March 11, 2003

· Sociology

I got the same email from Nick, the Ranting Rationalist, as Matt Yglesias did. Nick proudly proclaims a commitment to “rational discourse” and says he is “similarly hopeful that you liberal, subjectivist, collectivist simpletons are roundly agitated and annoyed” by his unflinching approach.

Matt raises some philosophical questions for this kind of view. Sociological ones begins with the observation that strident claims of rationality and individualism are often more like clan totems to enhance collective identity than they are commitments to standards of argument and action.

In many ways, libertarians and objectivists and the like illustrate Durkheim’s ideas about the cultural effects of an increasingly complex division of labor:

There is indeed one area in which the common consciousness has grown stronger, viz., in its view of the individual. As all other beliefs and practices assume less and less religious a character, the individual becomes the object of a sort of religion. We carry on the worship of the dignity of the human person, which, like all strong acts of worship, has already acquired its superstitions. If you like, therefore, it is indeed a common faith.

The interesting thing about individualism as an ideology, Durkheim thought, is that it depends on the thing it rejects:

Moreover, if the faith is common because it is shared among the community, it is individual in its object. If it impels every will towards the same end, that end is not a social oneā€¦ It is indeed from society that it draws all its strength, but it is not to society that it binds us: it is to ourselves.

The Ranting Rationalist claims to be against “political correctness” in all its forms. So brave a stand for the common wisdom is hardly to be believed. He also says “We have many sacred cows to slay, many myths to debunk, and much rationality to spread to the great, unwashed masses.” Preach on, Nick, and bring that light to the people. Somewhere, Durkheim is smiling.

All Posts by Date · All Posts by Category


I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



To receive updates from this site, you can subscribe to the  RSS feed of all updates to the site in an RSS feed reader