The Partial Sociology of Philosophies:
The Historical Perspective of Randall Collins
(An Unfinished Review)

By Ralph Dumain

In re:

Collins, Randall. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998. (Paperback ed., 2000.)

The following 10 fragments were first compiled on 23 February 2004 and presented on 15 July 2004. Some of these remarks were first written on 18 January 2004. I finished reading the book on 19 January 2004. All of the fragments below have been slightly edited.

Aspects of the Collins book are breathtaking while the book is an infuriating specimen of [American] sociology at its worst. Now I will just crib from my running commentary on Collins' book to give you an idea of what a rich mine it is for research and critique.


I was completely fascinated by his account of philosophical developments within the various cultures he treats. There is much that is quite plausible about his account of intellectual life, even his idea of the sociological dimension of the inner thought processes of thinkers as they sit by themselves. But there is also a point at which I balk at the extreme sociologism of his perspective . . . . He partakes of the creepy sociological mentality par excellence.

To some extent his perspective threatens mine. After an exasperating seminar in New York in July 1997 with a group of well-trained but hopeless grad students, I coined the phrase "reality is not who you know." I think there is something Collins misses in his hyper-gregarious account. I think that perhaps his own originality may be limited, so he doesn't understand completely how creative thought functions in the 20th century where mass literacy and the availability of information changes the nature and amount of networking required—though he claims otherwise—to do original thinking.

Would his model would apply to the development of C.L.R. James, for example? Would it explain why the development of James's ideas after James is so pathetic? Perhaps, as James studies has no substantive social structure to give it any coherence except for the various trends that the mediocre scholars who inhabit it hook it up to: postcolonial studies, transnational American Studies, etc.—totally artificial paradigms that colonize rather than expand upon the original material. My own original thinking is bound up with some kind of networking but a very different kind, otherwise originality on my part would be impossible. Collins writes of the necessity of face-to-face encounters; e-mail will never do the trick. I disagree. While to some extent face-to-face encounters helped me—with my deceased colleague Jim Murray, primarily, who shared a common understanding of our project but hardly the same theoretical apparati—I have done much better with e-mail, or even phone conversations, than face-to-face contact, which is primarily useful as a source of irritation to stimulate my oppositional creative juices. I find that excessive sociability is doing great harm to the development of intellectuals. Intellectual independence has disappeared among a generation brought up on music videos.


There is a qualitative dimension to creative thinking that Collins fails to capture. How does one learn how to see things differently, based on different assumptions? Can one merely will originality into existence, seeking distinction? This seems to be the way it works in France, where there is no escaping centralization, elitism, and the reign of cultural capital. I think a person working in complete isolation is going to be severely limited, but I see solitude as a plus factor just as much as gregariousness. Collins does take the factor of solitary reading and writing into account, but he always insists that society is still there in one's mental conversation with oneself. While this is true in some sense, what is missing from his account is the qualitative nature of the struggle between one's perception of the world and the prevailing mindset. In a way Collins perpetuates the star system even while demystifying it. For him the star is really the social network, not the individual. But has Collins ever had the experience of being able to perceive things that other people cannot? Has he ever questioned the basic assumptions of people around him? Or is he . . . a product of his own field?

I say this because I do have this experience . . . . And in my judgment, C. L. R. James himself suffered the consequences of psychological isolation which the mystique around him only exacerbated, as there was no way of socially objectifying his methods beyond a certain point, given the limitations of the people around him and his own incompetence in organizing his life. Various people carried on his research programme in selected areas, such as black history, but core areas have not been developed. This is partly due to the lack of availability of key texts, but mostly due to the inability of intellectuals to face up to the aspects of James's work that condemns them. . . .


The Sociology of Philosophies by Randall Collins purports to be a worldwide survey of the nature of intellectual innovation, using philosophy as the subject matter, and covering the history of ancient Greece, India, China, Japan, Islamic civilization, medieval Europe, and modern Europe and the USA. While Collins does offer what I consider to be an excessively sociologistic account of creativity, he is not a relativist.

I did not read the chapter on India very carefully. I believe he takes the history up to about 1500 AD. Of interest in his account of India as well as of China and Japan is the interplay between meditative practices and intellectual concepts. I didn't catch the details, unfortunately, but it is noteworthy that all intellectuals have ideas and fight over them and build power bases upon them, however much they may appeal to the ineffable, the irrational, or the non-intellectual. Presumably there is also a connection between the type of metaphysical and epistemological ideas that partisans of mystical ideas purvey and their spiritual practices.

What is most important, however, is that Collins denies that there is any essential difference between East and West, but that all schools of thought flourish or perish according to the same sociological laws, are subject to the same processes of social interaction, networking, and intergenerational transmission, and are all governed by intense competition.


The more I read [Collins and reviews of Collins], the more I agree with criticisms of Collins. And it is just at the point of his treatment of German Idealism, which I'm reading now, that I find him hard to take. He has demonstrated that he understands nothing of Marx, and his treatment of the development of ideas and their motivations is too thin. He's starting to get on my nerves.


Reading Collins' chapter on German idealism has got me irritated. I do not believe that his analysis of the motivating factors of the development of ideas is adequate, or his sociological approach in general, but one does get an interesting capsule history of the structure of the field and its institutions in many cultures. This is probably the most ambitious attempt at a global sociology of philosophy in this part of the world. I don't know where else outside of the USSR that anyone has attempted anything so ambitious.

It is too bad he didn't take the history of India closer to the present, which would bring us closer to . . . my interest in the collusions that made the popularization of Eastern mysticism (in this case Indian esoterica) in the West popular. Collins gives a tiny bit of this story in his treatment of Japan, particularly the anti-scientific, anti-modernist reaction that brought Zen back into the forefront, the role of D.T. Suzuki and the World Parliament of Religions, and even the distant affinity of the Zen revival with Japanese fascism.

I have been looking over review copies of new textbooks on philosophy I obtained at the American Philosophical Association meeting here three weeks ago, specifically anthologies of what is called African American philosophy and Latin American philosophy. I consistently get depressed at seeing philosophy being reduced to politics and cultural expression. The basic irrationalism of contemporary ideology seems to govern everything. It is quite revealing, inter alia of the banality of American intellectual life, where inclusion means the reduction of what is left of intellectual life to pure politics and particularism.


It's the chapter on German idealism though in which Collins begins to get on my nerves. The limitations of his sociological view, all based on social networks, begin to become apparent.


Collins' reply to Neal McLaughlin's review repeats his claim elsewhere (the beginning of the book?) . . . .

The chapter on mathematical logic is fascinating. The preceding chapter, on the creation of the university system and the rise of idealism, taught me a lot, but also irritated me at times. Generally, philosophers rub me the wrong way from reading this book, but I guess that's nothing new. I notice some significant omissions in the book. Though Marx is discussed briefly and inadequately, Marxism is missing. (Well, Labriola is mentioned.) The Frankfurt School is missing. And Soviet philosophy is missing entirely. Perhaps Collins' analytical scheme based on the logic of the marketplace doesn't apply to these examples, or maybe he doesn't consider Marxism as part of philosophy? It's very revealing, either way.


How does the Frankfurt School figure in Collins' scheme? The F.S. grew out of social theory on the boundary of philosophy. I think that would make it especially interesting, especially as it became influential in many fields. But did F.S. become influential in philosophy proper? In which countries?


Finishing the chapter on existentialism leaves the  final 100 pages, on meta-reflections.

His various comments about the priority of competition for attention space vs. larger sociopolitical forces do not seem intelligent to me. Examples: his disaggregation of Heidegger from right-wing politics, the dispute between Camus and Sartre.

Collins also emphasizes the mutual influences and deeply networked aspects of philosophy. An interesting example is his analysis of the Anglo-Continental split which he deems deceptive as commonly understood. This may well be. However, he ignores the tendency toward national and doctrinal provincialism. Perhaps this is a recent phenomenon due to the proliferation of the field, increasing specialization, and mutations in the law of small numbers. However, is this so recent? Roy Wood Sellars complained about European insularity.

Collins does mention German Second International Marxism as part of the German influence on Russian thinkers (mostly operating in the literary sphere), but has nothing to say about the development of the philosophical dimension of Marxism either in Germany or Russia. Yet it is vital to do so, for two reasons: (1) Marxism as the critique of the rest of the intellectual world and its social determinants; (2) the inner dynamic of Marxist intellectual activity itself, its marking off of territory and interaction with the rest of the intellectual universe, its interaction or aloofness from intellectual fads, solitary and/or autodidactic work (C. L. R. James, Christopher Caudwell) vs. networked intellectual development.


Collins’ argument for sociological realism is not convincing as an argument for realism in general. Sociologism cannot escape the charge of subjectivism; it's an age-old fallacy. However, he is right in arguing that acknowledging the social construction of knowledge does not deny its objective truth. But he proceeds to make his argument in an ass-backwards way.

His generalizations about the history and future prospects of philosophy are of great interest, but there's something missing. He is acting like a political scientist of philosophy, assuming the very system whose dynamics interest him so much. But the basic nature of the game as anything more than a game eludes him. Why this process should go on forever is not at all self-evident. Give me the future of social networks and I'll show you the future of philosophical development . . . . But why should the social networks prove the same, especially as they are affected by larger developments in society. This is like neoliberalism in philosophical culture. Stalinism temporarily suppressed the market, but now marketplace competition in philosophy will go on forever.

Collins gives us a rich mine for exploitation, but his fundamental assumptions have to be challenged.

Here are some additional fragments.


Soviet philosophy is dead, but philosophical Sovietology lives on as philosophical archaeology and should be a permanent part of global or comparative history of philosophy. Ninian Smart bypasses Soviet philosophy. Randall Collins in his 1100-page The Sociology of Philosophies devotes three pages to Russian philosophy and zero pages to Soviet philosophy. [p. 334] Sociologically, a great opportunity is being neglected. Even under stringent conditions, creative work was done in the USSR, and Soviet philosophical culture is an important object of study. (5 Jan 2004)


Collins’ book is the most ambitious thing we have in the English language, but falls short on a number of grounds, both in terms of sociological explanation and in its coverage of the subject matter. That Marxism and Soviet philosophy are excluded from the survey calls Collins' whole perspective into question. (21 Jan 2005)


Just earlier today I finished Randall Collins' 1100-page book, which covers thousands of years of philosophy all over the world but leaves out Marxism entirely. I'm contemplating writing an article "Philosophical Cultures: The Final Frontier", which attempts to draw lessons from my various readings on what can be learned from all this, what needs to be criticized, and how to address the future of philosophy in a global setting. I still contend that Marxism does what no other philosophical perspective can do, but Marxism as an institutionalized category since the time of the Second International may have suffered from provincialism contrary to its essence as a total view of knowledge in relation to social development. (19 Jan 2004)


(From my commentary on a book on Carnap:) An awareness of how one's position is dependent not only on positive influences, but on the continuing pull of what one is rebelling against, and ultimately the conceptual universe underlying systems of opposition in which innovative philosophers are incubated. I learned quite a bit about how this works from Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies. (8 July 2004)


I attended a talk Collins gave in 1986 on the networking of the German idealists. The book is well worth reading and a real bargain for 1100 pages. I want to write a full review of this book, which is as illuminating for its flaws as for it virtues. (7 July 2004)


I recently unearthed some old conference material from 1986.  I found my notes on a paper on the sociology of philosophy by one Randall Collins ("The Sociology of Philosophy: Toward a Triple Level of Theory" delivered at this conference I attended in Pittsburgh.  I assume that by now this fellow should have published something, so I am going to have to look up his work. His 3-level theory of how philosophy evolves as an institution was applied to the networking involved in German idealism, the most interesting application I can think of.  So I need to see what this guy has published. (2 July 1997)

Secondary Bibliography

Annotations by Ralph Dumain are marked “—RD”.

Baigrie, Brian. “Rapid Discovery, Crossbreeding Networks, and the Scientific Revolution,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 30, No. 2, June 2000, pp. 257-273.

Bunge, Mario. “Philosophy from the Outside,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 30 No. 2, June 2000, pp. 227-245.

Collins, Randall. “Reply to Reviewers and Symposium Commentators,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 30, No. 2, June 2000, pp. 299-325. (Based on remarks made at the symposium on Randall Collins’s A Sociology of Philosophies at York University, Toronto, 17 September 1999.)

Collins, Randall. “The Sociology of Philosophies: A Précis,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 30, No. 2, June 2000, pp. 157-201.

A chapter-by-chapter précis is presented of Randall Collins’s book, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. It presents a sociological theory of intellectual networks that connect thinkers in chains of masters and pupils, colleagues and rivals, and of the internalized conversations that constitute the social processes of thinking. The theory is used to analyze long-term developments of the intellectual communities of philosophers in ancient Greece, ancient and medieval China and India, medieval and modern Japan, medieval Islam and Judaism, medieval Christendom, and modern Europe through the early 20th century.

Collins, Randall. “Toward a Theory of Intellectual Change: The Social Causes of Philosophies,” Science, Technology, & Human Values, vol. 14, no. 2. Spring 1989, pp. 107-140.

Denby, David. “Northern Lights: How Modern Life Emerged from Eighteenth-Century Edinburgh” [review of James Buchan, Crowded with Genius], The New Yorker, October 11, 2004.

Fuller, Steve. “In Search of an Alternative Sociology of Philosophy: Reinstating the Primacy of Value Theory in Light of Randall Collins’s “Reflexivity and Embeddedness in the History of Ethical Philosophies,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 30, No. 2, June 2000, pp. 246-256.

Gross, Neil. Book review, [publication unknown], pp. 854-859.

Hall, John A. “An American Portrait: Critical Reflections on Randall Collins’s The Sociology of Philosophies,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 30, No. 2, June 2000, pp. 202-206.

Harrington, Austin. “From Hegel to the Sociology of Knowledge: Contested Narratives,” Theory Culture & Society, vol. 18, no. 6, 2001, pp. 125–133.

The article examines, Randall Collins's magnum opus The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change in relation to a number of discourses bearing on the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of philosophies, from Hegel and 19th-century historicism to Mannheim, Foucault, Bourdieu and Gillian Rose's Hegel Contra Sociology. The article explicates Collins's dual theory of intellectual networks and institutional conflict as factors in the explanation of intellectual change. The article interprets Collins's work as a classic application of Durkheimian sociological principles to the analysis of knowledge. However, the article argues that Collins is less successful in accounting for the internal normative motives of inquiry and the problem of what Hegel saw as the claims of reason in history based on the orientation to truth.

Hattiangadi, Jagdish. “Pac-Man Metaphysics and the Modest Hubris of the Professional Intellectual,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 30, No. 2, June 2000, pp. 284-298. (Based on a paper read at the symposium on Randall Collins’s A Sociology of Philosophies at York University, Toronto, 17 September 1999.)

Jarvie, I. C. “The Philosophical Deficit in Randall Collins’s The Sociology of Philosophies,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 30, No. 2, June 2000, pp. 274-283.

Kurzman, Charles; Owens, Lynn. “The Sociology of Intellectuals,” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 28, 2002, pp. 63-90.

The sociology of intellectuals has adopted three fundamentally distinct approaches to its subject. The Dreyfusards, Julien Benda, "new class" theorists, and Pierre Bourdieu treated intellectuals as potentially a class-in-themselves, that is, as having interests that distinguish them from other groups in society. Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and theorists of "authenticity" treated intellectuals as primarily class-bound, that is, representatives of their group of origin. Karl Mannheim, Edward Shils, and Randall Collins treated intellectuals as relatively class-less, that is, able to transcend their group of origin to pursue their own ideals. These approaches divided the field at its founding in the 1920s, during its mid-century peak, and in its late-century revival.

Lamont, Michèle. “Three Questions for a Big Book: Collins's The Sociology of Philosophies,” Sociological Theory, vol. 19, issue 1, March 2001, p. 86 (Review Symposium on Collins's The Sociology of Philosophies.)

This essay first describes some of the impressive theoretical and empirical contributions of The Sociology of Philosophies, namely, to cultural sociology. Second, it offers a criticism of Collins's argument by focusing on the conceptions of the self it posits; its lack of specificity concerning the relationship between intellectual networks and imagined communities of scholars; and its neglect of how the law of small numbers is affected by the size of a field. Against a priori definitions of the selves of intellectuals posited by Collins, I advocate approaching the diversity of their selves as an empirical issue. Against Collins's overemphasis on personal network centrality in the making of philosophical greatness, I propose that the transcendent values of intellectual work are insufficient but nonetheless necessary conditions for philosophical greatness.

(A valid critique, I think. —RD)

McLaughlin, Neil. Review of Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies, The Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, vol. 36, no. 2, 2000, pp. 171-175.

Munz, Peter. “The Poverty of Randall Collins’s Formal Sociology of Philosophy,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, vol. 30, no. 2, June 2000, pp. 207-226.

Combines Popper with critique of Collins. —RD

Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 30, No. 2, June 2000. Issue devoted to Collins' book.

Van der Zweerde, Evert. Soviet Historiography of Philosophy: Istoriko-filosofskaja Nauka. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997. (Sovietica; v. 57)

__________________. "Soviet Philosophy Revisited—Why Joseph Bochenski Was Right While Being Wrong", Studies in East European Thought, vol. 55, no. 4, December 2003, pp. 315-342

The Philosophy of Originality: Vignettes

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Or Reproduce the Fragmentation of Knowledge?"

by R. Dumain

Soviet Historiography of Philosophy: Review Essay by Ralph Dumain

New Year's Resolution: Exploring Philosophical Cultures (December 2003 - January 2004)

The Routledge Companion to Twentieth-Century Philosophy: contents & commentary

Biographical and Psychological Dimensions of Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

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Philosophy of History of Philosophy & Historiography of Philosophy:
Selected Bibliography

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