George E. McCarthy. Dreams in Exile: Rediscovering Science and Ethics in Nineteenth-century Social Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. 374 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4384-2587-0.
Reviewed by Peter C. Caldwell (Rice University)
Published on H-German (December, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Aristotle, Kant, and "Classical Social Theory"
For two decades, George E. McCarthy has published extensively on social theory in Europe, focusing on the German tradition since Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel. The present book returns to his earlier work on Aristotle's approach to practical reason and Kant's critical formulation of problems of epistemology, and his concern with the way both are echoed in thinkers as varied as Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Martin Heidegger, and Jürgen Habermas. Now McCarthy makes the strong argument that the major contribution of Marx, Weber, and Èmile Durkheim to modern social theory is "their initiation of a conversation between the ancients and moderns by integrating Aristotle's theory of moral economy and practical wisdom (phronesis) with Kant's theory of pure reason and moral autonomy" (p. 255). The result, McCarthy argues, was a theory oriented toward ethical and political practice, one that provided for a critical theory of capitalist, liberal modernity. Both the ethical imperative and the critical theory of these earlier authors, he asserts, have been lost in contemporary, positivistic social science.
This claim offers quite a lot to chew on. As McCarthy himself notes, "it is difficult to offer a summary of the ideas and theories contained in this book because of the expanse and complexity of the material" (p. 255). Indeed, the form of the book contributes to the problem. Two long chapters provide lengthy observations on Aristotle's Ethics and Politics and Kant's critical theory, respectively. Following each of these chapters is a discussion of how Marx, Weber, and Durkheim approached the same problem. The book actually functions, then, by means of a series of parallel commentaries that seek to show commonalities. Within this framework, McCarthy proffers a series of arguments: that it is necessary to seek social justice as part of social theorizing, that contemporary social theory has forgotten its origins, that no break is found between the early and late writing of Marx, Weber, or Durkheim, to name a few. The endnotes often offer miniature essays, as well as an impressive set of references to (mostly English-language) secondary material. The book brims with observations on a plethora of arguments. As a result, it is difficult to digest.
This writing and organizational style impede the key points that McCarthy makes. Contemporary social theory, he argues first, should not lose sight of its founding theorists, be they on the far left (Marx), the liberal-right (Weber), or the reformist middle (Durkheim). Second, he argues that social science should not just be oriented toward practice, but toward the good life, if it is going to contribute in a meaningful way to debates. Third, simple empiricism has long since lost its epistemological foundation. These insights are important. The difficulty lies in combining the arguments. Precisely here, sustained argumentation rather than explanation would have clarified McCarthy's overall analysis. Instead, McCarthy's history of ideas distracts from his argument, and runs into problems at the level of evidence.
For example: it is a tenable argument that Marx makes use of Aristotle to discuss economic systems oriented toward the production of abstract rather than concrete value. Such a direct connection to Aristotle is far more difficult to find in Weber's work. Yet McCarthy writes: "Without Aristotle, Weber's critique of modernity and the Enlightenment would not have been sociologically possible" (p. 100). I am not sure what "sociologically" means in this context; McCarthy does not provide evidence for the assertion that Aristotle is a necessary condition for Weber's thought. To be sure, Weber, like his contemporaries who had been through the Gymnasium system, was steeped in Greek culture. But his interests centered on Greek tragedy, with the possibility of an inescapable conflict of values and the clash of warring gods, and not on the practical wisdom of Aristotle's integrated polis. Thus compressing Weber into Aristotle, McCarthy downplays the crisis of both scholarship and society that Weber describes, the fragmentation of life into systems whose values may be in conflict, and the constant possibility that the values that inform scholarly questions might lead to empirical results in conflict with those values. That is to say, Weber's world is hardly that of a polis oriented toward consensus. Weber's scholarly ideal, meanwhile, does more than just resist demagogues in the classroom, as McCarthy suggests. Weber seeks a methodological distinction--one closely connected to the neo-Kantian distinction between is and ought--between values that set out a problem and the actual interpretation of the problems at issue. It simply is not the case that, for Weber, "the distinction between science and value judgments disappears" (p. 228).
Certainly, Weber and Durkheim wrote within the Kantian tradition, but one cannot easily make the same argument about Marx. Marx's path to socialist revolution led through Ludwig Feuerbach's critique of the idealist tradition. McCarthy, however, argues that "Marx sees no division between materialism and idealism or between science and justice" (p. 82). In fact, Marx's most important set of problems revolves precisely around his simultaneous yearning for revolution and rejection of ethical or moral criticism. This conundrum leads Marx to search for an immanent source of transformation--to find a social class that could carry out the task of criticism. Kantian autonomous ethics have no place in such an immanent, materialist approach. Marx rejects philosophical dualism. Likewise, although theoretical considerations inspired his empirical research, Marx's work was not theoretically Kantian. McCarthy refers to "the Kantian question of the historical conditions for the possibility of capitalism" (p. 210). But Marx's investigation of these historical conditions was not carried out by way of transcendental deduction. "Condition" in this sense is something very different from Kantian a priori categories that organize empirical data into the perceived world. Put differently, Marx's "critique of political economy" is not the same as the Kantian critique of knowledge. Finally, to argue that Marx was influenced by Kant because he read Hegel is not adequate. The smoking gun connecting Marx and Kant is missing.
Marx, Weber, and Durkheim all demanded a social science that had a practical purpose, but in different ways. Marx developed a complex philosophy of history to comprehend emergent, revolutionary practices; Weber drew a stark picture of the individual in the process of rationalization, and in doing so also a history of the contingent forces that led to modernity; Durkheim analyzed the problem of social integration in modern society. All three writers also addressed the problem of epistemology at important points in their career--but, again, in different forms. At times, McCarthy wants to make all five figures in the book express the social theory that he himself seeks. That apparent objective points to a basic problem: Is McCarthy seeking to reconstruct the theories of these thinkers? Or is he seeking to mine historical texts for his own program? The latter possibility is a worthy undertaking. It would be better, in that case, to heed Weber's suggestion: to try to distinguish an initial problem rooted in a set of values from the material actually found during an investigation.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Peter C. Caldwell. Review of McCarthy, George E., Dreams in Exile: Rediscovering Science and Ethics in Nineteenth-century Social Theory.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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