Finding a Way to Argue: Stefan Collini's 'What are Universities for?'

Posted by Edward Willatt on Saturday, January 18, 2014 Under: Universities

Stefan Collini’s What are Universities For? (Penguin, 2012) is a book that it is difficult to ignore.  It has been prominently displayed in bookshops and has caught my eye as I wandered past in search of the philosophy section.  Writing a book on a current and pressing problem which has real depth and critical force is a difficult thing to do.  Problems like this are generally staged in over-determined spaces of public debate where the alternatives, the language and the very being of the problem is set out in stifling and unquestionable ways.


Stefan Collini has to battle against the language of the debate as something which has come to imprison this problem.  To refuse to use the official terms of the debate – economic value, growth, relevance, impact … – is to cast oneself in the role of one who cannot be taken seriously.  For anyone in a university to refuse to justify their activity in the official terms is a case of someone evading the unquestionable obligation to be ‘accountable’ or, if one is to be sufficiently on message and hyper-active in one’s approach, to practice ‘accountability’.

Collini fights against the absolute demand that those receiving public funding justify their activity in terms that they know do not in fact capture what is genuinely valuable.  This is so difficult because the attempt to escape the current terms of what is ‘good’ or ‘best’ in what we do (our ‘practice’) seems so utterly hopeless.  The methods and approaches used by politicians and by management science (perhaps, as Alain Badiou has argued, conventional politics is synonymous with management) do not recognise other discourses.  They appeal to the unquestionable assumption that it is only if we measure and ‘quantify’ that we capture anything real or objective.  Another buzz-word is ‘robust’.  This word has such a general currency that it has to be used even if other words would be more accurate or helpful.  A ‘robust’ justification of activity would be one that ‘quantified’ the ‘outcomes’ of that activity.  It would be sufficiently ‘robust’ or well-constructed to survive the slings and arrows of the infinite demand for justification in the public sphere.  Collini forces us to consider what this demand actually achieves and whether this is genuinely of value.

One of the strengths of What are Universities For? is that it is highly self-conscious and self-aware in its own methods and aims.  Rather than relying upon the self-evident validity of its method – as so much of higher education policy and management thinking does – it deeply interrogates the foundations of its attempt to answer the question in its title.  Collini seeks to draw upon what people already know or feel.  This is an effective way of challenging the apparent self-evidence and intuitive validity of social science research methods which use measure and quantity to draw conclusions.  What if the qualities of things are as deeply felt as the quantities that higher education policy makers and managers use to circumscribe the possibilities of debate?

Collini is also highly self-aware when he avoids the tendency to appeal to the myth of a time when universities were best or to an original and ideal form of the university.  He is inviting us to be critical and creative rather than invoking a tradition we can somehow return to.  Collini draws a lesson from the debates currently underway.  It is no good simply being defensive because there is no original and ideal university form to return to.  If we relied upon something of this sort we would be guilty of invoking something unexamined and assumed just as much as those who use the paradigm of economic growth and ‘impact’ to determine the space of public debate.

What are Universities For? focuses upon the humanities and its fate in the current movement towards the privileging or measurable economic ‘impact’.  This is Collini’s own field and he is able to interrogate the feeling we have that humanities has value for us as human beings which eludes measurement and as such is crowded out of the current public debate.  He characterises the humanities as concerned with meaningful human activity and discourse.  Human beings make sense of the world in and through culture.  This certainly challenges the positivism that predominates in the social scientific research methods of higher education policy.  Positivism confines the tangible to the measurable, to quantity.  We would have to employ hermeneutic research methods to draw upon the value Collini identifies in the humanities.  Only by inhabiting the world of human meaning and its creation can the methods behind conclusions about policy in higher education agree with the feelings, thoughts and intuitions we all have about the range of activities and subjects studied in universities.

This attempt to characterise the humanities clearly has value in a critique of the current debate.  Collini develops and uses a concept of the humanities in order to bring out that which is not to open to measurement but nevertheless is deeply relevant to human existence and its possibilities.  However, it fails to ring true when one looks at my own subject – philosophy.  Collini includes philosophy in the humanities as is usually the case in the organisation of university schools or faculties.  It is occasionally included in social science faculties but given that it deals with concepts rather than experimental data this is less usual.  Sometimes we find it within an arts faculty but this can have to do with the need to include the subject somewhere.  Indeed, philosophy is one of those disciplines that are particularly hard to place.  To give an inadequate and provisional sketch we could say that the natural sciences use experimental data from the natural world while social science seeks to gather data rigorously from the social world.  We could try to place the arts through their creativity in drawing together both social and natural materials in compositions of sound, movement, voice, colour and so forth, or in combining or constructing concepts such that found or ready-made objects become conceptual works of art.

As we’ve noted, Collini seeks to locate the humanities in the exploration of human meaning-making.  For me philosophy is at once profoundly concerned with the human condition – as existentialism exemplifies – and with seeking to raise metaphysical problems that do not presuppose human activity.  If we want to account for knowledge or reality there is a problem with presupposing what we are seeking to account for, such as the worlds of meaning inhabited and created by human beings.  This is why some philosophers – such as some amongst the current movements of Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology – feel themselves closer to natural science than the humanities.  Philosophy can be just as concerned with inhuman or pre-human nature as natural science is.  Whilst natural science has the support of empirical data in its claim to knowledge of the natural world, philosophers make use of concepts to investigate nature and come up with conceptual shifts in the philosophy of nature (for example, the role of process in A. N. Whitehead’s work or of creative evolution in Henri Bergson’s thought).  Philosophers who work on epistemology seek to account for knowledge as such, including that sought in other disciplines.  Philosophy seems to exceed the neat characterisation of it provided in this book.

In the Renaissance the humanities gained prominence with the flourishing of human explorations both in the new world, as revealed by hazardous sea-faring, and in the ancient world whose rediscovered texts heralded the future by widening conceptual horizons and imaginative possibilities.  If one supports the metaphysical pretensions of philosophy then the humanities that arose in this period did not express human ways of finding meaning or creating culture.  Rather, human explorations of things which exceed the human shattered established meanings and allowed them to be accounted for.

It might well be objected that if we offer characterisations of the nature and organisation of the disciplines like this we simply attempt to build a house of cards which we can each take turns in collapsing when we remove one card with a demonstration that it does not fit within this simplistic structure.  There is a real sense in which my criticism of Collini’s placing and characterisation of philosophy does not invalidate his basic and strongest point.  Wherever one places philosophy, within human meaning-making or closer to the exploration of inhuman nature, it remains the case that much of what is studied and created in universities eludes measurement.

Collini works hard to find a way of arguing in the public sphere today and I’ve praised his self-awareness and interrogation of his own task.  How do we appeal to values that are not recognised in the dominant paradigm without appearing irrelevant, arrogant, elitist, out of touch or simply comic?  Alain Badiou has sought to revive the polemic as a means of intervening in favour of what he calls the ‘event’ which is not recognised by the terms of the current situation.  It is realised only through the committed, resourceful and faithful activity of those who work towards incarnating its transformative truth.  Like Collini, Badiou is trying to allow thought the space to see the future, to escape the stifling effects of a public space over-determined by dominant modes of discourse.  Collini does warn against making excessive claims and singles out Martha Nusbaum’s Not For Profit (Princeton University Press, 2010) as an example of this.  Nusbaum seeks to place the study of the humanities at heart of democracy with the result that it seems that other sources of democratic thought and engagement are not recognised.  Collini argues instead for a recognition of the connection universities have with wider feelings, concerns and ideals.  Rather than being the source of what is important, places that rise above society in general, they feed upon and contribute to deeply held feelings and beliefs.  Collini shows us how we might articulate things that really matter but which aren’t open to measurement.  This must be forceful and even polemical because the terms of the current debate ignore, suppress and even belittle the very idea of taking account of that which can’t be measured.  The force of things which elude measurement must be brought to bear.

In : Universities 



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Finding a Way to Argue: Stefan Collini's 'What are Universities for?'

Posted by Edward Willatt on Saturday, January 18, 2014 Under: Universities

Stefan Collini’s What are Universities For? (Penguin, 2012) is a book that it is difficult to ignore.  It has been prominently displayed in bookshops and has caught my eye as I wandered past in search of the philosophy section.  Writing a book on a current and pressing problem which has real depth and critical force is a difficult thing to do.  Problems like this are generally staged in over-determined spaces of public debate where the alternatives, the language and the very being of the problem is set out in stifling and unquestionable ways.


Stefan Collini has to battle against the language of the debate as something which has come to imprison this problem.  To refuse to use the official terms of the debate – economic value, growth, relevance, impact … – is to cast oneself in the role of one who cannot be taken seriously.  For anyone in a university to refuse to justify their activity in the official terms is a case of someone evading the unquestionable obligation to be ‘accountable’ or, if one is to be sufficiently on message and hyper-active in one’s approach, to practice ‘accountability’.

Collini fights against the absolute demand that those receiving public funding justify their activity in terms that they know do not in fact capture what is genuinely valuable.  This is so difficult because the attempt to escape the current terms of what is ‘good’ or ‘best’ in what we do (our ‘practice’) seems so utterly hopeless.  The methods and approaches used by politicians and by management science (perhaps, as Alain Badiou has argued, conventional politics is synonymous with management) do not recognise other discourses.  They appeal to the unquestionable assumption that it is only if we measure and ‘quantify’ that we capture anything real or objective.  Another buzz-word is ‘robust’.  This word has such a general currency that it has to be used even if other words would be more accurate or helpful.  A ‘robust’ justification of activity would be one that ‘quantified’ the ‘outcomes’ of that activity.  It would be sufficiently ‘robust’ or well-constructed to survive the slings and arrows of the infinite demand for justification in the public sphere.  Collini forces us to consider what this demand actually achieves and whether this is genuinely of value.

One of the strengths of What are Universities For? is that it is highly self-conscious and self-aware in its own methods and aims.  Rather than relying upon the self-evident validity of its method – as so much of higher education policy and management thinking does – it deeply interrogates the foundations of its attempt to answer the question in its title.  Collini seeks to draw upon what people already know or feel.  This is an effective way of challenging the apparent self-evidence and intuitive validity of social science research methods which use measure and quantity to draw conclusions.  What if the qualities of things are as deeply felt as the quantities that higher education policy makers and managers use to circumscribe the possibilities of debate?

Collini is also highly self-aware when he avoids the tendency to appeal to the myth of a time when universities were best or to an original and ideal form of the university.  He is inviting us to be critical and creative rather than invoking a tradition we can somehow return to.  Collini draws a lesson from the debates currently underway.  It is no good simply being defensive because there is no original and ideal university form to return to.  If we relied upon something of this sort we would be guilty of invoking something unexamined and assumed just as much as those who use the paradigm of economic growth and ‘impact’ to determine the space of public debate.

What are Universities For? focuses upon the humanities and its fate in the current movement towards the privileging or measurable economic ‘impact’.  This is Collini’s own field and he is able to interrogate the feeling we have that humanities has value for us as human beings which eludes measurement and as such is crowded out of the current public debate.  He characterises the humanities as concerned with meaningful human activity and discourse.  Human beings make sense of the world in and through culture.  This certainly challenges the positivism that predominates in the social scientific research methods of higher education policy.  Positivism confines the tangible to the measurable, to quantity.  We would have to employ hermeneutic research methods to draw upon the value Collini identifies in the humanities.  Only by inhabiting the world of human meaning and its creation can the methods behind conclusions about policy in higher education agree with the feelings, thoughts and intuitions we all have about the range of activities and subjects studied in universities.

This attempt to characterise the humanities clearly has value in a critique of the current debate.  Collini develops and uses a concept of the humanities in order to bring out that which is not to open to measurement but nevertheless is deeply relevant to human existence and its possibilities.  However, it fails to ring true when one looks at my own subject – philosophy.  Collini includes philosophy in the humanities as is usually the case in the organisation of university schools or faculties.  It is occasionally included in social science faculties but given that it deals with concepts rather than experimental data this is less usual.  Sometimes we find it within an arts faculty but this can have to do with the need to include the subject somewhere.  Indeed, philosophy is one of those disciplines that are particularly hard to place.  To give an inadequate and provisional sketch we could say that the natural sciences use experimental data from the natural world while social science seeks to gather data rigorously from the social world.  We could try to place the arts through their creativity in drawing together both social and natural materials in compositions of sound, movement, voice, colour and so forth, or in combining or constructing concepts such that found or ready-made objects become conceptual works of art.

As we’ve noted, Collini seeks to locate the humanities in the exploration of human meaning-making.  For me philosophy is at once profoundly concerned with the human condition – as existentialism exemplifies – and with seeking to raise metaphysical problems that do not presuppose human activity.  If we want to account for knowledge or reality there is a problem with presupposing what we are seeking to account for, such as the worlds of meaning inhabited and created by human beings.  This is why some philosophers – such as some amongst the current movements of Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology – feel themselves closer to natural science than the humanities.  Philosophy can be just as concerned with inhuman or pre-human nature as natural science is.  Whilst natural science has the support of empirical data in its claim to knowledge of the natural world, philosophers make use of concepts to investigate nature and come up with conceptual shifts in the philosophy of nature (for example, the role of process in A. N. Whitehead’s work or of creative evolution in Henri Bergson’s thought).  Philosophers who work on epistemology seek to account for knowledge as such, including that sought in other disciplines.  Philosophy seems to exceed the neat characterisation of it provided in this book.

In the Renaissance the humanities gained prominence with the flourishing of human explorations both in the new world, as revealed by hazardous sea-faring, and in the ancient world whose rediscovered texts heralded the future by widening conceptual horizons and imaginative possibilities.  If one supports the metaphysical pretensions of philosophy then the humanities that arose in this period did not express human ways of finding meaning or creating culture.  Rather, human explorations of things which exceed the human shattered established meanings and allowed them to be accounted for.

It might well be objected that if we offer characterisations of the nature and organisation of the disciplines like this we simply attempt to build a house of cards which we can each take turns in collapsing when we remove one card with a demonstration that it does not fit within this simplistic structure.  There is a real sense in which my criticism of Collini’s placing and characterisation of philosophy does not invalidate his basic and strongest point.  Wherever one places philosophy, within human meaning-making or closer to the exploration of inhuman nature, it remains the case that much of what is studied and created in universities eludes measurement.

Collini works hard to find a way of arguing in the public sphere today and I’ve praised his self-awareness and interrogation of his own task.  How do we appeal to values that are not recognised in the dominant paradigm without appearing irrelevant, arrogant, elitist, out of touch or simply comic?  Alain Badiou has sought to revive the polemic as a means of intervening in favour of what he calls the ‘event’ which is not recognised by the terms of the current situation.  It is realised only through the committed, resourceful and faithful activity of those who work towards incarnating its transformative truth.  Like Collini, Badiou is trying to allow thought the space to see the future, to escape the stifling effects of a public space over-determined by dominant modes of discourse.  Collini does warn against making excessive claims and singles out Martha Nusbaum’s Not For Profit (Princeton University Press, 2010) as an example of this.  Nusbaum seeks to place the study of the humanities at heart of democracy with the result that it seems that other sources of democratic thought and engagement are not recognised.  Collini argues instead for a recognition of the connection universities have with wider feelings, concerns and ideals.  Rather than being the source of what is important, places that rise above society in general, they feed upon and contribute to deeply held feelings and beliefs.  Collini shows us how we might articulate things that really matter but which aren’t open to measurement.  This must be forceful and even polemical because the terms of the current debate ignore, suppress and even belittle the very idea of taking account of that which can’t be measured.  The force of things which elude measurement must be brought to bear.

In : Universities 



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