Lewis Mumford review of “The Reconstruction of Humanity”



Lewis Mumford review of The Reconstruction of Humanity – J of Religion


The following (PDF file above) is a review by Lewis Mumford of Pitirim A. Sorokin’s The Reconstruction of Humanity (1948):

The review is a penetrating one well worth reading.

Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) was an American historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and literary critic. Noted for his study of cities and urban architecture, he had a broad career as a writer. His works ranged from a groundbreaking study of Herman Melville to books such as The Culture of Cities and The City in America; The Condition of Man; and Technics and Civilization, in which he divided human civilization into three distinct epochs, in a manner somewhat similar to Sorokin.

The review, while critical of Sorokin’s weaknesses as  writer and scholar, is an evenhanded one. It demonstrates insight into Sorokin’s works as a whole and places The Reconstruction of Humanity within the context of Sorokin’s oeuvre as it stood at the time the review was written, which was just after the publication of Sorokin’s The Crisis of Our Age.

Note, for example, Mumford’s statement: “The present book has the virtues and defects of Professor Sorokin’s earlier works–both in great abundance. Like his greatest rival, Arnold Toynbee, he is a scholar who carries on his shoulders a tremendous burden of scholarly research, but … his thought is sometimes confused, rather than clarified, by his very erudition.”


— Roger W. Smith

    May 2019







review of The Reconstruction of Humanity

by Lewis Mumford

The Journal of Religion

Vol. 29, No. 4 (October 1949), pp. 301-302



The Reconstruction of Humanity stands in logical sequence to the series of sociological interpretations that Professor Pitirim Sorokin has published since his monumental Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937). Those four volumes, though concerned with a general theory of culture, clearly indicated Professor Sorokin’s criticism of our present age: that it was a typically “sensate” culture, founded on an exclusive belief in sensations as a source of meaning and “reality,” and that this very fact tended to undermine its existence–since only a supersensate or ideational culture could do justice to all the more significant aspects of human experience.

Sorokin’s next boom addressed to the public at large–for he has published various systematic texts in sociology–was largely a condensation of his Dynamics: The Crisis of our Age, which came out in 1941. Here, restating in briefer form his general theory of social development, his diagnosis became even sharper, as the disintegration of the West itself became more obvious. At the end he observed: “Our remedy demands a complete change of contemporary mentality, a fundamental transformation of our system of values, and the profoundest modification of our conduct toward other men, cultural values, and the world at large.” Drawing his conclusions from similar periods in the past, he reduced the change to a “compact formula: Crisis–ordeal–catharsis–charisma–resurrection.” This conclusion was only briefly framed at the end of the book; it called for a more detailed statement, and that the author seeks to provide in his new work, The Reconstruction of Humanity.

The thesis of Sorokin’s new book is that all detailed plans for improving the present situation through creating a world government or correcting the existing capitalist economy or through this or that program of education are insubstantial or insufficient because they do not envisage any major change in the agent that is to carry them out, namely, in man himself, in his prospensities [sic], his purposes, his ideals. Sorokin believes that this major change involves the deliberate fostering of “creative altruism,” a term that seems to be the precise equivalent of what Kropotkin, in his classic treatise, called “Mutual Aid.” Unfortunately the pages devoted to the regeneration of the personality, the very core of any effort at achieving altruism, make up only a quarter of the book; and at the very point at which Sorokin has something fresh to say, not already indicated in his previous works, he leaves the reader grasping, not exactly at straws, but at hastily improvised life-­rafts and distant life-preservers. We must look forward to still another book to bring Sorokin’s positive doctrines to the necessary stage of concreteness and pragmatic application.

The present book has the virtues and defects of Professor Sorokin’s earlier works-both in great abundance. Like his nearest rival, Arnold Toynbee, he is a scholar who carries on his shoulders a tremendous burden of scholarly research, but–and here the parallel perhaps still applies–his thought is sometimes confused, rather than clarified, by his very erudition. Though he condemns the habits of our “sensate culture,” to use his own term, he frequently succumbs to them, as in his statement on page 118 that there has been a “decrease of the ethics of absolute principles from 100 per cent in the Middle Ages to 57 per cent between 1900 and 1920”: a use of pseudo-statistics that should make the rawest Ph.D. blush. In spite of Sorokin’s passionate belief in the values of grace and love, his recent works do not show any considerable increase in the proportion of these qualities as his insight has deepened. Though he is properly critical, for example, of Dr. Sigmund Freud’s ideological mistakes, he does not acknowledge the real gains in psychological insight which Freud effected, including the fact that Freud, by his original act of reinterpreting the dream and demonstrating its meaningfulness, laid one of the foundation stones of a more ideational culture, which will respect the autonomous functions of the personality. His wholesale disparagement of Freud does not, however, prevent him from availing himself of insights directly derived from Freud’s work.

Finally, Sorokin casts doubts upon the value of many of his more profound generalizations by interlarding his book with many palpably exaggerated or false judgments, such as the statement that “the twentieth century has not produced a single genius in any field of art comparable to the greatest creative geniuses of the preceding centuries or even to the foremost masters of the nineteenth century.” In short, in Sorokin’s own person, both catharsis and charisma seem to have fallen short of the requirements of the situation he has diagnosed. There is more of unregenerate Saul than of charitable Paul in his judgments; and one would be more confident of his program for “reconstructing” humanity if he himself incarnated, in a greater degree, the qualities he holds necessary for mankind’s redemption.

If as a prophet Sorokin’s weaknesses are fatal ones, as a sociologist he nevertheless, despite all his painful weaknesses, demonstrates a fuller insight into the nature of society and the disintegration of our own age than do many of his colleagues, who commit fewer sins of semantics and logic and who show less irascible contempt for those who are in disagreement with them. With such exceptions as Malinowski, Radin, and Kroeber in anthropology, Sorokin is one of the few American sociologists who has done something like justice to the higher human functions. His sociological schema gives full place not only to the social processes and to the cultural heritage but to the purposive, goal­-seeking elements in the human personality. Unlike Freud, he does not dismiss religion as a childish violation of human reason. At the same time, his insight into the underlying unity of the higher religions keeps him from attributing supreme truth to the Christian religion and true godhood solely to its own savior; in marked contrast to Toynbee, he thus avoids the easy archaism of suggesting reversion to some historic form of Christianity as the one force capable of saving our civilization. So, too, though his insights are associated with his system of sociology, that system is in fact a very comprehensive one; so he differs from another wide-ranging interpreter, F. S. C. Northrop, in being less confined to a wooden set of categories, as arbitrarily defined and separated as Northrop’s theoretic and aesthetic components. Much of The Reconstruction of Humanity, it is true, consists in a series of verbal injunctions, without either method or appropriate discipline, as ineffective to produce a change as Milton said medicine would be if it followed only the method of the preacher and merely exhorted the patient verbally to get well.

But he who reads Sorokin’s work with a fuller charity than Sorokin himself applies to most of his contemporaries will also find a mind well grounded in man’s history and culture who has carried through in detail those fundamental insights into the present disintegration of Western civilization which Henry Adams first presented half a century ago. Unlike his emotionally unawakened and therefore intellectually more limited colleagues in sociology, Sorokin has earnestly set himself the task, hopeless to those who are without faith in superconscious processes and axial transformations, of summoning up the forces of life and laying down the basis for a new era founded on love and mutual aid­-love enlarged beyond the narrow boundaries of sexuality and mutual aid capable of encompassing the eventual unity of mankind. Sorokin’s overall purpose and his emotional readiness help to transcend and partly nullify his disturbing, and sometimes almost disrupting, weaknesses. Unfortunately, those who have not by themselves come to the same conclusions as Sorokin will probably lack the patience and sympathy to overlook his solecisms and to grapple with his essential contribution.




Amenia, New York

“Mrs. Pitirim Sorokine on Way to This Country Now”



Those who became friends of Dr. Pitirim Sorokine during his brief stay in Decatur Friday will be interested to know that he left for New York that evening to meet Mrs. Sorokine, who is coming on a steamship [the Belgenland from Cherbourg, France; it arrived in New York City on March 28, 1924] from Russia within the next day or two. Dr. Sorokine was banished from Russia two years ago. and this will be their first meeting since that time. *

Mrs. Sorokine, like her husband, is a member of the intelligentsia. She is a botanist of considerable reputation.

While in this country. Dr. Sorokine has been seeing to the publication of a book by the Dutton Co., and now has another in preparation, to be brought out by Lippincott’s under the editorship of Dr. [Edward C.] Hayes of the University of Illinois. In addition, he is doing considerable lecturing. He expects to be at the University of Missouri before long, and to pass the summer with Mrs. Sorokine, at the University of Minnesota.


— Mrs. Pitirim Sorokine on Way to This Country Now,” The Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), Sunday, March 23, 1924, pg. 17


* This was not accurate, since the Sorokins emigrated together from Russia upon Pitirim Sorokin’s expulsion and settled together in Prague before Pitirim Sorokin left Czechoslovakia for the United States. And, when Sorokin made his visit, he had not made a decision, at that time, not to return to Czechoslovakia. Over time, his reception in the United States, among other considerations, induced him to remain there. The Sorokins became U.S. citizens in 1930, when they were residing in Minnesota.






Elena Petrovna Sorokina (née Baratynskaya; 1894–1975) was, as noted above, a botanist. Her scientific papers were published under the name Helen P. Sorokin.



— posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 2019

“Dr. Sorokine Is Guest of English Club at Luncheon” (an early glimpse of Sorokin the exile)



Dr. Pitirim Sorokine, professor in the University of Petrograd, who spoke twice in Millikin auditorium Friday, was guest of honor at a luncheon in the Yellow Lantern at 12:30, given by the English club of the university.

Following luncheon, Dr. Sorokine spoke briefly and humorously on his personal experiences. He characterized himself as the son of a Russian laborer and of the daughter of a peasant, and said his experiences therefore were not the experiences of the nobility; that, in fact, he knew nothing of that side of Russian life.

He had what is apparently the fate of all educated Russians. He was condemned to death, but escaped and went to Prague on the invitation of President Masaryk of Czechoslovakia, a personal friend of Dr. Sorokine’s. He remained there 11 months, and then came to America, where he declares he thinks he will stay.

“I have always been an admirer of your country,” he said, “more so than ever now that I know you intimately instead of from across the sea. I was glad when some of your universities asked me to come to speak to their classes.”

Dr. Sorokine is the house guest of Dr. and Mrs. W. W. Smith while in Decatur.


— “Dr. Sorokine Is Guest of English Club at Luncheon; Millikin Lecturer Being Entertained in W. W. Smith Home.” Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), Saturday, March 22, 1924, pg. 8






Millikin University is a private university in Decatur, Illinois. It was founded in 1901 by prominent Decatur businessman James Millikin and is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA).

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 2019


“wriggling, banging of seats, scraping of feet, twisting, whispering, and flipping of note book leaves in the auditorium” (during a Sorokin lecture, 1924)



With all this talk of courtesy and etiquette going the rounds today, and classes on the subject organized voluntarily by pupils of our schools, I do wish some one would start a fad for courtesy in the public lecture room. We need it here in Decatur.

I’m prompted to this comment by the wriggling, banging of seats. scraping of feet twisting. whispering, and flipping of note book leaves in the auditorium last week when Dr. Pitirim Sorokine was speaking.

The audience composed of about equal proportions of townspeople and students, had difficulty in understanding his broken speech, so it gave up trying and wriggled, banged. and so on, until those who could understand were not permitted to hear.

Part of the fault may have lain with those who introduced the speaker. I think it would have stimulated personal interest if, instead of trying to explain his message, that had been left to him and explanation given instead about the man himself.

Who even in that noisy audience would not have sat quietly, for instance, if they had known that this man came out of Europe unable to speak a single word of English, and in one month was lecturing all over America in the language?

Instead of blaming him for his broken speech. and punishing him cruelly with noise. I think he would have been listened to with admiration and respect. None but would have given him just due for the accomplishment of a difficult feat–if they had known of it.

Dr. Sorokine had long been a student of English and could read and write it with ease. But to read and write, and to speak, are quite different things. as those of us who can struggle through a page of French. only to fall flat before pronunciation, can relate to our sorrow.

And in just one month he had conquered his ignorance of spoken English to such an extent that be spoke it in lectures before that most critical of all audiences in the world, students in a lecture room.

If any person in that audience, with two years gruelling drill in French, had been set before a Parisian audience to deliver a lecture on any subject, do you suppose they could have done it? And if the audience had been noisy, and then heaped the last insult by rising one by one and clumping out.


The Assistant Woman’s Editor.



“Let’s Talk It Over,” Decatur Herald (Decatur, IL), Tuesday, March 25, 1924, pg. 10







EDITORIAL COMMENT: Let’s hear it for empathy.

Roger W. Smith, comments occasioned by a reading of Sorokin’s “The Sociology of Revolution” and Glen Haydon’s paper on the first volume of “Social and Cultural Dynamics”




‘Sorokin’s Theory of Fluctuation of Forms of Music’ – American Musicological Soc Mtg 1938




I am reading Pitirim A. Sorokin’s groundbreaking work The Sociology of Revolution (1925) now. I am surprised how well it holds up after a century or so; it is quite good.

In addition, I had occasion to come across the following article (POSTED HERE ABOVE), which is based upon an analysis by a musicologist of the chapter on music* in the first volume of Sorokin’s Social and Cultural Dynamics:


“Sorokin’s Theory of Fluctuation of Forms of Music”

by Glen Haydon

Papers Read by Members of the American Musicological Society at the Annual Meeting (December 29th and 30th, 1938), pp. 74-83

Glen Haydon was an American musicologist instrumental in the founding of the Department of Music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.




It has occurred to me that Sorokin’s strengths are also his weaknesses. The scope of his works is broad, his ambition and purpose in writing magisterial tomes that aim so high and attempt to go beyond dry sociology, beyond mere fact finding and data collection are impressive.

Yet, the scope often seems too broad; conclusions are often found to be erroneous when subjected to close analysis.

The “problem,” it seems to me, is that, while writing works of great originality and interest, of potentially great significance for humanity, Sorokin often wrote too hastily and not with the strict attention to accuracy of historical or sociological/cultural facts and data required of a scholar.

So that, as he tells us, in The Sociology of Revolution, he examines: “The Russian Revolutions of 1905, 1917-1924; and that of the seventeenth century ; the French Revolutions of 1789, 1848, 1870-71; the German Revolution of 1848; the English Revolution of the seventeenth century; some mediæval and antique revolutionary periods [such as the Bohemian Revolution of the fifteenth century]; the Egyptian, Persian, and other great revolutions.” Actually, most of his findings are based upon his deep knowledge, as a participant as well as a professor of sociology, of the Russian Revolution. And, there is a reasonable amount of coverage of the French Revolution, while other historical periods and revolutions are merely touched upon.

If one examines Sorokin’s copious footnotes in this work, one will readily see that he is writing not as a historian but as a sociologist engaged in the study of comparative societies and civilizations; and that, with the exception of the Russian Revolution, he did not have an in-depth knowledge of any of the other revolutions he studied (I would say haphazardly) and used to derive conclusions from. His sources are secondary sources (most of them read in Russian translation). What did Sorokin know about the Egyptian Revolution or “the great Greek and Roman Revolutions”? The answer: very little.

From a reading of Glen Haydon’s paper, one comes to essentially the same conclusion. Sorokin’s categorizations of ideational, idealistic, and sensate forms and periods of music rely on findings and conclusions about musical styles and works/composers that are often inaccurate. (And the imposition by Sorokin of his scholarly schema — an artifact, so to speak — upon the history of Western music. This from a professor, Sorokin. who had a deep appreciation and love, as an aesthete, of classical music.)

But, says Haydon:

In spite of my quarrels with many of the details of Sorokin’s treatment of music, I feel that I should be very remiss in my duty if I did not acknowledge some of the many and important values of the work. First of all, I want to pay tribute to the man who has had a sufficiently comprehensive insight into the intricacies of cultural history to enable him to evolve a theory applicable to all its ramifications; and who has had the courage to attempt to put it to the acid test of application within the several fields of art, science, philosophy, religion, and general sociology. In the midst of the ever-present necessity for specialization we need relief from the deadening effects of over-specialization; we need to gain a sympathetic insight into the nature and problems of other fields, and some notion of the long-range and immediate forces at work in the cultural processes of today. Certainly, Sorokin’s work constitutes a significant contribution to the overcoming of this difficulty. It is most stimulating to see him apply his methodology to very complex subject material. Nearly every page suggests a half dozen topics for further study and investi­gation. It seems to me this is one of the greatest values a book can have.

When I think of the profundity and impact of works of Sorokin such as The Sociology of Revolution, Hunger as a Factor in Human Affairs, The Crisis of Our Age, and Social and Cultural Mobility which are not aimed solely at sociologists, I find myself agreeing — extrapolating Haydon’s comments and placing them in a wider context — with the thrust of what Haydon was saying. Who can deny that Sorokin reached valid, significant conclusions of great import; that he was clear eyed and prophetic in his insight and vision?

So that, despite weak scholarly underpinnings, The Sociology of Revolution stands up under the test of time. Its conclusions are valid: “A society which has never known how to live, which has been incapable of carrying through adequate reforms, but has thrown itself in the arms of revolution, has to pay the penalty for its sins by the death of a considerable proportion of its members.” Revolutions are foreordained to failure and incomprehensible horrors.




A final thought about Sorokin’s writings, which was expressed cogently by Sorokin’s fellow sociologist Lewis A. Coser:

It is at least plausible that his almost monomaniacal drive for learning was largely motivated by his desire to show the insiders that he, the outsider, could surpass them in command of vast bodies of literature. The man from Komi, who had never attended gymnasium, would demonstrate that he could master the ways of their culture more deeply and extensively than could they. His ambivalent desire for both acceptance and autonomy is reflected in the habit that was never to leave him: he would pile footnote upon footnote to indicate that he was at home in the whole storehouse of Western culture, while at the same time critically and often violently attacking almost all contemporary thinkers. He would show his colleagues that, though conversant with all the contributions of past and present thinkers, he remained his own man.

— Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought, pg. 505

This remark about Sorokin the arrogant and caustic scholar (Coser knew Sorokin personally) can be applied and extrapolated to my thoughts about Sorokin above, to how he went about writing his tomes. The scope of Sorokin’s reading and research was impressive, if not incredible, as can be seen in the two works discussed here. But merely perusing such a broad range of books in relevant areas and on pertinent topics that most sociologists would have overlooked does not amount to the kind of careful, painstaking scholarship that, say, a literary scholar, art historian, or musicologist might, in writing a single book, devote years to.
* “Fluctuations of Ideational, Sensate, and Mixed Forms of Music”; Chapter Twelve of Social and Cultural Dynamics, Volume 1: Fluctuations of Forms of Art, by Pitirim A. Sorokin (New York: American Book Company, 1937)


— Roger W. Smith

   May 2019

“I am no longer a revolutionist because revolution is catastrophe. I am no longer a Socialist, because Socialism is wrong.”



We had about three hundred and fifty miles to walk. To travel that distance without stopping at villages for food was impossible. In every village we ran great risk of arrest. To pass from one place to another it was necessary to get permission from the “Communistic Committee of Poor Peasants.” Red soldiers were patrolling the forests and special pickets watched all principal vistas. We thought of retreating into the deepest depths of the forest, building a hut and remaining there all winter. We considered also hiding in a house in a village, never appearing out of doors, and never speaking except to the master of the house. It sounds fantastic, but life is more fantastic than any fiction. Two of my friends saved their lives by that first plan and another by the second. This man lived for two years in a small house, never showing himself to anyone except his landlady, and in the end he escaped alive.

We continued to wander over the bosom of Nature, occasionally wishing we might see a little of civilization. In free moments we talked much about the Revolution, and doubts which had been born in my mind at the beginning of the upheaval grew to full size. In this wild forest the utter futility of all revolution, the vanity of all Socialism and Communism became clear to me. The catastrophe of the Revolution, the deep historic roots of Bolshevism, loathed by the majority, it is true, but having as its basis and its force the passive spirit of the Russian nation, overwhelmed me with its truth. Only when the people have suffered the fullest horrors of Bolshevism, only when they have passed completely through the tragic, perhaps the fatal experience of the Communist experiment, can their dreadful sickness be cured once and forever. Only then the poisons in which Bolshevism flourished would be purged from the organism of the Russian people. Only then would this damned passivity disappear and they be transformed from a people accustomed to tyranny to a self-governing nation.

Out of these meditations I wrote an address to my electors, sending it to my friends to be made public. I am no longer a revolutionist because revolution is catastrophe. I am no longer a Socialist, because Socialism is wrong. I released myself from responsibility as a member of the Constitutional Assembly, since the people would not support their own representative body. If they hope to have a ” Government of the people, tor the people, and by the people,” they themselves must be active and must cease to lean on leaders who, without their support, are powerless. Such was the essence of my message.

Many dazzling illusions, beautiful dreams in whose reality I had once believed, I lost during my meditations in the forest. They fled, I believe, forever. But I did not grieve over my lost illusions. Life and the world are so beautiful, so wonderful in their reality that illusions are necessary only to the blind and deaf and lame, for mental, moral, and physical cripples. Healthy persons have no need of illusions.

— Pitirim A. Sorokin, Leaves from a Russian Diary — and Thirty Years After; Part II: 1918; Chapter XII, “In the Bosom of Nature” (Boston: Beacon Press, 1950), pp 171-173






a telling criticism



[C. Wright Mills’s] The Sociological Imagination … was a collection of literary essays–some brilliant, others pedestrian-that permitted the profession to engage in the sort of self-analysis that too few people in the sociological positivism of the 1950s were prepared to engage in. True enough Pitirim Sorokin made a similar effort [in his Fads and Foibles in Modern Sociology and Related Sciences], but it was so laden with moral judgments and psychological mysticism that it could not penetrate to the heart of the issues raised by the dominant tendencies toward empiricism. Sorokin in his own distinct way, like [Talcott] Parsons, became captive to generalizations that were so rich in tautology and platitudes that we forgot how often devoid they were in specific reference points. [italics added]


— Irving Louis Horowitz, “C. Wright Mills, 1916-1962: Bright Lights and Dark Shadows,” Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 41, No. 4 (July 2012), pg. 415





What I would be inclined to say is that the late Irving Louis Hortwitz, a distinguished American sociologist, made an excellent point — in this article about C. Wright Mills — about Pitirim A. Sorokin’s shortcomings as a scholar and writer. True, it was only a passing remark.

Horowitz was a student of Mills at Columbia University and edited two posthumous collections of Mills’s work. Note that he also found fault with the writings of Sorokin’s nemesis Talcott Parsons!


— Roger W. Smith

   April 2019