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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.


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 (



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:

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.



5 See examples.

Related » Sociology, Unconscious


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Image by The Lighter Side via Tumblr

A creed (Latin credo: I believe) is a general or precise set of religious beliefs which (apparently) are written in unambiguous language.

The philosopher of religion Thomas McPherson maintains that saying

I believe in God

is quite different from saying

I believe that God exists

The former statement, he argues, avows an attachment, commitment and basic trust in the subject matter. It’s a statement of faith. The latter statement is simply a neutral opinion or, if not perhaps neutral, it’s certainly a cooler, less emotionally involved statement.

By way of contrast, consider

I believe in my country

as compared to

I believe that my country exists

McPherson says these statements are similar to the pair of statements about God’s existence. But he also claims that saying you believe in your country doesn’t entail the same degree of involvement as saying that you believe in God.

McPherson’s claim that saying “I believe in God” reveals the most passionate of all beliefs is questionable. Dialectical materialists forwarding in the work of Karl Marx, for instance, sometimes seem tremendously passionate about their “faith” in the object of their belief.

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A good example of a dialectical materialist who seems to “believe in” Marx’s ideas with great intensity can be found in J. D. Bernal, whose Science in History, Vols. 1-4. follows the Marxist ideology pretty closely.

But not only Marxists can get passionate about their beliefs. Social thinkers like Roland Barthes have argued that American patriotism, particularly during the 1950s, arguably had all the intensity of a religious faith. That is, the idea of the American Spirit connoted a intense set of beliefs about the superiority and moral goodness of America.

Related Posts » Doctrine, Dogma

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Noam Chomsky

Chomsky at the World Social Forum (Porto Alegr...

Chomsky at the World Social Forum (Porto Alegre) in 2003 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Noam Chomsky (1928 –  ) is an American intellectual, political activist, and professor Emeritus at MIT who initially distinguished himself in linguistics.

During the Vietnam war Chomsky became increasingly visible, criticizing those who believe the United States sets the standard as a moral and ideological leader for the rest of the world. Since then he’s never looked back.

He and others like Michael Moore figure prominently in the 2003 film, The Corporation. The film offers some insights into the nature of human hypocrisy, especially when connected to the profit motive. However, as one reviewer at put it, “the film is useful but incredibly biased.”

The same could be said of Chomsky’s work. Specifically, Chomsky seems to downplay the positive aspects of corporate production. Chomsky’s critics say that the capitalist impulse and profit motive are necessary for technological social progress. And they note that human rights records and charitable donations are often weaker in communist countries than they are in capitalist countries.

Those sympathetic to Chomsky’s views would argue that more egalitarian, socialist-style systems could also be creative, progressive and humane. In fact, he’s become something of an inspiration for some leftist activists who are appalled by the shortcomings but perhaps not mature enough to fully appreciate the good in capitalist democracies.

A particularly vehement attack against Chomsky’s views on terrorism and the post 9/11 Iraq war is found in The Anti-Chomsky Reader by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, eds.

According to Chomsky, parroting his Marxist mentors-what Uncle Sam really wants is to steal from the poor and give to the rich. America’s crusade against Communism was not a battle for human freedom, but actually a war “to protect our doctrine that the rich should plunder the poor.” This is why, according to Chomsky, we have busied ourselves in launching a new crusade against what he regards as a fictive terrorism after the end of the Cold War.”¹

Despite his criticisms of the US, Chomsky still chooses to live and make his living there, which definitely says something.

¹ The Anti-Chomsky Reader by Peter Collier and David Horowitz (eds.), Encounter Books, 2004, p. 185.

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Lunar libration. see below for more descriptions

Lunar libration via Wikipedia

The Moon is the Earth‘s natural satellite with a diameter of 3,476 km, orbiting our planet from a distance of approximately 384,400 km.

American astronauts first walked on the Moon on July 21, 1969. Although this was a uniquely American achievement, most everyone in the word rejoiced and those with TV access watched in wonder as the event signified “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

For many years it was thought that the moon had next to no water on its surface. But recent discoveries of ice have revolutionized this view, as well as the moon’s prospects for future habitation.

In mythology, lunar deities are both male and female and take on a wide variety of meanings and functions.¹

¹See, for instance, this list at

Search Think Free » 2001: A Space Odyssey, Apollo, Artemis, Cancer, Diana, Luna, Rona, Sin, Swedenborg (Emanuel)

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Mead, George Herbert

Image via Wikipedia

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) was an American philosopher and social psychologist associated with the University of Chicago who developed an influential model of the self in society. Mead’s theory, called symbolic interactionism, stressed the importance of language in mediating between the impulsive (‘I’) and social aspect (‘me’).

Mead also looked at human development from child to adult, highlighting the importance of organized sports (such as baseball) and role-playing as a means for children to see and appreciate the perspective of others. Through this developmental process, Mead says the adult is able to imagine the needs and responses of a generalized other–that is, we are able to anticipate social needs and responses from not just specific individuals but larger groups.

Mead’s view of science centered mostly on how human beings seek to gain power over their environment, a trait that he traces back to primitive animism.

He is usually cited as one of the more important figures in the pragmatist movement. In short, pragmatists find truth in things that work. Abstract speculation is only meaningful if it fits with observed experience.

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