Some Thoughts on Academic Language and the Cult of Neutrality

|
April 1, 2020

Taymaz Tabrizi is currently Director of Research at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He holds a PhD from McMaster University, Canada from the Department of Religious Studies where he specialized in the anthropology of religion and Imāmī Islamic law. He also holds a doctoral diploma in Gender Studies and Feminist Research from McMaster University from the Department of English and Cultural Studies.

Academic endeavors often purport themselves as neutral analyses of socio-historical phenomena yet their metaphysical assumptions are no less biased than any other scholarly endeavor.

There are no rights and wrongsonly is’s

– Charles Manson (Mindhunter, Season 2, Netflix)

 

Introduction: Subjectivity, Post-Modernism and Academic Inquiry

Prior to his mental breakdown in 1889, the nineteenth century nihilist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (d. 1900) remarked that “every word is a prejudice.”[1]

For Nietzsche, the usage of our words – which were culturally and historically loaded with the experiences of those who used them – were a means for communicating the prejudices that we immortalized through language.[2] Through the artificial taxonomies of language, we enabled a morality of enslavement, a morality that made us weak and reactive. It was a Will to Power that created a make-believe world of “stable and reassuring identities.”[3] Words, instead of being solutions, became hinderances to their solutions. That every word was a prejudice laid the grounds for twentieth century postmodernism and subjectivity that not only denied a grand narrative of Truth and objective grounds for knowledge, but also desecrated them.

Subjectivity is a philosophical term that describes the lived experience of a person within a larger historical and political context. For Nietzscheans like Michel Foucault, this experience was not universal, it was not tied to an objective truth nor was it essential as essentialisms were impossible for post-modernists like Foucault. Rather, subjectivity was a contingent historical possibility that was intrinsically connected to a system of power that set the possibilities for thought and language as well as constraining people’s existence.[4]

Before I continue, it is important that I do not misrepresent the thoughts of Nietzsche and Foucault. Objective truths were rejected in so far as socio-ethical categories were involved or when it came to certain elements of metaphysics that went against their implicit claims to naturalism. Foucault, for one, took much of his own work as objectively true and Nietzsche was no different.

Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882.

Nietzsche never offered any clear articulation of what truth was, but he did believe that there were no objective truths in so far as values, morality and most religious metaphysics and, theologies in particular, were concerned. However, he was not an anti-realist, that is, he never claimed that there were no truths and facts about anything. For one, he certainly believed that religious cosmologies, particularly the Christian one, were objectively false.[5] Similarly, Foucault was not an anti-realist either. Like Nietzsche, Foucault was also an atheist and a naturalist.

The atheism and naturalism of many postmodern authors informs their ideas on truth, language and the metaphysics of history. If there are any objective and universal truths (Truth), they are largely relegated to the realm of empirical things or what they themselves concluded about human history. Anything beyond that, such as metaphysics, God, values and morality, ‘religious’ ways of knowing, beauty or what have you, were all subjective truths (truth) with no objective and ontological grounds for themselves.

All of these, including reason and rationality  were nothing but the fancies of discursive power and history unless they implicitly acted to support their own claims to truth. In this view of the world, ultimate and objective meaning is impossible thereby making naturalistic nihilism the fundamental fabric of their critique and ultimately, their thought, knowledge and metaphysics of history and reality as a whole.

Despite such weighty positions, Nietzsche, Foucault and many other postmodernists do not offer any systematic defense of their naturalistic claims about truth and knowledge. For them, naturalism is merely a brute fact, a magical view of the world that all rational beings should accept as self-evident – that is, if there is even such a thing as true rationality. For them, the death of God as a cultural event at the end of the Enlightenment marked the end of metaphysics and the illusion of Truth.[6]

Painted portrait of Michel Foucault.

A medieval theologian would find this quite curious. The postmodernist claim to nihilism is predicated on naturalism, the belief that, in its logical conclusion, holds that only natural forces operate in the universe, or, put differently, that there is nothing apart from the physical order and nothing – obviously – of the supernatural.[7] Hence truth and knowledge are solely products of the human mind and its subjective experiences. Naturally then, nothing can possibly transcend our subjectivities for there is nothing beyond the natural.

Our medieval theologian would find this curious as he would point out the incoherence of this claim as it would delegitimize its own postmodern taxonomy of truth and knowledge. He would ask as to how could such a claim have any objective validity when the rational grounds for making such arguments, be they descriptive or prescriptive, are themselves invalidated as contingent products of history? Are reason and rationality not the contingent products of historical power relations and – for a more modern theologian – naturalistic evolution? Are they not just biological tools to help ensure our survival (and domination of others) and not necessarily gateways to the truth? The theologian would conclude that this position is self-refuting.

More importantly though, the theologian would say that the claim itself is irrevocably a metaphysical one thus rendering it even more untenable. Perhaps a succinct observation can be found in what the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart noted,

The very notion of nature as a closed system entirely sufficient to itself is plainly one that cannot be verified, deductively or empirically, from within the system of nature. It is a metaphysical (which is to say “extra-natural”) conclusion regarding the whole of reality, which neither reason nor experience legitimately warrants. It cannot even define itself within the boundaries of its own terms, because the total sufficiency of “natural” explanations is not an identifiable natural phenomenon but only an arbitrary judgment. Naturalism, therefore, can never be anything more than a guiding prejudice, an established principle only in the sense that it must be indefensibly presumed for the sake of some larger view of reality; it functions as a purely formal rule that, like the restriction of the king in chess to moves of one square only, permits the game to be played one way rather than another. [8]

In other words, to take a stance that there is nothing beyond the natural is in itself a metaphysical claim as it is commenting on that which is beyond the natural. Our medieval theological would point out that this argument would be logically incoherent on metaphysical grounds because it uses metaphysics to reject metaphysics. If on the other hand the naturalist only claims that nothing beyond the natural has been observed and avoids making an absolute denial of metaphysics, then that claim, a medieval theological would hold, is itself more problematic as it is an arbitrary judgment about reality and is only subjective to his own observations

My aim here is not to offer a refutation of naturalism and postmodern claims to truth, nor is it here to extol a theological vision of knowledge and the world but merely to point out an often implicit but guiding prejudice and an arbitrary judgment over truth, knowledge and history which has permeated academia, especially its postmodern kind. Nihilism and naturalism, the standard framework of academic discourse is the elephant in the room that few academics will ever admit drives their work.

Even if the authors of academic publications do not adhere to naturalism in their personal lives, the architecture of power that runs through secular systems of education are just that, secular. It is a world where scholars can pretend to balance two opposing metaphysics in their scholarly lives, one private and one professional. Academics must play the tune of this power structure and perpetuate it if they are to remain “academic”, “neutral”, “unbiased” and more importantly, employed.

 

The Secularization of Academic Language, Ahistoricism and the Metaphysics of Historiography

C.S Lewis offers us a good summation of the dilemma over the metaphysics of historiography:

Many people think one can decide whether a miracle occurred in the past by examining the evidence ‘according to the ordinary rules of historical inquiry’. But the ordinary rules cannot be worked until we have decided whether miracles are possible, and if so, how probably they are. For if they are impossible, then no amount of historical evidence will convince us. If they are possible but immensely improbable, then only mathematically demonstrative evidence will convince us: and since history never provides that degree of evidence for any event, history can never convince us that a miracle occurred. If, on the other hand, miracles are not intrinsically improbable, then the existing evidence will be sufficient to convince us that quite a number of miracles have occurred. The result of our historical enquiries thus depends on the philosophical views which we have been holding before we even began to look at the evidence. [emphasis mine]. This philosophical question must therefore come first.[9]

The author gets to work only after he has already answered that question in the negative, and on grounds which he never communicates to us.[10]

We omit the preliminary philosophical tasks and rush on to the historical. When the wrong metaphysical position is taken when writing history, it is claimed that the position is ahistorical. Ahistoricism in academic jargon refers to historical inaccuracy and ignorance and a framing of an argument that lacks historical context. At best, it is a failure to follow the proper modes of historical inquiry. At worst, it is a counter factualism; a besmirching of academic integrity; a moral violation of a historiographical code of ethics; a taboo against true history and an insistence on that which did not happen and could not have happened.

We aren’t too sure when exactly such an attitude became prevalent, but we know that it coincided with the rise of the nation-state sometime during the Enlightenment where knowledge and the soul were split,[11] and humans broke from what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “great chain of Being”:

People used to see themselves as part of a larger order. In some cases, this was a cosmic order, a “great chain of Being,” in which humans figured in their proper place along with angels, heavenly bodies, and our fellow earthly creatures. This hierarchical order in the universe was reflected in the hierarchies of human society.  People were often locked into a given place, a role and station that was properly theirs and from which it was almost unthinkable to deviate. Modern freedom came about through the discrediting of such orders.[12]

Over half a century ago, Pope Paul VI (d. 1978) made a similar observation:

In the language of respectable people today, in their books, in the things that they say about man, you will not find that dreadful word which, however, is very frequent in the religious world – our world – especially in close relation to God: the word is ‘sin’. In today’s way of thinking people are no longer regarded as sinners. They are categorised as being healthy, sick, good, strong, weak, rich, poor, wise, ignorant; but one never encounters the word sin. The human intellect having thus been detached from divine wisdom, this word ‘sin’ does not recur because we have lost the concept of sin. One of the most penetrating and grave words of Pope Pius XII, of venerable memory, was, “the modern world has lost the sense of sin”. What is this if not the rupture of our relationship with God, caused precisely by ‘sin’[13]

The ontological and epistemological break of academic language with the great chain of Being marked a turning point in the privatization and abnormalization of language. The modern creation of the “public” as an abstract but political arbitrator of epistemic ‘modesty’ was to mark the boundaries between acceptable speech and secular blasphemy.

The corollary of this dichotomy was to be found in the political discourse of the “normal” which was vital to the modern nation-state’s ascendance in becoming the theological arbitrator of what was acceptable metaphysical speech in the public realm.[14] This process of policing and managing public language and knowledge is known to us as secularism which is commonly and simplistically defined as the separation of “religion” and the state.[15]

Secularism is therefore a theological process and apparatus of power that legitimates and delegitimizes modes of knowing and truth telling. This process is not confined to the nation-state per se, but all institutions that are part of its architecture of power, including mainstream academia.[16]

As such, academic institutions, like the state, are theological arbitrators of acceptable metaphysical speech. Neutrality in its naked definition is not possible but the imposition of ‘neutrality’ as most of academia sees and defines it – although in some forms beneficial – is an implicit means of enforcing a naturalistic metaphysics on scholarship. Consequently, neutrality – simply put – is the rendering of naturalism as the default and normative discourse of academia.

 

On the Future of Professors, Academics and Students

It goes without argument that Nietzsche’s philosophy – which in part gave birth to twentieth century postmodern philosophy – was nihilist in nature. Postmodern subjectivity, naturalism and nihilism go hand-in-hand. Whether or not academics themselves agree with nihilism, it is quite apparent that most of their work is published within its guiding framework.

David Bentley Hart paints the following picture of nihilism and intellectualism in secular institutions:

There are today a number of quite morally earnest philosophers (especially in continental Europe) who are perfectly content to identify themselves as nihilists, because they understand nihilism to be no more than the rejection of any idea of an ultimate source of truth transcendent of the self or the world—a rejection, that is, not of the various objective truths that can be identified within the world but of the notion that there is some total or eternal Truth beyond the world, governing reality and defining the good, the true, or the beautiful for all of us here below.[17]

Nihilism, like most academic terms, come in a large variety of definitions. For my own intents and purposes, I would see academic nihilism on two levels. First, it is the rejection that there is objective meaning to human life that transcends the purpose of self-fulfillment. This would obviously preclude any notion of a God who interferes in history and any form of divine command theory thus a priori rejecting any methodological possibility of divine operations in its object of study.

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky Vasili Perov, 1872.

On a more direct level, I would understand it in Dostoevskian terms, who in his Brother’s Karamazov, wrote that “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”[18] In modern institutions, most academics are compelled to write from a vantage point of secularism and indeed postmodernism. Any such vantage point would be necessarily nihilistic in a Dostoevskian framework as life from a postmodern perspective would be meaningless given that no invariant moral rules could ever be justified. As such, by virtue of its own position, it renders the world absurd and nonsensical as such rules cannot exist for people who can always question such an invariable claim.[19] This is indeed the hallmark of postmodernism and why its manifestation in academia is nihilism par excellence.

The consequences of this perspective have been all too evident. Academic work in the social sciences and humanities pursues critical thinking for its own sake where the only sure path to specialization has been the destruction of ideals and claims to beauty, truth and knowledge. Fundamentally speaking, academic output is not valued through the appreciation of literary beauty and truth, but only through critique, historicization and deconstruction.

On the basis of its first principles,[20] the only irreducible and self-evident standard in most published works that is held is that of naturalism and beyond that, there are no standards, and all is subject to scrutiny and destruction.[21] Moreover, even these values that are maintained are valuable in so far as they serve the purpose of acquiring power, money and tenured positions. As Mark Edmundson states,

“What you’re likely to get are more and more two-dimensional men and women. These will be people who live for easy pleasure…who think of money first, then second, and third; who hug the status quo…They will be people so pleased with themselves (when they’re not in despair at the general pointlessness of their lives) that they cannot imagine that humanity could do better[22]

 

Conclusion

This essay would not be complete if I did not share a few of my concerns on social justice activism and morality in modern academia. An observer of postmodern university culture might notice a general – or perhaps even overwhelming – trend among faculty and students on issues of social justice. These range from issues concerning gender, race, economic justice or what have you.

Although this may be an anecdotal observation, academic social justice activists are largely of the postmodern kind who strongly identify with and live in what Charles Taylor called the “imminent frame” when he described the disenchantment of contemporary secularity.[23] The imminent frame – as opposed to the transcendent frame – is a view that sees the world as completely existing in a natural order without any supernatural.

In previous times Taylor asserts, the self was porous and open, and it was thought that the soul connected people to the spiritual world and much of our thoughts, feelings and intuitions were influenced by forces external to us that we had no control over. This was the transcendent frame. For this reason, if we wanted to learn how to live the good life, we had to look outside of ourselves, that is, God or the spiritual world so as to find order, meaning and direction.

For Taylor, modernity changed this. The porous self became a “buffered self”, that is, one which was closed and self-contained. Since transcendent or supernatural forces outside of the modern subject no longer had an influence on him, he no longer needed to look outside of himself in order to learn how to live or find meaning. It is he who determined his life, and it is he who created his own meaning. Put differently, the self – not the transcendent – became the master of meaning and destiny and ultimately the moral ordering of the world.[24]

The social activism of modern “buffered self” activists presents a dilemma. In his review of Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Scott McLemee observes that

…all such theories presuppose in practice some moral value or ideal, like universal and impartial benevolence in the case of the philosophes and Benthamites, social justice in the case of Marxists, or simply, in the most general case, to reduce suffering, while in principle denying that any such value is other than an arbitrary, subjective preference.[25]

The incoherence of postmodern morality and theories of justice are quite serious and cannot be ignored. This is because ultimately, morality in the naturalistic metaphysics of modern academic discipline cannot be grounded ontologically in any objective manner. All claims are thereby necessarily subjective.

Metaphysical nihilism breeds moral nihilism, and no amount of arbitrary justice service can ever bridge the gap between what is and what ought to be in any objective sense.

It is worth quoting the Malaysian Muslim scholar Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas on the ultimate futility of postmodern academic endeavors:

…the shifting systems of thought that have brought modernity forth from the womb of history were fathered by the forces of secularization as a philosophical ideology. But as a matter of fact modernity or postmodernity has itself no coherent vision to offer that could be described as a worldview. If we could strike even a superficial similitude between a worldview and a picture depicted in a jigsaw puzzle, then the jigsaw of modernity is not only far from depicting any coherent picture, but also the very pieces to form such a picture do not fit. This is not to mention postmodernity, which is already undoing all the pieces. No true worldview can come into focus when a grandscale ontological system to project it is denied, and when there is a separation between truth and reality and between truth and values.[26]

Although postmodern scholarship has for three generations attempted to systematically deconstruct and destroy the ontological grounds which give world civilizations coherence to their worldviews, its own fundamental incoherence which it intrinsically denies itself may ultimately lead it to its own demise.

 


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, trans. R.J Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 323.

[2] Or as Will Dudley stated, it was loaded with “the prevailing spirit of the age.” See Will Dudley, Hegel, Nietzsche and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 2018.

[3] Michel Haar, Nietzsche and Metaphysics (New York: State University of New York Press, 1996), 74.

[4] Heyes, Cressida J. “Subjectivity and Power.” In Michel Foucault: Key Concepts, edited by Dianna Taylor, 159-72. Acumen Publishing, 2010. doi:10.1017/UPO9781844654734.012.

[5] See Brian Leiter., “Nietzsche’s Moral and Political Philosophy,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2015/entries/nietzsche-moral-political/>.  On Foucault’s objectivism, see Greg Seals, “Objectively Yours, Michel Foucault,” Educational Theory 48 no. 1 (Winter 1998): 59-66, doi 10.1111/j.1741-5446.1998.00059.x.

[6] Alan Milchman, Foucault and Heidegger: Critical Encounters (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 12.

[7] I am aware that some may make a distinction between “strong naturalism” and “weak naturalism”. The former would make the positive claim that nothing exists beyond physical reality. The latter would claim that only natural reality is observed, and if there is a supernatural, it cannot or has yet to be observed. Yet this would be philosophically problematic on many grounds which I do not want to get into right now. But it suffices to say that that in itself would be a subjective observation (for many people would state the contrary) and as such, it would be nothing but an arbitrary judgment and a guiding prejudice for knowledge and hence even more untenable than strong naturalism.

[8] For a more thorough investigation of naturalism from a theologian’s perspective, see David Bentley Hart, the Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

[9] C.S Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 2-3.

[10] Ibid., 3.

[11] See Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).

[12] Op. cit., The Malaise of Modernity (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1991), 3.

[13] PAUL VI, Homily, 20 September 1964.

[14] I will admit that despite this essay’s critiques of Foucault, I am indebted to him (and my reading of Talal Asad, who on some level is a Foucauldian) in my critiques of the secular nation-state.

[15] The category of religion is a modern conceptual construct that was born simultaneously with modern secularism. They do not exist without each other. The modern definition of religion was born out of the process of the privatization of Christianity where religion became one fragment among other fragments (social, cultural etc.) which the nation-state managed. And hence Christianity was never seen as a “religion” in the modern sense of the world, which emphasizes the priority of belief as a state of mind, but as Talal Asad aptly sees as a “constituting activity in the world”; see Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993),  47. It is also telling that when Islam is referred to as dīn, it is erroneously translated as “religion.” The actual word is connected to a Zoroastrian concept of daēnā (lit. “that which is seen and observed”, see Peter Clark, Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to an Ancient Faith (Sussex: Sussex Academic Press, 1998) and Middle Persian dēn which are related to the Sanskrit dharma, suggesting a right way of living that includes rights, laws, virtues, conduct, and duties in accordance with the cosmic order.

[16] Religious universities in the United States for example are generally not considered proper universities but as theological colleges even though they are nominally accredited. When such universities want to become part of the normative order of academia, they must mostly, if not fully adopt secular epistemological principles.

[17] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 21.

[18] Some have claimed that Dostoevsky never made such a claim. For a popular example, see David E. Cortesi “Dostoevsky Didn’t Say It: Exploring a widely-propagated misattribution.” <http://www.faqs.org/faqs/puzzles/archive/logic/>. However, this claim is nonsensical, the key phrase appears word for word in the Russian original of the novel in Part 4, Book 11, Chapter 4 (“A Hymn and a Secret”) which reads Без бога всё позволено (“If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”); see the statement bolded in context: А не любит бога Ракитин, ух не любит! Это у них самое больное место у всех! Но скрывают. Лгут. Представляются. ‘Что же, будешь это проводить в отделении критики?’ – спрашиваю. ‘Ну, явно-то не дадут’, – говорит, смеется. ‘Только как же, спрашиваю, после того человек-то? Без бога-то и без будущей жизни? Ведь это, стало быть, теперь всё позволено, всё можно делать?’ ‘А ты и не знал?’ – говорит. Смеется. ‘Умному, говорит, человеку всё можно, умный человек умеет раков ловить, ну а вотты, говорит, убил и влопался и в тюрьме гниешь!’ Это он мне-то говорит. Свинья естественная! Я этаких прежде вон вышвыривал, ну атеперь слушаю.

[19] See Thaddeus Metz “The Meaning of Life”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/life-meaning/>.

[20] By first principles I refer to the Aristotelian view here, which is a basic proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from anything else and that which offers the basis through which everything else is known.

[21] That is, except for ideas which the prevalent architecture of power deems as anathema to question.

[22] Mark Edmundson, Why Read? (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005), 139.

[23] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2007), 542.

[24] Ibid., 27 and 581.

[25] Scott McLemee’s review of “Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity”, September 1 1990, http://georgescialabba.net/mtgs/1990/09/sources-of-the-self-the-making.html

[26] Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islām: An Exposition of the Fundamental Elements of the Worldview of Islam (Kuala Lumpur: ISTAC, 1995), 5.

2020-04-01T17:03:06-08:00
Published Date: April 1, 2020
Category: Popular Culture

Taymaz Tabrizi

Taymaz Tabrizi is currently Director of Research at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He holds a PhD from McMaster University, Canada from the Department of Religious Studies where he specialized in the anthropology of religion and Imāmī Islamic law. He also holds a doctoral diploma in Gender Studies and Feminist Research from McMaster University from the Department of English and Cultural Studies.
View all publications

Subscribe

Loading