Review of ‘Sociology of Intellectual Life’ by Steve Fuller

Given the brewing conflicts within British higher education it seems like an opportune moment for a thorough sociological analysis of academia. Such an analysis would supplement the expansive literature on the subjugation of higher education to market forces through a careful consideration of the consequences this process holds for the state of intellectual life and production of knowledge. This is the promise which Steve Fuller’s new book hold outs. The Sociology of Intellectual Life is divided into four chapters framed around Humbolt’s ideal of the modern university. The first relates to the institutions itself. The second considers its ideological justification. The third examines the kind of person the university hopes to produce. The fourth draws these strands together in an affirmation of the crucial virtue Fuller sees as absent within modern academia.

In the first chapter Fuller presents the university as a solution to what he terms ‘the modern problem of knowledge in society’: how can knowledge be universal in its scope while also universally accessible? In pre-modern times there was no such problem because knowledge was seen by its nature to be an elite possession which conferred authority. This was supplemented by an enlightenment ideal of the democratization of knowledge through the institution of the university. However this ideal now finds itself under threat on all sides, as managerialism increasingly prevails within the university in response to  pervasive outside demands that learning be subjugated to all manner of market imperatives.

In the second chapter Fuller offers a sociological exploration of the status of philosophy in this modern academic environment. He traces a decline from the magisterial Kantian understanding of philosophy as a discipline which grounds all else to one which simply offers clarification of the intellectual output of other disciplines. In the process philosophy is seen to have ceded something crucial to the special sciences which in turn weakens the support it can offer to the ideal of knowledge which is universal in its scope.

In the third chapter Fuller considers the changing role of the intellectual. He attempts to recover a sense of “the intellectual as someone who is clearly of academic descent but not necessarily of academic destiny”. He suggests that a distinguished history of the intellectual can be traced from the court intellectuals of enlightenment Prussia through the expansion of academic tenure to the modern public intellectuals able to enjoy commercial success. However this traditions find itself under threat through an increasing aversion to intellectual risk-taking on the part of modern academics driven by an interest in the insular affairs of their discipline and a fear of the consequences which public involvement might hold.

In the final chapter Fuller advocates improvisation as a process through which intellectual life might find its redemption. He suggests that the costs associated with intellectual risk-taking on behalf of academics leaves it far too easy “to defer to the orthodoxy and to discount its dissenters”. He sketches out an image of a new academic culture more heterogeneous in its standards and more tolerant of dissent:

“So what would an improvisation-friendly academia look like? Certainly standards of public performance would shift. We would become more tolerant of people who speak crudely without notes, if they can improve as they take questions from the audience. But we would equally become less tolerant of people who refuse to take questions simply because they stray from their carefully prepared presentation. Instead of ‘sloppy/rigorous’, we would apply the binary ‘expansive/limited’ to describe the respective intellects of these people.”

It is here that Fuller’s arguments are at their most plausible. He’s surely correct in his claim that improvisation goes unrewarded (and indeed is actively disincentivised) within contemporary academia, as an overly restrictive career structure increasingly demands the sort of instrumental planning which too often precludes taking the time and effort to go out on a limb. Where his account is less plausible is in its embrace of ‘bullshit’. Though the application of this term might often represent a pernicious anti-intellectualism within mainstream culture, it can equally stand as a forthright affirmation of intellectual standards in the face of poor reasoning and vacuous arguments. Rather than accept ‘bullshit’ we should continue to affirm standards for scholarship while loosening the formalities associated with such standards on a situational basis: redefining academic conventions to suit new forums and new media on a case-by-case basis. In this way it might be possible to communicate research more easily beyond the academy (and more productively, creatively and agentially within it) without undermining the intellectual standards which ensure that academia has something to offer the wider life of society.

Mark Carrigan
4th Year PhD Student

Posted on August 15, 2012, in Reviews, Staff and Students and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. A thought on what an ‘improvisation-friendly academia [would] look like’:

    How “would” all the things that Steve Fuller says “would” happen in the quotation above actually come to pass? What “would” stop the loosening required for improvisation becoming (or in certain cases, perhaps, remaining) a low-quality free-for-all? We need to pin down the reality of this ‘more improvisation’ ideal. A huge topic, so I’ll stick to making a single suggestion in the interest of further discussion. I can’t work out whether Steve Fuller or Mark Carrigan would agree with what I’m about to say or not.

    What kind of education would encourage high-quality improvisation? Perhaps we can draw some comparisons with music. What gets derided as (ahem) ‘instrumental planning’ in our context is called ‘composition’ in music. Classical music honours composers more than any other single individual in its production and finds little room for improvisation. It would be a perverse critic who claimed that Wagner’s Ring Cycle is too fully orchestrated. There is still room for creativity from musicians because the same piece of music can be played in different ways – CD Review: Building A Library (BBC R3) is testament to this. The way these musicians innovate is by difficult, repetitive practice based on a mastery of the canon first and its more distant reaches second, but even this is honed and (excuse me) fine-tuned. And yet, perhaps this is too conservative a comparison for some tastes, and it doesn’t tell us much about improvisation.

    However, when we turn to jazz and folk, two genres that value improvising musicians very highly, we find a similar reliance on familiarity with the standards and the repetitive honing of skills. When they improvise (well), it’s the cream off the top of an astonishing body of received knowledge. They can cope with the lack of regimentation because they are so well practiced and, as Wittgenstein said, “know how to go on”. (…despite Bruno Latour, the most significant philosopher of the 20th century whose name begins with W.) Freedom, to put it differently, is earned, because otherwise it really would just be “bullshit”. I think it was either Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker who said you get your own style by following others who impress you and only coming out as your own butterfly later – but you’ve still got to be good.

    There’s a massive difference – for example – between my early cow-horn-esque efforts on the saxophone – complete bullshit – and John Ogden’s avant garde piano pieces, which would be “bullshit” to someone whose sensibilities couldn’t stretch beyond Bach. If we want improv in the academy we might in fact need a pretty conservative educational structure (for students) and a continuing requirement on academics to know and refer to the classics – to lead the way. Making stuff up can’t be the general rule. The difference between me and Ogden or Parker is that they knew what they were doing musically and I didn’t. In academia we too need to learn our scales.

  1. Pingback: Review of ‘Sociology of Intellectual Life’ by Steve Fuller « Sociology … | Knowledge Policy News Blog

  2. Pingback: » On Improvisation The Sociological Imagination

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