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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Great Theorist

In the spring of 1964 I was a young priest, one of twelve members of my class doing a year of “pastoral internship” at St. Francis Solanus Parish in Quincy, Illinois. My whole life for the previous eighteen years had been focused on being ordained as a Franciscan priest. Now that I was ordained, I had not the slightest idea of what came next. I was waiting for someone to tell me.

Someone did. The Franciscan provincial minister told me to go study sociology, and to go to Fr. Gabriel Brinkman who would tell me where to study it. Fr. Gabriel had a doctorate in sociology from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He told me, “Go to Harvard.”

That was actually not too hard. In June of that year I wrote and got a summer school catalog, filled out an application on the back page of that catalog, and a few weeks later I was on campus. I took two courses, but more importantly, I met a Franciscan from Holland who was enrolled at Harvard in a program called “Religion and Society,” a mixture of sociology and theology. He took me under his wing and advised me to enroll at the Harvard Divinity School as a “resident graduate.” That would allow me to take half my courses in the divinity school and the other half in “the Yard” (the school of arts and sciences, where sociology was taught). The friar, Theodore Mary Steeman (known by everyone as “Theo”--pronounced Tay-oh) told me, “Take Parsons. He’s an easy grader.”

Talcott Parsons was one of the best known sociologists in the country. Twenty years earlier he had edged out the founder of the Harvard sociology department, Pitirim Sorokin, and had created a new department designed to unite all the social sciences. He called it “Social Relations.” He got psychologists like Gordon Allport and Erik Erikson to cooperate, social psychologists like Thomas Pettigrew, and cultural anthropologists like Clyde and Florence Kluckhohn. He never got the economists, the physical anthropologists and the really empirical psychologists (like B.F. Skinner) to come along.

Parsons’s great goal was to create theory that would encompass all the social sciences, and for that matter, all the sciences in general. He went around like an intellectual vacuum cleaner, sweeping up any idea he came across and building it into his synthesis.

Parsons had begun his career by translating Max Weber’s essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and had then created a massive 1937 synthesis of theory which he called The Structure of Social Action. In it he tried to show that four important thinkers, Weber (who had begun as a historian of economics but moved into sociology), Emile Durkheim (the founder of the first French journal of sociology), and two economic theorists, Vilfredo Pareto and Alfred Marshall, all converged on a style of theorizing which Parsons called “voluntarism.” As far as I could see, voluntarism was the equivalent of what was traditionally called “free will.” Parsons distinguished between behavior, which is deterministic human activity, and “action,” which is goal-directed behavior, and thus in some way free.

Edward Tiryakian, Sorokin’s graduate assistant, who liked Franciscans and coached me in my Harvard career, says that Parsons allowed himself to be swayed away from his original emphasis on freedom when he had himself psychoanalyzed in the 1940s and began to try to build Sigmund Freud into his synthesis (more vacuum cleaner theorizing). Parsons’s new great term became “systems theory.” He wrote a 1950 book called The Social System, which most people found unreadable. For that matter, most of what Parsons wrote after 1950 was unreadable. C. Wright Mills devotes a whole chapter in his famous book The Sociological Imagination to criticizing Parsons, especially for his unreadability. The surprising thing, to me, was that I found him quite clear in classroom lectures. I think it was my grounding in scholastic philosophy that helped.

By the time I met Parsons, his star was beginning to set. A revolt was brewing against his imperialistic claim to include all knowledge in his synthesis, and his model was criticized as too static and conservative. He had begun to use organisms as his model of social systems, and grounded his model on the concept of homeostasis.

After Parsons retired, his synthesis broke apart, and Harvard went back to a standard department of sociology. The Great Theorist has failed in his great synthesis.

But even though it proved unworkable to unite all the social sciences into one academic department, his project reminded me of the way medieval theorists tried to summarize all their work in works like Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.

It is true that no one could possibly summarize all the ideas written in even one language in today’s world. But getting it all in is not the point. The point is to get a grasp on the whole, in such a way that one can live more vitally and fully. We  need to try to get a grasp on social science, natural science, and theology. We need all three if we want to use our minds these days.

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