The Sociology of Philosophies by Randall Collins

Below are some random thoughts and notes that are relevant to a great book I have been glancing at recently called The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (SoP for short) by Randall Collins. This is of course strictly in-between reads of An Introduction to Metaphysics. I will have an article on the topic of metaphysics posted shortly on The Known Quantity, so keep your fingers crossed.

Sociology has always interested me personally. It seems the more and more I delve into philosophical topics the closer I brush up alongside it. Whether its the discipline of science generally or postmodern philosophy particularly, sociology plays an important role in both. I suppose this is because language used in sociology seems to have a type of meta-utility for all types of specific disciplines. Put that way, to me the philosophy of sociological language seems like a ripe macro-level concept for study by sociologists.

SoP is an epic book, more than 1,000 pages. However on page 21 it states:

In sociology, emphasis on the primacy of the local was introduced by symbolic interactionism and radicalized by ethnomethodology; as a research technique and as an explicit epistemology, the stance has been picked up by the branch of sociologists of science who study the local production of scientific knowledge in laboratory sites.

The “local” sounds just like some who champion the epistemology that only what is experienced by the sensory system is authority. The local in that case is the element experienced by a person. Collins seems to assume there are those who say nothing exists beyond the local, beyond the immediate situational interactions. The specific nature of what Collins defines as focus on the local is very similar to postmodern philosophy.

This postmodern philosophy Collins seems to speak of is used as a research technique and epistemology.

  • What is the research technique of the local? It seems that science is just that technique, as it is takes specific elements of the natural world and attempts to predict them through experimentation and observation. It is in this specific sense that science almost contradicts philosophy as philosophy is the general as opposed to the specific. So that philosophy doesn’t concern itself with the mathematics of physics, but rather what exists. Through scientific experimentation the sociological “primacy of the local” becomes a research technique to acquire data for theories and hypothesis.
  • What is the epistemology of the local? Focus on the micro from first the research technique dictates a type of scientism where only data in the natural sciences is authoritative knowledge or verificationism where if its not verified by your five senses it isn’t true. Not only does the research technique of focused experimentation on the specifics of nature produce obsession with the local, but so does the scientism/verificationism it produces. There is an exponential growth of local obsession within the intellectual discipline of sociology, because sociology touches upon a wide range of disciplines, it filters this growth into the body intellect, that is the intelligentsia.

Because research technique and epistemology can be separated within the discipline of philosophy, as the latter is the means while the former is the end, it starts to look something like;

Within the local, from research technique comes epistemology both focusing on the local. The research technique is scientific experimentation. This breeds an epistemology of scientism, where science is the only authoritative knowledge. If we focus on the meta level of understanding then the research technique would not be scientific experimentation but rather from logic and argumentation (focus on the meta) comes scientific experimentation. Then there will be an epistemology (theory of knowledge) allowed. What is always taken granted within this grand context we have constructed and that academics should be always be aware of, is that logic is always assumed. Used and abused, taken for granted, and never given its proper philosophical role, which allows people like Stephen Hawking to state that “philosophy is dead” and the like. Concluding that the realm of philosophy has given way to the realm of science.

What Randall Collins has sketched at least allows local obsession to be true to itself, neglecting philosophy and only focusing on the science in all areas. Gotta stay local now, no need for that pesky philosophy… Science, or the local, always has to presuppose logic, or the meta, to even function. Therefore logic is the meta-pattern for science to interrelate with nature, meshing the two. Sociology would study that relationship I guess.

To deny that anything exists other than the local is true in one sense, misleading in another. It is true that nothing exists which is not thoroughly local; if it did not exist locally, where could it possibly be found?

But no local situation stands alone; situations surround one another in time and space. 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 inward 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.

Macro-patterns which are causality and agency are very metaphysical, this all ties in brilliantly with my soon to be published metaphysics article…

Stay tuned!


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