Notes on the Social Life of Theory 1.2

In the preface to his Sociology of Philosophies, Randall Collins argues that intellectual networks hold the key to understanding ideas and their changes: “if one can understand the principles that determine intellectual networks, one has a causal explanation of ideas and their changes”. His point is to understand the way that a focus on networks, as the “patterns of linkage among the micro-situations in which we live”, offers a middle way between a Platonic idealism and the “polemical simplification of reputation to sociopolitical dominance”: we can understand the “social construction of eminence” in a way that “does justice to the inner processes of intellectual life” (xviii). I share this broad aim to recognise and understand “the dynamics of conflict and alliance” in intellectual life, that is the causal role they play in intellectual change, without  reducing intellectual life to these dynamics. I’m also convinced by his rejection of idealism (“ideas beget ideas” i.e. intellectual culture is basically autonomous, with individuals as vectors of transmission) and individualism (“individuals beget ideas” i.e. intellectual culture is basically epiphenomenal , a product of individual activity). I use the term ‘basically’ here to recognise the risks involved in characterising complex bodies of thought in a single sentence, as well as the tendency for methodological injunctions and ontological claims to be elided when one writes in such a simplified way. His point about individuals is an important one:

We arrive at individuals only by abstracting from the surrounding context. It seems natural for us to do this because the world seems to start with ourselves. But the social world has to be bracketed for us to arrive at the lonely individual consciousness; and indeed it is only within a particular tradition of intellectual practices that we have learned how to construct this pure individual starting point, like Descartes climbing into a peasant’s stove and resolving to doubt everything that could be doubted. In the case of the ideas we are concerned with here, the ideas which have mattered historically, it is possible to demonstrate that the individuals who bring forward such ideas are located in typical social patterns: intellectual groups, networks, and rivalries.

The history of philosophy is to a considerable extent the history of groups. Nothing abstract is meant here – nothing but groups of friends, discussion partners, close-knit circles that often have the characteristics of social movements. (3)

I feel the need to distinguish between a “pure individual starting point” and an “individual starting point” as a matter of intellectual reflex* but otherwise I’m in agreement here. I like the way Collins renders famous philosophers as social movements, with a famous philosopher representing a form of short hand within the history of philosophy for the intellectual movement which established them. I can see the methodological value in his injunction that “we need to see through the personalities, to dissolve them into the network of processes which have brought them to our attention as historical figures” because he’s surely correct that “to see the development of ideas as the lengthened shadows of imposing personalities keeps us imprisoned in conventional reifications” (4). But I’m uncomfortable with this dissolution because these were historical individuals and their personalities did have causal implications. Even in his own terms, Collins surely needs to recognise how concretely individual factors (socio-demographics, temperament, occupational status, personal life etc) figure into the network dynamics which are integral to his mode of explanation e.g. how prolific someone was capable of being or how they routinely positioned themselves in terms of a wider social network. I don’t think he would deny this empirically but the risk is that we obscure empirical states of affairs when we deliberately fail to recognise their underlying types at a conceptual level. In other words: if you decide on principle to ignore something like ‘personality’ you’re probably going to ignore it in practice. I think the problem here is conceptual, a failure to theorise personal factors in a way that recognises their causal significance without engendering a propensity for reification, which is being inadvertently ontologised by Collins. My point is basically that nodes matter to networks and that an inattentiveness to the former has deleterious consequences for the explanation of the latter. It seems intuitively obvious to me that explaining intergenerational intellectual networks in particular, often though not always likely to be more dyadic in character than contemporaneous ones, necessitates close scrutiny of those party to them. Collins himself invokes obvious examples of this when he cites Heidegger-Arendt and Whitehead-Russell-Wittgenstein. I’m familiar enough with the biographies entailed by both networks (particularly the latter) to find it untenable that you can explain their dynamics, even in a narrowly intellectual way, by ‘dissolving their personalities’.

While Collins recognises the often isolated nature of intellectual work undertaken by the philosophers who are his object of study, he claims that this isolation renders the reference group more important. There’s a weak version of this claim which is utterly unobjectionable: intellectuals think, write and work in relation to the thinking, writing and working of other intellectuals. However he makes a much stronger claim: “the group is present in consciousness even when the individual is alone” (7). Is it?  To anyone who doesn’t share what I’m fairly sure is Collins’s Meadean starting point, this claim is far from obvious. My point is not that it’s inherently problematic but that it’s contentious and that Collins doesn’t argue for it in a particularly committed way. The methodological problem emerges because the way in which he sets up this intellectual framework imputes a uniformity to processes which are surely variable. Sometimes the group is present in consciousness more than at other times and explaining that variability necessitates that we retrieve the category of the individual that Collins has dissolved. It also highlights the need to attend to disciplinarity, patterns of collaboration and competition etc as factors shaping the variability with which (a) the individual is alone as part of their work (b) the group figures in their consciousness when alone (c) how this group is constituted. I think our ability to gain explanatory purchase upon this variability, to get a grip on it rather than simply identify it, begins to slip away if a strategic dissolution of the individual gives rise to an effective substitution of the reference group for the individual i.e. if we come to say it is the former that is really efficacious even when the latter seems to be alone. I find his ‘micro-sociology of thinking’ intriguing though:

Do we not have agency? it is a matter of analytical perspective. Agency is in part a term for designating the primitives of sociological explanation, in part a code word for free will. Do not human beings  make efforts, strain every nerve or let themselves go lax, make decisions or evade them? Such experiences clearly exist; they are part of micro-situational reality, the flow of human life. I deny only that analysis should stop here. One has the experience of will power; it varies, it comes and goes. Where does it come from? How do you will to will? That chain of regress comes to an end in a very few links. The same can be said about thinking. Are not one’s thoughts one’s own? Of course they are; yet why do they come into one’s head at a certain moment, or flow out upon one’s lips or beneath one’s fingers in a certain sequence of spoken or written words? These are not unanswerable questions if one has a micro-sociological theory of thinking. To explain thinking is not to deny that thinking exists, any more than to explain culture is to deny that culture exists. Culture, on a micro-level, is the medium in which we move, just as thought and feeling are the medium of micro-local experience in our own conscious bodies. Neither of these is an end point, cut off by a barrier to further analysis. (14).

However these are all just preliminary thoughts on a massive book I’ve barely skimmed the surface of. Given that I’ve not read the analysis yet (to be fair it’s 800+ pages) it remains to be seen whether my expectations about the methodological implications of these theoretical starting points prove to be adequate. I’m definitely seeing Collins as an important figure for me to hit against when developing my account of the social life of theory – in many ways I agree with the aim of his project, there are just particular points of disagreement which I suspect will have significant explanatory consequences.

*At some point I need to sit down and work out if I’m turning into a methodological individualist of a very peculiar sort. I’m certainly not one in any ontological sense but I do find myself making this kind of argument an awful lot.

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