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Fondo Vilfredo Pareto della Banca Popolare di Sondrio

Giovanni Busino – Vilfredo Pareto (1848 – 1923)


Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923)

Acclaimed by some, disparaged by others, Pareto’s place in the history of social

analysis persistently continues to arouse controversy. Although economists do not

dispute his importance, while deploring his sociological drifts, sociologists on the

other hand are outraged by his monstrous books, his impenetrable theories and his

esoteric epistemology, despite the kindly-disposed comments of Raymond Aron,

Talcott Parsons and a few knowledgeable sociologists.

The Italian Years

Born in Paris on 15


 July1848 of a French mother and an Italian father (in exile in

France due to his liberal ideas), Vilfredo Pareto’s family came to live in Gênes

around 1854. In 1859 the Paretos moved to Casale Monferrato and there Vilfredo

was registered for the Leardi College where he studied science and the classics. In

1867 he obtained a degree in mathematics from the Faculty of Sciences of the

University of Turin and then, in 1870, a Civil Engineering Diploma from the

Polytechnic College with a thesis on the theory of elasticity of solid bodies and on

the integration of differential equations which define their equilibrium. In that same

year he was engaged by the Rolling Stock Department of the Roman Railway

Company in Florence. In October 1873 he was appointed an executive of the San

Giovanni Valdarno forge of the Iron Industry Company. He became Managing

Director in 1875 and resigned his post in 1890.

In 1893 Pareto was appointed Professor of political economy at the University of

Lausanne and then, in 1907, holder of the ad personam chair of political and social

sciences. He gave up university lecturing in 1911 to devote himself exclusively to his

own work. Designated by the Government as Senator of the Kingdom of Italy, on 1


March 1923, he declined that appointment for personal reasons. He died on 19


August 1923 at Céligny in the Canton of Geneva.

From the time when he settled in Florence in 1870 Pareto participated, through

writing and speaking, in the spreading of liberal doctrines, free exchange, anti-

protectionism and pacifism commended by the Adam Smith Society. His liberalism

was extreme and his moralism uncompromising. A critic of the policy of Italian

Governments of the time, of the ideas and actions of the whole ruling class, Pareto

could see in politics only ambition and bad faith, intrigues exploiting popular

passions. Power is only corruption, trickery and malice. His hostility towards the

centralizing and bureaucratic State went hand in hand with the quest for a fair social,

economic and political order. His intransigence, his fight against protectionism,

against armament programs, against Government Minister Crispi’s gallophobia and

Fondo Vilfredo Pareto della Banca Popolare di Sondrio

Giovanni Busino – Vilfredo Pareto (1848 – 1923)


the malpractices of wheeling and dealing, left him on his own, a publicist without a

public and without influence.

The Swiss Period

Around 1890, through the economist Maffeo Pantaleoni, he discovered the works of

Léon Walras and the marginalist school. His conversion to the “new economic

doctrines”, to mathematical economy and to the theory of general equilibrium was

instantaneous. University lecturing made it possible for him to devote himself entirely

to the study of economic theories and to applying mathematics to the social


At the age of 48 Pareto published his first book, Cours d’économie politique, in which

he explains the theories of capital, production, trade and crises. After presenting the

general principles of pure economy, a science which must be studied in accordance

with the same criteria as those of physics, he puts forward the constants and

uniformities of human actions. Some of these actions bring about a pleasant

sensation, called ophelimity, an idea which “expresses the relationship of affinity

whereby something meets a need or satisfies a desire, legitimate or not”; others,

which are the utilities, supply certain conditions of health, development of the body

and of the intelligence for individuals and aggregates, for whom they also provide for

reproduction. By means of these ideas, Pareto worked out abstract models which

allowed him to gather and classify facts and then draw empirical or rational laws

from them. Thus, the researcher can explain specific and complex phenomena. A

typical example of this conceptualization is given by the graph of incomes, or wealth

graph. Pareto shows that the distribution of income takes the form of a spinning top

with its point turned upward, in all countries. The poor form the rounded lower part of

the reversed spinning top and the rich the upper part, at the pointed end. An increase

in minimum income and a reduction in the inequality of incomes can only be

produced, either in isolation or cumulatively, if the total of the incomes increases

faster than the population. An increase in the number of large fortunes does not

produce a general growth in wealth, any more than an increase in the number of the

poor brings about general impoverishment in the country. In other words, the

inequality of fortunes and the reduction of pauperism are two very different things.

Redistribution of wealth could enlarge the base of the spinning top and thin down its

pointed end, but the loss suffered by the rich would clearly be less than the poor

would gain and so the social differences would remain practically the same.

Improving the living conditions of the poor and the problem of greater social justice

depend more on an increase in production than on the distribution of wealth.

According to this theory, “Pareto’s Law” also states, the “natural forces”, the causes

which act to determine distribution, depend more on the nature of men than on the

Fondo Vilfredo Pareto della Banca Popolare di Sondrio

Giovanni Busino – Vilfredo Pareto (1848 – 1923)


organization of society. The shape of the spinning top is not a matter of chance,

otherwise it would be like the probabilities curve. Now the distribution curve differs

totally from the probabilities curve, well known to statisticians under the name of

“error curve”. It is created by a universal law.

The Cours d’économie politique, in addition to the general principles of social

evolution (history is immobile, cyclic, Man always the same throughout the

centuries) presents a theory of social physiology according to which societies are

never homogeneous. Differentiations, antagonisms, disputes and divergent interests

are the resultant of “natural forces”. The class struggle, in the shape of economic

competition and confrontations for power, “is the major fact which dominates history”.

Impossible to eliminate it because “the laws of Nature soar well above the prejudices

and passions of Man. Eternal, unchangeable, they are the expression of creative

power; they represent what is, what must be, what could not be otherwise. Man can

arrive at knowing what they are but could not change them.” (Cours d’économie

politique, § 1068).

In the two volumes of Les Systèmes Socialistes (1902-1903), social doctrines are

analyzed from the point of view of logic and non-logic action as well as from the

angle of the procedures used to convert objective truths into subjective truths. From

this work it emerges that social problems cannot be resolved “by ranting based on a

more or less vague ideal of justice, but only through scientific research to find the

means of adjusting the means to the aim and, for each man, the effort and the

trouble to the enjoyment so that the minimum amount of trouble and effort provides

well-being for the largest possible number of men.” (Systèmes, Ch. X).

Economy in Sociology

Although he continues to proclaim his determination to make social sciences exact

sciences, Pareto, from the beginning of the century, dissects the imperfections of

reason and reveals that what pushes men to act is feeling, passion and certain


In Manuel d’économie politique (1906), homo oeconomicus is an abstract being

guided by egoism, economic systems are isolated from any possible influence and

studied at a given moment in their history. The confrontation of abstract theory with

specific phenomena (trade, protectionism, crises and economic cycles) leads Pareto

to evaluate the importance of logical actions, non-logical actions, circulation of the

élite, the role of ideologies, morals etc., as well as to indicate the aims and limits of

economic science. He uses the concepts of ophelimity, the curves of indifference,

the hill of pleasure, the paths of expansion etc. to explain the various types of

equilibria, the properties of partial equilibria, of general equilibrium, to give a

completed formulation of the theory of social return or of the collective economic

Fondo Vilfredo Pareto della Banca Popolare di Sondrio

Giovanni Busino – Vilfredo Pareto (1848 – 1923)


optimum. While the standard theories of general interest were based on the

individual comparability of satisfaction, the maximizing of the sum total of

satisfaction and a fair distribution of income, Pareto asserts that the ophelimities of

different individuals cannot be compared and he consequently rejects all rules of


Direct proof of this evolution is given by the irreverent book Le mythe vertuïste et la

littérature immorale (1911) in which moralism and puritanism, humanitarian

ideologies, feelings of renunciation and asceticism, are judged to be displays of

weakness, ways of duping the gullible.

In the monumental Traité de sociologie générale (1916), Pareto systematizes his

conception of sociology as an “exclusively experimental” general social science

which at once sets aside observable, commensurable and calculable behavior and

as a matter of priority he concerns himself with linguistic customs, innate logic, forms

of subjectivity irreducible in the calculation, regularities of cultural meanings,

thoughtless motivations in social life, the justifications they are given, the sense

attributed to the contents of historical actions, the internal structure of behavior, the

component principles of affective, apparent and procedural rationality, and the non-

logical. This sociology aims at revealing the mechanisms which produce society’s

symbolic universes. Instead of the idea of law, Pareto uses the idea of uniformity, i.e.

of a statement true under certain conditions. Science must study the uniformities and

mutually dependent ties which exist between social facts. It proceeds by successive

approximations. Economy makes a first approximation towards the understanding of

human behavior, a second approximation is provided by applied economy, and the

others by sociology. The Science is neither a reconstruction-restoration of social

reality, nor a pure reflection of it, nor is it a more or less impressionistic copy of it. It

constructs scientific objects by artificial extraction from the actual universe; it defines

the relations which connect the theoretical constructions together and then it

transposes the results found to other simplified universes, indeed applies them by

analogy to different realities so as to obtain new constructions of objects and of

conditional operators. At the basis of all analyses there is action, i.e. behavior

oriented towards objectives; the action is an effort, an expenditure of energy implying

at least a motive. Pareto works out a theory for the action in all its complex

interdependencies. From this theory he deduces the properties of the “system

object”. The theoretical constructions thus obtained are “simple hypotheses” which

stay alive as long as they agree with the facts, and die and disappear when new

studies destroy this agreement.” (Traité de sociologie générale, § 52).

Social phenomena have changing forms, manifested briefly by symbolic systems

such as ideologies, customs, collective representations, traditions etc. On the other

hand, the background is discovered by deduction or by inference. It is theoretical

analysis which, through a study of relationships, reveals the nature and composition

of this latent order. The form and background constitute, from another point of view,

Fondo Vilfredo Pareto della Banca Popolare di Sondrio

Giovanni Busino – Vilfredo Pareto (1848 – 1923)


the subjective and objective aspects of the phenomena. Representations of the

phenomena and of the relationships between human actions are often deformed.

Only the objective aspect is real, constant and unchanging.

Logical and non-logical actions

Social actions, grouped into categories of logical actions, which “are, at least for the

main part, the result of reasoning”, and non-logical actions, which “arise mainly from

a certain psychological state: feelings, sub-consciousness etc.” (Traitè, § 161), The

main object of research by sociologists are reasoning, deliberations, arguments, the

logic of the subjects, objectifying the subjective, declarative and procedural

knowledge which anticipates and prescribes the actions of the social actors. Social

reality, formed of a non-conscious, constant part, can be grasped through its variable

part, i.e. thanks to the conscious interpretations deposited like sediment in symbolic

systems. Alongside demonstrative logic, Pareto conceives a non-demonstrative

logic which is that of plausible and persuasive argumentation.

Logical actions logically unite the means to the end, while in non-logical actions this

connection is non-existent. In logical action the connection must exist for the actor

but also for all those “who have wider knowledge” (Traité, § 150). Action, to be

logical, must be so either objectively (anybody having knowledge extending outside

the action) or subjectively (the person acting). The former use experimental material

and objective facts established and linked together by strict reasoning; the latter, by

far the more numerous, and of great importance in social life, are more or less

colored by logic; they form a “stack of absurdities” (Traité, § 445) and reflect the

arbitrary nature and the change in the ways in which men think and act, the coercive

weight of the milieu, the presence in each of the social agents of prejudices, beliefs,

values and ethos which the socialization processes have incorporated into stable

institutionalized symbolic systems. From then on, human action is crystallized into

meaningful structures, neither exclusively external nor essentially internal.

In the logical reasoning and developments added to non-logical actions, Pareto

again finds a pre-given, stable and latent fact, going beyond any empirical

explanation, conceptualized through deduction from the system of symbolic

structures, called residues, and a manifest and variable face, which can be observed

empirically, called derivation.

The actor organizes his action consciously and continuously in relation to one or

more systems of significations. The typology of the logical action is an operator,

useful if his predictive value is good, if he helps to formalize the means / end

relationship. However, if the efficiency and the cost cannot be arranged in

accordance with a means / end relationship, if the figures are not commensurable,

that operator is inadequate. Since the ends are neither given nor located, they

Fondo Vilfredo Pareto della Banca Popolare di Sondrio

Giovanni Busino – Vilfredo Pareto (1848 – 1923) 6

cannot be reduced to the formal rationality of scientific language. The rationality of

science is different from the instrumental rationality of action and decision. The

dispositional variables conjectured or conjecturable constitute a topic of logical value

from which are drawn the premises of the arguments, of the conditional reasoning. It

is to escape the eleatic paradox that Pareto builds the ontogenetic and phylogenetic

underframe of the residues on which rest the reasoning and equivocation which

underlie and accompany choices and decisions. It is true that, in doing this, he

separates the representations from the actions, while recognizing that they can have

a common source, in a field outside sociological analysis, reserved for psychologists

and called the “psychic state” (Traité, § 1690-2).

Residues and derivations

Language reveals to us the tendency of men to split hairs, to argue in order to make

their behavior and beliefs plausible and acceptable. It comes before all forms of

logico-experimental and structural rationality, by means of discursive class objects,

the symbolic universes.

Residues do not exist, they are pre-constructed, both the content and knowledge of

common sense; they are sources of sociality, conditions necessary for structuring

the symbolic meanings. At the moment of granting actors a ready-made “logic”,

given in advance, they perform functions of identification, representation and

nomenclature. Their composition is found to be the extension of spontaneous,

balanced and self-regulated organization and of actions of classification,

standardizing and persuasion.

We do not know whether the residues, on account of the adaptative value, have

selected behaviors to which they are predisposed, whether they are socio-cultural

representations of human resources faced with environmental constraints, or more

or less direct manifestations of the phylogenetic factors reached by inference,

categories of predispositions of behavior selected by nature. That residues constitute

the implicit premises of equivocation used unknowingly by the social actors is an

indubitable fact. In some instances, they express emotions, in others they are

deduced from a representation; they always vary, throughout history, in number and

intensity. In view of the fact that the concept of residue encompasses the intention

and symbolization of the intention, the “feelings, subconscious etc.”, transformed into

symbolic relationships, become intelligible and comprehensible, and therefore

accessible, objects. In other words, the residues transcend experience and logic, are

located beyond scientific language, and give great autonomy to natural language. On

the other hand, derivations give a certain foundation to value judgments relative to

the purposes of the action. Produced from specific experience thanks to the mediate

inference of argument techniques, they provide the arguments capable of explaining

Fondo Vilfredo Pareto della Banca Popolare di Sondrio

Giovanni Busino – Vilfredo Pareto (1848 – 1923)


how we act. By legitimizing both the objectives and the means, by filling in and

systematizing the gaps in our knowledge, derivations give an apparent form of truth

to the values, beliefs and convictions of social actors. They precede feelings and

contribute to strengthening them.

Of course, the typologies and classifications of the residues and derivations are also

typologies of the macro-sociological social processes, worked out from the

universalism/particularism dichotomy where universalism is the code and

particularism is the context. This dichotomy is generalizing for the residues of the

instinct of combinations and the persistency of the aggregates. The four other

classes (the need to show feelings through external acts, residues in relation to

sociability, the integrity of the individual and his dependencies, the sexual residue)

are specifications and particularizations of the first two classes and, while being

heterogeneous they contain the elements essential for ensuring the overall

constancy in spite of variations in detail. With regard to the types, they vary during

the stages of social development. Nevertheless, the variations are still compensated

so that the classes invariably remain constant. Discourses, pseudo-scientific

theories, ideologies in general (and Pareto considers everything normative as such)

are only a simple reflection of real interests. Like the residues, derivations are

arranged in classes and types. There are four classes: affirmation, authority,

agreement with feelings or with principles, verbal proof; they are based on language

and make residues perceivable thanks to the treatises, but they are unsuitable for

converting assertions into verifiable propositions. Derivations have no intrinsic value,

they do not act directly in fixing social equilibrium; they are only the manifestations

and indications of other forces “which are those which act in reality in determining

social equilibrium”. There is no determinism of the residues over the derivations

since the former are dependent on the latter and the latter can affect the residues

either by hindering the manifestations or by configuring them otherwise from time to


What relationship do actions have with “social utility” (Traité, § 1687)

In the first place, for the static part, Pareto examines the distribution of residues in a

given society and in different strata of that same society; next, for the dynamic part,

he studies how the residues vary in the course of time, either that they change in

individuals of the same social stratum or that the change takes place due to a

mixture of the social strata with each other, without omitting to study how each of

these phenomena acts. Residues and derivations are propagated by imitation or due

to other circumstances. A study of the propagation processes shows the existence of

a third factor: interests.

Conditions of intelligibility of the action, deprived of objective existence, connected to

each other by mutual dependence or by multiple causality, the residues, derivations

and interests, the factors necessary for equilibrium, however cannot ever be grasped

in their entirety. Is the method, therefore, inadequate, indeed sterile? No, because

Fondo Vilfredo Pareto della Banca Popolare di Sondrio

Giovanni Busino – Vilfredo Pareto (1848 – 1923)


the “even imperfect idea of mutual dependence” avoids the difficulties of an

explanation based on a single causal structure. Thanks to the imperfect method of

multiple causality, it is known that residues are more constant than derivations, that

they are partly the ‘cause’ of the derivations, “but still remembering the secondary

action of the derivations, which can sometimes be the cause of the residues, if only

in a subordinate way.” (Traité, § 1732).

Thanks to this system of relationships, varying from society to society, from one

social class to another, from one era to another, mediation is possible between

internalized objective structures and individual conducts.

Social equilibrium

Society is made up of different interdependent elements (the soil, climate, fauna,

flora, the actions of other societies on it, history, race, residues, derivations,

interests) “making up a system which we shall call a social system [...]. This system

changes form and character in the course of time and when we name the social

system, we understand this system as considered both at a particular time and in the

successive transformations which it undergoes in a particular space of time.” (Traité,

§ 2066). To analyze it, it is necessary to define a state at a given moment. It is the

state of equilibrium. Emphasis is put on relationships of interdependence. Neither

the ultimate ends nor the indeterminable objectives outside the system, nor even the

matter of the change which is introduced in the course of evolution, are taken into

consideration. Of course, there are disruptions in the equilibrium (wars, epidemics,

floods, earthquakes and other disasters) but imbalance implies an automatic return

to equilibrium. Therefore, social phenomena have a wavy form. Pareto does not give

a real general theory of the equilibrium of society but only a theory of an empirically

determined system, a theory unsuitable for explaining the transition from one system

to another, for giving an explanation of the reason for imbalance.

Composed of different groups which are antagonistic due to age, sex, physical

strength, health etc., society is not homogeneous and the equilibrium is precarious.

“The utilities of the various individuals are heterogeneous quantities and to speak of

the sum of these quantities makes no sense; there is none; we can envisage it. If it is

wished to find a sum which is related to the utilities of the various individuals, it is

necessary first of all to find a means of making these utilities depend on

homogeneous quantities, which can then be added together.” (Traité, § 2127).

Conflict of utilities, conflicts of interests, division of society, antagonistic values

involve divergencies of aims which gives rise to heterogeneity and to finding out that

there is no rationality of society. With the impossibility of establishing what is the

appropriate means to an end, of locating the end for which the action is taken, of

homogenizing the criteria which are at the basis of the choices, deliberations and

Fondo Vilfredo Pareto della Banca Popolare di Sondrio

Giovanni Busino – Vilfredo Pareto (1848 – 1923) 9

actions with a view to obtaining a utility, in brief of discovering the ends, Pareto does

not give any precise indication of how to reconcile rationality of action with epistemic

rationality in the interpretation of historico-social actions.

Undulatory movement and historical events

Insofar as residues are transformed slowly, societies also change. The thesis

according to which reason has an ever greater share in human activity gives rise to

several errors. Progress comes about by following an undulatory or rhythmic

movement. The oscillations or rhythms have different ranges, durations and

intensities. When a phenomenon reaches its highest intensity, it is the oscillation in

the opposite direction which is generally close. This makes it impossible to explain

social phenomena by using simply linear causality or a more or less rigid

determinism. Political, social or religious revolutions are just, right, necessary to

some, and unjust, wrong, unnecessary to others. However, to science, there is no

sense in that. “A scientific proposition is true or it is false, it cannot in addition meet

any other condition [...],” “Science only concerns itself with finding out the

relationships between things or phenomena, and with discovering the uniformities of

these relationships. The study of what are called causes, if by that we understand

facts in certain relationships with others, is a matter for science and comes within the

above category of uniformities. However, what has been called prime causes, and in

general all entities which go beyond the limits of experience, are found there even

beyond the field of science.” (Les systèmes socialistes, I).

Elites and circulation of the élites

Society is divided into heterogeneous groups and classes but within the groups and

classes and between groups and classes there is intense vertical and horizontal

circulation. The groups and classes are in conflict but there is also a struggle within

these groups and classes. The part of the group or class which tries to ensure

hegemony over its own group or its own class, or also over all groups and all

classes, is called the élite. The theory of the élite claims to be a generalization of the

class struggle theory.

Individuals who show great capability in the respective branches of social activity

make up the top layer, usually taking in those who govern, while the rest form the

lower layer, to which the governed belong (Traité, § 2047). This stratification of

society, corroborated also by the distribution of wealth theory, is based on the nature

of men, on the role of fecundity and mortality of the social groups and on a series of

other factors; it is not the product of economic forces or of special organizational

capabilities. The inequality of status between men is determined particularly by the

Fondo Vilfredo Pareto della Banca Popolare di Sondrio

Giovanni Busino – Vilfredo Pareto (1848 – 1923)


possession of certain “capabilities” in performing any human activity. The

“capabilities” are the natural disposition of the individual to excel in a particular

activity. It is doubtful that these “capabilities” exist in nature in the state of blind

determinisms. They are rather the product of social interactions and socialization

operations. Pareto sometimes speaks of the weight of social origin and of the

technique of corruption as a means of “incapable” individuals accessing or staying in

the élite, but he firmly believes that the normal condition is and remains “personal


Elites can survive and keep going provided they are renewed continuously, eliminate

degenerated elements and accept new elements within them in certain proportions.

Circulation between the lower layer and the upper layer - mobility - must above all be

vertical, upward, but must also be downward. There is no mobility when there is

simply assimilation or co-opting. Movement is therefore synonymous with

equilibrium and the law which governs the continuity and forming of élites is subject

to a kind of anaklasis or refraction. Although élites can disappear for various reasons

(biological destruction, psychological change in attitudes, decadence), there are two

ways of maintaining stability and social continuity: eliminating those who contest and

therefore jeopardize the social order and the existence of the élite, and/or absorbing

the elements of the governed class who may be useful or usable. This process of

endosmosis, whereby the elements of the governed class come to form part of the

aristocracy of power, is “the phenomenon of social circulation”. The capable élite is

the one which is continuously renewed and rejuvenated. It may happen that those

opposed to the élite, in order to eliminate their adversaries in power, make use of the

discontent of the governed classes or use foreign intervention. The class in power

then has to defend itself. Guile and force are necessary but it is also necessary to

obtain the passive consensus of the governed class.

Types of social systems

An “open” social order is the product of equilibrium between the residue of the

instinct of combinations and the residue of the persistency of aggregates; between

innovation, discovery and invention on the one hand and conformity with the rules,

values and social ethos on the other. Regimes are characterized by the psychology

of the élites. The distribution of residues among individuals and among social

classes is at the origin of the types of social systems. Wherever a strong instinct for

combinations prevails there is a high number of speculators, entrepreneurs,

reformers, inventors and ambitious men capable of the most hazardous

undertakings, and wherever a strong concentration of the residue of the persistence

of the aggregates is encountered, there is a predominance of people of independent

means, of individuals for whom the past is a present asset and who want nothing to

Fondo Vilfredo Pareto della Banca Popolare di Sondrio

Giovanni Busino – Vilfredo Pareto (1848 – 1923)


change. Speculators usually prevail by trickery, guile and other manipulations.

However, they never manage to keep control of the situation for long because they

are ousted by those of independent means who, in turn, are driven out of power by

the speculators, in a perpetual movement.

The increase in individual and collective security, the weakening of the spirit of

enterprise, the growth of well-being and the peaceful co-existence between peoples,

reinforces the reticence of governments to use force. New rules and values spread

and make traditional cultural models totter. Traditional authority is shaken by this and

rebellion then becomes possible. The old social equilibrium is replaced by a new

equilibrium, a new class takes the place of the old one by force. Social and political

life is cyclic. Social change is only an ongoing rotation of minorities which only have

their sights set, beyond all else, on controlling. A change in minority is therefore a

change in form and not a change in the structure of power, indeed a change in

substance. One reality alone is ever-lasting: there is a stratification in political and

social life, that of the ruling and the ruled. It is essentially oligarchic. Politicians

promise radical change but as soon as they have won power they defend a society

which has nothing to do with whatever they promised. Then, social life is hell, cruelty

is unending and the social agents are victims of illusions and myths. Men have only

one small light at their disposal, a single weapon with which to fight: science.

Pareto today

The blocks put down by Pareto on the building site of logic and non-logic still remain

rough hewn. Contemporary sociologists have made no real breakthrough in research

on useful beliefs, practical efficacy, the logical consequences of non-logic reasoning,

the weighing of reason in the production of historical effects. With his concerned

historical typology of contexts and their indivisible effects, with his use of this

typology in the study of actions which are reasoned but not entirely reducible to the

logical calculation, Pareto has drafted a method which makes it easy to observe and

describe the differential departures between models or typologies and modeled or

typologized social actions. This method is also a contribution to establishing fruitful

relationships between sociology and history, to consolidating sociology as a

historical discipline.

Pareto has challenged sociologists to describe the requisites of actions, interactions

and pseudo-logical representations, to elucidate the unwanted relationships of

actions and conducts and perverse effects, to establish the differences between

utility for a collective unit, utility of a collective unit and ophelimity. That challenge

has not yet been taken up. The distinction between the truth of an utterance and its

social utility, the methodical description of the heterogeneity of ends, costs of social

events and the analysis of subjective utilities in social actions, are fields of research

Fondo Vilfredo Pareto della Banca Popolare di Sondrio

Giovanni Busino – Vilfredo Pareto (1848 – 1923)


which still lie fallow. Nowadays, the theories of action and the cognitive theories of

knowledge struggle against the same problems as Pareto posed so well, but they

have not been at all satisfactorily resolved. Neither the positivist, culturalist or

naturalist theories which seek causes of action elsewhere than in reason, nor

functionalism, rational choices, the theory of exchange which place them in reason,

none of these theories has been able to take advantage of the paretian


In the research into arguments and scientific rhetoric, into innate or natural logic,

where “arguing is more a matter of showing than demonstrating”, the presence of

Pareto’s work is more evident. Trends in recent sociology aim at transferring the

legacy from Pareto into interactionist sociology by means of research into natural

and non-demonstrative logic. Revealing the rationalist influences of John Stuart Mill

on the theoretical and non-theoretical paretian constructions gives a new dimension

to the scope of the emotivist doctrines in the Traité de sociologie général and brings

its author back into the rationalist tradition.

If it is believed that the social sciences are not saving sciences capable of bringing

happiness to men who have so far sought it in vain; if one is convinced that no social

science will ever manage to define the general interest and the public good, to

resolve the problems of living well and the good society; if, however, one is

convinced that the social sciences are means capable of making social relations

intelligible, that they show how man believes, acts, produces and answers questions

on the organization and conditions of life in society, on existential destiny, then

reading the works of Pareto can help researchers to free themselves of illusions

about truth and objectivity as absolute values. Such reading can give a glimpse of

how and why individuals produce certain knowledge, how such knowledge becomes

the basis of action, how it is used to vitalize hopes and projects. Sociology also

shows the limits and sparsity of the contents of our knowledge. Produced in

particular contexts, this knowledge is neither eternal nor absolute. Essential wisdom

which science tends to make intelligible. However, the intelligibility is always

contextual and historically situated. Sociology assists, like a constant critique of all

forms of production of knowledge, in understanding how the study of society is a

powerful means of mobilizing energies in order to arouse consent, to justify, explain

and rationalize social action, to obtain consensus, but also in order not to confuse

rationality of action and decision with epistemic rationality.


Pareto V. 1964-1989 Œeuvres complètes, 30 vols. Droz, Geneva

Pareto V. 1988 Trattato di sociologia generale. Edizione critica, 4 vols. Utet, Turin

(bibliography of and on Pareto, pp. LXXI-CLXXXVI)

Fondo Vilfredo Pareto della Banca Popolare di Sondrio

Giovanni Busino – Vilfredo Pareto (1848 – 1923)


Aron R. 1967 Les étapes de la pensée sociologique. Gallimard, Paris

Bobbio N. 1996 Saggi sulla scienza politica in Italia. Laterza, Bari

Busino G. 1968 Introduction à une histoire de la sociologie de Pareto. Droz, Geneva

Busino G. 1974 Gli studi su Vilfredo Pareto oggi. Dall’agiografia alla critica (1923-

1973). Bulzoni, Rome

Busino G. & Tommissen P. 1975 Jubilé du professeur Vilfredo Pareto, 1917. Droz,

Geneva (bibliography of and on Pareto)

Busino G. 1977 Vilfredo Pareto e l’industria del ferro nel Valdarno. Comit, Milan

Busino G. 1989 L’Italia di Vilfredo Pareto. 2 vols. Comit, Milan

Busino G. 1992 Élite(s) et élitisme. PUF, Paris

Freund J. 1974 Pareto: la théorie de l’équilibre. Seghers, Paris

Valade B. 1990 Pareto: la naissance d’une autre sociologie. PUF, Paris


Renowned economist, professor in the University of Lausanne, wealthy Genoese

marquis, esteemed and feared polemicist, Vilfredo Pareto always seems to engage

in new departures. He abandons the world of industry and the beauty of Florence in

order to devote himself to the field of domestic economy. He puts aside the study of

purely theoretical economics and builds piece by piece a “sociology” intended to be

solely experimental, in other words a science that is not dependent upon value

judgments. Disdaining the sociologies that call themselves “humanitarian” and

“metaphysical”, or “christian” and “marxist”, rejecting propaganda and ideologies, he

seeks to dispel the “fog of nonsense” that pervades the political and social struggle.

Disenchanted, skeptical, piercing, remarkably learned and insatiably curious, yet at

times incredibly naive, awkward and headstrong, Pareto pursues the chimera of a

new science that, after essaying to give proper weight to Man’s desperate and

unceasing need to justify his conduct, might proceed to shed light on the profound

reasons motivating that conduct and discern the factors that promote equilibrium or

mutation in society, that cause the rise and fall of the ruling classes. From the mass

of his writings there emerges an imposing tableau of customs, beliefs, problems,

hopes and feverish quests for liberty. Denigrated and worshipped, now read but not

quoted, now paraphrased but not read, contested by all, honored by few who

however have not understood him, Pareto is surely one of the forerunners of

present-day sociology: functionalism, structuralism, rational choice, action theory,

ethnomethodology ..., these are all his spurious offspring.

The article offers a concise presentation of Pareto’s intellectual life and positions his

current research in sociology.

Fondo Vilfredo Pareto della Banca Popolare di Sondrio

Giovanni Busino – Vilfredo Pareto (1848 – 1923)


Index words

Action, Authority, Class Struggle, Derivation, Economy, Elite(s), Equilibrium,

Feelings, Formal languages, History, Ideologies, Interests, Knowledge, Logic/Non-

logic, Models, Natural language, Needs, Ophelimity, Optimum, Organization, Power,

Rationality, Reason, Residues, Social processes, Social sciences, Social theories,

Social typologies, Sociology, Stratification.

Giovanni Busino

Institut de Sociologie et d’Anthropologie

Université de Lausanne

Giovanni Busino

3, avenue Mirany

CH-1225 Chêne-Bourg.


++41 22-348 13 30

Fax:  ++41 22-348 78 68

Mail: giovanni.busino@bluewin.ch

Document Outline

  • The Italian Years
  • The Swiss Period
  • Economy in Sociology
  • Logical and non-logical actions
  • Residues and derivations
  • Social equilibrium
  • Undulatory movement and historical events
  • Elites and circulations of the élites
  • Types of social systems
  • Pareto today
  • Bibliography
  • Final abstract
  • Index words

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