Thursday, March 31, 2011

Abstraction and Sacred Values (The Preamble)

This is the first of two posts on abstraction and sacred values (as they pertain to political theory/philosophy). This first, shorter, post is actually just the Preamble (titled "Well-Ordered Intellectualism"), which sets the stage for the post to follow. That second post, which will engage directly with the topics of abstraction, sacred values and political theory, will follow (I hope) in a few weeks time.

Preamble: Well-Ordered Intellectualism

Perhaps one of the most difficult things for an academic to do (given the nature of academia) is to step back from the project(s) they are deeply engrossed in and look at things from a new, more critical, perspective. Adopting this critical perspective can help us make explicit (and then critically assess) the basic assumptions of our disciplines.

While this can be a challenging exercise, it is also a very important one. Indeed, I believe it is one of the most important intellectual activities we can engage in. With a near infinite list of questions we could spend our limited time pondering we must be cognisant of the reality that there is a high probability that the basic questions underpinning our projects might be the *wrong* questions to make the basic questions to invest most time and energy pondering.

Determining which questions are the right questions to ask, and thus the correct questions to spend the lion share of our time and energy trying to answer, of course requires us to have a sense of what constitutes what we might call "well-ordered intellectualism". Well-ordered intellectualism instructs us to grapple with the reality that we must prioritize some intellectual questions and interests over others. As such it brings to the fore the neglected but most basic question- why ask any questions? (and why try to answer them?)

To begin to develop an account of well-ordered intellectualism I think it is useful to start by noting that we ponder questions for two general kinds of reasons.

Firstly, we engage in this intellectual exercise for the intrinsic value of doing so. As intellectual animals, humans are curious about the world around them and trying to understand that world can be an enjoyable act (helping to provide some meaning to our lives). Secondly, we ponder different kinds of questions because doing so has instrumental value. Knowledge helps develop our minds, our cultures, our economies, etc. I believe knowledge is the greatest progressive force in human history. [In my next post, which addresses abstraction and sacred values in political theory, the connection between the intrinsic and what I call "developmental" benefits of political theory will be explored]

People who choose a career in academia are obviously attracted to their specific discipline, at least to some extent, by its inherent attraction to their intellect. One could not sustain a research profile, or spend their adult life teaching a discipline like politics, philosophy, history or English, if one did not find (at least some) pleasure in thinking about these subject matters. As a political theorist I find it intrinsically valuable to ponder questions like "what is justice?", and "what constitutes the good life?".

In addition to the intrinsic rewards of doing political theory, I also believe the discipline can confer important instrumental benefits. Now I prefer to call these benefits developmental (rather than instrumental) benefits. And the central developmental benefit of pondering the questions of political theory/philosophy is phronesis (practical wisdom). Pondering the fundamental questions of the discipline can help promote the skill-set needed to live a flourishing life.

Keeping these two kinds of benefits in mind, the intrinsic and developmental value of intellectual activity, we can begin to work towards developing an account of "well-ordered intellectualism".

Many academics in the humanities and social sciences feel threatened when questions about the instrumental (or societal) value of their discipline are raised. When compared to disciplines like medicine or engineering, it is obvious that the case to be made for supporting disciplines like philosophy, history or political science will require more than simple insights like "we need strong bridges and fast computers" or "we need to find a cure for cancer or alzheimer's disease". But a very strong case for supporting these disciplines can be made. However, given the current economic climate (when depts and programs are being cut or face threats of cuts) and the reality that the most common "developmental" benefit invoked in higher education tends to be job prospects I can understand why many object to having a debate about the benefits of their discipline that is framed in terms of only its instrumental benefits. But Nussbaum's Not for Profit provides an excellent response to this concern.

Democracy needs citizens that are critical thinkers, and not just workers. Furthermore, most jobs also require these very same skills (e.g. ability to do some research, effective oral and written communication, adaptability of intellect etc.). So scholars in the humanities cannot, and should not, shy away from the question- what societal benefit do these intellectual activities confer? Some academics respond to such a question with outright hostility, as if it is inappropriate for tax payers to even wonder, let alone ask, what the benefit of some academic subjects are. But I believe academics have a duty to make a compelling case for the importance of their teaching and research given they are funded by the public.

Well-ordered intellectualism combines a healthy mix of concern for the intrinsic as well developmental benefits of intellectual activity. Academics are teachers, as well as scholars. Roughly 99%+ of the students we teach go on to have careers outside of academia. And 100% of them have lives to live. And thus we need to seriously reflect upon the skill-set we seek to develop through our scholarship and teaching.

This brief discussion of well-ordered intellectualism, while incomplete and provisional, sets the stage for a longer post on abstraction and sacred values in political theory. In that post I will address the intrinsic and developmental value of political theory. I hope to have this post up in the next few weeks (though end of term is pretty hectic, so it might not be up until May).