Overcoming structure and agency: Talcott Parsons, Ludwig Wittgenstein and the theory of social action
University of Exeter
Journal of Classical Sociology
Since the 1960s, the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein has had a marked influence on the social sciences. As an important sub-field, the sociology of science has drawn extensively on the Wittgenstein and he has become a key reference point in debates in the philosophy of the social sciences about structure and agency. There, a number of commentators have employed Wittgenstein’s ‘sceptical paradox’ to demonstrate that the dualistic account of social reality provided by major figures in contemporary social theory, such as Giddens, Bourdieu, Bhaskar and Habermas, are unsustainable; they are hopelessly individualist. This paper acknowledges the importance of Wittgenstein but maintains that a critique of contemporary social theory consonant with the ‘sceptical paradox’ was already present in the sociological canon: in the form of Parsons’ utilitarian dilemma in The Structure of Social Action. This paper seeks to recover the utilitarian dilemma for current debates in order to demonstrate the enduring relevance of Parsons. The paper goes on to argue that not only did Parsons provide a critique of individualism compatible with Wittgenstein’s but that he actually transcended it.
Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications. This is the authors final version, after peer-review. It has been accepted for publication in the journal later in 2009. 12 month embargo by the publisher. Article will be released May 2010.