If doctors want to know how to cure syphilis it is right that they should first catch it themselves! I would truly trust the one who did; for the others pilot us like a man who remains seated at his table, painting seas, reefs and harbours and, in absolute safety, pushing a model boat over them. – Montaigne 1595 (2003: 1225)
Michel de Montaigne’s (b. 28 February 1533) Essays (1595), a set of personal meditations notable for their earthiness, concern with common matters, and aphoristic style, stand in stark contrast to the formalism, and logical reasoning, of the Schoolmen that had been perfected over the course of three centuries. This contrast is no more apparent than in the concluding book of the Essays, in which Montaigne writes at length about experience as leading closer to the truth of things than scholastic reasoning alone. “Of Experience” opens with the declaration that “No desire is more natural than the desire for knowledge. We assay all the means that can lead us to it, when reason fails us we make use of experience.” Although, in comparison to logical rigor of scholasticism, experience is “a weaker and less dignified means,” the search for truth is “so great a matter that we must not disdain any method that leads to it” (Montaigne 2003: 1207). Experience is recommended as a means to knowledge because reason can fail and because, according to Montaigne, truth can be made accessible by several methods. Therefore, experience – which lacks dignity in comparison to scholastic reason – has a legitimate contribution to make to human knowledge. One indication of the failure of reason cited by Montaigne is the burgeoning number of commentaries on topics ranging from law and ancient philosophy to matters of divinity.
We have doubts on reading Ulpian: our doubts are increased by Bartolo and Baldus. The traces of that countless diversity of opinion should have been obliterated, not used as ornaments or stuffed into the heads of posterity. All I can say is that you can feel from experience that so many interpretations dissipate the truth and break it up. Aristotle wrote to be understood: if he could not manage it, still will a less able man (or a third party) manage to better than Aristotle. By steeping our material we macerate it and stretch it. […] Can anyone deny that glosses increase doubts and ignorance, when there can be found no book which men toil over in either divinity or the humanities whose difficulties have been exhausted by exegesis? The hundredth commentator dispatches it to his successor prickling with more difficulties than the first commentator of all had ever found in it. Do we ever agree among ourselves that ‘this book already has enough glosses: from now on there is no more to be said on it?’ That can be best seen from legal quibbling. We give force of law to an infinite number of legal authorities, an infinite number of decisions and just as many interpretations. Yet do we ever find an end to our need to interpret? (Montaigne 2003: 1210)
This embarrassment of riches of multiple and diverse interpretations and opinions on a multitude of topics fails to achieve what is sought after – certainty in knowledge – and, consequently, debilitates knowledge rather than enhancing it. Montaigne refers to a question posed by Socrates to Meno, “what is virtue?,” to illustrate this point. “‘There is,’ said Meno, ‘the virtue of a man, a woman, a statesman, a private citizen, a boy and an old man.’ That’s a good start,’ said Socrates. ‘We were looking for a single virtue and here is a swarm of them.’” (Montaigne 2003: 1213). If opinions are necessarily diverse, and if interpretation and commentary macerates the material to be understood, then the possibility of generalizable knowledge is put into question.
The inability of philosophical reasoning to arrive at certain statements of truth lies at the basis of Montaigne’s skepticism and his resulting turn to, and rehabilitation of, the idea of experience as a guide to living and acting within the world, as an additional method for the apprehension of truth. To be sure, Montaigne’s examples are drawn primarily from the areas of justice and morality, rather than the study of the empirical world. One could argue that judgments of right and wrong behavior and action are necessarily indeterminate, whereas statements of fact about what is the case are not. Nonetheless, Montaigne only lends credence to knowledge found in his own experience, and not to the lessons offered by the experiences of others: “there is enough, I find, in my own experience to make me wise.” Thus, he asserts
I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics; that is my physics. […] I, unconcerned and ignorant within this universe, allow myself to be governed by this world’s general law, which I shall know sufficiently when I feel it. […] Scientific investigations and inquiries serve merely to feed our curiosity. They have nothing to do with knowledge so sublime: the philosophers are very right to refer us to the laws of Nature, but they pervert them and present Nature’s face too sophistically, painted in colours which are far too exalted, from which arise so many diverse portraits of so uniform a subject. As Nature has furnished us with feet to walk with, so has she furnished us with wisdom to guide us in our lives. (Montaigne 2003: 1217, 1218)
Montaigne refers to a “Platonic paradox” to illustrate the inadequacy of philosophical reasoning: “those who know do not have to inquire since they know already: neither do those who do not know, since to find out you need to know what you are inquiring into” (Montaigne 2003: 1220). Those who know have no need of philosophical reasoning for they already have knowledge; Those who don’t know have no use for philosophical reasoning, since they would already have to know that about which they would deploy such reasoning. The discussion in “Of Experience” of Montaigne’s bodily constitution, his physical debilities (in particular, kidney stones), his preferences with respect to food, wine, sleep, and the quality of his mattress, is an exemplary model of self-reflection that dispenses with, and shows the limits of, philosophical reasoning (i.e. scholasticism) in favor of the experiential and the bodily knowledge of human life.
Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays . London: Penguin Books, 2003.
 “Now laws remain respected not because they are just but because they are laws. That is the mystical basis of their authority. They have no other. It serves them well, too. Laws are often made by fools, and even more often by men who fail in equity because they hate equality: but always by men, vain authorities who can resolve nothing” (Montaigne 2003: 1216).
 “1 The world is all that is the case. 1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things. 1.2 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts. 1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 5).
 The superiority of self-knowledge derived from experience extends into the scientific field. According to Montaigne, experience is the “proper dung-heap” of medicine. “Tiberius said that anyone who had lived for twenty years ought to be able to tell himself which things are harmful to his health and which are beneficial and to know how to proceed without medicine” (Montaigne 2003: 1225).
That Bourdieu has distorted culturalism and ignored important developments in contemporary neo-structuralist thinking is not important in itself. These mistakes are important, rather, for what they reveal about Bourdieu’s more general theoretical intent. If we may speak, contra Bourdieu, of theoretical dispositions that exist on the level of ideas alone, we wish to ask: what is Bourdieu’s theoretical interest in portraying structuralism as ideal and determinate, and as a theory that implies formal and conscious obedience to rules?
Bourdieu constructs this vulgarized enemy -tradition, it would seem, ‘so that’ he can present his own version of practical action as the only viable alternative for theories that wish to maintain some reference to supra-individual, collectivist forms. (134-135)
When he calls his own approach a theory of ‘practice’ or ‘practical action,’ we have every right to expect, in light of his critique of structuralism, that this approach will have both an anticultural and anticollective cast. But this is not the case. Bourdieu’s intention, it turns out, is not to qualify the autonomy of cultural norms vis-à-vis action and its other, non-cultural environments, thereby giving culture a less determinate cast. His intention, rather, is to submerge cultural norms, to demonstrate that they are determined by forces of an entirely different, decidedly material kind. Bourdieu wishes not to free up creative and interpretive action but to attach it to structures in a noninterpretive way. (135)
This standard of the relative autonomy of culture is fundamental for understanding the weaknesses in Bourdieu’s theory. Values possess relative independence vis-à-vis social structures because ideals are immanently universalistic. This is so, in the first place, because they have an inherent tendency to become matters of principle that demand to be generalized in ‘unpractical’ ways. . . . For Bourdieu, however, socialization does not transmit values that are in tension with life-as-it-is-found-to-be-lived; rather, it produces values that are immediate reflections of the hierarchical structures of material life. (137)
Jeffrey Alexander, “The reality of reduction: the failed synthesis of Pierre Bourdieu,” Fin de Siècle Social Theory
Alexander unwittingly misconstrues Bourdieu’s “theoretical intent.” The test of his theoretical work is not whether it satisfies any preconceived ideas about the value of cultural analysis, cultural autonomy, or the ethical component of efforts at social transformation. The test of the theory is not ideological but empirical, whether it illuminates an aspect of reality better or worse than a theoretical alternative.
The question of knowledge has been an uncanny presence throughout the history of sociology. Hovering just out of sight and out of touch, the question is often treated as an unwelcome guest in a science that prefers to live in the present of refined empirical methods and theoretical advancement. The comforts of the settled institutional status accorded sociology, and the relative prosperity of the social sciences in relation to the neighboring humanities from which they emerged in the nineteenth-century, leads to a disinclination within the discipline to revisit a question that had to be addressed at its founding. In the present state of the field, the doxa of method, the fetish of methodology, and the primacy of statistical techniques in the collection and analysis of data, does not include, except in unusual cases, moments of reflection on the most basic question: what is knowledge? An answer to this question appears self-evident, hence rendering the question irrelevant. Knowledge is what the science of society aims for, like all other sciences, and its particular contribution to science is knowledge of society. In this definition, knowledge is the thing, a substance, a body of information. Ideally, this information is reliable, objective, unbiased by subjective whim, and untainted by political agenda. And it is tested by the rigours of methodical investigation. The value of reliability and objectivity, and the priority of methodological procedures modeled on those of the natural sciences is taken for granted. A first year sociology graduate student with undergraduate training in history is informed, in matter of fact terms, that history is not a science because it lacks variables. And just as a first year law student comes to view the world through the lens of torts and contracts, the former history student puts aside an intellectual vision based on narratively ordered events in favor of one that sees independent and dependent variables at work everywhere.
A sociologist studies society, a sociologist does sociology, a sociologist achieves sociological knowledge of society: this common sense of sociology, is, of course, uncommon, and not only for the reason that it must be impressed upon each new cohort of aspiring sociologists. The taking of society as an object of study is a restricted activity; the doing of sociology does not occur naturally; and the significance of sociological knowledge is contested, by other types of knowledge and by forces outside the domain of higher education. Hence, the question of knowledge, an uninvited guest at the feast of sociological wisdom, persists in seeking a place at the table. But this apparently innocuous question, made noxious by the relative youth of sociology as a field of inquiry and its uncertain claim to scientificity, leads to a less than straightforward answer. Several entries under knowledge appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, illustrating the depth of the problem.
I. Acknowledgement or recognition.
Recognition; the fact of recognizing someone or something already known or known about, or of being recognized
II. The fact or condition of knowing something.
The fact of knowing or being acquainted with a thing, person, etc.; acquaintance; familiarity gained by experience
The faculty of understanding or knowing; intelligence, intellect
With of. The fact or state of having a correct idea or understanding of something; the possession of information about something. Also with indefinite article; formerly also in pl.
As a count noun. An act of apprehending something with the mind; a perception, intuition, intimation, etc. rare.
Perception by means of the senses.
The fact or state of knowing that something is the case; the condition of being aware or cognizant of a fact, state of affairs, etc. (expressed or implied); awareness, consciousness
Chiefly with of. The fact or condition of having acquired a practical understanding or command of, or competence or skill in, a particular subject, language, etc., esp. through instruction, study, or practice; skill or expertise acquired in a particular subject, etc., through learning. Freq. with indefinite article. Formerly also with †in or infinitive.
Without construction: the fact or condition of having become conversant with a body of facts, principles, methods, etc.; scholarship, learning, erudition.
III. The object of knowing; something known or made known.
As a count noun. A thing which is or may be known; esp. a branch of learning; a science; an art.
As a mass noun. That which is known; the sum of what is known.
In the context of the English language, knowledge is taken to connote recognition of something that is known (I), a condition of knowing (II) and an object of knowing (III). Under I, recognition is understood as acknowledgement: knowledge means the acknowledgment of something (e.g., I know that author; I know that street; I recognize that song). This meaning of knowledge is likely the least significant for the question of sociological knowledge; mere acknowledgment of something remains at a superficial level. Under II, knowledge as a condition of knowing is directly relevant, as the sub-entries indicate: knowledge is a faculty of knowing, otherwise understood as intelligence and intellect. This meaning is, however, further qualified. Knowledge in this sense connotes having a correct idea about something (such as having correct information), an act of apprehending something with the mind (including distinct types of action: perception, intuition, or intimation), as perception of something from the senses, as a skill or competence (knowledge as an ability to do something, e.g., knowledge of the German language), and as a condition of erudition or scholarship (of knowing facts, principles, and methods). Finally, under III, knowledge connotes an object: it is the thing that is or might be known (e.g., the “history of France” or “comparative literature”).
When one turns to representative studies in the sociology of knowledge, however, the absence of a definition of knowledge is apparent. In his classic study Ideology & Utopia (1929), Karl Mannheim doesn’t define knowledge as such. Rather he identifies the problem of the sociology of knowledge as “how men actually think” and its object of study as “modes of thought” (Mannheim 1985:1, 2). In a case study of “insider and outsider” knowledge, Robert Merton argues that the “sociology of knowledge has long been regarded as a complex and esoteric subject,” removed from contemporary social life,” but that “to some of us, it seems quite the opposite way” (Merton 1972:9). Nonetheless, Merton echoes Mannheim in describing the sociology of scientific knowledge as the“reciprocal connections between thought and society” (Merton 1972:10). In a survey of the “new” sociology of knowledge, Ann Swidler and Jorge Arditi distinguish it from its predecessor. Following Mannheim, they note that the “traditional sociology of knowledge focussed on formal systems of ideas, concentrating especially on such matters as the world-views and politics of intellectuals.” In contrast, contemporary sociology and cultural studies “suggests that formal systems of ideas are linked to broader cultural patterns – what we might think of as social consciousness. We focus not only on the ideas developed by knowledge specialists, but also on structures of knowledge or consciousness that shape the thinking of laypersons.” Consequently the new sociology of knowledge “examines how kinds of social organization make whole orderings of knowledge possible, rather than focussing in the first instance on the differing social locations and interests of individuals or groups. . . .It also expands the field of study from an examination of the contents of knowledge to the investigation of forms and practices of knowing” (Swidler and Arditi 1994 :306). This description of the new approach is detailed with respect to objects, but its definition of “knowledge” is still wanting. If “thought” is knowledge, one can ask whether all thoughts are knowledge: for instances do daydreams count as knowledge? Insofar as the newer sociology of knowledge posits knowledge and knowing, it offers only a partial definition because what is known is held in abeyance.
In the neighboring discipline of anthropology, one can find a more elaborated definition of knowledge. Dan Sperber writes of anthropological knowledge from the point of view of the anthropologist. “The knowledge an anthropologist acquires in the field takes on two forms: documents and intuitions.” Returning from the field, the anthropologist “brings back a field diary, linguistic files, an herbarium, maps, sketches, photographs, tapes, genealogies, interview protocols, and notebooks filled with remarks scribbled on his knees in the darkness of a smoky hut . . .” (Sperber 1985:5-6). How does Sperber define the object of what I would call the archive of the anthropologist? He asserts that “these sundry documents are the product and the traces of a coherent experience” (Sperber 1985:6). However, he goes on to lament the consequence of the need to condense an experience that often takes place over several years in a written text. “Between what the anthropologists have learned and what they manage to convey, great is the loss of knowledge” (Sperber 1985:6). Knowledge, in this account, is the product of the anthropologist’s experience which takes the physical form of an archive and the textual form of a research monograph. In other words, knowledge is that which the anthropologist is able to experience and to communicate in writing to a reading public that is unlikely to have directly shared this experience.
Mannheim, Karl. 1985. Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge . San Diego: Harcourt Brace.
Merton, Robert K. 1972. “Insiders and Outsiders: A Chapter in the Sociology of Knowledge.” American Journal of Sociology, 78, 1 (July): 9-47.
Sperber, Dan. 1985. On Anthropological Knowledge. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Swidler, Ann and Jorge Arditi. 1994. “The New Sociology of Knowledge.” Annual Review of Sociology, 20: 305-329.
If the archive is the cathedral of the historian, valued for its reliquary of traces of the past, the “field” is the site of the ethnographic sacred, an obligatory and customary destination of anthropologists’ peregrinations. Moreover, being in the field represents a rite of passage, a terra aliena that tests the ethnographer’s intellect as well as her person.
The act of interpretation is an act of conjuring; an interpreter conjures the truth from stones. As a conjurer, the interpreter should endeavor to know of what substance the stones are made, how they have been formed, and how they arrived in their locations. Likewise, the conjuring interpreter should know something of the art and science of conjuring. She should know what she is on about. Interpretation is a science — an object of objective contemplation, it has rules, guidelines, and recipes. It is an art — not every interpreter is equally skilled at the science of interpretation; not every interpreter is capable of finding gold in the muddy, brown silt of incessant observations, of seeing white in the night in which all cows are grey. This art also requires, beyond vision, an ear for the sound of things, an aural tactility, the ability to perceive the shimmering colours between the dominant tones.