Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Inconvenient Facts

My reading group has been working its way through Wittgenstein – first the Tractatus and now Philosophical Investigations. Along the way, we’re also reading some contemporaneous works chosen, according to our somewhat random collective mood, to cast the core text into relief.

Last week, I suggested looking at Weber’s “Science as a Vocation” – in the theory that the distinction Weber draws between the rationality of means, and the irrationality of ends, might share at least some aesthetic similarities with the Tractatus, with its distinction between the scientific propositions of which we can speak (but not as philosophers), and the metaphysical, about which we cannot speak, and therefore must be silent… I make no claim that my idiosyncratic association from Wittgenstein to Weber has any merit (Wittgenstein still being, for me, something about which I cannot intelligently speak, and whereof I therefore really must be silent…). I did enjoy, though, revisiting Weber’s text, not least because I had actually forgotten how directly Weber speaks to some of my recent dilemmas about teaching and research.

While I could engage with Weber’s text on many levels, two dimensions of his work resonate particularly strongly for me at the moment.

The first is Weber’s analysis of the academic in the role of a researcher, and the relation Weber draws between academic analysis and the commitment to the existence of a disenchanted world. Weber’s text is nuanced: he explicitly refuses to judge those who sincerely continue to believe in mystical forces, but he argues that, when entering into a specifically academic role, recourse to spiritual explanations is no longer available. Academic explanations operate within the framework of a disenchanted world, else they cease to be academic.

The second is Weber’s analysis of the academic in the role of a teacher. Weber argues passionately for explicit political advocacy – but not in the lecture hall. Significantly, Weber draws attention to the structural imbalance between faculty and students: “To the prophet and the demagogue, it is said: ‘Go your ways out into the streets and speak openly to the world’, that is, speak where criticism is possible. In the lecture-room we stand opposite our audience, and it has to remain silent.” Academic teaching operates within an intrinsic structural imbalance, thus creating an ethical obligation to refrain from political advocacy.

Weber also notes the same significant criticisms that would be posed to both of these positions today: that academic ends, in their own way, fall outside the scope of rational enquiry; and that, in practice, it is impossible to insulate students from the political opinions of the professor. I suspect that addressing these objections systematically would require a move beyond Weber’s sober theoretical pessimism. Still, Weber offers a vision of a distinctive character – a unique quality – of the academic vocation that I find personally compelling. He expresses this vision in specific relation to our role as teachers, but I would argue that it also applies, self-reflexively, to our role as researchers. Weber argues:

The primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his students to recognize ‘inconvenient’ facts – I mean facts that are inconvenient for their party opinions. And for every party opinion there are facts that are extremely inconvenient, for my own opinion no less than for others. I believe the teacher accomplishes more than a mere intellectual task if he compels his audience to accustom itself to the existence of such facts. I would be so immodest as even to apply the expression ‘moral achievement’, though perhaps that may sound too grandiose for something that should go without saying.

I find myself drawn to this description of what distinguishes academic work from other social roles: the unique importance of confronting – in others, certainly, but especially and primarily in ourselves – the existence and implications of inconvenient facts. I conceptualise the university as an institution committed to this ideal. And I agree with Weber’s assessment that this kind of work can represent a “moral achievement”. Whether I personally match up to this ideal, whether any specific university ever does, are perhaps inconvenient facts of their own… Such empirical shortcomings, however, would surely be worse, if the ideal itself were jettisoned.

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