Rise of sociology as an intellectual tradition. Classical tradition in sociology of the XIX century (141082)

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Belarus State Economic University


«Rise of sociology as an intellectual tradition. Classical tradition in sociology of the XIX century»

Minsk 2008

1. Rise of sociology as an intellectual tradition

Since ancient times man has been interested in issues of his own living among other people. Why do people try to join living with other people, not without? What makes them fix borders, form separate states and struggle with each other? Why do some people possess all benefits, others are deprived of them?

Searching for answers to these questions forced ancient thinkers to focus their attention on man and the society where he lives in. Emergence of sociology is obliged to the concept “society”, its theoretical development and use in practice. Attempts to comprehend optimal ways of governing, social order, people’s effective activities were first made by ancient Chinese and Indian philosophers.

Antique philosophers made their contribution by suggesting new ideas which are now considered fundamentals of sociology. For instance, Plato and Aristotle developed a doctrine of human and the society; their works initiated studies of certain social institutions such as the state, family and law.

Following the principle of social division of labour, Plato (427-347 BC) created a first in the world theory of stratification according to which the society is divided into three classes: higher class consisting of wise men who govern the state; middle class or warriors who defend the society from disorder, and lower class consisting of craftsmen and peasants. Anyway, in his theory there was no place for slaves whose destiny was hard work considered as unworthy by free citizens.

Aristotle considered middle class a foot-hold of order. To his mind, the state is better governed if egoistic interests of the rich are limited, the poor are not excluded from government, and middle class is greater and stronger than the rich and the poor.

Traditionally the origins of sociology are seen in European philosophy of the XVIII century, a period that is referred to as the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. This movement advocated rationality as a means to establish an authoritative system of ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge. The intellectual leaders of this movement regarded themselves as courageous and elite, and saw their purpose as leading the world toward progress and out of a long period of doubtful tradition, full of irrationality, superstition and tyranny. The Enlightenment also provided a framework for the American and French Revolutions, as well as leading to the rise of capitalism and birth of socialism. The XVIII century also saw a continued rise of empirical philosophical ideas, and their application to political economy, government and sciences such as physics, chemistry and biology. However, investigations of this age were far from being systemic and integral. Lots of important issues were not paid attention to, that’s why achievements in learning social phenomena were less considerable as compared to other sciences.

Of utmost interest of the period became study of social communities and processes of their development and functioning. The study was caused by two factors. The first factor was industrial development of European countries; the second one was that all spheres of human activities became more complicated that raised problems of people’s interactions and their government, creation of social order in the society etc. When problems were realized and sounded, prerequisites for developing a new science appeared, science which could study groups of people and their behaviour in groups, human interactions and their results.

As origins of sociology are seen in spiritual and political ideas of the Enlightenment and reaction to the French Revolution, French thinkers, English and German philosophers who worked and created in that period are considered direct predecessors of sociological knowledge.

Of German philosophers Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is more often recollected due to his contribution to development of social problems, in particular problems of personality. Kant believed that man is an ambivalent being by his nature: he is both good and bad, honest and dishonest, fair and unfair, free and dependent. To his mind, man’s natural negative character is hidden and displayed in those living conditions which make man reveal his vices. But man is striving for self-perfection and his ally is reason that helps man to overcome his negative qualities. Kant considered that harmony between human and the society is achieved if man overcomes his vices by obeying laws and moral norms.

Georg Hegel (1770-1831) made this dialectics more generalized. His aim was to define basic determinants of historic development so that he could examine peculiarities of its realization in different historic periods and show correlation of historic necessity and people’s conscious activities. He drew a picture of social reality all parts of which (objective and subjective, dynamic and static, material and ideal) are interrelated by a dialectic method.

Of French philosophers one can mention Charles Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Saint-Simon and others. Ch. Montesquieu (1689-1755) underlined importance of comparative research of social phenomena. J.-J. Rousseau (1712-1778) distinguished classes in the society and believed that man’s nature is good but man is “spoilt” by the society. Into the basis of harmonic arrangement of the society he put social agreement, i.e. consensus of people as reflection of their common will which is expressed in laws.

Saint-Simon (1760-1825) was possibly the first to suggest planning as a way to run economy. To his mind, social problems could be solved by moral and religious reforming, based on employers’ good will to better the working conditions. In 1822 he published his work, Plan de traveaux scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiser la société (План научных работ, необходимых для реорганизации общес­тва), written with Auguste Comte. In the book the thinkers suggested an idea of developing a new science of the society which, by analogy with physics, should be based on observation, experiment and other methods of natural sciences. Initially, the science was given the name of social physics.

By that time a social theory presented a mixed spectrum of various views in which both basic and additional motives were combined; basic motives bore rational and irrational character while economic, political, legal and moral interests constituted the entity of additional ones. Those views reflected thinkers and researchers’ outlook, their ideological positions and ways of studying social problems.

In this context legacy by A. Comte (1798-1857), the initiator of sociology, was not an exception. There are two reasons why A. Comte is acknowledged as the founding father of sociology. First, he developed a systematic and hierarchical classification of all sciences and by including sociology into them, he gave grounds for establishing its autonomy as a discipline; second, in 1839 he changed the name of social physics into sociology. His fundamental works are Cours de philosophie positive in 6 volumes (1830-1842), Système de politique positive (1850-1854).

A. Comte’s legacy includes the law of three phases, his contribution to further development of the theory of an industrial society started by Saint-Simon. It is by his statement of this law that he is best known in the English-speaking world. The law says that the society has gone through three phases:

  1. theological, or military authority;

  2. metaphysical, or feudal authority;

  3. scientific, or positive phase seen as an industrial civilization.

In the theological phase man’s place in the society and the society’s restrictions upon man were referred to God. The metaphysic phase involved justification of universal rights as something on a higher plane than the authority of any human ruler could countermand. The scientific phase is that one in which people could find solutions to social problems and bring them into force despite of the proclamations of human rights or prophecy of the will of God. For its time, the idea of a scientific phase was considered up-to-date.

A. Comte also formulated the law of three phases: human development (social progress) progresses from a theological stage, in which nature was mythically conceived and man sought the explanation of natural phenomena from supernatural beings, through a metaphysical stage in which nature was conceived of as a result of obscure forces and man sought the explanation of natural phenomena from them to the final positive stage in which all abstract and obscure forces are discarded, and natural phenomena are explained by their constant relationship. This progress is forced through the development of human mind and increasing application of thought, reasoning and logic to the understanding of world. Due to it, A. Comte thought that industrialization is the result of a scientific way of thinking spread out in all spheres of human life but not of technical and economic progress.

However, he rejected the role of general theory in sociology: instead of theoretic generalization of empiric data to make up a whole of them, he presented the society as a simple entity of interconnected facts. He didn’t clearly determine the subject of a new science; either he didn’t find its scientific method to learn laws of social development.

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