From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Endings (6)—Primitive Classification

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series "Endings."
[a] On the cover of "Primitive Classification"
As endings go, Primitive Classification—the intriguing, inconsistent, and insightful minor classic written by uncle and nephew, Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss—seems to be nothing out of the ordinary. Like a good deal of social scientific writing, it sums up what the authors have stated throughout their slender text. In this case, it says again that the individual is overrated.

[c] Nephew
[b] Uncle
A more careful reading of the last few paragraphs of the essay, however, starts to give the reader a feel for the spirit of the "Durkheimian" school of social analysis. Originally published in the seminal journal Année sociologique, the essay builds to a point that was powerful when originally written, and even now is too easily forgotten in what we might call everyday social analysis. In a nutshell, social forces swirl and penetrate all aspects of life, from individual thought to social organization.

By the time our authors reach their final paragraph, they are thoroughly in their element, stating boldly the sweeping power of social analysis to break the tangles of muddled, overly "individualistic" thought. The careful reader is spellbound. Even today, I cheer them as they tackle what seems to be the entire Western philosophical tradition focusing on individual action and thought. They build to an enveloping crescendo with the alliterative power of the penultimate line. I get a rush just typing it. It is a rich and powerful Beethoven.

As soon as they are posed in sociological terms, all these questions, so long debated by metaphysicians and psychologists, will at last be liberated from the tautologies in which they have languished.

And then they blow it with one of the worst final sentences I have ever read. I am a great admirer of Durkheim and Mauss, but I cannot understand how their final sentence—which directly follows the robust writing, above—got past their inner (or outer) editors. You'll find it in the quotation below.  I cannot bear to repeat it here.

Note to aspiring writers—don't back off of your forceful point at the very moment you have your readers within your grasp. Liberate them from their tautologies and close in triumph.

Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, Primitive Classification
[d] Classified
It has quite often been said that man began to conceive things by relating them to himself. The above allows us to see more precisely what this anthropocentrism, which might better be called sociocentrism, consists of. The center of the first schemes of nature is not the individual; it is society. It is this that is objectified, not man...This is how it is that the idea of a logical classification was so hard to form, as we showed at the beginning of this work. It is because a logical classification is a classification of concepts. Now a concept is the notion of a clearly determined group of things; its limits may be marked precisely. Emotion, on the contrary, is something essentially fluid and inconsistent. Its contagious influence spreads far beyond its point of origin, extending to everything about it, so that it is not possible to say where its power of propagation ends. States of an emotional nature necessarily possess the same characteristic. It is not possible to say where they begin or where they end; they lose themselves in each other, and mingle their properties in such a way that they cannot be rigorously categorized...

[e] Durkheim's journal
Now emotion is naturally refractory to analysis, or at least lends itself uneasily to it, because it is too complex. Above all when it has a collective origin it defies critical and rational examination. The pressure exerted by the group on each of its members does not permit individuals to judge freely the notions which society itself has elaborated and in which it has placed something of its personality. Such constructs are sacred for individuals. Thus the history of scientific classification is, in the last analysis, the history of the stages by which this element of social affectivity has progressively weakened, leaving more and more room for the reflective thought of individuals. But it is not the case that these remote influences which we have just studied have ceased to be felt today. They have left behind them an effect which survives and is always present; it is the very cadre of classification, it is the ensemble of mental habits by virtue of which we conceive things and facts in the form of co-ordinated or hierarchized groups.

[f] Liberated from tautology
This example shows what light sociology throws on the genesis, and consequently the functioning, of logical operations. What we have tried to do for classification might equally be attempted for the other functions or fundamental notions of the understanding. We have already had occasion to mention, in passing, how even ideas so abstract as those of time and space are, at each point in their history, closely connected with the corresponding social organization. The same method could help us likewise to understand the manner in which the ideas of cause, substance, and the different modes of reasoning, etc. were formed. As soon as they are posed in sociological terms, all these questions, so long debated by metaphysicians and psychologists, will at last be liberated from the tautologies in which they have languished. At least, this is a new way which deserves to be tried.[1]

[1] Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, Primitive Classification [Rodney Needham, editor and translator] (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 87-88. Italics mine.

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