Saturday, January 02, 2021

Stephen P. Turner "Beyond the Academic Ethic"

It is important to understand how the university and academia related to intellectual life at large. Universities were places where people were learned, and went through various tests to show they were learned. A dissertation in the sixteenth century was a recapitulation of the professor’s notes—the real test was the viva, in which the candidate demonstrated an ability to defend these views on his feet. In Britain, college fellowships were awarded based on exams, not production—and production was largely optional and in many cases non-existent, well into the postwar era. At the same time, there was a lively non-academic world of learning, and also of production—indeed, this is where the ideas normally emerged. This dual world was somewhat permeable until what William James called “the Ph.D. octopus” (1903) strangled the university—as evidenced by the career of James himself. But until the academic revolution, which occurred over a long period, led by the “research universities,” the qualifications of a professor were learning, not production. And one can see this even in the institutions of the German university, where the Habilitationsschrift must be in a different specialty than the Ph.D. dissertation, and where there was originally no expectation that professors produce beyond this demonstration of learning.  

This system began to break down in the nineteenth century with the emergence of chemistry as a valuable form of knowledge not directly linked to a profession. The transformative figure is the chemist Justus Leibig, whose chemical discoveries launched an international business in agricultural products, attracted students from all over the world, and made him into a business magnate as well as a professor with a large and lively laboratory. This was knowledge that was valuable for a market other than the professions, and although its value was in a sense indirect as well, the users applied the knowledge and used the products themselves. The process of discovery could be tailored to the needs of the agricultural market. A new model was born. Liebig was not obliged to produce “impact” or monetize his research, but he did. Chemistry research itself became valuable, and science generally became valuable, whether or not there were practical applications. It was enough that sometimes something came out of it, or that training in science benefitted someone. Soon enough it did, with applications of chemical knowledge to medical issues.

It was not until the late nineteenth century that a new model emerged based on the granting of Ph.D.s and the creation of the modern set of disciplines. In the United States the origins of the modern category of research universities dates from 1915. The list has barely changed since then. But these universities were still primarily teaching institutions, with heavy teaching loads, and a scattering of productive “research” faculty most of whose “research” consisted of cataloging existing knowledge in textbooks. Pressure to publish was very limited.  The choice to write was largely voluntary. Peer review was not burdensome. Book publishing outside of the textbook market was difficult, usually subsidized, and relatively rare, and there were few journals. Decisions to publish were typically made by editors, without advice. These were the conditions under which the following was true:

In the traditional university, professors were “unaccountable.” The university was a sacred space where they were at liberty to pursue with students and colleagues their fields of inquiry without coercion or interference. This doesn’t mean they were free without qualification, of course. Professors were deeply accountable, but in a sense that went far beyond the reach, ambition, and perhaps even the interests of the administrative caste — they were accountable to discover and then to tell the truth, and to encourage their students to do the same. (Srigley, 2018, n.p.)

This passage was taken from one of the many responses to the new regime of administrative control of the university through metrics and “goals.” It reiterates ideas that Shils also expresses. And it is a source of confusion, because much of the same language is used ideologically to describe the more recent past, the period after the academic revolution. This period was not free of coercion, but the coercion took a particular form.  


What changed? In a word, professionalization. The description on the back of Jencks’ and Riesman’s book describes its message as follows: 

academic professionalism is an advance over amateur gentility, but they warn of its dangers and limitations: the elitism and arrogance implicit in meritocracy, the myopia that derives from a strictly academic view of human experience and understanding, the complacency that comes from making technical competence an end rather than a means. 

Philosophers went from modestly saying, accurately, that they “taught philosophy” to saying they were “philosophers” or even “professional philosophers” to distinguish them from other things that go by the name of philosophy. In sociology, the name of the American Sociological Society was changed to the acronymically less anatomical American Sociological Association to reflect the new status of “profession.” Political sciences became “scientific,” with the behavioralist revolution, whose leaders are now mercifully forgotten. The term “scholar” was consistent with knowing and expounding, and with the value of learning as an end in itself: the term “profession” implied not merely “professing” but possessing a specific set of skills and body of knowledge that was in some sense exclusive—unlike the mere learning of the amateur. 

 Jencks and Riesman 

the complacency that comes from making technical competence an end rather than a means.

The Middle Ages accepted and developed rather than studied and restored the heritage of the past. They copied classical works of art and used Aristotle and Ovid much as they copied and used the works of contemporaries. They made no attempt to interpret them from an archaeological, philological or "critical" in short, from an historical, point of view. For, if human existence could be thought of as a means rather than an end, how much less could the records of human activity be considered as values in themselves. 

all obvious, but always good to add sources. 

Also Turner,

Brains/Practices/Relativism presents the first major rethinking of social theory in light of cognitive science. Stephen P. Turner focuses especially on connectionism, which views learning as a process of adaptation to input that, in turn, leads to patterns of response distinct to each individual. This means that there is no common "server" from which people download shared frameworks that enable them to cooperate or communicate. Therefore, argues Turner, "practices"—in the sense that the term is widely used in the social sciences and humanities—is a myth, and so are the "cultures" that are central to anthropological and sociological thought.

He's a Weber scholar and a fan of Donald Davidson. Cultures are a myth, so it's irrational to argue that Warhol's art, or Pollock's, or Hawthorn's are American, beyond the basic fact of geography.

His writing confuses me. He claims to be a naturalist critical of normativism, but Weber is the model for the normative structure of the academic ethic. If there's no culture then there's no German idea of freedom. But of course there is. Turner is committed to individualism so to reading Weber as an individual, for "his ideas". Rationalists rationalize.

A naturalist theory of law that doesn't expand to a naturalist theory of institutions is pointless.  Somewhere I read a description of Cassirer as working from a naturalized Judaism as Santayana worked from Catholicism. But there's no way it could be otherwise. After all, there's no such thing as an ex-Catholic.

I suppose the best way to put it is to say the only options are neo-Kantianism or hard determinism, or as a determinist to say that determinism made me a Kantian, a naturalist to the point of  "that self-evident religio without which there is no desire for knowledge, not even the desire for atheism."

Turner, "The Continued Relevance of Weber's Philosophy of Social Science"

For Weber, sociology itself is not a subject matter grounded in the nature of the universe but is rather grounded in the choices that we make to define the subject. His definition of sociology, as the study of meaningful social action, has no special status as a definition. It is not further grounded in an a priori, philosophically groundable ontology or epistemology which selects it as the only  possible definition—something that many of his critics, as Schutz found to be a failing. Like the conceptual categories that Weber deployed, its only claim on us the claim of utility, and utility is utility in reference to culturally generated and fundamentally ordinary kinds of purposes of understanding, such as the purpose of understanding the historical causes of present day capitalism, rather than universal epistemic goals, such as the final truth about the nature of society.  

This is an important move in relation to the second kind of criticism because it temporalizes, historicizes, and makes culturally relative all of the problematic philosophical distinctions, including the distinction between reasons and causes, which have been the subject of aprioristic philosophizing during the twentieth century. The significance of doing this is that it undermines any sort of absolutization of particular concepts, which constitute the given on which this strategy depends. The notion of the self, for example, becomes available to us as a theoretical or conceptual term which we can use to define problems, but our use of it always comes with the implicit qualification that the term may be historically rooted in the language of life of a very specific historical community, namely ours, and that its applicability elsewhere cannot be taken for granted, and indeed that the applicability and historical origins and development of such concepts becomes fair game for sociological analysis itself. Thus the modern notion of the self is, as Weber implicitly treated it, the product of a particular theodicy that is part of the theology of reformation Protestantism, without which there would not be the concept of 'the self' in its present form. 

However, this strategy of historicization, applied reflexively, raises a question about Weber that was pointed out repeatedly by his critics in the twenties. Is Weber’s own conception of social science transhistorical, and if so, how can the idea of a transhistorical conception of social science be understood within the framework of his purpose-relative conception of social science in which fundamental conceptual schemes and categories are understood to be historical? His admirers, notably Karl Jaspers, argued that his conception of social science was itself purpose-relative, an instrument or a probe, which was itself subject to revision and which made no claim to finality or absoluteness.

Understanding the arguments in this way brings Weber very close to the Heideggerian notion of every form of knowledge being a form of concealment, because Weber himself suggested that the content of social science changed as ’the light of the great cultural concerns moves on’ (1949:112). And this perfectly reasonable reconstruction of Weber places it in the general framework of Continental philosophy. Weber himself, I would suggest, would not have argued in quite this way, and his strategy in relation to the causal character of historical sciences provides a model that is useful for understanding how he might have responded differently to these issues....

On Davidson, shared, and not 

What is not shared is the way they characterized the difference between action explanations and nomic explanations. For Davidson, ’the concepts we use to explain and describe thought, speech, and action, are irreducibly normative’ (1999: 460). Weber of course held the same View under the heading of ’value-relatedness’. For Weber ’values’ already enter into the descriptions one makes in the language of life8 Moreover, Weber thought of ordinary language as the expression of a valuative world outlook, and thus distinctive to the epoch. Thus they agree on the normativity of descriptions of intentional action, but disagree on the reasons for it. Davidson, in ’The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’, dismissed the idea of distinct conceptual schemes on which Weber appears to rely, and indeed he might have listed Weber, along with Kuhn, as an example of the kind of thinker who, like Kuhn, ’is brilliant at saying what things were like before the revolution using— what else — our post-revolutionary idiom’ (1984 [1974]: 184). Against this Davidson argued that we could not understand another culture if we do not assume that many of the beliefs of the speakers in another culture are true and like our own, without which we would have no basis for translating and interpreting their beliefs, or even understanding them as beliefs and actions. This would seem to rule out genuinely distinctive Weltanschauungen based on different normativities or values, and indeed, Davidson, in a discussion of the problem of the objectivity of values, embraced the objectivity of values. 
But here the differences are not so great as they initially appear. Weber used the term Weltanschauung, but he also emphasized that it is an abstraction, an ideal-type construction of a more complex set of individual beliefs and ideas. And although I have loosely used the term ’culture’ here to characterize his views, he did nothing to ontologize any of these collective mental concepts, or make them into fixed units, such as paradigms. He did not suppose that the thoughts (including the typifications and schemes of significance) of other people in other eras are always accessible to us, but did take the view that to the extent that they are, they must be accessible through our typifications, though of course these typifications may be refined and abstracted to be made more useful for the purpose of making sense of these other eras. For Weber we are condemned to the scheme of significance of our present, but we can extend it through abstraction.

And this is how he resolves it.

...For Weber, ’logic’, which might be taken by him to include calculation and decision-theory, was non-valuative, in contrast to the domain of described facts of the historical sciences, in which a ’valuative’ element entered. What is valuative is, for Weber, what is ours: logic is everyone’s.
Turner's one of the few academics recently who's read any of the manuscript and replied to questions. He told me to try Routledge again. I don't think he read very far, but since I begin with an attack on Weber, that was polite. But I've still been lazy with Weber. My points stand. I cut to the chase. The fact/value distinction is bullshit, but formalisms are not concerned with facts. The problems begin with their application to the world: Evening Star/Morning Star-Palestine/Israel.
repeats of repeats, but this link is as good as any.

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