On Pierre Bourdieu Part 1: Vocabulary

The text for this series is David Swartz’ book, Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. I’m starting with a vocabulary of some of the technical words and ideas in the book.

1. Practice. For Bourdieu, practices are the behaviors that people exhibit in coping with their social environment. A simple example is table manners. Manners are taught to us at an early age, and it’s rare that we ever think about them, but they say a lot about us. Emily Post manners are essential for people trying to climb the greasy pole to the C-Suite, just as State Fair eating manners are crucial to political candidates. They’re a necessary but not sufficient condition for entering certain social groups. They also matter in dating, as the charming series Blind Date in the Guardian shows. The paper sends a couple on a blind date to a restaurant and then interviews them about the date. They always ask about table manners. In this one,, the pair went to a Japanese restaurant and apparently tried to shell edamame with their chopsticks, a funny faux pas.

Practices can be complex. How do I interact with higher-ups in my workplace? I don’t have to think about that, I just do it, and it is obvious that I’m not thinking when I do it. One way to describe this is to call it intensive behavior as contrasted with reflective behavior, two terms I learned years ago from an otherwise unreadable book.

2. Capitalist Mode of Production. When I found this term in the book, I knew exactly what it meant, but somehow it made me uncomfortable. After a moment, I realized it was because I associate the term with Marxist analysis, and as a good American boy, I know that all of Marx is evil. But of course, it isn’t. There’s a lengthy discussion of the capitalist mode of production (without the term) in Thorstein Veblen’s book The Principles of Business Enterprise, which I discuss here and here.

Fear and loathing of Marxism is a foundational aspect of neoliberalism; its founders wanted to insure that capitalism would never be threatened by such un-American ideas. But in the intellectual training in France in the 40s and 50s Marxism is a jumping off point.

3. Thinking. Perhaps we all know what this term means intuitively, but there’s more than just self-examination as a way to understand it. I contrast thinking with behaviors that don’t involve thinking, like the practices that Bourdieu studies. Practices are learned behaviors that we emit without being conscious of them. We deploy them as needed in response to the social signals we encounter.

The act of thinking calls on us to become aware of ourselves as thinking. In action, it feels like we are activating a specific part of our mind. Once we start thinking there are various ways to go. One is to ponder an idea, trying to get a grip on it, trying to flesh it out, and generally to meditate on it. Another is purposeful, thinking with a goal. A good example of the former can be found in Plato’s Socratic Dialogs, as Hannah Arendt discusses in The Life of the Mind. Here’s a .pdf; see the two sections starting on page 166.

The latter is what we do when we try to prove a mathematical theorem. We know where we begin, with axioms, theorems, lemmas and corollaries, and a mental image of the problem; and we know to use formal logic. But the choice of steps to take is an art, not a science.

I use the word “contrast” as opposed to define because there are many other contrasting mental states. For example, I could contrast thinking with the kind of mental babble that the Buddhists call the monkey mind. Or I could contrast it with the mental state of practicing a physical behavior.

We live in a complicated society; I think building in complexity is something mammals just automatically do to amuse themselves if nothing else. We can’t comprehend the complexity we jointly create, so we invent mediating concepts to enable us to proceed. The selection of those concepts is an art. The use of those mediating concepts is an art. The Frankfurt School, for example, designed its empirical research around its theoretical concepts as a test of those concepts and as a way of understanding their results. The choice of contrasts is a useful way to add structure to the messy social world.

4. Dialectical thinking. I spent hours reading The Dialectical Imagination, and more hours reading texts about the Dialectic, but I am not comfortable with my understanding. Most of what i read was some version of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, That makes sense in the context of dialectical materialism, because we can see that historically one movement is confronted by another. We don’t have to explain why the second movement arose, except that it arose in opposition to the dominant thesis. In The Dialectical Imagination, it seemed to be a braoder idea, based on negation, which I understood to mean that when working in the context of abstract ideas, the thinker would try to work up an opposing thesis and it’s implications.

In The Life of the Mind, Arendt talks about the dialog of the self with the self, which seems to be a form of dialectical thinking. Swartz adds another idea, from the French philosopher of science Gaston Bachelard. He says that science doesn’t proceed from a priori constructs. It does not begin with atoms or cells, but only comes to them after empirical observation, and changes them as new observations are made.

Rather, the movement of thought proceeds from a limited conceptual framework, which is closed to some important aspect of experience, to the development of a broader framework that includes the previously excluded aspect. In this way, for example, Euclidean geometry was not replaced but rather superseded and regionally situated within a broader non-Euclidean, space-time conceptual space. P. 32.

That seems much closer to what I understood from The Dialectical Imagination. Jay quotes Adorno as saying the true dialectic is “… the attempt to see the new in the old instead of simply the old in the new.” P. 69. I’ll leave this here, but I will be alert to this issue.

5. Relational thinking. According to Swartz, Bourdieu’s approach is to define a term as I did above, in opposition to another term. Concepts have meaning in relation to other concepts. This view appeals to me, because it sets up poles in the space of inquiry, which otherwise would feel too unstructured. At the same time, it doesn’t limit us to other contrasts that may open our minds to other possibilities.

That’s my starting point for working on this new area. We’ll see if it holds up.

24 replies
  1. nursewilling says:

    I love reading your essays, Ed. I’ve been lurking here since the beginning, since TheLastHurrah really, but I seldom think that I have anything to add to the conversation. Your posts, however, always get my blood pumping. I’m a med-surge nurse by trade, but my past is steeped in Plato. I love Adorno, Martin Jay, Foucault… all the thinkers you’ve examined. Their insights inform my understanding of both the art of living and the art of healing. Adorno’s The Stars Down to Earth, Foucault’s Hermeneutics of the Subject, and Jay’s Downcast Eyes all helped opened my eyes to the pathologies of power in an open society, along with Ian Hacking’s works on Probability and Risk, and the critical geography of David Harvey. I would heartily recommend them all. But Petr Sloterdijk in particular stands out to me as someone to suggest to you. Are you familiar with The Critique of Cynical Reason? It profiles a disturbingly familiar Weimar culture and unpacks its proclivity to Nazism, with particular attention to the role of what Marx called ‘enlightened false consciousness’ – the result of a proliferation of education without a proportional proliferation of authority. Written from behind the Iron Curtain in ’82, it feels more actively engaged with contemporary history than Hannah Arendt. Would love to read your impressions of it some day. As for Bourdieu, none of my copies of his books has so much as a crease in the spine. Not sure why exactly – his thoughts just never seemed especially useful to me. I get a lot more mileage from a couple of shorter works by Heidegger – On the Way to Language, and What is Called Thinking. At any rate – thanks so much for taking the time to publish your thoughts here over the years. Reading them is always a pleasure.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Thanks, I’m just glad there are people who find this interesting. Your reading list sounds interesting, and I’ll put the Sloterdijk book in mind. As you may know, I can only read on Kindle or a .pdf, so that may be an obstacle.

  2. matt says:

    “The Frankfurt School, for example, designed its empirical research around its theoretical concepts as a test of those concepts.”

    This statement rang true, as what is most useful in human social analysis is some data.

    My only other comment, besides, thanks for your post, is that Post Modern philosophical thought is so far advanced beyond what most humans minds can intellectually engage, that I wonder if it can even help in the progress of culture, politics, etc.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Part 2 of 4

    Americans were not encouraged to understand this enemy, but to hate it because it was hateful. The circularity was intended, a way to avoid thinking in a manner Bourdieu would consider thinking. Because in peaceful, white, he-man, 1950s America, one didn’t try to understand an enemy. That idea was hateful too, if also a good indicator the position was fallacious and would not survive examination. No, in that America, one followed quietly or got nailed down. That applied to the white working man, aspiring executive or committed union man, to people of color, Native Americans, women, hippies, and minorities and non-conformists of all stripes.

  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Part 3 of 4

    That reactionary stance hasn’t changed much; in fact, it’s having a revival. So, it’s time to get out the love beads, incense and sitar music and shake things up, man. The organization is not just a conformist power-that-be one can safely resent; organize is what one does.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Part 4 of 4

    Donald Trump is a buffoon with a sharp sabre he rattles in the direction of every fun house mirror. He’s also the leader and the symbol of a party for whom civil society is now a contradiction in terms. He speaks for itinerant wealth, at home anywhere and loyal to nowhere, who would have us fight over who parks their trailer home closest to the warehouse door rather than the billionaire too stingy to allow a break for coffee or a pee.

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Part 1B of 4

    Americans have experienced a century-long indoctrination against it and against socialism, which are presumed to be existential threats to America. They are a kind of typhoid Mary that would infect and ruin businesses, the economy, government, social relations, culture, way of life, football, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Part 1A2 of 4

    I think it’s a foundational aspect of capitalism in America, not just its neoliberal expression.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    For some reason, those remarks as a single comment were an existential threat to Wordfence.  The first paragraph, in particular, seemed to bother it, but not “constipation” for some reason.  Apologize for the presentation.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        You apparently.  What’s odd was that when separated, the identical words went through the filter.  My working assumption is that the proximity of certain words to each other – hate, false, capitalism, neoliberalism, sabre, Trump – seemed threatening to the AI. 

        Thanks for all the work, Ed.

  9. matt says:

    I got excited when I saw 12 posts on this thread…  but I see there were some posting difficulties.

    …so, we have all these observable facts about the battle of ideas and explanations for why humans do what they do (or, why they think what they think).  “Thinking,” “Dialectical Thinking,” and “Rational Thinking” are all nuances of a learned skill…  that nobody is learning anymore.  The new Elite (based on power/wealth)  has purposely structured primary and secondary education… along with political economic discourse…  as a projection of self identity.  Pluralist, pragmatic, and relativistic “Thinking,” which liberal education used to cultivate is the greatest enemy to the identity and hegemony of those in power.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I agree, which is why I went to the trouble of talking about thinking. I agree it’s a learned skill, and I agree it isn’t taught in many schools. That means that kids whose parents teach it to them in the home are going to be ahead of the rest; one more way social and cultural cxapital are used to cement the structures of domination in the US. That is going to be a real problem going ahead because those smart kids aren’t likely to be subservient to the stupid spawn of the filthy rich, like Jared, Uday and Quesay, not to mention a whole lot of others, and that won’t be good for society.

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I think it was Nader who said that it was largely in life, not even in the Ivy League, where one learned the difference between learning to believe rather than learning to think.  The temporary triumph of Trump suggests we’ve slipped backward towards the belief end of the spectrum.

    That may be too narrow a view, though.  The modern GOP has always worked against the interests of Main Street Americans.  The Reagan ideologues, for example, were belief-system based, pursuing policies that redefined environmental rape (unaccountable resource extraction practices), and redefined health policy – catsup and yellow mustard as “food” for purposes of school lunch programs for the poor.  They worked hard to keep their wumin barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.

    I think it was Shrub who gave us Eugene Scalia (Antonin’s son), who gutted the Dept. of Labor’s workplace ergonomics rules (condemning tens of thousands of poultry and fish gutting assembly line workers to preventable injuries), and fledgling efforts to impose mandatory health insurance requirements for large employers like Wal-Mart (>10,000).   (Health care is a right and ergonomics is a science everywhere but the business-friendly US of A.)

  11. matt says:

    How do we teach the next generation of “thinkers?”

    How do we combat our own Nationalist and Religious extremism?

  12. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Pierre Bourdieu (although he disliked the term), a working class scholar of the sociology of power, was a public intellectual in a French culture that reveres them.  The closest American counterpart would be celebrities.  It’s a poor analogy because celebrities are famous for being famous or for some skill such as entertaining (athletes, actors).  We have MacArthur Foundation “genius grants”, for example, but they serve a different, private function.  We have a Rhodes (English) and Marshall (American) scholars, for example, but that’s a minimum qualification.

    Kris Kobach, for example, is bright: he graduated with highest honors from Harvard College, has a doctorate from Oxford and a law degree from Yale.  But his talents are reserved for personal ambition and political partisanship.  He is not a public intellectual.  Nor is David Brooks, though his promoters use that term of him.  He was a reasonably bright undergraduate and is a right wing newspaper columnist and commentator for that portion of the MSM that practices the polite version of he said-she said banter.  His causes are personal ambition and partisan politics, though he cloaks it better than Kobach.

    Noam Chomsky, on the other hand, is a public intellectual.  Chomsky redefined his academic field of linguistics – how we think, form language and use it.  He is also a popular writer, a critic of corporate and government lies, and a ceaseless activist for public causes.  Others I would include are Hannah Arendt, Philip Mirwoski, Elizabeth Warren, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking (if he were American).

    Public intellectuals in France are famous for being brilliant and culturally important, to language, history, society, thought, public discourse.  The state elevates and employs them in a special institution, it promotes their work.  It might disregard their views, but seeks them out.  Over here, we deny them degrees or tenure when their work is non-conformist, we tax their graduate scholarships to prevent them from acquiring the training that would enable their leadership.  We call them nerds suitable for the lab.  We might learn something even from the French.

    • Ed Walker says:

      For a funny example of the idea of public intellectual in the US, nothing beats the soi-disant intellectual Richard Posner. http://home.uchicago.edu/~rposner/TABLE%20II.pdf

      Or, mayb not funny, just Sad!

  13. Peacerme says:

    I am therapist who practices DBT Dialectical behavior therapy. We literally use the dialectic in all aspects of the therapy to counter dichotomous thinking. I’d be willing to bet that extreme invalidation and trauma interferes with the brains ability to use these types of thinking. A small number of my clients seem unable to use this type of thinking. Most can make the shift. Some just seem incapable. I propose the theory that extreme forms of racism and dichotomous thinking are caused by trauma and perhaps intractable. When are we going to face the fact that violence, trauma and power and control damage the human brain? We need research but Power and control is the Smerican way and it’s my opinion that we don’t want to face this truth because of the dilemma it causes. The dialectic ends helps to repair at least some of the damage caused by invalidation and violence.

    This is so nice to read. I spend my life fighting violence by teaching normal people to use the dialectic to end their dispair. It works. I think the link to mental health is fascinating.

    • matt says:

      Yes, and yes!  Breaking the will of the child (creativity, individuality), as described in Alice Miller’s, “For Your Own Good,” is the root of all this.  A parent’s own fragile ego must be ratified by the child- when a parent or other authority (grandparent, teacher, minister, police) is challenged by the hypocrisy so easily seen by children/teens… it is traumatically stomped out by any means necessary.   Love and approval is held hostage until the child submits.  Even worse, a child’s will is undermined by emotional abuse or physically beaten out of them.

      Our political and social problems will never be solved if human culture cannot properly support the healthy development of children.  In a rare moment of compassion for our president, I can only imagine the childhood abuse and trauma that created his level of narcissism and disregard for the needs of others.

      I have experienced DBT and another brain-based therapy called EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprogramming).  It was amazing to me that I could find the traumatic sources of negative thoughts and behaviors and literally “re-wire” my brain with a much healthier cognitive framework.

      Peacerme, in a cultural environment that is trending toward authoritarianism, how do we make space for growth of individuality and creativity in our children?

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