April 10, 2010

· Philosophy · Sociology

Robert Paul Wolff — the well-known philosopher of politics and political economy, late convert to Afro-American studies, and author of some very good books including the best explanation of how to approach Marx’s ironic, sarcasm-laced prose style — has lately been keeping a blog, and writing his memoirs. There are some very good stories, mostly about philosophers.

Most sociologists are unaware that Talcott Parsons’ son Charles Parsons is a well-respected philosopher of logic, mathematics and language. Wolff knew him as a student, and Chapter 4 has a good story about Parsons, Snr:

Charlie was a very serious, very brilliant, very compulsive young man of middle height, with sandy hair. He was an academic brat, having grown up in the family home in Belmont during the time that his father was a famous senior professor in the Harvard Social Relations Department. Talcott Parsons had been responsible for introducing American readers to the works and theories of Max Weber, the great German sociologist. But unlike Weber, whose books were deep, powerful investigations of the roots, structure, and functioning of modern bureaucratic capitalist society, Parsons produced vast, empty, classificatory schemes that were devoid of any real power or insight. Poor Charlie, who lived very much in the shadow of the great man, was in fact much smarter than his father, and I have always suspected that he knew quite well how meretricious his father’s theories were. But during all the time I knew him, he never said a word about the matter. …

One story will give some sense of the burdens laid upon him by his parents. Our second year together, Charlie very kindly invited me to join his family for Thanksgiving dinner at their colonial Belmont home. … A topic was proposed for discussion during the taking of the wine, and we entered into a lively debate, while papa sat in a corner with a pad and pen and wrote another book, nodding into the conversation from time to time without actually joining it. At issue was whether it would be immoral for the aunt to buy a new car before her present vehicle had entirely worn out. Strong views were offered pro and con, but in the end, a consensus was reached that this would indeed be immoral. At no time, I am happy to say, did the discussion descend to the level of considerations of prudence. It was all on a high moral plane.

Finally dinner was served. After we had seated ourselves around the table, Mrs. Parsons, who was herself a social scientist, turned to Ann and said, “Ann, would you bring in the potatoes, please?” She then explained to me, as the guest, “It is traditional in our family for the older daughter to bring in the potatoes.” Next, she turned to Susan, and said, “Susan, would you bring in the vegetables?” Once again, she explained, “In our family, it is traditional for the younger daughter to bring in the vegetables.” Finally, she turned to her husband, and said, “Talcott, would you carve the turkey?” Yet again, “It is traditional in our family for the father to carve the turkey.”

At first, I was utterly mystified by these elaborate explanations, until, with a flash of methodological insight, I realized what was going on. This was a collection of intellectuals who had read in books that one of the latent functions of social rituals was to preserve the unity of kin structures. So they were deliberately, by the numbers as it were, reenacting a social ritual that they had self-consciously created in an effort to reinforce the ties that bound them. It was a textbook exercise, complete in every way save for any vestige of spontaneous feeling or manifest pleasure.

Professor Parsons proceeded to address the bird, a big, beautifully cooked production to which he applied a carefully sharpened carving knife. He made a series of passes that barely damaged the turkey, producing a neat stack of extremely thin slices. Each plate received one of them, together with a spoonful of the potatoes and the vegetables, a bit of stuffing, and a dollop of gravy. Then we dug in.

Coming as I do from a culture in which eating occupies pride of place among all the bodily functions, including sex, I inhaled my plate of food almost before the others had taken up their knives and forks, and looked around expectantly for seconds. But they were not to be. The turkey, still almost whole, was returned to the kitchen, and plates were ceremonially cleared, ready to be washed, though in my eyes they barely needed it.

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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.



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