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diacritics 34.2 (2006) 3-13

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Biographical Illusion and Methodological Reality

Pierre Bourdieu. Esquisse Pour Une Auto-Analyse. Paris: Raisons d'Agir, 2004.


Like his student and friend Nietzsche, Jacob Burckhardt often stressed the necessity for a scholar to work in solitude. Like Nietzsche, he also possessed a gift for acidic analogy and likened the world of academia to a group of dogs sniffing one another.

Few observers of the academic interactions of his time had such sharp senses as Pierre Bourdieu, and few have been as torn between solitary reflection and communal exchange. Trained by France's most elite academic institutions (such as the celebrated Parisian lycée Louis-le-Grand and the even more celebrated École Normale Supérieure), Bourdieu was grateful for the opportunities that this training afforded him. And he felt that this gratitude could best be repaid by submitting those elite academic institutions and their insular world to an unsparing critique, to unveiling the distance that separated their stated ideals from their real effects.

Like Bergson and Jaurès, like Sartre and Aron, like Foucault and Derrida, Bourdieu studied that which was most difficult and most prestigious where it was most difficult and prestigious: philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure. Like those famous fellow alumni, he was a brilliant student, and like them, he longed to distinguish his personal vision from those around him. This led him to do something surprising, something that, despite their separate and significant dissatisfactions with the philosophy of their day, neither Bergson nor Sartre, neither Foucault nor Derrida ever did: he abandoned philosophy. He left what he saw as the intellectual royal road for the most pedestrian of paths—that of sociology.

As he often reminded his readers, sociology was in a sorry state when he entered it. Both in academic appraisal and the popular imagination, it was considered dry and provincial. It was thought to have no true intellectual adventure in it—nothing of the ethnologist tramping through the rain forests of the Amazon, nothing of the lone philosopher working through the night on an opus to end metaphysics. It was laborious and abstract; it dealt in statistical generalities. Bourdieu repeatedly described sociology as "the pariah of disciplines."1 He had, however, a special mission for it in mind. [End Page 3]

In Bourdieu's posthumous memoir Esquisse pour une auto-analyse, published in February 2004—two years after his death—by the small publishing house he helped found, Raisons d'Agir, he notes how, "a bit as a joke," he had often defined himself as "the leader of a liberation movement aiming to free the social sciences from philosophy's imperialism" [94].2 From early on in his career, he had wished to revolt against the "empire of the total philosopher"—an empire reigned over by, more than any other, Jean-Paul Sartre [cf. 25].3 Looking back upon this decisive period of his development, Bourdieu goes so far as to state that the shaping of his identity was done "against everything which the Sartrian enterprise represented for me" [37]. In historical accounts, Sartre is often given as counterfigure his friend and fellow normalien Raymond Aron. In his Esquisse, Bourdieu proposes a different, and less conventional, counterfigure for the imperial philosopher: the brilliant Austrian satirist and cultural critic Karl Kraus. Bourdieu notes the particular affection he had always felt for Kraus and attributes it to the latter's singular capacity for "critical reflectivenesss" [37]. Subtly, and appropriately, Bourdieu follows this remark with something that occurs nowhere else in his memoir: an epigram (the composing of which Kraus excelled in). Bourdieu writes: "there are a great many intellectuals who question the world, but there are very few intellectuals who question the intellectual world" [37]. The remark could not more compactly and precisely reflect what Bourdieu had aspired all his life to do: to excel in the art and science of questioning the intellectual world.


Leo Spitzer liked to cite Friedrich Gundolf's dictum "Methode ist Erlebnis" (method is lived experience). Nearing the end of his career...


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