Lessons from Enter Plato
Charles Camic & Neil Gross: ‘ALVIN GOULDNER AND THE SOCIOLOGY OF IDEAS: Lessons from Enter Plato’
Alvin Gouldner’s 1965 book Enter Plato is one of the most important contributions ever made to the sociology of ideas. Overshadowed soon after its publication, however, by Gouldner’s more controversial work, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, the earlier book has suffered neglect. In an effort to correct this situation, we situate Enter Plato against the backdrop of other mid-twentieth-century works in the sociology of knowledge and related areas, arguing that Gouldner’s study was one of the first sustained responses to Robert K. Merton’s call for a sociology of knowledge that would steer a middle course between the abstract, speculative tendencies of the field’s European founders and the relatively atheoretical contributions of their American counterparts. We build on this interpretation to offer a contemporary sociological appraisal of Enter Plato, considering its positive and negative lessons for sociologists of knowledge and ideas at the present time.
Recent years have witnessed the growth of theory and research in the sociology of ideas, the branch of sociology that studies actors specialized in the production of cognitive, evaluative, and expressive ideas (e.g., claims, arguments, concepts, beliefs, assumptions, etc.) and the social processes by which their ideas emerge, develop, and change (see the review by Camic and Gross 2001). Yet, in an odd twist (albeit one that would surprise few sociologists of ideas), one of the most instructive works ever published in this field—more commonly known, under its older and more generic name, as the sociology of knowledge—has during this same period dropped from sight. We refer here to Alvin Gouldner’s monumental 1965 book, Enter Plato: Classical Greece and the Origins of Social Theory. Currently out of print, Enter Plato either is ignored or receives only cursory treatment even in the handful of works that deal with Gouldner’s sociology of knowledge (e.g., Lemert 1995; Agger 2000; Fuller 2000).
This essay is a modest two-step effort to fill the resulting lacunae in the sociology of knowledge/ideas. First, we briefly consider the argument of Enter Plato against the backdrop of other mid-twentieth-century works in the sociology of knowledge and related areas, arguing that Gouldner’s study was one of the first sustained efforts to heed Robert K. Merton’s call for work in the sociology of knowledge that would steer a middle course between the abstract, speculative tendencies of the field’s European founders and the relatively atheoretical contributions of their American counterparts. Second, in light of this reading, we offer a contemporary sociological appraisal of Enter Plato, considering its positive and negative lessons for sociologists of knowledge and ideas at the present time.
In one of the few existing books on Gouldner, James Chriss (1999, p. 74) locates Enter Plato near the beginning of Gouldner’s important shift, during the 1960s and 1970s, away from Mertonian functionalism, as exhibited in his Patterns of Industrial Bureaucracy (1954a) and Wildcat Strike (1954b), and toward his identity as a disciplinary gadfly and “outlaw” critic of the “sociological establishment.” However, while there is certainly some validity to this characterization (Gouldner did, for example, eventually use the notion of sociological reflexivity, developed in Enter Plato, to mount his vitriolic attack on Parsons in The Coming Crisis ), Enter Plato nonetheless remains deeply indebted to Robert K. Merton. This is so, though, not with respect to the book’s position vis-ga-vis functionalism, but rather because in it Gouldner was centrally concerned with answering the challenge that Merton had previously laid down for the sociology of knowledge, most plainly in his 1945 essay, “Paradigm for the Sociology of Knowledge” (Merton  1968). To understand this challenge, a few words must be said about the sociology of knowledge and related areas in the period leading up Enter Plato. Despite recent signs of life, the sociology of knowledge has long been a moribund field. This has not always been its condition, however. While, for reasons sketched elsewhere, the field went into a steep decline in the late 1960s, in the three decades before this, the sociology of knowledge was a hotbed of intellectual activity in Europe and America alike (Camic 2001). In the background of this period lay the efforts of Max Scheler and Karl Mannheim, during the 1920s and 1930s, to create Wissensoziologie, building in part on earlier traditions of work by Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and other thinkers from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. For present purposes, the substance of these efforts is less important than the international groundswell of writing precipitated by Scheler’s and Mannheim’s ambitious calls for a sociology of knowledge that would plumb the social bases of the various products of human thought-and, by this means, arrive at far-reaching epistemological and political impli- cations. This outpouring included works by such varied figures as C. Wright Mills, Ger- ard DeGre, Florian Znaniecki, Pitirim Sorokin, Talcott Parsons, Edward Shils, Kurt Wolff, Werner Stark, Lewis Coser, Herbert Marcuse, Louis Althusser, Ernest Gellner, Lucien Goldmann, and “first-wave” sociologists of science such as Warren Hagstrom, Diana Crane, Joseph Ben-David, and Derek de Solla Price, among many others.
The theoretical and empirical diversity represented in these works is vast. Yet this diversity should not obscure certain overarching tendencies. In the present context, two of these particularly stand out. First was the wide rift between theoretical and empirical contributions to the sociology of knowledge, a rift exacerbated by the tendency for theoretical work to gravitate toward metatheoretical issues, while empirical work generally confined itself to descriptions of contemporary social patterns, apart from the occasional use of historical examples. Broadly speaking, this division corresponded to the divide between European and American contributors to the sociology of knowledge. In Europe, Mannheim’s writings unleashed fierce and protracted debates about whether efforts to sociologize the products of human thought illegitimately relativized knowledge-claims and divested them of their truth value—and, consequently, about how the sociology of knowledge itself should be grounded, defined, and bounded (Frisby 1983). Among those absorbed in these debates, such issues thwarted the launch of empirical research, even as the issues themselves remained unresolved and then reverberated in the work of Americans schooled in the European tradition. As late as 1959, for example, they formed Parsons’s ( 1970) starting point as he sought to subsume the sociology of knowledge under the rubric of a general theory of social systems and to theorize, from this vantage point, the conditions under which scientific and philosophical ideas, conceptualized as important components of culture, come to be influenced, in their selection of problems and in their orientations, by the values of society as a whole or by particular subsystems, thus serving to maintain or to undermine social equilibrium. Theoretical efforts of this type, however, were many levels removed from empirical work during the same period, where sociology of knowledge issues resurfaced in research that was generally based on contemporary attitude surveys, including a sprawling range of topics such as the influence of “social class and occupational position . . . on styles of thought,” “the development of group loyalties and the acquisition of occupational ideologies,” the role of “family-based experience and parental attitudes in determining political allegiances and attitudes,” “the effect of educational systems on the political attitudes of high school students,” and so on (for a review, see Curtis and Petras 1970).
There were, to be sure, a few exceptional works that sought to bridge this theory/ research divide—and to extend the research focus beyond contemporary societies—but what this amounted to was less the fusion of theoretical ideas with a sustained analysis of relevant historical evidence than a mere citing of brief examples to shore up broad theoretical orientations. For example, seeking to recast the sociology of knowledge as a contribution to hermeneutics, Stark (1958, pp. 104, 107) called for analyses of the thought of philosophers, historians, writers, musicians, and others that would proceed in a “radically non-ideological” fashion by showing how their ideas had been born of the “axiological” layers of culture to which their historical experiences had exposed them, a position he defended empirically by appealing to everything from Theodor Geiger’s work on Renaissance culture to Herbert Butterfield’s discussion of Whig and Tory historiography. Likewise, Coser’s Men of Ideas (1965, p. ix) used short vignettes about the British Royal Society, French rococo salons, Greenwich Village, and other sites to corroborate his thesis that intellectual productivity requires not simply legitimating institutional structures and material supports but also venues where intellectuals can come into contact with one another, taking pleasure “in the play of the mind and relish[ing] … it for its own sake.” Beyond works of this sort, with their illustrative use of historical examples to sustain foundational claims about the social bases of knowledge, however, the sociology of knowledge remained in this period too split between its theoretical and empirical branches to bring forth works concerned with the analysis of empirically tractable theoretical statements about the social production of human knowledge.
Aside from this, the second (and closely related) general characteristic of the sociology of knowledge in these years was its tendency to neglect what was arguably among the core issues of a field concerned with the products of human thought: namely, the contents of those products and the particular men and women who produced them. There were several reasons for this. To begin with, most scholars working in the sociology of knowledge tacitly followed Mannheim and Durkheim in understanding their project to involve the study not of the ideas of individual knowledge-producers or intellectuals but rather those of social groups (classes, sects, tribes, subcultures, strata in bureaucratic hierarchies, the intelligentsia, etc.). William Defoe, John Stuart Mill, and Max Eastman are all names that grace the pages of Coser’s Men of Ideas, for example, but they enter his analysis, for the most part, only as representatives of their intellectual milieux (the London coffee house, the British nineteenth-century review, and East Village literary bohemia, respectively). Given this emphasis on collective patterns of thought, the development of individual-level hypotheses was a task that the sociology of knowledge widely overlooked.
Compounding this omission was the sociology of knowledge’s growing aversion to examining the contents of intellectual products. This attitude represented a break from Mannheim ( 1936: 264-65) who, while sometimes excepting mathematics and portions of the “exact sciences” from consideration, had otherwise conceived the sociology of knowledge as dealing with the “social conditioning” of the forms and the contents of “every product of thought.” Although some mid-century sociologists of knowledge still held to this view, it increasingly became the minority position, particularly with the emergence of the sociology of science as a distinct specialty area. For, siding with “internalist” over “externalist” historians of science, “first-wave” sociologists of science generally focused on the social-organizational features of scientific practice, declaring that “the possibilities for [a] sociology of the conceptual and theoretical contents of science are extremely limited” (Ben-David 1971, p. 14, emphasis added). Behind this self-limitation lay the widely held belief that insofar as scientific ideas are true (as the sociologist must take them to be), their contents necessarily have rational (logical, empirical) foundations, not social bases. From this it was a short step to the conclusion, reached by sociologists of science and knowledge alike, that the substance of true ideas—in the hard sciences and also, by extension, in religion, philosophy, social science, and so on—does not admit of sociological explanation; the latter pertains only to the content of false, nonrational ideas, and indeed cannot be applied unless this condition holds. To sociologists of knowledge unable to establish this condition, or unwilling to enter the fray and engage the problem of the truth or falsity of intellectual products, the message was clear: hands off the content of ideas. And until post-Kuhnian sociologists of science later called it into question, this restriction proved largely acceptable, dovetailing with the sociology of knowledge’s neglect of individual men and women of ideas to steer to field away from efforts to examine particular knowledge-producers and the substance of what they produce.
It is historically significant that some of these same overarching characteristics were already visible in the sociology of knowledge when Merton surveyed the field in the 1940s, both in the famous essay that eventually was entitled “Paradigm for the Sociology of Knowledge” and in several other chapters of Social Theory and Social Structure ( 1968). Observing in the former that Wissenssoziologie had only come into its own in the “last generation” and was already in a state of considerable confusion (p. 510), Merton set out a schema designed to “introduce a basis of comparability among the welter of studies which have appeared” (p. 514). This Merton did by offering a systematic inventory, on the one hand, of the many different types and aspects of “mental productions” and, on the other, of the many possible sociocultural or “existential bases” for these human thought-products (pp. 514-515). Additionally, he spotlighted a question that he felt his predecessors had neglected: “How are mental productions related to the existential basis?” In answer, he distinguished a wide range of possible modes of relationship, the analysis of which “promise[d] to take research in the sociology of knowledge from the plane of general imputation to that of testable empirical inquiry” (pp. 515,537).
In developing this “paradigm,” Merton pointed out that there were significant differences between European and American approaches to the sociology of knowledge, each with marked deficiencies. Thematically, the Europeans tended to focus more on “the intellectual products of experts” or the “intellectual elite,” whereas “the American variant has its focus in the sociological study of popular belief’ (p. 495). Beyond this, European scholars were, according to Merton, much less careful with their empirical data: “An impression derived from a few documents, particularly if these documents refer to a time or place sufficiently remote, will pass muster as fact about widespread currents of thought or about generally held doctrines” (p. 496). On the other hand, though, if Americans were more careful empirical researchers, their work nevertheless had “the defects of its qualities”: so concerned with “the establishment of fact,” American contributions to the sociology of knowledge “consider … only occasionally the theoretic pertinence of the facts, once established” (pp. 497-498). In addition, according to Merton, due to their emphasis on methodological precision, American researchers tended to study only the present, for, as he wryly put it, “no techniques have yet been developed for interviewing cross-sections of populations in the remote past” (p. 499). At the same time, precisely because European scholars were so historically minded,”tracing [their] … intellectual lineage from history, discursive philosophy and the arts” (p. 500), they were often unwilling to state clearly the “research technique” by which their analyses were carried out, feeling that doing so would detract from the aesthetic value of their texts.
All told, Merton judged this to be a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs, and he thus sought to offer a solution. What was necessary, in his view, was to “work out the means of bringing … together” (p. 500) these two lines of inquiry as much as possible in the form of a sociological subfield that would exhibit theoretical clarity, conscientiousness with respect to empirical data, methodological transparency, and an openness to both historical and contemporary material. Merton concluded his programmatic essay by specifying some of the topics that this kind of sociology of knowledge might take up:
Much remains to be investigated concerning the bases of class identifications by intellectuals, their alienation from dominant or subordinate strata in the population, their avoidance of or indulgence in researches which have immediate value-implications challenging current institutional arrangements inimical to the attainment of culturally approved goals, the pressures toward technicism and away from dangerous thoughts, the bureaucratization of intellectuals as a process whereby problems of policy are converted into problems of administration, the areas of social life in which expert and positive knowledge are deemed appropriate and those in which the wisdom of the plain man is alone considered necessary-in short, the shifting role of the intellec- tual and the relation of these changes to the structure, content and influence of his work. (p. 539: emphasis added)
In our view, Enter Plato was a direct response to Merton’s challenge—a challenge that (despite its appearance in a widely read text) had gone widely unheeded in the twenty years that separate the “Paradigm for the Sociology of Knowledge” from Gouldner’s Enter Plato. Gouldner does not, to be sure, say this explicitly in his text, and we have not carried out the kind of archival research on the Merton-Gouldner relationship that would enable us to determine Gouldner’s intentions with historical certainty. Nevertheless, it is clear that Merton, who was Gouldner’s mentor during his graduate training at Columbia University, casts his shadow over Enter Plato. Indeed, it is to Robert K. Merton that Gouldner dedicates the book. Moreover, given that the characteristics we described above in the sociology of knowledge are tendencies that continued in the 1960s, Merton’s 1945 appraisal of the field remained, as Gouldner surely would have known, only too applicable two decades later, thus presenting a situation that still called out for a new kind of work: most manifestly, for a sociology of knowledge that conjoined theoretical concerns with the analysis of appropriate empirical data and, somewhat less obviously, for studies (among other things) of the content of the ideas of particular intellectuals in particular times and places.
This is what Gouldner, in fact, delivers, as if explicitly taking up the gauntlet Merton had thrown down. For, far from focusing his study primarily on the sorts of meta-theoretical debates that occupied many of his contemporaries, on elaborate justifications for the sociology of knowledge, or on empirically ungrounded assertions about the broad relationship between social factors and some aspect of knowledge production, Gouldner sets out to carefully “apply such perspectives as are common to sociologists to help understand how [Hellenic society] gave rise to and shaped Plato’s social theory” (Gouldner 1965, p. 4, emphasis added), thus articulating a very specific question, whose wording duplicates the central question spotlighted in Merton’s “Paradigm.” Continuing in this vein, Gouldner explains that the point of this inquiry is not merely to demonstrate that ideas are conditioned by broad social factors but rather to develop models of the social conditioning process. He thus seeks, as he says, to “examine Plato as a case of a social theorist with a view to learning not merely about him as one man or one theorist but about social theorists more generally” (p. 170), thereby “contribut[ing] to the formulation of concepts with which [general] hypotheses can be stated and … which could be tested with proper samples” (p. 171).
To do this, Gouldner develops an analysis of Greek society that mobilizes the concept of “character” that featured in sociological theory and research at the time. In Character and Social Structure, Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills (1954, p. xxiii) called for the study of “men enacting roles in political, economic, and religious institutions in vari- ous societies” and for “theories of how, on the one hand, types of personalities are variously anchored in each of these institutional orders, and, on the other hand, how the institutional orders themselves are variously combined, to form historical types of social structures.” This broadly Weberian program, anchored in a neo-Freudian awareness that cultures vary not only in their cognitive and evaluative dimensions, but also with respect to the personality types to which they give rise, was one that found its way into some of the most popular sociological writings of the day, including books such as One Dimensional Man, The Lonely Crowd, Small Town in Mass Society, The Authoritarian Personality, The Politics of Mass Society, and Mills’s own White Collar. Gouldner’s effort to integrate theory and empirical analysis in Enter Plato owes much to this heterogeneous tradition of work.
The book is subdivided into two parts, the first of which (entitled “The Hellenic World”) begins with a discussion of macrolevel features of Athenian society in Plato’s time, particularly its class structure and political system, and then proceeds to an analysis of what Gouldner sees as the most significant aspects of Greek male character. Greek male character, in his account, was a psychological amalgam composed of high levels of anxiety, free-flowing hatreds and jealousies born of class tensions, a driving ethic centered on the achievement of fame and glory, a pessimistic outlook on life, a rationalist and essentially antitraditionalist orientation, a profound sensitivity toward shame, a psychic gap between the two genders corresponding with a homoerotic affect structure among men, fundamental ambivalence about one’s potency in a world of godly design, and deep emotional identification with and commitment to the polls. Gouldner draws out these characterological attributes in the course of a learned 160-page discussion of research by classical scholars. Inevitably, when classicists reviewed the book, there were some who found its rendering of the texture of Greek life somewhat idiosyncratic. What is striking for our purposes, however, is the unusual care that Gouldner, as a sociologist working before the golden age of historical sociology in the 1980s, took with his historical data. Where the sociology of knowledge, to the extent that it used historical evidence at all, had previously made do with quick, impressionistic examples, Enter Plato stands out for the empirical richness and depth with which Gouldner describes the context where Plato lived and developed his ideas.
But Gouldner does not stop here. In the second part of Enter Plato, he delves in detail into the substance of Plato’s ideas, combining his own close reading of Plato’s works with various references to the scholarly literature, in an effort to understand not selected aspects of Plato’s social theory but anything and everything about it, thus pinning down what the sociologist needs to explain. At this point, Gouldner returns to Merton’s “how” question.
To link the contents of Plato’s thought in Part II of Enter Plato with the charactero- logical analysis of Greek society in Part I, Gouldner theorizes that “‘all social theories … embody the traces of social diagnosis and social therapy …. One way in which social theories can be understood, then, is as analysis, clear or cryptic, of the cause and possible cures of the ills of the society to which the theorist has been subjected” (p. 171). Plato’s philosophy, in this understanding, should be seen as an “alternative to politics” (p. 173), the efforts of a politically frustrated “young aristocrat” to reshape his world through intellectual influence alone.
But why should Plato have wanted to reshape it in one way rather than another? Interestingly, Gouldner’s way into this question emerges when he discusses the difference between Plato’s theory of knowledge, which, he asserts, was psychologistic in nature, and a genuine sociology of knowledge. What Plato overlooked, Gouldner argues, is that “cultural and historical differences . . . may variously shape the truth available to different groups in different times and places and, indeed, the very categories of thought itself” (p. 205). Despite his focus on the ideas of Plato as an individual, then, Gouldner clearly holds that it is via the medium of group influence that social and cultural factors shape ideas. And this, he claims, is no less true of social-theoretical ideas than of any others. “Major breakthroughs in social theory,” he writes, “are not the product of lonely genius but are often the product of a few men working closely together. Some kind of group support is helpful to those striving to elude conventional ways of looking at human behavior” (p. 177). “The function of the student-disciple,” Gouldner continues, “is not merely to do the routine, dirty’ work of his mentor…. The more intellectually significant function of the admiring and friendly disciple is—through his favorable disposition to his mentor—to give consensual validation to the latter’s innovations before they are given over to the public scrutiny of his peers” (p. 178). And why would such validation be given to certain ideas but not others? While Gouldner does not make the point as explicitly in Enter Plato as he will do in The Coming Crisis, the theoretical claim that runs through all his empirical analysis is that support gathers behind those ideas that resonate, at a visceral and subconscious level, with the lived reality of the social world as it is experienced by the intellectuals concerned. Prior to Gouldner, one can find hints of this claim in Marx’s discussions of ideology in Capital and in Mannheim’s notion of weltanschauung, but Enter Plato presents the thesis and supporting evidence for it in a way that made its utility for an individual-level sociology of ideas clearer than ever.
The notion of resonance, when combined with his analysis of the extent to which Plato (and his followers) had characterological profiles similar to those of other Athenians, enables Gouldner to root some of the major themes in Plato’s philosophy in their resonances with broader Greek experience. A representative argument here begins with Gouldner’s assertion that the common factor in many otherwise disparate aspects of Greek experience was an anxiety-provoking sense of the disorderliness of society. This then sets up his claim that the major components of Plato’s thought can be seen as concerned with restoring order to the polis. On Gouldner’s reading, it is a desire to mend rifts in the social fabric that undergirds Plato’s theory of the Forms, since recognition of the existence of eternal, universally valid truths constituted a natural ideational correlate of value consensus. Similarly, Gouldner interprets Plato’s essentialism as tied to his interest in legitimating the existing stratification system: Plato desired a reduction in class conflict not because it would serve his class interests, but because he experi- enced conflict of this sort as deeply distressing at a psychological level. This, Gouldner claims, led Plato (and his followers), if only half consciously, to the idea that for each individual to assume the social position allotted at birth is an arrangement that is both natural and, given the interdependence of the universe, crucial for the well- being of society.
Whatever one thinks of the substance of Gouldner’s various arguments, it should be clear that with them he carried the sociology of knowledge, along Mertonian lines, farther and deeper than it had been pushed before. That his still more explicit theorization of the role of experientially based “background assumptions” in shap- ing a thinker’s ideas did not come to the fore until The Coming Crisis should not obscure the fact that this empirically anchored theoretical understanding of the social conditioning of ideas was already at work in Enter Plato. Its articulations there, when combined with Gouldner’s degree of engagement both with the details of Greek social and cultural history and with the content of Plato’s philosophy, marks Enter Plato as a turning point in the history of the sociology of knowledge. With this book, the field attained precisely the kind of integration of theory and empirical analysis (and openness to the study of the contents of the ideas of specific intellectuals) that Merton had previously called for-and that, after the long fallow period that followed (ca. 1970-1990s), has characterized its recent reincarnation as the sociology of ideas.
But the significance of Enter Plato lies not only in its neglected historical role in the development of the sociology of knowledge/ideas. More than thirty-five years after its publication, the book still has much to teach scholars both about its immediate topic (the origins of social theory in Greek society) and about the sociological study of ideas more generally. Here we focus on two of these lessons.
The first is an important warning. Above, we presented Enter Plato as attuned to the Mertonian question of how broad social conditions translate into mental productions and drew attention to Gouldner’s use of concepts such as character and resonance to specify the mediating links between macroconditions and Plato’s own ideas. However, while this is the dominant strain in Gouldner’s analysis, the text contains another current, a tendency to sideline mediating linkages and to lapse into a more problematic form of explanation that Merton had sought to stem: an explanation by direct appeal to macrosocial factors. This form of explanation has a long history in the sociology of knowledge and can be seen in Mannheim’s own comment ( 1936, p. 9) on Greek philosophy, viz., that it was the “process of [social] ascent … in Athenian democracy [that] called forth the first great surge of skepticism in the history of Occidental thought.” The point to note here, however, is the occasional return of this type of argument in Enter Plato itself, as in the following passage where Gouldner seeks to account for the contrasting philosophical outlooks of Socrates and Plato:
Socrates’s thought develops during the zenith of Athenian ascendancy. in the buoyant wake of the successful defense against the Persians, the coalescence of the Athenian empire, the vigor of the Periclean democracy, and the glorious rebuilding of Athens. Plato’s thought, however, is environed by the climactic experience of Athens’ defeat by Sparta, the subsequent destruction of the Athenian empire, and, finally, by the defeat of Sparta itself. If there is bitter conflict in the polis that Socrates knew,.., one could choose sides and that choice made some difference…. But Plato’s is a time when Athens has been humbled: when she is no longer the proud mistress of vast empire, when … aristocrats no longer have a living embodiment of their aspirations to hold up as a model. (p. 177)
Statements of this sort retreat to the nebulous analytical approach of Mannheim, giving little if any indication how this assortment of vaguely specified macrofactors, to which the entire Athenian populus was exposed, became the very specific ideas of Socrates and Plato. (Compounding this problem is Gouldner’s tendency to enter into lengthy exegeses of Plato’s ideas without any explicit effort to link these to anything beyond themselves, let alone to his earlier characterological discussions.) To be sure, this style of analysis is not, as we said, the dominant strain in Gouldner’s text. Moreover, in the context of a small society such as the Athenian city-state, where there was relatively little “time-space distinction” (to invoke Giddens ), the distinction between macrofactors and mediating social processes loses some of its sociological significance. But here is the cautionary tale that Gouldner’s text teaches: explanation by unmediated appeal to macrosocial factors is a seductive practice, even for a thinker, such as Gouldner, who was resolutely trying to overcome it. Indeed, having allowed this form of explanation to remain in operation along the sidelines of Enter Plato, in The Comning Crisis Gouldner (1970, p. 146) goes the next step and allows it to overrun the foreground, as he presents Parsons’s social theories as an alarmed reaction to the “widespread collective unrest” of Depression-era America.
But Enter Plato offers a second, much more positive lesson as well. In our view, virtually all of the major theoretical approaches in the sociology of ideas at the present time suffer from their lack of historicist sensitivities. Consider, for example, Randall Collins’s (1998) sociology of thinking, which treats intellectual choice as a function of the quest for intellectual attention. In Collins’s view, this one motivational logic applies to intellectuals everywhere, explaining the formulation of philosophical ideas in dozens of contexts, ranging from tenth-century Persia to France in the 1920s and 1930s. Similar tendencies toward ahistoricism appear in the work of Pierre Bourdieu. For although Bourdieu (1971; 1988) describes the “academic habitus” (with its irrepressible strivings for intellectual prestige) as emergent from the historically variable structures of the intellectual field, he nevertheless regards this pivotal concept in his sociology of ideas as sufficiently general in nature that it can explain the behavior of intellectuals in settings as diverse as those occupied by Martin Heidegger, Roland Barthes, and contemporary American researchers studying the urban “underclass” (e.g., Bourdieu and Wacquant 1999; Bourdieu 1991, 1988). Bourdieu’s disciples have extended the concept’s historical reach still further, mobilizing it to account for everything from the French Enlightenment (Heilbron 1995) to developments in nineteenth-century French pedagogy (Ringer 1992). Nor are sociologists of scientific knowledge, despite their inclination to repudiate general theories, immune from the same ahistoricism. That their work portrays contemporary cold fusion researchers (Gieryn 1999) as just as much interested in pursuing scientific “credibility” as members of the Royal Society in seventeenth- century England (Shapin 1994) apparently gives sociologists of scientific knowledge little pause.
But it should. Given the degree to which human cultures are currently understood as constitutive of the perceptual, cognitive, affective, motivational, evaluative, and corpo- real dimensions of social beings, it would be highly surprising if men and women of ideas, situated in vastly different cultural contexts, all formulated their ideas via the same intersubjective, sociopsychological processes. But until sociologists of ideas cease to make a priori assumptions about these processes and begin to examine the historical record for evidence as to how intellectual choices are actually made in this or that set- ting-in short, until they develop an historical sociology of intellectual action-they are likely to continue spinning out anachronistic empirical claims that will strike specialists in the relevant historical periods as naive sociological reductionism.
In this predicament, Enter Plato offers extremely valuable guidance because the book embodies Gouldner’s own working historicism. In making this claim, we acknowledge Gouldner’s apparently contrary statements, in a footnote to his chap- ter on “The Greek Contest System,” that “the intellectual climate of modern sociol- ogy is . . . strongly permeated by radical relativism and historicism” and that “I myself have never subscribed to this tradition” (p. 76). Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine why Gouldner would have conducted a characterological study of Athenian society if he did not believe that people in different sociohistorical settings may vary not only with respect to their norms and beliefs but also in the way their deepest and most diffuse affective drives gain specificity and generate lines of perception and action tied to the logic of their own social structures and institutions. Gouldner, to be sure, never denied that there may be important characterological continuities across settings. Among his several reasons for studying Greek rationality, for exam- ple, is his interest in tracing modern rationality back to its roots in antiquity. This is part of what Gouldner has in mind when he justifies his focus on ancient Greece with the claim that “only a juvenile romanticism parading as scientific objectivity could imagine that, since all societies are unique and worthy of study, ancient Greece has no special meaning and significance for Western man” (p. 4). Yet rather than to ahistorically take for granted that all human action is rational, Gouldner takes great care to describe the cultural factors that led to the emergence of Greek rationality. The most important of these, in his view, was the Greek contest system, which was a “spur to rationality” because it encouraged “a readiness to depart from traditionally received forms” and because “it undermines the traditional properties of interpersonal relationships” (p. 65). These aspects of the contest system helped inculcate among the ancient Greeks a “capacity for rational appraisal” as well as “low object cathexis”-qualities that, according to Gouldner, should not be under- stood as components of all human action everywhere but as among the distinctive features of “Athenian character structure” (p. 72).
The heuristic benefit of Gouldner’s application of this general historicist outlook specifically to problems in the sociology of knowledge/ideas is nicely displayed in his discussion of the Platonic dialectic. According to Gouldner, Plato’s interest in distin- guishing between the “dialectic,” which he understood as an intellectual tool aimed at the attainment of truth, and the “eristic,” which he viewed as “a conversational contest in which commitment to the truth has been subverted by the aim of ringing up debater’s points” (p. 261), suggests that Plato was well aware that participants in intel- lectual conversations have a hard time “separat[ing] their purely intellectual interests in the truth from their interest in maintaining a creditable image of themselves” (p. 262). This means that Plato was also aware of something that Gouldner himself holds true for many intellectual conversations, namely, that the creativity generated within these conversations may be driven as much by the desire for status within the social circle of intellectuals as by other factors: “The intellectual play of scholars, like their intellectual work, has implications for their social position within the stratified com- munity of scholars. It is a source of all manner of extrinsic rewards (as well as of intrin- sic satisfactions), much of which depends so heavily on the display of verbal quickness and wit and an imputation of intellectual originality or ‘priority”‘ (p. 274). To the extent that Plato adhered to such a view, he was doing no less than offering a theory about “the special potency of intense face-to-face interaction in the shaping and reshaping of ideas” (p. 273).
Superficially, Gouldner’s appreciative reformulation of this theory might seem remarkably similar to Collins’s theory of intellectual attention seeking. Indeed, Gould- ner holds that “much as a dam channels an available water current to produce usable electricity, the dialectic harnesses the enormous intellectual energy inherent in the con- versation of competitive men … motivat[ing them] to overcome resistances to intellec- tual innovation” (p. 275). Yet, as Gouldner elaborates these points, it becomes clear that he does not see his analysis as a way to account for all intellectual innovation every- where. Much like critics who have deconstructed Jurgen Habermas’s concept of the public sphere by identifying unequal distributions of power as among its historical pre- conditions, Gouldner takes Plato to task for producing a theorization of the dialectic that has an “implicit focus upon ahistorical conditions” (p. 273). In fact, Gouldner claims, it is possible to identify numerous historical preconditions for “the efficacy of the Platonic dialectic” (p. 277) which Plato himself ignored: participants must “have a rela- tively high level of education, at least in the elements of logic”; they must “feel free to say what they truly believe”; they must “be social equals or else must be prepared to ignore their status differences”; and they must “think of themselves as rational men” (p. 278). These elements, Gouldner argues, were all historically present in the cultural cur- rents swirling around the Platonic academy, where they combined with an emphasis on achievement and fame bred by the role of the contest system in Greek cultural life. It was for these historical reasons alone, he concludes, that the dialectic emerged as the process of ideational formulation par excellence in the Athenian context. And here is a line of argument that plainly runs counter to Collins’s ahistorical claims: for while Gouldner allows that ideas in our own period (and others) may sometimes be formu- lated through a broadly similar social-dialectical process, insofar as this process occurs, it does so not because the process itself is a universal one but because our own historical context provides the cultural conditions in which this similarity may arise.
By means of this kind of analysis, Enter Plato brings an historicist sociology of ideas to life, opening up avenues of inquiry that have yet to be pursued. Successfully problem- atizing the historical bases of the intersubjective and social-psychological processes by which intellectual choices get made, the book invites sociologists of ideas to shed, once and for all, their ahistorical claims about intellectual life and to undertake studies of men and women of ideas in different times and places and of the historically variable social processes by which their ideas emerge, develop, and change.
In viewing Enter Plato as a largely successful response to the Mertonian challenge to the sociology of knowledge, we hark to one of the central themes of the sociology of ideas in recent years, namely, the significance of local bases of knowledge production (for discus- sion, see Camic and Gross 2001): in this case, the importance of the Merton-Gouldner connection for understanding Enter Plato as an effort on Gouldner’s part to bridge the theory/research divide that marked the sociology of knowledge in the middle decades of the twentieth century, at the same time that he turned attention to the neglected linkage between macrosocial conditions and the contents of the ideas of one very particular intellectual in one particular historical time and place.
Interestingly, the localism of knowledge production is itself a theme with roots in Merton’s work-and in Gouldner’s also. Indeed, in attempting to link macrosocial con- ditions in Athens to the contents of Plato’s ideas, Enter Plato gives noticeable attention to the “student-disciple” relationship that existed, on the one hand, between Socrates and Plato and, on the other, between Plato and the students of his academy. Yet, just as Gouldner’s interest in unpacking the mediating processes that link macrofactors with specific intellectual contents receded in The Coming Crisis, so did his attention to the localism of knowledge production largely fade in the more famous later text. Subse- quently, Gouldner wrote of the “two Marxisms.” Taken as a whole, his work offers, in our view, two sociologies of ideas, that of Enter Plato and that of The Coming Crisis; in looking back to Merton, it is the earlier work that contains the lessons that look ahead to the field’s present and future.
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