Vilfredo Pareto: Logical and Nonlogical Action

Pareto defines logical actions as those "that use means appropriate to ends and which logically link means with ends." This logical conjunction of means with ends must hold not only for the subject performing them, "but [also] from the standpoint of other persons who have a more extensive knowledge." Logical actions are those actions that are both subjectively and objectively logi- cal. Nonlogical action is simply taken to mean all action not falling within Pareto's explicit definition of the logical; it is a residual category.


Pareto follows what he sees as an inductive procedure in developing his conceptual framework for the analysis of the nonlogical element in human action. After considering a wide array of cases in both past and contemporary history, and taking as his evidence many types of ideologies--beliefs and doc- trines that have allegedly moved men to action--Pareto concluded that these nonscientific belief systems and theories were only rarely determinants of action but instead were most frequently the expression of deep-seated sentiments. Pareto argued that although men most often fail to engage in logical action, they have a strong tendency to "logicalize" their behavior, that is, to make it appear as the logical result of a set of ideas. In fact, what accounts for most action is not the set of beliefs that is used to rationalize or "logicalize" it, but rather a pre-existing state of mind, a basic human sentiment. For example, a man has a horror of murder. Therefore, he will not commit murder. He tells himself, however, that "the Gods punish murderers" and imagines that this is why he refrains from murder. If we designate human sentiments, the basic Sources of nonlogical action, as A, the theories relating to action as B, and action itself as C, we realize that, although A, B, and C are mutually inter- related, A independently influences B and C far more than B influences C. To think otherwise, Pareto argues, is to fall into the rationalistic fallacy that has been the bane of most previous social theory.

Whereas B and C, nonlogical theories and overt acts respectively, are directly observable, human sentiments or states of mind can only be inferred. Pareto was not prepared to analyze these basic sentiments, but left this task to psychologists. "Nonlogical actions originate chiefly in definite psychic states, sentiments, subconscious feelings, and the like. It is the province of psychology to investigate such psychic states. Here we start with them as data of fact, without going beyond that.''

Pareto concentrated his attention on conduct that reflects these psychic states, and, more particularly, the theories and belief systems that serve to justify and rationalize nonlogical action. One of his central concerns is with an exhaustive critique of nonscientific theories associated with action. He sub- mits metaphysical, religious, and moral systems to a destructive analysis and shows to his own satisfaction that all of them, despite their pretensions to the contrary, have nothing at all in common with scientific theories. Notions such as "liberty," "equality," "progress," or "the General Will" are as vacuous as the myths and magical incantations with which savages rationalize their actions. None is verifiable, all are fictions that serve mainly to clothe and make re- spectable the actions of men. Even though Pareto does not deny that such myths may upon occasion influence conduct, he mainly highlights those in- stances in which they serve merely as masks. He sees unmasking as one of the main tasks of the social analyst. "We have to see to what extent reality is disfigured in the theories and descriptions of it that one finds in the literature of thought. We have an image in a curved mirror; our problem is to discover the form of the object so altered by refraction.'' As will become clear later, such unmasking served Pareto's ideological purposes and not only his scientific aims.

From Coser, 1977:388-390.