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Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) – “To be insulted by these fascists, it’s so degrading…”

English: Talcott Parsons (photo)

Talcott Parsons – Wikipedia

Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) was an American sociologist who emphasized the functional role of social stratification, as well as a positive relationship between education and politics.

His work clearly rejects communism and fascist totalitarianism. In fact, he was impressed by Max Weber‘s idea that the supposed ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ contributed to the rise of Capitialism.

Despite his obvious disenchantment with communism and fascism, a paranoid circle during the McCarthy Era suspected him of having communist sympathies.

This was no idle game. Parsons was charged, hassled and had to defend himself for about three years. He was denied access to a UNESCO conference and wasn’t acquitted of the charges until 1955.

Parsons’ rejection of communist and fascist totalitarianism was both theoretically and intellectually an integral part of his theory of world history, where Parsons tended to regard the European Reformation as the most crucial event in “modern” world history and where he like Max Weber tended to highlight the crucial impact of Calvinist religiosity in the socio-political and socio-economic processes, which followed.¹

In his own words:

This allegation is so preposterous that I cannot understand how any reasonable person could come to the conclusion that I was a member of the Communist Party or ever had been.²

English: portrait of Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin – Wikipedia

Neither was Parsons a libertarian, socialist thinker like the charismatic Murray Bookchin (1921-2006).

I saw Bookchin in person at Trent University in the 1980s. His talk harkened back to a mythical golden age where everyone apparently prospered in a joyous, eco-friendly community filled to the brim with a spirit of cooperation.³

No, Parsons did not look back to a mythical past that most likely never was. Instead, he embraced modernity, seeing it as integral part of human development.

Critics of Parsons say his theories are too abstract and minimize the importance of power, conflict and deviance. However, his work has impacted anthropology, psychology, sociology and history.

Parsons taught at Harvard from 1927 to 1979. He was one of the first ‘sociology’ professors – a new discipline – to hit the scene in 1930. Today, he is probably found in every introductory sociology course given in North America, Europe and other ‘enlightened’ places around the world.

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talcott_Parsons

² Ibid.

³ Afterward, one of my more intelligent professors remarked that he found it fascinating how one man with a bit of charisma could so effectively spark up university students, despite presenting a facile argument. The young audience clearly loved Bookchin but the professor thought his argument was weak.

Related » Functionalism

† Quoted text within title is from David Bowie’s It’s No Game.

 Charisma is a skill, not a gift – a Stanford psychologist shares 6 ways to build it (businessinsider.com)

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Creative genius on the edge

Graeme Garrard traces the origin of the Counte...

Rousseau (Photo: Wikipedia)

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) was a French speaking political writer and educator born in Geneva, Switzerland.

After taking various odd jobs this self-taught intellectual moved to Paris in 1741, meeting up with Denis Diderot and the Encyclopedists.

A kind of romantic naturalism pervades much of his work, which many equate with the idea of the “noble savage.”

Many see the noble savage as one who rejects stultifying conventions and religious promises of an afterlife in favor of spontaneous desire and worldly affections.

But this is another myth that students of Rousseau say does not apply to his work. In reference to Rousseau’s belief in stages of human development, Wikipedia notes:

Rousseau believed that the savage stage was not the first stage of human development, but the third stage. Rousseau held that this third savage stage of human societal development was an optimum, between the extreme of the state of brute animals and animal-like “ape-men” on the one hand and the extreme of decadent civilized life on the other. This has led some critics to attribute to Rousseau the invention of the idea of the noble savage, which Arthur Lovejoy conclusively showed misrepresents Rousseau’s thought.¹

Voltaire & Rousseau

Voltaire & Rousseau by Anne via Flickr

In 1754 Rousseau wrote Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Amongst Men, outlining an apparently innate sense of freedom and perfectibility in human beings, in contrast to the corrupting powers of institutions.

In Luxembourg from 1757-1762 he wrote The Social Contract, which had a significant bearing on the French revolution, as exemplified by Rousseau’s cry for ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.’ The Social Contract produced the famous line, “man is born free, but everywhere is in chains.” This work remains a cornerstone in modern political theory, but has roots in ancient Greece and Rome.

In 1762 Rousseau published the novel, Emile. Its critique of the monarchy and government bureaucracy got him into hot water with the authorities. To avoid arrest he retreated to Switzerland, ultimately to end up in England with the support of the philosopher David Hume.

Rousseau later wrote his Confessions and returned to Paris in 1767, ignoring the threat of an outstanding arrest warrant. He continued to write but became hypersensitive to perceived threats. Some of these threats may have been real and others exaggerated. For instance, he believed that Hume was conspiring against him, which may have been partly true. And Voltaire accused him of burning down the theater at Geneva in 1768.²

Devon Hollahan – Paranoid android via Flickr

Some say that Rousseau was paranoid during this period. But I prefer to think of him as confusing actual and perceived threats.

When people are threatened, possibly traumatized and lied to, and all they have is their intuition to guide them, it’s hardly surprising that they make interpretive mistakes. They sense the bad vibes from others, which are real. But unless they train themselves to treat every perceived threat as a hypothesis instead of a fact, they could become overwhelmed and see some non-threats as threats.³

Rousseau also took some heat for his views on religion, which challenged both Catholic and Calvinist teachings. Rousseau was a precursor to those Romantics who see God in natural creation and society as something other and potentially corrupting. He rejected the belief in original sin and was upset that his views gained much criticism while the religious authorities were indifferent to the atheistic philosophers of the day.4

Related » Enlightenment

The house where Rousseau was born at number 40, Grand-Rue. – Wikipedia

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Jacques_Rousseau

² Ibid. Hume had offered to filter and forward Rousseau’s more important incoming mail, to which Rousseau agreed. But there is some evidence that Hume also read Rousseau’s outgoing mail, which was not agreed upon. This only goes to show that creeps who somehow think they’re justified in violating personal privacy – just because they can – have been around for a very long time. It’s not something unique to the cyber age.

³ Of course, it’s not easy to support or reject these hypotheses because some threatening people are pathological liars and polished fakers. As for those generating the bad vibes, I believe God will deal with them – fairly – in good time.

4 This situation has been tentatively explained by the sociological “in-group / out-group” theory. According the theory, people in an in-group feel more threatened or irritated by an out-group when the out-group shares some but not all of the in-group’s views and practices. So for example, some Americans and Canadians look down on and insult one another because inhabitants share some but not all elements with the other country. But neither Americans nor Canadians become emotionally invested or insulting toward peaceful, faraway lands that are fundamentally different. Most just couldn’t care less. It’s the partial similarity that stirs up discontent between in-groups and out-groups.

 Trump and the ‘Society of the Spectacle’ (3quarksdaily.com)

  New New Left Ideology Controls the Democratic Party (americanthinker.com)

 The Concept of Facts Is Newer Than You Think (time.com)

 Scots sick and tired of Sturgeon’s independence referendum ‘rabble rousing’ (express.co.uk)

 Eurozone economy overtakes UK as France and Germany accelerate (telegraph.co.uk)

 [Nelson Lund] Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Not a nut, not a leftist and not an irresponsible intellectual (washingtonpost.com)


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Marx’s Productive Relations and Theory of History

Marx for Sale by Gideon via Flickr

Karl Marx proposed a theory of history in which society apparently progresses through definite stages. The catalyst for change from one stage to the next is a tension between the productive forces (PF) and the productive relations (PR). At least, this is how some have interpreted Marx’s theory.

According to this model, the PR are the social aspects of production in a given society, usually the legal or brute force means of exploiting labor, extracting surplus and maintaining social dominance of the few over the many.

By way of contrast, the PF refers to how a society actually produces commodities.

There is some feedback from the PR to the PF. But the PF determine the PR because the PF are more fundamental to society. In short, the social (PR) depends on the material (PF). And the material (PF) is primary to capital.

I wrote a paper about this back in 1985. The wording is a bit laborious. I was a relatively new university student perfecting a formula for getting good marks, so maybe I was subconsciously mimicking my professor. Over the years I found that grades were usually higher when you wrote like your professors spoke, which was sorta sad but true.

Despite the old-world sentences, the content is good. So I refer you to that for more detailed coverage, especially pp. 2-4:


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Reification – Are things always as they seem?

State Theater, Congress Avenue

State Theater, Congress Avenue by Dave Wilson via Flickr

Reification is a sociological, philosophical and literary concept concerning language and symbolization.¹

For Marxist, Weberian and postmodern sociologists, reification also involves social power. It occurs whenever ideas, concepts or theories are falsely assumed to accurately represent some entity or thing.

While many folks get heated up over political debates, and rightly so, few go a little deeper to question the political entities that we have constructed and continue to construct on a daily basis. Yes, we sometimes question what “democracy” means. But how often do we deconstruct the very notion of the “state”?

When you think about it, it is valid to ask: What is “Canada”? or What is “The United States of America”? For postmodern theorists, these are abstract ideas with potentially different meanings for each person. So the notion of the “state” is a human construction with many, interpreted meanings that do not point to an absolute existence of the thing in itself.

Another example of reification is often given in discussions about religious rules and regulations. These not only have legal but moral and emotional power over individuals. “Forgive me Father… it’s been 10 weeks since my last confession…” For non-Catholic reification theorists, the idea that a man can stand in place of God and that Catholics must regularly check in to a small booth and confess to a man/God is totally silly. It’s just a set of man-made rules that, although fictitious, have real power over the lives of men and women. Catholics are conditioned into believing the rules are part of a sacred tradition. A magisterial teaching authority. So the man-made thing becomes real to the extent that it is believed in.

From the perspective of believing Catholics, however, confession is far from silly. It’s a way to confirm that God has heard and forgives sins. Confession is a “sacrament.” It’s not a mere social construction legitimized in writ and replicated through conditioning because Catholics believe the teaching authority is holy. So, for them, the rules are functional truths from God.

Funnily enough, some folks talk about their country’s laws in a similar manner. Fundamentalist Americans, for instance, who speak of manifest destiny, often link the holy with their nation’s activity. And this is not only in the Bible Belt. Some “New Age” Americans speak the same way. The French social theorist Roland Barthes points out the close emotional and symbolic connection between the ideas of the “American Spirit” and “The Holy” in his 1957 book Mythologies

Critics of the idea of reification would argue that different countries are distinguished by laws, citizenship, culture, the landscape and geographic boundaries. However, reification theorists could reply that laws are often applied differently to the rich and powerful than to the poor and powerless. Statistics support this. The rich spend less time in jail for the same offences. So do the laws truly exist?

It may be difficult to appreciate the notion that landscape and geographic boundaries are not absolute, indisputable markers. But when we deconstruct the idea of physicality, as quantum physics does, even ideas like “the land” and geographic “boundaries” become less clear cut.

Democriet (laughing) & Herakliet (crying) by C...

Democriet (laughing) & Herakliet (crying) by Cornelis van Haarlem, which Lievens copied at 12. (The copy is lost) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In philosophy the ancient Greek Heraclitus alluded to the idea of reification when he wrote that we cannot step into the same river twice. What is a river if we can’t pin it down?

The 20th-21st century philosopher Willard Quine touches on the idea of reification by saying that empiricism contains “two dogmas.” The first dogma involves the distinction made between intellectual constructs and facts. This is related to the second dogma of “reductionism.” Reductionism is the belief that naming and meaning are the same.³ Likewise in rhetoric, it is commonly debated whether reification is applied appropriately.4

In the literary world, reification may occur whenever a metaphor is employed; although in literature a metaphor is accepted and encouraged; it is also evaluated for its effectiveness.5

To sum, reified ideas may be simple or complex. They may involve legal entities like “corporation” or “state.” But the question remains as to whether the thing written and talked about truly exists as described.

¹ Wikipedia lists several meanings for this term. Of particular interest is the meaning within Gestalt psychology, which I haven’t really emphasized here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reification

² Barthes focuses on America here, but I think individuals and groups in any country can get high and mighty about the alleged superiority of their nation.

³ Quine’s language may be difficult for laypersons. Understanding what he says depends on some knowledge of Kant’s particular language games (although Kant probably wouldn’t have seen it that way). Here’s the original Quine quote:

Modern empiricism has been conditioned in large part by two dogmas. One is a belief in some fundamental cleavage between truths which are analytic, or grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact and truths which are synthetic, or grounded in fact. The other dogma is reductionism: the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience. Both dogmas, I shall argue, are ill founded. One effect of abandoning them is, as we shall see, a blurring of the supposed boundary between speculative metaphysics and natural science. Another effect is a shift toward pragmatism.

Source: http://www.ditext.com/quine/quine.html

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reification_(fallacy)

5 See examples.

Related » Sociology, Unconscious

 


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Comte Henri de Saint-Simon – His concern for the poor shines above everything else

Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon

Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) or, more commonly, Saint-Simon is one of those figures who comes up regularly in sociology courses, especially so-called “classical” or “classical theory” courses.¹

Until writing this entry, I knew little about him. But I felt he was important because so many books and professors (the better ones, anyhow) mention him in passing.

Looking over Wikipedia this morning to update my 2009 entry, Saint-Simon turns out to be quite interesting.

Born in Paris as a French Aristocrat, he spent some time in America, fighting under George Washington in the siege of Yorktown. Back in Europe, he took up the cause of the poor, which lead his being called the founder of French socialism.

He supported the French Revolution but was put in jail during the Reign of Terror because of unwarranted suspicions that he was a counter-revolutionary. Luckily for him, he was released from prison in 1794 before literally losing his head. By this time French currency was devalued, which left him rich. But he was cheated out of his fortune by his business partner.

After an unhappy marriage that ended in a year, he wrote and tried to recover his lost fortune without success. He then spent time in a sanatorium. Ten years later, discouraged by his lack of influence on the world, he attempted suicide. According to the story, shooting himself six times in the head didn’t kill him, although he did become blind in one eye.

Nederlands: Portret van Claude Henri de Rouvro...

Portrait of Claude Henri de Rouvroy from the first quarter of the 19th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Relatives helped him out but Saint-Simon lived his final years in abject poverty. Perhaps this had something to do with his earlier concern for the poor.²

Saint-Simon reacted against the brutality of the French Revolution and envisioned a society where science and technology would guide the workings of religion and politics. He disliked government intervention in the economy, making his approach differ from how we usually understand “socialism.”

Concerning religion, he believed in a divine power but wanted to strip away the dogmas and routines of both Protestant and Catholic Christianity to get to the core of Jesus’ message as he saw it. For him, theory wasn’t done for mere pleasure or, as a twisted professor I had allegedly once said, for a “paycheck.” For Saint-Simon, theory and practice should go hand in hand to alleviate suffering and elevate all peoples to the highest possible good.

Saint-Simon’s writings remain influential in sociology. He had particular impact on the political views of Auguste Comte (17981857), especially with regard to the concept of progress. Comte in turn influenced Emile Durkheim, now hailed as one of the founding fathers of sociology.

Tumba de Saint Simon by Cosmovisión / Juan Luis Sotillo

Tumba de Saint Simon by Cosmovisión / Juan Luis Sotillo

¹ Sociologists tend to join the dots for us, telling us what is important according to how they see things today. The word “classical” should be taken critically too. It’s full of connotations about legitimacy and importance.

² If the soul is beyond space and time, as some mystics tell us, quite possibly Saint-Simon’s future state influenced his younger concerns. You won’t find this idea among the rank and file of psychologists and psychiatrists in the 21st century, but I think it’s quite possible and hopefully an idea that future theorists will pursue.


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Erich Fromm and the “Mass Man”

Gedenktafel für Erich Fromm aus der Reihe Mit ...

Plaque for Erich Fromm from the series with Freud in Berlin. Bayerischer Platz 1, Berlin-Schöneberg. Enthüllt am 1. Juli 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Erich Fromm (1900-1980) was a German-born American psychologist and social thinker who is often linked to the Frankfurt school of critical theory.

Fromm’s work combined different ideas from the works of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and J.-P. Sartre.

Like Carl Jung, he was acutely aware of the danger of bureaucracies controlled by the wrong people. He leveled a critique against the so-called mass man who, like a robot, compliantly follows orders to maintain financial security at the expense of human decency.

For Fromm, individuals “escape from freedom” through at least three often related routes:

  • Authoritarianism – losing the self by over-identifying with a powerful leader
  • Automaton Conformity – blindly following the will of a powerful leader
  • Destructiveness –  hurting self or others in an attempt to blot out a painful reality

In “The Sane Society” (1955), Fromm says modern individuals are alienated from their authentic self by seeking ephemeral thrills through mass culture and consumerism. According to Fromm, what makes us truly human is our ability to love. If we sacrifice this to the gods of commerce or political ambition, we’ve sacrificed our greatest gift of all.

Fromm’s works include The Fear of Freedom (1941), The Art of Loving (1956) and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973).

Related » HAL 9000, Borg, Projection


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Functionalism – Are we simply what we do?

In art and architecture functionalism refers to combining aesthetics and efficiency. With intellectual roots in the 18th and 19th centuries, in the 1920s and 30s the Bauhaus movement designed furniture for utility.

In architecture, the idea that function should determine form was exemplified by Le Corbusier’s definition of a house as “a machine for living in.”

Portret van Talcott Parsons (1902-1979)

Portret van Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In social anthropology and sociology, functionalism (and structural functionalism) envisions society as a self-regulating organism. Social institutions, customs, beliefs and even social deviance all contribute to societal functioning. This approach was especially prominent in the sociological work of Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons.

In the Philosophy of Mind functionalism presents a challenge to behaviorism. While strict behaviorism explains the mind by observing external causes and effects, functionalism tries to account for consciousness in terms of all inner and outer causes and effects. Philosophical functionalism considers the possibility, overlooked by behaviorism, of a multiplicity of inner causes and effects existing within the mind. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy simplifies it thus:

Functionalism is a theory about the nature of mental states. According to functionalism, mental states are identified by what they do rather than by what they are made of.¹

¹ http://www.iep.utm.edu/functism/

Related » William James