The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (1998)

Here are some excerpts from this book sociologist Randall Collins:

* The long-term tendency of an active intellectual community is to raise the level of abstraction and reflexivity.

* Individuals who participate in IRs [interaction rituals] are filled with emotional energy, in proportion to the intensity of the interaction. Durkheim called this energy “moral force,” the flow of enthusiasm that allows individuals in the throes of ritual participation to carry out heroic acts of fervor or self-sacrifice. I would
emphasize another result of group-generated emotional energy: it charges up individuals like an electric battery, giving them a corresponding degree of enthusiasm toward ritually created symbolic goals when they are out of the
presence of the group. Much of what we consider individual personality consists of the extent to which persons carry the energy of intense IRs; at the high end, such persons are charismatic; a little less intensely, they are forceful leaders and the stars of sociability; modest charges of emotional energy make passive individuals; and those whose IR participation is meager and unsuccessful are withdrawn and depressed. Emotional energy (abbreviated EE) flows from situations when individuals participate in IRs to situations when they are alone. Encounters have an emotional aftermath; it is by this route that persons can pursue their interior lives and their individual trajectories, and yet be shaped by the nodes of social interaction. EE ebbs away after a period of time; to renew it, individuals are drawn back into ritual participation to recharge themselves.

* The distinctive IRs of intellectuals are those occasions on which intellectuals come together for the sake of their serious talk: not to socialize, nor to be practical. Intellectuals set themselves apart from other networks of social life in the act of turning toward one another. The discussion, the lecture, the argument, sometimes the demonstration or the examination of evidence: these are the concrete activities from which the sacred object “truth” arises.

* Intellectuals tend to feel that an idea has not fully entered into their reality until it is in the system of cross-referenced books and journals which constitutes the products of the intellectual community.

* Intellectual life hinges on face-to-face situations because interaction rituals can take place only on this level. Intellectual sacred objects can be created and sustained only if there are ceremonial gatherings to worship them. This is what lectures, conferences, discussions, and debates do: they gather the intellectual community, focus members’ attention on a common object uniquely their own, and build up distinctive emotions around those objects. But what is it that distinguishes such gatherings of intellectuals from any other kind of IR? One difference is in the structure of attention. The key intellectual event is a lecture or a formal debate, a period of time when one individual holds the floor to deliver a sustained argument on a particular topic. This is different from the give-and-take of sociable conversations, which typically cannot reach any complex or abstract level because the focus shifts too often. Intellectuals giving their attention for half an hour or more to one viewpoint, developed as a unified stream of discourse, are thereby elevating the topic into a larger, more encompassing sacred object than the little fragmentary tokens of ordinary sociable ties.

* The intellectual IR consists not in giving orders or practical information but in expounding a worldview, a claim for understanding taken as an end in itself. The audience is in the stance of pure listeners, not subordinates nor participants in the moral community of faith which is invoked by religious ritual. Intellectual
discourse focuses implicitly on its autonomy from external concerns and its reflexive awareness of itself.

* An intellectual IR is generally a situational embodiment of the texts which are the long-term life of the discipline. Lectures and texts are chained together: this is what makes the distinctiveness of the intellectual community, what sets it off from any other kind of social activity.

* Without face-to-face rituals, writings and ideas would never be charged up with emotional energy; they would be Durkheimian emblems of a dead religion, whose worshippers never came to the ceremonies. Texts do not merely transcend the immediate particulars of the here-and-now and push toward abstraction and generality. To be oriented toward the writings of intellectuals is to be conscious of the community itself, stretching both backwards and forwards in time. Intellectual events in the present—lectures, debates, discussions—take place against an explicit backdrop of past texts, whether building upon them or critiquing them. Intellectuals are peculiarly conscious of their predecessors. And their own productions are directed toward unseen audiences. Even when they lecture to an immediate group, perhaps of personal students, disciples, or colleagues, the message is implicitly part of an ongoing chain, which will be further repeated, discussed, or augmented in the future.

* The focus is on a peculiar kind of speech act: the carrying out of a situation-transcending dialogue, linking past and future texts. A deep-seated consciousness of this common activity is what links intellectuals together as a ritual community.

* emotional energy (EE) [is] the kind of strength that comes from participating successfully in an interaction ritual. It is a continuum, ranging from a high end of confidence, enthusiasm, good self-feelings; through a middle range of lesser emotional intensity; on down to a low end of depression, lack of initiative, and negative self-feelings. Emotional energy is long-term, to be distinguished from the transient, dramatically disruptive outbursts (fear, joy, anger, etc.) which are more conventionally what we mean by “emotions.”5 Emotional energy is the most important kind of emotion for its effects on IR chains. It fluctuates depending on recent social experience: intense ritual participation elevates emotional energy, rejection from ritual membership lowers it; dominating
a group situation raises emotional energy, being dominated lowers it; membership rituals within a high-ranking group give high amounts of emotional energy, membership rituals within a low-ranking group give modest
emotional energy.

* Individuals are motivated to participate in rituals of highest solidarity, gravitating toward those encounters in which their repertoire of symbols and their level of emotions mesh with those of other persons so as to generate high degrees of solidarity, and away from those encounters in which they are subordinated or excluded. If the network is stratified, one attempts if possible to dominate one’s ritual interactions; lacking the resources to do this, one attempts if possible to evade rituals in which one is subordinated.

* Consider now the trajectory of an individual’s career across the intellectual milieu as an IR chain. The intellectual world is a massive conversation, circulating cultural capital in intermittent face-to-face rituals as well as in writing. What makes one an intellectual is one’s attraction to this conversation: to participate in the talk of its “hot center,” where the ideas have the greatest sacredness, and if possible to attach one’s own identity to such ideas so that one’s ideas are circulated widely through the conversation, and one’s personal
reputation with it. The conversation of intellectuals is competitive, an implicit shouldering aside and grasping of one another to get as much into the focus of attention as possible. How does one succeed in this struggle for ritual centrality? One can make two kinds of claims: “My ideas are new” and “My ideas are important.”

* Successful ideas must be important, and importance is always in relation to the ongoing conversations of the intellectual community.

* Intellectual creativity comes from combining elements from previous products of the field. The references found in a paper are a rough indication of the cultural capital it draws upon. Derek Price (1975: 125) has calculated from citation patterns that in contemporary natural science, it takes on the average 12 “parent papers” to give birth to one “offspring paper.” Turning the structure the other way, we can say that the most eminent intellectuals are those whose papers end up being cited the most; their ideas are “parents” to the greatest number of “offspring.” Their ideas make it possible for other people to make their own statements.

* We know from Derek Price’s studies that the most eminent intellectuals—in this case, scientists of the mid-1900s whose work receives the most citations—are the most prolific publishers; and they are the individuals who stay in the field the longest, while others drop out. This evidence suggests that eminence is largely a matter of having access to a large amount of CC, and turning it over with the greatest rapidity, recombining it into new ideas and discoveries. This would make creativity a matter of sheer activity, of emotional energy in using cultural capital. The psychologist Dean Keith Simonton (1984, 1988) has shown that creative persons in a variety of fields produce large amounts of work, only portions of which receive recognition. Their formula for success seems to be to range widely and try out new combinations of ideas, some of which become selected for recognition by the intellectual community.

* The emotional energy specific to creative intellectual fields is not the same as the confidence and aggressiveness of persons in other arenas of social life. It is not the same as the emotional energy of the successful politician or the financial entrepreneur, of the sociability star or the sexual hotshot.

* If intellectual life is constructed by rituals in which speakers become centers of attention, and in which ideas and texts symbolize the continuity of an intellectual community across time, we can expect that individuals’ intellectual EE will be driven upward or downward by their type of contact with these situations and sacred objects. The crucial variable is how closely one is drawn into participation in these symbolic activities. The speaker at the seminar increases his or her emotional energy if the audience is responsive; so do the listeners, if they have the personal cultural capital, and the trajectory of their own intellectual projects, that makes their ideas mesh well with the line being expounded. In the opposite direction, the inability to carry off the lecture for that audience, or the inability to follow it, perhaps even the sense of having one’s ideas excluded, depresses one’s EE. One’s personal level of EE is like a reservoir filled up or drained by the amount of experience one has with such favorable or unfavorable situations, and by the balance between the two.

* Since possessing high emotional energy is one of the things that enables a person to attract attention in a ritual interaction, and which affects creativity in general, there is a tendency for persons who are already well started in EE to become even more “energy-rich” over time. A high level of energy reaches a plateau or goes into a reversal if one’s career trajectory takes one into levels of competition for attention in which one becomes overmatched. This occurs when someone who has become famous within a particular research specialty is propelled into a larger arena, perhaps interdisciplinary or in the eye of the wider public, where one may not have the resources to match up with the existing competition. The effect of starting with low levels of EE is likely to
be even more emphatically cumulative. Just as success breeds the ingredients of success, failure breeds intellectual failure. Depression, writer’s block, the shifting of one’s attention away from intellectual projects and back onto the everyday world: these are typical pathways by which would-be intellectuals fail to make a mark and drop out of the field. The majority of the intellectual field at any time consists of persons who are in this transient position. The core experiences of intellectuals are their immediate interactions with other intellectuals. EE is also affected by vicarious experience of the intellectual community.

* Imagine a large number of people spread out across an open plain—something like a landscape by Salvador Dalí or Giorgio de Chirico. Each one is shouting, “Listen to me!” This is the intellectual attention space. Why would
anyone listen to anyone else? What strategy will get the most listeners? Two ways will work. A person can pick a quarrel with someone else, contradicting what the other is saying. That will gain an audience of at least one; and if the argument is loud enough, it might attract a crowd. Now, suppose everyone is tempted to try it. Some arguments start first, or have a larger appeal because they contradict the positions held by several people; and if other persons happen to be on the same side of the argument, they gather around and provide support. There are first-mover advantages and bandwagon effects. The tribe of attention seekers, once scattered across the plain, is changed into a few knots of argument. The law of small numbers says that the number of these successful knots
is always about three to six. The attention space is limited; once a few arguments have partitioned the crowds, attention is withdrawn from those who would start yet another knot of argument. Much of the pathos of intellectual
life is in the timing of when one advances one’s own argument.

The other way these intellectual attention seekers can get someone to listen is to find a topic someone else is talking about and agree with it, adding something which extends the argument. Not “No, you’re wrong because . . .”
but “Yes, and furthermore . . .” This transforms the relationship into teacher and favorite student. The plain full of dispersed egotists becomes clumped another way, into lineages of master-pupil chains.

* The motivation to make oneself a sacred object is an energizing force of intellectual careers. One of the reasons why there tends to be a chain from one highly creative intellectual to another is that the younger
person draws energy from the older as just such a symbolic hero. It is not merely a matter of transmitting cultural capital from one generation to the next, since we are dealing here with creative departures rather than loyal discipleship. The protégé’s consciousness is filled by the image of what it is to be an intellectual hero, by an ideal to emulate, even while one challenges the content of the master’s ideas.

* A thoroughgoing omni-skepticism is a deep trouble, the counterpart to the regulative ideal, the most central sacred object of intellectual life, the ideal of absolute truth.14 That is why skepticism is repeatedly revived, even though hardly anyone is ever convinced by it.

* Over the long term, the major intellectual driving force is the dynamics of organizationally sustained debate. Factions which keep their identities during many generations of argument become locked into a long dance step with one another; increasingly impervious to outside influences and turned inward upon their mutually constituted argumentative identities, they drive the collective conscience of the intellectual attention space repeatedly to new heights of abstract self-reflection.

* All persons move toward those IRs in which they get the largest payoff in emotional energy, and away from those which are an energy drain.

* Each person is trying to get the best intellectual status membership he or she can, not only directly but vicariously. Everyone is attracted to thinking high-status ideas as well as associating with high-status persons. The problem is that negotiating alliances is a mutual process. One side, looking up the status ladder, might wish to make an alliance, while the other side, looking down, is less eager; the successful intellectual may welcome followers but is unlikely to give them much recognition in return.

* Each intellectual faces a strategic choice. One can go all out, try to be king of the mountain, which means trying to be alone or nearly alone at the center of one of the major intellectual positions. Or one might cut one’s losses and aim for a more modest position: as loyal follower… Initially most intellectuals aim unrealistically high, and are driven down emotionally by the structure.

* Thinking is driven by the emotional loadings of symbols charged up by the dynamics of the markets for social membership. One’s emotional energy at any given moment selects the symbols which give one an optimal sense of group membership. Thinking is a fantasy play of membership inside one’s own mind. It is a maneuvering for the best symbolic payoff one can get, using energies derived from recent social interactions and anticipations of future encounters.

* The most notable philosophers are not organizational isolates but members of chains of teachers and students who are themselves known philosophers, and/or of circles of significant contemporary intellectuals.

* The crucial feature of creativity is to identify an unsolved problem, and to convince one’s peers of the importance of solving it. It is typical for intellectuals to create problems at the very moment they solve them.

* The structure of intellectual life is governed by a principle: the number of active schools of thought which reproduce themselves for more than one or two generations in an argumentative community is on the order of three to six.

* As the raw size of intellectual production goes up, the reward to the average individual goes down—at least the pure intellectual rewards of being recognized for one’s ideas and of seeing their impact on others. The pessimism and self-doubt of the intellectual community under these circumstances is not surprising.

* Secularization means removing control of intellectual production from the authority of the church. That authority had been backed up by the coercive power of the state… The exhaustion of politicized church conflict led to secularization, the gradual neutralization and downgrading of the role of the church in the state, and the loss of church control over the means of intellectual production.

* abstract philosophy was usually produced by professional teachers, monks and priests, in organizational structures turned inward and away from the ordinary world. In contrast, writers’ networks are more closely connected to, even embedded in, the status order of society, and their cultural content is much closer to lay concerns of class-appropriate entertainment, topical morality and politics… With the shift to a writers’ marketplace comes more room to maneuver, but the power of the audience results in a division between writers oriented toward the mass market and an inwardly oriented elite of writers pursuing their own standards of technical perfection. The latter group sets up a possible rapprochement with academic carriers of culture, but the meeting is laden with tension.

* In Germany the intellectual world became academicized before anywhere else…

* Religious tracts had always been the biggest seller since the inception of print media.

* Sartre was the first philosopher in history to be heavily publicized by the popular mass media…

* Dostoyevsky’s own explicit doctrines, no doubt sincerely held but serving also to make his materials palatable to government censorship, extol a religious doctrine of passive suffering; but it is his villains who drive the drama and provide the atmosphere of impassioned philosophy that would appeal internationally to intellectuals. What made Dostoyevsky a literary success was that he combined this material with the style of the mass market novel, often taking the form of a murder mystery or police thriller. Dostoyevsky exploited the intellectual’s self-examination made successful by Turgenev, purged of its polite drawing room qualities and transposed into the melodrama of popular fiction.

* Economically, the highbrow segment rarely has been able to support itself on returns from the market. It arises where writers turn inward upon their professional connections within the network of peers; the audience which alone is given legitimacy to set standards of judgment are other elite writers.

* highbrow writers survive by patronage, sometimes the self-patronage of wealthy inheritors (Flaubert and Proust), reinforcing the self-image of the artist as the true aristocrat. Some highbrow writers hold alternative jobs (Baudelaire as journalist-critic, T. S. Eliot as bank clerk), the despising of which usually figures into the theme of artistic alienation from the ordinary commercial world which fails to support their art. Another common external niche is an academic job, which bruises the writer’s self-esteem because its bureaucratic routine contrasts with the freedom and creative exaltation which the writers’ market holds out as its ultimate reward. Most common of all is economic failure.12 This gives rise to the image of the artist starving in a garret, melodramatically ending as a youthful suicide rather than be forced back into the mundane world. In fact, most highbrow writers (perhaps middlebrow writers as well) spend only a youthful episode in writing, like Rimbaud from 17 to 19, before economic realities force them back into a conventional career.

* The best chances of success for highbrow writers exist where many aspiring and part-time writers are concentrated in a community. Sheer size is the crucial variable in making a critical mass which can support at least a few technically oriented esoteric writers on the proceeds of their works… This concentrated mass of intellectual aspirants, together with failures who had not yet given up their highbrow identities and their network contacts with the culture production business, made up a local market supporting viable careers for a few pure intellectual creators, whose lives became emblems for the rest. Such was the market structure in which the Sartre circle forged a brief episode of high-level creativity merging philosophy and literature.

* When intellectual life came alive in medieval Christendom, proofs of God became a standard turf for tests of philosophical skill, not primarily for converting unbelievers but for precedence in the intellectual community. It was a pure intellectual game; there was no premium on accepting proofs, and rejection of inadequacies of rival argument was taken as a mark of superiority.

* Deep Troubles: Free Will and Determinism, Substance and Plurality. A deep trouble is a doctrine containing a self-propagating difficulty. Alternative paths open out, each of which contains further puzzles. Exploration of such conundrums becomes a chief dynamic on the medium to higher reaches of the philosophical abstraction-reflexivity sequence. Intellectual life gets its energy from oppositions. It thrives on deep troubles because these provide guaranteed topics for debate. Once a deep trouble is discovered, it tends to be recycled through successive levels of abstraction. The recognition of deep troubles enables us to reformulate with greater precision a basic principle of intellectual creativity: oppositions divide the attention space under the law of small numbers, not merely along the lines of greatest importance to the participants, but along the lines of the available deep troubles. Monotheism is fruitful for advance along the abstraction-reflexivity sequence because it is a major source of deep troubles. One of the simplest of these is the issue of free will. The question of free will arises only at a level of abstraction capable of generating contradictions within a pair of opposing

* The drive of the mathematical networks into higher abstraction and reflexivity is what gives the distinct edge to the philosophy of the modern West.

* The intellectual situation since about 1700 in this respect is historically unique. An anti-mathematical stance of this sort would have been inconceivable to most Greek, Islamic, and medieval Christian philosophers,29 for whom
mathematics would have been not seen as a bringdown to mundane calculation but as the essence of the transcendental, even mystical hierarchy. Mathematics was the ally of religion and faith. It was only after the great reversal of alliances, at the time of the secularization of the intellectual world in the late 1600s, that an anti-science and anti-mathematical front appeared. Moreover, this front consisted not merely of religious reactionaries, but of a secular opposition to the main line of philosophical development.

* The individual thinker, closeted in privacy, thinks something which is significant for the network only because his or her inner conversation is part of the larger conversation and contributes to its problems. If a brain flickers and brightens with statements which are true, this happens only because that brain is pulsing in connection with the past and anticipated future of a social network. Truth arises in social networks; it could not possibly arise anywhere else.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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