Kaipainen Päivi

Suurten ajattelijoiden elämäkerrat ja elämänpolut. Bertrand Russellin, Ludwig Wittgensteinin ja Georg Henrik von Wrightin elämäkerrat bourdieulais-pragmatististen ja latourilaisten näkökulmien vertailussa

Biographies and Life-courses of Great Thinkers. Biographies of Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Georg Henrik von Wright in a bourdieuan-pragmatist vs. latourian comparison


English summary

It is customary to create a myth of exceptional creativity and talent around heroes of science. In biographies, the persons are often considered geniuses of sorts; otherwise, they would have remained unwritten. However, it is worth asking to what extent a ‘hero’ or a ‘great man image’ is a myth, partly created by biographers? What does the habitus of a renowned scholar really consist of and can it somehow be traced by reading their biographies from a new perspective? How much the formation of one’s career is influenced by other persons and other factors, such as circumstances or the spirit of the time? It is precisely the way how the main characters are described in the biographies that the research problem of my study originated. Not wanting to strip the persons’ honour for their achievements, yet, I considered it necessary to ask how biographies could be analysed, or even written, from another perspective than as stories of great men.


I took the biographies of three philosophers Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Georg Henrik von Wright as the object of my study because they are famous enough and the three men have interesting connections between each other. These very different personalities form a chain of masters and apprentices having all worked at the University of Cambridge at some point of their lives.


The work leans mainly on the concepts of two French sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Bruno Latour but I have also borrowed concepts from other theorists the most important of them being an American pragmatist John Dewey. Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, field and capital are natural tools when studying individual action whereas Latour’s actor-network theory (ANT), originating from his studies of the working processes of the field of science and technology, is a more unusual tool for this kind of analysis. Dewey’s concept of habit is useful for studying what kind of habitual acts and routines the work of the analysed philosophers contains.


The starting point was a hypothesis that by applying Bourdieuan and Latourian concepts it would be possible to construct two approaches for the analysis of biographies that are different enough to make interesting comparisons and maybe one of the two would be suitable for dissolving the ‘great man’ myth? The specified research question was: How do Bruno Latour’s concept of actor-network and Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, field and capital fit the analysis of biographies?


So, based mainly on the concepts of Bourdieu and Latour, I developed two approaches, habitus-field analysis and actor-network analysis that I tested on the biographies in order to find out what would happen to the myths of the three ‘great’ philosophers? Would they be dissolved? What other success factors would come up? I compared the pictures arising from the two modes of analysis with the image given in the biographies.


The data consists of biographies and autobiographies of Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Georg Henrik von Wright. There are several biographies of Russell and Wittgenstein, but not a single one of von Wright, so instead, I used his autobiographical memoirs. Furthermore, I complemented the data with letters, diaries and essays written on all three. First, I summarized the biographies of each person then I compared the alternative stories produced by the two analyses with these ‘standard biographies’. My original intention was to write three different stories of each person: the summary of the stories presented in the biographies, the story arising from habitus-field analysis and the third one based on actor-network analysis. However, I noticed that the poor reader would have had to read three almost similar stories. In order to make the presentation more pleasant to the reader I combined the standard biographies and habitus-field analyses, mentioning in the text the interpretations produced by the latter, and kept the actor-network-analyses apart.

All the theories that I have applied in my work share the view that an individual’s success cannot be explained by an exceptional, incomparable mind. They also take into consideration openness, constant change and trial because the actor and its environment are being continuously redefined. For Dewey, life is constant interaction between an organism and its environment; in it both actor and its environment transform. Bourdieu’s actors transform all the time the game that they are playing by moving the boundaries of the field while competing for positions in it. Latour’s actors are being defined in trials of strength, i.e. in action. To reach their goal they reshape their environment and try to prevent ’translations’ aimed by others.


The main concepts used are: habitus, field, capital, habit, actor-network, position, trial of strength and translation. As for Bourdieuan forms of capital, I have paid attention to cultural and social capital that the persons had gathered during their lives such as educational merits and social networks not to mention economic capital, wealth and their ability to use it. I have also examined how the persons succeeded in transforming these three forms of capital into symbolic capital, recognition and prestige that they all had.

The term field is used mainly in a sense of a disciplinary field regulated by certain norms and rules in a certain moment of time. However, it is to be remembered that the rules of the field change all the time, transforming the field at the same time. So, the boundaries of the field are not clear because new knowledge is constantly entering the field through legitimizing processes (peer reviews, publications, empirical tests etc.) and outdated ideas are being removed.


The notion of habitus is being used in the meaning of the entity that the person’s habits (in a Deweyan sense) form. The definition of habitus used in this work does not differ essentially from that of Bourdieu’s. When speaking of habitus or about the ‘feel for the game’, instead of habits, Bourdieu speaks of the generative principles, schemes that turn intrinsic dispositions into practices. However, the term habit covers better the knowledge, skills and the ways to cope with one’s environment that a person has acquired through experience.

The concept of position is being used in two ways, a person’s position in the field, i.e. his relations with other players, and in a more concrete meaning of academic rank. Trials of strength and translations can lead to a change in a position. A trial of strength can exist between persons, groups, ideas, movements or even between rival ideas inside one’s head if, for instance, the person is considering two differing courses of action. Translation is a process that changes the situation in the field and all the persons taking part in it change: new actors are produced and existing ones reworked when actors change their interests or make someone else change theirs. Here, actor-network comprises both human and non-human actors and their action: translations and trials of strength.


The first tentative of dissolving the ‘great man image’ presented in the biographies was done by analyzing acts, habits and the environment where the action happens i.e. with habitus-field analysis. This analysis shows how the persons’ social and cultural capital shaped their habitus and what kind of habits they developed in order to make their work easier. The so called great man habitus is no more, and no less, than the sum of person’s diverse habits and one’s interaction with the environment. The habitus-field analysis did not totally dissolve the great man image, but it has helped in analyzing how the person has become or been given the great man status. It has also helped in understanding the reasons for the crucial choices the individuals have made but it did not give such a different picture when compared to a normal biography. However, understanding the choices, their reasons and the circumstances in which one makes them helps in making the person more human not letting the person be more than the sum of its parts. The analysis clearly reveales that becoming a famous philosopher is all about adopting habits, developing appropriate attitudes and grabbing the opportunities offered by the field, and not about some innate characteristics. The habitus-field analysis proved to be a good tool for organizing the stories through Bourdieuan and Deweyan concepts and was useful in distancing oneself from the viewpoint of an ‘individual success story’ often present in biographies. It brought out the often invisible factors intertwined in the habitus that are easily drowned in the flow of narration and can usually be read only ‘between the lines’. Also the concept of habit, borrowed from the pragmatist philosophy, was an important complement to the bourdieuan approach.


Comparisons between philosophers show that although von Wright seemed to have the most appropriate habitus for the academic field, i.e. he could be nominated the best player in the academic game, as a mythical ’great man’ of biographies he was nothing compared to more unconventional Wittgenstein or Russell. When comparing the changes in their positions only in Russell’s career the changes had negative impacts. When he took leave of absence from his lecturer’s position for political work, he ended up into problems and was finally sacked. He was not able to combine academic work and political activities.


For Wittgenstein the position in the field meant independence from the doctrines of ‘master’ Russell. When he gained symbolic capital with Tractatus academic positions were opened up to him naturally and, even though it was even more difficult for him to adopt the norms of the academic community than it was to Russell, Wittgenstein was able to find ways to cope with in difficult situations, perhaps motivated by his sense of duty towards philosophy. Pressed by war, he accepted the British nationality and the professorship in Cambridge in order to be able to continue his work as a philosopher. For the same reason, he gave up the professorship: writing philosophy was more important to him than a formal position in the academic hierarchy.


Von Wright’s positions improved well and almost every change of position proved to be useful for him. The only small set back can be registered when he gave up the professorship in Cambridge . His position as an internationally renowned philosopher weakened but in Finland , his appreciation did not stop growing, and he gained, at least formally, everything that a philosopher can gain in Finland .

Perhaps the most important success factors found in the habitus-field analysis for all three were social capital (i.e. social relations) and the symbolic capital (prestige) achieved with the help of their mentors: A.N. Whitehead in Russell’s case, Russell in Wittgenstein’s case and Eino Kaila, C.D. Broad and Wittgenstein in von Wright’s career. The same persons also came out in the second approach, the actor-network analysis, as the most important influencing human actors.


The actor-network analysis produced a stronger estrangement effect than the habitus-field analysis. The analysis worked well in mapping other actors, both human and non-human, involved in the person’s career path, thus, emphasizing collective action instead of individual merits. Mapping the actor-network brought out clearly the fact that none of the three philosophers worked alone but their success results from cooperation with other actors, and that also non-human actors influenced it. One example of the non-human actors could be the Second World War in Wittgenstein’s career. The German-Austrian Anschluss gave him no other choice but to accept the professorship in Cambridge and the British nationality in order to be able to continue his philosophic work.The actor-network analysis was a good tool for pauseing the flow of narration by cutting it into different forms of action such as translations, trials of strength and changes in positions. The chain-like form of events came clear in this kind of analysis; hence, the actor-network analysis bends well into drawing a picture of the persons’ whole trajectory.


As for further development of the two approaches/analysis tools tested in this thesis, one possible area of application could be in studying the development of research skills of doctoral students or the development of practical know-how (development of habits, experienced trials of strength, translations) in a certain profession/field using interviews and research/working diaries as data. Having learned from this experience, I would combine the two approaches in future empirical analyses. The study also gives plenty of material for theoretical further development towards a new action theory in which the various concepts used in this work could be combined.