An Estimate of Pareto

Ellsworth Faris


Pareto attempts the construction of a system of sociology on the model of celestial mechanics. The correspondence theory of knowledge is explicitly adopted. The exact definition of terms is unsuccessfully attempted. The greater part of the discussion is taken up with examples of rationalizations and of motives for conduct which are assumed to manifest sentiments or instincts. There is some resemblance to McDougall's theory of instincts but this concept is used uncritically. The main argument is based on an inadequate psychology and disregards the essential sociological data. An attempt is made to explain history by assuming differential heredity in social classes. The book formulates the implicit philosophy of Italian Fascism, advocating the right of the strong to take what they want without apology or appeal to moral principles. The book has no value as sociology but constitutes an interesting and serviceable document for the student of a personality.

Graduate students in sociology have included in their reading the treatise of Pareto' for the past ten years, indeed, since the appearance of the French translation. This American translation makes the material available to the undergraduate body of students, and is an appropriate occasion for appraisal and evaluation. Since the present version has been preceded and accompanied by a very effective advertising campaign and by a number of very extravagant eulogies written by literary men and others not competent in this field, it is fitting to inquire concerning the book, whether it is of value to students of sociology. The initial sale was large, and therefore the conclusions of any reviewer can be appraised by a large number of purchasers who are already in possession of the twenty-dollar set. In preparation, the reviewer has read the whole of the new translation, being already familiar with the French edition.

Although teachers of sociology will not choose to remain wholly ignorant of a work that has had so much publicity, yet there seems no reason whatever why anyone else should be asked to spend time in reading these bulky volumes. What in them is sound is not only not new, but is much better stated by authors long familiar to Amer-

( 658) -ican scholars. The announced attempt to build an entirely new system of sociology can hardly be deemed successful. Many people have asked, like Pareto, what is the matter with sociology. Deficiencies in our science are evident, heaven knows, but one thing the matter with sociology is that its literature has been hidden from the eyes of those who imagine that they can build up a complete and adequate system while ignoring the work of other men. He who builds on nothing builds nothing. The author who acknowledges no debt to anybody is one whose contribution is probably no greater than his debt. Science is funded knowledge; and a science of sociology, still in the making, will be the work of many patient scholars, each adding a little to the store. In no other way does a science grow.

An interesting contrast and comparison can be made between the American Sumner and the Italian Pareto. Both of them became known as economists; and both found the abstractions of economic theory disappointing to their efforts to understand human society. All those conceptions which cluster around the notion of the "economic man" appeared to leave out so much that was vital, that both of these men turned to sociology. Sumner had long been familiar with the non-rational aspects of human life. To Pareto, whose reading in sociology appears to be almost negligible, this came as a startling new discovery. Those of us who have had thrills of originality can understand the enthusiasm which he must have felt when this old truth became new to him.

Sumner proceeded to gather examples of non-rational behavior and finally produced a measure of order out of chaos when he divided the folkways from the mores and showed their relation to the later developing institutions. It is a great misfortune that the isolation of Pareto precluded any acquaintance with Sumner's work, which appeared some years before his own. He struggled with the problem of the non-rational customs, but gave it up, and turned from a study of the customs of men to a consideration of the mere words they used in defending these customs and to the innate causes of them. Sumner attempted a small task and in a measure succeeded. Pareto tried a larger enterprise with but lamentably meager results.

One of the differences between Sumner and Pareto appears in

( 659) their attitude toward morals. Sumner is scientific and objective. Moral conduct, he found, is approved conduct and grows up in every society. It is relative to the life of that society. The sociologist does not, indeed, interest himself in what "ought to be," but he finds it profitable and even necessary to study carefully the duties which men perform because they believe they ought to do them. Sumner found the mores to be always true and right. "The mores can make anything right and prevent condemnation of anything." The most curious customs thus become valuable data to be interpreted. Professor Pareto failed to achieve this objectivity. To him right and truth had no correspondence with reality. His theory of knowledge was the naďve position that there must be a correspondence between the idea and some visible or tangible object. He could not find any such reality corresponding to, say, a "state of law." His patience is quickly exhausted and the use of such words is the occasion for contemptuous irony. Seizing on a reference to the "true" meaning of a word, used by a writer, he fairly snorts: "Twenty-one guns for our old friend True" (2160`). (The parentheses refer to the numbered sections of the book.)

The announced purpose is to construct a system of sociology on the model of celestial mechanics or physics or chemistry (20). "We move in a narrow field, the field of experience and observation" (71). By "experience" he means "direct experience," a definition hardly enlightening (580). "I intend to take my stand strictly within the field of experimental science" (79). "Proof of our propositions we seek strictly in experience and observation" (69:7). "I intend to remain absolutely in the logico-experimental field and refuse to depart from it under any circumstances whatever" (17). Similar statements are iterated over and over again. Had he been able to live up to the expectations aroused by these promises, the book would have been a very different book.

Not only are we promised that conclusions will be everywhere verified by facts; we are also assured that there will be the most meticulous attention paid to a rigorous and exact definition of terms. "In the logico-experimental sciences the aim is to make language as exact as possible" (p. 1927). "If things are designated beyond the possibility of doubt or misunderstanding, the names that

( 660) are given to them matter hardly at all" (p. 1927). "Let us keep to our quest for relationships between facts, and people may give them any name they please" (2). "Words are of no importance whatever to us, they are labels for keeping track of things" (119). "We use words strictly to designate things" (108). "We shall use terms of ordinary parlance, explaining exactly what they represent" (119). Never was a promise more clearly made, more often reiterated, or more flagrantly violated.

But before examining the undefined terms with which the book abounds, there is another feature of science that receives much attention. Experimental science is not only declared to limit itself to observed and experienced facts and to require exact definition of terms; there is another requirement: it must be mathematical. If only quantitative and mathematical methods could be applied in sociology! "In order to grasp the form of a society, it would be necessary to know what the elements are and how they function in quantitative terms." If indices were assigned to the various elements we could state them in the form of mathematical equations. The number of these equations would equal the number of unknowns. But such equations are at present impossible (2062). In a footnote the possibility of imitating celestial mechanics is declared to be doubly unattainable for there "still would be the difficulty of solving the equations, a difficulty so great that it may well be called insuperable" (20621).

No single aspect of his failure is quite so hard for the author to endure as this disappointment about mathematics. "Pure economics" has its equations but leaves out of consideration necessary elements of society. Sociology would be possible if we could only have equations; but they are impossible of formulation, and they could not be solved if they were written. To this subject we are brought back again and again. Time after time the author writes that if this were only pure economics it would be a good place to write some equations and then a long series of such equations in economics is given, just to show that it can be done. The discussion finally reverts to the subject in hand with the plaintive remark that, unfortunately, sociology must use "ordinary language" and that mathematical treatment is not possible. The brilliant statistical work of modern

( 661) sociologists is not mentioned and was presumably not known to the author. He makes no use whatever of mathematics.

The decision to use "ordinary language" is, after all, reluctantly taken. Letters of the alphabet are employed to denote the important concepts for the first 500 pages and there are constant relapses into the same habit. The acts of men are, at first, denoted by c, the "very variable" ways in which these acts are explained are represented by b, while the "relatively invariable," the "virtually constant," part of the whole is symbolized by a. Toward the first part of the second volume the author finds this algebraic practice getting tiresome and gives names to the symbols. The acts, c, he calls deriveés (translated "derivatives"); the reasons or proofs, b, are named "derivations"; while the invariable portions, a, are given the name "residues." The acts are thus conceived as having three parts: the deeds, the reasons for them, and the motives behind them. No sociologist could withhold his gratitude from an author whose work brought new light to this set of problems. But Pareto is disappointing and contributes nothing.

One-third of the above program is given up and completely abandoned without even a start. The derivatives are frequently mentioned in the preliminary discussions of the relations of a, b, and c, but they nowhere are studied. By derivatives, Professor Pareto meant the acts of men which are the object of study of Sumner in Folkways. The non-rational character of all customs is there brought to a demonstration, and Sumner shows how it is even impossible for men to plan successfully any new mores. Had Pareto not been ignorant of Sumner he might have done something with this area of life, but, unassisted, he found the subject too difficult, and gave it up without a struggle. His only attitude toward the strange customs of other times and other lands is that of the untutored ethnocentric: a mingling of surprise, incredulity, and scorn. How could Newton "have harbored such childish idiocies?" (652); "Poor Strabo must have been out of his mind" (5941).

The folkways and the mores, in which non-rationality is most obviously apparent, proved too difficult. The word "derivative" does occur once in the fourth volume and is such a surprise to the translator that he adds a footnote to the effect that the use of the word is

( 662) so exceptional as to be unique and must be regarded as a slip of the pen (22701). The word is used repeatedly in the beginning of the first volume, where the plan of the work is set forth. But the acts of men are not expounded; they are abandoned and forgotten.

Nearly three-fourths of the material is concerned with residues and derivations : much of Volume I and all of Volumes II and III. The latter two volumes require nearly a thousand pages, more than 1,200 numbered sections, and about 976 footnotes, some of which are very long. The whole work, even after the translator has deleted many repetitions, has a total of 2,033 pages, 2,612 numbered sections, to which must be added some 1,845 footnotes, very copious, many of which are several thousand words in length. The whole is said to contain about a million words.

What the author has to say could have been presented in a scant tithe of the present length. The repetitions account for much of the prolixity, and the many "asides" account for much more; for the author constantly allows himself to be diverted, like Juliet's nurse, into garrulous and irrelevant discussions, or into diatribes against men who have excited his animosity. But a careful reading of the text forces the conclusion that the lack of clearness is due to the incompetence of Pareto for the task which he assigned to himself. One of his admirers has written that the treatise is a veritable pandemonium, as badly written as can be imagined, and that the reading of it is almost incomprehensible. This author, Bousquet, goes on to say that "the absence of methodological plan is pushed to an almost pathological degree." Over and over again a return is made to a problem that refuses to come out right, and that, in the end, still refuses. Pareto was unable either to confess his obvious failure or to cease his futile efforts.

Mention has been made of the determination, so often repeated to make the meaning of words as exact as possible. Yet even his most enthusiastic eulogists cannot agree on what is meant by residues, and some of them confess that they do not understand. Homan and Curtis wrote on this point: "We have struggled hard to make clear what we mean by a residue, and we are afraid that our struggles have only involved us more deeply in the mire of words.” [2]

( 663) And yet these two men had spent two years in a seminar on Pareto, conducted, it is true, by an enthusiastic professor of physiology. What puzzled them will puzzle any reader, for the author returns in vain again and again to the task of making clear his meaning, repudiating in one passage what he has written in another. It would seem to be impossible to write with clarity if the mind is in confusion.

A few examples from the text will substantiate this statement. Very many more could be cited. The residues are those parts of the whole such that if the residues are known, the acts will also be known (1690). And yet the residues are unknowable, for only the derivations can be known (2083). The residues are modified by the derivations (1735), but the residues are repeatedly declared to be invariable, virtually constant, etc. (850, p. 1916, and many other passages). In no place is the concept defined.

It is the same with sentiments (865). The residues are manifestations of sentiments but the concept is not made as exact as possible, for Pareto's admirers are continually puzzling their brains over the meaning of the word "sentiment."

The residues also manifest instincts (870). But these manifested instincts are not defined as exactly as possible. They are not defined at all, but remain in the limbo of the vague. Scornful words abound when an author uses a word which is left undefined. "I hope I shall be excused if I do not define this sweet entity" (2182). But instincts are assumed to be made known by the residues which are, themselves, unknowable: "We know only the derivations" (2083). In one passage it is asserted that behind residues and derivations alike are parts, or elements, or factors that are quite unknown and inaccessible (16902).

The use by Pareto of the concept of instincts reminds one of McDougall, who presented his picturesque repertoire of innate elements in a volume that appeared as early as 1908. Had McDougall's work been known to Pareto he might, at least, have made much larger use of animals. They are mentioned only casually, and with none of the zoological insistence of McDougall. Pareto says that because the hen defends her chicks she does have a sentiment (1690). But he might have learned from McDougall to bring in the stallion and the peacock, the horse and the squirrel, and especially the

( 664) monkey, who has the parental instinct, which, McDougall says, is lacking in "philosophers as a class." Perhaps the difference in terminology will tend to obscure the identity of procedure. Both attempt to explain the sweep of history by appeal to inborn elements. McDougall accounts for the difference between the colonial empire of Britain and that of France by asserting that in the British the instinct of curiosity is strong, and the instinct of gregariousness is weak, while the strength of these two instincts is reversed in the case of the French. Negroes, McDougall asserts, are strong in the instinct of submissiveness, which accounts for their having been slaves. McDougall paints with a larger brush than Pareto, tending to assign the same instincts in the same proportions to whole races, while Pareto is more concerned with the differential heredity of the different social classes; but, in his Lowell Institute lectures, McDougall[3] agrees with Pareto's essential position, sounding the alarm against the dysgenic effect of the social ladder. It is to be expected that Professor McDougall will find himself in sharp disagreement with Pareto, which is often the case with two writers who have assumed a common erroneous premise.

It is with an equipment of undefined terms and unproved propositions that Pareto comes at last to the task of classifying the residues which, "if known, will allow us to know the acts." The procedure is similar to that of McDougall, or Allport, or any other writer who "explains" a social fact by applying a biological label. Just as Allport [4] assigns the conditioning of the prepotent reflex of struggling as the explanation of the "espousal by the German people of the Kaiser's policy of invasion and devastation," and just as McDougall accounts for the Protestant Reformation by asserting that the Nordic Protestants had different instincts from those of the racial groups that remained true to the Catholic Church,[5] so Pareto finds the institutions of Athens and Sparta to be due to differential residues, manifesting differential inherited instincts (2419). Acts, customs, and even national character are assumed to be due to the operation of specific forces, biological constants, which are obtained by first de-

( 665) -scribing the conduct that is to be explained and then inventing a residue that would account for the conduct.

Some of the confusion of Pareto would have been mitigated if he had realized that he was inverting the problem. The cultural life of man is, of course, to a large degree non-rational. This is not new but it is true. The customs of men do grow up without rational thought. Moreover, as Durkheim and his colleagues have so abundantly shown, the cultural products exercise a coercive influence on the individual members of a society whom they affect from their infancy. Thus the attitudes of men are the result of their social experience. The sentiments, the emotional aspect of the attitudes, are powerful and non-logical but they are the effects of social participation, not of innate constants. Pareto cannot understand how Newton could accept the religious ideas of his time. He is amazed that a man should adopt the mores of his people. But where the mores exist they are always true and always right. It is not silly to accept them; it is human. The failure of Pareto is due to the same error into which McDougall fell: the error of mistaking that which is collectively originated and socially transmitted for a unitary and inherited individual tendency.

The treatment of the residues and their classes is labored and long drawn out but singularly sterile. The residues are set forth according to genera, species, and subspecies, but most of them are illustrated only to be forgotten. In the final attempt to interpret the "general form of society" which depends on the residues, only two of them receive any but the most casual mention. The net result of all the labor in some five hundred pages is the conclusion that some people in every society are born innovators and rebels and others are natural-born conservatives, and when they do not breed true to type the social equilibrium is disturbed owing to "class circulation." The innovating residues, Class I, are christened "instinct of combinations," a confusing phrase, since residues are never instincts but manifestations of instincts. What is meant is that some men are born with a tendency to combine one thing with another. In other words, there are some classes of men who are born with a tendency that causes association of ideas. Very much could be said about this formulation. Let us only recall that since every act of thought

( 666) involves associations and therefore combinations, we may safely assume that even the most immovable reactionaries always have their plans and their schemes.

The other residue, the only other one of which any use is made, is Class II, and is called the "persistence of aggregates." We are not told what instinct this represents. It would appear to be a clumsy and perverse way of referring to the tendency to habit formation, which, again, might well be asserted of the whole human race and not be allowed to be the possession of any one class of society. It is to this class of residues that the disciples appeal when they wish to understand why a man desires to own his property. Habit is a phenomenon concerning which much is known and to which Pareto's discussion adds nothing save the masquerade of a confused terminology.

In the third volume derivations are likewise presented in a similar classification, but here the results are even more meager. Classes and subclasses are set down to the number of eighteen. But they are really all about the same. Four-fifths of the discussion of them is occupied with the "verbal proofs" and the admission is made that, if defined a bit broadly, all the derivations could be put into this class. Nor is such a statement very striking when we recall that derivations are the "verbal manifestations" which men use to "prove" that what they do, or believe, is reasonable. The statement that verbal proofs should be called verbal proofs is hardly open to question, but one wonders why it should take a volume of five hundred pages to say it.

The author is often irritated, sometimes infuriated, and always puzzled and baffled to account for the content of the derivations he records. He simply cannot understand why men write such silly things and utter such incomprehensible absurdities. It would be difficult for anyone to understand if he started with the untenable assumption that the rationalizations are the manifestations of innate tendencies, uninfluenced by social experience. Pareto insists that the derivations are manifestations of residues. They do not proceed from the actions of men but from the inherited instincts and sentiments, and are due to the "hunger for thought." Men want to be logical and reasonable, and in their effort to be logical and reasonable

( 668) they speak nonsense and write idiocies. They hunger for logic but satisfy their hunger with foolishness.

It would have been easier for him had he realized that he was dealing with a sociological and not a psychological problem. The derivations are arguments, reasons, explanations, rationalizations. Now reasons are given to opponents, and are uttered in conversation, or written to persuade or confute. Reasons that are advanced can always be assumed to have some relation to what the reasoner considers will influence his audience. Had Pareto seen this, he would not have berated Newton, or St. Augustine, or anyone. But the social escaped him. By examining words he came to predicate innate causes of the words, which were conceived as invariable biological elements. Divorced from the time and place in which they were uttered, many of the arguments cited are incomprehensible. Referred to the social situation, they are easily understood.

There has been some discussion concerning the relation of Pareto's views to Italian Fascism. A reading of the fourth volume reveals an extraordinary correspondence, whether or not there is any causal influence. Pareto is bitterly scornful of the very word morality and equally contemptuous of truth, right, justice, and democracy. He is concerned with the "élite."

The élite are not the best; they are the strong and successful. A sneak thief is a member of the élite if he is a successful sneak thief and can avoid the police and accumulate a quantity of loot (2027). If he gets caught, he is not one of the élite. Those who govern belong to the governing élite if they are strong and are willing to use force to kill their enemies. If the governing élite breed too many children who have an overabundance of the "persistence of aggregates," then some people who have strong "instincts of combinations" will drive them out and become the élite. This he calls "circulation of the élite." It is recognized that all this may involve murder and rapine but he does not hesitate to say that murder and rapine only mean that the strong and worthy have succeeded the weak and cowardly (2191). What to him is despicable is not to kill the weak but to defend ruthlessness by voicing appeals to right and justice, for these have no "correspondence with reality." The very word "justice" infuriates Pareto.


There is not sufficient space for a detailed account of the fourth volume to which the first three are preparatory. From the standpoint of sociology this is no loss. It is largely devoted to muckraking and reminds one of Lincoln Steffens, but it lacks the objectivity and balance of Steffens and is devoid of Steffens' rich experience, rare insight, and high moral purpose. There is exposure of the corruption and rascality in government, with much attention to France and Italy and with very copious footnotes, many of them clipped from the newspapers of the day. The speculators, the "foxes," were on top, but Mussolini and the other "lions" were destined to reach them with a well-aimed cuff, "and that will be the end of the argument" (24801).

And thus the animals, rejected as sources of instincts, are presented as ideals of conduct. The lion takes what he wants because he has the strength. Pareto goes one step beyond the doctrine that the end justifies the means; he scorns to give any justification at all. His ethics are the ethics of the beasts, the wild beasts, who never utter non-logical "verbal manifestations." "Since the world has been the world, the strong and courageous have been the ones to command, and the weak and cowardly the ones to obey, and it is, in general, a good thing for a country that it should be so" (24804).

Although the book has no value for sociology, the student of personality should find it a serviceable document. The unintentional revelation of his coarseness, his scorn for moral principles (231610), his unfairness to opponents, his utter lack of a sense of humor, his towering egotism all these and much more are obtrusively manifest. Some competent student should work through the material with a view to understanding the development of the personality of an old man who aspired to be the Machiavelli of the middle classes. One result of such investigation might be the explanation of why he thought he could teach the world sociology without ever having learned it, even if it took a million words.



  1. Vilfredo Pareto, The Mind and Society (Trattalo di sociologia generale). Edited by Arthur Livingston. Translated by Andrew Bongiorno and Arthur Livingston with the advice and active co-operation of James Harvey Rogers. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 5935. 4 vols. Pp. xviii+vi+vi+2033. $20.
  2. This Journal, XL (March, 1935), 667.
  3. Is America Safe for Democracy? (1921).
  4. Social Psychology (1924), p. 59.  
  5. Op. Cit., p. 102.

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