Interview with Philip S. Gorski

An excellent interview with Philip S. Gorski, Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies and Co-Director of the Center for Comparative Research at Yale University, appeared on the Imminent Frame blog last week. Gorski is the co-editor of The Post-Secular in Questionpart of the SSRC series with NYU Press. He spoke with Joseph Blankholm about his current work, the role of sociology, and much more. Below is an excerpt from the article.

JB: In your essay in The Post-Secular in Question, you ask, “What’s the role of sociology?” Your answer is that it could be a moral science that recovers the idea of “the good.” What would that moral sociology look like? Is there a relationship that you see between the creation of a civil religion and the creation of a sociology that’s more concerned with the good?

PG: That would certainly be a hope of mine, and it’s something that I’ve been thinking about a great deal lately, whether there’s a limited kind of moral realism that we could defend, and that we might actually be able to contribute to through social science or at least through academic reflection of some kind or another? My suspicion is that there is; I just don’t know what the scope of it is. It would have to be premised on some understanding of human flourishing—that human beings are put together biologically, neurologically, in a certain way—that they have certain kinds of capacities or propensities—that their flourishing and well-being in general involves the development and cultivation of these propensities and capacities. Of course I’m simply channeling a lot of research that’s being done in neighboring fields. There’s recent work in positive psychology, for example, which is starting to get a great deal of attention by people like Jonathan Haidt and Marty Seligman. There’s a neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics tradition that people like Martha Nussbaum and Richard Kraut have revived and defended in recent years. Even some folks like Amartya Sen have tried to make a basis for a different way of thinking about economics and development policy. So the question is, “How do you develop a theory of the human good which doesn’t become a kind of hardened dogma, a sort of a one-size-fits-all understanding of what a life well-lived is going to mean?” We don’t live in Athens anymore. We live in a much more diverse, much more egalitarian, much freer society. Clearly there has to be a great deal of room for people to act freely. Part of flourishing is also making mistakes and learning and developing, so it’s not the idea that you simply prescribe some kind of a lifestyle. I think this notion that Nussbaum has developed, a kind of capacities approach to justice—that you need to create a basic set of preconditions for people to explore their own particular talents, capacities, inclinations—that that probably strikes the right balance between liberalism and a more robust form of moral realism. I think where sociology might contribute to this is in thinking harder about how you create the preconditions for the sorts of social connections and communities that are clearly part of human flourishing. We know that this is one of the clear results of recent work in positive psychology: that relationships to other people are critical. There’s a lot of confirmation for this in evolutionary biology and psychology, the mounting evidence of pro-social characteristics of human beings. But most of these disciplines are really focused on the human organism, or they’re focused on the human psyche. They don’t really think deeply about the social, per se, so this is where sociology might actually step in and make some kind of a contribution to this, I think. But I expect there’ll be a lot of resistance. One of the first things that you learn in graduate school in the social sciences is about the fact/value distinction, that there is no way of knowing or discovering what’s good. I don’t think people really believe that. I think that’s why most people go to graduate school, because they think this will help them answer these kinds of questions. But you get professionalized and socialized out of this during your first few years in graduate school. It’s salutary to the degree that we learn to establish a certain kind of reflexive distance to our tacit assumptions about what’s good, but I think the next step is to return to those basic practical questions that really animate people and get them interested in academic life and scholarship in the first place.

JB: That’s really interesting. So in some ways it’s breaking down the limits of what an objective science can discuss. It makes me think of the ways in which sociology and economics can articulate with people who do governance. I can’t help but think about this sociology of the good as theology for technocrats, or something like that.

PG: [Laughs] Right.

JB: Do you think there’s any way to push an agenda through sociology that could speak to something much broader, or are we very insular in the way we work with disciplines, in the way that, in a Weberian sense, we compartmentalize our society, secularize it?

PG: I guess I would say two things. First, I think one of the theological virtues that any technocrat would have to learn first is some measure of humility. [Laughs] Yeah, I think perhaps one of the most important things is to make room for people who do work that’s more publicly engaged. Again, there’s a lot of resistance to this, sometimes motivated by resentment of people who get attention from the wider public or have some kind of non-academic success. It’s not to say that you can go to the other extreme. I don’t think that everybody in the academy should suddenly become some kind of activist or public intellectual. There has to be some sort of balance struck between the autonomy of the scientific community and its engagement with the public, which is probably difficult to maintain. It certainly seems to me that this is a moment where there is a lot of academic capital or knowledge that’s been stored up within the research university, which just gets ignored, gets drowned out. Nobody pays any attention to it. This is partly an institution-building question, too, of course. It’s not just a matter of a particular individual deciding, “I’m going to speak to the broader public.” Well that’s not going to get you heard. You have to figure out ways to reach a broader public, and that’s a huge problem in and of itself, obviously. Non-academic intellectuals have figured this out.

Want more? Read the original interview here.

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