“The house in which the crime was projected shall be razed to the ground, shall never be rebuilt, and that in its place a column shall be erected which shall be called Infamous.”
Milan, August 1630.1Column of Infamy, erected 1630 and collapsed during a storm in 1788. Robert Fletcher, A Tragedy of the Great Plague of Milan in 1630. Baltimore: The Lord Baltimore Press, 1898, p.5.


I.

As it turns out, I have just returned to Alessandro Manzoni’s The Column of Infamy, a short book of 1829 that I first came across a decade ago. Best known for poetry and fiction, especially for The Betrothed, a historical novel published two years earlier, Manzoni’s consideration of the aftermath of the 1630 outbreak of the Plague in Milan probed the judicially sanctioned torture and murder of two quite innocent individuals who, in an atmosphere of panic, were thought to have been responsible. Some attributed the outbreak to Jews, said to have poisoned the city’s wells. Others blamed a fierce hailstorm. The dominant explanation focused on how the pestilence was spread, it was thought, by the malicious placement of toxic ointments on stone walls and benches.

“There are things here,” Manzoni wrote, “that would be reckoned implausible in a novel.” He began his study in this way:

The judges who, at Milan in 1630, condemned to a horrible death certain persons accused of spreading the plague by methods no less stupid than disgusting, thought they were doing something so worthy of record that, in the very sentence of condemnation, along with a clause ordering the destruction of their victims’ houses, they decreed that in the space where these houses had stood a pillar be erected, to be called the ”Column of Infamy,” and on this pillar an inscription written where all posterity might read of the crime which they had prevented and the punishment they had imposed.2Alessandro Manzoni, The Column of Infamy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964, p.103.

The chilling Latin engraving on the column read, in part:

Here, where this plot of ground extends, formerly stood the shop of the barber Giangiacomo Mora, who had conspired with Guglielmo Piazza, Commissary of the Public Health, and with others, while a frightful plague exercised its ravages, by means of deadly ointments spread on all sides, to hurl many citizens to a cruel death. For this, the Senate, having declared them both to be enemies of their country, decreed that, placed on an elevated car, their flesh should be torn with red-hot pincers, their right hands be cut off, and their bones be broken; that they should be extended on the wheel, and at the end of six hours be put to death, and burnt.3Robert Fletcher, A Tragedy of the Great Plague of Milan in 1630. Baltimore: The Lord Baltimore Press, 1898, p.5.

Commenting, Manzoni remarked how “that judgment of theirs was indeed memorable.”4Alessandro Manzoni, The Column of Infamy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964, p.103. But how memorable? In part, of course, by its sheer drama and pain. But memorable too for the chastening lessons that were less about then and them, but now and us.

An earlier consideration of the case by Count Pietro Verri, a Counselor of State in the realm of Empress Maria Theresa, served as Manzoni’s polemical target. But they did agree on the facts. Heralding Manzoni, Verri’s comprehensive 1777 review of the trial’s records concluded that the accused had been guiltless; that their confessions, made upon torture and later recanted, had been false. He argued that the dispositions and behavior of all the actors, including the judges, had been shaped and constrained by the inadequate science and nonrational features of premodern unreason. Verri thus had ascribed “evils,” Manzoni wrote, “merely to the ignorance prevalent in those times and to a barbarous legal system, and so [had] come to think of them as necessitated and inevitable.”5Alessandro Manzoni, The Column of Infamy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964, p.104.

By extension, Verri believed that the introduction of modern reason would render impossible a recourse to torture or extorted confessions. Progressive sensibilities married to systematic science, he expected, would rule out the type of mass hysteria that had accompanied the arrests, trial, and punishment in Milan, and would make official cruelty a thing of the past.

“How, we might ask, should heightened uncertainty shape and orient our craft?”

We know better, and so did Manzoni. His Storia della colonna infame argued that the contrast between modernity and times past can easily be overdone. Even within a premodern world view, the judges had been perfectly capable of recognizing the innocence of the accused based on available facts and modes of thought. Further, systematic reason based on evidence, method, and critical thought, he understood, does not rule out depredation; even more, within some situations a scientific imagination can advance desolation. By showing how tradition did not erase human agency, Manzoni wished to demonstrate that the powers of anger and prolonged fear are not simply matters of ignorant times past.

To be sure, biological science later taught that the theory of contagion deployed in this case simply was wrong; scientific learning proved possible. But irremediable brutality, Manzoni cautioned, cannot be relegated to history by the putative triumph of reason. Proponents of Enlightenment, he counseled, must shed their self-congratulations.

II.

The Social Science Research Council was founded in 1923-24 on assumptions about past and present, about the premodern and the modern, about superstition and reason, much like those that had guided Pietro Verri’s account of seventeenth century Milan. In this, the Council was not alone. Such cognate institutions as the Russell Sage Foundation, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the Brookings Institute—each fashioned in the first quarter of the twentieth century when American research universities and their organized social science disciplines were very young—also proceeded to work and sought to secure influence based on the legitimacy conferred by modernist rationality.

This array of organizations initiated to fashion and deploy social science shared an appealing confidence about the potential to create a better world through systematic and rigorous inquiry. The means they deployed included the use of social statistics and social surveys, comprehensive approaches to regional planning and problems of poverty, housing, health care, and crime, a marriage between social theory and empirical investigations, and a close link between research, professional social action, and elite influence. This confident assurance shaped their early programs. It also guided those entrusted with their character, including the SSRC’s founding president, the eminent University of Chicago political scientist Charles Merriam, who later brought this sensibility into the heart of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

“The Council found its earliest identity by making social improvement less a matter of goodwill, faith, or moral obligation than of logic, theory, and analysis about how to effect desired change via the tools of modern social inquiry.”

Notwithstanding the carnage of the First World War, the establishment of the Council was undergirded by the assumption that systematic social knowledge based on dispassionate inquiry could do more than solve problems. Our founders believed that social science properly developed and applied might tame the demons of unreason. As the spirit of science spread from inquiry about physical phenomena to more and more aspects of the human condition, the various social sciences represented within the SSRC—anthropology, economics, history, political science, psychology, sociology, and statistics—were declaring themselves ready to probe beneath the surface in order to serve as instruments for social improvement.

Finding this place for sustained reason, the Council and its social science partners lived at the edge of partially overlapping yet distinctive institutions, including traditional charity, organized religion, economic markets, and democratic politics. In receiving foundation philanthropy, the Council found its earliest identity by making social improvement less a matter of goodwill, faith, or moral obligation than of logic, theory, and analysis about how to effect desired change via the tools of modern social inquiry. Thus secularizing values, the SSRC put distance between how social science and how religious organizations sought to ameliorate material and spiritual suffering. It also was unwilling to let outcomes be determined simply by market processes and patterns of distribution, wanting, rather, to learn how to regulate market behavior and countermand market-produced results. From the start, the Council also tried to affect the public sphere, less by engaging in the give and take of partisan politics than by altering conditions of understanding, especially understanding by networks of elites.

During this founding period of remarkable intellectual and institutional creativity, the social sciences powerfully entered public life as complex, evidence- and theory-based analytical contributions to policy choices. Taking on this role, social science evidence and argumentation became a hallmark both of public reason and recondite scholarship.

Many advances to the public good were profound. There were successes based on reason tied to reform. Think of the growth of social protection, rising standards of health, nutrition, and habitation, the growing plurality and integration of cultures. Social science also was invoked by movements that struggled to defeat ugly political and imperial systems and to achieve the full inclusion of all adults—women and men, blacks and whites—within formal democratic citizenship.

Alas, the decades since the opening of the SSRC also witnessed the globe’s most violent century, dark times marked as much by the harnessing of reason for unreason as for taming unreason. Ours has been a world marked by proliferating instruments of destruction—carpet bombing, the aircraft carrier, and nuclear weapons; and by patterns of mobilization that were only appearing when the Council was born—including the perversion of mass democracy by racist commitments and ideological zealotry, secular and religious, developments that have produced unprecedented killing fields.

It is impossible to draw a balance sheet. All of humankind has experienced a vastly widened continuum of possibilities, ranging from exhilarated liberation based on enlightened knowledge and scientific progress to pervasive and permanent peril and the understanding that all the reason in the world cannot erase or guarantee the control of unreason or that reason itself will not be deployed for reprehensible purposes. As a result, our achievements as citizens and as scholars are constituted by and are suffused with persistent danger and perpetual fear.

Put differently, all of humankind has become emancipated on terms much like those that characterized the emancipation of Jews in the Western world in the period between the American and French Revolutions of the late eighteenth century and the Russian Revolution in the twentieth. Then, for the first time, despite widespread poverty and discrimination, Jewish residents were permitted to join modern political systems as citizens without being required to convert. Everywhere, they grasped the chance to embrace modern reason and modern knowledge while holding on, in the main, to a distinctive identity. I certainly would not be writing this text if not for this history. As we ruefully know, that emancipation was accompanied by an intensification of hatred and unprecedented hazard. Much as the spectrum widened for that particular group, with exceptional opportunity at one end and destruction at the other, so it has broadened for everyone. In this sense, all today are emancipated Jews.

Humankind has discovered the limits and vulnerabilities of the excessively innocent expectations of science and rationality that were eloquently advanced by Pietro Verri. Within these circumstances, what, we might ask, should we seek to accomplish in the spirit of Manzoni?

III.

If anything, we need social science more than ever. It can offer beacons in the night. But not a social science without attention to the frontiers where reason and unreason entwine.

Some simply dismiss reason’s claims as a mask for power, a source of unreason, or a whimpering in the night. My own view, and that, I believe, of the SSRC, is that the widened spectrum of human possibilities and prospects not only constitutes our central challenge but demands a renewal of committed reason tethered to guiding norms; that is, the production of social knowledge devoted to the best values of our patrimony, values that include pluralism, toleration, the rule of law, effective political representation, and an equality of rights.

The closest we have come to achieving this type of social science knowledge, I believe, came in the aftermath of the desolation of the Second World War. Then, an extraordinary array of thinkers deepened the social sciences. Shocked by total war, totalitarianism, and the Holocaust, leading scholars including Hannah Arendt, Karl Polanyi, David Truman, Richard Hofstadter, Margaret Mead, Robert K. Merton, Harold Lasswell, and Robert Dahl built a social science of depth and complexity on the understanding that the Enlightenment tradition, which they well understood to be richly complex, urgently required new realism and much fortification.

“To deploy systematic social inquiry to build a decent politics and society.”

This estimable group advanced diverse epistemologies and placed quite different emphases on what was most valuable to study in full knowledge of the predatory qualities of modern states, the challenges of military might in a world of violence, the range of disproportion and inequity generated by market capitalism, the mercilessness of control by state socialism, the propensity to close civil society and exclude others by non-rational criteria, and, broadly, the inherent, demotic potential, not just of reason, but of emotion.

Read together across the range of political economy, political theory, pragmatist behaviorism, and policy studies, we can observe how they sought to deploy systematic social inquiry to build a decent politics and society. In all, they produced a noteworthy constellation of assets, a body of work in the spirit of what Judith Shklar later called a “liberalism of fear.” Without illusions about organized and merciless abuses of power, this approach, her fellow political theorist John Dunn observed, is “driven by an awareness of the overwhelming grimness of much of human political life, its saturation with suffering and evil.” But this sensibility, he also noted, “is in no way an excuse for passivity, still less a counsel of despair.” 6John Dunn, “Hope over Fear: Judith Shklar as Political Educator,” in Bernard Yack, ed., Liberalism without Illusions: Essays on Political Theory and the Political Vision of Judith N. Shklar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, p.53.

Critics of the work of the post-war generation rightly have taken note of particular silences—about the national security state, about race, about inequalities of political representation, and more. Yet that group teaches the folly of pursuing a complacent social science distant from the darkest aspects of human behavior. Theirs, in short, was social science with a fundamental purpose: to advance decency at a time of broken certainties.

It is this set of sensibilities, at once pragmatist and questing while being disciplined by the mission to prevent cruelty, that can guide how we deploy an ever-deepening set of tools for systematic social knowledge. Hard questions persist as we wrestle with which, if any, ultimate foundations of truth underpin the search for knowledge. What structural sources of unequal life chances should be treated as given? Is it possible to find sustainable equilibria of efficiency and equity?  How is the content of the political agenda controlled? When should legitimacy be accorded to social movements that challenge power and partisanship? What is the appropriate scope, character, and capacity of democratic institutions? How should cities grow? In which ways should knowledge be curated under digital conditions? What procedures, institutions, and norms can be advanced to help prevent war and keep the peace?

Such questions are being pursued as I write within the various programs currently underway at the SSRC. As it turns out, they are not very far removed from those asked by the Council’s founders. But the second decade of this century is not the third of the last. Faced with robust illiberal nostrums, radically heightened inequality, and combinations of twisted reason and passionate unreason sometimes married to just causes, the vocation of social science has become more difficult and more significant.

The passage of decades has witnessed the advance of once inconceivable indecent alternatives—both outside our country and within it—thus challenging us once again to produce social knowledge of depth and protective capacity. Together with colleagues in other parts of scholarly and public life, our collectivity of social scientists is being called upon to imagine how organized social knowledge can conduce understanding and thoughtful choices based on learning and commitment.

References   [ + ]

1. Column of Infamy, erected 1630 and collapsed during a storm in 1788. Robert Fletcher, A Tragedy of the Great Plague of Milan in 1630. Baltimore: The Lord Baltimore Press, 1898, p.5.
2, 4. Alessandro Manzoni, The Column of Infamy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964, p.103.
3. Robert Fletcher, A Tragedy of the Great Plague of Milan in 1630. Baltimore: The Lord Baltimore Press, 1898, p.5.
5. Alessandro Manzoni, The Column of Infamy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964, p.104.
6. John Dunn, “Hope over Fear: Judith Shklar as Political Educator,” in Bernard Yack, ed., Liberalism without Illusions: Essays on Political Theory and the Political Vision of Judith N. Shklar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, p.53.