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Collins's 1000-plus page opus, including the thoughtful appendices and endnotes, falls somewhere between a historical sociology and a historical versus problems-oriented world survey of philosophy, with interactionist and positivist overtones. This quarter-of-a-century, part-time labor of love leaves out little.
Methodologically, Collins discusses philosophical schools as generational-transmission chains of consensual linguistic structures channeling creative energy into limited public attention, today caricatured as publish or perish. The reader may forgive this disembodied sociological approach appearing to leave actual human beings to the side. These chains of interaction occur in schools of limited number which at the lowest end need a minimun, two or three, in order to generate conflict and variety, but which face an upper limit, say, a half-dozen, since only so much creative variety in a field seems practically possible. He would probably say that larger groups fissure to produce mirror-images of those already existing with no new ideas. Master-pupil schools, where pupils often outshine the master, form in only two ways: an outside attacker or a gatekept entrant ends up in conflict with the disciples either forming another school or else remaining an isolate on the one hand or, on the other, the insider says "I agree, but I have something to add," in effect becoming a critic by expansion. This is a variant of Jesus' "It is written, but I say unto you" that Weber made the hallmark of charismatic authority. The religious suggestion is no accident since, a la Durkheim, Collins considers that the schools in effect pass on disembodied sacred knowledge.
The key concept of interaction-rituals within generational social networks, akin to so many others Collins does not use such as Gemeinschaft and reference group, reduces to the well-known primary group, originally described as face-to-face, in which a person experiences genuineness, social support, relatively frequent, intense interaction, where others treat him as a whole and an end, not as a means. Collins's analysis suggests the network as a locus where: interaction rituals promote sociability, your ideas as "cultural capital" make you feel valued, public attention promotes social mobility and fame massages the ego. Furthermore your creativity increases (131) by separation/distinction through creation of a counter-school or by synthesis within an intellectual community, while attendant emotional energy allows venting and catharsis as well as stimulation. Yet leadership, small-group research tells us paradoxically enough, necessarily entails a certain sense of isolation and distance.
Outcomes like these can occur across the globe on the basis of doctrine alone, so this book helps us recognize, as in the Indian Pyrrhonism of Nagarjuna (221) that sought tranquility through disengagement from intellectual positions. Such comparative fusion recommends Collins's approach.
The work begins with an overall program of treatment punctuated by periodic overview chapters and an exhaustive list of personages hierarchized in the text in figure-maps a few generations in depth, the century approach avoided, that show friends, foils, and influences. Collins himself recommends the conclusions, many seat-of-the-pants, ending Part One (379-383) that he methodologically then applies to Europe, and the thematic sections in Chapter Fifteen, to which I would add the post-textual material to get an overall grasp, perhaps before gorging on the main text. The work ends with references that a reader dare not misconstue as a bibliography (!), imagining him to have overlooked sources. Then follow name and subject indices which do not always correlate with the text and leave numbers of persons, particularly women, or mythical composite figures such as a Homer-like Lao Tzu whom the text lightly discusses, out. The core text presents few difficulties for a competent reader, beyond sociological obscurities, balancing East and West, this latter part better interwoven perhaps due to any Westerner's relative unfamiliarity with the former as in the usual history of Western philosophy.
Collins's theory of small numbers unfortunately has to do with an intramural debate in sociology that reads like the elitism of the functionalist Davis-Moore theory of stratification qua natural selection seasoned with the spice of the limited availability of public space as fame. With maybe a half dozen mentions he foreshortens contributions of women most of whom he writes off as seekers of mysticism (76), overlooking the predominance of men in that field. Somewhere he refers to a fille of Montaigne as a minor offshoot of his philosophy. Montaigne's only surviving daughter made no splash I know of in philosophy. He must mean Marie de Gournay, his symbolic daughter, perhaps a force in her own right in the feminist line of poetess Louise Labbé, who helped Montaigne edit the completed essays.
Beyond a methodological structure Collins imposes on the philosophical panorama the reader searches in vain for some obvious organizing approaches and hypotheses in sociology that the professor well knows: sociogram, though implied in network maps of influence, the equivalent of Marx's bougeois ideologist as revolutionary, much less his historical periods as fetters to nascent growth, possible comparative-historical use of Weber's legal-rational, traditional, charismatic legitimations of knowledge, or Mannheim's generations approach and his hypothesis, sometimes implied in the text, that trade, conquest, and technological change encourage periods of relative class unattachment producing what Koyré calls movement between closed and open universes. To accomplish this might require another quarter century of world-historical study just steps ahead of the swipes of a black-clad reaper. Collins had no such luxury.
Speaking of history, Russell's well-know resume of Western philosophy stands apart from the tight scatter-shot of virtually all other approches in integrating historical knowledge with the doctrines that arise, even if rational bias sometimes overimposes him. Collins stands apart in a somewhat different way. Despite a wealth of information, apparently rather secondary, I am not sure Collins holds up against Russell's historical scholarship. Collins's gossipy side often shows up as when he reveals surprising jealousies of an oddly romantic kind among the logical-positivist Cambridge "apostles" (735-4). Unfortunately he treats mysticism rather conventionally, and therefore poorly, as if it were a byway of religion, academic-intellectual rather than initially experiential and thus leading to expansively productive insight.
A fresh sense of breadth uniquely organized recommends this opus as worth experiencing.
© 2008 Anthony P. Bober
A.P. Bober has studied a psychology spanning Skinner and a humanistic-clinical view based on existential phenomenology and had been a PhD candidate in a substantive yet philosophic European-based sociology including the "critical" view. His teaching augmented courses in group theory/"small-group developmental dynamics" (lab) while introducing "sociology of knowledge" and "issues in biological anthropology," with publications in the first two fields. Currently he is writing a book on mystical experience as metaphorically tied to neuroendocrinology.