• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print