Grand Theories

W.G. Runciman

  • The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences edited by Quentin Skinner
    Cambridge, 215 pp, £17.50, July 1985, ISBN 0 521 26692 0
  • Classes by Erik Olin Wright
    Verso, 344 pp, £20.00, September 1985, ISBN 0 86091 104 7
  • Powers and Liberties: The Causes and Consequences of the Rise of the West by John Hall
    Blackwell, 282 pp, £19.50, September 1985, ISBN 0 631 14542 7

What is a ‘Grand’ as opposed to a ‘General’ theory, in the human sciences or anywhere else? Nobody talks about Keynes’s Grand Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, any more than they do about Einstein’s Grand Theory of Relativity. If not frankly pejorative, the term is at best ironic, implying a loftiness of tone, an inflation of aim, and a pretentiousness of content which no serious academic author could possibly want to be charged with. Professor Skinner begins his Introduction by quoting from a celebrated attack on Talcott Parsons by C. Wright Mills, for whom Grand Theory was the most absurd but also the most serious impediment in the way of a sensible, informed and humane understanding of human societies. So one supposes that what is to follow is a carefully mounted assault on what the chosen contributors see as a regrettable revival of the Higher Bogus. But not at all. They, and he, seem if anything to welcome it.

This is very odd. The impression left by Skinner’s Introduction is of a self-perpetuating cycle of talk about talk, of ‘changes of theoretical allegiance’ which have little to do with the advancement of learning but much to do with swings of intellectual fashion, self-conscious displays of dialectical skill and the capacity of academics to earn royalties by taking in one another’s washing. In defiance of the title, the human sciences hardly feature at all. No mention whatever is made of the remarkable advances of the past two or three decades in, say, linguistics, historical demography, archaeology, or the study of memory and perception. A little allowance is made for the claims of Lévi-Strauss and Braudel to have offered more rigorous general explanations of certain aspects of human institutions and behaviour than would have been attempted without them. But even this is presented as though only arising in the context of philosophical disputations about determinism, rationality, hermeneutics, cultural relativism and the so-called ‘sociology of knowledge’. It is as if the intellectual life of the contemporary West were dominated by an urge to escape from the unpalatable fact that the world we live in is a world of causes we do not understand and effects we mostly deplore into a realm of Pure Thought where societies are merely abstractions, institutions merely structures and ideologies merely conceptual worlds on epistemological all fours with one another.

Well, perhaps it is. But if so, the oddity is compounded by Skinner’s unwillingness to analyse the state of affairs which he depicts in the terms on which his own reputation rests. He is, after all, a distinguished historian of political thought whose particular contribution has been to see theories of society neither as timeless contributions to a common philosophy, nor as self-serving reflections of material interests, but as statements whose meaning is inseparable from the complex intentions of their proponents in their particular historical context. Bogus or not, what is it about Grand Theory which makes it so appealing? Skinner has elsewhere, in a perceptive essay on Habermas, given the answer that its appeal is primarily religious: the adherents of Grand Theory are seekers after deliverance not from error but from doubt. But no such implication is hinted at here. With a studious avoidance of censoriousness or even of scepticism, the Grand Theorists and their commentators are left to speak for themselves.

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