Two big stories in the news today are about academics: Ward Churchill, a professor being fired from the University of Colorado for what he said about the 9/11 bombings, and Norman Finkelstein, a professor at DePaul being denied tenure for what he has written about Israel. Both universities say they are firing these guys for other reasons, but those reasons simply don’t hold up, and it’s clear that the firings are essentially political. (Further information and discussion of both cases can be found here.)
I am a great believer in academic freedom. It is essential that academics be allowed to say the most controversial things without fear of being fired. But I am also a great fan of intellectual responsibility, to the point where I think in some cases it would be right to fire someone (or even imprison them?) for atrocious instances of intellectual irresponsibility.
Now the Churchill and Finkelstein cases seem to me to be importantly different. I think it is widely agreed that Finkelstein’s work is intellectually responsible. Many people find his conclusions unacceptible, and charge that he slants information the wrong way, but my sense is that even his opponents (apart from Alan Dershowitz) would say he has a position worth considering and wrestling with. (Or?) But it seems equally clear that Churchill is irresponsible in his silly ravings. His thoughts can be easily set aside without impairing fruitful intellectual discourse. So, in short, Finkelstein seems to be the sort of academic for whom academic freedom is designed, and Churchill seems to be a free rider, one of the problems you’ll get by stretching the protective cover too broadly.
Is there a way to offer the protection of academic freedom to all and only those who are intellectually responsible? My guess is no. It would be nice if academic administration could be trusted to sort out who’s being intellectually responsible and who’s not, but they have a lot going on. They need to secure money from legislatures and donors, they need to recruit students, and they need a trouble-free career history if they hope to advance to better jobs. So, I guess we are left with the need to vigorously defend academic freedom, even if it ends up encouraging and defending the intellectually irresponsible!
I read recently (here) that Bush has been consulting with ministers, theologians, historians, and philosophers (who???) in an attempt to figure out why everyone hates him. Apparently he doesn’t like the answers one can find in any newspaper. Anyway, he finally found someone who gives him the answers he likes:
It seems like we might distinguish between two ways of pursuing wisdom (meaning: metaphysics and values). We might pursue wisdom as a society/culture/species, which would be something like a scientific approach to the questions “What is real?” and “What is valuable?” Or we might pursue those same questions as individuals: “What do I take to be real?” and “What do I take to be valuable?”
Of course, so long as these questions are asked by individuals, one would expect each individual to come up with the same answers to these sets of questions. (My answers won’t be different to “What is real?” and “What do I take to be real?”) But there still is a difference in the approaches. When I pursue wisdom as an individual, I am interested in working out who I am. Maybe I need to do this in order to sort out some confusion I’ve encountered, or to make sense of my past, or struggle through some obstacle in my path. It’s existential and more personal than when I pursue wisdom on behalf of my species, which I might do solely out of curiosity, or even as part of my job.
The distinction, I guess, amounts to whether philosophy is done personally or impersonally. I think philosophers typically try to do or at least present their philosophy impersonally, perhaps in the hope of emulating scientists. But there is a need to make philosophy personal; this is philosophy’s therapeutic value. Sometimes people don’t need psychological therapy so much as philosophical therapy, which targets the questions and problems people ought to have (as opposed to the ones they shouldn’t be burdened with).
Individuals, as they pursue wisdom in their own ways, can help each other along by asking probing questions and objections and insisting on authenticity. I can call you on the carpet, and ask whether you really believe what you are telling yourself; or how you square what you believe with other things you should believe; or whether you practice what you preach; and so on. You do the same to me. The big question — “But is what I believe really true?” — ends up getting set aside, since all we can really do, in the end, is work out our beliefs, and hope for the best. Or maybe the way to put it is this: we can only work out ourselves, and hope for the best.