This post has two purposes. First, it begins a series of written posts to describe a research program that I and several colleagues have embarked upon in the past 18 months. Collective entrepreneurship, as I define it, includes both entrepreneurial teams — a typical unit of analysis in the field — and joint entrepreneurial ventures whose members are firms. Subsequent posts will describe particular studies of entrepreneurial collectives. This post is conceptual. The second purpose is to test a writing method that permits me to move between writing projects with limited friction. This method is described in an earlier post.
I must highlight two sources of inspiration for the post below. The first is a comprehensive review of literature by Molly Burress and Michael L. Cook, which is in the reference list. Cook holds the Robert D. Partridge Chair in Cooperative Leadership at the University of Missouri. He is recognized internationally for his research and education programs on cooperatives. Burress served as a program director for Cook at the time the literature review was completed. Suffice it to say that their joint effort in completing the review is gratefully acknowledged. The second inspiration is Martin Ruef’s 2010 book, The Entrepreneurial Group (Princeton University Press). His model of the what binds members of entrepreneurial teams to each other is a powerful tool for analysis.
The term collective entrepreneurship appears only recently in the literatures of economics, management, and entrepreneurship. In a review of the literature, Burress and Cook (2009) note 240 publications that invoke this term since 1964, with more than half the references occurring since 2000. They develop a taxonomy of the motivations for the juxtaposition of collective with entrepreneurship ranging from theoretical development through public policy and political action. Burress and Cook define the scope of the collective as a significant axis in the taxonomy. The scope of the collective action ranges from “intra-organizational efficiency” to “inter-organizational goals” to “economic growth and development” through “socio-political change”. That is, the narrowest scope is the entrepreneurial team or venture and the largest is the social movement. Entrepreneurial joint ventures and public-private partnerships are exemplars of scope interior to the axis.
In the work we are doing in the McQuinn Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, we take a similar view of the primacy of organizational scope, though we are less interested in those collective actions where the benefits are not appropriable by the members of the collective. In all entrepreneurial ventures, social and public benefits may exist but as a phenomenon to be studied, they are more à propos to social movements research. We recognize, on the other hand, that social movements provide opportunities for entrepreneurs to act, perhaps as a collective, and to appropriate entrepreneurial rents (Weber, Heinze, & DeSoucey, 2008).
Let us consider three forms of collective entrepreneurship and the explicit boundaries they engender. The first is the entrepreneurial team that collectively founds and manages an organization. Reich (1987) correctly notes that the preponderance of entrepreneurial ventures are not founded by the iconic “lone inventor”; most new ventures represent the combined efforts of a number of individuals – though their particular levels of investment may vary. This view is elaborated by Ruef (2010), who begins his treatise on group entrepreneurship with Toqueville’s vision of an associative culture in America and describes the phenomenon of collective action among “co-founders, employees, investors, advisors, or unpaid helpers” (p. 13) to create new firms. Ruef develops a model of the relational demography of group adhesion to the shared venture that is built upon four key elements: structure (roles and contracts), strong ties (networks and trust), homophily (shared characteristics), and identity (shared subjective beliefs and goals). We find this model to be a useful point of departure for collective ventures, within and between firms.
The second common instantiation of collective entrepreneurship is the cooperative form of organization. Most of the examples of this type of organization arise in the agricultural sector, where cooperatives have more than a century of importance to the American and European economies. Agricultural cooperatives have been institutionalized as a form of collective action to counteract market power in the markets into which farmers sell and from which they purchase inputs (Knapp 1969, 1977; Nourse 1942). The traditional cooperative had farms as members of the collective enterprise, with one membership/voting share for each farm. Note that this is a different form of collective than the entrepreneurial team, as the members are themselves individual firms.
Some recent research into cooperatives as entrepreneurial collectives raise the question of whether such organizations can act “entrepreneurially” in the face of changing market conditions (Bijman and Doorneweert 2008, Cook & Plunkett 2006, van Dijk 1999, Nilsson 1999). One interesting conceptual issue raised in these papers is whether entrepreneurial activity (innovation, new products, new markets, etc.) occurs at the level of the collective as an organizational strategy or at the level of the individual member-farmer. This is a particular instance of the broader question of whether actions can be taken by groups or only by members of the group – the central tenet of methodological individualism.
Both the entrepreneurial team literature and the entrepreneurial cooperative literatures require the establishment of a firm as the “envelope” around the collective action. The entrepreneurial firm discussed by Ruef has a social identity, as well as legal status. The same holds for the agricultural cooperative, which under various statutes in the United States, is organized as a corporation. The “membrane” around the collective action is an organizational form.
The third form of collective entrepreneurship in the literature considers collective action without this membrane, and overlaps with Burress and Cook’s category of “economic growth and development”. We might call this networked entrepreneurship. Networked entrepreneurship, as we see it, follows closely the model proposed by Johannisson and colleagues in describing a geographically delimited, networked community of entrepreneurs that jointly enact their business environment in common (Johannisson and Dalhstrand 2008; Johannisson, Ramirez-Pasillas and Karlsson 2002). These networks include research parks and industrial clusters. The members of this collective form are typically firms or strategic business units rather than individuals.
To complete a paper on the explanatory value of the opportunity construct, one must sort out the current and historical models of entrepreneurship. The historical analysis of the opportunity is simple; it was not separable from the entrepreneurial functions that characterized the roles that entrepreneurs played in the economy – except as it had vernacular meaning. Beginning with Shane and Venkataraman (2000) the opportunity was identified as a construct apart from individual (entrepreneurial) attributes and the actions of the entrepreneur. Consider Figure 1 below, taken from Shane’s 2003 treatise. The opportunity exists in time and space, caused by some change in technology, tastes and preferences, industry structure, or socio-political environment. The opportunity is discovered by some number of alert latent entrepreneurs. Some number of them decide to exploit their discovery and make the requisite investments, including the use of, or new instantiation of, a business organization. In Figure 2. Shane makes explicit the number of steps required of the entrepreneur and entrepreneurial firm between the (objectively known) existence of the opportunity and the performance outcomes (survival, profitability, etc.).
If the opportunity is so important to the entrepreneurial process, why are there so many mediating actions and decisions between the existence and the outcomes? How much of the outcomes does the existence of the opportunity explain?
There is an aside on these questions that will be addressed later: what is the definition of the opportunity? The corollary, of course, is what is the definition of an opportunity? That is, is this a model of universals or particulars? As we will see later, there is a number of unsatisfying definitions that will affect the ontological status of the construct.
Let us turn now to another issue: what does entrepreneurship explain? In the historical analyses, one sees a number of entrepreneurial functions or roles that have been studied as explanations of economic outcomes of interest. See Hébert and Link’s (2009) volume, A History of Entrepreneurship (Routledge). They identify a dozen roles that have been invoked from the seminal treatment by Cantillon up through the middle of the 20th century. The Hébert and Link treatise does not separate the roles or the authors associated with the roles by whether the explananda were at the micro-level (e.g. new venture or firm founded, profits) or at the macro-level (e.g. sectoral growth or evolution, price equilibration or disequilibration, functional distribution of incomes). It is not a simple task to identify the explananda , but I propose a trial taxonomy in Figure 3 below.
My taxonomy highlights my belief that most of the early economic thought with respect to entrepreneurship (from Cantillon and the French Physiocrats through the Austrian School and Schumpeter) explained sector-level phenomena. I shall expand on this later.
The foregoing leads me to Figure 4. Given the “location” of the opportunity construct as a prior condition to entrepreneurial action, one must question how much explanatory value it has. Figure 4 considers the roles of the opportunity as explanantia for micro- and macro-level phenomena. I consider two forms of opportunity as described by Alvarez and Barney (2007, 2010): objective opportunities (as proposed by Shane) and subjective opportunities, which are created interior to the minds of active entrepreneurs in some process of conjecture and experimentation. In each quadrant of the figure, I pose a question and I offer a statement about the explanatory value of the opportunity.
One can see that I am not sanguine about the construct. I will justify my questions and statements in a later post.
And then, we can move on to the sloppy reification of Schumpeterian and Kirznerian opportunities in the recent literature. It is to weep.
The paragraphs below represent the introduction and conclusions of a paper to be fully elaborated: the relationship between “opportunity” as it is invoked in entrepreneurship research and “explanation” as it is conceived in the philosophy of science. This is an exercise based upon Thomas Basbøll’s methods as a writing coach, wherein each paragraph is meant to contain one supported claim, to be constructed over 27 minutes. The six paragraphs that follow were constructed over 2 hours and 35 minutes.
§ 1. The World
The field of entrepreneurship is relatively young within the broad domain of organization and management studies. As such, scholars in the field spend a great deal of time with the self-conscious processes of legitimation: definition, codification, consensus-seeking, and territory-claiming. In part, this is because the conceptual roots of entrepreneurship research are planted in economics, sociology and psychology, as well as the other sub-fields of management: finance, strategy, organizational behavior, and marketing. Another source of the legitimation crusade is that entrepreneurship became important in business schools because of the demands for practical training for entrepreneurs-in-waiting and by stakeholders for describing the phenomena of business founding, innovation, venture planning, and noncorporate behavior in some coherent manner. Fields of study where theory lags practice are self-conscious. So it was with strategic management. So it is with entrepreneurship.
§ 2. The Science
In little more than a decade, the ontology of entrepreneurship research has fastened to the construct of the opportunity, much as a colony of mussels cling to a derelict dock piling. As Short, Ketchen, Shook, and Ireland write in their 2010 review article on this construct, ““Indeed, opportunities are one of the key concepts that define the boundary and exchange conditions of the entrepreneurship field” (p. 41). In a workshop at the 2013 Academy of Management, Jay Barney pronounced the opportunity to be the sine qua non of entrepreneurship research. As an editor of the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal, he sees the construct invoked often in current research manuscripts. One can point to Shane and Venkataraman (2000) as the seminal piece in the ontological process – the first mussel spat. The subsequent elaboration of the opportunity as a construct distinct from the human qua entrepreneur that exploits the opportunity is the core of current entrepreneurship research.
§ 3. My Thesis
This paper critically examines the construct of the entrepreneurial opportunity for its value in explanation. What does the opportunity do as explanandum and explanans? I will use an historical perspective, in part, to answer this question. For the long period of time beginning with Cantillon (1755) and ending (more or less) with Schumpeter (1911, 1934, 1942) and Kirzner (1973, 1979, 1997), entrepreneurship was the explanans for some phenomenon of interest: sectoral growth, the functional distribution of income and wealth, market dynamics, or the creation of non-land wealth. The young Schumpeter created an idealtypus entrepreneur as an explanans to the phenomenon of innovation, but later abandoned this project by retreating to entrepreneurship qua innovation as an economic function to explain economic evolution. We do not see much work on entrepreneurship as explanandum until the 1960s, when the investigations into personal attributes of entrepreneurs began with McClelland (1961). Now, it appears that the opportunity is being used as explanandum (where does it come from?) and explanans (how does it explain new venture formation?) I will argue that its value in explaining entrepreneurship is limited and therefor is of limited interest as an explanandum.
§ 4. The Roadmap
The paper has four sections. First, I will present a brief history of entrepreneurial thought to locate entrepreneurship as explanandum and to highlight the various forms of the entrepreneurial function that have been used as explanation. Then I will review the lack of consensus on the definition of the opportunity construct and how that will affect its value in scientific explanation. The third section reviews the very recent literature on whether opportunities (as explananda) are inherently objective or subjective. From the perspective of scientific explanation of entrepreneurship, one might regard this issue as a red herring. A thorough investigation of the literature reveals it to be more like the Fish-Slapping Dance, if I might be excused for extending the metaphor. The fourth section makes the case that the separation of opportunities into the categories of Schumpeterian (creation) and Kirznerian (discovery), which is an extension of the objective/subjective categorization, unfairly and incorrectly reifies the economic functions proposed by Schumpeter and Kirzner. Thus, it closes the argument by returning to the historical perspective.
§ 39. The Claim
We have examined the construct of the opportunity as a component in scientific explanation. Where does it contribute as explanans to an argument about entrepreneurial outcomes? If the outcome is at the macro-level, such as sectoral growth or the functional distribution of income, then one can argue that opportunities can pre-condition the payoffs if and only if the opportunities are concrete and observable. To the extent that one maintains that opportunities are subjective, then there is no way to aggregate subjective beliefs and conjectures into any explanation of macro- outcomes. If the outcomes are seen at the micro-level, then what is the payoff from knowing the specific beliefs or conjectures of an entrepreneur or entrepreneurial team? And if the opportunity is objective and available to multitudes, it explains almost nothing about individual ventures and their profitability. Such micro- explanations have limited value in entrepreneurship research for generalization, for modeling, and for theory-building. Given the limitations of the explanatory power of the opportunity, there is no compelling reason to study it as explanandum. And with the current status on the construct as ill-defined, subject to debate over whether it is objectively or subjectively known, it holds no more value in scientific explanation than the vernacular term.
§ 40. Whither Next?
If entrepreneurship is to develop as a research field and fulfill Shane and Venkataraman’s (2000) “promise”, then scholars must get past the sloppy language of opportunities. Constructs must be confirmed in empirical research so that the shared understanding will exist. Endless theorizing about the existence and nature of constructs, based upon appeals to prior (and unconfirmed) definitions will not advance the field. Care must be taken to develop constructs with respect to their value in explanation. What is to be explained? Is it a micro- or macro-phenomenon? Consider the alternative constructs that preceded the invocation of the opportunity: the functions of risk and uncertainty bearing, arbitrage, innovation of production processes, opening new markets, coordination of the enterprise. These are well codified and we can explain economic outcomes (new revenue streams, profits, and employment) by them. For much of the research agenda in the field of entrepreneurship, this is sufficient.
To finish the week, I had intended to produce a short six-paragraph “challenge” piece as an exercise in writing. I was collecting the thoughts that I would turn into the paragraphs on entrepreneurial opportunity, when the latest issue of the Academy of Management Review landed on my desk on Thursday. Then I read Rodolphe Durand’s piece “The Fruitfulness of Disagreement” in the book reviews section of the issue. I was struck by the serendipitous appearance of this piece when I was struggling with the storyline of my discomfort with the construct of the opportunity in current entrepreneurship research.
As an aside, and a truly worthy one, I cannot bring myself to call Durand’s piece a book review. It is much more. First, there is the matter of expository scope. Durand discusses two large, complex, difficult books: Logics of Organization Theory: Audiences, Codes, and Ecologies, by Hannan, Pólos, and Carroll; and The Emergence of Organizations and Markets, by Padgett and Powell. Each of these tomes is a daunting subject for a review. Second, Durand builds a case for review-as-reading-as-disagreement. That is, he defines a structure for approaching a review in the way one approaches a research topic: “… [B]efore thinking one has something new to say, to model, or to critique the work of those who have gone before, one needs to be convinced that something has gone awry in how those others have developed their ideas. Disagreement is at the root of thought experiments, analogies, and causal reexamination.” (p.387) He posits three forms of disagreement – about definitions, about incompleteness, and about unfairness. And to complete his extravagant “review”, Durand illustrates his method by examining the three forms of disagreement with respect to three other books from the 1960s and 1970s. Formidable!
I have the books by Hannan, Pólos, and Carroll and by Padgett and Powell on my office bookshelves, as they contribute to my study of what the great biological scientist G. Evelyn Hutchinson called “the ecological theater and the evolutionary play” in his 1965 book of that title. How much can we learn about organizations and sectors of the economy by modeling them as systems of interrelated agents (à la ecology) with explicit dynamical patterns of change (à la evolution)? I had high hopes for Hannan et al, but I could never get past the feeling that they were just trying to resuscitate the late and unlamented school of sociology that was called population ecology, but was a pale simulacrum of what biologists call ecology. By adding a cognitive overlay to the heretofore rigid classifications in two decades of “pop ecology”, the authors pirated the ideas from identity theory, but did not cite the vast literature on social and organizational identity that exists in the field of management. Padgett and Powell start off with a fascinating foray into autocatalysis by using the biochemical processes of the origin of life as a metaphor for emergent social processes and seeking to go beyond metaphor to analogical reasoning. I like the idea, but I am becoming reticent about using scientific metaphor for the development of organization theory. And when the book jumps from autocatalysis to case studies of societal transformations, I missed the analogical reasoning. Everything after page 115 looked like historiography.
Durand’s three genres of disagreements made me understand the nature of my unease with the two books that he reviews. For the organizational ecology book, I have violent disagreement with unfairness. That is, I go further than Durand in saying that the authors are unfair in the dismissal of authors and theoretical works that should be included in the development of the “new” text. I see the omission of the work on identity theory as more than a question of “compatability”. It is a question of intellectual dishonesty. And my disagreement with Padgett and Powell is a combination of the other two pieces of Durand’s approach: disagreement about definitions and disagreement about incompleteness. I believe that their metaphor is incomplete with respect to the evolution of social systems (and what evolves in them) and the definitions that have been well tested and confirmed in biochemistry have not been confirmed in organization theory, least of all by the contributors to their volume.
So what does the serendipitous appearance of Rodolphe Durand’s superb article mean for my unease with the construct of the entrepreneurial opportunity? I have not yet composed the argument in my head, but I should have a six-paragraph challenge to write by the middle of the coming week. It will be built around my disagreements with the definition of opportunity (or, more precisely, the multifarious, sloppy, and unconfirmed definitions), the incompleteness of the construct and its conceptual instantiations for explaining entrepreneurship, and the unfairness of the dismissal of a couple of centuries of economic thought so as to declare the construct as the sine qua non of entrepreneurship research.
I have been working with a writing coach this year to improve my writing. As I wrote in the previous post, the critical fault I need to correct is my poor discipline. That is, I do not write enough for peer audiences on an ongoing basis. The second area I wish to improve is my effectiveness (efficiency?). Certainly learning to be a better, more effective, writer will have a positive interaction effect with greater discipline – hence, more output.
The coach is Thomas Basbøll, who practices primarily from Copenhagen, Denmark. He has a blog about his philosophy of writing and his methods of coaching. It is found at Research as a Second Language:
One can page through Thomas’ blog to learn more. I will not be so presumptuous to give a précis here. Nor will I evaluate his blog; it suffices that I have read nearly all his posts from the last four years and that I am in the midst of executing a contract for personal coaching. I will note in my posts particular elements of the coaching as they arise in the coming months with respect to my writing project.
But I do wish to note here the centerpiece of Thomas’ method that informs my second area of improvement. He treats the paragraph as the central unit for composing and writing scientific papers. (See, for example, this.)
Thomas trains us that a scientific paper (yes, social science counts…) is a 40-paragraph argument/exposition. The 40 paragraphs of a journal article have a structure and each paragraph has a structure. I remember from elementary school the lessons about the paragraph having a Topic Sentence. I am shuddering at the apparition of Miss Becker before me, brandishing the grammar book and a lethal yardstick. I haven’t paid much attention to those lessons as an adult, but Thomas insists that each paragraph contains one well-articulated claim which is declared in one sentence – the key sentence in his lexicon – and which is supported by the other five sentences. The way the forty claims-as-paragraphs are arrayed creates the scientific argument.
If you look at Research as a Second Language, you will see some exercises about writing 18 of the 40 paragraphs as a “challenge” and some specific advice about treating the writing of each paragraph as a 30-minute task. I did this challenge with Thomas over the first half of the year along with a co-author. The point was to find a way for the two of us to conceive and execute the same paper by agreeing on the 40 claims that we jointly made. Do not gloss over the previous sentence! If you have ever co-authored a paper with someone who has different training or perspective than yours, you will appreciate the substance of that particular challenge. Next week I will write about this co-author challenge. On Friday, I will produce a short version of a challenge: a six paragraph exercise to see if I can structure each paragraph well and put some structure to the six paragraphs as a proto-argument.
After a very long hiatus, I am returning to this blog site to post. In large measure, this is part of a project to increase my written output. I have engaged a writing coach to help me overcome my most serious pathology — a lack of discipline. That is, I am capable of writing, but I do so only under the external discipline of a deadline. When submission deadlines are on the horizon, I can sequester myself in my office and write intensively for several days and be content with the outcome. The process is messy — literally, as I surround myself with open books, photocopies and open PDF files of journal articles, and scribbled notes that accumulated in the run-up to the writing event. And, of course, I cannot have two simultaneous writing projects ongoing. Two phenomena militate against switching between writing projects: the physical mess and the requisite processes of thinking, composing, reference-checking, and editing that overlap during the course of meeting a deadline. Neither the open reference materials nor the incomplete thoughts from one project can be put aside in favor of another. Thus, it is necessary to develop a personal discipline that enables a more fluid writing process.
I will introduce you to the coach’s method as one of the themes of this blog in the coming weeks. At this juncture I will presage the presentation to say that an important element is the separation of thinking/composing from the act of writing. That is, one should develop the paragraphs that will be written at a particular point in time prior to the writing session. I will elaborate on this in the next few weeks as part of my devoirs.
As a second part of my training, I will also post short pieces from my current research projects. I will shuffle these in among the posts on writing as a way to practice the movement between projects. I will attempt to “think, then write” on a couple of these projects to see if I can overcome my pathological lack of discipline and my habits of confounding the different steps in writing and of burying my work space in open texts as some extravagant form of external memory.
The current projects involve the major thrust of my research on entrepreneurship: the phenomenon of collective entrepreneurship. I am participating on large projects funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the directorate of the USDA for competitive research grants. I am also interested in the cognitive and social processes that bring individuals or small firms together to entrée into collective entrepreneurial ventures. I will post on where these empirical and conceptual projects take me in the coming months as they unfold.
I am thoroughly enjoying a romp through On The Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript, by Robert K. Merton. I was provoked to read this book by a series of posts on a blog called orgtheory.net, which is one of the three blogs that I read on a regular basis. It is a forum for sociologists, in the main, and the threads often touch on economic sociology – a sub-field that I find informative as a practicing non-sociologist. The recent thread introduced a STUNNING NEW APPROACH to economic sociology called “relational work” that is meant to overtake such useless approaches as Granovetter’s embeddedness. (I’ll make a separate post on this later.) I have difficulty with the central arguments about the originality of relational work, as it looks (to a practicing non-sociologist) to be derivative of Georg Simmel’s work a century ago, as well as significant elements of cultural anthropology and social psychology. When I and others raised the question, one of the disciples waded in with a scold that we were committing the “fallacy of adumbration”, which he attributed to Robert K. Merton, but cited Alejandro Portes.
So I read the section of Merton’s classic, Social Theory and Social Structure, in the 1968 edition, wherein he spent the first three dozen pages discussing whether an erudite scientist (or sociologist) would correctly identify pre-discoveries, anticipations, or adumbrations of a new work that appeared in the past. There are two things that I learned from reading Merton (1968) that I could not from reading Portes or the poster. (1) Adumbration (foreshadowing) is not the same as adumbrationism, which is the mean-spirited search for anticipations and adumbrations and the subsequent claim that there is “nothing new here”. (2) It is more important that the scientist (or sociologist) be aware of the taxonomy or systematics of ideas – how they are related – than their priority (in the chronological sense). To declare relational work as a new approach without doing the necessary systematics is the real fallacy.
Anyhow… let’s leave the rant aside. The development of Merton’s writing on adumbrationism began with his presidential address to the American Sociological Society (1957), continued through the elaboration of this material in Social Theory and Social Structure to the publication of the delightful On the Shoulders of Giants – hereafter OTSOG – in which he brings to fruition a two-decade search for priority in the aphorism by Isaac Newton, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. This particular search for priority is couched in a general discussion of the transmission of knowledge, plagiarism and misattribution, and the general nonlinearity of the accumulation of knowledge. He trades on the nonlinearity by adopting the convolved style of Tristram Shandy, which celebrates his erudition and focus on systematics in the guise of establishing priority, a design captured in the coined word otsogery.
I haven’t the mind or the relentless spirit of R.K. Merton, but I do enjoy chasing down quotes, aphorisms, and original sources. I like my students to use original sources, too. Wikipedia doesn’t count. There are two of these intellectual scavenger hunts that I enjoyed very much.
In his seminal book, The Mechanisms of Governance, the Nobel Laureate in Economics, Oliver Williamson argues for pursuing his “interdisciplinary joinder of law, economics, and organization in a ‘modest, slow, molecular, definitive way’ ”. He footnotes this statement with a quote,
“The longer I live, citizen …” – This is the way the great passage in Peguy begins, words I once loved to say (I had them almost memorized) – “The longer I live, citizen, the less I believe in the efficiency of sudden illuminations that are not accompanied or supported by serious work, the less I believe in the efficiency of conversion, extraordinary, sudden, and serious, in the efficiency of sudden passions, and the more I believe in the efficiency of modest, slow, molecular, definitive work. The longer I live the less I believe in the efficiency of an extraordinary, sudden social revolution, improvised, marvelous, with or without guns and impersonal dictatorship – and the more I believe in the efficiency of modest, slow, molecular, definitive work.”
I could not fathom how Charles Péguy could have denounced sudden, wondrous conversion and sudden, extraordinary social revolution when he was (1) a famously devout Catholic; a mystic whose poetry includes an exceptional hommage to Joan of Arc, and (2) a famously ardent socialist who believed strongly in the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. In fact, after giving up on the Catholicism of his youth while at the École Normale Supérieure, he returned to his faith in the middle of the first decade of the century, when he was in his early 30s. He was slain in the first battle of the Marne in 1914 at the age of 41.
Thus, it was hard to understand a quote that twice alludes to advancing age and a personal and social apostasy that was written by a man who died in full flower as a religious mystic and as a champion for human rights and the left. So, I went to the library and found Charles Péguy’s Oeuvres en Prose Complètes and read them back to front looking for this passage. I discovered the true passage early in the volume (nowhere close to his death) and translated for Williamson. I sent him my translations and the following.
The quote in Williamson’s text contains two red herrings. The first is, “this is the way the great passage in Peguy begins”. In fact, the quoted passage begins with the second clause of the fourth sentence of the twentieth paragraph of an essay presented as a dialogue. The second confusion is that the quote appears to be a single argument against sudden personal illuminations and sudden social revolutions. In fact, the passage is two distinct arguments in counterpoint. One party to the dialogue denies the value of sudden personal revelation and the other denies the value of sudden social revolution.
The young socialist atheist revolutionary (Péguy) consults a “citizen doctor: socialist, revolutionary, moralist, internationalist” as he has come down with the grippe while preparing for the Socialist Congress.
– … “And genius demands patience to work, doctor, and the longer I live, citizen, the less I believe in the effectiveness of sudden illuminations that are not accompanied by or supported by serious work, the less I believe in the effectiveness of sudden, wondrous, extraordinary conversions, the effectiveness of sudden passions, – and the more I believe in the effectiveness of modest, slow, molecular, definitive work.”
– “ The longer I live, responded the doctor gravely, the less I believe in the effectiveness of a sudden, extraordinary social revolution, wondrously improvised, with or without guns and impersonal dictatorship, – and the more I believe in the effectiveness of modest, slow, molecular, definitive, work for society.”
The conversation continues around the doctor’s thesis that one cannot believe in the “big questions” when unable to believe in the personal-level issue of faith. This essay was, in fact, written when Péguy was 26 and before his return to the church. He had just launched a publishing venture in support of socialist causes in January 1900, called Cahiers de la quinzaine, (Fortnightly Journals). This was to be his pulpit as a polemicist until his death, as well as a place where like-minded individuals published before they became famous.
The citation should read: Péguy, Charles. “Encore de la grippe”, Cahiers de la quinzaine, volume I, number 6, March 20, 1900.
Williamson thanked me by return e-mail within the hour but admitted that he liked his erroneous, purloined quote “as it better suited his argument”. Nonetheless, my e-mail became part of his graduate course syllabus until he quit teaching.
The second scavenger hunt was the search for the aphorism, “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door”. A quick perusal of the WWW suggested that the aphorism was attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson and was reported by two Unitarians (Sarah Yule and Mary Keene) for a compilation in 1889. Some folks suggest that this quote or a more elaborate one — “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap, than his neighbor, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.” – was uttered by Emerson when he visited the Barbary Coast on a lecture tour in 1871. In any case, both quotes are a pale simulacrum of what Emerson would likely say.
So I repaired to the library again and started to read Emerson’s compiled writings. The citation that I have is Works, Volume VII, 1912 edition. In it the transcription of a journal entry that Emerson wrote while on a stagecoach tour of the Mohawk Valley in New York during 1855, one finds his discourse on Fame.
“If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles, or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad, hard-beaten road to his house, tho it be in the woods. And if a man knows the law, people will find it out, tho he live in a pine shanty, and resort to him. And if a man can pipe or sing, so as to wrap the prisoned soul in an elysium; or can paint landscape, and convey into oils and ochers all the enchantments of spring or autumn; or can liberate or intoxicate all people who hear him with delicious songs and verses, ’tis certain that the secret can not be kept: the first witness tells it to a second, and men go by fives and tens and fifties to his door. “ (page 528)
Now THAT is Emerson.
I’m looking for the next scavenger hunt. Perhaps Merton will provoke something in particular.