Friday, 1 June 2012

Which came first, the individual or the social?

We're settling into a rhythm now: Milbank talks about the next historical movement of 'secular' thought, we think, ah, now we're really getting to the birth of secularism, and he says haha, no, actually they're totally dependent on theology still. So that's the essence of this chapter, which deals with sociological thinkers from Malebranche to Durkheim. Honestly, I struggled a little here, both in terms of caring and understanding, as half the people Milbank talks about I've never heard of and the other half I've never read: apologies in advance if that makes this post less sensical than its predecessors.

So, 'sociology' emerged as a discipline which, unlike the political economists or the liberal thinker who thought that the basic constituent of human society was the independent individual, saw 'society' as a basic fact to be reckoned with and accounted for. One of the basic problems of political and social thought is the question of the relationship between the individual and society: do individuals construct society or does society construct individuals? Sociology was an attempt to answer this and, surprise surprise, Milbank thinks they basically nicked their fundamental assumptions from theology. The really sneaky thing, on Milbank's account, is that the early sociologists didn't just steal their ideas from theology, they then pretended that those same ideas were not theological, and used them to explain theology. The cheek!

Milbank locates the origins of sociology in the thought of Joseph de Maistre and Louis Jacques Marie de Bonald. Both of them draw in turn on the thought of Malebranche, who basically thinks that human beings can't possibly create anything new, and so all new ideas have to come directly from God. In de Bonald and de Maistre, this becomes the idea that it's God who holds the collection of individuals together by directly creating social institutions like language, writing, the family and political sovereignty. 'The social' isn't something that humans have made, it's entirely dependent on God.

Next up is Comte, who basically thinks he's doing away with God, although actually he leaves the basic theological structure of de Maistre and de Bonald's metaphysics intact. Comte thinks that it's not God but religion which holds the random collection of individuals together into a society. But the essence of religion is basically the celebration of humanity: what we worship isn't actually God but a mythologised version of 'humanity'. Eventually, Comte thinks, this will evolve into a more explicitly humanistic, secularised sort of religion; but it will still, essentially, be religion.

Then comes Durkheim, whose version of the 'God' figure holding the social world together draws on Kant, whose categorical imperative means that freedom paradoxically means that we should be obedient to a general ethical law. But even though Durkheim talks about the way that all our knowledge and laws and so on are socially constructed, he still basically assumes that there is an Absolute Transcendental Truth out there, keeping everything in place. He still (sort of) believes in God.

So, basically, the problem with sociology is that it assumes that things like society, law, politics, are just given, universal, basic facts of society as if they'd been magicked into being by God rather than constructed in complicated, messy and historically variable ways by human beings. Sociology relies on some (dodgy) theological assumptions that have been dressed up as if they're Science. And worst of all, for Milbank, is that sociology looks at human society throughout the ages, and sees that all human societies involve sacrifice. Because it can't conceive of such a 'basic' social fact being changed, it can't understand the way in which Jesus radically transforms the notion of sacrifice, making a peaceful society possible, and so one of the basic assumptions of sociological discourse in general is that humans are basically violent towards one another and unable to play together like good children. Sacrifice, violence, war and crime are just there, inescapable facts.

The real problem, Milbank thinks, lies in the attempt to try to resolve the chicken-and-egg question of the individual and society. But it's a problem that just can't be resolved: every individual action is formed by society and forms society in return, and so any 'science' which takes the social whole rather than the individual (or vice versa) as the basic fact is screwed from the outset. The only way to deal with the question is to tell stories about it: historiography is necessary but social science isn't. Did Milbank really just argue that the entire discipline of sociology is pointless? I think he did.

1 comment:

Melody Junkins said...
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