Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Intellectual Ritual

Randall Collins applies his idea of interaction rituals specifically to intellectuals. He is of course focusing on philosophers in his work, but the fact of the matter is that this description is equally applicable whether the intellectuals are philosophers, historians, scientists, or artists. In each case, social interactions are vital, and can make the difference between being a major intellectual and a minor one.

This, then, is the intellectual ritual. Intellectuals gather, focus their attention for a time on one of their members, who delivers a sustained discourse. That discourse itself builds on elements from the past, affirming and continuing or negating. Old sacred objects, previously charged up, are recharged with attention, or degraded from their sacredness and expelled from the life of the community; new candidate sacred objects are offered for sanctification. By reference to texts past and texts future, the intellectual community keeps up the consciousness of its projects, transcending all particular occasions on which they were enacted. Hence the peculiar guiding sacred object---truth, wisdom, sometimes also the activity of seeking or research---as both eternal and embodied in the flow of time. (29)
In a real sense intellectuals have taken over the role once exclusively held by priests. The above is certainly what priests of all religions have done and do. The fact that we do these things in different institutions doesn't make a difference. In fact, Collins makes the point that

The entire macro-social structure, of non-intellectuals as well, is anchored on ritual interactions. What we call structure is a shorthand way of describing repetitive patterns, encounters that people keep coming back to, a recycling of rituals. This larger structure has the feel of externality; it seems thing-like, compulsory, resistant to change. This sense of constraint arises in part because the major institutions as repetitive networks are based on their distinctive IRs, which have generated emotional commitments to their identifying symbols. (29-30)
In other words, institutions matter. They are places where we engage in particular rituals relevant to the creation and participation in particular social orders. Imagine the power of combining the understanding of rituals with institutional analysis and with spontaneous order theory.

This also creates a particular understanding of the individual who is both an individual and a participant in the social order (similar to Hayek's discussion of the individualism of the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers):

As individuals move through this grid of encounters, they generate their own histories of ritual participation. We may call this an interaction ritual chain. Each person acquires a personal repertoire of symbols loaded with membership significance. Depending on the degree of cosmopolitanism and social density of the group situations to which they have been exposed, they will have a symbolic repertoire of varying degrees of abstraction and reification, of different generalized and particularized contents. This constitutes their cultural capital." (29)
We are our interaction ritual chains. And participation in the intellectual rituals within intellectual institutions is what makes one an intellectual.
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