Pierre Bourdieu, philosophy and empirics

Pierre Bourdieu differs from most philosophers in one sense – he relies heavily on empirical research. Earlier I’ve reviewed essays by Jürgen Habermas (link) and Kai Nielsen (link), that suggested philosophy should be empirical. By referring to Pierre Bourdieu, I want to highlight the risks that philosophers may run into when they decide to go empirical. If one wants to make claims involving facts (for many people this will appear like the only way to make claims), without being involved in any particular empirical context, then one is likely to run into problems – and I believe Bourdieu can help us understand these problems.

Here’s a couple of quotes from Bourdieu’s work Homo Academicus:

Self-centered reading vs. Scientific reading

‘[S]ociological knowledge is always liable to be led back to a superficial perception by the self-centred reading which focuses on anecdotes and individual details and which, if not checked by a formal language, reduces to their ordinary meaning words shared by scholarly and ordinary language. This almost inevitably partial reading generates a false understanding, based on ignorance of everything which defines specifically scientific knowledge as such, that is, the very structure of the explanatory system: it dismantles what scientific construction had created, mingling what had been separated, and in particular confusing constructed individuals (whether a person or an institution), which exist only in the network of relations elaborated by scientific study, with empirical individuals directly accessible to ordinary intuition. It dissolves everything that distinguishes scientific objectification either from ordinary knowledge or from the pseudo-scholarly knowledge which – as is patent in most essays on intellectuals, essays which demystify less than they suffer mystification’

The people in borderland between ordinary knowledge and scholarly knowledge

‘[T]hose who frequent the borderland between scholarly and ordinary knowledge — essayists, journalists, academic journalists and journalistic academics — have a vital stake in blurring the frontier and denying or eliminating what separates scientific analysis from partial objectifications, […] They can if they so desire indulge even here in a reading guided by idle curiosity, interpreting examples and individual cases in a perspective of snobbish gossip or critical infighting, if they wish to reduce the systematic and relational mode of explanation which is characteristic of science to the most ordinary procedure of polemical reduction, to ad hoc explanation using ad hominem arguments.’

(To that group, of people in the borderland, I believe one can also often include academical philosophers – as they are without scientific schooling (in Jungian terms: perhaps they are schooled in introverted aspects of science but not in extraverted aspects), and not involved in any particular empirical contexts** (thus not been able to learn “language-games” or “rules-of-the-field” of any particular science).)

*One case of exception though, academical philosophers are usually involved in one particular empirical context – namely the history of philosophy.


Bourdieu and Wittgenstein

Bourdieu about Wittgenstein:
”Wittgenstein is probably the philosopher who has helped me most at times of difficulty. He’s a kind of saviour for times of great intellectual distress – as when you have to question such evident things as ‘obeying a rule’. Or when you have to describe such simple (and by the same token, practically ineffable) things as putting a practice into practice.” (ref)

Instead of approaching Wittgenstein as a ”theoretican” with certain philosophical ideas to analyze, Bourdieu sees Wittgenstein as a kind of therapeut (helper/”saviour”), who helps you see clear (see the ”simple”/”evident”). I believe this is also the sense in which Wittgenstein is ”supposed” to be read.

Bourdieu hailed the philosophy of Wittgenstein, but yet their approaches were very different. If Bourdieu is described as a hard-core empiricist, Wittgenstein could be described as hard-core anti-empiricist, exclaiming that ”we can also invent fictitious natural history for our purposes”.

Sociology is a martial art

documentary on Pierre Bourdieu, here I link first part:

Reference and further reading

A blog post about Bourdieu and philosophy
@ schizosophy.com
Pierre Bourdieu – Homo Academicus (@ google books)
Pierre Bourdieu – Language and Symbolic Power (@ google books) Description: “This volume brings together Bourdieu’s highly original writings on language and on the relations among language, power, and politics. Bourdieu develops a forceful critique of traditional approaches to language, including the linguistic theories of Saussure and Chomsky and the theory of speech-acts elaborated by Austin and others [including Habermas]. He argues that language should be viewed not only as a means of communication but also as a medium of power through which individuals pursue their own interests and display their practical competence.”
Bourdieu: A Critical Reader (@ google books) Description: “This Critical Reader provides a new perspective on the work of France’s foremost social theorist Pierre Bourdieu, by examining its philosophical import and promoting a fruitful dialogue between Bourdieu and philosophers in the English-speaking world.”

Some nice articles on Pierre Bourdieu
Bourdieu, Critic of Foucault” by Staf Callewaert
“Towards a Sociology of Philosophy” by Henrik Lundberg
An invitation to Reflexive Sociology

Internal links
A philosopher’s guide to Pierre Bourdieu
Sartre’s “total intellectual” vs. Bourdieu’s “collective intellectual”, and the philosophers role


About Dandre

Former student of philosophy, maths and literature. Now studying master program in sociology. Some thinkers of central interest include Ludwig Wittgenstein, C. G. Jung and Pierre Bourdieu.
This entry was posted in Logic and science, Metaphilosophy, Society, critical theory etc and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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