Book review: The Natural Law Foundations of Modern Social Theory

Mathieu Deflem
www.mathieudeflem.net

This is a copy of a book review of The Natural Law Foundations of Modern Social Theory: A Quest for Universalism, by Daniel Chernilo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 248 pp. ISBN 978-1-107-00980-6 hbk) published in Journal of Classical Sociology 13(4), 2013.

Also downloadable as pdf file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2013. Book review of The Natural Law Foundations of Modern Social Theory: A Quest for Universalism, by Daniel Chernilo. Journal of Classical Sociology 13(4):509-512.


Even on the basis of a rudimentary understanding of the traditions of natural law and social theory, it will be understood that the task Daniel Chernilo set out to accomplish in this book cannot readily be perceived to be easily accomplished. Foolish or courageous from the outset, Chernilo not only argues that there is a relationship between natural law and social theory but, more fundamentally, that social theory has much in common with and must be aware of, as the title of this book states, its foundations in natural law. Before I comment on the value and validity of this effort, a brief overview of the book’s contents may be in order.

Chernilo introduces the problem of the relationship between natural law and social theory by taking up two intellectual traditions that more or less explicitly address their respective stands. He begins by discussing the work of Jürgen Habermas and its presumed bridging of natural law and social theory traditions. He then turns to authors who critiqued the critique of natural law, specifically the contributions of Karl Löwith, Leo Strauss, and Eric Voegelin, who are here considered in order to argue against them and defend a reconstructed notion of social theory, rather than to dismiss it altogether.

The next two parts of the book focus on the universalism Chernilo uncovers in natural law and social theory, respectively. In the three chapters on natural law, Chernilo reveals the specific notion and dimensions of universalism he sees in the works of the likes of Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel. In the final two chapters, he addresses the social philosophy of Marx and the classical sociologies of Ferdinand Tönnies, Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, and Max Weber. Throughout it all, Chernilo makes the point that natural law and social theory remain closely connected by their common reliance on a quest for universalism and, relatedly, such orientations as an adherence to rationality, a bridging of description and normativity, and their variable connections in support of either critical or conservative attitudes. In this endeavor, Chernilo admirably acknowledges with great clarity that he is seeking to develop a philosophical sociology, defined as “the attempt to understand the implicit ideas of human nature that underpin sociology’s explicit conceptions of social relations” (p. 11).

Admittedly, the title of this work alone aroused suspicion on my part, not least of all perhaps because of my background in the sociology of law. But it is, in any case, to be generally perceived as a daring and provocative venture for a scholar to argue that modern social theory would have foundations in natural law in such a way that it would remain tied up with one of its very basic conditions in a quest for universalism and, moreover, that natural law and social theory would be connected in ways other than that the very appearance of the latter was based on a quest to break away from the former.

Writing as a sociologist with an interest in social theory, I cannot find the basic argument of this book to be very convincing. Concentrating on the sociological traditions I am familiar with, Chernilo’s analyses of Habermas and the four discussed classical sociologists are problematic. In his treatment of Habermas, for instance, what is missing is that Habermas has always been working on the basis of an effort to connect, and hence to conceptually keep apart, a sociological understanding of and a philosophical orientation to the world. Especially in the German tradition, where he is consistently referenced as a ‘sociologist and philosopher,’ this dual aim of the entire body of Habermas’s writings has been properly understood. Besides, the multiple aims and perspectives of his work are continually explicated by Habermas himself.

The same demarcation must also be noted in the sociological classics Chernilo dares to discuss. Ferdinand Tönnies entertained both philosophical (including more broadly normative and even political) as well as sociological aspirations in his writings, not to transcend the differences between them but, on the contrary, to affirm the respective validity of philosophy and the new science of society. It is decidedly untrue that Tönnies’s conception of sociology was “philosophical as well as scientific, normative as well as descriptive” (p. 161). Both Weber and Durkheim went even further than Tönnies in their development of social theory as distinct from earlier philosophies, whether natural law or of other kind, as their works matured towards launching the birth of modern sociology. There is no fact, extrapolation of fact, or theory that could rationally lead to justify Chernilo’s wild and senseless claims that Durkheim’s sociology would be “a new form of natural law” (p. 173) or that society would have been introduced by the sociological classics as a category that would be “artificial vis-à-vis the individual” (p. 181).

More critically, even that which Chernilo attempts to show about the connections between natural law and social theory, whether it is a valid exercise or not, is not particularly noteworthy because it only focuses on selected characteristics of the two traditions of thought, without touching on any of their respective essential qualities, a rather ironic observation to make for somebody who wants to position himself in the footsteps of so many a classical thinker. I cannot say, of course, that Chernilo would have fared better if his ambitions had been set more realistically and delineated to a more selective group of authors and bodies of thought, nor would I want to speculate on the true nature of his aspirations, not in the natural-law terms of his human nature nor on the basis of a sociological perspective of contemporary realities surrounding scholarship, publishing, and career-building. But, what is undisputable and to be read in the very words Chernilo writes in his book is that he only makes the weak argument that natural law and social theory share certain formal characteristics, specifically by suggesting (and repeating time and again throughout this book) that both natural law and social theory have an interest in addressing the problem of universalism.

Is this a remarkable claim to make and is it worthy of attention? I think not. By his own admission, in fact, Chernilo only argues that social theory would continually revert back to “some key elements of the tradition of natural law” (p. 2), so that it cannot even be tenable at once to speak of social theory as an “incarnation” of natural law (p. 3) and to leap so swiftly from description and analysis to normativity. It is also not useful to describe this connection, as Chernilo does throughout this book, in terms of an opposition between philosophy and science, for the break with natural law was already accomplished before the advent of social science in the post-Enlightenment legal philosophies of the likes of Henry Maine and others who were historically minded and who thereby developed a body of thought that, because of its empirically attuned sensibilities, enabled the ultimate transition towards social science.

What is more profound, beyond some mere formal characteristic shared by different bodies of thought, are the distinct qualities of universalism in natural law and social theory as they emanate from their respective basic intentions. Whereas natural law begins with the conviction of an answer on the social and legal order, social theory originated precisely from the quest to break with such an approach and instead begin with the formulation of a set of questions. From the viewpoint of the practitioners of social theory, a fundamental critique of natural law is precisely that, contrary to what Chernilo writes, it only advances and elaborates upon a position but cannot and does not wish to “rationally justify” it (p. 1). Even the underlying philosophical question ‘what is human nature?’ differs in this more profound respect from the questions on the conditions and course of human relationships in society, which have occupied social theory since the sociological classics, because the former question assumes that there is such a thing as human nature, whereas the latter does not. There is also no need to argue that social theory should be involved in speculations on human nature, if there is such a thing, for it has no beef with what natural law seeks to accomplish within its proper limits. What natural law and social theory each set out to achieve in their respective domains need not imply any judgment on the value of either tradition.

By arguing for an intimate connection between natural law and social theory, Chernilo does not do justice to either. Failing to maintain distinctions even at the conceptual level, he overlooks that the range of multiple forms of valid knowledge is wide but not without limits and not without distinct forms of rationality for each. Chernilo could have learned as much very easily from Habermas. For whatever reason, Chernilo is unable or refuses to break away from that a basic natural law conception, running entirely contrary to social theory, that defines universalism “as the belief in the fundamental unity of the human species” (p. 4). Failing to distinguish between universalism as a beginning from which additional ideas flow as is the case in natural law, on the one hand, and universalism as an always illusive but nonetheless fundamental and desirable objective in social theory, on the other, Chernilo’s perspective presents nothing but an essentialist kryptometaphysics.

To his credit, Chernilo in this book admits the natural-law objectives of his work to place social theory in a position subservient to normative aspirations, specifically by favoring a “vision of social theory in which historical, normative as well as scientific concerns are all allowed in as a way of trying to make social theory relevant for wider socio-cultural and normative debates” (p. 204). So his perverse tale is actually one of seeking to argue for the natural law roots of social theory in order to reconstruct a social theory whose objectives are redefined in terms of natural law and other normativities. Oddly, Chernilo situates this effort in an assumed “decline of the normative in contemporary social theory” (p. 6). It must be a cave awfully remote from contemporary western civilization he has been dwelling in, for there could be nothing more striking, observable by politically and scientifically minded scholars alike, that the return of the normative in social theory has been warmly embraced in ever manifold and growing circles in recent decades, from the relativistic nihilism of postmodernism to the variably implicit or explicated universalistic values of multiple branches of activist sociology.

If the meager accomplishments of this book are any indication, those of us who remain committed to a social theory that is geared towards description and analysis on the basis of questions have much to be happy about, because it would lead to conclude that it is now safe to dump natural law into the dustbin of western thought and leave its reading to historians of pre-scientific philosophy and perhaps the occasional contemporary practitioner of natural law who remains blind to the developments of social theory. We owe Chernilo warm thanks for having contributed to revealing the central weakness of natural law that it cannot be satisfied with its true intentions and must seek refuge in some assumed connection with social theory. Perhaps, as I suspect, it is an indication that there cannot be anything valuable anymore in natural law that is located in natural law itself, not since the advent of social theory has matured into the contemporary social sciences. And should there still be a desire among some to develop a universal notion of human nature, I doubt that it can be discovered in the pages on this book.

Unless I have misunderstood this book and, along with it, not learned anything relevant about social theory, Chernilo is in this book not so much profusely ignorant about, as grotesquely disrespectful towards the very essence of, the tradition of social theory, which he reveals to abhor so passionately by perverting it in function of “the description as well as the normative assessment of the world” (p. 3). In the light of the sociologically observable fact that Chernilo’s effort today does not stand alone, it remains important for sociologists to hold on to and openly profess the true objectives and accomplishments of social theory, particularly with respect to its classical origins. The sociological classics are ours for the keeping and not just anybody else’s for the taking.