On the Overweening Pride of the Professorial Class

In a recent essay in Partisan Magazine, Daniel Brown argues that the decline of the humane disciplines has come about through an envy of the physical sciences and, in particular, the impossible desire to replicate the kind of revolutionary insights that have given those sciences their prestige in the modern age. Brown accounts for this decline etiologically. First came a handful of great scientific discoveries, from Copernicus to Newton to Darwin, each of which genuinely counted as a discovery because it was founded on a falsifiable hypothesis; given time enough, each could be tested and verified by all respectable inquirers.

Then came the fall. Karl Marx’s historical materialism, inspired though it was by the transcendental idealism of Hegel, was articulated as a new science. Of course, Hegel had conceived of his work as a science in important ways as well, but what Brown sees—and I think he is right to see it—is that Marxism, with its sweeping, non-falsifiable ideological claims, sought to appropriate the newly acquired prestige of the sciences for its own ends. Given the roots of Marx’s own thinking in the German tradition, the temptation to do so must have originated in a fairly irresistible logical deduction. Since Kant, the material world that was the subject of modern science was understood to be wholly lawful, that is to say, determined. It was only in the realm of spirit that freedom could exist. Marx asserted that only matter was real. All the apparently free activities of human culture must therefore actually be reducible to a material sub-structure, and so should be subject to scientific study to discern their determinate scientific laws.

Despite Marx’s claims, people continued to act as if free; those determinate laws never emerged, though, of course, some social scientists in our day still await them. But this is off Brown’s point; his interest is close to that of Eric Voegelin’s, when he describes Marxism as the prototype of ideology: an internally coherent, closed philosophical system whose first premises will not bear—or rather, one should say, will not suffer, investigation. As Brown sees, the thrill of reading Marx, and, later, Freud (for some reason, he does not mention Nietzsche), stemmed in part from the appearance of a scientific rigor that gave birth to hitherto unimagined “insights.” The work of these founders of the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” despite their many differences, shared a particular quality of affect: in reading them, the ingenuous reader would often experience a thrill, as if the truth about things that had been hidden from the beginning of the world had at last come to light.

Brown suggests that this sensation gained in credibility because of its association with the modern sciences, but that this association was misplaced. The non-falsifiable discovery was different in kind from those brought about by experimental method, and this key difference made them cheap in two related ways. They were cheap in the sense that they were knock offs of real knowledge gained by experiment, but they were also cheap in that, once one enters into this kind of ideological “hermeneutics of suspicion,” it becomes easy to manufacture new ones. Hence, the “automation of insight.”

I discuss a limited variation of this phenomenon in my new book, The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking, where I propose that a crude simulacrum of philosophical thought provides not a form for study but a mere formula for the production of new “insights” without any actual thinking being done. The result is an impecunious parody of capitalism, where new work—whether of scholarship or art—has to be produced continuously, not as a good for its own sake but as a kind of “receipt” that vouchsafes one as a credentialed intellectual. Brown’s thesis finally rests in the claim that the humanities have been undermined by this obsession with producing insight after insight, new thought after new thought, with each one as “non-falsifiable” as the last, and with each one a more or less fungible repetition of prior “insights” regarding “race, class, and gender.”

This narrative strikes me as broadly convincing, though the etiology seems a bit simplistic and though Brown provides only one—very bemusing—example of contemporary scholarly “insight” in support of his claim. I would offer two reflections, neither of them very original, to develop his claim a bit further and give us a fuller vision of the state of the intellectual life in our day.

The modern university understands itself as a research university, and has increasingly done so since the rise of the German universities in the age of Kant. That this German model of the university has undermined its historical vocation is clear enough to most people, but why this should be is not so clear. I would cite two reasons.

The proper life of the scholar and the teacher is one of drawing together the wisdom of the past, of keeping it alive, of developing it where it can be developed, and of passing it on, from the hands of the old to those of the young, as a tradition and inheritance. It is fundamentally an activity of conservation and cultivation, edging forward while looking backward, so that the wisdom in one’s care will not be lost. Again, as a great inheritance, its content is like a precious treasure that we already love for its accumulated glory and which we wish to pass down intact in a decided act of piety, reverence, and love.

The research of the professor should therefore be dedicated primarily to keeping something alive rather than to adding something new. The new supervenes on its own, left to itself, simply because the loving contemplation of what is good will always be by its nature fruitful. That is just the way with goodness. For my part, I have found I am at my best as a scholar when I seek specifically not to claim anything new at all, but only to explain what is old, what I have received in the common tradition, in terms inevitably distinct, because spoken in a new moment, but always in continuity and indeed intimate contact with what has gone before.

In its first conception, as Kenneth Garcia has neatly shown, the German university bore a certain resemblance to the ancient Academy, and even the medieval university. It emphasized the production of new thought through research—it was a place where brilliant maverick thinkers like Hegel could spin their massive and intricate webs from their innards—but it also, in idealist fashion, emphasized the life of the mind as an organic whole. The university would be a place of universal knowledge, with each of its organs toiling in specialization. I have argued against the desirability of this vision before, and do so again now, but with a difference. I did not see, before, that the German university did not simply prize the division of labor for the sake of advancement, and that its conception of knowledge as a whole was more than notional; what I missed, and what is so important, is that it held up the Philosopher as the mind that comprehended all knowledge, claiming it and organizing it into a unity.

At first blush, this sounds similar to the self-understanding of the medieval and ancient academies, but it is not. The German idealist Philosopher is to bear totality within him. The scholar of the Christian-Platonist tradition, whether in ancient Athens or medieval Paris understood himself not as in possession of knowledge but as standing before it in awe. Truth is one; reality constitutes a coherent whole; and all true education is a progress ever further into the depths of that whole. But, as we see in Plato and St. Augustine, for example, the philosopher is always the one who knows nothing. He knows he knows nothing, only because the truth is not his to possess, but rather is his to love. The true philosopher therefore looks on in perpetual wonder, staring into a truth that transcends us all, that is never to be comprehended, though our heart beats with intensity as we come within the corona of its beauty. The whole truth lies not in the mind, but rather the mind comes to rest in the truth.

As the theologian John Cavadini argued in a lecture at my own university, some years ago, what is peculiar about modern inquiry is not that it is obsessed with a desire for new insight, but for the way it understands the nature of knowledge and the relation of the knower to the known. As my comments have already intimated, the ancient and medieval universities understood the cosmos, the whole of creation, as intrinsically wonderful. It was a cause of wonder, in itself, and also because of its origin as a gratuitous fruit of the generosity and love of God. To study nature was to sing the praises of the supernatural as one strolled down the road toward it. To study what was above nature—to contemplate God—was to enter in awe, wonder, and love, into perfectly intelligible mystery. Study was itself an act of devotion, a loving act where the mind comes to stand in intimate relation with that which is at one and the same time forever beyond it and always and already within it.

It is no secret that to speak of “modern science” is to speak of the physical sciences, even though theology and metaphysics more closely fit the classical definition of science as the perfected study of causes. It is also generally acknowledged that what was distinctive about the modern endeavor in science was that it proceeded by making a mechanistic reduction analogous to the materialist reduction we mentioned above in talking of Marx. If one could conceive of the cosmos as a series of material parts interrelated only by physical motion, then, it seemed, one could describe it all in mechanical terms—as matter and motion and nothing more. Early modern scientists themselves clearly thought that this a priori reduction had made possible their experimental successes. I think they misunderstood not only the necessity of such a reduction but the premises that facilitated their own procedures, but this is not to my point.

If all serious thought begins in wonder, as Aristotle tells us, then where does the cause-of-wonder, that is to say, the wonderful itself, go, when it has been washed away from the form of things by this mechanistic reduction? It does not simply dissolve. As Cavadini contended, it is displaced. Wonder is stripped away from the world itself and relocated in the mind of the genius whose powers of insight alone are responsible for disclosing to us the intricate, hitherto unknown, but totally worthless (in themselves) mechanisms of nature. The world remains an object of scientific study, but the wonder—the awe—accrues to the scientist. A world that had been a great expression of truth and love becomes the mere occasion of the scientist’s claim to genius. The true philosopher gives God the glory; the scientist claims all glory for himself.

This self-glorification, of course, requires that one always be original, and therefore that one always be thinking something new, if one’s great pride is to be vindicated as the ever-new, isolated source of glory in the universe. This does not explain, of course, why most scientists do what they do. What it does explain is the deeper drive, the urge, that leads modern persons more generally to reconceive the intellectual life not as a contemplative rest in the depths of mystery and wonder, but as a march through hostile, unintelligible bush, in order to claim the totem—a magical object or formula that will give us, in our pride, a little more power over the raw stuff of nature.

All this specifies more fully than Brown does the truth of his own great “insight.” He tells us that this perpetual uncovering of the new produces a kind of pleasure. Indeed it does, and though there is the greatest and most enduring of all pleasures to be had in standing in awe before what transcends us, there is an easier, more immediate, cruder, and almost palpable, kind of pleasure to be had in claiming that one has taken hold of some new fact in nature for the first time and staked one’s claim to it. This, as Aristotle said, is the base kind of pleasure found in common among uncivilized people and cows out chewing the cud.

It further explains why so much modern scholarship in the humanities is so drearily and unimaginatively tied to the political—to “race, class, and gender,” as Brown neatly sums up the petty pelf of contemporary identity politics. It no longer sees theoria as authentic; real scholarship is “intellectual work,” an undertaking of thought that is ultimately for the sake of praxis, the taking control of and changing of the world. This leaves us conceiving of the scholar as a figure of pride, basking in his own glory—but it is a glory that, like a leaky jug, must be perpetually refilled with something new. And it leaves us conceiving of the cosmos, of nature, as something totally indifferent in itself; it only becomes good when the glorious genius comes to work upon it and tries to make it something other than it was. In a word, the contemporary scholar must perpetually seek out new insights, because he lacks the imagination and love necessary to trust that all good things come to us as a gift or they will not come at all. What a great insight it would be if the academy, and all of us, could forget such modern anxieties and relearn that grace cannot be automated.

Editor’s note: The image above is a fresco by Philipp Veit (1793 – 1877) depicting Dante and Beatrice, in the spheres of the sun, speaking to the following teachers of wisdom: Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Peter Lombard, and Sigier of Brabant (Canto 10 of Dante’s Paradiso).

James Matthew Wilson


James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. He is the author of a chapbook of poems, Four Verse Letters (Steubenville, 2010) and of Timothy Steele: A Critical Introduction (Story Line, 2012), and a collection of poems entitled The Violent and the Fallen (Finishing Line Press). His latest book is titled The Fortunes of Poetry in An Age of Unmaking (Wiseblood Books, 2015). Readers can learn more about his writing at jamesmatthewwilson.com