Think Free


Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was a French social thinker who built on ideas popularized by postmoderns such as Michel Foucault and the semiologist Roland Barthes. Like Foucault, Bourdieu was critical of Marxism, Existentialism and Structuralism and he tried to understand the practice of Sociology within its own cultural context.

Michael Payne says Bourdieu also argued that theories, beliefs and dispositions influence cultural practice, often “unconsciously and uncritically.”¹

So any good theory, including scientific theory, should be “reflexive”—that is, it should seek to identify and overcome its own biases. This sounds sensible but, at the same time, scientists are just people, with all the flaws, limitations, pride and ambition that we all share. These personal biases usually interfere, in varying degrees, with the reflexive aspect of science. In other words, the ego gets in the way. This is, perhaps, most obvious in so-called “soft science” disciplines like psychology and psychiatry, but it’s present in all aspects of science. Whenever a worldview becomes an entrenched form of belief, its reflexive aspects usually diminish. For a while, anyhow.

As a sociologist, Bourdieu developed seminal concepts such as “habitus,” “fields,” “cultural capital” and social “reproduction” to better illustrate his ideas about societal discrimination, inequity and domination. With regard to domination, he introduced the term “symbolic violence” to describe ways of seeing that are subtly imposed on groups and individuals. Along these lines, Bourdieu made important contributions toward the deconstruction of language, scholarship and science. Without the deconstruction of ideas and practices, those with social power seek to impose their particular view of the “natural” or “just” on those who lack the power to shape the understanding of these concepts within society. Whether or not this dynamic occurs willfully or unreflectively is a matter of debate.

Again, it would be wrong to say that Bourdieu was the first to come up with the idea of symbolic violence. Sociologists have been thinking out of the box ever since Max Weber argued that the Protestant work ethic played a central role in the development of Capitalism. As such, the related concepts of work and laziness have taken a definite shape and form in so-called developed societies. And Emile Durkheim looked at the phenomenon of suicide from a statistical perspective, trying to link social conditions to this tragic activity. So for Durkheim, suicide isn’t just a personal choice. It’s linked to the norms and expectations of a given culture.

¹ Michael Payne, ed. A Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory, Oxford: Blackwell, 1997, p. 73.


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Roland Barthes

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Roland Barthes (1915-1980) was a French semiologist, best known for his book Mythologies (1957). Barthes argued that most of what we assume to be natural could be products of history and culture. More specifically, linguistic and artistic representations play a crucial role in the naturalization of arbitrary and morally ambiguous historical events.

By way of example, politically active gay persons usually challenge the following argument:

Homosexuality is ethically bad because it is unnatural, and heterosexuality is ethically good because it is natural.

Critics will say that, according to this line of reasoning, a deadly rattlesnake could be good for children because it is natural. And this seems a valid critique of this kind of argument. Regardless of one’s beliefs about the joys or horrors of homosexuality, to challenge it with this type of reasoning is philosophically weak.

Barthes also makes a distinction between readerly and writerly text, outlined well at Wikipedia:

Readerly text

A text that makes no requirement of the reader to “write” or “produce” their own meanings. The reader may passively locate “ready-made” meaning. Barthes writes that these sorts of texts are “controlled by the principle of non-contradiction” (156), that is, they do not disturb the “common sense,” or “Doxa,” of the surrounding culture. The “readerly texts,” moreover, “are products [that] make up the enormous mass of our literature” (5). Within this category, there is a spectrum of “replete literature,” which comprises “any classic (readerly) texts” that work “like a cupboard where meanings are shelved, stacked, [and] safeguarded” (200).[6]

Writerly text

A text that aspires to the proper goal of literature and criticism: “… to make the reader no longer a consumer but a producer of the text” (4). Writerly texts and ways of reading constitute, in short, an active rather than passive way of interacting with a culture and its texts. A culture and its texts, Barthes writes, should never be accepted in their given forms and traditions. As opposed to the “readerly texts” as “product,” the “writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages” (5). Thus reading becomes for Barthes “not a parasitical act, the reactive complement of a writing,” but rather a “form of work”¹

However, this distinction seems spurious, for readers are always interpreting and creating as they take in a text, regardless of if being a so-called “classic” text or an “avante-garde” text. In fact, avant garde texts usually emerge within some new kind of clique or arts group that can be just as “bourgeois” as traditional groups. This was made abundantly clear whenever I attended a Cultural Studies class in university, which usually reeked with the snobbery of style exuded by some students living on their wealthy parents’ credit cards.

¹ See more on this distinction here:

Related Posts » Baudrillard (Jean), Foucault (Michel), Semiology

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A creed (Latin credo: I believe) is a general or precise set of religious beliefs which (apparently) are written in unambiguous language.

The philosopher of religion Thomas McPherson maintains that saying

I believe in God

is quite different from saying

I believe that God exists

The former statement, he argues, avows an attachment, commitment and basic trust in the subject matter. It’s a statement of faith. The latter statement is simply a neutral opinion or, if not perhaps neutral, it’s certainly a cooler, less emotionally involved statement.

By way of contrast, consider

I believe in my country

as compared to

I believe that my country exists

McPherson says these statements are similar to the pair of statements about God’s existence. But he also claims that saying you believe in your country doesn’t entail the same degree of involvement as saying that you believe in God.

McPherson’s claim that saying “I believe in God” reveals the most passionate of all beliefs is questionable. Dialectical materialists forwarding in the work of Karl Marx, for instance, sometimes seem tremendously passionate about their “faith” in the object of their belief.

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A good example of a dialectical materialist who seems to “believe in” Marx’s ideas with great intensity can be found in J. D. Bernal, whose Science in History, Vols. 1-4. follows the Marxist ideology pretty closely.

But not only Marxists can get passionate about their beliefs. Social thinkers like Roland Barthes have argued that American patriotism, particularly during the 1950s, arguably had all the intensity of a religious faith. That is, the idea of the American Spirit connoted a intense set of beliefs about the superiority and moral goodness of America.

Related Posts » Doctrine, Dogma

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Heart Sutra

Chinese text of the Heart Sutra, by Yuan Dynas...

Chinese text of the Heart Sutra, by Yuan Dynasty artist and calligrapher Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322 CE) via Wikipedia

The Heart Sutra is the shortest of 40 texts which make up the Prajnaparamitra-sutra, important to Mahayana and Zen Buddhism. It is recited by monks and nuns throughout China, Japan and beyond.

The Heart Sutra contains the famous assertion, “emptiness is form, form is emptiness,” which is often cited in New Age circles and probably taught in just about every undergraduate Oriental philosophy course.

Although this may seem a simplistic, unsophisticated claim, it’s arguably relevant to recent discoveries in sub-atomic physics where matter and energy are observed as two different forms of one mysterious underlying reality.

But this idea cannot account for spiritual experiences (and possible realms) that extend beyond and above that somewhat basic level of cosmic – not heavenly – mystery.

Sanskrit text of the Heart Sutra, in the Siddh...

Sanskrit text of the Heart Sutra, in the Siddhaṃ script. Replica of a palm-leaf manuscript dated to 609 CE via Wikipedia

Quite different from Jewish, Islamic and Christian heavens, Buddhist heavens are not taken as everlasting abodes. Buddhist heavens are just so many stops on a road towards the ‘nothingness/fullness’ of Nirvana.

So the oft-overlooked question remains: Are all of the heavens mentioned in different world traditions the same in character and quality?

Some find this simple, straightforward question troubling, preferring to focus on the apparent commonalities among world religions. While this is an admirable approach, one arguably shouldn’t turn a blind eye to religious differences.

Chinese text of the Heart Sutra, by scholar an...

Chinese text of the Heart Sutra, by scholar and calligrapher Ouyang Xun, dated 635 CE via Wikipedia

Meanwhile, some tend to embrace politically correct beliefs about religious homogeneity instead of really thinking carefully about religion.

Additionally, we have those who conflate national pride with absolute truth. The semiologist Roland Barthes asked several decades ago, for instance, whether the ‘Holy Spirit’ and the ‘American Spirit’ connote the same thing. Along these lines history reveals that personal imaginings, political correctness and zeal for one’s nation rarely make good bedfellows with the sincere pursuit of truth, not only in religion but in just about any discipline.