- Hardcover: 720 pages
- Publisher: Sargent (Porter),Publisher,U.S.; Revised edition (June 1957)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0875580297
- ISBN-13: 978-0875580296
- Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.2 x 8.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #901,467 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Social and Cultural Dynamics Revised Edition
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A study of change in major systems of art, truth, ethics, law and social relationships.
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Top customer reviews
I bought this book because my own study of the history of art led me to similar conclusions, and I hoped to use Sorokin's data to test my own hypothesis. I find myself in the odd position of frequently wanting to fling the book across the room despite agreeing with much of what it says, because Sorokin says it in such disagreeable ways that I'm embarrassed when I agree with him.
This is a magisterial overview of the history of art, culture, and thought. Unfortunately, Sorokin begins drawing conclusions before gathering data. Gathering data and then interpreting it, you see, is something that only immoral sensualists do. Sorokin, being what he calls an Ideationalist (but I, and everyone else throughout history, call an idealist), instead deduces from first principles what he will find, then fishes for data to prove it.
That's the problem with this book. It's trying to test a hypothesis, to discover a truth about the world. Most 20th-century people would say that we've learned that you should use a scientific approach when trying to determine truths, that the history of the past thousand years has shown that doing so empirically results in finding correct answers that let you build bridges that don't fall down and rockets that go to the moon and back.
Sorokin, however, performs an eye-opening feat of mental consistency: he explains, unwittingly, how his philosophy causes his stupidity, and that of most of Western history. He does not believe empirical reality is reality; he believes it is merely the world of the senses. Saying that science has been empirically validated is thus, from his perspective, silly; the empirical is not the real. So he proceeds as any good medieval scholastic would have, backwards, from conclusions to data.
But he compiles a lot of data, and if you're interested in quantitative models of the history of ideas and you find a copy of the 4-volume version of this work, snap it up. I've never seen sociological data this ambitious, spanning millenia and continents. Though I disagree with his values, his condensing the history of art and culture into summary statistics on a small number of categories is brilliant.
He divides ways of thinking into the "ideational" (idealistic) and the "sensate" (empirical), and each of those into the active and the passive. He can't call the passive ideational "passive", because passive sounds bad and he thinks the passive ideational is the highest form of thought, so instead he calls it "ascetic". Then he adds the mixed, which is itself a mixture of the "idealistic" (balanced: Confucius or Aristotle) and the "pseudo-idealistic" (the despair of the helpless). All this is made simpler and fits the facts better if you simply regard it as two dimensions, one from idealistic to empirical, and another from passive to active.
He is definitely onto something in categorizing societies into the idealistic versus the empirical. The passive/active dimension is not so obviously significant.
But everybody else throughout history has been onto the same thing. Not accidentally; Plato and Aristotle put the debate between the idealistic and the naturalistic at the front and center of art theory in the 4th century B.C., and it is at the center of every treatise written on art in Europe from then until the 19th century. It's thus very odd for Sorokin to survey the art world extensively for data to show how idealistic philosophy had certain impacts on art, yet never mention that this was deliberate, and that we know it was deliberate because everyone from Longinus to Sir Joshua Reynolds wrote treatises explaining that they were making their art the way they did because of their idealistic (or naturalistic) philosophy. It's like someone in the 20th century spending decades compiling data to prove that Christianity was influenced by the writings of Paul.
Worse yet, Sorokin seems not to have read these treatises, because he doesn't grasp any of the arguments in favor of naturalistic art. Whenever a sculptor makes a statue of a commoner, or a novelist writes a story about a worker, Sorokin sees only ugliness, a degenerate turning away from the nobility who are the proper subjects of art, and never grasps that art can have something to do with ordinary people.
The book makes many good points, and gives a good overview of art throughout all of time, not entirely ignoring the prehistoric and non-Western. But it repeatedly infuriates me because Sorokin makes no attempt to hide his bias, that the passive idealistic was the good and pure, and everything else is just different degrees of decadence. He prefers data which reinforces his preconceived conclusions, or which he can misinterpret to. He claims that the paleolithic painting of a bison from the cave of Altamira in Plate IV (p. 84) is a naturalistic drawing trying to present an "exact visual impression" (see photo). This is the only datapoint he can find in the whole world to support his claim that some primitive societies have naturalistic art. It doesn't help his case that the exact picture he chose was a crucial inspiration to Picasso early in his career, or that the drawing of it that he had and put in his book was actually a modern reinterpretation of it. He can't admit Native Americans into the tribe of passive idealizationists, because they weren't very passive and didn't do much math, so he dismisses their art of their deities and totems as mere representation of existing creatures, an "impure ideational style". He thinks the only alternatives are to make art about ideal abstractions, or about art itself. He can't see when art is about the real world, because he doesn't believe in the real world.
All he sees is whether something is idealistic or not. By "sensate" he doesn't mean any real category in the world; he means "not idealistic." This corrupts all his data and interpretations, for he lumps everything together indiscriminately as identical if it doesn't follow the rules of idealism. For instance, he says Hellenistic sculpture "conscientiously imitates the primitive style". He doesn't bother to say what he means by that, but I imagine he means that it depicts ordinary people and not just gods and kings, sometimes exhibiting emotion rather than always just staring vacantly into space, and sometimes has elements of ugliness. All those things just mean "not idealistic"; they are not a style.
Several times in his review of other theories, he runs into statements by previous art theorists describing the transition from the oppression of art by religious and secular authorities, to the freedom to make real art, and always seems perplexed by them. Is it possible he doesn't understand that he is the servant of the oppressors they're talking about?
Yet, even having said all that, Sorokin's analyses cut culture at the joints and focus attention on important trends. Later sections of the book deal with the interaction between art, ways of thinking, and government. I often disagree with the answers he gives, but he asks good questions. I give the book 5 stars not because I agree with his conclusions, but because he gives anyone reading the book enough direction and clear information to draw their own conclusions.
Despite its academic format the book is compelling and not difficult to read for the interested layman. The reward will be a grand perspective that allows one to see patterns in current events that are typically missed.
After reading Sorokin's book, continue with Harold O. J. Brown's 1997 update of Sorokin's theory, "The Sensate Culture: Western Culture Between Chaos and Transformation".