By John von HeyKing, February 11, 2009 in Uncategorized
Kronman's previous chapters on the research ideal and political correctness elaborated distinct character types associated with both phenomena currently found in the modern academy. More accurately, the research ideal and political correctness are associated with their respective anti-individuals. For the research ideal it is the anonymous researcher whose work selflessly adds to the project of humanity's knowledge, but his own individual life is meaningless; political correctness is associated not with conversants engaged in the common quest to understand their humanity, but with anti-individual representatives of particular identities whose inability to converse results in them engaging in guilt-ridden moralizing.
Kronman provides no explicit discussion of the personality who faces the contradiction of technology: that of its meaninglessness and the apparent intellectual satisfaction gained by the experimental method. However, as indicated above with the manner in which he speaks of the priority of the researching subject over the object of research, this personality seems to be the scientific researcher generating his own concepts in the act of setting the conditions of control in the experiment. This is manifest in Kronman's either inability or refusal to distinguish wonder at the reality we behold from the self-love we enjoy at beholding our power to control. By postulating human wonder in terms of that which is beyond us and at ourselves, Kronman provides a distant echo of Kant's famous dictum: "Two things fill the mind with ever and new and increasing admiration and awe: the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me" (Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans., Lewis White Beck, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956), 166). However, there is a big difference between Kant and Kronman's explanation of the spirit of science. For Kant, the moral law is heteronymous, which ensures the purity of motives in pursuing it. Conversely, the scientific researcher takes credit for his power to control.
At least he is foolish for taking credit. He cannot take credit if he also understands himself as an anti-individual whose meaning of life is the solitary activity of adding a thin blade of grass to the mountain of human knowledge. "Humanity" is the object of his moral action. And so, one might respond by saying the researcher is not foolish because he can take credit for being part of a team, which happens to be the aggregate human project of controlling nature. But this response too is insufficient. For technology is not as sovereign as Kronman's Heideggerian despair—expressed as "all we can imagine is more technology"—leads him to claim. That Kronman understands the limits of technology means we can imagine more than technology.
But what is this "more"? And what form does that "more" take? Kronman argues that the humanities is this "more" and it takes a variety of forms in the various programs offered at elite universities and colleges, including his own Directed Studies program at Yale. But this is inadequate because the humanities are to form the whole person, which takes longer than the first-year of university. Moreover, the humanities are to provide guidance in how the whole personality is to be developed over the course of a life. A one-year program in Yale's Directed Studies is inadequate, as is a four year "Great Books" program at a place like St. John's College (which Kronman does not discuss). He dismisses church-affiliated colleges and universities as "fundamentalist." However, this is misguided and simplistic. The Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame or the Great Texts Program at Baylor University, which Kronman ignores, are excellent programs, and their religious contexts enhance instead of deprive students of the fruits of a humanities-based education.
Key to this "more" is figuring out how the aspiration to knowledge—expressed by Aristotle and by the modern experimental method—can best be sought in a way that surpasses the limits of the technological model, both in terms of technology's aspiration to control, and in terms of the libidinous anti-individual researcher. For Aristotle, the unity of theoria and phronesis as expressed in the full activation of the intellectual and moral virtues, was practiced by contemplative friends. Plato's Academy, the inspiration of the university, was understood as such.
Can friendship in this Platonic-Aristotelian sense be practiced in the modern world? Perhaps in small groups, but it would be difficult to expand this into the political friendship Aristotle sees as uniting the polis. The modern state requires a "divine power," which Aristotle took to be needed to guide a large state. While perhaps not divine, the social prestige of modern science's quantification of knowledge is gained by the ease with which numbers are communicated to large masses of human beings. It is simply easier to communicate to large numbers of people in a modern state by simple numbers and statistics than with the forms of speech, intellectual perception, and physical gesture characteristic of contemplative friends. Think tanks understand the power of the simplicity of statistics whenever they seek to sway public opinion on some public policy matter. In my own country, one of the more vivid examples of this is the Fraser Institute's "Tax Freedom Day," when Canadians learn they "work for themselves" instead of "for the government" after the beginning of July. Such statistics prove more effective than any number of seminars on the economic theories of Hayek. The quantification of knowledge can only appear to have the impersonal qualities of "solidity and objectivity" in a modern world where personal relationships among citizens are lacking. The quantification of reality is the expression of modern man's alienation.
Kronman provides a way of seeing the alienation inherent in the modern way of knowing, which grounds the modern university. He provides a way of defending the humanities to fill in the gaps of this modern way of knowing. But the humanities, at least in his account, remain the mortar that fills the gap; they are not the foundation. He has seen the limits of the modern way of seeking the meaning of life but he has not provided an alternate account.
Many of my future posts will examine ways that liberal learning can return to its rightful place as the foundation of the university.