Sunday, 8 March 2015

The Eclipse of Reason in the University

Have we put engineers in charge of our Universities? With what appears to be rampant managerialism in education, it looks like it. Why have we done this? Horkheimer, in his "Eclipse of Reason" was alert to the problem, seeing the roots of modern technocracy in Platonic idealism:
"Plato wanted to make philosophers the masters; the technocrats want to make engineers the board of directors of society. Positivism is philosophical technocracy. It specifies as the prerequisite for membership in the councils of society an exclusive faith in mathematics. Plato, a eulogist of mathematics, conceived of rulers as administrative experts, engineers of the abstract. Similarly, the positivists consider engineers to be philosophers of the concrete, since they apply science, of which philosophy - in so far as it is tolerated at all - is merely a derivative. Despite all their differences, both Plato and the positivists think that the way to save humanity is to subject it to the rules and methods of scientific reasoning. The Positivists adapt philosophy to science, i.e., to the requirements of practice instead of adapting practice to philosophy. For them thought, in the very act of functioning as ancilla administrationis, becomes the rector mundi." 
So our university acilla administrationis does indeed appear to have become the rector mundi. Horkheimer's critique is that fundamentally, Platonic rationalisation is at odds with real people. They - even University managers - are not ruled by mathematics and technology. They are ruled by the love, greed, envy, passion, hubris that the great Greek dramatists wrote about. Universities are still as much Medea as media.

Horkheimer saves his most savage criticism for american pragmatism: principally the philosophies of John Dewey and Charles Peirce. The Peirce critique is important and interests me because Peirce plays a large role in the new ontologies of information produced recently by Terry Deacon, Soren Brier and John Mingers amongst others. I've never been entirely comfortable with Peircian semiotics, and Horkheimer's critique nails some of my concerns - but I'll write about that at some later point. It's Horkheimer's attack on Dewey which I want to focus on here because Dewey is held up as the bastion of modern progressive educational theory.

Dewey was an advocate of scientific naturalism in education. He believed that metaphysics, or anti-naturalism "prevented science from completing its career and fulfulling its constructive potentialities." A naturalistic pursuit of education would therefore elucidate knowledge as  "always a matter of the use that is made of experienced natural events, a use in which given things are treated as indications of what will be experienced under different conditions." Dewey's philosophy is a philosophy of useful prediction. This is important because we can see in much work that is considered to be scientific in universities today - particularly sophisticated computer agent-based modelling, big data analysis, and many applications of cybernetic thinking - forecasting is a fundamental concern. John Holland, creator of the Genetic Algorithm, even called for agent-based techniques to be used to create a "University Flight Simulator" (Heinz von Foerster congress, 2010). Horkheimer pinpoints the problem:

"[Forecasting] does not differentiate sufficiently between judgements that actually express a prognosis - e.g. 'tomorrow it will rain' - and those that can be verified only after they have been formulated, which is naturally true of any judgement. Present meaning and future verification of a proposition are not the same thing. The judgement that a man is sick, or that humanity is in agony, is no prognosis, even if it can be verified in a process subsequent to its formulation." 
He highlights Dewey's belief that philosophy is "not a contemplative survey of existence nor an analysis of what is past and done with, but an outlook upon future possibilities with a reference to attaining the better and averting the worst." (Dewey, "A recovery of Philosophy", quoted by Horkheimer). Horkheimer's assessment is that "according to pragmatism, truth is to be desired not for its own sake but in so far as it works best, as it leads us to something that is alien or at least different from truth itself." From here, Horkheimer compares pragmatism with technocracy, which
"has certainly contributed a great deal toward the fashionable disrepute of that 'stationary contemplation' which was once the highest aspiration of man. Any idea of truth, even a dialectical whole of thought, as it occurs in a living mind, might be called 'stationary contemplation,' in so far as it is pursued for its own sake instead of as a means to 'consistency, stability, and flowing intercourse."
The decline of philosophy in Universities is a telling endorsement of this. The acilla administrationis of Universities are pragmatic and proud of it! And yet, in the long-run, Horkheimer argues that this kind of rationalism leads to the most irrational and disastrous of consequences.
"Just as all life today tends increasingly to be subjected to rationalization and planning, so the life of each individual, including his most hidden impulses, which formerly constituted his private domain, must now take the demands of rationalization and planning into account: the individual's self-preservation presupposes his adjustment to the requirements for the preservation of the system. He no longer has room to evade the system. And just as the process of rationalization is no longer the result of the anonymous forces of the market, but is decided in the consciousness of a planning minority, so the mass of subjects must deliberately adjust themselves: the subject must, so to speak, devote all his energies to being 'in and of the movement of things' in the terms of the pragmatistic definition"
He goes on to say that "formerly reality was opposed to and confronted with the ideal, which was evolved by the supposedly autonomous individual; reality was supposed to be shaped in accordance with this ideal. Today such ideologies are compromised and skipped over by progressive thought, which thus unwittingly facilitates the elevation of reality to the status of ideal. Therefore adjustment becomes the standard for every conceivable type of subjective behaviour."

The result is an increase in irrationalism and a kind of political apathy: "Shrewd as man's calculations have become as regards his means, his choice of ends, which was formerly correlated with belief in an objective truth, has become witless: the individual, purified of all remnants of mythologies, including the mythology of objective reason, reacts automatically, according to general patterns of adaptation."

Later he says that "as religious and moral ideologies fade, and  political theory is abolished by the march of economic and political events, the ideas of the workers tend to be molded by the business ideology of their leaders."

That, I think is exactly where we are in modern Universities. Education has become depoliticised. Platonic rationalism has produced a scientistic emphasis not only in the way education operates, but in the subjects that education concerns itself with. There is no longer room for "stationary contemplation" and yet this may be more urgently needed than ever before. Moreover, too many university staff have become like those workers molded by the business ideology of their leaders. The space for critiquing what those leaders are up to is being eroded, which is increasingly to the advantage of those leaders and to the detriment of society.


Oleg Liber said...

"We need a new story we can believe in" Adam Curtis, Bitter Lake

Mark Johnson said...

Absolutely! It needs to be dug out - it's got buried in history. I've got my shovel... (shame I got Horkheimer's name wrong when I first posted it! - nobody noticed though!!)