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,”…

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