local homepage  |  TUC homepage  |  weblog  |  impressum

Essays on Theory

Author: Lars Frers (2000)

The contents of this page are published under the
Creative Commons License.
Creative Commons License



In this short essay, I am going to be the director of an unfair battle; I will pit Auguste Comte against Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno.[1] The battle is unfair because their weapons are not equal – Comte’s arguments are deeply embedded in the context of European science in the 19th century. Progress in the natural sciences was what inspired him to proposing a science of social physics, which would ultimately give birth to a moral, orderly and just society. His project was the founding of a new science. Horkheimer and Adorno lived in a time when sociology was already institutionalized. They knew the more refined arguments of different schools with different theoretical backgrounds including vulgar Marxism, Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge, Durkheim’s followers and others. Karl Popper would be the proper opponent, but critical rationalism is not covered in our syllabus, so Comte has to take his role of getting thrashed by the Frankfurt School it what later became the Positivismusstreit in German sociology.

For the context of this essay, it will be sufficient to base Comte’s positivism on four central assumptions. Most basic is probably his belief in progress as it is envisioned in the enlightenment. He sketches out three stages of knowledge: the theological, the metaphysical and the positive. Being in the stage of positive knowledge or philosophy opens the prospect of discovering the general laws of society; the possibility of social physics is his second assumption. Thirdly, discovering the laws governing social life will provide the means for reconciling existing social conflicts and inequalities by way of enlightenment. Finally, Comte envisions the positive philosopher as a being that is by profession detached from social conflicts. Not driven by particularistic interests, positivism will be able to demonstrate the morality inherent in the laws that govern social life. Working men and their leaders alike will see and accept these laws.

[Being] a philosophic body of known impartiality and enlightenment … [positivism], while impressing on the people the duty of respecting their temporal leaders, will impose duties on these latter that they will find impossible to evade. (363-364)

This is the agenda of positivism, shielded with these arguments Comte climbs on the rhetorical white horse which I invent to send him in a joust; he wants to fight for morality and order.

Now comes the double-headed dark knight. Horkheimer and Adorno develop a meta-theoretical critique aimed at demonstrating the impurity of the arguments forwarded by positivism. I will present their critiques in such a way that they wear down Comte’s argumentative shield from the outside layer to the core. (4:) The disinterestedness of the philosopher or social scientist is a fake. Science is always entangled and driven by interests, it is embedded in a specific system of production and it serves to produce and reproduce this system. (3:) Conflict and struggles are generated by the distribution of material goods and by the material conditions of labor, therefore it is not possible to resolve these conflicts by spreading the wisdom of positivist science – the redistribution of the means of production would be a necessary condition for ending class struggles. (2:) There are no eternal ever-valid laws that govern social life. The object of the social sciences is inherently historic, society changes over time and different sets of rules govern the social totality in each historic period. Even more important, mankind makes these rules; therefore, mankind can change them. These first three critiques are developed in Traditional and Critical Theory, an article written by Horkheimer in 1934. He developed the next critique together with Adorno after both of them fled Germany and Europe in the wake of the Holocaust and the Second World War. (1:) Progress is a myth.[2] The project of the enlightenment failed; it could not prevent barbarism of the most horrible sort. To the contrary, progress and the instrumental knowledge produced under the symbol of detached positivity were used to base barbarism on science and scientific methods were used in the genocide committed by Germans and their allies. Science is doomed from the beginning for it is a tool used to dominate nature and the domination of nature includes the domination of mankind (Horkheimer 1967: 94 – my translation).

I do not see how Comte’s shield could resist the attack of such a sinister lance. However, it probably was unfair from the beginning. What can be learned from this story? Horkheimer and especially Adorno did not see any possibility to regain a ground on which positive or productive knowledge could be developed. So what did they do after writing this critique? Not many ways were open after they tore down the connections between knowledge and progress. They chose to follow a path in between aesthetics and philosophy; the use of the mimetic potential of language should reveal a part of the truth that lies in social life without making this truth prone to instrumentalization.

back to contents

Abstract – Concrete

To place myself on the continuum between abstraction and being concrete is not easy. In the first part of this essay, I want to present the conceptualizations of Parsons and Habermas. They develop refined theories that offer highly abstract perspectives on social life – one lays a scheme over it through which everything can be ordered, analyzed and put into its place; the other taps all existing theories and condenses out of them the basic rules of communication which then are used as a basis for social critique. On the other side of the continuum, I want to place Marx and Bourdieu. Why them? They are renowned theorizers, however, I argue that they both focus their theoretical efforts on concrete problems localized in time and space. In addition, I did not want to compare macro sociology with micro sociology, i.e. Habermas and Parsons with symbolic interactionists or ethnomethodologists; this might have diffused the focus of this question too much.

Adaptation, goal attainment, integration and latent pattern maintenance – this is a part of the credo that every sociologist has to learn. The project that Parsons followed with his AGIL-scheme is a big one. He thought that the time had come when sociological knowledge is advanced enough to allow the construction of an analytical matrix through which all aspects of society can be ordered and classified. The four concepts that constitute his 'credo', cryptic, as they may seem at first sight, offer the possibility to examine social actions for their functions. It is a fascinating tool as far as it allows the analyst to have a secure basis for all his work; boundaries are made clear. Macro analysis could focus on the highest level of abstraction and order different social spheres to their respective places, i.e. the family to its function of integration etc. Micro analysis could focus on a specific action like greeting and see which aspects of a greeting serve which of the functions offered by the AGIL-scheme. It is a universalistic and universalizing tool.

According to Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action, actions can relate to four kinds of rationality (Habermas 1995 I: 126-151). Three of them (teleological, normative and dramaturgical) are linked to single spheres of rationality that evolved in the course of modernization; the fourth – communicative rationality – relates to all three of the other possible spheres of rationality. When people are communicating the rules of language and communication necessitate it that actors either implicitly or explicitly link their speech acts to these spheres of rationality – they always have to be able to justify their claims: Are they based on an accurate perception of reality (true)? Are they morally right? Are they presenting their emotions accurately or are they faking them? Before Habermas can start his critique, he has to introduce another abstraction. In his analysis communicative action is learned and exercised in the life-world of everyday interaction; this life-world is opposed by and colonized through imperatives stemming from the system, i.e. economics and law, that are single sided, only regulated by a single aspect of rationality (Habermas 1995 II: 275-293). The sociological project would then be to point at places in which the system illegitimately penetrates the life-world and to pledge to the (communicative) rationality, which actors would ultimately have to comply to.

In The Capital Marx uses two techniques to make his theory concrete. (a) He points out that his critique is focused on capitalism as being characterized by a historically specific mode of production, one that is different from other configurations, e.g. feudalism or slave ownership (Marx 1968: 741-744). In addition (b), he continuously moves between the development of abstractions and historical examples. Throughout the three volumes of the Capital analytic chapters are either followed by whole chapters that demonstrate the practical implications of the analyzed developments (e.g. chapter no. 8 on the working day in the first volume) or analytical argumentations are interspersed with concrete examples. The critique of the concrete conditions under which workers and their families have to spend their lives is a central part of his theory.

What makes me think of Bourdieu as being a proponent of a concrete kind of sociology is the weight he lays on the use of space or fields as metaphors used for analytic purposes (e.g. Bourdieu 1989: 14, 16). Positioning actors in a field or in social space localizes them; they are not conceived as being actors that interact according to universal, abstract rules. Furthermore, he also tries to localize himself in the social field. The consequence of this epistemic reflexivity (Wacquant 1992: 36-46) is that the sociologist him- or herself has to evaluate what the concrete consequences of her/his academic work could be.

In my perspective, abstract (philosophical?) theory has a very real attraction: it provides me with almost universal tools; almost everything can be explained by a sufficiently abstract concept. Abstraction is a very powerful analytical tool. On the other hand, life is complex; if one looks closely at social relations they are muddy and intertwined. Therefore, I would try to keep attractive abstractions bounded by concrete descriptions of actual social processes. Furthermore, abstraction in itself is not an adequate method for the critique of repressions as they are experienced in our society.

back to contents

Freedom – Constraint

The self has the characteristic that it is an object to itself, and that characteristic distinguishes it from other objects and from the body. (Mead: 224)

The disembodied self is reflexive, through the taking of roles of others it can view its own role from a distanced perspective. The image that Mead summons is that of a self which hovers over the actual physical world, watching and examining role performances and gestures, and, ultimately, it is using signs and language as universal signifiers that allow for interactive understanding. The possibility of understanding others is generated in childhood play, where children learn how to act in different roles – at one time they are the merchant, next time they are the shoppers in their fictive grocery store. The next step is accomplished when children start playing games that require coordinated efforts. To be an effective team the members of the team have to constantly reflect on the roles of their teammates – Where is x? Should I keep y off, so that z can do one of his great shots? To be reflexive in such a way means to be free of the binding chains of instincts and physical reflexes. It enables actors to perceive problems that arise in the course of their lives or in the course of an interaction and to solve them pragmatically according to the circumstances. Speech and communication is the medium of interaction that allows for the most creativity and freedom, because each act of speech can immediately be understood by the person who utters the speech act in the same way as it can be understood by other listeners. Therefore, speech acts establish universality through the distance that actor and listener take to the act itself; it is an interactive accomplishment that is not hindered by the physical limitations of the body. The free community of interactors is a community of disembodied and reflexive selves.

The invasion and evaluation of the living body, the administration and distribution of its forces were indispensable conditions [for the execution of bio power]. (Foucault 1983: 168 – my translation)

Knowledge entering and penetrating bodies, the historical change from punishing the body to incarcerating the soul, techniques used to make bodies more productive and to enhance control over individuals and their actions and behavior – these are the images that Foucault summons in his work. The body and the soul are not a duality; they are intertwined, the one not existing without the other. When the body is put under surveillance so is the soul. Examining and recording the gestures, the behavior and the utterances of research subjects, mapping their genes and anatomy produces a transparent individual. This transparency is universal in that it allows putting all human beings, regardless of their individual differences, to be put under the investigating gaze of the collectors of knowledge. The mapped body could then be ordered and classified and according to the class it is put into it will experience constraints: it might be put into a psychiatric clinic, it might be put to work in a factory or it might be put under the pressure to restrain itself, to shape itself according to an image produced in scientific and popular discourses that define what is normal. In Foucault’s perspective communication is always embedded in a net of discourses and these discourses and even knowledge itself cannot be divided from power. To the contrary, they are the power relations that penetrate social life and interactions. Therefore control and restraints are everywhere, there is no place, where a self could disentangle itself from these power relations and become an objectifying observer that can understand and signify universal meanings.

The presentation that I gave of Mead’s and of Foucault’s theory is not accurate, neither is Mead saying that communication is always successful and the forming of a self unproblematic (see Mead: 227) nor are Foucault’s individuals puppets on the strings of the capitalist-scientific complex. Still, differences remain between their way of conceptualizing freedom and constraint. From a symbolic interactionist perspective, the possibility of undistorted communication makes up the fundament for an analysis for interactional accomplishments whereas Foucault locates freedom primarily in acts of resistance. In Foucault’s case, I want to add that the omnipresence of power relations does not imply that power is coming from a single source. Instead, power is produced everywhere and power relations and the power-knowledge complex are eminently productive and in that aspect not just limiting or restricting individual or collective action. This might be the point where I can relate Mead and Foucault most closely: actions and interactions are to some degree creative, bringing new objects into being and reshaping existing relations.

To explore the relations between creativity and restriction seems to be a very important task. I do not think that this task should be carried out in search for general and invariable laws that determine the amount of possible freedom or creativity. Instead, it will be crucial to explore these relations in specific spatial and historical contexts.

back to contents

[These essays constitute the final exam for a social theory class offered by Tom Gieryn at Indiana University Bloomington.]


back to contents