The diagram above represents a stylized description of intellectual work: influences, an embodied cognitive framework (“skill”), important elements of originality, and a product. The diagram also provides, at the bottom, a highly incomplete inventory of some of the ways in which intellectuals proceed in their work: extending and transforming existing frameworks, introducing novel elements, crossing intellectual domains, and bringing ideas into the public arena.
This puts intellectual work into a certain kind of frame: tradition and influences; problem formulations; invention and creativity; and a new intellectual product — a theory of justice, a theory of general equilibrium, a market for lemons. It is “work” in the Marxian sense: it begins with certain materials; the materials are shaped and transformed according to the skills and plans of the worker; the worker’s skills are themselves an historical product; and the results reflect both tradition and creativity.
This analysis doesn’t cover every kind of intellectual work; it doesn’t fit the creation of literature, for example. But it seems to fit philosophy, social theory, the early parts of the natural sciences, and even theology.
To the extent this scheme fits an area of thought, we can then address the question of a particular thinker’s contributions from several angles: looking for influences, looking for specific modes of thinking, looking for flashes of genuine originality, and looking at finished theories. In other words, we can think of the task of intellectual biography through the lens of this analysis of the mature thinker’s work, and the arc of development that can be perceived in his/her lifetime corpus.
Several books recently discussed in other postings are relevant to this question of the development of an intellectual. One is Clifford Geertz’s autobiographical essay in Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics. Another is the biographical essay of John Rawls provided by Tom Pogge in John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice. Geertz highlights many of the categories mentioned here: exposure to a few influential figures in his undergraduate years, the experience of World War II, his exposure to Indonesia as a graduate student, … Geertz’s work is highly original; nonetheless, we can go some ways towards teasing out some of the ways that his mature perspectives were influenced by his educational and personal experiences. And likewise, Pogge’s essay on Rawls’s development as a child, youth, and adult sheds a very interesting light on Rawls’s intellectual style as a mature philosopher.