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I have from time to time disparaged French social philosophy. It’s not so much the content (it’s that too), but rather the language. To paraphrase Professor Higgins, the French don’t care what they say actually, so long as they write it properly. Which, for French social philosophers, means convoluted, obtuse, ambiguous, impenetrable — well-known hallmarks of French philosophy, generally. It’s not (only) a problem with translation; I’ve heard French scholars despair (publicly, at SAA meetings) of Bourdieu’s prose.
Here’s an easy bit of Bourdieu: “Habitus is the work product of inculcation and appropriation necessary for those products of collective history that are the objective structures (e.g., language, economics, etc.) able to reproduce the form of lasting dispositions in all organisms (which can, if you will, be called individuals) permanently subject to the same packaging, then placed in the same material conditions of existence.”
And now de Certeau, commenting on Bourdieu: “These confrontations are supposed to provide a mutual epistemological elucidation; they labor to bring their implicit foundations to light – the ambition and the myth of knowledge. But perhaps what is at stake is different and has to do rather with the otherness introduced by the move through which a discipline turns toward the darkness that surrounds and precedes it – not in order to eliminate it, but because it is inexpungeable and determining?”
There was a time when I had some facility with French. I tried to read Bourdieu in his mother tongue, and all I can say is that the English translations seem, to me, fair and honest. This, apparently, is how French social philosophers choose to write. It’s deliberately difficult in French; it’s downright bizarre in American English. Alas, our journals are infested with faux-French vocabularies, twisted syntax, deliberately convoluted arguments. I used to be disgusted; then I tried to be amused; now I’m just embarrassed.
Not all French intellectuals write that way. I admire (in translation) Fernand Braudel both for his work and for his clarity. But the philosophes ascendant in American archaeology stand solidly in the French philosophical tradition: impossible to read, and even more so to understand. I’m sure there are things of worth, if one digs hard enough. The same could be said for Marx or the Bible: useful or artful bits are buried in both. But neither goes in directions I find useful, so I carry on without their hidden gems.
To be sure, there are alternatives to French social philosophy: vast libraries of theory, old and new, with which to inform our work. For sizable segments of American archaeology, however, the French have cornered the market on ideas. Archaeologists writing about space and architecture cite Henri Lefebvre – an unfathomable Marxist philosopher – but not Amos Raporport. And we’ve trained them in such a way that our graduate students find it hard to recognize Rapoport’s virtues or even his applicability! As the wicked witch said, melting down to nothing: what a world, what a world.
Theory does not require Delphic obscurantism. Many useful thinkers think clearly and write clearly. I list several below – a quick, short list with only a few works for each. Some are old and some not so old. You must judge if their thinking is useful (I find it so). But – and this is key – you can judge their thinking directly on its merits, and not as faith that something useful lies buried in the verbiage.
To students and younger scholars reading this essay, I offer antidotes. For every French social philosopher you read, read one of these. If you are tempted or prompted to write like a French philosopher, take two and call your professor very, very early in the morning.
And remember, always, Voltaire: “Tous les genres sont bons, hors le genre enneyeux.”
House Form and Culture. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969
Human Aspects of Urban Form: Towards a Man-Environment Approach to Urban Form and Design. Oxford ; New York: Pergamon Press, 1977
The Meaning of the Built Environment: A Nonverbal Communication Approach. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1982
History and Precedent in Environmental Design. New York: Plenum Press, 1990.
Evolutionism in Cultural Anthropology: A Critical History. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2003
The Muse of History and the Science of Culture. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2000
The Evolution of the Human Mind: From Supernaturalism to Naturalism : An Anthropological Perspective. Clinton Corners, N.Y.: Eliot Werner Publications, 2010.
The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962
The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: the Mexican, Maya, and Andean Peoples. Harmondsworth, Middlesex; New York: Penguin Books, 1984.
Esthetic Recognition of Ancient Amerindian Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.
The Global Condition: Conquerors, Catastrophes, and Community. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992
Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995
The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. (with James Robert McNeill)
The Pursuit of Truth: A Historian’s Memoir. Lexington, Ky. University Press of Kentucky, 2005.
Land and Life: A Selection from the Writings of Carol Ortwin Sauer. Edited by John Leighly. University of California Press, Berkelely, 1969
Selected Essay 1963 – 1975. Edited by Bob Callahan. Berkeley: Turtle Island Press, 1981.
Carl Sauer on Culture and Landscape: Readings and Commentaries. Edited by William M. Denevan and Kent Mathewson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009.
Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Chapter 1.D. Under Construction
The language of truth is simple.
Reblogged this on Brain to Behavior, Evolution to Society and commented:
Entertaining post from Leckson. “Theory does not require Delphic obscurantism.” Yes! I believe that Chomsky said as much about the Left Bank theorists as well, though he proposed that the obscure language was intended to hide banal or vacuous ideas.
amen, and thank you stephen!
Add yourself to this list Stephen! You are a clear and readable writer. I appreciate the form and substance of your work.