philology

By any other name.

Studying the history of ideas can engender a jaundiced perspective on contemporary academic writing.

Weariness can arise from a recognition that each generation is inventing the wheel. To give but one example, every generation since the 1870s seems to have proclaimed that the Anglo-Saxons rather interbred with than ethnically cleansed the older settlers of the British Isles, and then blasted the older generation for not grasping this.

It emerges also from reading the introductory sections of journal articles written by junior researchers who have been taught to begin with a potted history of the problem to be tackled. To anyone who has actually read the older texts so treated (clearly not the junior researchers – when would they have the time?) these histories are a travesty of the facts; but endlessly repeated they work to establish an ingrained miasprehension of a discipline’s own history among its practioners.

Another factor, that which has spurred this post, is the disciplinary myopia that pervades modern academic practice, the partial focus that is mistaken for inter-disciplinary self-awareness. This hit me yesterday following two seemingly unrelated discussions.

The first was a discussion of Tom Shippey’s argument that philology is the key to unlocking the secrets of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Shippey supports his claim with a series of dazzling insights and revelations, which he then uses to bash modern students of English, who have turned from philology to ‘literature’ and, says Shippey, thereby lost the true key to the study of English. I have some criticisms of Shippey’s presentation of the practice of philology in English universities before 1914 (it was not the straight line from the work of the Grimms that he presents, but rather mutated in the wake of various discoveries related to the prehistoric past in the 1880s). But in this post Shippey serves simply to remind us that philology once existed, that it was taught and practiced in English universities, that it  was great.

The second discussion followed a reading, on the request of the editor of a special journal issue, of a paper on the nature-society relationship in psychology. The paper was well-written and, within its world of science studies, more than decent. It began, of course, with a long historical survey, in this case intended to establish that language – all language, even scientific language – is not objective and theory neutral, and is ultimately metaphorical. This introduction, mirroring countless other introductory sections in articles on the history and sociology of the sciences, began with logical positivism and its attempt to establish an empirical language of science that could be demarcated from the language of poetry, metaphysics, and nonsense, and then observed how logical positivism had imploded by the 1930s, its very failure opening the door to a new kind of study of knowledge based on a new understanding of the nature of language.

The new approach to the sciences begins from the conviction that language is open-ended, fluid and inherently metaphorical. Its primary method is to chart local variations in specific terms over time. This the paper proceeded to do with regard to the psychological term ‘inhibition’ – noting early pre-psychological uses, different deployments since the French Revolution, and local variations in French, German, British, and Russian psychology, as well as popular uses through this whole period down to today.

All very interesting. But is it not astonishing that the author of the paper sets his own inquiry within an historical framework and never once mentions philology?

For what else is this ‘new’ method of reflection on the sciences but a form of philology? Of course the onus here is on modern usages (although Aristotle and Galen and other ancients are invariably mentioned). But basically we have a flourishing modern research program dedicated to producing papers and books that could well serve as appendices to the O.E.D.

The new method is only new in relation to a myopic intellectual history that pushes one school of philosophy to the forefront while absolutely occluding those who once held the crown of the social sciences, the philologists.

Heathen kings under a swift sunrise

A sort of addendum to my last two posts: two scenes from the siege of Gondor in the movie version of The Return of the King that provide food for thought.

Here is Gandalf explaining to Pippin what awaits a mortal after death. But the description he gives is lifted from Frodo’s vision of the undying lands beyond the shoreless sea. Here are the textual sources: In the house of Tom Bombadil, “either in his dreams or out of them,” Frodo hears a sweet singing:

a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.

And then, at the end of his story, Frodo sails from the Grey Havens:

And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

So Peter Jackson has taken Tolkien’s description of the immortal realm on earth and presented it as a description of what awaits mortals after death. This is pretty much exactly the error that Tolkien attributed to the heathen pagans of Middle-earth!

The second scene is not a misinterpretation; but it is illuminating to add in some of the dialogue in the book passed over in the movie.

“No tomb for Denethor and Faramir… We shall burn like the heathen kings of old.”

I remember watching this scene years ago and puzzling over the reference to “heathen kings,” which is left utterly unexplained in the movie. In fact this line is a fairly faithful reflection of the original:

No tomb for Denethor and Faramir… We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West.

But the original line is more illuminating. The ships that sailed hither from the West are the ships that came from Númenor (before and in the wake of its destruction). So here we have the idea that the Númenoreans are the source of a noble paganism that displaced an older heathen paganism. We learn even more if we read on to the moment when Gandalf confronts Denethor:

‘Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death,’ answered Gandalf. ‘And only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair…’

For Tolkien, heathenism is a paganism under the domination of the Dark Power; a paganism that feeds on human pride, and folly, and fear. Its ultimate source is fear of death, and its ultimate manifestation, in one form or another, is an attempt to cheat death. And by implication, noble paganism – the state of mind and attitudes that characterize the free Men of Middle-earth – rests ultimately upon an acceptance that death marks the limits of human power, and cannot be cheated.

 For exploration of Tolkien’s ideas of heathenism and noble paganism and Christianity see my last two posts: Christianity and Paganism, and Death and the Tower.

 

 

Zemaiciu_Alka_(Samogitian_Alka)

Tolkien: Christianity and Paganism

Commenting on my last post, Death and the Tower, John Carswell of True Myths raised the issue of the relevance of Tolkien’s own religious beliefs to my discussion of Tolkien’s meditations on death…

Let’s revisit briefly the concluding passages of Tolkien’s 1936 tale of the ‘Fall of Númenor’.

Seeking immortality, the Númenoreans had prepared to sail to the undying lands in the uttermost West. But Númenor was destroyed by an act of God. A remnant escaped the deluge and arrived on the shores on Middle-earth. Among their descendants we find two views about the undying lands beyond the sundering sea: in the crookedness of their hearts, most imagine a place where dwell the shades of the mortal dead (for which reason they practice ship funerals); yet a wise minority seek to glimpse the undying lands (for which reason they build tall towers on the coast) but understand that it is not a land where Men may dwell.

What arrests my attention here is the contrast between grasping at a (confused) vision and seeing a (true) image without mistaking it for a goal. I think this contrast is key to the perils and rewards of the ‘Faërie sight’ that we encounter in The Lord of the Rings (most obviously, but by no means exclusively, in both the palantíri and Galadriel’s Mirror).  

But John Carswell is correct in suggesting that the whole picture requires a consideration of Tolkien’s own beliefs. And the ‘Fall of Númenor’ is a useful text from this perspective because it contains a rare hint of those beliefs (rare at least in the context of the stories of Middle-earth).

Of those Númenoreans who do not seek to reach the undying lands (neither in life nor in death), Tolkien writes:

… they knew that the fate of Men was not bounded by the round path of the world, nor destined for the straight path. For the round is crooked and has no end but no escape; and the straight is true, but has an end within the world, and that is the fate of the Elves. But the fate of Men, they said, is neither round nor ended, and is not within the world.

Now, we who have heard the teachings of Christianity can readily interpret this passage as offering a contrast between immortality and eternity. Immortality is a life within the world that lasts as long as the world; this is the fate of the Elves. Eternity is found outside the walls of the world, the gateway to eternity is death; and this is the fate of Men. From this Christian perspective, the striving for immortality is a false answer to the riddle of death; acceptance of death as the gateway to eternal life is the true answer.

But note that this Christian reading puts into the quoted passage more than it actually contains. All that Tolkien allows his true Númenoreans is a knowledge that the answer to the riddle of death is found beyond and not within the world. The passage bears the imprint of Tolkien’s Christian faith, but in a fashion deemed appropriate for an ancient Northern world that has not yet received the gospels and has not heard of Christ.

The ‘Fall of Númenor’ was conceived as a sort of origin story of the ancient history of the North. Today, of course, we read it as a bridge that connects the stories of the First Age in The Silmarillion with the great story of the Third Age in The Lord of the Rings. But in 1936 this latter story had yet to be conceived, and, as the last line of the ‘Fall of Númenor’ makes clear, this was to be the closing chapter in the Elvish prehistory of the North:

And here the tale of the ancient world, as the Elves keep it, comes to an end. 

So the ‘Fall of Númenor’ can be read as a meditation upon two kinds of ancient, yet historical Northern paganism: a heathenism that strove for immortality and a noble paganism that accepted death as the fate of Men, knew that death was not the end but the gateway to a fate beyond the walls of the world, but (prior to the spread of Christian teachings) had no guarantee of its hope of eternal life.*

Putting Tolkien’s Christian faith into the picture allows us to see how Middle-earth enchants both a Christian audience and those who reject Christianity and are fascinated by ancient pagan alternatives. Simply put, the noble paganism that Tolkien fashions is fully compatible with the teachings of Christianity: it contains the same moral virtues but is absent those metaphysical revelations concerning death and what follows it.

Bringing Christianity into the picture also provides a clue as to the nobility of spirit that we find in The Lord of the Rings. Vain dreams of escaping death tempt us all. But the Christian today is armed with the teachings of Christ and the support of his Church. The heroes of Middle-earth must spurn the temptations of the enemy, yet do so with no hope that their righteousness will earn any reward other than death. In The Lord of the Rings Frodo embodies this ideal of heroism, but it is actually a characteristic of all who sacrifice themselves with no thought of earning a place in heaven. Tolkien’s Christian faith entailed that when he imagined virtuous pagans without his own faith he imagined them as particularly noble and heroic.

Tolkien’s imagination of noble paganism thus has its own internal logic. It’s worth bearing this in mind in light of criticisms by Tom Shippey (Roots and Branches, ‘Tolkien and the Beowulf-poet’ and ‘Heroes and Heroism’) that Tolkien airbrushed out of Middle-earth all the nastier elements of the Germanic pagan past (such as human sacrifice). Actually, this heathenism is not absent in Middle-earth, it is merely placed on the periphery of our vision and so hardly touched upon: heathenism is the choice of those Men who worship Morgoth and Sauron. But in making the ‘Fall of Númenor’ the origin, not of the history of the North, but of the history of the Third Age, Tolkien took his conception of noble paganism and made it the dominant attitude among the Dúnedain and the men of Gondor and Rohan. This, of course, is not an historically accurate picture of the ancient North; but it is not simply a presentation of ancient paganism through rose-tinted-spectacles.

But does any of this illuminate what I have called the ‘Faërie sight’ found in The Lord of the Rings? I am not convinced that it does.

Clearly, the worldview of Tolkien’s paganism (be it heathen or noble) is very far from atheism. Those who inhabit such a world may encounter magical and mysterious beings simply by following far enough the road that leads from their door. And certain objects in this world may provide magical visions, even to the extent of providing a glimpse of the undying lands beyond the sundering sea. To look into such objects is perilous, at least for a mortal. And that peril is bound up with the good and evil in the heart of the beholder.** But while such ideas of good and evil are close (if not identical) to the moral lessons taught by Christianity, the very idea of a noble paganism is grounded upon the universality of such ideas.

I’m still thinking about this, but for the present I remain of the opinion that the sight of Faërie is bound up in the fantasies of our heart, of which those born out of our fear of death are the most important, but that such fantasies are independent of any knowledge (or lack thereof) of the Eternity that may (or may not) await us once we die.

 

Image credit: Kontis Šatūnas, ‘Contemporary Romuvan sacred space in Šventoji, Lithuania.’

* Text revised in light of post linked to by JC in his comment below.

** Text revised in light of astute comment below from TH.

ocean

Death and the Tower

At the root of Tolkien’s fantasy is a meditation upon death. Paradoxically, this is the reason that Tolkien strikes such deep chords and yet remains so little understood. For death is the last taboo. An author who has thought long and hard about death can tell us much that we yearn to know but dare not ponder aloud.

Meditation on death is deemed morbid in our modern culture. Death does not sell commodities, nor politicians. We are bombarded with feel-good images of life that are inherently superficial because our mortality is airbrushed out of the glossy pictures supposed to represent ourselves. Yet not only is death the inevitable doom for all of us, it is also our fate to possess this knowledge throughout our lives.

Tolkien engraved our mortality upon the One Ring: “Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die.” He also understood that the greatest fantasies of the human heart are spun from our yearning to escape our doom. Elves and Ring-wraiths together provide a lesson in what we desire and what is forbidden to us. The immortal Elves reveal an image of our heart’s desire, but teach us that to become immortal within this world is to become a different kind of being altogether. The Nazgûl show the inescapable human condition, wherein death can be postponed only at the price of relinquishing life.

Tolkien reminds us that knowledge of death is the source of many of our fantasies. But he also teaches us that not all such fantasies are evil.

Consider his early story of the ‘The Fall of Númenor’ (published in The Lost Road). Desiring immortality, the Númenoreans are preparing to sail to the undying lands in the West. Then Ilúvatar (God) intervenes: Númenor is overwhelmed by the sea and the hitherto flat world is bent into a globe so that the straight way to the True West is lost. A remnant of the Númenoreans escape to Middle-earth, where they become kings of men. But the thought of Death remains heavy on these exiles. They build great tombs for the dead, and “in the fantasy of their hearts, and the confusion of legends half-forgotten” they conjure up an image of an undying land in the West, a land of wraiths where dwell the departed spirits of the dead:

For which reason in after days many of their descendants, or men taught by them, buried their dead in ships and sent them in pomp upon the sea by the west coasts of the Old World.

But some few among the Númenóreans preserved a true memory of the old line of the world, and could still half see the paths to the True West. These few “believed that at times from a high place they could descry the peaks of Taniquetil at the end of the straight road, high above the world. Therefore they built very high towers in those days.”

But most, who could not see this or conceive it in thought, scorned the builders of towers, and trusted to ships that sailed upon water.

Tolkien offers here, first of all, a fairy-tale reflection on ancient paganism, which conjures up a dream of a land of shadow on the further shore in which mortal men achieve a wraith-like immortality. The sea burials of old are but an echo of the Númenorean resolve to live forever, a sea-crossing achieved now in death rather than life.

But he offers, too, a different kind of mortal perspective on the undying lands. He shows us a glimpse that inspires a striving to see more clearly, but not an aspiration to reach the immortal realm.

Tolkien held the human heart to be intrinsically good; its yearnings placed within us by a benevolent Creator. Evil is but a corruption, not an inherent condition. Our fear of death is intense, and the fantasies that arise in its wake are astonishing, but they should not in themselves be scorned. Where we fall into error is by mistaking the vision for a goal, in striving to reach that which is given to us only as vision. We fall because we try to grasp for ourselves that which is not for us, but which we are allowed, on rare occasion, to catch sight of.

To see the fantasy of our heart’s desire, Tolkien teaches us, is good. Our fantasies of escape from death are not in themselves evil; indeed, they may be dreams of heart-piercing beauty.

It would be easy to dismiss this contrast of towers and burial-ships as just another marginal detail dug up from the now vast treasure of obscurities that is Tolkien’s posthumously published writings. But such dismissal would be a mistake: the image of the tower stands at the heart of Tolkien’s mature thought, both his scholarship and his fairy stories.

Christopher Tolkien dates the ‘The Fall of Númenor’ to 1936, the same year that Tolkien delivered his famous British Academy lecture, ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.’ This lecture presented the Old English poem as a meditation upon death – the tale of a hero who meets the monsters he must fight with courage, yet knows what the eventual outcome of his struggles must be. And the poet who crafted this poem, Tolkien insisted, had built a tower that looked out upon the sea:

A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower… from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.

And Christopher Tolkien, in his editorial notes on ‘The Fall of Númenor,’ identifies his father’s account of the towers built by the Númenoreans as “the first reference to the White Towers on Emyn Beraid, the Tower Hills.” Within a few years, Tolkien had placed within the tallest of these towers a palantír that looked back over the sundering sea into the uttermost West, into which Elendil would gaze when his heart was heavy with the yearning of exile.

It is of just this tower that Frodo dreams in his last night in the Shire before setting off on a journey that will take him all the way to Mount Doom.

He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge. A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the Sea.

Tolkien’s fantasy begins from a recognition that knowledge of death haunts our waking lives. He meditated long on the ways in which such knowledge touches our hearts and sparks our imaginations. And at the heart of his fantasy is a profound discernment between grasping and seeing, between the error that we fall into when we try to realize our dreams of escape, and the beauty that is discovered when we simply unveil them.

This post derives from my attempts to write the introductory chapter to a new book on Tolkien. I am still grappling with these ideas and welcome comments.

 

Image credit: runmonty: ‘Robe Coastline.’

Mordor

The Shadow in the Nameless East

Over the weekend a couple of people sent me links to ‘All the East is Moving‘, an online essay by the British popular historian Tom Holland. His long essay is thought provoking and flawed.

Holland describes the First Reich as born a thousand years ago out of life-or-death struggles between Christian Germans and invading barbarian hordes – which begin as Hungarians but rapidly turn into Muslim Arabs and then Turks. This early medieval history provides Holland with his ideal of a Christian Europe, which he then uses to criticize the liberal ideal of a secular Europe embodied in the modern EU, arguing that Europe today needs to recognize its Christian heritage.

The weak point in all this is a failure to note that modern European secularism was born out of the centuries of internal religious warfare that devastated Europe in the wake of the Reformation. In the 17th century Europe learned the lesson that Islam still needs to learn today, namely, that if tolerance and freedom are not enshrined in our constitution we will kill even our co-religionists in the name of God.

But my reason for making this post is not to argue over the ideological history of Europe but to warn against what I perceive as a new and all too compelling line in Tolkien appropriation.

Holland wants to claim Tolkien as a Christian scholar who understood and embraced the ideals of the the First Reich, a point he makes by drawing a parallel between Aragorn, who relieves a besieged Minas Tirith carrying the sword Andúril, Flame of the West, and Otto the Great, the king who rode to the relief of Augsburg carrying the Holy Lance that had pierced the side of Christ.

On one level this is interesting because I don’t doubt that some elements of this early medieval Christian ideal of kingship as embodied in Otto were consciously projected onto Aragorn by Tolkien.

But in general this seems to me yet another case of someone using Tolkien’s fantasy for their own ends. A more interesting case than usual because Holland knows a lot about early medieval Germany, and also – and more importantly – because we are no doubt seeing here the birth of a new wave of Tolkien appropriation.

A generation ago the great threat from the East, against which the ‘free peoples of the West’ had to band together, was the Soviet Union.

And to the generations before that – the generations to which Tolkien and his children belonged – the evil East was Germany herself.

These different identifications surely seemed self-evident to everyone at the time – how could the ‘evil East’ be anything else?

Today, with Holland, the East has become Islam. ‘All the East is moving’ is the title of his article, a quote from Denethor intended here to invoke the influx into Europe of Syrian refugees (Holland has to turn some cartwheels to push all this home because, as he tells us, Otto delivered Augsburg from Hungarians and not from Muslims).

I’m guessing that Holland’s essay is the start of a new wave and that it will not be long before it becomes a commonplace that Mordor is Iran, or Saudi Arabia. Now, I’m not trying to tell you what you should think of Islam, or Christianity for that matter. But I do want to warn against the mistake of believing that any of these identifications of Tolkien’s ‘nameless East’ and whatever happens to be the (real or supposed) geopolitical or ideological enemy of the day have anything to do with Tolkien’s stories of Middle-earth.

Tolkien’s undiscovered previously discovered laundry list with new annotations

A laundry list “from the darker side of JRR Tolkien’s washing basket,” which hints at an early version of the orc clothing that Sam and Frodo wore on the last stage of their journey in The Lord of the Rings, is due to be published for the first time in more than 70 days this November.

The Professor, possibly describing a sock he once washed.

The Professor, possibly describing a sock he once washed.

Tolkien’s laundry list, which is of no interest to anyone in their right mind, is a lengthy list of laundry items, possibly written in a novel form of alliterative verse in which each word is given its own distinct line on the page. It has previously been published in 29 different editions but has been out of print for the last week.

HarpyCollumnns, which will publish the laundry list along with Tolkien’s other writings about his collection of Cardigans on 3 November, called it “an important non Middle-earth work to set alongside his various shopping lists.”

But the laundry list has generated controversy among scholars, some of whom claim that it was in fact written by Tolkien’s wife, Edith. The consensus among Tolkieniests, however, is that, contrary to first, second, and third impressions, Tolkien wrote marvellous female characters and therefore must have written the laundry list.

The eagerly anticipated new volume includes a 55 page introduction and 324 pages of annotated commentary. The original laundry list is half a page.

A spokesperson for HarpyCollumnns said: “Tolkien fought in the Great War and this is another reason to buy a hardback collector’s edition of our new publication.”

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Scholarship as a Vocation

The modern university in 1917

The ‘modern university,’ as Keith Tribe has pointed out, arose by way of a misapprehension. In the 1870s and 1880s many American students attended university in Germany:

Returning graduate students brought back to the United States the ideal of the ‘modern research university’, an institution driven by academic research, its goals set by the senior professoriate, and combining the advancement of knowledge with its diffusion by teaching. Johns Hopkins was explicitly founded upon this model; Chicago later followed suit.

Many internationally recognized professors were employed in the nineteenth-century German universities. Nevertheless, these institutions were not prototypes of Johns Hopkins and Chicago, but state institutes essentially concerned with the vocational training of students. Max Weber in 1917, delivering the lecture now known as ‘Science as a Vocation,’ was clear that German universities needed to ‘develop in the direction of the American system.’

Weber’s 1917 talk has long been regarded as a classic statement of the nature of ‘intellectualization’ in the modern world. Intellectual production is equated by Weber with ‘science’ (Wissenschaft), by which he means all that we might separate into the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. Science, he insists, cannot reveal ultimate values, but it does dispel traditional faith in ‘mysterious incalculable forces,’ thereby disenchanting the world. Modern science, he argues, can only be carried out within the modern university.

Science today is a ‘vocation’ organized in special disciplines in the service of self-clarification and knowledge of interrelated facts… This, to be sure, is the inescapable condition of our historical situation.

Weber presents modern science as a form of industrial activity, characterized by the division of labour, massive capital investment, and managerial supervision. His fundamental claim is that scientific advance is premised upon specialization.

A really definitive and good accomplishment is today always a specialized accomplishment. And whoever lacks the capacity to put on blinders… may as well stay away from science.

As with all industrial activity, the logic of economic development dictates that specialized work is co-ordinated and supported within the framework of a larger organization. The modern university is a knowledge factory, established by state capital, owning the means of intellectual production, and hiring academic wage labourers who work under the supervision of departmental managers.

Weber acknowledges that career advancement becomes a primary concern within this system, which often rewards mediocrity over merit; but he holds the ‘predominance of mediocrity’ a cost worth paying for intellectual progress.

The postmodern university in 2016

A glance at the state of universities today, nearly a century after Weber’s talk, reveals some shortcomings in his analysis. Universities are beset by a chronic shortage of funds. Changing demographics and the expansion of higher education have accentuated the problem. But it was built into the very idea of an institution that combines teaching and research. Tribe points out:

The creation in the United States just over a century ago of the ‘modern university’ embodying the ideal of the teaching of students by specialized scholars was possible because of the massive fortunes made during the extraordinary period of economic expansion in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, coupled with a desire on the part of the newly rich – Johns Hopkins, Rockefeller, also Brown, Firestone and even Stetson among many others – to plough their wealth into educational foundations.

Such endowments were not available elsewhere, nor was this level of private donation sustainable within America. Consequently, the modern university has everywhere come to rely upon very large amounts of government funding; becoming in effect, as Weber called them in 1917, ‘state capitalist enterprises.’

In a nutshell, the problem faced by universities today is that taxpayers and politicians are not prepared to fund the extremely expensive ideal of education to which they pay lip service.

One major casualty of financial pressure is teaching, always regarded as a sort of secondary bonus component of the modern university. While more and more students have entered the universities, responsibility for teaching them is increasingly farmed out to graduates and adjuncts, leaving tenured faculty free to compete for research grants and prestigious positions. As Jillian Powers points out, 75% of university instruction in North American universities is now performed by contingent faculty.

Yet this freeing up of faculty time to concentrate on research, while generating an explosion of publications, has not fostered any obvious intellectual advance. The root problem here is that, if the modern university is a factory of scientific research, it is a factory that does not produce a marketable product. Political administrators, concerned with securing results for taxpayers’ money, therefore turn to artificial measures of performance that, at least to date, have been deeply corrosive to the culture of research.

Ranking of departments and journals, assessments of research impact, and the linking of career advancement with publication – what do these add up to beyond a recipe for a massive explosion of second-rate research? What is the real value of a hasty project, conceived with an eye on grant applications, and worked through only to the minimum level required for peer-review acceptance and consequent publication? Administrative regulation of the research factory has boosted quantity at the cost of quality.

The situation resulting from the combination of the downgrading of teaching and the administrative regulation of research is well captured by Tribe:

Today’s university teachers necessarily rely upon textbooks in their teaching rather than their own understanding of the discipline, while the formal retention of the ‘research’ culture in the mass university has massively increased the number of books and journals published.

In other words, university researchers are producing more and more publications that nobody reads because students are directed to textbooks while their peers are too busy writing grant applications and working on their next publication.

Artisan scholarship

Lack of marketable product is not the only problem with Weber’s economic vision of the modern university. One may also take serious issue with his conviction that specialization is the warp and woof of intellectual advance. Certainly there is a place for specialization. But, as Weber says, specialization requires blinders, and as I have suggested elsewhere, the disciplinary divisions of the modern university mean that these blinders are rarely if ever removed. And Weber’s idea of a disenchanted world is curiously un-self-reflexive, passing over the inherent mystery that is the self-conscious mind engaged in genuine scholarly inquiry. As Patrick Curry has cogently argued, the experience of enchantment is a characteristic of genuine learning; although the modern university has done wonders in banishing this experience from its lecture halls and examination rooms.

But I want here to single out another weak point in Weber’s vision of the modernization of research, namely his assumption that a single developmental trajectory applies across the board. That the natural sciences require substantial capital investment and consequent management of collectively worked resources seems obvious. But Weber also insists:

This development, I am convinced, will engulf those disciplines in which the craftsman personally owns the tools, essentially the library, as is still the case to a large extent in my own field. This development corresponds entirely to what happened to the artisan of the past and it is now fully under way.

Whether or not this made sense in 1917, it most certainly does not today. Resources such as the Internet Archive allow free access to just about all books and journals published before around 1905. In theory, online databases could supply open access to all later publications as well; that these libraries are closed off by paywalls is an artificial barrier to entry, providing the universities with a temporary and unjustifiable monopoly on research – temporary, because it is increasingly recognized that the move to open access is but a question of time.

The advent of the internet turns a significant portion of academic wage-labourers into potential artisans. And this undermines the basic rationale behind Weber’s conviction that ‘the inescapable condition of our historical situation’ is that intellectual production must be ‘organized in special disciplines’ within the modern university.

Conclusion

Those who are committed to life within the university may find in these reflections some clues for reform. And, clearly, fundamental reform is needed. But those called to the humanities and the social sciences, who understand their vocation in terms of scholarship as opposed to career advancement and status, might do well to consider whether they have any place in the universities at all.

Artisan scholarship requires a financial basis, and independent scholars need to find ways to support their studies. That this is possible has been demonstrated by a number of independent scholars, one of whom has provided the core research on which this post has drawn (Keith Tribe runs his own translation company). A loose organization of independent scholars could, in theory, secure patronage from private corporations, and even make a bid for state funding, as do other arts. But the most exciting way forward at this moment in time is surely to explore the possibilities opened up by crowd-funding initiatives. Such grass-roots support of scholarship would inevitably entail a welcome shift of audience, compelling scholars to address interested laypeople as opposed to a handful of fellow specialists. Those who regard scholarship as their vocation have been let down by the modern university but may find a solution online.

Bibliography

In addition to the sources linked within the text, this post has made ample use of Keith Tribe’s ‘Educational Economies’, published in Economy and Society, 2006, and available on Keith’s academia.edu page, and Max Weber’s ‘Wissenschaft als Beruf’, for which I used the translation by H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, of which several versions can be found online.

Header image: Ekin Arabacioglu, ‘Cogs‘. Creative commons license.

gareth-williams-self-portrait

Some reflections on the modern university

I’ve been studying English intellectual history for nearly three decades, focusing on the years between 1865 and 1925. At the beginning of this period intellectual life in England took place largely outside the universities; by the end of it the modern university had emerged, replete with its professional journals and division of faculties, and has claimed a monopoly over serious scholarship ever since.

And yet a decade ago I resolved to pursue my own research as an independent scholar, without any university affiliation. In this short essay I offer some reflections on how my work has shaped my attitude toward the modern university.

A child of Thatcher, my early research explored the origins of neoclassical economics. Specifically, I looked at the reformation of classical economics at the hands of Alfred Marshall, the founder of modern university economics. Marshall established economics as an independent discipline in Cambridge in 1903, but his intellectual innovations occurred in the early 1870s, when political economy formed part of the ‘moral sciences’ faculty and his university was in the midst of wholesale overhaul.

Oxford and Cambridge are medieval institutions, but the Elizabethan settlement had established them as bastions of the English Reformation. The first part of the nineteenth century saw sustained agitation from religious dissenters to end the Anglican monopoly and ‘nationalize’ the ancient universities. By the 1870s, an alliance of progressive Anglicans and secular reformers had gained a secure foothold within these institutions and non-Anglicans, and also for the first time women students, entered the colleges. At the same time, a number of liberal Oxbridge dons became the vanguard of the ‘extension movement’ that led to the establishment of new colleges and universities throughout the country. The extension movement was the liberal elite’s response to the 1867 franchise extension, in which anxiety about democracy fostered a resolve to educate citizens so they might cast their vote responsibly.

My core discovery was that the reform of Oxbridge and the establishment of new national institutions of higher education was the unstated premise upon which Marshall’s neoclassical economics was built. Classical economics envisages a homogenous labour force paid from past profits. The young Marshall broke the straitjacket of this model by reasoning that an injection of education changed all the relationships: the educated worker was more productive but demanded higher wages, but firms could borrow to cover their higher wage bill. Moving away from a single model, in which two classes of capitalists and workers contest division of a fixed fund, Marshall envisaged a multitude of labour markets in which wages correspond to productivity. Essentially, Marshall was saying that universal higher education would not only train citizens but also usher in a new kind of economy.

In England, then, neoclassical economics was born from the progressive liberal push that established many of our current institutions of higher education. But between Marshall’s 1873 dream of a competitive, classless society, and Tony Blair’s Marshallian election platform 124 years later, something untoward occurred.

In 1873 economics was one of several Cambridge moral sciences, of which philosophy was queen. Marshall subscribed to the Idealist conviction that the human personality is not mechanical and therefore accepted that education cannot be entirely reduced to system. Consequently, he envisaged the university, the foundation of the new economy, as standing in part outside it. But by 1903 Marshall had established economics as an independent discipline. Freed from humanistic constraints, a newly autonomous neoclassical discourse gradually extended itself into all spheres of public policy debate. Today, Frankenstein’s monster has consumed its parent and the result is called the neoliberal university.

Now, the obvious moral of this story is that we have lost today any sure framework of values that can hold the economizing mind at bay. Yet this loss seems built into the modernization of the English universities. Academic specialization is just Adam Smith’s principle of the division of labour applied to institutions of research. But such division is merely fragmentation unless some kind of co-ordination and overall supervision is in place. Hence, university government and administrators. Traditionally, the university has been an independent and self-governing institution, its decision-making body the university senate, composed of the professors of the various disciplines. But self-government requires some consensus on the mission and purpose of the institution as a whole, not simply its various faculties.

In early Victorian Cambridge, the governing supervision was clerical, and theology exercised an invisible yet omniscient check on all academic ventures. In the last decades of the nineteenth century some aspects of this central ideology were taken over by philosophy. But once the various faculties of the humanities and social sciences became autonomous the intellectual center was lost. Vague, undeveloped, and increasingly outdated notions of Max Weber’s vision of science as a vocation held things together for several decades. But when in the 1980s vice-chancellors who knew which way the political wind was blowing began to take control from the university senates, they met no effective internal resistance. Today university self-government has given way to rule by professional administrators, who enforce their own discipline of efficient resource allocation and quality control on a disgruntled academic workforce.

Yet those who today rail against the neoliberal university usually ignore, and perhaps fail to even see, a related yet more profound problem. For if disciplinary autonomy undermined the ideal of scholarship as a vocation, it has also undermined scholarship itself.

Whatever you might feel about neoclassical economics, I think there can be no doubt about Marshall’s intellectual creativity. And what is striking here is that his innovations were carried out in an environment in which political economy was not hermetically isolated from other disciplines. Indeed, my research revealed that his achievement rested upon substantial borrowings from philosophy, psychology, and contemporary historical scholarship. Contrast this ‘multi-disciplinary’ reformation of political economy in the face of a changing social reality with the revelation of imperial nakedness that marked the response of professional economists to the 2009 financial crisis. Since Marshall, neoclassical economics has been thoroughly mathematicised and an array of techniques have been added to the professional economist’s toolbox; but any progress in dealing with real world problems on any level beyond the ideological may be seriously doubted.

Subsequent research has reinforced my suspicions. Back in 2004 I discovered in the archive a long essay that the young Marshall had written on the history of the world. Historians of economics had ignored it because they assumed that an essay on history could have no connection to Marshall’s economic thought. The essay became a vital part of my reconstruction of Marshall’s early economic work; but I also became fascinated with the historical vision it embodied and have since dedicated several years to tracing its origins and subsequent fate.

This investigation has led to the unearthing of an entirely forgotten episode in early twentieth-century English intellectual history. Between around 1910 and 1924, a newly established faculty of Anthropology at Cambridge saw the coming together of field anthropologists (recently returned from the Torres Straits), experimental psychologists, Classical archaeologists and Anglo-Saxonists, who together began to develop a new social theory founded upon the idea that the contact of peoples had been (and remained) the key driving force of human history. This truly ‘inter-disciplinary’ research project floundered with the death in 1922 of one of its key figures, W.H.R. Rivers, and sank into the sand in the wake of Bronisław Malinowski’s success in establishing anthropology as an autonomous discipline.

Whether or not the theories of the Cambridge ‘anthropologists’ were correct is not the point here. What matters is that their passing marked the end of a remarkable period of university life, in which the foundations of the modern research institute were laid but academic specialization had not yet limited researchers to communicating with a handful of fellow-specialists and a captive-audience of students.

What I take from these two episodes of Cambridge history is that a university can be a site of astonishingly creative cross-disciplinary work, but that once disciplinary boundaries have ossified, it usually is not.

Let me jump from the early twentieth century to the present day. As an independent scholar I earn my living as a freelance academic editor. I have a busy period in the autumn when I receive floods of grant applications to edit. A good number of these propose ‘inter-disciplinary’ conferences and longer-term projects on various themes. They always explain how the proposed meeting of minds from different disciplines will enrich our understanding and generate new paradigms, and so on. Then, at other times of the year, I’m occasionally asked to edit a collected volume that has emerged from an earlier such project. And what I am invariably confronted with is a series of chapters by distinguished scholars, each writing from his or her own discipline, with no one essay having any relationship whatsoever with the other essays in the volume.

Within my own admittedly obscure field of intellectual history, disciplinary specialization does not simply stultify, it generates fundamentally flawed scholarship. Both my work on Marshall and my discovery of the ‘contact of peoples’ anthropologists break new ground. Nobody has noticed these things before. But this is less testimony to my research abilities than indictment of the disciplinary histories that inform conventional understandings of the intellectual past. A disciplinary history is the work of a practitioner of a discipline who projects that discipline back into history and so discovers a past populated by modern university professionals avant la lettre. The past might be a foreign country, but to the disciplinary historian in an age of globalization all countries look the same.

On becoming an independent scholar my research and writing improved substantially. After a while I realized that this was because I no longer had ready access to reams of secondary literature via JSTOR and the like and had to focus my attention pretty much exclusively on the primary literature (much of which I could access free through the wonderful Internet Archive. In my own field most of the secondary literature is tripe and reading it harmful to genuine illumination of the past.

I recognize that my research shines a light upon only a very limited world, and that my own experiences as an intellectual historian are narrow in relation to the wider world of research and learning. Nevertheless, it is all too easy to forget that the monopolization of scholarship by the universities is a relatively recent phenomenon. Most of the canonical authors – who were named as such in the early periods of disciplinary formation – worked outside established institutions. And while the likes of Coleridge and J.S. Mill laboured as ‘independent scholars’ avant la lettre, their Oxbridge contemporaries were charged with instilling correct Anglican doctrines in the ‘rising generation’. A good part of the knowledge produced and taught by today’s academics strikes me as no less safe, vapid, and moribund as that disseminated by their counterparts a century and a half ago.

 

Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before 
    Administration.

‘Under Which Lyre’, W.H. Auden. 1946.

 

Bibliography

You can read most of the research on which I draw on my academia.edu page. The research on Marshall is set out in my 2009 book, but some of the relevant arguments are summarized in the second part of my essay on ‘Culture and Political Economy’. For a sustained polemic on modern disciplinary histories see my ‘The Tragedy of Cambridge Anthropology’.

For detailed accounts of the emergence of the neoliberal university in Britain from the 1980s on see Keith Tribe’s ‘Educational Economies’ (2006) and his working paper ‘The “Form” of “Reform”: The Postwar University in Britain, 1945-1992’, both available on Keith’s academia.edu page.

These reflections as a whole were inspired by my reading of an early draft of Gregory C. G. Moore’s forthcoming Rounded Globe eBook, Leslie Stephen and the Clubbable Men of Radical London.

 

Simon J. Cook

CC BY-SA. 4.0 license: you are free to share and adapt this text for any purpose.