Jan Narveson responds to Mark Mercer

April 2015

Mark Mercer distinguishes two possible rationales for academic freedom: (a) the presumably standard view that it is necessary for and conducive to the discovery of truth and dissemination of knowledge; and (2) the promotion of the enjoyment of intellectual autonomy by individuals in the university community. Mark argues that the former is really subordinate to the latter.

I want to express some doubts about this, and some thoughts on the general issue. My first observation relates to Mark's suggestion that on the second view, academic freedom nevertheless does also promote the pursuit of knowledge. And I want to point out that this is perhaps not necessarily true. 'Perhaps' in the context of 'necessarily' is, to be sure, a weasel word. So I'll say, 'arguably.' Here is the problem. Mark does not say whether he thinks that someone seeking his own intellectual autonomy might also be thereby motivated to be againstknowledge. Consider the case of the contemporary self-described jihadi who is against western values across the board, including education (especially for women). But that's indicative. Women are (obviously) capable of sharing in intellectual activities, pursuing knowledge etc. If jihadis oppose this in their case, they obviously imply thereby that knowledge as suchis not to be promoted; and they claim (think?) that their own opposition is rooted "authentically" in their own intellects, i.e. claim to be autonomous.

Now, as said, it is arguable that intellectual autonomy need not direct its possessor toward the acquisition of knowledge. Can it direct him to shun it entirely? That is a bit puzzling. Consider someone who is "into" "transcendental meditation" which (so I'm told) aims to cleanse the soul of all intellectual activity. Or is TM itself to be considered an "intellectual activity"? To be sure, TM enthusiasts usually practice it for limited times per day, and perhaps some of them do so because they think it makes the soul more receptive to the pursuit of knowledge afterward. So I want my example to be more extreme - to be devoted to TM as many hours per day as feasible. Does this TM-er thereby show that he has made a judgment(i.e., an intellectual, articulated, decision) that all (other?) intellectual activities are to be avoided? And if so, is this compatible with what Mark means by autonomy? It seems to me it would be hard for him to say No.

And if so, I have to agree with several commentators who hold that universities can hardly be understood to have as their purpose the promotion and support of the sort of intellectual autonomy that could lead to such conclusions. Stephen Pinker is right, I think, to hold that universities are not in general concerned with the building of souls, as such, but only with the intellectual part of the soul.

Now, do they do the latter as public goods? That is to say, is the promotion of knowledge to be regarded as, as such, what universities are here to promote? At this point, I think we need to attend to the distinction between private universities (which most Canadian provinces, in their infinite wisdom, have made illegal!) and state universities. The reason for attending to this distinction is that it is surely obvious that privateuniversities could have the promotion of knowledge as their fundamental purpose. But stateuniversities cannot. State universities characteristically are interested in degrees, research that leads to jobs and, especially, to the reelection of the politicians who support it. But knowledge? Hah! Politics doesn't give a fig about knowledge for its own sake. That is for us pointy-headed intellectual types. Knowledge because it promotes (other) ends better than ignorance (at least, mostly it does), yes. Knowledge is useful, and it's power, as has often been advocated. But that's different from knowledge for its own sake. Pursuing the latter would motivate a complaint by the unintellectual that their money is being involuntarily wrested from them to support a cause they don't share. (We don't at this point want to get into the issue of whether any public taxation scheme for any purposes can pass muster. I will take it to be plausible, anyway, to aim at general prosperity, which some (perhaps misguided) persons think can be promoted by adroit imposition of taxes for the purpose. The point is, though, aiming at, say, increased knowledge of metaphysics, or Renaissance art history, are pretty obviously not ends shared by all.

But certainly intellectuals can beand, I would argue, in the nature of the case are, as Aristotle insists, devoted to knowledge because it is an intrinsic end of the rational part of the soul. That is to say: someone claiming to be devoted to the life of intellect as such thereby claims to care whether p is true or not.

Mind you, hardly any of us are interested in everything.There is an infinity of propositions out there that I simply don't care about. (I read a good deal of the news in three newspapers every morning, but I skip over acres of print that are about things that don't interest me. But many things do interest me for their own sakes, and getting at the truth about them matters to me, as it does to anyone devoted, insofar as he is, to things intellectual. And because this is possible, and indeed frequent, it isperfect possible for private - but not public in the sense of governmentally supported - institutions to be devoted to it for its own sake. Just as it is also possible for them to be devoted to it for other reasons, as for example religious institutions, who want to promote knowledge so long as it's compatible with the religion in question.

One further point. The point was made, by Mark and I think others, that devotion to knowledge could itself lead to curtailment of freedom of speech. An obvious example: we have a class in subject X, and a student insists on standing up and talking about subject Y, despite having no relevance to X. It is quite compatible with the pursuit of knowledge to rule him out of court, and if he persists, to have him ejected for disorderly conduct. It's disorderly intellectualconduct. One could plausibly argue that that student's behavior interferes with rather than promotes the pursuit of knowledge.

But Mark fails to appreciate that intellectual autonomy for all is also incompatible with its unlimited protection by all. For obviously some self-described intellectually autonomous persons will call for the elimination of some who fail to share their own autonomously arrived at conclusion. This is actually inherent in any claim that some activity or state is to be pursued for all. Automatically, that rules out manifestations of the autonomous (etc.) goal in question on the part of those who insist on its denial for others. (It's the same gimmick as Kant's famous Categorical Imperative depends on. "Can" we will x for all? If we do, then we thereby are committed not to permit x in the case where the individuals or groups pursuing x won't allow it for others.) We sometimes must fight fire with fire, and pursue peace by making war (namely on those who in turn make (aggressive) war on the peaceful).