Monday, July 25, 2011

Either/Or – The Business of Academic Thinking

Note: This article was originally written for another website where I hope it will still appear in a shortened and substantially different form.

Either/Or – The Business of Academic Thinking

“A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity” –Søren Kierkegaard

‘Humanity’ – that endless rant we hear time and again through the loud speakers of radio, TV, social media and casual conversations. There is no single day that goes without someone advocating a bit of humanity; it doesn’t matter which country you choose, which armed conflict, which sectarian division, we hear it over and over, no less in the felicitous notion of ‘crimes against humanity’  whose definition is limited by strict practical-legal boundaries. According to the dictionary definition, ‘humanity’ (hyoo-man-i-tee) has been defined as 1) all human beings collectively; the human race; mankind 2) the quality or condition of being human; human nature 3) the quality of being humane; kindness; benevolence. Throughout history, nevertheless, humanity has been understood in manifold ways and the concept itself, on which we rely today, abstract as it is, arose sometime between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment; it constitutes by no means a given fact, part and parcel of the history of mankind. Truth being said, ‘values’ such as goodness, kindness, good judgment and ‘humanity’ itself are not inborn qualities in any human being or group, unless we are understanding humanity as the uninterrupted continuum of Western education – the kind of education whose aim is not to teach, but to develop such values in people.

This is how humanity has been long associated with the ‘study’ of what academics have termed and perhaps not without irony, ‘the humanities’: a household name for the otherwise ‘useless’ and rather loose assemblage of various disciplines and fields of knowledge that are thought of as ‘unscientific’ and lacking the precision of ‘exact’ and ever more reputable sciences such mathematics and physics, as if, the study of mathematics and physics wouldn’t constitute in itself a human or humanistic enterprise to be more precise, but a wholly practical endeavor pursued in order to dominate the natural world – not without the inherent melancholy in that this has been so far, the greatest broken promise of the modern world. If we put asides the currents of historical definitions ‘humanities’ as the study of ‘humanity’ and ‘human values’ can be tracked back to the classics of Greece and Rome – not only the Platonic academy and its sacred grove of olive trees dedicated to Athena, but also the Sophists schools, the Orphic cults, the Homeric bards that preceded and also everything that followed uninterrupted until the late Middle Ages. At least in from the Platonic academy onwards, the study of humanity, it figures, also included the study of science.

This ‘classical’ education, considered a means of intellectual training in the broadest possible terms, covered at once the study of philosophy, history, material culture, logic and foreign languages – what they called in the Roman Empire ‘liberalia studia’ available to both boys and girls offspring of free men and extensively discussed by Seneca The Younger. The subjects included in this study would become the standard liberal arts of Roman and medieval times and comprised the basic curriculum of ‘education for the sake of education’ in late Classical and Hellenistic Greece. Pagan writer Martianus Minneus Felix Capella defined the liberal arts in the 5th century AD as: grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy; they were then split in the medieval University into the Trivium – grammar, logic, rhetoric – and the Quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, music, astrology and astronomy – establishing the importance of the full spectrum of the liberal arts as the foundation of civilized and educated citizenry, all of the above rooted from times immemorial down to our own times in the teachings of Plato and his master Socrates.

It wouldn’t be compelling to reconsider lengthily the nature of this education if it weren’t for a telling passage in Plato’s Republic that discusses the nature of this education that stands for the very foundation of what we consider civilized and educated and indirectly, liberal, inquisitive and open. In the Republic (379a) Plato speaks for the first time of ‘the speech of the Gods’ or better said ‘theology’, that for being the earliest historical use of that notion known to date, comes not entirely devoid of surprises: ‘but this very thing – the patterns or norms of theology, what would they be?’ Then this is followed by an all-encompassing discussion about the role and nature of education, pointing out that for the sake of the youth, poets should adhere to strict norms and that heresies of the likes of Hesiod, Homer, Heraclitus and the Sophists will not be tolerated – ‘The true quality of God we must always surely attribute to him whether we compose in epic, melic or tragic verse’ – because they are a threat to the founders of the state, who must know and enforce the patterns on which the poets must compose their fables, for it has become clear that the rulers of the city are graceful In the eyes of the deity and therefore, the true quality of God being only that which coincides exactly with the interests of the city.

In another earlier passage (377b-c) the political impact of this ‘theology’ is more evidently manifest: ‘Shall we, then, thus lightly suffer our children to listen to any chance stories fashioned by any chance teachers and so to take into their minds opinions for the most part contrary to those that we shall think it desirable for them to hold when they grow up?’ The answer to this question is univocal and by no means supported in the classical virtues of argumentation, persuasion and discussion – ‘By no manner of means will we allow it. We must begin, then, it seems, by a censorship over our story makers, and what they do well we must pass and what not, reject. And the stories on the accepted list we will induce nurses and mothers to tell to the children and so shape their souls by these stories rather than their bodies by their hands. But most of the stories they now well we must reject.’ In what follows, they go on to discuss what kind of stories might be deemed acceptable or not.

Hannah Arendt is truly illuminating on the import of Plato’s ‘theology’ (‘What is authority?’ in ‘The Portable Hannah Arendt’, Penguin 2000 pp. 494) when she argues that Plato was the first to become aware of the enormous and strictly political potential in stories, tales and alas mythologies. The fact that it was him who coined the term ‘theology’ in this educational-political context referred to the founding of cities in the Republic is very suggestive because this new theological god is neither a living god nor the god of the philosophers or a pagan deity; it is a political devise according to which cities may be founded and the rules of behavior for the majority laid down. Moreover this ‘theology’ teaches how to enforce these standards absolutely even at the risk of committing injustice – for example the death penalty – with the argument (615a) that ‘for all the wrongs that they had ever done to anyone and all whom they had severally wronged they had paid the penalty in turn tenfold for each’ – meaning ultimately that even those who caused injustice either because of law or war would receive their punishment during their lifetime (615b-c) and that this was beyond the scope and consequence of the law – the state comes first. Socrates, who was ultimately wronged under the same policy tried to reverse this awful state of affairs by claiming that ‘It is better to suffer wrong than do to wrong’ (Gorgias, 469b-c) and then he went to prove it rationally but he failed and thus dealt a deadly blow on moral philosophy from the moment of its very birth.

This is the background against which the liberal arts and the different versions of Western education were engendered – as means for the free or educated classes to enforce their interests on the great majority. The definition and scope of what later became theology as the discipline of reasoned discourse about God and not merely mythologies was not rooted in these passages but in another set of passages in the Republic (506d-511e) that deal with the proper method to distinguish between false mysteries and divine truth – of course falling under the rubric of false mysteries anything that could contradict in anyway the founding principles of the city. The great political import of Plato’s ‘theology’ was nonetheless never forgotten and accordingly, Christian theology did not for one moment forget its Platonic background as it is evident in St. Augustine’s versions of hell and purgatory and the speculations of both Origen and Clement of Alexandria after suffering. These political principles in the education of the ruling elites remained more or less unchallenged through history and are still prevalent today. Its tools however, the so-called ‘humanities’ have come under fire for a long time now since the Age of Reason and the rise of ‘scientific history’ in the 19th century, time from which they have fallen prey to disrepute and harsh criticism because of their unscientific claims that they themselves have tried to revert by adopting ‘scientific methodologies’ – this applies for each and every field of knowledge, theology included.

In this spirit of reason and truth, the social sciences rose to life in the course of the 19th century with a therapeutic task in mind – to cure the unscientific nature of the humanities applying to them the same rigorous treatment until them only afforded to the always so respectable exact sciences; this process gave birth to an unexpected flow of new disciplines that wouldn’t have been successful in finding a hall of fame in the grandeur of academic discourse, hadn’t they appealed to the scientific flair demanded by the reasonable men of their times – sociology, linguistics, anthropology, ethnology, etc.  This felicitous momentum coincided with the last grandiose vernissage of European culture: An assortment of civil and international wars and Imperialism and Colonialism in their climax, planted the seeds of the bloodiest totalitarian movements that grew happily into mythical trees in the nicest palatial gardens as the European greedy attempts to monopolize the natural resources of the entire earth went on unmolested.  The spectacular demise of the humanities for the sake of ‘true knowledge’ sheltered upon the wings of Plato’s selfsame theology paved a self-defeating way to pursue progress in lieu of ‘mere knowledge’. In this age of progress – that among other achievements burnt dozens of libraries in the course of imperial and civil wars – nothing more disgraceful than having the epitaph of philosopher over one’s grave, that, in case he was lucky enough to have one.

One must be always a scientist, because science does something after all, no? It serves as means to an end, it has a purpose. The ‘humanities’ that deal with ‘humanity’ are totally unnecessary since what we need is people who can do things, who can build things and above all – who can add a peg or two more to the endless chain of accumulation of capital. Humanity, that humanity embodied by the liberal arts has become nowadays nothing but a form of education available only to the few privileged who need not worry about pursuing ‘careers’ that will bring bread home. I should correct myself – this has been the situation always ever since the days of the Platonic Academy, however this has significantly deteriorated overtime on the basis of the transformation of man ‘homo sapiens’ into the ‘animal laborans’ – heritage of the Industrial Revolution – who is entirely dependent on the produce of his labor; people who are not engaged in labor are no longer considered a functional part of society and consequently, such as pre-historical man, must survive on labor alone. There’s no space for work (e.g. works of art of literature) or action (of the political and social kind); one is ultimately condemned to labor so that even a college professor and an artist or a politician must see their activity not in the light of a vocation but only as a job, raw labor that cashes a pay check and then home.  ‘Creative minds’ cannot flee this structure, that is why there are (in the spirit of the functional division of labor) chairs in universities, artists-in-residence, fellowships, stipends, state galleries, art communities and studios. Everything wants to make sure than there is no distinction whatsoever between works and jobs. Nothing can be left at the fringes of society – indeed a Platonic dream.

What kind of individuals are those riddled with questions and doubts? What happens with their ill spirits that leads them to seek no (functionally tiered) glory, pleasure and gratification other than knowledge? How can one dare pursue anything for its own sake? Everything must have a reason, a wherefore, a destination, an aim and most ultimately, a compensation – even truth. Popular wisdom can put it best in ‘everything happens in the world because of a reason’. Nothing is haphazard. The human condition of the animal laborans has been severed from the humanities and not without a reason – the animal laborans is by no means homo sapiens. Since it is clear that being human is not a profession then there’s clearly no argument in favor of the humanities unless they constitute the political education of the wealthy; however since it is not possible to be a professional human, it is possible to be a humanities professional – a liberal arts professor in one of our prestigious universities. The great majority of this academic job holders wind up as members of an ‘intelligentsia’ and erect themselves into cults from within academic halls packed with initiates and converts. 

We learnt much about the modern university – e.g. the modern Platonic academy, from Icelandic philosopher Páll Skúlason (‘The Nature and Purpose of Academic Thought’, 2006 who claims that because the university is a place of academic or theoretical thinking, it is not political, religious or commercial. It seems that according to him the only interest of the university is to understand and explain; even further, he makes an ‘useful’ distinction between problems of reflection and problems of life – there is no place in the university for problems of life.  He is not saying anything outrageous but merely stating out the obvious. According to Skúlason (former rector of the University of Iceland) scholarly detachment is a moral virtue that it can turn to the vice of indifference once the scholar ceases to think of himself as part of society and of his scholarship possessing social context. Northrop Frye in his essay ‘The Knowledge of Good and Evil’ (in ‘The Morality of Scholarship’, ed. Max Black, Cornell University Press, 1967 pp. 9-10) points critically to one particularly important case: ‘Psychology is a science, and must be studied with detachment, but it is not a matter of indifference whether it is used for a healing art, or for motivational research designed to force people to buy what they neither want nor need, or for propaganda in a police state’. The limits of this detachment have never been less clear because it is a seriously complicated matter to define such limits when firstly, scholarship derives its method from scientific formal logic and not from human pursuits, and secondly, when there exists such overriding contradiction between training for the job market and educating for understanding in the total absence of ‘problems of life’. I am highly skeptical over the meaning of humanity found in this kind of academic study and the obvious relatedness of the humanities to educate civilized citizenry.

Scandalous as it is, this has not been always the case – for Lessing, a German dramatist of the Enlightenment, humanity meant experiencing the world in anger and laughter, experiencing the artifacts and works that complement our life on earth only in regard to their effect in the world – relating study and the activity of either reading or producing art and works of literature to the most obvious problems of life. The new trend has little to do with the death of God, for it was not the old crowd of unbelievers and heretics who declared him dead but rather the professors of theology in the academic chairs, and their disappointment is more a disappointment with the broken promises of the modern world than it is a disappointment with religion per se – still a dominating force in public discourse everywhere. This disappointment however is neither novel nor solvable – already in an Assyrian tablet from 2800 BC unearthed in Iraq, we read the following inscription: ‘The Earth is degenerating today. Bribery and corruption abound. Children no longer obey their parents, every man wants to write a tablet, and it is evident that the end of the world is fast approaching’. This pessimism translated into apathy and powerlessness is rooted not only in man’s inability to make himself at home in the world but also in the technological possibilities afforded by the previous century that dealt a deadly blow on the human imagination because we have become unable to imagine or describe all what we are now able to do. Instead of relating to the actual life problems of the day, fleeing into the comfortable zone of academic detachment seems the most feasible option for these young men and women that enter the world educated for everything but citizenship.

During her last public appearance before her death (Bicentennial Address, 1975) Hannah Arendt ran ahead of the times and left us with a cunning warning for our current situation: ‘We may very well stand at one of those decisive turning points of history which separate whole eras from each other. For contemporaries entangled, as we are, in the inexorable demands of daily life, the dividing lines between eras may be hardly visible when they are crossed; only after people stumble over them do the lines grow into walls which irretrievably shut off the past. At such moments of history when the writing on the wall becomes too frightening, most people flee to the reassurance of day-to-day life with its unchanging pressing demands”. People are no longer able to move in the world of thinking and therefore are also impaired in the world of the real – social and political, and feel the pressing need to flee the world of human affairs because they have been indoctrinated in two suspect versions of truth – 1) That truth is correctness of fact in the style of ‘if this is correct or accurate, then it must be true’ 2) That truth is the result found at the end of a thought process; both of them promoted by reckless elitist Platonism in politics, by the life cycle of the animal laborans and by infinite economic disparity.

Education no matter what its content is should not be the measures of measures to learn how to act in the world but rather the provider of critical tools for people to decide what these measures are. Necessary measures in any case if we look at 2011 with paucity of mind and assess the recent political and historical developments that might radically transform the social texture of our world: The Arab uprisings spreading to every corner of the Middle East, the scandalous corruption of the media and the world superpowers exposed to the public, the communication possibilities enabled by the internet and the powerlessness of traditional armies to combat in the highly decentralized warfare of our times. Regardless of what young men and women want to do with their lives – either academic or not, education must be entirely independent of preparation for the job market, worthwhile mentioning at this point that a great percentage of the people enrolled today in graduate schools in business programs will probably never find a job after graduation. To achieve this, it is to no avail to keep building new universities or providing endless funding for scholarships; it is those institutions that have perpetuated for centuries the model that must be combatted. The model of the Western university must be challenged from bottom to top.

Greek and Western philosophy in the traditional sense and theological politics is of no help here, for like Eric Voegelin pointed out (in ‘The New Science of Politics’, c. II, ‘Representation & Truth’ in ‘Modernity without Restraint’, University of Missouri Press 1999, pp. 139) in relation to Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics, ‘Aristotle had no illusions on this point. To be sure, like Plato, he attempted a paradigmatic construction of a social order that would express the truth of the σπουδαιος (the morally perfect man) in Politics VII-VIII; but he also asserted with firm regret that in none of the Hellenic poleis of his time could there be found a hundred men who were able to form the ruling nucleus of such a society: any attempt at realizing it would be utterly futile’. The self-defeating project of classical philosophy as a foundation for politics, education and morality has found a home in the modern political arena where political officers of the Western countries say for example that the Middle East cannot be changed, without adding of course that this has to do with the fact that such political education as that demanded by Plato and Aristotle on the free men of the cities is the exact equivalent of today’s ivy league – an ivory tower where only the elites are educated to dominate the majority through despotism of power, capital and information; in this spirit there is too little these philosophers can help us with, as we are facing almost entire generations of disenfranchised youth willing to subvert the order of truth and politics raging over the entire earth.

The possibility of leaving the realm of academic and scientific thinking – barely qualified as thought – is not only instrumental but elementary in halting the oceans of frustration that have fueled terrorism and channel them through truly legitimate and transparent political processes – hardly the case in the Middle East today for example – that the people themselves have been unable to realize because of the clearly apolitical and narrowly defined scope of the education they have received if at all, to what the Platonists of our times – international think tanks, NGO’s and political officers – reply condescendingly arguing that they’re not ready for change, that we have to wait, that it’s not time yet, while they continue unmolested abusing us and them by depriving us not only from education but from the whole specter of rights.  Many of these disenfranchised youths are led by another true successful multinational – global terror – to express their frustration appealing to supposed ancient traditions and ‘classical’ interpretations of religion that are nothing but the other side of the strictly modern opposition between radical universals. This global terror is no less part of the despotism of capital, power and terror that the respectable leadership promote and no one better than philosopher Agnes Heller to have put this in words in an interview with Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita (09.07.05): ‘The people behind global terror are themselves global capitalists, just like Hitler was supported by German industrialists and financiers. Anti-capitalism merely serves as a slogan to direct massive resentment against the rich and to wage a racist or religious war. Many of them are frustrated intellectuals – young people who want to be remarkable in a very unremarkable world, with big ambitions but little talent, or whose careers were hindered for other reasons’. Whoever thinks that this should not be addressed, must be too deluded to understand the gravity of the rupture in the social texture of the world today cause by the political nature of education.

I propose to begin with adopting a yet fresher definition of truth that I have drawn from British philosopher and theologian Philip Goodchild: Let us make a proposal for truth as a power and as its own power instead of correctness or fact or the result of investigation – truth as an attitude and a principle. This truth does not engage in particular projects or agendas; it defies no opponents and never exercises violence. Unlike the critical reason of philosophy (indifferent to problems of life obviously) it does not aim to undermine other truths or to master the future or representations. It is the force of itself because its orientation is precisely a mode of orientation. It is a knowledge before knowledge (and not thereafter); it expresses actual problems so that one might begin to think, it demands investment in experience and adapts imagination to experience rather than to concept. Its true power is nothing but awareness. In the old sense, authority had been since times immemorial (by both Plato and the Biblical prophets) the guarantor of truth, today however, we do not have to ask the question of what authority is but rather like Arendt did, of what authority was! We can no longer fall upon old experiences common to all and the gravity of the demands of peoples all over the world express this faithfully. The old canons of state, capital, media and government must be replaced by new ones and this is nothing but a very slow process, however it must begin at the beginning – not with yet another re-enacting of perfunctorily established institutions such as the university and the government. Truth is a public power, and that is what we the people, must rely on, for anybody who comes today from the position of defunct authority to offer us a truth he has, kind as he might be, he’s no less deceived than we might have been once. 

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