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The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change

Randall Collins
Belknap Press: MA
1998
0674816471 (hb)
32.50 (hb)
1098 + xix pp.

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The aim of this doorstop-size book is to give a sociological explanation of the trajectories of philosophical ideas throughout history. This enterprise may at first seem to have affinities with the kind of sociology of knowledge that used to be popular in the 1960s and 70s and which tried to explain the history of ideas in relation to the material conditions of different periods. But potential readers should not be put off; Collins is much more interested in the content of philosophies and his explanations are much more sophisticated than earlier 'reductionist' ones. Just one indication of this is that the material resources of competing philosophical schools are a relatively minor part of his explanation. Another is that his theoretical apparatus includes a 'sociology of thinking': Collins is not just interested in large-scale patterns, but also in how ideas are shaped in the encounters between individual philosophers. This book certainly draws on and contributes to the sociology of knowledge, but Collins' resources include many areas of sociology - above all the sociology of science, the sociology of education and political sociology - and the implications of this pathbreaking book go well beyond sociology and philosophy.

Among the main elements of the 'theory of intellectual change' of the subtitle of the book is the 'law of small numbers' which operates in a 'limited attention space'. This law stipulates that there can never be just one preeminent philosophical position which dominates the attention space - all positions need to define themselves in relation to rivals. On the other hand, there can rarely be more than six positions which are serious contenders, and this is because only a few positions can remain visible as they are carried over generations by means of making alliances. A further element of the theory are thus the intellectual networks, horizontal alliances between schools of thought and vertical ones between teachers and pupils which stretch over generations. The waxing and waning popularity of factions within these networks is only partly explained, according to Collins, by the material conditions of their organizational bases which have traditionally been invoked in the sociology of knowledge. Instead, they are mainly determined by the internal structural conditions of the field: ideas only get to the centre of the attention space by lining themselves up alongside dominant positions and pushing them further - or by opposing dominant positions in opportune conditions.

Philosophers thus form teacher-pupil chains over generations and rise and decline according to their alliances and opportunities in a structural field. An additional aspect of Collins' theory is that philosophical thought is created not, as might be expected, in the arguments in books or in the abstract and disembodied world of the mind. Instead, ideas are created in face-to-face encounters, in the emotional energy that is put into enhancing one's cultural capital in an actual or anticipated encounter of minds with others in the network of teachers and pupils. (An interesting point here for readers of this journal is that Collins argues that print media and more recent electronic technology such as e-mail make no difference to this pattern - face-to-face encounters have been the basic mechanism of intellectual change throughout history and will remain so.) The key to what goes on at the micro-level in these networks are 'interaction rituals', in this case the emotional energy that passes between teachers and pupils as they worship the sacred object of 'truth' and fight over it with rival factions to claim the centre of the attention space.

Collins' theory is above all a theory of intellectual networks, of individuals linked to each other via a chain of interactions. The position of philosophers in the network is all-important: whether one is located as a teacher or pupil at the centre of attention and in an ascending position which rides on a mutually reinforcing spiral of receiving attention and increasing emotional energy, or if one is at the lesser or non-attention receiving end of things, producing scholastic commentaries on the work of others or merely languishing. The winners and losers in this process can only be recognized retrospectively, by examining the long-term or macro-level of historical conflicts between rival schools of thought.

With these theoretical elements in place, Collins sets out, in the two main parts of the book and over 650 or so pages, to chart the 'Asian paths' and the 'Western paths' in a 'comparative history of intellectual communities'. There is no room here to go into the fascinating accounts of the rises, falls and stagnations of the philosophies of China, India, Japan, Islam, Judaism, Christendom, Europe and America. The scholarship on which these accounts are based is awe-inspiring. More amazing still is the way that Collins' sociological theory is so closely yoked to the historical narratives or to the 'data'; this is never just a narrative history. The 'data' are also visually represented in 56 figures which show the network links between all the world's 136 major, 366 secondary and 2152 minor philosophers.

One of the many insights that can be gained from this brilliant comparative history is how often some of the fundamental stances in philosophy which are sometimes regarded as being characteristically 'modern' or 'Western' - the cogito, for example, or skepticism - have arisen on a number of occasions in different times and places as a product of intellectual rivalries. Skepticism (Collins also refers to it as 'a plague on all your houses') is a revealing case which pops up on a number of occasions in the history of philosophy. This position, as Collins 'network' approach makes clear, is parasitical; it cannot arise except in relation to the possibilities of opposing other, more full-bodied doctrines.

But what will be of interest to most potential readers of this book is the payoff: what light does Collins' theory shed on contemporary philosophy and its future? On this point, it is necessary to delve briefly into the relationship between philosophy and science. Collins argues that policing the border between the two has been one of the main sources of creativity in philosophy since Bacon and Descartes, and therefore also explains the subsequent dominance of European and American philosophy. The distinctiveness of 'modern' philosophy and the relationship between philosophy and science are linked, according to Collins. Science has become 'rapid-discovery science', generating cumulative knowledge since the scientific revolution not because of an 'Enlightenment' or 'rationalistic' world-view, but because research technologies, intertwined with small groups of scientists on the research front, have been able to uncover new entities, close disputes behind them with a consensus, and move quickly onto the discovery of new entities from one field to the next. One of the main tasks of 'modern' philosophy has thus been to comment on the status of these new entities and on their place in the new natural and social science disciplines that have arisen around them. Hence philosophy is not 'modern' because of its content, but because of creative tensions with science and mathematics. The most innovative and distinctive task of 'modern' philosophy has been to seek the foundations of scientific knowledge and to demarcate and identify the relations between different disciplines and types of knowledge.

Collins opens the way here for a fundamental rethinking of modern philosophy; one which is culturally no longer Western- or modern-centric, but which nevertheless duly recognizes that modern thought - scientific and philosophical - has uniquely transformed the world with the aid of technologies and techniques. But science, too, for Collins, is not abstract or disembodied - a Platonic realm of eternal truths. The main driving force in relation to philosophy, for example, has been mathematics, which Collins interprets as a set of techniques for manipulating symbols. And scientific advance rests (here Collins follows Derek de Solla Price) on technology, on instruments for measurement and experimentation. The tensions between the scientific and mathematical realm and the realm of philosophy can therefore be seen in terms of rival networks rather than a rivalry of two cultures. And again, the main creativity of 'modern' philosophy resides not in its content, but in explaining the possibility of knowledge in different scientific domains and adjudicating between them. 'Modern' philosophy is distinctive because it has had different tasks from the Asian and pre-modern Western paths, and not because of a uniquely Western tradition of thought.

This brings us back to the contemporary situation in philosophy. There are two sides to this for Collins: one is extreme specialization, leading to a loss of focus - no more central issues dominate the discussion. The loss of focus is also a product of the explosion of output with the post-war growth of the university system. This growth and the loss of a centre in the 'attention space' has led to self-referential skepticism. Collins, from his Olympian world-historical heights, compares the present-day situation to the 'scholastic' stagnation during the later Middle Ages. The other side is that, looking back, the most valuable contribution of modern philosophy has not been in its own technical refinement, but in adjudicating the boundary conflicts and critically assessing the knowledge claims in other disciplines or domains. But with the proliferation of specialisms, the creative tension in the arena where philosophy and science/mathematics overlapped has dissipated. The post-war period has therefore been relatively unproductive, despite massive growth, compared with earlier periods when there was more focus and conflict in the attention space. This is Collins' view of the horizon, which surely holds some valuable lessons not only for the future of philosophy, but for sociology as well.

Ralph Schroeder
Chalmers University, Sweden

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