chapter  5
22 Pages

The Structure Of Sociological Inference: A Forgotten Classic?

ByCharles Turner

A classic work should found something: a school, a field of inquiry, a method, a tradition. The classics of literature tend to be founders of discursivity: they are never mute, one goes back to them constantly, perhaps for something we call truth, perhaps for a source of meaning or inspiration or world-orientation. We are never merely reading a literary classic but always rereading it, because it has never finished saying what it wants to say; what it discloses may vary, too, with the needs of the time in which it is reread (Calvino 1999). The classics of the natural sciences may be called founders of trans-discursivity, that is, they are works that are largely beyond discussion, that nobody needs to read because they are definitive conclusions or solutions to problems that establish a body of knowledge and provide a framework for the pursuit of knowledge in the future; if their basic assumptions are later called into question – or if there is a scientific revolution – this will happen on the basis of evidence or theoretical innovation and not because someone rereads Newton or Copernicus. The classics of the social sciences and philosophy exist somewhere between literature and science, discursivity and transdiscursivity; they all exhibit a striving for definitive knowledge but have been kept alive beyond their own present not only by the continuing use of an established method but also by debates about what they mean. Marxism and psychoanalysis are the most obvious intellectual movements to have profited from this dual status, relying on the idea of a rigorous, scientific method – dialectical materialism, the science of the psyche – while endlessly rereading and arguing about the masters’ writings (Baehr 2002; Lepenies 1986).