Friday, October 8, 2010

French philosophy?

Is there such a thing as "French philosophy"? Or is philosophy a purely universal discipline, raising the same abstract questions no matter whether the philosopher is Chinese, English, French, or Brazilian? One way to address this question is to consider the collective intellectual practice of "philosophy" from the point of view of sociology -- that is to say, historically and empirically.

Jean-Louis Fabiani's book Qu'est-ce qu'un philosophe français? (which was released in France this week) addresses this question from the point of view of sociology, and it provides a fascinating and innovative approach to the history of philosophy. (Here is a link to Fabiani's academic bio.) Fabiani was a student of Bourdieu, and he approaches philosophy in something like the way that other sociologists have approached the study of science: as a socially situated intellectual activity which is amenable to sociological analysis and explication. The fact that it is intellectual implies that there is an internal logic to the development of the discourse; organized thinking moves it forward. And the fact it is situated implies that philosophy is conditioned and motivated by social circumstances external to the philosophical community.

Fabiani attempts to steer a highly original course between the idea that social context determines the content of a specific philosophical tradition, and the idea that philosophy develops wholly and solely according to its own internal intellectual logic. Crude sociology of knowledge falls in the first camp, and traditional history of philosophy often appears to fall in the second camp. Fabiani takes an approach that allows both for social influence on philosophy as well as critical, rigorous logical analysis and thought wielding its influence.

Here is a description that Fabiani provides of philosophy as an object of sociological study. (The passages quoted here are drawn from a pre-publication translation Fabiani provided in a visit this month to the University of Michigan.)
Philosophy is never limited to a collection of texts, knitted together by the threads of tradition. It also includes material objects, spaces and social practices. It includes all types of reception, including the less orthodox. As with any other type of work, philosophical texts imply different types of appropriation in space and time, and exist only through the successive pacts of reception that constitute them as valued objects in a particular culture.
He asks the questions, what is a sociology of philosophy and why is it needed? And here are some of his answers:
I wish to analyze philosophy just as what we now call science studies have analyzed processes and controversies in the various scientific disciplines. Science studies have questioned the great epistemological divide which reserved the study of contextual elements for sociologists (institutions, organizations, strategies, etc.) and removed the assertions, demonstrations and the quest for evidence from their purview (except if they are crudely determinist and seek to explain concepts entirely by contexts, to put it simply).
What could be interesting about a socio-historical analysis of philosophy? First, we have to suspend our belief -- at least for a while, because it is the habitual battleground of the activity -- in the existence of an abstract and universal frame for the philosophical debates, this the result of a venerable scholarly tradition. The « relocalization » of philosophical interactions is necessary in order to see that philosophical texts are also performances, not only embodiments and products of lifestyles but also their sources.
Studying philosophy by means of sociological methods would appear to be one of the most important challenges for the social sciences today. « The queen of disciplines,» as it is called in France (or the crown--or crowning as I once described it years ago) has long resisted any attempt at objectivation.
Although the most general objection to the ascription of social determinants in the shaping of social thought are now superannuated, the explanatory power of theories applied to the field of intellectual production still remains quite limited. The modes of categorization applied to products and to individual intellectual strategies are too crude and their use too poorly controlled; we no longer take for granted that society as such can be read (at least in a cryptic language) through symbolic production.
So what is in play when we ask whether philosophy (or any other intellectual discipline) is conditioned by its historical and social context?  We might say that a national tradition of philosophy could be characterized according to several different criteria: topics, styles of thought, modes of validation, and lineage of predecessors. For example, British philosophy defined itself in terms of several core ideas -- the role of the senses in the acquisition and validation of knowledge, for example; and Hume, Locke, and Berkeley deployed recognizable forms of argument and styles of reasoning as well.  Hume's treatises look and feel quite a bit different from Descartes' meditations.  Here is a way of conceptualizing the situation of philosophical research and discovery:

The diagram is intended to be a way of visualizing a philosophy research tradition at a moment in time. The unit of production, the philosophy research group, is steeped in a conventional specification of the important topics; it is skilled in a specific set of modes of argument; it holds out a set of exemplary philosophical works from the history of the discipline as currently understood; it operates in a space that may include other research groups pursuing different topics and methods; and it functions within a set of institutions -- graduate programs, journals, tenure processes, associations, prizes -- that train, valorize, and rank various individuals and their products.  Each aspect of these "internal" features is amenable to concrete historical and sociological investigation; we can seek to trace out the institutions, discover the order and rationale of the topics, etc.

 External to these factors are circumstances in history and current social life (World War I, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights movement), and intellectual currents from outside the discipline (Freudianism, for example), that exercise influence on the development of philosophical positions and frameworks. The social context draws attention to (or away from) certain topics; context also sometimes provides institutional constraints that favor or disfavor some positions.  (For example, McCarthyism and the Cold War created constraints and incentives that greatly deformed the course of research in the humanities and the social sciences.)  The intellectual activities of the current research groups lead to a degree of development of the ideas, positions, and schools of philosophy at a given moment in time. So the received setting, external environment, and application of modes of invention and argument drive forward new philosophical content, and the institutions of the profession attach credibility/lack of credibility and prestige/scorn to the results.

The diagram indicates as well several ways in which a philosophical tradition might possess a distinctive, national character. The list of valued topics may differ across national traditions; likewise the styles of reasoning and modes of argument; and different traditions may valorize very different bodies of predecessors as well. So it is fairly evident that Fabiani's question warrants a "yes" -- there are distinguishing characteristics or signatures across traditions of philosophy. And even when the topics and questions appear similar -- the focus on the conditions of knowledge in common between British and French philosophy in the 17th century, for example-- the styles of thinking, modes of reasoning, and examples of good solutions still differ widely.

Should we think of these differences as defining distinct paradigms of philosophy? I'm inclined to use a different term -- perhaps "research tradition" -- to suggest a high degree of variation within a national tradition of philosophy. Like other areas of humanities production, it seems to me that the standards and exemplars that hold together "analytic philosophy" or "hermeneutic philosophy" are much looser and less prescriptive than their counterparts in the natural sciences. So the term "paradigm" does not fit the framing of philosophy in context very well.

Fabiani's work rewards study and bears an interesting relation to other efforts to discover distinctive features of French intellectual life (the distinctiveness of French sociology (link), the development of French anthropology (link)).  Johan Heilbron's work is relevant to these topics as well (The Rise Of The Social Sciences And The Formation Of Modernity). Here is the table of contents of Fabiani's current book:

Première partie
L’institution d’une discipline

Chapitre premier – La philosophie en classe
Chapitre 2 – Carrières et concepts
Chapitre 3 – Les moments et les crises

Deuxième partie
Une philosophie nationale?
Chapitre 4 – Le rempart de la raison
Chapitre 5 – Le spiritualisme français
Chapitre 6 – Transferts conceptuels

Troisième partie
Art, religion, science et philosophie
Chapitre 7 – La religion ddans les limites de la simple raison?
Chapitre 8 – Aux frontiers de la science
Chapitre 9 – Le philosophe artiste et la tentation prophétique

(The photo above is of Alexandre Kojève.  It is relevant to the current topic because of Kojève's complex philosophical heritage -- Russia, Germany, and eventually the leading explicateur of Hegel in post-war France.)

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