Lewis A. Coser: Remembering Gouldner

I cannot claim the intimate knowledge of Al Gouldner that others, who were closely associated with him, possess. Yet, I knew Al for something like 30 years, have read with passionate interest almost all he wrote, and published critical reviews of a number of his books. Several times there was occasion for sharp intellectual and political disagreements. Old-timers will remember our acerbic debate some 15 years ago at one of the meetings of the Society for the Study of Social Problems. But I dare say that, despite these clashes, which might have been rooted as much in temperament as in sociological and political divergencies, we always respected each other.

Let me illustrate this by one example. I reviewed his The Future of lntellectuals and the Rise of the New Class for The New Republic in a sharply critical vein. There followed a violent blast of protest from Al about the unfairness of the review, which The New Republic printed soon after. Then, a year or so later, the Political Science Quarterly asked me to review his subsequent book, The Two Marxisms. I was deeply impressed by this work, which I consider among his two or three best, and said so in the review. Knowing that the review would appear with a considerable delay, and contrary to my usual practice, I sent Al a xerox with a scribbled note saying: “I hope that my previous sins are now partially forgiven.” There came back a note from Al, almost by return mail, saying: “Of course, your sins are forgiven.” This is the last time I heard from him. He died soon after. Al could be angry, harsh, cutting, but he was never resentful. Like an old trooper, he enjoyed intellectual battles, nay he relished them. But once the dust of battle had cleared, he was eager to shake the hand of old adversaries, at least of those whom he considered worthy antagonists.

Throughout his career, Al enjoyed intellectual confrontations. He was never more alert and alive than when he was locked in combat. If the truth must be told, he was often a Don Quixote who fought against windmills, but it is also a fact that he fought many real enemies. Nothing characterizes Al’s intellectual and political style as well as something George Orwell wrote a good number of years ago about Charles Dickens. Orwell was writing about the imagination he had of Dickens’s face while he was reading Dickens’s novels:”It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry [Orwell underlined these two words] – in other words, of… a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.” I cannot think of a better characterization of Al’s intellectual and political style and disposition.

Al was a sociologist. He was also a wide-ranging intellectual concerned with almost all the central issues and problems that confront our society and its culture. But he was also a radical thinker, always discontented with things as they are, and with the wont and use of his age. He was trying to get at the roots of things. The likes of such persons are not many. It was the combination of these three preponderant orientations and engagements that made Al into the extraordinary person he was.

What characterizes Al’s work, in addition to the generous combativeness, and the combination of sociological imagination, radical stance, and commitment to the role of the intellectual, was the catholicity of his concerns. I cannot think of many in our discipline, past or present, who could move with ease from empirical studies in industrial sociology to fine-honed theoretical disquisitions about reciprocity in human affairs, to a superb work on the social context of Plato’s thought, to work on the ideology in the modern world, to an indictment of the present – to him deplorable – state of American sociology, to a book on the complexity of the relationship between ideology and theory, to a sketch on the emerging class structure of post-industrial society, and, finally, to a seminal re-examination of Marxism.

Al was nothing if not daring when undertaking a new work. He had qualities such as must have characterized those conquisitadors of old, who were not afraid to invade territories of which they knew little, convinced, that every new world to conquer would bring its own rich harvest. Al had no classical education and he knew no Greek, but that did not deter him from undertaking his work on Plato, despite the sneers of professional classicists who felt that he was a poacher illegitimately invading their protected territory. The book remains a hugely successful effort to make Plato our contemporary and to rescue him from the embalming of the classicists. Let no one say that the sociology of knowledge is largely a European enterprise. Al’s book on Plato is the living refutation of that dyspeptic belief.

As with the work on Plato, so with many other studies that Al undertook. When he perceived a problem that posed an intellectual challenge he rose to it. Before he went to Amsterdam, Al was not very familiar, or so it would seem to me, with recent tendencies in European thought. And yet not more than a year after his arrival there he began to write critical commentaries on European linguistic philosophy, on hermeneutics, on the work of Habermas and Bernstein, and on the philosophy of Wittgenstein. After his return to America he was probably as knowledgeable about recent trends in European social and philosophical thought as almost any American. Not that he was converted to any of these novel tendencies. Al was never fully converted to any tendency, not even to Marxism, but all these philosophies had become part of his intellectual baggage alongside other trains of thought he had absorbed earlier in his career. Al’s mind could integrate ever new intellectual materials while transforming them to fit his own intellectual needs.

Al had a voracious mind at the same time as he was extremely ambitious when it came to the task he set for himself. He had little sympathy for those solid citizens of the intellectual and scholarly community who are content to set their minds to solve limited problems. He respected workmanlike products no matter from what quarters they came, but he admired only those more daring exploits that purported to transform the intellectual map. I well remember his comments on my book Greedy Institutions soon after it appeared: “It’s a fine book, Lew, I have learned from it, but why are you not more ambitious?” He wanted to storm the heavens, and was disappointed that I, instead of doing likewise, had limited my ambitions to explore only a limited domain of the vast sociological territory. Al agreed with me that the sociological maps of the world still looked somewhat like the Renaissance maps of Africa. These provided rough outlines of the continent that bordered on the oceans but depicted the interior largely with captions such as Here Dwelleth Lions. He wanted to map these areas with the same titanic passion that had animated some of the nineteenth century explorers.

It would be misguided to conceive of Al as being animated by the quest for knowledge alone. In fact, he had but little patience for such pursuit of pure knowledge. Like Auguste Comte, for whom savoir was only the first step toward pouvoir, and even more like Karl Marx, for whom theory and praxis must always be conjoined if thought is not to degenerate into ideological justification of things as they are, Al throughout his life oscillated between purely theoretical concerns and the effort to contribute to the amelioration of the sorry state of the human condition. He had no truck with those who conceived of applied sociology as the anemic handmaiden of political decision-makers who wish to use social scientists to solve their problems. But he held in high esteem and strove to follow in the footsteps of those sociologists who saw their discipline as linked to the efforts of the wretched of the earth to bring about a more egalitarian, a more just, a more fraternal society. He varied in his estimation of what classes or strata had the capacity to become bearers of a major transformation. For a long time he shared the beliefs of so many of his contemporaries on the Left who believed in the proletariat as a universal class incarnating the hopes of humankind. In the early stages of his career he even thought of the Soviet Union as a promise and a beacon. But in his mature thought he recognized the Soviet system as the prison house it is, and he toyed with the idea that a technocratic elite, or at least a section of it, might become the bearer of some glad tidings for the future of the human race. In such matters his thought tended often to be shifting rapidly and to contain strong contradictions. But he would have quoted Walt Whitman when confronted with such contradictions: “I contradict myself – so I contradict myself.” What counted for him was not a polished single-minded vision. Relish as he did combat and confrontations with the thought of adversaries, so he relished creative tensions in his own mind. He had no piety for his former ideas since he never considered them as anything but stepping stones toward a widened vision yet to be reached.

My end will return to my beginning. Al was a passionately engaged thinker who delighted in combat. In his battles he could be abrasive, abusive, wounding, and altogether obnoxious. He knew, as he once wrote to his life-long friend Robert K. Merton, that many people considered him a son of a bitch, and he half agreed with their assessment. But in the end, how quickly do all the private hurts recede in importance as compared to the extraordinary public benefits of his work. His stimulus to the sociological, as well as the moral, imagination of our age far outweigh the occassional wounds he inflicted. So let those of us who were wounded upon occasion lick their wounds and comfort ourselves with the thought that they were inflicted by one of the contemporary masters of sociology. The sociological establishment, stung by his contemptuous dismissal of many of its exemplars, at times treated him shabbily, and yet he entitled one of his later books For Sociology. He thus testified to his commitment to it. He was one of us, and of that we should be proud.

4 Responses to “Lewis A. Coser: Remembering Gouldner”

  1. This is an extremely generous and decent obit and review.

    Richard Lee Deaton

  2. Perhaps you should review Prof. James J. Chriss’s recent book, Confronting Gouldner (Brill, 2015)

  3. Richard Deaton Says:

    Jim Chriss’s book, Confronting Gouldner, deserves to be widely reviewed and read.


    Richard Deaton

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