be defeated by the realists (the Medici or the Pope or King Ferdinand of Spain), who understand how to create lasting institutions; build them, if need be, on the bones of innocent victims. (62)

But now let us draw out the implications of the view. What does this line of thought lead to? It leads to totalitarianism; it provides a justification for Stalinism.

But if a man chooses, as Machiavelli himself has done, the second course, then he must suppress his private qualms, if he has any, for it is certain that those who are too squeamish during the remaking of a society, or even during the pursuit and maintenance of its power and glory, will go to the wall. Whoever has chosen to make an omelette cannot do so without breaking eggs…. Once you embark on a plan for the transformation of a society you must carry it through no matter at what cost: to fumble, to retreat, to be overcome by scruples – this is to betray your chosen cause. (74)

Anything is permitted for the eventual achievement of socialism in one country.

From the vantage-point of the great social objectives in the name of which these (prima facie wicked) acts are to be performed, they will be seen (so the argument goes) as no longer wicked, but as rational – demanded by the very nature of things – by the common good, or man’s true ends, or the dialectic of history – condemned only by those who cannot or will not see a large enough segment of the logical, or theological, or metaphysical, or historical pattern; misjudged, denounced only by the spiritually blind or short-sighted. At worst, these ‘crimes’ are discords demanded by the larger harmony, and therefore, to those who hear this harmony, no longer discordant. (79-80)

And Berlin explicitly draws this conclusion on Machiavelli’s behalf:

To Dostoevsky’s famous question ‘Is everything permitted?’1 Machiavelli (who for Dostoevsky would surely have been an atheist) answers ‘Yes, if the end – that is, the pursuit of a society’s basic interests in a specific situation – cannot be realised in any other way.’ (81)

What is surprising to me is that Berlin fails to comment directly on the seeds of totalitarianism and fascism in the Machiavelli he decodes — even though his own life spanned the rise and fall of both Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust, the Soviet Terror and the purges, and the Gulag. If the fundamental line of thought in The Prince is that the state can use whatever means it chooses to pursue its goals and the transformation of society, then it is a founding document of totalitarianism, not of republican humanism. Even the metaphor of “breaking eggs” mentioned in the quote above from p. 74 is specific to the vile defenses that were offered of Soviet violence against its own citizens in the 1930s. 

It is also worth noting that the dichotomy between pagan boldness and Christian passivity — the central value-system dichotomy that Berlin attributes to Machiavelli — does not capture the full normative space for political morality. Is a binding constitutional protection against arbitrary arrest and execution a “Christian” requirement, reflecting timidity and passivity? It is not, because there is a third option: civic constitutionalism, a robust commitment by both rulers and citizens to the rule of law and the protection of rights and liberties, and a commitment to social progress through constitutional means only. Both John Stuart Mill and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. provide examples of activists for liberty and equality that reject passivity while also rejecting the violent and illegal actions of the state.

Durkheim’s social holism

Emile Durkheim is celebrated for many achievements in the founding of the discipline of sociology, but most striking is his endorsement of the autonomy and irreducibility of the social realm to individual motivation, action, or psychology. “Social facts are things, irreducible to individual psychology.” Durkheim was, we are often told, a social holist. This is a tantalizing and puzzling position. Here is a description of social facts offered by Durkheim in Rules of Sociological Method:

Yet social phenomena are things and should be treated as such. To demonstrate this proposition one does not need to philosophize about their nature or to discuss the analogies they present with phenomena of a lower order of existence. Suffice to say that they are the sole datum afforded the sociologist. A thing is in effect all that is given, all that is offered, or rather forces itself upon our observation. To treat phenomena as things is to treat them as data, and this constitutes the starting point for science. Social phe­nomena unquestionably display this characteristic. (Rules, 69)

Social phenomena must therefore be considered in themselves, detached from the conscious beings who form their own mental representations of them. They must be studied from the outside, as external things” because it is in this guise that they present themselves to us. If this quality of externality proves to be only apparent, the illusion will be dissipated as the science progresses and we will see, so to speak, the external merge with the internal. (70)

Here, then, is a category of facts which present very special characteristics: they consist of manners of acting, thinking and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him. Consequently, since they consist of representations and actions, they cannot be confused with organic phenomena, nor with psychical phenomena, which have no existence save in and through the individual consciousness. Thus they constitute a new species and to them must be exclusively assigned the term social. It is appropriate, since it is clear that, not having the individual as their substratum, they can have none other than society, either political society in its entirety or one of the partial groups that it includes — religious denominations, political and literary schools, occupational corporations, etc. Moreover, it is for such as these alone that the term is fitting, for the word ‘social’ has the sole meaning of designating those phenomena which fall into none of the categories of facts already constituted and labelled. (52)

Durkheim seems to be quite committed, then, to the full and complete separation between social facts and individual facts. His reasons are unconvincing, however. 

Notice first that these points are entirely apriori. They derive from the idea — almost Aristotelian in its dogmatism — that each science must have a distinct and independent domain of things to study; and therefore sociology demands that social facts are distinct from the objects of study of another science — psychology.

What are those supposed social facts? There are several that Durkheim refers to repeatedly: social conscience or morality; social habits and mores; laws and traditions; political arrangements; and social sentiments such as patriotism. In the simplistic understanding of Durkheim’s ontology, these sets of norms, beliefs, values, and practices exist above individuals and constrain and direct their behavior. They cause events at the individual level, but they are not caused by individual-level events or conditions. This is an untenable holism, however. Further, there are important statements in Durkheim’s writings that undercut this extravagant holism. For example, consider these comments from the second preface to the Rules:

Yet since society comprises only individuals it seems in accordance with common sense that social life can have no other substratum than the individual consciousness. Otherwise it would seem suspended in the air, floating in the void. (39)

Here he concedes the point that the social world consists only of individuals; but he wants to draw an analogy with the “emergence” of the physical properties of physical ensembles to support the idea that “social facts” are different in kind from individual facts:

The hardness of bronze lies neither in the copper, nor in the tin, nor in the lead which have been used to form it, which are all soft or malleable bodies. The hardness arises from the mixing of them. (39)

By analogy, he suggests that it is plausible to propose that social ensembles — social facts — possess properties different in kind from the properties of their parts — the consciousness and representations of the individuals who make them up.

One is forced to admit that these specific facts reside in the society itself that produces them and not in its parts — namely its members. In this sense therefore they lie outside the consciousness of individuals as such, in the same way as the distinctive features of life lie outside the chemical substances that make up a living organism. They cannot be reabsorbed into the elements without contradiction. since by definition they presume something other than what those elements contain. (39-40)

This line of thought is unconvincing, however. One giveaway is the phrase “by definition they presume something …”. We cannot learn something substantive about the nature of the world based on our definitions of “social facts” or our delineation of the “scope of sociology”. Further, what are these qualitatively and ontologically new properties of the social realm? Social facts are said to be objective, independent, and coercive. They are objective because they persist over time. They are independent, perhaps, because they do not depend on any one individual’s psychological content. And they are coercive because it is either impossible or inconvenient for individuals to reject them (for example, the conventions of money and debt). But these are peculiarly easy characteristics to explain in a microfoundational way — more so even than the physical chemistry of the properties of a metal alloy. Once it is established that one should not spit into his dinner napkin at a formal meal — a social fact — the social fact is enforced through the fact that his dinner companions share the aversion, they express their disgust at his behavior, and they take him off future dinner guest lists. The microfoundations for this social norm are straightforward.

Consider another important point stemming from his view in Rules of the education of children:

Moreover, this definition of a social fact can be verified by examining an experience that is characteristic. It is sufficient to observe how children are brought up. If one views the facts as they are and indeed as they have always been, it is patently obvious that all education consists of a continual effort to impose upon the child ways of seeing, thinking and acting which he himself would not have arrived at spontaneously. (Rules, 53)

This passage refers to exactly the feature of social actors that I refer to as being “socially constituted” in my formulation of methodological localism (link). Children are brought to instantiate the beliefs, practices, behaviors, and values of the adults around them, and they in turn become the vehicles for the “social facts” represented by those beliefs and practices in the next turn of the wheel. It is straightforward, then, to provide the microfoundations of the idea that “the rules of polite French Catholic behavior” represent an objective social fact external to the particular beliefs of the individuals of society; once individuals have learned these rules, they become coercive for other individuals in the future. But — contrary to Durkheim’s rhetoric at various points — there is no fundamental ontological separation between the “social fact of French politesse” and the psychological realities of French individuals. The individuals are shaped by their formative immersion in these rules as instantiated by their elders, and in turn go on to shape the behavior of others.

Durkheim is explicit in rejecting this microfoundational interpretation of social facats:

Thus it is not the fact that they are general which can serve to characterise sociological phenomena. Thoughts to be found in the consciousness of each individual and movements which are repe­ated by all individuals are not for this reason social facts. If some have been content with using this characteristic in order to define them it is because they have been confused, wrongly, with what might be termed their individual incarnations. What constitutes social facts are the beliefs, tendencies and practices of the group taken collectively. (54)

But this is a purely semantic point. Durkheim is insistent that French politesse is a social fact that is distinct from the psychological facts of French individuals because it is a feature of the ensemble taken collectively, not simply a conjunction of facts about individual psychology. It is what we might call a “category mistake” to confuse the two levels. 

We might say anachronistically that Durkheim would have emphatically rejected the picture of the social world involved in Coleman’s boat (link), and would also have rejected the idea that social statements require microfoundations. He might possibly have accepted ontological individualism (as the passage from the second preface suggests), but would have endorsed some kind of emergentism. Social characteristics are different in kind from individual psychological characteristics. But, as we have seen elsewhere, emergentism can be formulated in a weak and a strong version (link); and the strong version is fundamentally mysterious. The weak version maintains that higher-level properties are different from lower-level properties but can in principle be explained by the lower-level properties; the strong version denies that the higher-level properties can be explained by the lower-level properties at all. And this sounds very much like a sociological version of vitalism. Durkheim is not forced to defend strong emergentism.

In his substantive and insightful introduction to Rules Steven Lukes summarizes his own assessment of these issues in terms that still seem correct to me:

But the [holistic] view makes little sense as a positive methodological principle. Every macro-theory presupposes, whether implicitly or explicitly, a micro-theory to back; up its explanations: in Durkheim’s terms, social causes can only produce these, rather than those, social effects, if individuals act and react and interact in these ways rather than those. (17)

These arguments seem to lead to a pair of conclusions. First, Durkheim’s strenuous and repeated privileging of the independence of “social facts” should not be understood as a demonstration of the complete causal independence of social facts from individual representations; rather, his emphasis on this point seems to derive from his polemical goal of establishing sociology as an entirely independent science. But this is not a valid reason for drawing conclusions about ontology. Second, it is entirely possible to offer an account of the relationship between social-level and individual-level descriptions that joins them. Whether he would acknowledge the point or not, Durkheim’s social ontology does not provide any basis for believing that claims about causation at the social level cannot be instantiated through some account of the actions and representations of individual actors at a time and place. We can put the point more strongly: Durkheim’s sociology no less than Weber’s or Marx’s requires a theory of the micro-macro connection. Further, Durkheim sometimes appears to acknowledge this point (for example, in his treatment of education of children). Therefore Durkheim does not provide a basis — philosophical, theoretical, or empirical — for defending social holism.

Hobbes, Thucydides, and conflict

Anyone interested in the development of modern political philosophy is unavoidably interested in Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan and one of the earliest proponents of what came to be known as the “social contract tradition” of thinking about the moral legitimacy of state power. (Here is a post on Hobbes’s intellectual development; link. And here is a post on Hobbes’s framework for thinking about human society; link.) Hobbes’s political philosophy depends on a theory of human nature — how do human beings behave when they’re at home? — and a theory of the consequences of bringing a group of individuals with that kind of nature together. But it is worth asking the question: where did Hobbes’s ideas about human nature as fearful, calculating, and self-interested originate? And it is very interesting to note that Hobbes’s experiences as a young man involved quite a bit of practical experience and international exposure. (For example, it is likely that he met Galileo in Florence in 1630 while accompanying Sir Gervase Clifton on a trip to Italy.) So the potential influences on Hobbes’s foundational ideas are quite broad.

In this light it is interesting to reflect upon the fact that Hobbes translated Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War as a young scholar in 1629, at the age of 41. And some aspects of Thucydides’ treatment of the war between Athens and Sparta have suggestive features in common with some of Hobbes’s later ideas. For example, the position taken by the Athenian delegates in the Melian Dialogue — a crucial moment in the history of the war between Athens and Sparta — is similar to the rule of the strong over the weak in Hobbes’s description of the state of nature in Leviathan (1651). Was Hobbes influenced by this dialogue — and the underlying Hellenistic conception of “international justice” — in the formation of his own theory of the modern state? And did this view of the logic of expediency and the absence of moral limitation produce his most basic intuitions about the war of all against all?

Here is the relevant passage from the Melian Dialogue from Thucydides in Richard Crawley’s translation:

Athenians. For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences—either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us—and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. (Book V, chapter XVII)

Here is Hobbes’s translation of the same passage (link):

Ath. As we therefore will not, for our parts, with fair pretences; as, that having defeated the Medes, our reign is therefore lawful, or, that we come against you for injury done; make a long discourse without being believed: so would we have you also not expect to prevail by saying, either that you therefore took not our parts because you were a colony of the Lacedæmonians, or that you have done us no injury. But out of those things which we both of us do really think, let us go through with that which is feasible; both you and we knowing, that in human disputation justice is then only agreed on when the necessity is equal; whereas they that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get. (Book V, sect. 89)

Now compare a few sentences about the individuals in the state of nature from Leviathan:

And from this diffidence of one another, there is no way for any man to secure himselfe, so reasonable, as Anticipation; that is, by force, or wiles, to master the persons of all men he can, so long, till he see no other power great enough to endanger him: And this is no more than his own conservation requireth, and is generally allowed. Also because there be some, that taking pleasure in contemplating their own power in the acts of conquest, which they pursue farther than their security requires; if others, that otherwise would be glad to be at ease within modest bounds, should not by invasion increase their power, they would not be able, long time, by standing only on their defence, to subsist. And by consequence, such augmentation of dominion over men, being necessary to a mans conservation, it ought to be allowed him. (Leviathan, Chapter XIII)

In each case the position is formulated in terms of the rational calculations of individuals involved in conflict, and the sole basis of reasoning is self-interest. Moral constraints have no purchase in these circumstances. The question arises, then: did Hobbes have the. moral worldview of Thucydides in mind as he formulated the chief arguments in Leviathan?

This question has been considered before. In a very interesting 1945 article Richard Schlatter noted the parallels between Thucydides and Hobbes (link). The year of publication of Schlatter’s article is significant; the horrors of the twentieth century were surely still fresh in the minds of European and American intellectuals.

The idea of an unchanging human nature, the constant element in history, the common denominator which enables the historian to compare one event with another and construct a formula or pattern which is intelligible and useful, was a basic assumption of the science of history as Thucydides expounded it. Hobbes devotes the first third of the Leviathan to a detailed description of human nature which served as the foundation for his political philosophy. (357)

In the preface “Of the Life and History of Thucydides” Hobbes expresses his approval of the Athenian generals at Melos who refused to discuss the justice of their invasion–as soldiers their proper function was to carry out the will of the Athenian State by fair means or foul. As to whether the action of the state was just in this case, Hobbes puts aside the question with the observation that it “was not unlike to divers other actions that the people of Athens openly took upon them.” (358)

Thus it appears that Hobbes’ reading of Thucydides confirmed for him, or perhaps crystallized for him, the broad outlines and many of the details of his own thought. As an individual, he was said to have read little but to have digested thoroughly what he did read. As a translator, he was working in a great tradition which assumed that classical history was to be read as a preparation for political action. When he turned to Thucydides–perhaps at the suggestion of Francis Bacon–he had been meditating on political affairs for some time. (362)

So Hobbes generally agrees with the moral position taken by Thucydides on the actions of the Athenians. However, Schlatter believes that this represents evidence of agreement rather than influence. 

At a slightly more general level, it is clear that Hobbes was a creative and imaginative thinker. It is reasonable enough to expect that his philosophical framework was to some extent influenced by his immersion in Thucydides; but it is also well established that he conceived of his philosophical methods in analogy with the scientific ideas of Galileo as expressed in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World. There were many influences on the development of Hobbes’s theories. So perhaps the most we can say, along with Sir Isaac Newton, is that great thinkers “stand on the shoulders of giants”. Nonetheless, the parallel between Hobbes and Thucydides is striking and interesting.

*     *     *

Also interesting is a recent article by Robert Howse, “Thucydides and Just War: How to Begin to Read Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars”link. Here is his abstract:

Thucydides is usually considered a realist thinker who denies a meaningful place to right or justice in international relations. In Just and Unjust Wars, however, Michael Walzer develops a powerful critique of realism through an engagement with Thucydides. This article compares Walzer’s treatment with Leo Strauss’s anti-realist interpretation of Thucydides, suggesting many similarities between Walzer’s approach and Strauss’s. Both Walzer and Strauss hold that, even in war, necessity does not eliminate meaningful margins of moral choice. Strauss’s  much more expansive treatment of Thucydides helps us appreciate the subtleties of Walzer’s terse argument against realists.

Grand Hotel Abyss

Georg Lukács in 1962 used the colorful image of a fictional “Grand Hotel Abyss” to express his disappointment in the theorists of the Frankfurt School. Here is a passage in which the idea is described in “Preface to the Theory of the Novel” (link):

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’ which I described in connection with my critique of Schopenhauer as ‘a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.’ (The fact that Ernst Bloch continued undeterred to cling to his synthesis of ‘left’ ethics and ‘right’ epistemology (e.g. cf. Frankfurt 1961) does honour to his strength of character but cannot modify the outdated nature of his theoretical position. To the extent that an authentic, fruitful and progressive opposition is really stirring in the Western world (including the Federal Republic), this opposition no longer has anything to do with the coupling of ‘left’ ethics with ‘right’ epistemology.)

The thinkers of the Frankfurt School — Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas, Benjamin, Wellmer, Marcuse — were for Lukács too much devoted to theorizing capitalism and barbarism and too little about changing it. They were like imagined world-weary residents in the Grand Hotel Abyss, observing the unfolding catastrophe but doing nothing to intervene to stop it. They were about theory, not praxis.

Stuart Jeffries uses this trope as the organizing theme of his group biography of these figures in Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, and, in a word, he finds that Lukács’s critique is unfounded.

Jeffries emphasizes the common social origins of these boundary-breaking critics of capitalism. The book is detailed and insightful. Jeffries emphasizes the common social and cultural origins of almost all these men — German, Jewish, bourgeois, affluent — and the common threads of their criticism of the capitalism and consumerism that surrounded them in the early and middle twentieth century. The central question of how it came to pass that ordinary people in cultured, philosophically rich Germany came to support the Nazi rise to power was of vital concern to all of them. But consumerism, authoritarianism, and the suffering both created by and hidden by capitalism are also in the center stage.

The book is primarily about ideas and debates, not the particulars of personal biography. Jeffries does an impressive job of walking readers through the debates that swirled within and across the Frankfurt School — is capitalism doomed? Are workers inherently revolutionary? Is art part of the support system for capitalism? Is Marxism scientific or dialectical? Jeffries does an exceptional and fascinating job of telling this complex story of intellectual history and social criticism.

A particularly important innovation within the intellectual tradition of critical theory was the pointed critique these theorists offered of mass culture. Unlike orthodox Marxists who gave primary emphasis to the workings of the forces and relations of production — economics — the critical theorists took very seriously the powerful role played within advanced capitalism by mass culture, film, media, and television. (The publication in 1927 of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 appears to have been an important impetus to much of the theorizing of the Frankfurt School.) Here is one example of the social criticism of Hollywood offered by Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment:

Consider, for instance, Donald Duck. Once, such cartoon characters were ‘exponents of fantasy as opposed to rationalism’, wrote Adorno and Horkheimer. Now they had become instruments of social domination. ‘They hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous friction, the breaking down of all individual resistance, is the condition of life in this society. Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment.’ (225)

So what is a more progressive role for works of art and culture to play in a society embodying serious social exploitation and domination? One work that was important point of consideration for several theorists was the Brecht and Weill opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany. Adorno and others regarded this work as one that gave appropriate and unblinking attention to the suffering of the modern social order.

Brecht’s libretto, too, sought to make it clear that the bourgeois world was absurd and anarchic. ‘In order to represent this convincingly’, wrote Adorno of the dramatisation of the bourgeois world as absurd and anarchic, ‘it is necessary to transcend the closed world of bourgeois consciousness which considers bourgeois social reality to be immutable. Outside of this framework, however, there is no position to take – at least for the German consciousness, there is no site which is non-capitalist.’ This was to become one great theme of critical theory: there is no outside, not in today’s utterly rationalised, totally reified, commodity-fetishising world. When Marx wrote Capital in the mid nineteenth century, the more primitive capitalist system he was diagnosing made commodity fetishism merely episodic; now it was everywhere, poisoning everything. ‘Paradoxically, therefore’, Adorno added, ‘transcendence must take place within the framework of that which is.’ Brecht’s assault on capitalist society in Mahoganny was then paradoxically both from within and from without at the same time, both immanent and transcendent. (132)

Jeffries also provides a fascinating and extended discussion of the deep interactions that occurred between Thomas Mann and Adorno in Los Angeles as Mann worked at completing Doctor Faustus. Mann wanted Adorno’s expert advice about modern music, and Adorno obliged. Jeffries argues that Adorno had a substantive effect on the novel:

Arguably, the finished novel reflects Adorno’s melancholic philosophy more profoundly than Mann’s. This is not to suggest plagiarism: as Adorno wrote in 1957, the insinuation that Mann made illegitimate use of his ‘intellectual property’ is absurd. The underlying aesthetic philosophy of the novel goes beyond the binary opposition between the Apollonian and Dionysian, between the orderly and the ecstatic, that Nietzsche set out in The Birth of Tragedy and to which Mann repeatedly appealed in his fiction… During the collaboration with Adorno, however, Mann set aside his original, Dionysian conception of the composer and as a result Leverkühn became something much more interesting –a figure who dramatised something of the Frankfurt School’s, and in particular Adorno’s, distinctive contribution to the philosophy of art. (243)

And what about fascism? This was a central thrust of Frankfurt School research, and opinion was divided about the causes of the rise of Nazism in Germany among the Frankfurt School theorists. But here is an interpretation that seems particularly relevant in 2016 in the United States, given the pageantry of political rallies and the slogans about making America great again:

Fascism was, as a result, a paradox, being both ancient and modern: more precisely it was a system that used a tradition hostile to capitalism for the preservation of capitalism. For Bloch, as for Walter Benjamin, fascism was a cultural synthesis that contained both anti-capitalist and utopian aspects. The Frankfurt School failed to emphasise in its analysis of fascism what Benjamin called the ‘aestheticisation of politics’. It fell to Benjamin, Bloch and Siegfried Kracauer to reflect on the Nazi deployment of myths, symbols, parades and demonstrations to command support. (250)

The chapter on Habermas is also very good and can be read separately as an introduction to Habermas’s leading ideas (chapter 17). It is significant that this final voice of the Frankfurt School should be one that provides a basis for greater optimism about the prospects for modern democracy than what emerges from the Dialectic of Enlightenment.

The perspectives of the Frankfurt School were developed in the context of crises of capitalism, fascism, and anti-semitism in the 1930s. But these theories are once again deeply relevant in the context of the politics of 2016. A xenophobic, divisive candidate and party have assumed the reins of power in a populous democracy. The issues of propaganda and unapologetic political lies are before us once again. The politics of hate and intolerance have taken center stage. And the role of culture, media, and now the internet needs to be examined carefully for its dependence upon the corporate order as well as its possible potency as a mechanism of resistance. The Frankfurt School thinkers had important insights into virtually all these questions. Jeffries’ very interesting intellectual history of the movement is timely.

Jeffries quotes from a letter from Adorno to Mann on the aftermath of Nazism in Germany with observations that may be relevant to us today as well:

The inarticulate character of apolitical conviction, the readiness to submit to every manifestation of actual powers, the instant accommodation to whatever new situation emerges, all this is merely an aspect of the same regression. If it is true that the manipulative control of the masses always brings about a regressive formation of humanity, and if Hitler’s drive for power essentially involved the relationship of this development ‘at a single stroke’, we can only say that he, and the collapse that followed, has succeeded in producing the required infantilisation. (273)

These are words that may be important in the coming years, if the incoming government succeeds in carrying out many of its hateful promises. And how will the institutions of media and culture respond? Let us not be infantilized in the years to come when it comes to the fundamental values of democracy.

French sociology


Is sociology as a discipline different in France than in Germany or Britain? Or do common facts about the social world entail that sociology is everywhere the same?

The social sciences feel different from physics or mathematics, in that their development seems much more path-dependent and contingent. The problems selected, the theoretical resources deployed, the modes of evidence considered most relevant — all these considerations have to be specified; and they have been specified differently in different times and places. An earlier post considered the arc of sociology in France (link).

Johan Heilbron’s French Sociology has now appeared, and it is a serious effort to make sense of the tradition of sociology as it developed in France. (Jean-Louis Fabiani’s Qu’est-ce qu’un philosophe français? provides a similar treatment of philosophy in France; link.) Heilbron approaches this topic from the point of view of historical sociology; he wants to write a historical sociology of the discipline of sociology.

For this historical-sociological view I have adopted a long-term perspective in order to uncover patterns of continuity and change that would have otherwise remained hidden. Several aspects of contemporary French sociology—its position in the Faculty of Letters, for example—can be understood only by going back in time much further than is commonly done. (2)

Understanding ideas is not merely about concepts, theories, and assumptions—however important they are—it simultaneously raises issues about how such ideas come into being, how they are mobilized in research and other intellectual enterprises, and how they have, or have not, spread beyond the immediate circle of producers. Understanding intellectual products, to put it simply and straightforwardly, cannot be divorced from understanding their producers and the conditions of production. (3)

Heilbron traces the roots of sociological thinking to the Enlightenment in France, with the intellectual ethos that any question could be considered scientifically and rationally.

If the Enlightenment has been seen as a formative period for the social sciences, it was fundamentally because a secular intelligentsia now explicitly claimed and effectively exercised the right to analyze any subject matter, however controversial, independently of official doctrines. (13)

This gives an intellectual framework to the development of sociology; but for Heilbron the specifics of institutions and networks are key for understanding the particular pathway that the discipline underwent. Heilbron identifies the establishment after the Revolution of national academies for natural science, human science, and literature as an important moment in the development of the social sciences: “The national Académie des sciences morales et politiques (1832) became the official center for moral and political studies under the constitutional regime of the July monarchy” (14). In fact, Heilbron argues that the disciplines of the social sciences in France took shape as a result of a dynamic competition between the Academy and the universities. Much of the work of the Academy during mid-nineteenth century was directed towards social policy and the “social question” — the impoverished conditions of the lower classes and the attendant risk of social unrest. There was the idea that the emerging social sciences could guide the formation of intelligent and effective policies by the state (20).

Another major impetus to the growth of the social sciences was the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. This national trauma gave a stimulus top the enhancement of university-based disciplines. The case was made (by Emile Zola, for example) that France was defeated because Prussia had the advantage in science and education; therefore France needed to reform and expand its educational system and research universities.

Disciplinary social science now became the predominant mode of teaching, research, and publishing. University-based disciplines gained a greater degree of autonomy not only with respect to the national Academy but also vis-à-vis governmental agencies and lay audiences. Establishing professional autonomy in its different guises—conceptually, socially, and institutionally—was the main preoccupation of the representatives of the university-based disciplines. (30)

Heilbron pays attention to the scientific institutions through which the social sciences developed in the early twentieth century. Durkheim’s success in providing orientation to the development of sociology during its formative period in the early twentieth century rested in some part on Durkheim’s ability to create and sustain some of those institutions, including especially the L’Année sociologique. Here is Heilbron’s summary of this fact:

Because the Durkheimian program eclipsed that of its competitors and obtained considerable intellectual recognition, sociology in France did not enter the university as a science of “leftovers,” as Albion Small said about American sociology. Durkheimian sociology, quite the contrary, represented a challenging and rigorous program to scientifically study crucial questions about morality, religion, and other collective representations, their historical evolution and institutional underpinnings. (90)

Here is a graph of the relationships among a number of the primary contributors to L’Année sociologique during 1898-1912:


But Heilbron notes that this influence in the institutions of publication in the discipline of sociology did not translate directly or immediately into a primary location for the Durkheimians within the developing university system.

Heilbron’s narrative confirms a break in the development of sociology at the end of World War II. And in fact, it seems to be true that sociology became a different discipline in France after 1950. Here is how Heilbron characterizes the intellectual field:

Sociological work after 1945 was caught up in a constellation that was defined by two antagonistic poles: an intellectual pole represented by existentialist philosophers who dominated the intellectual and much of the academic field and a policy-related research pole in state institutes for statistical, economic, and demographic studies. (123-124)

An important part of the growth of sociology in France in this period was stimulated by practical needs of policy reform and economic reorganization. It was in part because of a lack of intellectual status that the demand for applied research came to fulfill a new function for the social sciences. The growth of applied social science research was produced by the needs of economic recovery and the new role of the state in that respect. (129)

But academic sociology did not progress rapidly:

In the postwar academic structure, sociology was still a rather marginal phenomenon, a discipline with little prestige that was institutionally no more than a minor for philosophy undergraduates. The leading academics were the two professors at the Sorbonne, Georges Davy and Georges Gurvitch, each of whom presided over his own journal. Davy had succeeded Halbwachs in 1944 and resumed the publication of the

Année sociologique

, assisted by the last survivors of the Durkheimian network. (130)

Assessing the situation in 1955, Alain Touraine observed a near-total separation between university sociology and empirical research. Researchers were isolated, he wrote, and they lacked solid training, research experience, and professional prospects. Their working conditions, furthermore, were poor. The CES had only three study rooms for almost forty researchers and neither the CES nor the CNRS provided research funding. (139)

On Heilbron’s account, the large changes in sociology began to accelerate in the 1970s. Figures like Touraine, Bourdieu, Crozier, and Boudon brought substantially new thinking to both theoretical ideas and research problems for sociology. In a later post I will consider his treatment of this period in the development of the discipline.
(Here is an earlier post discussing Gabriel Abend’s ideas about differences in the discipline of sociology across the world; link.)

Domain of the social sciences


Is the domain of “all social phenomena” a valid subject for scientific study? Is there a place for a purely general sociology, designed to be a theory of the social everything? Sociologists from Comte to Parsons have sometimes put forward this idea, and James Coleman pursued something like this in Foundations of Social Theory. But upon reflection, this seems like the wrong way of thinking about the social world.

Instead, the social world consists of a hodge-podge of actions, rules, organizations, motives, and the like, at a wide range of scales (link, link). A key task for social scientists is to segment social phenomena into related groups of actions or entities, with a scientific goal of making sense of how these various kinds of stuff work. So social scientists should permit themselves to be eclectic and specialized, identifying sub-domains of interest and uncovering the mechanisms and processes that are at work in this area of social life.

These considerations make it understandable that social research focuses on specific groups of social phenomena like these — contention, organizations, racial discrimination, norm systems, market behavior, voting behavior, families, delinquency, …. These are all selected groups of social action and structures, similar enough to admit of a condensed description of what unifies them and plausibly explained by a similar set of causal mechanisms and processes. This provides a logic to the separation of the discipline of sociology into a large number of sub-disciplines; as of last count the American Sociological Association encompassed 52 sections, each organized around a set of research topics and methods (link).

Consider a possible analogy. Suppose we have just arrived on planet Earth and have noticed that we are surrounded by noises, and we want to understand this blooming, buzzing confusion. More exactly, we “hear” a wide range of phenomena with qualitative properties through our auditory sensory systems. And suppose we wanted to formulate a science of sound. How would we proceed?

We wouldn’t begin, most likely, by collecting and cataloging the sounds that we perceive — birds tweeting, jets roaring, children singing, elephants rumbling, … No, we would begin by trying to determine what “sound” is (what the physical phenomenon is that underlies the phenomenology of sound through our hearing system). We will answer that question fairly quickly — “sound is the result of vibrations in a medium in a certain range of frequencies, conveyed through a medium that extends from the vibrating object to the sensory detectors in our inner ears.” And then the vast majority of sounds will be disregarded as scientifically uninteresting. The essentials have been identified: a source of vibration and a medium of transmission. More interesting will be the anomalies — harmonics, differential speeds of propagation, echoes, Doppler effect, … And we will be interested in the non-obvious mechanisms of sound production and transmission.

I’m not really interested in sounds, but rather in social phenomena. But there is a possible analogy here. The social world that we observe presents a bewildering variety of social phenomena. Where should we start in formulating a science of society? Perhaps the clue from acoustics and sound is this: we can ignore much of the phenomena, identify the surprising bits, and look for the mechanisms that underlie this surprising outcome or that. It is the fact of patterns and recurring surprises that will be of primary scientific interest.

There is a unifying feature of all sound phenomena — vibrations in a medium. And likewise, there is a unifying feature of all social phenomena — real human beings interacting with each other on the basis of their own mental maps of the world around them and conceptions of where they are trying to go, subject to constraints created by the natural environment and the behaviors and practices of individuals around them. But the real substance of research in both fields takes place at a more refined level, in which researchers seek to identify mechanisms and explanations for apparently anomalous outcomes.

What this thought experiment suggests is that we should not think of the subject matter of social science as the domain of all social action and social phenomena. Rather, much of what we observe in social life can be put in the category of noise, best filtered out as we focus our attention on surprising outcomes and mechanisms that permit of substantial illumination and explanation. The real subject matter is various bundles of related phenomena where we have succeeded in finding some important structural similarities and some relevantly similar causal mechanisms.

And we shouldn’t hold out the chimera of a unified social theory that explains all social phenomena — whether rational choice theory, world systems theory, or psychoanalysis.

*              *              *

This is the conclusion that I am inclined to support. But there is a different way of taking this analogy which comes back to giving greater support to James Coleman’s aspirations in Foundations of Social Theory. If it is agreed that there is a unifying feature underlying all social behavior —

real human beings interacting with each other on the basis of their own mental maps of the world around them and conceptions of where they are trying to go, subject to constraints created by the natural environment and the behaviors and practices of individuals around them

— then we might argue after all that “general sociology” is possible after all. It would consist of (a) discovery of the premises that govern the actors, (b) exploration of the most important ways in which actors interact, and (c) exploration of some of the specific boundary conditions within which (a) and (b) play out in the actual social world. Much of the variation represented in the list of the sections of the ASA above takes the form of enumeration of special cases in category (c). But the general science of sociology is contained in (a) and (b).

This gloss on the story also conforms to some extent to the science of acoustics: a common set of principles defining the physics and mathematics of the production and propagation of vibration through a medium, and a set of special cases where these principles produce odd results.

*           *            *

These contradictory conclusions point to a central tension within sociological theory between greater generalization and greater attention to context and variation. (This tension is highlighted in the recent post on Peggy Somers’ rebuttal to Kiser and Hechter; link.) But I’m forced to acknowledge that this is also a tension in my philosophy of social science as well. The question of the availability of general theories in sociology relates to my own advocacy for the idea of methodological localism — the idea that all social phenomena derive from the actions and thoughts of locally situated and locally constructed individual actors in proximate relations to other actors. “The “molecule” of all social life is the socially constructed and socially situated individual, who lives, acts, and develops within a set of local social relationships, institutions, norms, and rules” (link). But this formulation seems to leave it open that we might aspire to having general theories of the actor that permit us to explain social outcomes in terms of the features of action that are identified. And that seems to be the program that Coleman is exploring in Foundations.

The big ideas

image: Luten Baher, Musician

The deluge of changes that shook Europe around 1800 — the making of the modern world — brought with them an explosion of big new ideas, new ways of framing the social, historical, and natural world which we inhabit. Darwin, Freud, Marx, Walras, Carnot, Poincaré, Einstein — each brought forward one or two foundational and iconoclastic ideas in terms of which to understand some very profound but mysterious features of the world. We think about the world differently because of their originality. And their categories, once shockingly strange, now seem like pure common sense. And the stock of ideas and theories we now have for understanding the social and natural world is vastly richer than it was in earlier epochs.

One theme that runs through these thinkers is the binary of order and disorder, rule and randomness. Classical physics offered a view of the world that stressed the fundamental orderliness of nature — the idea that natural phenomena were mathematical and law-governed. Much of the intellectual ferment in nineteenth century and early twentieth century physics stemmed from the insight that randomness and the statistical properties of ensembles were even more basic (Carnot, thermodynamics; Brownian motion) and that the laws of physics were stranger than we thought (Poincaré on non-Euclidean space, Einstein on special relativity, Schrödinger on quantum physics). (Peter Galison’s fascinating book, Einstein’s Clocks and Poincare’s Maps: Empires of Time, sheds light on the conceptual revolutions of Poincaré and Einstein.)

In a similar vein, Darwin brought the workings of random variation within a population into center stage in biology. Instead of species with fixed properties, Darwin described a process of evolution through which the properties of a species change over very long stretches of time. Rather than assuming that the features of an organism have been fine-tuned by an intelligent designer, Darwin conceived of a myopic process of adaptation and selection through which functionality could emerge without a designer. (Jonathan Howard’s Darwin: A Very Short Introduction is a good account of Darwin’s innovation.)

Freud and Marx brought a different sort of paradigm shift to the human sciences. Human behavior is not a transparent consequence of instrumental rationality. Rationality and full self-knowledge are not the primary keys to human action. Instead, people have hidden and only partially available thoughts, aversions, and wants, and it is the work of psychoanalysis to uncover these hidden ideas and thoughts. The self is contradictory and hidden to the actor. (Here is a nice essay by Donald Carveth on the relevance of psychoanalysis for social theory; link.)

And Marx disputed the assumptions of collective rationality and optimality that were embodied in the political economy inspired by Smith and Ricardo — the idea that a person-independent market served to solve the most basic social problems behind the backs of the actors. In place of this assumption of neutral impersonality Marx argued that modern society reflects a fundamental opposition between groups of people based on their property and economic interests. And he argued that the behavior of the state and its primary institutions could best be understood as the expression of the interests of the dominant class. (Two very different accounts of Marx’s intellectual system include Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx and David Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s Capital.)

These are indeed big and important ideas. We understand the real workings of the natural and social worlds better because of these revolutions in thought. We can ask two important questions. First, why did the modern world — industrial revolution, democratic movements, revolutions in physics and biology — stimulate such a rich flourishing of innovation and insight, as contrasted to the ancient world or the medieval world?

The beginnings of an answer to this question can be found in the velocity and manifest importance of the changes that western Europe began to experience from 1750 forward — the French Revolution, the advent of the factory system in England, the spread of revolutionary ideas from anarchists and socialists into popular movements, and other profound changes. Thomas Carlyle was one of the creative thinkers who was forced to find a new vocabulary to describe industrial cities and factories in the early nineteenth century (Past and Present); these social complexes barely existed in the previous century.

The second important question is even more interesting — where are those new ideas today? Has the twenty-first century yet created any genuinely new thinking to compare with the nineteenth century period of intellectual ferment?

I am tempted to answer this second question in the negative. We have witnessed enormous technological advancement in the past fifty years. Who, in 1964, could have imagined the connectivity created by the Internet and Google, or the extension of human cognition enabled by a connected iPad? But have we encountered genuinely innovative and insightful new ways of organizing our world in thought, about either nature or society? Perhaps not. The social sciences have certainly advanced in the half century of research that has transpired since 1964; but I’m not sure that I would say that there are fundamentally new conceptions of social reality in play. (Perhaps the ontology of assemblage might compete for a spot on the stage; link.) It seems rather that our frameworks of thought have remained somewhat static for the past fifty years.

It is possible that we should not expect big ideas at this point in our history, on the grounds that we now have a reasonably good understanding of both the natural and the social world. If we made that assumption, then we should expect long periods of incremental growth, expansion of knowledge of detail, along with combination and recombination of existing theories and concepts, but no major new breakthroughs.

There will be objections to this line of thought. One is that earlier epochs may have been more innovative and paradigm-breaking than I suggest. Stephen Greenblatt’s recent book on Epicurus and Lucretius certainly makes a case for profound intellectual innovation in the ancient world (The Swerve: How the World Became Modern; link). So it is possible that the impression of radical intellectual change starting in the nineteenth century is just a consequence of the foreshortening of history; perhaps the ancients were as resourceful and creative in their thinking as the moderns were.

Another objection is that each of the thinkers I have mentioned had predecessors, including Darwin’s contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace and the many versions of socialism that competed with Marx. Was Marx so innovative after all, when compared to Proudhon or Blanqui? So one should not over-emphasize the point of absolute originality. But taking all of this into account, it seems inescapable that human conceptual and imagination space took a major step forward between 1850 and 1925. And, by contrast, the past fifty or seventy-five years seem rather tame when it comes to big ideas.

What thoughts do readers have about genuine innovations in thought in the past fifty years, especially in the social and historical sciences? Are there intellectual or conceptual discoveries that strike you as being genuinely transformative to the way we understand the contemporary world?

(T. J. Clark makes a number of interesting points about the influence of modern social change on the representational arts in Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism. In an earlier post I discussed the connections that seem to exist between social conditions of modernity and the forms that modern art took during those decades; link.)

Lincoln and Marx

Robin Blackburn has assembled a fascinating book drawing out some surprising connections between Abraham Lincoln and Karl Marx, An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln. Since both thinkers are highly original in their thinking about the worlds they inhabited, I’ve found the book to be absorbing. It consists of a brilliant hundred-page historical essay by Blackburn that draws out the themes in political theory that were of concern to both thinkers and demonstrates some surprising parallels. The book then provides several relevant speeches by Lincoln, several pieces of journalism by Marx about slavery and the American Civil War, letters by Marx including the centerpiece, a letter from Marx to Lincoln on behalf of the International Workingmen’s Association; and several miscellaneous short articles by other people about Marx and Lincoln.

Blackburn is the perfect person to do this work. He is a recognized expert on Marx’s thought, and he is also an expert on the history of New World slavery. (The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery: 1776-1848). So he is unusually well prepared to draw out the connections between the ideas of Marx and Lincoln on the topics of the Civil War, slavery, and economic competition between the North and the South. He also offers a very interesting analysis of the impact that the large immigration of German workers had on the politics of the North in the twelve years before the Civil War. Here is one illustrative incident:

As the Civil War unfolded, German Americans and their overseas friends furnished vital support to the Northern cause. At the outbreak of the war, a German American militia in St. Louis played a key role in preventing Missouri’s governor from delivering the state–and the city’s huge arsenal–into Confederate hands. [Marx’s friend] Wedemeyer became a colonel, served as a staff officer in St. Louis for General John Frémont, and was put in charge of the city’s defenses. (25)

The International Workingmen’s Association itself came to have a substantial presence in the United States and brought with it a political agenda advocating racial and gender emancipation. After the suppression of the Paris Commune the headquarters of the IWA was moved to New York, and there were dozens of IWA sections in large Northern cities.

The IWA mustered a demonstration of 70,000 or more in New York in December 1871 to pay tribute to the Commune’s tens of thousands of martyrs. The parade brought together the Skidmore Guards (a black militia), the female leadership of Section 12 (Woodhull and Claflin), an Irish band, a range of trade unions, supporters of Cuba’s fight for independence marching under the Cuban flag, and a broad spectrum of socialist, feminist, Radical, and Reform politics. (77)

source: Robin Blackburn, An Unfinished Revolution, p. 99

The 1864 letter from Marx to Lincoln is on the occasion of Lincoln’s re-election as President. The thrust of the letter is to express support for Lincoln in the effort to end slavery in the United States. Here is the closing paragraph of the letter:

The workingmen of Europe feel sure that as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American antislavery war will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come, that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world. (212)

A reply to this letter was received through the intermediary of Charles Francis Adams, United States Ambassador to Britain. The key lines of the reply are these:

[The government of the United States] strives to do equal and exact justice to all states and to all men, and it relies upon the beneficial results of that effort for support at home and for respect and goodwill throughout the world. Nations do not exist for themselves alone, but to promote the welfare and happiness of mankind by benevolent intercourse and example. It is in this relation that the United States regard their cause in the present conflict with slavery-maintaining insurgents as the cause of human nature, and they derive new encouragement to persevere from the testimony of the workingmen of Europe that the national attitude is favored with their enlightened approval and earnest sympathies. (214)

About one month following the assassination of President Lincoln, Marx sent another letter to President Andrew Johnson, also on behalf of the International Workingmen’s Association. It contains a powerful elegy for the President and is perhaps the most moving prose to be found in Marx’s writings.

It is not our part to call words of sorrow and horror, while the heart of two worlds heaves with emotions. Even the sycophants who, year after year and day by day, stuck to their Sisyphus work of morally assassinating Abraham Lincoln and the great republic he headed stand now aghast at this universal outburst of popular feeling, and rival with each other to strew rhetorical flowers on his open grave. They have now at last found out that he was a man neither to be browbeaten by adversity nor intoxicated by success; inflexibly pressing on to his great goal, never compromising it by blind haste; slowly maturing his steps, never retracing them; carried away by no surge of popular favor, disheartened by no slackening of the popular pulse; tempering stern acts by the gleams of a kind heart; illuminating scenes dark with passion by the smile of humor; doing his titanic work as humbly and homely as heaven-born rulers do little things with the grandiloquence of pomp and state; in one word, one of the rare men who succeed in becoming great, without ceasing to be good. Such, indeed, was the modesty of this great and good man, that the world only discovered him a hero after he had fallen a martyr. (214-215)

The “Unfinished Revolution” in Blackburn’s title refers to the failure of two large forms of human emancipation in the United States following the Civil War that lay at the heart of the political philosophies of Marx and Lincoln — the full emancipation of African Americans as the descendants of slaves, and the creation of a broad workers’ movement that would successfully challenge the power of big business. “If the nonappearance of a US labor party marked a critical defeat for Karl Marx, the failure of the Republican Party to emerge from Reconstruction and its sequel as a party of bourgeois rectitude and reform registered a spectacular defeat for Lincoln’s hopes for his party and country” (96). And Blackburn closes his introduction with some speculation about how Marx might have acted had he himself have relocated to America (as Engels briefly visited New York and Boston in 1887).

Just as he saw the importance of the slavery issue at the start of the Civil War, so he would surely have focused on “winning the battle of democracy,” securing the basic rights of the producers — including the freedmen — in all sections as preparation for an ensuing social revolution…. Marx and Engels would have insisted that only the socialization of the great cartels and financial groups could enable the producers and their social allies to confront the challenges of modern society and to aspire to a society in which the free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all. (100)

The ideas that hold Marx and Lincoln together are emancipation and the basic dignity of the common working man and woman, and the vision of a society in which both freedom and dignity are possible for all.


Nelson Goodman on psychology

Nelson Goodman is best known within philosophy as an iconoclast within the logical empiricist tradition. He published Fact, Fiction and Forecast in 1954, offering a “new riddle of induction.” Goodman was deeply interested in the arts and he argued that artistic expression is on a par with other forms of assertion and representation — for example, in Languages of Art (1968). And his 1978 book, Ways of Worldmaking, cast doubt on the empiricist project of extracting concepts directly from experience. So Goodman was an important voice within American analytic philosophy. But he had a significant influence on me during my graduate studies in the context of a very different set of problems — the philosophy of psychology.

Goodman taught a course titled “Philosophical Problems in Psychology” at Harvard in 1971. The course contained material from the tradition of empiricist philosophy — Locke and Berkeley — as well as then-current research on cognition and representation by empirical psychologists. These included Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, T.G.R. Bower, Ray Birdwhistell, Paul Kolers, Michael Posner, and R. W. Sperry. Goodman was interested in how perception works — according to the philosophers and according to the psychologists. The guiding concern was this: what is the nature and origin of the conceptual systems through which human beings make sense of the world around them? The course began with an examination of the theories of perception and representation offered by Locke and Berkeley, beginning with the empiricists’ critique of innate ideas, and then proceeded to contemporary efforts to analyze the same processes in real human beings.

Some of the writings of Jean Piaget played a central role in the topics and discussions of this class, including The Construction Of Reality In The Child. Goodman was interested in Piaget’s efforts to chronicle the development of the child’s conceptual world — the formations through which the child makes sense of sensorimotor experience at various ages.

Another noteworthy component of the course was an extensive discussion of Paul Kolers’ work on motion perception eventually published in Aspects of Motion Perception (1972). (This research was published in 1971 as “Figural Change in Apparent Motion”; link.) The phenomenon that Kolers described was a flashing pair of images that oscillated between one geometrical figure and another. The images are stationary, but the visual impression is of a smoothly moving object that changes from one shape to the other. Goodman provided a detailed and perceptive analysis of the methods and assumptions that underlaid Kolers’ treatment of the phenomenon.

One idea that is pervasive throughout many of Goodman’s writings is the idea of conceptual relativism. This is the key contribution of Ways of Worldmaking. The idea comes up repeatedly in the 1971 course. Here is a paragraph taken from my notes from the course that captures a lot of Goodman’s own views about conceptual schemes:

Experience is always organized in one way or another. Moreover, not all ways of organizing are equally good; some work much better than others, some may be ineffectual; others may lead to internal inconsistencies. When one proves unsatisfactory, this leads to a reorganization. But doesn’t this require that there be a world out there to which our schemes conform? Yes and no; no because there is no unalterable way of looking at the world in which facts about the world are expressed; but yes, within any given system of organization there are true facts about the world to which other schemata must form. The important thing here is that there is no unique “structure of the world”…. Goodman calls his point of view “neutralism” or “conceptual pluralism”. (11/9/1971)

What is most impressive about this course is the fact that Goodman paid close attention to current work in psychology and the cognitive sciences. Goodman followed a philosophical method in this course that I continue to admire — the idea that philosophical reflections about an area of science can be valuable to the degree that they are closely connected to real research problems in that area of research. This approach leans against a primary focus on big issues — is behaviorism correct? Are there mental entities? — in favor of more specific questions within philosophical and psychological studies of perception.

What I now find most interesting about the design of this course is the underlying assumption that philosophers and empirical scientists can find common questions where their methodologies can fruitfully interact to shed greater light on the issues.  In this case, philosophers have a lot of questions about perception and conceptual schemes; and cognitive and developmental psychologists are doing experimental and theoretical work that sheds light on exactly these issues. Finding a common vocabulary is challenging for the two research traditions, but it seems clear that the collaboration can be highly fruitful.

(Here is an interesting collection that takes seriously some of Goodman’s strictures on conceptual systems from the point of view of problems in the social sciences: Mary Douglas and David Hull, eds., How Classification Works: Nelson Goodman Among the Social Sciences.) Alessandro Giovannelli’s article on Goodman in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is excellent; link. Here is an extensive bibliography of Goodman’s works; link.)

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