The Rise of Social Theory


Translated by
Sheila Gogol

Polity Press

Copyright © Johan Heilbron 1995

First published in The Netherlands as Het ontstaan van de sociologie by
Prometheus Amsterdam © Johan Heilbron 1990

First published in 1995 by Polity Press
in association with Blackwell Publishers.

Reprinted 2005

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Part I The Rise of Social Theory


  1   Intellectuals between Academy and Salon

  2   Conflict over Reason

  3   French Moralists and the Social Order

  4   The Construction of Social Theory

  5   Theoretical Models Compared: France and Scotland

Part II From Social Theory to Social Science


  6   Reform, Revolution and the Napoleonic Era

  7   Intellectual Transformations around 1800

  8   Natural Science and Revolution

  9   The Literary Opposition

10   Models for a Social Science

Part III Foundations of Sociology


11   The Interrupted Career of Auguste Comte

12   Politics, Science and Philosophy

13   The Shift to the Theory of Science

14   Response and Resistance





The period from 1750 to 1850 is commonly associated with two revolutions, the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution. It is less well known that the intellectual transformations of this period also marked the transition to the modern era, and that the emergence of sociology was an essential part of it. These transformations are the subject of this study, focusing as it does on how social theory emerged and how this process was linked to changes in the intellectual as well as the social context.

I wrote this book when I was at the Amsterdam School for Social Research and the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences in Uppsala. I would like to express my gratitude to the faculty members at both of these institutes for their hospitality and the stimulating working conditions. I would like to thank Pierre Bourdieu and Roger Chartier for their suggestions, Maaike Dahler for her help and Nico Wilterdink for his comments. Most of all, I am indebted to Johan Goudsblom, my supervisor, whose critical sense served as my example. The English translation was funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) and the Netherlands Universities Institute for Coordination of Research in Social Sciences (SISWO).


The progress of knowledge, in the case of social science, supposes a progress in the knowledge of the conditions of knowledge.

Pierre Bourdieu

The social sciences are customarily viewed as being a recent phenomenon. They are thought to have emerged in the course of the nineteenth century, but not to have truly developed until the twentieth. This assumption is common among social scientists and laymen alike, even among historians in these fields.1 What tends to remain obscure here is how the social sciences came into being. To gain insight into their genesis, it is widely admitted that one would have to go further back than the nineteenth century. However, that has only been done on rare occasions and in a highly unsystematic fashion. The reason for this is related to the function of written history.

Historical accounts of the social sciences are closely linked to the ubiquitous demand for information on the past. Educating new students about the disciplinary history is a regular component of professional socialization, and some basic knowledge is part of the intellectual equipment required for any discipline One of the most common ways to reconstruct the past is by drawing a border between ‘history’ proper and ‘prehistory’ or ‘early history’. History then pertains to the past in as far as it bears a direct relation to the contemporary practice of a particular discipline. Examples from this past can be used to support or refute, to serve as a standard for evaluations, and to fulfil any number of symbolic and representative functions. In this sense, history acts as a storehouse open to everyone in the discipline. All and sundry can come to it for terms and concepts, examples and counterexamples, symbols and idols. Thus ‘history’ is a recognized part of the disciplinary identity.

‘Prehistory’ and ‘early history’, however, include the wide range of configurations and intricacies that no longer affect the identity of the discipline. The precise location of this border may change and is subject to conflicts, but no matter how these are settled the early history is no longer regarded as relevant. Early history is the history that might legitimately be forgotten. It is no shame to be ignorant in this respect, and whatever one might know about it is generally at second hand.

In sociology, the demarcation between history and early history is drawn at the mid-nineteenth century. The great names of the second half of the century are part and parcel of ‘classical’ sociology. Marx, Weber, Durkheim and several others are still widely read, commented upon and published. They have their followers and their critics, and in the margin of the sociological craft there are always a few specialists who stand guard over their texts and the various interpretations. But this is not the case with earlier authors, who are no longer viewed as being proper examples. They might sometimes be referred to as pioneers or predecessors, even as founding fathers, but their work is rarely commented upon or included in anyone’s curriculum. It is generally read only as an enjoyable pastime, or to satisfy historical or literary curiosity. It is typical of this lack of attention that there is no standard model in sociology of the development of social theories before the mid-nineteenth century. There are detailed interpretations pertaining to the subsequent periods and most social scientists have no trouble describing the developments since the ‘classics’. Very few, however, would be capable of sketching a comparable picture of the developments before 1850. Even in specialized literature there is little more to be found than a rather vague awareness that the emergence of the social sciences dates back to this period.2 How and why this happened remains unclear.

The disciplinary and the predisciplinary stage

Since the historiography of the social sciences is so closely linked to present-day classifications and interests, what few studies are available are disciplinary histories.3 This is already evident from the journals in the field. The Journal of the History of the Behavioural Sciences (1965) contains mainly articles on the history of psychology. Other journals reflect disciplinary ties in their titles: History of Political Economy (1969), Journal of the History of Sociology (1978) later continued as History of Sociology (1985), History of Political Thought (1980) and History and Anthropology (1984). This strictly disciplinary focus led to an extremely one-sided view of history. Particularly in recent years, ample new information has become available on the histories of specific disciplines. But many concepts and assumptions of modern social science date back to their ‘early history’. This holds true for the modern meanings of such concepts as ‘state’, ‘economy’ and ‘society’, and for modern ideas on human action and notions such as ‘interest’. For a proper understanding of the development of the social sciences, it is consequently necessary to subject their early history to more systematic examination. In many senses this ‘early history’ is not ‘prehistory’ at all, but constitutes instead an integral part of history.

From this perspective the very term ‘early history’ is confusing and might be replaced by ‘predisciplinary history’. The history of the social sciences then consists of a disciplinary and a predisciplinary stage. The predisciplinary stage covers the period from about 1600 to the middle of the nineteenth century. It was during this period that modern notions on human societies emerged. These notions were formulated within far more general frameworks than disciplines. The institutional context consisted of academies and learned societies. Their members were not professors who wrote textbooks for registered students, but men of letters. More often than not, there was no specific professional practice. Ideas were informed by general conceptions in which such terms as ‘reason’, ‘nature’ and ‘philosophy’ were key concepts. Although there was no strict division of labour, this set of institutions and practices was not an undifferentiated constellation. One might speak indeed of a differentiation in intellectual genres. Despite the fact that they were viewed as branches of one and the same type of discourse, these various genres did have a certain autonomy, as is evident, for example, from their specific vocabularies. So in early modern times intellectual activities were organized in academies and learned societies, which competed with older church organizations; the discourses produced in this setting were divided into different intellectual genres, but these genres were part of more general frameworks in a cognitive and institutional as well as a social sense.

From a historical perspective it is typical of modern science that it is organized in disciplines. The formation of disciplines became dominant with the rise of modern universities, when separate curricula, journals and professional organizations were founded. Thus the transition took place from relatively flexible intellectual genres to far more strictly organized university disciplines. This transition meant not only more specialization, but also a more constraining type of organization. Disciplines can be defined as units of teaching, research and professional organization. This multifunctional type of organization reinforced ties within disciplines, while ties between disciplines considerably weakened. General categories lost their central significance and made way for an orientation that was disciplinary and directly linked to new institutional arrangements (chairs, examinations, journals) and a new audience (students). This phenomenon has long characterized the structuring of the sciences in modern times.

Nowadays one might perhaps add a postdisciplinary stage to the predisciplinary and disciplinary ones. With the unprecedented expansion of universities after World War II, disciplinary frameworks began to lose much of their function. As of 1960 research increasingly called for approaches that were interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary.

The division into a predisciplinary and a disciplinary stage is more in keeping with the factual development of modern science than the customary division into history and early history. This does not only hold true for the social sciences. In the development of the natural sciences, a predisciplinary and a disciplinary stage can be distinguished as well. The predisciplinary stage encompasses the rise of the classical natural sciences in the seventeenth century and went on until approximately 1800. In this stage, celestial mechanics or astronomy was the dominant paradigm of natural philosophy. In the decades around 1800 the founding of specific disciplines advanced, and ‘physics’, ‘chemistry’ and ‘biology’, in the contemporary sense of the words, emerged more or less simultaneously.4

The predisciplinary history of social science

Although very little research has been conducted into the predisciplinary history of the social sciences, a clear pattern can nonetheless be distinguished. At the most general level the rise of the social sciences was part of the secularization of the conceptions and representations of human societies. This secularization remained confined initially to a rediscovery of the works of classical antiquity. Aristotelian ‘practical philosophy’ played a key role in this respect. It was the point of departure for the elaboration of modern notions of human societies. The emergence of these modern notions can be viewed as the beginning of the predisciplinary history of social science. A number of stages can be distinguished in this development.

The emergence of modern conceptions of ‘state’ and ‘law’ was the earliest stage. Secular politico-legal theories were formulated in the Italian city states and evolved in close conjunction with processes of state formation. At the close of the sixteenth century, according to Quentin Skinner, a modern concept of the state was formulated for the first time in France. In this conception, the state was viewed as a sovereign institution to which all the citizens were subordinate. This institution was impersonal, since the state was no longer perceived as the property of the monarch. It was an abstract concept that embraced more than just the government or certain legal and administrative agencies.5

The rise of modern economic theories represented the next stage. The Traité d’économie politique (1615) by Antoine de Montchrestien was one of the first publications to refer to ‘political economy’.6 The management of wealth was no longer the preserve of independent households; it was now defined as a public affair, and acquiring knowledge on it was the objective of a new intellectual genre: political economy. Up to the mid-eighteenth century, this type of knowledge was directly linked in France to state functions and state institutions. Compared with England, there were fewer publications and debates on these matters. It was not until around 1750 that this was to change. There was a sharp rise in the number of writings on economic topics, and new periodicals were founded, such as the Journal économique (1751–72).7 At the same time, ‘mercantilistic’ perspectives began to be supplanted by conceptions in which economic processes were defined as an ‘order’ independent of the state. Political economy became less of a ‘political’ genre and more of an ‘economic’ one. The economic models of Cantillon and Quesnay were the first examples of this. According to the tenets of Quesnay and the physiocrats, knowledge of the ‘laws’ of the economic process was a prerequisite for state intervention. The ‘economy’ was a ‘natural’, self-regulating system that one could best leave unhampered: laissez faire. The primary task of the state was not to promulgate laws but to acknowledge the laws of this ‘natural order’.8

At approximately the same time, in the mid-eighteenth century, a secular approach emerged as to the concept of ‘society’.9 Like the modern concept of the economy, the term ‘society’ meant a break with theology and church teachings as well as with political theories. In the church doctrines human communities were perceived in the light of divine dictates. In politico-legal thinking communities were subordinate to the state and individuals were seen solely as ‘citizens’ or ‘subjects’. The new social theories provided an alternative to both of these traditions.

Social structures were no longer perceived in the light of the Fall of Man or Divine Providence, but as an affair of human beings. In the relations among them, even the most powerful institution, the state, and the most powerful individual, the monarch, were dependent on other institutions and individuals. In order to comprehend and improve human units it was essential to do justice to these forms of inter-relatedness and interdependence: ‘states’ had to be viewed as ‘societies’.

These secular theories did not emerge in a random sequence. Political theories were the first to evolve into a more or less independent and modern intellectual genre. These early modern political theories were advanced in France by such legal scholars as Jean Bodin in pace with the political developments. The jurists constituted a powerful group in the state apparatus. Vis-à-vis the local power of the nobility and the church, jurists were a major ally of the monarch. As officials and advisors, men of the law had long been in the vanguard of the central authority. The conceptions they developed of the law, the state and the public sphere played a prominent role in this connection.10 In the seventeenth century this development took a paradoxical turn. Richelieu utilized legal doctrines on ‘sovereignty’ to confine the power of the legal estate and transform the French monarchy into an absolute state.11

The establishment of absolutism, in other words the creation of a relatively permanent and far-reaching monopoly on violence and taxation, enabled numerous forms of peaceful competition to thrive and grow. Slowly but surely, this became the foundation for independent ‘sectors’. Spokesmen of trade and industry began to make claims to greater independence from the state, and the emergence of economic theories was linked to this trend. A concomitant development could be observed in other fields. In the ‘cultural sector’ opinions were now also voiced emphasizing a greater degree of autonomy from church and state.

In the rise of social theories, this growing differentiation and relative separation of the various sectors played a crucial role. Various social groups had acquired greater autonomy from the state. The politico-legal idiom consequently began to forfeit its general validity. More and more activities took place outside the official politico-legal frameworks, without being ‘private’ or falling under the jurisdiction of the church. In an effort to designate and to promote this development, the term ‘society’ came into fashion. In social theories, ‘social’ relations had replaced what was formerly defined in politico-legal or ecclesiastical terms.

The rise of sociology

Against this background, three stages can be discerned in the predisciplinary history of French sociology:

(1) The first stage consisted of the rise of secular social theory. This took place in the period from 1730 to 1775, and its most prominent spokesmen were Montesquieu and Rousseau. In their work, social differentiation and interdependence were the central phenomena. In this sense, social theory differed from the existing intellectual genres (political theory, law, moral philosophy, political economy). Modern human communities were no longer viewed as fairly homogeneous religious or political units, but as differentiated and rather complicated bodies. This meant a kind of ‘decentring’. The emphasis shifted from unitary concepts (‘state’, ‘church’, ‘community’) to terms and problems stressing differentiation and diversity. In a theoretical sense the dissimilarities to the existing genres were less sizeable. The models of social interdependence were still formulated largely in the language of a rationalist philosophy, frequently inspired by the pursuit of universal or ‘natural’ principles. Natural law served as the most important model for these constructions.

(2) In the second stage these modern concepts and constructs became part of an explicit scientific problematic. This took place from 1775 to 1814, with Condorcet and Cabanis as its two leading representatives. Social relations were now no longer viewed primarily as a subject for rational constructions, but as a topic for an empirical science. The term ‘social science’ was coined, and the new science was seen as an extension of the existing sciences. Efforts in this direction were made after Louis XVI ascended to the throne and became dominant in the revolutionary period.

(3) The third stage, from the fall of Napoleon in 1814 to the middle of the nineteenth century, was characterized by the further diffusion of social theory, the increasing diversity of approaches and the growing domination of disciplinary modes of organization. Auguste Comte was to be one of the most important figures of this period for French sociology. And not because Comte’s sociological insights were of such great significance, but because he introduced a new theoretical orientation. Comte was the first to advocate an uncompromising scientific approach without taking refuge in any of the established sciences. He developed a theory of science in which the idea of relative autonomy played a central role. This attributed to social science a territory of its own and gave it the task of developing its own proper theories and methods. By the end of the nineteenth century this contribution was to serve as the foundation for the French sociological tradition.

These three stages can be recognized as distinctive and successive phases in the history of sociological thought in France.12 Since this development did not take place anywhere else in quite the same fashion, the explanation for this pattern must bear some relation to the French context. The periodization would seem to bear out the same conclusion. Secularization was a long-term process that peaked in the eighteenth century with the Enlightenment. The second stage, the period of ‘scientization’ following the example of the natural sciences, was of relatively short duration, at any rate in the first instance. It covered more than a quarter of a century and dominated social thought throughout the revolutionary period. The third stage ensued immediately afterwards. Comte and his peers wrote their works fully aware that the Revolution was over: a new era had commenced, industrialization went on and, despite successful opposition of sections of the nobility and the clergy, for most of them there was no way back.

In this study, each of these three stages will be discussed in turn. The main aim is to document and to explain this entire process. Part I focuses on the rise of social theory, Part II deals with its scientization, and in Part III the work of Comte is central.

Old and new approaches

In analysing this entire process, one can traditionally opt for either of two methods. The most common method is to read, compare and interpret texts. The ideas found are treated as an independent history as it were, which can be examined as something totally distinct from whatever might have occurred outside this particular set of texts. A method of this kind is routine in the history of ideas, Begriffsgeschichte and the history of science. This approach is based on the principle of rational reconstruction, which holds that texts can be comprehended by way of careful scrutiny and discovering the relation they bear to other texts. Thus one might arrive at the conclusion that a certain text is a variation, a response or an allusion to some other text. Relations between texts are then frequently interpreted as ‘influences’. Although such links can clarify a great deal, it is impossible to find any explanations by using this method. Within the framework of rational reconstructions, it can be done only by assuming an immanent development whereby text B more or less logically follows from text A (or from a combination of A1 and A2 etc.). Since this type of ‘natural development’ of thinking à la Hegel or Comte is no longer plausible, historians of ideas usually refrain from the pursuit of explanation. This also holds true of the contemporary variant of this approach, discourse analysis. Although here more attention is devoted to the social functioning of discourses, efforts are rarely made to formulate explanations. Just as in the traditional history of ideas, in discourse analysis the focus is on the internal structure of discourses.

Diametrically opposed to these ‘internal’ approaches is the second method, where it is the context that is of central importance. In ‘external’ analyses, the point of departure is that texts can be comprehended only by exploring links with instances outside the text. Texts are asssumed to exhibit only a very limited extent of autonomy vis-à-vis the author, the author’s social position and the social context. The assumed lack of autonomy is evident from the terminology used. Ideas are described as ‘reflections’ or ‘expressions’ of the interests or values of the group to which the author belongs. This perspective has been developed mainly by Marxist authors, for whom ideas could be ‘explained’ by the class position of the author or the structure of society as a whole (the ‘basis’). In the first case the aim was to comprehend the work of a specific author or school, and in the second case to address far more general phenomena such as ‘abstract art’ or ‘bourgeois literature’. Neither of these explanatory models has many adherents today, although the latter model is once again being propagated by spokesmen of system theory. The kind of sociology of knowledge they favour examines the correlations between the development of knowledge and that of society. Fundamental correlations are assumed to exist between cognitive and social systems, and this assumption is derived in turn from the functional requirements of social systems.13 In this approach the individuals and groups who produce these ideas remain ‘off-screen’. In Gesellschaftsstruktur und Semantik Niklas Luhmann was thus able to quote from any number of books and essays without ever referring to their authors. As to the highly general correlations he discussed, it remains unclear how they could be feasible. Why should relatively independent and respected authors care about the functional requirements of industrial society? In much the same way as in Marxist reflection theories, the fact is overlooked that intellectuals have formed specific institutions, acquiring a certain autonomy of their own, even in relation to far more powerful groups. In this fashion intellectuals have come to have specific interests and pursuits. This relative autonomy implies that every effort to trace the work of these intellectuals back to large-scale socio-economic or political structures is doomed to fail.

Both of these approaches, internal and external alike, are reductionist simplifications of a complicated problem. In the one case, the development of constructs is reduced to a non-social sphere of texts, ideas and discourses, and in the other to extra-intellectual factors and structures. Neither of the two constitutes a very fertile point of departure for research. The terms are misleading (‘internal’ is automatically understood as ‘non-social’) and they derive their authority more from academic conventions than from their heuristic force.

In contemporary research the dividing line between internal and external approaches has become increasingly vague. If present-day developments share any common factor at all, it is probably their tendency to contextualize. Nowadays the history of ideas is less of an isolated specialism than it was ten or fifteen years ago.14 And in science studies the artificial border lines between theory of science, history of science and sociology of science have lost much of their pertinence.15

Pierre Bourdieu’s work in the sociology of culture represents an early and systematic effort to transcend the dichotomy between internal and external approaches. The objective was to develop a sociological approach that would do justice to the specific nature of intellectual and cultural production.16 He started from the observation that cultural products emerge and function in a specific context, in a relatively autonomous ‘field’ and with a structure and dynamics of their own. An intellectual field is a social constellation consisting of people who compete with one another for intellectual authority. Intellectual products derive their significance primarily from their position in this constellation. By accepting this ‘intellectual field’ as a specific and historically variable social constellation, one acknowledges not only that intellectual work is a specific activity but also that this activity is no less social than any other.

Given that intellectual products are created within a specific set of relations, this implies that a reconstruction of this set is a prerequisite for understanding what is created in and for a field of this kind. This reconstruction is also called for to understand which effects other fields bring about. Because of the relative autonomy of the intellectual field, political or economic developments have a specific kind of carry-over. They are translated, as it were, into the specific logic of intellectual exchange. Instead of reflection, there is a process of refraction.

The intellectual field is a configuration of people with various positions who, even if they have a comparable position, differ as to their capabilities and preferences. What these people accomplish is dependent on the structure of the field, on the ‘capital’ at their disposal, and on their ‘dispositions’ or ‘habitus’, in other words on their specific tendencies to utilize and invest this capital. This capital varies in amount as well as in composition. Some people have more of it, some have less, and always in a specific combination of economic, cultural and social capital. The very terms ‘disposition’ or ‘habitus’ draw attention to the fact that the way people manage this capital is rarely in keeping with the logic of ‘rational choices’. Within a given field acts are guided by interests, but these interests have to be interpreted and evaluated in a certain way. In the course of this process rather intuitive sympathies and antipathies play a role, and derive their system in turn from the habitus of the individual or group in question. In short, ‘ideas’ and ‘theories’ are also the outcome of complex social dynamics. They are not simply the ‘reflection’ or the ‘expression’ of certain social structures or interests, but the result of the work of a specific group of ‘producers’. As such, they are dependent on the relations under which these producers have to work, the resources at their disposal and their specific dispositions or habitus.

Social theories and intellectual regimes

For this study I elaborated upon Bourdieu’s model to distinguish three types of question. The first type pertains to the development of social theory in relation to the intellectual field. What is involved here are such questions as: What kind of theories were they? How did they come into being and develop? What were the most important differences between rival points of view? What position did they occupy in the intellectual space? The fact that the intellectual context is central here does not mean it is mainly ‘internal’ questions that are posed. Doing justice to the specific character of intellectual work does not mean one has solely to pose text-internal questions or to devote attention to ‘intertextual’ relations (‘sources’, ‘influences’ and so forth). It is not only texts and theories that are important here, but also their producers, their colleagues and competitors and the groups and institutions they form.

The second type of question pertains to the social conditions under which the intellectual field functions. The autonomy of intellectuals is relative, and in their work they also depend on people who are not intellectuals, people who commission their projects, serve as their patrons, intervene on their behalf or read their work. In innumerable ways, what takes place among intellectuals is interconnected with other fields and other groups. For each author this fact implies a specific series of opportunities and restrictions. Different intellectuals react to this in different ways. Some are apt to shrink back from a wider audience and try to build up a career with the kind of support that comes mainly from their colleagues. Others prefer quick economic gains to intellectual authority in the long run. Others still try to find a modus vivendi; they want to take advantage of opportunities, but without running the risk of compromising themselves. Intellectual developments thus also depend on opportunities to gain support and recognition outside the intellectual world, if only because intellectuals do not refrain from taking advantage of these opportunities in their rivalry with one another. The structure of the intellectual field is the outcome of the acts and the strategies of a specific group, the intellectuals, but their opportunities are determined in part by their relations to other social groups and institutions. To do justice to them, it is important to devote attention to the social conditions of intellectual work and the social functions of intellectual products.

The third type of question pertains to the specificities of the French development in the international context. French contributions played a leading role in the rise of sociology. This raises the question of how the development in France compared with that in other countries. What role did foreign examples and challenges play? What role did specific French traditions and characteristics play? How did national aspirations affect the rise of social theory?

These questions, which allude to the intellectual, the social and the international context respectively, can be viewed as the three dimensions within which the rise of sociology took place.

In working on this book, it soon became clear that not enough material was available to study all three of these dimensions properly. Very little is known, for example, about the development of the intellectual field. For two centuries a myriad of volumes have appeared on the Enlightenment, but up until very recently no one had any idea how many writers there were at the time and how they managed to make a living. A great deal has been written about the famous few, but it is not always clear what their work meant to their contemporaries. Surprisingly enough, even less information is available on the revolutionary period. There are journals and research centres that focus all their attention on this period, but not one single comprehensive study has been conducted on the role of intellectuals during the Revolution or the effects of revolutionary change on intellectual developments.

One ramification of this dearth of information is that many researchers refrain from posing contextual questions — or, in the exceptional case, refrain from doing anything else. In the former case, they are firmly backed by tradition and need have no compunction about spending all their time interpreting one book, one person or one school of thought. And in the latter case, the promise of something new is enticing and attention is focused on institutional developments or changes in the book market, although it remains unclear what the relevance could be to a better understanding of the texts written in this context.

By uniting intellectual history and social history I tried to avoid both these snares. In doing so I had to narrow down the original problem. This was done mainly by examining social theories in relation to the intellectual field or the intellectual regime. For the period in question it might be more appropriate to speak of an intellectual regime,17 since its autonomy was restricted and there was no open competition. A regime can then be defined as a specific, more regulated state of a field involving, for example, different forms of external censorship. Intellectual regimes or fields can be described as to their degree of autonomy, level of differentiation and type of hierarchy.

First and foremost, intellectual regimes are characterized by a certain degree of autonomy. In this sense, the intellectual regime that developed from 1750 to 1850 was one with an increasing degree of autonomy. The dependence on extra-intellectual institutions was considerably reduced. With the philosophe there came a figure on the scene who laid claim to expertise in all fields of knowledge without exception. During the Revolution the clergy lost once and for all the intellectual power it had monopolized for centuries on end. Now an intellectual regime was established that was not even dependent on the church in a purely polemical sense, and this increased autonomy also altered relations among secular intellectuals. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the groups of scholars that had previously assembled around the Encyclopédie each went their own way. There was no need to preserve the united front vis-à-vis church institutions, and the differences among secular groups became more important than their joint opposition to the church.

This last development heralds the second aspect, increasing differentiation. The intellectual regime of the early modern period was relatively undifferentiated, institutionally concentrated as it was around relatively unspecialized academies and learned societies and theoretically founded on the unity and immutability of reason. Modern intellectual regimes have a differential structure in which many unitary concepts (reason, nature, philosophy) have made way for a division into faculties and disciplines. Wolf Lepenies described this regime as a constellation of three cultures. The social sciences constitute the third culture,18 in between ‘literature’ and ‘sciences’.

Lastly, from 1750 to 1850 the intellectual regime witnessed changes in hierarchy. The intellectual scene in France was dominated initially by men of letters and literary means of expression. The status of the natural sciences did rise in the eighteenth century, but less than is generally assumed. It was not until after 1775 that the natural sciences came to occupy a central position in the intellectual field. Shifts of this kind in intellectual hierarchy are one of the most important aspects in the structure of intellectual regimes. New intellectual trends are frequently related to these changes in hierarchy: a group of intellectuals rises in status and threatens the leading position of dominant groups, and this challenge, regardless of whether it is successful, then leads to reorientation on the part of a third group. The social sciences are extremely sensitive to changes of this kind. This is why new developments in the ‘third culture’ are so often indicative of an altered relation between the ‘first’ and the ‘second’ cultures.

By exploring the development of social theory from the angle of changes in intellectual regimes, I have turned this into a kind of double study. I set out to examine the predisciplinary history of social theory, but, for each of the three stages that were distinguished in this connection, I also examined the structure of the intellectual regime. This was necessary not only because so little information was available, but also because the predisciplinary nature of intellectual production made it essential to engage the entire intellectual constellation in the study. The very fact that Voltaire was a writer, Montesquieu a jurist and Condorcet a mathematician indicates how futile it would be to even try and understand these social theorists without scrutinizing the structure of the intellectual regime and its transformations.

This is why, in each of the three parts of this book, such a wide scope of intellectual developments is included. Part I deals at length with the rise of a secular intellectual culture in seventeenth-century France. The relations and cultural traditions that emerged as a result shaped the opportunities and limitations the philosophes were to have. In comparison with the Scottish moral philosophers their work remained more contingent on a rationalistic problematic. This phenomenon can be understood only by comparing the intellectual regimes under which they worked.

In much the same manner, Part II focuses on the changes that took place in the intellectual regime in the period after the Enlightenment, the most important being that men of letters lost their supremacy and, for the first time, the natural sciences came to occupy a dominant position. This alteration in the intellectual hierarchy, which had to do with the Revolution, largely explains the scientization of social theories at the time.

Changes in the intellectual regime similarly play a central role in Part III. Auguste Comte can be viewed as one of the first to provide a theoretical account of the establishment of a modern intellectual regime. Cognitive differentiation and the formation of disciplines were central features in Comte’s theory of science. In itself this constituted a major innovation, but, surprisingly enough, many decades later it was precisely this theory that was to serve as the foundation for the French sociological tradition. This, then, is the reason why his work occupies a central position in the last part of this book.

Part I

The Rise of Social Theory