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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

Wanted: Ph.D. student to put Harriet Martineau back in the sociological canon

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was one of the most remarkable women of letters – perhaps ever. Her body of work ranged across the social and biological sciences and even theology. Wikipedia gives a good introduction to the breadth of her writing. However, if Martineau is remembered at all today, it is as the English translator of Auguste Comte’s work. But Martineau was a sociological pioneer in her own right, a friend of John Stuart Mill and the Utilitarians, as well as a correspondent with all the major the intellectuals of the mid-19th century, on both sides of the Atlantic, and including Charles Darwin. By all accounts she was a formidable personality (a Germaine Greer-like figure perhaps) who stood out in her day for being able to earn a living from her writing without ever having to get married.

The person who appears to be the leading living scholar of her work is Deborah Logan, an American specialist in Victorian literature. This leaves plenty of scope for a sociological interpretation of Martineau’s oeuvre. As it happens, many of Martineau’s papers are housed at the University of Birmingham. Based on a twitter exchange yesterday between Jo VanEvery (@JoVanEvery), Mark Carrigan (@mark_carrigan), and myself, it dawned on me that Warwick (only 20 miles from Birmingham) would be a great place for someone to do a Ph.D. on Martineau’s significance in her own time and her continuing legacy, both in sociology and for feminism more generally.

I would welcome a student interested in undertaking this project. I think such a Ph.D. could be easily turned into a timely book. But keep in mind that you will need funding! I am happy to work with students interested in applying for funds but I have none at my disposal. (When approaching me (s.w.fuller@warwick.ac.uk), please already have a funding source in mind that you have good reason to believe would support this project. This means doing some homework about funders!)

Finally, a few years ago, I staged a play in which the main female role was that of Harriet Martineau. You can have look here.

Professor Steve Fuller 

Who will recognize Humanity 2.0 and will it recognize us?

If ‘Humanity 1.0’ is the proverbial ‘normal human being’ that our laws have been traditionally designed to empower and protect, then who is ‘Humanity 2.0’? For the most part, the prospects for ‘Humanity 2.0’ largely replay in a new key what I call in my new book the ‘bipolar disorder’ that has always accompanied the human condition: Are we ‘glorified animals’ who should become more embedded in nature or ‘minor deities’ with the potential to achieve full godlike powers? Until the modern period, theology was the natural home for this discussion. But nowadays it is increasingly the subject of public debate. On the one hand are those – often called ‘posthumanists’ – who believe that anthropocentrism is a dangerous conceit. They typically adopt a Darwinian view that we are just one amongst many species who cohabit the planet and who eventually will become extinct and replaced by something perhaps quite unrecognisable. On the other hand are those – often called ‘transhumanists’ – who believe in humanity’s unique ability (if not obligation) to take control of evolution and steer it in directions that project our most desirable features (usually our minds) into perpetuity, even if it means abandoning our biological bodies. While both views may seem wildly futuristic, in fact people are already beginning to live lives that assume one or the other future will come about.

(from Virtual Futures on Vimeo)

Is Precautionary the New Reactionary?

In recent months, both sides of the Atlantic have witnessed renewed calls to apply the so-called Precautionary Principle to limit, if not outright, stop a variety of publicly and privately funded research and development projects around the topic of ‘synthetic biology’, an umbrella term for all attempts to redesign life, either by altering existing organisms or introducing new ones. The UK’s Green Party, currently enjoying its first Member of Parliament, has even proposed a permanent precautionary branch of government with the power to refer any legislation back to committee if it fails to be properly cognizant of its potential effects on future generations. You can find out more about it here. However, the most ambitious attempt to enforce the Precautionary Principle will be unveiled next week (18th April) at Washington’s Wilson Center. 113 NGOs from across the world have signed a statement that would effectively impose enough regulations on the pursuit of synthetic biology to make it unfeasible. If you’re interested in finding out more or attending the event, go here.

Generally speaking, the Precautionary Principle proposes a version of the Hippocratic Oath for the entire planet: i.e. above all else, do no harm. At first hearing, who could disagree? However, in practice, it turns out to be a radically risk-averse strategy that mistakenly sees the wholesale arresting of scientific and technological innovation as the solution to genuine problems of social injustice, poverty, inequality, insecurity, etc. I say ‘wholesale’ quite deliberately because, while Precautionaries have been traditionally preoccupied with stopping the spread of ‘genetically modified organisms’, their arguments are typically pitched at such a level of generality and abstraction that they could be easily extended to any genuine innovation in the Schumpeterian sense – that is, a market game-changer. In short, Precautionaries are completely blind to the positive character of risk-taking, even when the risks fail. Indeed, the failures may teach us more, if the data they provide are collected and made publicly available so that others may learn and take more informed risks in the future. A truly progressive society insures against the inevitable negative outcomes of risk-taking without discouraging the taking of risk altogether.

Behind this last sentence is an alternative to the Precautionary Principle, namely, the Proactionary Principle, which has been so far promoted only in transhumanist circles. You can read its latest version here. The Proactionary Principle ties our distinctiveness as creatures to our proven capacity for taking calculated risks from which we emerge not dead but stronger as a species. The trick is to provide a normative framework that makes the Proactionary Principle attractive not only to self-styled heroic entrepreneurs and libertarians but also to ordinary, often vulnerable people who are not normally inclined to risk so much of themselves and the world for some unknown future. At the moment, Veronika Lipinska and I are writing a book that will sketch out the basis for a new sort of welfare state that is not so much focussed on preventing worst outcomes but rather encourages the taking of risks from which all of society may benefit.

Professor Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller – The Posthuman Challenge to Ecological Correctness

This is Part One of an unscripted talk presented by Steve Fuller (in his office at the University of Warwick, UK, in September 2011) as a ‘Festvideo’ (cf. Festschrift) in honour of Eugene Rosa of Washington State University, one of America’s foremost sociologists of the environment. The video appears in two parts, and centres on Rosa’s long-standing appeal to the ‘I=PAT’ formula for environmental impact. The formula is explained in this part of the talk. Many of Rosa’s papers may be found here: http://cooley.libarts.wsu.edu/rosa/vita.pdf

This is Part Two of Fuller’s talk (see Part One for more details). This part gets more fully into the ‘posthuman challenge’, including the proposal that people may wish to ‘live fast, die young’ in the future. Thanks to Mark Carrigan for astutely observing that people may wish to achieve this state by drugs rather than fast food….

The Future of the University

In this podcast Mark Carrigan discusses the future of the university system with Steve Fuller. At a time of crisis in the university, the discussion explores how academia has arrived at its present juncture and where it might go from here. It contextualises the present predicament in terms of the wider intellectual, cultural, political and economic factors which underlay these seismic shifts in academic life.

Humanity 2.0

In this series of videos Steve Fuller explores the ideas from his new book Humanity 2.0 on a chapter by chapter basis. The first chapter is below, for the rest see here.

Filmed by Luke Robert Mason and hosted on the Virtual Futures Vimeo pages. Luke also kindly helped us film an interview with Steve at the same time about social media & academic publishing – coming soon

Steve Fuller – The Posthuman Challenge to Ecological Correctness

This is Part One of an unscripted talk presented by Steve Fuller (in his office at the University of Warwick, UK, in September 2011) as a ‘Festvideo’ (cf. Festschrift) in honour of Eugene Rosa of Washington State University, one of America’s foremost sociologists of the environment. The video appears in two parts, and centres on Rosa’s long-standing appeal to the ‘I=PAT’ formula for environmental impact. The formula is explained in this part of the talk. Many of Rosa’s papers may be found here: http://cooley.libarts.wsu.edu/rosa/vita.pdf

This is Part Two of Fuller’s talk (see Part One for more details). This part gets more fully into the ‘posthuman challenge’, including the proposal that people may wish to ‘live fast, die young’ in the future. Thanks to Mark Carrigan for astutely observing that people may wish to achieve this state by drugs rather than fast food….

MSc Science, Media and Public Policy

In this podcast Dr Eric Jensen talks about the new MSc Science, Media and Public Policy which he is leading in the 2011/2012 academic year along with Professor Steve Fuller.

This course is designed to equip students with the theoretical and practical skills needed for understanding and managing the complexity of science, media and policy relations. It is based around two core modules (detailed below) alongside the wide range of other MA modules on offer at Warwick. There is also a bursary available for students on the module.

Contact Eric for more information about this or anything else relating to the MSc.

Term One: Understanding Science, Media and Public Policy (delivered by Steve Fuller)

Drawing on resources from history, philosophy and social studies of science, as well as recent social theory, this module will survey and critique various frameworks for conceptualising the relationship between science, media and public policy. Among the topics covered include: science’s public accountability, the role of peer review in authorising scientific knowledge, the comparative demands of scientific and journalistic inquiry, the role of public relations in science, the idea of science as a cultural product, media’s duty to educate, inform and entertain the public about science, scientists as political advisors, actors and advocates, the idea of the citizen-scientist, the role of new media as both information resource and research site for science. Emphasis will be placed on the two-way influence of theory and practice, as well as the challenges posed by the representation of specific types of scientific knowledge in specific media.

Term Two: Researching Science, Media and Public Policy in the 21st Century (delivered by Eric Jensen)

Across many domains of social and professional life, the sciences seek to influence publics through entertainment and news media, education, dialogue and debate. This module will identify the ways in which such attempts to influence or engage public perceptions of the sciences can be investigated through specific case studies. There have been particular flashpoints at the nexus of science, media and public policy in recent years. Controversies over human cloning, embryonic stem cell research, genetically modified crops, alternative medicine, the bioethics of zoos and the climate change agenda each hold important lessons for understanding the role of mass media, stakeholders and citizens in shaping public policy. These cases show how knowledge, power and legitimacy are marshalled in struggles for dominance and consensus over science in the public realm. A sociological account of these cases will be developed to critically assess the processes of public understanding and engagement with science, media coverage and science policy consultation.

Social Epistemology

Lately I’ve found myself increasingly absorbed by the notion of ‘Social Epistemology‘. We are of course uniquely privileged at Warwick in having the accomplished Professor Fuller within the department, who has throughout his career, played a pivotal role in bringing this discipline to light. Engaging with his teachings have provided me with something of a coherent academic framework to interpret my own critical impulse towards Scientific authority. I’m particularly interested in the implications of this critical approach to biomedical fields such as Psychology or Cognitive Neuroscience which aspire toward establishing a comprehensive, unified understanding of the mind.

I feel this is a particularly interesting area of enquiry for the modern, secular scientific enterprise, given that this is the faculty which has historically awarded the human species its presumably privileged status above other forms of life on earth – perhaps borne out of a religious sensibility? Fuller himself reasons that the early history of science was animated by the belief held in Abrahamic faiths, that humans are created in the ‘image and likeness’ of God.  According to the critical principles outlined by Social Epistemology, If the degree of trust and authority that the public has invested in fields such as clinical psychology or neuroscience is disproportionate or misplaced, then needless to say, there follows some strong public policy implications surrounding the classification and treatment of mental illness.

Correspondingly my research project is concerned with how perspectives on the nature and treatment of mental illness are constructed in a developing country, and in particular to what extent westernized medical science versus traditional, mystified religiosity informs its treatment. In the broadest sense, I’m interested in how different models of mental health care may arise under different circumstances, as well as how they establish and uphold their authoritative legitimacy. So in this light, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some personal correspondence with Professor Fuller over the course of the year, and he’s been exceptionally helpful in addressing the queries that have arisen whilst absorbing his published work.

James MacFarlane
2nd Year Undergraduate

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