Field day for reflexive method

Pascalian Meditations
November 10, 2000

Pascalian Meditations is the latest work from the French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu. The English translation comes barely three years after its French publication, which is clear indication of the interest his work now attracts. It is his most philosophical work so far, and it is offered in the name of the 17th-century sceptic Blaise Pascal. "Meditations" matches the reflective mood of the book and the scope of its coverage.

Bourdieu introduces his work by indicating that he has resolved to ask questions that he would have preferred to have left to philosophy. His main attack is on what he calls "scholastic reason". The resonance this term has with J.L. Austin’s "scholastic view" points to one of Bourdieu’s sources - that of ordinary language philosophy. There are many other strands woven into the fabric of the book: continental philosophy, Deweyan pragmatism and, of course, the founding principles of sociology. Bourdieu’s argument is that scholastic reason is prone to the fallacy of universalising a particular case and forgetting the social conditions that make it possible. In particular, he targets skholè , or the free time available to those involved in scholastic thinking, liberated from the exigencies of the real world.

Of course, such liberation is rare in modern academia, but what Bourdieu is criticising is the construction and classification of knowledge and the deleterious effects of thinking according to established ways. He is particularly concerned with what he sees as biased claims and the consequences they lead to in practice.

Philosophical refusal appears at every point in his argument. Contra Habermas, he argues that there are no transhistorical universals; contra Rorty, that epistemic power relations are not reducible to political power relations; contra the "objectivist illusion" of the "view from nowhere", he opposes what he calls "narcissistic reflexivity", or the "view from everywhere" he sees in postmodern critique. No wonder he refers to his position as a negative philosophy and confesses to a sense of self-destruction in writing what he does.

In place of these philosophies, he offers his familiar concepts of habitus and field. Of the two, field has more prominence in this book, as it is within its social space that scholastic reason needs to be understood. But habitus is never far away, and Bourdieu develops both concepts with many asides, personal reflections and new facets. Readers familiar with his work will find that some of these are not actually "new" but may be found in previous discussions. Here, they are given a new twist or connected with others to expand a theoretical world view from a Bourdieuian perspective. For example, Bourdieu employs the term "hysteresis" to designate the mismatch between habitus and field in times of rapid change in social conditions. This inertia is sensed at the body and emotional level. It is the closest Bourdieu has yet come to connecting with the familiar concepts of Marxist alienation and Durkheimian anomie. No longer will it be possible to employ and field as simple metaphors to describe agency and context. Here, they are highly charged epistemological analytic instruments.

Bourdieu’s solution to scholastic fallacies is to provide the "conditions of possibility" for establishing a new limit on thought. Here, the product of such reasoning is re-examined according to his own theory of practice - a kind of social-theoretical deconstruction. Only in this way can theoretical logic be purged of scholastic presuppositions. But this auto-critique cannot be an individual undertaking, it must arise from within the scholastic field itself. The limits of science, in Bourdieu’s terms, are finally determined by the degree to which the field is left to be scientific; that is, autonomous to perform its own logic and exert its own systems of intellectual control, and thus free from political and economic influences.

Bourdieu does not appear to be simply wishing to refound the scholastic field through his reflexive method. He is also arguing to open up "universal access to the conditions of access to the universal". His comments here are consistent with his claim in a recent THES interview that his brand of reflexive sociology can be a form of individual psychoanalysis. His words are obviously made in the light of personal reflections after researching the many dimensions of poverty experienced by the French people, published in The Weight of the World , and his increasing number of interventions into the public and political arenas in the 1990s.

This book will continue to irritate those unsympathetic to Bourdieu and his work, with its dense prose, repetitions and assertive manner. However, it is difficult to think of an area of the social sciences, or philosophy for that matter, that would not benefit from an encounter with his way of seeing the world.

Michael Grenfell is senior lecturer in social sciences, University of Southampton.   

Pascalian Meditations

Author - Pierre Bourdieu
ISBN - 0 7456 2054 X and 2055 8
Publisher - Polity
Price - £49.50 and £14.99
Pages - 256

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