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Primer: Joseph Marie Maistre and the Image of the Machine April 16, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Joseph Marie Maistre (1753-1821) , underscored the irredeemable fallenness of mankind, which was rooted in original sin and visible in the seemingly endless wars, conflicts, and revolutions in human history.  The  French modernist poet Baudelaire considered Maistre an antidote against the naive optimism of the eighteenth century.  Like  Chateaubriand in his Genius of Christianity (1802), Maistre was a defender of religious sentiment and its role in politics  (Christopher John Murray, Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, pg. 707.) A staunch defender of the Catholic Church and strong governance, Maistre believed that providence was the active force behind universal history.  Maistre defined human beings in this scheme according to their lust for power.

As Isaiah Berlin notes in his introduction to Maistre’s Considerations on France, Maistre “is painted, always, as a fanatical monarchist and a still more fanatical supporter of papal authority; proud, bigoted, inflexible…brilliant…vainly seeking to arrest the current of  history….”  Maistre, in Berlin’s view, is all of these things, and all the more interesting for them,  “for although Maistre may have spoken in the language of the past, the content of what he had to say is the absolute substance of anti-democratic talk of our day” (Considerations on France, Introduction, xii, xiii.)

Like Hegel, Saint-Simon, and Schiller, Maistre was horrified by the excesses of the French Revolution and the Terror.  The experience “turned him into an implacable enemy of everything that is liberal, democratic, high-minded, everything connected with intellectuals, critics, scientists, everything to do with the forces which created the French Revolution” (xiii)  The Revolution and the Terror convinced him that the idea of progress was an illusion.  Instead, Maistre underscored the sacred past, the “virtue, and the necessity, indeed, of complete subjugation.”  In the place of scientific rationality, Maistre offered the alternative of “the primacy of instinct, superstition, and prejudice.”

More charitably, Owen Bradley notes that in Maistre’s critique of science, “his attack on the excesses of technical rationality raises the essentially modern question of the sociopolitical consequences of the scientific organization of thought and life” (A Modern Maistre, 137.) Maistre was not a critic of “science” but, as Maistre viewed it,  of the post-Cartesian disjuncture of mind and matter, reason and faith, science and Scripture.  Maistre objected most vehemently to the Cartesian image of nature as a machine, which was pushed to its logical conclusion by La Mettrie and D’Holbach, whose materialism reduced all organic processes to mechanisms explicable through relational statements.  They argued  not only that “organic life and its evolution obey(ed) natural laws” in the Cartesian sense of matter in motion but also that processes such as “sensibility and intelligence may be reduced to purely mechanical processes” (141.)

Maistre revolted against the “revolution” in science, proposing instead that the “founders of modern science – Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Newton- came out of a tradition…of experimental techniques, but also of mystical nature speculation, of alchemy, Neo-platonism, and Cabala” (138.)  As Maistre emphasized the mysterious and mystic quality of scientific inquiry, so too did he underscore the mysterious ways through which society constituted and maintained itself.  In his Considerations on France, he observed that society was like a watch “all of whose springs vary continually in strength, weight, dimension, form, and position that nonetheless keeps perfect time” (145.)

Enlightened social theory, endeavored, Maistre believed, to reduce all social relations to the rigid laws of the physical sciences but nonetheless was ill-equipped to account for the “irregularities introduced by the operation of free agents into the general order.”   Order could not be maintained in the same manner as a craftsman or engineer fabricates a machine.  Society certainly could not be reformed, modified, or fixed by adjusting one of the parts or “gears” in the same manner as a watch by a watchmaker.  Society must be understood as a whole rather than as an aggregate of parts.  Society only behaves like a machine, Maistre argued, in times of crisis, such as in the French Revolution.

The fragility of the revolutionary Republic was revealed when it was discovered that, according to Maistre, “it does not live. What an enormous machine! What a multiplicity of springs and clockwork! What a fracas of pieces clanging away! What an immense number of men employed to repair the damage! Everything tells us there is nothing natural in these movements, for the primary characteristic of the creations of nature is power accompanied by an economy of means.”  Maistre continued, concluding, that in a functioning society, “Everything is in its place…there is no noise, only majestic silence.”  During the Revolution and Terror, Maistre observed, “Everything is artificial and violent, and it all announces that such order of things cannot last.”  The subsequent Republic was “an automaton possessing merely the exterior appearance of life” (Quoted on Bradley, pgs. 145-146.)

What is striking about Maistre is his image of the automaton and the machine as the antithesis of the economy and harmony of nature and the legitimate political order. For Maistre,  mechanism, automaton, the machine, was terror and disorder.  For Maistre, the artificial was the subversive, illegitimate production of human rationality. As interestingly, Maistre resisted the universality of physical laws, exempting the body politic.

The image of the harmonious machine and the molding of social life to the dictates of science and industry was put forward with great seriousness during the same period by such Utopian socialist philosophers as Fourier and Saint-Simon.  The vision of the harmonious society as the productive telos of industry and the plans of “technocrats”  put forward by Utopian socialists and materialist philosophers could not have been more distinct from that of Maistre.

Fourier, Saint-Simon, and Maistre all existed within the common conceptual plenum of Copernican science and reified Cartesianism. All three philosophers grappled with the consequences of the situation of human beings and the inner workings of their psychology in physical laws rather than teleology.  All three addressed the correctness of the application of technological innovations and physical laws to the study and control of mankind.  Thus, though Utopian socialists and Maistre diverged in their notion of the ideal society, the manner in which they articulated their positions, and the evidences, metaphors, and illustrations they used was restricted and refined by a common store of images, exemplars, personages, and figures of authority.  The image of the machine, the metaphor of the automaton, particularly the watch, and the applicability of physical laws to problems of polity were common stores of reference and confrontation for the figures in question.


1. LD - February 17, 2016

A fascinating post. I wonder if it is possible to identify such a “common store of images, exemplars, personages, and figures of authority” in our own day, particularly around the science-politics-philosophy-religion nexus. Terms like “neoliberalism” and “economic rationalism” (in Australian politics) come to mind, as well as the idea of the “organic”.

2. Christopher Donohue - February 17, 2016

Hi, yes. It is possible. I have been for quite some time reconstructing the “intellectual furniture” (concepts, authorities, metaphors, standards for the admittance of evidences, argumentative tropes, inside jokes, etc.) for nineteenth and early twentieth century American social theory especially.
An example of how this bears fruit is in reference a now forgotten evolutionary naturalist John Gulick who uses the term “bionomics” a novel science to treat organisms and their relationships to one another. If you look up the term you will see that bionomics is still used today, but in a very different context.
A second example is social selection (now, how individual and biological differences affect social mobility and how social mobility is influenced by individual differences). This was a very general term used in 19th and early 20th century social theory to understand the selective pressures placed upon individuals and groups by civilization. If nature selected in “natural selection”, society selected in “social selection.” Natural and social selection had a degree of similarity (both selected) but “fitness” was distinctive in the two domains. Google search “social selection.” It is used today.
It was coined by the ethnologist Paul Broca in 1872, who was upset that Darwin did not describe well the selective forces in civilization. How many practicing sociologists know about social selections origins, in a critique of Darwin’s “Descent of Man”? None I’ve spoken to. They all find it very interesting.
Last, and in a more contemporary setting, much of the vocabulary used in the philosophy of science disputes in the 1970s and 1980s (very country vs. rock and roll) has been lost. Most of the participants have died. My questions here: what were the most used disputational terms in history and philosophy of science? Who used them and how often? When someone introduced a unknown philosophy or history of science term, what happened (was it accepted, rejected, ignored?) Who were all these people? What were the accepted topics and terms in use.
So to both answer your question and to digress, yes it is possible. I am doing such, but not quite on the topic you describe

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