Last year was the commemoration of the tenth anniversary of Pierre Bourdieu's death, considered the last great French sociologist, worthy continuer, critic and heterodox, of a tradition that goes back to Auguste Comte, founder of the Sociology as a science, and even more, continuer of illustrious representatives such as Durkheim or Marcel Mauss, going through Marx or Max Weber among others. My personal encounter with the figure of Pierre Bourdieu was disappointing at first, when I read, in a rushed manner and skimming though it, his book The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger (1988). It was not until later on when my interest was deeply awaken by his sociological work. This took place, however, in an indirect manner, when driven by my philosophical investigations about the course that contemporary philosophy was taking from the times of Kant, going from Modern Philosophy's Idea of the I to the postmodern Idea of the Body (See my book Del Yo al Cuerpo), I found out that in the discussions opened in the field of the denominated Philosophy of Mind in the USA the so-called tendency of the Embodied Mind was working strongly its way, through figures like Lakoff & Johnson, E. Thompson, Gallagher, Zahavi, etc, who returned to the work of phenomenologist and existentialist Maurice Merleau-Ponty to find a philosophy that would analyze the relation between body and mind more deeply than neopositivism did, dominant until then in the philosophy of Russell, Wittgenstein, Quine, Searle, etc. Reading the Phenomenology of Perception of the French philosopher I ran into his use of the bodily abilities (Habitude) to phenomenologically found our relation with the world (See in this Blog, “Hand and ability (Habitude) in Merleau-Ponty” 4-2-2013).
A quick search in the Internet of the word “Habitude” took me to Pierre Bourdieu's concept of Habitus. The French Sociologist, influenced in his youth by the lecture of Merleau-Ponty's work, had seen in his philosophical project, which tried to open the way to a new philosophical position that would be able to overcome the Sartrean dualism of the “in itself” and the “for itself”, by then dominant in the French Philosophy, a decisive help to overcome the sociological dualism that also counterposed the marxian reductionist materialism and the individualist reductionism of the North America positivist sociology called rational agent. Pierre Bourdieu talked about directing the sociological gaze, and even the ethnological, to the bodily abilities (Habitus) as a guideline that would allow us to discover the unconscious key to many human behaviors. Vindicating a conception of the human subject as a bodily operatory subject that, although it only makes sense understood in the framework of structures and laws given over its will, such as Marx's economic structures or Levi-Strauss' cultural structures of kinship, it is not reduced to them in the sense that it doesn't only suffer them but that it itself generates them, not in a merely mental or conscious way as the rational subject of the North American sociology, yet in a not less rational way but unconscious. This generative-structutal character of the social subject provided with “bodily schemes of action” that acted as dispositions or capacities (habitus) which allow to reconstruct from them the most basic social structures that explain the rational behavior of individuals, took me immediately, because of my acquaintance with it, to relate this with Piaget's Genetic Epistemology.
My surprise didn't cease to increase when, continuing my inquiries about Bourdieu's concept of Habitus, I found some interpreters who vindicated Piaget's influence as essential to understand this important aspect of the French sociologist's work. It is the case of the North American sociologist Omar Lizardo, who in his article “The cognitive origins of Bourdieu’s Habitus” (2009) highlights how such concept has to do with the Piagetean genetic-cognitive version of French structuralism. Specially with the schemes of action and the bodily operations that Piaget used to explain knowledge in children. And this not in a lateral way, as if it were one influence more in Bourdieu, similar to the usually cited, in regard to this aspect, of Durkheim, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty (See a good exposition of it in Spanish in Francisco Vázquez García, Pierre Bourdieu: la sociología como crítica de la razón, 2002, p. cap. II) but as a basic influence, as sort of primitive foundational bricks in the construction of the Habitus. Omar Lizardo points to the article “Pierre Bourdieu-Jean Piaget. Habitus, Schemes Et Construction Du Psychologique." (1999) by J.P.Bronckart and Marie-Noëlle Schurmans, who originally posed this connection between Bourdieu's Habitus and Piaget's operational cognitive abilities.
In such a sense, I seems to me that the work of the Swiss psychologist should be considered, because of its transcendence to the now called Cognitive Sociology, which continues the before called Sociology of Knowledge or Sociology of Culture, an epistemologically foundational work in so far as its methodological procedures and research approach affect the new scientific fields as the one opened by Pierre Bourdieu in his influencing and novel analyses of sociological fields like Education (Homo Academicus) or Art (The Distinction, The Rules of Art). For, so much Piaget as Bourdieu represent, from this point of view, a positive and brilliant exercise of what we have been calling an Skillfull (hábil) way of thinking, a decisive step in the contemporary advance of the task of overcoming modernity's idealism without relapsing in a new version of the materialist realism, as happened to the so-called classical Marxism. Not in vain did Bourdieu decide to overcome Marxism's economicist sociology without having to pay the high price of mentalism and idealism of the subject understood as individual rational agent and used, as an alternative to Marxism, in the American sociological positivism based in Artificial Intelligence and Game Theory. To achieve such overcoming one couldn't resort to any inversion mechanism, such as Marx did with Hegel, transforming his idealist philosophy in a materialist philosophy, but proceeding through an intermediate path, trying to avoid skillfully both extremes, looking for a new principle that would be in media res, such as the Habitus or bodily abilities, in so far as they are an “in-between two” as Merleau-Ponty would say, because of their being in an irreducible position in respect to physiological-mechanistic explanations as to any formalist logical reductionism.
Manuel F. Lorenzo
(Translated into English by Luis Fernández Pontón)