April 28, 2012

Pitirim Sorokin

“Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.”—old Russian proverb

I suddenly remembered, the other day, that it had been ages since I dipped into the work of Pitirim Sorokin, the Russian sociologist who immigrated to the United States and founded the Department of Sociology at Harvard, where he taught for nearly thirty years. His four-volume Social and Cultural Dynamics was written over 1937-41, and rereading it at this late date, one has to marvel at the prescience of the man. Much of what he predicted regarding the cycles of civilization is coming true in our time.

Sorokin distinguished between what he called Ideational cultures and Sensate cultures. The former, he wrote, are spiritual in nature, focusing on the inner life of human beings. The latter, on the other hand—of which the West for the last five hundred years is a classic example—are preoccupied with the material modification of the external world by means of science and technology, and are the opposite of the Ideational ones.  The Sensate culture of the last five centuries, he claimed, is now in crisis; in its dying phase.

(Sorokin also posited the existence of an intermediary-type culture between the Sensate and the Ideational, which he called Idealistic, and which is a compromise between faith and pure empiricism. What we find here is a harmonious synthesis among reason, faith, and the senses as sources of knowing. Sad to say, the West has seen only two such periods in its long history, ones that might well be termed golden ages: Greece in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., and Europe during A.D. 1200-1350.  Knowledge was not narrowed to one vista, he said, nor reduced to one source. Think Aeschylus, Thomas Aquinas.)

So Sorokin believed that present-day Sensate/scientific culture was in a state of fatigue; that it had run its course. When you have the excessive domination of a single system, he wrote, eventually it begins to exhibit signs of self-destruction.  The pendulum starts to swing in the other direction because each type of culture contains only part of the truth, and is thus an untruth.  But this partial truth is mistaken for the whole truth, and becomes the basis for culture and social life—which is the untruth of the situation. The false part of the culture tends to grow, and eventually, the whole thing goes out of kilter. In other words, the untruth evokes a strong reaction, creating a dynamic of change and disintegration. (Cf. Hegel, or even Aristotle: any reality contains its own negation within itself, producing its antithesis over time.) Cultures dominated by one-sided mentalities, said Sorokin, fall victim to their own narrow-mindedness.  He goes on:

“The great crisis of Sensate culture is here in all its stark reality. Before our very eyes this culture is committing suicide. If it does not die in our lifetime, it can hardly recover from the exhaustion of its creative forces and from the wounds of self-destruction. Half-alive and half-dead, it may linger in its agony for decades; but its spring and summer are definitely over….I hear distinctly the requiem that the symphony of history is playing in its memory.”

Sorokin’s predictions for this end-game scenario (remember, he’s writing this nearly seventy-five years ago) were as follows:

1. The boundary between true and false, and beautiful and ugly, will erode.  Conscience will disappear in favor of special interest groups. Force and fraud will become the norm; might will become right, and brutality rampant. It will be a bellum omnium contra omnes, and the family will disintegrate as well. “The home will become a mere overnight parking place.”

2. Sensate values “will be progressively destructive rather than constructive, representing in their totality a museum of sociocultural pathology….The Sensate mentality will increasingly interpret man and all values ‘physicochemically,’ ‘biologically,’ ‘reflexologically,’ ‘endocrinologically,’ ‘behavioristically,’ ‘economically’…[etc.].”

3. Real creativity will die out. Instead, we shall get a multitude of mediocre pseudo-thinkers and vulgar groups and organizations. Our belief systems will turn into a strange chaotic stew of science, philosophy, and magical beliefs.  “Quantitative colossalism will substitute for qualitative refinement.” What is biggest will be regarded as best. Instead of classics, we shall have best-sellers. Instead of genius, technique. Instead of real thought, Information. Instead of inner value, glittering externality.  Instead of sages, smart alecs. The great cultural values of the past will be degraded; “Michelangelos and Rembrandts will be decorating soap and razor blades, washing machines and whiskey bottles.”

4. Freedom will become a myth. “Inalienable rights will be alienated; Declarations of Rights either abolished or used only as beautiful screens for an unadulterated coercion. Governments will become more and more hoary, fraudulent, and tyrannical, giving bombs instead of bread; death instead of freedom; violence instead of law.” Security will fade; the population will become weary and scared.  “Suicide, mental disease, and crime will grow.”

5. The dies irae of transition will not be fun to live through, but the only way out of this mess, he wrote, is precisely through it. Under the conditions outlined above, the “population will not be able to help opening its eyes [this will be a very delayed phase in the U.S., I’m guessing] to the hollowness of the declining Sensate culture…. As a result, it will increasingly forsake it and shift its allegiance to either Ideational or Idealistic values.” Finally, we shall see the release of new creative forces, which “will usher in a culture and a noble society built not upon the withered Sensate root but upon a healthier and more vigorous root of integralistic principle.” In other words, we can expect “the emergence and slow growth of the first components of a new sociocultural order.”

Hey, one can only hope.