Why do some people enjoy social theory while others don’t?

It occurred to me recently that I’ve been reading theory on a regular basis for over two decades now. I first encountered philosophy as an A Level Student in Religious Studies (post-secondary education aged 16-17) through Buddhist philosophy and Christian arguments for the existence of God. The first full work of philosophy I ever read was Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation which I don’t remember being particular impressed by; I read it through the lens of half grasped Buddhist doctrines and lacked a context in which to make sense of unfamiliar ideas. It was during this time that I formed the idea I wanted to do a Theology degree, reflecting a nascent spirituality in spite of the atheism I was brought up with and which has never wavered since. To his eternal credit the teacher responsible for my introduction to philosophy (Malcolm Pie, if I remember correctly) persuaded me that I wouldn’t enjoy a Theology degree and instead steered me towards Philosophy.

After friends talked me out of applying to Cambridge in a decision which would have ironic ramifications in my life over the coming decades, I went to do philosophy at UCL. In spite of the chronic distractions which came from living in central London in my late teens, I found I had a degree of aptitude for it. UCL then worked on the tutorial system which meant three students presenting essays on their reading to a group led by a PhD student in the first two years and a Faculty member in the final year. I sometimes lacked nuance in my engagements as a lazy reader living a distracting life, but I was intuitive about gaps and tensions within arguments, whether those of fellow students or the texts we were reading, as well as being relatively confident and articulate in teasing these out.

It nonetheless frustrated me on some fundamental level because it too often felt like word games within tightly defined boundaries. I remember asking my metaphysics tutor in my final year about the ‘intuitions’ he kept invoking as a regulative ideal in our conversations and realising that I was in some sense pushing beyond the rules of the game by asking this meta-theoretical question. With the exception of having to retake philosophical logic (which with the benefit of hindsight I now recognise is one of the most useful things you can force an intellectually curious teenager to learn) I did relatively well in spite of failing to apply myself and missing far too many lectures. It nonetheless was clear to me that I wasn’t a philosopher, in the sense that I found something fundamentally constricting about philosophical thought.

I assumed the problem was analytical philosophy, particularly when taught in the rather rigid way which was the norm at UCL. I remember tedious lectures about the rationalists and the empiricists, before we moved onto Kant who I’ve always felt an immense hostility towards, leaving me with no sense of the significance of these debates or the context in which they were taking place. Figures who now fascinate me as people such as Hume, Leibniz and Spinoza were mere cyphers used to tell a story about the history of philosophy. I hoped when I applied to do an MA in Philosophy and Social Theory at the University of Warwick that I would find myself thriving in an environment devoted to continental philosophy but I rapidly found it frustrating for equal but opposing reasons to analytical philosophy. While I’ve become much more open minded about the poeticism and impressionism which often characterises continental philosophy, I nonetheless continue to admire how someone like John Rawls thinks even if I’d rather shoot myself in the foot then read his work at this stage in my life. I admire the clarity of much analytical philosophy even as I experience it as a straight jacket which suffocates creative thought. I value it but I don’t want to do it, nor do I think the doing of it is particularly valuable for the wider world.

Encountering Richard Rorty during this period was a revelation as he presented me with an idea of philosophy as something which could be edifying, nudging us towards more interesting and rewarding ways of speaking about ourselves and the world, rather than a dully iterative process of contributing towards philosophical foundations. I read Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity for the first time during Philosophy & Social Theory, a seminar which Margaret Archer ran with Michael Luntley (semester 1) and Roger Trigg (semester 2). It seems strange to remember the debates I had with her during this time, given I was subsequently supervised by her for 6 years as a part-time PhD student, 3 years as a post-doc and continue to talk to her regularly. But in my Rortyean phase I was persuaded of the essential pointlessness of much philosophical thought and made this case stridently, something which she pushed back on forcefully though always in an even tempered and encouraging way, which was sometimes not the case with Roger Trigg.

In retrospect I realise I absorbed a lot of Critical Realism through these discussions in an almost osmotic fashion which crystallised for me when reading Andrew Collier’s Critical Realism book in preparation for what was ironically an essay on the metaphysics of causation towards the end of my first year. I can’t remember the exact stage at which I realised I was a critical realist, but there was a gradual widening of my horizon so I could see the only real options were not positivism or postmodernism. There was in fact a vast hinterland between the two which felt like the natural place to inhabit, leading me to begin to read more critical realism on the one hand alongside Charles Taylor’s work on the other which remains the most significant philosophical influence on my thinking. Oddly I spent the rest of the year focusing on political philosophy, largely to get it out of my system, culminating in a disjointed dissertation project which tried to develop what I can see now was a sociological critique of the assumptions underlying Rawl’s political liberalism. But one which remains in such an abstract mode as to not really hit the mark. I wish I still had a copy of this because I would love to read it again.

These experiences led me to forego the political philosophy PhD which seems like it was going to be my natural path (planned topic: the history of the individual in liberal thought) in order to retrain as a qualitative sociologist. I recount them here because they give a sense of the eclectic influences which shaped my intellectual trajectory over these initial six years of being immersed in theory. It was at Warwick that I began to delight in this eclecticism and I remember many hours lost in library stacks, picking things out if they caught my interest and taking them home if this initial curiosity survived ten minutes of browsing. It was during this time that I began to blog as well as helping out with the administration of a popular philosophy forum I had been posting on for some time. I mention this because the interplay between unstructured exploration and dialogue was key in retrospect, helping me become more articulate about the interests I was following through the process of talking about the following itself. This is something which Peter Preston captures well in the introduction to his Arguments and Actions in Social Theory:

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.

I began this post with my own trajectory to give a sense of what these ‘starting points’ look like in practice and the ‘untutored’ early moves which take place within them. If we consider someone who enjoys social theory alongside someone who doesn’t, I suspect these early experiences are likely to play a key role. I found these explorations immensely enjoyable as I began to navigate a theoretical landscape in which I eventually became confident I could orientate myself. Finding critical realism played a crucial role because it gave me a meta-language in which I could bring disparate influences into dialogue with each other. But so too in its own way did Rorty’s pragmatism even if it restricted the subsequent dialogue in ways I later came to find problematic.

Obviously there are many other empirical factors which influence whether someone enjoys social theory. This is an extremely broad category of experience to account for in a blog post. However I’d suggest that our formative experiences of theory play a large role in determining our subsequent intellectual trajectories, either leading us to relate to it as a source of delight (through the interplay of confidence and enjoyment) or leaving us relating to it as an unfortunate necessity which we must pass through in our research. I’ve often wondered in the last year whether I should describe myself as a theorist anymore; there were specific factors in my personal life and career in recent years which led me to forego that identity over time. Perhaps more importantly I rarely publish in theoretical journals, never attend theory conferences and don’t spend much time in my professional life talking about theory.

It’s nonetheless at the core of how I approach the world, including how I make sense of my own life as well as the work that I do with it. In this sense it’s something which matters to me even more, now that it often takes the status of something akin to a hobby which I’m blogging about rather than undertaking as part of my job. I suspect it would be useful if more people who enjoy theory talk about how they came to enjoy it, sharing those early stages of stumbling around an abstract landscape before they cobbled together a map which worked for their purposes. I suspect many people never get to the stage where they have a map they’re confident in and/or which supports their exploration in an intellectually satisfying way.

I’ll write a follow up post in the next few days taking my inspiration from The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, which I’ve been reading at the recommendation of Tyler Shores. There are techniques and strategies which those who enjoy reading theory often use which I’ve rarely seen discussed in public settings or written about in a pedagogical way.

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