The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Carlyle and Foucault?

So, how does Thomas Carlyle map onto contemporary critical theory? Not an easy question, but one abstract of an essay attempting to explore this came to my attention this week.

This paper argues in favour of the beneficial currency of Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History in three ways, each of which finds the basis of its critique in aspects of Foucault’s theories of discursive practice, as explored in Foucault’s theories of historical discourse; 1) that Carlyle’s terminology connects with his discursive practice in an ambiguous manner, as his concept of worship is more akin to study than devotion, if we take the text of his lectures as evidence of his perception; 2) the sources of enlightenment Carlyle offers us, based on these studies of heroic individuals, may provide an exemplar for interdisciplinary scholarship centred around biographies of notable individuals, and finally; 3) we challenge the notion that heroes such as those Carlyle offers us can be manifest in the present and argue that the depth of insight Carlyle demonstrates into his subjects is only possible by means of a lengthy temporal transition: the historicity of these narratives, and the narratives of social codification, cultural development and long-term impact witnessed and described over generations, is what makes them feasible at all.

Louise Campbell, “The Archaeology of Heroes: Carlyle, Foucault and the Pedagogy of Interdisciplinary Narrative DiscourseJournal of Philosophy of Education (2017) Wiley Online Library

Three interesting points here. Point 1 I am, on first glance, somewhat sceptical of, for, though there is obviously an element of the scholarly to Carlyle’s work, his rapturous and forceful tone mean reading him is very different to reading a standard “study”. The Victorians called him a “sage” and this does get across the intensity of his work better than the notion of “study”. There is an ambiguity there about Carlyle’s relation to worship, but I don’t think it’s resolved by seeing his work as a “study” or him as simply a scholar.

Point 2 is promising, looking to Carlyle as an early interdisciplinarian, and trying, it seems, essentially to rehabilitate the “Great Man” approach to history and humanities. Of course it will be under a different name, and it will cast a wider net to find its subjects, in terms of gender, geography, class, etc., but we could learn certain things from the “Great Man” writers like Carlyle. In a sense this is being done by the nascent discipline of Heroism Science, but Carlyle wasn’t a scientist. He was closer to a humanist in his sense of the importance and power of the individual, and his interest in the psychological make-up and state of his heroes. This broad humanism may also be worth recovering.

Point 3 is difficult. As I understand it, it says we can acknowledge and study heroes, but they must be in the past. This is a fairly unorthodox point to which it is different to respond here. On a political level, at any rate, it seems sensible. Elevating a dead person to godhead seems less dangerous than elevating a live one. Yet, even here, is it not our worship of dead or non-existent persons/entities that gets us into most trouble? We find it hard to unequivocally worship the living being, but the non-corporeal symbol, less so. This, indeed, was a central point in Sartor Resartus, according to the reading of it in the Dark Knight Rises Chapter of my thesis. The difficulties of thinking about worship and heroes, and their place in human history is apparent, but their importance remains, so one must welcome the debate this paper should engender, if the interesting abstract is anything to go by.

My position remains roughly that we need to encounter Carlyle in his exemplary otherness. Progressive thought in our societies has almost lost the ability to engage with the other side. We can find in Carlyle plenty of hooks that will provoke our engagement: his anger at shams and dishonesty, his dismay at the mechanization of thought and society, his proto-anti-consumerism. We can use them to understand better the roots of much contemporary anti-liberal thought, and learn to see that it does not wholly spring from simply base or stupid motives. Now is not a time for agreeing amongst ourselves, now is a time for (as Žižek recommended) defending lost causes to ourselves, so we can come up with a common solution.

A.J. Ayer in the Post-Truth Era

The fact that we are now living in the era of “post-truth” does not signify that truth no longer matters. As far as progressive political debate is concerned, in fact, it signifies the opposite: that now truth is once again a key term of discussion, a term worthy of extended theoretical reflection. As Andrew Calcutt has described, truth went out the window not with the election of Trump but with the coming to prominence of post-modern thought through the 70s and 80s. Indeed, it is the political climate which produced Trump (etc.) which has forced academics and political theorists to rehabilitate truth, and to begin to imagine again a regime of truth, to which post-truth is opposed.

So, as with any new movement in thought, that revolving around the theorization of post-truth (and, by implication, truth) will need to find its ancestors. Here, perhaps, the logical positivism of A.J. Ayer’s Logic, Truth and Language (Dover, 1952 [1936]) can come in. A masterpiece of clarity, concision and strict factiness, this is a book which will force readers to adopt a narrow and workable definition of truth. It is a book which impressed me greatly on first reading, although I haven’t yet used it in my scholarly writing.

Ayer wished to eliminate all metaphysics from philosophy – or, if not eliminate it, to at least make it clear that metaphysics was not verifiable and was “nonsense” in his sense of that word. Propositions, Ayer argues, are either sense or nonsense; if the former, they are either true or false; if the latter, they are neither true nor false, and one really needs to think long and hard about why one is engaging in arguments using these propositions, and what is the goal of such argumentation.

Essentially, everything is empirical. If we can’t come up with material, sense-based evidence of a proposition, then we must be speaking either tautology or nonsense. Of course, propositions may be a mixture of verifiable empirical substance and nonsense, but in this case the essential intellectual task at hand is to separate these out.

Ayer’s philosophy seems rather anti-philosophical in its refusal to countenance metaphysics. He specifies that the task of philosophy is “wholly critical” (48), it is a work of “clarification and analysis” (49). The philosopher “devotes himself to the purely analytical tasks of defining knowledge, and classifying propositions, and displaying the nature of material things” (52). Ayer goes on to specify the philosopher’s role further:

[T]he philosopher, as an analyst, is not concerned with the physical properties of things. He is concerned only with the way in which we speak about them (57).

This is striking: it seems to equate with philosophy with what we think of discourse analysis, and discourse analysis is very much the province of broadly post-modern thinkers, e.g. Foucault. In this sense, Ayer’s logical positivism is very much compatible with post-modern thought.

But there is a key difference. Ayer recognizes the simple truth and falsity of wholly empirical propositions. He wouldn’t elide the difference between true and false statements by pointing out that “everything is discourse“. Rather, every proposition should be parsed for what empirical truth or falsity it contains, and only after this elementary step has been taken can we begin to take into account the emotional significance of a statement.

In reality, things get very complicated in the political arena, and each sides produces different data sets (empirical proofs) to back up their assertions. But while Ayer’s scheme is too abstractly simple to be a comprehensive guide to truth, it at least allows us to recognize simple truths when we see them, and that is something that is needed, and it also provides a model of frank and striaghforward prose. Perhaps, then, in the search to rediscover truth, Logic, Truth and Language is a book we should familiarize ourselves with.

Agatha’s Christie’s The Body in the Library (1942): Revenge on Boisterous Youth

The purest essence of genre fiction is found, perhaps, in the detective novels of Agatha Christie. Many admire her works, but few consider them to be literature. In “The Typology of Detective Fiction“, Tzvetan Todorov makes the distinction that great literature is that which transgresses the norms of a genre, an thus creates its own genre. Christie’s novels are the archetypal “whodunits” for Todorov, not concerned with transgressing norms, but with bringing them to a “geometrical perfection”. On one hand, this is an admirable quality, but on the other it is easy to see how such a technical perfection might be considered inferior to a more humanistic literature, as a triumph of the mechanical intellect over the dynamical (as Carlyle would say). Christie is therefore a perfect plotting machine, but not a great writer.

Image result for the body in the library

So, on opening The Body in the Library (1942) recently, this distinction was one I had in mind. In mind, also, was how Christie would stand up after so many years. In my early teenage years, I had read her books voraciously, transfixed by her ingenuity, methodical plotting, and clear, unobstructed style. But I had long ago moved on to other things.

The Body in the Library opens unexpectedly: with a dream scene. We are inside the consciousness of the sleeping Mrs Bantry. Even in her subconscious, however, this Christie character is evidently pretty tame. She is dreaming of winning the local flower show. On a slightly less banal note, the Vicar’s wife inhabits the dream dressed in a bathing suit, in a touch that signifies the surrealism of the dream world, or that, perhaps, hints at a submerged homoeroticism in Mrs Bantry.

Agatha Christie.png

In general, Christie spends very little time in her characters’ consciousness. There is much external focalization and very little internal focalization, in Genette’s terms. Mrs Bantry is woken by a maid with the news that there is, as the title predicted, A Body in the Library. Christie, again against the conception of her as a mechanical writer, has a bit of “meta” fun with this body (e.g. a character says, “Bodies are always being found in libraries in books. I’ve never known a case in real life.”[Harper Collins, 2011, 4]).

This is a Miss Marple book. Up to the point I have read (about half way), Miss Marple’s investigation is intercut with that of Colonel Melchett, the Chief Constable in charge of the case. He gets just as much space as her, but it is clear that Miss Marple has access to modes of investigation he cannot reach. She has, according to another character (Sir Henry Clithering) “specialized knowledge”: “Miss Marple has an interesting, though occasionally trivial, series of parallels from village life” (93). Precisely because of her sheltered and boring existence, without apparent profession and without close family, she has observed her own microcosm of life in the village with such acuity that she can apply her learning to the whole of humanity, having a convenient parallel for every occurrence. That’s the idea in this book, at least; it would be interesting to see if Christie takes it to spaces beyond the English country village. There is, thus far, no mention of the clue-based rationalism of Holmes or Poirot; this is a psychology-based insight into crime, based on a close examination of a rural slice of human nature, and a conviction that “Human nature is very much the same anywhere” (99).

As for the politics of Christie, or at least of the “implied author” here. What looms large in Library is the generation gap, the near-absolute incompatibility of the ways of life involved. Representing the youth, first of all, is the murder victim herself, who appears in the opening pages as the titular body, a body that is somehow “cheap, tawdry, flamboyant” (11). Throughout, as her life is pieced together by investigators, Ruby Keene is spoken of in curiously disparaging terms by almost all characters. Even Miss Marple herself is surprisingly dismissive of Ruby’s personality. For example, here. in the context of her relationship with an older man, and what he saw in her:

“[…] She may have had some remarkable qualities.”

“Probably not”, said Miss Marple placidly.


“This girl saw her opportunity and played it for all she was worth!” [said Miss Marple.] (95-96)

Ruby is a lower-class person, a dancer by trade; she is also virgo intacta, according to the doctor who examined her body. Perhaps it is all a ruse by Christie, and the denouement will reveal that Ruby was something other than she has appeared, but Miss Marple’s dismissal of her suggests otherwise, and it is a little discomfiting to read the contempt with which she is discussed (“weaselly” and “stupid” are two epithets I recall being used by other characters about her), and to consider it in the light of the class politics of the novel.

But one must emphasize the generational conflict at the heart of the novel. This is manifest in the suspicion with which Ruby’s attachment to an older, wealthier man is discussed. It is manifest in the early pages when Miss Marple reflects that this tawdry body must have originated at one of young Basil Blake’s house parties:

It seemed to me that the only possible explanation was Basil Blake. He does have parties […]. Shouting and singing – the most terrible noise – everyone very drunk, I’m afraid – and the mess and the broken glass next morning simply unbelievable[.] (17)

When the police pay a visit to Blake, it is revealed that he lives in a “hideous shell of half timbering and sham Tudor” (20). A hideous shell! And this is the narrator, the mild, blank Christiean narrator who makes this judgement. The young in The Body in the Library are a threat, an obscene irruption, oversexed and underclothed, vulgar and tasteless. As such, the novel is reading to me at the moment almost as a middle-class and middle-aged fantasy of revenge. There, perhaps, is the significance of the dream opening: a clue to the fantasmic underpinning of the novel. But perhaps I have merely been taken in by Christie and by the end I will have been forced to changed my mind. In any case, finishing the book will be a pleasure, for the unobstructed clarity of Christie’s prose and her narrative drive have not changed.

Ideological Diversity, the University, and the Uses of Screen Adaptation

Interesting piece from Times Higher Education about the progressive political views held by almost all academics in the USA and embedded in the research they create: not just in the form, but in the actual content. The author, Musa al-Gharbi, avers that academics routinely “exaggerat[e] conclusions when convenient while finding ways to ignore, discredit, defund or suppress research that threatens their identity or perceived interests.” Generally this is to support a progressive bias, says al-Gharbi. A knock-on effect of this is that conservative-leaning persons don’t feel comfortable in academia, and find it harder to build a career, leading to the proliferation of extremely well-funded and influential “think-tanks” comprising conservative thinkers and researchers. Another knock-on effect is that academia has very little credibility among large sectors of the population.

On a narrowly political scale, one has to note that academia’s commitment to progressivist-leftist ideals has not strengthened the left in the USA. The president is very right-wing, and the two houses of parliament are now both controlled by the Republican Party. Academia’s influence on society, then, is a depressingly negative one, pushing people towards the opposite extreme.

Academia needs to come to terms with and to engage in dialogue with its right-wing other. An argument I am kind of making in an upcoming publication is that one way to do this is through the use of transtemporal adaptations – that is film/tv (or other media, in theory, though not in my practice as yet) adaptations of novels from another period. Say, the Victorian period. The fact is, almost all writers from that period have various opinions far to the right of the people who tend to watch adaptations of the novels, and of people who write these adaptations. Dickens in Oliver Twist, for example (the example I am using in said upcoming publication), subscribes to fairly hardcore anti-semitism in Oliver Twist, in the character of Fagin; makes his heroine, Rose, a pure and sexless angel-in-the-house type; signifies Oliver’s moral superiority with an otherwise inexplicable upper-class diction, and so on. All of this causes problems for adapters, because to reproduce such ideological functions could make Dickens appear to modern sensibilities shallow, old-fashioned and even obnoxious. So, consciously or unconsciously, Dickens’ less progressive opinions are toned done, left out or turned round.

Image result for oliver twist 2007

Oliver Twist 2007 BBC series. An adaptation that consciously problematized Dickens’ text. Image from

These operations of toning down, etc., become important at the moment of comparative narrative analysis. Being acquainted with what appears in the novel in a different form to the adaptation, we become aware of the ideological otherness of Dickens. This provides a mild shock, as we are regularly assured that Dickens was a progressive writer, a great champion of the poor, a “seeker after gentle justice” etc. – which is, indeed, approximately half true. By being forced to juxtapose this genial image with the problematic reality of Dickensian ideology, we gain insight into the complexities of the formation of ideological consciousness. We also problematize the more presentist stance presented by the adaptation, in its toning down, etc. What seemed natural in the context of the adaptation alone, “how things really are”, is seen now as a deliberate choice, one informed if not dictated by the ideological presumptions of our time and place. And this problematization is absolutely a worthy goal in our climate. This was Žižek’s aim in In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, 2009),  ‘to render problematic the all-too-easy liberal-democratic alternative’ (6), and it is something that is still a long way from being done with sufficient rigour in academia.


Jane Welsh Carlyle

New biography of Jane Welsh Carlyle, wife of the original Victorian Sage Thomas Carlyle, is about to hit the shelves. Positive early review of Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World: A Story of Love, Work, Friendship and Marriage by Kathy Chamberlain from The Spectator here. Welsh’s letters were published after her death in 1866, and were immediately lauded for their wit, acumen and descriptive powers. They are now freely available on The Carlyle Letters Online, as is the more voluminous correspondence of her husband.


Jane Welsh Carlyle, from a portrait by Samuel Lawrence, circa 1852.

The classic account of JWC is probably still James Anthony Froude’s 4-volume Life of Carlyle (available in a scholarly 1-volume abridgement here). In a later text, Froude offered a much-quoted reflection on the Carlyles’ relationship: “The story, as I often said to myself, was as sternly tragic, as profoundly pathetic as the great Theban drama.”

For Froude’s audience, the greatest interest was in the private life of the great Sage; for a 21st-century audience, his overlooked spouse, whose talents never found a field in her lifetime, may be a more compelling figure.



“What is the meaning of it, Watson?”: A Reflection on Meaninglessness, Despondency and Freedom

One of the great moments in the Sherlock Holmes canon comes at the very end of “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box“, and features the great detective in an unusually pensive and apparently depressed mood. It is at the end of a particularly trying and tragic case:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

Sidney Paget. Sherlock Holmes illustration

Illustration by Sidney Paget from the original publication of the Sherlock Holmes stories

In this case, even the chance to exercise his deductive powers in the interests of justice doesn’t serve to shield Holmes from the bleaker truths of human existence and human relations.

Such bleakness, while not charactersitic of Doyle, is somewhat of a feature of the literature of the late 19th and early 20th century. A classic example that has remained with me from first reading the book in my youth comes from W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915):

the sage gave [the king]the history of man in a single line; it was this: he was born, he suffered, and he died. There was no meaning in life, and man by living served no end. It was immaterial whether he was born or not born, whether he lived or ceased to live. Life was insignificant and death without consequence.

Also worth noting is the protagonist’s response to this “history of man”:

Philip exulted, as he had exulted in his boyhood when the weight of a belief in God was lifted from his shoulders: it seemed to him that the last burden of responsibility was taken from him; and for the first time he was utterly free. His insignificance was turned to power, and he felt himself suddenly equal with the cruel fate which had seemed to persecute him; for, if life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty.

This is an interesting philosophico-psychological twist: meaninglessness can bring, not just despair as it did (albeit not on a permanent basis) to Holmes, rather it gives one a sense of freedom and power.

Holmes tortured

Jeremy Brett playing Holmes in despondent mood at the end of the film The Master Blackmailer (1992)

Perhaps the reader disturbed by Holmes’ despondent reaction in “The Cardboard Box” should imagine him reading Of Human Bondage, and thereby coming to terms with the meaninglessness of his endeavours. By 1915, Holmes had already retired to keep bees on the Sussex Downs. He could have done worse things with his free time than reading Maugham’s long, semi-autobiographical novel, and so could the contemporary reader, who perhaps does not pay enough attention to the rather unfashionable Maugham, a writer who has for a long time now been “eclipsed” in the public attention.


The University as the Birth-place of the Leader

DCU’s commitment to the vision of the citizen as entrepreneur was elucidated in my last post. Trinity College Dublin is a different sort of university. Whereas DCU is young, TCD is by far Ireland’s oldest, a survivor from the days of English colonialism and the Ivory Tower – for much of its existence, most Irish were excluded from TCD by virtue of their Catholicism. I am happy to confirm that that is no longer the case.

But TCD remains the aura of old-world respectability and in the mission statement featured at the beginning of their strategic plan the ghost of “liberal education” lingers:

We provide a liberal environment where independence of thought is highly valued and where all are encouraged to achieve their full potential.

The mission is then divided into three strands. The key ideological content words here are: diverse, academic excellence, transformative, interdisciplinary, local innovation, global challenges, pluralistic, just, sustainable. Some of these key words retain the almost archaic flavour of the liberal university (“just”, most notably). None allies TCD with economic ideals in any clear way. Several gesture towards the most topical contemporary political debates: diverse and pluralistic, in particular.

The notion of diversity is certainly a pregnant one for the contemporary university. It has its cultural element, but also its economic element, particularly in terms of what TCD calls “geographical diversity”. The financial rewards of foreign students are considerable.

A1.2 Internationalization

Geographical diversity in our student community is critical in developing an educational milieu which fosters cross-cultural understanding and prepares all students for a life of global citizenship. It allows for a coming-together of different educational, cultural and personal perspectives. It is also a key factor in introducing students to a global dialogue on their areas of academic study, and in building a global Trinity community by creating lifelong, personal, academic, and professional relationships across the world. We will ensure that an integrated internationalized student community re-emerges as a strong feature of the Trinity experience.

But my question for these posts on Irish universities is: how is the student figured in these documents? In DCU, we had the student as entrepreneur. In TCD, the individual identity of the student is mostly dealt with in the subsection “Renew the Trinity Education”. Here the student is figured as a global citizen is invoked. Elsewhere, this figure is again mentioned, and Erasmus is cited as a philosophical source for the concept. This is unusual, to have a direct quote from a general source like this in a strategic plan, but the choice of Erasmus is clearly in itself strategic, assuring the reader that notwithstanding the appearance of such contemporary keywords as global citizen, TCD’s roots remain in the European humanist tradition.  Critical thinking and independence of mind are also cited.

Students are referred to as “leaders in intellectual, cultural, social, political and economic life”, and the figure of the leader is ultimately probably the central one in TCD’s document. As well as the aforementioned fields, students of TCD are also destined to be  “ethical leaders in the fields of politics, science, culture, business and industry, healthcare and law”. So while DCU tends to evoke the figure of the entrepreneur, TCD is more interested in the leader. While the entrepreneur is defined by his relationship to the economy, the leader is defined by his relationship with others. But it is not a relationship of equals; instead, the TCD students is expected to establish a relationship of power and superiority with regard to his/her fellow citizens, in all fields.

TCD’s confidence arises, I suppose, from the fact that it is both Ireland’s longest-established university and, according to most metrics, its most important and influential. Why not, then, openly acknowledge that its students are more likely to go on to be persons of importance than graduates of other institutions? TCD students are steeped in an ideology of leadership when they enter its hallowed halls. Or so the strategic plan would seem to indicate. A greater task would be examining if and how this is brought into practice on the campus itself.

University and Entrepreneurship

Again, I want to look at the role and goals of the university and the challenges it faces, concentrating in this post on the university where I work, DCU. Michael Burawoy, writing principally about a US context, identifies three major crises afflicting the university at the present time: a budgetary crisis, a regulatory crisis, and a legitimation crisis (“The Great American University“, Contemporary Sociology, 41:2, 2012, pp. 139-149).

Burawoy identifies the budgetary crisis as the most important. The situation is more complicated, however, than just calling for more money. Burawoy mentions that “University budgets have grown astronomically” (141). This brings its own problems: in return for such huge investment, universities are expected to give back in a quantifiable way, through patents, aiding industry and developing joint ventures. It is a striking paradox that the increase in budgets is what leads to a budgetary crisis, but such is capitalism (or just human greed?): even too much is never enough.

That is the trouble of working in the modern university: though huge sums are involved, administration and bureaucracy expand so that each department, each research centre, still feels constantly economically pressured, some to a greater extent than others. This is not going to change any time soon. University funding is becoming increasingly linked to industry and to the business economy, as in the big EU funding call Horizon 2020, for which the development of “Competitive Industries” is one of the three central roles of the university. The others are “Excellent Science” and “Better Society”, but it is no accident that “Better Society” is the last-named of the three in the call. The listing on the Horizon website should be read as reflecting actual priorities: 1) science; 2) industry; 3) society. The lines between the university and industry/business are thus being blurred. With that will come the constant pressure to increase profit margins, to provide quantitative evidence of impact and economic contribution.

The strategic plan currently in operation in DCU is titled “Transforming Lives and Societies“. The Chancellor’s Introduction thereto refers to an emphasis on “social, cultural and economic progress”. So already we note that DCU is not emphasizing the economic quite to the extent that Horizon does, instead giving first place to the social, and to the broad idea of “transformation”. This is continued in the President’s Introduction, which names the primary responsibilities of the university as being to:

  • our students
  • our society
  • our economy

So society comes before economy, but the university’s responsibility to the economy at large is still significant.

Reading a little deeper into the Strategy Plan, and DCU’s established identity as the “University of Enterprise” becomes clearer. “Enterprise” has been the university’s USP in relation to other Irish university for some time. The university’s first strategic objective relates to the students. The second is: “To be recognized internationally as a leading University of Enterprise”. This has two main strands: one involves making each student and staff member into an entrepreneur; the other involves engaging with enterprise locally, nationally and globally.

In the priority given to this objective, the properly economic displaces the more broadly social. An entrepreneur is identified by his or her economic activities. The most salient definition from OED:

One who undertakes an enterprise; one who owns and manages a business; a person who takes the risk of profit or loss

Being an entrepreneur is related to financial risk.  Learning how to take financial risks is key to the identity of the student.

But I am still an academic who has been schooled very much in Victorian literature. Therefore, the idea that the cultivation of financial speculation is the desideratum of the university, or even that it is a good at all, is immediately problematic. The centrality of the figure of the entrepreneur in DCU’s strategic plan places the economic viewpoint of the university firmly within capitalist orthodoxy. Indeed, the purest form of new capitalism is based around the idea of the “entrepreneur-of-the-self”:

[E]ach worker becomes his or her own capitalist, the “entrepreneur-of-the-self” who decides how much to invest in his or her own future education, health and so on, paying for these investments by getting indebted […]. [E]veryone is a capitalist getting indebted in order to invest. We are here a step further from the formal equality between the capitalist and the worker in the eyes of the law – now they are both capitalist investors (Žižek, Event: Philosophy in Transit, loc 2023 et seq.)

In summation, it remains debatable whether promotion of a purely capitalist vision of the self (i.e. the entrepreneur) is a good way of fulfilling a university’s responsibility to society – or, indeed, to students. But with that note of irresolution I must conclude, and will continue to think around such matters in future posts as I complete a series of posts on the language of the strategic plans of Irish universities.



Interdisciplinary Epistemology and the Future of the Humanities/the Individual

Interesting new article on interdisciplinarity, particularly what it means for humanities: “Bachelard, Cassirer and Early Interdisiplinary Humanities“, by Maria-Ana Tupan (Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, 8:4, 2016). Tupan quotes Sowon S. Park on the role of humanists in this new interdisciplinary dawn:

[H]umanists bear some responsibility for making accessible the rich observations of human mind to scientific research. The translation of literary terms into cognitive terms and vice versa, which is one of the primary activities of cognitive literary criticism, render a valuable service to the course of consilience by opening up the possibility of the two cultures talking to one another.

This “making accessible” of observations to scientific research still places humanities in an apparently subservient role to science, but at  least so far as their place within academia is concerned, humanities do seem destined for such a role – at best – in the foreseeable future. Any less modest claim than this may be doomed to failure.

Tupan’s central contention is that epistemology is no longer unified. At the level of possibilities for personal identification, this means that the scholar is dead and gone, and replaced by the research man. This idea is from Heidegger, quoted by Tupan:

The scholar disappears. He is succeeded by the research man who is engaged in research projects. These, rather than the cultivating of erudition, lend to his work its atmosphere of incisiveness. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Moreover, he is constantly on the move. He negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses. He contracts for commissions with publishers. The latter now determine along with him which books must be written

This is a recognizable portrait. The individuality of the scholar gives way to the need to co-operate and compromise that the researcher deals with. Cultivating erudition is not something that one can be expected to make a career out of; rather each epistemological decision is made within a much more present social and economic context, with an ever-increasing need to justify one’s research according to the latest metrics.

Finally, citing Niklas Luhmann, Tupan writes: “In a highly developed society, discourses are not reflective of individual minds but connected to a higher order which is the communication system of society. ” This notion of the entire subsumption of the individual mind in the “communication system” may be disturbing. Can we really commit to consider the communication system a “higher order” to which our very minds are subservient – not just our behaviour, but our epistemology as well? This truly would mark the end of the enlightenment and of Kant’s “public use of reason“. Instead of “Think, but obey!“, we face the injunction: “Don’t think. Also, obey!”


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Colleen Chesebro ~ Fairy Whisperer

Available now on Amazon: The Heart Stone Chronicles: The Swamp Fairy