Can we get a moratorium on the word “influence”?

The question may seem strange, as “influence” is a central category of intellectual history — indeed, without understanding a thinker’s influences, it seems impossible to understand that thinker at all. In practice, however, it often seems as though the term “influence” refers to “a connection the speaker wants to posit between two thinkers, without justifying it or specifying its nature in any way.”

Now this descent into hand-waviness is understandable, because influence is said in many ways. If we disallow ourselves the general term, we would be forced to be more precise about the nature and importance of the relationships we’re discussing — or else we’d testify to the deep influence of Wittgenstein by remaining silent.

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4 Responses to “Can we get a moratorium on the word “influence”?”

  1. Danny Says:

    Agreed. I recently read Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge for the first time; I take that work to be an attempt to articulate a method for demonstrating the actual connections and ruptures in systems of thought or networks of texts that are often glossed over in favor of notions like “influence,” which he take specific aim at early on:

    “Then there is the notion of influence, which provides a support – of too magical a kind to be very amenable to analysis – for the facts of transmission and communication; which refers to an apparently causal process (but with neither rigorous delimitation nor theoretical definition) the phenomena of resemblance or repetition; which links, at a distance and through time – as if through the mediation of a medium of propagation – such defined unities as individuals, oeuvres, notions, or theories” (21).

  2. Eric Says:

    This could be an issue concerning how humanistic we want our humanities to be. Many artists and writers will plainly state who they feel their influences are, sometimes simply by attacking them. If we’d rather talk about discursive regularities then we can dismiss the humanistic connotations of the idea of influence and adopt Foucault’s language, like that in Danny’s quote. I personally find Foucault a bit clunky, and the claims about the human individual being no longer a valid category overblown. (I just realized I kinda sound like Rorty.) Wittgenstein would probably think we’re idiots for thinking too much about a word’s meaning as detached from its use, although we should be critical of how we’re using it since it may not always be justified.

  3. voyou Says:

    This is something I like about Cambridge School intellectual historians. If you ever say in their hearing that so-and-so influenced someone else, they immediately say, “Oh, so you’ve done the archival research and found documentary evidence that they owned copies of so-and-so’s books, how fascinating, tell me more.”


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