Randall Collins. The Sociology of Philosophies. A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998, 1098 pp.$US 49.95 Cloth.

For all the prominence he has attained in sociology over the last two decades, Randall Collins remains a curiously underestimated thinker. True, his work on credentialism is greatly admired by students of social stratification. Equally, all teachers of sociological theory have come across his many introductory and (in the case of Theoretical Sociology, 1988) advanced textbooks on the subject. Yet the impression lingers more generally that while Collins is an industrious writer he is not one of the highest rank. Many reasons can be adduced for this unfortunate state of affairs, but the most likely one is this: Collins’s oeuvre is associated with a particular tradition, “conflict theory,” that is considered to be hopelessly passé. Couple that with his penchant for hiding powerful creativity under bland and misleading book titles - Collins’s Weberian Sociological Theory (1986) contained a strikingly prescient dissection of how the Soviet Union would unravel - and you have the paradox I mentioned earlier: salient name-recognition coexisting with a sort of collective depreciation.

Collins’s remarkable new book is going to reaffirm his standing as an unfashionable thinker. After all, what could be more offensive to the postmodernist Zeitgeist than his contention that “Sociological analysis is our x-ray vision, allowing us to see the combinations which make up the specific configurations of history as the arrangement of universal ingredients” (381)? It is to be hoped, however, that colleagues who thought they “knew” Collins now actually read his current work. For The Sociology of Philosophies is not only a massive book, in both size and scope, straddling more than two and a half thousand years of history; it is also a prodigiously controlled and learned one. No sociologist who is seriously concerned with understanding intellectual life can afford to ignore it.

The Sociology of Philosophies is a comparative study of “the principles that determine intellectual networks” (xviii) in general, and of philosophy (“the oldest and most central intellectual community,” 789) in particular. These principles, to whose description I will presently turn, are universal in scope; Collins examines their manifestation in both Asian and Western civilizations (Ancient Chinese, Indian and Japanese intellectual communities are juxtaposed to those of Ancient Greece, the Islamic and Judaic worlds, medieval Christendom and modern Europe). And it is these intellectual networks, or “coalitions of the mind,” that are the collective loci and agents of change; understand how they work and you have the key to explaining such otherwise mysterious attributes as creativity, reputation, influence, greatness and even thought itself. In turn the animating force of intellectual life is conflict: conflicts of positions (“the history of philosophy is the history not so much of problems solved as of the discovery of exploitable lines of opposition” 6), conflicts over intellectual resources, and conflict for control of the “attention space” within which ideas are articulated and become socially persuasive. Like the wider society to which they belong, intellectuals depend on interaction rituals to imbue their symbols and codes with sacred status. Equally, intellectual interaction rituals are rooted in the local situation of everyday life. This is where all explanations of social activity must start. For the

“macro-level of society should be conceived not as a vertical layer above the micro, as if it were in a different place, but as the unfurling of the scroll of micro-situations. Micro-situations are embedded in macro-patterns, which are just the ways that situations are linked to one another; causality - agency, if you like - flows inwards as well as outward. What happens here and now depends on what has happened there and then. We can understand macro-patterns, without reifying them as if they were self-subsisting objects, by seeing the macro as the dynamics of networks, the meshing of chains of local encounters that I call interaction ritual chains” (21).

The specificity of intellectual interaction chains lies in the peculiar sacred object which is contested - textually based claims to “truth” (struggled over equally by those who scoff at it) - and in the cultural capital, emotional energy and opportunity structure that typify these chains. During times of intellectual stasis, cultural capital is monopolized by those museum keepers of the mind who gaze transfixed on the great achievements of the past. In a period of innovation, cultural capital is accumulated to the degree that its owners can stake-out a territory fertile of new puzzles and conundrums; the more taxing the problems, the more likely that they will attract interest, and that the person behind their enunciation will become emblematic of a durable school or tradition. “Mere” solutions, by contrast, will impede long-term recognition for the simple reason that they offer no challenges for contemporaries to chew on and successors to ponder. Great doctrines must have great imperfections it they are to continue to generate excitement (32). And those who are most theoretically creative in developing these doctrines will typically be individuals with exceptional amounts of drive, stamina and independence of mind. Such attributes of emotional energy (EE) are in part reducible to individual character formation; but they also ebb and flow in intensity to the degree that their bearers are at the center of the cultural fray. Those who possess EE are likely to cultivate more of it in a value-added spiral as their careers’ progress; however, EE may also dissipate when a thinker overreaches himself or when the stakes of the debate in which he has been focally implicated change. Moreover, while cultural capital (CC) and EE typically feed off and reinforce each other, they are best thought of as independent variables. Hence someone with a great deal of EE, but without the cultural capital to exploit it, is likely to become frustrated and disappointed; as a result, native ambition and enthusiasm may simply drain away.

Similarly, neither CC nor EE will flourish without an appropriate opportunity structure to nurture them. As with all social structures, the opportunity structure of intellectual networks is internally stratified, but it is so in a distinctive way. The key media of intellectual exchange are lectures, texts, debates and discussions. Intellectual activity is oriented toward the appropriation of past accomplishments, the setting of new agendas, and the projection of “influence” into the future.

“It is a deep-seated part of intellectual structures that questions are asked, debates take place; polemics and denunciations also often occur, in a circulating structure that resembles equally the kula ring, the potlatch, and the vendetta. Even when intellectuals sit silently in the audience, they are conscious of their own part as members of this ongoing community. Their own ideas have been formed by the chain from the past; the situation before them is merely one more link in that formation” (28).

Yet intellectuals, directly or vicariously, face a key constraint: the boundedness of their audience’s “attention space.” Collins’s investigations indicate that the “structure of intellectual life is governed by a principle: the number of active schools of thought which reproduce themselves for more than one or two generations in an argumentative community is in the order of three to six” (81). Conflict dynamics define both the lower and upper limits of this “law of the small numbers.” The lower limit is set because arguments by definition require opposition, and the existence of polarized groups typically invites the intervention of a third mediating position (or one that invokes a plague on both houses). The upper limit is a function of how much conflict can actually be assimilated within a particular cultural arena; empirically, it is very rare that more than six groups can coexist. Overcrowding of the attention space rarely lasts for long. Creativity is intensified when groups put a premium on their distinctiveness - polemical “fractionalizers” like Heraclitus and Parmenides, Mo Ti and Chuang Tzu, are archetypes of this tendency - or when, (as “synthesizers” in the style of Aristotle or Chu Hsi) they absorb their rivals through accommodation or amalgamation. (133) (Syncretism, a milder form of synthesis, is also an oft-exercised historical possibility.) In any event, the most creative periods are those when the friction between rival positions is most intense. “Strong positions subdivide, weak positions combine: this is the inner dynamic of intellectual politics” (116).

How are ideas affected by exogenous factors? Collins’s “materialist constructivism” (537-8) offers a causal but not, he avers, an economically or politically reductive analysis of intellectual dynamics. Certainly, culture is not autonomous (nothing is), truth “arises in social networks” (877) as distinct from disembodied human minds, and ideas emerge from group activity rather than monadic individuals. For all that, intellectual networks have their own distinctive properties - rivalry for the attention space etc. - that cannot be read off economic and political macro structures. These structures “do not explain much about abstract ideas, because such ideas exist only where there is a network of intellectuals focused on their own arguments . . . It is the inner structure of these intellectual networks which shapes ideas” ( 2; 82). Where external causality is operative, we should think of it proceeding in two steps. “First, political and economic changes bring ascendancy or decline of the material institutions which support intellectuals; religions, monasteries, schools, publishing markets rise and fall with these external forces. [Second], Intellectuals then readjust to fill the space available to them under the law of small numbers. Expanding positions split into rival philosophies because they have more slots in the attention space. On the losing side, weakening schools amalgamate into defensive alliances, even among former enemies” (380).

Collins’s sociological criterion of intellectual “greatness” and “creativity” turns on the extent to which a thinker’s ideas are carried across generations. Philosophers are ranked “according to how many pages of discussion they receive in various histories of philosophy” (58; 951 n. 5). Employing such composite ratings, it is sobering to note that the number of major philosophers of world history is only around 135; about 500 if we include the minor figures; approximately 2,700 if we add still less elevated persons to the network, and this of a global population between 600 B.C.E. and 1900 C.E. of some 23 billion people (76). For the law of small numbers is unrelenting. “The attention space is limited; once a few arguments have partitioned the crowds, attention is withdrawn from those who would start yet another knot of argument. Much of the pathos of intellectual life is in the timing of when one advances one’s own argument” (38; on the importance of being first in a field, see also 75, 627). In philosophy, a period of innovation is most evident when abstraction and reflexivity are proceeding apace (787ff.), though even the eclipse of a position can produce a last star burst of imaginative endeavor, as the third century C.E. “pagan” doctrine of Plotinus brilliantly attests (125-6). Eras of stagnation, by contrast, are characterized by three kinds of condition: depletion of cultural capital through social amnesia (e.g., the loss of Stoic logic in late antiquity); dominance of the classics, not as a mode of reinterpretation and creative misreading, but as dogmatic oracular pronouncement (e.g., the three hundred year reign of Ch’eng-Chu Neo Confucianism); technical refinement - as in the late medieval logic chopping and analytical acrobatics that followed the magisterial achievements of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus (pp. 502-4). Stagnation is caused by many factors, ranging from upheavals in, and especially dispersals of, the intellectual community due to war or other crises which, by reducing its critical mass, denude cultural capital and emotional energy; to the imposition of a rigid state orthodoxy centered on a single school (507); to the scholasticism that accompanies academic routinization and formalization, slackening the tensile strength of opposing positions (520-1).

Can any thought-form escape the law of the small numbers? From ancient times till the 1500s C.E., the activity of “natural science” had operated on broadly the same lines as philosophy, prone to periods of fractionalizing and synthesizing. “Science” and “Philosophy” were not clearly delineated areas; by the same token, research in anatomy, astronomy, medicine and so on followed the law of the small numbers. But traditional natural science was transformed by the inauguration around 1600 of Western “rapid-discovery science.” While rivalry, controversy and the law of the small numbers continue as before during the ongoing phase of “science-in-the-making,” the rapidity of the research front makes it argumentatively and professionally unproductive to remain stymied in old quarrels. Scientists are eager to remain on the cutting edge of research, rather than defenders of antiquated positions. As a result, a consensus coagulates around past achievements, and the real battles are saved for the drive to create reputations in new areas or sub-fields (534-5). Rapid-discovery science arose not because of the discovery of organized empiricism, for traditional science, throughout the world, also produced observational knowledge. Instead it emerged from a transfiguration of the older philosophical networks into ones which put a premium on crossbreeding laboratory technologies (these develop their own machine-to-machine lineages), and on methods that maximize the repeatability and standardization of scientific experiments, and that increasingly rely on mathematical modes of calculation and notation. (Logarithms are a product of the early 1600s; the = sign, used for the first time in Recorde’s book on commercial arithmetic, of the mid 1500s (540, 994, n. 13).

Such is the basic synchronic logic of Collins’s theory of global intellectual networks. The narrative is far harder to summarize because of the wealth of comparative material that Collins draws on, but two important theoretical points are worth emphasizing. The first is Collins’s contention that decimal units of time, such as the decade or the century, are of no real historical value in understanding the flow of intellectual networks. Far more appropriate is a span of roughly thirty-three years, a generation, both because this is the natural period of authorial productivity and of the cohort to which it typically belongs. On such a reckoning, we are living only “five generations after Hegel” and ten after Descartes (xix). Second, Collins explains that it is of the very essence of intellectual networks to be centered on “chains of personal contacts, passing emotional energy and cultural capital from generation to generation” (379; 68-74). These chains are both vertical and horizontal. The vertical ones comprise those of masters and pupils in which the latter emulate the symbol of intellectual heroism while, through “creative departures,” challenging “the content of the master’s ideas” (36, a statement redolent of Collins’s own relationship to Talcott Parsons). Horizontal chains are those between contemporaries and peers. Face to face contact with leaders, competitors and opponents charge up emotional energy and stimulate creativity (68-74). And even when actual co-presence is lacking, intellectuals are people who recurrently enact “interaction rituals in their head” (52), conjuring up figures they admire, audiences they wish to impress, opponents they detest and seek to rebut. Equally, the “most notable philosophers are not organizational isolates but members of chains of teachers and students who are themselves known philosophers and/or of circles of significant contemporary intellectuals” (65). Posthumous fame is very rarely awarded to the sequestered thinker. Those who had to wait for two or more generations to achieve greatness were almost invariably part of a major intellectual school during their own life time, were copious publishers, and were capable of being transported by the network of which they were a nodal point. Creativity - the transformation, recombination or negation of ideas - is prompted by rivalry but mediated through various “circles,” the number of which turns out to be remarkably small: some 15 of them have dominated European philosophical thought in the eleven generations from 1600 to 1965 (531). Typically, such circles are characterized by an organizational leader who arranges the group’s material resources, and an intellectual leader who is the legendary symbol of its doctrine: respectively, for example, Mersenne and Descartes, Fichte and Kant, Bauer and Marx. Occasionally, however, organizational and intellectual roles are combined in one person, as they were in the case of Goethe (626-7) and, one might add, in that of Durkheim.


Like all major works in historical sociology, The Sociology of Philosophies invites us not only to consider the past but also to reflect on our current predicaments. True, the chronology breaks off at around 1935; Collins insists that the significance of our own generation, and the one directly before it, is something that can only be judged from the perspective of future alignments and appropriations (620). Still, he is painfully aware of the particular “structural crunches” that fin de siècle intellectuals face in a period of cultural production that generates annually more than a million publications in the natural sciences, and about a tenth of that in both the social sciences and humanities (521). We moderns are not only drowning in texts; we are also witnessing an explosion of credentials. “As each level of education becomes saturated and deflated in value, superordinate markets of cultural credentials are added beyond them” in a self-reinforcing spiral (522). Worse, modern intellectual culture appears, on Collins’s account, to be suffering three kinds of stagnation simultaneously: a loss of nerve and ability to build on past achievements; a growth in curator scholarship “in which doing intellectual history becomes superior to creating it”; and a consolidation of insider vocabularies and esoterica, impenetrable to all but the cognoscenti. More important than bemoaning this situation is understanding it. And this in turn requires us to consider the exponential expansion of higher education since the early 1950s, the credential inflation that has been its progeny, and the enormous strain put on the attention space by the proliferation of schools and sub-schools. Chronic disagreement is not the source of our ills; on the contrary, creativity demands it. Our current malaise is rather due to the absence of “a nexus where disagreements are held in tension, the limited attention space which historically has been the generator of creative fame” (522; 782-784). The erosion of “a center of intersecting conflicts,” of “the small circle of circles at which our arguments can be focused” explains the prevailing mood of postmodern ironism, “an ideology of cultural producers in a highly pyramided market structure, where nothing in sight seems to touch solid earth” (522).

Despite this, Collins believes that philosophy has a robust future. Its subject matter, after all, is “deep troubles” (878) and these will remain as long as human beings inhabit the earth. But what about sociology? Collins says very little about it; his topic is philosophy, not the discipline that provides him with his toolkit. But broadly he understands sociology to occupy an intermediate region between philosophy on the one hand and rapid-discovery science on the other; sociology shares a concern with “deep troubles” while devoting itself to “investigations of empirical topics . . . on moderate levels of abstraction” (878). Similarly, sociology resembles philosophy in its organization, fractionalized under the law of small numbers, yet, like the natural sciences, it is capable of some cumulation (876). Collins himself is by temperament a synthesizer rather than a fractionalizer, confident in sociology’s ability to advance, irritated by doomsayers, and committed to the symbiotic interplay of theory and empirical research. As he puts it elsewhere, “For all its conflicts and divisions (and often because of them) [sociology] has been a creative community. We are part of that community right now. Theory is our collective memory, the brain center in which we store the basic elements of what we have learned and the strategies we have available to carry us into the future” (Theoretical Sociology [1988], 8).

Moreover, the “collective memory” we possess is not arbitrary. It is sociologically meaningless, Collins argues, to invoke “a reservoir of ‘deserving’ but unknown thinkers in the shadows throughout history, just as ‘creative’ as the ones whose names were trumpeted, as if there was some trans-historical realm in which their achievement is measured. Ideas are creative because they hold the interest of other people” (58). Nor can one say that the relative absence of women in philosophy has produced a monolithic male standpoint, for in fact there is no such thing. “The basic structure of intellectual life is division among rival viewpoints. Maleness does not predict who will be an idealist or a materialist, rationalist or mystic, or any of the other lines of demarcation which have existed within philosophy” (77). Conversely, we might add, femaleness does not determine under the more favorable opportunity structure of today who will be a standpoint theorist, a post-structuralist, a critical realist; or, in political terms, who will be a libertarian, a supporter of censorship, an enthusiast of the “therapeutic state” or a vilifier of it. (Equally, being a female philosopher fails automatically to translate into a feminist perspective, as the work of Hannah Arendt and Judith Shklar indicate.)
For Collins, greatness and reputation are essentially descriptions of the success of a person’s ideas in being culturally transmitted across generations, and this is by no means a smooth process (89). Spinoza’s elevation to the philosophical pantheon came a hundred years after his death, while Aristotle had to wait until medieval Islam and Christendom to emerge from the shadows of Platonism to become a “master in his own right” (61, 59). All other measures of greatness based upon appeals to “intrinsic worth” are usually circular, betraying only the preferences of the appellants. Are the ideas of a putative “great” still being widely discussed and appropriated two generations after his or her death? That is the acid test and even then it is no guarantee that the person’s reputation will survive indefinitely. Consider the sociological “canon.” Today, most social scientists would accept that the classic sociologists of the first two decades of the twentieth century are Durkheim, Weber and Simmel but this appraisal was by no means evident until the 1950s (61). Nor is it necessarily secure because intellectual life is characterized by “goal displacement” as questions previously deemed seminal are shifted to the periphery by new alignments of problems, positions and schools. The result is war between conservatives and radicals who condemn each other for myopia or worse. Ironically, neither side ever gets what it wants, for goal-displacement is in principle unending; hence, “subsequent intellectual history is always a matter of rude surprises” (789). It follows that, strictly speaking, there are no real “founders” of discourse establishing first principles from which subsequent thought emanates (525, 532). On the contrary, thought is always in media res: always, that is, in the middle of things like “time, space, discourse, other people” (860). Though canons are subject to change, self-conscious attempts to enlarge them for egalitarian reasons are likely to languish longer term since contemporaries do not decide canonicity.

A sociological interpretation is only as powerful and illuminating as the categories it employs; Collins’s derive from a mélange of theories of conflict, of interaction ritual, of exchange and of social networks. This explains both the strengths and the weaknesses of the book under review. The strengths - rigor, range, the ability to derive sociological patterns from an enormous and varied literature, absence of polemic - should be apparent in the description I have provided. But his categories runs out of steam when they are turned on the social psychology of intellectuals. This is not a trivial point because Collins’s concern “is not with ‘non-intellectual motives’ but to show what intellectual motives are” (7). As he remarks, “there is a social construction of eminence which does justice to the inner processes of intellectual life” (xviii). Perhaps there is, but Collins has failed to provide it.

Intellectuals, in Collins’s portrait, are essentially attention seekers faced with the constraints of a finite attention space; their goal is to prevail in the battle of ideas which requires access to and, if possible, a predominance over intellectual networks. The “feeling of exultation” accompanying bursts of emotional energy arises from the sensation of “ideas that feel successful” (52), and it is “the ideas which have mattered historically” (3) that Collins wishes to explain. “My sociological criterion for creativity is the distance across generations that ideas are transmitted” (58). Furthermore, “creativity comes to those individuals optimally positioned to take advantage” of “market opportunities” (51). But what, then, has happened to the “inner processes of intellectual life” now that creativity has been subsumed under attention seeking, the emulation of heroes, and the brute realities of success and reputation (69)? Surely, no one will sensibly deny that these motives and features are a major part of the intellectual habitus. Yet something vital is missing. Let us return to Collins’s expressed claim “to show what intellectual motives are.” Did Boris Pasternak write Dr. Zhivago to seek access to the “attention space?” Obviously, there would have been no point in writing the book without the hope that it would one day be read. But why did Pasternak hope for that eventuality? Because he wanted, in a highly unfavorable and dangerous environment, to defend the values of individuality and plurality against those who sought so violently to destroy them. Or, if Pasternak’s work is too recent for us to accord it greatness in sociological terms, did Machiavelli write The Discourses, an act of sociological creativity par excellence, to become famous? No, he wrote it because of his desperation at the plight of Renaissance Italy, an emotion that is consistent with him wishing his ideas to become known and celebrated. The individuals and works could easily be multiplied. To survive as part of the conversation of humanity, a text must reach the attention-space; all writers want recognition and this is one of their chief motives for writing. But the motives of intellectuals are complex, and success, or the expectation of it, is not their only sine qua non. Nor is the source of intellectual “exultation” reducible to “ideas that feel successful.” The sense that ideas are apposite or beautiful is also a powerful source of exhilaration.

Consider the reflections of one writer who is well into the second generation of his eminence, and who understood clearly the need of intellectuals to attract attention. In “Why I Write,” George Orwell observed:

Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don’t want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality” (in The Decline of the English Murder, Penguin: 1965, pp. 180-8).

Now consider, in contrast, what Collins has to say about mental processes. Creativity, he says, “is forced by changes in the structure of intellectual communities, like fluid squeezed through the spaces as blocs shift their alignment” (131). “A writing style is the precipitate of a particular kind of emotional energy flow. A crabbed and involuted style, full of false starts and shaky transitions, come form a weak and hesitant EE flow” (948, n. 6). “Camus’s split with Sartre came ostensibly on political grounds” but the break “between the two stars of the existentialist movement was fated by the dynamics of creative energy in a necessarily enclosed space” (781-2). I do not want to caricature Collins’s argument. He is right to be wary of appeals to intrinsic worth; and he is probably correct to reserve judgements of “greatness” to works that stand the test of time. But his metaphors betray a highly mechanistic view of the life of the mind. In short, Collins cannot have it both ways. Either he really is interested in intellectual motives, in which case their range and complexity must be taken into account as contributory factors to what they help create: the work. Or, motives are to be circumscribed to those consistent with success and fame in which case creativity has simply been elided with reputation (61).

What is also attenuated in Collins’s analysis is any real regard for the power of texts, which appear to be important only as the conduit, tokens, boundary markers and battle-flags (23) of groups jockeying for position. True, Collins examines at length the relationship between texts and the groups of individuals who produce them. He is also able to distinguish minor figures from those of the upper rank by the former’s lack of “originality and depth” (62), and to measure degrees of “originality and depth” by the levels of reflexivity and abstractness they promote. But we still need to know more about why some texts, rather than others, are particularly attractive to later generations. One conjecture is this: for texts to become classic they must be textually supple, i.e., allow multiple readings and adoptions, and able to assume significance in markedly different situations (e.g., Marx is appropriated as a theorist of “modernity” and not simply of “capitalism”; Confucius, the object of widespread denigration in the PRC since 1949, is exhumed to defend “Asian Values” and promote “spiritual civilization.”) And the textual suppleness of an authorial corpus will in turn depend on a number of factors residing in the work itself: the author’s sense of play, paradox and ambiguity, the stages through which his or her work has passed, the rhetorical figures that are employed - and the range, scope and sheer bulk of their achievement. Such mass can be important for the simple reason that it allows a reading community many interpretive options to play with. The more bulky and messy the legacy, the greater possibilities there are for different readers to make different connections with its constituent parts (see Peter Baehr and Mike O’Brien, "Founders, Classics and the concept of a Canon," in Current Sociology 42:1, Spring 1994).

Long as this review has been, it is still only an abridged account and assessment of a book that sets new standards for understanding the intellectual world. In the preface to the first edition of Capital, Marx wrote that “We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead. Le mort saisit le vif.” But most of all, of course, intellectuals suffer from lack of understanding and perspective. In seeking to provide us with both, Randall Collins has rendered a service to sociology second to none. If our colleagues are still free to see him as industrious, they should not now overlook the originality of his achievement.

Peter Baehr,
Department of Sociology
Memorial University of Newfoundland,

May 1999
© CJS Online

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