Reaching for Respectability, Jamming, 08/02/2018

Sociology and I have an interesting relationship. Aside from the fact that two of my oldest friends are a husband-and-wife sociologist team, I’ve relied on sociological studies for a good number of empirical sources in my own work.

Sociological theory is also a pretty fertile ground for philosophical creativity too. Pierre Bourdieu, Max Weber, Randall Collins, Claude Lévi-Strauss are just a few sociological theorists who have been influential in philosophical circles.* I’ve gone to the work of these and other folks for my own research.

One of those artistically-rendered maps of the internet, allegedly
composed from every individual IP address.
* And departments, which overlap far too often.

Niklas Luhmann gets listed as a sociologist and social theorist – grappling with the concepts of his systems theory of communication and meaning takes up most of a chapter of Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity.

Jürgen Habermas’ communicative action theories has influenced huge swaths of sociological and human rights theory. Bruno Latour is a philosopher whose actor-network ontology of social relations was so influential that he’s taught as if he were a sociologist.

I’m no stranger to this discipline. It’s my main transdisciplinary direction when I take a flight.

But some sociologists are dangerous. They’re shunned. Or at least considered creative thinkers whose strange directions were never worth following empirically. Gabriel Tarde seems to be one of them.

The essay about him in Deleuze’s Philosophical Lineage is pretty fascinating. Éric Alliez wrote it, and I’ve loved his essays on Deleuze whenever I’ve come across them. I’d describe his writing style as the most artful lack of restraint. So here’s the short version of what Deleuze saw in Gabriel Tarde.

An implicit theme of this book is to show the depth of Deleuze’s debt to Gottfried Leibniz as a thinker – aside from the essay on Leibniz himself, there’s Wronski and Tarde, identified as Leibnizian thinkers in their own spheres.

So when Deleuze was hunting for concepts of existence as fundamentally heterogeneous, he stalks through a shadowy Leibnizian tradition. What made Tarde’s ideas Leibnizian?

Gabriel Tarde
Gabriel Tarde developed a model of sociological thinking that preserved psychological dimensions of human life at that macro level. I’ve just terrified every sociologist in the room.

The first thing about sociology you learn – seems to be in all the introductory courses – is that its founding principle was that the social was its own set of causes. The social was a level of existence with its own governing laws and principles that could never reduce to psychology.

It almost sounds like sociology is justifying its existence – which was actually the founding process of sociology.

Alliez explained this in his essay – Tarde and Émile Durkheim were contemporaries. Tarde was a marginal figure, who made his name developing criminology. That work eventually got him appointed to a professorship at the Collège de France, the platform for his critiques of Durkheim.

Durkheim was at the centre of important intellectual networks in Europe – building the first French university department of sociology at University of Bordeaux, then joining the Sorbonne.

That institutional role as the leader of sociology’s installation in the French research university saw Durkheim in a curious intellectual pressure. Sociology was caught between a firm division – too empirical and mathematical for the humanities, too humanistic for the sciences.

Durkheim, in laying out the core principles of sociology, did so to make sure it would be recognized as a science. He worked to build a consensus in the French academic world for the reality of the social as a plane of existence with its own rules and composition processes.

In this context, Tarde’s theory was very dangerous – especially given the awful 19th century European tendency to see all causal connection as reduction. Tarde’s theory was that built the social and all its processes emerge from the collision of huge numbers of individuals.

Today, we understand that theory as emergence. But 19th century thinkers didn’t understand emergence at all – they only understood reduction. So if one process comes from another, you don’t need to understand the resulting process in itself – only its components.

That attitude would have led people to think that the social was unreal because it was a product of individual interactions. So Durkheim suppressed it.

Yet Tarde – and that underground lineage of thinkers that Deleuze drew so much from – seem to have won out. Our universe is heterogeneous, a world of changes, where was emerges can be radically different from what was.


  1. This is cartoon history of sociology. You really miss what was going between Durkheim and Tarde, and why sociology in France went Durkheim's way. Durkheim provided a normative and empirical framework for the newly arrived secular state -- post 1870 -- that wanted to reproduce the sort of solidarity that the Catholic Church had provided in previous centuries -- i.e. 'moral education' in Durkheim's jargon. Tarde wasn't interested in that. He was much more attuned to the sociobiological style of sociology that came from the UK via Herbert Spencer, which is basically a socialised version of laissez faire capitalism stretched across the entire animal kingdom. Tarde's stock started to rise again as belief in the state as the guardian of society diminished, and Deleuze was just the beginning of that but Latour is the one who's really capitalised on it. I sense you're projecting too much here. Tarde wasn't the underdog you imagine him to be in any case. And until Talcott Parsons standardised US sociology in the 1930s, Tarde was at least popular as Durkheim.

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