(This is a draft)

Historical Amnesia
Victims of fashion and outbreaks of 'breaks' in the disciplinary map

Karl Maton & Rob Moore
Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

That nature which condemns its origin,
Cannot be bordered certain in itself;
She that herself will sliver and disbranch
From her material sap, perforce must wither
And come to deadly use
King Lear, Act IV, Scene ii

The art of originality is concealing your source


This article focuses on the issue of how we portray the structure and development of the humanities and social sciences, and, in particular, the ramifications of claims that they are characterised by radical ‘breaks’ and ‘ruptures’ with the past and declarations of new beginnings.[1]  This focus on the history of disciplines and relations with the discipline of History was, in part, occasioned by events which unfolded at the Royal Courts of Justice in London during the early part of 2000, the intellectual implications of which have yet to be fully addressed within sociological debate. In the case of Irving Versus Lipstadt & Penguin Books, the historian David Irving sued the American scholar Deborah Lipstadt for libel after she described him in print as a denier of the Holocaust (1995).[2]  Irving, acting as his own legal representative, argued that he had conducted proper historical research which cast doubt on the facticity of the Holocaust. After hearing thirty two days of evidence, including testimony on behalf of the defence from such eminent historians as Richard Evans, High Court Judge Charles Gray ruled in April 2000 that Irving had persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence and fundamentally questioned his right to be called a historian:

It is my conclusion that, judged objectively, Irving treated the historical evidence in a matter which fell far short of the standard to be expected of a conscientious historian.

Irving lost his claim to damages. He had staked his claim on the conventions and standards of his proclaimed discipline, on such notions as rigour and exhaustive use of available archival evidence, and had been found wanting. One set of questions these events raise is whether this could, as it were, happen here; if, instead of historians, this case had been between scholars in sociology, would the same verdict have been reached? Putting aside issues of legal process, under what intellectual conditions could the case have been won by Irving?

In addressing these questions, we reluctantly came to the conclusion that in sociology there is the distinct possibility that Irving could have won his claim to damages, or, more precisely, that the conditions of possibility for this verdict are present. Our conclusion centres on the ways in which members of an intellectual field construct their own practices and claims to knowledge and the resultant manner in which the field relates to its own past In particular, our focus is on a familiar trope in sociology whereby the disciplinary map is said to be in crisis.[3]  The conventional account is to argue that the world has undergone a fundamental qualitative change, that former certainties no longer hold sway, that a‘turn’ (sociological, cultural, discursive, post-modern, etc.) or the emergence of a previously silenced ‘voice’ has undermined traditional approaches, and that we are thereby experiencing a period of profound intellectual change, one in which a new paradigm or standpoint has emerged which displaces past work within the intellectual field.

A central theme of our analysis of this phenomenon is neatly captured by the two quotes prefacing this article, the first from the literary canon, warning of the dangers of forgetting the past, the second from a source we cannot recall. This juxtaposition of canonic reference and (selective?) failure of memory highlights that much of what is described as ‘new’, ‘original’ and radical in the humanities and social sciences is based on what we shall term historical amnesia. To make such a claim is in itself nothing new — as we discuss, there is both a ‘tradition of the new’ and a tradition of debunking the ‘new’. We shall, however, go further than merely restating the long-standing (though little analysed) complaint that sociology is subject to sudden shifts of fads and fashions (cf. Sorokin 1958, Gould 1963), easily lampooned as “If it’s Tuesday, it must be ‘The Body’, or ‘Have you seen this season’s Parisian theorist?’”. Rather, we argue that this phenomenon is not only recurrent but also possesses a paradigmatic form, analysis of which reveals significant ramifications for the structure and development of intellectual fields.[4]

A second theme of our analysis is summed up by an alternative working title for this article: ‘When Worlds Collide’. For we argue that this recurrent phenomenon is based on both an apocalyptic ontology, whereby the social world is described as having undergone a fundamental break or cleavage, and an externalist or subjectivist account of intellectual change (a sociology of knowledge without a theory of knowledge), whereby this proclaimed ‘break’ is held to necessitate the abandonment of past work and the construction of entirely new ideas, theories and approaches. This, we argue, involves a fundamental redescription of an intellectual field. It restructures relations within the field, across both space and time, compressing its epistemic community into the present, one undergoing continual social and cultural revolution. This both affects the ways in which the field’s past is available as an intellectual resource, and the possibility of today’s work being built upon in the future. An apocalyptic ontology also renders the field unable to address the very claim upon which this phenomenon is based, namely social and intellectual change. By erasing the past, social and intellectual change is rendered an article of faith rather than constructed as an object of inquiry. Time, change and history thereby become blindspots in the field of vision of social science — historical amnesia.

We explicate this argument in three main parts. We begin by illustrating the kind of event we are describing with a thought experiment based on claims to paradigm shifts in subdisciplines of sociology in the early 1970s. Secondly, we analyse two different intellectual fields, one where proclaimed breaks with the past have become a ‘tradition’ (literary criticism) and one where such claims are relatively rare (mathematics). We focus on the spatial and temporal relations characterising these fields in terms of what we term their epistemic communities and their differing relations with their own past and future. Lastly, we draw out some intellectual, moral and political implications of embracing outbreaks of ‘breaks’ and valorising the ‘new’ and the now, highlighting the way in which they illustrate a dialectic of anti-Enlightenment. This highlights a point worth mentioning here. The question of how we talk about and portray disciplines may appear an esoteric topic, one twice removed from the study of empirical reality and so of little direct interest or consequence for anyone outside the specialised domain of intellectual history. In such an empirical (and often empiricist) discipline as Anglophone sociology, it can appear a distraction from the real work of studying the real world, just so much talk about talk. However, as we argue, we all participate in these defining practices and the form taken by these practices have potentially significant consequences not only for our ability to understand sensible reality but also for others well beyond the academy.

From “perspectives” to “paradigms”: the fall of the Tower of Babel

A well-known illustration of the kind of phenomenon we are discussing occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the emergence of what came to be known as the ‘new sociology of education’, the ‘new sociology of deviance’ and various other ‘new’ sociologies. There was a widespread tendency at the time to employ Kuhn’s ideas about paradigm ‘crisis’, ‘revolution’ and ‘change’ in the natural sciences (e.g. 1962) as a way of describing and accounting for differences between theoretical perspectives in sociology and the move from one kind to another within its sub-disciplines. These changes were often described as shifts between incommensurable ‘paradigms’ and as occasions of ‘revolutionary science’. Loosely based on these events, imagine the following scenario whereby an intellectual field is redescribed by its members: from a field of ‘perspectives’ to one of ‘paradigms’.

Imagine, first, an intellectual field comprising a range of languages, constituted by schools of theory, methodological approaches, definitions of problems and interests, established bodies of knowledge, etc. Within this field, some members are primarily interested in, say, macro-level structural concerns, tend to work with large data sets and use quantitative forms of analysis. Elsewhere in this field there might be another group whose interests are at the micro level and employ ethnographic methods to investigate in depth processes, perceptions and social interactions. These ‘Macros’ and ‘Micros’ see their field as comprising a range of perspectives. They may gather together at conferences and exchange ideas and information. They may travel from very different cultures spanning the globe, encompass many stages of the academic career, from emeritus professors to postgraduates, and include male and female researchers, researchers with all kinds of sexualities and social backgrounds, and so on. In these gatherings they may seek for ways of integrating their knowledge and attempt to develop a conceptual language that moves between the macro and the micro. So, though the approaches, substantive topics and methods of this kaleidoscope of people differ, they are able to speak to each other, to discuss and contest issues and ideas. Debates, arguments, disputes may rage at various moments, but within an atmosphere of mutual understanding. They have, in other words, established criteria and procedures sufficiently explicit for collective decisions to emerge as to which particular perspective most adequately accounts for what is agreed to be the case. This field of ‘perspectives’ is a field of specialisms but one which employs (or aspires to) a language of mediation between levels and between approaches. Macros and Micros (or Marxists and Weberians, etc.) speak to each other using a grammar (more or less explicit or systematic) that enables them as an epistemic community to retain a sense of inclusiveness that transcends their specialist intellectual differences and so engage in the task of theoretical and substantive integration.

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech ... Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language ... and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do  (Genesis, 11: 1, 6).

Now, imagine what happens if a group emerges who declare that this is not, in fact, a field of perspectives, but rather a field comprising competing paradigms and, on this basis, proclaim a ‘break’ in the field. This portrayal crucially attempts to change the relationship between the array of perspectives and the possibilities of what they can say to each other. Differences between Macro and Micro are now claimed to be differences of exclusiveness and incommensurability. Criteria and procedures for establishing significant questions and provisional solutions are no longer the subject of debate and negotiation but rather viewed as entirely dependent on incommensurable differences of worldview. When perspectives are changed into ‘paradigms’ the members of the various perspectives can no longer talk to each other— there is very little to say beyond “Who are you? One of us or one of them, friend or foe?”. This is no longer a field of knowledge specialists speaking a language of complementary knowledge integration, but one of exclusively specialised knowers (Maton 2000a), each speaking in its own distinctive and incommensurable language or ‘voice’ (Moore & Muller 1999).

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. (Genesis 11: 7).

The Tower of Babel has fallen and the people are scattered abroad across the field.

The nature of the event

Now, what sort of thing has occurred? It is important to bear in mind here that ‘paradigms’ is only one possible description of the field. It is likely that other actors would contest this view and argue against the imposition of the particular ‘epistemology’ (or, more precisely, anti-epistemology) that advocates of the paradigm model propose. What would then follow is a conflict between those who support perspectives and those who support paradigms as the way of understanding the field. In this situation a new kind of conflict has emerged: one to do with how the field itself is understood rather than with rival knowledge claims between competing perspectives. Hence, the introduction of a language of ‘paradigms’ is not simply the introduction of one more perspective, but the emergence of an attempt to fundamentally restructure the field.

It does so through the ways in which these accounts posit different means by which legitimacy within the field may be measured. In other words, ‘perspectives’ and ‘paradigms’ provide different modes of legitimation, different definitions of how legitimate questions, legitimate procedures, legitimate claims to knowledge, and legitimate membership of the field are to be determined — i.e., how the limits of the field and its structuring are defined (see Maton 1999, 2000a, b). Crucially, they place different emphases on relations between: knowledge and its proclaimed object of study — the epistemic relation; and between knowledge and its author — the social relation (Ibid.). A field of ‘perspectives’ emphasises strong boundaries around and control over what and how, the epistemic relation; a field of ‘paradigms’ emphasises strong boundaries around and control over who can make knowledge claims, the social relation. The former represents a knowledge mode, the latter a knower mode of legitimation (Maton 2000a, b). These, we shall argue, structure the field spatially and temporally in different ways.

To explore this further we shall now analyse their structure and compare how they shape the way a field’s ‘epistemic community’ (that is, the people who are active in the work of the intellectual field) is distributed across time and space, and the relation between a discipline and its own history. To illustrate this analysis, we draw upon examples from two very different disciplines: one with a tradition of declaring ‘breaks’ and the birth of the ‘new’ (literary criticism); and one where such ‘breaks’ with the past are relatively rare (mathematics).

The tradition of the new: literary criticism

The Biblical quotations describing the fall of the Tower of Babel used earlier in this article highlight that this kind of event is nothing new. Indeed, within intellectual fields it is more common than might first appear and has been informally recognised in a number of ways for a long time. Perhaps its most oft-noted form is that of a generational conflict (e.g. Hoggart 1995, Moore 1996). Senior members of an intellectual field bemoan junior members’ lack of originality and proclaim with a jaundiced eye: ‘We’ve heard this all before!’. Something of this mood is conveyed by Richard Hoggart when he says,

The pity is that some writers give the impression of picking up a word as a talisman, to indicate a group of concepts none of which has been thought before. The world isn’t quite as young as that.

(Hoggart 1995: 185)

Conversely, younger members of the field bemoan the inability of their elders to break free of their outdated ideas, recognise their obsolescence and allow the birth of the ‘new’. The senior members despair at the lack of understanding of the history of their discipline; the junior members view this as just so much dead weight. The young are said to be living as if the past never happened; the old to be living in the past. Such occurrences are often associated with the dismissal or promotion of a current enthusiasm — post-structuralism for instance: “‘The fractured self’? I remember it when it was called ‘role theory’; ‘Structuralism?’ — oh, you’re so passé, we’ve got way beyond that”.

One could explain this as simply a ‘conflict of the generations’, a battle between the established and the newcomers, the conservative old-guard and the Young Turks.[5]  There is, however, more to it than that. The event takes the form of schism, the proclamation of a radical break, typically either serially as a break in history or segmentally as contemporaneous alternative ‘standpoints’. Kumar (1995), for example, has drawn attention to the frequency with which ‘post’ theories emerge. These theories proclaim a radical break with the past. The 1960s, for example, witnessed a large crop of notices of births and deaths: the death of God, the traditional family, élite higher education, the Classics; the arrival of the ‘new student’, ‘new sociology of education’, ‘new universities’ (indeed Christopher Booker, 1969, christened the decade the ‘age of the neophiliacs’). Examples of the contemporaneous form of segmental ‘breaks’ are given by contemporary forms of ‘standpoint’ theory and ‘voice’ discourse, which specialise knowledge to privileged knowers (see Moore & Muller 1999). Whichever form the schism takes, it announces a language unique to itself and incommensurable with either the past or the ‘normal’ paradigm or dominant standpoint. Furthermore, this ‘paradigm’ event has a paradigmatic form. Within sociology it appears that Kuhn’s ‘revolutionary science’ is normal, and a period of ‘normal science’ would be revolutionary.

In literary criticism during early 1960s a similar event to our ‘paradigms’ example occurred, when proclamations of the ‘new’ and claims for rebirth became the focus of much debate, including a series of lectures by Frank Kermode in 1965 entitled The Sense of an Ending:

When we survive, we make little images of the moments which have seemed like ends; we thrive on epochs. Fowler observes austerely that if we were always quite serious in speaking of ‘the end of an epoch’ we should live in ceaseless transition; recently Mr Harold Rosenberg has been quite seriously saying that we do. Scholars are devoted to the epoch.

(Kermode 1967: 7, emphasis added)

Two issues Kermode indicates here are worth highlighting for our purposes, namely that such claims are based on an apocalyptic ontology and represent what can be described as ‘creative fictions’. We discuss these points in turn.

Apocalyptic ontology

Arguments for ‘crises’ and ‘breaks’ in disciplines often proclaim an apocalyptic event in the world; they are, as Kermode describes, secular versions of apocalyptic cosmology. A rupture or radical break with the past is proclaimed: from the modern to the post-modern novel (or world, condition, subject, etc.). This change in the object of study is held to require new ideas, rendering all existing work obsolete. Thus, with the addition of each new language, paradigm or post-theory, the object of study is said to have radically changed — with Heraclitus, it is pronounced that everything changes and nothing remains.

Although one should remember that this new portrayal of the field is likely to be (and indeed was) contested, if it did become the dominant way of seeing the field, the effects of these kinds of claims about ‘the new’ would be to restrict the epistemic community and intellectual focus of literary criticism to the here and now. First, it sets the present adrift from the past, which indeed becomes a ‘foreign country’ — in fact, an incommensurably different culture. The old and the young (in this example, though it could also be based on class, gender, race, religion, and so on) are held to literally inhabit different worlds, and authors from before the proclaimed break are said to have little to say about now.

Secondly, this way of viewing the field makes a location in time or social space the basis of knowledge claims. To draw the line between ‘the past’ and ‘the modern’ (or ‘post-modern’) in this manner not only sets the present adrift from the past, it also specialises the present (or at least those who proclaim themselves its representatives — those whose sensibility has been fashioned by the break itself and which enables them to actually see it). For, although proclaiming a new world, the basis of access to legitimate knowledge of this world does not reside in procedures specialised by this new world, but in the ability of the knower to see this new world at all — it is the new knower and not the new world which forms the basis of new knowledge. Only the new knower, with their different gaze, can see that a break has occurred. So, each new knower, their gaze specialised by time and place, brings with them a new and different language and object of study. In other words, each generation (paradigm or standpoint) rewrites the world in its own image (e.g. ‘society’ may become capitalist society, status society, service society, patriarchal society, Western society, the knowledge society, and so on). Crucial here is the emphasis placed on the social and temporal co-ordinates (age, historical period, class, race, gender, religion, etc.) of the specialised knower. Who you are is more important than what you are discussing or how — a knower mode of legitimation.

This move to a knower mode of legitimation problematises communication between different groups of knowers within the discipline (in this case between past and present members of the intellectual field) resulting in a restricted epistemic community. Although each segment or language of the knowledge structure is cohered by shared socio-cultural dispositions (values, aspirations, beliefs), cohesion and communication between segments is at best uncertain and fragile (and often merely tactical, such as for defence of the entire field from external attack). Here, knowledge is always somebody’s knowledge and nothing but. In terms of the conceptual framework, the social relations of the field are strongly bounded and controlled — each segment represents a restricted epistemic community, one restricted in time and space. ‘Knowers’ are located within a tightly bounded set of co-ordinates specified by membership criteria. They are separated from the past (the past is the past of the dominant Other or before the crucial break), or segregated from all those contemporaries who do not share membership criteria. The privileged epistemic community, in other words, exhibits space-time compression.

This time-space compression of the field is, moreover, a dynamic process which may fragment the discipline. The criteria of legitimate membership of the ‘knower’ category are inherently unstable. As Maton (2000a) shows, a characteristic of this form of intellectual field is its tendency towards proliferation and fragmentation into ever-smaller knower communities. Proclaimed ‘breaks’ have a habit of recurring. Indeed, in the example of literary criticism, Harold Rosenberg (1962) described it as The Tradition of the New — reports of the field’s rebirth were occurring so often that it had become a tradition. With each new break proclaimed, the new epistemic community of privileged knowers becomes smaller, as each new knower brings with them a new object of study, with membership of the epistemic community defined by increasingly hyphenated descriptions of identity and membership — to paraphrase Michael Ignatieff, a narcissism of ever smaller differences. This process not only breaks down the epistemic community of an intellectual field into its individual constituent parts, but also acts in a similar manner on its structuring of knowledge, through a tendency to methodological individualism (see Maton 2000b). From wide social categories, the focus of knowledge claims tends to become smaller and smaller, generating pressures towards adopting approaches which are said to provide insight into these categories — for example, from sociology towards social psychology, then psychology, and finally psychoanalysis. It may thus lead to an evacuation of the social and moves towards autobiographical reflection in approaches and vocabularies. The social totality as an object of study thereby comes to be replaced by a series of minute and disparate objects of study with towards thicker and thicker descriptions of smaller and smaller phenomena — more and more about less and less (Maton 2000b). This compression is one not only of space but also of time: emphasis is likely to be increasingly placed on being up to date with an ever more rapid turnover of theoretical fashion and with contemporary ‘hot topics’ — foci appear to contain an inbuilt obsolescence. In this way, change itself comes to be expelled from the analysis. One is likely to find that arguments for and descriptions of the new world order far outweigh historical analyses of change, both of the world and of the discipline itself. A decisive break means one need not study the past nor past work — the history of a discipline becomes dispensable. In short, the time-space compression characterising the intellectual field is reflected not only in relations between its members, but also in its intellectual concerns — the ‘tradition of the new’ brings with it an uncomparative concern with the here and the now: historical amnesia.

Creative fictions

Claims of a major change in the object of the study, such as a transition from ‘modern’ to ‘post-modern’ society, are presented as descriptions of the world. However, we would argue that they are best understood as representing changes in the conditions of some members of the intellectual field (the new knowers), rather than the condition of the world (cf. Singh & Dooley, forthcoming). An example in sociology is given by proclamations of rapid social change which is held to necessitate radical intellectual change. (Indeed, in a survey of British sociology of 1945, Rumney argued that ‘sociology is essentially the product of rapid social change and crisis’, p. 562). At regular intervals since the War, changes in the social position of humanist intellectuals under conditions of educational expansion and the rise in status of natural science have been accompanied by accounts of fundamental social change requiring the complete overhaul of existing ideas, approaches and outlooks (cf. Maton, 1998). A recent example is that of various ‘post-’ theories which argue that society has inter alia undergone space-time compression. The analysis presented here would suggest that such experiences perhaps reflect more the situation of members of specific intellectual fields than the world at large. As Proust remarked, the one thing that does not change is that at any and every time it appears that there have been ‘great changes’.[6]  Yet, as Kermode puts it, “if we were always quite serious in speaking of ‘the end of an epoch’ we should live in ceaseless transition”. In other words, they are at best creative fictions, heuristic devices which highlight specific developments, and should be approached with what Kermode calls ‘clerical scepticism’. Representing these claims as facts about the larger world is to commit what Bourdieu (1990) refers to as the ‘scholastic fallacy’.

However, in intellectual fields undergoing such attempted redescription it is extremely difficult to make this argument. The proclaimed change is not itself the object of study, it is announced rather than hypothesised and represents an article of faith, the doxa of the new knowers. The epistemic relations between the language and the object of inquiry are weakly bounded and controlled — it is not the object which regulates the new language, but the knower’s ‘gaze’, specialised by the ‘break’, which constructs the object. This sensibility, the ability to see the new world, not only specialises those who possess it, but also privileges their point of view. To question the break is to be assigned to the other side of the divide and thus have no access to legitimate knowledge of the post-apocalyptic world. Those who cannot see what they see (and only the elect can) have by definition nothing to say about it. All past languages are thereby redundant, and so past work is displaced rather than integrated. One either ‘gets it’ or one doesn’t: ‘the times they are a-changing’ combines with ‘something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?’.

The extended epistemic community of mathematics

We now wish to compare this intellectual field with one where proclamations of ‘ruptures’, ‘breaks’ and the birth of the ‘new’ are relatively rare: mathematics. If literary criticism represents a ‘paradigms’ example, mathematics is analogous to the ‘perspectives’ idea. To illustrate the different form taken by mathematics, consider the following potted version of Hoffman’s history of Fermat’s Last Theorem (1998: 183-201):

   In 1637 in France, Pierre de Fermat (born 1601) was reading a treatise on number theory by Diophantus.

   Diophantus lived in Alexandria, possibly sometime between the first and third century A.D. In his treatise, Arithmetica, he discusses at length the ‘Pythagorean theorem’, observing that ‘there are an infinite number of Pythagorean triplets, whole numbers x, y and z ’ that solved the equation x2 + y2 = z2.  (p.187).

   Pythagoras lived in the sixth century B.C.

   The Babylonians had known about these triplets a thousand years earlier.

   Back in seventeenth century France, Fermat formulates his famous ‘Last Theorem’ in response to a problem he derived from Diophantus. He notes that he has ‘a truly marvellous demonstration’ of this theorem that is too big to write in the margin of the Arithmetica. Fermat dies in 1665, but the ‘demonstration’ is never found.

   To cut a long and fascinating story short, each subsequent century sees further work on the theorem by scores of mathematicians (male and female, from a variety of countries) until ...

   In 1993, Andrew Wiles, concluding his lectures at a maths conference in Cambridge, wrote one last statement on the blackboard and said, softly, “This proves Fermat’s Last Theorem. I think I’ll stop here.” (p.198). However, by December he has to admit to an inconsistency in his proof.

   By September 1994, with the help of a colleague, ‘the hole is patched’ (p.199) and the Last Theorem is considered officially proved!

What is so striking about this history is its sheer scale in historical time and in geographical and cultural space. It tells a story of a mathematician in late twentieth century England effectively communicating with a French judge at the court of Louis XIV, and through him with Babylonians from three millennia past.[7]  It represents an epistemic community with an extended existence in time and space, a community where the past is present, one in which the living members interact with the dead to produce contributions which, when they have died, will be in turn the living concern of future members — a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born  (Burke 1989: 147). At each and every moment, the field’s past, present and future co-exist, the past as an intellectual resource, the present as potential for the future.

What enables this extended epistemic community becomes clearer when one compares the ways in which the paradigms / literary criticism and perspectives / mathematics examples are legitimated. In the case of a ‘paradigms’ portrayal of an intellectual field, legitimacy (of claims to membership, resources, knowledge, status, etc.) within the field is measured by focusing on the knower. This knower mode of legitimation may be summarily represented as:

Knower  -->  Language  -->  Object


where the arrows indicate the direction of specialisation and regulation. The legitimate language is held to be specialised to the knower, which in turn is said to specialise the object of study; only the privileged knower’s ‘gaze’ may access the object of study. In other words, it is possession of the specialised sensibility, typically restricted to a social-temporal category of knower, which is the purported criteria for membership of the field — the means of socialisation into its principles of organisation is social rather than epistemic. In contrast, the ‘perspectives’ portrayal of a field illustrated by mathematics reverses the direction of the arrows: the object (or problem) is held to specialise the language (procedures) required to access knowledge of the object, and this in turn is held to specialise knowers; i.e. it is possession of the specialist language which is the purported criteria for membership of the field and the means of socialisation into its principles of organisation. This knowledge mode of legitimation may be represented as:

Object  -->  Language  -->  Knower


where, as before, the arrows indicate the direction of specialisation and regulation. This highlights two fundamental differences, to which we now turn, based on the different roles played here by the epistemic relation (between the object and the language) and social relation (between the language and the knower): the status of mathematicians’ creative fictions and of the knower.

Invented worlds

As in literary criticism, mathematicians create fictions. They have the freedom to invent problem-situations, where different imagined mathematical worlds may exhibit different qualities (for example, in some geometries, parallel lines converge at infinity, whilst in others they do not) and may be designed precisely for that purpose. As the mathematician Ronald Graham explains:

In so many areas of mathematics it seems natural or appropriate to create your own mathematical world. You have a lot of choices. I want to consider structures that have thus-and-such properties. I want this structure and not that one.

(quoted in Hoffman, 1998: 265)

The specialised languages of mathematics are specialised to these different worlds, the nature of each problem regulating the form taken by its procedures. However, mathematicians cannot explore these worlds just as they like; or as Isaiah Berlin puts it:

If anyone thinks that answers to mathematical problems can be obtained by looking at green fields or the behaviour of bees ... we would today think them mistaken to the point of insanity.

(Berlin, 2000: 25)

Once a problem is established, the parameters of the problem and the criteria of its solution remain relatively constant. A ‘fiction’ (problem or theoretical postulate) is constructed whose nature and criteria of solution are held to be intransitive — the object of inquiry and procedures for accessing knowledge of this object are strongly bounded and strongly controlled. Furthermore, certain kinds of procedures, values and principles (such as consistency) will hold constant whatever the nature of the problem. If a theorem (in whichever problem ‘world’ of maths) is demonstrated to be inconsistent, then it just is, its author cannot legitimately make ad hoc claims. Andrew Wiles, for example, could not claim that although his first attempt at solving Fermat’s Last Theorem was inconsistent in Cambridge it would be consistent in Oxford, or that though inconsistent in late 1993, it would become consistent if Manchester United lose their next game. Mathematics has explicit criteria whereby particular claims can, at the end of the day, be demonstratively shown to be true or false, right or wrong, legitimate or illegitimate, which transcend specific worlds and endure over time. The epistemic relation, in other words, is strongly bounded and controlled.

Specialist knowers

These explicit criteria are said to transcend differences in the social and temporal co-ordinates of actors. Thus discoveries by men and women of genius in the intellectual field, once they are established, can be used by people of no genius at all in a semi-mechanical manner in order to obtain correct results (cf. Berlin 2000: 25). In such a field problem-situations may persist over centuries and span the globe, previous work may be built upon and developed regardless of context, and answers may be adjudicated and progress judged by anyone sufficiently socialised into the field’s specialised procedures. One’s claims to be a specialised knower (one’s professional identity as a mathematician, a Fermat’s theorem expert, etc.), one’s use of antecedent knowledge, and decisions as to the legitimacy of one’s own and others’ claims to new knowledge, are all held to be motivated by purely ‘intellectual’ (or mathematical) considerations, themselves regulated by the specific problem or object of inquiry. They thus focus on knowledge of specialised procedures, which anyone may use, regardless of their location in time and space. Paradoxically, it is this negation of history, so to speak, that enables the history of a discipline to remain alive. Rather than locking specific knowers into their social and historical contexts, they remain active contributors to the field’s current production. This knowledge mode of legitimation thereby enables the history of a discipline and the discipline of History — the past may be a foreign country, but it is not an incommensurably different culture. The fact that Fermat, for example, is one more Dead White European Male is deemed to be irrelevant to the form in which his Last Theorem remained active within the problem field of the discipline.[8]  In other words, questions of who is a specialist knower are said to be the domain of the epistemic relation.

This way of understanding the intellectual field thereby enables both cumulative development of work over time within each (problem-specialised) language and communication between different languages. It is said, for example that very few mathematicians actually understand Wiles’s solution and so remain unable to personally judge whether he has indeed solved Fermat’s Last Theorem (Hoffman 1998: 198). However, though working in other problem-worlds, they trust those who work in this area to use the explicit criteria. There is thus a connection with the past and with other knowers in the present in an extended epistemic community.

Conclusion: What difference does it make?

One question this analysis raises is that of the significance for sociology of these different forms of understanding one’s intellectual field. Does it matter whether we characterise sociology as, say, a field of perspectives or paradigms, approaches or standpoints? We believe that it does, not only intellectually but also morally and politically.

We should first emphasise that here we have focused on the way that actors collectively represent the intellectual fields of which they are members, their modes of legitimation. Thus our conceptualisation of restricted and extended epistemic communities does not refer to the structures of the fields in themselves, but to the ways in which members of intellectual fields define them at any particular time. Thus, that mathematics has undergone critical breaks or ruptures at various moments is not at issue here; it is the way in which mathematicians themselves perceive their intellectual field that is the focus. They represent not perspectives within the field, but perspectives towards the field. This is also not to negate the significance of social and institutional factors in the development of intellectual fields. However, whilst a sociology of literary criticism or of mathematics would show the influence of such factors in the enacted practices of each field, this is not to dissolve the force and effects of these, more or less tacit or explicit, self-representations of a field’s operations. Whatever may be the case in practice, these are, so to speak, the defining principles of the field. Moreover, such collective representations have effects.

Intellectually, they shape the manner in which the past (such as embodied in a literary canon) is available as an intellectual resource and as a continuing repository of problems and material to be transformed within the current production of knowledge. For the extended epistemic communities of knowledge modes, the past remains a basic source of material to incorporate within current production. For the restricted communities of knower modes, the field’s past is more a mass of debris to be cleared away to make way for the ‘new’ and enable the building of knowledge to start afresh. Where one field builds upwards, a work which may take many generations and can last for centuries, and in which most actors play small though significant parts; another field puts together prefabricated bungalows, one after the other, each knower assembling their own (seemingly) from scratch, before restlessly looking for new virgin territory to suburbanise and frequent temporarily. In the work of one, the past, present and future are ever-present as repository, practice and potential; in the other, the past is cut off from a ceaselessly changing present. One embodies its past, the other exhibits historical amnesia. This amnesia represents self-impoverishment and undermines attempts to develop a cumulative sociology, one in touch with both its own and others’ pasts.

It should be emphasised, however, that the knowledge mode of legitimation, whilst freeing knowers from becoming locked into a past or different culture to which no other knowers may have access, is itself quite capable of succumbing to a form of historical amnesia. Where the knower mode tends to sociologism, the knowledge mode tends to epistemologism (see Maton 2000a). We will not develop this here, as it has been widely discussed within sociology (often as a legitimating strategy for proclaiming breaks with the past), beyond stating that the social and historical differences set aside when adjudicating knowledge claims within an extended epistemic community can easily be forgotten entirely, giving a timeless and idealist sheen to its understanding of its own history. The history of a discipline may be kept alive at the expense of forgetting its historical status.

Moves to replace specialised procedures with privileged knowers as the dominant way of understanding an intellectual field also represents a return to a pre-Enlightenment era. In short, to paraphrase George Santayana, those fields suffering historical amnesia are condemned to repeat the past. Knowledge modes in effect detach knowledge claims from the social and temporal characteristics of their authors — who is speaking makes no difference to whether or not what is being said is true (see Gellner 1974). It was precisely the insistence upon this that enabled the Western universities to successively free themselves from control by religious and political authorities, and the massive advance of secular critical rationalism at the beginning of the modern period. Knower modes seek to reverse this move and return to a new form of the pre-modern (though relabelled ‘post-modern’) position where who knows is what counts, not what is known or how — an inverted form of the divine right of kings and papal infallibility (Maton 2002). We should be standing on the shoulders of giants to see further, rather than simply slaying them. To do so, we need to see beyond the narcissism of individual differences to contribute to something beyond ourselves, something which builds on the past to bequeath to the future.[9]

The moral and political significance of how we portray sociology is perhaps less obvious, and here, above all, there are no easy answers. What Adorno and Horkheimer (1944) described as the dialectic of Enlightenment is well known. The mode illustrated by mathematics invariably begins by liberating people from error, confusion and irrationality, but almost invariably ends by enslaving those very same people. It may therefore be argued that an anti-Enlightenment is required to ‘give voice to’ those silenced by Enlightenment knowledge, and claims of ‘breaks’ and ruptures with the past seen as useful strategies, heuristic devices. Less discussed, however, is what one could term the dialectic of anti-Enlightenment, two aspects of which we wish to highlight here. First, where legitimacy focuses on the knower, such claims tend to be treated as anything but fictions and, moreover, form the basis of claims to knowledge, status and material resources within higher education — in such contexts they become more than simply heuristic devices. The implications of this elision are well made by Kermode:

We can think of them as fictions, as useful. If we treat them as something other than they are we are yielding to irrationalism; we are committing an error against which the intellectual history of our century should certainly have warned us. Its ideological expression is fascism; its practical consequence the Final Solution. And we are always in some danger of committing this error.

(Kermode, 1967: 103)

Secondly, making specific privileged knowers the sole arbiter of knowledge claims is not always in the interests of knowers. We have already highlighted how this may lead to exclusivity, individualism and negation of the Other. Here we return to where we began: the case of David Irving. Irving lost in part because professional historians demonstrated that he had not, as he claimed, fulfilled the criteria of the discipline of History, as embodied in its more or less consensually agreed specialised procedures. If Irving had argued that he knew the Holocaust did not occur, not through rigorous historical research, but because of who he is, then the outcome might have been different. This point was made very clearly by George Orwell in the 1930s:

A British and a German historian would disagree deeply on many things, even fundamentals, but there would still be that body of, as it were, neutral fact on which neither would seriously challenge the other. It is just this common basis of agreement, with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal, that totalitarianism destroys. Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as ‘Science’. There is only ‘German science’, ‘Jewish science’, etc.

(Orwell 1938: 236).

Historical amnesia, in erasing the past, may erase much more than simply sociology’s future; portrayals of apocalypse may also enable an apocalypse. One should never underestimate the power of ideas: ‘philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy a civilisation’ (Berlin, 1997: 192).


The authors wish to thank John Beck, Peter Huckstep and Tobin Nellhaus for their enlightening comments.


[1]  A condensed version of some of the issues raised here was presented as at the British Sociological Association Annual Conference 2000: Making Time — Marking Time, University of York, April 2000. This article overlaps with a more theoretical exposition of the structure and dynamic of intellectual fields, including a systematic theorisation of the ‘epistemic device’, the fundamental theoretical object of a revitalised sociology of knowledge (Moore & Maton 2001).  [-> main text]

[2] Transcripts of the hearing, including the Judge’s final verdict (Tuesday April 11, 2000) from which we quote, may be found at: http://www.fpp.co.uk/docs/trial/transcripts.html. For newspaper accounts of the trial, see:


   [-> main text]

[3] Declarations of ‘crisis’ in sociology are too numerous to list here; see, for example, Gouldner (1971), Lemert (1995), MacRae (1964).  [-> main text]

[4]  This specific focus cannot be overemphasised. We are not arguing that ’there is nothing new under the sun’ nor ritually disabusing those who claim originality, but rather analysing the ways in which the form taken by proclaimed revolutionary breaks within intellectual fields shapes their development. However, it is highly likely, given the current state of the sociological field, that such analyses are themselves subjected to the very practices they analyse, namely recontextualised as part of either a ‘tradition of the ‘new’ or a tradition of debunking the ‘new’. Such a reading would, of course, illustrate and reinforce the explanatory potential of our analysis whilst highlighting weaknesses in the persuasive power of our argument.   [-> main text]

[5]  This is a conventional explanation offered by sociological studies of knowledge, such as that of Pierre Bourdieu. See Bernstein (1996: 169-181) and Maton (1999, 2000a) on the limitations of this approach. Interestingly, this article is jointly authored by a senior and a junior member of an intellectual field.   [-> main text]

[6]  Consider, for example, the following:

These times are times of chaos; opinions are a scramble; parties are a jumble; the language of new ideas has not been created; nothing is more difficult than to give a good definition of oneself in religion, in philosophy, in politics. One feels, one knows, one lives, and at need one dies for one's cause, but cannot name it. ... The world has jumbled its catalogue.

(quoted in Abrams, 1972: 22) 

This sounds characteristic of many arguments heard in sociology in recent years. It was, in fact, written in the 1840s by the French historian, Lamartine. We appear cursed or blessed to always live in interesting times.   [-> main text]

[7]  It might be argued that the fact that Andrew Wiles worked in isolation for eight years to solve the theorem may contradict the argument made here, at least in terms of communication with other living mathematicians. This would be mistaken on at least three counts. First, such a individualised mode of working is relatively rare in modern mathematics (see Hoffman 1998: 183-4). Secondly, this mode of discovery does not negate the extended epistemic community engaged in the mode of demonstration; Wiles may have worked alone, but the acceptance of his proof was social. Thirdly, and most importantly, actors need not be in contact with one another (or even alive) to be fellow members of a field’s active epistemic community. An epistemic community is thus, in Benedict Anderson’s phrase, an ‘imagined community’.   [-> main text]

[8]  It is important to note here that we are in no way suggesting that sociological factors play no part in access to and positioning within intellectual fields. The focus here is on the ways in which these fields describe themselves, their modes of legitimation, and their effects on intellectual fields, rather than the working of fields as arenas of social practice (see Conclusion).    [-> main text]

[9]  Popper (1972) famously referred to this world of objective contents of thought or “knowledge in the objective sense” as “World 3” (World 1 being the world of physical objects or states, World 2 that of states of consciousness, mental states, or behavioural dispositions to act). Making this world objective, in the sense of a real object of study, is one of the central aims of this article.    [-> main text]


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©2002 Karl Maton & Rob Moore. All rights reserved.
Published by The Autodidact Project with permission of Karl Maton.

"Popes, Kings & Cultural Studies: Placing the commitment to non-disciplinarity in historical context"
by Karl Maton

The Sacred and the Profane:The Arbitrary Legacy of Pierre Bourdieu by Karl Maton

[Basil Bernstein, Elaborated & Restricted Linguistic Codes]
from The Dialectic of Ideology and Technology by Alvin W. Gouldner

Reflexivity & Situatedness Study Guide


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