The social networks theory of philosophy



As regular readers know, I’m researching the rise of grassroots philosophy groups for a project called Philosophical Communities. This has got me thinking about the roles of groups and networks in the history of ideas, and I’d like to sketch out some initial thinking.  I hope the following isn’t too pretentious...

The history of ideas can be told in two ways: as a series of separate episodes where individuals hatch ideas while shivering in their lonely garret; or as the evolution of networks, communities and experiments in living together.

The first approach is that of Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy: history as a series of Big Names. The second approach is that of Isaiah Berlin, particularly in his analysis of the Russian intelligentsia: a network analysis of groups.

The second approach is taken to an extreme by Randall Collins’ colossal work The Sociology of Philosophies (1998), which declares that “the history of philosophy is to a considerable extent the history of groups”.

Collins insists that “the history of philosophy can be traced through a surprisingly small number of social circles”: Socrates and his descendants, the Renaissance Humanists, the Encyclopedists, the Apostles, and so on. He is interested in the philosopher as “community organizer”. His book is full of slightly crazy flow-charts where he tries to plot the network connections between philosophers at key moments in the history of ideas. Like this:



Ideas, Collins argues, don’t exist in detached monads in an individual’s head. They exist between people, in conversation, even if that conversation is with dead thinkers. They emerge out of networks: between friends, between teacher and pupil, between rival schools.

Abbe Morrellet discussed the social construction of ideas, in the mid-18th century, at the apex of the salon movement:

Very often the one talking has but an incomplete idea, the development of which he has not followed, a principle whose entire consequences he has not appreciated. If he announces it in society, one of those present will be impressed and will perceive the link with one of his own ideas; he will being them together. This rapprochement in turn excites the first speaker, who sees that his initial opinions can be further developed; and with everyone contributing to the growth of this first fund, the communal contribution will soon be enriched.

According to the network theory of ideas, it is not ‘me’ having this idea. This idea is emerging on a network, like a circuit-board lighting up into a certain configuration.



We are only as intelligent as our conversation partner or network enables us to be. We call each other into being.

The Stoics believed that we aren't really separate individuals, we're connections in the Logos, the grid of consciousness which guides the universe, and which speaks through us. Stoic logic, which tried to map the Logos, helped to inspire circuit-board programming and computer logic.

Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things which exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the contexture of the web.

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is as much other people’s words as his own.

The Romantic conception of social network theory, in Shelley, Herder, Goethe, Jung: individuals don’t have ideas: the Zeitgeist has ideas, which individuals channel, like metal rods conducting electricity from the clouds. We are synchronous networks. Elective affinities exist between us. Through synchronicity, we have ideas at the same time.

Collins’ social network approach to the history of ideas has obvious limitations. In some ways, it is just a parlour game: re-arranging the Big Names of philosophy and drawing lines between them. In some ways, it doesn’t go deep enough: a true network analysis of an philosophical community would be a black page, because there would be so many lines of social and sexual connection between so many people. Everything would have to be connected to everything else: the Kevin Bacon history of philosophy.



And it focuses so intently on the connections between people, that it loses sight of questions of truth, value or significance. Were the ideas these people came up with true? Were they valuable? Did they help people?

Collins divides some philosophers into ‘major philosophers’ and ‘minor philosophers’, but never explains on what basis he evaluates them. It becomes, in the end, the ultimate manifestation of the tendency to evaluate a scholar’s significance by the number of times they’ve been cited: if you follow that tendency to its natural conclusion, then the most significant human is the one with the most Twitter followers: Lady Gaga.

It also raises questions of intellectual property and plagiarism. If everything is a co-creation, who has a right to put their name to an idea? Did Mark Zuckerberg create the social network, or did the social network create itself? Who deserves to get paid?

It also raises questions of accountability. If the network is thinking rather than individuals, then can we be held to account for our words? Or can we say, like schizophrenics, it wasn’t me, it was the network controlling me?

Still, I like the approach, and I’ve been using it myself as I try to map the recent history of practical philosophy, which certainly develops through clusters and networks.


Hope that wasn’t too boring for you. In other news:

From the History of Emotions blog, here’s a piece asking if Spinoza was a Stoic.

This piece in the Huffington Post argues that online CBT is the future of healthcare.

This is a good piece on how Mitt Romney ‘went fully Atlas Shrugged’ in that leaked video. Ayn Rand’s paperback classic is still in the best-seller list and has probably influenced recent American politics more than any other book.

If Rand’s crappy book inspired the New Right, then the Port Huron Statement inspired the New Left. Here’s it’s principal author, Tom Hayden, discussing the legacy of the statement and its central idea of ‘participatory democracy’.

And here is an absolutely wonderful documentary looking at the Weathermen, the terrorist organization that the New Left evolved into at the end of the 1960s. Fascinating exploration of a terrible mistake.

My friend Richard Orange, who was in a philosophy club with me back in the day, has written a Kindle Single about the Anders Breivik case, which he covered for the Guardian. It’s doing amazingly, despite the fact Richard hasn’t promoted it in the slightest! Have a look.

A new digital magazine has launched, called Aeon. They’re friends and are kindly sponsoring the next London Philosophy Club meeting. Here is a great article from the new edition, with author Tim Lott talking about how he was helped through depression by the Zen buddhism of Alan Watts.

Here’s a TES piece about a new study that found undergrads who got the best degrees usually bought more books

I’ve started watching the HBO series ‘Girls’. So far I think it’s really good - like a TV series by Whit Stilman. Here’s a NYRB piece on it and here's a Spotify playlist of the great songs in it.

Finally, remember that post I did about the melancholic tradition in English music? Well, last week, an American brought out a book on melancholia in pop called ‘This Will End In Tears: A Miserabilist Guide to Music’, complete with its own Spotify playlist. Obviously something in the Zeitgeist...

See you next week - by the way, I’m speaking at the Society of Psychotherapy on Tuesday evening and at the School of Life on Wednesday evening, both in London. Maybe see some of you there.