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Imaginaire et impensé de l’économie

Therapeutic Nihilism and Administrative Nihilism: A Non Unconditional Symmetry

Emmanuel d’Hombres
p. 151-168

Résumés

Nihilisme thérapeutique en médecine, nihilisme administratif en politique économique sont des attitudes qui reposent sur la croyance selon laquelle les normes de fonctionnement sont intrinsèquement liées à la structure du système (biologique ou social) considéré. Comme il existe une vis medicatrix naturae dans l’organisme individuel, rendant inutile voire dangereuse l’intervention du thérapeute, il existerait une vis medicatrix rei publicae (Malthus) immanente au corps social, qui doit nous conduire à condamner toute intervention du législateur dans la vie économique. Mais l’analogie entre les deux attitudes n’est pas aussi évidente qu’elle n’apparaît en première analyse. On a pu soutenir au contraire que le symétrique véritable en politique du nihilisme thérapeutique en médecine n’est pas le nihilisme administratif, mais l’interventionnisme (étatique) : une société autorégulée est une société dotée d’un État social fort, comme un organisme autorégulé est un organisme pourvu d’un système nerveux perfectionné. Dans cette perspective, l’analogue du gouvernement politique n’est pas le médecin, mais le système nerveux de l’organisme.
Après avoir fait état de quelques usages illustrant cette ambivalence, nous retracerons l’histoire de la controverse entre ces deux schèmes rivaux de correspondance, dont l’origine remonte à une fameuse dispute entre Herbert Spencer et Thomas Henry Huxley au cours des années 1870, concernant l’opportunité du recours à l’analogie biologique dans l’argumentation du laisser-fairisme économique. Nous tenterons ensuite de comprendre les causes de cet apparent paradoxe qui veut qu’on réfère, tantôt au nihilisme administratif, tantôt à l’interventionnisme étatique, lorsqu’on s’interroge sur l’
analogon en politique du nihilisme thérapeutique en médecine. Notre thèse est qu’une part importante de l’explication de ce paradoxe doit être cherchée dans les changements du champ d’extension légitime (système économique versus système social dans son entier) conféré implicitement à la vis medicatrix, ou pour le dire en termes modernes, à l’autorégulation, quand le concept est employé dans le registre sociopolitique.

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Texte intégral

Introduction

1The present study aims to build a model of logical coordination of the positions adopted by social scientists concerning normative issues, the relations between which are generally inadequately explained. We draw upon the lessons provided by the controversy, which took place in the second half of the nineteenth century, concerning the validity of the biological method used by the British philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) to defend some of his sociological and political propositions. The first question is a practical one: what should the norm or principle be in economic policy (State intervention vs State non-intervention)? The other two questions are theoretical. They concern, on the one hand, the comprehension that we give to the concept of social regulation (strong or maximalist definition vs soft or minimalist definition of regulation), and on the other hand, the extension of such a concept (full sociological extension vs strictly economic extension of the concept of regulation), i. e. the identity we must assign to the regulator (State regulator vs State self-regulating market) and the field to which it applies (society in its entirety vs economic system of the society).

1. From the Vis Medicatrix to the Self-Regulation

  • 1 E. Halévy, “Sur les origines de la philosophie de Spencer”, Bulletin de la Société Française de Phi (...)

2A century ago the French historian, Elie Halévy, said that it seems logical and unavoidable that one who, like Spencer, adopts the thesis of ‘natural harmony of individual interests’ –which is the point of view of free market economics– “is bound to use biological metaphors and present society as far too flexible and complex a living entity to be suited to the rigidity and simplicity of state regulations”.1

  • 2 Halévy, for that matter, is aware of this paradox: he notes a little further down, that “contrary t (...)
  • 3 A. Schäffle, The quintessence of socialism [1877] (transl.), London, Allen and Unwin, 1891; A. Espi (...)
  • 4 See J. Hayward, “‘Solidarity’ and the Reformist Sociology of Alfred Fouillée”, American Journal of (...)

3Such an assertion may sound strange and even paradoxical, because we also know of the success of these same ‘biological’ metaphors among those who approve of state intervention in economic life and who, contrary to the theoreticians of free market economics,2 do not believe in the possibility of a spontaneous harmony of private interests. This is the case with most of the French and German representatives of ‘organicist’ sociology at the end of the nineteenth century: Albert Schäffle, Alfred Espinas, Emile Durkheim, Paul de Lilienfeld, René Worms, Alfred Fouillée, notably.3 The economic recommendations of these authors are far from being in agreement with laissez-faire economics.4 The sociologists are not alone in this. In 1894, the Italian criminologist Enrico Ferri wrote, for example:

  • 5 E. Ferri, Socialism and Modern Science [1894] (transl. La Monte), Chicago, C. H. Kerr, 1900, p. 1.

We have faith […] in the eternal virtus medicatrix naturae (healing power of nature), and socialism is precisely that breath of a new and better life which will free humanity –after some access of fever perhaps– from the noxious products of the present phase of civilization, and which, in a more advanced phase, will give a new power and opportunity of expansion to all the healthy and fruitful energies of all human beings.5

4Yet Halévy’s claim is not empirically baseless. Halévy quotes one of the leaders of the laissez-faire school, Thomas-Robert Malthus. Indeed, in his Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus deals with a vis medicatrix rei republicae that would be to societies what the famous vis medicatrix naturae is for organisms. He wrote:

  • 6 T. R. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population [1798], London, J. Murray, 1817, vol. 2, p.  (...)

The scanty relief granted to persons in distress, the capricious and insulting manner in which it is sometimes distributed by the overseers, and the natural and becoming pride, not yet quite extinct among the peasantry of England, have deterred the more thinking and virtuous part of them from venturing on marriage, without some better prospect of maintaining their families than mere parish assistance. The desire of bettering our condition, and the fear of making it worse, like the vis medicatrix naturae in physics, is the vis medicatrix republicae in politics, and is continually counteracting the disorders arising from narrow human institutions. In spite of the prejudices in favour of population, and the direct encouragements to marriage from the poor-laws, it operates as a preventive check to increase; and happy for this country is it, that it does so.6

5The parallel between these two curative strengths is explicitly drawn by Malthus. Just as a notion like the vis medicatrix naturae is necessary for the physician to explain unaided recoveries, a notion like the vis medicatrix rei publicae is necessary for the economist to explain why the demography of the poorest population –whose growth, according to Malthus, is a negative economic factor– is always maintained within reasonable limits in spite of the considerable stimulus the Welfare State institutions exert on the birthrate of poorer classes.

6Many free trade advocates will follow Malthus in this. For example, the Scottish economist John Ramsay McCulloch, who wrote in his Principles of Political Economy:

  • 7 J. R. McCulloch, The principles of Political Economy, with a Sketch of the Rise and Progress of the (...)

The spirit of parsimony, and the efforts which the frugal and industrious classes make to improve their condition, in most instances balance not only the profusion of individuals, but also the more wasteful profusion and extravagance of governments. The spirit of economy has been happily compared by Smith to the unknown principle of animal life –the vis medicatrix naturae– which frequently restores health and vigour to the constitution, in spite both of disease and of the absurd prescriptions of the physician.7

7Notice that here McCulloch solely refers to a “spirit of economy”, and not of political society, and compares the government to a physician, and not to a brain or any other regulatory apparatus internal to the body. It is an interesting point concerning the identity of the field and of agent of regulation.

8Another eloquent example of an ideological use of the biological metaphor in the same period is given by the Scottish theologian and economist (and also mathematician) Thomas Chalmers, in one of his diatribes against the famous, and very disputed, British assistance legislation. According to Chalmers, the Poor Laws (abrogated in 1834) are comparable to a drug:

  • 8 T. Chalmers, The Christian and Civic Economy of Large Towns, Glasgow, Chalmers and Collins, 1823, v (...)

…It is just as if some diseased excrescence had gathered upon the human frame, that stood connected with the use of some palatable but pernicious liquor, to which the patient was addicted. All that the physician has to do in this case, is to interdict the liquor, when without further care or guardianship on his part, the excrescence will subside, and from the vis medicatrix alone, that is inherent in the patient’s constitution, will health be restored to him. It is even so with that disease which pauperism has brought on the community of England. It is a disease originally formed, and still alimented by the law which gives access to a compulsory provision –and precisely so soon as that access is barred, there is a vis medicatrix that will then be free to operate, and which, without any anxious guardianship on the part of politicians or statesmen, will, of itself, bring round a better and happier state of the commonwealth.8

9These different extracts show that the use of the organic metaphor can be exclusively linked to any political cause or ideology. But whether we fight or defend the free market, we consider the government and its laws either as agents of the vis medicatrix, or rather as obstacles to its exercise. But depending on whether we hold the government to be an organ of society or, on the contrary, an external and parasitical element, it seems that we cannot consider as residual the credence that continues to hold throughout the nineteenth century, which is the idea implied in the formula of the vis medicatrix naturae: innate organic (or social) norms, an intrinsic health of the biological (or social) body. The important word here is the genitive “naturae”. In the western philosophical tradition “nature” is usually opposed to “art”. The attribute “natural” suggests the idea that a healing strength exists, which is located within the body, and which is very distinct from the curative virtues of treatments and drugs, which are definition by-products of art and external to the body. A healing strength, therefore, “that is”, as says Chalmers, “inherent in the patient’s constitution”. The latter can be a biological organism or a social organization. Yet that is not the problem here. The problem is rather to know what ‘social organization’ concerns –what is its extent. Do we understand society in its entirety, or do we abstract and solely refer to its ‘economic system’ when considering the scope of such a force?

  • 9 See W. F. McNutt, “Vis medicatrix naturae”, California State Journal of Medicine, 21(12), 1923, p.  (...)
  • 10 See for example L. Sherwood, Human Physiology: From Cells to Systems, Florence, KY, Brooks Cole, 20 (...)
  • 11 “The fathers of medicine made use of the expression, the ‘healing power of nature’, the vis medicat (...)

10Historians showed that in the Western medical tradition the vis medicatrix naturae was the name given to the etiological principle governing healing phenomena experienced by patients and observed by physicians.9 Yet these are phenomena which theory and physiological experimentation can explain and even reproduce. Today, the aim of experimental demonstration is no longer to show that there are some complicated natural apparatus by means of which quantities of intrinsic organic norms are maintained. Here we refer to physiological norms (such as the norms concerning the body temperature of mammals), but also to morphological or morphogenetic norms (such as healing, restoration of the typical shape during the embryonic development, etc.) For a century and a half, considerable progress has been made concerning the knowledge of physical and chemical mechanisms (also known as “regulation”), by which these functional and morphological norms are maintained or restored.10 If one adopts this restrictive meaning and thus disregards the teleological conception of the living Nature that underlies the traditional understanding of this notion, it is fair to say along with Walter B. Cannon that the validity of the vis medicatrix naturae has been confirmed by the discoveries of the modern macro physiology of regulations begun with work of Claude Bernard.11

  • 12 See R. H. Shryock, The Development of Modern Medicine, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Pre (...)

11Considering its methodological consequences it is not difficult to understand why this idea of vis medicatrix naturae has been exploited systematically by the supporters of “therapeutic nihilism” for nearly two centuries.12

12Needless to say, it would certainly be worth knowing whether the equivalent of such a force exists within society. Some believed they had discovered it. This was the case of Malthus, as seen previously.

  • 13 Thomas H. Huxley delivered an address entitled ‘Administrative Nihilism’ to the members of the Midl (...)

13And yet even assuming some intrinsic social norms actually exist, there still remains a doubt as to our ability to clearly identify the field of application of this vis medicatrix to social matters. Is it purely economic or fully sociological? The answer to this question determines the validity of parallels between the sceptical attitude in medicine and in politics, or, if one prefers, between therapeutic nihilism and administrative nihilism, to use the words of the English naturalist Thomas H. Huxley.13 We shall see it more specifically, in examining the celebrated controversy between Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley concerning the coherency of Spencer’s propositions on social regulation.

2. An Example of Confusion: The Spencerian Conception of Regulation

  • 14 On the role of biological analogies in Spencer’s thought, see V. L. Hilts, “Towards the Social Orga (...)
  • 15 H. Spencer, “Representative Government” [1857], in H. Spencer, Essays: Scientific, Political and Sp (...)

14When Spencer searches for parallels with biological phenomena in his sociology,14 he makes analogies between the organism and society as a whole, but never between the organism and the economic system as examined separately from the rest of society.15

  • 16 H. Spencer, The Study of Sociology, op. cit., p. 21.
  • 17 Id., p. 109-111, 122, 261, 351; “Specialized Administration”, op. cit., p. 140-162; Principles of S (...)
  • 18 The Study of Sociology, op. cit., p. 334.

15So when he, like other thinkers, considers the validity of adapting the Hippocratic idea of vis medicatrix naturae, he refers to the whole society rather than to a merely part of the society (the economic system). “Is it not probable,” asks Spencer, “that what in the individual organism is improperly, though conveniently, called the vis medicatrix naturae, may be found to have its analogue in the social organism?”.16 As to who this agent of regulation (i. e. the regulator) actually is, Spencer’s answer is unambiguous and categorical. In his point of view, it is undoubtedly the political governing system of society which assumes the regulative function. Spencer expressly calls the State a “regulative organ”, a “regulative organization”, a “regulative agency”, a “regulating system”, a “regulating apparatus”, and its action a “regulative action” many times in his writings.17 He never refers to the market or some private institutions emanating from the market in this way. Just as the nervous system is the regulator of higher animals, the State, according to Spencer, is the regulator of civilized societies. These regulators are improved progressively as the scale of organisation reaches more advanced stages. “Similarly,” stresses Spencer, “development of the individual organism […] is always accompanied by development of a nervous system […]; while, along with development of the social organism, there always goes development of directive centres”.18

  • 19 This expression is the title of one of Spencer’s articles (Westminster Review, Jan. 1858) included (...)

16At the same time, however, Spencer never ceases to condemn the State’s interferences into economic life, whatever the degree or field is. For instance, he uses very harsh words against “State-tamperings with money and banks”,19 and State interferences in the trade of labour force, of soil, and of manufactured products in general.

  • 20 See e.g. the different essays in Spencer, The Man versus the State, London, Williams and Norgate, 1 (...)
  • 21 “Representative Government”, op. cit., p. 190. On the utilitarian ideology of Spencer, see M. Franc (...)

17And Spencer goes even further. He makes scathing attacks on even the most legitimate public services and administrative controls. For example, he rages when the State intervenes, even discreetly, in sectors such as the postal service, health care, transport, urbanism, education, scientific research, and even social aid.20 “Countless facts,” he argues, “prove the Government to be the worst owner, the worst manufacturer, the worst trader: in fact, the worst manager, be the thing managed what it may”.21

18As supporter of an uncompromising laissez-faire economics, Spencer finally allows only one type of intervention in economic affairs. He describes it as “negative” in as much as it must prevent trade, services and labour agreements contracted among citizens from being breached. The Public authorities guarantee the lawful enforcement of the contracts signed by economic agents. It is well known that it is the only legitimate economic State function according to radicals of free market economic.

19Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how Spencer reconciles his radical views about economic State functions with the analogy between the State and the brain, and about the identical role (regulation) which is bestowed upon these two organs within both the organism and society. To combine both views, there is a natural temptation to give a very loose meaning to the terminology of regulation, and even this runs the risk of being criticized by physiologists, who won’t recognize in this so called description their own understanding of nervous regulation. The following passage, in which Spencer explains what he means by regulation, reveals this strategy:

  • 22 H. Spencer, “The Social Organism”, op. cit., p. 424, our italics.

As it is in the nature of those great and latest-developed ganglia which distinguish the higher animals, to interpret and combine the multiplied and varied impressions conveyed to them from all parts of the system, and to regulate the actions in such way as duly to regard them all; so it is in the nature of those great and latest-developed legislative bodies which distinguish the most advanced societies, to interpret and combine the wishes of all classes and localities, and to make laws in harmony with the general wants. […] We may describe the office of the brain as that of averaging the interests of life, physical, intellectual, moral; and a good brain is one in which the desires answering to these respective interests are so balanced, that the conduct they jointly dictate, sacrifices none of them. Similarly, we may describe the office of a Parliament as that of averaging the interests of the various classes in a community; and a good Parliament is one in which the parties answering to these respective interests are so balanced, that their united legislation allows to each class as much as consists with the claims of the rest.22

20“To interpret”, “to combine”, “to balance”…, such verbs are vague, but not vague enough to allow us to conclude that a normative dimension, such as suggested in the term of vis medicatrix, is included in the Spencerian understanding of regulation. Nowhere in these passages is there a reference to subordination, constraint or obligation of the parts in respect to the whole. Spencer clearly makes a choice in favour of a very minimalist definition of regulation, whatever its domain of application –organism or society. Could the physiologists be nonetheless satisfied with the conception of nervous regulation implied by this description of cerebral functions? This is doubtful.

3. The Huxley and Durkheim’s Critics

  • 23 T. H. Huxley, “Administrative Nihilism” [1871], in T. H. Huxley, Collected Essays 1, London, Macmil (...)

21In 1871, Spencer’s friend, the naturalist Thomas H. Huxley wrote an article for the Fortnightly Review. This paper started the famous controversy with Spencer.23 Huxley shares the same faith in the virtues of representative democracy (liberalism) with this philosopher, but not his radical views about freedom of trade and industry (laissez-faire economics). The naturalist’s critique is aimed at both the facts and the principle. On the one hand, it seems that we can draw some conclusions from the economic history of industrial societies which contradict the thesis of the virtues of an administrative nihilism (this term is how Huxley names the ideology of laissez-faire economics supported by authors such as Spencer). On the other hand, according to Huxley, the general analogy between the organism and society, and the more specific analogy between the nervous system and government, which allow Spencer to justify and assert his free market positions, undermine the very argument that it is supposed to defend. If the government is to civilized society what the nervous system is to the superior animal, namely a regulative organ (from a physiological point of view), then that brings us to the opposite conclusion. Contrary to Spencer’s thesis, political despotism and statism would then represent constitute the future of civilization. Huxley explains:

  • 24 T. H. Huxley, “Administrative Nihilism”, op. cit., p. 271-272.

But if the resemblances between the physiological body and the political body are any indication, not only about of what the latter is, and how it has become what it is, but also of what it ought to be, and what it is tending to become, I cannot think that the real force of the analogy is totally opposed to the negative view of State function. Let’s suppose that, in accordance with this view, each muscle were to maintain that the nervous system had no right to interfere with its contraction, except to prevent it from hindering the contraction of another muscle; or each gland, that it had a right to secrete, so long as its secretion interfered with no other; let’s suppose every separate cell left free following its own ‘interest’ and laissez-faire lord of all, what would the physiological body become? The fact is that the sovereign power of the body thinks for the physiological organism, it acts for it, and rules the individual components with a rod of iron. Even if the blood-corpuscles can’t hold a public meeting without being accused of ‘congestion’ –and the brain, like other despots we have known, calls out at once for the use of sharp steel against them. As in Hobbes’s Leviathan, the representative of the sovereign authority in the living organism, though he derives all his powers from the mass which he rules, is above the law. The questioning of his authority involves death, or that partial death which we call paralysis. Hence, if the analogy of the political body with the physiological body counts for anything, it seems to me that it is to be in favour of a larger amount of governmental interference than it already exists.24

22So according to Huxley, if the State must fulfil a real regulative function in society, then its relationship with economy can absolutely not be reduced to the control of the respect of the contractual obligations of the agents in bargaining.

  • 25 See Elwick, “Herbert Spencer and the Disunity of the Social Organism”, op. cit., p. 60-62.

23But Huxley’s critique will obviously not convince Spencer. To defend and reinforce his views, Spencer retorts by introducing two distinctions which are well known among biologists and economists, respectively. But what is the new is that he suggests combining them. First, there is the distinction between nutritional functions (the functions of vegetative life in the organism which, for Spencer, corresponds to the industrial and commercial functions within society) and relational or external functions (the functions of animal life, which, for Spencer, find their sociological equivalent in the military functions). Secondly, there is the distinction between the “negatively regulating actions”, which consist in preventing the parts from being mutually inconvenienced in their exercise, and the “positively regulative actions”, which by contrast consist in imposing rules to the parts concerning the objectives and means of their activity.25 According to Spencer, the negative control, assumed in the body by the ganglia of the peripheral nervous system over the bodily vegetative functions, is assured in society by civil courts over industrial and commercial activities. Whereas the positive control, the only normative and prescriptive one, would be provided within society by the authority in charge of foreign affairs on military and diplomatic activities, while in the organism, it would be exercised by the nervous central system on animal life (sense organs, apparatus of predation and defence). From Spencer’s point of view, admitting –as he does– that both of those distinctions are confirmed in biology, the use of the term “regulator” in a very narrow sense of those biological one to designate the government in its relation with economic activity (and not only with military and diplomatic ones) remains absolutely valid.

24But unfortunately for Spencer, the adoption and combination of these two distinctions presents a problem for the naturalist community. Huxley’s text clearly shows this difficulty already, even the impossibility of admitting the Spencerian idea of a control over vegetative functions, which would be exclusively negative and only provided by the peripheral nervous ganglia. It is obvious that Huxley is not only talking about organs of animal life, but also about organs of vegetative life, such as blood cells and glandular organs, when he affirms that the organic components are ruled “with a rod of iron”.

  • 26 H. Spencer, “Specialized Administration”, op. cit., p. 136.
  • 27 C. Bernard, “Chiens rendus diabétiques par piqûre d’un certain point du quatrième ventricule”, Comp (...)
  • 28 C. Bernard, “Recherches anatomiques et physiologiques sur la corde du tympan pour servir à l’histoi (...)

25Moreover Spencer is aware of the fragility of his theoretical positions and of the lack of biological credence of his dual distinction (the parallel between, on one hand, positive and negative controls and on the other, animal and vegetative functions). In a footnote to his article “Specialized Administration”, he acknowledges that the experiments of Bernard, Ludwig and others show that in the case of certain glands the nerves of the cerebrospinal system are those which set up the secreting process”.26 Spencer probably refers to Claude Bernard’s famous 1849 experiment, which revealed the role played by the cranial nerves on the glycogenic activity of the liver,27 or the 1843 experiment that enabled him to establish that one of the branches of the facial nerve is the dilative nerve of the vessels of the lower maxilla gland.28 Nevertheless, whatever the discoveries and experimental results he refers to, what is the Spencer’s response face to what actually constitutes indisputable proofs of direct and strong command of the functional activity of vegetative (and not only animal) life organs by the central nervous system? He argues that “in these cases […], the organs are those in which sensation is either the stimulus to activity or its accompaniment; and that from these cases no conclusion can be drawn which applies to the cases of those viscera which normally perform their functions without sensation”. In other words, Spencer now distinguishes two classes of vegetative organs, the first comprising those which have a sensitive functioning, and the second concerning those who do not, and he limits the analogy of the organs of economic life with only the vegetative organs of the second class (viscera) It is doubtful whether such a binary distinction based on the criteria of sensation will ever have any biological sense. Quite the contrary, one can claim that no organic activity is realized “without sensation”, even among the most visceral, or the most vegetative of them.

26Resulting from a fallacious criterion, the class of organs which operates in a strictly insensitive manner and which Spencer tries to isolate runs therefore the risk of having very few representatives… However, there is a further issue: let us suppose that the distinction upheld by Spencer retains some validity, it is nonetheless a fact that his conception of regulation by the peripheral nervous system is incompatible with the biological representation of nervous regulation. In the third part of the nineteenth century, the vasoconstrictor effects of the sympathetic nervous system and its active role in the definition of bodily temperature, arterial pressure, and cardiac rhythm were discovered and well established by physiologists. In light of these discoveries, which were made in experimental neurophysiology over a century ago, it appears that the central nervous system often spreads its action up to the visceral organs, i. e. well beyond the limit set by Spencer. Moreover, the peripheral nervous system does not act as minimally as Spencer conceives it. The action exerted notably on the functioning of the viscera by the sympathetic and parasympathetic ganglia cannot be reduced to this “negatively regulating action”, or this “negatively regulating control” that consists in “finding the average of the vital interests”, to use his own words –or in other terms, which consists in facilitating the exchange of information among the different parts of the organism concerning their respective needs. As to the action of these nervous centres, it is better to repeat what has already been said about regulation of the brain: they “oblige”, “impose”, “force” the parts submitted to their jurisdiction to bring their level of functional activity into conformity with orders that they did not decide on their own. Some years later, Emile Durkheim wrote the following passage without fear of being contradicted by biologists:

  • 29 E. Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society [1893] (transl. Simpson), New-York, Free Press, 1964, (...)

[Spencer] compares, as we have done, the economic functions to the visceral life of the individual organism, and remarks that the latter does not directly depend upon the cerebrospinal system, but upon a special system whose principal branches are the great sympathetic and the pneumogastric. But if from this comparison, it is permitted to induce, with some probability, that economic functions are not a kind to be placed under the immediate influence of the social brain, it does not follow that they can be freed of all regulative influences. Indeed, if the great sympathetic is, in certain measure, independent of the brain, it dominates [domine] the movements of the visceral system just as the brain does those of the muscles. If, then there is in society a system of the same kind, it must have an analogous action over the organs subject to it. What corresponds to it, according to Spencer, is this exchange of information which takes place unceasingly from one place to another through supply and demand, and which, accordingly, stops or stimulates production. But there is nothing here which resembles a regulatory action. To transmit a new movement is not to command movements. This function pertains to the afferent nerves, but has nothing in common with that of the nerve ganglia. It is the latter which exercise the domination of which we have been speaking. […] The great social sympathetic must, then, comprise, besides a system of road of transmission, organs truly regulative which, charged to combine the intestinal acts as the cerebral ganglion combines the external acts, would have the power either to stop [arrêter] the excitations, or to amplify [amplifier] them, or to moderate [modérer] them according to need.29

  • 30 On the attitude from Durkheim in respect to Spencer’s conception, of social regulation, see R. A. J (...)

27“To transmit a new movement is not to command movements”, this sentence summarizes the past and perhaps even today’s controversy between advocates of the free market ant their opponents concerning the meaning to be assigned to the term “regulation”. Obviously, according to Durkheim, the sociological analogue of the nervous system of superior animals is not this sort of minimal social State, whose action is merely “negative” and extremely limited, as proposed in the model conceived by the English philosopher. Quite the contrary, it is a strong social State, as actually became visible at that time in the most advanced industrial societies.30

4. Weak vs Strong Regulation, Social vs Economic Regulation: What Does Each Option Imply?

28Durkheim, as Huxley before him, certainly has the advantage of coherence on this point. Considering what we know about organic regulation, if one maintains on the one hand that the agent and the object of regulation are respectively the State and the whole society and that, on the other hand, the term “regulation” has the same meaning when applied to society and to the organism, then with Durkheim we must conclude in favour of the interventionist thesis: the thesis of a strong social State.

29However, as we saw with Malthus, in social sciences it is possible to keep roughly the same meaning for the terminology of regulation –the one inherited from the medical tradition– and at the same time to reject the interventionist thesis. Yet, in this case one must stop trying to identify the agent of regulation (i. e. the regulator) with the State and the object of regulation (i. e. the field submitted to regulation) with society in its entirety. In other words, we must abandon the attempt to widen the field of extension of the concepts of regulation and regulator beyond the economic sphere.

30If we adopt the opposite scenario and attempts to keep a full sociological extension of the concept of regulation and a full political extension of the concept of regulator while rejecting the idea of a strong social State, then there is no other means but to cease using biological terminology and to allow a definition of regulation which does not include any idea of command, or prescription, or constraint.

31Paradoxically, this is the path followed by Spencer. We say “paradoxically”, because Spencer continues at the same time to uphold that social and physiological regulation contain the very same concept. This meaning is also that suggested by the Hippocratic expression of vis medicatrix naturae, used by Spencer to qualify social regulation. This is Spencer’s fundamental mistake, in our view. One may well think the philosopher has lost a considerable part of the primary semantic substance of this word. He has done so to such a point that it has become nearly impossible to find any resemblance between the concept as used by Huxley and Durkheim and this concept of regulation. The Spencerian notion of physiological regulation clearly goes against the neurophysiological teachings of the time. Instead of admitting this and adopting an ad hoc (and non normative) definition of social regulation which would be coherent with his utilitarian ideology. Spencer continues to maintain that an analogy exists between the functions of the nervous system in the organism and the state functions in society, and that this analogy constitutes a strong argument in favour of his laissez-faire thesis.

  • 31 This equilibrium is usually equated by economists to a system of Paretian optimality. In microecono (...)

32Quite obviously, the central belief of the promoters of free market economics is that the market has its own intrinsic order and spontaneously obtains balance.31 Symmetrically, those who sustain the opposing idea of the market as fundamentally a chaos or anarchy are not difficult to identify either, politically speaking. The “intrinsic savagery” of the market is a belief shared both by revolutionary socialists and social democrats, although they definitely do not agree as to the solution that would solve this problem (broadly speaking: elimination of the market vs subordination of the market to State regulation).

33Thus it would appear that there are four types of possible combinations concerning the extension (sociological vs strictly economical) and understanding (strong vs weak sense) of social regulation. These four typical combinations respectively imply a type of economic recommendation (State intervention or statism vs non State intervention or administrative nihilism), which either pertains to a fundamentally anomic or, on the contrary, isonomic market’s conception (market as disorder vs market as order). Contrary to the thesis upheld by Spencer, only the strong regulation may be consequently supported by a biological model of regulation.

34These combinations are described in the following table:

35The letters F, M, MC, C, S stand for (Enrico) Ferri, (Thomas R.) Malthus, (John R.) McCulloch, (Thomas) Chalmers and (Herbert) Spencer, respectively. Each author defends certain normative positions concerning the understanding (weak vs strong) and extension (economical vs sociological) of the concept of social regulation on the one hand, and in politics (state intervention vs administrative nihilism) on the other. Only the positions occupied by Ferri, Malthus, McCulloch and Chalmers overlap and are therefore consistent. Spencer cannot logically provide the following three propositions at the same time: 1° that the regulator is the State and not the market or an institution deriving from the market (sociological extension of regulation); 2° that this notion of State regulation is inspired by the model of nervous regulation in an individual organism (social regulation as vis medicatrix inherent to the social body); 3° that this State regulation is non normative and non prescriptive for the economic agents (weak regulation). The fourth combination (restricted economic extension, associated with a weak and euphemistic understanding of the concept of regulation) is not held by anyone. Indeed, in this study, we only cite the authors who use the biological model of the vis medicatrix of the individual organism as inspiration for their conception of social or economic regulation. This is a high-handed and very restrictive regulation for the elements submitted to such a jurisdiction.

36This chart clearly shows that the practice in politics which is a parallel of therapeutic nihilism in medicine, which at times corresponds to the defense of administrative nihilism, and at other, to the defense of State intervention, varies depending on the extension, either strictly economic or fully sociological, that we give to the notion of the vis medicatrix societae. The symmetry between therapeutic nihilism and administrative nihilism is therefore rationally justifiable only with this restriction of the social vis medicatrix, or social self-regulation, within the economic field exclusively.

  • 32 A. O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1997, p. 13 (...)

37The historian and economist Albert O. Hirschman said that the only thing we can reasonably expect of history, and of the history of ideas in particular, is “not to resolve issues, but to raise the level of the debate”.32 For our part, we would feel satisfied if this inquiry has succeeded in restoring one part of the historical depth to a misunderstanding concerning the comprehension and the extension of social regulation, which is generally seen to be persistent issue in our disciplines. We can also hope that this analysis could help in some measure those who strive to clear up this very misunderstanding existing today in sociology and political science –and would thus not be entirely without effect on the current practice of social scientists.

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Notes

1 E. Halévy, “Sur les origines de la philosophie de Spencer”, Bulletin de la Société Française de Philosophie, 4(2), 1904, p. 98.

2 Halévy, for that matter, is aware of this paradox: he notes a little further down, that “contrary to Herbert Spencer, the theoreticians of social organism often present metaphors favourable to communism” (id., p. 100).

3 A. Schäffle, The quintessence of socialism [1877] (transl.), London, Allen and Unwin, 1891; A. Espinas, “Les études sociologiques en France II”, Revue Philosophique, 14(9), 1882, p. 337-367; E. Durkheim, De la division du travail social [1893], Paris, PUF, 1986; id., “Une révision de l’idée socialiste” [1899], in E. Durkheim, Textes 3, Paris, Minuit, 1975, p. 163-172; R. Worms, Organisme et société, Paris, Giard, 1895; P. Lilienfeld, La pathologie sociale, Paris, Giard, 1896; A. Fouillée, Le socialisme et la sociologie réformiste, Paris, Alcan, 1906.

4 See J. Hayward, “‘Solidarity’ and the Reformist Sociology of Alfred Fouillée”, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 22(1), 1963, p. 303-312; W. Logue, From Philosophy to Sociology. The Evolution of French Liberalism, 1870-1914, DeKalb, IL, Northern Illinois University Press, 1983, p. 129-179; M. Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory: A Conceptual Approach, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 203-225; J. L. Brooks, The Eclectic Legacy: Academic Philosophy and the Human Sciences in the nineteenth century France, Newark, University of Delaware Press, 1998, p. 97-134; L. Mucchielli, La découverte du social: naissance de la sociologie en France, 1870-1914, Paris, La Découverte, 1998, p. 253-291; D. L. Barberis, “In search of an object: Organicist Sociology and the Reality of Society in Fin-de-Siècle France”, History of the Human Sciences, 16(3), 2003, p. 51-72.

5 E. Ferri, Socialism and Modern Science [1894] (transl. La Monte), Chicago, C. H. Kerr, 1900, p. 1.

6 T. R. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population [1798], London, J. Murray, 1817, vol. 2, p. 343-344.

7 J. R. McCulloch, The principles of Political Economy, with a Sketch of the Rise and Progress of the Science, Edinburgh, W. & C. Tait, 1825, p. 110-111.

8 T. Chalmers, The Christian and Civic Economy of Large Towns, Glasgow, Chalmers and Collins, 1823, vol. 2, p. 230.

9 See W. F. McNutt, “Vis medicatrix naturae”, California State Journal of Medicine, 21(12), 1923, p. 510-511; M. Neuburger, The Doctrine of the Healing Power of Nature Throughout the Course of Time [1926] (transl. Boyd), New-York, New-York Homeopathic Medical College Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 1932; Neuburger, 1926 and 1944; M. Neuburger, “An Historical Survey of the Concept of Nature from a Medical Viewpoint”, Isis, 35(1), 1944, p. 16-28; E. Aziza-Shuster, Le médecin de soi-même, Paris, PUF, 1972, p. 116-134; G. Canguilhem, “L’idée de nature dans la pensée et la pratique médicales” [1972], in G. Canguilhem, Écrits sur la médecine, Paris, Le Seuil, 2002, p. 101-125.

10 See for example L. Sherwood, Human Physiology: From Cells to Systems, Florence, KY, Brooks Cole, 2008.

11 “The fathers of medicine made use of the expression, the ‘healing power of nature’, the vis medicatrix naturae. It indicates, of course, recognition of the fact that processes of repair after injury, and of restoration to health after disease, go on quite independent of any treatment which a physician may give. All that I have done thus far in reviewing the various protective and stabilizing devices of the body is to present a modern interpretation of the natural vis medicatrix.” (W. B. Cannon, The Wisdom of the Body, Los Angeles, W. Norton, 1932, p. 226). On this claimed affiliation of the American physiologists between the two world wars, see S. J. Cross, and W. R. Albury, “Walter B. Cannon, L. J. Henderson, and the Organic Analogy”, Osiris, 3 (2nd series), 1987, p. 165-192.

12 See R. H. Shryock, The Development of Modern Medicine, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1936, p. 180-185 and 241-246; J. Warner, The Therapeutic Perspective: Medical Practice, Knowledge and Idendity in America (1828-1885), Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1986, p. 20-35.

13 Thomas H. Huxley delivered an address entitled ‘Administrative Nihilism’ to the members of the Midland Institute, 9 October 1871. This work was published the same year in the Fortnightly Review.

14 On the role of biological analogies in Spencer’s thought, see V. L. Hilts, “Towards the Social Organism: Herbert Spencer and William B. Carpenter on the Analogical Method”, in B. I. Cohen (ed.), The Natural Sciences and the Social Sciences, Norwell, MA, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994, p. 275-303; T. S. Gray, The political Philosophy of Spencer: Individualism and Organicism, Aldershot, Avebury Press, 1996.

15 H. Spencer, “Representative Government” [1857], in H. Spencer, Essays: Scientific, Political and Speculative, London, Williams and Norgate, 1874, vol. 3, p. 163-209; “The Social Organism” [1860], in H. Spencer, Essays…, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 384-428; The Study of Sociology [1871], London, H. King, 1873, p. 351-380; “Specialized Administration” [1871], in H. Spencer, Essays…, op. cit., vol. 3, p. 127-170; H. Spencer, Principles of Sociology, London, Williams and Norgate, vol. 3, 1875, p. 467-480 and 536-568.

16 H. Spencer, The Study of Sociology, op. cit., p. 21.

17 Id., p. 109-111, 122, 261, 351; “Specialized Administration”, op. cit., p. 140-162; Principles of Sociology, op. cit., p. 539-556 and 613-618.

18 The Study of Sociology, op. cit., p. 334.

19 This expression is the title of one of Spencer’s articles (Westminster Review, Jan. 1858) included in the 3rd Volume of his Essays (op. cit.).

20 See e.g. the different essays in Spencer, The Man versus the State, London, Williams and Norgate, 1894.

21 “Representative Government”, op. cit., p. 190. On the utilitarian ideology of Spencer, see M. Francis, “Herbert Spencer and the Myth of Laissez-Faire”, Journal of the History of Ideas, 39(2), 1978, p. 317-328; D. Weinstein, Equal Freedom and Utility: Herbert Spencer’s liberal Utilitarianism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 83-138.

22 H. Spencer, “The Social Organism”, op. cit., p. 424, our italics.

23 T. H. Huxley, “Administrative Nihilism” [1871], in T. H. Huxley, Collected Essays 1, London, Macmillan, 1894, p. 251-289. On this controversy, see A. B. Graff, “Administrative Nihilism: Evolution, Ethics and Victorian Utopian Satire”, Utopian Studies, 12(2), 2001, p. 33-52; J. Elwick, “Herbert Spencer and the Disunity of the Social Organism”, History of Science, 41(1), 2003, p. 35-72; F. J. C. Hearnshaw, “Spencer and Administrative Nihilism”, Whitefish, MT, Kessinger Publishing, 2005.

24 T. H. Huxley, “Administrative Nihilism”, op. cit., p. 271-272.

25 See Elwick, “Herbert Spencer and the Disunity of the Social Organism”, op. cit., p. 60-62.

26 H. Spencer, “Specialized Administration”, op. cit., p. 136.

27 C. Bernard, “Chiens rendus diabétiques par piqûre d’un certain point du quatrième ventricule”, Comptes-rendus des séances et mémoires de la Société de biologie, 1, 1850, p. 58-63.

28 C. Bernard, “Recherches anatomiques et physiologiques sur la corde du tympan pour servir à l’histoire de l’hémiplégie faciale”, Annales médico-psychologiques, 1, 1843, p. 408-439.

29 E. Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society [1893] (transl. Simpson), New-York, Free Press, 1964, p. 217-218, our italics.

30 On the attitude from Durkheim in respect to Spencer’s conception, of social regulation, see R. A. Jones, “Durkheim’s Response to Spencer: An Essay Toward Historicism in the Historiography of Sociology”, Sociological Quarterly, 15(3), 1974, p. 341-358.

31 This equilibrium is usually equated by economists to a system of Paretian optimality. In microeconomics, one talks about maximum efficiency, or Paretian optimum, when a situation is attained in which one or more economic agents can increase their level of satisfaction without diminishing the level of satisfaction of at least one other agent.

32 A. O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1997, p. 135.

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Emmanuel d’Hombres, « Therapeutic Nihilism and Administrative Nihilism: A Non Unconditional Symmetry », Noesis, 20 | 2012, 151-168.

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Emmanuel d’Hombres

Emmanuel d’Hombres est maître de conférences à la faculté de philosophie de l’université catholique de Lyon et directeur de la chaire Humanisme, citoyenneté, civilisations. Il est l’auteur de plusieurs études portant sur la philosophie économique d’inspiration humaniste (F. Perroux, G. Berger, M. Allais) et sur l’histoire interdisciplinaire de concepts (régulation, évolution, division du travail, différenciation…) transversaux aux sciences de la vie et de la société (contributions récentes dans Revue d’histoire des sciences, Journal of the History of Biology, History of the Human Sciences). Ses recherches actuelles portent notamment sur l’impact des conceptualisations biologiques et médicales dans le domaine des sciences économiques et sociales au xixe siècle.

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