I Don’t Like Adjectives But I Won’t Mind If You Call Me Bourdieu-ian, A History Boy, 27/09/2013

I got some books in the mail Thursday, and one of them was Pascalian Meditations by Pierre Bourdieu. I’ve slowly been drifting into Bourdieu’s orbit since I read his essay collection on cultural production and the production of culture (two quite different processes) in the last weeks of 2011. It was called, appropriately, The Field of Cultural Production. When I was assembling the preliminary research for my aborted project on the historiography of the history of analytic philosophy, my doctoral supervisor recommended him to me as someone with whom my thinking had a lot in common.

As usual, he was right. After picking up my books from the McMaster philosophy department office, where they’re good enough people to help me out by serving as a mailbox for research-related packages, I went to one of the coffee shops in Westdale to get a late lunch and read a little of the Bourdieu.

You could ask whether Bourdieu should
be called a philosopher or a sociologist. I
prefer to think of him as both. There is no
rule saying he can't be, and if you try to
make one, I'll tear it up.
Pascalian Meditations turned out to be one of his last books. Published in 1997, translated into English in 2000, Bourdieu died in 2002 when he was 71. I only had time to read the introduction today, but this is a book that I think I’ll love. The introduction talks about his approach to philosophy, something sociologists don’t talk about that much, which I think is to philosophy’s detriment. I’ve spoken many times on the blog that I think philosophy as a discipline, on the whole, suffers from its insularity from other professions of knowledge. 

The introduction describes Pascalian Meditations as a critique of philosophy’s tendencies in practice. Essentially, Bourdieu offers a critique of philosophy based on its lack of worldliness. I have some words dropping next week on the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective about the same issue, that I think it’s a mistake to keep philosophical thought in a context of abstraction, striving for total generality of reference and universality of scope. At issue for Bourdieu and myself is the desire for philosophical thought to maintain a standard of purity. There is a tendency, which I’ve seen in some rather unfortunate practitioners and students of philosophy, to hold the material world in disdain, as if it pollutes the purity of philosophical reflection. Less pretentiously, I’ve heard people dismiss the relevance of social science disciplines for philosophical thinking because they don’t have their eye on the universal. Thankfully, there are not very many of those people. One of them even broke his friendship with me over my preference for thinking in the material world. Plato’s ghost still haunts some of us. Meanwhile, I’m in an apartment in Hamilton, Ontario, trying to build a proton pack from scratch

As for Bourdieu, he states the problem more eloquently than I can right now. That’s the difference between a blog that updates daily and a book that’s the product of years of research, writing, and revision. Citing Blaise Pascal, he considers philosophy to be a discipline that has taken itself too seriously for too long, that has lost its sense of play in messy materiality. Maybe we’ve striven after universality for so long, that it’s become too easy, when lost in philosophical meditation, to keep our eye on the rocky joys of the world.

I’ll let him make the point.

“In the order of thought, there is, as Nietzsche pointed out, no immaculate conception; but nor is there any original sin — and the discovery that someone who has discovered the truth had an interest in doing so in no way diminishes his discovery. Those who like to believe in the miracle of ‘pure’ thought must bring themselves to accept that the love of truth or virtue, like any other kind of disposition, necessarily owes something to the conditions in which it was formed, in other words a social position and trajectory.”

You can consider this blog an exercise in following through on that idea. I labelled this as a History Boy post because knowing my history — what I’ve read, when I’ve read it, its affects on me, and how my wider life and personal influences shape how I think — is part of the conditions of the knowledge I produce. This fact makes people uncomfortable sometimes, because it takes thought out of that realm of universality, or objectivity, as it’s sometimes called. I've been told that this makes thinking merely relative, a matter of mere opinion, not genuinely knowledge. Worthless. What pettiness is the appeal to the universal.

We, not just philosophers but conscientious members of communities, have to take the singular lives of people into account if we’re to understand the world. The ivory tower is obsolete because it falls so short of the full breadth and depth of human experience. The best philosopher never turns away from difference. A different kind of life is a new kind of knowledge, and we should welcome those surprises.

If that sounds like I’m trivializing philosophy, then yes, I am, after a fashion. However, if keeping my focus completely on pretensions to pure universality keeps me from perceiving those differences, then I’d prefer my thought to be as trivial as the daily life of that huge variety of people.

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