Creative Altruism

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Jay Weinstein:

"We focus here on Sorokin's work at the Research Center in Creative Altruism at Harvard University to examine his concept of creative altruism and to indicate how it can be used by applied sociologists today. Also relevant are Sorokin's contributions as viewed by his biographer, Barry V. Johnston. Johnston has stated that, by the end of his long and productive career, Sorokin had arrived at an integrated theory of social action and reform. (Johnston 1995: 127-28)

[Sorokin's paradigm] frames a universe of discourse, produces an ontological and epistemological consensus on the nature of social reality and knowledge; sets malleable boundaries for doing sociology; and emphasizes the application of knowledge to practical problems of existence. (Johnston 1998: 17)

Guided by these principles, applied sociologists are currently in a position to influence the movement toward a species consciousness by practicing what Sorokin preached. That is, the study of creative altruism and the methodologies to put it into practice are key steps in developing a program for our global village that works. (Weinstein 2000a: 6)

Following the founding of the Research Center for Creative Altruism at Harvard University in the late 1940s, Sorokin explored the principles of a social science based on an integral philosophy and a new applied science, which he called amitology. (see Sorokin 1954a; b) His integral philosophy, or integralism, is presented as the solution to problems associated with the most recent stage of a long historical cycle. This cycle is comprised of three alternating types of cultures: the sensate, the dominant type in the contemporary Western world; the ideational, characterized by spirituality and altruism; and the idealistic, a transitional stage that occurs between the other two. These are described and illustrated extensively in his comprehensive four-volume study, Social and Cultural Dynamics. (Sorokin 1962; also see Johnston 1995: 143-49) Sorokin believed that the present stage, which he further defined as cynical or late sensate, is on the verge of decline and that a new, idealistic stage might be emerging (if it could be helped along).

According to Sorokin, each type of culture is characterized by a particular way of knowing about reality. The sensate stage is characterized by the core belief that truth is based on the senses alone. This is opposed to both the truth of reason and a supersensory truth, which permeate the idealistic and ideational types of cultures. By the rule of "logico-meaningful" affinity, whereby specific cultural traits reflect the master values, the sensate stage is dominated by materialism, greed, and egoism.

With the help of philanthropist Eli Lilly and others, Sorokin founded the Center to combat the exclusive role played by sensate beliefs and practices in contemporary society. In their place, he sought to promote behavior based on altruistic values and integralism, which combines all three ways of knowing reality. (the sensory, the rational, and the super-rational) This combination is the hallmark of idealistic culture. To Sorokin, the time had come to do something about transforming society through the application of integralism, to act in a reconstructive way. (Johnston 1995: 127, 128, 240) As Johnston (1995: 204) observes, however, "the research of the Center failed to start a significant mass movement or to institutionalize the study of altruism in the social sciences." The sociological community showed little interest in altruism, integralism, or the reconstruction of society.

In fact Sorokin's work, especially the earlier volumes of Dynamics, was criticized as metaphysical. Johnston (1995: 174) suggests the reason for this negative reaction:

- Sorokin's methods simply will not sustain his arguments with the precision he desires...what he has produced in Dynamics and the works that follow is a broad and valuable philosophy of history. It is a start, not a science...

As Johnston also points out, the critics failed to see that in the fourth volume of Dynamics Sorokin had arrived at integralism, a theory of social reform. It appears that by then the intellectual community was no longer interested. Nevertheless, many sociologists now believe that the time has come to continue the work that began with Sorokin's explorations."


More information

See the article:

* Creative Altruism: The Prospects for a Common Humanity in the Age of Globalization. By Jay Weinstein. Journal of Futures Studies, August 2004, 9(1): 45 - 58