A Dream of Reason I. Part 6 Methodological Notes on Autonomy and Influence

Opening with Others: Methodological Notes on Autonomy and Influence (2003)



               “The social/behavioral sciences” and the humanities now require that authors comment on all literature that could conceivably “touch on” relevant disciplinary problems.We hold that forced commentary tends to discourage and distort foundational projects. A foundational project, with its wide range of relevance, has a duty to sustain the integrity of its autonomous dynamic.

This is an autonomous inquiry. Unless otherwise specified, reference to the “beginning,” “initiation,” “opening,” “introduction” of its themes, “frameworks,” concepts, orientations, “lines of constructive implication,” etc. are internal. (For example, “an explicitly dialogical model developed from working through constructive implications of personal-interpersonal field theory” is an internal reference. It leaves open as a separate issue the relationship of both orientations to the work of others.)

Yet to proceed from itself is not necessarily to move in a vacuum. We proceed in voluntary dialogue with our “ancestors”[1]… There is also concern with historical justice, especially to such neglected and/or misunderstood ancestors as Pitirim Sorokin.[2]


In “autonomous inquiry” the relevance of others work is primarily instrumental. Yet if orienting concerns are clearly stated instrumental commentary can be respectful…. Quotation helps resist distortion.

One speaks for oneself. No one speaks only for him/herself. Inwardness is haunted… In our life together and apart the borderline (i.e., the place of interplay and ambiguity) is central.

2.Some Influences

“We all know where we are not. We all know who our sublime superiors are” (Derek Walcott, Schmidt, 7).

To do justice to this essay, one has to suffer the fate of music as an open wound (Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo).

Taken as a whole, the volume (Sociocultural Causality, Space, Time) aims at a liberation of sociology and the social sciences from voluntary servitude to the natural sciences. If this servitude were fertile and fruitful, no objection could be raised against it. Unfortunately, however, in spite of endless efforts of the past and of the present, it has invariably proved sterile in its scientific and cognitive results. Hence the advisability, even the necessity of terminating this servitude and declaring the independence of the social sciences and sociology. In order that such independence may rest upon a firm foundation, sociology and the social sciences must have their own set of referential principles and their own peculiar methods suited to the nature of the phenomena they deal with. (Sorokin, 1943vii)


If one is drawn by unassailable scientific argument to the conclusion that man is a cockroach, rat or dog, that makes a difference. It also makes a difference when one achieves ultimate certitude that man is a telephone exchange; a servo mechanism; a binary digital computer; a reward seeking vector; a hyphen between an S and R process; a stimulation maximizer; a food, sex or libido energy converter; a “utilities” maximizing game player a status seeker… or a hollow cocoon seeking ecstasy through the liquidation of its boundaries. (Koch1999, 120-121)


We need not summon all ancestors to gather here. They appear as guides at crucial

Junctures…. Yet brief introductions might be useful “as the curtain rises.”


             These essays are constructed in dialogue with the work of, among others, “Chuangtzu”, R.G. Collingwood, Sigmund Koch, Kurt Koffka, Wolfgang Kohler, Karl Mannheim, Plato, Georg Simmel, Socrates, Pitirim Sorokin and Vincent Van Gogh.


            The task of constructing a unified sociology-psychology was implicit – but not explicitly asserted – in the work of Sorokin and Talcott Parsons. (Both referred to themselves as “sociologists.”)

Both questioned the dominance of natural science over sociology, yet neither unambiguously asserted sociology as a distinct species of theoretical reason. (Both referred to themselves as “scientists.”)

Sorokin’s profound foundational commitment, focus on reconstruction, concern with cross-cultural methodology, and critical dialogue with the profession are crucial.

His citations are not limited to professionally certified “Western” authors. He was open to relevant disciplinary sources irrespective of cultural origin and professional coding.

Sorokin did not (as in many “hard headed” interpretations) understand science mystically as outside the human condition.

Art is understood as necessary and as, whatever else it also is, a way of knowing.


Unlike Florian Znanieki, Sorokin and Parsons, my teachers Lewis Coser, Everret Hughes, John Roberts, Maurice Stein and Robin Williams Jr., focused on relatively delimited questions. Unlike “normal” middle range theorists, they explored these questions in their human-universal and foundational relevance.

The profession, with its institutionalized disinterest in unique existence, over simplified the memory of these complex figures. Coser, for example, is usually classified as a theorist of conflict. He was also, and I think more crucially, a theorist of the historical vicissitudes of reason and individual autonomy.


The journalist Lincoln Steffens, exposed tensions between “moral stance” and political agenda. He traced predictable interpenetration of labeled opposites (e.g., business enterprise and criminal syndicate…police and outlaw, priest and “sinner”).

Frank Tannenbaum was a wonderful sociologist in this tradition.


            Contemporary symbolic interactionist sociology arose at an intersection of Simmel, pragmatism and anthropological “field work”. Recent representatives include Willard Waller, and what we designate “the school of Everett C. Hughes” (e.g. Howard Becker, Erving Goffman, Blanche Greer and Anselm Strauss).

Improvisation and negotiation were recognized, and emphasized.

They respected “definitions of the situation” while preserving critical distance…. Hughes’ Good People and Dirty Work, Goffman’s Asylums and Waller’s The Sociology of Teaching interpret bureaucratic processing from the perspective of participants and as patterns of oppression and dehumanization.

Generalization emerged in dialogue with lived existence. – Presentation was rich with detailed observation. Writing was personal, clear, flexible and natural

Their careful, humanistic, imaginative explorations did not directly challenge sociologies received social scientific identity. Their fine writing did not directly challenge received literary tradition

I find their work, and Simmel’s, helpful in its direct “phenomenal” relevance.


         As an outsider, I dream of philosophy as “an exile home” for all endangered projects of reason, “an eternal America of the human spirit.”

I briefly crossed the border once…. When I was a graduate student in sociology at Cornell, I audited Norman Malcolm’s seminar on Spinoza. I was surprised to find middle-aged men among the students, even more surprised to learn that they were philosophy professors. Only Malcolm was apart from us, as a mediator

A short selection of Spinoza was assigned each class and discussed the following week.

In that room external status was irrelevant. No assumptions were drawn from differences of body, clothing, gesture or accent…. Disregard of received distinctions can lead to lowest common denominator leveling and thus to rudeness. Here the highest level of nonservile respect was extended to all. “A questioning openness” appeared within the room.

One’s role emerged as though by natural law through dialogue of speech and silence. When one spoke, any comment however undercutting was acceptance. Only silence discouraged further speech. (There were remarks by professors that sank without a ripple.)

Unless one was Thrasymachus on speed, three successive silences, even if distributed over two weeks, would transform one from potential speaker to observer. One who voluntarily chose silence and returned was a crucial participant. His/her sacrifice of ego to reason deepened the silence in which the speech of others could be born.

I hadn’t thought of any of this for many years until I wandered into a seminar on Isaiah Berlin and rose from the audience to speak.

I never read another word by Spinoza. I took only one other course in philosophy. Yet perhaps “seeds were planted.” Perhaps Spinoza’s distinction between substance and attribute influenced my later focus on “unity in diversity” and “co-constitutive aspects”. Perhaps I was influenced by his intimate relationship between literary form and content.

Certainly the seminar, which I now understand is not entirely representative of the profession, influenced my notions of reason and dialogue.

I would be delighted if there is in this limited halting work any trace of Spinoza, as though a remembered glance at the Parthenon survived in the design of a New England rural theater.


One task is to construct a literary style that comments on itself as it proceeds (i.e., that embodies awareness-in-the-act).

Among authors committed to theory and in explicit dialogue with reason, I found Collingwood, Sigmund Freud, William James, Karl Jung, Nietzsche, Plato and Bertrand Russell directly relevant.

I also turned to Jorge Luis Borges, T.S. Elliot, Mina Loy, and, despite everything, Ezra Pound…I often thought of this manuscript, considered entirely in its literary aspect, as The Prose Cantos.



             I am influenced by my work as artist and art teacher.

           One paints in moment-by-moment dialogue as in intimate conversation. –   In the strange and wonderful realm of art the intellect is not a “calculating machine”… Thought is passionate. Emotions are thought saturated…. The universal is transformed in personal voice as Monet’s cathedrals melt in light.


Ovid, the Japanese image “bubble world,” Lady Murasaki, Proust, the lily ponds of Claude Monet, suggest interpenetrations, metamorphoses and intertranslations.

At Bard, influenced by Irma Brandeis and Theodore Weiss, I came to see each work of art as both “a world onto itself” and a moment in a conversation.


         At Cornell I was friendly with graduate students working for the cyberneticist Frank Rosenblatt. They were developing a computer, “the perceptron,” that could understand spoken English. I understood them to say that it did not require task specific programming, was modeled on the human brain and could learn. I envisioned endlessly intertranslateable patterns: analytically distinct yet flowing through each other within dynamic media: sound waves into neural patterns into stream of consciousness into human interaction into institutional constellations.[3]


           In Roberts “codes and models” orientation “culture stores” skills and styles. He focused on games and other transitional mediating spaces (e.g., “road side cultures”)…. Games model the problem/solution style of the order of life in and through which they arise; participants rehearse survival and play connection.


       In the1950s after two world wars the crucial relevance of “cultural” diversity to human nature broke into common awareness in the United States. Sociology-psychology should recognize uniqueness and complexity without abandoning the search for a common humanity: it should abstract without lowest common denominator banality. … Influences include anthropological “cross cultural” research,[4] Collingwood’s problem/solution analysis, Simmel’s concept of form, and Gestalt psychology.


My first teacher in sociology was Gerard DeGre. His brilliant early work includes a pioneering synthesis in the sociology of knowledge and an analysis of the social conditions of freedom. Then he rejected social science and, while remaining a wonderful teacher (Prospero in retirement disguised as a tenured professor), rarely published.

I now read his silence as principled. Sociology requires an appropriate discipline. Social science is not that discipline. Undisciplined and/or inappropriate work that claims to engage the human condition “from the side of reason” betrays species, reason, and professional honor. Thus silence is an ethical imperative, silence rather than betrayal…. To move honorably beyond silence requires discipline reconstruction.


I experience Nietzsche’s Ecco Homo and Primo Levi’s The Drowned and The Saved – all texts that struggle to sustain reason in madness and horror – as sacred.


The Socratic-Platonic achievement is an extreme instance, almost ideal typical, of foundational reconstructive inquiry…. Platonism is a delimited “philosophical” position that is distinct from and in at least partial disagreement with other (e.g., Aristotelian, Hegelian, neopositivist) positions. Yet in so far as all explicitly theoretical and reasonable inquiries are (in Whitehead’s phrase) “footnotes to Plato” the positions that oppose Plato are Platonic.



It is traditional in sociology to designate a group of late 19th and early 20th century scholars “classical theorists.” We would, as in most other disciplines­, reserve the term “classical” for our Greek ancestors.


From the (admittedly partial) sociological-psychological disciplinary perspective we interpret Socrates as having engaged in a life long participant observation field study of Athens. This study combined emersion in a unique “order of life” with universally relevant concerns. It raised to explicit formulation and critique the assumptions of participants, which were also guiding presuppositions of the city’s life and variations on co-constitutive human themes. It questioned and articulated its own processes. It contributed to the clarification, evaluation and reconstruction of varied disciplinary and transdisciplinary problems and concepts. It opened endlessly fruitful lines of “constructive implication.”[5]


For Socrates a primary problem was to disclose and “work through” universal concepts against the background of “immediate lived existence.”

Now abstraction so dominates that everything not represented in theory is endangered (modeled worlds sailing at midnight towards rebirth of light). … It is crucial to reopen the dialogue of reason with potentiality, inwardness, uniqueness, autonomy and I-Thou connection.

3.An Invitation to Dialogue

With few exceptions (e.g., Alan Blum and Peter McHugh) sociological theorists of my own and later “generations” have not influenced this inquiry. [6]

When I completed the first full draft of this manuscript in 1998 I had been outside professional sociology (I hadn’t spoken to a sociologist) for over 25 years…. Suddenly I thought, “Probably what I’m saying is ‘old news’.” I went to the 42nd Street Library and read recent literature.

I became convinced that I had contributed to the discipline…. I also found work I like.[7]I find the work I like too complex and profound to address in passing. Extended secondary commentary that does not disclose my own position would be dishonest…. Again and again I began and then destroyed lists of comments and questions.

The first step is to make my position available. The second is to be available for dialogue.

Continue Reading Avron Soyer’s A Dream of Reason II. Some “Constitutional” Concerns

Entering through Tension and Resistance: Struggling in the Net (1996)


[1] Koch explores co-creativity through the concept “search group.” This concept can be extended historically (e.g., Parmenides, Pythagoras and Heraclitus were in Plato’s “extended search group”).

[2] After the triumph of Parsonsian theory in the 1950s alternative formulations of comparable scope by his older contemporaries Sorokin and Florian Znanieki were disregarded. This neglect is continued in many recent interpretations of sociological theory “in the age of Parsons.”

The work of, among others, Joseph B. Ford, Barry Johnson, Michel P. Richard, George Ritzer, Irwin Sperber, Palmer C. Talbutt and Edward A Tiryakian, suggest that Sorokin’s exile may be ending.

[3] I was surprised how different these people were humanly from “hard scientists” as depicted by my teachers.

[4] I am especially grateful to Roberts for hiring me to construct “an instrument” for the universal description of rituals.

[5] If I had not been a student of DeGre and Hughes, I would not have recognized Socrates as, whoever else he also was, a sociologist-psychologist.

[6] Because we share central terms with the recently proposed “dialogical turn” it was necessary to briefly address some differences.

[7] Jeffrey Alexander, Elijah Anderson, Zygmunt Bauman, Richard Brown, Arthur W. Frank, Scott Lash, Sidney Lemert, David Levine, George Ritzer, Barry Sandywell, Steven Seidman, and Richard Sennett immediately come to mind. Also, outside the profession, Mary Douglas, Hurbert J.M. Hermans, George Lakoff, Alexander Nehamas and Louis A. Sass. The philosophers Richard J. Bernstein, William Desmond and Martha C. Nussbaum are peripheral influences here. Further reading convinced me that they are centrally relevant to the foundational reconstruction of sociology psychology.

I will send these authors copies of this manuscript as an invitation to dialogue.


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