On the announcement of the ‘New College of Humanities’

As many of you will have come to know of late, there has been an announcement of a private college set up by a number of private sector figures to institute a ‘New College of the Humanities’ (NCH), with A.C. Grayling as the master of the college. Certain facts about this announcement have brought much controversy, which include:

  • The college proposes to charge £18,000 a year for undergraduate courses, as a private college they are not obliged to follow the tuition fee cap of £9,000, the controversy of which (inter alia) has brought about this very college
  • The college promises ‘big’ names to join, such as Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling and Stephen Pinker, all of which are famous public intellectuals.
  • It has also emerged that this ploy of attracting big names to the staff has been slightly misleading in that they are apparently contractually obliged to only 1 lecture a year, many of whom still will hold faculty positions
  • The modus operandi of the college is poised as an ideological statement of criticism to the current and increasingly unstable higher education system in the US
  • The NCH proposes to be more like a US-style system of university college, where private sector investment can cover for bursaries for those of lesser financial means

There have been a great many criticisms of this announcement, naturally. Some range from the obvious (well, obvious to me) to the unusual, and some criticism are outright weird. In a sense, many critics have raised the mast and shown their own colours in their criticisms. Terry Eagleton has been accused for instance, as instantiating the usual critical theory capitalism conspiracy babble against the college, although personally I’ve found it perhaps the only time I’ve actually (at least initially) agreed with his work, despite the difficult language used.

One observation that is particularly interesting is the suggestion that US academics percieve this announcement more favourably than the UK. Brian Leiter’s support of NCH on his ‘Reports blog comes to me as a surprise against the overwhelming UK academic opinion against it. Many criticisms focus on the issues which I would agree as very important worries: this college does nothing for social mobility, which public universities (including even Cambridge/Oxford) vastly help with. This college is a step backwards to an age of financial and social priviledge where old boy networks are unashamedly celebrated. I can only hope that Grayling was reading ‘A Theory of Justice’ by J. Rawls before he made his difficult decision.

Some of the criticisms however, I find interesting, and unfamiliar. One criticism is that NCH isn’t private enough. A private college does not rent University of London resources and is thus parasitic on the public university. One article raised yesterday which was tangentially very interesting was that UL students have to pay to use the Senate House Library, which sounds absurd to me, considering how much fees cost, as well as the necessity it is to use a library for graduate and undergraduate study! Another specific allegation is that NCH borrows course syllabi from the UL collegiate programme. This is a pretty serious allegation considering the certain uniqueness of some courses. For a college that promises a more individually tailored student experience, using borrowed material to teach gives a certain personless anonymity to the feel of an individualist experience. Another very strange criticism is that the NCH steals the title of ‘New College’, from New College (St. Marys), Oxford, which itself is a few hundred years old. I’ll leave that up to the Oxonians to hold that torch of critique..

I think to some extent it is important to employ the principle of charity to Grayling’s College. I personally felt utterly betrayed by the notion, that was my honest first response to this announcement. That a philosopher in such high regard from his popular set of books, as well as his non-philosophical work on China, and the secular movement would commit to such a contraversial action does give me less hope for the HE establishment. That said, if I do take the principle of Charity, perhaps this move Grayling made is some incredibly clever Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias -like gesture which unites all the critics and academic establishment figures to really shake up and change their ways. Or perhaps as some sympathisers say, this project may not really have a negative effect on the HE establishment as there will only be about 100 or so graduates a year from the NCH, or it may lead to a new way of thinking about the university. It is also fair to say that in uniting such disparate groups by the announcement of the college, many people who would be putatively enemies have united against it (from Terry Eagleton, to academics in proper subjects), it would be too easy to join the bandwagon for poorly thought out reasons (see ‘New College, Oxford’ plagiarism allegation).

News like this distracts me, and this blog from what I really want to write about. In a sense, news like this is also a distraction from what should be understood as the ‘real’ underlying problem of the changing nature of government agencies (which in this instance includes Higher Education). Many of the academics who have made a name in recent publications for taking a stand against the changes in Higher Education are not really interested in being campaigning types, many just want to get on with their research. The climate is changing too much and it does look to be a war of ideologies, what is valued in society and governance? The oppurtunity for those of ability to reach as far as they can in whatever industry or endeavour they intend to solely on the basis of their talent and ability? Or a generation of Tim-nice-but-dims reaching the top of the social ladder from the bank of Mum and Dad and their connections? Of course things are a lot more nuanced than this, and the reality is a mix of the two, but this current political and social climate is very conducive for extremes to emerge from the nuance.

What is forgotten is that the changes instituted by government and university administrators come from a generation of British people who enjoyed an age of free education. Were it not for the advantages that the university system of yesteryear gave them, would they have been in the same positions of power today? In this sense their decisions form a betrayal of conscience.

I thought this news story is particularly poignant. As someone who is a graduate from the late 2000s, as someone currently struggling in this economic climate, this announcement makes me feel exceptionally lucky that I at least ended up with a couple of degrees. I probably wouldn’t survive the high selection criteria of today’s university admission bodies, and the fees would have definitely put my parents off encouraging me to go to university as well. This story has been in the back of my mind this week, as I’ve been in talks with getting involved in a social media project distinctly related to this issue…perhaps more on that as things emerge.

Destre

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Stanley’s “Crisis of Philosophy”

I’ve seen this article attract a great many replies, reactions, disagreements and agreements. Many of my most respected of living philosophers have commented on this issue. The issue, as I see it is this: The reputation of philosophy is being undermined by the anti-philosophical intellectuals that have emerged since the 19th Century.

I thought that I would contribute to clarity on understanding what the crisis is. As such, I am going to address the issue of what is seen as the ‘enemy’ to analytic philosophers, namely, the ‘anti-philosophies’ which can sometimes be called  ‘continental philosophy’. I shall then address a general issue of how philosophy’s history can be potentially misunderstood where anachronism can infect the general reputation of philosophy.

Lastly I would address the reputation of philosophy, where the real ‘crisis’ expresses itself. Philosophy faces a reputation that negatively affects its genuine practicioners and benefits its sophistical demagogues. This affects everything from rants against philosophy in dinner parties to where public academic funding is directed.

The conception of anti-philosophy

The founding figures of the ‘anti’ philosophical tendency usually appeal to the likes of Nietzsche or Marx. I like to invoke the distinction (as do many others) towards Continental philosophy. The anti-philosophical sentiment opposes systematic philosophy. For these anti-philosophical philosophies, there is a distinct sense of opposition to ‘how things previously have been’; the objects of such opposition involve fundamental oppositions to the possibility of rational analysis; where subjectivity seems to take a greater primacy.

This tendency to ‘subjectify’ philosophy takes place through emphasising the role of the individual subject’s experience which cannot be understood by ‘grand theories’ that impose upon persons. The notion of systems and rules of conduct are limiting in favour of other competing ‘anti-philosophical’ accounts.

For anti-philosophies, the analysis of justice, knowledge and understanding natural sciences are seen as fruitless and ‘dated’ notions. Feuerbach’s eleventh thesis concerning the application of philosophy makes any kind of ‘theoretical’ philosophy a derogatory pursuit. Some serious misconceptions are easy to make: for instance; that systematic or theoretical philosophy is distinct from ‘applied’ philosophy.

Anti-philosophies have allied themselves with the humanities such as literary theory, film studies, cultural studies and some of the mainstream social sciences. The popularity and the infection of anti-philosophical theorists has led to the irony of those bodies of thought to establish their own canons of systematicity. Perhaps the temptation of the system is just too unavoidable. While Marx opposed the Kantian-enlightenment vision of the system of nature; his own vision became a system constrained by the process of history. For the contemporary social theorists, much appeasement is needed to the former Gods of post-structuralism or postmodernism. This is the very scholasticism and dogmatism that the Englightenment had tried to dissolve.

Misunderstanding history, and the place of historical figures

There are many cultural factors that lead to such philosophical divergences. Conversation between traditions and cultures has always been part of European philosophy, however we must also acknowledge that the conventional histories of philosophy, if taken as strong and reified accounts; lead to anachronism. It is not the case that Descartes’ knew that philosophers after him would always refer to his work nor would he see that many persons after him from mathematicians to cognitive scientists would see him as one of their founders. The view from the present makes the disjoined and sometimes the initially uneventful seem monumental. That is perhaps reasonable to see considering that we can tell of the real implications of say, a historian from Scotland who never recieved a professorship (David Hume) or a lens grinder (Baruch Spinoza).

My old sociology lecturer warned us not to read too much into the deviants and countercultures of any given time. While it may be the case that one revolutionary can turn into the dogmatist’s prophet; they may be in their own time outside of the mainstream. An analogy may be in place: let us not try to read too much into the emergences of youth cultures when during their infancy; many of the first generations of fans were in a minority. Was everyone into grunge during the late 80s? Was every teenager a punk during the 70s? Probably not: lets not forget the fashion travesties of the mainstream in our plotted cultural history. Most people got on with their lives, and most intellectuals worked within the paradigm of their dominant discourse. Leibniz in his early career was an Aristotelian philosopher; Kant worked within the scholarly german fashion of the Leibniz-Wolffian system and Descartes’. Our misunderstanding of philosophy today is in large part to a general misunderstanding of its history.

The reputation of philosophy

The reputation of philosophy has many dimensions of influence. Let us start off with a negative reputation of philosophy. Here’s a list:

  • Philosophy doesn’t apply to the real world
  • Philosophy (undefined) is no longer relevant, but [x’s philosophy] tells us that that [x’s philosophy] is right and relevant (insert any of the following names: Zizek, Nietzsche, Marx, Butler, Freud, Deepak Chopra, Jesus, some long haired lunatic &c …)
  • Philosophy has been defeated by [x] (insert name from list above, maybe add in Rorty, Wittgenstein, Semiotics, sociology of scientists, ‘science’ genera, and Jesus again)
  • Philosophy doesn’t need much funding
  • Philosophy doesn’t deserve funding
  • Philosophy doesn’t fit into the goals of the new style of academic management: impact, impact impact are the three distinct and all encompassing goals of academia
  • Philosophy has turned too literary/linguistic/logical/mathematical/historical/academic/elitist/scientific
  • Other subjects have taken the work of conventional philosophical concerns to render it obsolete: Sociology, Political Science, Mathematical logic, Cognitive science and linguistics, psychology and the neurosciences, history of science
  • Interdisciplinarity has undermined and diluted philosophy to a buzzword that fits in to some doctrinal quota
  • Contemporary philosophy has detached from theology
  • Contemporary philosophy has too many associations with atheism

I could dedicate a post to each of these issues, but for the sake of parity perhaps I’ll leave them standing as they are. The negative reputation of philosophy consists of various propositions about philosophy that I would largely consider as misapprehensions of what contemporary philosophy is. The contemporary practice of philosophy involves many different kinds of people: borderline scientists; actual scientists; dual-wield PhDs (my favourite kind); academics; non-academics; activists; bourgeois; working class; upper class; post-docs; teachers; politically oriented; broadsheet article writers; podcasters; cultural researchers; humanists; scientists; social scientists and so on. As such, there are many different perspectives on philosophy and many different kinds of ideas. While I could most easily deride some and not others, the fact of the matter is that most co-exist within the same social environment but are affected in different ways. Some benefit by nepotistic and ingratiating research programmes (I’ll name no names); others stand alone and work on substantive issues; other make their way to name drop and draw the lines of factions; others try to establish a sense of community to serve other philosophers and the public.

The reputation of philosophy impacts on future interest in philosophy, the direction of philosophy and in the contemporary light; where funding is allocated and following this, what kinds of philosophical programmes survive. If academia were like Darwinian natural selection; only the best and truest ideas would survive. However, academia is more like social function, and the most socially functioning person (not necessarily the best) finds flourishing. I think that the crisis of philosophy lay in its poor reputation, and the funding and imposed guidelines for research bodies that are more often than not determined by political and bureaucratic influences.

What can be done to save philosophy? We can overcome the misconceptions of philosophy and its history by achieving proper understandings and avoiding second hand readings. Another way to help would be to establish the virtues of intellectual honesty and nobility. Achieve the mindset and ethical mindset not of an oppurtunist and business-like individual which proliferates academic management, but rise above and show that the intellectual caste are much different, much better than the ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ fashions of political and intellectual orientations. The academic world, if ideal; would allow the freedom of expression for many intellectuals as well as greater liberality of research programme from the bottom up. Would it be democratic? I’m not sure. Would it be populist? Certainly NOT!

Michael (and Destre)

“We do not live in an enlightened age, but we live in an age of enlightenment…”

1804 was the year that the Enlightenment ended. This week came many efforts to reform the UK legal notion of libel, which, in its current situation is far from the Enlightenment values that we so value. The enlightenment values are the values of Areopagus; the organisation which comprises members of the Noumenal realm.

I have become sceptical of such reasoning about a ‘golden age’. Often we are to mention the phrase about “protecting Rome from the barbarians”, but really were the Romans so civilised? Their civility came from their unique ability to organise and establish bureaucratic and administrative systems; and yet this is the very ill that I hate about today’s organisation of hierarchical structures. When was there a more noble time away from the practice of using procedure to mask human stupidity and lack of skill? The tyrants of the polis era were noble in their intentions and political and lawmaking will; but they still used crude means of rule, albeit by comparison to Romans, they were far less brute.

We can find all too much wrong with any of our percieved ‘Golden ages’. It all depends on our values. I’d propose as a crude measure, that these following factors would be crucial; necessary and sufficient conditions for any notion of a ‘Golden age’:

1. Social and national security
2. Good political and economic relations with other states
3. Egalitarian
4. Meritocracy (which has often been associated with Aristocracy for largely historical and contingent reasons)
5. Intellectual freedoms/the autonomy and separation of an intellectual caste

At the moment, the crisis of UK universities and higher education management is undermining the independence and overal research agenda and goals of academics from a level that is ubiquitous. There are also issues concerning the ‘diversity’ discourse undermining the right to criticise. It was those values of free enquiry that brought us to this level of social security and economic and intellectual richness; and yet those very values are being undermined.

Destre

Fertility

A fertile mind or a fertile idea?

If one pursues a fertile idea, does one consign themselves to personal and intellectual staleness?

Conversely, does the fertile mind say anything about its activity? Is the fertile mind eclectic, studious, or the polymath.

I suppose having strong elements of both will always be ideal, but coming down to one; what is more important? Can we continue to argue of old issues and debates to the effect of having overly technical terminology so as to prevent the kind of repetition that is inevitable from being age-old issues; or does intellectual fertility as a mindset allow for a freshness and interplay of perspectives in such a way that invokes originality?

It would seem that there is a subtle difference between one who seems to have depth as the scholar of the fertile idea, and one who appears to have depth as the one with a fertile mind.

With the former, depth in a specific issue is a well-rehearsed and tired routine.

With the latter, depth comes not necessarily out of expertise, but the surprising depth, clarity, and summation that comes from the sporadic and spontaneous entertainment of the idea itself.

Destre

Harris’ argument on Christian moral sentiment

There is an line of thought on Letter to a Christian Nation (Sam Harris) that I find an interesting point about Christianity.

Harris makes a point about how the Christian Right in the US spend much effort campainging on what might be seen as marginally morally important campaigns particularly concerning sexual morality and promoting pro-life ideals. While someone on the Christian right may not see this as a marginal issue, it seems ephemeral an issue to the more important global issues of human rights abuse and poverty. Christianity (or bettter put, Christians) have the flaw of overemphasising these self-indulgent national issues over the global human catastrophes.

A lot can be said about Harris’ argument, one can direct it in many ways, and as such, pull it apart in many ways also. Responses include:

i. The critique of Christian-believer behaviour says nothing about the character of Jesus
ii. This only applies to a sector of the Christian contingent

There is, however, a very powerful thought in this line of argument. Something we often forget are things distantly in the past, to which some or many are still affected by. Often, the issues in the public’s consciousness only involve those issues which are directly or closestly reminded to them.

Stephen Fry made the point once that the plight of HIV/AIDS victims are slowly becoming forgotten by many. It is seen less as a problem compared to something like obesity. There are various reasons for it, one, is the newness of it fading as years passed.

HIV/AIDS is becoming slowly forgotten, and we often need reminding about global poverty. Indeed there are many campaign issues in the world, and I suppose, there are so many that we often must dedicate ourselves only to a few. Those few that we consider are often those that have immediate or distant impact upon us (breast cancer, for instance). Otherwise, they are then dismissed and forgotten.

That seems to be the most salient point about Harris’ appeal to the poor moral sentiment of Christianity in his Letter.

Destre

Same matter, different subject

Crime, how do we study it?

There are many different ways to look at crime. The most conventional way it would seem to me is to look at it as a human and social behaviour. There are many perspectives on crime, and that there are perspectives on crime reflects the way we construe our subject manner. We might say for instance:

1. Crime is a social construction (constructivist)
1*. (therefore, there is no such thing as crime)

2. Crime is a natural phenomenon, we shall see it as while inevitable, there should be a rate to define a healthy rate of crime (positivist)
2*. Crime, or evil is a necessary pervailance in the immanent world (a religious-leaning viewpoint)

3. Crime is a situational behaviour established by a series of circumstances to dispose one to deviant action (generic psychological)

4. Crime is a situational occurence established by a system or social organisation which oppresses people to commit crime (Holist)

There are so many different ways to cut a phenomenon such as crime, here are some distinctions:

1. Focus on the individual vs. Focus on society or groups as a whole
2. Focus on the agent’s preferential and motivational set/Focus on causal factors
3. Focus on quantification of recorded occurences/Focus on speculative insights to which fit best to explain data
4. Focus on a scientifically validated measure or dataset, and establish as tight a methodology as one can/Focus on instituting change

Note that these distinctions are not mutually exclusive.

There has been recent talk as to the establishment of teaching sexology as a subject in universities. While a similar point is to be made about crime, there is an established ‘criminology’ that is taught in many universities (how it is organised often, is as  a collaboration of law scholars, social scientists and sometimes psychologists).

I may pose a similar question: how do we understand sex? There can be many ways to understand sex, how we determine this question leads to what kinds of answers we have. Is sex a natural phenomenon wherewhich we may address issues of medicine? Is sex a social issue, that represents at its most fundamental, the power relations between men and women, the complexitity of social identity (sexuality), and the relation with other important social notions (criminality, deviance, education, class, work).

Sex and criminality bring up many issues: the notion of paedophilia, for instance has a question-begging notion of childhood. A study like Philippe Aries and many others shows how our attitude towards the pre-pubescent and pubescent has changed over the past few centuries with industrialisation. Some criminalised sexual behaviours can reflect social attitudes, why is it criminal to put out a cigarette on one’s partner if they both want it [there are many documented stories like this]?

Legal issues can come up; age of consent is an obvious one, borderline cases, what about sex and legislation on an international level; where homosexuality is a corporal punishable offence at one sovereignty and acceptable at another. What about the plight of those who are between cultural identities and yet torn apart by them by virtue of their sexual identity (transexuals in Iran; the double discrimination of homosexual Israelis; the custom of forced marriage in British Pakistani communities).

Biological issues: does it make sense to classify between sexes of male and female? If sexual intercourse is a notion held by other species, is sexuality a workable notion? Can we for instance, use the insights of observing animal sexual behaviour as to understanding our own? Are we sufficiently genetically comparable?

Education: how do we properly teach sexuality in the classroom? How do we teach sexuality to children as parents and adults?

Normative: is it ethical to study sexual behaviour? What are the provisions required for ‘ethical’ study? Does the ‘is’ of animal sexual behaviour entail the ‘ought’ of sexual behaviour genera? (the answer is no).

To speak of a ‘sexology’ is a bit of a misnomer in some respects. While there are many insights to be made as the biological scientist, the social psychologist, the clinical psychologist, the sociologist, the philosopher, or even the educator; those issues of sex often presuppose or come to bear upon wider issues of those subjects. To have a ‘sexology’ would be at worst a failed understanding of the underlying issues which lie far beyond sex itself, or at best, an understanding simultaneously of many many disciplines at little depth or only one subject at much depth. There are some subjects that, while are importantly interdisciplinary, are not subjects suis generis, that is, without some failure or exclusion of one discourse.

This is not fair to say that some interdisciplinary efforts are irrelevant.

Many subjects in the mathematical sciences often have specialists who are non-mathematicians. Calculus as applied to the many aspects of chemistry, or the subject that has now come to be known as computer science; are noble species of wider genera subjects.

There is a sense of question-begging to which I have decidedly not answered, as to how to understand crime, or sexuality. While we may be conciliartory between the biologist interested in evolution, or the law scholar who is also an amateur marxist; we find not necessarily competing theses, but rather; competing ideologies and methods. To group them as one exclusive category excludes the manifold within each subject matter.

Destre

Philistinism

I would quite dislike a world ruled by philistines:

i. Where a non-philosopher would teach arguments for the existence of God
ii. Where someone without a sense of history would be a politician
iii. Where an artist or writer cannot look to the past, or the present, or even the future, for a source of influence, but be stuck in a moment of a style, which may or may not have passed a long time ago
iv. Where targets are a priority over concern and human interpersonal contact.
v. Where skill is seen as a threat, and not a virtue
vi. Where the best orator wins, and personal attacks are currency
vii. Where training is a distraction
viii. Where the closed-minded and unimaginative cannot see the potential for creativity or connection in the pursuit of the non-task. It is in the serf that the Romantics reintroduced folk culture; it is in the proletariat’s tragedy of war that the most sophisticated of composers found inspiration in the early 20thC; it is in nature where those greatest natural scientists found divinity; it is in the seemingly irrelevant that we can find the most eloquent and succinct exploration of our most relevant concerns and interests.

All too often I hope for the Nietzschean superman to find rule, in disdain and disgust of the very flock they object. It is, the one who is entirely delved in the most fundamental of skills and arts, I think, who would be the one that pushes those who appeal to their position rather than their inner skill, to challenge their very existence.

Antisophie (and Destre)