Interview with Michael Billig

Michael Billig is a professor of social sciences at Loughborough University, Leicestershire, UK. He is the author of several books, including “Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences”, “Freudian Repression: Conversation Creating the Unconscious”, and “Arguing and Thinking: A Rhetorical Approach to Social Psychology”. There are also a few interviews that are available online (here is one example), but I could not find any that were intended specifically for young academics. The following interview, therefore, is intended first and foremost for graduate students in the social sciences.


Davood Gozli: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Professor Billig. Given that many of my colleagues in experimental psychology may not be familiar with your work, let’s begin with a general question. How would you describe your approach to psychology? What are some of the goals that have been motivating your work?

Michael Billig: I am not sure that I have an ‘approach’ in the sense which that word tends to be used. I don’t have a set theory or methodology with which I approach various topics. However, I do tend to approach topics, which interest me, with a similar style. I tend to become interested to the point of obsession in a particular topic, often because I want to find out about something that I do not know much about. As a start I read as widely as I can about the topic. In effect this has often led me to read more social scientific, historical and philosophical works than purely psychological works. In consequence, my work tends not to fit a neat disciplinary framework and certainly not the framework of experimental psychology. However, I am also interested in the ways that people use rhetoric and language generally, and I often find myself investigating psychological problems through the close examination of rhetoric. In this regard my analyses are often qualitative, but I don’t see doing qualitative or quantitative analyses as a matter of principle.

DG: I learned a lot from your book, “Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences”. Even though I knew about Kuhn’s notion of the “disciplinary matrix”, I became aware of it in a much more personal way after reading your book, and noticed some of the ways the disciplinary matrix affects my own practices. Please tell us about what motivated the writing of this book.

MB: I give a short account in the opening chapter of the book. I recount how, as a postgraduate student, I had great difficulty in understanding, let alone use, the technical concepts of experimental social psychology. I would try to translate them into the sort of simple English that I understood and how sometimes, as I turned the big words into ordinary words, the meaning seemed to disappear. At the time, I found that I lost confidence and wondered whether I could ever become a ‘proper’ academic. Over the years, the difficulty has increased rather than decreased, but now I don’t feel it to be a sign of failure. I wanted to write a book that analysed why so many academics in the social sciences – and I include psychology in the social sciences – use big words and what is wrong with using big words, when smaller ones will suffice. I did not want to write a book that just complained about academic language: I wanted to write which analysed current rhetorical practices and to show exactly what is wrong linguistically with such practices. To this end, I needed to engage in discursive and linguistic analyses.

DG: In the present time, writing and publishing are – for good or ill – necessities for academics. In such a condition, how can we begin to increase the relevance, accessibility, quality of our writing? Are there any specific writing exercises that you endorse?

MB: It is often assumed that technical writing is more precise than ordinary language. In my view, the reverse is often the case, especially when it comes to writing about human actions. If you use currently fashionable technical phrases, which typically are nominal phrases, you often do not have to make your meaning precise – you just take a phrase which sounds precise but may be used in all manner of imprecise ways. If you use simpler language to describe actions, you often have to stipulate exactly what you mean – stipulating who did what and how. I would not advocate specific writing exercises but would urge all young academics to write as simply as they, using, for example, active verbs rather than passive sentences.

DG: Your own writing is extraordinary. You write in a clear, engaging, and persuasive way. In my experience, many of the writers who take a critical approach to the mainstream psychology are rather difficult to read. Is obscurity part of the “disciplinary matrix” of the critical approaches or is that a coincidence?

MB: There are some social scientists who believe that ordinary language is ideologically compromised and that to be critical of conventional ways of thinking, you have to use special language. Hence some social critics have used tortuous language. However, I think that their position is wrong on two counts. Today, many of those who wield social and economic power use specialist language to reinforce their power, rather than ordinary language. You only have to think of management jargon. In these conditions, the language of ordinary people may not be so ideologically conservative. Second, language is not a set matrix of meanings which are imposed upon the users of the language. We use language to argue, to criticize and to say ‘no’. And it is self-regarding and erroneous to think that only those equipped with special, critical terminology can do these things.

DG: On the topic of critical psychology, in several places you have made the observation that a critical approach can give rise to a disciplinary matrix of its own, with its own new terminology, textbooks, and a body of literature that becomes increasingly insulated, reducing contact with the original target of the critique. Should critical approaches regard disciplinarity as an obstacle?

MB: Yes they should aware that a ‘critical approach’ can become a new orthodoxy, which students have to learn uncritically. William James stressed the importance of being undisciplined. In my experience, the best way of avoiding being orthodox is to read widely. If you just read what everyone else in your discipline or sub-discipline is reading, then you will, as likely as not, end up thinking like everyone else. But if you read eclectically, then you have a chance of acquiring a distinctive set of ideas.

DG: Your book, “The Hidden Roots of Critical Psychology: Understanding the Impact of Locke, Shaftesbury, and Reid” tells a captivating story of three philosophers who remain surprisingly relevant to the field of psychology to this day. How did you discover Shaftesbury? And how did that discovery lead to the writing of the book?

MB: Prior to writing ‘Hidden Roots’ I wrote a book on humour and I came across Shaftesbury through my reading about different theories of humour. Shaftesbury had written about the importance of humour, and stressed that he did not mean vulgar humour but the humour to be found in gentleman’s clubs. I mocked this snobbish attitude. But then I read a bit more and realized that I had been unfair to Shaftesbury – not least because he was not referring to ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ in the modern sense. I had a guilty conscience for mocking him so easily. And the more I read about him and by him, the more I appreciated his originality and depth. So, ‘The hidden roots’ was really an apology but it was an apology which I enjoyed making.

DG: Aside from Shaftesbury and Reid, who are some other forgotten figures in the history of psychology?

MB: Yes although they tend to be figures forgotten by the history of psychology, often because they formulated psychological ideas which were not taken up by psychologists or found their way unnoticed into the thinking of major, better known, later figures. Abraham Tucker is one such figure. He was an eighteenth century English thinker, who lived a very intellectually isolated life. He was ignored in his own day and by later generations. His book The Light of Nature Pursued, however, formulated a view of the mind which in many respects anticipated ideas to be found in William James, including the key idea of consciousness being like a stream. I wrote an article in praise of Abraham Tucker in Theory & Psychology three or four years ago. I’m sure that there are many other neglected delights to be found.

DG: What are some of your favorite books? And, what is your favorite Michael Billig book?

MB: Over the years I have enjoyed and been influence by many different books. I have loved reading William James’s Principles of Psychology and many of Freud’s works, especially his Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis and his Studies on Hysteria. I was greatly influenced by Hannah Arendt, especially Eichmann in Jerusalem, which changed the way I thought about the social world, and by Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. It has been wonderful to have been paid to read. But that has meant being able to read works that have not been enjoyable to read. The most extreme example is that I read Mein Kampf when I was studying fascism.

Favourite books are those one reads and re-reads. I don’t read and re-read my own works.

DG: Do you have any other general advice for the young academics who will read this interview?

MB: Be brave and do things for their own sake rather than because you think they will be useful for your ‘career’. Above all try to read widely. By reading widely, you can ‘meet’ some extraordinary thinkers.

DG: I am grateful to have discovered you and your work. And I thank you for this opportunity.


 

Also read: Inheriting the Past (A Review of Michael Billig’s “The Hidden Roots of Critical Psychology: Understanding the Impact of Locke, Shaftesbury, & Reid”)

Inheriting the Past

A review of Michael Billig’s “The Hidden Roots of Critical Psychology: Understanding the Impact of Locke, Shaftesbury, & Reid”.


May 17, 2015

I am beginning to write this review during my stay in Treasure Island, Florida. I am scheduled to give a talk at the Vision Sciences Society’s (VSS) annual conference on Tuesday morning — two days from today — but I have not been preparing for that talk. Instead, I have been obsessing over this book by Michael Billig. Today, I finally finished it. I got out of bed, made coffee, stayed on the couch like a zombie until I reached the end of the book, and began thinking about writing this review as I stepped into the shower.

Finding this book was itself an interesting chance events, which had to do partly with meeting Thomas Teo. During the past fall, I had to read, review, and discuss Teo’s book “The Critique of Psychology: From Kant to Postcolonial Theory” as coursework for a graduate level seminar on history of psychology. Thomas Teo joined that session and heard us discuss his book. After the class, I approached him and asked if he could give me some guidance for further reading on critical psychology. He graciously agreed. I was naively hoping for a short list of 3-5 books, perhaps ordered by their importance. Instead, I received a long list of close to a hundred books, ordered alphabetically. I went through the list feeling defeated under the heavy burden of “homework” for what I considered a fancy hobby. Among the list of authors I recognized one name — Michael Billig. I had just finished reading “Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences”, which was a book that you had brought to my attention.

A quick note on “Learn to Write Badly”. I strongly believe this book is a must-read for students of psychology. The book made a very strong impact on me and it deserves a review of its own. For now, I would just say that there is a special kind of trust for a writer that is formed after reading a great book. The kind of trust that makes it very easy to decide to read the author’s other works. The kind of trust that is generalized, raising your baseline level of optimism for other writers and other books. I felt that trust after reading “Learn to Write Badly”. Therefore, choosing “The Hidden Roots” out of Teo’s long list was easy.

Why is “The Hidden Roots” so important? A more specific question that I feel better equipped to address is why this book is so important for students of cognitive psychology. The reason has to do with the scope of cognitive psychology. It has to do with the “blindspots” of cognitive psychology. It has to do with what — of psychology — is included and what — of psychology — is excluded in this scope. It has to do with a debate regarding the importance of what is included and excluded. It has to do with the underlying assumptions of psychology about what it means to be human. “The Hidden Roots” tackles these issues by bringing to life a story from the forgotten past of psychology, and by showing how that story remains unfinished and the debate remains unresolved.

The past is never finished. As new intellectual challenges arise, so our view of the past. Sometimes it is necessary to ask what the conventional views are overlooking: what is being concealed today by the histories that have been regularly told? (l. 42)

The book is particularly important for those who are sensing that “something is missing” about the picture of the human mind that is painted by cognitive psychology, but cannot fully articulate what it is that is missing. Cognitive psychology has made the big promise of understanding the nature of human thinking and the sources of human behaviour. Its connection to other disciplines, such as computer science, linguistics, and neuroscience further gives us the impression that the nature of the mind is going to be grasped sooner or later. “It’s only a matter of time”.

At a deeper level, the promise of cognitive psychology is compelling for the same reasons that John Locke’s view of the human mind was compelling. They are both compelling because of the intuitive appeal of two underlying assumptions — individualism (that an individual, taken out of his/her social, cultural, and historical context can be the subject of psychological investigation) and elementism (that the mind of the individual subject can be understood through investigating sub-personal psychological “objects” or processes, i.e., the psychological elements). Pointing out these two assumptions and their consequences is one of Billig’s important accomplishments in the book.

May 20, 2015

… Writing this review was interrupted by the busy conference schedule. My talk went quite well, despite not having rehearsed it very much. My colleagues and fellow travellers listened to me practice the night before the talk and gave me some helpful suggestions. Jason Rajsic in particular was the cause of many improvements, for which I am grateful. Anyways, back to our topic…

As you know, I took a course on early modern philosophy during my undergraduate at Trent. Unfortunately, the course was very dry and uninspiring, and was one of the reasons I decided not to go for a double-major in philosophy and psychology. In retrospect, I believe the course lacked a truly historical dimension. Instead of considering the philosophers’ historical, social, cultural, and personal contexts, we read a set of primary texts. Again, in retrospect, I believe it was not a coincidence that our instructor was enamoured with the present-day cognitive neuroscience, to the point that the work of Antonio Damasio found its way into the lectures on Descartes and Hobbes. Was Shaftesbury mentioned? Not once.

My experience in that early modern philosophy course taught me an important lesson: Learning about the past can seem like a completely futile endeavour, if we believe that the past is simply a less advanced version of the present. I particularly found reading Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” to be an irritating and useless experience. The book seemed like an unnecessary way to think and talk about what I was already thinking and talking about in my psychology courses. The course eventually ended and I very strongly felt I would not have anything to do with Locke for the rest of my life. It was reading Billig’s “The Hidden Roots” that opened my eyes to the importance of Locke. I now understand what makes reading Locke so irritating today, especially for someone who is decently-versed in cognitive psychology.

Present psychologists will supposedly recognize parts of their own activities in the distant parent’s work. But other parts ensure that the parent belongs to a pre-disciplinary generation. Locke remains an ancestor – a framed portrait gazing from the wall – rather than a distinguished colleague. Thus, the paternal label suggests a complex pattern of recognizable similarities and differences, points of identification and points of difference (l. 421).

Locke’s ‘way of ideas’ is fundamentally consistent with the contemporary cognitive psychology, while at the same time appearing painfully primitive and, consequently, unnecessary to read. It is the kind of writing that discourages students from studying history of psychology. Side note: While in a conversation with someone at the conference the other day, I mentioned that I would be teaching history of psychology during the summer. His response was, “could you have chosen anything more boring?” A question like this is rooted, unfortunately, in a prevalent misunderstanding of the potential role of history. “The Hidden Roots” effectively challenges this misunderstanding.

May 22, 2015

… I am back in Toronto. I was reading Michael Wertheimer’s “A Brief History of Psychology” on the plane, and noticed an interesting connection. In the “Brief History”, Wertheimer refers to the decline of the Greek civilization after Alexander the Great, and two philosophical responses to that crisis — Epicureanism and Stoicism (p.25). It is interesting that the same two responses returned during the Enlightenment period, perhaps in response to the crisis of faith. Billig describes how Stoicism returned in the works of Shaftesbury and Reid, while Epicureanism returned in the hands of Gassendi and Locke.

At present, we remember our Epicurean forerunners better, not because they were more important, but because they are more similar to us.

What really caught the imagination of seventeenth century thinkers were not so much Epicurus’s ethical and aesthetic teachings. It was his atomism. Epicurus had taken from Democritus the notion that the world was comprised of small, indivisible units of matter […] (l.969).

In light of the Epicurean elementism, what is supposed to be the stoic alternative? Even though it is not quite straightforward to derive a philosophy of psychology from stoic philosophy, it is true that certain ways of approaching psychology are incompatible with the stoic mindset. And this is due to stoic ethical and social sensibilities. Billig, through the study of Shaftesbury and Reid, shows us how adopting a stoic mindset renders certain ways of approaching psychology trivial, while rendering others as misguided.

The stoic reaction was simple. If you search for ever smaller units, you will come up with discoveries of increasing triviality. Epictetus expressed this stoic impatience with atomism as a principle of exploration: ‘What does it signify to me … whether the universe is composed of atoms or uncompounded substances, or of fire and earth?’ What really matters, he continued, is to know ‘the essence of good and evil, and the proper bounds of the desires and aversions’ (l.1512).

By shedding light on the hidden half of the Locke-Shaftesbury debate, Billig shows at the same time (a) the limits of a Lockean psychology, and (b) how far the scope of psychology could reach if it is liberated from individualism, elementism, and the desire to found a “system” upon a set of irrefutable premises. What was missing in Lockean psychology was a relevance to ethics, social conduct, social bonds, personal identity, dialogue, ideology, or aesthetics.

Shaftesbury was attracted to stoic philosophy as a guide for moral self-improvement. He wrote in his Regimen that if philosophical thinking is to mean anything, then it must be ‘a matter of practice’. The purpose of his studies was ‘my own amendment’ and there was little value in ‘those speculations’ that did not lead to ‘my amendment’ (l. 1486).

What is it about the past that illuminates the present so uniquely? What is it about learning about the Epicurean metaphysics, the Lockean ‘way of ideas’ that illuminates so effectively the underlying philosophical assumptions of my own work in cognitive psychology? I don’t completely understand. Mind you, it is not my goal to undermine my own discipline. It is my goal to be aware of its scope, its limits, its reach, and its blindspots as much as possible. And I have come to believe that such an awareness is not possible without considering what we have inherited from the past. We have not inherited ideas. We have inherited debates and oppositions of ideas. To regard only one side of those opposition alone would be a failure to truly inherit the past. What we belong to is not a single line of development, but a series of dialogues. To continue along a single line of development is to deny the true meaning of what we do.

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in philosophy of psychology. In fact, unlike Teo, I would recommend only this one book to students of cognitive psychology, knowing that appreciating this book would lead them to further research and perhaps dozens of other books. After reading this book, the student would either have to change what he/she is doing, or to acquire a completely new and enriched awareness of his/her own practice.

At any rate, I am looking forward to our meeting tomorrow. Thank you, once again, for bringing Michael Billig to my attention. I am also grateful for Thomas Teo for sending me his list of readings. And I will let you know if I make any further progress on that list.


 

Read More: Interview with Michael Billig