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International Society for Intellectual History Paper: Adolphe Quetelet’s Social Mechanics in Turn of the Century American Sociology May 3, 2016

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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*Digression Begins Here*

One of the most wonderful happenings of research is finding one’s subject in unexpected places.  The idea of “social mechanics” is to be found in the philosophy of law of Rudolf von Jhering (22 August 1818 – 17 September 1892).  In the United States, Jhering most famous work was in its English translation.  Published in 1914, Law as a Means to an End (published in translation in 1914) had the following central arguments.  The first was that there was no “natural contract.” This was contrary to the jurisprudence of William Blackstone, which posited (like many others) the existence of an original contract as one of the conditions of modern society. Jhering was reacting against a very established natural law tradition.  Conversely, Jhering underscored that law was simply the most convenient organization found by man.  Morality and personhood were outside of law. It was not that law was amoral.  It was that morality was outside of law.  Law had no justification outside that it was convenient and that it provided a social function for society.

Thus, Jhering does not also give any ground to organist accounts of the growth and function of law (such as those of Savginy). Law was simply an effect of mankind’s egoism, the inherent and universal tendency of man to maximize his own advantage.  This leads Jhering (after page 71 or so) to posit “social levers” responsible for the everyday workings and development of society (as well as its history—the transition from savagism to modern commerce.)  Society according to Jhering was nothing but “Thousands of rollers, wheels, knives, as in a mighty machine, move restlessly, some in one direction, some in another….”  The machine “must obey must obey the master; the laws of mechanics enable him to compel it. But the force which moves the wheelwork of human society is the human will.” In contrast to nature, the human will is free somewhat free.  Social mechanics is the “sum” of “impulses and powers” which humans use in order to move the machine of society.  These include include “egoism, self-will, insubordination, inertia,weakness, wickedness, crime” (72).  Social mechanics also refer to the forces which the elements of society itself generates to compel the individual.  Jhering continued that there is a social mechanics to compel the human will just as there is a physical mechanics to force the machine. This social mechanics is identical with the principle of leverage, by means of which society sets the will in motion for her purposes, or in short, the principle of the the principle of the levers of social motion” (73).

There are four levels of social motion—two of which are egotistical.  The first of which (and perhaps the most important) is that of reward, without which there would be no commerce.  The other egostical level is coercion, without which there would be no state. Coercion is self-interested in that it is preservation in the face of a superior force (249.) The reward of commerce moves the human being greatly because this motive and commerce generally affirms the dignity of the person (142.)

What is remarkable about this conception of society is not only its reduction to mechanism and mechanical properties and parts, but how, even within a deterministic, mechanistic picture of the world, there is still room for human freedom.  If society can be deconstructed like a machine, human beings can influence the machine by affecting one of the parts.  But, the machine of society could also compel the individual, it could supply its own force.  This digression is also interesting insofar as it outlines an account of social mechanics where it is least to be expected.

*Digression Ends*

Perhaps there was no closer reader of positivism most generally than the early American sociologist than Lester Frank Ward ((June 18, 1841 – April 18, 1913). Ward as I will show was able to take a mechanistic interpretation of natural and social life  Ward was a botanist and was the first President of the American Sociological Association.  In his Pure Sociology (1903), Ward adopts Comte’s accounts of static and dynamic systems and more or less throws Quetelet “under the bus” by saying the whole conception of “social mechanics” is indeed Comtean (which more or less is Ward’s contribution to a simmering debate among American social theorists as to whether social physics and social mechanics was the contribution of Quetelet or the contribution of Comte.) Ward, denigrating Quetelet and valorizing Comte, undertakes, like Draper somewhat earlier, a huge mechanical reduction of both individuals and civilizations and physical forces in mechanistic terms.  The study of society must proceed on two levels: in equilibrium and in flux or motion, or statics and dynamics.

And it is in this account of statics and dynamics that Ward attempts to introduce a reformed vitalistic (my term) principle. His notion of separate specific forces and substances is launched in the context of a renewed discussion of statics and dynamics (164ff.)

Social statics deals with individuals and societies in their integration and equilibrium (158) while social dynamics deals with particles, systems, and civilizations in motion.  Social dynamics addresses “disturbances in social equilibrium” (242ff.) Dynamic means both a agent and a “movement.” On the level of the individual body, it describes a change in the motion of a body. On the level of the structure, dynamic means a change in the structures of society itself (221.) Structures like individuals are naturally at a state of equilibrium (indeed, equilibrium is viewed by Ward as a condition for the emergence of the structures of society.) Static systems become dynamic systems since, “construction is only possible through equilibration. Statics does not imply inactivity or quiescence. On the contrary, it represents increased intensity, and this is what constructs. Dynamic movements are confined to structures already formed and, as stated, consist in changes in the type of these structures” (222.)  On structure, Ward continues “represents equilibrium” where “order is the necessary basis of progress.” (223.)

As I illustrated in my last post, Draper, just barely was able to account for the properties of a living system as particles in motion.  Ward too accounts for living systems as being in dynamic, as changing in configuration as well as changing in state.  Everything that is in rest is always in motion.  Ward attempts to explain this through reference to kenetics and thermodynamics. Whether he does this successfully is not for my comment.

I note however that in the space of forty years, the bodies of evidence used by sociologists have gone from the physiological (animal heat, caloric, combustion, respiration, etc.) to the thermodynamic. All of matter is under “vibrism” or “chemism” (94.)  All of living matter is vitiated by “vital” forces.  Man, however, is another element in the social system entirely.  And here, I will briefly try to explain how Quetelet’s social mechanics ushers in a new kind of special designation for especially concision actions, forty years later and against Draper’s intentions.

As social physics explains the workings of matter, so to does social psychics account in the same deterministic way for the nature of mind.  Social psychics is the “science or substance that deals with the exact and invariable laws of mind”   Notice that Ward here says “science or substance.” So, social psychics is the rules and laws governing the particular quality or material quality which is responsible for conscious thought and for the results of conscious thought, human culture and community (150.)

And in such a way as there is physical forces which are reducible to matter and motion, so too are there social energies and social forces which are reducible to their own matters and own motions (165.) This incidentally is where the lauded journal Social Forces gets its name. Social forces are grouped into two classes: essential and non-essential (260ff.)

Essential forces are those of species preservation, growth and reproduction.  Non-essential social forces are those higher intellectual and cultural forces which are responsible to human culture itself.  These are the forces which are the “chief civilizing agencies” (260) with the highest being “moral, aesthetic and intellectual.”  These higher elements are “wants seeking satisfaction through efforts, and thus are social motives or motors inspiring activities which either create structures” through “synergy” “innovation” or “conation.” Human activity and the progress of civilization is distinct from that of brute matter due to the influence of the conative faculty in man.  The conative (much in its sense in early modern philosophy, the conatus of Spinoza and others) is synonymous with will or desire.  It is the stance of “optimism” which is the natural outlook of all human beings.  Optimism guides the will of man and it is these moral, aesthetic and intellectual forces which guide his development and the development of culture.  Now, though all of these forces have the appearance of non-material forces, they can in the last instance be reduced to matter and motion (142.)

This reduction of all of society to matter and motion, but to a different kind of matter and motion than brute nature extended to social structures. Social structures were nothing but “the interaction of different social forces.”  Social structures are “reservoirs of power” (184.)  Human social institutions come into being in order to utilize social energy. Ward here takes as his example the “group sentiment of safety.” Out of this sentiment or social force comes law and religion (185.) Human social institutions, like any product of social forces, can be both material or immaterial, but do not have to be either. If they are the outcome of human striving, of the human will and desire for order, equilibrium and safety, then they are social forces, energies to themselves.

It is with his idea of social forces, at the summit of evolution the actions of the telic agent, which is self-motivating, a physical and spiritual force of its own (464), that Ward attempts to extricate himself from total determinism. In order to account for human social institutions and  human will, he posits the existence of social forces, which are both reducible to matter and motion, but unlike brute matter, this type of matter and motion is susceptible to human will and desire, to human striving.  Is this a kind of vitalism? Ward here would like to found a new science of psychics, which like thermodynamics and kenetics understood the movement of all base matter.  His account of social forces, dependent upon social mechanics, is an attempt to subsume human institutions under laws like those of physics while leaving room for human action. This necessitated the foundation of a new science of forces over atop the old physics.

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