Academic Gibberish And The Hermeneutics Of Mistrust

Overwhelming evidence attests to the liberal tilt on our college campuses. Studies show that the faculty at most mainstream institutions are overwhelmingly registered with the Democratic party and give a disproportionate share of their political donations to left-leaning candidates. A recent study of donations by faculty at Princeton University during the current Presidential election season shows that every faculty donation went to a Democratic candidate. Were such unanimity to manifest itself for conservative candidates at an academic institution, one can be certain that our leading academics would decry the lack of diversity.

Anecdotal evidence everywhere further attests not only to the liberalism of most “mainstream” faculty, but the disproportionate share of radical professors in our humanities and social sciences. Innumerable stories have been circulated of aggressive efforts to “destabilize” gender, to question “normativity,” to challenge backward institutions such as marriage and family, to encourage students to break out of pre-conceived social notions they may have inherited from parents and community. A recent article in my campus’s newspaper, The Hoya, reflects this sort of radicalism. In the column, philosophy professor Mark Lance introduces himself thusly:

I’m an anarchist, a rationalist, a feminist, a man, a pragmatist, an evangelical agnostic, a friend, a philosopher, a parent, a teacher, a committed partner of one other person and a nonviolent revolutionary. These labels are all, to different degrees, important to me; they define my sense of self. You could call them my identities, but all are “works in progress,” which is to say that the label stays roughly the same, but my sense of what it means changes and grows. (For example, I still have no idea what I mean by identifying as a man, though over the years I’ve figured out many things I don’t mean. Some days, I wish that one would drop off the list.)

Aside from its unbearable self-indulgence, it’s a predictable indication that Lance would seek to reject the one form of his “identity” that is actually given by nature. This is the one unbearable aspect of identity, because it is not chosen or willed.

Conservatives are often satisfied to register their righteous anger and indignation at this state of affairs, and have tactically adopted the language of victimhood and demands for diversity as a way of combating this left-wing hegemony. This may be politically effective and may in fact help raise awareness of the current campus culture to potential supporters outside the academy. However, these arguments are only tactical at best, and fundamentally obscure deeper investigation into why this state of affairs has come to pass and what would be required to begin a more fundamental reform of higher education.


The answer may in fact be discomfiting to many conservatives. We would like to attribute the radicalism to a foreign contagion, and in particular the incursion of French and German philosophy into a once pristine American curriculum. A thinker with no less authority and insight than Allan Bloom pointed toward the influence of Nietzsche, and subsequently Weber and Heidegger, as nefarious influences who subtly infiltrated the philosophical beliefs of the American Left.
There is doubtless much to this argument, but it tends to neglect – perhaps willfully – a potent influence that is a more native vintage, and one of considerable power and influence in the academy. The culprit underlying much contemporary radicalism, I submit, is modern science.

This would appear to be an absurd assertion on the face of it; after all, it was Alan Sokal, a physicist, who exposed the profound anti-scientism and anti-rationalism of much of our radical professoriate in his publication of a comically jargon-filled and wholly parodic “po-mo” essay that was published by the postmodern journal Social Text. Our postmodernists especially seem to be the epitome of anti-rationalism and a force for mysticism and obfuscation.

However, in at least two respects, we can perhaps better understand the tailwinds that the reign of our contemporary sciences have provided for the Left and radical ascension in our humanistic and social-science disciplines. In the first instance, the Humanities has been historically the heart of the liberal arts education, an education that confidently understood itself as providing the cultivation of young adults through exposure to the best that has been written and thought. Professors in the humanities were curators of ideas and transmitters of an extraordinary tradition: men and women who taught texts written by geniuses like Homer, Dante and Shakespeare genuinely honored and loved these texts and the authors who wrote them, and understood their texts as containing profound teachings about the nature of being human and the way in which we might pursue the good life. They approached these texts with a sense of humility and gratitude, all cognizant that they were not capable of producing works of such grandeur, insight and majesty, but content that they were essential conduits in assuring that future generations would come to a similar appreciation and love for these great books and the contributions thney made to forming human character.

There can be no doubt that social forces, particularly arising from egalitarian demands of the 1960s, worked to undermine this self-confident understanding of the humanities. However, also at play was a change in the internal ordering of the University itself: increasingly the humanities were regarded as antiquated and a luxury to demonstrate that students could add a touch of class to cocktail party conversations. Instead, Universities were beginning to retool themselves in the image of a nation enamored of science, technology, and progress. Universities increasingly turned to the Federal government for significant amounts of funding, almost all of it directed toward the natural sciences. The natural science model – the discovery of new knowledge – increasingly became the model for the university writ large. Faculty who sought tenure at research universities – that is, our elite public and private institutions – were required to produce “original research” published in refereed journals and academic presses. Strong pressures for innovation and a preference for “progress” supplanted the respect for tradition and the suspicion that there was “nothing new under the sun.” In the midst of this transformation of the modern university from repositories of the collected wisdom of the ages – in which the library was the center of the university – to the scientific model in which “creating knowledge” was the key to the kingdom – in which the laboratory supplanted the library – the humanities lost its very reason for existence. Of what value were disciplines such as Classics, History, and Philosophy (by which was understood the history of philosophy) in such a changed environment? A profound crisis of confidence ensued.

It was into this breach that modern radicalism found a fertile foothold. Philosophies that preached “the hermeneutics of mistrust,” that taught readers that authors under study were malevolent and their texts mere collections of prejudice, and that questioned even the idea that texts any longer contained a “teaching” at all, tragically offered the humanities the possibility of proving themselves relevant in the terms set by the modern scientific approach. Faculty could demonstrate their progressiveness by showing the recidivism of the texts; they could “create knowledge” by demonstrating their own superiority to the authors they studied; they could demonstrate their anti-traditionalism by attacking the very books that were the basis of their discipline. By adopting a jargon only comprehensible to few “experts” they could emulate the tiny priesthood of scientists – wholly betraying the original mandate of the humanities to demonstrate the universal accessibility and appeal of the great books. Professors in the humanities showed their relevance by destroying the thing they studied.

There is a second, and perhaps more worrisome resemblance between our radicals and the modern sciences, and it is reflected in the sentiments expressed by my colleague, Professor Lance, in his wish no longer to have his “identity” sullied by his manhood. The modern sciences and our radicals share a deep hostility to nature and have both worked to undermine or transform the existence of nature as a governing and fundamental truth. Dating back to the seminal works of Francis Bacon and other late-Renaissance thinkers, modern science was conceived as the effort to exert human mastery over nature, to alter its forms in order to provide for the “relief of man’s estate.” Our comfort and desires became the rationale for the alteration, manipulation, or destruction of nature.

While there can be no disputing the fact that modern science has given us countless bounties – above all the cure for diseases that once killed remorselessly – there can also be no gainsaying that science itself is incapable of discerning any limits to its ability to exert control of, mastery over, and manipulation of nature. Among the aims that Bacon stated as a desideratum for the modern scientific endeavor was the defeat of mortality itself – a feature of humankind that many of the greatest texts of our humanist tradition teach us is the very essence of our humanity, or agony and our glory alike. Bacon likened the potential accomplishments of the sciences to the powers of God, and argued that science might successfully reverse the very conditions of the Fall in Eden (a sin that was the result of the desire for forbidden knowledge). In our contemporary biotechnology, nanotechnology, and the mapping of human consciousness, we grow increasingly confident of our assumption of these godlike powers, and look to a future when humans will govern their own evolution toward ever more perfect forms of life. A book title by Princeton molecular biologist Lee Silver speaks volumes: Remaking Eden.

In a similar manner, our radicals in the Humanities reject not only the books they once taught, but the very idea of humanity. They consider all natural features of human beings to be mere constructions, social constructs that effectively cease to exist when they have been “deconstructed.” Sex becomes gender, family becomes “living arrangement,” community becomes “the social.” They seek to do through deconstruction what our scientists attempt in the test tube: the transformation of humanity into something wholly different. What is rejected in both approaches is a conception of limits based in nature.

A better understanding of the deeper sources of modern radicalism suggests that a re-ordering of our Universities will not occur as a result of the introduction of a few conservative faculty for the sake of “diversity.” What is needed is a deeper understanding, and ultimately debate, about whether humanity and humanism is defensible. If so, the humanities will by necessity require strengthening and a serious discussion will be needed about the role and status of science in our society. In the end, I do not argue on behalf of a neo-Luddite rejection of science on behalf of primitivism; rather, the place of the sciences should rightly be conceived within the context of the liberal arts, rather than vice-versa. Thus ordered, our humanities could instruct and guide our scientists, helping them and ourselves to understand and accept limits of what is in accord with our fundamental humanity. At the moment the situation is wholly opposite: our professors of Humanities reject the idea of humanity, and as a result, are able to offer no defense against contemporary efforts to alter, transform, and “progress” beyond our humanness. It will be an exceedingly difficult debate to win, but one that is necessary to have before we cease to retain enough of our humanity to understand what is choiceworthy and noble about being human.

The paramount reason that this debate cannot even occur is because our professors of humanities have ceased to believe in humanity – rather, they currently embrace our “identity” as “the subject.” They must be taught anew what it is to be a human and from those lessons regain the confidence to defend tradition and nature which constitute what it is to be human. They must again become willing to learn from the books that they now reject can be the source of any wisdom. Humility and the avoidance of hubris is among the first, and most permanent, of those lessons.

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Patrick Deneen

Patrick Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at Notre Dame.

One thought on “Academic Gibberish And The Hermeneutics Of Mistrust”

  1. Interesting thesis. It might be enlightening, however, to briefly examine the University of Chicago, which was one of the United States’ first research oriented universities – and also the home of its best preserved classical tradition.
    Science is not by nature at all leftist – and neither is new knowledge. In fact, much of what we have discovered through the scientific method contradicts rather than upholds the current “politically correct” view.
    New knowledge in economics has undermined the left’s position far more than warriors for tradition ever have.

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