In a recent essay, I mentioned that I work as a university custodian among academics and administrators who “look even more miserable than those of us maintaining the buildings.” Actually, I would go a bit further and say the cleaners typically seem to be much more cheerful than the faculty members whose offices we keep ship-shape. It’s a pattern I see repeated among my academic friends, cohorts in local reading groups, and colleagues from my grad school days. Many of them appear to be continually stressed and unhappy, even while doing work they claim as the only thing they’ve ever wanted to do. Of course, one must be careful about overgeneralizing; to tweak Tolstoy, perhaps every unhappy academic department is unhappy in its own way.
To tweak Tolstoy, perhaps every unhappy academic department is unhappy in its own way.
Nevertheless, something is afoot here. There’s a large body of documentation at this point indicating that adjunct professors are unhappy, associate professors are unhappy, Canadian, American, Australian, and British academics are unhappy, and students are unhappy and indebted. Evils seem to be legion: state funding for higher education has declined dramatically, a large administrative apparatus has arisen looking to remake universities along market lines, tuition rates have skyrocketed, more classes are taught by precarious contract workers, and dangerous thinkers have vanished. Much of this could be attributed to hyperbolic journalism, but when combined with what I see around me daily in the halls of academe, I tend to wonder if we might actually be better off in the toiletariat than the professoriate.
Then again, have things really changed that much? Without minimizing the current crises in academe, we should notice that grievances about the life of university-based scholarship are as old as the modern university and remain evergreen. In that prior essay, I cited Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1874 Untimely Meditation in which he lauds the “educator” Arthur Schopenhauer in part by comparing Schopenhauer positively to the “scholars” Nietzsche saw ensconced in the Prussian university system. An educator is something very different from a scholar, according to Nietzsche. True educators “reveal the material basis of your being” by rooting out all the weeds of false belief and opening up a philosophical “refuge from all tyranny,” especially the tyranny of the crowd. It seems unlikely that Schopenhauer could have fulfilled this role were he a professor, by Nietzsche’s account. In fact, Nietzsche wrote the essay in 1874, while still holding his own ill-fated professorship at the University of Basel; by 1878, he had abandoned academe, having held the position off and on for less than a decade.
In the piece, Nietzsche’s critique of what he calls the “selfishness of scholarship” sounds both like nineteenth-century Romanticism and uncomfortably familiar. He complains that scholars reduce all experience to dry intellectual material, a “dialectical play of question and answer” that nullifies deeper feelings. Instead of being motivated by those profound feelings, a sense of justice, or a sense of dread and awe, Nietzsche sees other motivations at work.
- Cunning ways of thought, “so it is not truth, but seeking itself that is sought”
- A compulsion to challenge and do battle with others
- Desire to find a “particular truth” that could be useful to ruling groups or dominant opinions and thereby gain favor (one thinks of Heidegger here)
- A reverence for old opinions narrowed down to a restricted “permissible sagacity”
- A similarly narrow field of vision that can only study small things that are close at hand
- An overweening modesty: scholars “are creatures that crawl not fly”
- An exaggerated loyalty to their teachers and leaders
- A rote and routine progression through a career
- A desire to flee boredom through books
- A search for truths that might be made personally profitable
- Desire to win the esteem and attention of fellow scholars
- A vain desire to stake out a small area of study for themselves
- A playful instinct that never looks very deeply into things
- And, finally, in a few rare cases, a sense of justice
Nietzsche’s criticisms are harsh and perplexing and certainly a tad excessive. But he’s calling out traits that are fully in accord with human nature and observable in many professions. And it’s interesting how many of his gripes evoke common critiques of contemporary scholarship. In a lengthy recent discussion on YouTube, University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson and Philadelphia University of the Arts Professor Camille Paglia (both of them ardent Nietzscheans, one suspects) bemoan the same sorts of careerism, narrowness of vision, lack of feeling, brittleness, ressentiment, and what Nietzsche would call a “want of piety and reverence” among academics. From another angle, the late academic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick questioned the centrality of a practice she called “paranoid reading” in the humanities, something that I suspect often materializes out of Nietzschean ressentiment. Sedgwick compares this to “reparative reading,” a practice that Heather Love notes “contrasts with familiar academic protocols like maintaining critical distance, outsmarting (and other forms of one-upmanship), refusing to be surprised (or if you are, then not letting on), believing the hierarchy, becoming boss.” In all of these modern critiques, as with Nietzsche, there is a recurring theme that academic ways of doing scholarship have become unnatural, intellectually constricting, or their motivations are unhealthy; and none of them sound particularly joyous.
Which raises the question: What should motivate us to undertake scholarship? It’s interesting that, for many of us, the first answer to come to mind would be the same: Curiosity. This is so common as be axiomatic, but we rarely ask: what is curiosity? In his interesting book The Uses of Curiosity in Early Modern France and Germany (Oxford, 2004), Neil Kenny shows how discussions of curiosity first became commonplace during the rise of German universities in the 1600s. Since antiquity, curiosity had been seen mostly as a vice; recall Augustine’s “concupiscence of the eyes.” It was really in the early modern period, according to Kenny, that curiosity came to be seen as “morally indifferent in itself but always manifest(ing) in any different context as a vice or a virtue.” Curiosity was now seen as a “passion or desire rooted in the body” that could be utilized by universities to reinforce “the superiority of the higher faculty,” to secure funds, or even, as in the Prussian context, to gather information for the state. On the other hand, curiosity could become “an illness that takes the form of meddling,” or when pleasurable, “useless, impractical, and unserious.” Universities, therefore, had a strong interest in regulating curiosity and distancing themselves from transgressive forms of curiosity, described wonderfully by one seventeenth-century academic as “a disordered appetite to know.” Thomas Hobbes was unique in seeing curiosity in glowing terms—as the “lust of the mind” that distinguishes men from beasts—for most thinkers, curiosity could be much more problematic.
Curiosity is problematic: it’s messy and disorienting. It leads us down blind alleys and rabbit holes and sometimes to despair.
While we tend to be much more sympathetic toward curiosity today, it’s not clear that our underlying uncertainties have changed very much. Curiosity is problematic: it’s messy and disorienting. It leads us down blind alleys and rabbit holes and sometimes to despair. It’s probably not surprising that Hobbes’s sanguine view of curiosity remains uncommon in philosophy after the Enlightenment. Martin Heidegger, for instance, takes a rather dim view of curiosity in Being and Time. A mode of being-in-the-world that avoids any authentic choices, curiosity (Neugier) for Heidegger is almost compulsively superficial and restless. When curiosity has become free, it takes care to see not in order to understand what it sees, that is, to come to a being toward it, but only in order to see. It arouses our sense of surprise and newness; we might define curiosity, in fact, as the active intellectual pursuit of novelty. Without using the word, Heidegger describes curiosity as flighty: “It seeks novelty only to leap from it again to another novelty.” It is a shallow form of distraction. “The care of seeing is not concerned with comprehending and knowingly being in the truth, but with the possibilities of abandoning itself to the world.” Elsewhere, Heidegger insists that curiosity is a degraded form of the mood of wonder that should initiate true philosophy, a charge that seems particularly unfair.
Nevertheless, curiosity is enthralling—it leads us helplessly deeper into the world. In that recent piece, I wrote of the blissful person: “They derive deep bliss from the practices of striving and engagement, and only minor satisfaction from the moment in which a desire is realized.” And for such people there is something deeply gratifying in the sheer ongoingness of curiosity, which is certainly a “practice of striving.” Further, curiosity is not only rooted in the body and the senses, it also seems to have an erotic content and to be somehow a function of libido, something increasingly troublesome in the “professionalized” corporate/academic setting where any eroticism can be perilous. Finally, curiosity is also something that, we must admit, is exceedingly rare, even among academics.
Perhaps, curiosity is even at odds with institutional scholarship. Curiosity strikes me as something that is exceedingly hard to channel into any professional specialty without in some sense cutting it off at the root. It can easily grow wild, becoming uncontrolled and boundless, as it was for Doctor Faustus. Yet, paradoxically, curiosity is both boundless and mere; we experience difficulty fully enjoying mere things, while boundless things confront our own status as bounded by time and mortality.
And “professionalization” in the academic context is really a sort of bureaucratization of curiosity. Academic scholarship has an aim and tendency to conquer the novel or uncanny and slot curiosities into established contexts in order to build up longstanding bodies of knowledge. This might be why Nietzsche describes his hated “scholar” as being “by his very nature unfruitful and with a certain hatred for the fruitful man.” Unrestrained curiosity is fruitfully excessive. It’s too much—it’s something working academics would probably be best to keep zipped up. It is unprofessional.
Curiosity exists in that ambiguous tension between unknowing and partial knowledge.
After all, what universities monopolize more than anything is the production of legitimacy. Perhaps this is why there are more failed academics than successful ones; in a sense, they’re more fundamental to the profession. Curiosity exists in that ambiguous tension between unknowing and partial knowledge. So the unhappiness expressed by so many university academics might really result from an uneasy conscience about their own curiosity, which is the source of intellectually engaged being in the world, but has no endpoint in any type of expertise and can therefore hardly be institutionalized. It is merely and ceaselessly ongoing.
 Heather Love, “Truth and Consequences: On ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,’” Criticism, Volume 52, Number 2, Spring 2010, pp. 235–241.
See also: The Joan Stambaugh translation of Heidegger’s Being and Time, Section 36.
Rufus F. Hickok is a freelance writer, cook, janitor, doctor of history, part-time editor, and singer in a punk rock band. Born in Virginia, he currently resides in Canada.
As I understand him Heidegger uses the word curiosity to refer specifically to the sort of superficial desire to know that is exemplified by my current browsing various webpages—think of the political junky(me) who can’t wait to find out the latest poll numbers..
Perhaps I am not in touch with common usage, but I always thought there was another meaning, the desire to understand and is associated with wonder and puzzlement H can’t very well be very opposed to this, as the whole point of his career is to try to understand Being.
That being said I agree with much of what you say. Professionalism in philososophy,at least, has lead to distracting beaurocratic bullshit, the preassure to publish has lead to a temptation to focus on just getting published, rather than publications being the end result of our serious inquiries. I’m being hyperbolic, of course, but something like this definitely goes on.
Stefan Schindler says
Dear “g” — I enjoyed your comment. Aristotle, of course, is famous for saying, “Philosophy begins with wonder.” (He’s quoting Plato, who’s quoting Socrates, who’s quoting Pythagoras.) Meanwhile, you’re quite right to note that the “publish or perish” syndrome haunts philosophy teachers, much to the detriment of their authenticity, their students, and the profession itself, and is at least partly responsible for so much so-called “philosophy” being hardly anything more than intellectual masturbation. You’re also right to say that Heidegger’s whole career was an attempt to authentically wonder at the nature of Being. And though his later works articulate (alas, ponderously) an astute critique of modern Western civilization, he of course undermined his own authenticity by being a full-fledged and unrepentant Nazi, who cared more for his black forest trees than his fellow human beings. (As you might intuit, I use the word “care” intentionally.) Richard Rorty was the opposite, evolving from the dry technicalities of analytic philosophy to a passionate humanism, consciously carrying the torch of Emerson, Mill and James (and unconsciously echoing Buddha) with his oft repeated concern to “diminish suffering” and “widen our circle of compassion” — and doing so with breathtakingly beautiful prose (confirming my conviction that philosophy ought to be written in the style of Hemingway), as well as offering enlightened, authentically pragmatic suggestions for something like democratic socialism. Given that the primary function of American education is to ignorate instead of genuinely educate (by stimulating “wonder”!), philosophers might help remedy that situation by recalling: 1) the Socratic dictum that humans are — or ought to be — walking questions marks; 2) Whitehead’s assertion that “boring teachers should be brought to trial for the murder of young souls”; and 3) authentic philosophy is the journey from the love of wisdom to the wisdom of love. (See my other “comment”, apparently below, for what I humbly hope are edifying recommendations, in which I echo Plato’s cave parable by quoting Noam Chomsky: “The problem is not that people don’t know; it’s that they don’t know they don’t know.”)
Rufus F. says
Stefan, this is a great description of Heidegger. I loved “cared more for his black forest trees than his fellow human beings”. I think Rorty describes him somewhere with the comment that plenty of bad men have written an interesting book. Thank you too for reminding me what a great writer Rorty is.
The Hemingway style, incidentally is dear to my heart- my great-grandfather, Guy Hickok, was good friends with Hemingway when they were both young reporters in Paris learning to write. His friend, of course, had a huge impact on English-language prose, to put it mildly.
I went to grad school for History and saw much the same there in terms of clever, but rushed, publications. The incentives are horribly perverse at this point. I felt like teaching, which is the closest thing any of us has to a sacred duty, is seen as a distraction as people were pressured to frantically pad their CV. I feel for young academics and particularly their eager students.
Stefan Schindler says
Many thanks for your “reply”, Rufus. Yes, Rorty did make the comment that sometimes a bad man writes an edifying book. Kindly allow me to suggest a lively and scintillating anthology of Rorty interviews called “Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself.” Also, I could have mentioned that Rorty followed a path similar to that of Jean-Paul Sartre in his political evolution — a path I myself have taken, and which is reflected in many of the insights in your article. Thanks for mentioning the Hemingway connection of your great-grandfather, which brought a tingle to my heart. Don’t know if you can see my email address, so feel free to contact me further (if you wish) at email@example.com … since we seem to be kindred souls. I’d be happy to begin such a discourse by sharing my two very short pieces on “Heart-Centered Rationality” and “A Poetics of Peace.” Am I correct in thinking that your icon-picture is of Thomas Merton posed as a Buddhist monk? If so, you will likely enjoy this link to a fascinating (one hour) lecture by Bonnie Thurston (clearly a gifted teacher) on “Merton and Buddhism” …
Stefan Schindler says
Rufus — I was mistaken in thinking that you emailed me (although I gather from your comments that you might do so in the not too distant future). So I cannot yet send you “Heart-Centered Rationality” and “A Poetics of Peace.” Meanwhile, though, I intuit that you would enjoy my 10-minute video called “Butterfly Dream Buffalo Thunder” (on youtube as “BDBT 10”). I wrote the lyrics and do the vocals, and my colleague, Ron Nowlan, does the music and (after we jointly chose the images) does the choreography. Beneath the youtube icon is a description which explains that the video is based on Chuang Tzu’s butterfly dream and integrates a comprehensive survey of the Pre-Socratics up to and including Socrates. Here’s the link …
Stefan Schindler says
Sorry that my attempt to include “BDBT 10) –i.e., Butterfly Dream Buffalo Thunder, version 10, which Ron and I are almost finished perfecting — failed, and which, alas, redundantly repeated the Merton lecture by Thurston. Thanks for your understanding and patience. I’m going to try here again …
Rufus F. says
G, yes, what you say is exactly right about Heidegger. In his University lectures, he works through what Aristotle and Plato meant by wonder and argues it is that desire to understand that has been eclipsed in our time by the superficial desire to know that he calls curiosity. I might call it “mere curiosity” instead, but I think he is too quick to dismiss it. Of course his project is about restoring something he feels has been lost, so he wants to clear out mere curiosity and uncover that mood of puzzlement or wonder.
Stefan Schindler says
Bravo, bro. A lucid, astute, and timely article indeed. You might enjoy my article “The Tao of Teaching: Romance and Process.” I assume you can Google it successfully (especially if you include the subtitle); and you’ll see that we share similar views. You might also enjoy my lecture on “A Pedagogy of Bliss” on youtube, but skip the unintelligible introduction by my former chairperson, and feel free to skip the “Response” part at the end by a philosophic colleague. Meanwhile, I’m going to try to include here the link to my lecture on “A Re-Awakening of Bicameral Mind”, which I’m confident you’ll enjoy, as I have long sought to be a stimulating teacher and to make philosophy relevant to the lives of students. Thanks again for your essay. I’m deeply impressed by the depth of your wisdom, as it relates both socio-politically and philosophically to the current state of academics in America. If you wish to converse further, outside the blog, feel free to email me personally. We appear to be kindred souls, and might benefit from further sharing. Now, with luck, here’s the link ….
Rufus F. says
Stefan, thanks so much! I will likely do that before too long. Actually, I belong to a loose reading group of current adjuncts, grad students, and a few stateless/recovering academics like myself. With permission, I’d like to share the Tao of Teaching article, which I was able to find via JStor, with our group. I will check out the lectures tonight when I get home.
Stefan Schindler says
Rufus — I’m honored that you wish to share my essay on “The Tao of Teaching: Romance and Process”, so of course you have my permission to do so. (Feedback welcome, but certainly not required.) At first I thought that your two messages in my gmail account were both embodied as blog responses, but I now intuit that one was an actual email, and, assuming this is correct, I’ll go back to my email account and respond accordingly. I too have long thought that teaching is a sacred duty; and if I remember to include my “Poetics of Peace” poem in my gmail response, you’ll note that I conclude by saying that teachers (over-worked, under-paid, and generally unappreciated) ought not to be persecuted for society’s ills. Meanwhile, your “reading group” might enjoy my short, inexpensive, student-friendly book entitled THE TAO OF SOCRATES: EASTERN WISDOM AND THE BIRTH OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY. You in particular might also enjoy my article entitled HEART MIND COSMOS. It should be easily accessible if you just Google that title. It was posted in the website called “Political Animal”, which later also posted my essay on BUDDHA’S POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY. (Kindly forgive me if I’m being too egocentric here; don’t mean to overwhelm you with recommendations; but given your enthusiasm, I’m confident that you take these suggestions in the right spirit.) 🙂
Alan Cook says
Excellent article. A classic meditation on many of these issues, which is well worth reading in conjunction with this piece, is Max Weber’s “Scholarship as a Vocation”:
Rufus F. says
Alan, of course- Weber! I haven’t read that essay since college. Thanks for sending it!
This reminded me of Foucault’s famous quote on curiosity, which I’ve pasted below for whoever is interested. I haven’t read this Foucault quote since I was in school, when the internet was in its nascent stages, and rereading it now, in the full flower of the internet age, I wonder if this is a case of “be careful what you wish for.”
Curiosity is a new vice that has been stigmatized in turn by Christianity, by philosophy, and even by a certain conception of science. Curiosity, futility. The word, however, pleases me. To me it suggests something altogether different: it evokes “concern”; it evokes the care one takes for what exists and could exist; a readiness to find strange and singular what surrounds us; a certain relentlessness to break up our familiarities and to regard otherwise the same things; a fervor to grasp what is happening and what passes; a casualness in regard to the traditional hierarchies of the important and the essential.
I dream of a new age of curiosity. We have the technical means for it; the desire is there; the things to be known are infinite; the people who can employ themselves at this task exist. Why do we suffer? From too little: from channels that are too narrow, skimpy, quasi-monopolistic, insufficient. There is no point in adopting a protectionist attitude, to prevent “bad” information from invading and suffocating the “good.” Rather, we must multiply the paths and the possibilities of coming and goings.
What of morality itself as a motivation?
That is: A moral obligation to know and understand, so that we may live and act according to knowledge, rather than ignorance.
Another motivation: Fear of uncertainty, and the resultant desire for certainty.