Basic Argument for the Need for an Intellectual Revolution
" Reason, of course, is weak, when measured against its never-ending task – Einstein
Here is an outline of the argument for the urgent need to bring about a revolution in the aims and methods of academic inquiry so that it takes up its proper task of seeking and promoting wisdom rather than just acquiring knowledge.
Rational Tackling of Problems of Living
Judged from the standpoint of helping to promote human welfare, inquiry devoted, in the first instance to acquiring knowledge is harmfully irrational. It is so seriously irrational, indeed, that it violates three of the four most elementary rules of rational problem-solving that one can think of.
The four elementary rules of rational problem-solving in question are:-
- Articulate and seek to improve the articulation of the basic problem(s) to be solved.
- Propose and critically assess alternative possible solutions.
- When necessary, break up the basic problem to be solved into a number of preliminary, simpler, analogous, subordinate, more specialized problems (to be tackled in accordance with rules (1) and (2)), in an attempt to work gradually toward a solution to the basic problem to be solved.
- Inter-connect attempts to solve the basic problem and specialized problems, so that basic problem-solving may guide, and be guided by, specialized problem-solving.
No problem-solving enterprise which persistently violates any one of these elementary, almost banal, rules can be rational. But the academic enterprise, in giving priority to acquiring knowledge in order to help promote human welfare, persistently violates three of these four rules.
A kind of academic enterprise which sought to help promote human welfare rationally, implementing these rules, would give intellectual priority to:-
- Articulating our problems of living, personal, social and global;
- Proposing and critically assessing possible solutions – possible and actual actions – policies, political programmes, new institutions, philosophies of life.It would also:
- Break up these basic problems of living into a great number of preliminary, subordinate problems – specialized problems of knowledge and technological know-how.And to counteract the dangers of specialized problem-solving becoming unrelated to our more basic problems of living, academia would also:-
- Interconnect the tackling of problems of living and more specialized problems ofknowledge and technological know-how.
The outcome of implementing these four rules would be a kind of inquiry which could be said to devote reason to the task of promoting wisdom (wisdom being the capacity to realize what is of value in life for oneself and others, and thus including knowledge, technological know-how and understanding.)
Irrationality of Academia
Needless to say, academia today is not organized along these lines at all. And nor can it be, as long as the basic intellectual aim is to acquire knowledge rather than to promote wisdom. Granted that the aim is knowledge, the fundamental intellectual tasks must be to articulate problems of knowledge, and propose and critically assess possible solutions, namely claims to knowledge.
Restricted to tackling problems of knowledge in this way, academia cannot give priority to (1) articulating problems of living, and (2) proposing and criticizing possible solutions – namely human actions. (At most, these intellectual activities go on at the fringes of academia, in such departments as social policy and peace studies.)
At a stroke, the two most basic rules of rational problem-solving are violated. Rule (3) is put into practice splendidly. The outcome is the maze of specialized research that goes to make up most of the research work of our universities today.
But rule (4) is also violated. Failure to tackle fundamental problems of living means, inevitably, that specialized problem-solving cannot be interconnected with problems of living.
It is in this way that three of the four most basic rules of rational problem-solving are violated. However rational academic inquiry may be when construed to have the aim of improving knowledge, it is grossly irrational when construed to have the aim of contributing to human welfare by intellectual and educational means.
And this wholesale, structural irrationality of academia, built into the institutional and intellectual character of our universities, is not just a formal matter. It has profoundly damaging consequences.
The 20th century record of unnecessary human suffering, of war, death camps,
totalitarian states, torture and slavery, vast differences of wealth and power across the planet, environmental degradation does not inspire confidence for the 21st century. In some ways prospects for this century seem even more bleak. The world population continues to grow, global warming threatens to cause havoc via rising sea levels and climate change, and oil reserves will begin to run out. Grounds for conflict and war will, in other words, increase, and lethal modern armaments, whether conventional, chemical, biological or nuclear, become ever more widespread and available for use. Recent events, such as those in Iraq, indicate that we have learned nothing about how to avoid war.
Can we, in the rest of the 21st century, avoid inflicting on ourselves the kind of horrors suffered by so many in the 20th century? Only if we learn how to resolve our conflicts and problems of living in more cooperatively rational ways than we have succeeded in doing so far. And in order to achieve that, it is essential that we have a lively and socially influential tradition of exploring, imaginatively and critically, our conflicts and problems of living and what we might do about them in increasingly cooperative ways. It is essential, in other words, that our institutions of learning give priority to actively (1) articulating problems of living, and (2) proposing and critically assessing possible increasingly cooperative solutions. In our vast, complex, rapidly changing, interconnected world, fraught with conflict and injustice, our only hope of resolving our conflicts and problems more humanely is that we have in existence socially influential thinking about how we are to do this. We cannot leave this to the politicians, to civil servants, to the journalists, to think tanks or charities, to religious leaders or self-appointed prophets. The job needs to be done by our academics. But at present, by and large, academia fails to act in this way, as a kind of people’s civil service, doing openly for humanity what actual civil services are supposed to do in secret for governments. It fails to do this because, as a result of giving priority to the pursuit of knowledge, the two most basic rules of rational problem-solving, rules (1) and (2), are violated. The activity of exploring problems of living, imaginatively and critically, instead of being central to the academic enterprise, is pushed to the fringes, and marginalized. What academia most needs to do if it is to help us learn how to avoid repeating the horrors of the 20th century is hardly done at all, being at odds with the pursuit of knowledge. This failure of academia to implement rules (1) and (2), this abnegation of reason, has dire consequences indeed: man-made horrors persist, and millions suffer and die as a result.
It is of course conceivable that even if academia did implement (1) and (2), this might not make all that much difference. One can imagine a world in which universities devote themselves to creating vividly imagined and severely criticized proposals for action, policies, strategies, political programmes, ideas for institutional changes, philosophies of life, all eminently practical and desirable, all designed, if implemented, to promote peace, justice, the flourishing of humanity – and the rest of the world pays not a jot of attention, and continues to blunder on its way. Having in existence a kind of academic inquiry rationally devoted to promoting human welfare is not, in other words, sufficient to procure a better world. But it may be necessary. In its absence it may well not be possible for humanity to learn how to make progress towards a genuinely civilized world.
And given the multiplicity of connections that exist between academia and the rest of the social world, it is difficult to see how having a kind of academic inquiry which gives priority to exploring problems of living could not but make a difference in the long term.
Failure to implement rule (4) – inevitable once rules (1) and (2) are not implemented – has bad consequences as well. It will tend to lead to specialized problem-solving, the outcome of implementing (3), being developed in ways which fail to do justice to what our most urgent problems of living are. Just that would seem to be an all too striking a feature of much scientific and academic research undertaken in universities today. A great deal of work in social science and the humanities seems neither to contribute to our knowledge and understanding of the human world, nor to be a contribution to the human spirit, like great literature. Medical research, carried on in the main in wealthy countries, is mainly directed towards the health problems of the wealthy, and the need of drug companies to make profits, rather than to the health problems of those whose needs are the greatest, the majority of people alive today, living in conditions of poverty in Africa, Asia, South America and elsewhere. By far the biggest part of the global budget for scientific and technological research goes on military research, almost all of which, one is inclined to think, is against the interests of humanity, although it may be in the interests of those who undertake the research, the companies that win defence contracts, and their political masters.
Current Global Crises
It is hardly too much to say that all our current global problems stem from the irrationality of academic inquiry, from our long-standing pursuit of knowledge dissociated from the more fundamental pursuit of wisdom. Population growth, the terrifyingly lethal character of modern war and terrorism, immense discrepancies of wealth across the globe, annihilation of indigenous people, cultures and languages, impending depletion of natural resources, destruction of tropical rain forests and other natural habitats, rapid mass extinction of species, pollution of sea, earth and air, thinning of the ozone layer, global warming - even the aids epidemic: all these relatively recent crises have been made possible by modern science and technology. It is not that people became greedier or more wicked in the 19th and 20th centuries; nor is it that the new economic system of capitalism is responsible, as some historians and economists would have us believe. The crucial factor is the creation and immense success of modern
science and technology. This has led to modern medicine and hygiene, to population growth, to modern agriculture and industry, to world wide travel (which spreads diseases such as aids), and to the destructive might of the technology of modern war and terrorism, conventional, chemical, biological, nuclear.
All this is more or less inevitable, granted that science is dissociated from the more fundamental pursuit of wisdom. Successful science produces knowledge, which
facilitates the development of technology, both of which enormously increase our power to act. It is to be expected that this power will often be used beneficially (as it has been used), to cure disease, feed people, and in general enhance the quality of human life. But it is also to be expected, in the absence of wisdom, that such an abrupt, massive increase in power will be used to cause harm, whether unintentionally, as in the case (initially at least) of environmental damage, or intentionally, as in war and terror.
Before the advent of modern science, lack of wisdom did not matter too much; we lacked the means to do too much damage to ourselves and the planet. But now, in possession of unprecedented powers bequeathed to us by science, lack of wisdom,
stemming from the long-standing irrationality of our institutions of learning, has become a menace.
As a matter of great urgency, we need to bring about a revolution in academic inquiry to ensure that all four rules of reason are put into academic practice in the pursuit of human welfare. Instead of having a kind of inquiry that helps create our problems, what we urgently need is one that helps us solve them. At present academia betrays both reason and humanity.
If you feel some sympathy with the above line of thought (you don't have to agree with all the details!), do join Friends of Wisdom .
For more detailed presentations of the above argument see N. Maxwell: From Knowledge to Wisdom: The Need for an Academic Revolution. London Review of Education, 5 (2), 2007, 97-115; From Knowledge to Wisdom: A Revolution in the Aims and Methods of Science, Blackwell, 1984 (2nd ed., Pentire Press, 2007); How Can Universities Help Create a Wiser World, Imprint Academic, 2014.