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Sorokin & Twilight Of The Sensate

A few years ago I blogged a lot about the cultural views of Pitirim Sorokin [1], the Russian emigre and Harvard sociologist. Recently I stumbled across the blog of the radical historian Morris Berman, who favorably cites Sorokin’s work [2]. I hadn’t thought about Sorokin in a while. In brief, Sorokin believed that all cultures toggled between Sensate (dominated by material concerns) and Ideational (dominated by spiritual concerns), with periods of Idealistic (a balance of the two). In Sorokin’s view — note well that he’s speaking as a sociological theoretician, not as a religious thinker — the West has been deep into a Sensate phase for centuries, and is headed for a crack-up and subsequent rebalancing. From Berman’s bit:

Sorokin’s predictions for this end-game scenario (remember, he’s writing this nearly seventy-five years ago) were as follows:

1. The boundary between true and false, and beautiful and ugly, will erode.  Conscience will disappear in favor of special interest groups. Force and fraud will become the norm; might will become right, and brutality rampant. It will be a bellum omnium contra omnes, and the family will disintegrate as well. “The home will become a mere overnight parking place.”

2. Sensate values “will be progressively destructive rather than constructive, representing in their totality a museum of sociocultural pathology….The Sensate mentality will increasingly interpret man and all values ‘physicochemically,’ ‘biologically,’ ‘reflexologically,’ ‘endocrinologically,’ ‘behavioristically,’ ‘economically’…[etc.].”

3. Real creativity will die out. Instead, we shall get a multitude of mediocre pseudo-thinkers and vulgar groups and organizations. Our belief systems will turn into a strange chaotic stew of science, philosophy, and magical beliefs.  “Quantitative colossalism will substitute for qualitative refinement.” What is biggest will be regarded as best. Instead of classics, we shall have best-sellers. Instead of genius, technique. Instead of real thought, Information. Instead of inner value, glittering externality.  Instead of sages, smart alecs. The great cultural values of the past will be degraded; “Michelangelos and Rembrandts will be decorating soap and razor blades, washing machines and whiskey bottles.”

4. Freedom will become a myth. “Inalienable rights will be alienated; Declarations of Rights either abolished or used only as beautiful screens for an unadulterated coercion. Governments will become more and more hoary, fraudulent, and tyrannical, giving bombs instead of bread; death instead of freedom; violence instead of law.” Security will fade; the population will become weary and scared.  “Suicide, mental disease, and crime will grow.”

5. The dies irae of transition will not be fun to live through, but the only way out of this mess, he wrote, is precisely through it. Under the conditions outlined above, the “population will not be able to help opening its eyes [this will be a very delayed phase in the U.S., I’m guessing] to the hollowness of the declining Sensate culture…. As a result, it will increasingly forsake it and shift its allegiance to either Ideational or Idealistic values.” Finally, we shall see the release of new creative forces, which “will usher in a culture and a noble society built not upon the withered Sensate root but upon a healthier and more vigorous root of integralistic principle.” In other words, we can expect “the emergence and slow growth of the first components of a new sociocultural order.”


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14 Comments To "Sorokin & Twilight Of The Sensate"

#1 Comment By The Wet One On August 14, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

“Force and fraud will become the norm; might will become right, and brutality rampant.” When has this not ever been the case?

Same thing with this:

“Our belief systems will turn into a strange chaotic stew of science, philosophy, and magical beliefs.”

From my understanding of the history of ideas, this has always been the case. Heck, I think that vitamin C cures the common cold.

#2 as a whole is pretty darned good. I’m impressed.

But yeah, things fall apart. What else is new. Once you accept that nothing lasts forever (theoretically even the baryonic matter of which we’re composed, which hasn’t been proven yet, but the experiment is running).

So it goes…

#2 Comment By The Wet One On August 14, 2013 @ 2:11 pm

Oops. That should say #3 not #2.

#3 Comment By The Wet One On August 14, 2013 @ 2:16 pm

“Governments will become more and more hoary, fraudulent, and tyrannical, giving bombs instead of bread; death instead of freedom; violence instead of law.”

Somehow, I don’t think he’s all that familiar with governments of the past is he? Ours aren’t perfect (never have been, never will be), but on many of these measures, (all?) they’re a darned lot better than they used to be.

That “hoary” adjective doesn’t make sense either. Through the passage of time, governments necessarily get older. There’s no avoiding it. Unless he’s talking about a particular regime overstaying it’s welcome. In any event, the idea being expressed there isn’t terribly clear.

#4 Comment By k On August 14, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

I love this stuff, I think it must have been apparent for at least 100 years now, and I’m so fascinated to consider what religion or spirituality will be ascendant in the next swing of things. I do think there are many years left though before the rebalancing.

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc On August 14, 2013 @ 2:37 pm

“Suicide, mental disease, and crime will grow.””

Though here the evidence is pressing oin the opposite direction.

While I will hjave to ponder a bit — I was repeatedly having to nold back “aha’s”.

But it’s too soon for more than a bravo — nece rhetorical analytical model.

#6 Comment By Charles Cosimano On August 14, 2013 @ 3:27 pm

Never let sociologist talk about history. They always get it wrong. But then Michealangelo decorating razor blades (do the still make them?) would be an improvement.

#7 Comment By Erin Manning On August 14, 2013 @ 3:27 pm

Oh, gosh, Rod, you’re probably not going to believe this, but after your posts yesterday I was thinking this morning about Sorokin and how we’ve entered into one of his hallmarks for the decline of the sensate age.

Briefly (’cause I’ve got to get to Mass this evening–vigil for the Assumption), the marker I noticed is the decay of the empirical basis for the temporary cohesion of a sensate age, and the implications of post-empiricism for those of us who are not empiricists (that is, we believe in transcendent reality, the soul, God, the eternal verities, etc.). For example: the empiricist can say, “There is no real, observable difference between a cohabitating monogamish couple and a faithful monogamous married couple,” and depending on what he means by “real” or “observable” his hypothesis may or may not be in conflict with something a Christian might think–that is, if by “real” or “observable” he means to point to data points about duration of relationship, self-described levels of happiness, presence or absence of stability within the relationship, etc. then it all comes down to whether the data supports his theory or not. However, when the empiricist says, “The marriage of two men or two women is exactly equal to the marriage of one man and one woman,” he is no longer speaking empirically, but philosophically, and his philosophical basis for that statement is something that serious Christians must reject. And when the empiricist says, “That biologically male person is actually–as in really–a woman,” he has moved beyond both empiricism and philosophy to a position of wishing to create and establish his own criteria for reality which conflicts deeply not only with Christian thought and ideas but with observable, empirical reality itself: because the man is not a woman, however much his subjective experiences cause him to wish and even believe that is the case.

I haven’t finished fleshing this out, but it seems to me that the abandonment of empiricism as the standard of the sensate age is not only a strong harbinger of the end of that age, but a prelude to the kinds of persecution you allude to in the “Seems like old times” post from earlier today. This is not because empiricism is the preferred standard on which a culture ought to rise so much as it is that the abandonment of empiricism leads to an age in which the strongest AND least rational people impose their version of reality upon the masses, by force and violence if necessary (and it usually is).

#8 Comment By Noah172 On August 14, 2013 @ 5:01 pm

When I first glanced at this post, I thought for a second that was titled “Sorkin and the Twilight of the Senate,” with a following insta-thought that it would be about The West Wing and television’s distortion of the workings of Washington.

Dorky, I know.

#9 Comment By Leslie Fain On August 14, 2013 @ 10:25 pm

Thanks for this post. I am reading Family and Civilization by Sorokin’s colleague, Carle Zimmerman. I think I may be the only conservative left on the planet who hadn’t read it. It is expensive to get used on Amazon, but so worth it.

Again, I want to recommend Berman’s trilogy on the U.S. Rod’s right that he is on the far left, but at times he reads like a traditional Catholic, despite the fact he is an atheist.

#10 Comment By Annek On August 14, 2013 @ 11:08 pm

“Instead of sages, smart alecs.”

“…Declarations of Rights either abolished or used only as beautiful screens for an unadulterated coercion.”

Both of these seem very true of today.

#11 Comment By J DeSales On August 15, 2013 @ 1:16 am

I don’t think that this necessarily an historical cycle. Okay, let’s take a step back, historical cycles don’t really exist – they’re the result of over-simplification and the conflating of disparate phenomena and causes.

Anyway, this doesn’t seem like an historical cycle so much as the consequence of the primary manifestation of culture being that of the peasants/proletariat/plebeian (whatever term you feel most comfortable with). I mean, we’re familiar with the culture of antiquity or of the middle ages or early modern period, but the culture we’re primarily familiar with is either the culture of the elites or the culture of lower classes as preserved by the elites. With the exception, perhaps, of classical drama (particularly comedy) and particularly ancient poetry (i.e. Homer and Hesiod).

We could blame the bourgeois class as well – wealthy burghers have long attempted to emulate the culture of the aristocracy, but now that the dominant expression of the arts has shifted to a mass market model that aims for the lower classes, bourgeois concerns and pretensions have become more muddled and lost.

Coupled with this downward shift in focus due to the influence of market concerned, the values of our modern aristocracy (which is really nothing more than an entrenched portion of the bourgeoisie) are focused on wealth more than reputation. There was a time when the wealthy liked to have the intelligentsia flock around them – to give them prestige (and occasionally counsel) – but now monetary concerns are foremost and having a theological or historical monograph dedicated to you is of little concern to most people.

On the other hand, perhaps this is just the consequences of living in this time. Perhaps in a century or two all that will be remembered are the great films and television shows, just as now we only really remember the great operas and ballets of the nineteenth century.

But I don’t know. Sorokin sounds interesting, though any philosophy of history that is based more on patterns and cycles and some driving force behind history rather than on epistemology, methodology, and motivating forces behind the historical craft always makes me skeptical. Real philosophy of history looks like R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History.

#12 Comment By Michael On August 15, 2013 @ 5:42 am

I second Leslie’s recommendation of Morrris Berman.

As for being a “leftist,” I think it is seriously time to discard that false dichotomy. There is no true “Throne and Altar” conservatism is America and there never has been. Both Captialism and Communism are products of 18th century Liberalism.

Berman is no socialist. He does cite Marx, but only for his analyses, never for his prescriptions. Both left-wing Communism and right-wing “Economism” assume limitless economic growth. Berman does not think growth is the answer – he thinks it is the problem.

His fundamental objection is to the materialistic, hustling culture of America, which goes all the way back to Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. He thinks that this is what is now breaking apart.

I am surprised his writings haven’t made their way to “Front Porch Republic.”

#13 Comment By JonF On August 15, 2013 @ 6:58 am

How old is Sorokin? He sounds lile a classic curmudgeonly geezer.
And retrodiction is easy, especially about the past.

[NFR: B. 1889, d. 1968 — RD]

#14 Comment By Eli On November 24, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

These kinds of descriptions of Vast Historical Patterns and Cycles are really just Rorschach Blots for wannabe intellectuals. Make a testable prediction or get out.