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Randall Collins traces the movement of philosophical thought in ancient Greece, China, Japan, India, the medieval Islamic and Jewish world, medieval Christendom, and modern Europe. What emerges from this history is a social theory of intellectual change, one that avoids both the reduction of ideas to the influences of society at large and the purely contingent local construction of meanings. Instead, Collins focuses on the social locations where sophisticated ideas are formed: the patterns of intellectual networks and their inner divisions and conflicts. In just under 900 pages (with another 100 or so pages of notes and bibliography), sociologist Randall Collins elaborates upon his proposed model for how intellectuals--"people who produce decontextualized ideas"--work among one another. Borrowing Erving Goffman's concept of the "interaction ritual," Collins discusses how "intellectuals gather, focus their attention for a time on one of their members, who delivers a sustained discourse. The discourse itself builds on elements from the past, affirming and continuing or negating." Or, to put it more simply, intellectuals attend a lot of lectures and have discussions afterwards.
General readers may be put off by a hefty tome with chapters given such titles as "The Post-revolutionary Condition: Boundaries and Philosophical Puzzles" (which includes the subsection "The Vienna Circle as a Nexus of Struggles"), but those with a dedicated interest in the history of philosophy will find much to enjoy in the multicultural examples Collins draws upon. Ancient China, classical Greece, medieval Islam, and the French existentialists are just the tip of the iceberg illustrating his theory that intellectual progress is made through the personal interaction of philosophers and other thinkers. "Great intellectual work," Collins writes, "is that which creates a large space on which followers can work," and The Sociology of Philosophies certainly qualifies. --Ron Hogan