Sincronía Spring 2003

Enlightenment and Social Theory of Gouldner Revisited

Kafkazli Seyed Javad
University of Bristol

In this essay the social theory of Gouldner will be reviewed and the main features of his sociology in relation to modern philosophy of Kant, Nietzsche, and Foucault and the implications of Gouldner’s notion of Critique and Reflexivity will be investigated in general terms.

Key Terms: Gouldner, Critique, Enlightenment, Foucault, Nietzsche, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Social Theory, Plato, Intellectuals.


If the scholar is to be adventurous, says James R. Elkins (1985. 124), perhaps heroic, and her scholarship creative and invigorating, then we will need new metaphors and images for what we do, how we think and speak and write. We, he says further, will need a new sense of ourselves as teachers and writers, as thinkers and speakers. To teach and live a life content with small pleasures (a Socratic kind of pleasure that perceived the Life as existentially meaningful and worth dying for), we ask too little of ourselves. (1985. 124) Elkins makes a very interesting observation by looking at the autobiographies of early social thinkers. He founds that there is a sense of purpose and meaning in being a '' ... part of the discipline, in standing for the kind of knowing represented by the discipline and the values that a life in the discipline signifies to others. ... ... . The traditional liberal arts and social sciences disciplines have failed in their promise. We are a new generation of disaffected scholars'' (1985. 124).

The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology and Gouldner

It was a masterpeiece and a classic. By classical I intend the dual meaning of the term both as an influential work and as an attempt to incorporate the ideals of Classical Philosophy in the body of its enquiry. However I am not going to review the work as one conventionally does in sociological discourse.

This work demonstrates what Elkins fifteen years later was talking about in relation to the emergence of a Humanistic Perspective and the New Found Path. (1985.123) Gouldner's might be counted among the first attempt within the institutionalized sociology to talk about 'Man' and 'The Courageous Life'. Concepts that were immeasurable by quantitative frame of measuring. (1970. 8) This work reflected the emergence of new sentiments within the social imagination, which came to be, called cultural studies- and he was well aware of his indebtedness to this branch of literary imagination by paying tribute to Raymond Williams. (1970. viii) However, this work contained more than fragmentary thoughts or an eclectic approach to a social theoretical synthesis. His was an attempt of first-order, i.e. creative and invigorating scholarship that aimed to bring forth, as Elkins noted above, new metaphors and images which would enable us to remove the cotton from our ears and hear the sound of guns (Gouldner, 1970. vii) and moreover be attentive to the unholy divorce between theory and practice (1970. 3). His scholarship aimed to create images, which would enable sociologists of repute to teach in Black colleges and ask why there are no martyrs among sociologist (1970. 9) This, was a reflexive sociology.

The very naming of the book is striking and telling in terms of historiography and the author's imaginative frame of thought: The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. One might call the book, one of the first conscious attempts within sociology that read the sociological concepts and presumptive connective rings in terms of a particular civilizational unit. The very adjective '' Western'' is an epistemological attempt in delimiting the notion of social and making clear that the Coming Crisis as perceived by the community of social scientists is a particular phenomenon within a particular set of ideas. These ideas are politically related to a specific set of socio-economic relations patron-ized by a particular 'Super-ego' called state, based on the notion of constructed nation. Moreover, these coming crises within this set of political web of ideas are based on specific epistemology and ontology. The crisis cannot be solved within this 'received paradigm' constructed on 'binary fission' as Soviet Marxism and Academic Sociology. (1970. 20) In addition, the sociologist, more importantly, needs, in his capacity as an intellectual does, to transcend himself.

Gouldner in Enter Plato: Classical Greece and the Origins of Social Theory

Five years earlier than his 'The Coming Crisis...' Gouldner takes Franz Kafka as his first point of departure and talks of 'writing' as 'prayer':

Writing, says Kafka, is a form of prayer. (Gouldner, 1965. vii)

This is one of those occasions that the sociologist Alvin W. Gouldner appears as the man '' ... he is'' (1965. vii). One should pause for a while and ask what does this concept 'prayer', in a world deprived of any Holy Temple, Sacred Sanctuary, Mount Sinai, could mean? What does Man do in prayer? Socio-anthropological Text-book descriptions talk about prayer as ritual:

'' ... bodily action in relation to symbols ...'' (Bocock, 1974, cited in Collins

Dictionary Sociology,1995. 561).

A sociology aimed in explaining prayer as a bodily action or any formal action which is set apart from profane action (Durkheim; see ibid: 561) falls short in 'seeing' the point. The point is what Gouldner exhorts sociologists as intellectuals 'ought to' do: to transcend their own selfishness and not make '' ... comfortable career out of studying the misery of others'' (Gouldner,1970. 8). Of course, he does not provide any simple means for sociologists to transcend themselves either individually or collectivelly as the 'community of intellectuals'. But one should take note that if writing is a form of prayer and the social scientist also prays when he writes then who can blame Gouldner in not providing the means? Whoever complains, one should be certain that he has not been attentive enough to his conception of writing as prayer. Who can pray for me if I do not pray? In ' Enter Plato', at the outset, by resorting to Kafka (1965. vii), Gouldner makes clear that the task of sociology is more than a 'career'. (1970. 15) It is not a 'vacation' from the hardship of uninspiring under-paid wage-labour in most service-sector jobs. Sociology, in his view, is a 'vocation' indeed. (1970. 8) There is another significant dimension in Gouldner that I cannot do more but allude to it in passing. That is the impact of Kafka's existentialism on Gouldner and the former's ceasless dialogue with Dosteovsky. But Gouldner in his 'prayer' via Kafka had more to do with Dostoevsky than prayerless sociology. By that I mean '' ... the importance of human experience'' (1965. 387) and what 'Man' existentially '' ... is ...'' (1965. vii) and not just what '' ... he knows and certainly not on any more tricks of his craft ...'' (1965. vii).

In any case, this book is another version of thinking on social in '' ... the idiom of social theory'' (1970. vii) that takes the Classical Greece as the bedrock of social theory. (1965) This work does not, despite its claim to be reflexive, take into consideration the possible existence of any view on social beyond this linear path started in Greece and re-emerged in nineteenth-century Europe. One might argue against this point by taking his sympathetic view towards Friedrich Nietzsche as an opening-chapter in modern social theory. In 'The Coming Crisis ...' he opens his work by quoting Nietzsche saying:

'' Here are the priests; and although they are

my enemies ... my blood is related to theirs.''

Nietzsche says this oracular words in his Thus Spake Zarathustra. The latter was born on Lake Urmi; left his home in his thirtieth year, went into the province of Aria, and, during ten years of solitude in the mountains, composed the Zend-Avesta.

(Hollingdale,1961. 39). Who was this man? Forster Nietzsche describes the man, as Nietzsche understood him as following:

'' I had to do a Persian the honour of identifying him with this

creature of my fancy. Persians were the first to take a broad

and comprehensive view of history. Every series of evolutions,

according to them, was presided over by a prophet; and every

prophet had his 'Hazar'--his dynasty of a thousand years.''

( Nietzsche Archives, Weimar, December 1905)

It is certain that the historical Zarathustra did not declare the 'death of God', but it is also of importance to note that here we are faced with more than fanciful thought. Nietzsche is one of those rare modern philosophers who engaged in intellectual debate with Classical Eastern philosophy. Actually, as Johann Figl (1991. 51) notes, Nietzsche was exposed to Asian Thought in a fairly comprehensive manner. This is, as Figl notes, all the more surprising when one considers that in the notes from this period that have been published so far in the 'Historical-Critical Edition' of Nietzsche's works there is practically no mention of such a general acquaintance, and I would add intellectual engagement with the great cultures of Asia. (1991. 60) One becomes aware of the deep impact of Nietzsche on Gouldner when one recalls the former saying:

'' I want to awaken the greatest mistrust of myself: I

speak only of things I have experienced and do not

offer only events in the head. One must want to experience

the great problems with one's body and one's soul. I have

at all times written my writings with my whole heart and

soul: I do not know what purely intellectual problems are''

(Nietzsche,1961. 12).

Then read the lines in 'Enter Plato' and 'The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology':

'' The dramaturgic view arises when ... social theorists

do not believe that 'the best is yet to come,' when they

lose a sustaining sense of the upward trend, ... when social

theorists ... casting doubts upon the importance of human

experience ...'' (1965. 387).


Or when in a Nietzschian manner he exhorts us to believe that

'' social theory is always rooted in the theorist's experiences.

Whether or not it should be, the sensed validity of a theory

depends upon the sharing of experience and of the sentiments

...'' (1970. 8).


Here, like in Nietzsche the experience takes an epistemological status and he exhorts us to escape the unmanly (1970. 8) in the professionalized social theory. I think what he tries to say it would be more intelligible if put in its Nietzschian idiom where the '' ... dichotomy between thinking and feeling, intellect and passion, has really disappeared'' (R. J. Hollingdale,1969. 12). However, it should be noted that Gouldner's mentor, i.e. Nietzsche was more alert in terms of inter-civilizational dialogue than Gouldner. Besides, there is an interesting triology here within the matrix of modern social theory in terms of inter-civilizational dialogue: Nietzsche-Foucault-Gouldner. The first one was engaged with the classical Asian Thoughts in its various forms: Buddhism, Hindusim, Islam, and Zoroastrian. Although, he debated with them in order to find '' ... a critical alternative to Christianity'' (Figl,1991. 52) but who can confine the limits of a debate except the intellectual limitations of the mind of an intellectual? Here, I would not go further regarding Foucault and his engagement with Asian Intellectual Traditions and more importantly with the Persian Political Thought.

Gouldner and Enlightening Project

In concluding Gouldner's contribution towards the philosophical and metaphysical dimensions of social sciences in their broadest sense and in regard to religious thought in its classical sense, I would like to make a final remark regarding his notion of 'Critique' and its shortcoming. It has been my leitmotif along these lines to assess the question in terms of awareness or unawareness of inter-civilizationality. In accordance to these terms, one should be certain that most doyens of Western sociology were practically inattentive to this dimension. In any case, that should not be interpreted as zero-point; on the contrary, there have been authentic attempts here and again. In ' The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology', Gouldner depicts a meta-historiographical landscape within social theory where the criticism and transformation of society is divorced from the criticism and transformation of theories about society. (1970. 3) In overcoming this peril, he suggests us to move towards a critique of sociology. He does not say explicitly but he assumes that somewhere this critique would lead to the re-marriage between theory and practice and more importantly this re-marriage would generate manly theories and restore the whole man again. (1970. 8) That means an ethic for the individual self, which would lead to 'Enlightenment'. There is something more than a mere usage of a popular concept here in Gouldner. His 'Toward a Critique of Sociology' tells more about the state of philosophical thought after Enlightenment in West than a remedy for activists during the Cold War Era.

It is doubtless that man has always been endowed with 'Critical attitude and sensibility', but it is, again, beyond any sensible and historically informed view that 'Critique' as a 'faculty' and further as an 'institutionalized' mode of thought is not more than two-centuries old. It should be admitted that Kantian attempt and the subsequent institutionalization of this faculty is among the most distinguished contributions of Western thought in inter-civilizational terms. However, it should also be noted that Immanuel Kant construed and elaborated this faculty (critical faculty) as a 'means' to an 'end'. The end which is one of the key concept of modern thought, or rather the key into modern epistemology and ontology (some would say, the demarcative line between modern and pre-modern thinking categories) is the notion of 'Enlightenment'. The critical faculty and critical mode of thought (and even the institutional frame of our entire social universe) would lead us to great many results, but the claimed result from Kant on within the philosophy of western secular thought (which resulted in neglecting other human faculties such as meditation, contemplation, and illumination) cannot be achieved by this faculty, and that is ' The Enlightenment': either individually or collectivelly. First of all, it is not clear what exactly does it mean a collective notion of Enlightenment if one does not adhere to any transcendental frame of self and consciousness? I mean how would one distinguish between 'an age of Enlightenment' and 'an Enlightened age'? I think even Kant could not provide the answer and that's why he equated 'the age of Enlightenment' with 'the century of Frederick':

In diesem Betracht ist dieses Zeitalter das Zeitalter

der Aufklärung oder das Jahrhundert FRIDERICHS.

(Kant,1784. 493)

That is to say an imposed form of state discipline in order to bring about the desired change. This is far from Enlightenment and the riddle can never be overcome in this Kantian form. One cannot be sure how to connect the individual state of enlightening mind to the 'collective conscience' and measure its both 'consciousness' and 'enlightenment'. One could become 'clear' about societal complexities and their organic inter-relatedness, but this clearness in mind about one aspect of societal life can never be turned into Enlightenment. In other words, whether the critical faculty and its institutionalized form cannot achieve individual enlightenment or collective one in modern educational system. This, as mentioned earlier, would bring us to a wider problem which afflicted post-Kantian epistemology and ontology, i.e. the institutional neglect of other human faculties in the name of various derogative designation such as: mysticism, romanticism, and etc.

Whatever the merit of Gouldner's 'Toward a Critique of Sociology' one should be certain that this critical (and even reflexive) attempt will not lead, as it did not lead Kant or Enlightenment architects, to Enlightenment. Because each thought and system of ethical frame of conduct is based on ontology, epistemology and the sum of these two would make our politics, i.e. the way we deal with our surroundings and human-fellows. If 'Light' as an ontological category does not have any place within our frame of metaphysics then talks about 'Enlightenment' are not sound and reasonable indeed. The critical faculty cannot lead either the individual person or collective conscience to Enlightenment but 'Clearing' (Klärung) of the clouds (die Aufklärung) that have beclouded the mind and thought.


James R. Elkins. On the Emergence of Narrative Jurisprudence: The Humanistic Perspective Finds a New Path; in Legal Studies Forum, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1985.

Alvin W. Gouldner (1970). The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. H.E.B. Heinmann. London. First Published in Great Britain 1971.

Alvin W. Gouldner (1965). Enter Plato: Classical Greece and the Origins of Social Theory. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology. 2nd edition., eds. David Jary&Julia Jary. 1995. Harper Collins Publishers.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1961). Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. This translation first published 1961 and was reprinted throughout 60s, 70s and 80s in Great Britain by Hazell Watson&Viney.

Johann Figl (1991).'' Nietzche's Early Encounters with Asian Thought'', translated by Graham Parkes in Nietzsche and Asian Thought. Chicago: The University of Chicago. I wish, here, to thank Mrs. San Ying (Sabireh) Huang who helped me to find this work at the library of University of Taiwan in Taipei.

Sincronía Spring 2003

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