Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The sciences and the nature of the university

A philosophical friend responded to my previous post as follows:

“I have now had a good look at your piece on the need for a social theory within which research should be located in all the sciences. I am very interested in the question of the relationship of the various disciplines/sciences because I think answering the question has relevance for the nature of a university. I just wonder on exactly why a ‘social theory’ of research and if the relationship of the disciplines goes deep enough.

You say that the considerations you invoke are predominantly methodological and epistemological but that they point to a social theory that could explain the need for such sciences to exist. In the first place I think that methodological/epistemological considerations are more basic and explanatory. In the second place I am not sure if they point to a ‘social theory’ that would explain the need for such sciences: why give priority to a social theory and in what sense would this be a comprehensive theory of the need for such sciences over and above a sociological account (which of its nature would be limited)?

The actual division – technical interest in control that underpins the empirical-analytical sciences; practical interest in mutual understanding and emancipatory interest driving the critical social sciences – seems debatable. In the first place the first group seems to confuse technical concerns with theoretical concerns: Aristotle might object to this. It seems to collapse the distinction between pure and applied science, though of course that can be questioned.

The second group seems to contain too much: hermeneutics and moral concerns and communicative and expressive concerns. You note that philosophy straddles the second and third group and the question arises as to its proper home. Does its multiple allocation indicate something about its unique status and perhaps suggest a different grouping altogether? Linguistics may not quite fit also: in the sense that it may be closer to the theoretical sciences (and nowadays to the empirical sciences).

The third group seems problematic in a different way: by labelling it ‘critical’ you may import a feature into some of the disciplines listed that does not fit them. Sociology is often not critical: it may even fit the technical control interest of the theoretical sciences OR it could be seen as having a communicative and moral focus. And why fit ‘critical economics’ here: in what sense is it critical –the dominant forms of economic theory are anything but critical (and the latest developments of neuro-economics may fit the first group of interests).

The status of political science is equally controversial: some treat it more and more as a technical-control science based on statistical survey; and political theory and political philosophy have become marginal to the discipline over the last 50 years. Critical theory/ western Marxism/ ideology critique certainly have a critical aspect but often without being self-critical. Philosophy in its most adequate form is the self-critical discipline: I still find room for this conception of philosophy though I do not think analytical philosophy on its own, or phenomenology-hermeneutics on its own, or critical theory on its own, or postmodern suspicion on its own will do the job.

What alternative starting point could be suggested? I don’t think Cassirer is comprehensive enough and surely Foucault’s mode of suspicion is too one-sided. Habermas does in fact provide a better starting point. But I would try and get a fuller and more differentiated account of the range of human interests on the one hand (biological and vital interests, artistic and aesthetic interests, practical interests in the restricted sense of getting things done, intellectual interests that can be variously differentiated: common sense and sciences are all intellectual, moral and interpersonal or dramatic interests and even religious interests); I would also want to consider historical differentiations and the emergence of practical common sense from a possibly original symbolic awareness, then the emergence of theory, then the further differentiation of the empirical-theoretical sciences, and then the emergence of critical consciousness due precisely to the need to relate earlier modes of cognition that co-exist in tension (e.g. the poetic and religious and the early intellectual critique of religion; tension between the practical and the moral as in the case of Socrates; tension between the religious and the theoretical-philosophical in the medieval period; tension between common sense and the empirical sciences in the modern period; tensions between the multiple culturally based commonsenses and theoretical pluralism in the contemporary period).

On the other hand I find something interesting in your categorisation as articulated in your final two paragraphs. I would have to think a bit more on how you present the power aspect and the need for emancipation. But I would hold this comes up in many contexts: individual and group bias as well as ideological misdirection. And the moral dimension comes in again: how are we to be liberated from the self-interest which seems embedded in human nature (including those who present themselves as liberators). I am not sure if Habermas goes far enough when it comes to fully critical and liberating theory. His evasion of ‘metaphysics’ may be a handicap here.

I found some of the commentators on your piece quite interesting. There is obviously a lot to be done here. I really think this is of great importance in the ongoing rethinking of what a university is/ is for.”

My answer:

“Thank you for your comprehensive response – you certainly raise interesting issues, many of which deserve to be discussed exhaustively – the nature of the university in light of the differences among the sciences, for instance. I agree, of course, that especially epistemological (and I would add, ontological) issues would be fundamental for determining this, but I think Habermas’s classification of the sciences according to their driving (or guiding) cognitive interests points to the possibility and need for a social theory. Not because that would be most fundamental, but because in every society today scientific research across the board happens without much thought of how the sciences are interrelated, if at all, and what differentiates among them, let alone how the differentiation may have given rise to (or could be accommodated in) societal spheres which constitute some of the most important areas of social life today, such as the university.

Another example: engineering – which is rooted in work, going back to the Romans and Carthaginians, if not further back to ancient Chinese culture – has shaped society continuously for hundreds of years, and still does. Today, it stands before the challenge of creatively shaping a world facing global climate change, making use of revolutionary new kinds of engineering. In this respect, architecture and many of the natural sciences have to assist engineering in alleviating the worst effects of climate change.

Then think of the challenges facing the social sciences in the same context – are people ready to face and deal with the far-reaching social effects of climate change? And to the denialists one could say: OK, forget about climate change – think of the economic changes that have been sweeping through the world since 2008. The social sciences could and should contribute to people’s ability to deal with those far-reaching changes.

Hence I believe that the need for a social theory – one which enables one to get a clearer grasp of what is at stake, and what the role of the different sciences are, or could be, at university, but also in the present global situation – is paramount.”

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

  • The destructive approach to nature: ‘Geostorm’
  • The present ‘world dis-order’
  • Some Remarks On A ‘Good’ University
  • Aesthetics of power and questioning what a ‘good’ university is
    • Maria

      Bert, your friend has raised some interesting angles, but I wonder where he gets the metaphysics-predilection from. Metaphysics was roundly and conclusively discredited by Kant already, and while it has been seeping into society through the cracks of New Age “thinking”, it certainly does not merit serious inclusion as a basis for the apportioning of scientific tasks. I would be more interested in seeing your take on the way Foucault could give direction to this project. Wouldn’t a discourse-based assessment of the sciences’ distinct contributions to knowledge, and therefore also of the contemporary function or role of universities be an eye-opener?

    • Tal

      Bert, I teach English in China. Please may I use this piece in class?

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The Roman Catholic Church banned the teachings of both Aristotle and Auinas as based on reason and not faith.

      They also banned all neo-Platonism, and burned the library at Alexandria for the same reason, calling all neo-Platonist interpretations of Christianity “Heresy”.

    • HD

      I tend to agree with your friend. This is a very difficult task and should not be captured by one single social theory. There for me is an inherent danger in a project that seeks to claim a single truth and that isn’t open ended. Perhaps we should just allow universities to continue to struggle with these questions in their own manner. The same applies to the different academic disciplines and schools within them…

      You can for instance just think back to the whole positivism project (Vienna Circle) in the social sciences and how they believed they were changing social sciences for the good. Only to be overswept by new and different waves later on in the century reaching the almost exact opposite position at the zenith of the post-modern wave.

      By the way I always find it interesting that these single theory (perspective) solutions always tend to come from those that self identify as “progressive” or “left” in the political spectrum. It was after all the progressives and western socialist (fabians as opposed to Marxist) that most eagerly embraced the tennets of the Vienna Circle in the social sciences when they believed it could “enigneer a better society”.

    • Bert

      Tal – By all means use it, if you can, but I can’t really fathom how you would do that, or for what reason.
      HD – If you read the previous piece, you would recall that I offered this particular theory of Habermas as just ONE possible starting point towards a social theory, AND I stressed that it is always REVISABLE. I certainly don’t believe in final theories of any kind, just in theories that are either more illuminating, or less so. Which is why the social theory I am suggesting, is something that has to be debated incessantly. But at present there’s no such debate, hence all the sciences are being practised ‘in isolation’ from each other, whereas they should really strive to come to a kind of understanding of what neck of the woods is their terrain, as opposed to the terrain of others. I know this is wishful thinking, really – it is only thinkers like Habermas, or Wallerstein, or David Harvey, (or Franklin Baumer) who take the trouble to get to know enough about the sciences to undertake such a bird’s eye view account.
      Maria – that’s a good suggestion. I’ll do that some time.
      Lyndall – Unless I’m very much mistaken, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are still very much in the RC’s good books, and for good philosophical reason. While I reject Augustine’s hatred of the body and the senses, there are philosophical insights in his work that are truly remarkable, and the same may be said of Thomas (‘ens est unum et bonum et verum’).

    • Bert

      Lyndall – Which is not to say that I approve of the Church’s historical record, that is, actions, against someone like the philosopher/scientist/astronomer Hypatia (to mention only one person) in Alexandria, at the time when the great library of Alexandria was destroyed by Christians. One could add many other instances, like the execution of Giordano Bruno in 1600, for daring to oppose the Church’s teachings regarding the ‘starry heavens’.

    • HD


      Fair enough, but why should academic disciplines fit some specific paradigm or neatly into boxes? I agree that some of the best work gets done by thinkers that work across academic disciplines. My favourite thinkers like Gellner, Hayek, Rothbard, Popper, Robert Cox, Boettke, Jeffrey Friedman, Gramsci all work(ed) across disciplines. Modern economics for instance pays far too little attention to the history of economic thought and the philosophy of the original field of political economy.

      All that said, Habermas (Frankfurt school), Wallerstein (world systems theories) and Harvey (neo-marxism) all straddle a specific ideological field…old socialist ideas in new bottles – that’s all…These ideas are already fairly prevelent in the social sciences (especially political science and ppe). We can do with more variety…now how about bringing Hayek and classic liberalism back to the classroom?

    • Garg Unzola

      There are 2 issues I can make out here: What is the purpose of this social theory? It seems that this is another attempt to break down larger disciplines into neat smaller fields, where one field’s authority may not interfere with that of another. But philosophy and mathematics to name two are not so easily divided into the mentioned spheres. Plus the current trend is more towards consilience, as in the mentioned example where architecture works along with engineering to solve sustainability issues.

      The other issue is epistemological. In order to divide the spheres so neatly, it supposes an external kind of logic that is capable of creating these sets. In turn, creating this logic would have to belong to one of Harbemas’s spheres, yet not be a part of it too. Do we leave this task to philosophers, who generally have no practical knowledge despite being “book smart”?

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      Have you read “the Grail Enigma” by Laurence Gardener? If so, I am surprised you have any respect at all for Augustine.

      Aquinas as well as Aristotle were definately banned, but I am strugglind to remember where I can find the reference.

    • David Hurst

      With respect, is the horses ass asking what the brain thinks? When pegged in recent commentary as coming from a narrow discipline, it gives away the entire argument. Science does not fit in a philosophical domain, science is the engine that modern thought both uses and is used by. The hypothesis is, that perhaps people have a bit too much time on their hands, and propose a sociological constraint to fit in with ideology, and a university system, post intellectual flood from the country and the well-recognized dumbing-down thereof. This sociological constraint might feel like a hemorrhoid on scientific endeavor: Science is not constrained by a Martini and speculative, political directives of who appoints who, it is the opposite. You need cures for Malaria, HIV, cholera, etc. Mathematics is a tool, not for most a science, sociology must respect science not as a narrow discipline, but that which gives you something to talk about. Horses ass, wondering. My discipline encompasses at least 20, read what I said, please, on the previous article on this subject.

      This comment has been edited.

    • Garg Unzola

      The Catholic church kept a list of banned books and authors:

      Curiously, Blaise Pascal’s works also appear on the list. Curious due to Pascal’s Wager.

    • Jacques Theron

      I am surprised that Robert M. Pirsig’s argument that quality & care form the cornerstone of marriage between subjective & objective analysis is not mentioned? But then, I am not a student of philosophy, perhaps he’s seen as a lightweight amongst these other names. I even find Umberto Eco’s analysis of the different guides we use in life more attractive than Foucault’s…

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      You have written about the rationalists and the intuitive thinkers, but not about the mystics. It is remarkable how similar they are, in all religions.

      Darwin, for example was a rationalist, who was eventually forced to publish by his friends and sponsors because he was being pipped at the post by a scientist/explorer who had reached the same conclusion on evolution by intuitive/mystical thinking and already published an article on the topic. Darwin was holding back because of his wife’s deep Christian beliefs.

      Tje “holistic” theories of Jannie Smuts, have a similarity to the “Spiritus Magni” theories of Yeats.

      And both are similar to the “serendipity” theories of Scott M Peck.

    • Rene

      Social theory is what is most lacking in universities today. Even architects need it to have some understanding of the changing needs of home dwellers. But very few people are qualified to teach it. Your university is lucky to have you, Bert.