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A brief history of sociology

In the old days, when Aristotle was around, philosophy embraced science; and the gods, as Homer put it, though gods, were conspicuous. With the Roman Empire the mind of western man, at least, turned to engineering and the army. But then the Roman Empire collapsed and along came the Dark Ages, at least on the European side of the Mediterranean. Knowledge seeped from East to West with the rise of Islam but with no great leaps forward, while what had been saved from the fall of Rome accumulated within monastery walls. Then, as commerce returned, population increased, and kings grew mightier, the old wisdom burst forth anew. The Renaissance. The Reformation. Overseas exploration. Public law. By the seventeenth century, in the fledgling universities of the West, philosophy had begun to emerge from the tutelage of theology. So did science. But the relationship between religion, science and philosophy still remained a tangled one. Newton wrote far more trying to discover the mind of God that he did on the forces of gravitational attraction. Spinoza elaborated the basic paradigms of psychology and politics, but couched them in a geometric precision that had God, properly defined, as his first axiom. No publisher would openly bring out his books for fear of prosecution from religious authorities. Newton’s theological scribblings stayed in his trunk, while it took continental Europe a century to accept his revolution of thinking in physics.

In the eighteenth century philosophy emancipated itself from religion inside and outside the academy. At the same time philosophy turned toward the study of social issues. Adam Smith penned The Wealth of Nations, but also The Theory of Moral Sentiments. His colleague Hume wrote A Treatise of Human Nature. From Hobbes to John Stuart Mill English philosophers developed theories of social contract and political behavior designed to deal with the thorny problems modern society seemed to throw up. The Great French Revolution across the pond had its own mental antecedents in the onslaught of the philosophes throughout the eighteenth century. Names like Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Kant and d’Alembert come quickly to mind, but there were others who together formed what has come to be known as the Enlightenment. Their successors in the nineteenth century continued in the tradition of social critique, some inside, some outside the university. Hegel was a university professor. Marx was not. Neither was Saint-Simon, nor the anarchist thinkers who challenged Marx. Comte, a disciple of Saint-Simon who broke with him, developed the first systematic sociological treatise. But Comte himself never held a university post and like many a predecessor, sought also to develop a religion for humanity rooted in his newly coined social sciences.

After Comte sociology entered the academy and so became a science, even if a social science, even if, to what would have been Comte’s horror no doubt, a soft science. Since then sociology has been split between two major schools of thought. One of them, represented by Weber, Durkheim, Parsons, Levi-Strauss and lastly Luhmann, sought to establish sociology as a science much like those in the hard sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, even mathematics. This meant theoretical rigor, systematizing thought, and verification with respect to observed social phenomena. The other, represented by Marx’s successors, especially in the Frankfurt School which got transplanted to the United States in the 1930s, remained for a long time outside professorial institutions, but made its influence felt. In many ways, classical sociology inside the university could be seen as the scientific response to Marx, who himself took pride in what he described as his scientific socialism, as opposed to what he considered the romantic idealism of his rivals. Eventually, however, the critical theory which the Frankfurt School championed invaded the social science departments of western universities. This started in the sixties and has continued to this day, critical theory conquering in ever greater numbers not only sociology, but also communications theory, cultural studies, gender studies, literary criticism, anthropology, history, even parts of psychology; in short, the entire proliferation of what passes for the social sciences today.

As a result, most practising academics in the social sciences view society through the prism of domination. However more open, inclusive and pluralist modern society becomes, to these social scientists society remains at heart a mechanism of domination: one class over another, one skin color over another, one gender over another, even one country over the rest of the world. Still wedded to the dialectics of Hegel and Marx, they believe, as one of their foremost exponents once explained, that to view society in other than a messianic light is to capitulate to the domination of pure technique, to society as it appears and not as it will surely come to be at the end of days. In the meantime, their job is to keep hope alive by exposing the rot beneath the liberal surface, reminding people, like the Hebrew prophets of old, that the utopia of equality and self-realization they read in the tea leaves of history will ultimately come to pass. Thus has sociology become secular theology, though its practitioners do not see it.

In retrospect one can see how this came about. When philosophy emancipated itself from the tutelage of theology it substituted a belief in reason and empirical investigation for divine revelation. Secularism triumphant devoted itself to skewering the received truths of the established order, its mental framework every bit as much as its social arrangements. When sociology and related disciplines carved out a niche for themselves from philosophy, they took over this task, reinforcing its letters patent with the nimbus of science. What many sociologists did not see was that the philosophical onslaught on the ancien régime was directed against an aristocratic order already on the way out. By the time sociology emerged in the nineteenth century, modern society was well in the saddle. Consequently, sociology wound up analyzing the new social order in terms not really different from the eighteenth century critique inaugurating the Age of Reason. Instead of the aristocratic class there was the bourgeoisie. Instead of feudalism, capitalism. Instead of religious bigotry, the sham of liberalism. Even those, like Durkheim, who disagreed with this Marxist portrait of society still conceived of sociology as the key for the cure of modern ills. It has taken sociology a very long time to escape the claims of teleology. Levi-Strauss started the ball rolling, but was accused of being anti-humanist, a charge repeated against Luhmann, who had the effrontery to explain to his colleagues that society was not made up of people.

Interestingly enough, in the twentieth century philosophy itself separated out into linguistic analysis on the one hand and ethics on the other, with ethics slowly transforming itself into a social science of its own, half clinical, half rhetorical. With this development, sociology sees itself as the rightful heir of eighteenth century philosophy, the last bastion of social critique where a discussion of social issues is still motivated by a search for the good. It could with even greater force be argued that in this sociology has finally triumphed over the old order, replacing the teleology of a divinely inspired cosmos with the messianic visions of sociologists’ minds stuck in the eighteenth century. Another way of putting it would be to say that sociology itself suffers from culture lag, indeed is culture lag in so far as it continues to analyze modern society as if it were still organized along the lines of hierarchy.

One can see the upshot of this situation in the reaction to the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. The graduates of academic sociology who have taken up their pens like latter day Voltaires explain his victory as the protest of people ill at ease with the frenzied pace of modernity: technological innovation, global transfers of money and people, proliferating differences clamoring for social and legal recognition. In other words, culture lag, as people struggle to adapt to progress and change and even resent it. The irony, however, is that the people who fail to understand the nature of modern society are the very ones who seek to explain it, themselves caught in a two-century old time warp and unable to let go of a picture whose effects are as deleterious as its parameters are incorrect.

Modern society is organized according to the difference of function. Modern society is complex, held together by its problems that will only increase in line with the solutions it comes up with. It is like the modern couple, struggling to stay together under conditions that rule out a return to the past while wondering if Netflix and chill will suffice. Sociology could help if it allowed society to catch up with it and so become a self-description somewhat adequate to the task. What sociology needs is what Luhmann called second-order observation, a paradox of sorts when every system, including the small social system of sociology, cannot see itself. Observation remains key. To observe well when the human condition is concerned seems to be a difficult task. Perhaps sociology ought to look to religion after all; at least take a second look. The observant man or woman may be a lesson for us all.

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