thin man with long beard, reading from his notes

Vilfredo Pareto (1916)

Mind & Society

Source: Mind & Society, publ. Dover, 1935. First dozen pages reproduced here.

1. Human society is the subject of many researches. Some of them constitute specialised disciplines: law, political economy, political history, the history of religions, and the like. Others have not yet been distinguished by special names. To the synthesis of them all, which aims at studying human society in general, we may give the name of sociology.

2. That definition is very inadequate. It may perhaps be improved upon - but not much; for, after all, of none of the sciences, not even of the several mathematical sciences, have we strict definitions. Nor can we have. Only for purposes of convenience do we divide the subject-matter of our knowledge into various parts, and such divisions are artificial and change in course of time. Who can mark the boundaries between chemistry and physics, or between physics and mechanics? And what are we to do with thermodynamics? If we locate that science in physics, it will fit not badly there; if we put it with mechanics, it will not seem out of place; if we prefer to make a separate science of it, no one surely can find fault with us. Instead of wasting time trying to discover the best classification for it, it will be the wiser part to examine the facts with which it deals. Let us put names aside and consider things.

In the same way, we have something better to do than to waste our time deciding whether sociology is or is not an independent science - whether it is anything but the "philosophy of history" under a different name; or to debate at any great length the methods to be followed in the study of sociology. Let us keep to our quest for the relationships between social facts, and people may then give to that inquiry any name they please. And let knowledge of such relationships be obtained by any method that will serve. We are interested in the end, and much less or not at all interested in the means by which we attain it.

3. In considering the definition of sociology just above we found it necessary to hint at one or two norms that we intend to follow in these volumes. We might do the same in other connections as occasion arises. On the other hand, we might very well set forth our norms once and for all. Each of those procedures has its merits and its defects. Here we prefer to follow the second.

4. The principles that a writer chooses to follow may be put forward in two different ways. He may, in the first place, ask that his principles be accepted as demonstrated truths. If they are so accepted, all their logical implications must also be regarded as proved. On the other hand, he may state his principles as mere indications of one course that may be followed among the many possible. In that case any logical implication which they may contain is in no sense demonstrated in the concrete, but is merely hypothetical - hypothetical in the same manner and to the same degree as the premises from which it has been derived. It will therefore often be necessary to abstain from drawing such inferences: the deductive aspects of the subject will be ignored, and relationships be inferred from the facts directly.

Let us consider an example. Suppose Euclid's postulate that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points is set before us as a theorem. We must give battle on the theorem; for if we concede it, the whole system of Euclidean geometry stands demonstrated, and we have nothing left to set against it. But suppose, on the contrary, the postulate be put forward as a hypothesis. We are no longer called upon to contest it. Let the mathematician develop the logical consequences that follow from it. If they are in accord with the concrete, we will accept them; if they seem not to be in such accord, we will reject them. Our freedom of choice has not been fettered by any anticipatory concession. Considering things from that point of view, other geometries - non-Euclidean geometries - are possible, and we may study them without in the least surrendering our freedom of choice in the concrete.
If before proceeding with their researches mathematicians had insisted upon deciding whether or not the postulate of Euclid corresponded to concrete reality, geometry would not exist even today. And that observation is of general bearing. All sciences have advanced when, instead of quarrelling over first principles, people have considered results. The science of celestial mechanics developed as a result of the hypothesis of the law of universal gravitation. Today we suspect that that attraction may be something different from what it was once thought to be; but even if, in the light of new and better observations of fact, our doubts should prove well founded, the results attained by celestial mechanics on the whole would still stand. They would simply have to be retouched and supplemented.

5. Profiting by such experience, we are here setting out to apply to the study of sociology the methods that have proved so useful in the other sciences. We do not posit any dogma as a premise to our research; and our statement of principles serves merely as an indication of that course, among the many courses that might be chosen, which we elect to follow. Therefore anyone who joins us along such a course by no means renounces his right to follow some other. From the first pages of a treatise on geometry it is the part of the mathematician to make clear whether he is expounding the geometry Of Euclid, or, let us say, the geometry of Lobachevski. But that is just a hint; and if he goes on and expounds the geometry of Lobachevski, it does not follow that he rejects all other geometries. In that sense and in no other should the statement of principles which we are here making be taken.

6. Hitherto sociology has nearly always been expounded dogmatically. Let us not be deceived by the word "positive" that Comte foisted upon his philosophy. His sociology is as dogmatic as Bossuet's Discourse on Universal History. It is a case of two different religions, but of religions nevertheless; and religions of the same sort are to be seen in the writings of Spencer, De Greef, Letourneau, and numberless other authors.

Faith by its very nature is exclusive. If one believes oneself possessed of the absolute truth, one cannot admit that there are any other truths in the world. So the enthusiastic Christian and the pugnacious free-thinker are, and have to be, equally intolerant. For the believer there is but one good course; all others are bad. The Mohammedan will not take oath upon the Gospels, nor the Christian upon the Koran. But those who have no faith whatever will take their oath upon either Koran or Gospels - or, as a favour to our humanitarians, on the Social Contract of Rousseau; nor even would they scruple to swear on the Decameron of Boccaccio, were it only to see the grimace Senator Berenger would make and the brethren of that gentleman's persuasion.' We are by no means asserting that sociologies derived from certain dogmatic principles are useless; just as we in no sense deny utility to the geometries of Lobachevski or Riemann. We simply ask of such sociologies that they use premises and reasonings which are as clear and exact as possible. "Humanitarian" sociologies we have to satiety - they are about the only ones that are being published nowadays. Of metaphysical sociologies (with which are to be classed all positive and humanitarian sociologies) we suffer no dearth. Christian, Catholic, and similar sociologies we have to some small extent. Without disparagement of any of those estimable sociologies, we here venture to expound a sociology that is purely experimental, after the fashion of chemistry, physics, and other such sciences. In all that follows, therefore, we intend to take only experience and observation as our guides. So far as experience is not contrasted with observation, we shall, for love of brevity, refer to experience alone. When we say that a thing is attested "by experience," the reader must add "and by observation." When we speak of "experimental sciences," the reader must supply the adjective "observational," and so on.

7. Current in any given group of people are a number of propositions, descriptive, preceptive, or otherwise. For example: "Youth lacks discretion." "Covet not thy neighbour's goods, nor thy neighbour's wife." "Love thy neighbour as thyself." "Learn to save if you would not one day be in need." Such propositions, combined by logical or pseudo-logical nexuses and amplified with factual narrations of various sorts, constitute theories, theologies, cosmogonies, systems of metaphysics, and so on. Viewed from the outside without regard to any intrinsic merit with which they may be credited by faith, all such propositions and theories are experimental facts and as experimental facts we are here obliged to consider and examine them.

8. That examination is very useful to sociology; for the image of social activity is stamped on the majority of such propositions and theories, and often it is through them alone that we manage to gain some knowledge of the forces which are at work in society - that is, of the tendencies and inclinations of human beings. For that reason we shall study them at great length in the course of these volumes. Propositions and theories have to be classified at the very outset, for classification is a first step that is almost indispensable if one would have an adequate grasp of any great number of differing objects. To avoid endless repetition of the words "proposition" and "theory," we shall for the moment use only the latter term; but whatever we say of "theories" should be taken as applying also to "propositions," barring specification to the contrary.

9. For the man who lets himself be guided chiefly by sentiment for the believer, that is - there are usually but two classes of theories: there are theories that are true and theories that are false. The terms "true" and "false" are left vaguely defined. They are felt rather than explained.

10. Oftentimes three further axioms are present:

1. The axiom that every "honest" man, every "intelligent" human being, must accept "true" propositions and reject "false" ones. The person who fails to do so is either not honest or not rational. Theories, it follows, have an absolute character, Independent of the minds that produce or accept them.

2. The axiom that every proposition which is "true" is also "beneficial," and vice versa. When, accordingly, a theory has been shown to be true, the study of it is complete, and it is useless to inquire whether it be beneficial or detrimental.

3. At any rate, it is inadmissible that a theory may be beneficial to certain classes of society and detrimental to others - yet that is an axiom of modem currency, and many people deny it without, however, daring to voice that opinion.

11. Were we to meet those assertions with contrary ones, we too would be reasoning a priori; and, experimentally, both sets of assertions would have the same value - zero. If we would remain within the realm of experience, we need simply determine first of all whether the terms used in the assertions correspond to some experimental reality, and then whether the assertions are or are not corroborated by experimental facts. But in order to do that, we are obliged to admit the possibility of both a positive and a negative answer; for it is evident that if we bar one of those two possibilities a priori, we shall be giving a solution likewise a priori to the problem we have set ourselves, instead of leaving the solution of it to experience as we proposed doing.

12. Let us try therefore to classify theories, using the method we would use were we classifying insects, plants, or rocks. We perceive at once that a theory is not a homogeneous entity, such as the "element" known to chemistry. A theory, rather, is like a rock, which is made up of a number of elements. In a theory one may detect descriptive elements, axiomatic assertions, and functionings of certain entities, now concrete, now abstract, now real, now imaginary; and all such things may be said to constitute the matter of the theory. But there are other things in a theory: there are logical or pseudo-logical arguments, appeals to sentiment, "feelings," traces of religious and ethical beliefs, and so on; and such things may be thought of as constituting the instrumentalities whereby the "matter" mentioned above is utilised in order to rear the structure that we call a theory. Here, already, is one aspect under which theories may be considered. It is sufficient for the moment to have called attention to it.

13. In the manner just described, the structure has been reared the theory exists. It is now one of the objects that we are trying to classify. We may consider it under various aspects:

1. Objective aspect. The theory may be considered without reference to the person who has produced it or to the person who assents to it - "objectively," we say, but without attaching any metaphysical sense to the term. In order to take account of all possible combinations that may arise from the character of the matter and the character of the nexus we must distinguish the following classes and subclasses:

CLASS I. Experimental matter

Ia. Logical nexus
Ib. Non-logical nexus

CLASS II. Non-experimental matter

IIa. Logical nexus
IIb. Non-logical nexus

The subclasses Ib and IIb comprise logical sophistries, or specious reasonings calculated to deceive. For the study in which we are engaged they are often far less important than the subclasses Ia or IIa. The subclass Ia comprises all the experimental sciences; we shall call it logico-experimental. Two other varieties may be distinguished in it:

Ia1, comprising the type that is strictly pure, with the matter strictly experimental and the nexus logical. The abstractions and general principles that are used within it are derived exclusively from experience and are subordinated to experience.

Ia2, comprising a deviation from the type, which brings us closer to Class II. Explicitly the matter is still experimental, and the nexus logical; but the abstractions, the general principles, acquire (implicitly or explicitly) a significance transcending experience. This variety might be called transitional. Others of like nature might be considered, but they are far less important than this one.

The classification just made, like any other that might be made, is dependent upon the knowledge at our command. A person who regards as experimental certain elements that another person regards as non-experimental will locate in Class I a proposition that the other person will place in Class II. The person who thinks he is using logic and is mistaken will class among logical theories a proposition that a person aware of the error will locate among the non-logical. The classification above is a classification of types of theories. In reality, a given theory may be a blend of such types - it may, that is, contain experimental elements and non-experimental elements, logical elements and non-logical elements.

2. Subjective aspect. Theories may be considered with reference to the persons who produce them and to the persons who assent to them. We shall therefore have to consider them under the following subjective aspects:

a. Causes in view of which a given theory is devised by a given person. Why does a given person assert that A = B? Conversely, if he makes that assertion, why does he do so?

b. Causes in view of which a given person assents to a given theory. Why does a given person assent to the proposition A = B? Conversely, if he gives such assent, why does he do so?

These inquiries are extensible from individuals to society at large.

3. Aspect of utility. In this connection, it is important to keep the theory distinct from the state of mind, the sentiments, that it reflects. Certain individuals evolve a theory because they have certain sentiments; but then the theory reacts in turn upon them, as well as upon other individuals to produce, intensify, or modify certain sentiments.

I. Utility or detriment resulting from the sentiments reflected by a theory:

la. As regards the person asserting the theory
Ib. As regards the person assenting to the theory

II. Utility or detriment resulting from a given theory:

IIa. As regards the person asserting the theory
IIb. As regards the person assenting to it.

These considerations, too, are extensible to society at large.

We may say, then, that we are to consider propositions and theories under their objective and their subjective aspects, and also from the standpoint of their individual or social utility. However, the meanings of such terms must not be derived from their etymology, or from their usage in common parlance, but exclusively in the manner designated later.

14. To recapitulate: Given the proposition A = B, we must answer the following questions:

1. Objective aspect. Is the proposition in accord with experience, or is it not?

2. Subjective aspect. Why do certain individuals assert that A = B? And why do other individuals believe that A = B?

3. Aspect Of utility. What advantage (or disadvantage) do the sentiments reflected by the proposition A = B have for the person who states it, and for the person who accepts it? What advantage (or disadvantage) does the theory itself have for the person who puts it forward, and for the person who accepts it?

In an extreme case the answer to the first question is yes; and then, as regards the other question, one adds: "People say (people believe) that A = B, because it is true." "The sentiments reflected in the proposition are beneficial because true." "The theory itself is beneficial because true." In this extreme case, we may find that data of logico-experimental science are present, and then "true" means in accord with experience. But also present may be data that by no means belong to logico-experimental science, and in such event "true" signifies not accord with experience but something else - frequently mere accord with the sentiments of the person defending the thesis. We shall see, as we proceed with our experimental research in chapters hereafter, that the following cases are of frequent occurrence in social matters:

a. Propositions in accord with experience that are asserted and accepted because of their accord with sentiments, the latter being now beneficial, now detrimental, to individuals or society;

b. Propositions in accord with experience that are rejected because they are not in accord with sentiments, and which, if accepted, would be detrimental to society;

c. Propositions not in accord with experience that are asserted and accepted because of their accord with sentiments, the latter being beneficial, oftentimes exceedingly so, to individuals or society;

d. Propositions not in accord with experience that are asserted and accepted because of their accord with sentiments, and which are beneficial to certain individuals, detrimental to others, and now beneficial, now detrimental, to society.

On all that we can know nothing a priori. Experience alone can enlighten us.