Montesquieu as Sociologist and Philosopher

Montesquieu as Sociologist and Philosopher

June 26, 2021 Off By Felso

Catherine Larrere
Translation: İsmail Yerguz

While Montesquieu was considering the “infinite variety” of laws and traditions, dividing them into types in order to evaluate them in general, and searching for the necessary relations that connect them, he probably left philosophical ideality and abstraction and stepped on the solid ground of the reality of facts.

The thought of the sociologist Montesquieu is generally accepted. The debate probably centered on what type of sociology Montesquieu was engaged in. On the one hand, there are those who, like E. Cassirer or R. Aron, see Montesqieu as the pioneer of a comprehensive sociology, within which the typology of government (the natural/principle that makes each of the three forms of government—republic, monarchy, despotism—a meaningful unity) they reduce the duality) to a Weberian conception of ideal type.

On the other hand, there are those who, along with Auguste Comte and Durkheim, see Montesquieu as the pioneer of an explanatory sociology in search of causal relations: but this is to accuse him of surrendering to a reductive and naturalistic determinism with climate theory. After Hegel, Althusser started a new discussion by emphasizing Montesquieu’s discovery of social unity (thanks to the concept of globalizing general understanding of all the factors that are effective in a society, from climate to religion) and the philosophy of history it provides. He contrasted this dynamic vision with the social static that his ideal type interpretation brought to the fore. In this case, a decision was most likely necessary: ​​should this historical dynamic be understood as the dynamic of a semantic unity that connects all factors, or could one of them even be decisive in the last analysis: Althusser thus saw the principle of the nature of government as a precedence of the economy’s determination of politics.

All persistent interpretations have their own sufficient justification. Montesquieu’s way of considering the social integrity and various factors active in this field necessitates a rapprochement with the sociological initiative. Admittedly his investigative tool is limited and indirect, no doubt his explanations (polygamy, prohibition of adultery, or forms of eating) are often schematic or limited, but in this context it is the formation of purpose that matters. His conscious objectivity and his emphasis on empirical difference, the relationship he established between rational explanation research, the relativity of traditions and the universality of principles have made him an indispensable reference source for sociologists and anthropologists.

However, the comments of Montesquieu, a sociologist who sees social facts as objects, in his positivist rigidity, led him to a distinction between being and being as a duty alien to him. While describing, Montesquieu also judges, chooses and proposes. It condemns despotism and slavery, recommends tolerance. Here, as Lanson and Brunschwik have argued, it is not just a question of “reformist idealism” coinciding with a “sociological reality”. J. Ehrard showed how anachronistic it is to interpret Montesquieu with a purely objective approach to social facts, because according to him, in his time, reason was both descriptive and prescriptive, in other words, both fact and right.

This is also the conclusion reached by R. Aron: Although Montesquieu is a sociologist, he is also a natural law theorist; Montesquieu is grateful to Grotius and Pufendorf, who realized most of what this work asked for (from him) with a genius beyond his reach. Montesquieu takes place in the classical tradition of political philosophy. While he regrets that his contemporaries “give importance only to the physical sciences” and that “political good and evil” is “more of a feeling about a knowledge” for them, he wants to reconsider the project of the Ancients, “which made admiration for the political and moral sciences a kind of cult” (Pens 1940, 198). Thus, this political science of good and evil is a science with prescriptive and practical purposes, which should establish legislators as in Aristotle: “I say this, and I think I have written this book just to prove it: the legislator’s understanding should be his understanding of tolerance; Political goodness, like moral goodness, always lies between two limits” (XXIX, 1) says Montesquieu.

Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Omer YILDIRIM’s Personal Lecture Notes. Atatürk University Sociology Department 1st Year “Introduction to Philosophy” and 2nd, 3rd, 4th Grade “History of Philosophy” Lecture Notes (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook