Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000

Theorizing Classical Sociology

Larry J Ray
Open University Press: Buckingham
0335198651 (pb); 033519866X (hb)
14.99 (pb); 45.00 (hb)

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Theorizing Classical Sociology is a book with a clear and unambiguous agenda: it aims to 'provide an understanding of the central themes in classical theory while showing how these set the scene for subsequent debates.' (p.1) It is not, then, an unambitious project. For, any text which seeks both to define 'central themes' in classical theory and at the same time to stipulate their 'scene-setting' function for subsequent sociology needs to do two things. First, it must speak of classical concerns in a contemporary language - it must perform a translation of ideas, terms and theses across historical and geographical distances. Otherwise, the relation of contemporary debates and their theoretical framing to classical themes is obscured by the linguistic and stylistic incongruities that separate such debates culturally. Second, its thematic taxonomy must be sufficiently comprehensive to capture the nuances and contexts of the classical themes themselves and at the same time sufficiently precise to delineate the relation of the classical tradition's contents to its contemporary forms.

Neither of these requirements can be satisfied easily. Only someone with a clear grasp of the nature of sociology and extensive knowledge of its thematic history could hope to convince readers that theoretical disputes in 18th and 19th Century philosophy continue to matter today. Theorizing Classical Sociology satisfies the first requirement in an elegantly concise prose that carries the reader through the complex theoretical logics of Kant, Hegel, Comte Marx, Durkheim, Simmel, Dilthey, Weber and their followers and critics. The second, far more problematic, requirement is dealt with in two ways. First, the entire theoretical edifice of classical sociology and its historical unfolding is figured as a response to Enlightenment. Just as Enlightenment, for Habermas, is an unfinished project so, for Larry Ray, the classical sociological tradition comprises an unfinished enterprise in imagining the social. Second, this organising motif of Enlightenment provides the framework within which the thematic synopsis of classical theory is organised under five antinomic elements: emancipation and enlightenment; nature and gender; science and methods; social system and social action; cultural habit and reason; and community and society - although this latter pair is supplemented by a third term: 'nostalgia'.

I name these themes 'antinomic' not because they themselves are necessarily contradictory but because their extrapolation in classical sociology, at least as represented in Theorizing Classical Sociology, engenders chains of conceptual polarities - agency-structure, nature-nurture, morality-materiality, community-society, and so on - and it is by weaving a course through these polarities that Larry Ray recounts the emergence and development of sociological thought from the turn of the 18th Century to the turn of the 20th Century. Thus, the book is not a strict theoretical chronology - a linear history of social thought. Nor is it a theoretical glossary: an exercise in precise conceptual definition to provide a classical 'tool kit' for contemporary sociologists. It is certainly a text book, of a kind, that maps major debates and contextualises their social, political and philosophical components: a work of reference that will be used by students of sociology at all levels. But, more than that, it codifies a sociological myth (in the strong sense of that term) through which to make sense of a specifically and identifiably sociological imagination; one which both predates and postdates the cultural turn in sociological theory. Understood in this way, the book is two things at the same time. It represents an exercise in conceptual synthesis, seeking to link varied theoretical propositions to empirical questions of state, civil society, labour, evolution, and so on as well as to epistemological questions of subjectivity, objectivity, understanding, validity, and so on. Simultaneously, it represents a defence of precisely that form of synthetic reasoning which is the hallmark of classical sociology. Thus, when Larry Ray suggests that the classical tradition is an unfinished enterprise, he means that the synthetic programme which it established continues to provide a purchase for understanding the contemporary social world.

If there is unfinished business in the book it relates to the antinomy of the classical and the modern themselves. For, although the book deals explicitly with classical sociology the context for the latter's production is the modern world. Why a specifically classical tradition should develop in a specifically modern world is not clear. Perhaps the classical-modern dualism represents a post-Enlightenment problematic that is beyond the conceptual remit of classical sociology or perhaps it represents the foundational relation of past and present that underpins the antinomic structure of synthetic reasoning in sociology. This question, of the relation of past and present within the modern, persists throughout Theorizing Classical Sociology and although a number of classical theorists - such as Tonnies, Weber and Marx - are shown to have something to say on the topic it is perhaps the least synthesised of all the problematics that the book addresses.

I hope I have communicated that to engage with Theorizing Classical Sociology is to enter into a debate about the nature of sociology today even though the content of the book addresses sociology as it was yesterday. This realisation is brought to the reader not through extravagant claims for the merits of specific sociological schools, through the indiscriminate invention of new concepts or through petulant critiques of anything prefixed by 'post' but simply through the patient erudition of the text. It is a book to which I will certainly return again and again both as a source of theoretical knowledge and as a reminder of the value of a sociological imagination.

Martin O'Brien
University of Derby

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000