Bourdieu on post-modern biography

Here is a very interesting short piece by Pierre Bourdieu on the topic of biography, “L’Illusion biographique,” that is very relevant to the prior post. (Thanks, Denis!) Here Bourdieu takes issue with common sense on the subjects of the self and the nature of biography. Here is the commonsense understanding that he rejects: the idea of a life as a coherent and sequential story, with a beginning and end and a logical set of steps intervening. This idea underlies the group of metaphors commonly used by biographers representing life as a journey. Bourdieu argues that this reflects an uncritical and traditional understanding of history. This treatment rests upon important presuppositions — most fundamentally, that a life constitutes a coherent whole that can be understood as the expression of a unified intentional agent. This assumption accounts for the words connoting logical process that are so common in biographies: “thus”, “hence”, “so”, “therefore”, and “always” (consistency). The assumption is that a life is intelligible. Here is a nice passage summarizing this thought:

On est sans doute en droit de supposer que le récit autobiographique s’inspire toujours, au moins pour une part, du souci de donner sens, de rendre raison, de dégager une logique à la fois rétrospective et prospective, une consistance et une constance, en établissant des relations intelligibles, comme celle de l’effet à la cause efficiente ou finale, entre les états successifs, ainsi constitués en étapes d’un développement nécessaire.

[One is undoubtedly justified in thinking that the recital of an autobiography is inspired, at least in part, out of a concern to give meaning, to uncover a logic at the moment, both retrospective and prospective, a consistency and constancy, establishing intelligible relations such as cause and effect, between successive states, this establishing an account of a necessary sequence of development.]

Bourdieu thinks this understanding is untenable. He proposes a deconstruction of the self that draws upon a parallel with the form of the modern novel — Faulkner or Robbe-Grillet — in which logical sequence is deliberately challenged. Rather than coherence and logical development, we have discontinuity, irrationality, and chaotic sets of experiences. 

Produire une histoire de vie, traiter la vie comme une histoire, c’est-à-dire comme le récit cohérent d’une séquence signifiante et orientée d’événements, c’est peut-être sacrifier à une illusion rhétorique, à une représentation commune de l’existence, que toute une tradition littéraire n’a cessé et ne cesse de renforcer. 

[To produce a history of a life, to treat a life like a history, that is to say, like a coherent recital of a meaningful sequence of events, is perhaps to submit to a rhetorical illusion, a common representation of existence, that our literary tradition has not ceased to reinforce.]

Bourdieu wants to understand these issues in analogy with twentieth-century doubts about the unity of the self. According to this post-modern critique, the self itself is a fiction of coherence, a rhetorical overlay on top of chaotic experience and actions. Kant’s unity of apperception is an illusion imposed by the narrator of the self. 
 
Instead Bourdieu wants to understand the unity of the self sociologically in terms of the functioning of a proper name within specific fields of social interaction. (He refers here to Kripke and Ziff’s ideas of rigid designators.) The proper name serves as tag linking the biological individual across social spaces. 

En tant qu’institution, le nom propre est arraché au temps et à l’espace, et aux variations selon les lieux et les moments : par là, il assure aux individus désignés, par delà tous les changements et toutes les fluctuations biologiques et sociales, la constance nominale, l’identité au sens d’identité à soi-même, de constantia sibi, que demande l’ordre social.

[As an institution, a proper name is situated in time and space, and changes according to place and time: accordingly it assures the designated individuals, beyond all biological and social changes and fluctuations, the nominal constancy, identity in the sense of identity to oneself, faithful to itself, that demand social ordering.]

What is the upshot for Bourdieu here? It seems to be that we should discard biography as a fundamentally flawed intellectual undertaking, and we should instead look at “non-biography” as a non-chronological map of social positions occupied by the biological individual designated by the proper name. On this account there is the biological individual and there is the social individual, but there is no personal intentional actor mediating between these. The proper name, a cypher with no content, replaces the self. 

Ainsi s’explique que le nom propre ne puisse pas décrire des propriétés et qu’il ne véhicule aucune information sur ce qu’il nomme :  du fait que ce qu’il désigne n’est jamais qu’une rhapsodie composite et disparate de propriétés biologiques et sociales en changement constant, toutes les descriptions seraient valables seulement dans les limites d’un stade ou d’un espace. Autrement dit, il ne peut attester l’identité de la personnalité, comme individualité socialement constituée, qu’au prix d’une formidable abstraction. 

[Thus it is that a proper names cannot describe properties and conveys no information about the individual named: in fact, the designated item is nothing more than a composite and disparate rhapsody of biological and social properties in constant change, all descriptions are valid only in the limits of a field of space. In other words, it is not possible to attest to the identity of the personality, as a socially constituted individual, except at the process of formidable abstraction.]

The individual is simply the sum of a network graph of positions in social spaces, with nothing interior.  And therefore biography needs replacing by a linked set of spatial locations within the social fields within which her or she competes. 
 
Is this sufficient? Not at all. It conveys an anti-mentalistic stance about people that is as flawed as was radical behaviorism. No matter how valid the critique of native unitarianism concerning the self, it remains true that people are actors, they make choices, they operate on the basis of mental frames, and they construct itineraries. They act intentionally and self consciously. We cannot dispense with a conception of the self. And therefore biography remained a valid exercise.

What is needed instead is a conception of the self and of a biography that avoids both the primordialism of the traditional view and the actor-less collage associated with the post-modern literary view. We need a conception of the self that emphasizes contingency and continuous development and change, that denies essentialism in either the self or a complete life, and that highlights as well the role that extraneous events play in the development of a person and a life; while still allowing for the reality of the human person who undergoes and guides his or her own path. 

 
It is interesting to recall the structure of Neil Gross’s “sociological” biography of Richard Rorty in Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher (link). Gross’s account conforms to a part of Bourdieu’s picture here, in that he takes great care to trace Rorty’s movements through his various fields — philosophy, Yale, Princeton, marriage. But he also gives attention to the interior man — the person named Richard who makes these various choices. Biography and personhood do not disappear after all. 
 

Adelman on Albert Hirschman

 

 

Jeremy Adelman’s detailed and illuminating biography of Albert Hirschman in Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman is an excellent example of intellectual biography. Even more, it is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the development of social science theories and frameworks.

Born to a professional Jewish family in Berlin in 1915, Hirschman’s life bracketed the most searing nightmares of the twentieth century. Hirschman was an anti-fascist activist as a teenager, leaving Berlin for France in 1933. He was an intellectual from the start, with curiosity and originality driving his quest for ideas and knowledge. But equally early he was an activist, with political convictions and allegiances that gave him the courage to resist fascism in every way he was able to. In France he pursued a doctorate in business (as the only French program he could enter), while continuing his anti-fascist activism.

One part of the interest of this biography is the engagement in war and revolution into which his historical situation and political sympathies led Hirschman. He fought as a volunteer in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Returning to France he found himself as a volunteer in the French army, but was quickly demobilized following the defeat of France by Germany in 1940. He then had an intense half year of clandestine work in Marseille helping arrange escape from France for leftist intellectuals, refugees, and the occasional stranded American. He himself managed to emigrate to America in 1940 by landing a Rockefeller fellowship at Berkeley; but he then enlisted in the American army within weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. So in a brief few years Hirschman served in three armies fighting fascism. He spent months in Algiers as an enlisted man, was assigned duties as a translator behind the American lines in Italy, and wound up serving as translator in Rome for the German general who was the first to be charged for war crimes by the American army. (The general was found guilty of these crimes and sentenced to death.) And on Hirschman’s return to America his career was mysteriously blocked at various points by suspicions and innuendos that came to play a role in his confidential security dossier in Washington.

While living in France (and later in fascist Italy as an American soldier) he became closely acquainted with some of the most interesting activists and political thinkers of Europe. Among the intellectuals who passed through the escape channels Hirschman helped to maintain included “Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Siegfried Kracauer, Wifredo Lam, Jacques Lipchitz, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel (the serial wife of composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius, and novelist Franz Werfel), Heinrich Mann, Walter Mehring” (171).

So Hirschman’s life is inherently interesting. Hirschman combined reflection and activism in ways that were much deeper than most intellectual figures were called upon to do.  (Arthur Koestler’s life has quite a few parallels; link.)

But I find Adelman’s biography interesting for another reason as well. Adelman does a remarkable job of explicating the originality and edginess of Hirschman’s thought, from his service in the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington and efforts at European reconstruction, to his advising role in Columbia, to his mid-life success in gaining entree to elite American universities (Berkeley, Yale, Columbia, Princeton) and the emerging field of the theory of development. Adelman works through the combinations of personal, contextual, and intellectual influences that helped to shape Hirschman’s imagination as a social scientist, and this makes for very interesting reading.

There are many insights in Hirschman’s work. But particularly fundamental is a point that Adelman underlines again and again: Hirschman’s inherent skepticism about the claims of grand theory in social science and public policy. It was a skepticism about the idea of a social science aspiring to the exactness of the natural sciences; about the idea of comprehensive predictive theories about complex social processes; and about the hope of having a unified social scientific theory that could drive policy towards an optimal solution. Against these hopes, Hirschman emphasized the importance of hands-on experience of the complex processes we care about (economic development, for example); he emphasized the value of small and partial theories for limited aspects of the social world; and he celebrated the value of examining the particular rather than seeking always for the generalizable. In Adelman’s words,

This eye for particulars and their meanings imprinted itself on Hirschman, who was already questioning History’s “laws” and searching for a spirit that was more epic because it was open to chance and to choice. (111)

Adelman traces this crucial intellectual disposition to a number of different influences: Hirschman’s brother-in-law, the Italian physicist and activist Eugenio Colorni (murdered by fascist thugs in Rome in 1944); the writings of Hayek; and his own experience as an observer and practitioner of economic change in Columbia (in international trade and in economic development).

To Otto Albert, the conversations with Eugenio drew his attention “to what we call the small ideas, small pieces of knowledge. They do not stand in connection with any ideologies or worldviews, they do not claim to provide total knowledge of the world, they probably undermine the claims of all previous ideologies”. (114)

The Big Idea, which Hirschman associated with the “claim to complete cognition of the world,” claimed “to explain multi-causal social processes from a single principle.” The alternative was “the attempt to come to an understanding of reality in portions, admitting that the angle may be subjective.” (116)

Here is Adelman on the influence of Hayek:

Hayek got at something Hirschman felt strongly: the need to acknowledge the basic limits to the “intelligibility” of our complex world. Leaders were wont to claim complete knowledge when they did not have it and thus to squash the individual’s ability to make adjustments “to changes whose cause and nature he cannot understand.” Hayek’s vision of spontaneous, unguided, and hidden forces at work presumed an inscrutability about life that Hirschman shared, in which its ironies, paradoxes, and the possibilities of unintended consequences provided the underlying engines of change. (238)

Perhaps most important, Hirschman was persuaded by the bad experience of the dogmatic, ideological theories of both right and left in the 1930s of the importance of modesty and open-mindedness in one’s convictions about how the social world works. This becomes one of the key elements in Hirschman’s main academic work, his critique of modernization theory and unified central planning as foundations for the policies of agencies like the World Bank and the IMF.

What comes out of this skepticism about the grand theories of the economists or political scientists is a more pragmatic and experimental approach to policy. Rather than building complex plans that presuppose a detailed knowledge of causation and inter-connection of causes, we should instead take pragmatic steps that seem to be pushing the system in the right direction. In the case of Columbia, this meant favoring the developments of entrepreneurs and businessmen in their individual efforts rather than supporting grand schemes of reconstruction and capital investment. He favored multiple strategies, “not a single road to change” (274).

Instead of a “propensity to plan,” Hirschman advocated a “propensity to experiment and to improvise”— a spirit missing from the council and whose absence deprived all sides from actually learning from experience precisely because the planners were so convinced that it was not they who had to be converted. After all, they were “experts.” (323)

The result, in contrast to expensive, expansive, intellectually seductive general plans and combined assaults, was a piecemeal approach targeting the scarcest of all variables. This was the premise of “unbalanced growth,” a term he eventually abandoned because he did not want his work positioned only as an alternative to a mainstream. (347)

Also interesting is the fine interpretation that Adelman offers of Hirschman’s first two books, National Power and the Structure of Foreign Trade and The Strategy of Economic Development. The first was a great disappointment to Hirschman, since he had hoped that it would launch his academic career and reputation in the United States; while the second achieved exactly the kind of success he had hoped for with the first. But in hindsight, the first book seems to have as much importance as the second. It lays out a powerful and rigorous argument for the ways in which nationalist and fascist regimes were able to use the “soft power” of trade alliances to achieve their goals. The inequalities of bargaining position that exist between bilateral trading partners create the opportunities for highly coercive actions by the more powerful. This argument still seems relevant in the global trade environment in which we now live. It also propelled the argument towards a de-nationalization of world affairs — a historical development that came to life to some extent in the establishment of the European Union.

Adelman, a professor of history at Princeton, has also edited a forthcoming collection of some of Hirschman’s work, The Essential Hirschman. Both these works are truly valuable, and particularly so for social scientists who have realized that their disciplines need the kinds of independent and cross-sectional thinking that Hirschman was so good at.

(I have a happy memory of meeting Albert Hirschman at a conference on poverty and development at the Woodrow Wilson School in 1990. He was very generous with his ideas, his critical suggestions, and his encouragement.)

Mayer Zald on his development as a sociologist

I had the opportunity to have lunch with Mayer Zald in July last summer, a few weeks before his death. Our conversation was wide-ranging, but one segment in particular warrants publishing here. In this segment I asked Mayer how he thought about the connections among social psychology, organizational behavior, and social movements theory in the development of his thought.

 

The clip offers some interesting insights into the contingencies that occurred early in the career of this path-breaking sociologist to move his level of focus from the micro-level of social psychology to “meso”-level social phenomena like organizations. (The value of meso-level research comes up repeatedly in the conversation.) The clip provides a good example of Mayer’s incisive mind, good humor, and sharp ideas about sociological thinking.

Mayer Zald on organizations and bureaucracy

Mayer Zald helped to shape the field of organizational behavior in the United States, beginning with his time as a faculty member at Vanderbilt and continuing through his long career in sociology at the University of Michigan. In 1971 he published an early version of some of his thinking on this subject in a short book, Occupations and organizations in American society: The organization-dominated man?. Zald received his PhD from Michigan in 1961, so this book reflects his thinking and state of development during the first decade of his professional career.

As we examine the triple spectra of gigantic bureaucracy, of everyone a professional, and of guild-like professional associations, we must keep in mind that technology, client demands, economics, and politics are the underlying forces that shape the world of work. These basic factors not only shape professional autonomy and prestige, but also reshape organizations. Obviously, there is some truth in the image of man as organization-dominated, but American society is too diverse and complex to be summed up by this aphorism. (3)

One thing that this passage calls out to me is an emphasis on fluidity and heterogeneity in basic social institutions.  There are pulls and pushes that change institutions and practices over time, and they work through the activities of various of the actors involved in the system at a given time. This has a lot in common with the very recent ideas about “strategic fields” that McAdam and Fligstein have been developing in A Theory of Fields (link).

Much of the focus of Zald’s book is on the professions — the ways in which professions are shaped and propelled by a variety of forces within a given political economy. His work on this question pre-dates Andrew Abbott’s The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor by seventeen years (link); and though it isn’t as detailed a study as Abbott’s, it certainly contains many interesting insights into the topic.

Here is how Zald distinguishes between “profession” and “occupation”:

Professions tend to be among the more prestigious occupations; they are commonly viewed as based on a relatively abstract body of knowledge. Whether a profession is based on a scientific discipline or not, usually, it is based on a fairly extensive abstract body of principles and practices that require a long training period to master. (17)

In Table 2 Zald provides a list of examples of “established” and “in process” professions, and he provides a set of important benchmarks in the development of a profession:

  • Established: accounting, architecture, civil engineering, dentistry, law, medicine
  • In process: nursing, optometry, pharmacy teaching, social work, veterinary medicine
  • Doubtful: advertising, funeral direction

Here are the benchmarks that he singles out as important markers in the emergence of a profession: date of becoming a full-time occupation, first training school, first university school first local professional association, first national professional association, first state license law, first code of ethics.  And he expects these to occur in roughly the chronological order in which they are listed.

It is worth reflecting on the conjunction that Zald brings together in this short book: occupation and organization. The connection between these two concepts isn’t entirely obvious; one has to do with specializations of work, and the other has to do with the social systems through which activities and work are conducted. So why are they conjoined here?

It seems that Zald has a somewhat complex set of ideas in mind: the specialization of skill and technique is a prerequisite to more complex forms of organization; but likewise complex organizations are necessary in order to support the training and indoctrination that is associated with the development of individuals’ skills and knowledge. So each of these social factors presupposes the other. This reading of the conjunction seems to be born out here:

A system’s centralization or decentralization affects the growth and development of organizations and occupations for managing and coordinating the components of the system… As long as American society permits major product innovation and development to reflect consumer sovereignty, occupational and organizational change and growth will be closely linked to the taste buds of mass society. (15)

The other side of the conjunction is organization and bureaucracy. Zald doesn’t exactly say what he means by an organization; rather, he talks about larger and smaller organizations. But it is possible to piece together what he has in mind. An organization is an extended group of individuals dedicated to bringing about a specified set of outcomes: make and sell automobiles, provide emergency room services, distribute and sell groceries, collect tribute from dependent tribes, enforce religious injunctions throughout an extended territory, … 

For example, a band of pirates is a small organization with direct control and supervision exerted by the pirate captain and with a small list of specialized functions: scan the horizon for prey, load the ammunition, attack the ship, distribute the booty, keep order among the pirates. But as scale increases, more complex social mechanisms are needed to maintain coordination of behavior by subordinates and to maintain effective exercise of the purposes of the organization. A manufacturing company with multiple factories requires a variety of kinds of specialists: engineers, designers, factory managers, auditors, tax specialists, marketing specialists, sales representatives. These are specialized “occupations” within the organization; and they require specialized forms of oversight and control if the specialists are to be expected to carry out their functions in the interest of the “management” (the guiding purposes of the organization).

The idea of a principal-agent problem is central here: how does the central management ensure that its agents are performing their duties in ways that conform to the organization’s goals, rather than using their positions to improve their own interests?

Zald puts this set of organizational challenges in terms of a set of fundamental questions:

Even though each industry has developed its own techniques, almost all large-scale organizations in America have come to grips with problems created by the transformation of organizations and occupations described in the last two sections. (1) Given the increasing size and complexity of organization, how is authority to be delegated? (2) Once delegated, how are the units to be controlled? (3) given the increasing size of the labor force and the distance between top managers or owners and lower-level workers, how is labor to be harnessed by incentive, by organization, and by ideology? (4) Given the increasing complexity of occupations, the emergence specialized techniques and professions, with their own concepts of professional teases and procedures, how are professions to be harnessed to organizational goals? (51-52)

What is a bureaucracy? A bureaucracy is a particular kind of organization; but what kind? Zald gives a simple definition: “the archetypical bureaucracy controls through rules and hierarchical supervision” (36). So codified rules and a well defined authority structure are key components of a bureaucracy.

It would appear that these features make innovation and creative responses to changing circumstances more difficult than they would be in a more opportunistic and fluid kind of organization. A more cellular form of organization, with an alignment of goals and values across cells but substantial local autonomy, seems to be one that has more potential for rapid adaptation to changing circumstances.

We can try to apply these ideas in unexpected places. Were the Black Panthers a bureaucracy, with central management in Oakland and a set of inspectors and enforcers who visited the “franchises” in Chicago or Detroit? Or were they more of a viral organization, with a loose set of shared goals but great diversity of activity, local organization, and effectiveness? What about Al Qaeda or the Taliban — are these organizations “bureaucracies”? And what about the Occupy Movement?

Here is a history of the dissemination of the Black Panther Party that provides a basis for answering the first of these questions; Judson Jeffries, On the Ground: The Black Panther Party in Communities across America. And much of the treatment Jeffries offers suggests the bureaucratic interpretation; for example —

In response to a critical letter sent in 1969 allegedly from a Detroit Panther and forwarded through Chicago, Landon B. Williams and Rory Hithe were dispatched to Detroit from the Oakland office to investigate a laundry list of allegations involving money and food coming up short, papers not being sold, money not being sent to the West Coast, and the disintegration of the NCCF into a dysfunctional and cliquish club of petty jealousies and dissension. Inspection tours from Oakland were not unheard of; in fact, Raymond “Masai” Hewitt and Donald Cox were reported to have visited numerous branches across the country as part of a regular inspection of each branch’s books and operations. Nonetheless, the arrival of Williams and Hithe was understood to be different, as the letter itself seems to have broken the protocol and chain of command whereby communication with Oakland was routinely done by phone and then only by two authorized officers — the communications secretary and defense captain. Moreover, Charlie Diggs Jr., for one, recognized the inspectors as what he referred to as “the goon squad from California” who were not there to examine the branch’s checkbook but to take the locals out into the alley and break their legs. “These guys you have to be scared of,” Berry remembered Diggs saying, “because that is why they sent them, if anything goes wrong in the chapter …. These guys come from out of town and wax you; they take care of you.” (156-57)

This passage captures many of the aspects of an organization that Zald highlighted — the need for control of the agents by the principals, the enforcement of rules of behavior within the organization, the need for supervision and oversight, and the need for internal processes of punishment for infractions. So it seems fair to say that the Black Panther Party of the 1970s was indeed an aspiring bureaucracy — paradoxical as that sounds. Here is another interesting collection on the history of the BPP; Yohuru Williams and Jama Lazerow, Liberated Territory: Untold Local Perspectives on the Black Panther Party.

Character and history

How do features of character play into the fabric of history? The first has to do with psychology, motives, and agency; the second has to do with large events and processes.  So how might a better understanding of the domain of individual character contribute to better historical understanding?

 
When we talk about a person’s character, we are usually thinking of a set of fairly durable characteristics of thinking and acting that go beyond the choices of a minute. The color of tie that I choose in the morning isn’t a feature of my character — though it might be influenced by character traits. The decision to stand up to a bullying colleague probably does express a character trait. So character is a feature of agency that seems more fundamental than motives or purposes. It is an embedded disposition of behavior, a way of looking at the world of action and choice. Will Kane, the sheriff in High Noon, makes his choices for reasons that are more fundamental to him than trying to bring about this outcome or that. 
 
There is also a suggestion of moral valuation involved in making assessments of character. We often describe people who act according to principle or who act out of virtue as having “good” character, whereas people who lie, betray, break commitments, or act viciously are thought to have bad character. Iago had bad character while Cincinnatus had good character — courage, integrity, fidelity.  Here is a good article by Marcia Homiak on “moral character” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that makes the connection between character and virtue ethics. (Interestingly, it would appear that Kant’s ideal moral agent is one who has no character whatsoever, but instead acts purely out of rational recognition of the dictates of practical reason.)

 
So why would character be important in history? There are several possible reasons.
  1. It might be held that a key actor’s choices were crucial for a turning point in a historical sequence, and those choices were influenced or determined by his/her character. For example, “FDR’s steadfastness contributed to the end of the Great Depression”; “Hitler’s vicious antisemitism caused the Holocaust”.
  2. We might observe that a large population acted collectively in a critical moment — say, the Solidarity struggles in Poland or ordinary African-American people in Montgomery during the boycott — and their decisiveness was influenced or determined by a widespread feature of character — courage, obstinacy, perseverance.
  3. It is possible that important features of character are historically conditioned or instigated by key historical experiences — the Great Famine in China creating widespread fearfulness about the future, the 1960s anti-war movement creating optimism about collective action. In this respect “character” is historically conditioned and collective rather than purely individual.
  4. We might look at some historical events or episodes as being particularly important because they embody or exemplify certain features of character that we want to valorize — the defense of Stalingrad or the protection of Jewish children in Le Chambon, for example (Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There).
This question about character and history reproduces an older issue in the philosophy of history, the question of the role of individuals in history. But this question is both more and less specific. It is more specific because character is only one factor in agency. So even if we have settled that actors make history, we are asking a more refined question by singling out “character” for specific attention. And it is less specific because it is conceivable that we might argue that collectivities had character as well as individuals.  So it might be held that the sans-culottes possessed a collective character that distinguished their behavior from that of other social groups.
 
Let’s briefly consider a related question: what is character to a biographer? The biographer is trying to put together a truthful interpretation of the subject through his/her actions and expressions. What motivated the subject? What were his/her overriding beliefs and goals? What moral or religious convictions did the subject possess, and how strongly did these influence her actions and choices? Character comes into this mix when the biographer is obliged to answer questions like these: Did the subject possess courage and conviction? Or did threat and opportunism suffice to influence action? Can we interpret the narrative of the subject’s life as a meaningful expression of his or her abiding character?
It seems that a reasonable answer to the opening question might come down to this: History is composed and propelled by socially embedded actors whose behaviors are themselves complex outcomes of an internally embodied system of reasoning, feeling, and acting.  As argued in earlier posts (linklink), we don’t have particularly good theories of the actor on the basis of which to analyze them (desire-belief-opportunity theory, rational choice theory, practical rationality, pragmatism, …). It seems reasonable to hypothesize that the features of individual thinking and behavior to which we refer with the concept of “character” are indeed important aspects of agency.  So “character” is relevant to history because it is a constituent of agents and a potentially important part of our theory of the actor.

(This discussion leaves a number of open questions. What is the relation between character and other important drivers of behavior — interests, habits, or commitments? Further, we would like to know where character comes from in the individual’s development. Here is a contribution to a volume on the philosophy of action where I try to provide some additional details; link.)

Who was Leon Trotsky?

Leon Trotsky was something of a hero for a part of the anti-Stalinist left from the 1930s through at least the 1970s. Sidney Hook and John Dewey offered substantive support to Trotsky and his reputation during and after the end of his life through Dewey’s role in the “Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials”. Trotsky was a theoretician of communism, a strategist, a man of letters, and the merciless chief of the Red Army immediately following the success of the Boshevik Revolution (represented by the character of Strelnikov in Dr. Zhivago!). Expelled from the USSR by Stalin in 1929, he spent the rest of his life in exile in a series of countries and was assassinated by Stalin’s agent in 1940 in Mexico City. The Trotskyist left opposed Stalin’s policies long before other segments of the European left did so.

There is a narrative that places a lot of the history of the USSR into the framework of personality and character of its early leaders, including Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. The legend is that Trotsky was a principled revolutionary but a poor street fighter, and that Stalin was a power-hungry and ruthless opportunist who out-maneuvered his primary opponent after the death of Lenin. And Trotsky was too full of amour-propre to fully engage in the battle with Stalin. But it wasn’t all about personality; Trotsky and Stalin differed substantially about the future course of Communism, and Trotsky’s was the more radical view (permanent revolution versus socialism in one country). So who was Trotsky, and how would we know?

Trotsky himself addresses these topics in his autobiography, and indicates that he thinks they are unimportant: personality and character have less to do with his life than theory and the inevitable currents of history, in his own telling of his story. Here are a few lines from My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography:

My intellectual and active life, which began when I was about seventeen or eighteen years old, has been one of constant struggle for definite ideas. In my personal life there were no events deserving public attention in themselves. All the more or less unusual episodes in my life are bound up with the revolutionary struggle, and derive their significance from it. This alone justifies the appearance of my autobiography. But from this same source flow many difficulties for the author. The facts of my personal life have proved to be so closely interwoven with the texture of historical events that it has been difficult to separate them. This book, moreover, is not altogether an historical work. Events are treated here not according to their objective significance, but according to the way in which they are connected with the facts of my personal life. It is quite natural, then, that the accounts of specific events and of entire periods lack the proportion that would be demanded of them if this book were an historical work. I had to grope for the dividing line between autobiography and the history of the revolution. Without allowing the story of my life to become lost in an historical treatise, it was necessary at the same time to give the reader a base of the facts of the social development. In doing this, I assumed that the main outlines of the great events were known to him, and that all his memory needed was a brief reminder of historical facts and their sequence.

I am obliged to write these lines as an émigré— for the third time— while my closest friends are filling the places of exile and the prisons of that Soviet republic in whose creating they took so decisive a part. Some of them are vacillating, withdrawing, bowing before the enemy. Some are doing it because they are morally exhausted; others because they can find no other way out of the maze of circumstances; and still others because of the pressure of material reprisals. I had already lived through two instances of such mass desertion of the banner: after the collapse of the revolution of 1905, and at the beginning of the World War. Thus I know well enough, from my own experience, the historical ebb and flow. They are governed by their own laws. Mere impatience will not expedite their change. I have grown accustomed to viewing the historical perspective not from the standpoint of my personal fate. To understand the causal sequence of events and to find somewhere in the sequence one’s own place —that is the first duty of a revolutionary. And at the same time, it is the greatest personal satisfaction possible for a man who does not limit his tasks to the present day. (preface)

So it is all about ideas, political commitments, and the march of history (as well sometimes as the personal weaknesses of others). But biographers need more than this.

A key source for the past fifty years has been the magnificent biography of Trotsky in three volumes by Isaac Deutscher, beginning publication in 1954 (The Prophet: Trotsky: 1879-1940 (Vol. 1-3)). Deutscher was a Polish writer and historian who was more or less miraculously posted to England at the time of the Nazi conquest of Poland; so he spent the rest of his life in England, while almost all of his family perished in the Holocaust. Deutscher’s work is an admirable piece of historical writing, with appropriate attention to historical detail and available historical sources, including a major archive at Harvard University. The book is favorable to Trotsky as a tragic and outcast leader, but is not sycophantic. It weaves together the biographical narrative with the great struggles in the USSR and Europe that took place during Trotsky’s life and to which he was an important contributor. (Here is the Google Books link to the first volume, The Prophet Armed.)

Deutscher puts the arc of Trotsky’s revolutionary leadership at the end of the Civil War in 1919 in these theatrical terms:

At the very pinnacle of power Trotsky, like the protagonist of a classical tragedy, stumbled. He acted against his own principle and in disregard of a most solemn moral commitment. Circumstances, the preservation of the revolution, and his own pride drove him into this predicament. Placed as he was he could hardly have avoided it. His steps followed almost inevitably from all that he had done before; and only one step now separated the sublime from the sinister — even his denial of principle was still dictated by principle. Yet in acting as he did he shattered the ground on which he stood. (486)

This step was the decision to establish a system of dictatorship by the Communist Party. And this step led to some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century, including Stalin’s war on the Kulaks.

When Trotsky now urged the Bolshevik party to ‘substitute’ itself for the working classes, he did not, in the rush of work and controversy, think of the next phases of the process, although he himself had long since predicted them with uncanny clear-sightedness. ‘The party organization would then substitute itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee would substitute itself for the organization; and finally a single dictator would substitute himself for the Central Committee.’ The dictator was already waiting in the wings. (522)

In these three volumes Deutscher provided a detailed account of Trotsky’s actions and theorizing as well as their impact on history. But what were Trotsky’s motivations? Not much of the character, personality, or singularity of Trotsky emerges from Deutscher’s treatment.

In 2011 Robert Service published a new biography of Trotsky (Trotsky: A Biography), making use of sources that were not available to Deutscher in the 1950s. This book of more than 600 pages presents itself as the most historically authoritative treatment of its subject yet.  But the book has created great controversy about some of its most basic claims. Service has previously published biographies of Lenin and Stalin.  But the Trotsky book has generated huge criticism. A well documented but scathing review of the book was published by Bertrand Patenaude in the American Historical Review (AHR (2011) 116 (3): 900-902), and the review is summarized in Inside Higher Education (link).  Patenaude asserts that Service makes dozens of important errors of fact in the course of the book, and that it sets out to “thoroughly discredit Trotsky as a historical figure;” and Patenaude concludes that the book falls woefully short of the standards of historical rigor that it should have met. “[The publisher] has placed its imprimatur upon a book that fails to meet the basic standards of historical scholarship.” (902)  Patenaude also reviews David North’s In Defense of Leon Trotsky. North is himself an American Trotskyist and Patenaude was prepared to find a hatchet job in North’s treatment of Service. Instead he finds a powerful and well founded critique of the many errors, distortions, and bias in Service’s treatment of Trotsky. So the partisan gives a more faithful account of the facts than the professional historian!

Patenaude’s own treatment of Trotsky’s life in Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary is restricted to the Mexico years, and is very detailed and interesting.  His narrative moves back and forth between Mexico and earlier periods as needed, but is focused on the final years of Trotsky’s life. Trotsky’s personality and behavior are made very clear in the narrative: socially difficult, harsh to those closest to him, dogmatic, committed, egoistic, and courageous. (Patenaude provides details of Trotsky’s affair with Frida Kahlo that were unknown to Deutscher at the time of writing The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-1940. Deutscher doubts the existence of the affair, whereas Patenaude provides the evidence.)

So thousands of pages have been written, but we still don’t really have a clear answer to the question, “Who was Leon Trotsky?”. The Service biography appears to be thoroughly discredited for the most basic faults a historian can possess: lack of attention to the historical facts, and bringing an axe to grind to the subject matter. The Deutscher biography is less about the person than the actions he took. And the controversies about Trotsky persist.

Here is a fascinating discussion with Christopher Hitchens and Robert Service about Trotsky’s life and impact.

(There are many other reviews of Service’s book, and some are more favorable and some even more negative. Here is a detailed discussion by Paul Le Blanc in the International Journal of Socialist Renewal (link), and here is a review by philosopher John Gray in Literary Review (link). Baruch Knei-Paz’s The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky is a generally respected treatment of Trotsky’s thought as an organized system.)

Intellectuals tell their stories

image: Holcombe Austin and Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, Wheaton College

Since reading Neil Gross’s book Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher I’ve been once again thinking about the ways that a given thinker takes shape throughout his or her life. (I touched on this question in a post several years ago on influences, and most recently in a post on Peter Berger.) There are a couple of dimensions to this problem. We can think of the thing undergoing change as the thinker’s framework of thought or intellectual imagination. This would be to look at the intellectual as the creator or curator of a body of ideas and approaches to a subject matter.  Or we can think of the thing that is changing as the career — the pathway the intellectual takes into and through the publicly defined standards, appointments, and indications of success of the chosen field of thought, and the series of career-field locations that he or she occupies over time. The first is more interior and the second more situational and public.

Gross and Camic refer to this question as the “sociology of ideas.” It has also been treated by historians of ideas — subject to the criticism that they’ve paid too much attention to the logic of development of the ideas themselves and not enough to the socially situated authors and promulgators of those ideas. But we could also refer the question to the social psychologist or even the existential biographer: in what ways does the individual create his or her own intellectual itinerary?

To map the content of the intellectual’s thought-work we need some way of recording the signposts of the evolution of the thinker’s thought. These might be things like these:

  • Field of thought (mathematics, philosophy, sociology)
  • Style of thought (constructive, critical, analytical)
  • Key topic areas selected (justice, the Holocaust, the nature of being, other minds)
  • Key insight
  • Methods of reasoning (empiricism, hermeneutics, metaphysical reasoning)
  • Constellation of other thinkers treated as experts or dullards

So W.V.O. Quine becomes a philosopher rather than a chemist; he immerses himself in analytical philosophy; he focuses on the problem of scientific knowledge; he gets to a pathbreaking insight (critique of logical positivism from within); his reasoning is logical, analytical, and deductive; and his constellation of stars includes Pierce, Carnap, and Reichenbach. At each juncture we can ask “why?” — why did the person make the choice or move in a particular direction?  Sometimes the answer will be an explicit choice; sometimes it will involve the shared presuppositions of a discipline at a point in time.

To map “career” we can highlight choices made and opportunities conveyed that signal advancement within the social realm of the profession:

  • Graduate school
  • Doctoral supervisor
  • Publications over time
  • Invited conferences
  • Network of other scholars with whom he/she interacts
  • Series of academic appointments
  • Recognitions and prizes

There is an intertwining connection between these two frameworks. The intellectual makes choices in each zone — which topics to pursue and which career milestones to seek out. And as Gross and Bourdieu make plain, the choice of topic has consequences for the opportunities offered in career — a circumstance that explicitly or implicitly influences the intellectual’s choices of topics and approaches. But the direction one’s research and thinking take also are positively influenced by the events of the career. Burton Dreben’s opportunity to become a Junior Fellow at Harvard under the mentorship of Quine fundamentally shaped his thinking as a mathematical logician.

Neil Gross and Crystal Fleming illustrate several of these points in their study of Mike Johnson in the Camic-Gross-Lamont volume, Social Knowledge in the Making.  They offer a thumbnail of Johnson’s first steps towards the career of academic philosophy, his considerations about career advancement, and his own particular insights into philosophical issues that have bearing on the experience of Native Americans.  With this as background, they offer an ethnographic account of the making of a conference paper that Johnson was to present in Paris.  Their account demonstrates a complexly intertwined reality of internal philosophical work and career management.

So calculation, ambition, and the incentives of the field play a role in the academic’s intellectual development.  At the same time, we would like to think that the intellectual has his or her own internal compass for topics and why they matter (which Gross handles with his discussion of “self concept”, and which Gross and Fleming identify in their study of Mark Johnson under the rubric of the particular insights that Johnson’s cultural and class background led him to). We want to suppose that there is a degree of creativity, originality, and self-direction that plays some role in the intellectual’s development.

Then there are the great events that set the context for the intellectual’s choices throughout a forty-year period. There are the generations who took shape during the Great Depression, or during the Holocaust, or during the Civil Rights Movement, or during the Cultural Revolution. And we have the idea that these great events somehow left their marks on the writers and thinkers who came of age during their grip.  (Though I introduced the example of Quine above; and yet it’s hard to see the impact of any of the great events that the United States underwent during his formative years in his philosophical system.)

And there is the stochastic ebb and flow of minor events that influence the course of an intellectual’s development: this book was published, that funding opportunity came along, that invitation to contribute to a volume was received. Each of these minor events puts a small impetus into the stream — a new idea, a new approach, a new set of stimulating colleagues who provide further impetus. It might be the case that for some intellectuals, these are the most important influences of all in the shaping of thought and career.  Curiosity plus intelligence plus random exposures to intriguing questions = a cumulative but meandering body of thought.

This is fairly abstract. But make it more concrete by considering a conversation with three sociologists and a philosopher about the ways a sociologist develops over time. The sociologists are highly accomplished and valued in their discipline. One is born in 1931, one in 1949, and one in about 1950. The youngest, a woman, was born in Cuba. For her the experience of witnessing revolution and social movements as a child was fundamental. Her career has focused on better understanding these events and processes in Latin America. The oldest, a man, talked about the mentors whose example had influenced him — dissertation advisor, more senior colleagues in early teaching posts, and now more junior colleagues (by half a century!) who continue to stimulate his thinking. An important turn in his career took place about twenty years ago when he began thinking about sociology as a humanistic discipline. The third, also a man, offered a “maverick’s” view of his career. Topics were chosen because they were interesting to him at the time, not because the discipline incentivized these topics. He gave the impression that his thinking had developed in a way that might be described as “oppositional”. New topics emerged over time through fairly accidental circumstances. There is no rhyme or reason to his development, no characteristic signature. (Knowing this sociologist’s work well, I disagreed: there is an arc to his work and a very distinctive style of thinking.) All three had known Chuck Tilly well and had thoughtful things to say about how Chuck’s program of sociological thought had developed. (A new element emerged there: the very close and productive relationships Chuck had with hundreds of graduate students.)

I am not a sociologist, and empirical study of this issue probably isn’t in my future. But it seems very worthwhile to have the kinds of conversations I’m describing here and try to piece together more detailed genealogy of American sociological thought through the development of its innovative traibreakers. And in fact, the interviews I’ve done with a number of leading sociologists (link) perhaps sheds a little bit of light on this very subject. My interest in doing the interviews was to capture some of the person’s most innovative ideas. But along the way there has been quite a bit of talk about how their thought developed. 

Another result of the conversation I describe here was something you might expect in a conversation among academics–a list of useful readings. Here are three collections of autobiographical writings by sociologists and theorists that try to relate their careers to their times.

Alan Sica and Stephen Turner, The Disobedient Generation: Social Theorists in the Sixties
Bennett Berger, Authors of Their Own Lives: Intellectual Autobiographies by Twenty American Sociologists
Barbara Laslett and Barry Thorne, Feminist Sociology: Life Histories of a Movement

Hobbes in context

We often think of Hobbes as being an originator in English philosophy, a strikingly innovative thinker who burst on the scene with the first formulation of a social contract theory of government. And we sometimes think of his justification of absolute sovereignty as a fairly direct reaction to the disorders Britain experienced during its Civil War and Glorious Revolution.  Richard Tuck’s Hobbes: A Very Short Introduction puts Hobbes into a much more nuanced position.

Fundamental to Tuck’s approach as a historian of philosophy is to problematize the idea of “philosophy”.  Rather than assuming that the subject matter and methodology of philosophy were fixed once and for all by some traditional authority — perhaps Aristotle and Plato — Tuck takes the position that thinkers have defined themselves in ways that have eventually come to be described as “philosophy,” but that nonetheless cover a very wide range of intellectual approaches and concerns.  Here is a particularly striking set of ideas from Tuck’s contextualization of Hobbes:

It is sometimes tempting to think that the heroes of the various histories of philosophy or ethics — men as different as St Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli, Luther, Hobbes, Kant, or Hegel — were all in some sense engaged in a common enterprise, and would have recognized one another as fellow workers. But a moment’s reflection reminds us that it is we who have made a unity of their task: from their own point of view, they belonged to very different ways of living and had very different tasks to perform. They would have seen themselves as intellectually kin to men who do not figure in these lists — priests or scholars who had on the face of it no great philosophical interest. (1)

I think his point here is an important and insightful one: philosophy was reinvented in the Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries, and swerved dramatically away from ancient and medieval philosophy. It was a new project, motivated by different problems, assumptions, and goals.

Tuck gives a good deal of attention to Hobbes’s biography, with the implication that these historical, social, and familial circumstances contributed to shaping the philosophical imagination of the maturing thinker.  The situation of service as tutor and secretary to the household of William Lord Cavendish that occupied Hobbes for most of his life plays an important role in his intellectual development.  It also provided him with direct access to some of the great intellectuals and scientists of France and Venice, including eventually Mersenne, Descartes, and Galileo.
A central intellectual theme in the air during Hobbes’s early development was that of humanist skepticism about empirical and ethical knowledge.

The central feature of this literature was a pervasive scepticism about the validity of the moral principles by which an earlier generation had lived. (7)

The response of many of Lipsius’s generation (he was born in 1547) was to give up strongly held and publicly defended beliefs of all kinds, and to retreat to a dispassionate and skeptical stance. (9)

Tuck argues that Hobbes defined his thought in terms of an effort to create a new, though more modest, basis for knowledge in both empirical and ethical matters.  He was greatly influenced by the example and thinking of Galileo.  Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World appeared in 1632, and during 1634 Hobbes purchased a copy of the book for Newcastle.  One of the key issues in the philosophical world was whether the senses deceive us; and Hobbes followed Descartes in holding that the observable features of the world (color, smell) should not be understood to directly correspond to real characteristics of the invisible reality of the object.  Hobbes was interested in optics and mathematics — the areas of science that appeared to be most relevant to the question of the real features of the world. In fact, Tuck leaves the impression that philosophy of science is as important in Hobbes’s work as the philosophy of politics.
Another core theme in Hobbes’s itinerary is a visceral opposition to government religion — religious requirements embodied in the state.  And Tuck shows with repeated examples why this issue was so important during the Civil War; the struggle between contending sides had very much to do with the scope of religious discipline to be imposed by the state.  Hobbes was opposed to religious law and mandates of belief, and therefore found himself in roughly the camp of the Tolerationists.

The ecclesiastical regime put into place by the new republic after 1649 was very close to what Hobbes seems to have wanted on general grounds, and which he may well have enthusiastically preferred to traditional episcopacy.  This is because, like almost all the most interesting 17th-century political theorists (including Grotius and Locke), he seems to have feared the moral and intellectual disciplines of Presbyterian Calvinism far more than anything else. (39)

Hobbes’s primary object in arguing like this was to elevate the power of the sovereign over the churches — bands of fanatics (in his eyes) who wished to enforce absurd opinions upon their fellow citizens, and whose activities were primarily responsible for the civil wars of Europe.  They could only be controlled if the soverign was empowered to determine public doctrine and silence disputes. (85)

Tuck argues that Hobbes’s earliest and most important influence on Hobbes in the area of moral and political philosophy was Hugo Grotius and his book, The Laws of War and Peace.  Tuck describes this influence in these terms:

[Grotius] could play the same role for him as Galileo’s Dialogues did for all members of the Mersenne circle, as a represntation for them of the kind of science which was to be put on their new, post-sceptical foundations. (25)

Tuck summarizes Grotius’s core theory in two fundamental principles: “All men would agree that everyone has a fundamental right to preserve themselves, and wanton or unnecessary injury to another person is unjustifiable” (26).  Tuck finds that these principles have counterparts in Hobbes’s arguments in Leviathan.
So Tuck seems to be putting forward several important strands of interpretation that run against the grain of the customary telling of Hobbes’s philosophy: first, that his philosophy of science and sensation plays a larger role than we might have thought; and second, that his most famous theory, the theory of unlimited sovereignty, has rather specific roots in Hobbes’s immediate intellectual context (Grotius) and political environment (struggles over the extent of religious legislation).  It is not the result of a purely abstract reflection on the situation of rational persons in a state of nature, but rather a complex argument that intertwines with England’s own political tensions in mid-seventeenth century.
Steven Pincus’s 1688: The First Modern Revolution is a nice complement to this line of thought, in that it offers a fundamentally new reading of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89.  Here is how Pincus describes his project:

England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 holds a special place in our understanding of the modern world and the revolutions that had a hand in shaping it. For the better part of three centuries scholars and public intellectuals identified England’s Revolution of 1688-89 as a defining moment in England’s exceptional history. Political philosophers have associated it with the origins of liberalism. Sociologists have contrasted it with the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions.  Historians have pointed to the Revolution as confirming the unusual nature of the English state. Scholars of literature and culture highlight the Revolution of 1688-89 as an important moment in defining English common sense and moderation.  All of these interpretations derive their power from a deeply held and widely repeated narrative of England’s Revolution of 1688-89.  Unfortunately, that narrative is wrong. (Introduction)

(Two articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Hobbes’s philosophy are worth reading (linklink).)

 

Intellectual work

It is interesting to think about the work that intellectuals do. Basically, they take on thought problems — what is justice? How does a market economy work? Why do used cars sell for less than their real value? They gather the theories and hypotheses that they have encountered and studied. They look for a new avenue of approach to the problem. They make use of styles of analysis and reasoning they have acquired during their development and education. And they formulate and develop their own attempts at a solution to a problem.
There are some intellectuals — Descartes, for example — who present themselves as starting de novo; framing a problem in purely abstract, logical terms, and addressing it through first principles alone.  Possibly the philosopher mathematician Gottlob Frege falls in this category as well.  He asked, “What are the foundations of arithmetic?” And he presented a constructive logical account of how the truths of arithmetic can be derived from a small set of axioms.  So these thinkers pretend to a “pure thought” approach to intellectual work.  But in fact, this claim doesn’t hold up even in these cases.  Both Descartes and Frege existed within traditions of thought; the questions they posed had historical roots, and the methods they use were historically conditioned as well.

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.

So, for the individual intellectual, we can ask questions at various points of entry.  First, can we say what some of this thinker’s fundamental cognitive assumptions are.  Can we identify the modes of investigation, analysis, and reasoning that he/she pursued?  Second, can we trace backwards to some of the difference-making influences that shaped the intellectual’s agenda?  What was the tradition of thought into which he/she was introduced through early reading and education?  Who were some of the charismatic individuals who helped this intellectual to establish a perspective and an intellectual framework?  Third, what can we discover internally to the corpus?  Is there a visible evolution of thought over time?  Are there ideas and assumptions that give the corpus coherence from beginning to end?  Can the corpus be reformulated into a consistent and innovative approach to a large set of problems?

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.

%d bloggers like this: