Expedia just emailed me for the sixth time this week, with the majority of the emails containing attention grabbing emojis in the subject lines, in a way I had never seen before: 
I’m not sure what happened this week. Does Expedia have a new marketing strategy? Have I been algorithmically marked as a customer they’re at risk of losing? I suspect the latter, as I booked 4 trips to Europe in the space of two weeks last month and haven’t booked anything since.

Such examples are individually trivial. But I argue in my new book that escalation dynamics lead to a competitive spiral, comprising copying and innovation, characterising attempts to capture the attention of increasingly distracted people. The cumulative impact of this tendency is to an increase in the background noise of social life, an outcome of much sociological significance which sociology is currently ill equipped to grasp due to the lack of a meaningful sociology of thinking.

Fascinating to discover the existence of this at Rutgers – course outline here!

Welcome to our class on the Sociology of Thinking! This semester we’ll explore sociology’s contributions to our understanding of the way we think. By focusing on families, organizations, professions, ethnic groups, religious groups, and other “thought communities” rather than on individuals, this course sheds light on the impersonal, conventional, and normative aspects of the way we perceive, remember, reckon time, make distinctions, notice and ignore things, assign meaning, as well as construct our identity.

We subsume such a wide array of phenomena under the category of ‘interaction’ that we sometimes risk obscuring the diversity within this category. One important way in which interactions differ is in how energising, or otherwise, they are to the participating actors. Some interactions can be draining and tedious. Others can have a negligible impact upon us. Others still leave us energised and focused. We can leave some interaction situations and feel marginal and diminished while others leave us feeling fuller and more congruent. These experiences are probably peripheral in the scheme of our lives as a whole but they’re nonetheless sociologically important. For the kind of actor-centred sociology I advocate, in which individual lives are taken as basic unit of analysis and analytically distinguished from the relationships in which they are always embedded, it’s also a challenging one – it’s necessary to account for these seemingly intersubjective aspects of experience in terms of individual trajectories into, through and out of interaction situations in which “reside the energy of movement and change, the glue of solidarity, and the conservatism of stasis” as Randall Collins puts it. For the position I’m advocating to be tenable, it needs to account for the experience of these situations in a way that resists the (effective) dissolution of the individual that is advocated by Collins:

This is not to say that the individual does not exist. But an individual is not simply a body, even though a body is an ingredient that individuals get constructed out of. My analytical strategy (and that of the founder of interaction ritual analysis, Erving Goffman), is to start with the dynamics of situations; from this we can derive almost everything that we want to know about individuals, as a moving precipitate across situations.

Here we might pause for a counterargument. Do we not know that the individual is unique, precisely because we can follow him or her across situations, and precisely because he or she acts in a familiar, distinctively recognizable pattern even as circumstances change? Let us disentangle what is valid from what is misleading in this statement. The argument assumes a hypothetical fact, that individuals are constant even as situations change; to what extent this is true remains to be shown. We are prone to accept it, without further examination, as “something everybody knows,” because it is drummed into us as a moral principle: everyone is unique, be yourself, don’t give in to social pressure, to your own self be true–these are slogans trumpeted by every mouthpiece from preachers’ homilies to advertising campaigns, echoing everywhere from popular culture to the avant-garde marching-orders of modernist and hypermodernist artists and intellectuals. As sociologists, our task is not to go with the flow of taken-for-granted belief–(although doing just this is what makes a successful popular writer)–but to view it in a sociological light, to see what social circumstances created this moral belief and this hegemony of social categories at this particular historical juncture. The problem, in Goffman’s terms, is to discover the social sources of the cult of the individual.


It’s strange to only really discover Collins after I’ve finished my PhD. In a very real way, his project is the mirror image of my own: to develop situational micro-foundations for macro-sociology i.e. how can the analysis of everyday life be made most amenable to drawing out the connections between micro and macro? However Collins argues that the situation rather than the individual should be the starting point while I argue that we should understand situations as composed emergently of individuals in movement – the crucial factor conditioning a situation, as well as the situated and structured milieu* in which it unfolds, being what the individuals bring to that situation – the propensities and liabilities, the expectations and concerns, originating through the personal changes they have undergone as a consequence of past situations and analytically distinct from the present situation. While Collins says that “A situation is not merely the result of the individual who comes into it, nor even of a combination of individuals” because “Situations have laws or processes of their own” I’d agree but I see the causality differently: I see any number of people P(n) with distinct characteristics at a ‘moment of entry’ to a situated milieu with distinct characteristics M – one of the characteristics of P(n) are the existing relations obtaining between them R(n). So we have (Pn) + R(n) entering M. The situation S unfolds because of how P(n) interact with each other, conditioned by the characteristics of R(n) and M(n), while they contribute to the reproduction or transformation of P(n), R(n) and M as a result of their situated interaction – everything (potentially) changes in the interaction situation, include those party to it. There are a finite number of true statements that can be made about P(n) at the start of any interaction situation and the truth of those statements can be analysed in terms of the consequences of past interaction situations. It’s only through analytically distinguishing between these changes that we can gain traction on the links between situations i.e. how what P(n) bring to future situations was shaped by their experience of past situations.

One thing I find particular problematic about the account given by Collins is how he conceives of structure and agency:

Am I proclaiming, on the micro-level, the primacy of structure over agency? Is the structure of the interaction all-determining, bringing to naught the possibility of active agency? Not at all. The agency / structure rhetoric is a conceptual morass, entangling several distinctions and modes of rhetorical force. Agency / structure confuses the distinction of micro / macro, which is the local here-and-now vis-à-vis the interconnections among local situations into a larger swath of time and space, with the distinction between what is active and what is not. The latter distinction leads us to questions about energy and action; but energy and action are always local, always processes of real human beings doing something in a situation. It is also true that the action of one locality can spill over into another, that one situation can be carried over into other situations elsewhere. The extent of that spillover is part of what we mean by macro-patterns. It is acceptable, as a way of speaking, to refer to the action of a mass of investors in creating a run on the stock market, or of the breakdown of an army’s logistics in setting off a revolutionary crisis, but this is a shorthand for the observable realities (i.e., what would be witnessed by a micro-sociologist on the spot). This way of speaking makes it seem as if there is agency on the macro-level, but that is inaccurate, because we are taken in by a figure of speech. Agency, if we are going to use that term, is always micro; structure concatenates it into macro.


My account offers a micro-sociology of collective action. In fact Tom Brock and I have a paper coming out soon in the Journal for Theory of Social Behaviour in which we analyse political demonstrations in these terms. If agency is predominantly micro-sociological then how do we explain the capacity to organise together for common purposes? Tom and I argue that demonstrations are important situations in which collective participation in a situated milieu helps solidify relational bonds that are experienced as solidarity – I see so many others who have converged on this situation for the same purpose as myself and I recognise converging motivations, facilitating a translation from the relational characteristics of my existing bonds to the crowd at large – solidified in turn by the performative aspect of protest (“you say cut back, we say fight back!” etc). The language I’m prone to using (motivations, concerns, solidarity, collectives) would be anathema to Collins who sees  agency as “the energy appearing in human bodies and emotions and as the intensity and focus of human consciousness”. My reasons for rejecting this language could easily constitute a a second PhD thesis. But I’m engaging with his work because I recognise that, with the partial substantive exception of what Tom and I have written about demonstrations, I can’t account for something which his theoretical framework can: energy. I need to develop an alternative explanation, probably predicated on the social psychology of what Pierpaolo Donati calls relational goods, if I want to seriously advocate that the social world can be fruitfully understood through the micro-situational realism I’ve been trying to develop over the last six years. I like how Collins describes this, I just don’t like how he explains it:

Perhaps the best we might say is that the local structure of interaction is what generates and shapes the energy of the situation. That energy can leave traces, carrying over to further situations because individuals bodily resonate with emotions, which trail off in time but may linger long enough to charge up a subsequent encounter, bringing yet further chains of consequences. Another drawback of the term “agency” is that it carries the rhetorical burden of connoting moral responsibility; it brings us back to the glorification (and condemnation) of the individual, just the moralizing gestalt that we need to break out from if we are to advance an explanatory microsociology. We need to see this from a different angle. Instead of agency, I will devote theoretical attention to emotions and emotional energy, as changing intensities heated up or cooled down by the pressure-cooker of interaction rituals.

The central mechanism of interaction ritual theory is that occasions that combine a high degree of mutual focus of attention, that is, a high degree of intersubjectivity, together with a high degree of emotional entrainment–through bodily synchronization, mutual stimulation / arousal of participants’ nervous systems–result in feelings of membership that are attached to cognitive symbols; and result also in the emotional energy of individual participants, giving them feelings of confidence, enthusiasm, and desire for action in what they consider a morally proper path. These moments of high degree of ritual intensity are high points of experience. They are high points of collective experience, the key moments of history, the times when significant things happen. These are moments that tear up old social structures or leave them behind, and shape new social structures. As Durkheim notes, these are moments like the French Revolution in the summer of 1789. We could add, they are moments like the key events of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s; like the collapse of communist regimes in 1989 and 1991; and to a degree of significance that can be ascertained only in the future, as in the national mobilization in the United States following September 11, 2001. These examples are drawn from large-scale ritual mobilizations, and examples of a smaller scale could be drawn as we narrow our attention to smaller arenas of social action.

IR theory provides a theoryof individual motivation from one situation to the next. Emotional energy is what individuals seek; situations are attractive or unattractive to them to the extent that the interaction ritual is successful in providing emotional energy. This gives us a dynamic microsociology, in which we trace situations and their pull or push for individuals who come into them. Note the emphasis: the analytical starting point is the situation, and how it shapes individuals; situations generate and regenerate the emotions and the symbolism that charge up individuals and send them from one situation to another.

*Because there is structural conditioning that transcends the situation even if this, in turn, can be understood in micro-sociological terms. For instance when students interact in a Student Union bar, the accumulated consequences of a panoply of past situations operate causally in relation to the character of the SU bar, the roles they play within it and the consequent expectations they bring to bear upon the interaction. All these factors have their own history of emergence which can be analysed micro-sociologically but they operate concurrently i.e. statements about their situational origins are ontologically past tense rather than present tense.

Earlier this week I read Solo by William Boyd. The idea of a new James Bond novel wouldn’t have appealed to me if it had been written by anyone other than Boyd and it lived up to my expectations. One curious aspect of it which I wasn’t expecting was the prominence of James Bond’s internal conversation in the narrative:

Bond lay in bed thinking about the plans for the following night – the crossing of the lagoon and trusting this man, Kojo, to deliver him safely. And what then? He supposed he would make his way to Port Dunbar and introduce himself as a friendly journalist, provide himself with new accreditation, and say he was keen to report the war from the Dahumian side – show the world the rebels’ perspective on events. Again, it all seemed very improvised and ad hoc. (pg 84)

Bond forced himself to think about his options for a while, kicking at bits of the shattered road surface. (pg 99)

To be honest, Bond had to admit that he hadn’t thought much about what he was doing once the urgency of the situation was apparent and the beautiful clarity of his plan had seized him. All that had concerned him was how best to execute it. (pg 146)

Bond paced slowly to and fro, affecting unconcern, but his mind was hyperactive. Something must have gone very wrong – but what? No clever strategy suggested itself. (pg 173)

He stopped. It had come to him like a revelation. All you had to do was give your brain enough time to work. A solution always presented itself. (pg 200)

There was nothing so invigorating as clear and absolute purpose. There was only one objective now. James Bond would kill Kobus Breed. (pg 272)

Bond’s mind was working fast – sensing opportunities, weighing up options, minimising risk. (pg 282)

Bond turned the Interceptor on to the London road and put his foot on the accelerator, concentrating on the pleasures of driving a powerful car like this, trying not to think of Bryce and whatever dangers had been lurking out there in the darkness of her garden. (pg 321)

I use the phrase ‘internal conversation’ because I think Boyd is doing something more here than simply describing the contents of Bond’s mind. These ‘contents’ enter into the narrative because they represent the basis for action rather than solely being a subjective response to the protagonist’s circumstances.

I listened to an interesting podcast earlier, in which the psychologist Eldar Shafir discusses the ‘tunnelling effect’ produced by scarcity. This is how Oliver Burkeman describes their argument:

“Scarcity captures the mind,” explain Mullainathan and Shafir. It promotes tunnel vision, helping us focus on the crisis at hand but making us “less insightful, less forward-thinking, less controlled”. Wise long-term decisions and willpower require cognitive resources. Poverty leaves far less of those resources at our disposal.

Their most arresting claim is that the same effects kick in – albeit not always with such grave implications – in any conditions of scarcity, not just lack of money. Chronically busy people, suffering from a scarcity of time, also demonstrate impaired abilities and make self-defeating choices, such as unproductive multi-tasking or neglecting family for work. Lonely people, suffering from a scarcity of social contact, become hyper-focused on their loneliness, prompting behaviours that render it worse. In one sense, Mullainathan and Shafir concede, scarcity is so ubiquitous as to be almost meaningless. But the feeling of scarcity – of not having as much of something as you believe you need – is something more specific and agonising. To use the authors’ favourite metaphor, life under such conditions is like packing a tiny suitcase for a trip. It entails a ceaseless focus on difficult trade-offs: the umbrella or the extra sweater? The greatest freedom that money can buy is the freedom from thinking about money – or, to quote Henry David Thoreau, “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone”.


When reading this I was struck by how readily this tunnelling under conditions of scarcity can be invoked as a cognitive mechanism explaining the emergence of what Margaret Archer calls fractured reflexivity. This is how I’ve summarised her argument about this in the past:

These people are the fractured reflexives and, for a wide range of reasons, their deliberations tend to intensify distress and disorientation rather than bringing them to any conclusion about what to do or who to be. Their common denominator is that their self-talk intensifies affect rather than producing an action orientation. Those whose internal conversation takes this form regularly “admit to huge difficulties in making decisions, in defining courses of action to be consistently pursued and, above all, in engaging in anything more than the survivalist’s day-to-day planning” (Archer 2012: 248). The point is not that these people are somehow unable to function but rather than the fractured nature of their reflexivity makes ‘functioning’ intensely onerous, characterised by an intensity of introspection that is both a response to the stress and anxiety which circumstances provoke but also a cause of it, as the absence of any consistent orientation towards the practical question life poses will tend to cumulatively add to an individual’s problems. They accrue objective penalties through prevarication, indecisiveness or avoidance because the necessity of selection doesn’t go away simply because they struggle to respond to it purposively and “subjectively, they undergo profound mental distress and experience a disorientation that is qualitatively distinct from the anger and unfairness experienced by many in modernity” (Archer 2012: 290)

I’ll have to read Eldar Shafir’s work before I can assess whether he is postulating a mechanism in the sense in which I mean the term. However hearing this podcast about economic decision making left me with a greater degree of clarity about the approach I want to take to the sociology of thinking: using the psychological literature to elucidate the cognitive mechanisms underlying personal and social reflexivity, using the former to revise the latter where the account of reflexivity I’m working with is inconsistent with well-established empirical findings about human cognition. However I think I also have a strong position from which to read the psychological literature critically because approaching it from the perspective of the sociology of thinking allows me to open up a space of questions about how social and cultural context condition cognitive processes.

While reading Randall Collins for my other project, I was suddenly struck by how relevant it is for the sociology of thinking. I must engage with this properly:

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.


The Sociology of Philosophies, p.14

How much time do you spend talking to yourself? If you put the question this way, it often makes people uncomfortable. An alternative phrasing: how much time do you spend engaged in “directed conscious thought”? This is what Tim Wilson et al investigated in a new paper published in Science. It’s exactly the sort of work I’m looking forward to engaging with when I start my sociology of thinking project later in the year:

The ability to engage in directed conscious thought is an integral part—perhaps even a defining part—of what makes us human. Unique among the species, we have the ability to sit and mentally detach ourselves from our surroundings and travel inward, recalling the past, envisioning the future, and imagining worlds that have never existed. Neural activity during such inward-directed thought, called default-mode processing, has been the focus of a great deal of attention in recent years, and researchers have speculated about its possible functions (15). Two related questions, however, have been overlooked: Do people choose to put themselves in default mode by disengaging from the external world? And when they are in this mode, is it a pleasing experience?

Recent survey results suggest that the answer to the first question is “not very often.” Ninety-five percent of American adults reported that they did at least one leisure activity in the past 24 hours, such as watching television, socializing, or reading for pleasure, but 83% reported they spent no time whatsoever “relaxing or thinking” (6). Is this because people do not enjoy having nothing to do but think?


Much psychological research has tended to investigate the role of external distractions in interrupting introspective activity. However Wilson et al contest that “it is surprisingly difficult to think in enjoyable ways even in the absence of competing external demands”. My problem with time use surveys as a method for investigating this is that it conflates internal conversation with making the time for internal conversation. The former is so ubiquitous that it often escapes our notice and failing to make time for it doesn’t mean that we don’t do it. In fact I’d suggest making time for internal conversation reflects a certain mode of orientation towards one’s inner life that is much more strongly evidenced in some people than others. Furthermore, considering the social conditions propitious towards time for reflection immediately places us within the sphere of sociological questions of autonomy, power and labour that represents one of the main contributions that Sociology can make to the study of thinking. Unless we sustain a strong distinction between internal conversation as a ubiquitous activity and the recognition & valuation of one’s own internal conversation (so as to attempt to make time for it etc) these important ‘internal’ and ‘external’ issues start to look a lot murkier and less susceptible to investigation. This is by no means a dismissal of their empirical value, rather a simple note of caution about how they are interpreted.

That said I like the way the two questions are articulated:

Do people choose to put themselves in default mode by disengaging from the external world?

And when they are in this mode, is it a pleasing experience?

I just think there’s a sociological complexity to them which the authors, entirely understandably, don’t acknowledge in this paper. My favourite representation of the pleasure of ‘disengagement’ comes from the Simpsons. Here it is presented as a soothing retreat from the world, tuning out external demands as Homer becomes mesmerised by the monkey ‘in’ his head. Eventually his reflexivity kicks in and the monkey tells him to attend to his circumstances:

However what happens if the monkey isn’t willing to offer direction? I do think that there are many forms of retreat which constitute escapism, with soothing rituals or incantations (or narcotics) serving to dull the incessant demands of our circumstances and offer us temporary relief from the necessity of responding to them. However it’s the necessity of responding, the fact that daily life throws up continual challenges about what to do and how to do it, which is what makes internal conversation so charged and so challenging. It’s draining to make decisions all the time (and this is another area that’s spawned a vast psychological literature I want to engage with properly) and the intensity of this imperative to make decisions is historically variable and sociologically complex. This is the second major contribution that Sociology makes to the study of thinking – the (re)introduction of historical change and the macroscopic context and, with this, an awareness of the divergent forms of agency which have emerged within that context, been shaped by it and contributed to shaping it. That said, I found the experimental results really interesting:

To address these questions, we conducted studies in which college-student participants spent time by themselves in an unadorned room (for 6 to 15 min, depending on the study) after storing all of their belongings, including cell phones and writing implements. They were typically asked to spend the time entertaining themselves with their thoughts, with the only rules being that they should remain in their seats and stay awake. After this “thinking period,” participants answered questions about how enjoyable the experience was, how hard it was to concentrate, etc.

Table 1 summarizes the results of six studies that followed this procedure. Most participants reported that it was difficult to concentrate (57.5% responded at or above the midpoint of the point scale) and that their mind wandered (89.0% responded at or above the midpoint of the scale), even though there was nothing competing for their attention. And on average, participants did not enjoy the experience very much: 49.3% reported enjoyment that was at or below the midpoint of the scale.


I was initially very sceptical about Margaret Archer’s argument that portable music, so as to effectively provide a soundtrack to your life, reduces the time available for internal conversation. Until I persistently interrogated my own experience & realising that I could see her point – music often intensifies my inner experience but erodes its directedness, I think and feel more but I don’t tend to have sustained internal conversations in the way I often do when I’m not listening to music on headphones. She makes a similar argument about social networking. Again, I’ve been initially sceptical but I’m gradually proving more open to the idea, largely because I can see using these sites can be compulsive (“I’ll just quickly check Twitter”) and that compulsions can often serve the same purpose as the monkey in Homer’s head, helping us tune out the demands the world is placing upon us and the intensity of our relation to them. However the findings of this study don’t support this and they also challenge the broader theoretical claim about the social diversity of human reflexivity:

To see whether the difficulty with “just thinking” is distinctive to college students, in study 9 we recruited community participants at a farmer’s market and a local church. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 77 (median age = 48.0 years). As in study 7, they completed the study online in their own homes, after receiving instructions to do so when they were alone and free of any external distractions. The results were similar to those found with college students. There was no evidence that enjoyment of the thinking period was related to participants’ age, education, income, or the frequency with which they used smart phones or social media (table S2).


In recent months I’ve been slowly working through some of Jeffrey Alexander’s work. I’m interested in what cultural sociology has to offer as I begin to try and extend my PhD research on internal conversation & biography into my planned post-doctoral work on the sociology of thinking. However I’ve found Alexander’s work slightly hit and miss, occasionally leaving me wondering whether I’ve misunderstood his project or perhaps overestimated its potential relevance to my own. This post on Daniel Little’s book has clarified my sense that cultural sociology is highly relevant to me but also something I need to be critical when engaging with:

It seems clear that human beings bring specific frameworks of thought, ideas, emotions, and valuations to their social lives, and these frameworks affect both how they interpret the social realities they confront and the ways that they respond to what they experience. Human beings have “frames” of cognition and valuation that guide their experiences and actions. The idea of a practical-mental frame is therefore a compelling one, and it should be a possible subject for empirical sociological investigation.


The term “cultural sociology” is sometimes used to try to capture those research efforts that try to probe the meanings and mental frameworks that people bring to their social interactions. We can postulate that human beings are processors of meanings and interpretations, and that their frameworks take shape as a result of the range of experiences and interactions they have had to date. This means that their frameworks are deeply social, created and constructed by the social settings and experiences the individuals have had. And we can further postulate that social action is deeply inflected by the specifics of the mental and emotional frameworks through which actors structure and interpret the worlds they confront.


I think these internal constraints and enablements are underemphasised in Archer’s work on reflexivity. They are integral to her account of meta-reflexivity, in the sense that such individuals come to orientate themselves to a cause they have encountered or jury-rigged together from elements in their environment, but she lacks a comprehensive theory of what these resources are. The elements necessary for such a theory, an extremely sophisticated one in fact, can be found in her wider body of work – the distinction between the cultural system and socio-cultural relations, as well as the various situational logics that obtain at this interface, simply needs an account of how cultural relations are mediated at the level of everyday life to flesh out this aspect of human experience.

I’ve conceptualised this in terms of recurrent relations between ‘me’ and ‘I’ – at any given moment, my repertoire of routine responses is conditioned by the cultural elements I reflexively orientated myself to at a previous moment in time, in turn shaping how I respond to present cultural variety and coming to constitute the ‘me’ to my ‘I’ at some future point in time. In other words, I’m always constrained by my past but presently able to act freely* within them. I like this framework and it seems to work quite effectively, with my intention being to flesh it out at much greater length when I extend my PhD thesis into a monograph.

I’m hoping cultural sociology will be very useful for this purpose but thus far it hasn’t been. Little helpfully sums up what is of value in cultural sociology but also why I don’t like what I’ve read thus far:

But this kind of research becomes especially interesting if we find that the mental frameworks and systems of meanings that actors bring with them actually make substantial differences to their social actions and the choices that they make. In this case we can actually begin to create explanations and interpretations of social outcomes that interest us a great deal. (Why are some extremist militants so ready to put on suicide vests in actions that are almost certain to bring about their own deaths?)


My problem here is with the failure to conceptualise the interface between the personal and the cultural – it’s a parallel to what I earlier referred to as the lack in Archer’s work of an account of how cultural relations are mediated at the level of reflexive individuals (it’s there in parts, it just hasn’t been worked out thoroughly). Little refers to this as a need for cultural sociology to pay “more attention to the interface between frame and actor”. I don’t think this is simply an oversight but something which would constitutively reorientate the entire approach – I think it would involve an engagement with the ontology of media (e.g. books), biographical questions about how culture reorientates lives and an analysis of the cognitive processes by which ideas are appropriated. At the very least ‘cultural frames’ are inflected through the path-dependent orientation of particular individuals but I think I’d argue for the stronger claim that they are transformed through this appropriation or rejection by individuals – with this individual action contributing to the reproduction or transformation of the frames themselves which are more broadly in circulation within the social world.

*I’m talking purely about internal constraints and enablements here for sake of brevity. Obviously external constraints/enablements, as well as the relations between those operating internally and externally, would be considered in practice.

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.

– Peter Preston, Arguments and Actions in Social Theory, Pg 1


hAgain I find myself somewhat repelled, though perhaps with less justification than in the previous lecture. The second lecture opens with the pronouncement that “we modern men presumably have not the slightest notion how thoughtfully the Greeks experienced their lofty poetry, their works of art – no, not experienced, but let them stand there in the presence of their radiant appearance” (pg 19). However I do see the importance of what he is saying is lost here. As he puts it, “we are compelled to let the poetic word stand in its truth, in beauty” (pg 19). He cites Holderlin to elaborate upon this point:

Who the deepest has thought, loves what is most alive,
Who have looked at the world, understands youth at its height,
And wise men in the end
Often incline towards beauty.

What I understand him to be saying is that aesthetic response involves a relatedness analogous to that enjoyed by the cabinet maker in relation to the shapes ‘slumbering within the wood’. It is only through an attentiveness in our engagement with the object (the deepness of thought) that we can be alive to its reality, responding to it as it ‘stands in its truth’. Heidegger claims that “what the line tells us we can fathom only when we are capable of thinking” (pg 21). We can only learn through doing:

We shall never learn what ‘is called’ swimming, for example, or what it ‘calls for,’ by reading a treatise on swimming. Only the leap into the river tells us what is called swimming. The question ‘what is called thinking?’ can never be answered by proposing a definition of the concept thinking, and then diligently explaining what is contained in that definition. In what follows, we shall not think about what thinking is. We remain outside that mere reflection which makes thinking its object. (pg 21)

This ‘mere reflection’ precludes the relatedness necessary to let an object ‘stand in its truth’. I think this is something akin to the Buddhist notion of Tathatā (“thusness”) which I’ve always understood, perhaps incorrectly, to gesture towards the reality of an object beyond symbolisation. We rarely encounter this quiddity because of our propensity for ‘mere reflection’: we encounter partial aspects, mediated through our intellectualised concepts and past experience, rather than the thusness of the object. But if we do encounter the reality of the object, its ‘reality’ as an object immediately reveals itself as a function of symbolisation. If we really encounter an object in its thusnessit simply stands in its reality in relation to other existents rather than as something independently self-subsistent.

Is ‘thinking’ in Heidegger’s sense a matter of cultivating attentiveness to things and our relation to them? Or am I simply misreading Heidegger through what might very well be a longstanding misreading of Buddhism on my part? I’m aware as I’m writing this (in fact I’m thinking about it) that textual analysis of this sort engenders a feeling of intellectual insecurity in me which runs completely contrary to my considered views about the point of analysing texts. I’m deliberately throwing myself into this book without consulting secondary texts and I’m aware that the insecurity would likely vanish if I were not doing this. But this strategy actually seems deeply appropriate to the book now that I’ve got started. Given I’m not, nor have any aspiration to be, a continental philosopher, perhaps it doesn’t matter whether I read the book ‘correctly’. Though does that mean I’m treating it as a resource to be mined* for insights? I hope not. I think there’s a middle ground between the two but I’m less than sure about what it is exactly and how to articulate it.

Another motivation for engaging with this text was my interest in Heidegger’s account of technology, which he begins to discuss in this lecture. However I’m confused by the distinction between technology and the essence of technology. I understand his argument that industrialisation destroys craft, in so far as that it preludes “the relatedness to such things as the shapes slumbering within wood” (pg 23). In so far as thinking necessitates an attentiveness to this relatedness then modernity will tend to preclude thought. But I don’t understand what he means when he says that “our age is not a technological age because it is the age of the machine; it is an age of the machine because it is the technological age” (pg 24). Presumably part of this distinction rests on his sense that we must avoid conflating the instances of technology (machines) with technology as such for risk that a preoccupation with the former obscures the nature of the latter. But what is the ‘essence of technology’? What is the ‘core of the matter’ which is not reached by the “economic, social, political, moral, and even religious questions” concerning technological labour?

I’m confused but intrigued by the prospect that we might “attain relatedness to what is most thought-provoking” (pg 25). The “listening closely” necessary for this means we must rid ourselves of the habit of “one-track thinking”: “track has to do with rails, and rails with technology” (pg 26). This one-track thinking is “one of those unsuspected and inconspicuous forms, mentioned earlier, in which the essence of technology assumes dominion”. But what is it?

Previous post about lecture 1.1 here.

*I originally typed ‘minded’ here. As Freudian slips go that was an interesting one.


Following on from this enormously thought-provoking paper by Richard Swedberg on the sociology of thinking, I’ve decided to return to Heidegger for the first time since I was a philosophy student. I really struggled with Heidegger and ultimately justified giving up conditional on the promise that I would one day learn German and read the original texts. Suffice to say I’m not enormously confident when it comes to primary texts in continental philosophy in general and particularly not with Heidegger. But in the spirit of strong misreading I’ll give it a go with the aim of developing my own understanding of thinking rather than deciphering the truth of the text.

When I say ‘thinking’ I actually mean the craft of thinking. This is the frame through which I’m reading the text and, though it means I’m engaging in the slightly unusual practice of partially reading Heidegger through C Wright Mills, it seems to be giving me more of a purchase on a text by Heidegger than I’ve ever achieved in the past. It does also seem to accord with his own intentions. Heidegger’s invocation of craft, summarised by Swedberg, caught my imagination when I read it at the weekend:

A cabinetmaker’s apprentice, someone who is learning to build cabinets and the like, will serve as an example. His learning is not merely practice, to gain facility in the use of tools. Nor does he merely gather information about the customary forms of the things he is to build. If he is to become a true cabinetmaker, he makes himself answer and respond above all to the different kinds of wood and to the shapes slumbering within wood – to wood as it enters into man’s dwelling with all the hidden riches of its nature. In fact, this relatedness to wood is what maintain the whole craft. Without that relatedness, the craft will never be anything but empty busywork, any occupation with it will be determined exclusively by business concerns. Every handicraft, all human dealings are constantly in that danger. The writing of poetry is no more exempt from it than is thinking.  (pg 14-15)

I understand this relatedness as an attentiveness to the object, preserved in motion through our sustained engagement in what we are doing. It is not rumination as a prelude to action, such that we deeply ponder our plan before enacting it. The attentiveness towards the object is constitutive of our engagement, rather than being a phenomenological extra on top of our physical doing. In attending to the object in a sustained way, the practice is transformed. We enter into a ‘current’ and ‘maintain [ourselves] in it’ (pg 17) rather than standing over and above the object in pursuit of its transformation in line with a pre-existing schema. In doing so, we attend to the possibilities inherent in the object – not in the sense of voluntaristically choosing between them but rather responding to them as someone caught in the ‘current’ through our engagement with the object.

Much as the cabinetmaker attends to the potential ‘shapes slumbering with wood’, the thinker inclines “toward what addresses itself to thought” (pg 17). In the half hour I’ve spent writing this post thus far, I’ve noticed my attention be dragged away as the mailbox icon on my browser’s toolbar went from ‘1’ to ‘2’ to ‘3’ before I eventually gave in and checked my e-mail. I’ve now removed the button. Phenomenologically I feel pulled from the current, withdrawn from immersion in a task and once more aware of sitting at my desk, with coffee that’s now run out and a distressingly large list of things I have to do today. From past experience I’m aware that in a similar situation, as a to do list involuntarily stays flagged somewhere at the periphery of my consciousness, I’ll rush a piece of writing like this once I reach the half way point so that I can move on to the pressing exigencies of life. In such case I think I’m no longer responding to the potential forms within the ideas which are my object, closing down possibilities rather than opening them up.

I’ve written a few times this year about the phenomenology of blogging. I’m sometimes amazed at how quickly I can write if I sit down and write while the thought is live in my mind. There’s not an article or a post in my mind but simply a thought. It’s at the forefront of my consciousness and it feels different to abstract rumination. On these occasions, I find that writing I’m always pleased with spills out of my mind if I let myself attend to the thought that is pressing me for a response. As I described it over the summer: “when an inchoate idea is at the forefront of your mind and the process of rendering and externalising it feels like one of the most natural (and important) things in the world”. This is the experience I want to better understand. I can only do this with a keyboard. I’ve tried many times with pen and paper but my handwriting becomes unreadable and, as with writing in a document for myself, without the awareness of its ensuing visibility I don’t attend sufficiently to the elaboration of the thought(s) as I objectify them in writing. I simply externalise internal thought, with all its contraction and personalisation, which does not feel like it constitutes the creation of something. It just feels like I’m reiterating things which were already in my mind rather than creating something new, no matter how trivial or mundane that novelty may or may not be.

There are elements of this first lecture which I’m slightly confused by. The historicisation of our ‘still not thinking’ repels me. Not because of the history but because of the intellectual conceit I take to be inherent in making sweeping historical claims at this level of abstraction. Likewise I’m not sure if Heidegger’s repetition of this is a rhetorical device (given it’s a lecture) or if it is an expression of the gravity with which he feels this world-historical failure pressing down upon his soul. Perhaps it’s both. But I will persist because these lectures are thought-provoking and, as he says, “thought-provoking matter already is intrinsically what must be thought about” (pg 4). This is probably the most important statement of the first lecture from the perspective of my strong misreading: “what is thought-provoking, what gives us to think, is then not anything that we determine, not anything that only we are instituting, only we are proposing” (pg 6). This is the root of the experience of urgency I’ve described while writing, the particular experience of attending to an idea and elaborating it while it is still pressing upon you. This is the primordial reality confronted through the craft of thinking. I’ve been talking about mainly in terms of writing, largely as a consequence of my own proclivity for thinking-through-writing, but I want to avoid getting stuck in these terms. More broadly, I’d like to understand what is ‘thought-provoking’, what is ‘fascinating’ etc.

Richard Swedberg begins his paper Thinking and Sociology by recognising that there may be “good reasons” why these two things are rarely discussed together. Though “all of us think” and “we all know the intensely private character of our thoughts”, these thoughts are fleeting and ephemeral when considered next to things that we say and things that we know. These phenomena have been the closest sociology has tended to come towards looking at thinking itself and the reasons for this are both epistemic (they relate to things that are more or less open to others and tend, by their nature, to use terms that are understandable to others) and genealogical (Durkheim was the founding father most interested in thought yet also the most strongly committed to studying it through its objectification in social facts). Given that social facts are a product of collectivities, “the individual plays a very subordinate role in Durkheim’s work, and most of what goes on in his or her mind belongs to the science of psychology, not sociology”. He understood the categories of thought, collective representations, as gifts of society which should be analysed as social facts. So while sociologists have often looked at the products of thinking, the process itself has tended to be ignored or even dismissed in principle as a possible object of study.

For reasons that are intuitively obvious but nonetheless rewarding to explicate, this has not been true of philosophy. Swedberg considers Kant, Kierkegaard and Heidegger as three philosophers, amongst many, whose work could provide insights for a nascent sociology of thinkingKant’s essay “What is the Enlightenment?’ can be understood as a short and purposefully accessible treatise on thinking: “what it means to think, why we should think, and what the consequences of thinking are”. It also discussed how people avoid thinking through falling back upon established authorities, directly or through their cultural products, as a substitute for addressing their own questions. Kant also offered practical guidance on thinking, for instance suggesting that one should avoid thinking deeply while eating and that thinking while walking should be a matter of letting the imagination wander. Kierkegaard was concerned with the relationship of thinking to existence as a particular individual. For him thinking is part of existence: “a human being thinks and exist”. Thinking does not dominate existence but can fit harmoniously with it. This however is an achievement and one not enjoyed by the ‘objective thinker’ whose generalising and systematising thought ignores his own particularity in spite of it being bound up with this thinking. Instead, we ought to think inwardly and thus avoid the ‘stuntedness’ of the objective thinker who is not interested in his or her own existence. For Heidegger all human beings can think but many do not. He distinguishes between the thinking we all have the capacity to engage in and the thinking which we usually engage in: the ‘one-track thinking’ and ‘thoughtless chatter’ which our everyday lives in a technological society provoke. Instead of thinking, for Heidegger, we too often have opinions. But we can also learn how to think. For Heidegger this is a practical competency which is learned through doing:

We are not simply born with a certain capacity to think. But how can one learn to think? Heidegger’s answer is that it is a bit like swimming: you learn it by doing it. You cannot ‘read a treatise on swimming’: you have to open yourself up to the ‘adventure’ and ‘leap into the river’.

If you read a book by a philosopher, you can learn thinking by studying the way that the author asks questions. Summarizing and repeating the ideas in a book does not represent thinking. One should also try to locate and work with what the author does not say – what has been left ‘unthought’. And once this exercise is over, and you have ‘found’ the thinking of the author, you have also to ‘lose’ it. Freeing oneself from somebody’s thinking, Heidegger says, is harder than to find it.

Associated with this notion of thinking as a practical competency which can be learned is an understanding of thinking as action rather than being opposed to it. Heidegger was concerned that “action has often replaced thinking” and sought to overcome the “common notion that thinking is simply what comes before action and that it lacks value unless it is followed by action”. Instead he sought to cultivate an understanding of thinking as a craft:

The carpenter cannot learn his craft in some abstract manner; he must develop his skill by working on wood and by sensing what he can make of this material. The wood contains shapes, Heidegger says, and it is the carpenter’s task to sense these and bring them out in the wood. The idea of hidden forms means that the person should use thinking to understand Being.

However Swedberg is well aware that these arguments lack a sociological dimension. The first two authors lived before there was a sociology, while the latter was explicitly critical of sociology (as a science). But his suggestion that philosophy can be a potent source for a sociology of thinking is surely plausible and his impulse to turn their thought in a ‘sociological direction’ is one which I find deeply appealing. Other potential sources are the sociology of knowledge, the economics of information, cognitive psychology and neuroscience. But Swedberg’s most pressing concern is with the contribution of philosophy:

Kant, Kierkegaard and Heidegger all agree that thinking represents its own special activity or, to phrase it different, that one should focus the analysis directly on thinking. This is an approach that sociology may want to follow. It would also appear that sociology should try to study thinking which is a process, rather than thought which is a product. Heidegger’s argument that thinking should be independent of knowing as well as of action raises further interesting questions for sociologists.

One shared concern of all three philosophers he discussed were the “forces that prevent the individual from thinking on his or her own”. Kant looked towards a reliance on established authorities, Kierkegaard towards the force of routine while Heidegger blamed technological society. These concerns naturally provoke sociological questions given the empirical referents of such claims. However these thinkers also raise important practical questions about the activity of thinking. Given that “it is easier to think in certain places, just as it easier to think in certain postures” we might ponder the existence of “an architecture of thinking as well as a body technique”. Such ruminations naturally connect the sociology of thinking to the existential concerns of sociologists of thinking:

My own way for how to think is to spend one hour early in the day sitting still and focusing on some topic that needs to be thought through. I do not write, and I do not try to empty my mind so much as to focus it. It is an exercise in thinking, not in meditation. I usually find that my thinking proceeds step by step, and it comes natural to memorize each step.

For a long time I was puzzled by Kierkegaard’s insistence that thinking has an existential dimension. I first began to understand what he meant by this when I started to set aside some time for thinking also at the end of the day. It was impossible to engage in thinking when the day was over, I found, without directly connecting broader issues to personal ones. The link between thinking and subjectivity was in this way established in a very natural fashion. A day that has passed in your life – what does this mean?

My “own way for how to think” is to blog. I like the notion of a sociology of thinking in part because it gives me a novel frame of reference within which to ponder my own use of blogging. I like it for many other reasons as well though. What do other people think?