Let me start with a little story about intellectual exchange, which Bourdieu would have liked.footnote1 As we know, Wittgenstein entirely changed the orientation of his philosophy after 1929, principally as a result of the criticisms of the Italian economist Piero Sraffa, with whom he liked to walk and talk at Trinity College, Cambridge. One day, when Wittgenstein was putting forth the argument that a proposition and what it describes must have the same ‘logical multiplicity’, Sraffa replied with a Neapolitan gesture of scepticism or contempt, brushing his fingertips up and outward from his chin: ‘What is the logical form of this?’ Clearly, these conversations were of the highest importance for Wittgenstein, who said he owed to Sraffa an ‘anthropological method’ of tackling philosophical problems; in other words, the realization that social rules and conventions contribute to the sense of our words and gestures.

As for Sraffa, he was far from according the same importance to his exchanges with Wittgenstein, as he told his friend and student Amartya Sen (also a friend of Bourdieu).footnote2 In his view, the argument he had used that day was ‘rather obvious’. Perhaps, but it was only obvious for someone already acquainted with the ‘anthropological’ approach to philosophy practiced in the intellectual circles of the Italian left in which Sraffa was active, and where he had got to know Antonio Gramsci, a close friend from the days of Ordine Nuovo until his death. If I start with this story, it is not just because Gramsci’s preoccupations overlapped to such a large extent with those of Bourdieu, albeit in a rather different way and in an Italian intellectual context, not a French one; it’s also because it illustrates the cultural subjectivity inherent in all intellectual exchange. When we read an author, we set off in search of our own points of interest, not theirs. Thus when non-French historians read Bourdieu’s work—which flows to such an enormous extent from his intellectual context, that of post-war France—it’s not his thought and its development they’re considering, but their own. Not that it’s a dialogue of the deaf—I think I understand what Bourdieu is saying—but rather a case of parallel soliloquies, which sometimes seem to coincide. I would ask you to bear this in mind if my reading of Bourdieu seems partial or unfounded.

In the light of this initial warning, I will pose a simple question: what has Bourdieu contributed, and what can he contribute, to the work of contemporary historians? What’s most striking, to begin with, is the central place his work accords to both history and interdisciplinarity. In the hundredth issue of Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, a special number that Bourdieu saw as ‘the reaffirmation of a project’, five of the nine articles are by historians or devoted to historical subjects; and six, we may note in passing, are by foreign authors. Indeed, a quick glance at the journal confirms that in Bourdieu’s last decade, the Actes turned increasingly towards historical enquiry. Bourdieu had been accustomed to working with historians ever since Braudel had welcomed him to his Maison des Sciences de l’Homme; in a us-German survey, he is cited alongside Edward Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Peter Laslett and Maurice Godelier in a list of contemporary French and English historians, Marxist or otherwise, with an interest in anthropology.footnote3 He took part in Clemens Heller’s fascinating international gatherings, the Round Tables on Social History, and published a commentary on our debate on the history of strikes.footnote4 I vividly recall our conversations in the late seventies on the need for a history of sport—a topic as dear to the editorial committee of the Actes de la recherche as to Bourdieu himself. In short, Bourdieu was perfectly at ease with historians, or at least with some of them.

And yet, he chose to become not a historian but a philosopher-turned-sociologist. In his most important writings, he refers much less to historians than to philosophers, ethnographers and social anthropologists, and cites even fewer—Georges Duby, almost alone among his French contemporaries. There are eminent historians whose names are never mentioned, and Michelet is specifically rejected. Readers of Homo Academicus (1984) know how he distrusted the sort of history practiced at the higher levels of the French system. Despite his gratitude to Braudel, whose support was unqualified, he had no sympathy for the longue durée approach of the Annales historians.footnote5 He often noted their lack of interest in a historical analysis of the concepts used in the analysis of the past, in a ‘reflexive use of history’.footnote6 The reproach is not entirely just, especially to the Germans—one thinks of the encyclopaedic Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe—but it is true that historians, apart from historians of ideas, show little interest in philosophy. Nor do philosophers practice much history. In this respect, Hume in the eighteenth century, and Croce and his school in the twentieth, are the exceptions that prove the rule, though their historical works are not much read today.

Nevertheless, the past has a central stake in Bourdieu’s work since it constitutes the soil in which the present’s roots are plunged, forming the basis for our capacity to understand our own times and to act upon them. For my own part, like many historians, I have always admired Bourdieu and have often been inspired by him. Had he wanted, he could have been a great historian himself, which is manifestly not the case with Foucault, Althusser or Derrida, to mention only the French thinkers best known abroad. Bourdieu had the historian’s passion for the concrete, the specific, the singular; he had curiosity and a gift for observing things from a distance—a capability that good anthropologists share with good historians. Braudel liked to say: ‘Historians are never on holiday. Each time I take a train, I learn something.’ Bourdieu would have agreed. Only someone with a natural gift for social history could have discerned this characteristic of rural society:

The relative frequency of proverbs, prohibitions, sayings and regulated rites declines as one moves from practices tied to agricultural activity, or directly associated with it, . . . towards the divisions of the day, or moments of human life, not to speak of domains apparently abandoned to chance, such as the internal organization of the household, parts of the body, colours or animals.footnote7

As an observer he was both sensitive to and fascinated by all that went on below the surface of daily life in his country, the unspoken and unrecorded assumptions of contemporary French existence, the symptoms of the nation’s state of health.