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Pareto, Right and Wrong

ISSUE:  Summer 1938

Upon the publication several years ago of the English translation of Pareto’s prodigious work, “The Mind and Society,” at least one reviewer predicted the onset of a seven-year plague of “residues” and “derivations.” This fear has so far proved groundless; except for a few exercises in Paretan dialectics, chiefly by Bernard De-Voto, his ideas seldom enter directly into public debate. For one thing, reading him is an arduous task. His work is highly spiced with example and epithet, but its substance is a closely reasoned, severely technical study; and there are some two thousand dense pages of it. Probably the chief reason for this apparent neglect, however, is that Pareto has been identified in the mind of intellectuals with that most horrid of contemporary words: Fascism. The practical bearings of much of his thought indeed justify this association. Yet it is unfortunate. If Fascists can find in him plenty of ammunition for their attacks on democracy and Communism, one can also find much with which to riddle the exalted pretensions of the Fascists. The chief value of Pareto, in fact, lies in his ruthless, devastating analysis of all such pretensions—of all the modernistic versions of hoary fallacy that parade as realistic or scientific, as the latest thing in absolute Truth. I know of no better discipline for partisans of whatever cause than a close reading of “The Mind and Society.”

Essentially, Pareto’s argument is indeed simple; when translated into common terms, made fit for human nature’s daily food, it is neither horrendous nor novel—one is a little dismayed to discover not merely truth but truism. As he himself constantly insisted, he was “doing nothing more than giving scientific form to ideas that are more or less vaguely present in the minds of all or almost all men, ideas that many writers have stated more or less clearly, and that facts without number do not permit us to ignore.” His cardinal doctrine is that most human behavior is non-logical (not necessarily illogical); in other words, he is investigating what through the ages men have taken for granted as “human nature”—only to forget when they set out to design earthly paradises for this creature. The basic elements or uniformities of human nature he calls “residues,” which correspond roughly to instincts or sentiments, the deep-lying drives behind conduct. One of these residues is the imperious itch to justify all conduct on rational grounds, to dress it up in the trappings of logic; and so all the residues manifest themselves in theories or faiths that he calls “derivations.” These correspond roughly to what contemporaries know all too well as “rationalizations,” which they infallibly detect in the arguments of their adversaries but as consistently ignore in their own beliefs. “The history of social institutions has been a history of derivations, oftentimes the history of mere patter. The history of theologies has been offered as the history of religions; the history of ethical theories, as the history of morals; the history of political theories, as the history of political institutions.” Hence Pareto sought, on the basis of an astounding erudition, to analyze objectively and to classify the facts of experience, never leaving the field of observation for the happy hunting ground of ethics or metaphysics. By the rigorous application of the logico-experi-mental method he hoped “to construct a system of sociology on the model of celestial mechanics.”

Now, the system Pareto constructs does not greatly impress me. His classification of the residues and derivations has been hailed by disciples as his great original contribution, and it is indeed beautifully neat; but it seems to me neither particularly useful nor scientifically valid. His originality and importance lie rather in his remorselessly thoroughgoing analysis of all the ideas before him, in his unerring detection of the faintest whiff of sentiment where only logic is supposed to be: he is valuable not only for the many penetrating observations strewn throughout his four volumes, but for his ascetic abstention from all the loose talk about “truth” and “justice,” the free appeals to “right reason” and “natural law,” that for centuries have wrapped men’s thinking in a warm, comfortable, but impenetrable fog. He is often criticized for his terminology, and it is, to be sure, an unlovely jargon that makes for difficult reading. It is well now and then to translate him back into everyday language, so as to get a common-sense perspective on what he is saying and not to mistake novelty of phrase for novelty of idea. Yet his value lies in precisely this care to avoid emotive language, to keep words and things distinct, to rescue thought from the black magic of names. Only by the strict use of a purely technical vocabulary can sociology hope to become a science and not simply a fancy way of ringing changes on old sentiments. Though Pareto is at times entranced by this new verbal machinery of his own, substituting the manipulation of it for direct thinking, he at least avoids the far more common and dangerous error of mistaking sonorous names for eternal entities.


If only to preserve all that is valuable in Pareto, one has first to mark out plainly both his limitations and his excesses. He is not, of course, absolutely objective. No man is or can be in this field; and certainly no man whose voice becomes shrill whenever he mentions humanitarians and reformers, and who has an almost pathological obsession particularly with—of all people—those who would ban the sale of obscene postcards. This impersonal scientist who is investigating only what men do and not what they ought to do is indeed lavish with invective. The explanation of his animus is partly the violence of his reaction against all the wishful thinking that has passed for pure reason; where the philosophers have too easily announced their ideals as eternal verities, Pareto too easily ridicules them as ideals. But he has as well an obvious temperamental bias that explains Mussolini’s reverence for him. His admiration is all for the Machiavellis, the Bismarcks, the “strong men” unencumbered with scruples or tender sentiments; his scorn is all for the idealists who preach the gospel of liberty, democracy, solidarity, progress. And in the excitement of whacking heads he ludicrously distorts even the “facts” he reveres. Anyone he despises, from Louis XVI to the politicians who governed England before the World War, becomes ipso facto a “fanatic humanitarian mystic.”

This bias is most damaging in the last volume of “The Mind and Society,” in which Pareto begins to deduce the practical consequences of the “experimental uniformities” he has discovered in three volumes of induction. Hitherto he had managed to confine his prejudices to his copious illustrative footnotes, and the text of his analysis of residues and derivations is fundamentally objective; now these prejudices run wild and produce a rank growth of inconsistencies, unproved assertions, and garbled facts. Invariably “experience shows” what he wants it to show. Throughout his discussion of the extremely complex problem of social utility he insists that, in the absence of a common denominator for the heterogeneous utilities of individuals and groups, and above all of any scientific theory about proper objectives, no solution is as yet possible; but he is in practice most prodigal with recommendations, most dogmatic in praise and blame of statesmen. Because of his fierce resolve to eschew all ethical considerations, these judgments—as in his recommendation of the use of force and the policies of “lions” like Bismarck — are all conscientiously non-ethical, but they nevertheless carry him far beyond experimental reality. Has Germany in the long run profited more by the accomplishments of Bismarck than it would have under a less ruthless ruler? Or if Germany has, has Europe, with whose welfare its own is tied up? I should not give a categorical answer. But neither should Pareto.

Pareto’s extravagances simply jolt the reader into an awareness of all that he leaves out of his picture of society, and all that he over-simplifies to keep his diagrams neat. In his analysis of the residues determining the social equilibrium, he entirely ignores his Class IV residues, those connected with sociality — potentially handsome sentiments lending themselves to idealism—even though he has previously said that the need of group approbation, for instance, is a “very powerful sentiment.” Again, because most thinkers greatly overrate the influence of derivations, he must insist not only that behavior governs theory more than theory governs behavior, but that the power of theory is negligible; he slights the strong hold that specific “reasons” have on men, the far-reaching consequences of specific faiths, the whole social context that frames specific motives. He slights as well the force of definitely logical thought and activity: the whole painfully, discouragingly slow, but nevertheless demonstrable progress of the human race towards conscious culture, and above all the whole immense influence of science today upon the ways of life, the habits of thought, and ulti-’ mately the sentiments of men. “Reason,” he admits, “is coming to play a more and more important role in human activity”; but why, in what way, to what effect, he does not say. Meanwhile all his sweeping generalizations and gloomy forecasts are based upon analogies with ancient societies, analyses of only one kind of behavior. His empiricism is as arbitrary, at times as myopic, as it is complacent.

Even within its scope, however, there is a fatal weakness in Pareto’s inductive analysis—in the foundation itself of his system of sociology. Professor P. S. C. Northrop has remarked that Pareto’s procedure was a rather curious one for a scientist; all his “facts” he got from classical texts and newspaper clippings, never leaving his armchair for firsthand observation. Apparently he seldom bothered even to consult the work of sociologists, psychologists, and anthro-pologists who have made such observations, for his few references to them are chiefly sneering. But the final objection is that his inferences, however shrewd and stimulating and drawn from however staggering an erudition, have no real scientific validity. Pareto provides no clear criterion by which to determine uniformities, no strictly logico-experi-mental test by which to verify his residues. One has to take them on faith, precisely as one takes the quite different list of instincts drawn up by Professor William McDougall. Ultimately his whole “scientific system” is simply inspired guesswork.

As a matter of fact, it is not even clear what a “residue” is. It is a “manifestation” of something or other, but on the processes of manifestation Pareto is silent. Evidently it corresponds to biological instincts, innate constants, else he could not generalize and predict so freely. Accordingly he tells us again and again that residues change very little and very slowly, if at all. But now embarrassing questions arise. For one thing, the many parallels that Pareto cites as evidence of basic uniformity are by anthropologists usually explained as the result of imitation or historical diffusion; and the whole question of what is instinctive, what acquired, is still wide open. Again, he fails to explain why these biological constants assume such diverse social forms, which in turn so greatly influence behavior. He merely mentions the “derivatives”—the modes of behavior as apart from the theories or derivations that “manifest” residues. This whole central province of folkways and mores he left to William Graham Sumner, who indeed explored it with an unostentatious, cool objectivity that makes Pareto seem an evangelist—and with whose work Pareto was, characteristically, unacquainted. And then there remains the puzzling fact that these basic uniformities do vary, from class to class, country to country, and age to age. Pareto shows the consequences of such variations in his ingenious analyses of contrasting societies; he points to the widespread decay of certain primitive sentiments and the growth of humane sentiments in the modern world, and he declares that the whole class of “group-persistences” is losing ground to the “instinct for combinations”; but precisely how or why these changes occur, and how much then is actually uniform, he does not say. He simply returns to his theme, that residues are “very, very hard to modify” but that derivations stretch like rubber bands, and then runs to his footnotes to fume at the evolutionary thinkers whose hopes for a better society ultimately rest on just this fact that residues do change, with its corollary that “human nature” may be further educated by modifying its environment.

I accordingly should not say that Pareto has laid a solid foundation for a scientific sociology, or opened a glorious new epoch. As I am not a trained sociologist, it would be impertinent for me to declare flatly that he has not done so; and I gather that enthusiastic disciples are busy at exegesis and will presently lift up voices in the wilderness. Presumably they will attempt to put in scientific fighting trim all the residues, most of which he himself made little use of. Yet even after Pareto’s ideas have been pruned of their shaggier extravagances and supplemented as he hoped they would be, I can see no positive, systematic use for these residues, simply because any classification is inevitably arbitrary and unverifiable—at least until biology has solved the problem of heredity, and psychology has precisely defined and explained the unknown “psychic states” that Pareto imaginatively reconstructed from his armchair reading. Meanwhile his system is not strictly “scientific” and has no absolute validity. Eagerly he introduces mathematical formulas whenever possible, just to show how exciting it would be to get definite quantitative measurements, but he always adds mournfully that we cannot use these formulas: the unknowns and immeasurables are too many, the interdependencies are too intricate, the very objectives are as yet beyond the scope of science.


Despite his many brilliant, provocative observations, the contribution of Pareto lies chiefly in his destructive criticism. He serves more as an antidote than as a tonic. Yet this is a very valuable service. His is indeed strong medicine: it is neither for tender minds nor for that kind of tough mind that springs shut on an idea and is henceforth impenetrable to all others; but judiciously taken, it is the most salutary of medicines for literary critics, historians, philosophers, political and social reformers—in short, for all students of the humanities, and especially for the peddlers of precepts and nostrums. No thinker today so effectively forces one to face facts and define terms, to re-examine one’s gods or one’s premises, to return to first principles along the whole intellectual front.

Pareto’s analysis of sentiment as a fundamental, inexorable social fact, not an occasional or wayward prejudice, is no less a contribution for being a recognition of the obvious; never to lose sight of the obvious is the most difficult of intellectual feats. Especially stimulating, however, is his analysis (not his elaborate classification) of derivations and all their linguistic accessories. Here we approach the new science of semantics, which Stuart Chase has made a byword and threatens to make a fetish; but Pareto is still the most tireless analyst of the words that make such a fine noise in the service of “pure reason,” the most ruthless critic of thinkers who deal freely in absolutes and undefined generalities, who erect their favorite descriptive terms into metaphysical entities (comparable to frankfurterness and sauerkraut-itude), who take their own sentiments for realities and dismiss sentiments of which they disapprove as vulgar prejudices beneath the notice of an intelligent man, and whose final argument is an appeal to what “every honest man must admit” or what “every reasonable man must see.” Pareto’s very bias is an advantage, for it leads him to dissect with the greatest thoroughness the sacred cows of the “advanced thought” of today. The fashionable sentiments like “the spirit of broad humanity” that have replaced the “outworn prejudices” of the past, the various religions of democracy, science, and progress that enlist the reverence once accorded Jehovah, and all the passwords and slogans of intellectuals and liberals, are in especial need of searching criticism, simply because most of the criticism they receive comes from conservatives whose motives are suspect or whose mental arteries have long since hardened. Thought cannot indeed be divorced from emotion or from metaphysics, nor purposive action from unverified and unverifiable ideals. At the same time both thought and action will clearly be more effective if they keep at least within harking distance of experience, and occasionally escape the prevailing climate of opinion. As it is, too many well-intentioned liberals get lost in the blue.

More specifically, men mistake the sign of a thing for the thing itself, conditions for causes; and Pareto’s awareness of intricate interdependencies, multiple causes and effects, endless action and reaction, is one of the soundest and clearest of his perceptions. Too much of the theorizing about “what this country needs” ends in preposterous simplicities. Pareto 1 makes plain, for example, the futility of attacking any one sign in the hope of destroying its whole context and the powerful sentiment behind it—a futility most obvious in the efforts to make a whole citizenry moral by laws imposing prohibition or sex hypocrisy, but also at the heart of most political and industrial reform. He exposes, generally, the fallacies of most reformers, who habitually talk as if a certain principle or policy were absolutely and under all conditions necessarily beneficial, who are perpetually indignant over compromises with their arbitrary ideal, and who nevertheless seldom state clearly the norms underlying their verdicts of right and wrong. Pareto’s own recommendations, once more, are highly questionable; but he has at least given the whole immensely complicated problem of social utility a statement more precise and comprehensive than has any other modern social philosopher. His study is especially pertinent in a world preoccupied with new deals and messiahs.

One of the most persistent notes in a work noisy with reiteration emphasizes a further complication in this problem. Pareto not only delights in demonstrating that the behavior of mankind is fundamentally irrational, and that the most logical derivations may in fact be farthest removed from reality simply because they develop most systematically premises that are false; he also asserts that beliefs which are unscientific or even absurd may nevertheless be socially useful. He is in essential agreement with I. A. Richards, who maintains that intelligent attitudes need not be based on fact. Accordingly he has been branded as an enemy of intellect and science, elected to the large company of “reactionaries,” bundled with such strange bedfellows as Tolstoy, Freud, and Lawrence. Pareto himself foresaw this fate and took a characteristically ironical pleasure in it: he whose magnum opus was a monument to pure science would be especially obnoxious to its most devout worshipers. Nevertheless he persisted in his offensiveness. Among his favorite objects for exercises in ridicule is the “goddess Science,” and among his favorite challenges is the flat statement that “the worship of Reason may stand on a par with any other religious cult, fetishism not excepted.”

Yet to regard Pareto as an enemy of reason is on the face of it absurd. What he attacks is Reason, the capitalized abstraction, with its retinue of false appearances, fantastic claims, and despotic commands. His very devotion to science explains his rages against the blind disciples who overstep its proper boundaries and misunderstand its proper aims, who soak it in sentiment and wrap it in flags, who make fetishes of all its incidental by-products—our gadgets which enjoy the protection of Progress precisely as the screech-owl once enjoyed the protection of the goddess Athena. His position is fundamentally that of Freud. Neither regards intellect as primary; neither for that reason scorns it or joins the crusaders who for some paradoxical reason fiercely attack this despised power even while they proclaim its pow-erlessness. As thinkers, both put their trust in it and refuse to prostrate themselves before its triumphant rival—be this called the Unconscious or the Residue. What Pareto maintains is simply that man’s behavior is governed primarily by sentiments, that these sentiments are not necessarily contemptible, and that it is folly to ignore or despise them in theorizing about human society or working for its welfare. “At bottom what people want is to think—it matters little whether the thinking be sound or fallacious”; and science accordingly cannot satisfy “the insatiable need of pseudo-logical developments” because the scientist necessarily comes to a halt at some facts this side of the realm of religion and ethics, values and ideals. In a word, Pareto belongs with those thinkers who gratefully accept the scientific rationale but still perceive the need of supplementing it. He was himself too much a man of science actually to recommend, like Kenneth Burke, the cultivation of the poetic or religious metaphors, the deliberate strengthening of natural pieties; his work nevertheless buttresses all such sober reminders that science alone cannot satisfy the oldest emotional needs of the race, which the intellectual is too apt to scorn as undignified and childish, and that the deep desire for natural pieties is not a prejudice to be attacked but an invincible fact of human nature, the necessary cornerstone of any social edifice.


The value of Pareto’s ideas is made plainer by the inevitable comparison with the ideas of an unquestionably far more influential social philosopher—Karl Marx. Pareto is in the first place an excellent corrective for the excesses of the Marxist doctrinaires: their artificial division of society into “bourgeois” and “proletarian”; their naive erection of “capitalism” into the universal scapegoat; their sentimental assumption that the Worker is a rational as well as a lusty animal, with a corner on vigor and virtue, and that changing the form of society will automatically change the substance —in short, the wishful thinking, the grotesque simplified- tions, and all the other signs of a religion, no less familiar because of Marxism’s pseudo-scientific gospel of dialectical materialism. Although it is true that Marx’s ardent disciples caricature his thought and wear his terms to tatters, his own central concept of economic determinism is in itself vulnerable. From the complex of forces determining the social equilibrium—race, the state of knowledge, physical conditions such as climate and natural resources, contact or clash with other societies, et cetera—Pareto singles out four as the most important internal ones: interests, residues, derivations, and class circulation. Each acts upon all the others, is in turn acted upon, and itself again reacts. In this view Marx’s important contribution lay in his demonstration of the effect of economic interests upon the other elements and his consequent rejection of religion and morality as absolute verities. This analysis is especially helpful today, when economic interests are preponderant. Yet Marx made the fatal error of slighting the counteraction of all the other elements, isolating one factor as primary, insisting upon “a single relation of cause and effect, whereas there are many, many such relations all functioning simultaneously.” It is as if a physiologist tried to explain and treat the whole human organism by reference to the stomach. Hence the concept of economic determinism is by itself inadequate, the more plainly so when it is extended into literary criticism or political theory. In short, Pareto goes behind Marx’s premises and in his basic analysis is still more objective, more comprehensive, more heedful of the stubborn facts. In another aspect, the fundamental difference between the two thinkers is that one rejects, the other builds on, the concept of historical evolution. It is in other words the age-old conflict between the philosophy of being and the philosophy of becoming. In his effort to confine himself severely to the realm of experimental reality, Pareto naturally adopted a philosophy of being. Moreover, like Spengler, Pareto was reacting against the extravagant notions of progress inspired by a misunderstanding of the theory of evolution. His is indeed a limited view; in his elaborate historical parallels and demonstrations of cyclical rather than forward movements, he considered only the history of the last two thousand years, ignoring the countless millennia during which man unquestionably improved his condition. Marx, living at a time when the mind of Europe was thrilled by the possibilities opened up by evolutionary theory, as naturally adopted a philosophy of becoming, and attempted to apply it systematically to the social organism. The “scientific” air of his system is nevertheless illusory: materialism is no scientific fact, and dialectics no guarantor of truth; there is no clear warrant for predicting the end of the evolutionary process and proclaiming the triumph of the proletariat as both inevitable and “right.” (Right by what norm?) Ultimately both philosophies are metaphorical, and neither has absolute validity; the partisans of one can easily expose the limitations and extravagances of the other.

On strictly pragmatic grounds, one may, to be sure, argue for the Marxist philosophy as the wiser choice (though not as the only possible alternative). It has more functional value in stimulating energy and providing goals for an incorrigibly purposeful and ethical animal; it affords a richer diet for human interests and sentiments. In Pareto’s own language, it is more satisfying to the “instinct for combinations” that he declares is gaining ground. It has, generally, greater social utility for a race that can never know what things are but only how they behave, and to whom purpose is more important than fact, truthfulness than truth. He who embraces this philosophy must reconcile himself, moreover, to its transformation into a religion for the great mass of men, with all the intellectual absurdities and indignities that inevitably accompany a popular religion, for only so (as Pareto would point out) can it become socially effective. But he will nevertheless do well always to keep in mind that he has not got hold of absolute truth, and to supplement and check his ideas by reference to a thinker like Pareto. Simply because life is a purposeful game there is a need for disinterested men who keep their eyes on the ball.


One who has just completed a study of Pareto’s immense work is indeed likely to rub his eyes, as if he had come down from Mars, when he returns to the familiar, everyday world, where words take on again their old comfortable “meaning,” where morals and ideals are not ludicrous samples of fuzzy thinking but vital concerns, and where one must constantly state preferences that have and can have no positive logico-experimental validity. In this imperfect, untidy, very unscientific world we perforce live most of our lives. Hence we realize that Pareto’s empiricism is after all narrow, and like the truths even of exact science—the physicist’s concept of force, for instance—peculiarly arbitrary. Pareto forgets that the desire for truth is itself a sentiment, as inexplicable and often as irrational as other manifestations of human nature, and that a really thoroughgoing analysis of the data will carry one from sociology through biology to physics, where ultimately one has left only electric charges moving in fields of force –will land one, in short, in no man’s land. A really comprehensive sociology, moreover, must consider objectives and values—matters like happiness, culture, spiritual as well as material welfare, which cannot as yet be verified or measured by science, but which nevertheless cannot be ignored in the all-important determination of utility. There is plenty of room for preferences between societies whose statistical indices point to approximate equality in “prosperity”—the one measure that in practice Pareto restricts himself to.

Ultimately life is, for both the individual and society, an experiment in values. Yet on this ground I should make my last word a recommendation of Pareto. “The Mind and Society” throws a steady, often brilliant light upon the terms of this experiment, the possibilities of experience; and the reader whose head is clear and whose stomach strong, who can take Pareto’s truths without getting drunk on his heady negations, may be enabled to carry on the experiment more realistically, more intelligently, and even more wholeheartedly.


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