Robert Nisbet had written and completed his dissertation, “The Social Group in French Thought,” rather speedily, beginning it in January 1939 and finishing it a mere six months later. Though Nisbet would publish his most famous work, “The Quest for Community,” fourteen years later, that book would not have been possible without the dissertation.

When Robert Nisbet earned his B.A. from Berkeley in 1936, he briefly thought about applying to UC’s law school, but a conversation with his professor Frederick Teggart re-oriented his entire career. As Nisbet remembered it, Teggart “summoned” him to his office and suggested that Nisbet not only begin his work toward a Ph.D., but that he also serve as his teaching assistant for his introductory course. As an assistant, he would earn $600 per year, which Nisbet recognized as nothing less than glorious exploitation of him and his talents. “I loved it and profited from it immeasurably,” he judged of his situation.[1] Recognizing his own limitations, though, Teggart also warned Nisbet that there was only one “Social Institutions” department in the country, and work after completion of the Ph.D. might be hard to find.[2] “I accepted Teggart’s offer immediately and to this day, to my dying moment indeed, will consider it a great windfall in my life,” Nisbet recalled.[3]

As with so much else in Nisbet’s life, graduate school seemed to have been charmed. He even remembered fondly his oral exams, prior to being allowed to write his dissertation. “No doctor’s oral ever went better than mine did on 27 November 1938 between the hours of three and six in 405 Library,” he prided himself. “When an oral goes as well as mine did—and many others seen as faculty inquisitor over the years, I am happy to say—it is a pleasure to everyone…. a privileged conversation.”[4]

As it turned out, Nisbet earned all three of his degrees under the direction of Teggart. He earned his B.A. in 1936, his M.A. in 1938, and his Ph.D. in 1940.[5] Nisbet sometimes wondered why Teggart had been so good to him, personally. It finally hit him. “It was the library job mentioned above that I had managed to get at the end of my first year,” Nisbet decided. “Teggart was a voracious user of the library, but he was aging, subject to respiratory ailments, and no longer as able to meet the demands of finding, getting and bearing stacks of books for his study. And here was I, after three years thoroughly at home with the library’s million and more volumes; that is to say, their classified locations in the nine floors of book stacks.”[6]

Nisbet’s personal life matched the trajectory of his academic one. Two months after earning his B.A., Nisbet also married his first wife, Emily Heron, on July 15, 1936, at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church.[7]

Though not awarded the degree of Ph.D. until February 1940, Nisbet had actually written and completed his dissertation, “The Social Group in French Thought,” rather speedily, beginning it in January 1939 and finishing it a mere six months later, in July 1939, thus allowing Nisbet to become a full-time instructor at Berkeley in the autumn of 1939. “Would it be a better dissertation had I had the two or so years which normally go into dissertation writing?” Nisbet asked in 1980. “Possibly. But who ever knows for sure?” he answered himself, noting that “I might very well have become entangled in ramifications, byways, complexities and subtleties to such a degree that the work would never have been completed.”[8] Further, Nisbet stressed, there existed nothing original in the dissertation. “All that I will lay claim to (and I am borrowing from Pasteur’s celebrated remark) is a mind that had somehow become sufficiently prepared by the end of 1937 to be favored by chance: in this instance the sheer chance of one day coming upon the writings of French conservatives in the Berkeley library,” he claimed. “All else has flowed from this chance encounter.”[9] As such, Nisbet knew that he had gained as much from his library work with Teggart as he had from his courses. “I really think I learned more from Teggart by book-running, with its inevitable and cherished moments of conversation, than by taking seminars from him.” Again and again, Nisbet proclaimed the brilliance of Teggart. “He was the most erudite man I have ever known, and exhibition of this particular strength came as naturally to him as breathing.”[10]

Contrary to Nisbet’s customary humility, the dissertation is a tour de force, a well-researched and complex, interlocking series of intellectual biographical sketches, tracing Western thought from the high Middle Ages through the thought of Jean Bodin, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Louis de Bonald, Félicité Robert de Lamennais, Auguste Comte, Frederic LePlay, and Emile Durkheim, with sidenotes on other vital figures such as Joseph de Maistre. The thinkers from Bonald through de Maistre constituted as a sort of “Reactionary Enlightenment.”[11] Though Nisbet would publish his most famous work, The Quest for Community, fourteen years later, that book would not have been possible had it not been for the dissertation. And yet the two works are unlike enough to consider the dissertation on its own fine merits. It should be remembered, Robert Alexander Nisbet was only twenty-six when he wrote the dissertation, and he did so at the end of only three years of graduate work. It was, he admitted years later, a sort of “Hail Mary.”[12]

Nisbet offered an assessment of his work in 1980, forty-one years after he had written it. Its greatest deficiency, he thought in hindsight, was the absence of the thought and figures of Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, whom Nisbet (or seemingly Teggart) had yet to encounter. “To my undying chagrin, I missed, somehow failed to find, at this time the powerful presences of Burke and also Tocqueville in this conservative efflorescence,” he lamented. Oh well, he sighed. “Never mind. I had at least made my way to an area into which both Burke and Tocqueville would take quick and fruitful place.”[13] Whatever its failings, Nisbet believed at age 67 the dissertation had presented four important things. First, Nisbet thought, the dissertation had made academia “aware” of the issue of intermediate associations and their importance, especially as Nisbet would develop the theme in his first several published articles and in his masterful Quest for Community. Second, he believed, he had explained—at least through the thinkers employed in the dissertation—“the indispensability to a free and stable society of voluntary association and localism.”[14] Third, he noted with some pride, “I take considerable satisfaction in having introduced to American intellectual history the importance of the French conservatives and their political, social, and economic ideas.”[15] Finally, but certainly not least of the contributions, Nisbet recognized that he had strongly connected the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in a concrete, tangible fashion to the actual legislation passed and implemented during the radical stages of the French Revolution.[16]

This essay is the first in a two-part series on Robert Nisbet’s dissertation.

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[1] Robert Nisbet, “Introduction,” The Making of Modern Society, 7.

[2] Nisbet, “Teggart of Berkeley,” 75.

[3] Nisbet, Teachers and Scholars, 159.

[4] Ibid., 170, 172.

[5] On his M.A., see “Degrees or Certificates Given to 448 Berkeleyans,” Berkeley Daily Gazette (May 21, 1938). On his Ph.D., see “38 Berkleyans are Awarded Degrees at U.C.,” Berkeley Daily Gazette (February 27, 1940), pg. 16.

[6] Nisbet, “Introduction,” The Making of Modern Society, 7.

[7] On Nisbet and Heron’s wedding, see Berkeley Daily Gazette (July 7, 1936); and Berkeley Daily Gazette (July 31, 1936).

[8] Nisbet, “Author’s Foreword,” in The Social Group in French Thought (New York: Arno Press, 1980), viii.

[9] Nisbet, “Author’s Foreword,” The Social Group in French Thought, xiii. Of course, this author is tempted to remind his readers that, at least in Middle-earth, chance was another name for providential intervention and comfort.

[10] Nisbet, “Introduction,” The Making of Modern Society, 7.

[11] Nisbet, “Introduction,” The Making of Modern Society, 8. A few years after Nisbet wrote his dissertation, he tried to explain the methodology of sociology. “The history of any social science is less an affair of biographical facts strung loosely together by the thread of chronology and it is an inquiry into the rise and development of the central concepts of the discipline.” See Nisbet, “The French Revolution and the Rise of Sociology in France,” American Journal of Sociology 49 (September 1943): 156.

[12] Nisbet, “Introduction,” The Making of Modern Society, 7.

[13] Ibid., 8.

[14] Nisbet, “Author’s Foreword,” The Social Group in French Thought, xii.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

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