Notes on the Social Life of Theory 1.1

What is theory? Stefan Collini argues that “‘theory’ is what happens when common starting-points can no longer be taken for granted”. If there’s any truth to this suggestion, it points towards the irrevocably social nature of theory. The inclination to address a question in a theoretical way, the variability with which different parties will approach the same question, point in manifold ways towards the social context within which theory happens. However theory also takes on a life of its own, giving rise to theorists who elaborate upon theory, in the process rendering common starting points ever more elusive. These theorists often deny the social aspect of the theory they promulgate, abstracting what they do from the conditions in which they do it and contributing to its mystification.

The obvious response to this is to look to the theorists themselves. Theory is produced and this labour takes place under specific conditions that contribute to the character of the ensuing work. But so too are theorists. In fact the theory produced by their contemporaries and predecessors plays a large part in the constitution of theorists themselves. This raises the question of how we conceptualise this relationship – to do so deterministically risks obscuring the processes through which innovation occurs but conversely its untenable to suggest that the transmission of theory proceeds through a whole sequence of individual choices. I like how Peter Preston describes this specifically intellectual dimension to individual biography

If one stands back from the day-to-day demands of professional routine, it becomes clear that an intellectual trajectory is not organised in advance, we do not begin by surveying the intellectual ground before deciding upon a line of enquiry; rather, as Hans-Georg Gadamer might put it, we fall into conversation; our starting points are accidental, our early moves untutored, they are not informed by a systematic professional knowledge of the available territory, rather they flow from curiosity; we read what strikes us as interesting, we discard what seems dull. All this means that our early moves are quite idiosyncratic, shaped by our experiences of particular texts, teachers and debates with friends/colleagues. Thereafter matters might become more systematic, we might decide to follow a discipline, discover an absorbing area of work or find ourselves slowly unpacking hereto deep-seated concerns. It also means that we can bestow coherence only retrospectively. This idiosyncratic personal aspect of scholarly enquiry is part and parcel of the trade, not something to be regretted, denied or avoided; nonetheless systematic reflections offers a way of tacking stock, of presenting critical reflexive statements in regard to the formal commitments made in substantive work.

In this sense transmission can be seen less as a choice and instead as a more or less idiosyncratic path we negotiate through an intellectual environment, in the process contributing in partial ways to the reproduction or transformation of that environment. At each stage the circumstances of the theorist (or theorist to be) condition the pathways available to them, how these are understood and the costs/benefits attached to different options. We often don’t weigh up choices in these terms, or assess accurately when we do. However the benefits and the costs are still there. Moving towards social theory while studying in a philosophy department generates intellectual frustration even if you don’t yet understand why this is so. Those who pursue an academic career are forced to choose and compromise, balancing passion and expediency in an institutional setting which values some activities and denigrates others. What Preston describes as “the day-to-day demands of professional routine” discipline the paths that are chosen, as does the socialisation into disciplinarity which is usually a precondition for establishing a ‘professional routine’. The possibilities for exploration shift and so too does the kind of work that’s produced. Expediency takes a different form as positions within organisations shift and with paths of activity come interests in relation to things done in the past. Our dispositions towards what we have done and what we hope to do change, often in ways that are difficult to understand if we only focus on social factors and ignore the way our character changes in relation to them. This description of Leibniz’s changing orientation towards his philosophy is a vivid example of a kind of claim that I think can be made much more generally: 

With Leibniz, inevitably, as with almost all ageing philosophers, a certain amount of intellectual sclerosis set in, too. In his later years, the elements of the metaphysical system he first outlined in the Discourse became so self-evident to him that he often saw no need to argue for them. they became a fixed part of his reality, and his deepest philosophical pleasure came less from formulating his propositions than from seeing their truth reflected back to him in the statements and activities of others.

The Courtier and the Heretic, Pg 260

What I’d like to think of as the Social Life of Theory is an attempt to understand how theorists make theory but theory in turn makes theorists. This dialectic finds reflection at the level of social life as a whole: the social context shapes theory but theory in turn shapes the social context. I’m borrowing the terminology from the Social Life of Methods project pursued by CRESC. However I’m using it in a different way, albeit one that leads to questions not a million miles away from those they asked about methods. In effect I’m using it as an umbrella under which to explore the overlaps between my two overriding fascinations in social theory: the sociology of social theory and the sociology of intellectual faddishnessOver the next few months (years? decades?) I want to try and understand how (a) intellectual biography shapes theoretical work (b) how theoretical work shapes intellectual biography (c) how social context shapes a + b (d) how a + b shape c. It seems an immensely unsatisfying way to express the questions that interest me and it leaves me unfortunately aware of how unclear the questions are. I suspect I’m going to have to get far beyond 1.1 if I’m going to address these issues in a remotely satisfactory way. 

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