The Folly of Positivism

The former president of the Royal Irish Academy, Luke O’Connor Drury, earlier this year delivered an address on the state of academia here in the West. I link to it here. His speech manages to include much of what is wrong with the attitude of academics today and to commit many of the typical errors to which my former colleagues, professors in general, are prone. Drury is by profession a natural scientist, but presumes to speak for the humanities also. It is worthwhile to rebut and correct his most egregious mistakes.

Almost nothing of what Drury says applies to the state of the humanities today. Much of his speech is permeated by that positivist self-congratulatory and onanistic naiveté which is one of the very distasteful aspects of academia. Natural scientists in general may have a right to this naiveté, because in their domains there is, for the most part, real and measurable progress, as Drury points out here and there, a fact with which no reasonable person could take issue, but one immediately runs into trouble when applying that attitude to the humanities: At the top of p.6 of the speech, Drury believes that the “philosophical basis for ethics” (whatever that means – ethics, almost by definition, always has a philosophical basis; it is one of the subdivisions of philosophy) is responsible for the abolition or repudiation of the death penalty, slavery, torture, etc. He appears to believe that such a philosophical basis was an Enlightenment phenomenon. In truth, however, the greatest text on ethics ever written, with a “philosophical basis” to be sure, remains Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and Aristotle owned slaves – not because he was immoral or had no “philosophical basis”, but because he lived in an economic system that was vastly different from our own and featured extreme scarcity. (One can still distinguish morally within such a system, between someone who, say, beat his slaves for fun and someone who, like Aristotle, treated them relatively humanely and gave them their freedom in his will.) Morals always come after economy, a fairly elementary state of affairs of which Drury seems to be entirely unaware. It is a sign of how little he has thought things through that he considers the only possible factors behind moral change alterations in biology (which of course he rightly rejects) and the apparently quite sudden ethical illumination of the Enlightenment. In this vein, his approving quote of the notion that the "injection of abstract ideals" (and how exactly are you going to inject them?) could solve the civil war in Syria is beyond laughable and illustrates the very short length to which academic positivists will go to understand cultures wholly alien to their own, even though it is precisely that sort of internationalism which they like to claim is theirs.

The attribution itself of human rights to the Enlightenment is only partially true, and this highly incomplete understanding renders Drury more prone to his mistake, to believing that the morality behind human rights was a new “philosophical basis”. In actuality, the ideological seeds of human rights are to be found much earlier, already in Christianity, and before that in stoicism, from which the early Church Fathers borrowed quite a lot. The early Greek stoics were pantheists who believed that divine breath, pneuma, is in all things, and if there is something of the divine in every single human being, as they believed, this renders us to some extent sacrosanct. The Christians adopted parts of this notion in their ideas that human beings are equal in God’s eyes and that one should also love one’s enemies (the Christians often did not live up to these ideals, of course, but as a philosophical matter the issue is clear). This is what later allowed the explicit formulation of the notion of human rights in Europe, at a time when material abundance had become widespread enough to allow most people at least a modicum of leisure. The amusing thing is of course that these Western academic positivists love to make fun of Christianity and to consider themselves superior to it, the same dogma to which to a certain extent they owe their cherished human rights. In general, they do not realize how much of the everyday morality they take for granted comes precisely from that religion, because they are oikophobes (see my very first blog entry of May 8, 2014), who love everything but their own (to this particular type of decadence, Drury thankfully seems less prone) and who have spent no time studying the genealogy of their own beliefs.

(A brief clarification: I am of course not saying that slavery is a matter of moral indifference. Slavery is terrible, but the very felicitous fact that we do not have slavery today in the West is due primarily to economic factors, which then allow us to morally reject it, not to any particular superiority of ours vis-à-vis earlier societies or to any “philosophical basis” in modern as opposed to ancient ethics.)

Drury stresses through his speech the importance of government financial support for the academies on their territories. I also feel such support is important, but it is naïve to believe, as Drury does, that this money is today being well spent within the humanities. Not only is the money not put to good use, but it is in fact causing considerable damage, because the ready availability of public monies (more in some countries than others) serves as an incentive for scholars to come up with the most ridiculous and/or pointless theories without any use for their disciplines, not to mention their societies at large, in order to lay their hands on those monies. It is funny indeed that Drury says on p.10 that "We certainly do not want degree-mills turning out cloned graduates who can recite all the standard dogmas, but have no ability to think for themselves", since that is precisely what we have today in the humanities, and he simply seems to assume that the problem is avoidable but spends no time on how to avoid it. (Immediately after the last quote he includes the self-congratulatory remark that an academic value is anti-authoritarianism, “captured in the motto of the Royal Society of London” – well then, if you have a pithy motto, problem solved. The academy used to be anti-authoritarian, but now academics think they’re brave and edgy when e.g. they criticize Christianity, a dogma that has already discredited itself more than enough; there is no bravery or anti-authoritarianism in that.) It does not occur to Drury for a moment, at the bottom of p.11 where he says that researchers should not exaggerate the benefits of their research, that such exaggerations are precisely a direct consequence of the financial largess he advocates! Again, he says it is a problem, even one that he feels strongly about, but does not do much to identify its solution, except by a few very general remarks, much less its cause (an understanding of which is of course essential for arriving at a proper solution). I agree that discoveries can come from the most unexpected corners, so that funding in and of itself can be a good thing, but it is telling that all of his specific examples are from medicine and the natural sciences.

So the academic positivism Drury exhibits here, the notion that humane and philosophical knowledge can be obtained as surely as that of natural science, is terribly short-sighted (and in fact a hallmark of that Enlightenment to which Drury attributes more than its due). It is very good that Drury is a natural scientist.