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.”

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