In the spring of 2017, the journal Hypatia published an article titled “In Defense of Transracialism”, in which the author, Rebecca Tuvel, argued that “since we should accept transgender individuals’ decisions to change sexes, we should also accept transracial individuals’ decisions to change races”. Shortly after publication, following a social media campaign, an open letter was sent to Hypatia’s editor requesting the retraction of the article because its “continued availability causes further harm”.
Precious few details were given about that harm. The signatories, comprising eventually more than 800 scholars, offered some perfunctory scholarly reasons for their demand, but it was clear that the article’s main shortcoming, in their view, was of an extra-scholarly nature: its conclusions went against the political sensibilities prevalent in today’s mainstream humanities, in whose name they were writing. Rather than a scholarly document, the letter was a rallying cry built around such conspicuously political terms as “privilege”, “harm” and “erasure” — which feature abundantly in the current discourse of the Left.
Separately, some of the journal’s associate editors apologised on social media for “the harms”, stating that “clearly, the article should not have been published”. Both Hypatia’s editor and its board of directors, however, stood by the journal’s initial decision to publish Tuvel’s article, which is still available online.
In another section of Anglophone academia, a team of three scholars, Peter Boghossian, James A. Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose, were perpetrating what they ultimately called the “grievance studies affair”: over two years, they jointly wrote several hoax papers, and submitted them, under assumed names, to mainstream journals in the humanities. Even though these articles advanced blatantly absurd claims, and sometimes made little sense, some of them were accepted for publication — often enthusiastically. In “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon”, for example, published in Gender, Place & Culture, the authors claimed that “dog parks are ‘rape-condoning spaces’ and a place of rampant canine rape culture and systemic oppression against ‘the oppressed dog’ through which human attitudes to both problems can be measured and analysed by applying black feminist criminology”.
How did papers of no scholarly merit pass, sometimes with flying colours, the crucial test whereby a scholar’s subjective opinion becomes reliable knowledge: the peer-review process? Because the authors understood how important conformism to the dominant ideological orthodoxy is in the academic humanities. The hoaxers didn’t need to place any real knowledge in their submissions, only the recognisable markers of belonging to the same camp — dazzling buzzwords such as “rape culture”, “queer performativity”, “systemic oppression” — which mesmerised both journal editors and the external reviewers. (When the hoaxers came out of the shadows, the journals retracted the papers.) These two stories reveal, each in its own way, the outsized role that extra-scholarly factors play in scholarship — and, therefore, the extreme overall fragility of the quest for truth in today’s Anglophone humanities.
Almost a century ago, in La Trahison des Clercs (1927), Julien Benda warned against what he considered one of the greatest dangers of his time: the “betrayal” committed by intellectuals who, instead of defending les valeurs éternelles et désintéressées, chose to put themselves in the service of intérêts pratiques associated with specific ideologies, militant causes, social movements, and political parties. These intellectuels engagés pretended to seek universal values, while in fact advancing the specific agenda of one group or another. Max Weber’s theory of “value neutrality”, earlier in the century, had similarly argued that researchers need to keep their own values and personal biases in check if they are to truly understand what they are studying. Not to do so would be to fail as a scholar. Both Benda and Weber were writing at a time of intense ideological battles, not unlike ours. And yet they thought the way out of the crisis was not more politicised knowledge, but less — preferably, none.
This ideal would form the backbone of Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game (1943). Throughout the Thirties, Hesse saw the devastating effects of instrumentalised knowledge in the world around him: in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and fascist Italy, but also in the democracies that were preparing to confront them. In the novel, set in the 25th century, this confrontation marked the beginning of a catastrophic “Age of Wars”. Towards the end of this period, tired of all the senseless violence, social chaos, and political cynicism, people start to envision a solution: the pursuit of pure, rigorous, disinterested knowledge, sought for its own sake, and uncontaminated by any practical interests. Only such knowledge, they thought, will save society from self-destruction. The idea was that:
“…if respect for the world of the mind is no longer operative, ships and automobiles will soon cease to run right, the engineer’s slide rule and the computations of the banks and stock exchanges will forfeit validity and authority, and chaos will ensue… the externals of civilisation — technology, industry, commerce, and so on — also require a common basis of intellectual honesty and morality.”
That’s how the fictional “pedagogical province” of Castalia, the quasi-monastic setting of Hesse’s novel, is established. There, the brightest minds of every country in our future spend their lives doing nothing but playing the equally fictional Glass Bead Game. The game is never clearly defined in the novel, but we understand that it is the highest achievement of the human mind imaginable. “It has particularly taken over the role of art, partially that of speculative philosophy.” The most salient feature of the game is its contemplative dimension. The players don’t pursue it for any practical goals; they dedicate their entire existence to it without any concern for material gain, social status, or worldly fame. They are total scholars pursuing “the life of the Mind”, seeking nothing but useless knowledge.
And yet the Glass Bead Game has a vitally important function in society: through what they do, the Castalians preserve the integrity and purity of thinking, making sure that it doesn’t get contaminated by extraneous factors such as greed, thirst for worldly fame, and politics. Especially politics. For nothing corrupts the pursuit of knowledge more than power. The Castalians live, as Hesse writes, “in a state of political innocence and naïveté such as had been quite common among the professors of earlier ages; they [have] no political rights and duties, scarcely ever [see] a newspaper”. While outside of Castalia, people are free to engage in politics, as well as in business, professional careers, and other worldly pursuits, within the “pedagogical provinces” themselves, there is no place for such things. What lies at their core is not the pursuit of power, but that of service.
Life in Castalia may strike us as outlandish, yet it’s nothing but the fleshing out of an old and widespread idea. The novel builds on the notion that there are largely two existential attitudes, two fundamental modes of relating to the world: vita activa and vita contemplativa. The distinction has been known to every civilisation, Eastern or Western, ancient or modern, simple or sophisticated. We can approach the world pragmatically, and act upon it with a view of bending it to our own needs and desires. This has always been the approach of statesmen and military strategists, politicians and policymakers, revolutionaries and activists of all stripes. Or we can approach the world contemplatively, seeking to understand it in its own terms, and not in relation to us, and hoping to grasp how things are in themselves, regardless of the use we make of them. Achieving such understanding is what the enlightened of all ages and all places have done: Zen monks and Sufi masters, sages and hermits, great theorists and visionaries, Glass Bead Game players and artists of genius — and, in their best moments, scholars, too.
After all, the primary job of the scholar is not to act upon the world, but to understand it. “Not to laugh, not to lament, not to detest, but to understand,” in the haunting words of Benedict Spinoza, the most contemplative of modern philosophers. One cannot understand something and act upon it at the same time; when we are acting upon an object, we put ourselves in a utilitarian, possessive, and manipulative mode, which makes us incapable of grasping its true meaning. On the contrary, a scholar is someone who takes a step back, stays still, and observes everything at leisure (scholē in Greek, from which our word derives). Scholarship, then, ends where action starts. Someone else may use scholarly knowledge to devise a practical course of action, but that enterprise is not scholarly. Those who seek to understand the world and those who want to change it are two different breeds of people, following separate paths. They may occasionally wave and smile at each other, have meaningful conversations, and even be friends, but they remain different.
Karl Marx’s bon mot, in Theses on Feuerbach (1845), that “Hitherto philosophers have sought to understand the world; henceforth they must seek to change it”, was not the beginning of a political liberation, then, but that of a great intellectual confusion. How can one change a world one does not understand?
Almost 100 years after La Trahison des Clercs, Benda’s “betrayal” has become the norm in the academic humanities, especially in the English-speaking world. Nowadays if a piece of humanistic scholarship doesn’t broadcast, or at least allude to, the author’s political views and ideological mindset, it is seen with suspicion by her peers. Weber’s “value neutrality” appears as an aberration. Indeed, to write in its defence, as I am doing here, may be construed as positive proof of — God forbid — the author’s un-leftist views.
For not only are we supposed to wear our politics, visibly, on our scholarship, which is bad enough, but we also need to hold only certain views, which is plainly absurd. As has been observed, over the last few decades academia has progressively shifted to the Left. This has translated into an increasing lack of viewpoint diversity, which has compromised “the ability of scholars to seek truth, and of students to learn from a broad range of thinkers”, as two commentators recently noted. Ideally, there should be no politics at all in our scholarship. Failing that, there should be a variety of political views involved, in the hope that they will cancel each other out.
Yet that today’s humanist academics have strong political views and don’t hesitate to pass them on as real knowledge is not even their worst failure. What’s even more damaging is that the body of humanistic knowledge itself — its basic assumptions, the process though which it is produced, even the language in which it is communicated — is structured along political lines. Much of today’s humanistic scholarship is not just about politics, it is itself a form of political performance: it generates and increases power, it creates and maintains hierarchies, it splits the scholars into camps, tribalising the humanities and turning them into a power-charged field. Most of the time we think and write and act not as mere scholars, but as political actors — always on the lookout for ways to maximise their power, prestige and influence. Regardless of the topics of our research, much of what we do is shaped not by the inner logic of our work, but by something extraneous — by what is going on, micro-politically, in the world within which we operate. We don’t pursue knowledge for its sake, but for our own.
Ponderous questions keep the humanist scholar awake at night. Which methodology should we use: something time-tested, yet old-fashioned, or the latest fad that everybody is talking about and following compulsively, and which would place us in the spotlight? And on which topics should we work exactly: those we believe we have something genuine to say about, or the trendy ones, those that seem to bring instant social media attention, excellent political positioning, and prompt publication — something which the hoaxers of the “grievance studies affair” exploited to great comical effect? Whose work should we cite: that of some long-dead names, yet whose contribution is still crucial, or that of living scholars with influence, the “power-houses” in our field, regardless of their scholarly worth? And when we cite other scholars, should we consider strictly the intrinsic merits of their scholarship, or should we mention them, strategically, because of their gender, race or sexual identity? And, in general, what kind of stance should we take? A risky one, like Rebecca Tuvel’s, with potentially crippling effects on our career, or one that flatters the prevalent orthodoxy and smoothes our way to greater power, fame, and influence?
Deeply preoccupied with such dilemmas, we have seriously lost our way. Even worse, we can’t find our way back to start again, because our journey hasn’t been guided by anything but an incessant adjusting to the latest trends. Worst of all, however, is that, dazzled as we are by our spectacular successes, we may not even know that we have gone astray. Failure can’t cut any deeper.