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Toward a new age of enlightenment. Tetrasociology and the web approach. Bernard Phillips, USA

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2.1. Toward a new Age of Enlightenment. Tetrasociology and Web Approach

Bernard Phillips, USA

Leo Semashko's theory (2002) opens up for contemporary sociologists a window that looks out o­nto ideals of the Enlightenment that not o­nly persist, but are carried much further by this contemporary Russian sociologist.  It is hard to imagine how these ideals can be extended as far as Semashko takes them, given his experiences of trying to keep them alive in a dictatorship for decades, and given the economic problems faced by academics in contemporary Russia.  Yet there are parallels to this outside of Russia, for we might also wonder how Western sociologists like C. Wright Mills and Alvin Gouldner managed to stay with these same Enlightenment ideals, despite the horrors of the 20th century and the resulting pessimism and cynicism inside and outside the academic world.

Imagine, with Semashko, a world that is moving toward a new Age of Enlightenment where globalization, multiculturalism, and the internet are working to yield ever more harmony among all the peoples of the world.  This is not a postmodern world, with a pessimistic view of the potential of the scientific method.  Rather, it is a "postpluralistic" world, which follows postmodernism in its openness to complexity and change.  It is optimistic about the possibilities of the scientific method to understand complexity and change by integrating elements of many theories, versus maintaining the isolation of diverse theories that fail to communicate with each other.  Just as people in that world are learning to interact so as to pay full attention to others' ideas and ultimate worth-and even to create a "dialogue among civilizations"-so are social scientists learning to integrate the work of those who have preceded them so as to follow scientific ideals for a social science that cumulates rapidly (Phillips, 2001; Phillips, et al., 2002).

Semashko does not assume that such a world emerges by itself, for, like Auguste Comte (1875-1877), he sees a vision of sociologists working to bring it about by addressing modern problems in a highly effective manner.  He coins the term "tetrasociology" to refer to the kind of sociology that can accomplish this, with a breadth similar to that which Mills called for in The Sociological Imagination (1959), along with the reflexivity that Gouldner called for in The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology (1970).  That breadth is based o­n Semashko's own background as a philosopher no less than a sociologist, including a metaphysical and epistemological stance along with his theoretical and applied orientations.  And just as modern sociologists have emphasized the nature and extraordinary impact of language o­n shaping the individual and society, so does Semashko attempt to use that impact by introducing many new concepts such as "tetrasociology."

To illustrate Semashko's approach, his metaphysics is oriented to three dimensions of social space and o­ne dimension of social time, corresponding to the three dimensions of physical space and o­ne dimension of physical time.  Further, just as Einstein related space and time, so Semashko sees the linkage between social space and social time as crucial.  Before taking o­ne step further into his ideas, we have gained fundamental insights from this metaphysical orientation, without calling it a kind of number magic following the mysticism of Pythagoras.  Semashko alerts us to the importance of probing into our own metaphysical assumptions, whether or not they differ from his.  What is our own worldview, or Weltanschauung? a concept that may appear to be outdated to modern sociological eyes.  What impact does that worldview have o­n every stage of the research process?  Why has almost every social science publication over the past century failed to assess that impact?  Why don't we social scientists devote the attention to this topic that it deserves, instead of continuing to rule out metaphysics and philosophy from the realm of sociology?

As for the relationship between social space and social time, Semashko is telling us of the centrality of the latter if we hope to understand the former, and he is indirectly criticizing the relatively static nature of the social sciences.  This is arguably a frontier of our discipline.  At the macro level this is illustrated by efforts of comparative-historical sociologists to face up to the complexity of history, carrying further the more simplistic orientations of figures such as Toynbee, Spencer and Sorokin.  At the micro level it is illustrated by the work of symbolic interactionsts, ethnomethodologists and rational-choice theorists who attempt to probe deeply into the scene, capturing changes in emotions and speech from o­ne moment to the next with audio-visual technology.  Metaphorically, I'm reminded here of Edwin Abbott's Flatland, a science-fiction story written in the 1880s, where a three-dimensional sphere is able to see into all of Flatland's two-dimensional houses and inhabitants by hovering over them.  Analogously, we require a four-dimensional perspective that includes social time to see into our own nature, probing into the history of the individual and society in order to understand present-day behavior.  Here we have Semashko carrying further the long-term historical orientation illustrated by Marx, extending it to the momentary scene.

If we turn to Semashko's epistemology, we find - implicitly - a profound critique of our modern approach to the scientific method.  His postpluralism calls for the ability of the social scientist to make good use of all of the relevant theoretical ideas from the past in investigating any given problem.  Yet sociologists are divided into numerous specialized areas, and literally hundreds of subspecialties, and we generally fail to communicate across specialized and subspecialized boundaries.  This is illustrated by the division of the American Sociological Association into no less than forty-two distinct Sections, each with their own organizations and immunity to outside ideas.  By contrast, Semashko's ideas bridge many specialities, as called for in Beyond Sociology's Tower of Babel (Phillips, 2001) and Toward a Sociological Imagination (Phillips, et al., (2002).

In this way, Semashko challenges all of us, and puts forward his own response, as indicated in his book's subtitle, "Responses to Challenges."  Granting the enormous difficulties of confronting our own epistemological assumptions and coming up with alternatives that follow our ideals for the scientific method, he calls for us to respond to that challenge.  He is indirectly criticizing postmodernist critiques of the scientific method, critiques that are o­ne-sided in their failure to construct alternative procedures.  How should we take into account the impact of the researcher o­n the research process?  How should we specialists reach out to the knowledge within other specialized areas?  How should we proceed to pay attention to our metaphysical assumptions?  What is the nature of a scientific method that follows scientific ideals?  What kind of methodology would take into account the incredible dynamism and complexity of human behavior?  He gives us hints with his own breadth of perspective, his understanding of the existence of the complexity and dynamism of human behavior, and his ideals for the possibilities of sociology and of every human being.

Semashko is no less concerned with theory than with metaphysics and epistemology. He departs from a Marxist emphasis o­n an inevitable conflict between social classes, emphasizing instead the potential harmony among peoples throughout the world based o­n shared values, along with the process of globalization and the potential of the internet.  Yet he takes key elements from Marxist theory, just as his methodological orientation is to be selective from the full range of available social science theory.  For example, the cultural value of equality, coupled with other humanistic values, are central to his thought, just as they are to the Enlightenment tradition.  His historical perspective, central to Marxist theory, is carried into every single instance of human behavior.  He divides all of society into four "spheres," and those within the spheres constitute four "sphere classes."  He sees all people within society as productive, in contrast to Marx's focus o­n work and property, since everyone is essential to society's existence. 

Thus, there is the "socioclass" within the "sociosphere," concerned with education (including students), health, social work, retired people, the unemployed and the nonworking population. The "infoclass" within the "infosphere" includes those involved with science, the arts, communication, and information services.  The "orgclass" within the "orgsphere" includes those in management, government, law, law enforcement, finance, and the armed forces.  And there is also the "technoclass" within the "technosphere," which includes industrial workers along with those involved in agriculture.  Semashko invokes a "law of harmony" in describing relationships among the sphere classes, by contrast with a "law of disharmony" characterizing relationships among social classes based o­n property.  o­ne is reminded here of Durkheim's The Division of Labor (1893), where he contrasts a "normal division of labor" with an "abnormal division of labor." In the former case, specialists are aware of their contribution to the economy as a whole, whereas in the latter case there is no such awareness, along with problems that this creates.  In Semashko's view, everyone - not just workers -will become aware of their contribution, not just to the economy but to the "reproduction" of society.  With this broad approach to "reproductive employment," he encompasses more than Marx's emphasis o­n the ownership of property, and more than the emphasis o­n multiple criteria of stratification within Western sociology.

Turning from theory to application, Semashko recognizes the existence and urgency of fundamental problems within modern society, although he does not subject them to systematic analysis in his book.  To illustrate, he specifies an egalitarian orientation in discussing the roles of women and children in society.  If, indeed, society requires the continuing existence of individuals in every sphere who view themselves as worthwhile, and if those spheres are equally important for the "reproduction" of society, then this calls for social changes which follow that egalitarian perspective.  For example, he suggests the importance of recognizing domestic labor by women as just as productive as work by men, recognition that should be supported by pay for such work. And he also suggests the importance of equal participation by women in all of the spheres of society.  As for children, he sees their lack of suffrage as a "black hole" within modern society, since children under 18 comprise a fifth to a third of any given society's population.  More generally, a great many children are deprived of high-quality education and care within society.  Semashko goes o­n to propose o­ne partial remedy:  granting every child a vote that is exercised by the child's parents or guardians.  He sees this as potentially strengthening the family's and the individual's political involvement, and also working to fight crime, drug addiction, homelessness and alienation.

A key aspect of Semashko's applied orientation has to do with the role of social scientists, just as a great many contemporary sociologists see applied work as crucial, not o­nly to give their discipline legitimacy but also to test the adequacy of their ideas.  Given the complexity and dynamism of society, statistical measurements that take into account the full extent of that complexity and dynamism are required.  An approach must be developed that is general enough to be applied to the entire world population, and also specific enough so that it can be relevant to addressing difficult problems.  At present, the relatively sparse information that exists, and is being developed, is neither general enough nor specific enough, and it fails to take into account much that has been learned within the social sciences.  Semashko sees computer analyses, with the aid of mathematical models, yielding powerful tools for social scientists.  And he specifies the importance of developing statistics for macro as well as micro analysis of social structures:  world, nations, regions, communities, families, and individuals.  Overall, we need data no less than theory if that theory is to become useful in solving problems.

Semashko succeeds in reminding Western sociologists of ideals that most of us gave up years ago, although they probably still remain somewhere inside of us. This is particularly noteworthy for someone who has suffered for so many years under a totalitarian regime.  His intellectual breadth reminds us of the breadth of the classical founders of our discipline, such as Marx, Durkheim, Weber and Simmel.  His recognition of human complexity and dynamism is quite modern.  His methodological direction, to develop a "postpluralist" theory, is a way to address that complexity and dynamism.  Such theories build o­n a limited number of elements from many theories, in contrast to simply tolerating the existence of relatively isolated theories. Yet, at the same time, he leaves unanswered many questions that require answers, if we are to follow his ideals.  He leaves, for future research, explanations of the complex forces that stand in the way of solving fundamental social problems.  Granted that he points toward important ideals, we sociologists have largely repressed those ideals because we have not learned how to move toward them. To what extent does Semashko give us the deep understanding of human behavior required for such movement?  Of course, this is asking too much, yet his book tends to gloss over the need for such explanations, jumping too quickly to purported solutions to problems, without giving us  sufficient understanding of the nature of those problems, or of the forces standing in our way.

There are many questions that Semashko's ideas raise, and perhaps this is o­ne of his major contributions.  Viewing tetrasociology from a theoretical and applied perspective, why does social stratification persist, in contrast to the cultural ideal of equality?  For example, what are the forces that are presently yielding sexism, ageism, classism and ethnocentrism?  Why is Durkheim's "normal division of labor," with the worker's awareness of her contribution and importance to society as a whole, in fact an "abnormal division of labor" or state of affairs?  Is his discussion of spheres and sphere classes no more than an empty categorization?  How would it be possible to promote a "sphere consciousness," emphasizing the importance of every individual in society, paralleling the difficulty Marx experienced in understanding what mechanisms would yield class consciousness throughout the world?  If, as Semashko claims, stratification would still exist within each sphere, what would cause the experience of the individual to be much different from what it is now?  How are we to understand what causes "the law of harmony" and "the law of disharmony" to operate?  Given what we have experienced in the 20th and early 21st centuries, is a "new Age of Enlightenment" a realistic possibility?  How will Semashko analyze particular social and theoretical problems in detail, and come up with insights beyond what we have learned from contemporary sociological literature? Given the censorship of Western sociological literature in the Soviet Union until 1990, it will take time for him to catch up with that literature.

If we view tetrasociology from a metaphysical and epistemological or methodological perspective, just what is the nature of its metaphysical assumptions about human behavior and society?  What is the nature of Semashko's overall image of the future?  How should present-day sociologists proceed with their approach to the scientific method?  What is wrong with present-day methodological procedures?  What is wrong with present-day sociological theory?  If Semashko's approach to releasing the potential of language is inadequate, how might we open up that potential?  o­ne problem within Semashko's approach is symptomatic of American sociology in the 1950s, with its newfound emphasis o­n what was believed to be the great potential of quantitative procedures.  Many of us have learned, through long experience, of the limitations of such tools, along with the importance of qualitative procedures.  Many of us have also learned the importance of centring o­n a particular problem, in contrast to developing a theory for all problems. But it is the latter, and not the former, that appears to be Semashko's approach.  We can applaud his emphasis o­n the importance of general theory and metaphysical assumptions, but we can wonder about the lack of more specific theory, which comes down from general theory to a particular problem.

Semashko comes out of modern Russia with ideas that are in some ways more revolutionary than those of Karl Marx.  Just as Toynbee saw human history in terms of challenge and response, Semashko attempts to respond to the acceleration of modern problems by pointing toward the possibility of a new Age of Enlightenment.  He suggests nothing less than changes in the metaphysical stance of modern society, based o­n the potential weight of language.  And he goes back to what may well prove to be the future of social science.  He returns us to the ideals of the scientific method and the enormous breadth of the classical sociologists.  Yet, like Moses, he may have brought us to the Promised Land unable to enter it himself, with tetrasociology.  For he fails to demonstrate how his broad metaphysical, epistemological, theoretical and applied approach to social science yields deeper insights into any major social or theoretical problem.  Perhaps if we, as contemporary sociologists, can learn from Semashko to rekindle the fire of ideals that gave rise to the Enlightenment, and to the origins of sociology, a fire that we desperately require in these times of troubles, then we may find a way to enter that Promised Land.

Before adding my own views, of how sociologists might take further steps toward what Mills called "the promise of sociology," I have begun by emphasizing Semashko's contributions.  We need his optimism about human possibilities, especially in these times of accelerating world problems.  If he is able to carry forward Comte's conviction of sociologists' capacity to confront such problems, despite the difficulties he experienced in the Soviet Union and in post-USSR Russia, then surely the rest of us can learn to recapture that conviction.  Along with this belief should go a responsibility for moving our discipline toward the ideals sketched by Comte, Mills, Gouldner, Semashko, and many others: to bring about a sociology that pulls together the islands of ideas from the social sciences and elsewhere, as to the nature of human behavior, and to build a science that develops our understanding far more rapidly than ever before.  If sociologists are not in the best position to do this, who is? If we do not take responsibility for this, who will?  However, we need not follow Comte's belief that we  should become Queen of the Sciences. Such stratification would sabotage our efforts.  Rather, we can build a path toward understanding that works for us, demonstrating the possibility for others to build their paths, and we can all learn from o­ne another's efforts.

I also have emphasized Semashko's breadth of perspective, including metaphysics, epistemology, theory and applications, paralleling Mills' vision of the "sociological imagination." It is an approach that raises questions about the adequacy of our beliefs within these four areas of knowledge.  For example, if our metaphysical stance has yielded a sociology that fails to address the complexity and dynamism of human behavior, then we must change it.  If our epistemological stance rests easy with our failures to communicate across specialties and subspecialties, then that too must change.  And the same goes for our theoretical and applied achievements. Contemporary philosophers of social science have taught us that these four areas are connected within a web of belief (Kincaid, 1996).  Sociologists can no longer afford to avoid paying attention to our metaphysical and epistemological assumptions, for they affect all of our efforts to develop and apply theories of human behavior.  To illustrate, Semashko's orientation, of paying attention to social time within all of our studies, contradicts our present metaphysical stance.  Yet this appears to be essential if we are adequately to address human complexity and dynamism.

Further, I have suggested that sociologists come up with alternatives to our present metaphysical and epistemological assumptions, alternatives that will help us to achieve the rapid cumulative development of our knowledge that we desire, and that is desperately needed in these times. My own recent work here, and that of several others, is spelled out in Beyond Sociology's Tower of Babel (2001) and in Toward a Sociological Imagination (2002).  Such efforts are not isolated from theory and applications, for it is the theoretical and applied fruitfulness of a given metaphysical or epistemological stance that sheds light o­n the usefulness of that stance.  In these books I have contrasted a "bureaucratic" epistemology with an "interactive" o­ne, with the former corresponding to present-day research, and the latter to research that opens up to human complexity and dynamism.  Yet the problem of shifting from o­ne scientific paradigm to another is a most difficult o­ne, as Thomas Kuhn has suggested in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1966).  That problem is particularly difficult, following the argument in my books, since our epistemological paradigm is nested within our metaphysical paradigm.

Yet the incredible potential of the scientific method for sociologists, emphasized by Semashko, can succeed in confronting even a problem as great as changing our metaphysical paradigm.  If we approach such change from a bureaucratic perspective, we are doomed to failure, for it lacks a deep sense of the problem as well as the intellectual breadth that is required.  An interactive perspective - consistent with that suggested by Semashko - sees the scientific method metaphorically as a pendulum that swings in ever-widening arcs.  To the extent that we open up to the depth of our metaphysical problem by swinging the pendulum in that direction, we can gain momentum for swinging it in the opposite direction, where we can make progress in changing that paradigm.  And to the extent that we achieve such change, we gain momentum for understanding and defining more fully the problems of changing our paradigm.  Such metaphysical efforts should in turn open us up to the epistemological, theoretical and applied efforts that Semashko outlines.  This interactive orientation follows the o­ne-step-at-a-time philosophy of pragmatism developed by Peirce, James, Dewey, Mead and others (see, for example, Philosophical Writings of Peirce). It also follows Semashko's emphasis o­n the importance of a "dialogue among civilizations." Thus, Semashko's optimism about sociology's possibilities at this time in history may well turn out to be the most realistic approach we can take to understanding human behavior and confronting human problems.


Durkheim, Emile. (1893/1951) The Division of Labor. Glencoe, IL: Free Press

Gouldner, Alvin. (1970) The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. New York: Basic Book

Kincaid, Harold. (1996). Philosophical Foundations of the Social Sciences. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press

Kuhn, Thomas. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Mills, C. Wright. (1959) The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford Univ. Press

Phillips, Bernard. (2001). Beyond Sociology's Tower of Babel: Reconstructing the Scientific Method. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter

Phillips, et al., (2002). Toward a Sociological Imagination: Bridging Specialized Fields. Lanham, MD: Univ. Press of America

Peirce, Charles. (1955). Philosophical Writings of Peirce. New York: Dover

Semashko, Leo. (2002) Tetrasociology: Responses to Challenges. Technical University, Russia, St. Petersburg

Bernard Phillips, Retired Professor of Sociology, Boston University, bernieflps@aol.com

Founder and Coordinator, Sociological Imagination Group

Founder and Co-Editor, "Sociological Imagination and Structural Change" book series, Aldine de Gruyter

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