Bonald and the socialists: some unsettled debts

[Consider this a continuation of “The yearning for lord and manor.”]

Louis de Bonald remains one of the begrudgingly and infrequently acknowledged founders of sociology. It is illustrative to consider the way Bonald, who was a firmly modern thinker, being steeped in Malebranche’s occasionalist solution to the dilemma of Cartesian dualism, ended up setting the foundations for modern sociological thinking while using it to further anti-modern ends. Bonald was also a representative of an aristocratic and patriarchal school of anti-capitalistic thought which in some places echoes and in most other places is radically incongruous with modern socialist ideas.

First, we assert that the category of being is the one primary to all things, indifferent to finitude, and it must be univocal rather than analogous, applying equally to God, man and all other phenomena. This is the Scotist univocity of being. Formal notions like goodness, wisdom and being all retain a simple univocal component regardless of which entity they’re attributed to or to what degree of perfection.

Secondly, we assert that the only efficient causal agent is God (occasionalism). “Do [our senses] show us the force which carries heavy things downwards, light things upwards, and how one body has the power to make another body move?,” asked La Forge. Moreover, since matter is conceived as an inert rea extensa, it cannot be the source of forces and powers that create motion. In Cartesian fashion, Malebranche could assert: “We have only two sorts of ideas, ideas of minds and ideas of bodies; and as we should speak only of what we conceive, we should only reason according to these two kinds of ideas. Thus, since the idea we have of all bodies makes us aware that they cannot move themselves, it must be concluded that it is minds which move them.” That mind is God’s.

Thirdly, we combine univocity of being and occasionalism to posit that our finite ideas have a univocal relation to the infinite and divine ideas emerging from the mind of the Godhead.

We thus develop, through the method of correspondence, a universal calculus for uncovering facts about a social whole existing ontologically prior to any individual. In Bonald’s case, the divine trinity had a secular manifestation in pouvoir, ministre et sujet, as the foundation of authority, for instance husband, wife, child, respectively.

We then proceed to drop the univocal likeness between God and society and simply proclaim more parsimoniously that society itself is God, and that the social organism is by itself an efficient cause of its members’ actions. Sociology is born.

But this immanentization of society comes at a cost. The tensions between aristocratic/conservative anti-capitalism and popular anti-capitalism (modern socialism), particularly w.r.t. freedom, self-determination and the organization of production, is one such cost that is of significance to us here.

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