Pierre Bourdieu: Reason & Passion

The Chronicle of Higher Education

February 8, 2002


French philosophy is famous for radical theory in the service of progressive social causes. If Diderot, Rousseau, and Voltaire propelled this tradition in the 18th century (inspiring the French Revolution), Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault defined it in recent times by wielding their erudition and symbolic power to wage war in arenas of social struggle far beyond the campus gates. They drew mass publics, not just media citations. After the death of Foucault, in1984, Pierre Bourdieu became the last great exemplar of this tradition. While postmodern philosophers like Jacques Derrida, Francois Lyotard, and Gilles Deleuze were too slippery and cryptic to have real political impact, Bourdieu could mobilize trade unions and social movements, not just graduate seminars and conference audiences.

A professionally trained philosopher who rose from humble origins in rural France and retrained himself to become the chairman of sociology at the College de France, Bourdieu could speak with scientific authority on pressing social issues, deploying an army of researchers to compile and analyze the relevant data while condemning the tendency of intellectuals to draw conclusions about the world from armchair media consumption and their own "solitary thought." A theorist of language's symbolic violence, Bourdieu also skillfully used it to attack his targets with biting satire or vicious invective; he blasted "media intellectuals" for clichéd "fast thought," so empty of content as to be "not even false." His diatribe against television for commercially motivated distortion of the news and for its dumbing-down effects on print journalism made Bourdieu a best-selling author, but also a notoriously controversial public figure.

Recognizing the social power of the press, he struggled for a more enlightened, international journalism, initiating a cultural supplement, Liber, that for two years was simultaneously published in five major European papers, and a publishing house, Raisons d'Agir, devoted to accessibly written but scientifically informed pamphlets on compelling issues of politics, society, and culture. An outspoken critic of leftist complacency (if not complicity) in attempts to reduce workers' social benefits in the name of greater economic flexibility, Bourdieu became a vehement critic of neoliberal globalization, an intellectual ally of the activist farmer Jose Bové in the campaign against the McDonaldization of the world economy and culture. When Bourdieu died of cancer, on January 23 at 11 p.m. Paris time, it was clearly an event of international importance. President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin were quick to praise a stellar career of theory and praxis that brought glory to France.

Bourdieu's death at age 71 is a great loss not only for the political causes and oppressed social publics he championed, but also for the many intellectual disciplines he enriched --philosophy, sociology, anthropology, history, political theory, economics, educational theory, feminism, literary theory, art criticism, and communications theory among them --and for the academics who have been inspired by his life of thought and action. I count myself among those, and count myself fortunate to have known him personally, even if our relationship was often uneasy. I was never his student or colleague. Too critical to be a true disciple, I was also too young and too far from being his equal to even think of being his friend. He was, in a sense, my benefactor: He introduced me to French intellectual life by inviting me to work in his center at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.

Because he published a French translation of my Pragmatist Aesthetics in his distinguished series with Minuit and because I later published a few texts on his philosophical and political importance, people have sometimes identified me with his circle. So the morning after his death brought a flurry of e-mail from French and American colleagues, some requesting commentary for citation. I was not at all prepared to think of Bourdieu in the past tense. Instinctively, I scrolled to my most recent e-mail correspondence with him, but I wanted harder copy to face the hardness of his irreversible passage to the virtual realm of memory. So I riffled through the books he gave me to find those in which he had scribbled a personal dedication that was more than formulaic.

Those books reminded me of encounters in which he had displayed the striking contrasts of his fascinating personality. A man of reason and passion, of personal soul-searching objectified into impersonal social analysis, Bourdieu enjoyed his power as star intellectual but despised the forms of aristocratic elegance that came with his illustrious station. He could be incredibly open and approachable -- engaging you in animated conversation in a corridor, grasping you gently by the arm as he revealed some intimate thought -- but he could also play the haughtily inaccessible corporate intellectual, shielded by protective secretaries and answering machines that took no messages but merely directed you to other numbers of other machines.

Admired for his adventurous openness and seductive charm (he had an irresistible smile and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes that made you feel you were his closest confidant and co-conspirator), Bourdieu was also despised by many who found him narrowly sectarian, brutally intolerant of rival views, and merciless in attacking those who dared oppose him. Though feared as an almighty power monger, he sadly confessed to me, on several occasions, how impotent he was in finding university jobs for his students.

I came to Bourdieu's work in the late 1980s not as a fan of French theory but as an Oxford-trained analytic philosopher of art and language who was looking for something I felt missing in my philosophic heroes Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin (who were also heroes of Bourdieu). Those Oxbridge philosophers argued that linguistic meaning depends not on the reference of words but on the social context and background of practices in which the words are uttered. But neither provided a systematic account of how those social contexts and practices should be analyzed.

Bourdieu's attempt to theorize the social space that shapes our linguistic and cultural practices (and to do so through richly empirical research) intrigued me as a possibly necessary next step of analysis. So I contacted him, and after a brief but enthusiastic correspondence (in which I was encouraged to share not only my philosophical texts but the political manifestoes of the radical Israeli peace movement I belonged to), he warmly invited me to spend some time at his center in Paris. This gesture of outreach to an unknown scholar from foreign parts exemplified Bourdieu's impulsive generosity, openness, and adventurous curiosity.

Before I had the chance to come to Paris, however, he also invited me to be among a handful of speakers at a conference in his honor in Berlin. It was my first real-life encounter with Bourdieu; it proved all too dramatic. Anglo-American philosophical etiquette prescribes homage to an admired senior colleague by constructive critique of his work. So, knowing no better, I diplomatically challenged Bourdieu's rejection of popular art, which he finds too closely linked with lower-class interests to have aesthetic legitimacy. But I did so by endorsing Bourdieu's general social approach to aesthetic value, and then appealing to the different social space of American culture and its increasing influence on European taste.

I expected some disagreement, but not the wrathful explosion in which he reviled my paper as an imbecilic misinterpretation. He shunned me the rest of the conference and continued to ignore me when I showed up at his center in Paris. Shortly before my return to America, I sent Bourdieu a formal note thanking him for my stay at his center and attaching a copy of the book manuscript I was writing, in which a longer version of my offending paper played a significant role. To my surprise, he invited me to his office and apologized for misunderstanding me in Berlin. Not having known of my new interests in pragmatism and popular culture, he had presumed that my Berlin intervention was just a slick exercise to make him look like a conservative old fogey, a political posture that may have been more odious to him than being wrong.

Though he never agreed with my criticisms, he thought my vision of pragmatist aesthetics was important enough to publish in his book series, even if my aesthetic defense of popular art still angered him as a form of "radical chic" that wins theoretical victories for the art of dominated cultures while leaving their social domination in place. If he seemed ready to concede the point that aesthetic activism and social activism could work together, he always insisted on the priority of the latter, and with good reason.

When he later published La misere du monde, his magnificent study of social suffering in contemporary France, Bourdieu inscribed my copy of the book with the devastating barb "a different way of treating popular culture" -- evidently a far more robust, scientific, and politically influential way than mine could ever be. I treasure his critical combativeness and frankness, now more than ever.

Richard Shusterman is chairman of the philosophy department at Temple University. He edited Bourdieu: A Critical Reader (Blackwell, 1999) and is the author of Surface and Depth, to be published by Cornell University Press this June.