Practitioners of social philosophy regard what they do as valuable, imbuing it with a sense of importance which is reflected in the often scholastic way in which readers cite and engage with such work. How seriously should we take this judgement? Does social philosophy have intrinsic worth? Or could it be considered a peculiar form of speculative journalism?

Reading a recent book by Matt Taibbi led me to reflect on this question for the first time in a while. After enjoying his account of the Trump election campaign, I’ve been working my way through his previous books. In The Divide he explores how rampant income inequality in America has reshaped the criminal justice system, creating a two-tier system which complicates traditional notions of equality before the rule of law. From pg 207:

In other words, there’s a new class of people whose goal is to become above citizenship. Live in America, conduct your trades in the weaker regulatory arena in London, pay your taxes in Antigua or the Isle of Man. Keep the rights but offshore the responsibilities. The flip side is that there is a growing subset of people, like undocumented immigrants, who live below the level of full citizenship. If the first group is stateless by choice, these people are involuntarily stateless and have virtually no rights at all.

What struck me about this argument was how easily I could imagine it being advanced by someone like Zygmunt Bauman. The terminology would be different, the tone would be different and the context would be different. But the argument Taibbi develops in this book is one which converges with the thesis Bauman developed in books like Globalisation and Wasted Lives. In fact I’m pretty sure I could restate the core argument of Taibbi’s book in persuasively Bauman-esque language.

This is a period of Bauman’s work I really like, something I observe to make clear that this isn’t just another dismissal of the Liquid Modernity cottage industry. But reading Taibbi’s entertaining and informative book, I was left reflecting on whether social philosophy of this sort has intrinsic value over-and-above journalism of the kind Taibbi engages in. What does the abstraction actually contribute? We can easily delude ourselves into thinking that abstraction inevitably brings us closer to the truth beyond appearances, the way things really are. But it can also simply obfuscate, rendering partial judgements with an unclear empirical basis as authoritative statements about epochal change.

This isn’t an argument against social philosophy. It’s an attack on the implicit hierarchies expressed in how we compare it to other ways of telling about society. There’s much we can learn from exploratory investigative journalism that leads to social critique. But doing this requires we have the confidence to laugh in the face of those who might accuse of us of seeking to become “a mere journalist”:

In many academic circles today anyone who tries to write in a widely intelligible way is liable to be condemned as a ‘mere literary man’ or, worse still, ‘a mere journalist.’ Perhaps you have already learned that these phrases, as commonly used, only indicate the spurious inference: superficial because readable. The academic man in America is trying to carry on a serious intellectual life in a context that often seems quite set against it. His prestige must make up for many of the dominant values he has sacrificed by choosing an academic career. His claims for prestige readily become tied to his self-image as a ‘scientist’. To be called a ‘mere journalist’ makes him feel undignified and shallow. It is this situation, I think, that is often at the bottom of the elaborate vocabulary and involved manner of speaking and writing. It is less difficult to learn this manner than not. It has become a convention – those who do not use it are subject to moral disapproval. It may be that it is the result of an academic closing of ranks on the part of the mediocre, who understandably wish to exclude those who win the attention of intelligent people, academic and otherwise.

C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Pg 218

In the last couple of days, I’ve been reading The Candidate by Alex Nunns. It’s a detailed and insightful account of Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership of the Labour party and the conditions which made this possible. After the election, it can also be read as as an analysis of broader conditions which might facilitate Corbyn’s ascendency to government. What both events share is their unsettling of political assumptions, as nascent transformations in political life made themselves felt for the first time in outcomes which professional observers of politics dismissed as impossibilities.

There’s an insightful discussion in The Candidate of this infamous dismissal of Labour members as ‘morons’ by Blairite apparatchik John McTernan. It took place in the run up to the leadership election when the first authoritative poll gave Corbyn a huge advantage over his rivals:

What fascinates Nunns about this is how the bewilderment of the presenters led them to so openly reveal their biases. The underlying assumptions which bind together establishment worlds of politics and the media stand repudiated by these events and the presenters “struggle to keep their journalistic footing for five minutes of balanced analysis, even as the political terrain falls away beneath them” (loc 4070). As he goes on to observe on loc 4086:

In such moments of political flux, when a sudden development cannot be made to fit into the standard patterns of reporting used to depict the world, underlying biases are revealed. The genuine shock evinced in the Newsnight studio was reflected across the media; the shared assumptions and sympathies echoed in the vast bulk of the reporting and commentary that followed.

We have seen a lot of political flux in recent years. It would be absurdly inaccurate to see this uncertainty as something unique to the 21st century. There have been many other periods of world history characterised by a similar degree of uncertainty, as well as the the obvious point that ‘our’ certainty has often been ‘their’ uncertainty e.g. military adventurism during a relatively stable period of British politics. So by ‘political flux’, I mean events which can’t be incorporated into the intellectual frameworks dominant within the media and politics, usually taking place within national politics but sometimes aggregating together like an outflowing of nested bubbles across the globe.

But I believe media saturation represents a turning point because it leaves events unfolding more quickly, due to the affordances of digital communications, as well as folding back bewildered commentary into those events themselves. The political terrain can fall apart much more quickly and we can many more conversations in the period of time in which it is falling apart. There has been a qualitative and quantitative change in how such moments of uncertainty are constituted, as well as how they can generate new events.

Under these circumstances, I’m increasingly convinced there are new openings for public intellectuals. Probably not for hedgehogs but rather for foxes: discursive power falters in these moments of uncertainty and there’s new opportunities for influence available to those who can quickly and plausibly offer sophisticated explanations of events & maps of ways forward while the existing arbiters of political reality are quite openly wondering what the fuck is going on. There is a place opening up for a new kind of intellectual here. Can the established conditions of critical social thought give rise to it?

In his wonderful memoir, Adults In The Room, Yanis Varoufakis reflects on the frustrations of politics and how they compare to academia. From loc 5504:

Possibly because of my academic background, this was the Brussels experience I least expected and found most frustrating. In academia one gets used to having one’s thesis torn apart, sometimes with little decorum; what one never experiences is dead silence, a refusal to engage, a pretence that no thesis has been put forward at all. At a party when you find yourself stuck with a self-centred bore who says what they want to say irrespective of your contribution to the conversation, you can take your glass and disappear to some distant corner of the room. But when your country’s recovery depends on the ongoing conversation, when there is no other corner of the room to retreat to, irritation can turn into despair –or fury if you grasp what is really going on: a tactic whose purpose is to nullify anything that is inimical to the troika’s power.

I found it fascinating to read this. Since encountering this paper by Richard French a few years ago, I’ve been interested in the implicit conceptions of politics which animate the publicly-orientated activity of academics. How do they think power works? How do they think problems are solved? How do they think challenges are negotiated? It seems as if Varoufakis’s intellectual interests (particularly game theory and political economy) left him well attuned to the dynamics of power but his nostalgia for academia certainly resonates with what French argues here:

Many academics misunderstand public life and the conditions under which policy is made. This article examines misconceptions in three major academic traditions—policy as science (e.g., ‘evidence-based policy’), normative political theory, and the mini-public school of deliberative democracy—and argues that the practical implications of each of these traditions are limited by their partial, shallow and etiolated vision of politics. Three constitutive features of public life, competition, publicity and uncertainty, compromise the potential of these traditions to affect in any fundamental way the practice of politics. Dissatisfaction with real existing democracy is not the consequence of some intellectual or moral failure uniquely characteristic of the persona publica, and attempts to reform it are misdirected to the extent that they imagine a better public life modeled on academic ideals.

In his detailed study of Sartre’s rise to prominence as an authoritative public intellectual, Patrick Baert argues that the general intellectualism embodied by Sartre depended upon social conditions which no longer obtain. Such intellectuals “address a wide range of subjects without being experts as such” and speak “at, rather than with, their audience” (pg. 185). In doing so, they depend upon a broad support for intellectual life within society alongside a concentration of cultural and intellectual capital within a small elite. Without the hierarchy this gives rise to, one in which enough of the subordinate are invested, it cannot be tenable to pronounce with such perceived authority across such a broad range of subjects. This hierarchy is manifested both in educational institutions but also in the disciplines from which such general intellectuals emerge. However general intellectuals are not dependent upon these institutions, instead being able to leverage their authority into income from the media (non-fiction, print journalism, broadcast media) and often being able to rely on family wealth. The authority invested in their discipline, alongside “the confidence of the right habitus and an elite education” mean “they can speak to a wide range of social and political issues without being criticised for dilettantism” (pg. 185).

What led to their decline? Baert identifies numerous intellectual factors, including the emergence of theoretical movements which “questioned, if not undermined, the erstwhile superiority of philosophy over other vocabularies” (g. 185). The professionalisation of the social sciences facilitated the challenge of claims by philosophers about the social world which were effectively just bad sociology. Their expansion meant that there were now subject experts in areas upon which philosophers used to make pronouncements, implicitly or explicitly casting such outpourings of opinion as inadequate. Much as the authority of philosophy was undermined from within, so too was educational authority eroded from without as mass higher education contributed to a softening of the disjuncture between educational elite and the population at large. As Baert puts it, “with higher education also comes a growing scepticism towards epistemic and moral authority, an increasing recognition of the fallibility of knowledge and of the existence of alternative perspectives” (pg. 186). The declining acceptability of speaking at such public audiences was compounded by the erosion of the deferential attitudes which had previously characterised the media. Indeed, over time the media came to include subject experts who felt competent challenging the lauded experts.

Baert suggests that social media further intensifies this trend. He recognises that gatekeepers still exist online and that most bloggers have little audience. But nonetheless he argues that “the technology has made a difference, once which surely has further lessened the likelihood of authoritative public intellectuals” (pg. 186-187). In the place of such generalists, we see expert public intellectuals who resemble what Foucault described as the specific intellectual. Such figures “draw on their professional knowledge, whether derived from their research in the social and natural sciences, to engage with wider societal or political issues that go beyond their narrow expertise” (pg. 187). Their capacity to exert an influence rests on “intellect and acquired knowledge, and mastery of the inductive technology (observational skill, statistical methods, lab machinery etc.) to acquire or verify that knowledge” (pg 187-188). Dialogical public intellectuals often draw on the affordances of new technology to “get their message across” and position themselves against those who rely on traditional media, “emphasising how the new technologies permit frequent and intense interaction” (pg. 189). In doing so, they embody a prior trend towards more iterative and dialogical forms of engagement, constructing themselves as learning from their public while the public learn from them.

It’s striking how much less detailed Baert’s description of the latter category is compared to the preceding two. Indeed the only figure named is Michael Burawoy, in relation to his plea for public sociology rather than his performance of it. This intellectual self-presentation is something which investigation might reveal to be a self-marketing strategy for intellectuals seeking to stake out ground within an increasingly competitive marketplace of ideas, within which social media has removed barriers to entry while also generating a whole new arena of interaction through which to cultivate a relationship with one’s hoped for audience. To be fair to him, Baert perhaps recognises this, stressing that “the situation is often more complex than the bloggers themselves tend to acknowledge” and point out they will often continue to write for newspapers and magazines etc (pg. 189). But how seriously this claim to dialogical interaction should be taken is an empirical question. How much does this interaction shape their views? How much of this interaction do they respond substantively to? How long do they spend each week engaging in such interaction? Without substantive interaction, this dialogical relation is in part imagined, a constructed audience reproduced in the mind and reality through limited interaction with a small subset of it.

My suggestion is that social media is far more hospitable to the conditions of the general intellectual than Baert suggests. The intellectual self-presentation of the dialogical scholar, orientated towards extending their network and cultivating their online audience, represents a strategy conducive to success in the attention economy if they can balance this time-demanding pursuit with the exigencies of their day job. The increasing reliance of journalists, particularly freelancers, on social media for networking and research mean such figures will inevitably be invited to contribute to features and discussions beyond their area of expertise. Even if the dialogic public intellectual has a self-understanding grounded in circumscribed expertise, their digital footprint will inevitably push beyond this and lead others to tempt them still further.

In a way, this post is the latest part of an extended conversation with myself about whether to say ‘yes’ when I get asked to contribute to features on subjects I have opinions about but no expertise. To name some recent examples: selfie culture, conspiracy theories, algorithmic culture, hipsters, the meaning of tolerance. With one exception, I’ve always said ‘no’, largely out of caution. It’s possible there has been a misunderstanding, such that someone infers the existence of a trajectory of research from one blog post on a topic whereas actually that single blog post represents the sum total of my engagement. It’s also possible they’re made in relation to a university affiliation, something which I’m certain is the case with those last minute e-mails explaining the journalist has an imminent deadline and needs an expert quote taking an agreed stance to complete a nearly finished article.

But I suspect something more is going on, in which the price of admission to public platforms has changed from expertise to a capacity for cogency, a quickness in response and the willingness to comment. The invitations are there for generalists emerging from the academy, liable only to grow if they pursue even the most basic strategies of visibility and connection through social media. The rewards are there, in so far as such activity can be plausibly glossed as public engagement potentially generative of impact. The costs potentially faced by generalists are weak from within the academy, liable to be restricted to those who have an extremely high profile and thus counteract the anonymity of abundance or those who inadvertently provoke a controversy with ill-thought out statements on controversial topics that lead them to be held to account. Under such conditions, the reflexivity of the individual intellectual becomes key, something unlikely to change when the academy remains as fragmented as is currently the case.

What it means to be an intellectual is changing in an age of social media and we’ve yet to really get to grips with what this means.

After Michel Foucault died in 1984 at the age of fifty-seven, Pierre Bourdieu wrote a tribute in Le Monde, reflecting on his life and what could be learned from it. Bourdieu attributed to his former colleague at the Collège de France a great consistency in his intellectual work, much more than is often assumed:

The consistency of an intellectual project, and of a way of living the intellectual life. Starting with the desire to break – which explains and excuses some of his famous apothegms on the death of man – to break with the totalizing ambition of what he called the ‘universal intellectual’, often identified with the project of philosophy; but to do so in the sense of escaping the alternative between saying nothing about everything or else everything about nothing.

Political Interventions: Social Sciences and Political Action, Pg 138

To become what Foucault described as the ‘specific intellectual’ required foregoing the temptation to speak on behalf of others. What Bourdieu admired was his ambition to “substitute for the absolutism of the universal intellectual, specific works drawing on actual sources … without abandoning the broadest ambitions of thought” (p. 138). The point was not to counterpoise a neutral expertise, content only to make claims comprehensively licensed by agreement within the community of inquirers, against the sweeping grandiosity which characterised the pronouncements of a figure like Sartre.

The specific intellectual existed in a new space, beyond this dichotomy between the epistemically timid expert working in obscurity and grandiose celebrity forever on an epistemic rampage in the name of truth and justice. As Bourdieu put it, Foucault “always stubbornly rejected the division between intellectual investment and political commitment that is so common and convenient” (p. 138). In this he represented a new kind of intellectual:

For him, the critical vision was applicable first of all to his own practice, and in this respect he was the purest representative of a new kind of intellectual who has no need to mystify himself as to the motives and themes of intellectual acts, nor to foster illusions about their effect, in order to practice them in full knowledge of their cause.

Political Interventions: Social Sciences and Political Action, Pg 139

This entailed a remarkable humility, at least relative to the general intellectuals of the previous generation. His political action, “conducted with passion and rigour, sometimes with a kind of rational fury, owed nothing to the sentiment of possessing ultimate truths and values” (p. 138). He embodied the possibility of commitment without dogmatism, action without certainty. Bourdieu described how Foucault not only “rejected the grand airs of the great moral conscience” but also found them a “favourite object of laughter” (p. 138).

This was a repudiation of the universal intellectual in terms of both politics and intellectualism. The specific intellectual rejected lofty rhetoric of truth and justice for the contingent realities of situated struggles. The specific intellectual rejected generality for specificity, forsaking an assumed right to speak for a methodologically grounded sense of what one can bring to the conversation. But crucially this was done while sustaining commitment, pushing against the boundaries of received wisdom. The specific intellectual remains orientated towards the universal, while always remaining embedded within the specific.

In Zygmunt Bauman’s Legislators and Interpreters, he identifies two different contexts in which the role of the ‘intellectual’ is performed and two different strategies which develop in response to them:

  • The legislator makes “authoritative statements” which “arbitrate in controversies of opinions and which selects those opinions which, having been selected, become correct and binding”.
  • The interpreter work at “translation statements, made within one communally based tradition, so that they can be understood within the system of knowledge based on another tradition”.

Both inevitably rest on a conception of the intellectual’s authority in performing this role, with the legislator having universalistic ambitions which the interpreter has foresaken. This authority is grounded in access to “superior (objective) knowledge to which intellectuals have a better access than the non-intellectual part of society”. This epistemic privilege is ensured via “procedural rules which assure the attainment of truth, the arrival at valid moral judgement, and the selection of proper artistic taste”. The social place of the intellectual professions is ensured by the universal validity of these procedural rule. It grants the intellectuals a crucial role in the “maintenance and perfection of  the social order”, entailing a right and duty to intervene in society in protection of it. 

I’m going to write a lot more about this book at a later stage, but I wanted to record the key question it provoked in me: are we entering a new context in which the role of the intellectual is performed and what are the strategies developing in response to it? What Will Davies identifies as a declining efficacy of facts is a crucial part of this picture:

Facts hold a sacred place in Western liberal democracies. Whenever democracy seems to be going awry, when voters are manipulated or politicians are ducking questions, we turn to facts for salvation.

But they seem to be losing their ability to support consensus. PolitiFact has found that about 70 percent of Donald Trump’s “factual” statements actually fall into the categories of “mostly false,” “false” and “pants on fire” untruth.

For the Brexit referendum, Leave argued that European Union membership costs Britain 350 million pounds a week, but failed to account for the money received in return.

The sense is widespread: We have entered an age of post-truth politics.

As politics becomes more adversarial and dominated by television performances, the status of facts in public debate rises too high. We place expectations on statistics and expert testimony that strains them to breaking point. Rather than sit coolly outside the fray of political argument, facts are now one of the main rhetorical weapons within it.

This over-production and weaponisation of facts, driven by the long term change in the intellectual marketplace represented by the emergence of the think tank system, would surely seem to be the final nail in the coffin of the legislator role. However as Susan Halford and Mike Savage point out in an upcoming paper, the most prominent public intellectuals at present are those whose work is profoundly and radically empirical. Are these a hold out of the legislator role? A mutation of it? Or something else entirely?

What Davies raises points to a broader problem facing the contemporary intellectual: in a fact-saturated environment, how can the authority of the facts offered by intellectuals be underwritten? Without facts, how can academic speech differentiate itself from conjecture, speculation or polemic? This question can be asked at a certain level of abstraction about ‘the intellectual’ as such, but it can also be asked much more mundanely about each and every instance of academic speech on societial matters made on social media. Should it be understood as a professional pronouncement? If so, is it authoritative and what is the basis for this authority?

I wonder if the prominence of Will’s own analysis of Brexit could be an interesting case study in addressing these questions. Its authority wasn’t grounded on facts but insight. A timely and well-articulated  intervention at a point where received wisdom had been overturned and there was a pervasive sense of “what just happened?”. Can speed, insight and articulacy provide a grounding for the intellectual role under contemporary conditions? 

What he says about the transition from facts to data is interesting:

The promise of facts is to settle arguments between warring perspectives and simplify the issues at stake. For instance, politicians might disagree over the right economic policy, but if they can agree that “the economy has grown by 2 percent” and “unemployment is 5 percent,” then there is at least a shared stable reality that they can argue over

The promise of data, by contrast, is to sense shifts in public sentiment. By analyzing Twitter using algorithms, for example, it is possible to get virtually real-time updates on how a given politician is perceived. This is what’s known as “sentiment analysis.”

But I find this most plausible as a statement about shifting epistemological  fashions amongst powerful groups. The endemic methodological limitations of these approaches will generate confusion, uncertainty and conflict as they come to be relied upon ever more. It is this resulting mess that provides an opening to intellectuals to, as it were, turn private confusion into public issues.

Will’s comment in response to this is really worth reading. I’ll blog more about this tomorrow:

Thanks for your generous comments, Mark. As far as my own Brexit writing was concerned (the wide citation/sharing of which was a shock to me), I think that a kind of interpretive pragmatism has its own useful role during times of upheaval. All I did in blogging about Brexit was to point out some things that were quite clearly the case, and had been clearly the case for some time before the crisis struck. I think part of what people valued about that was it offered reassurance that interpretation and understanding were possible, if we just remain reasonably calm. Obviously that’s not as politically energising as reports of emergency or conflict, but it’s no less so than the presentation of ‘facts’. In that respect it’s an ‘interpreter’ role, but one which partly seeks to remind people of things they already instinctively know, sense or can imagine. At times when the world seems to be changing very rapidly (engulfing methodology and epistemology with it), there is value in narrating the conditions of change, which themselves are likely to be quite long-standing and recognisable to many.

From Pity the Billionaire, by Thomas Frank, loc 1380. This is a summary of the populist right’s understanding of the structure of society:

America is made up of two classes, roughly speaking, “ordinary people” and “intellectuals.” According to this way of thinking, as we see again and again, either you’re a productive citizen, or you’re some kind of snob, a university professor or an EPA bureaucrat. Compared to the vivid line separating intellectuals and productive members of society, all other distinctions fade to nothingness. Between small-business owners and sharecroppers, for example, there is no difference at all, just as other Tea Party authors saw no real difference between Rick Santelli’s bond traders and “working people.”

I’m interested in understanding how basically delusional understandings of how the world work thrive under conditions of what Colin Crouch calls post-democracy.

A similar idea from loc 2100:

The unlikely Engels of this strange class war was a retired professor of international relations named Angelo Codevilla; his manifesto, “America’s Ruling Class,” was published in the summer of 2010 by the American Spectator and was issued a short while later in a longer version by that magazine’s book-publishing arm. There are but two social groupings that matter in America, the retired professor maintained, a “ruling class” that legitimizes itself as the nation’s intellectual superiors but that is actually defined by its control of the machinery of government, and a “country class” made up of nearly everyone else. The core of the idea was not new, but the bailouts and economic disasters of our own times allowed Codevilla to apply it in a new and uncompromising way. His indictment of the “ruling class” fell on anyone connected with government, Republicans as well as Democrats, both of whom were said to hand out economic favors to the connected. Big business was implicated too, insofar as it was in cahoots with big government; in fact, “the upper tiers of the U.S. economy are now nothing but networks of special deals with one part of government or another,” Codevilla wrote.

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.