Intellectual Trajectory and the Pleasures of Disciplinarity

I recently heard Gene Stanley, an affable and rather polymathic physicist, reflect on his experience of collaborating with economists. He was concerned to make clear the different skill sets that physicists and economists bring to collaborative work, with each able to do things which the other can’t. But what really caught my imagination was his description of their divergent sensibilities. As I live tweeted at the time:

This is a topic that has intrigued me for a long time. One aspect of my PhD research which got slightly lost amidst the many other aspects was the aspect of self-selection involved in choosing a university degree. Obviously many other factors are in play here but I was curious about what, if anything, draws people towards certain subjects? Are certain kinds of people attracted to certain kinds of disciplines? Much of one thesis chapter was devoted to unpacking this claim. Leaving aside the limited scope of the data itself, it’s important to avoid imputing a uniformity to decision-making on these matters that manifestly isn’t the case. Many people have no feeling of being ‘drawn’ towards a discipline. Even amongst those who do, it is balanced by many other concerns (e.g. employability, location of university, grade requirements for the course, confidence in the subject matter) which are weighed up in a way that is clearly purposive but often far from being ‘rational’ in any abstract sense. Furthermore, many students simply acquiesce entirely to the advice of their trusted interlocutors or inflect their own preferences through the assumptions loaded into the advice of authority figures.

Another complicating factor is the opacity of the cultural system, particularly when we were are young. Our intellectual journeys are path-dependent, leading us to push against the limitations of what we encounter and search for intellectual variety, often without knowing exactly what it is we’re looking for. Peter Preston nicely captures how what can be a fundamentally messy process of intellectual engagement begins to consolidate through graduate school and into academic careers:

If one stands back from the day-to-day demands of professional routine, it becomes clear that an intellectual trajectory is not organised in advance, we do not begin by surveying the intellectual ground before deciding upon a line of enquiry; rather, as Hans-Georg Gadamer might put it, we fall into conversation; our starting points are accidental, our early moves untutored, they are not informed by a systematic professional knowledge of the available territory, rather they flow from curiosity; we read what strikes us as interesting, we discard what seems dull. All this means that our early moves are quite idiosyncratic, shaped by our experiences of particular texts, teachers and debates with friends/colleagues. Thereafter matters might become more systematic, we might decide to follow a discipline, discover an absorbing area of work or find ourselves slowly unpacking hereto deep-seated concerns. It also means that we can bestow coherence only retrospectively. This idiosyncratic personal aspect of scholarly enquiry is part and parcel of the trade, not something to be regretted, denied or avoided; nonetheless systematic reflections offers a way of tacking stock, of presenting critical reflexive statements in regard to the formal commitments made in substantive work.

– Peter Preston, Arguments and Actions in Social Theory, Pg 1

The process of pursuing graduate education and even an academic career necessitates continued self-selection, often through making choices which have increasingly pronounced disciplinary characteristics (though this is far from universally true). However it can also reflect social inertia, as people continue making choices which increase the opportunity costs of future exit while privately doubting whether academia is for them. My meandering point is simply to stress the complexity of this process – it’s inherently biographical, unfolding from iterated choices within an environment which entails a variable constellation of constraints and enablements each time, in a way which can’t be divorced from the context itself. The ideographic complexity of this process finds itself reflected in the kinds of intellectual biographies someone like Ray Monk writes (e.g. OppenheimerRussellWittgenstein) who deftly traces the multiplicity of ways in which the character of these thinkers and the character of their work co-condition each other within the context of an unfolding human life. Analysis with this level of detail obviously doesn’t scale but it’s important that we remember the complexity of the lived lives we’re abstracting from.

Which brings me to the topic I started with. Can we talk about the pleasures of disciplinarity? Can we talk about the things that thrill physicist and economists? I would certainly like to. As an accidental sociologist (and far from the only one) I’m very conscious of the what appeals to me about sociology. I’ve been also been aware recently of the ease with which I could have ‘discovered’ social psychology as a frustrated philosophy masters student in much the same way I ‘discovered’ sociology. This is Peter Preston’s point in the extract above. Where the pleasures enter into it is how these possible routes would have felt to me – would social psychology have fascinated and frustrated me in the way that sociology has? I suspect not. There’s a complex interplay of factors driving the pleasures we derive from disciplines and they are made all the more complex by the fact that we too are changing as we are socialised (and socialise ourselves) into disciplines. In other words, I think the different ‘thrills’ that physicists and economists derive from their work is in part simply a reflection of their having been trained to do that kind of work, though of course sustaining this training necessitated their co-operation (at the minimum) and more likely their growing commitment. So if there are not ‘physics people’, ‘economics people’ and ‘sociology people’ could there be potential physicists-to-be, economists-to-be, sociologists-to-be co-existing within the same person prior to the training which gives life to these peculiarly intellectualising ways of being-in-the-world? I suspect so, though probably not all at the same time. I’m aware of not having really answered my own question here. But I’m also aware of being entirely comfortable with that fact yet nevertheless wondering what it says about the peculiarity of my own intellectual socialisation (or perhaps simply my own peculiarity).

Categories: Higher Education, Outflanking Platitudes

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