Consciousness and Society, by H. Stuart Hughes, published by MacGibbon and Kee, 1959 pp 433, 30/-.

nineteenth century social thought in Great Britain rested upon two complementary sets of philosophic assumptions: those of positivism and utilitarianism, and, though the twentieth century has seen both sets of assumptions challenged in nearly every field of investigation, the need for a radical reorientation of sociological enquiry has hardly been recognised in this country. Thus Professor Hughes new book Consciousness and Society, which surveys the work of Europe’s leading sociologists and social philosophers in the period 1890–1930, and introduces their ideas to a non-specialist British public for the first time, could have quite revolutionary significance.

The assumptions of positivist-utilitarian sociology may be summarised as follows: (1) All empirical facts, including social facts can and should be observed without preconceptions. In Durkheim’s early crude terminology, they should be studied “as things”; (2) Insofar as human behaviour is recognised as being purposive rather than causally determined, the observed actor is to be thought of as a rational scientifically-minded individual, formulating his ends and choosing the scientifically appropriate means of achieving them; (3) A sociology (i.e. an account of how individual actions can be knit together to form a stable social system) can be built on this foundation only by assuming that what ends men seek are irrelevant to the problem of social order. Here lurks the hypothesis of the unseen hand.

The naive political optimism which such sociology inspired was beginning to break down before the end of the nineteenth century, and in one field after another philosophers, psychologists, political thinkers and sociologists were compelled by the facts and problems which they faced to go back on their tracks and to begin the construction of a new model of human nature and social order. This was true of Bergson and Groce in philosophy, of Freud in psychology, of Sorel, Pareto, Mosca and Michels in political sociology, of Rickert and Dilthey in historiography and of Durkheim and Max Weber in sociological theory.

The positivist assumption about the objective nature of social science was challenged by Bergson’s emphasis on intuition, by Dilthey’s distinction between the method of “verstehen” and that of natural science, by Sorel’s notion of “diremptions” and by Weber’s clearer formulation of a similar idea in his notion of the ideal type. Each of these writers was forced, either to deny that social facts could be studied in scientific terms, or to devise scientific concepts which they recognised as “fictions”, having an interpretive, rather than a descriptive function, and as being chosen with reference to the investigator’s own value premises.

Belief in the rationality of human conduct was, of course, shattered by the clinical findings of Freud. But quite apart from Freud the political sociologists were being more and more compelled to devise ideal types of non-rational action in their attempt to account adequately for the political facts of life of the twentieth century. Thus Pareto put economics aside to study the “residues” which were left when the behaviour of rational man had been abstracted out of his model of society. Sorel turned to the study of the myth as a motive force in political action. Durkheim plunged into a systematic analysis of the non-contractual elements underlying Spencer’s “industrial” society. And Weber, personally involved in the creation of the German democratic republic after the First World War, demonstrated the historical precariousness of the “rational-legal” type of social co-ordination, and looked backwards and forwards to the emergence of “charismatic” leaders (i.e. leaders ruling by personal authority).

Thus the problem of the role of shared values in social systems was pushed to the centre of sociology. But the bourgeois values concealed behind Bentham’s comment that “pushpin is as good as poetry” no longer reigned unchallenged in the twentieth century. Weber showed that economic rationality itself was the product of a particular world outlook derived from Calvinism and built into middle class ideologies. And in a class-divided society, men with conflicting economic interests, making conflicting valuations, sought to bend social institutions to serve opposite social purposes. The “necessity” of any social institution was shown to be relative to the interests of a class. So what had passed for objective sociological descriptions were shown, above all by Karl Mannheim, to be nothing more than “ideologies” and “utopias”.