You are on page 1of 11

Theoretical Logic in Sociology

Volume Four

At first, therefore, logic must indeed he learned as some-

thing which one understands and sees into quite well but
in which, at the heginning, one feels the lack of scope and
depth and a wider significance. It is only after profounder
acquaintance ... that logic ceases to be for subjective spir-
it a merely abstract universal and reveals itself as the uni-
versal which embraces within itself the wealth of the
particular.... The system of logic is the realm of shad-
ows, the world of simple essentialities freed from aJI sen-
suous concreteness. The study of this science, to dwell
and labour in this shadowy realm, is the absolute culture
and discipline of consciousness.
G. W. F. Hegel,
Science of Logic
Jeffrey C. Alexander

University of California Press

Berkeley Los Angeles
The Presuppositional Error ( 1) 213


Chapter Eight
Parsons' presuppositionallogic is ambiguous, and this confusion lies at
the heart of bis first and perhaps still greatest book. In scrutinizing the
densely argued pages of The Structure of Social Action, one cannot avoid
THE PRESUPPOSITIONAL the conclusion that Parsons is not sure whether he is arguing for a multidi-
mensional theory or simply against an instrumentalist one. On the one
ERROR (1) hand, Parsons' analytic scheme clearly incorporales collective order in the
conditional, instrumental sense, and he devotes a great deal of the first
Sociological Idealism and the Attack on part of the book to tracing its articulation in the rationalist tradition of
Instrumental Order in the Early and Middle Work Malthus, Ricardo, Marx, and the Social Darwinists. 2t He argues that the
flaw in the instrumental solution to the arder problem is that it can over-
come individualistic randomness only by sacrificing voluntarism. At the
same time, however, Parsons argues that this rationalist solution to or-
der-what he calls the postulate of "factual" or material order-is actual-
ly no solution at al!. Instead of arguing that rationalism resolves the arder
problem but that io doing so it must incur certain unacceptable costs, he
In 1966, more than a decade into the writings of bis late period, Parsons contends that rationalism is in itself a randomizing approach. Instrumen-
wrote that, under certain circumstances, "! ama cultural determinist rath- tal theory cannot, in other words, resolve the problem of individualistic
er than a social determinist."t From the theorist who throughout bis ca- order.
reer had proclaimed an ecumenical purpose, this is a rather astonishing Pursuing this latter line of reasoning-in what amounts to an anti-
statement. Why, after all, must a choice be made? Has Parsons' analytic instrumentalist argument-Parsons adopts two different strategies. He ar-
theory not been devoted precisely to making just such a choice unneces- gues, in the first place, that instrumental rationalism is inherently
sary? individualistic, a point which has a certain plausibility. By denying the
Parsons promised a synthetic theory, one which would incorporate possibility of internalization, instrumental theories cannot envision the
one-sided "factor theories" within a higher ideal/material synthesis-a symbolic interpenetration of individuals. 3 Yet to accept concrete individ-
theory which would continue Weber's transformation of the materialist ual separation is not to imply an atomistic, individualistic theory, for it can
and idealist traditions into analytic elements of a multidimensional per- be argued that collective order is maintained, nonetheless, by sorne supra-
spective. While the preceding chapters do, 1 believe, demonstrate that the individual externa] force. Yet des pite his own, often forceful explication of
range of his multidimensional achievement was enormous, t must, none~ this possibility for externa! arder, Parsons just as often denies it. He treats
theless, be acknowledged that the achievement remained a partial one. Marxism, for example, mere!y asan interesting variant of "utilitarian indi-
Though Parsons was consistently critica! of purely instrumental rational- vidualism."41 If instrumental rationalism cannot produce a truly collective
ism, bis negation of it was often, in Hegel' s terms, more abstract than theory, of course, the only solution to the arder problem is to adopt a
dialectical: Parsons often simply negated instrumental rationality instead purely normative approach.
of incorporating it in a broader theory. At every point, in fact, Parsons' Though this form of argumentation occurs throughout The Structure
multidimensional theory is cross-cut by sociological idealism. In contrast of Social Action, Parsons also develops a more sophisticated justification
to the contradictory strains in Weber's work, this ambivalence is not limit- for idealist reduction. He acknowledges that a factual or material arder
ed simply to one or another concrete segment of Parsons' writing: there is does exist but argues that it is nonrandom only in the sense that it presents
no opposition between a Parsonian political sociology and a Parsonian action as ordered in a scientific, that is, statistically predictable, sense. 5 To
sociology of religion. In contrast to work of Marx or Durkheim, there is no be truly nonrandom-and Parsons implicitly is introducing here a second
early-versus-late Parsons in terms of significan! presuppositional change. criterion-order must also bring stability. Factual order is unacceptable
Rather, these opposing strands of Parsons' writings are intertwined because the interaction it describes, though nonrandom, is fundamentally
throughout the length and breadth of bis work. "precarious." This is the weakness in Hobbes' theory of the regulation of
214 Modern Reconstruction of Classical Thought The Presuppositional Error ( 1) 215

the "war of all against all. "6 "The actual situation," Parsons writes, refer- lyzes the reaction which developed within the instrumental-rationalist tra-
ring here to his own version of empirical reality, "is not a state of war held dition itself against the individualism that had characterized Western
in check by a coercive sovereign, but a state of relatively spontaneous thought since the seventeenth century.12 As I emphasized in ch. 2, sec. 2,
order." 7 Spontaneous arder, of course, is more stable than coerced arder, the analysis of this tradition serves to establish the instrumental factor in
for it is self-imposed through the internalization of norms. In this way Parsons' multidimensional synthesis. Yet this grand synthesis, as I have
Parsons can contend that Hobbes failed to resolve the order problem be- begun to indicate, is cross-cut by a much more specifically normative
cause he was "devoid of normative thinking."st Theory can articula te or- argument. Parsons resolves this dilemma in a highly strategic manner: he
der only if it describes cooperation as spontaneous and voluntary, for only qualifies the significance of anti-individualistic rationalism by placing this
in this way can "precariousness" be overcome. Once again, Parsons has theoretical development within historical brackets. Implicitly, Parsons
presented a line of reasoning in which purely normative arder is the only presents the logic of instrumental collectivism simply as one phase in the
possible option. But in doing so, he has reduced the generality of bis argu- development of nineteenth-century thought. 13 With the turn of the century
ment. Order now refers to a special kind of empirical situation. Action and the emergence of those thinkers to whom Parsons devotes the main
must not simply be collectively regulated-it must be normative as well. body of his book-Marshall, Pareto, Durkheim, and Weber-the thrust
Moreover, not just any normative regulation will do; the collective norms toward theorizing in the rational tradition is said to have faded away. Once
must also produce emprica! equilibrium. the more normative solution was discovered, it seems, the instrumental
On the basis of either theoretical strategy, collective instrumental or- one simply was no longer necessary.
der becomes a residual category: it is no longer among tbe central axioms But this historical argument is surely contrived. In fact, Halvy, from
of Parsons' theoretical logic. A good example of this more idealist logic whom Parsons claims to derive bis historical sketch, 14 describes Western
occurs in Parsons' discussion of Locke, which also initiates the selective intellectual developments in an almost directly antithetical manner. While
reading of the history of sociological thought that allows him to rationalize acknowledging the importance of the rationalist breakthrough in seven-
this reductionist strand of bis argument 9 Locke avoids the Hobbesian di- teenth-century secular thought, Halvy argues that the Western intellectu-
lemma, Parsons writes, by postulating what Halvy called the "natural al milieu remained significantly idealist and organicist through the early
identity of interest." He notes that Locke could postulate this natural iden- nineteenth century.'s The collectivist rationalism that emerged in nine-
tity, however, only by implicitly assuming an overarching normative con- teenth-century English theorizing, therefore, represented less an end to
sensus about the rules of the game.JO lt is this implicit assumption that instrumentalist thinking than a beginning, and Halvy devotes as much
allows arder to become a residual category in the individualistic tradition attention to the struggle Bentham and bis followers waged against norma-
of classical economics. From this weakness in Lockean theorizing, Parsons tive, organicist theorizing as he does to their attacks on their individualistic
draws the following conclusion: the only way to go beyond residual cate- opponents within the rationalist tradition itself. From this perspective, the
gories, to transcend the individualism of classical economics, is to make normative emphases of Parsons' fin-de-siecle theorists represented not so
Locke's normative assumption explicit, to argue, as Durkheim was later to much the movement toward an ultima te! y satisfactory solution to arder as
do, that economic life is ordered by value consensus. Yet surely this is not one side of a continuing and much more ambiguous dialogue.l6 While
the only alternative to the individualism of classical economics. As Halvy Halvy' s version of intellectual history has its own biases, it offers, none-
himself pointed out in bis analysis of Bentham, Locke's theory may also be theless, a useful antidote to the retrospective rationalization proffered by
countered by postulating an "artificial identity of interest": through exter- Parsons. The validity of an exclusively normative approach to arder can-
na} coercion or inducement, political and econornic systems create supra no! rest upon its historical triumph.l7t
individual orders of their own. In this idealist strand of bis argument, In this ambivalent attempt to legitimate an idealist presuppositional
however, Parsons cannot acknowledge externa! coercion as a viable alter- position, Parsons has cornmitted severa] fundamental errors in theoretical
native, for it would violate his additional criterion that order must not be logic. By arguing that collective arder must ensure social stahility, he has
precarious. Parsons accepts only the Lockean approach to interest-identi- conflated emprica! statements with presuppositional ones. As l have em-
fication; he argues, simply, that the residual status of "natural identity" phasized throughout these volumes, presuppositions about normative ar-
must be replaced by an explicit theory of internalized norms. der provide no sure guarantee of empirical equilibrium, nor does the
Immediately after discussing Locke's position, Parsons embarks upon general postulate of instrumental arder necessarily assume emprica! con-
an extended historical analysis of "anti-individualistic positivism.""t In flict. If Parsons argues against factual arder on the grounds that it denies
this discussion, which takes up the better part of a chapter, Parsons ana- voluntarism, this is a generalized, presuppositional argument; he cannot,
216 Modern Reconstruction of Classical Thought The Presuppositional Error ( 1) 217

simultaneously, then argue against it on the more specific grounds that it neatly side-steps the intellectual tradition initiated by Bentham, Ricardo,
destabilizes social relations. Indeed, voluntaristic behavior may in sorne and Marx.
cases be just as destabilizing. The preservation of normati ve voluntarism, Parsons also tries to justify Durkheim's excessively normative empha-
moreover, in no way excludes an equal emphasis on arder' s coercive as sis by conflating, once again, presuppositional arder with emprica! stabil-
pects, a point, of course, that forms the backbone of Parsons' argument for ity. Durkheim turned to normative arder, Parsons asserts, because other
the multidimensional approach. options implied an unrealistic degree of social conflict. Durkheim thus
The other major error Parsons commits involves the identification of correctly perceived the connection between moral commitment and social
rationalism with individualism. In arguing directly from his critique of the equilibrium; he realized, in Parsons words, that "the ultimate source of
rationalist-individualist position to the justifica!ion of normati ve collective power behind sanctions is the common sense of moral attachment to
order, Parsons equates rationalism with atomism 1 ' But in making this norms-and the weaker that becomes, the larger the minority who do not
equation, Parsons effectively reduces the issue of "order" to the problem share it, [and] the more precarious is the arder in question." 21
of "action.'' 19t Because the crucial issue now becomes whether action is Protected by the camouflage of such conflationary reasoning, Parsons
conceived instrumentally or normatively, the independent logic involved only equivocally applies a multidimensional standard to Durkheim's the-
in the arder question-exemplified by the movement within rationalism ory. We can now see that even his famous critique of Durkheim's idealism
from an individualist to a collective stance-becomes trivialized and, in- is highly inconsistent.24t In the first place, Parsons argues that Durkheim
deed, epiphenomenal. If the rationalist theorists articulated a collective moves toward idealism only in his final work.l ha ve indicated in volume 2
order, this is not really importan!; besides, if collective order is conceived (chs. 7-8), to the contrary, that once Durkheim had abandoned the contra-
in an instrumental way, it is not really order at all. Conversely, if theory dictory structure of The Division of Labor in Society, he was consistently
moves toward a normative position, it will necessarily reject atomism, for committed to an exclusively normative approach. In fact, Parsons is not
a normative reference implies collective arder. This implicit conflation of arguing here against Durkheim' s sociological idealism: he is contesting ide-
action and order, I have earlier argued, marks every attempt to legitimate alism only in the purely epistemological sense. Parsons bclieves that Durk-
one-dimensional social theory. It is not surprising, then, that although Par- heim in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life adopts a neo-Kantian
sons lauds Marx for his attack on individualism, he contends, nevertheless, perspective that leads him to accept a priori mental conceptions as the
that Marx made "no fundamental modification of the general theory of basis of society, categories which operate outside time and space. lf this
human social behavior. "zot path were actually followed, Parsons argues, sociology would not differ
If arder is reduced toan epiphenomenon of action, such "fundamen- from literary interpretation; social values would be analyzed "in them-
tal modifications" must be reserved for theorists who ha ve attacked the selves" rather than in relation to the exigencies of human interaction 25
instrumental postulate. It is precisely for this reason that Parsons devotes Parsons' objection, in other words, is that Durkheim adopted a purely
so much of his attention .in The Structure of Social Action to Durkheim idealist epistemology, not that Durkheim overlooked instrumental action
and Weber. It is this same, basically conflationary, perspective that makes or coercve arder. But it is perfectly possible to emphasize the reality of the
his interpretations of these thinkers so ambiguous. world externa! to the individual mind-to discuss concrete human interac-
In Parsons' analysis of Durkheim, for example, he confuses Durk- tion and the relation of values to institutions-and still to theorize in a
heim's rejection of instrumental rationalism with his criticism of individ- sociologically idealist way.26i"
ualism. Thus, in discussing Durkheim's critique of Spencer, he presents Although Parsons believes that Durkheim is not an idealist because
him as dissatisfied with contract theory because of its individualism. In most of his work "retains a place for the Utilitarian elements of action," he
contrast to Spencer, Parsons believes Durkheim had a clear vision of the fails to scrutinize carefully the role such elements actually play in Durk-
"uniformities of behavior," that is, of the way individual action is collec- heim's schema.27 In so doing Parsons forgets his own earlier injunction
tively ordered. 21 In the very next passage, however, he characterizes Durk- against the rationalist position. The problem with Utilitarianism, he argued
heim's critique asan attack on Spencer's rationalism: "As has been pointed in the first par! of The Structure of Social Action, is not that it actually
out, Durkheim's most fundamental critique of Utilitarian individualism elimina tes norma ti ve elements but that by making tbem exclusively instru-
was on the grounds of its inability to account for the elements of norma- mental it effectively ignores their effect. 28 To fully understand the prob-
tive arder in society."22 Durkheim's position on arder, in other words, is lem of sociological idealism, Parsons would have had to develop the
explained by his position on instrumental action. By implying that a nor- in verse of this logic: the problem does not come from eliminating instru-
mative theory presents the only alternative toan individualist one, Parsons mental elements but rather from treating them as if they were fully regu-
218 Modern Reconstruction of Classical Thought The Presuppo.sitional Error ( 1) 219

lated by nonrational commitments. But although this understanding is than ideal-typical approach to action, he argues, such lapses could have
implicit throughout the multidimensional strand of his work, Parsons nev- been avoided. Moreover, such analytic theorizing would have allowed We-
er articulates this logic in an explicit way. In terms of his self-conscious ber to present his generally successful approach to normative arder in the
critica] logic, then, the problem of sociological materialism receives far form of a self-conscious and cumulative theory of society rather than as a
greater attention. This unequal emphasis is portentous of the strains that series of historical essays. 32
develop in his later writing. In this second strand of his argument, then, Parsons' aim is to con-
The same strand of idealist reduction distorts Parsons' treatment of struct an analytic sociology that can more successfully articulate the pre-
Weber. We ha ve seen how in analyzing Weber's sociology of religion Par- suppositional emphases of his classical predecessors. Insofar as he has
sons strongly asserts its multidimensional quality, particularly its inter- characterized the latter as oriented primarily to normative order, his own
weaving of political structures and classes with religious rationalization. theory seeks to becorne an analytically more sophisticated version of so-
This reflects Parsons' own multidimensional bent.29t The recognition of ciological idealism.
this emphasis must now be balanced, however, against less synthetic as-
pects of Parsons' treatment. First, he ignores the unresolved tensions be- 2. IDEALISM IN THE MIDDLE PERIOD: THE SOCIAL
tween instrumental and normative order that permeate even Weber's SYSTEM AS "GROUND" FOR CULTURE AND
sociology of religion. More importantly, however, he completely ignores PERSONALITY
Weber's substantive political sociology, the historical discussions of the
transition from patriarchal household to feudal and patrimonial systems Parsons' rniddle-period work must be viewed, in par!, asan attempt to
which revolve almost exclusively around instrumental motivation and co- provide just such an analytic resolution. Despite this ambition, however,
ercive force. Only by ignoring this discussion can Parsons construe We- the essays of the early middle period remain directly rooted in the concep-
ber's political sociology as focusing on the problem of legitimacy in tual structure of classical theory. Furthermore, Parsons is preoccupied
primarily moral and symbolic terms, as a problem in which the concept of throughout this early period with the empirical problems of international
charisma plays a pivota! roJe.'o conflict and social reconstruction. For both these reasons, his idealist re-
The Structure of Social Action, theu, constructs two agendas for social construction of the sociological tradition u pon more sophisticated analytic
theory. In part 1, Parsons provides what amounts to a multidimensional lines is much less distinct than it becomes in the later work. The tendency
frarnework for theoretical logic. Yet this synthetic standard is marred is present nonetheless, and it produces a disturbing, one-dimensional un-
because the critique of materialism is much more explicit and self-con- dertone for many of the individual essays.
scious than that of idealism. Moreover, multidimensionality is applied in For example, although the pattern-variable schema-certainly the
parts 2 and 3 only in a highly uneven way. Further, and most importantly, majar conceptual innovation of this period-is in no sense inherently op-
this multidimensional purpose is cross-cut by a contradictory, idealist in- posed to a multidimensional focus, Parsons often treats it more as an
terpretation of the history of the sociological traditon. Parsons repeatedly alternative to instrumental-conditional order than as a modification of it.
defines normative order as the preferable-if not the only-reference In only his second effort to conceptualize this scheme, "The Motivation of
point for collectivist theorizing, and he presents classical theory as a pro- Economic Activity," in 1940, this idealist strategy becornes quite explicit.
gressive movement toward such a symbolic and normative ernphasis. The problem with the rationalist approach to economic activity, Parsons
The faults that Parsons finds with classical theory are, in this strand of writes, is that by dealing with exclusively instrumental self-interest it is
his argument, more "methodological" than presuppositional. Durkheim's "almos! random" in its approach to the aggregation of individual acts. If
central problem was not bis failure to relate norms to conditions but rath- one postulates only instrumental self-interest, he argues, "society could
er his inability to clarify the relation between norms and individuals. If scarcely be an order" at aJl-'3
Durkheim had taken a more analytic, rather than concrete, approach to While more specified empirically, this logic echoes Parsons' presuppo-
the individual, be could ha ve transcended the individual!society problem; sitional argument in The Structure of Social Action. Economic activity is
such "analytic theory" would also ha ve allowed him to avoid the embar- inherently individualistic; the only way to provide collective order is to
rassment of episternological idealism. ' 1 Weber, on the other hand, under- focus on the kind of supra-individual constraint provided by norms. Yet,
rnined his discussion of rnodernity by occasionally lapsing into a as in The Structure of Social Action, this is more of an argument for
neo-utilitarian mode. Once again, Parsons turns toa rnethodological rather sociological idealism than an objective staternent of the nature of presnp-
than presuppositional critique. If Weber had utilized an analytical rather positional logic or actual empirical necessity. As Marx and Weber both
220 Modern Reconstruction of ClassicaJ Thought The Presuppositional Error (1) 221

demonstrated, rationalist theory can certainly structure instrumental self- simply as providing the differentiated "ground" upon which psychological
interest in a collective way. By focusing on the organization of scarce and cultural imperatives interact. True, the social system's independence
means, it postulates particular forms of economic or political arrange- guarantees that epistemological idealism will be avoided; but if this auton-
mcnts. Parsons ignores this option. Collective order, he implicitly argues, omy is conceptualized in a primarily passive way, the culture/society 1
can be achieved only by organizing ends, not means. Economic order is personality trichotomy can still be used to elaborate idealisrn in a more
accomplished by the normative pattern-variables of achievement, speci- sociological form.JBt
ficity, universalism, and affective neutrality. In one form or another, this In chapters 2 and 3 of The Social System, Parsons elaborates this
argument is repeated throughout Parsons' subsequent work34t sociologically idealist approach to the social system in greater detail. There
By his later middle period, Parsons had more fully established an are, he writes, two types of "functional requisites," those concerned with
independent conceptual scheme; his focus, in addition, was less tied to any biological considerations like nutrition and physical survival and those
particular empirical concerns. This idealist strand of his work became, as that address more social kinds of problems which can be classified under
a result, much more pronounced. the general heading of the "need to secure adequate participation." 39 This
The critica] ambivalence in The Social System revolves around the problem of participation, in turn, has two different aspects; participation
relation of psychological, social, and cultural systems. The problem is al- can be achieved by expediency, "where conformity or non-conformity is a
ready clearly revealed in the first chapter, where, it will be recallcd, Par- function of the instrumental interests of the actor," or through value com-
sons moves from a consideration of the problem of action, to the mitment, in which internalization guarantees that conformity "becomes a
diffcrentiation of action's objects into physical, social, and cultural types, need disposition of the actor's own personality.""' Whereas in the multidi-
and finally to the organization of these objects into the orders of personal- mensional strand of his argument-as formulated particularly in the later
ity. culture, and socicty. Jst Although he formally allows each of these three chapters 4 and 5-Parsons refuses to make any choice between these
types of objects to comprise both meaos and ends, he tends, in fact, to limit modes of gaining participation, here he tilts sharply toward the normati ve
the status of means to nonhuman, physical objects alone.J6 Since it is hu- pole. He argues that instrumental interest can secure participation "only in
man objects, of course, that form the principal focus of Parsons' study, the limiting case"; the "predominan!" form of participation is voluntary
this limitation legitimates inattcntion to the instrumental element in hu- and value-oriented, occurring "relatively independently of any instrumen-
tnan affairs. tally significan! consequences." 41 The problem of participation has be-
Correspondingly, despite his formal distinction between instrumental, come the problem of "motivation." The specifically social category of
expressive, and moral dimensions within each of the Ievels he has identi- functional requisites must be viewed as concerned primarily with the inte-
fied, Parsons focuses much more on the expressive and moral dimensions gration of psychological cathexis and normative patterns.42 "This integra-
than on instrumental ones. lt is true that the social system and its "scarce tion of a set of common value patterns with the internalized
exigencies" -which produce pressure for the organization of needs and need-disposition structure of the constituent personalities," Parsons now
commitments-presents a vital point of theoretical reference; nonetheless, writes, "is the core phenomenon of the dynamics of social systems. " 43 On
these exigencies are treated, in this chapter, in a distinctly secondary way. the basis of this idealist understanding of society's "core," Parsons now
If the independence of the social system were not acknowledged, Parsons defines collective arder entirely without reference to instrumental condi-
warns, no "real," extra-individual objects could be described, and society tions. Although he acknowledges that "an integrated structure of action
would be viewed as the perfect congruence between individual personal- elements" must be defined "in relation toa situation"-it must, in other
ity and cultural demands. If modern theory made such an error, Parsons words, have a social-system referent-he argues that the aggregation of
believes, it would replicate the epistemological idealism he attributed to action, or collective arder, consists essentially in the "integration of moti-
Durkheim. Parsons will not make this mistake: he recognizes the autono- vational and cultural or symbolic elements." 44
rny of the social leve!. As a result, he can avoid also a more modern failing: In view of his earlier presuppositional confusion, it is not surprising
the facile, fundamentally idealist identification of symbolic patterns and that Parsons now conflates this presuppositional reduction with an em-
psychological needs espoused by the "culture and personality" school of prica! commitment to equilibriurn. To focus on norms, he asserts, is to
anthropology. 37t Yet it is upon this primarily negative justification that focus on the problem of empirical stability: instrumental activity is residu-
Parsons' treatment of scarce societal exigencies concludes. Instead of al because continua] instability and disruption is the exception rather than
making social system exigencies into active, independent variables in their the rule.45 When Hobbes suggests that men become enemies because they
own right, he usually conceptualizes them, in this introductory chapter, "desire the same thing which nevertheless they cannot both have," he
222 Modern Reconstruction of Classical Thought The Presuppositional Error ( 1) 223

argued from scarcity and instrumentalism to the likelihood of empirical But Parsons is committed to systematization and deductive logic, and
conflict. Parsons has turned Hobbes' error on its head, arguing that if he is bound to present at least sorne rationale for the bracketing of his
actors engage in normative, noninstrurnental action their activities must multidimensional allocation-integration scheme. He does so by offering a
be complementary.46t In opposition to the Hobbesian solution and its Ben- distinction between relational and regulative institutions. ss The first he
thamite and Marxian legacy, Parsons argues that modern sociology must defines as the core institutions concerned with value patterning and emo-
pursue a more Lockean path. It can do so, however, only by marrying tional control. Because sorne actors behave in ways that are "independent
Durkheim with Freud, by combining the analysis of symbolic values with of the moral-integrative patterning of the social system," however, these
the "implication of modern psychological knowledge" about cathexis and relational institutions are not sufficient and regulative institutions become
internalization. 4 ' Modern social theory, in other words, should devote it- necessary. Regula ti ve institutions concern primarily "ecological" process-
self to elaborating the Durkheim-Freud synthesis; as far as Weber's legacy es,"s6 which Parsons defines as involving "a plurality of actors who are not
is concerned, theory can incorporate only the normative aspects of his integrated by bonds of solidarity ... but who are [still] objects to one an-
work. other."s7 Ecological processes, in other words, involve the dominance of
To begin this task, Parsons lays out in chapter 3 the basic emprica! instrumental arder, and Parsons includes in this category every institution-
components of social systems. He starts with an ideal-typical relationship al situation that imposes order in an efficient way, including, particularly,
of instrumental exchange and enumera tes four basic problems that such a the economic and political spheres. He argues, however, that such regula-
relationship produces: cooperation, remuneration, access to, and disposal torv institutions must be viewed as peripheral to the fundamental process-
of, facilities." These problems, he asserts, present the four hasic points of es of social systems, and in doing so he departs radically from the
societal differentiation, and, consequently, the principal foci for the distri- multidimensional focus of his allocation-integration schemess Parsons ad-
bution of social roles. But instead of following up this fourfold division by mits, of course, that political and economic activities can and do become
analyzing the dialectic of allocation and integration-the path he takes in the focus of significan! social activity and that they have, as a result, been
the multidimensional strand of his analysis-Parsons defines sociology as the objects of extensive sociological analysis. He emphasizes, nonetheless,
being primarily concerned with the value orientations around which, he that such activity operates only within parameters established by institu-
assumes, these instrumental tasks must hecome institutionalized: "The tionalized values and motivations. ' 9 Any sociological treatment of econom-
specifically sociological problem focus with reference to such a [differen- ics or politics must take account of this fact.
tiated] system ... concerns the kind of value orientations which are insti- In keeping with this tendency to bracket instrumental considerations,
tutionalized in it."9 Social roles are now defined simply as specifications Parsons concludes his importan! multidimensional discussion in chapter 5
of these institutionalized value standardsso The basic structures of social by reversing his field, returning to a one-dimensional, normative point of
systems, then, can be derived from value orientations; Parsons proceeds, view. He argues that institutional differentiation is derived not from the
in fact, to cross-tabulate the pattern-variable comhinations-values like interaction of normative and instrumental orders but rather from the elec-
specificity-neutrality and diffuseness-affectivity-with the various instru- ti ve affinities of cultural patterns themselves, affinities which, he believes,
mental and expressive exigencies they controJ. 5 lt He concludes by affirm- are articulated by the different pattern-variable combinations,60t Parsons
ing the centrality of the Durkheim-Freud synthesis: "The bases of was always profoundly ambivalent about the pattern variables and their
differentiation," he writes, are "found in the motivational structure of an role in his developing theory. When the patterns of specificity and achieve-
actor's orientation and in the cultural value-standards which are built into ment were first introduced in a "Note" in The Structure of Social Action,
it."52t he used them simply to characterize in more precise terms Tnnies' Ge-
In chapters 4 and 5, of course, Parsons' approach to social structure is sellschaft, a conception which, he argued, referred to the same kinds of
very much different. Though he still is concerned with value patterns and instrumental and political phenomena described by Marx.6 1 Parsons first
normative solidarity, he combines these emphases with attention to the used the pattern variables, in other words, to characterize "factual order."
more instrumental aspects of allocation and integration.S3t This switch of At another point in The Structure of Social Action, however, he introduces
emphasis, however, poses a real threat to the continuity of Parsous' argu- a third pattern variable, universalism/particularism, in the context of his
ment. There is a real sense in which he simply ignores the dissonance Weberian analysis of social values as derived from comparative religious
between these multidimensional and idealist treatments. Indeed, given his differences.6' This treatment, in effect, established the other pole of Par-
profound ambiguity, both strands of argumentare internally coherent and sons' future pattern-variable analysis, for it treats values as prior patterns
stand quite effectively on their own.s; from which instrumental arrangements are derived.
224 Modern Reconstruction of Classical Thought The Presuppositional Error ( 1) 225

This ambivalence is continued in The Social SystemHr In chapter 4 In an importan! sense, the remainder of The Social System may he
and a good part of chapter 5, Parsons describes institutional differentia- viewed as an analysis of how these crucially significan! pattern-variable
tion as being derived from the interaction of material strains and cultural combinations are sustained through the exigencies of social-system inter-
patterning. In these discussions, the pattern-variable comhinations are em- action. Since Parsons' idealist approach to the problem of normative or-
ployed to represen! the input of cultural patterning and, even more impor- der-what I have called his Durkheim-Freud synthesis-has both a
tantly, to characterize the cultural implications of the institutional psychological and a cultural dimension, his energy is devoted to describing
differentiation that finally emerges. This strategy is illustrated, for exam- the specific mechanisms by which societies integrate pattern-variable
ple, in the discussion of the ascriptive and achievement "complexes." Here combinations with the personality and the cultural systems.
Parsons used the pattern-variahle designations to characterize two ideal- In the multidimensional aspect of his work, Parsons treats socializa-
typical forms of association, and describes association as the result of tion as a transitional process between the earlier, value-oriented institu-
interpenetrating psychological, organizational, and symbolic pressuresMt tions and the later, more conditional environments of the life cycle, a
In the idealist strand of his analysis, which includes not only chapters process which guarantees that the later, more instrumental pressures will
2 and 3 but the latter part of chapter 5 as well, Parsons takes a far different be mediated by at least sorne interna] reference. In contrast, in the idealist
approach to the pattern variables. Institutional differentiation is directly strand of his thinking, where cultural patterns actually create basic social
derived from different pattern-variable comhinations, which in turn structures, socialization assumes a much more pivota! role. Although he
emerge from intrinsic symbolic affinities 65t In a purely voluntaristic fash- acknowledges the existence of the "process of allocation of facilities and
ion, Parsons argues here that it is individual choices wbich determine rewards," Parsons now argues that this process is interesting only "from
situations;66 for exam.ple, he views "achievement" and "ascription" as in~ the rnotivational point of view." 71 He believes, in other words, that the
herent in the culturally defined qualities of internalized objects them- allocation of personnel overshadows the prohlems generated by the allo-
selves. To discover whether an action or institution belongs in the cation of facilities and rewards. From this reductionist perspective, social-
achievement or ascriptive complex, he asks, in effect, "what do the objects ization not only allocates personnel by producing value internalization hut,
involved mean?" The gist of Parsons' multidimensional analysis is now in a crucial sense, creates the social roles and institutions in which this
reversed, and value patterns are utilized to define the possibilities of scar- personnel willlater participate.7' Beginning with a society' s pattern-vari-
city and instrumental action. He argues that the instrumental complex of able combinations, Parsons employs his theory of psychological identifica-
possessions and the ecological nexus of economic and political organiza- tion to describe how these "social structures" become internalized 73 To
tion have become significan! in modern society simply because of the deal with the specific conditional challenges which the adult may encoun-
emergence of universalistic and achievernent orientations. 67 ter, he develops a theory of "secondary identifications" which dernon
It is on this basis-a concern for what is "logically possihle" in cultural strates how generalized motivation is adapted to the complex actuality of
terms68 -that Parsons proceeds to derive the principal "emprica! clus- social system life.'4t
ters" of modern social institutions: he describes the hasis of kinship collec- The other side of this exclusive concentration on learning is Parsons'
tivities, territorial organization, the centrality of political force, and the exaggerated concern for the psychocultural aspects of deviance and social
extension of class solidarity in an idealistic manner which significantly control. As I indicated earlier, Parsons' deviance theory can be understood
contradicts his earlier analysis of these same phenomena.69 From an im- in a distinctively multidimensional way;?st Since from a multidimensional
portan! element in his multidimensional theory, the pattern-variable perspective social arder is normative as well as instrumental, disequilibri-
scheme has been transformed into cultural hermeneutics. This is not to um is related to a variety of strains, both symbolic and conditional. In
say, of course, that this hermeneutical strategy is not a major achievement response to the normative violation and subsequent emotional reaction
in itself. In their idealistic form, the pattern variables provide a systematic that creates deviance, social control rnechanisms combine a range of coer-
classification of cultural tendencies and their sociological implications un- cive and symholic sanctions and rewards. In the idealist strand of his
paralleled in the history of sociological thought. They allow Parsons to work, Parsons distorts this account by placing deviance in the context of
establish law-like statements about culturallife that far surpass the idio- his twofold confiation of the arder concept. "The crucial significance of
graphic quality which undermines the general relevance of most cultural this [deviance] problem," he writes, "derives ... from two fundamental
studies. Even in this idealist effort, then, Parsons huilds upon the achieve- considerations," first, "the fact ... that all social action is normatively ori-
ments of Weber, although he does so in a ene-dimensional manner that ented," and, second, that these norms must, to an importan! degree, "be
Weber would not endorse. 7ot common to the actors in an institutionally integrated ... system." 76 Devi-
226 Modern Reconstruction of Classical Thought The Presuppositional Error (1) 227

ance, in other words, focuses on the problems that norms face in main- the crucial role of "bridge" elements-the term he apphes to indviduals
taning equilibrium. and institutions w ho are intermedia te between deviants and established
Nonetheless, Parsons begins his substantive discussion of deviance by authorities and who can, as a consequence, effectvely mediate the pro-
arguing that strains are, after all, produced by the social situation. The cess of reintegration.
action of significan! others is variable and unpredictable; more important- My critcism, rather, is a presuppositional one. These emprica! in-
ly, societies are rife with role conflicts that impose irreconcilable de- sights are not sufficiently combined with a multdimensional approach.
mands. 771 But this characterization of the origins of these strains and their Too often, Parsons shunts "reality factors" into the status of residual cate-
effects is shortly enmeshed in Parsons' reduction of collective arder to the gories. While he admits that questions of instrumental advantage, such as
dialectic of Durkheim and Freud. "In the analysis of deviance," he writes, whether deviance "pays" and whether it is possible to "get away with it,"
"we must focus on ... the orientation of the individual actor ... to the inevitably enter the picture, 84 he argues that "from the point of view of the
situation itself, including above all the significan! social objects."'' Accord- central dynamics of the social system they are not the core problem." 85
ing to Parsons' idealist reduction, it will be recalled, social objects are only The real concerns of deviance theory "[are] to be found in the balance of
ends, never means.'9t Parsons must, therefore, deal with conflicts between forces involved in the building up and the counteraction of motivation to
individuals and roles-the disruptions created by social objects-only as deviance," not to the forces that make deviance instrumentally advanta-
strains in the organiza!ion of ends, as the disruption of cultural patterns geous." Beca use Parsons has refused to consider situatons w here ends
and internalizations rather than as the disorganization of means and the are stable-where norms are "realistcally" internalized and cathected-
imposition of scarcity. Relating differentia] structural possibilities for devi- and where it is the disorganization of means which creates deviance, his
ance to different kinds of pattern-variable clusters, Parsons translates situ- psychological reference appears to resemble the invidious caricature
ational conflicts into pattern-variable The problems generated by drawn by his critics. Since values are now an exclusive focus, and values
industrial organization and bureaucracy, for example, are treated princi- are achieved only through cathexis, deviance can be described as an inter-
pally in terms of conflicts between the impersonal norms that regulate na!, notan externa! problem. It is tied to fantasy and the distortion of ends
work and the personalistic norms that govern family life. and goals, not to the realistic perception of the inadequacy of the available
Since normative order rests upon internalized cathexis, the strains means. 87t
produced by cultural conflict are, in the first place, affective ones. Devi- Parsons' analysis of the leftlright, radical/conserva ti ve polarization in
ance begins, according to Parsons, when alter acts in a manner "frustrat- Western society illustrates this tendenc-y very well. In his earlier multidi-
ing" to ego. Alter blocks the gratification ego had obtained from alter' s mensional analyses of social change, he concentrated as much on the ob-
earlier altitudes, that is, the pleasure from his internalization of alter as a jective forces of rationalization as on its psychological and cultural
loving object oras a symbol of cathected values.s1 Parsons traces the im- aspectssst Now, howevet; he refers only to the "discipline" modern socie-
pact of this affective frustration psychologically: it creates an ambivalence ties impose on their members, a factor which he relates to the influence of
w hich takes the form of either compulsive conformity or alienation. Such the pattern variables of affective neutrality, achievement, and specific-
compulsive conformity or alienation-in either an active or a passive ity. 891 In the hght of the romantic-utopian elements which are a part of the
form-then becomes structured in support groups and legitimated as devi- culturallife of every modern society, he suggests, such discipline creates
ant behavior. 82 frustration and ambivalence. These emotions can be channeled in either
My intention here is not to mnimize the emprica! contribution Par- an ahenatve or a conformistic direction. The alienative pole, which ere-
sons makes by his complex and subtle interweaving of cultural and psy- ates left-wing politics, is encouraged because the universalism of Western
chological variables. 83 Parsons demonstrates, for example, that normative values makes it difficult for authorities to deny the legitmacy of the radi-
abstraction and impersonality induce strain beca use they make communi- cal critique.90 While this formulation is certainly not without emprica!
cation highly ambiguous; that compulsive conformity-despite its invisi- interest, by focusing exclusively on such normat ve and psychological con-
bility to the casual observer-can be as serious a deviant problem as cerns Parsons has offered an idealist explanation of poltica! deviance. In
compulsive rebellion; and that deviance often "splits" motiva !ion in such a line with his DurkheimFreud synthesis and his normative reading of We-
way that different institutionalized demands can be fulfilled and denied by ber, he has considered social-system scarcity merely as a passive ground
the same individual actor. In terms of social control, he calls attention to for the interplay of psychological and cultural forces.9 1t
the crucial significance of emotional and cultural response; to the informal The same kinds of problems distort Parsons' treatment of social con-
sanctions which usually make more formal measures unnecessary; and to trol. In his multidimensional work, Parsons used psychotherapy as a mod-
228 Modern Reconstruction of Classical Thought The Presuppositonal Error ( 1) 229
el to develop a typology of control sanctions, which he links to both by focusing on normative and voluntary elements, not on instrumental
normati ve and instrumental order. The sanctions of "permissiveness" and and deterministc ones.9Bt
"support" are psychological and cultural, while the "manipulation of re- The remainder of Parsons' discussion in The Socal System generally
wards" and the "withdrawal of reciprocity" refer to more instrumental follows this idealist thrust. In chapters 8 and 9, he focuses on the cultural
poltica! and economic forces.nt In this idealist strand of analysis, howev- problem of organizing cognitive and expressive symbols. In the chapter
er, Parsons actually views social control as functionally equivalen! to psy- following, the psychological and cultural points he has established become
chotherapy, thereby limiting such control to restoration of the parameters for his examination of a specific interactional context-name-
motivational and symbolic elements of social order. While he acknowl- ly, the social system formed by the doctor-patient relationship. While his
edges that "compulsion" and the "appeal to rational decisions through penultimate chapter on social change constitutes a return to the multidi-
coercion or inducement" may deter deviance in certain instances, he arM mensional theme, his concluding chapter can be read as an apologa that
gues that the "subtle, underlying motivational aspects" are far more im- seeks to legitimate sociology as a discipline specializing in the reductionist
portant.' program he has set forth in the earlier chapters.m
Parsons now treats the four social-control sanctions as different Even in the idealist strand of The Socal System, it should be empha-
modes of affect, corresponding to four different kinds of psychological sized, Parsons never ignores the existence of conditional order as such. To
reactions to strain. In keeping with his focus on ends rather than means, do so would be to engage in the very epistemological idealism which he
social control becomes the resocialization of deviant motivation; and the consistenti y rejected since the beginning of his career. Rather, he acknowl-
importance of restructuring instrumental means and externa! opportuni- edges instrumental conditions as givens which-while not of independent
ties becomes increasingly obscured. When he considers the political as- interest in themselves-create "problems" which must be addressed by
pects of control, for example, he discusses the state apparatus only in its the psychological and cultural sources of normative order. While instru
relation to the motivational problems of deviant citizens. Partisan, polariz- mental conditions cannot constitute a satisfactory solution to social order,
ing attempts to restore legitimacy are counterproductive beca use they sim- they still must be controlled. That his idealism is sociological, not epistemo-
ply reinforce aggressive fantasies of compulsive alienation. Impersonal, logical, can be seen from a central paradox in this strand of Parsons' work:
consensualleadership, in contras!, cannot be drawn into the vicious circle while he rejects cultural "emanationism" and psychological determinism,
of deviant motivation; as a result, it can play a much more effective thera- he accepts, nevertheless, the existence of a "natural identity of interest"
peutic role.9' In his multidimensional analysis, Parsons viewed effective based upon the interpenetration of individuals by cultural symbols. The
consensual elites as indications that structural factors had allowed the problem with cultural and psychological idealists from Hegel to Ruth Ben-
separation of social control from the sources of institutional strain.%t edict, Parsons believes, is not that they accepted the dominance of nonra-
Now, however, the structural forces giving rise to different types of elites tional factors but that they explained this dominance simply as the logical
are much less importan! than the psychocultural environment to which unfolding of Gest or the projective expansion of personality. In asserting
they contribute. such a relation between culture or personality and society, however, these
Once again, my point is not that Parsons has failed to introduce inter- theorists ignored the autonomy of the social system. In doing so, they side-
esting emprica! propositions. In discussing the challenge of therapeutic stepped what Parsons views as the much more difficult problem, which is
control, for example, he analyzes such issues as the importance of the to explain not simply the workings of culture or personality but rather the
timing of therapeutic efforts, the role of institutional priorities, indirect mediating mechanisms by which both become institutionalized in com-
sanctions, the insulation and isolation of deviance, and the self-control of plex social structures that serve ecological populations of strikingly di-
deviance through ritual. My objection to such analysis, rather, is presuppo- verse interests and activities.loot
sitional. In his multidimensional discussion, Parsons argues that the first Ten years after The Socal System, Parsons repeated this objection.
and most importan! defense against deviance is the authoritative restruc- "Theories which have approached the philosophically idealist pole," he
turing of the "artificial identity of interest"; he treats the "contingent rein- wrote in Theores of Society, "have continually been forced into postulat-
tegration" presented by psychotherapy as an option not only less effective ing a mysterious process of emanation which, like Locke's identity of in-
but less frequently resorted to.97t In his idealist analysis, this arder is re- terest, becomes a name for a problem rather than a solution for it." 101
versed. It is, after al!, the Lockean "natural identity of interests" to which Parsons salves Locke's problem by making this mysterious process of nor-
Parsons directs his attention in this idealist mode, and he illuminates this mative order explicit. In place of the hidden, residual categories of classi-
230 Modern Reconstruction of Classical Thought

cal economics, he describes in a detailed, empirically oriented way the

congruence of society, culture, and personality.
Chapter Nine
Considered in its entirety, then, Parsons' middleperiod work appears
highly uneven and, indeed, internally contradictory. It is precisely this
ambiguity that has eluded most interpreters. Lockwood and Rex, for ex
ample, who ha ve produced the most articulate critiques of this phase of
Parsons' normative reduction, view bis work as consistently idealist, dis
missing bis multidimensional allusions simply as formal statements that
are never substantively elaborated.w2 One group of Parsons' more sympa
Idealist Reduction in the Later Writings
thetic interpreters dismisses these attacks simply as "misreadings," argu
ing that Parsons maintains a consisten!, multidimensional perspective
throughout bis work. 1o3 Other sympathetic readers, by a curious sort of
convergence, actually accept the idealist reading of Parsons as valid, but
view it as a positi ve and necessary solution to the problem of arder. They,
too, claim that Parsons' commitment to this position is consisten! through
out his career.t 04 The interchange model that Parsons develops in bis later work is inelucta
Beyond the false insistence on intellectual consistency, these interpre bly multidimensional; bis idealist deviation in no way affects the presup
tations are often motivated by presuppositional errors of their own. Lock positional nature of this formulation. lt is rather when he applies or
wood and Rex actually use Parsons as a foil for their own theorizing, in specifies the interchange model in social analysis that he tends toward an
which they reproduce a mirror image of the errors they have criticized in idealist reduction. Although, as I demonstrated in chapter 4, Parsons de
Parsons. While paying formal homage to multidimensionality, they tend to votes considerable energy to utilizing interchange in a multidimensional
reduce arder to its instrumental base and conflate the perception of em way, he continually crosscuts this application by deemphasizing the ten
pirical conflict with attention to material conditions_Iost In a similar way, sion between the model's conditional and normative dimensions. Parsons
Parsons' sympathetic readers tend to confuse epistemological with socio demonstrates an alarming propensity to present "adaptative" and "goal
logical multidimensionality, defending sociological idealism as a satisfac attainment" institutions simply as facilitating the realization of norms and
tory option simply because it takes cognizance of the objective world. 106! values, neglecting their functional capacity for antithesis and negation vis
1 ha ve argued, for m y part, that Parsons' work suffers from a funda avis normative ideals. He tends, correspondingly, to portray norms and
mental ambiguity. His early and middle work often conflates presupposi values as successfully controlling and regulating power and economics
tional arder with emprica! equilibrium. More importantly, within the rather than as simply attempting to do so. Too often, indeed, the cybernet
presuppositionallevel itself, the synthetic, objective standard of multidi ic hierarchy is presented asan emprica! assessment of causal importance
mensionality is never consisten ti y maintained. These debilitating problems rather than as an epistemological description of analytic relationship.
continue in Parsons' later work.
Parsons created interchange so that he could systematically differenti
ate integration and pattern maintenance from the more instrumental di
mensions to facilitate theoretical synthesis. In this way, he made it clear
that every concrete act is analytically multidimensionai.It Insofar as this
differentiation becomes a means to focus exclusively on order's normative