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Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
Is the Research University Based on an Intellectual Swindle? Part I
By John von Heyking, November 24, 2008 in Uncategorized

In his introductory lecture at the University of Munich in 1958, which was later published as Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, Eric Voegelin dropped a bombshell by demonstrating how Karl Marx (as well as Hegel and Nietzsche) were intellectual swindlers. Their swindle was the result of them having built in a prohibition of questioning into their intellectual systems (or lack of system, in the case of Nietzsche). For someone like Marx, socialist man simply must not ask a question like, what is the meaning of life? Or what is the origin of one’s existence?

Voegelin was the first to teach political science at the University of Munich since Max Weber. It is Weber’s “Science as a Vocation” lecture that structures Anthony Kronman’s argument in Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (Yale University Press, 2007) that the research ideal of the modern university does not simply ignore but positively prohibits the same question that Marx prohibits.

Voegelin caused scandal with his blunt assessment of Marx. That Kronman’s less blunt but no less incisive criticism has not caused a similar scandal seems to illustrate how deeply the swindle has seeped into the contemporary academy.

Kronman, following Weber (who follows Tolstoy on this question), argues the research ideal of the contemporary university is that of specialization. Researchers mark their tiny corner of the universe in order to make their tiny contribution to the growing stock of scientific knowledge. The modern researcher makes a virtue out of specialization because knowledge of the whole, alleged to be the goal of liberal education, is not only impossible but is taken by the research ideal to be a vice. Because the aggregate of knowledge is seen to grow and progress constantly, the individual researcher can anticipate being obsolete very soon after his contribution, or, at most, his life: “The true scholar wants to be superseded by his successors, just as he wants to supersede those who have preceded him. He seeks originality, but accepts the transience of his own original achievements” (118).

To be a scholar then is to exert “heroic” effort onto the tip of a blade of grass, and then to throw that blade of grass into the wind, forever to be forgotten. To illustrate the “heroic” “ethic of supersession” (Weber) that is demanded of scholars, Kronman quotes the remark of nineteenth-century German chemist Just von Liebig to a friend: “If you wish to become a chemist, you must be prepared to sacrifice your health. Whoever does not ruin his health by studying will not amount to much in chemistry these days” (281, n. 23). Any scholar will likely see a bit of his graduate school experience in this statement. Whether the research ideal is a “heroic” ideal or human folly (most famously illustrated by Aristophanes’ satirical portrayal of Socrates’ disciples as pale-skinned and starving) remains open to question.

Even so, the researcher is necessarily isolated and the “scientific community” or “republic of letters” is a chimera: “It is the scholar’s own insistence on the importance of originality that compels him to acknowledge the transience of his work, that deprives him of the experience of eternity in the deathless company of his ancestors, and leaves him facing death alone and unconsoled. If specialization is a price that must be paid for originality, then loneliness is too” (120). The quest for originality – which finds its counterpart in politics in individualism - undermines the ability of community, both in terms of the making “scientific community” meaningless as well as the university, which might be better described, as philosopher George Grant did, as a multiversity. Communication is, by definition, impossible among absolutely unique individuals who, in their ultimate particularity, cannot share a common world or academic endeavor. For this reason, one might have to look to university administrators to form the moral and intellectual glue that holds the university together (one thinks of research services staff who have a better understanding of the variety of research that gets done at a university, and frequently can identify areas where researchers of disparate disciplines can coordinate their efforts).

According to the research ideal, questioning the meaning of life, the goal of liberal education, is unprofessional. Such questions are about values instead of facts, as it has been explained in the past. However, Kronman’s argument shows how even raising the question becomes impossible for the researcher. As far back as Aristotle, the question of meaning of life requires a human “life” to be an intelligible unit of analysis. But the researcher’s “life” is not an intelligible unit:

The scholar devoted to the advancement of knowledge in his field is encouraged by the research ideal to consider his own death a nonevent, one that lacks significance so far as the work of the discipline itself is concerned. For the researcher who sees the importance of his work in this way, what really matters is the progress of understanding in his field, to which he makes an individual contribution but whose ‘life,’ unlike his own, has no boundaries at all. From the perspective of the multigenerational enterprise in which he is engaged, the researcher’s own mortality has little or no meaning. Within the realm of academic study, the research ideal devalues death. It deprives death of significance for the scholar who embraces this ideal, and makes any preoccupation on his part with the fact of his mortality seem unprofessional and self-absorbed (128-129).

Weber states the problem this way: “For civilized man death has no meaning. It has none because the individual life of civilized man, placed into an infinite ‘progress,’ according to its own imminent meaning should come to an end; for there is always a further step ahead of one who stands in the march of progress.” The researcher has a meaningful existence only as a contributor to a project of universal humanity, but he lacks any individual significance beyond his minute contribution to the universal. His death, and thus his individuality, is meaningless.

"Is the Research University Based on an Intellectual Swindle? Part II" is available here.

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about the author

John von Heyking
John von Heyking

I teach political philosophy at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, as well as religion and politics. I received my Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in 1999.

My publications include Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World (Missouri, 2001), Civil Religion in Political Thought:  Its Perennial Questions and Enduring Relevance in North America (coeditor; published by CUA Press, 2010), Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought (coeditor, published with U. of Notre Dame Press, 2008), two edited volumes of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Missouri, 2003), as well as articles on Aristotle and friendship, political representation, citizenship, republicanism, just war, Islamic politics, politics and prophecy, leadership, the place of America in contemporary political thought, religious liberty under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the political philosophy of rodeo. I am also at work on a book-length study on the relationship between friendship and political order. My editorials have appeared in the Globe and Mail (Toronto), Calgary Herald, C2C: Canada’s Journal of Ideas, and the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. I am currently Associate Editor for History, Theory, and Law of the journal, Politics and Religion, published by Cambridge University Press. His work has been translated into Italian, German, and Chinese. I have delivered invited lectures to audiences throughout Canada and the United States, as well as in Germany, France, Switzerland, and Russia.