The New School for Social Research is excited to welcome Nicola Marcucci as the Fall 2021 visiting Hans Speier Professor in the Sociology department.
Marcucci is a sociologist working in critical theory, intellectual history, the philosophy of social sciences, modern social and political thinking. He is member of the Laboratoire interdisciplinaire d’études sur les réflexivités – Fonds Yan Thomas at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris, member of the board of the Teoria Critica della Società seminar at the University Milano-Bicocca in Italy, and associated with the Bauman Institute at the University of Leeds. As part of an ongoing project investigating the sociological redefinition of critical faculties—reason, will, and judgment, Marcucci is finalizing a first volume on Spinozism, Neo-Kantianism and the birth of classical sociological theory in France and Germany.
Named for Hans Speier, a German sociologist and one of 10 founding members of the University in Exile, the Speier Professorship is a distinguished visiting professorship that brings scholars to the NSSR Sociology department to conduct research and teach, continuing The New School’s tradition of welcoming academics from Europe. Speier’s wife lost her job as a doctor due to being Jewish, and the family found refuge at The New School in 1933, where Speier became a professor of sociology until 1942, returning in 1974 as a professor emeritus. Learn more about Speier here.
Prof. Marcucci talked with Research Matters about what he’s looking forward to this year, what needs to be interrogated about the status of critique between sociology and modern philosophy, the importance of intellectual history to reconstruct the relation between the two, the legacy of the French school of sociology, the NSSR archives and the role of French refugees.
RM: What was your path to becoming a Hans Speier Professor?
NM: Having spent some years as a visiting researcher at NSSR in the past, some colleagues knew my work in both the departments of Philosophy and Sociology. I received an offer to teach from the Sociology Department two years ago; I accepted with a lot of enthusiasm, but I had to refuse at the very last minute because I didn’t receive my visa in time. Since then, I’ve been in touch with the department of Sociology (to which I would like to express my gratitude) — and last year, this opportunity popped up. Long story short, it is very exciting to be here, because of what The New School represents, because I appreciate very much the possibility of teaching here, and because I got the opportunity of making up for the first, lost opportunity I got.
RM: As a visiting research fellow here in 2014-2016, what did NSSR offer to your scholarship? Who did you work with, and what did you develop here?
I was a Marie Sklodowska-Curie European fellow for three years at EHESS Paris, and during these years I was sponsored by this fellowship to spend two years at The New School. My research concerned Spinozism, Neo-Kantianism and their influence in French and German debates on sociological theory from the 70’s of the 19th century to the end of the First World War. Chiara Bottici [Associate Professor of Philosophy] invited me to NSSR (2014-2016), because of our common interests in Spinoza and critical theory. During my stay I also collaborated with Omri Boehm [Associate Professor of Philosophy], organizing an international conference titled: “Spinoza and Kant: Metaphysics, Ethics, and Politics.” Meanwhile I continued developing the sociological side of my research and I organized an international conference titled: “Durkheim & Critique”. The contributions of this conference have been recently published in an edited volume.
RM: What made you want to return to teach further at NSSR? How does NSSR fit your ethos as an academic?
NM: I’ve been working as a researcher for many years. After obtaining my doctoral degree in history and sociology of modernity in Pisa, I taught and I researched in Berlin (Centre Marc Bloch and Humbodlt University) Paris (Sciences Po and EHESS) and Milan (Milano-Bicocca), and finally I arrived in New York. This, I think, says something about me and about why The New School is a desirable place for what I do; the international background of my research, and the interdisciplinary nature of it, are both reasons why I feel welcomed here. Moreover, I understand my work as a researcher as a way to critically engage with moral and political issues of the world I belong to, and The New School has supported intellectuals’ public engagement since its very origin.
During my stay as Hans Speier Professor, I’m working towards the publication of a “Durkheim Companion” that will be out next year, and I intend to finalize the research that I began in 2014 in the Philosophy department. As mentioned, this work consists of a reconstruction of the French and German classical sociological theory in the light of the fact that, since the late 18th century, an alternative emerged that opposed Spinozan to Kantian philosophies. This alternative, since the last decades of the 19th century, influenced the sociological debate and Durkheim’s search for an autonomous understanding of human reason, in part recovering the legacy of modern philosophy and in part breaking with it. My reconstruction ends with the way Durkheim and its school understood the sociological break with modern philosophy, offering an explanation of how it intended to overcome both Spinoza’s immanent rationalism and Kant’s transcendental idealism. This relation of continuity and rupture — the relation of philosophy and sociology — which my book intends to reconstruct, is something that can be fully granted only if we accept to move within an interdisciplinary dimension guaranteed and supported by intellectual history. Hopefully this research will be finalized by the end of the spring when I’m planning to present its results in Argentina, France, and Italy.
RM: In your writing, you flesh out the more nuanced political and methodological work of Émile Durkheim, regarded as the founder of sociology. What, broadly, do you think is misunderstood about Durkheim’s contributions to the discipline?
Durkheim intended to emancipate sociology from the legacy of philosophical Enlightenment (in the form that this took in Spinoza’s immanent rationalism and Kant’s transcendental idealism) by offering a sociological theory of the social constitution of the categories of the understanding. I think only another author had a similar ambition in the history of modern social theory: G. W. F. Hegel. To put it straightforwardly, I think that the contribution of Durkheim and its school — starting from completely different epistemological presuppositions and obtaining completely different results, but sharing a similar ambition to the one of Hegel’s social theory — should be taken seriously and considered as a different and somehow alternative paradigm in order to figure out what social critique is and could represent. In this last regard, I think the volume that I recently edited, Durkheim & Critique, contains a chorus of different voices intervening in this regard and the beginning of an answer to your question.
The relevance of Durkheim in regard to social critique is broad and requires some clarification though beyond the few things that I just said. What has been misunderstood, silenced or undeveloped in the past is the fact that there is something in Durkheim’s project that could be easily understood in the light of critical theory and not only for the reasons that I mentioned before. Since its beginning, critical theory concerned the attempt to think about the relation between philosophy and sociology, understanding their cooperation as a form of engagement which allowed theory to actively and reflexively participate in the quest for social justice immanent to modern societies. For this reason, a main polemical target of critical theory has been represented by positivism, a conception of social science shaped on the model of natural sciences, reclaiming an understanding of objectivity based on the frontal opposition of science and reality.
In my view, Durkheim has been misleadingly associated with this kind of positivism. Instead, we should focus on why he understood the rise of sociology as being historically and politically determined by the fact that philosophical critique appeared to run empty when confronted with the systemic injustice of modern societies. Sociology appeared to him as a viable solution to make sense of the same quest for social justice, immanent to modern societies, that years after, critical theory intended to follow, in the tradition of Hegel and Marx. The reasons that made Durkheim invisible in this respect have to do, I think, with the influence that Max Weber had in the project of critical theory and with the fact that his neo-Kantian epistemology consented to maintain a Marxian conception of history while the revolutionary expectations of the working class were declining. While Durkheim has been brought back by Jurgen Habermas, this, in part, happened in the light of a reception of his thought that reduced the critical and political ethos of the French sociologist’s theory by inserting it in a normative theory of justice that, de facto, was opposed to the main assumptions of his intellectual scholarship.
In the last decades though, a new reception of Durkheim has been developing, showing that, far from being the kind of conservative and positivist thinker that many had considered him to be, his epistemological project consisted in attempting to show how sociology represented a way to liberate social critique from the false alternative of liberalism and nationalism, resituating it in the field of democratic socialism. Many friends and colleagues in the LIER (my group of research at the EHESS) such as Bruno Karsenti, Cyril Lemieux and Francesco Callegaro, have made significant steps in this direction long before me. Durkheim’s epistemological project seems unintelligible without situating its critical ethos within those socialist ideals to which it intended to contribute by offering them a new form of reflexivity. Durkheim’s main ambition had consisted in enabling new possibilities for social and political action without pretending to define the political agenda of socialism. This relation of sociological critique and democratic socialism appears compelling to me today, because we live in an era characterized by public debates alternatively presenting liberalism and nationalism as inescapable ideological presuppositions, standing in the background and most often blocking our attempts to promote social change.
To escape this dramatic impasse of social critique, philosophy has lately appeared to be more and more seduced by the temptation of fully abdicating from its relation to social sciences in name of some radical social ontology that obliterates all the empirical and historical observations provided by sociology without which, in my view, no viable understanding of human institutions can be achieved. Today, to bring politics back — the message that an entire generation from Hannah Arendt to Claude Lefort defended — entails bringing back social sciences in the project of a critical theory of society It looks like the Durkheimian sociological school could help us in this regard.
RM: One of your projects here will be to do archival work around sociologist and jurist Georges Gurvitch. Why are you planning on returning to his work? How does Gurvitch stand out amongst the scholars of the University in Exile at The New School? How did the climate of The New School influence Gurvitch and his sociological work?
If, for the reasons that I briefly sketched out, the Durkheimian school has to be associated with the realm of democratic socialism and, I would like to add, with a reflection on the epistemic consequences of the “discovery” of social rights, this intent went in part lost in the generation following the first World War. (However, it survived in some fundamental but isolated intellectual trajectories such as the one of Marcel Mauss.) Georges Gurvitch participated in a second period bringing new energies and ideas in the debate. When he arrived in France in the late ‘20s he had already participated, before leaving his country, in the germinal experience of the Soviets during the Russian Revolution, and he became a specialist in German phenomenology. Once in Paris he found, in the Durkheimian tradition, an intellectual framework to think through the relation between social rights and legal pluralism. This legacy shaped his vision and represents the background of some of its most important works written in the ’30s. When Gurvitch arrived in New York and participated in establishing the Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes [a “university-in-exile” for French academics located at NSSR], this was his intellectual horizon.
Meanwhile in the ‘30s, a younger intellectual seemed confronted as well with the task of renewing the legacy of Durkheimism. His name was Claude Levi-Strauss. Around the beginning of the ‘40s, escaping Vichy France, both intellectuals came to NSSR. One of the things I’m doing in my actual research is trying to find some elements in the archives of The New School (I would like to thank Jenny Swadosh for her precious and generous help) and other archives (Yale and Rockefeller Foundation) concerning both Gurvitch and Levi-Strauss during their New York years, from ’40 to ‘45.
When Gurvitch arrived at NSSR, his work appears in full continuity with the political, critical, and socialist legacy of the Durkheimian school after the First World War. He originally elaborated this legacy and presented it to the American public, offering his defense of social rights and legal pluralism in different articles published in major journals. In the same years, Levi-Strauss was notably becoming familiar with the theories of Roman Jakobson, and his contribution to the debate on the French Sociological School seems to be already characterized by elements that, after the war, gave the tone to the structuralist turn in sociology and anthropology. In the same years, during his stay at NSSR, Gurvitch composed a sort of political manifesto, The Declaration of Social Right, hoping it would have contributed to the process of constitution-making of the French Fourth Republic.
Once back in France after the war, Gurvitch becomes professor of sociology at La Sorbonne, and Lévi-Strauss becomes the Lévi-Strauss we know: The Elementary Structures of Kinship is firstly published in 1949. Starting from the ‘50s, their intellectual collaboration ends and their relation is characterized by a growing disappointment and mutual criticism. Gurvitch did not succeed in renewing the Durkheim legacy in the way he probably had wished and the political expectations that nourished his ‘manifesto’ were not satisfied. His later works appear less interesting, mostly attempting to create an ambitious but very formal synthesis between his sociology and the Marxian tradition. There are no reasons to interrogate the success of Levi-Strauss’ intellectual project on the other hand, but the consequence of the transition to structuralism—as it already appears very clearly in Levi-Strauss’ introduction to Marcel Mauss, published in 1950 and prefaced by Georges Gurvitch himself—excluded some of the main political aspects that instead we have seen characterizing the intellectual and critical ethos of the Durkheimian school. The New School years of Gurvitch and Levi-Strauss represented the last appearance of the critical and political ethos of the French sociological school. NSSR represented the place where a reflection on the political legacy of the French Sociological School appeared before being interrupted and whose critical ambition appears today worth it to be re-explored.
RM: I have one more question I want to ask about teaching! It’s been about a month — how is your graduate Classical Sociology class going? How are you finding the students and discussions?
I’m having a great experience! It’s a great feeling to be physically back as a group of people sharing the same physical space, showing our faces — part of them at least — and discussing together after the full regime of isolation we have been exposed to for one year and a half. Secondly, I’m impressed by the attention and curiosity of many of my students. These two things are often separated. In some cases, students can be attentive but the respect for the authority of the teacher can somehow diminish their capability to perform and autonomously appropriate what is transmitted. In other cases, students’ eagerness to make sense, to intervene and to appropriate what they are learning can prevent them to fully acknowledge the autonomy of a text, its meaning and/or how to make sense of the intention of an author. Many of my students have shown both qualities at once, and for this reason they have taught me a lot.