University : Anat Matar

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously argued that it is philosophy, in particular, whose aim should be thus defined. For Alain Badiou, this is an anti-philosophical move.22 Following his analysis, I propose to see the series of trends discussed here as anti-academic —that is, if our use of the term ‘academia’ is still to retain some degree of loyalty to Plato’s heritage, i.e., to truth. Working exclusively towards “elucidation,” “clarification,” and “understanding”—upon analyzing texts or theses—means eliminating any truth-judgment of the contents studied; it focuses, instead, on exposing presuppositions and consequences and evaluating consistency and clarity.

Now, this trend is closely connected to another distinct trait of modern, liberal universities: the trend of cleaving to procedure —probably the term most sacred to academia. Since truth is allegedly elusive, the sole requirement is that academic practices maintain proper procedures. Propriety has become the goal.23 In this context, it should be emphasized that contrary to the intimations of common rhetoric, academic procedures are not regarded as leading to the discovery of truth. None of the procedures constitutive of legitimate argument, of academic publication, of promotion, aim at advancing the true. They are quite simply aimed at identifying that which answers the required criteria.24

While attempting the truth is frightening and threatening, demanding responsibility, risk-taking and strife, sticking to procedure guarantees the opposite: conservatism, clear boundaries, domestic peace. This precisely is its purpose, veiled behind the gesture towards infinite scientific progress. Moreover, sanctifying procedure goes hand in hand with another problematic trend: disappearance of the voice of the auteur, of personality, of “primary literature,” and its replacement by layer upon layer of “secondary literature,” comprised of minute arguments, debates, and rejoinders.25

It is intriguing to realize that the proliferation of secondary literature draws, on the conceptual level, from the transition from truth to formal procedures, while on the bureaucratic level it actually enables this transition: it facilitates the switch from particular, individual worldviews that cannot be subsumed under policing generalizations to formal regulations and quantifying criteria.

The different trends just cited conform to one fundamental principle: elimination of the political. This point deserves special clarification. I mentioned earlier that the lower faculty is forced to relinquish the idea of presenting a doctrine. In order to safeguard its critical stance, it must avoid any pretense of identifying truth as truth and limit itself to exposing lies as lies. A more reflective formulation of the same point is that the doctrine implicit in liberal academic methodology is an anti-doctrine—yet anti-doctrines stem from certain presuppositions, which are, in the manner of presuppositions, colored both metaphysically and politically.

Towards exposing the assumption most vital to the anti-doctrine in question, I propose to employ the distinction between constative and performative utterances, as formulated by John L. Austin.26 This follows the lead of Jacques Derrida, a philosopher who not only wrote substantially on the academic institution but also devoted a lot of his time to the promotion of philosophical education. In his essay, “The University without Condition,” Derrida discusses the modern, liberal university, emphasizing its self-image as the institution responsible for accumulating and transmitting knowledge (savoir). According to this image, the study and teaching of knowledge ought to “belong to the theoretical and constative order. The act of professing a doctrine may be a performative act, but the doctrine is not.”27 A paradigmatic example of this image is Weber’s above-mentioned vision of the university. One can, Weber says,

demand of the teacher that he have the intellectual integrity to see that it is one thing to state facts, to determine mathematical or logical relations or the internal structure of cultural values, while it is another thing to answer questions of the value of culture and its individual contents and the question of how one should act in the cultural community and in political associations . . . [T]he prophet and the demagogue do not belong on the academic platform.28

They do not belong there—so Weber’s text suggests—precisely because of their performative force, as opposed to the “constative” essence of the academic platform.29

Reading Austin carefully we realize that the distinction between performative and constative points at a much wider array of distinctions, which paraphrase each other. In a very natural (and Nietzschean) manner, Austin suggests that “the familiar contrast of ‘normative or evaluative’ as opposed to the factual” is one of them.30 Yet Austin’s principal claim is that all these distinctions are doomed to disintegrate eventually—they cannot be clearly demarcated. And this collapse means nothing less than the collapse of the liberal agenda in general.

The dichotomist perspective, from which Kant and Weber observe the academic world and its purity, is an immanent part of the liberal agenda, as it separates propositional content from the circumstances in which it appears, therefore sharply distinguishing the understanding of content from the judgment of content. The former is a necessary—but insufficient—condition for the latter and must precede it in time.31

Thus truth judgments may be delayed forever, while understanding can prevail. It is crucial to realize the double-bind characterizing this picture of content. On the one hand, it draws its legitimacy from (and, in turn, strengthens) the rhetoric of truth’s supremacy and the importance of striving towards it. On the other, it draws from (and, in turn, enables) the modern trends of portraying a liberal academic vision renouncing truth and replacing it with clarification, procedure, anonymity, and the a-political.

22. Alain Badiou, L’antiphilosophie de Wittgenstein (Paris: NOUS, 2009), 21. There are, of course, alternative readings of Wittgenstein, which emphasize his own reluctance from formalistic philosophies and present his revolutionary ideas about content as a giant step towards reframing the question of truth in philosophy. Although I tend to agree with such readings, I believe that Wittgenstein’s writings have strengthened those trends in philosophy that explicitly eschew truth and stick to “elucidation” and “clarification” alone. This is no doubt because of the lasting (albeit denied) influence of the Vienna Circle philosophy.

23. The centrality of procedure is manifest throughout liberal thought as a whole, and the university has no advantage in this respect over the system of justice or systems of elections to parliaments in democratic regimes. My only aim here is to remind ourselves of the particular manner in which the sanctity of procedures works for the elimination of any will, albeit stubborn, to uncover truth and to insist that doing this cannot cohere with the symmetries and balances typical of procedural approaches.

24. This, of course, is the “pure” understanding of the role of procedures. As we shall soon see, the factor of power naturally complicates the matter.

25. I do not wish to argue that philosophers like Descartes, Spinoza or Kant regarded philosophy as personal; on the contrary. Yet their own philosophical practice was very far from the present vision of a joint venture towards better understanding to be gained through smallish, intricate steps of “secondary literature.” See also Stephen Shapin’s analysis below, and in his book, The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Later Modern Vocation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008).

26. John L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).

27. Jacques Derrida, “The University without Condition,” in Without Alibi, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 218.

28. Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation,” 13.

29. We should not ignore the striking—and not at all incidental—resemblance between this division and Hegel’s ironical distinction cited above. Weber grants us the permission to answer such questions as when was Caesar born and how many feet are there in a stadium, but forbids the profession of fundamental philosophical theses, since these involve concrete content. These, then, belong to the territories of prophets and demagogues.

30. John L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 149.

31. On the vicious circle of understanding and judgment and on its political significance see my “Lonely Beating: Wittgenstein’s Automaton and the Drums of War,” in Hues of Philosophy, ed. Anat Biletzki (London: Kings College Publications, 2010), 117-130.

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