Why we must save the humanities (Apr 2015)

Lecture for New University / ReThink @ Tilburg University, 2015


Previous contributions have already pointed out that the dominant discourse of economic rationality, the so-called “rendementsdenken”, undermines the academic values that universities should endorse. Jan Blommaert argues that this discourse is characterized by one-sidedness and close-mindedness in relation to our own history and culture. Paul Mustaers shows that also an organization like NWO has handed oneself over to this type of thinking. Furthermore, Eric van Damme makes clear that it is not only a problem of the humanities but that is has infected the rest of academia as well. I want to contribute to this discussion from a philosophical perspective by giving a short analysis that shows how deep and difficult the problem actually is.

The most important thing is to realize that the utility discourse is not opposed to true scientific thinking. In fact, the utility argument is nothing but the practical reality of scientific rationality. The means of the utility discourse are methods and models that has been developed at our universities. “De Waarheid” and “Het Rendement” (The Truth and The Profitability), as Ramsey Nasr puts it, are two sides of the same coin. The emphasis on measurable performances, efficiency, output, rankings, etc.: it is all a matter of streamlining university practice within a discourse of political decision making that demands rational-empirical argumentation. Here, the “hard facts” are always superior to “trust” and “ideals”.

Perhaps there is irony in the fact that even scientists are now beginning to revolt against the practical application of the rationality that they are themselves using and developing. But they are not hypocrites, because it actually threatens the existence of science itself. Also the scientific discourse finds its continuity only in an institute that not only reproduces the specific knowledge of a scientific discipline, but also takes care of the marginal conditions that make possible the transition of knowledge to the next generation. These marginal conditions are not part of the measurable output but consist of a cultural development. And reproducing the highly advanced specialist knowledge of modern science requires a general intellectual development that corresponds to a significant level of civilization. The problem is that this process of Bildung is essentially a cultural praxis that cannot be objectified in terms of scientific results. As a consequence, to use the words of the young Karl Marx, the scientific discourse can by principle never generate enough output to fully reproduce itself.

So even if one wishes to conceive of university as a company for the production of knowledge, one has to have some idea of how to find continuity in the transition of knowledge. A cultural practice that cannot be transferred in terms of scientific discourse, can nonetheless be transferred through participation in the academic culture. Yet the demands of cultural participation are not compatible with those of rational-empirical argumentation, because it demands an attitude of engagement and commitment, which is contrary to one that assesses participation rationally in terms of investment and pay-off. To put it in terms of the dominant discourse: engagement implies an incalculable risk. This means that the communicable knowledge (i.e., knowledge that can be valorized) is always a limited part of the whole of knowledge that is required for the learning process.

For this reason, Eric van Damme’s fatal analysis of the university board’s policy plan and his very sympathetic plea for a bottom-up approach is extremely difficult to grasp for managers. His argument is intuitively simple: professionals have practical know-how that is relevant for decision making. The problem is that this argument cannot be objectified. There is no model for it. And therefore it is, as simple and modest as the argument is, a principally nonconformist argument. The objection of the Board, completely in correspondence with the spirit of our times, will always be: of course, we believe Van Damme and we share his ideals, but you cannot build a policy on belief and ideals – so let us go back the familiarity of numbers. But Van Damme’s plea makes something very clear: it shows that a policy that tries to reproduce scientific research using exclusively the means of science alienates itself from scientific practice.

Distrusting everything that resorts to faith, trust or ideals when it comes to policy making, rests on the assumption that outside of the dominant discourse there only is subjectivism. Ad Verbrugge has pointed out that this subjectivism is only the result of rejecting everything that cannot be scientifically explained by disqualifying it as an appeal to authority. This tendency to discredit anyone because he or she appeals to a different kind of argumentation (like calling philosophers romantics because they deviate from dominant discourse) makes subjectivism the logical reverse of the demand of rational-empirical argumentation.

This can be elucidated with a reference to every teacher’s experience with a student who says: “It is not an argument, because I do not get it.” The student is absolutely right, he does not get it and there is nothing you can do about it. This may be the most direct evidence that scientific knowledge cannot be reproduced without cultural mediation: if the culturally shared relation between student and teacher is denied, the transition of knowledge becomes impossible. Unfortunately, the reduction to subjectivism that is induced by rational-empirical discourse also targets those cultural practices that cannot be counted among the output (i.e., that cannot be objectified in models), but nonetheless function as marginal condition on which science itself depends for its reproduction.

So the negative resistance against the discourse of economic rationality, must provide a positive answer to the question: How can the university institutionalize the cultural means that make knowledge transition possible? A faculty of humanities is the age-old answer to this question. The humanities can prevent that articulating the principal impossibility of complete objectification results in subjectivism (that is just as arrogant as visionless) by showing that the limits of knowledge have been recognized and discussed countless times in countless ways in our history and culture. Who poses “big questions” about the purpose of science, how it is possible, and how it relates to the concrete life-world, is not lost in subjectivity. He or she instead becomes aware of the normative framework that is presupposed by science but cannot be explained by science. These questions are, say, the spectacles through which a cultural life becomes comprehensible without which there would be no objective reality to be modeled.

What should the humanities do? The first and foremost and in fact only task of the humanities is to criticize the rational-empirical discourse, because only in this way we can open up another discourse that is self-conscious about the cultural life that makes scientific discourse possible. Humanities is matter of critical analysis, not of opinion. Seen in this way, the fact that scholars in literary theory might prefer Kafka to Skinner or philosophers prefer Kant to Newton (or in fact, prefer connecting an idea to a name rather than a theory), is not a way of simply turning away from the objectivism of science, but testifies to a professional interest in the cultural conditions of the science company itself. Or to paraphrase Immanuel Kant, having insight in the limits of theoretical reason also creates the possibility of acquiring positive scientific knowledge.

To say that academic education demands an element of reflexion about the nature of science that cannot be cut loose from the humanities, is not original. Cobbenhagen, founder of what later became Tilburg University, recognized this and made philosophy an obligatory course in all educational programs. Looking at the crisis in the humanities, that is extending to the entire university, it is clear that Cobbenhagen’s idealism is no longer taken for granted. It is too easy to blame the university board for this. In fact, it is entirely thanks to the board that our Department of Philosophy exists. Philosophy in Tilburg neither has quantity nor prestige, but apparently it is still considered valuable. The question is, of course, for how long.

My biggest fear is not that the board will apply utility standards, like what happened in Rotterdam, but that the board will have to conclude at some point that our department no longer reflects her original purpose and therefore has made itself redundant. Philosophy in Tilburg became independent in 1986 on the basis of the argument that excellent philosophy education needs a research institute that practices philosophy as a autonomous discipline. The institutional guarantee for autonomy was provided in the form of the chair “history of modern and contemporary philosophy”. This chair has recently been discontinued and the management has set up a new key policy focused on a branch of philosophy that takes the dominant scientific rationality as its point of departure and denies that philosophy has distinctive questions.

The irony of this policy is that it wants to connect to other disciplines so badly that it achieves the exact opposite: the other disciplines’ demand for reflectivity and a self-critical approach (which they need to take care of the marginal conditions of their own education) is answered with the uncritical repeating of a discourse that is already known and daily practiced in the other disciplines. There is no widening or deepening of any horizon. It is bringing owls to Athens. So if in a few years, when the contracts of service teaching (the so-called “vierprocentsregeling”) will be evaluated, there is no argument as to why these contracts should be prolonged. Given the Department’s key orientation, bringing Cobbenhagen’s idealistic argument on the table would be very ill-conceived. The best we can hope for is that the university board will not begin to think about the importance of philosophy education any time soon.

To conclude, seeing what is happening at our university, we can say that the crisis in the humanities neither has sailed past Tilburg nor that it is merely a crisis of the humanities. In fact, it becomes increasingly clear that we are facing (the beginnings of) a full-blown crisis of the university. Perhaps there is one luminous spot: the dominance of the utility discourse gives us the practical experience that the one-sided domination of scientific rationality even undermines, in the end, the conditions of scientific education that has no other purpose than to reproduce this kind of rationality. Under these circumstances, a new insight may dawn upon us: we learn that if we want to live of the fruits of the tree of knowledge, we must not only reach up but also reach down to take care of the ground on which the tree grows.