University : Anat Matar

The very first stages of the modernization process were actually promising, as is exemplified by the establishment of the University of Berlin, in 1809. Howard writes,

“Few events in the history of education can boast of more self-conscious deliberation, more dramatic historical conditions, and more long-term influence than the founding of this single institution.”14

The university, founded by Wilhelm Humboldt, was administered from the outset by philosophers who rejected central elements of Kant’s critical philosophy which they regarded as empty. The most prominent German Idealists—Fichte and Hegel—served not only as heads of the philosophy department but also as the university rectors. Hegel saw in the Kantian ideal of reason ‘independent of time, place, and historical circumstance’ the elimination of all content. In the introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit, in a comment plainly directed against Kant’s “dogmatism,” he explains his basic rejection of such ideals as stemming from his novel approach to philosophical, reflective knowing. Such knowing

is not an activity that deals with the content as something alien, is not a reflection into itself away from the content . . . On the contrary, since [our] knowing sees the content return into its own inwardness, its activity is totally absorbed in the content, for it is the immanent self of the content; yet it has at the same time returned into itself.15

Friedrich Schelling, who succeeded Hegel as head of the philosophy department, followed him in totally rejecting the pure and merely critical conception of philosophy, or of the lower, free, faculty. Howard contends that at the heart of Schelling’s educational philosophy “lies the conviction that ‘all true science’ forms an ‘organic whole’”:

To philosophy falls the crucial task of making sure that all members of the university do not lose sight of “the whole” and in fact conduct their individual work in a manner that recognizes and participates in the “organic unity” of knowledge: “This vision [of the whole] can be found only in the science of all science [Wissenschaft aller Wissenschaft], in philosophy, and it is only the philosopher who can communicate it to us, for his own special field is the absolutely universal science.”16

Like Kant, Schelling, too, distinguished between the philosophical faculty and the higher faculties, “which, unlike philosophy, were not devoted to the pursuit of truth as such, but to the pursuit of the natural ends of human beings.”17 But as opposed to Kant, Schelling did not take the philosopher’s role to be merely critical. The pursuit of truth, for him, was full of content.

However, changes in the spirit of modern universities went in the opposite direction to that sought by the Idealists of the University of Berlin. In the course of the nineteenth century, the sciences followed the path opened up by Kant and developed a self-awareness to their immanent failure to articulate truths. As Max Weber has put it, the achievements of science “are always destined to be outdated.”18 Weber’s famous lecture, “Science as a Vocation,” delivered at the University of Munich in 1918, is an explicit attempt to face the crisis identified by disenchanted post-theological intellectuals who had lost the dream of reaching eternal truths and relinquished the old idea of a close linkage between the true, the good, and the beautiful. It is of course no wonder that Weber, witnessing the horrors of the First World War, came to the conclusion that the university had totally failed in showing “the path to God.” No, “God was not to be found along the road by which the Middle Ages had sought him. God is hidden, His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts.”19

Yet the results of this post-theological crisis were grim: when eternal truth was dethroned as academia’s final goal and replaced by the ideal of “continually evolving knowledge,” the university turned from an institution which embodies the will to tell the truth to an institution which embodies the will to beware of telling the truth. And indeed, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, alongside the repeated clichés that “truth (the essential and first condition of learning in general) is the main thing,” several interconnected trends crept into the lower faculty and especially into philosophy.20 All these trends manifest the same departure from truth—the departure whose seeds can already be found in Kant and then in Weber. One of these trends is articulated explicitly by Weber himself; it is the idea that we should not seek truth but prefer, instead, the clarification of sense: elucidation.21

14. Thomas Howard, Protestant Theology, 142.

15. G. W. F Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 33.

16. Thomas Howard, Protestant Theology, 157. The inside quote is taken from Schelling’s Vorlesungen über die Methode des akademischen Studiums.

17. Thomas Howard, Protestant Theology, 157, emphasis added.

18. Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, trans. C. Wright Mills (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 129-156. The quotes in the present article are taken from the pdf version of the article, in the following site: As is well known, the position represented here by Weber reached its ultimate articulation by Karl Popper, in the first half of the twentieth century.

19. Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation,” 10.

20. Immanuel Kant, “The Conflict of the Faculties,” 255.

21. Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation,” 18.

« Previous // Next »