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.