University : Anat Matar

Part VI

This brings us back, then, to the strife, the conflict, the contradiction informing the very basis of philosophy. The present university, supported by liberal rhetoric, suppresses this contradiction and chooses, instead, a practice of oppression. A post-liberal university, one that is conscious of the illnesses of liberal thinking, would make this contradiction explicit and turn it into the springboard of its praxis. In the Preface to the English Edition of his Homo Academicus, Bourdieu stresses that his aim is far from “leading to a nihilistic attack on science”; he wishes to claim that the academic world “can escape from the vicious circle” in which it is trapped.53 In this spirit, I wish to end my analysis of the concept “university” with a concrete proposal for the university that returns to its commitment to truth.

This proposal draws on an insight of Gottlob Frege. Frege realized that philosophy, which is called upon to know itself, has not yet focused on the central tool enabling it: on language. He therefore concluded—in what was later dubbed “the linguistic turn”—that philosophy of language should be the foundation of philosophical inquiry. But Frege ignored the fact that it is not only language that makes philosophy possible; in many ways the institution of the university over the past two hundred years has been significant, and possibly even essential, to the existence and the formation of philosophy.54

Acknowledging this yields a demand for the scrutiny of the university as preceding, in principle, the rest of philosophical work. But as I’ve argued above—citing Plato, Kant, Hegel, Schelling, and Derrida—philosophy forms the essential foundation of the academic institution in toto. For both these reasons, it follows that the Socratic search for self-knowledge as a fundamental, constituting act yields the requirement to establish at the very basis of academia a “philosophy of the university,” a “critique of academic reason and power.” This move might be termed the “academic turn.”

Notice, though, that the metaphor “basis” is itself derived from the traditional image of academia as a stable “structure.” It should now be clear that this image must also fade away. There is and can be no firm basis or “foundation” to be acquired and mastered once and for all. This immanent instability should not lead us back to disinterested science, though. Such a methodology is neither tolerant nor anti-dogmatic. It does not manifest academic freedom. It is no more than a dogmatic reinforcement of (the content of) liberal methodology while denying and obscuring this. In contrast, the new discipline proposed here—a “science of academia”—explicitly embraces a particular, political point of view. It must also, however, clarify its argument for this choice and examine it anew with regard to every concrete context.

What, then, should be studied within this new (anti?-) discipline? Since the “critique of academic reason and power” shatters the rigid partition between actuality and formal purity, it should include not only philosophical theories of truth and knowledge and science, or discussions of the essence of academic language (of jargon, of relations between ordinary language and the language of science or philosophy, of the distinction between theoretical writing and literary writing), but also genealogical, sociological, economic, and historical research—empirical, concrete, contemporary—into the entire spectrum of facets and components of the university as an institution.

Thus, alongside metaphysical questions regarding the essence of truth after “the death of God” and the relations between truth and logical argument, it will dwell—both in theory and in practice—on Marx’s assertion that “man must prove the truth—i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking, in practice.”55 Its discussion of center and margins will also concentrate on the question of whether it’s just a coincidence that precisely those who transgressed academic style were the ones who achieved what has been viewed in hindsight as approaching truth. (Or, it will ask, in other words, what the connection is between an abandonment of truth and the demand for mountainous piles of “academic publications?”)

Alongside an examination of the socio-economic status of those who people the university, scrutinizing their historical proximity to the regime, academics working within the new paradigm will also act for the inclusion of those populations which have always been excluded from liberal universities. In a discussion of truth-seeking and the heritage of the Enlightenment, it may be of major importance to examine the forced exile from Israel of Azmi Bishara—an alumnus of Humboldt University and the editor of the collection, The Enlightenment, An Unfinished Project? (as if he himself were a persecuted philosopher in the age of Enlightenment)—in relation to his decision to leave the lower faculty after having recognized the executive power of its “constative” utterances.56

The sciences of academia will include an exacting interrogation of the history of oppression within the university. Social and personal networks among scholars and the lack of transparency governing various academic procedures will be studied carefully, linking them to the economy of fear disabling criticism among colleagues. Especially pertinent to this project will be the study of such myths as the procedure of “blind refereeing” and the anonymity that governs a whole range of academic procedures. The main function of these can be exposed as precisely the opposite of what is claimed: allowing for hypocrisy, cowardice, aggressiveness, conservatism, and power-games. The question of profit will also be raised: who profits from the particular research projects being carried out in universities, who subsidizes these, who is interested in advancing a particular scientific project and what are the consequences of this project?

Questions in the field of moral theory on the political responsibility of the intellectual would occasion accounts and thoughts on the almost total collaboration of academia with the state. In Israel, in particular, these would focus on the compliance of its academia, as a whole, with a state that systematically denies the people under its occupation minimal conditions for the organization of an academia. As activism forms an integral component of the “critique of academic reason and power,” support for the academic boycott against Israel should become more comprehensible than it seems today, examined as it is within the context of liberal universities.57


Anat Matar is a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University.


Published on December 2, 2012

54. One should not underestimate the role of libraries, curricula, budgets, students, public prestige, and exposure for contemporary philosophical work.

55. Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” trans. Cyril Smith.

56. In 1995, Bishara quit the academic world and founded the political party “National Democratic Assembly.” He was elected to the Knesset and led a strong opposition to the government. Bishara resigned from the Knesset and left Israel following a police investigation into his foreign contacts and other matters.

57. I’m grateful to Adi Ophir, Ido Geiger, Pini Ifergan and Rela Mazali for their thorough reading and comments.

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