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Immanence and Social Normativity. Spinoza and the invention of sociology in France and Germany 1871-1918

Final Report Summary - IMMA-NORM (Immanence and Social Normativity. Spinoza and the invention of sociology in France and Germany 1871-1918)

The principal investigator Marie Curie post-doctoral Fellowship developed from September 2014 to September 2017 at New School of Social Research in New York and École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. The main goal of my project has been to show how the modern opposition between immanentism and transcendentalism has not only represented an alternative for modern philosophy, but has also shaped the epistemological debates of classical sociology in both France and Germany. The original assumption of this project is based on the idea that early sociological debates have been influenced by Spinozian immanentism. In particular, it is the sociological ambition to develop a conception of norms which locates their production in society instead of moral norms or positive laws that inspired a generation of sociologists in France and Germany to find in Spinoza’s conception of an emergent nature a valid theoretical assumption able to justify this dislocation of normativity at the core of the sociological project. This process would have been concluded by the canonization of the discipline fulfilled by Émile Durkheim in France and Max Weber in Germany. Both authors would have established sociological epistemology on Kantian theoretical assumptions. In this sense, a main alternative of modern philosophy’s concern regarding the nature of reason and its relation to nature, as well as the possibility of thinking the autonomy of reason from religion, would have inhabited sociological literature and, hence, shown its embeddedness in the history of modern philosophy.
During the last year of work, which has produced several articles (see chronological template) as well as my forthcoming book Nature and Form. Enlightenment and sociological reason, these hypotheses have been only partially confirmed. While classical sociology manifested a deep interest in the use of Spinoza, the role of Kantianism is more problematic than is generally accepted in secondary literature. Although Weber’s methodological and ethical positions undoubtedly reveal his theoretical belonging to the field of German Neo-Kantianism, the position of Durkheim is more complicated. In particular, it is with respect to Durkheim’s sociological theory, I realized, that this author cannot be understood as completely adhering either to Kantian transcendentalism or Spinoza’s immanentism. It is in relation to the notion of thinking, such as this faculty is approached in the Elementary Forms of Religious Life, that Durkheim’s theory cannot be considered as a sociology of knowledge which mobilizes Kant and/or Spinoza’s theoretical assumptions alone, but also as it retains an epistemological argument of its own.
Durkheim thusly overcomes the alternative between Spinozism and Kantianism. It is this starting point that, once developed by the project, will allow for the general sociological understanding of Kantian faculties in a proper collective meaning to be grasped. It is in this direction that my present research hase take. On the one hand, Durkheim openly criticizes Kant’s transcendentalism by advocating for the social origins of space, time and the intellectual categories more broadly. While, consequent to his hypothesis concerning the dualisms of human nature, on the other hand, he opposes every attempt to understand reality via a monistic totality which is justifiable via human rationality. The notions of totality, causality and power, without which Spinoza’s rational God could not be understood, are the explanandum and not the explanans of Durkheim theory. In this way, a sociological understanding of society offers the possibility to think the reality of these concepts and not, crucially, the other way around. Overcoming both transcendentalism and immanentism, Durkheim advocates for the social constitution of the Kantian categories and of human reason as such, making thinking into a properly social faculty.
This project has to be considered as a first step of a more ambitious and general project concerning critical faculties aiming to reframe some of the main issues in the debate of the philosophy of the social sciences and critical theory.
My ongoing project, direct extension of the one developed during the Marie Curie post-doctoral research, seeks to show how classical sociological theory can be understood as a theoretical intervention in modern epistemology, ethics and aesthetics which aims to change the modern understanding of critique. Furthermore, it suggests that contemporary critical theory can better understand its tasks by investigating sociological epistemology in a systematic way. To this end, it aims to furnish the first general interpretation of classical sociology so as to show how this discipline transformed the threefold Kantian notion of critique. The history of French and German classical sociology reveals its own systematic attempt to rethink Kant’s faculties of thinking, willing and judging in collective terms, long before the philosophical rediscovery of the centrality of action and its consequences for our understanding of critique.