Kantian Journal

2020 Vol. 39. No. 3

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Georges Gurvitch and Sergey Hessen on the Possibility of Forming Social Unity



The early decades of the last century saw European philosophical thought becoming increasingly interested in the sociological extension of the idea of law. From the viewpoint of the sociology of law, law is formed in the process of social interactions and is not sanctioned by the state. Sergey Hessen and Georges Gurvitch base their conceptions of social law on the sociology of law in the 1920s and 1930s. They start a polemic in the pages of the journal Sovremenniye zapiski (Contemporary Notes). Although they differ radically in their definitions of the status of the state they concur in defining society as a set of social institutions and communities existing as instruments for expressing personal freedom. The social regulations they propose are already legal situations. Hessen and Gurvitch believe that the individual can fully exercise his/her freedom only in conditions of such legal pluralism. However, the concept of legal pluralism involves an inherent problem of preserving social unity: why is it that society does not fall into a range of autonomous social entities, each offering the individual its own legal order for actualising freedom? To solve this problem the philosophers use the concept of “the general will”. General will is an instrument of correlation between individual freedom and the development of society and culture as a whole. The object of philosophical dispute is how the general will is formed: 1) in the process of social self-organisation according to Gurvitch; 2) in the operation of the suprafunctional organisation (the state) according to Hessen. The difference in the grounding of the general will leads to a difference in the concepts of social unity: 1) sobornost according to Gurvitch and 2) solidarity according to Hessen. Analysis of the dispute between Gurvitch and Hessen brings out not only the differences in the interpretation of social unity but also the fundamental problems with the conceptions of social law.


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