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Review of Collins, 'Sociology of Philosophies'


Reinstating the primacy of value theory in light of Randall Collins's "Reflexivity and embeddedness in the history of ethical philosophies"

Steve Fuller, Warwick University, UK.

[This article in appeared in Philosophy of the Social Sciences 30 (2000): 246-257.]

ABSTRACT: Randall Collins's sociology of philosophical knowledge is only one version of the project that goes by that name. I criticize his version for sticking too closely

to professional analytic philosophy's own understanding of its history, which

only serves to undercut the critical role that the sociology of knowledge has

traditionally played in exposing the reflexive implications of belief systems. I

focus my critique on Collins's privileging of metaphysics and epistemology over

value theory as driving the history of philosophy. Instead of seeing value theory

as the mere application of metaphysics and epistemology, I argue that a more

critical perspective would see these latter two branches of philosophy as coded

versions of value positions that could have had serious political consequences

for the philosopher, were they made explicit.

The Sociology of Philosophical Knowledge: How Might It Be Done?

The sociology of philosophical knowledge is a most worthy project, of which Randall Collins is the undisputed pioneer and leading researcher. I have already written appreciative reviews of his magisterial Sociology of Philosophies in the flagship professional sociology journals in the US (Fuller 1999) and UK (Fuller 2000b). The great strength of the work is that it lays bare the sociology implicit in the historical narratives through which academic philosophy presents its official face to students and lay readers of philosophy. More circumspect versions of these narratives provide the basic terms of reference for histories of philosophy written by philosophers and, of course, professional philosophers looking for distinguished precursors to legitimize their current pursuits. In short, Collins holds up a sociological mirror to philosophy. If philosophers do not like the reflected image, they really have only themselves to blame.

                        At the same time, this points to the great weakness of Collins's method. Extending the metaphor, his preferred instrument of theoretical vision is a mere mirror rather than, say, a more probing X-ray. This makes Collins's project a rather uncharacteristic exercise in the sociology of knowledge, the results of which normally leave the reader uneasy that the top dogs in a field have nothing more in their favor than a monopoly of force or some other scarce resource. Yet, all seems to be well with philosophy in Collins's account. The "good guys" are winning: Western philosophy is the most progressive philosophical culture the world has ever seen; logic, epistemology, and metaphysics have been its vanguard fields; and analytic philosophy the most successful of its contemporary schools. If you doubt any of these three propositions, then you will not find much comfort in Collins. At the risk of committing the dreaded sin of Eurocentrism, I will confess to believing the first proposition but not the other two. In that case, how does one begin to lay the groundwork for a more critical sociology of philosophy?

                         We can summarily get the measure of this project by posing a set of questions affording multiple answers, which together constitute a menu of possibilities for how to proceed:

I. How is "philosophy" defined for sociological purposes?

1.    Public definitions (e.g., through surveys of intellectuals, citizens, etc.)

2.    Symptomatic definitions (e.g., through references in philosophical works)

3.    Self-definitions (e.g., through affiliation in philosophical schools)

4.    Official definitions (e.g., through disciplinary histories).

II. What is it about philosophy that needs to be sociologically explained?

1.    Its (dis)continuity as an activity over time and space.

2.    Its influence on/by society.

3.    Its autonomy (or lack) from society.

4.    Its progress (or lack) as an activity.

III. "Reflexivity" as a measure of progress in philosophy

1.    Narrow Reflexivity: Philosophy reflects on the logical presuppositions of its claims.

·    Progress: Philosophy rises to levels of generality, articulation, and consistency that transcend the demands of its social context.

·    Regress: Philosophy becomes either so alienated from its socieity that it appears irrelevant or so useful to various social interests that it becomes "too relevant."

2.    Wide Reflexivity: Philosophy reflects on the social conditions of its practice.

·    Progress: Philosophy challenges the society that houses it by realizing (and perhaps resolving) latent contradictions.

·    Regress: Philosophy reproduces the society that houses it by refusing to probe hidden tensions.

                      Collins's project can be seen as having opted for the following possibilities on this menu. For (I), option (4) is chosen, in part as a means of getting at (3) and less directly (2), while (1) is largely ignored. For (II), (4) is the principal interest, with (3) being used as the main indirect indicator (i.e. progress and autonomy are presumed to be positively correlated). For (III), Collins opts for (1) but, as I shall suggest, perhaps without seriously considering the regressive side of the equation. The result is a view of philosophy as a self-determining and largely self-regarding enterprise.

Sociology as a Profile in Professional Prejudices?

As already suggested, Collins's strategy reinforces philosophers' professional prejudices. This is especially clear in his recent follow-up essay on the cognitive superiority of epistemology and metaphysics to value theory (Collins 2000). ("Value theory" is my omnibus term for ethics, politics, law, aesthetics, and other explicitly normative disciplines.) This prejudice is manifested in several ways. The one Collins stresses is value theory's relative lack of intellectual adventurousness. However, he could have equally mentioned the gendered character of the dichotomy, as women are much more prominent in value theory than in epistemology and metaphysics. In other professions, this would be read as a mark of the field's relatively low status. This point is perhaps not unrelated to informal views about value theory being sloppier, less substantive (as in: "Ethics is the mere codification of folk attitudes, not the result of logically compelling argument"), and more susceptible to the influence of other disciplines, not to mention ambient political pressures.

                     Intentionally or not, Collins spins the history of value theory to keep these prejudices afloat. For example, he says that the "Great Philosophers" typically saw value theory as an application of carefully forged arguments in metaphysics and epistemology. However, this ignores the fact that many, if not most, of them saw their ethical philosophies as the ultimate payoff -- the alimentary proof that the metaphysical pudding was worth baking, so to speak. Moreover, if Leo Strauss and Quentin Skinner are even partly right, metaphysics and epistemology may provide a politically safer ground to carry on arguments with serious, but largely implicit, value implications. In other words, metaphysics and epistemology may themselves be encrypted ways of saying things about how we should live our lives and distribute our allegiances that, said more straightforwardly (e.g. as an explicit moral prescription), would have jeopardized the author's own well-being.

                     A watered-down version of this disguised practice occurs nowadays when a philosopher of science expresses her distaste for religious education to a hostile audience by attempting to exclude Creationist teaching on grounds relating to the "definition" of science, as opposed to the anticipated anti-scientific or anti-liberal attitudes that exposure to Creationism is likely to foster. Hence, an essentially moral objection is rendered a matter of epistemic adjudication. To be sure, two can play this game, as witnessed in the metaphysically inspired "definitions" of life that enable Catholic advocates to make "principled" objections to abortion, a practice they find morally abhorrent.

                     Indeed, given the pervasiveness of this use of epistemic arguments to moral ends, I am tempted to claim that the stock-in-trade appeals that metaphysicians and epistemologists make to foundations, presuppositions, and definitions are just a high-grade form of conflict resolution (or sublimation?), a way to decide between often radically different judgements concerning the consequences of holding certain beliefs without having to confront openly the value preferences that these judgments imply. Is it mere coincidence, then, that general-purpose philosophies with a strong consequentialist (usually teleological) orientation – Aristotelianism, Hegelianism, Pragmatism – have tended to place values at the very center of their metaphysics, thereby conflating the distinction in branches of philosophy that Collins wishes to draw?

                     It is worth pointing out the sense of "reflexivity" involved in the above three paragraphs is not Collins's. Collins appeals to what I earlier identified as the "narrow" sense of reflexivity that is close to the logician's or linguist's interest in the consistency of self-applied statements. In contrast, I mean here the "wider" sense traditionally associated with the sociology of knowledge's interest in the existential implications of making a statement for the statement-maker given his or her place in the larger culture. In terms of my sense of reflexivity, there is nothing especially "puzzling" that philosophers who express their ethical philosophies openly tend to keep close to the normative bounds of their day.

                        One byproduct of the relatively abstract terms in which metaphysical and epistemological statements are expressed is that they are appropriable by many different parties with many different value orientations for many different ends. From a standpoint of the sociology of philosophy that accorded value theory a privilege denied by Collins, the ready-to-hand character of this discourse would probably be subject to critical scrutiny and maybe even labeled opportunistic. But given Collins's own sympathy with the metaphysicians and epistemologists, such ease of appropriation would seem to be a plus, not a minus.

                          So far I have been taking Collins's expression "metaphysics and epistemology" at face value, since it still captures something recognizable in the philosophy curriculum. However, much of the boldness that he ascribes to these branches of philosophy – especially when compared with value theory – is no more than nostalgic when projected on the contemporary anglophone scene, where metaphysics and epistemology have become at least as specialised and restricted in focus as the various branches of value theory. For example, consider the "big names" in contemporary epistemology: Alvin Goldman, Keith Lehrer, John Pollock, Isaac Levi, Henry Kyburg.  Are any of these likely to be elevated even to Collins’s second tier of Great Philosophers? Indeed, what is usually taught as "metaphysics and epistemology" in today’s anglophone courses (barring the ones explicitly devoted to The Great Philosophers) is just playing out an endgame began by Wilfrid Sellars and Roderick Chisholm after the latter discovered the works of Brentano while doing military duty for the US in Austria during World War II.

                           Perhaps logical positivism’s most lasting institutional legacy to philosophy has been to shift the locus of "bold" philosophizing from metaphysics and epistemology to philosophy of language and philosophy of science, respectively. That is really where the sort of intellectual adventurousness that Collins valorizes can be found in the English-speaking world in the second half of the 20th century. And here one finds the normative aroma of value theory much more clearly in the air, be it in the various Oxbridge injunctions concerning language use or the Popperian strictures on scientific rationality that would rule out most "normal science" as irrational. 

Does Collins Stick Too Close to the Philosophical Record?

A possible reason why value theorists do not appear very high on Collins's list of Great Philosophers is that they were typically more than just philosophers -- at least that is how they look to us today. And for us, steeped in philosophy as a technical discipline, to be more than a philosopher is always to be less than one. Admittedly, this is a tricky historiographical issue: to what extent do our intuitive judgements about the status of these figures reflect how they lived their lives, as opposed to the contribution (or not) we take them to have made to legitimizing our current intellectual pursuits?

                           A striking version of the problem can be found far from the center of value theory, namely, the origins of modern philosophy of science. Virtually all the 19th century founding fathers -- William Whewell, Pierre Duhem, Ernst Mach, etc. -- were on the losing side of the major scientific disputes of their day, often spectacularly so; whereas we tend to regard the major scientists as indifferent or flawed philosophers. (The difference becomes more pronounced the farther back we go, as in, say, the scientific versus philosophical merit of Hobbes and Boyle or, for that matter, Descartes and Newton.) If in all these cases, the parties did not detect the hard line between science and philosophy we observe today, was it because they were confused about what they were up to (mixing science and philosophy indiscriminately) – or rather, that we are letting our retrospectively applied categories color our judgment of how the history actually transpired? Indeed, I have examined the 1908-13 public debates between Mach and Max Planck as a highly visible attempt to resolve this issue (Fuller 2000a: chap. 2).

                           In Fuller (1999), I noted that the main "database" in Collins (1998) is a set of professional histories of philosophy taken from various points in the 20th century. This is a period when the relationship between philosophy and the other disciplines has not only changed, but more importantly has been subject to intense disagreement and variation. Perhaps Collins is too impressed by the relatively airbrushed version of history conveyed in these philosophy texts and hence may be a bit too quick in assuming closure has been reached on where, say, philosophy ends and something else begins. For, an interesting feature of the 20th century has been the number of academically based thinkers who either explicitly or implicitly challenged the overall trend of increased professionalization in philosophy: Popper, Hayek, Kuhn, Chomsky each did this in his own inimitable way. (Of course, a list of Marx-inspired thinkers could be given as well.) Needless to say, all have been accused of being sub-philosophical performers by one or another academic philosopher. Unfortunately, Collins’s sociological approach may only to serve to bolster this sort of "establishment" judgment because of the relatively uncritical way with which he deals with the evidence provided by philosophers’ histories of philosophy.

                          My overall impression in reading Collins (2000) is just how close his account of philosophical change is to Kuhn’s account of scientific change. As in normal science, philosophers deal in ever higher levels of abstraction and reflexivity, except during the relatively brief periods when "external" concerns intervene, only to be then erased from the reformed historical record as the next cycle of abstraction and reflexivity is set in motion. Here I am especially struck by the highly circumscribed role Collins assigns to rational life-conduct advice in the development of value theory. I wonder, however, whether the story would be so neat, had he not focused so much on ethics strictu sensu, but instead ranged a bit more widely to cover not only political theory but especially jurisprudence and aesthetics – two areas where philosophical discourse has probably played a more constitutive role in the activities of lawyers and artists, respectively.

                        One disturbing feature of Collins’s implicit sense of philosophical progress is that – again like Kuhn’s – it seems to favor the single-minded pursuit of pedigreed irrelevance. Thus, the history of ethics acquires a sense of progress only with the rise of meta-ethics in the 20th century. Aside from sounding suspiciously like the very same story analytic philosophers would tell, it bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a story sometimes told about contemporary philosophy of science (again, especially by analytic philosophers). Accordingly, philosophy of science was a bit of an embarrassment when philosophers were disputing scientists over things the latter knew more about (e.g. Popper on quantum mechanics, evolutionary theory and his general contempt for "normal science"). But once the smoke cleared from the Kuhn-Popper debates in the 1970s, philosophers finally found their rightful place going tit-for-tat in the second-order realism-instrumentalism debate.

                         Although they are allegedly trying to explain "the success of science", the two sides of this debate would give largely the same positively disposed first-order narrative of the history of science but offer different second-order accounts of why the narrative is as it is. Neither side is particularly critical of science as actually practiced; indeed, scientists can easily go about their business without paying attention to either camp. To be sure, the philosophical debate becomes more sophisticated as it is played out, and even the use of history becomes more detailed to illustrate the major claims. Yet, in the end, this sounds very much like the relationship between meta-ethics and the conduct of life. As such, it jars with my intuitive sense of progress in an intellectual endeavor, which admittedly is influenced by the “wide” sense of reflexivity.

                         Related to this last point is what may be Collins’s misleading causal talk that meta-ethics, be it starting with Prichard or Nietzsche, constitutes an intellectual "breakthrough."  This would seem to imply that value theorists had been trying to make a semantic ascent but failed to do so, for whatever reason -- lack of incentive, lack of intellect?  In contrast, there may be simply something much less edifying going on here. It may be that over the 20th century, moral philosophers have increasingly found themselves talking only to each other as they have gradually lost their traditional pedagogical charges, aspirant priests and civil servants. The intellectually challenging discourse about rational life-conduct in the secular era has been transferred from theology to the liberal professions, largely bypassing professional philosophy altogether.

                            In a sense, then, Collins is right that philosophy has had little of its own to say about first-order moral issues. But that is not because these issues are incapable of interesting intellectual development. (Collins’s remarks about the "conservative" nature of ethics sometimes suggest that he holds such a view.) Rather, the development is occurring offstage. Here I think Collins underrates the significance of business, medical, legal, engineering, research -- and all the other species of  "professional ethics" that have arisen in the past generation. Although these fields initially tried to apply standard ethical philosophies "off the shelf" (and hence were seen as "applied philosophy"), it became clear that judgments reached in this fashion did not do justice to the specificity and complexity of the cases, which demanded a more “bottom-up” conceptualization.

                             Indeed, Stephen Toulmin (1999) has gone so far as to claim that this realization marks the resurgence of a countercurrent in the history of value theory – the casuistic tradition – which has been historically associated with the cultivation of rhetoric and the need to provide explicit justifications for actions in situations where trust in the relevant experts has broken down. In other words, rather than gradually transcend the society in which it is embedded, progress in philosophical ethics would consist in its ability to suture together the torn social fabric. However, as suggested by the disparate institutional pattern of professional ethics programs, it would be difficult to do a Collins-like streamlined sociology of philosophy for this tradition. Nevertheless, it would be a task worth undertaking as a test run for a wide reflexivity account of philosophical progress.

Transvaluing Narrow Reflexivity: Seeds of an Alternative Sociology of Philosophy

An important lesson of Popper's (1972) account of the origins of objective knowledge is that autonomous inquiry arises as a byproduct of practical activity. Thus, mathematics as a body of knowledge emerged from people taking counting and measuring procedures as ends in themselves rather than as mere means for the determination of taxes, architectural foundations, and horoscopes. In that sense, reflection on tools as objects in their own right may provide the evolutionary basis for an Ur-sense of reflexivity as the basic capacity for second-order thought. This principle can be easily generalized to the origin of philosophical concerns: to wit, philosophy may be said to begin when particular arguments used to influence public debate are treated as belonging to a specific class of arguments, which is then itself treated as a focus of discussion.

                       This helps explain why it is relatively easy to get an initial fix on the sociology of philosophical knowledge: almost all the canonical positions have their origins in more ordinary forms of social legitimation. Consider Table 1, a list of standard philosophical positions that can be historically motivated as attempts to universalize types of arguments, instances of which are commonly found in public debate:

Philosophical Position

Legitimatory Origins

Kantianism (in ethics)

How to legislate so as to respect individual integrity

Utilitarianism (in ethics)

How to legislate so as to advance soicety as a whole

Rationalism (in epistemology)

How to preempt an irresolvable religious dispute

Empiricism (in epistemology)

How to secure minimum agreement in an irresolvable religious dispute

Realism (in philosophy of science)

What replaces religion in secular society

Instrumentalism (in philosophy of science)

Why secular society does not need a replacement for religion

Objectivism (in philosophy of social science)

What enables ultimate success of the imperialist project

Relativism (in philosophy of social science)

What enables resistance to the imperialist project.

Table 1: The Origins of Philosophical Positions in Projects of Social Legitimation

                       A striking feature of the history of modern philosophy is the infrequency with which philosophers have tried to reintroduce these philosophical extrapolations to practical decision-making. A notable effort in this respect was Henry Sidgwick's The Methods of Ethics (1966), which canonized the opposition between Kantianism and utilitarianism by stressing the situations in which tradeoffs had to be made between the two positions. Of course, in most cases, the two positions affirm the same decisions. Perhaps this is because philosophy flourishes on the margins, the extreme cases where differences in reasoning finally make a palpable difference for action. The construction of such hypothetical cases would therefore constitute a distinctly philosophical art. (Thanks to Leslie Green for raising this point in discussion.)

                        The only problem with this characterization is that fully articulated philosophical positions of the sort valorized by Collins in the name of narrow reflexivity do not merely concur in the main and diverge at the margins: they even can be invoked to support policies diametrically opposed to the spirit of their original conception. Thus, a dash of ingenuity coupled with diabolical intent has enabled Kantianism to legitimize blind obedience to dictators and utilitarianism to justify impoverishing the majority in many nations. What this shows is that the dogged pursuit of philosophical inquiry detached from specific practical concerns can render the resulting positions ideological wild cards available to the highest bidder. Since Collins places such great store on Western philosophy’s ability to develop relatively insulated from ambient social concerns, it is incumbent upon him to explain (and perhaps excuse?) such significant unintended consequences.

                          In the end, even a wide reflexivist like myself must account for the motivation of those who pursue the narrow reflexivist route, since admittedly this is what empirically distinguishes philosophy from other organized intellectual pursuits. In a nutshell, I take my cue from Plato’s attempt to protect reason from the public corruption exhibited in his lifetime, beginning with the rise of the Sophists, the trial of Socrates, and finally the fall of Athens at the hands of Sparta (Fuller 2000a: chap. 1). The relevant emotions here are disappointment, frustration, and, to some extent, resentment. A definitive experience of failure can heighten one’s sense of the distance between the ideal and the actual, as well as decrease the likelihood that the distinction will be subsequently blurred by feats of cognitive accommodation, or what social psychologists call “adaptive preference formation.” I regard this alternative vision of the sociology of philosophy as itself a post-Nietzschean position, at least insofar as, for Nietzsche, the transcendental power of the afterlife was ultimately grounded in slaves realizing that they cannot appreciably improve their lot by ordinary secular means. In this respect, there may be some truth to the idea that philosophy trades off knowledge against power.


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

Collins, Randall. (2000). "Reflexivity and Embeddedness in the History of Ethical Philosophies." in Martin Kusch (ed.), The Sociology of Philosophical Knowledge. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Fuller, Steve. (1999). “One small step for philosophy. One giant leap for the sociology of knowledge.” Contemporary Sociology 28: 277-80.

Fuller, Steve. (2000a). Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fuller, Steve. (2000b). “Social Epistemology: A Philosophy for Sociology or a Sociology for Philosophy?” Sociology 34:…

Popper, Karl. (1972). Objective Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sidgwick, Henry. (1966). The Methods of Ethics. Orig. 1874. New York: Dover.

Toulmin, Stephen. (1999). "The rediscovery of reasonableness." Book manuscript.

Author's note: Steve Fuller is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, UK. He is the founder of the research program of "social epistemology," which he has developed in a journal, numerous articles, and six books, the latest of which are The Governance of Science: Ideology and the Future of the Open Society (Milton Keynes UK: Open University Press, 1999) and Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). Address: Department of Sociology, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK. E-mail: