Pareto, Vilfredo (1848–1923)

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Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian economist, sociologist, and philosopher, was born in Paris, where his father, the Marchese di Pareto, a supporter of Mazzini, was living as a refugee. In 1858 the family returned to Italy, where Pareto received a mixed mathematical and classical secondary education. In 1870 he graduated with a degree in engineering from the Turin Istituto Politecnico. He embarked on a career with the Italian railways and soon became a director. He was deeply, though ambivalently, influenced by his father's involvement in radical politics. Throughout his life Pareto believed in the superiority of liberal free trade, but his disillusionment with the economic protectionism of the Italian government developed into a fierce hatred of the political and social side of liberal ideology, which he thought had resulted in indefensible economic policies. This hatred led Pareto into intemperate attacks on the government, which retaliated by banning his lectures, and Pareto was eventually forced to abandon his career in government service. At about this time he became acquainted with the mathematical economist Léon Walras, professor at Lausanne. In 1893 Pareto was appointed lecturer at Lausanne, and he succeeded to Walras's chair the following year. He lived in Switzerland for the rest of his life, eschewing political activity until Benito Mussolini's advent to power in 1922. The Fascists acknowledged a large debt to Pareto's writings and conferred numerous honors on him, but since he died after only one year of the Fascist regime, his considered attitude to it must be a matter of conjecture.

Logical and Nonlogical Conduct

Pareto's social thought was largely conditioned by his reactions to contemporary political developments in Italy. He claimed to provide an impartial presentation and explanation of the facts of social existence without commitment to any particular sectional interest. In fact, however, his writings constitute a violently polemical defense of economic liberalism and political and social authoritarianism. This gulf between his professions and his practice is ironically in tune with his skepticism about the extent of men's understanding of their own behavior. In his economic writings, Cours d'économie politique (2 vols., Lausanne, 18961897) and Manuel d'économie politique (Paris, 1909), he tried to prove mathematically that the system of free trade provides maximum social benefit. In Les systèmes socialistes, (2 vols., Paris, 1902), he attempted to refute the claims of socialism that it provided a superior solution to economic problems. But if the logical case for economic liberalism was as overwhelming as it seemed to Pareto, he had to show why it was not generally practiced. This led him from economics to sociology and to the distinction between logical and nonlogical conduct, which constitutes one of his most distinctive contributions to sociological theory.

Pareto introduced this distinction in the course of a discussion of the nature of a scientific sociology. His conception of "logico-experimental" science was largely Baconian, and his methodological desiderata for a scientific sociology were that all its concepts should have strictly controlled empirical reference; that all its theories should be subject to rigorous experimental or observational control; and that all its inferences should follow with strict logic from the data. He set himself to show how these norms should be applied in the sociological investigation of the ideas and systems of thought current in a given society, which, because they bear "the image of social activity," are an important part of the sociologist's data. Pareto thought it important not to accept such ideas and theories at their holders' valuations but to ask two questions about them: (1) Are their explanatory claims justified by logico-experimental standards? (2) Why are they accepted, and what are the social consequences of this acceptance? The question of acceptance became particularly pressing for Pareto in the case of widely held theories that did not seem to measure up to logico-experimental criteria. He thus regarded the logical critique of sophistries as only a prolegomenon, although a necessary one, to the real problems of sociology.

Many of Pareto's own criticisms of sophistries, especially of those committed by his political opponents, are extremely cogent and witty. However, his general account of the distinction between sound explanation and sophistry is less satisfactory. He held that an action was logical if it was performed by the agent with the intention of achieving an empirically identifiable end, if it actually tended to result in the achievement of that end, and if the agent had sound logico-experimental grounds for expecting this end to result. He designated as nonlogical any action that failed to measure up to any of these diverse criteria, and proceeded to classify what seemed the most characteristic ways in which this failure could occur.

Pareto regarded economic activity directed at maximizing profit, clearheaded Machiavellian political activity, and scientific work as the three most important types of logical conduct. But he left largely unasked most of the fundamental philosophical questions to which such an account gives rise. In particular, unlike his contemporary Émile Durkheim, he did not investigate the possibility that established forms of social behavior are themselves presupposed by the concepts most fundamental to his accountconcepts such as "empirical reference," "respect for logic," and "setting oneself an end." Pareto's important insight, however, contained in his idea of "nonlogical conduct," that there are many forms of activity concerning which it makes no sense to ask what reasons people have for performing them, could naturally have led to such an investigation, had Pareto been more of a philosopher and less of a brilliant political pamphleteer. His failure to press this line of inquiry impeded him from maintaining a clear distinction between nonlogical and illogical actions, and what he claimed to be a dispassionate account of the nature of social life became a massive polemical indictment of alleged human folly. It is also one of the roots of his uncritical acceptance of science as the mother and guardian of logic, notwithstanding his repeated attacks on worshipers of "the Goddess Science."

Residues and Derivations

If the reasons offered by men for many of their own actions are not logically compelling, a different kind of explanation seems to be needed. To find this explanation Pareto undertook a wide-ranging, but unsystematic and biased, historical and comparative survey of human social behavior. In the course of it, he claimed to detect a contrast between kinds of conduct that constantly recur with very little variation and those that are highly diverse and changeable. The former he labeled "residues," the latter "derivations." The variable elements, or derivations, prove to be the theories with which people attempt to justify their residues. The alleged persistence of the same residue, even after the agent's abandonment of the derivation that had been supposed to justify it, gave Pareto an additional reason for claiming that the derivation was not the real explanation of the existence of the residue.

This theory has obvious affinities with Karl Marx's concept of "ideology," with Sigmund Freud's "rationalization" (although Pareto seems to have been ignorant of Freud's work), and with Durkheim's "collective sentiments." Unlike these writers, however, Pareto offered no systematic account of why men have recourse to derivations, contenting himself with the observation that among the residues is to be found a tendency of men "to paint a varnish of logic over their conduct."

The theory of residues is similarly incomplete. His most consistently held view seems to have been that the residues are constants and must be accepted as brute facts. At times he said that they were determined by certain congenital psychological "sentiments," although he failed clearly to distinguish these from the residues themselves. Nor did he explain how sentiments differ from the "interests" that he supposed to underlie logical economic activities. At other times he suggested that residues change as a result of social conditions. "A number of traits observable in the Jews of our time, and which are ordinarily ascribed to race," he wrote, "are mere manifestations of residues produced by long centuries of oppression." Moreover, in his Machiavellian advice to statesmen to reinforce in their subjects those residues that are politically advantageous to themselves, by means of propaganda in favor of suitable derivations, Pareto even implied that derivations could influence residues. Such difficulties stemmed largely from Pareto's failure to face the philosophical questions about the nature of logic that his theories should have led him to ask.

Elites and the Cycle of History

The two classes of residues most important for Pareto's sociological theory were combinations and persistence of aggregates. Men dominated by combinations are the innovating, risk-taking experimenters, the "foxes," linked by Pareto with the economic class of speculators. At the other extreme are the "lions," dominated by persistence of aggregates, wedded to the status quo and willing to use force in its defense. These are to be found among the rentier class. Pareto thought that all societies are ruled by elites, composed of those naturally most able in the various forms of social activity. The balance between combinations and persistence of aggregates in the elites and the lower social strata respectively determines the general character of a society. Inconsistently with his insistence on the nonlogical character of value judgments, Pareto thought there was an objective distinction between healthy and decadent social states, a distinction strongly influenced by his own attachment to free trade and political authoritarianism. Elites must be enterprising and innovative but also ready to use force in defense of their authority. However, the latter propensity tends to hinder the "circulation of the elites," leading to an accumulation of ability among the masses. Alternatively, the former tendency may degenerate into a flabby humanitarianism that weakens authority. In either case, a revolution results, leading to government by new elites. Pareto's belief in the constant repetition of this process led him to a cyclical view of history.

See also Decision Theory; Durkheim, Émile; Freud, Sigmund; Marx, Karl; Philosophy of Economics; Sociology of Knowledge.


works by pareto

Trattato di sociologia generale, 2 vols. Florence: Barbera, 1916. 2nd ed., 3 vols. Florence, 1923. Translated by A. Bongiorno and A. Livingston as The Mind and Society, 4 vols. London; Cape, 1935.

Sociological Writings. Translated by Derick Mirfin. New York: Praeger, 1966.

works on pareto

Aron, Raymond. "Vilfredo Pareto." In Main Currents in Sociological Thought, Vol. 2. Translated by Richard Howard and Helen Weaver. New York: Basic, 1967.

Borkenau, Franz. Pareto. London: Chapman and Hall, 1936.

Bruni, Luigino. Vilfredo Pareto and the Birth of Modern Microeconomics. Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar, 2002.

Burnham, James. The Machiavellians. New York: John Day, 1943.

Curtis, C. P., and G. C. Homans. An Introduction to Pareto: His Sociology. New York: Knopf, 1934.

Parsons, Talcott. The Structure of Social Action. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1937.

Powers, Charles H. Vilfredo Pareto. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1987.

Sica, Alan. Weber, Irrationality, and Social Order. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Winch, Peter. "The Mind and Society." In The Idea of a Social Science, 2nd ed. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1990.

Peter Winch (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)