Vilfredo Pareto: Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries

Vilfredo Pareto: Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries

Vilfredo Pareto: Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries

Vilfredo Pareto: Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries


This collection examines the work of the Italian economist and social theorist Vilfredo Pareto, highlighting the extraordinary scope of his thought, which covers a vast range of academic disciplines. The volume underlines the enduring and contemporary relevance of Pareto's ideas on a bewildering variety of topics; while illuminating his attempt to unite different disciplines, such as history and sociology, in his quest for a 'holistic' understanding of society. Bringing together the world's leading experts on Pareto, this collection will be of interest to scholars working in the fields of sociology and social psychology, monetary theory and risk analysis, philosophy and intellectual history, and political science and rhetoric.


Joseph V. Femia and Alasdair J. Marshall

This volume explores Pareto’s astonishingly varied intellectual contribution from a range of disciplinary perspectives, the main intention being to show why it remains relevant and should not simply be consigned to the history of ideas. Pareto was an almost obsessive polymath, whose refusal to recognise disciplinary boundaries has few parallels. It might even be ventured that he deserves the categorisation of universal genius, commonly reserved for such as Leonardo da Vinci, owing to the sheer breadth and diversity of his talent and enduring insight.

And yet Pareto did not embody the ideal to which renaissance humanism aspired. In that cultural movement, which began in Italy during the fourteenth century, the new man was expected to immerse himself in the universal education offered within Europe’s newly proliferating universities, and to then flourish across multiple walks of life. For Pareto, this humanist teleology was reversed. His pattern is one of varied worldly experience in the first half of his life, leading, eventually, to an academic career that aspired towards universal social scientific knowledge, but which saw him become increasingly disillusioned with and remote from the world. Especially in his later sociological works, Pareto evinced a negative view of human nature, one that bordered on misanthropy. This is why he is routinely associated with Machiavellian realism. We find this realism expressed both in his formal methodological position of scientific indifference towards the nineteenth century faith in human progress, and in the historical pessimism which shapes his account of social change. If realism entails a suspicion of theoretical abstraction, then we can also see it at work in his critique of reductionist explanation. When analysing society, Pareto emphasised complex interdependency, treating each social form as a state of dynamic equilibrium where economic, political and social phenomena interact.

This idea of complex interaction necessarily sets us thinking across disciplinary boundaries. But Pareto’s initial academic contribution was in the narrow field of mathematical economics. By the first decade of the century, he concluded that formal economic theories were too detached from the realities of individual and institutional behaviour to be of much use in explaining social life. The stage was set for his subsequent abandonment of disciplinary specialisation. It would be useful to relate, albeit briefly, this shift in perspective to the formative events and experiences of his fascinating life story. Pareto was born in Paris in 1848, to a French mother and an aristocratic Italian father. His determination to extend the scientific method to the study of society can be traced back to his student days at the Polytechnic Institute in Turin, where he took a degree in mathematics and . . .

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