A philosopher’s guide to Pierre Bourdieu

Some would perhaps call Pierre Bourdieu more of an anti-philosopher than a philosopher. I want to claim that Bourdieu was a philosopher, and stress Bourdieu’s role within philosophy. It is true that Bourdieu strongly criticized academic philosophy, but Bourdieu also associated himself with and found inspiration from canonized philosophers of both older and newer times, such as Pascal, Leibniz, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Foucault. And as pointed out by Staf Callewaert, “Bourdieu insists he has nothing against philosophy as a discipline”. I think, that instead of being regarded as an outsider and enemy of philosophy, Bourdieu could be regarded as an insider, as a bridge-builder between different branches of philosophy, and as someone who can help bring philosophy to a better reputation.

Selected quotes and commentary of Pierre Bourdieu

Bourdieu and (academical) philosophy
Bourdieu on language
Bourdieu on self-reflexivity
Bourdieu on contextual orientation
Presentation of some of Bourdieu’s key concepts

References and further reading

Bourdieu and (academical) philosophy

Philosophers ask the hardest questions there is to ask but…

“Bourdieu says that philosophers ask the hardest questions there is to ask about the social world but if you want to start thinking seriously about the questions the philosophers ask you should do social science. That philosophers are not good really at dealing with the questions that they ask because they don’t engage in empirical research.” – Ghassan Hage lecture on Pierre Bourdieu (ref)

(I think this quote mainly concerns the problems of “practical philosophy”)

The philosophers’ illusio

“Every participant who wants to succeed within the field of philosophy must be prepared to engage or invest in the game in some way. Illusio is Bourdieu’s term for the tendency of participants to engage in the game and believe in its significance, that is, believe in that the benefits promised by the field are desirable. […] Whatever the combatants on the ground may battle over, no one questions whether the battles in question are meaningful. The considerable investments in the game guarantee its continued existence. Illusio is thus never questioned.” – Henrik Lundberg & Göran Heidegren (ref)

The problem of questioning philosophy without questioning the philosophical institution

“Every attempt to bring philosophy into question which is not bound up with a questioning of the philosophical institution itself still plays the institution’s game by merely playing with fire, by rubbing up against the limits of the sacred circle, while still carefully refraining from moving outside it.” – Pierre Bourdieu (ref)

Nothing against philosophy as a discipline

“[Bourdieu] insists that he has nothing against philosophy as a discipline. He notices that he has tried to contribute to a ‘sociology of philosophy’ in order to liberate the discipline from the constraints imposed by a ‘philosophy of philosophy’ that only reproduces the dominant philosophical doxa.” – Staf Callewaert (ref)

(Bourdieu surely was very critic of academical philosophy, but it seems to me this easily gets misunderstood and exaggerated. I’d argue he wasn’t all that dismissive about it. For example in this post I point out his deep respect for Wittgenstein, one of the front figures within academical philosophy)

Back to top

Bourdieu on language

Developing central line of inquiry projected by Austin and Wittgenstein

“Bourdieu develops the central line of inquiry projected by Austin and Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language … [but] Bourdieu goes much further than either Austin or Wittgenstein in providing the theoretical tools and empirical methods for a systematic analysis of the social forces, structures, and contexts that actually shape linguistic meaning” – Richard Shusterman, Bourdieu A Critical Reader (ref)

Criticizing Austin and Habermas for their use of ‘illocutionary force’

“concepts such as `illocutionary force’, […] tends to locate the power of words in words themselves rather than in the institutional conditions of their use” – Bourdieu (ref)

“The limits (and the interest) of Austin’s attempt to define performative utterances lie in the fact that he does not exactly do what he thinks he is doing, and this prevents him from following it through to the end. Believing that he was contributing to the philosophy of language, he was in fact working out a theory of a particular class of symbolic expressions, of which the discourse of authority is only the paradigmatic form” – Bourdieu (ref)

The evolution of a legitimate language

“the legitimate language is the result of a complex historical process, sometimes involving extensive conflicts (especially in colonial contexts) between a particular language, which emerges as the dominant one, and other languages or dialects, which are eliminated or subordinated to it.” (ref)

Question of “practical competence” more central than question of “grammatical competence”

“Lack of competence of the legitimate language entails exclusion from the mainstream society or silence. By lack of competence Bourdieu means not so much lack of linguistic or grammatical competence as lack of ‘practical competence’.
This is not the Chomskyan competence, that is the capacity to generate an unlimited sequence of grammatically well formed sentences, but rather a capacity to produce expressions which are appropriate for particular situations, that is, a capacity to produce expressions à propos. This is the capacity to make oneself heard, believed, obeyed, and so on. It is the recognition of the right and authority to speak.” – (ref)

Back to top

Bourdieu and self-reflexivity

“If there is a single feature that makes Bourdieu stand out in the landscape of contemporary social theory, it is his signature obsession with reflexivity.” – Loic Wacquant

To turn one’s weapons against oneself

“…as I wrote on skholé and all these other things, I could not fail to feel the ricochet of my own words. I had never before felt with such intensity the strangeness of my project, a kind of negative philosophy that was liable to appear self-destructive.” – Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations

To humble oneself and take interest in the ordinary, Bourdieu more of a Pascalian than affiliated with Marx

“For a long time I had adopted the habit, when asked the (generally ill-intentioned) question of my relations with Marx, of replying that, all in all, if I really had to affiliate myself, I would say I was more of a Pascalian. I was thinking in particular of everything that concerns symbolic power, the aspect through which the affinity appears most clearly, and other, less often observed, facets of his work, such as the refusal of the ambition of foundation. But, above all, I had always been grateful to Pascal, as I understood him, for his concern, devoid of all populist naivety, for ‘ordinary people’ and the ‘sound opinions of the people’; and also for his determination, inseparable from that concern, always to seek the ‘reason of effects’, the raison d’étre of the seemingly most illogical or derisory human behaviours — such as ‘spending a whole day in chasing a hare’ — rather than condemning or mocking them, like the ‘half-learned’ who are always ready to ‘play the philosopher’ and to seek to astonish with their uncommon astonishments at the futility of common-sense opinions.” – Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations

Back to top

Bourdieu on Contextual Orientation

The importance of contextual orientation

(If you read English translations of Bourdieu’s books, you will often find a preface by Bourdieu especially dedicated for the translated version where he discusses the problems of moving texts from one context to another – I think this can be seen as an indicator of how important contextual orientation is for Bourdieu)

“Many misunderstandings in international communication are a result of the fact that texts do not bring their context with them” – Bourdieu, The international circulation of ideas in Bourdieu : Critical reader (all of this essay deals with the question of contextual orientation)

“In the international (and also the intergenerational) circulation of ideas […] texts are transmitted without the context of their production and use, and count on receiving a so-called ‘internal’ reading which universalizes and eternalizes them while derealizing them by constantly relating them to the sole context of their reception.” – Bourdieu, Homo Academicus

The advantage and the disadvantage of the outsider

“It is understandable that a book aiming to account for this sort of initiatory itinerary orientated towards that reappropriation of the self which, paradoxically, is only accessible through objectification of the familiar world, is bound to be read differently by readers who are part of this world as opposed to those who are outsiders. […] It could be supposed that, contrary to the native reader who understands only too well in one sense, but who may be inclined to resist objectification, the foreign reader, because (at least at first sight) he has no direct stake in the game which is described, will be less inclined to offer resistance to the analysis. All the more so since, as it happens in the theater that one may laugh unwittingly at the portrait of one’s own foibles, the foreign reader can always elude the challenges implicit in situations or relations which he does find familiar, by isolating only the most blatantly exotic, but perhaps also the least significant, characteristics of academic traditions thus dismissed as archaisms, thereby managing all the better to keep his distance.” – Bourdieu, Homo Academicus

Back to top

Presentation of some of Bourdieu’s concepts

Habitus – A set of dispositions which incline agents to act and react in certain ways. The dispositions generate practices, perceptions and attitudes which are regular without being consciously co-ordinated or governed by any rule. […] Its conception is primarily dynamic and operational, as opposed to static and ontological. […] not, strictly speaking, the cause of behaviours […] “To do something ‘regular’ but in a spontaneous way”
Illusio – “is Bourdieu’s term for the tendency of participants to engage in the game and believe in its significance, that is, believe in that the benefits promised by the field are desirable.” (ref)
Doxa – “Common belief” or “popular opinion”. “The power of doxa is in its hidden nature which claims that what it claims to be ‘reality’ is the one and only ‘truth’ about the nature of existence” (ref)
The scholastic point of view – (term borrowed from J.L. Austin) “the particular use of language where, instead of grasping and mobilizing the meaning of a word that is immediately compatible with the situation, we mobilize and examine all the possible meanings of that word, outside of any reference to the situation.” … “The scholastic view is a very peculiar point of view on the social world, on language, on any possible object of thought that is made possible by the situation of skhole, of leisure, of which the school – a word which also derives from skhole – is a particular form, as an institutionalized situation of studious leisure.”
(I believe that Wittgenstein’s famous quote “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday“, in other words could be described as “philosophical problems arise when one views things from a scholastic point of view“)

Back to top

References and further reading

Works by Pierre Bourdieu
Pascalian Mediations -One of Bourdieu’s (meta-)philosophical works. In this book Bourdieu deals with the problems of academical philosophy and scholastic reason, and he explains his own method and some of his key concepts. If you ask me, this book could well fit in as a reading in a course on philosophy/history of philosophy.
Language and symbolic power – Another of the most “philosophical” works of Bourdieu. Speaks with J.L. Austin, Wittgenstein, Habermas, Saussure, Chomsky and others.
Homo Academicus – A sociology of the intellectuals
Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste – One of Bourdieu’s most famous works. Here Bourdieu develops the correspondence analysis which led to construction of his famous maps of fields/”social rooms” (an example of this kind of map shown here)

Secondary literature on Bourdieu
Key concepts in Language and Symbolic Power – Powerpoint presentation of key concepts in Bourdieu’s work Language and Symbolic Power
Bourdieu A Critical Reader editor Richard Shusterman. I’d especially recommend first two chapters Introduction: Bourdieu as Philosopher and Bourdieu and Anglo-American Philosophy both written by Richard Shusterman, and also last chapter The Social Conditions of the International Circulation of Ideas by Bourdieu himself.
“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
Bourdieu, Critic of Foucault” by Staf Callewaert
Towards a Sociology of Philosophy by Henrik Lundberg & Göran Heidegren
An invitation to Reflexive Sociology with Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant
Lecture on Bourdieu by Ghassan Hage – First part of the lecture he discusses Bourdieu’s relationship to philosophy, and then he goes on explaining some of Bourdieu’s key concepts. Ghassan Hage is a good lecturer, enthusiastic and pedagogical.
Sociology is a martial art – Video documentary on Bourdieu

Internal links
Sartre’s “total intellectual” vs. Bourdieu’s “collective intellectual”, and the philosophers role
Pierre Bourideu, philosophy and empirics
Internet Revolution, attentionalism and slow-thinking, with Alexander Bard and Pierre Bourdieu
Bourdieu and academical philosophy
Bourdieu vs. “The Total Intellectual”

Back to top


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 Critical theory etc, Language and communication, Metaphilosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A philosopher’s guide to Pierre Bourdieu

  1. michael says:

    Reblogged this on synthetic_zero and commented:
    Bourdieu was a lighthouse for me in the storm of postmodern posturing in the university days. David does a good job here of trying to square Bourdieu’s formidable circle. Check it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s