The Cameralists I (Introduction)
Bill Long 10/16/05
A Topic Not on Everyone's List...
I decided to write this essay on a group of people in 16th-18th century Germany because, as I explained in my historicism essays, I felt the need for some precise knowledge today. But this is not simply an essay on a historical theme for its own sake; it is stimulated by a man I am finding myself increasingly entranced by--Albion W. Small, a large man in the history of American sociology. This and the next essay will introduce him and the reason why an understanding of the Cameralists is important for those who want to study social thought. First, then, to Small.
Albion W. Small (1854-1926)
Small was the son of a Baptist minister and a native of Maine, where his family had lived for more than 200 years before his birth. He attended Colby College in Waterville, graduating in 1876, in a class of 9. Following his father's ministerial path, he attended Newton Theological Institution (MA), graduating in 1879. Having been challenged to embrance modern thought in biblical interpretation by his professor at Newton, Dr. E. P. Gould, he decided to pursue advanced training in Germany after seminary, studying at Berlin in 1879-80 and Leipzig in 1880-81. His marriage in June 1881 to the daughter of a Prussian general and his desire/need to take up teaching immediately precluded him from obtaining his Ph. D. in Germany. And so, from 1881-88 he became a professor of history and political economy at Colby. As Vernon Dibble says in his study of Small's thought, Small was one of the few who saw both the change in American higher education from moral philosophy to sociology as well as the change in German universities from history to sociology. Thus, he had seven years to think through how he would begin to articulate a social view of life and thought, thoughts that would become to come to fruition when he went to Chicago in 1892.
Before that time, however, he decided to take a sabbatical to pursue his Ph. D. in history at the relatively new Johns Hopkins University, gaining his degree in 1889. Colby then hired him as its President, a position he held until he begn teaching and heading up the world's first Department of Sociology at the new University of Chicago in 1892. U of Chicago in those days was a Baptist institution, funded in large measure by money from that super-Baptist John Rockefeller. The first President, William Rainey Harper, was a Baptist minister and Old Testament scholar and had first approached Small about coming to Chicago as early as 1890. At the encouragement of Harper, Small started the American Journal of Sociology in 1895 and, over the next 30 years, published probably more than 60 full-length articles in the AJS. Many of those articles were historically and methodologically oriented. He was most interested in trying to show how "modern" American sociology grew out of German scholarship of the 19th and earlier centuries.
Biography and Scholarship
We still aren't ready to get to the Cameralists yet. In his voluminous article (140+ pages) on the history of American sociology from 1865-1915, Small speaks of a regrettable lack in scholarship.
"The years which I have spent in studying the social scientists of the last four centuries have lodged in my mind one indelible impression, viz., that nearly every one of these writers might have done more for the instruction of subsequent generations if each had left on record certain testimony from his personal knowledge, which he probably regarded as trifling, and which his contemporaries would probably have pronounced impertinent, than they did by writing much of a more pretentious nature which they actually transmitted" (AJS 21 (1916), 721-22).
Small is exactly correct about scholars and scholarship. Many were taught in graduate school that only the refined thoughts of a disciplined and mature intellect should grace the pages of a scholarly journal. But, in fact, this kind of scholarship is often not very useful at all because it fails to realize that scholarship arises out of the turmoil and calm of a scholar's life, and that understanding arises slowly and gradually and ought not just be put "out there" when you are "finished." It is important to know "why thinking in social science has meandered in the precise courses which it has followed" (722). By not giving a rich context for this development, it just takes scholars so much longer to figure out what is going on. I was pleased with this point from Small because it emphasizes the autobiographical nature of all scholarship and the way that subtleties, or huge things, in our lives, leave their filmy presence on all of our work. Lest we miss what he is saying, he says it again:
"Men now living might divulge many things which will never be discovered from mere review of technical treatises, without which the historical significance of the treatises will always be partially misunderstood" (722).
Some of the most "instructive" points we want to make will remain "undetected" when the biography of the writer is unknown.
Conclusion--Studying the Periods of Social History
This "biographical" insight into the nature of scholarship is then supplemented by what he calls, in another article, his "cardinal theorem" in social psychology: "Every social theory, and every type of social science is a function of practical problems which contemporary men are attempting to solve" (AJS 28 (1913), 435, italics in original). That is, theories arise because people are bothered by something in their practical reality. This "something" may be something that they face in their personal lives but, more likely, some issue that the society in which they live is trying very hard to define or understand. Thus, a due attention to the major "problem" or "problems" of a society at any given time will be more helpful in understanding the contributions to social theory than simply reading the authors of these social theoretical works.
Armed with these two insights (the importance of biography and the need to locate and identify the practical problems which theory is trying to address), we are now ready to turn to the Cameralists.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long