A Dickensian Take on Sociology
For many years I have saved this quote from the omniscient narrator of Dickens’ book, Hard Times (hint: it is Dickens himself):
“It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do; but, not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of these its quiet servants, with the composed faces and the regulated actions (B & N, 2004, page. 71).”
Existing as a human and entering into relationships other humans can never be boiled down to well-drawn schematic of a combustion engine (not even the one made by Gioacchino Colombo for Ferrari). I was pleased to read Terence Sweeney’s book review, Looking for the New Humanists, in which he turns to the same quote.
Sweeney is reviewing a book I have not read, We Built Reality: How Social Science Infiltrated Culture, Politics, and Power. It is a highly academic work and, knowing nothing about him, I suspect author Jason Blakely is helpful in the same way that James K. A. Smith is.
In Sweeney’s review, he keeps coming back to Thomas Gradgrind from Hard Times, the hyper-rationalist who despises creativity and imagination, lusts after facts, and consequently drives every human being away from himself. Sweeney sees a similarly between Mr. Gradgrind and the average social scientist, replacing humanity with their facts. He quotes Blakely: “social scientists need to see their methods as interpretations. They are heuristics that help clarify human practices, but heuristics are not and should not be treated as comprehensive explanations.” The problem is, agrees Sweeney, that we trust the various theories and “social-scientific reductions” (that is, interpretations) propounded by economists and sociologists as if these were the components of reality itself. We tell ourselves to care only about the facts, like Mr. Gradgrind, and happily align reality with all the findings (remember, interpretations) of social scientists.
Humans are not defined by scientists, and human relationships are not merely social transactions. This is truncated humanity, says Sweeney. There is more going on, which is why God’s revealed-will in Scripture is the key to knowing what it means to be a human interacting with other humans. God is the independent Creator, while we are the always-dependent creatures. Jason Blakely seems to concur that there is more to reality than “social scientism,” even though some give to “social scientism” the power to sway culture and politics and what it means to be a human in community with others.
To be clear, Blakely is no friend to philosophical conservativism, and he is not writing from a Christian perspective. Not having read the book, he does seem to be picking around the edges of what J. P. Moreland has to say in his terrific book, Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology, and what Vern Poythress has to say in, Redeeming Sociology: A God-centered Approach. Want to learn more? Turn to Moreland and Poythress.
I do love the comparison of the social sciences with Mr. Gradgrind; this is where I am especially thankful to Sweeney for a brief review. In my humble opinion, though, Sweeney, misses the best quote from Hard Times. What happens when rationalist Thomas Gradgrind, the “man of realities,” attempts to rebuild his relationship with his daughter, to repair what his “scientism” has done to her? Louisa begins,
"I do not know that I am sorry, I do not know that I am ashamed, I do not know that I am degraded in my own esteem. All that I know is, your philosophy and your teaching will not save me. Now, father, you have brought me to this. Save me by some other means!"
“[Mr. Gradgrind] tightened his hold in time to prevent her sinking on the floor, but she cried out in a terrible voice, "I shall die if you hold me! Let me fall upon the ground!" And he laid her down there and saw the pride of his heart and the triumph of his system, lying, an insensible heap, at his feet (212).”