On scholarship

It is reasonable that scholarly writing should refer to a literature of other scholars. Thinking is a communal effort. Ideas that are not grounded in common current understandings may have little appeal or relevance to one’s fellows, and may be rejected as crazy, incomprehensible, or irrelevant. On the other hand, ideas are unoriginal and dull that do no more than reflect the current consensus. Just as there is a zone of comfort between overwhelm and boredom, so there is a zone of optimal meaningfulness between the grandiose and the trivial.

Unfortunately, in the world of academe, the zone is skewed toward the trivial by specialization and fragmentation into siloed intellectual communities, which strive to say ever more about ever less. Degree candidates are encouraged not to take on theses with too sweeping themes. Journal articles must couch any proposal in a discussion of the current literature in the field—which means who said what about who said what. Especially in philosophy, arguments are weighed more against the arguments of others than against their own plausibility. The implicit focus is on attacking and defending positions, on opinion and debate more than truth. Philosophy is perhaps the most subjectified of the humanities, having ceded physical reality to science. Yet, in this highly subjectified era, it is not just in philosophy that claims of truth are suspect and frankly gauche.

Here, in contrast, is a sweeping claim: it is good that culture has evolved generally toward increasing subjectivism, because it is necessary for increasing consciousness. However, the dependency of consciousness on subjectivity reflects a dialectical cycle of two apposite tendencies: what could be called the realizing and de-realizing faculties. Subjectivism manifests the latter. If it were the only game in town, or carried to the extreme, we would all be naïve idealists, who believe everything is no more than opinion or preference and nothing is real. That is to say: there is no external reality (such as nature) to impose constraints on human experience. While that is patently false, so is the belief that, in the face of absolute truth or the scientific reality of nature, human opinion and experience are irrelevant. Neither extreme works separately, but together the two “faculties” are in fact productive.

Science is perhaps our best example of how realizing and de-realizing work together. Kuhn famously described their dialectical interaction in a political metaphor: the stages of a revolution. (Revolution connotes a drastic and irrevocable change; but literally the word implies return to a prior state, a cycle.) A theory is a heroic assertion, a creative act of realization, in which disparate elements are encompassed to make new sense. It naturally invites testing and criticism, in which both logical consistency and fit with reality are assessed. To the degree it works, the theory becomes a new “paradigm,” guiding the direction of research. This leads to a productive phase of working out the implications of the theory in detail, which is more bureaucratic than creative. It consists of relatively mundane operations compared to the dramatic initial breakthrough. The research program inevitably uncovers ever more discrepancies with the paradigm until it seems better to abandon it. That phase of de-realizing sets the stage for a new theory.

A similar cycle occurs in ordinary perception. The natural outward focus is on the external world, which we normally (and with good reason) experience as real. What we don’t experience is the unconscious act of making it seem real. But what the mind can do it can sometimes undo. We have the further ability to de-realize perception by experiencing it as perception rather than as reality, as internal or subjective rather than objective. (At first you see the clump of dust as a spider, but then quickly de-realize the mistaken appearance.) That is the role of subjectivity: to bracket, question or deconstruct what the realizing faculty constructs. Thus, creation and destruction play complementary dialectical roles in cognition. Since unrestrained creativity in the hands of technological capability is dangerous, subjectivism is healthy. Yet, it can go too far.

It is easy to forget that an epistemic cycle is involved, and to imagine that scholarship is no more than a sophisticated competition among opinions, on the one hand, or a naive assertion of truth, on the other. We are rightly suspicious of absolute truth; but without an ideal of truth we are left without real landmarks, to wander in a deconstructed postmodern wilderness. In the extreme, scholarship then is no more than scholasticism, as it was in the pre-scientific era when speculation referred only to the imaginings of other thinkers and not to the real world of nature or the evidence of the senses. If we seriously believe in an external reality, then we must admit there can be communally recognizable truths about it. The trick is not to fall off on either the side of objectivism or of subjectivism, but to keep their balance in a dialectical tension.

We live in an age of specialization, with many benefits, especially in technology. The downside we must recon with is the short-sighted vision, the narrow focus, built into specialization. Who could foresee the long-term effects of oil and overpopulation? Answer: in theory, at least, anyone with a sufficiently broad outlook! Which is to say, anyone standing far enough back from the trees to see the forest. Since such foresight is obviously uncommon, or unheeded, our collective perspective resembles that of the ant more than the astronaut. To paraphrase Wordsworth, the details of the world are too much with us.

There is a place for the general and the big picture. Yet, somehow, scholarship is often more skilled at nitpicking and finding fault in minutiae than at seeking good use for sweeping claims, perhaps because we are rightly suspicious of them. We associate the general with the facile, and the simplistic with populist manipulation. We have learned painfully, from scientific method, to seek the truth in details that give the lie to faulty generalizations. That is good practice and as it should be. But it reflects only one side of the cycle—the skeptical de-realizing part. The other side is the willingness to make claims worth trying to shoot down. The worst insult to a scientific theory is that it’s “not even false.” That can mean that it makes no falsifiable claim. But it can also mean it makes no claim worth bothering with.

Scholarship should not consist only in tearing apart the arguments of others, which is a purely defensive strategy. There should also be a proactive intent to embrace the ideas proposed, to try them on for size, to see to what good they may lead. In our over-subjectified world, there is a general suspicion of experts and academe, in favor of easy slogans. Perhaps this reflects a hunger for general and simple truths that can stand out from the dizzying glut of “information” with which we are surrounded. It may also reflect a failure of experts to provide an inspiring vision that can compete with the oversimplifications of demagogues. If academe has abandoned the field of grand truths, who can blame opportunists for moving in to take it over?

Artificial intelligence exacerbates the tendency to subjectivism. Indeed, AI is a product of subjectivism insofar as it realizes the intent to assimilate the objectivity of nature to human artifice. While imitating nature’s creativity is empowering, it also reduces nature’s reality to human terms, so that we are left with nothing but our own subjectivity in which to wallow. In our drive to reduce everything to human artifact, to re-create everything to human taste, we deliberately blur the distinction between real and artificial, objective and subjective. And then we no longer know what is real or true.

Especially when information can be artificially produced, the overwhelming bulk of it tends to be trivial and unrelated to reality. The morass of irrelevant information can only be navigated with a rudder. That means a general sense of reality against which to measure dubious claims. In former times this was called common sense. Reality is what we have (or had) in common—particularly the reality of nature that contains us despite our efforts to contain it intellectually and materially through technology. In this time of extreme social fragmentation, however, there is little held in common. Yet, there remains the elusive possibility of a guiding “sense” based in the objectivity of the natural world. Scholars in the humanities can demonstrate their sense by going beyond the defensive, reductive, and divisive aspects of critical analysis. Far from avoiding grand ideas or hacking them to death, they can seek to ground them responsibly in a vision of reality.