Sartre’s “total intellectual” vs. Bourdieu’s “collective intellectual”, and the philosophers role

Pierre Bourdieu argued that it is overestimated what one lone intellectual can do to improve the society, while it is underestimated what many intellectuals can do together. Bourdieu criticized the Sartrean “total intellectual”, and spoke in favor of a “collective intellectual”, including the cooperation of many.

In similar sense I think that expectations of philosophers to be great polymaths or some “ultimate founding authority” are set too high, but what they actually can do together with others is frequently underestimated. Daniel Little writes “I think philosophers need to interact seriously and extensively with working social scientists and historians if they are going to be able to make a useful contribution”, as opposed (or in addition) to this I present examples of how one can attract and influence others without entering the same field.

The Sartrean “total intellectual” vs the Bourdieuian “collective intellectual”

‘The total intellectual’ and Bourideu’s criticism of it here described by Daniel Franklin Pilario:

A ‘total intellectual’ is one who is capable of transcending social barriers be it in terms of academic disciplines, social locations or political involvements. [—] Sartre’s philosophical works themselves purport a dialectical methodology which, with the same totalizing ambition, endeavors to subsume all rivals under its own system. Referring to Sartre’s Critique de la raison dialectique, Bourdieu states

“every aspect of the work testifies to the will to exercise the philosopher’s traditional claim to be the ultimate founding authority, and to do so unchallenged in every realm of existence and thought. Sartre’s most reliable annexation strategy is to set himself up as a transcendent consciousness, capable of supplying the person or institution to which it addresses itself with a self-truth of which the person or institution has been dispossessed.” (ref)

This can be put in contrast to Bourdieu’s concept of a “collective intellectual”, here described by Mustafa Emirbayer & Erik Schneiderhan:

Bourdieu […] sought to foster the development of what he termed a “collective intellectual”. […]This collectivity would gather together in a single working body a range of thinkers possessed of specific expertise in the given issue of wide concern, an expertise made possible by the autonomous inner development of their respective fields of learning. The collective intellectual would debunk folk assumptions as well as the so-called expert opinions propounded by media intellectuals and “think tanks”; it would also propose constructive and creative solutions to the problems addressed. In so doing, it would contribute to a broader public enlightenment. (ref)

…relating to Jung’s typology

I think the preference of a Bourdieuian “collective intellectual” in front of a Sartrean “total intellectual” can be supported by taking Carl Jung’s typology into consideration. Jung’s typology describes eight different functions, which all are useful and needed, but which cannot all be mastered simultaneously by one single person (see earlier post on Jung’s typology). Equal development in all functions is not a sign of strength, but rather sign of a lack of differentiation. Jung writes “uniform consciousness and unconsciousness of functions is […] a distinguishing mark of a primitive mentality”. When counting in an auxiliary function, as in the MBTI, it leaves us with 16 different personality types, and each with certain unique characteristics. Not one of these types can subsume any of the others.

The philosopher’s role

Daniel Little, philosopher of social science, writes on his blog UnderstandingSociety, “I think philosophers need to interact seriously and extensively with working social scientists and historians if they are going to be able to make a useful contribution” (ref).
I do both sympathize and see problems with this. I sympathize with it in the sense that I find some kind of interaction (or perhaps rather “interinfluence”) desirable, however one problem I see is that it may lead to the conclusion that philosophers should “sacrifice” themselves, and become more like social scientists.

One could say; it is desirable to make a match, but remember there are different ways to make a match. Consider for example these different alternatives:

(1) Stick to yourself, do what you’ve always done, wait until others notices you, and eventually, by some time, you will get the recognition which you “rightfully deserve”. (perhaps prototype of “analytical philosophy”)
(2) Take the initiative yourself by attending others, enter their field, speak with them in their terms etc.
(3) Make yourself attractive to others (i.e. by showing you’ve got something which they themselves lack but desire). (Below I argue why Wittgenstein would fit into this category)

I think that many would only consider something in line with alternative (1) or (2). One may for example conclude that (1) isn’t working; many philosophers have kept doing their thing without impressing anybody much, and thus one has to go for alternative (2) instead. I believe that the quote above by Little is likely to cause such associations.

I try and make a stand for something in line with the third (3) alternative. I want to do it by stressing the importance of different roles. Rather than seek to master everything, like the total intellectual aiming to be ”the ultimate founding authority”, the road to success may be to play a limited role – but do it with great skill.

“There is no more light in a genius than in any other honest man – but he has a particular kind of lens to concentrate this light into a burning point.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

At first, I’d like to consider a couple of examples from literature. Here are some quotes by prominent intellectuals of their time about the novelists Fyodor Dostoevsky and Honoré de Balzac:

Dostoevsky [is] the only psychologist from whom I have anything to learn. – Friedrich Nietzsche
Dostoevsky gives me more than any scientist, more than Gauss. – Albert Einstein
I have learned more [from Balzac] than from all the professed historians, economists and statisticians of the period together – Friedrich Engels

Looking at these quotes one could think that Dostoevsky and Balzac must’ve been excellent polymaths. Apart from being great novelists, they were also great psychologists, scientists, historians, economists etc. But I think the truth is much the opposite. What made Dostoevsky so interesting to Nietzsche and Einstein, wasn’t that Dostoevsky had any great knowledge in either psychology or physics, it was rather that Dostoevsky played the role of an artist very well. And as for Balzac, I’m quite certain he didn’t study economy or statistics extensively, nor found any particular interest in any of these subjects, but his “concentrated light” in a field he mastered helped Engels see clearer in other subjects (this may give us a hint of how things are interconnected on a deeper level).

In conclusion, Dostoevsky and Balzac didn’t attend the physicists, economists etc, as alternative (2) suggests but they were able to make themselves attractive (and useful) to them by doing their own thing very well (as (3) suggests).

Similarly in philosophy, we may consider that some of the most prominent social scientists of the 20th century such as Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu acknowledged intellectual debt to Wittgenstein (ref). For example, here quote by Bourdieu:
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)

But this appreciation was not because Wittgenstein was doing social science himself (which many have mistaken him for, assuming that “the later Wittgenstein” did linguistics, anthropology and similar sciences), rather I would say that it was due to a rare ability to avoid the mindset of a scientist. Wittgenstein noted that philosophers in general are drawn towards science, and he urged that this has to be avoided: “Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer questions in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics and leads the philosopher into complete darkness.”

So, what we have is a match between Wittgenstein and prominent social scientists which is not because Wittgenstein attended the social scientists by entering their field, but rather Wittgenstein attracted them by showing great talent in his own field.

Summing up

[Text may be added later]

Reference and further reading

External links

“Back to the rough Grounds of Praxis – :
Exploring Theological Method With Pierre Bourdieu”
by Daniel Franklin Pilario – This book connects Bourdieu and Wittgenstein in a peculiar way, as the title “back to the rough ground” refers to famous quote by Wittgenstein
“Dewey and Bourdieu on Democracy” by Mustafa Emirbayer & Erik Schneiderhan
“Wittgenstein and social practices” by Nigel Stirk – This article discusses the relationship between Wittgenstein, Bourdieu and Giddens. It highlights some interesting similarities between Wittgenstein and Bourdieu. But the author seems to misunderstand Wittgenstein quite gravely by wrongly assuming that Wittgenstein was an anthropologist.
Did Wittgenstein have a Philosophy of Language? by Robert Wesley Angelo. This article highlights why Wittgenstein didn’t have any “Philosophy of language”, and why he wasn’t doing philology but philosophy. Helps to show Wittgenstein’s specificity as a philosopher.

Internal links

A philosopher’s guide to Pierre Bourdieu
“The Role of Intellectuals in the Modern World” by Pierre Bourdieu (excerpt)
Internet Revolution, attentionalism and slow-thinking, with Alexander Bard and Pierre Bourdieu
Pierre Bourideu, philosophy and empirics
The task of philosophy is to use ”introverted intuition”?


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.
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4 Responses to Sartre’s “total intellectual” vs. Bourdieu’s “collective intellectual”, and the philosophers role

  1. Marcus Todd says:

    Good stuff. I think Dostoevsky has helped so many not because he is a good artist, but because he has a deep grasp of humanity. He seems to infuse the “really human” into his characters (this is a poor description, but it’s the best I’ve got). Now, perhaps this is what the artist just does, but if that’s right, it’s certainly different than what others artists do.

    • Dandre says:

      Thanks Marcus! When I was student of literature I wrote my thesis on Dostoevsky. I think something that makes him special is that he wasn’t so afraid to humiliate himself, dared to speak what others may find too embarrassing to say. Perhaps you’re right he infused the “really human” in his characters. But also, I think there are many other great novelists who also got deep understanding of humans. I wouldn’t want to say Dostoevsky stand above them all, they’re unique in their own way. /David

  2. Yiorgos Anagnostou says:

    A gem, thank you!

    • Dandre says:

      Thanks Yiorgos,
      I remember that when I wrote this I felt very enthusiastic and thought I had a good idea. When I was finished though, I felt unsure of how well I had managed to mediate it. I’m glad to hear you did find some value in the text! /David

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