Did Rousseau have a sociology?

Political philosophers ask a small number of core questions: for example, what constitutes the moral basis of political authority?  How should the values of individual liberty and community wellbeing be balanced?  And we might imagine that the most insightful political philosophers work on the basis of an astute understanding of the social world.  Political philosophy, we might say, ought to be grounded in a good empirical understanding of how society works.  As Rousseau himself puts a similar point in the opening pages of “Considerations on the Government of Poland”:

Unless you are thoroughly familiar with the nation for which you are working, the labour done on its behalf, however excellent in theory, is bound to prove faulty in practice; especially when the nation in question is one which is already well-established, and whose tastes, customs, prejudices and vices are too deeply rooted to be readily crowded out by new plantings.

Rousseau had a distinctive political philosophy — but did he also have a sociology? What did he understand about how a society works? And why should we expect that a political philosopher might have something like a sociological theory of the society in which he/she lives? For that matter, what were some of the main characteristics of French and Swiss society in 1750?

Rousseau’s political philosophy is well known (link).  Rousseau’s conception of society in The Social Contract is grounded in a conception of the moral psychology of the individual and the constitutive relationship that exists between community and the individual.  Rousseau distinguished between the natural individual (motivated by direct natural emotions and desires, along the lines of Hobbes’s conception of the individual); and the moral individual (constituted by an understanding of his relation to other moral beings).  The former is outside of society; whereas the latter is integrally integrated within a set of social relationships.  Rousseau is a theorist of freedom.  But freedom has these same two aspects: natural freedom and moral freedom.  And his conception of social relationships is simple: there is sovereignty (the relations of the polity) and there is property (the relations of the economy).

What this philosophy does not provide is anything like an empirical understanding of real, concrete social life in Rousseau’s contemporary France or Switzerland: for example, the nature of the occupational segments of eighteenth-century French society, the ways in which the state exercises its power, the social practices of farming villages, or the ways in which wealth and power are accumulated by elites.  There is very little concrete empirical social detail in Rousseau’s writings.

The central models of social life that Rousseau possessed fall in a couple of categories:

  • stylized examples of social behavior — cooperation, for example
  • stylized examples of a legislative process (the constitution of Poland)
  • the romanticized example of the Greek polis
  • popular elite conceptions of the French court
  • stylized conception of the relation between the governed and the ruler; forms of government

So there is a political theory — a theory of different forms of the state — but not much of a theory of how social life works.  There is very little social description in Rousseau’s work.  The only institution he describes in any detail is the process of legislation.  And there are only infrequent instances of hypotheses about social processes — how social organizations work, for example.  So it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Rousseau did not have much of a sociological imagination or curiosity.  Unlike Tocqueville a century later, he was not a sociologist in the making.

We might expect sociological description in his A Discourse Upon the Origin and the Foundation Of The Inequality Among Mankind.  But this isn’t the case.  He refers to the creation of property and the consequent emergence of inequalities of wealth; but he doesn’t ask at all what the social processes are that preserve property.  And there is nothing historically specific about his descriptions of property, wealth, and inequality; they remain apriori and general.

What might we want from a sociology from an observer like Rousseau?  We would want a couple of fundamentals: an understanding of how power works in the contemporary society; an idea of how economic institutions work; an understanding of the major classes that exist in society — and the forms of life and forms of social relations that exist within these.  There is a descriptive aspect of this picture — what are the main social groups and processes?  And there is a theoretical part — how do these institutions work?  What are some of the causal processes that can be identified within society?

Moreover, we might say that a political philosophy is seriously hampered if it is not grounded in a fairly good understanding of how society works — how individuals behave in institutional settings, how organizations work, how public opinion and shared social values influence individuals.  Significantly, these are the sorts of concrete observations with which Tocqueville’s work is filled (link).

We also find much more of a sociological eye in the writings of novelists.  We get more of a descriptive sociology from many of the French novelists of the nineteenth century than is to be found anywhere in Rousseau.  Balzac, Zola, and Stendhal all devote extensive attention to the lives and ways of the various segments of French society — bourgeois, aristocrat, peasant, merchant, thief.

Robert Darnton describes a bit of sociological description in The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History in a fascinating chapter called “A Bourgeois Puts his World in Order: The City as a Text.”  The object of the chapter is a highly detailed description of Montpellier written during Rousseau’s lifetime.  Here is the opening paragraph of Darnton’s essay:

If the grim folklore of peasants and the violent rituals of artisans belong to a world that seems unthinkable today, we might expect to be able to think ourselves into the skin of an eighteenth-century bourgeois.  The opportunity arises thanks to another document, as extraordinary in its way as Contat’s account of the cat massacre: it is a description of Montpellier written in 1768 by an anonymous but solidly middle-class citizen of the city.  To be sure, the casual nonfiction of the eighteenth century was full of “descriptions,” guidebooks, almanacs, and amateur accounts of local monuments and celebrities.  What set our bourgeois apart from others who dealt in the genre was his obsession with completeness.

Rawls on Rousseau 1973, 1975

As noted in an earlier post, John Rawls delivered a fundamentally important course on the history of political philosophy at Harvard throughout much of his career. (See the earlier post for more about the course and for a set of notes on the section on Marx.) The 1973 course followed these main topics:

  1. The nature of political philosophy 
  2. Natural law and contract theory. [kinds of natural law doctrines; Locke’s account of political obligation; Hume’s critique of contract theory; Rousseau’s theory of the General Will] 
  3. The notion of the original position 
  4. Some principles of justice 
  5. J. S. Mill 
  6. Marx 

Readers of my post on Josh Cohen’s excellent recent book on Rousseau (Rousseau: A Free Community of Equals) may be interested in these course notes I took as a graduate student in Rawls’s course. Cohen points out how important Rawls’s lectures on this subject were for the formation of his own understanding of Rousseau. The notes are not detailed enough to give a full picture of Rawls’s interpretation of Rousseau; but they give an idea of the issues he highlighted as well as an indication of how he related Rousseau’s views to his own arguments in A Theory of Justice.

I attended the 1973 version of the course as a graduate student and served as a teaching assistant in the 1975 version of the course. So I have two sets of notes for most of the course, and it is interesting to compare them. (Here is a PDF document that presents the two sets of lectures side-by-side for easier comparison.)

Several things stand out upon reading both versions of the lectures. First is a very high degree of consistency between the two years. Rawls clearly worked from a very detailed lecture outline; the same topics occur in the same order, with the same breaking point between lecture 1 and lecture 2. Second, there is a great deal of consistency of content as well. Rawls’s explanations of the general will, the well-ordered society, the central problem of the social contract, and the role of unanimity and voting are essentially the same in the two series. Even a somewhat puzzling statement in 1973 — “The ‘system’ of the world has a general will; its object is the law of nature.” — recurs in 1975: “The law of nature is the general will of the universe.” Third, both series indicate Rawls’s interest in relating Rousseau’s ideas to his own constructions in A Theory of Justice.

Finally, the availability of two independent sets of notes from different years gives some basis for judging Rawls’s meaning at various points. For example, when Rawls asks, “What does the general will will?”, he answers “the public good” and “justice”. But Rousseau doesn’t write that “the general will wills justice”; so we have to ask what Rawls means by this. The fact that he repeats the assertion in both years indicates that he has something specific in mind. And it would appear that the connection in his mind proceeds through the idea of the well-ordered society (again, not a concept that Rousseau uses but one that is critical in Rawls’s own thinking).
A synthesis of Rawls’s lectures on the history of political philosophy over a number of years is provided in Samuel Freeman’s edition of Rawls’s lectures in Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy.

A core text for the course was Ernest Barker, ed., Social Contract: Essays by Locke, Hume, and Rousseau, which includes the full text of Rousseau’s Social Contract. Here is a link to the G. D. H. Cole translation of the Social Contract.

John Rawls, History of Political Philosophy, Phil 171, fall 1973 and 1975

[The following are notes taken by Daniel Little; they were intended to capture Rawls’s formulations of the main points presented in the lecture. Text in red is from the 1975 lectures, and text in black is from the 1973 lectures.]

[Quoting Rawls:]

Rousseau. If inequalities are between property owners and non-property owners, giving rise to political differences, it is hard to see that the have-nots have equal opportunity. Especially if the contract view allows for entrenching of privileged class and restricts equality of opportunity.

Like Locke, Rousseau offers a complex view. We will look at one aspect of the Social Contract, with an explicitly narrow approach. 

Rousseau, The Social Contract. The General Will. What is the general will the will of? Every association of people is held together by some common interest. (The “system” of the world has a general will; its object is the law of nature.) Within a political association each sub-association has a general will. This is a theory of associations as general-will-bearing agents. The general will is the general will of the political association. It is the will of the public person or body politic. When active, it is the will of the sovereign. An act of sovereignty is the declaration of the General Will. The general will is the will of the citizen — i.e. as a rational person not determined by his particularity.

The general will. Here is a question: what is it the will of? Every human association has a general will. As long as people identify themselves as belonging to a group having a common aim, the resulting group has a general will. The law of nature is the general will of the universe. If we think of factions within associations, each of them has a general will also; but this is a particular will with respect to the whole association. Normally an association has procedures for making up its collective mind. The general will is the general will of the association established by the Social Contract of the body politic. The declaration of the General Will is the act of sovereignty.

The general will is the will of each person qua member of the association. It is the will that each person would have if they were rational, undeceived, unbiased, undistracted by private interests. We can identify three selves: self as member of political community, self as member of sub-association, and self as private individual.

What does the general will will? The common good — i.e. the good of the public person, just as private will wills the private advantage. The general will wills justice (I.4.4 [ perhaps a reference to TJ I.4, “The Original Position and Justification”]). It wills the preservation of the whole and every part. In the social contract the person only alienates as much of his liberty as is necessary for the sovereign to rule.

Political economy (P114 [perhaps a reference to TJ V.41, “The Concept of Justice in Political Economy”]). The general will wills justice. The Original Position. To ascertain the general will, conditions lead each person to put himself in the place of all others. The general will is therefore the will of all, and applies to all. It must be general in purpose and nature: spring from all and apply to all.

The general will always extends to what is right (but it may be deceived or misinformed).

What does the general will will? It wills the common good, public interest, justice. The general will aims at the preservation and welfare of the whole and every part. This is related to the fact that in the social contract each alienates only so much of his liberty as relates to the community as a whole. This creates authority within limits. (2:4:3) The general will wills justice. It is the most just of wills. To be certain of following the general will it is enough to act justly. Why is the general will right even if not always enlightened? Happiness of everyone qua citizen is wished for by everyone.

In voting no one fails to take “each” to refer to himself. This proves a notion of rights derives from a predilection to oneself. (2:4:4) Qua rational citizens what we are to do is to adopt a certain general point of view. The general will wills justice from adopting the perspective of the citizen as citizen. 

By what acts does the general will act? It acts and expresses itself through enactments of basic laws — particularly through decrees that set up fundamental conventions. It can set up privileges, but it cannot decide who gets them by name. The object of the general will is general.

By what acts does the general will act? It acts in the form of general laws and enactments. These are enactments of a constitutional sort: basic legislative agreements; fundamental laws that regulate the form of a regime.

Book II, chapter iii (link). Institutional questions. Under what conditions is it likely that the general will will express itself? No large public interests affecting voting. No coalitions. A vote is a statement of opinion, not an expression of interest or desire. As a vote approaches unanimity it tends to come closer to the expression of the general will.

The original position is a way of articulating conditions for the expression of the general will. The book describes a well-ordered society.

Institutional expression of the general will. What each citizen would will if rational, etc. We want to work out what form of institutional expression would do this. Consider the contrast between the will of all vs. general will. Former: what everyone would will if their sectional or personal interests ruled. Optimal conditions for establishing the general will within an association:

  1. No large sectional interests which affect general deliberations, and personal interests cancel out and leave the vote unaffected. 2:3:1-2 
  2. No communication or mutual influence in deliberation. No coalitions. 2:3:2 
  3. Rules of order ensure that the question is perfectly put. What is most of interest of this political association? 
  4. Assurance that we get expression of the general will comes from unanimity or approximate unanimity. 
  5. Every vote has to be counted and no one is excluded. No classes are excluded by constitution. 
  6. People have to be reliably informed. 

The more these conditions are satisfied, the greater our assurance that the outcomes of votes is an expression of the general will. The more important and serious the matter, the greater the need for unanimity. The social contract must be unanimous.

[continued on second lecture]

Last time: What would the conditions have to be for an enactment to represent the general will?

The general will is the will of persons qua citizen. How are we to determine this will? (1) No large private interests should determine action; rather, many small interests which cancel out (II:iii). The notion of the original position is designed to represent the same idea.

One can view the society of the original contract as a description of a well-ordered society. [“A well-ordered society is one designed to advance the good of its members and effectively regulated by a public conception of justice” (TJ chap VIII, sect 69).] What are the characteristics of this view in Rousseau? The general will is not historical, but rather a sociological fact. The conditions of the general will must be expressed in institutional form. Rousseau’s society is a natural rights type of society.

What is the content of the general will? Rousseau doesn’t say in sufficient detail what the general will wills. He depends upon social institutions and education to bring about the general will, rather than trying to sketch it out a priori. But one would like at least to know what the general principles are which govern the general will.

Describing a well-ordered society: an association having some conception of the common good which has public institutional expression. Public conception of justice, as expressed in institutional enactments.

We can supplement Rousseau by trying to see what these principles might be. The principles must satisfy a mutual advantage condition. Rousseau doesn’t explore details, however.

What is Rousseau’s special contribution to contract theory? It is clear in Rousseau that the social contract is not historical; not a sequence of actual agreements, as Locke seems to suggest. Rather, it represents conditions on any well-ordered society.

The general will as an interest that exists in every citizen. It is the basis upon which people decide how to vote or what is in the common interest. It is Rousseau’s view that these conditions are realized and secure.

It is a natural rights view of some sort. Rousseau thinks of society as generating in people as they grow up a general will. That interest then determines their public reasoning. This leads them to act as the general will requires them to act, in conjunction with other interests. The society of the social contract is therefore stable. Rousseau does not discuss what the possible conceptions are of justice. Are they many or few?

Rousseau notes a hierarchy of interests: citizen qua citizen, citizen qua bourgeois, citizen qua individual. The object of the general will is the constitutional form, that of the particular is the individual’s own private goals. The higher interests regulate the lower ones. These interests need to be articulated. There is no contradiction between say willing as citizen to establish a law and say willing as individual to avoid the application of the law in my own case. Rawls’s four-stage sequence in Chapter 4 of A Theory of Justice is designed to provide much the same kind of articulation of interests.

Another notion in Rousseau is a hierarchy of interests. The self is not an aggregate of interests, but rather a structure. We have interests of different orders. Higher order interests are interests having other lower-order interests. E.g. an interest or desire not to have compulsive sensuous desires. To get rid of desire we might take specific actions. Higher order interests in some way regulate the growth of lower-order desires. How does Rousseau use this notion? The general will is the highest order desire. It is not necessarily the strongest; this is a logical characteristic rather than a measure of strength. Highest order desire is the most fundamental; it regulates all others.

We might now discuss Rousseau’s fundamental problem: how to find an institutional form which protects the interests of each with the weight of all and yet also leaves each autonomous and as free as before. We may interpret his solution in terms of justice. (1) Each person alienates himself totally and his rights to the whole community and the public conception of justice. This means everyone gives himself absolutely to be regulated by the public conception of justice. (2) The giving of oneself is unconditional; no one is independent of the normative force of the public conception. (3) In giving oneself to the community, he gives himself to no one. There is no one in a superior relation to him; justice is mutual. (Book 1, chap 6, paragraphs 4, 6-8; link)

The central problem of the social contract may be thought to have the following solution. The problem: How to form an association which protects all without losing freedom. Each totally alienates all his rights and freedom to the whole association absolutely and without qualification. When the association conforms to the general will it is all right. If the association is seen as regulated by the common good, then what Rousseau says can be satisfied.

No one then has any rights except those defined by this conception of justice or the common good. Each person in giving himself to the community gives himself to no one. Everyone does the same, and everyone has the same rights. Giving oneself over to being regulated by the notion of the common good.

I-8: being forced to be free. This addresses a concern with the free-rider problem. People may agree that rules are fair but prefer to be an exception. They can be compelled to comply with fair rules. Justice defines rights and defines equal freedoms.



Rousseau the democrat

Rousseau’s political philosophy probably represents the richest and most adequate view of the moral foundations of the state of any of the great figures in the history of political thought. But it is also complex and opaque. Rousseau is usually cast as falling within the social contract tradition, according to which the legitimacy of the state depends on the hypothetical consent of the governed. This puts him in discussion with Hobbes and Locke. But he had substantive and radical ideas about freedom and equality that separate him sharply from these British theorists. His ideas about freedom and equality made him a prime candidate for the title, “philosopher of the French Revolution”. He offered a sometimes mysterious theory of the “general will” as the central focus of politics; but philosophers have offered wildly different interpretations of the meaning of this concept. And, unlike Locke, Hobbes, or Mill, Rousseau had an elaborate theory of psychology — the motivations that lead social actors to behave as they do and the processes of social construction through which they come to have these characteristics. This theory appears to fit into his social philosophy, but it isn’t perfectly clear how.

It is for these reasons that Josh Cohen’s recently published Rousseau: A Free Community of Equals is such an important contribution. The book is an exceptional achievement. Cohen offers a coherent, developed interpretation of Rousseau’s theory; he provides clear statements of the central ideas and shows how they tie together; and he makes use of virtually all of Rousseau’s enormous corpus to tease out Rousseau’s intricate line of thought. Cohen demonstrates that Rousseau’s theory is not simply a series of aphorisms, but is rather a detailed and subtle logical argument, with premises and inferences that can be rigorously reconstructed. It is a full philosophy of politics. Most basically, Cohen shows how philosophical principles, institutional assumptions, and psychological theories are intended to tie together into a coherent view of a democratic society.

This is an enormously difficult task to have accomplished. Just take the Social Contract as your starting point and you are inclined to emphasize chiefly the relations between institutions and freedom. Just take Emile or the Confessions as the point of origin and the emphasis will be on the individual’s development. And if you begin with the more applied parts of Rousseau’s work — the constitution for Poland, for example — and you are likely enough to get lost in a forest of institutional details. In other words — three Rousseau’s. Cohen has paid close attention to all these components of Rousseau’s thought, and he has succeeded in showing how they all contribute to a single, coherent line of thought.

The key idea in Cohen’s construction is the notion of a “free community of equals.” (This is also the subtitle of the book.) Each part of the phrase demands analysis — equality, freedom, and community, and unpacking them provides a basis for a nuanced and powerful political philosophy. The phrase also invokes the central problem of political philosophy, the contradiction between security and freedom: how is it possible to find personal security within a state (and therefore being subject to coercive laws), while fully maintaining one’s freedom and autonomy? Here is how Cohen puts the solution he attributes to Rousseau:

The essential point about content is that Rousseau’s solution requires that individuals commit to regarding themselves as belonging to a political community whose members are committed to regarding one other as equals: acknowledging one another as political equals, with equal status in establishing the laws; recognizing one another as equally subject to the laws; and agreeing to regulate their association by reference to reasons of the common good, which gives equal weight to the good of each citizen. (Kindle loc 221)

This formulation captures every element of the solution: equality, the common good, and a consequent situation of full autonomy. The citizen is autonomous (self-legislating) because he/she has willed the creation of exactly this system of law. The common good referred to here is the “general will”; and Cohen makes a good case for understanding that this concept is one that comes down to the individual perceiving and willing outcomes that serve the whole of the citizenry.

Citizens also have their own particular interests; so the situation described here, where all citizens give priority to the common good over their particular interests is one that requires a fairly specific bundle of institutions and motivations. And Cohen demonstrates that Rousseau methodically explores these institutional and behavioral requirements.

Cohen analyzes the idea of a community as being regulated by the general will into a conjunction of four conditions:

  • GW1 Particular Interest Condition [citizens have separate, particular interests]
  • GW2 Common Good Condition [citizens publicly share a common understanding of the common good]
  • GW3 Priority Condition [each citizen gives priority to reasons having to do with the common good over those concerning particular interests]
  • GW4 Reasonable Confidence Condition [citizens can be confident that their institutions conform to their shared conception of the common good]

It is evident that these are strong conditions. So it is incumbent on Rousseau (and Cohen) to demonstrate that they are singly possible and jointly consistent. If these points cannot be established, then the idea of a general will is useless. If the conditions are possible and consistent, then there is a further question to investigate: what empirical conditions (institutions, processes of individual moral development) are needed to establish and sustain them?

Another fascinating line of thought in the book is Cohen’s attempt to reconstruct Rousseau’s argument for the “natural goodness” of the human being. It is a complex argument and one I found highly convincing as an interpretation of Rousseau. And the issue is simply crucial; if this argument cannot be made out, then the free community of equals is an impossibility.

Much of Cohen’s work here is that of philosophical reconstruction: what were Rousseau’s positions and reasons? This is descriptive work, and doesn’t require that Cohen evaluate the theory. (In fact, we can ask the question whether this is simply a hypothetical reconstruction of a Rousseau-like theory, or whether we are to understand that Rousseau actually had these logical connections and explications clearly in mind.) But beyond the explicative work, it is plain that there is much in Rousseau’s conceptions of equality, freedom, participation, and democracy that Cohen admires deeply and regards as fruitful for contemporary discussions of democracy. There are also a few important threads that he is distinctly not pleased by: in particular, the exclusion of women, of course, and Rousseau’s sometimes incipient communitarianism. The latter makes for the possibility of an ethnically or nationalistically grounded community, rather than a community of simple moral equals. And Rousseau sometimes seems to suggest that only a highly uniform community is likely to satisfy the conditions above — a discouraging finding for those of us interested in a creating a democratic, multicultural world.

There is a particularly important meta-level point that emerges from Cohen’s book and that seems to be fully embedded in Rousseau’s thought process: the importance of addressing the question of social justice in full detail from three interrelated perspectives. We need a convincing set of moral principles that help to define what the most important features of a just society are. We need an analysis of some of the institutional requirements that these principles present; an idea of the kinds of institutions that could satisfy the principles. And we need an analysis of human psychology — both the fixed parts and the malleable parts — that would either support or undermine these institutions and principles. In other words, social philosophy requires a concrete study of institutions and psychology if we are to succeed in arriving at convincing and practical models of a good society. And Rousseau seems to have understood this imperative in greater detail than other contributors to the traditions of political philosophy.

Here is a schematic representation of major parts of Cohen’s analysis of Rousseau:

Influences and arguments

Lately I’ve been writing about the influences that can be discerned in the theories of John Rawls.  Rawls was a “social contract theorist”; to what extent were his theories shaped and framed by his reading of the great contract theorists such as Locke, Rousseau, or Kant?  He was also influenced by the history of economic thought; so is it possible to find parallels or echoes of the thought systems of Adam Smith or Karl Marx in Rawls’s thinking?  And to what extent were there more local influences in the 1940s and 1950s that created fairly specific directions and characteristics in Rawls’s thinking?

This is an interesting question in application to one particular philosopher.  But it also raises a more general question: where do philosophical theories come from?  To what extent is it the case that a given philosopher is working within a “micro-tradition” — a particular and specific field of influence — and to what extent is the thinker “original”, bringing forward new ideas on a topic?  And once a fundamental topic has been established for a thinker — e.g., “What defines the principles of justice for a property-owning democracy?” — to what extent does the theory then develop autonomously according to the arguments and analysis of the philosopher?

This way of formulating the problem invokes several related ideas: influence and tradition; originality and creativity; and orderly, logical development of a position or theory.  
I suppose that there are many instances of philosophers who fall mostly in the “influence” part of the map: their philosophical work largely takes the form of carefully working out the ideas of their influencers.  (This might be part of the legacy of Rawls; I suppose there has been quite an ocean of philosophical work dedicated to specifying more exactly what “primary goods” are, or how “reflective equilibrium” works.)  This might be described as “normal science” — taking the foundations of a field of study as being unquestioned, and then attempting to work out the details more exactly.
There are also some good examples of philosophers who were largely driven by the “logical analysis” part of the map: formulate a good, difficult question, and then spend the rest of one’s career working out analytically sound answers to the problems this question spawns.  “Naturalized epistemology” might fall in this sector; we might say that the philosophers who have tried to give a biological interpretation of the conditions of knowledge are taking one fundamental question — how do biological organisms arrive at knowledge of their environment? — and attempt to apply the findings of cognitive science and evolutionary biology to the issues that arise.  Kant’s philosophy also seems to have this character: once having chosen the topics “What can we know metaphysically?” or “What creates moral duty?”, his mind seems to have proceeded analytically and logically, without correction or stimulus from a contemporary literature.
And what about originality?  Are there examples of philosophers who have largely invented a set of questions and approaches that defined a new philosophy for a given domain?  Wittgenstein is commonly recognized as a highly original philosopher; but certainly his theories were embedded in a tradition of philosophy.  Several things are apparently true about Wittgenstein when it comes to influence and argument.  (a) Many of his ideas and assumptions in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus derived from careful readings of Frege and Russell; (b) his insights and assertions in Philosophical Investigations were responsive to a surrounding set of ideas about language, behavior, and meaning, but his solutions and theories still strike one as being highly original; and (c) for certain themes and problems he continued to work carefully to move his position forward through analytical discovery and inference.  So Wittgenstein seems to illustrate all three dimensions of philosophical theory formation and knowledge construction.

Several things seem to be true about the formation of the theories and perspectives of individual philosophers:

  • They are introduced into a fairly specific “philosophical research community” through graduate education that provides paradigm examples of philosophical questions and issues and prescriptive advice about the nature of philosophical argument and analysis.
  • They are introduced to their field at a particular moment in social history: World War II, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the civil rights period, 9-11; and historical events and shifts have an influence on the formation of their thought.
  • “Originality” can take the form of arriving at new questions (“How is group mentality possible?”); new methods of analysis (Frege-Russell’s formal deductivism as a solution to the question of the nature of mathematical truth); or new substantive approaches to philosophical theory (Kant’s Copernican Revolution in thought).

An interesting contribution to this set of topics is an innovative series of volumes posing “5 Questions” to philosophers in a variety of fields (link).  A recent volume is Philosophy of the Social Sciences: 5 Questions,  edited by Diego Rios and Christoph Schmidt-Petri.  Contemporary philosophers were asked to respond to five important questions about their approaches to the field of the philosophy of social science.  The format offers the beginning of a triangulation among “beginnings,” “fundamental assumptions,” and “future directions” for each of these philosophers.  The questions that were provided to the philosophers are these:

  1. How did you get interested in the philosophical aspects of the social sciences?
  2. Which social sciences do you consider particularly interesting or challenging from a philosophical point of view?
  3. How do you conceive the relation between the social sciences and the natural sciences?
  4. What is the most important contribution that philosophy has made to the social sciences?
  5. Which topics in the philosophy of social science will, and which should, receive more attention than in the past?

Contributors include David Bloor, Raymond Boudon, Mario Bunge, Nancy Cartwright, Margaret Gilbert, Daniel Hausman, Harold Kincaid, Daniel Little, Steven Lukes, David Papineau, Philip Pettit, Alexander Rosenberg, David-Hillel Ruben, John Searle, and Raimo Tuomela.  This list includes quite a few of the people who have helped to shape current thinking in this sub-discipline of philosophy; so it is very interesting to have a chance to see what they have to say about some of the original influences on their thinking about the social sciences, as well as their own definitions of the frameworks they have arrived at.  I found it very interesting to think seriously about these questions in my own case, because it forces one to reflect on the ideas, events, and ideologies that led one to choose one set of topics and approaches rather than another.  I would have added a sixth question for each of the contributors: “What are the most basic ideas that you have come to in the course of your studies of the social sciences?”

What I would like to see is a next step conducted by a gifted sociologist of the professions, who would attempt to map out the streams of influence and contribution that are documented within the essays in this volume.  Andrew Abbott’s careful analysis of the currents of thought constituting the discipline of sociology in the 1960s and 1970s is a good case in point (Chaos of Disciplines).  Another good example is William Sewell’s attempt to provide a geography of the discipline of social history in the 1960s (Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation).

Proto social inquiry



We sometimes imagine that the current disciplines and methods of the social sciences represent a more or less inevitable set of approaches to the problem of understanding social phenomena. But really, the latter task is much larger than the specific sets of disciplines and methods we have currently developed. It is worth turning back the dial a bit and reflecting on the intellectual currents that led to contemporary programmes for the social sciences.

Reflective people have been curious about the workings of the social world for as long as they have observed and commented upon the world of actions and institutions that they found around themselves. The Greeks were particularly interested in such things as the causes and outcomes of war (Thucydides), the properties of different kinds of states (Plato), the nature of the family (Aristotle), and so on. Often the focus was on the question of “justice”—the features of social arrangements that were justified on moral grounds. But there are also many examples of philosophers and writers who were interested in the question of the how and why of social life: how does it work, what sorts of causes are at work, and why do certain kinds of outcomes occur (poverty, war, violence)? These reflections often represented systematic thinking and observation, but they did not amount to what we would call “social science” today.

Several important changes occurred in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that created a new impulse towards a different kind of study of the social world. One was eighteenth-century globalization. There was more knowledge available from travelers and colonial administrators about exotic social and familial practices in non-European places. The fact of religious and moral diversity was itself a startling discovery. This set of discoveries demonstrated the unavoidable fact of human social diversity. In the eighteenth century European thinkers raised questions deriving from the observed differences in social orders around the globe; so thinkers such as Rousseau and Montesquieu considered the significance and causes of different patterns of social organization in Europe, the New World, Africa, and Asia. So the questions arose, how do these alternative social orders work, and why are there such wide differences in the first place?

Second was an increasing recognition of the interconnectedness of economic and political life within European societies themselves. The physiocrats and the British political economists began to postulate causal connections between certain kinds of social facts—settlement, trade, extension of agriculture, and law—with certain kinds of outcomes—the creation of the wealth of nations. The physiocrats particularly highlighted the systematic relationships that exist between environment, land, food production, prices, rents, and other forms of economic development. And debates about economic policies in the nineteenth century — debates over the Corn Laws, for example — likewise pointed towards the discovery of previously unobserved causal connections among economic facts.

A third major change carried over into the nineteenth century—the advance of modern industrial production, urbanization, bureaucratic states, class formation, migration, and a recognition of major social changes associated with urbanization and industrialization. These changes, associated with the industrial revolution, set urgent new intellectual challenges to thoughtful observers; why were these changes taking place, and where were they going? Even Hegel expressed theoretical interest in the rise of the bureaucratic state — Shlomo Avineri’s Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State makes a very clear case for the historical and empirical interests that Hegel had, along with his abstract philosophical theory of Right. What would be the consequences for European (or French and English) civilization of these basic seismic shifts in the order of society? Thus, for example, Engels, Tocqueville, and Carlyle all reflected intensely on the meaning of Manchester for the new society (link, link, link).

Fourth, a raft of novel and urgent social problems—destitution, factory safety, crime, widespread hunger, deracination of the majority population, and the creation of enormous cities—loomed large in the emerging interest in creating “sociology.” How could a modern society cope with these problems? (Gareth Stedman Jones’s book Outcast London is particularly interesting for the insights it shed on how nineteenth-century observers, including Alfred Marshall, attempted to understand the problems and changes associated with London’s rapid development.) Parliamentary commissions on conditions of labor, public health, and other important social problems provided an empirical basis for more systematic study by theoretically minded thinkers. The systematic collection of social statistics in turn created an intellectual demand for analysis in the form of the mathematics of probability and statistics. (Ian Hacking’s book, The Emergence of Probability: A Philosophical Study of Early Ideas about Probability, Induction and Statistical Inference, provides a nice account of some of these developments.)

Finally was the rise of full-blown results in the natural sciences in the nineteenth century—chemistry, electromagnetism, mechanics, geology, and biology. So the idea of studying and explaining the patterns of the social world with the same kinds of “science” was a fairly natural next step. The sudden impact of Darwinian ideas about biological evolution and the origin of species at late century was also important for some early sociologists. Founding social scientists as diverse as Marx, Durkheim, Comte, and Spencer were influenced by the models of empirical and logical rigor associated with positive natural science — sometimes to the detriment of the future development of the social sciences. (See earlier postings on positivism and naturalism for more about these shortcomings.)

The point here is a simple one. The agenda for “understanding society” is an old one, predating the modern social sciences by centuries. And the needs that we have for understanding, explanation, and intervention in the area of complex social processes and problems inherently exceed the scope of the particular efforts we’ve made to date in constructing empirically rigorous social science. We need to keep our eyes open for new problems and new approaches in the social sciences, if we are to do a satisfactory job of understanding and coping with the social issues of the twenty-first century. (See earlier postings on world sociology , French sociology, and Chinese sociology for more thinking about the need for innovation in the social sciences.)

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