The First New Nation
When I was an undergraduate at Columbia it was unfashionable to study sociology. Those who did were, one felt, the future businessmen of the class of 1949 or the dentists, the careerists, the politicians. My friends and I studied literature and not contemporary literature either. That too was unfashionable. It did not repay deep study, nor did American literature. Proust and Joyce, Emerson and Melville were for summer vacation. During the year we concentrated on Dante and Shakespeare and Milton and then, when we were seniors, we were thrust into the modern world through the great rolling surf of Blake and Wordsworth and Goethe and Byron. This is how we first learned of the French Revolution, the vicissitudes of the bourgeoisie and the problem of democracy—through the direct and passionate, if also the wilful and incomplete, record of these writers who, it seemed to us, experienced the emergence of this world most acutely. Only then did we catch sight of Bentham and Mill and still later of Max Weber strenuously casting his nets after abstract fish in waters which seemed to us too shallow to support real life.
By degrees and upon closer acquaintance this snobbism, if that is what it was somewhat abated. Max Weber, and even John Dewey, came to seem more nearly poets than some of the poets themselves, while the world itself had grown so complet as to thwart and finally shrink the prophetic or political ambitions of imaginative literature. It had begun to seem that perhaps there was a place or a need for these social scientists, despite the mechanistic crudity of the idea, which most of them held to one degree or another, that politics or society or history could be understood “scientifically,” as if human affairs and social institutions were analogous to a geological specimen or a problem in logic and thus did not engage one’s feeling or, as one observed them, affect one’s vision.
There remained, however, a stubborn difficulty. Many of us in those years at Columbia had been miniature Thomists, at least to the extent that we believed that the form of a statement was inseparable from its content: that the meaning of what one said depended rigorously upon how one said it, in a poem or an historical work as much as in a mathematical expression. Sociologists, especially in America, were often poor writers, occasionally so imprecise as to be hardly intelligible. And this fault seemed to increase the more they pretended to be scientists. Such imprecision could reflect only a clumsiness of thought and, beyond that, an uncertainty of feeling. Thus there arose a sort of moral problem. For the social scientists, and among them the sociologists, were not, after all, so neutral in their ambitions as their scientific pretensions would suggest. Some of them presumed to plan our cities and administer the education of our children while others were turning up as propagators of the faith for dubious articles of commerce or political candidates …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.