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.