My Son the Philosopher

Most histories of philosophy are methodologically naive. In their standard form the separate chapters are each dedicated to a particular philosopher. Each begins with a sketchy outline of biography, with some attention, perhaps, to teachers and influences. The rest is exposition and possibly a bit of criticism. There are some notable attempts to move beyond this unreflective procedure, which presents philosophy as an autonomous activity, independent of extraphilosophical causal factors, and as the product of more or less isolated creative spirits. Bertrand Russell’s popular history aimed to relate philosophy to its social and political circumstances. It was a worthy aim, but he did not succeed. Slabs of general history are laid beside deeply unhistorical accounts of the philosophers discussed, like musical items between circus acts. Philosophy is represented as springing from the creative minds of individual philosophers or the creative minds of the predecessors whose ideas they criticize and develop.

Professor Randall Collins, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, takes a diametrically opposite view. According to him, the development of philosophy is determined by the social structure of the philosophical profession. Philosophers, at any one time and in any one community, are almost universally members of a comparatively small number of competing groups, which usually last for some time, until absorbed or extinguished by other groups. Self-sufficient philosophers—“isolates”—are exceptional. There are some further necessary external conditions for producing philosophical ideas, such as a fair degree of peace and public order and a political or religious system which allows some free space for philosophical discussion. But these are only conditions, like the presence of oxygen in the case of fire, not causes.

Collins’s huge The Sociology of Philosophies—the page number above is not a printing error—is only contingently and by implication a critique of ordinary histories of philosophy—a critique, that is, of their omissions of philosophies from cultures hardly known to the authors. It is, for the most part, a macrohistory of philosophy, along the lines of Spengler and Toynbee. And it is not all that limited, as the book’s subtitle makes clear; the theory propounded to explain the development of philosophy is held to be applicable to all intellectual disciplines. Like Spengler and Toynbee, Collins divides his field of inquiry, in his case into a handful of “philosophical communities”—such as ancient Greece or medieval Christendom or Japan—corresponding to their larger handfuls of civilizations. Although he does not discern a recurrent pattern within his major units of study, he has a law of sequence; he believes that schools of philosophy tend to become ever more abstract and “reflexive,” i.e., they turn attention critically on the assumptions underlying their own procedures and ways of thinking. But the precise application of the law is not clear. Can the sequence recur within the history of one philosophical community? When philosophy pulls itself together after a period of stagnation, perhaps?

There are other macrohistorical touches. Collins’s vocabulary and phraseology often have a Toynbee flavor, especially in the section headings: “The Questions of Intellectual Stagnation,” “The Stimulus of Religious Polarization,” “Reversals and Loss of Abstraction.” Somewhat reminiscent of the fold-out diagram of parallel historical sequences at the end of the first volume of The Decline of the West are the frequent diagrams of relationship (alliance, dependence, opposition) between groups of philosophers. For example one diagram shows Locke to be dependent on a variety of predecessors such as Hobbes, Newton, and Boyle, in conflict (posthumously) with Leibniz in one direction and with Berkeley in another, and to have influenced Shaftesbury, various Deists, and Voltaire. These diagrams, with their typographically various lines of connection between philosophers, are much like the route maps in the in-flight magazine of an airline (see illustration on page 60). Just as Chicago and Atlanta are important hubs, here we have Aristotle and Fichte—and less frequented ports of call, those he calls “secondary philosophers,” such as Strato and Oken. I shall come back to these rankings and mappings later. They are not merely a convenient device for summarizing information; they serve as direct evidence for his theory of intellectual change. That theory is set out in general, but fairly thorough, terms, in the first part of the book, which has the title “The Skeleton of Theory.” It is a meaty one.

Before coming to it there are two preliminary matters to consider. The first is his choice of philosophy as the particular discipline to be examined. One answer he gives is that, as the oldest intellectual discipline, philosophy supplies a more historically extensive mass of raw material than anything else. Another might be that philosophy is the source of nearly all other branches of study, except history and criticism. In other words, it is the source of disciplines that have a high theoretical component, viz. the natural and social sciences and, in a less maternal fashion, theology, which is more a sister.

The point of the question is that philosophy conforms much more closely than history does to Collins’s first principle that all serious intellectual activity is social and interactive. Serious historians are all predominantly microhistorians, jealously guarding their own little patch of the past. In philosophy anyone’s business is everyone’s business. I think Collins would be hard put to compile route maps for historians comparable in density and complexity of interrelation with those he has compiled for philosophers. But even if that is correct it does not count against the claim of his theory to explain philosophy.

A more substantial issue arises about his carving up of the total philosophical universe into his chosen communities. He picks out seven: Greek (with its Roman attachment), medieval European (and Jewish), Islamic, modern Western, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese. Several questions present themselves. Are there too few? Should they be divided further or supplemented by others? Are there too many? Should Far Eastern thought be included at all since it is philosophy of a radically different kind? There are rather clearly no additions that need to be made to his list. In Collins’s broad, but not idiosyncratic, sense of the term, which is still not indiscriminately inclusive, there is no such thing as African or Amerindian philosophy.

He divides European philosophy from Thales to the present into three communities: the familiar trio of ancient, medieval, and modern. But there is as large a gap in China, which he treats as one community, between 100 BC and 300 AD, as there is between Boethius (died 525) and Erigena (died circa 877), and there is no temporal gap to speak of at all between Suárez, the last great scholastic, and Francis Bacon (died 1626).

Collins does not, as Spengler does, contend that his groups of communities are entirely sealed off from one another; the example of Buddhism would refute that. Like Toynbee he allows for “apparentation” and “affiliation”—for example between ancient Greece and Islam. There is very little philosophical flow from the Far East to the West before Voltaire and other men of the Enlightenment formed an admiration for Confucius, whom they correctly took to be a kindred spirit, and Schopenhauer and others in the nineteenth century who were excited by the Upanishads and the sayings of the Buddha. Before that there is nothing but the remote possibility that Ammonius Saccas, teacher of both Plotinus and Origen, was a gymnosophist or sadhu of Indian origin. Alexander’s invasion of India brought back no cultural booty in the way that Napoleon’s of Egypt did. Equally there is little flow of influence from the West to India, and even less to China, until very recent times.

The chief problem with this aspect of Collins’s book is the extent to which there was philosophy at all in India, China, and Japan. It seems to me quite clear that Indian philosophy, for all its inextricable involvement with religion, was still very much philosophy in the Western sense, or senses, of the word. Indian philosophy contains a great deal of connected rational argument while Chinese philosophy is for the most part aphoristic. Short of acquiring a considerably greater familiarity with Chinese thought than I now have, I can only raise the question, not pretend to answer it. It is not the largely practical and noncognitive emphasis of Chinese thinking that leads me to do so but rather the comparatively limited role of rational argument in its presentation. As for the highly religious character of Indian philosophy, Collins rightly observes that religion is not the enemy of philosophy but commonly its stimulant. Religious authorities often seek to suppress independent thinking. But dogmas have to be defined, clarified, and defended and that generates creative philosophy, as the intellectual efflorescence of the European Middle Ages makes evident.

The crucial propositions of Collins’s theory are, first, that intellectual life in general and philosophy in particular are essentially social or interactive. They are carried on by speech and writing directed at other people: in face-to-face argument, discussion groups and seminars, lectures (ideally with questions afterward), and, beyond that, all the various forms of publication: letters, journal articles, treatises, textbooks. This collides with the notion of the philosopher as an isolated, wholly self-propelling figure. Collins’s point is that these encounters are not secondary byproducts of philosophical activity; they are the primary sites of that activity.

Secondly, philosophical interactions, whether conflicting or cooperative, are seen by Collins as ritualized in ways that recall the work of Irving Goffman, that relentless provocateur of self-consciousness about the apparently casual conduct of everyday life. To take part in the onward movement of philosophy you have to know what the live, interesting topics and positions are and how to take part in the discussion, how to present your ideas in a recognizable way. To succeed, to make your mark, the ideas and arguments you introduce have to capture attention. (Wittgenstein could defy protocol with the gnomic aphorisms of the Tractatus because he already knew everyone who mattered in Cambridge and enjoyed the patronage of Russell, which he exploited and spurned.) To succeed in the game is to secure attention; to fail is to find no one to try to refute you. As the example of Hume shows, it may take some time for attention to be excited.

Thirdly, philosophers cluster, in contemporaneous groups in the first instance, the site of face-to-face discussion, but also, more importantly, over time. A philosopher with a strong idea will give rise to an “interaction ritual chain” of followers and disciples, held together in comparable chains of opponents. These, to be historically significant, must last for at least two thirty-three-year generations: the Scottish philosophers of common sense from Thomas Reid (died 1796) to Hamilton (died 1856) and Mansel (died 1871), for example, or the Pythagoreans from circa 530 BC to 450 BC.

A consequence of this proposition is that significant philosophers are not “isolates.” In an ingenious appendix on clustering, Collins argues that some apparent counterexamples—Frege, for example—are not as isolated as they seem, and that others, such as Erigena, perhaps look isolated because of our lack of historical knowledge. For each community, or, more exactly, for tracts of the history of each, philosophers are chronologically arrayed, classified into three orders of magnitude—major, secondary, and minor—and linked up route-map-wise by relations of acquaintance, discipleship, or its converse, and conflict.

The ranking procedure is straightforward, based on the number of pages philosophers are allocated in standard histories of philosophy. That would be questionable if Collins had relied on one-volume histories, but he does not. He mentions hundreds of philosophers, many more than such works do, and they seem to stick to much the same list of names. In fact, as the footnotes show, he relies on sources like the Cambridge histories, which are both fine-grained and scholarly. It turns out that there are, in all seven communities taken together, 136 major philosophers, the “stars,” 366 secondary ones, and 2,152 minor ones. Picked out by the criterion of page numbers, the stars prove, not very surprisingly, to have the largest number of network linkages.

There are some oddities in his rankings. Herbert Spencer is a star for Collins, along with only F.H. Brad-ley, Russell, and Wittgenstein among English-speaking philosophers between 1850 and 1950. Spencer is a kind of Paul Whiteman of philosophy, popular in his day, but not for long, and never taken seriously by experts. A reliable modern reference book describes Spencer’s sinking in esteem by the nineteenth century’s end to unfathomed depths. G.E. Moore would have been more to the point. Collins maintains that in all philosophical communities there are two stars in each generation. To make this out he has to bestow stellar rank on such obscure ancient Greeks as Arcesilaus (who was not certain that he was not certain of anything) and Anaximander, of whom only a single sentence survives. But by and large his index-guided rankings are intuitively reasonable.

Positions are taken and chains initiated by some exciting new thought, which occupies what he calls “attention space.” The driving force of philosophical change is competition for this space. A fourth proposition is related to this: the “law of small numbers,” which states that at any one time in a given philosophical community there must be at least two and no more than about six positions. The number six seems to have been dictated by the traditional classification of Indian and Chinese philosophies, each of which lists six classical schools. In modern Western philosophy there are usually not more than three, at least in any national or linguistic part of the philosophical community. For example, Thomism, Scotism, and nominalism in the late Middle Ages; idealism, realism, and positivism in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. The phenomenology that has occupied a lot of French attention space since the 1930s is barely discernible in Britain, while logical positivism in its heyday in the English-speaking world seems to have had precisely two adherents in France: General Vuillemin and Louis Rougier.

Collins has some other theoretical notions. I can only mention here the “emotional energy” generated by the entry of a vigorous new competitor into the attention space, and “cultural capital,” the selection a new competitor makes from the accumulated content of past philosophy. Of particular interest is Collins’s law of sequence, in which he holds that philosophy typically proceeds from cosmology to epistemology and metaphysics and on from that to mathematical, or mathematically inspired, philosophy, a business of ever-increasing abstraction and reflexivity, the application of philosophy, not to the cosmos or knowledge or human nature, but to itself. Philosophy is propelled forward by deadlocks between competing positions, when skeptics challenge the shared assumptions of the deadlocked contestants, particularly about philosophical method. Something like this has indeed taken place in Europe between 1600 and the present in a phase of the history of philosophy inaugurated by two great mathematicians, Descartes and Leibniz, who did not raise the question of the nature of their own philosophical activity. I do not perceive that Collins applies this law to China, where there has never been much mathematics for philosophy to be inspired or influenced by.

Philosophical change is not wholly accounted for by the internal dynamics of attention-seeking. There are, Collins maintains, some external factors. The first of these is a propitious institutional base, allowing philosophers to get on with things without too much interference, particularly from religious or political authorities. These include the schools of Athens (Academy, Lyceum, Stoa, Epicurus’ garden), the vast Buddhist monasteries, the medieval universities and Renaissance courts, and the cell of the Abbé Mersenne, the philosophical impresario who brought Descartes and his contemporary critics together. They also include eighteenth-century salons in Paris and their rougher correlates in Scotland, the modern research university, and the catwalks of the self-advertising French intelligentsia of the present day.

A further external factor is a reasonable degree of public order, of leisure and economic support and of readiness on the part of the wielders of public power to let the attention-seeking process go on for the sake of the benefits, primarily those of justifying and elaborating their orthodoxies, which it may provide. Philosophy was stagnant in England during the religious strife of the sixteenth century and throughout the period of Communist rule in Russia. The level of public order need not be very high. Most of the great age of Chinese philosophy took place during the period of “warring states,” 475-276 BC, as Chou gave way to Chin. The greatest age of European philosophy, the seventeenth century, began with the Thirty Years War and closed with two revolutions in England, which did not inhibit, but rather encouraged, the work of Hobbes and Locke.

But the existence of institutional bases and of propitious external conditions ensures only that some philosophical creation will take place, not what form it will take. That, for Collins, is determined by the competition for attention and the stocks of cultural capital and emotional energy the participants bring to the contest. The comparative philosophical sterility of Europe in most of the eighteenth century, after its astonishingly creative predecessor, cannot be attributed to a deterioration in external conditions, which got much better.

Most of Collins’s book—eleven of its fifteen chapters—is devoted to the detailed application of the elaborate explanatory apparatus to the historical development of the seven communities. An enormous amount of work is embodied in this, and it is not surprising that Collins has spent twenty-five years writing The Sociology of Philosophies. I shall, however, touch on this aspect of the book rather lightly. There are three reasons for that abstention. The first is simply lack of space. The second, more serious one—could I not have been more concise?—is ignorance. I have a kind of bus-tour, encyclopedia-fed knowledge of Indian and Chinese philosophy. But it is sufficient only for me to nod my head at such names as Nyaya and neo-Taoism. Shankara and Chuang Tzu float by. As for Japanese philosophy, I had never realized that there was such a thing, although I should have, since, like everyone else, I had heard of Zen Buddhism and believed it to be Japanese (I now understand that it started in China as Ch’an).

A third reason for taking this large part of the work on trust, at least so far as the evidence or raw material summed up in the diagrams is concerned (his explanations are another matter), is that Collins has drawn, in detail, on a wide range of well-accredited histories and surveys. Some of the philosophers appearing in his diagrams are known only to the most minute and specialized of scholars, and very little known, for defect of evidence, even by them. These are the minor philosophers (2,152 in all), who appear in the diagrams as numbers referring to the list of names in the book’s appendices, the enlisted men of philosophy as contrasted with the NCOs or secondary philosophers, whose names are printed, and the officers or stars, whose names are in capitals. Who has ever heard of Anchipylus, Moschus, and Plistenos (of the school of Elis), pupils of Socrates’ pupil Phaedo, a secondary, who himself gets just two mentions in the main text?

As for the relationships, linkages, enchainments of reasonably familiar philosophers, there is not much to complain of. Nor should there be. Collins is an able and resolute scholar, working from good sources. But it is not just petty caviling to raise an eyebrow at the representation of Berkeley as some sort of disciple of Newton and, through him, of the Cambridge Platonists. It may be that Newton got the view that space is God’s sensorium from Henry More. But Berkeley was a fierce critic of Newton’s endorsement of infinitesimals in his theory of fluxions (i.e., calculus) and as a genuinely devout bishop of the Church of England would not have approved of Newton’s anti-Trinitarianism. But in view of the scale and general reliability of this great construction even this complaint is a bit like upbraiding the telephone directory for a wrong entry. The important thing is the general theory. How well does it hold up?

The first principle that philosophy is a social activity through and through is plainly correct. It thrives on, and draws indispensable sustenance from, face-to-face argumentation, to an extent, as I said earlier, that no other discipline does. But that does not invalidate the individualism of ordinary histories of philosophy. What the philosopher in his professional business of thinking concentrates his attention on is bits of text, ideally written, but also often spoken, whose authorship is not really important, except for the more or less extraneous purposes of interpretation and giving credit where it is due. It helps to know that Hume lived in the eighteenth century and used “discover” to mean “reveal” rather than “find out” and that Duns Scotus did not write De Rerum Principio, although commentaries had been written on the assumption that he did so. Ordinary, individualistic histories are conveyors of what Collins calls “cultural capital,” spread out for the student like the stock of a department store, but in chronological order, with names attached for ease of reference. They do not seek to explain how one line of thought came to supplant or absorb another. They simply report the sequence of temporarily dominant philosophical schools but have no theory to account for the changes they describe.

He is also surely right in thinking that the interactions of philosophers are ritualized. The newcomer has to learn what are the live topics or fields and what is the received idiom of discussion and writing. He must get to know the etiquette of lecture rooms, seminars, and conferences. There is not much more to this than economical convenience, oiling the wheels of communication by circumventing misunderstanding. To have discerned its ritualistic character is not somehow to have unmasked philosophical interaction. It is not a cover for something discreditable or embarrassing. In order to work out just how much some statement is really asserting it is a good idea to inquire just what it rules out. The more it excludes, the more there is to it, the greater its factual content. Is any human activity unritualized? Turning over in bed while waiting to go to sleep? Small children jumping about when they are let out of school? Is anything Goffman-proof?

But, like other rituals that we follow but are unaware of, except, perhaps, when they are obstructed, it is interesting to be brought to reflect on them and, indeed, a little morally improving to see the tacit self-interested calculation involved in something that seems perfectly “natural,” or, as Sartre would have said, “authentic.” One says, for instance, “I think there is a difficulty in the doctrine Professor X has just put forward” rather than “What absolute rubbish.”

A more substantial thesis is Collins’s law of enchainment, the doctrine that philosophers naturally congeal into groups which tend to persist through time, if they are creative or gain some strong external support. This is also largely true of fans of popular entertainers, practitioners of unusual sports, collectors of odd objects. They have get-togethers in which they reanimate their emotional energy and put their cultural capital on display. Like these examples, philosophy, seriously undertaken, is very much a minority affair. Unlike them it is difficult and demanding and requires a long apprenticeship together usually with thorough instruction and guidance.

What is ruled out by the law of enchainment? Philosophers of note who emerge from nowhere and leave no intellectual progeny—that is to say, isolates. Collins, as I said earlier, makes some effort to argue that not all isolates of the first glance are really as isolated as they look. But there are major exceptions: Bolzano in off-the-trail Prague, Vico in equally sequestered Naples, who had no one of their intellectual stature or capable of sharing their intellectual interests to argue with. These are, I would hold, certainly major philosophers (for Collins they are only secondary), more deserving of that rank than Schelling, Herbert Spencer, or, I would guess, quite a few of his high-ranking Eastern thinkers. At any rate the significant exceptions are few. But for the reasons given it is not surprising that the law should generally hold.

Both boundaries of the law of small numbers seem to be well drawn. If there is only one occupied position in the attention space that must be either because all others have been extirpated by force, as in Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China, or because the philosophical monopoly, however it came into being, is about to split into competing factions, in view of the essentially oppositional argumentativeness of philosophers. At the upper limit two or three other positions which must be known well enough to defend one’s own against them are as many as a philosopher, engaged in developing his own ideas, can reasonably be expected to manage. Russell established himself in conflict primarily with the dominant idealism of his youth and later engaged in battles with Bergson and the pragmatists. He showed no awareness of the existence of late-nineteenth-century French spiritualism or, later, of Husserl.

Collins really sees philosophy as a competition for status between people with an ambition to shine. He presents a picture of constant jockeying for position, with all the shifting of alliances characteristic of court intrigue from the earliest times. He is quite right, up to a point; philosophy can be seen like that. But he has left something absolutely vital out: the intellectual content of the embattled positions. Considered as a whole, his book is like an enormously detailed, learned, comprehensive work on opera, written by a man who has been deaf since birth. Of course philosophers find fame a spur, seek notice, admiration, and, in extreme and repulsive cases, subservience, especially if they are German. But they do care about the ideas over which they conflict, which in Collins’s vision might as well be counters.

This is not to say that his theory does not give an illuminating account of the form that philosophical rivalries take. But even if the form of intellectual competition is what he says it is, something essential is missing. Valla and Ramus, Russell and Moore did not just pick any old idea that lay at hand so as to start a quarrel with late scholasticism or absolute idealism; they really believed that what they were saying was right and that the views of their opponents were erroneous. Collins has left out the actual motives of philosophers. The desire for power and glory is there all right, but the ideas through which they are pursued are more important and need to be taken into account. He does not claim to explain or predict the content of philosophical change—only that, and why, it has occurred or will. It is noteworthy that in a very short section on the future of philosophy viewed from the present moment, all he can offer is that the show will go on in its usual way with divisions and alliances, periods of creativity and periods of stagnation.

To say this is not to reject his theory, which is highly illuminating about the way in which philosophy goes on, but which has nothing much to say about what philosophy essentially is. The rewards for the ambitious passion he invokes are, after all, rather meager in worldly terms. Many great philosophers could have secured a much larger helping of the great Freudian quartet—“fame, money, power, and the love of women”—if they had taken up other kinds of work for which they were well fitted. Collins writes convincingly of the constraints—structural, ritual, and institutional—within which the philosopher works, but the content of the system and the prime mover of its changes (Aristotle’s “wonder” perhaps) do not appear.

Not to have accounted for everything is not to have accounted for nothing. The Sociology of Philosophies is an astonishing achievement. Readers of a conventional or bien pensant kind may have been led by my initial comparison of it to the macrohistories of Spengler and Toynbee to expect a hostile judgment. That has not at all been my intention. I plan to read the book again at leisure, concentrating on the fine structure rather than the overall picture. Worthy of further reflection is his doctrine of three kinds of stagnation (forgetting cultural capital, dominance of past classics, and technical overrefinement, our present malady). So is his view of German idealism as the ideology of the German university revolution of the early nineteenth century, in which, as he puts it, the organizer Fichte made the creative Kant into the great philosopher he retrospectively came to be. Collins, moreover, presents interesting arguments against the thesis that differences between the philosophies of his communities can be attributed to the syntactical peculiarities of the different languages involved; he points out that the cogito argument—i.e., the argument that I cannot doubt my own existence without, by the act of doubting, proving it—is to be found in Augustine, Shankara, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Descartes, and Fichte. And it also connects with monotheism’s “deep problems” about free will and substance.

In the end Collins’s deafness to the actual philosophical content of the changes he is discussing (of course he knows perfectly well what the competing theses are) comes down to an unwillingness or an inability to confront the fact of creativity. Why do some new (or newly exhumed) ideas prove attractive, while established positions find their support crumbling? Creativity is not simply a matter of recombining bits of existing cultural capital any more than Shakespeare was simply a determined shuffler of the letters of the alphabet or, less absurdly, of the entries in a dictionary. Anselm’s ontological proof of the existence of God, Duns Scotus’s account of what makes an individual thing the unique entity that it is, Kant’s doctrine of synthetic a priori propositions, Frege’s refutation of psychologism, and Wittgenstein’s private language argument were all complete novelties. Mere novelty, of course, is not enough. To count as creative it has to capture sustained attention and inspire discussion.