Prologue, Academic Agonies and How to Avoid Them, Joseph Agassi






1. The Publisher To The Learned Reader

The present volume addresses young readers. To humor them, the author casts it in a sophomoric manner. Its style may easily give an impression that is quite unintended an impression that may unjustly slight the kind of work you are dedicated to, perhaps even unjustly poke unbecoming fun at it. To add unintended insult to less-intended injury, it contains poor and sketchy proposals for improvement, rudely overlooking the one that you and your colleagues have developed over years of hard work with much more detail and responsibility. You may feel that the author should have made some effort to acquaint himself with some information concerning the present state of affairs in academic education and your contribution to it, and not let his ignorance permit him to condemn it offhandedly and irreverently.

I am unable to contest all this. Rather, I hope that you allow me to recommend restraint. I hope you will show enough patience and tolerance towards the author’s frolics, especially since, we must say this in his favor (he is unfair to you, but I know you will not stoop to reciprocate), he has successfully unmasked some academic pretenses that unfortunately are still with us. You will claim (at least you have the right to claim) that you and your colleagues are unmasking academic pretenses regularly during the whole of your academic careers, that you are so doing without much fuss, and thus without the likelihood of introducing newer and worse pretenses, meaning those that the author of these pages seems to condone if not to encourage and possibly even to partake in, Heaven forbid.

I shall not argue. Rather, I wish to elicit your good will and mature understanding towards a work intended to encourage the young. I hope you would consent to view its exaggerations with a kind eye as humorous literary license. You might consider disastrous any effort to take these pages seriously. The author tries to prevent you, I do not deny, from considering it light-hearted, saying that his jokes will prevent only the stuffed shirts from taking his remarks with all the seriousness it deserves. His claim for scientific status for his observations is truly unfortunate, I admit, but it is a part of his game; an aspect you might say of his twisted humor that, though with less success, it still is in the wake of great twisted humorists like Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, Heinrich Heine, Isaac Erter, Samuel Butler and Bernard Shaw. Even these great lights annoyed their contemporaries with the lightness of their touch, just or unjust as they may have been at their times. (This is not for me to judge.) Possibly, vain imitations of them are even more irksome, remaining unredeemed by any merit—not even by such acknowledged literary and stylistic merits as the works that they (unduly) claim to imitate.

I plead for kindness. If you cannot avoid taking these pages more seriously than (by your own lights) it deserves, if such seriousness is disagreeable to your temper, if you find it worse than a waste of precious time, may I humbly propose you cease reading it and revert to a more rewarding literature on academic life. If you send me your name and address, I shall personally see to it that you receive a list of more appropriate publications, including such classics as The Sciences Were Never At War, The Two Cultures United, The University Contribution to Education, The Contribution of Universities to General Welfare, Democracy Expertise, and Academic Freedom, Neutrality and the Academic Ethic, Science as a Vocation, and similar publications—backed by the American Association of University Professors, the American Sociological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and The House Sub-committee on Higher Education.

— Humbly, The publisher

2. The Author to the Hurried Reviewer

Academe is my home. I have spent practically all of my adult life in it. I have spent most of my working time and energy on teaching and writing and editing, in addition to supervising research, and refereeing and corresponding with peers, in addition to public lecturing and such. I also spent time on academic organization and administration, on consultation for and on organization of and participating in conferences. I like it—I like it, all of its aspects considered. Yet I do not consider it a utopia; I view with astonishment popular discourses to the contrary, especially the vigorous public-relations machinery of Academe that causes much avoidable trouble. Serious, notorious defects in academic life are its injustices, intrigues and jealousies, anxieties and incompetence, pseudo-scholarship, drab courses, pious, empty public lectures, and boring pointless rituals. Throughout my career, I met few academics who can intelligently articulate and debate a policy with respect to setting exams or supervising doctorates,[1] or ones who ever think about the abysmal, at-times even scandalous, conditions or terms of operations of most university publishing houses.[2] Few dream of reducing the academic red tape that choke educational efforts; fewer have a vision of reasonably administered Academe. Academic education is indisputably atrocious. The Robbins Report of 1963 came up with but one clear and uncontested conclusion: crush courses on teaching should be available to beginners. Robbins’ autobiography reports that as a beginner with no idea about teaching, he had only a very brief, very casual chat with a senior colleague. This is so for historical reasons: the tradition of university lectures matured before the advent of the printing press; lecturing was the standard efficient way then for replicating texts. Lecture-courses, Marshall McLuhan has observed, are thus five centuries out-of-date. Lecture-courses, Carl Rogers has observed, are often textbooks that have found no publisher.

The academic educational system is the most ossified, with no training for it, and with almost no reform of it. For, too many institutional control mechanisms keep it hyper-stable. Moreover, it tends to make a virtue of necessity: students who survive the atrocious arrangement of Academe in order to become proper scholars or proper citizens serve as arguments in favor of the system, in oversight of the ones who do not survive it and ones who excelled in it only to become social failures. The system destroys students’ curiosity and keeps some by practically destroying their ability to flee. It thus perpetuates itself by perpetuating its worst ills. The heartlessness of the few whose views on academic education is articulated enough is barely tolerable; pompous professors repeat some hackneyed expressions, demanding up-to-date lecture courses and high-powered scholarship and uttering deafness to the cruelty that the system flaunts. This is not too surprising; not so the cruel remarks on academic education that some of the wisest and nicest colleagues on campus repeat casually. Many of them speak cruelly, thoughtlessly on diverse ceremonial occasions. They justify the neuroses that academic education inculcates. They express this view not in such a blunt manner, yet it has an immense impact on academic education, especially in keeping it stagnant despite the educational innovations that can easily reduce needless suffering.

The academic world is nonetheless just wonderful—for two reasons. One is accidental: academics are quite well paid and highly esteemed—due to the Bomb, the Computer, and the Internet. The second is essential: they have much freedom and leisure some of which they can use intellectually—in teaching, studies, and research; on occasion even in some table talk. Regrettably, rather than enjoy high income and status, many academics waste their lives on a perpetual treadmill, with anxieties and neuroses tragically impairing their activities.

The message of these pages is simple. Intellectual activity is inherently and primarily tremendous fun, the satisfaction and gratification and fulfillment of a strong, deep-seated impulse: curiosity. Academic life is primarily fun because it is primarily intellectual. We should help young academics protect their sense of fun, do their ability—as well as that of their students—to enjoy intellectual pleasures. For this, my message proceeds, one should learn and know the enemy—the defects of Academe, especially as an educational system of conditioning people to carry on in the academic maze, to allow bizarre cues stimulate them and make them respond to senseless rewards (fame) and penalties (ridicule) that they should better ignore. More than anything else, it is bizarre conditioning that produces long-lasting neuroses (Ivan Pavlov, Joseph Wolpe); as it happens, this phenomenon is less frequent on campuses than elsewhere. (In the rare cases when mass conditioning does happen, however, it causes breakdowns in large groups of students. Academic administrations handle these cases deftly: they diffuse the damage and conceal its source. The short-term result of a successful concealment is excellent; its long-term result is disastrous.) Learn the conditioning systems and learn how to neutralize it with ease. Once sufficiently many students neutralize their education and then become healthy academics, and the New Renaissance of Learning may commence and come to its full bloom. I wish you would live to see its inception.

So much for my message in brief. Instead of browsing through the volume, you may consider looking up its table of contents. The most rewarding student-resistance to the ills of Academe that I have found is to ask, why your professor singles out these rather than other details. Usually, professors do not know why: they follow tradition. In modern societies (not in magical ones), however, people who create tradition are usually more intelligent than the average: they know that these details signify. They conceal this not out of spite but due to a tradition with which they are unfamiliar. It is the methodological myth of empiricism: allegedly, theories rest on factual foundations. The myth itself has its own foundations in Renaissance mysticism now almost totally forgotten.[3] To make the myth plausible they revert the time-order of the appearance of theory and of information and present facts first as meaningless in themselves but as justification of a theory. You will find that regularly the alleged foundations of significant theories refute older scientific theories.[4] This most professors cannot admit—not yet, that is—since the very expression “false scientific theory” makes them shudder. (This illustrates the greatness of the revolution that Einstein has fashioned as he superseded Newton.)

To conclude this brief remark to you (meant to exempt you from the need to go on reading this study): my (quixotic) hope is to bring Academe nearer to the admission that criticism is the heart and soul of scholarship—to welcome criticism as its official attitude, rather than to preach toleration of critics. I hope this has an appeal to you. If not, then let me repeat my proposal: leave this volume right now: it is not for you: I write it for people who might derive pleasure and benefit from reading it. Those who do not delight in criticism of their opinions and of their deepest convictions, they will find these pages boring and irksome. Whenever possible, wasting precious time on boring and irksome material is better to avoid.

3. The Author to the Student Counselor

Some of the people you meet on Campus may have told you that you have to read these pages. This is not true. Still, if you wish to satisfy them, you need not go beyond this note to you. I am sorry for your inconvenience: you work hard enough and students come to you often enough with crazy ideas, as if you have nothing better to do then to listen to their advice; you do not need me to add to your burden. So let me report the central points of these pages: you can work out the details by yourself. This note should suffice to support your suspicion that you need not read the rest.

Educationally, I suggest that the teaching methods we of Academe are antediluvian. You surely know this.

Psychologically, I suggest that educationists harm students by the perennial application of conditioning (Pavlov) that causes trauma (Freud). Carelessly. I suggest that young humans deserve the hope to resist this treatment. My telling students something about their instructors and their psychological profiles may offer some of the antidote against the conditioning and traumatization. I know you agree that undesired events do take place on Campus, though we may differ about their frequency, weight and import.

Politically, I advocate education for democracy. This invites training in this direction; this means democratizing institutes of learning, higher and lower alike, and to the greatest extent imaginable. (Albert Einstein; Janusz Korczak) You will see this as a reasonable idea, although you may consider exaggerated my presentation of it and view as breezy my insistence that it is practical. If you say that students cannot equal professors in the running of the university, then I will retort that this holds for every comparison of normal people with experts, and that if taken as weighty, then it forces democracy to give way to technocracy. (Plato)

Philosophically, I suggest that much of what my colleagues teach is of little value. Even the most valuable items that professors ram down students’ throats are of little use as they come with no indication as to what that value might be.

Students who study only to please themselves acquire with ease sufficient stock of knowledge and ability to evaluate it; others must acquire these the hard way. Professors judge lazy the students who do not do well, even if usually they are hardworking, blocked, stupefied, credulous, muddled and painfully frustrated. This is truly heartbreaking: there is no need to increase the stock of human misery.

— The author

4. The Author to the Bewildered Reader

My apologies, first, for calling you “bewildered”, in case you are not. I do not know you personally; for all I know, you may be not a bit bewildered. You may be a well-adjusted stable member of the community, one who just peers into these pages, perhaps because you have recently read a review that says how bad, superficial, and harmful these pages are, and perhaps because you wonder what use was made of all the money you—or is it your neighbors?—contributed last year to the college of your choice—or is it their choice? You may be a self-assured professional reviewer whose task it is to pass verdict on these pages as a part of your job, or a competent college administrator who wishes to keep abreast, well informed about the public image of your college and that sort of thing. You may be a proud parent whose child is doing well—or at least so you hope—in the local college or in a top university in some distant metropolis. You may even yourself be a successful and complacent student or professor. In short, you may be any of the many people of all sorts who are not bewildered in the slightest—at least about life in Academe. In that case, my apologies to you. In that case, I have no objection whatsoever to your proceeding to peruse these pages. You may find them quite boring, annoying, or even bewildering. (To your surprise—and perhaps to your loss—you may find that it is all too easy to bewilder almost any people whose readiness to reconsider and rethink is not as utterly in complete ruins as they hope it is. This Socrates of Athens found twenty-five centuries ago; it is surprising to learn that even clever and informed commentators overlook so much public knowledge, and systematically so.)


If you do find these pages disagreeable in any of these manners, or in any other manner for that matter, do desist from reading it any time—according to your own choice, of course. If you insist, you may proceed regardless. It is unimportant, even if you are a reviewer whose judgment (possibly though not very likely) may affect to some extent sales of this book, or if you are a college trustee or a colleague, who may not like the fact that a person like myself hangs around. (Disapprove may be useful: whatever your impression of this volume may be, I am reasonably confident that if we chance to bump into each other we will learn to adjust to each other’s peculiarities in a civilized, friendly manner, and then we may discuss this book.) All I wish to say to you is one brief sentence. I have said already too much in preparation of this brief message; the length of the preparation was necessitated by the brevity of the message: readers may all too easily skip a brief message, so that writers of brief messages have the choice of elaborating if they are anxious that their brief messages will catch the eyes of their readers. They may elaborate on their brief messages, enlarging either their contents or their fringes; and I would rather not elaborate my message itself for fear of being misunderstood. In particular, I find that readers tend to find qualifications in the elaborations of any given message, the writers own protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. More than that, such protestations may even strengthen readers’ suspicions that the elaborations contain hidden qualifications.[5] And these readers do have good reasons and ample precedent to justify such suspicions: many authors who find that their message are validly and convincingly criticized, themselves look in their elaborations some passages that they may construe as qualifications, or, still more sophisticated, as qualifying interpretations, so as to render valid criticisms not criticism of their own messages (as now understood), but of much stronger ones (as initially meant, but as now retroactively surreptitiously altered). I will return later to the silly refusal to admit error. Now my message to the reader who is not bewildered and who may nonetheless show interest in this volume. It is simply this: the present volume is not intended for you; it has been written on the opinion that too many people in the multitude of colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher learning are perpetually bewildered—among students and among professors, scholars, and research fellows, and including perhaps even an odd university administrator or two; far too many members of Academe are thoroughly bewildered, namely, muddled; they scarcely have an idea of what it is all about and how they themselves might fit into the picture—if there is anything in this universe of our discourse to merit the title of a picture in any possible sense, however loose or metaphorical. Still, on a second thought, remembering some modern paintings, I see that I should take this back in its entirety. So back to my message to the non-bewildered: this volume addresses the bewildered in the hope of helping them in some way or another (and of receiving remuneration one way or another: I am not particular). Which possible benefits of the relative lucidity that I dare to promise I now wish to discuss.

And now, my dear bewildered reader, now that we are hopefully rid of (most of) the non-bewildered, especially of the pompous amongst them—I am sorry it took such a long time, but the pompous are often reputed bores of the worst kind, and it takes some effort to shake them off—we can attend to your present ailments with some hope of not being interrupted by some thick-skinned cantankerous guardians of the status quo—at least with the hope of not being interrupted too often to proceed with the important matter at hand with a hope for some measure of success. Allow me to tell you, then, the advantages of relative lucidity. Let me tell it to you right now: the advantage is of relative lucidity, of the clarity of thought that is the contrary to bewilderment: the advantage of the clarity of presentations is that it lays them open to criticism and thus amenable to progress. That is it.


Kindly allow me to notice that not knowing you personally I may be ignorant of your specific complaint. I realize that it may be incurable. I wish to express my regret if this should turn out to be the case. I hope that even if my advice is inapplicable to your case, having read it may somewhat comfort you. It is fairly well-known that people suffering all sorts of pains have their agonies increased to a point of beyond toleration by their ignorance of their sharing their sufferings with others, an ignorance that makes them feel victims of fate particularly unjustly chosen; that makes them feel that their specific ailments are marks that separate them from fellow humans, thus adding the tortures of loneliness to their already heavy burdens and erroneous conviction that their sufferings cannot be diminished by consultation—with friends, housemothers, or departmental chairs—both because (out of misconceived sense of shame and/or guilt) they try to hide their sufferings and because they erroneously consider their ailments unique and thus entirely beyond remedy by any cure that is familiar, ready-made, or old-fashioned.

So, by describing others’ sufferings I may help even you to come to better terms with your academic environment, by showing you how far you are from being unusual in this respect (hopefully you are, or will soon discover how to become, unusual in some positively significant and happy respects, especially by publishing some useful progress-reports). I may help you perhaps by helping you to raise your ability to help your friends and colleagues. Being able to help others is a great personal advantage in a number of ways. (Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness, 1930) One’s ability to help opens one’s eyes to the problems of others, and thus to a better understanding of one’s environment. It is also quite interesting and engaging to try to be helpful, and when the attempt is successful to any measure it leads to some satisfaction from a sense of accomplishment, as well, at times, to close friendships of great value to all concerned. As David Hume and Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham have repeatedly stressed, it is nice to be nice: the acquisition of friends is sufficient incentive for good behavior. Just encouraging others may suffice to make a difference all round. You would be surprised how sparing of this most people are.

You may find in these pages not only some pieces of (hopefully somewhat valuable) advice, but also the general method of constructing them—I try to conceal nothing from you, particularly in cases in which it may be of any personal help to you—so that after having read these pages, even if regrettably it does not address itself to your specific kind of ailment, it may be useful for you in your devising your own method of handling your peculiar problems in manners more successful than the ones you have tried thus far. (I assume you have tried; otherwise, you hardly have a problem.)

No matter how much one tries to broaden one’s horizon, one still stays not far from the vicinity of one’s own concerns, past and present, one’s own problems, past and present, and one’s own experiences, past and present. I do wish to tell you something about myself, so that you can see what my limitations are apt to be, so that if I disappoint you in not taking sufficient cognizance of your specific troubles, you will see that it is not from spite or nonchalance or indifference but from a normal human shortcoming, namely, poor imagination.

Well, then, job-wise I see myself as a successful, happy, and satisfactorily (by my own requirements, at least) adjusted to life in Modern Academe. I have problems, of course: only the dead have none, and only the utterly complacent and smug pretend to have none. My on-the-job problems were manageable, and most of them are either part of my academic work so that I tackle them with pleasure, or rather marginal, so that I am quite able to overlook them—which usually I do. Academically, I count myself fortunate: I have made many friendships, most of them with colleagues, and I have won the esteem of quite a few; some of my old students are among my friends and colleagues; I had relatively good positions and my pension keeps the wolf away from my door. I had few job troubles to speak of and fewer complaints. The sole exception is of injustices, chiefly to my graduate students on their way to graduation and in their search for academic careers. I suffered that complaint throughout my career. I had to fight hard in efforts to rectify injustices to my students. My efforts to rectify some injustices to them in the open market, in their search of jobs, were mostly failures; my efforts to do so in my own school, on their way to graduation, usually met with success. (This was largely due to determination. I usually yield; otherwise, I put all my money on one card.) Finally, I do not participate in academic competitions and I belong to no clique. Oh, I had my fair share of enviable offers of good deals; I happily turned them all down unhesitatingly. This had its cost, of course: I had to forego all sorts of grants and honors, which is easy, and I had to fight against flagrant injustices—to me and more so to my students. I do not feel pressures, whether to publish or to do anything else; to fill the part of my formal contract, I always appeared in class promptly and submitted grades promptly. True, some close friends feel it is their duty to make me suffer in vain effort to prevent me from becoming too smug and too complacent. They fear I will not do my duties to the world, to the academic community, and to my own lazy self. Fortunately, the cost of making light of their advice is reasonable.

There is no need to go into details: these will scarcely interest you.


Let me confess: while I wrote these pages, I had the hope that they would somehow make these friends stop pestering me. I know: if they can, they will read these pages reluctantly yet closely (how much they are willing to suffer for the sake of a friend!). I have no wish to displease them, but I have failed in using all other means at my disposal of helping them to give up hope of reforming me and rendering me a serious scholar in accord with the rather limited and somewhat dogmatically upheld image they have of the serious scholar. Moreover, they are doubling their efforts to make their own students what they consider serious scholars who suffer agonies throughout their academic careers, and so I think I have to try to compensate these poor students whose sufferings increase through no fault of theirs. For, although I am not to blame for the educational blunders of friends and colleagues, it is still a plain fact—inasmuch as plain facts at all exist, of course—that my cheerfulness that they so unimaginatively interpret as intellectual frivolity, has caused them to be, unintentionally of course, or rather through the best intentions and in the name of the highest ideals of the commonwealth of learning, much less friendly and more harmless to their students than they otherwise would be. To show you that I intend to conceal nothing from you, I should mention that the individual who tried to save my soul most was my teacher and mentor, the famous philosopher Karl Popper, who wanted me to stay as his colleague in the London School of Economics. I left the School before I had any alternative option, which could cost me my academic career. When I found a post in the Far East, he told me it was likely I would be stuck there, thus losing the option of becoming a significant member of my academic field. I will not tire you with the details of the story. If you are interested, you can read my book on my relations with him.[6] Here let me end by observing that much as my leaving was against his advice, he did help me get that job. He has my sincere gratitude.

All this puts me in an unfavorable position as an adviser to the future academic that you are.

Not suffering now the agonies I intend to discuss, I might be a poor authority on them. It is, indeed, hard to know what makes one an authority, what not. In some of the sciences, peers with significant contributions to their names automatically win recognition as authorities, and not merely in expounding their own contribution, but in the field to which they have contributed, more or less. This is sometimes ill fated, as one may contribute—make a great contribution, even—and then regrettably lose touch. This has happened: Alessandro Volta, the inventor of the electrochemical battery, lost contact with research and became a dignitary—or a tool in the hands of Napoleon—with little or no intellectual concern in any field of learning. Dr. Joseph Priestley continued his researches to the last, but becoming more and more old-fashioned—as did later Lord Kelvin and like Einstein and Planck and Landé. As to myself, I have never had any authority to lose or to keep; as the default option, public opinion will consider my suggestions less serious than those of my peers who possess the status of original contributors to the stock of human knowledge, and even to those less productive ones who have more time and inclination to stay in the public eye than I do. Leaving them aside, we should notice in the name of fairness that there is some measure of objectivity in considering authorities contributors to the growth of knowledge. The difficulty is in deciding who has contributed and what the significance of this or that contribution. Abbot Gregor Mendel, the celebrated father of Mendelian genetics, did not live to see his contribution recognized. Things are more problematic in the arts. Whether Lord Macaulay or Thomas Carlyle has made a significant contribution is still under dispute. Things are much more problematic in the fine arts: how are we to judge contributions there? Playwright Bernard Shaw puts in the mouth of an established theatre-critic to say, that it is impossible to judge a play without knowing who its author is, since, if that author is good, then the play is good, and vice versa (Fanny’s First Play, 1911). This makes the audience burst into laughter, yet it is no laughing matter. (My way of joking is to tell the truth, said Shaw.[7] It is the funniest joke in the world.) Was the contribution of Richard Wagner to opera or that of Henry Miller to literature beneficial or detrimental? This question becomes even more difficult, of course, when we come to the amorphous field of philosophy. Hegel influenced many philosophers (and some political historians and even some biologists); some say for good, some say for ill; who are we to judge. If it is doubtful with such big names, how much more doubtful it is when it comes to the small fry who inhabit your university and mine. If I have contributed to any field, it is to philosophy, especially to applied philosophy, particularly to the historiography of science. I belong to a small sect of philosophers, headed by Karl Popper of the London School of Economics, and hence known by some (never by many) as the London School of Pauperism. I cannot adequately describe my position in that school of thought since the very head and other leading members of that school have frowned upon most of my contributions, to the extent that one might say with some justice that they do not belong to the standard works of that school.[8] This much depends on the worth of my contribution. I have arrived at a stalemate; and so, on the criterion that any authority depends on the significance of some contribution, my own authority is questionable: many of those who can judge my contribution contest its value. Since my contributions belong to applied philosophy, why not forget all questions of authority and simply test my views in their application? I would like nothing better; some might feel reluctant to use my contributions so long as they are questionable, which is what they are and will remain, at the very least until they are put to test. This is a vicious circle: there is no patent office, national bureau, or federal agency, for that.


Healer, heal thyself! This ancient maxim is very strange. Sick doctors, they may say, surely cannot heal others; doctors who are well, they may add, have no first-hand knowledge of the illness that they wish to cure. Even if healers who were ill, decriers may further add, they forget, so that they cannot show the sympathetic understanding necessary for cure, especially of complaints of the heart and the mind and the soul. Cured healers may be in a worse condition than those who have never suffered, possibly because they are trying hard to suppress all painful memory and possibly because they have little sympathy with those who would not make the effort and cure themselves unaided as they had.

There may be some justice in all of this: have you seen many professors who remember how it felt to be a miserable student? They were, most of them, and their tacit denial of this, if they do deny it, may be due to the suppression of painful memories. I have met young instructors, fresh from college, who have obliterated any trace of their ever having been students (miserable or not), intentionally and doggedly, entirely and successfully to an amazing degree. (They even managed to adopt the gait of elderly, distinguished peers!) In the name of fairness, however, we must remember two facts. First, some professors never forget their student days as struggling young upstarts. Secondly, the suppression of memories of early hard times is by no means peculiar to Academe and is not in any way culpable. I am unfairly picking on the academics, of all people, because we are—or, to be precise, I am and you hope to be (with or without my aid; I admire your tenacity)—in the same racket. The gist of the last paragraph is—yes, you may glance at it again; if this makes you lose the thread of the discussion, you need more training in reading, of which more later—the gist of the last paragraph is that we have enough a priori reasons to dismiss any (academic) adviser. Which is silly, considering the fact that we need no reason for dismissing any adviser (myself naturally included), regardless of how good or poor they may be. For, obviously, it is obviously a privilege not to take advice without any further ado. Otherwise, the alleged advice is more in the nature of instruction or imperative or command than in the nature of advice or suggestion or proposal. So, why in the first place are we looking for advisers’ credentials to find out whether they are or are not authorities?

This question is general; it is after my heart. It has much to do with my research as an applied philosopher. My peers study the rules of the game of science, on the supposition that they are obligatory, on the argument that (by definition) those who break them do so not as friends of science, much less as qualified scientific researchers. I am proud to notice that in my doctoral dissertation already I wrote that the rules are mere heuristics, so that they are at best akin to the advice of a tourist guide rather than of a platoon commander. So, why in the first place are we looking for advisers’ credentials to find out whether they are or are not authorities?

To answer this, we must recap a little. (You see, we did lose the thread after all, but not, you will now see, because I have advised you to glance at the preceding paragraph.) I said, judging by what I have already told you about myself, I am a poor authority. Even when I tell you more about myself (you may skip the story of my life if it bores or frustrates you) you will see how limited I am, so that in case I do not discuss your own specific problems in these pages, you will kindly attribute that omission to my narrow experience, poor power of observation, and lack of imagination, and deficiency in writing skills too, rather than to some nonchalant or careless disregard of what you must consider fairly significant. More generally, looking at people’s credentials and finding them impressive does not render their advice authoritative to the degree that would impose on you the need to concoct some reasons to justify your disregard for it; you can disregard it, to repeat, just because it is your pleasure so to do; but seeing people’s credentials may provide you with a rough idea as to what kind of advice they may provide or concerning what question you may expect them to give answers interesting or useful in any measure. The operative word here is “may”. This is all in the nature of suggestions: it is not binding in the least.

The law of the land provides for licenses for some sorts of advisers, chiefly medical and legal, and it requires that they acquire these licenses before they officially possess permission to provide their advice to the public at large. No matter how critical you are of these professions, and how serious and valid your criticism of them is, you must agree: cancelling the system of licenses will worsen matters. (This is open to empirical test. The test of the usefulness of drivers’ licenses was simple: cancelling them turned out to increase the number of serious road accidents.) By the rule of liberal legislation, if laws that require of practitioners to possess licenses do not improve matters considerably, then legislators should better cancel them or at least improve their use.

People often request advice and then give reasons against adopting it. This greatly disparages the adviser. Advisees often explain why they refuse advice as evidence that they do not think poorly of it. This is erroneous: the adviser has been bothered enough and has no need to be bothered further to no practical end. If they are any good, then they have their own explanations for any rejection of any piece of advice of theirs. The reason for it is all too often, they know, that people seldom wish to receive advice; often the half-hearted, ill-expressed request for advice is all too often merely a pretext for telling an adviser one’s life-story. Similarly, as psychiatrists know, many people seek their service only in order to talk, not in order to listen, much less to seek cure or assistance. As Henry Miller has reported (on his experience as a self-appointed psychotherapist), the only significant characteristic of a good psychotherapist is listening. A few psychotherapist friends of mine concluded that most of their patients are simply beyond help, and softened this conclusion by the suggestion that remaining greatly unimpressed and unsympathetic they may nonetheless help reluctant patients, at least those patients who express displeasure with their therapists’ indifference, as they protest against manifestations of their heartlessness. Be this as it may, we should also take note of the situation: not all people who claim to be seeking advice know that they wish to take none. All too often, they do not know: those who merely wish to talk usually feel that way because they suffer, and sufferers usually feel very ready, of course, to act in order to reduce their own suffering. Only, regrettably, they do not always act that way. For one thing, they may be unable to act. And the means by which one prevents oneself from action, by which one imposes on oneself inaction much against one’s interest or good will or better judgment, is by the misapplication of universal skepticism, which is applicable to any situation, and which the powerless so miserably discovers that it applies to their cases, whatever these cases happen to be (Ludwig Wittgenstein). They usually ascribe this to their bad luck. Their powerlessness and their blindness to the a priori character of their doubts unfortunately make them always applicable; they thus cause general helplessness. An example given above (in the paragraph I advised you to reread) is the way of casting doubt on the authority of an adviser. You may meet many other examples in the marketplace and in all official meetings in Academe, on the departmental level, the faculty level and the senate. (One wonders, after all this, why administrators take over the senate’s duties and run the university!) So, if your advisees are ones who play this kind of game of expressing helplessness and apprehensions and inner conflicts by merely concocting poor objections, possible to construct a priori anyhow, my advice to you is, do not advise them. Leave them alone. Tell them you deeply regret inability to help them. At least for the time being. Send them to professional advisers. Later, if you become more sophisticated, you may learn to lay down your own objections before allowing your friends and colleagues to moan and whine on your shoulder. This requires a degree of sophistication. My own friends and well-wishers, of whose persistent good will I have already told you, are no small judges of character, wisdom and philosophy of life, yet from time to time even they forget (much to my chagrin, as I have also told you) that one should not offer advice before it is expressly and sincerely requested; yes, particularly not to friends and relations. One can and should express concern and willingness to help, but not a jot more than that—unless one meets with an explicit request for help. Explicit.

This long discourse should explain to you why the practice of support groups was so successful, in cases in which patients need only determination to cure their ills—such as drug addiction—as well as in cases in which they can do nothing against their shared complaint. Alas, there are no support groups for academic agonies.

Please, do not conclude that I think no advice concerning academic agonies is ever useful. If this were so, I would not busy myself with writing these pages—at least not with so much hope that I will be able to help you a little. Indeed, were it not for the advice that I myself have received and followed, good, bad, and indifferent (especially from my teacher and mentor Karl Popper), I would not be in a position to advise you at all. I was myself the kind of student you are, more or less: bewildered, miserable, incompetent, and infuriating teachers I honestly tried to befriend. (I tried hard to befriend them, perhaps because I desperately tried to become a successful student, perhaps because I respected them and thought in my adolescent way that you should try to befriend people you respect, rather than people whose company you enjoy. Perhaps I did so simply because I was terribly, painfully lonely, especially as a student but also in general.) My teachers had some hope for me—one need not find that surprising: they had previously succeeded in molding shapeless and bewildered students in their own images. They gave me the recipe: work hard! Develop will power! Grind your teeth, and work! Look at the more successful classmates of yours and try to imitate them! And so on. How inhuman! How blind! How absurd! I do not know if I was fortunate or unfortunate in being unable to follow their counsel—try hard as I did. For the sufferings at the time were unbearable. In recompense I am now (academically) free from petty intrigue and ambition, worry and trepidation, and all other ills and neuroses of the profession that I can see around everywhere in Academe, among its least and most successful fellows alike. Thinking of you, my bewildered reader on the way to becoming a neurotic academic but still sincerely looking for help, I think I owe it to you to relate to you my experiences, in the hope that you might benefit from my chat. I owe it to my teacher, Karl Popper, who generously advised to me, to return the favor. The only way to do this is by transmitting the favor received from the earlier generation to the later one—not exactly, but in kind. For, if we are to progress, then history should not repeat itself. Not only is your suffering unnecessary, but also, if I help you a little to rid yourself of some errors that you are going to commit and perhaps later to correct, you may have more time and energy to study newer ways and correct other errors, such as mine. Famously, the saying, the wise learn from experience, has an improved version: whenever possible, it is better to learn from other people’s errors than from one’s own. The common to both versions of the saying is this. Learning from error is adding to the stock of human knowledge (Popper).


The stock of human knowledge is immensely varied, and in many respects (Paul Feyerabend). The accumulation of knowledge was traditionally performed in at least two largely different ways; both unsatisfactory, perhaps, but differently so. The one way was the accumulation of knowledge in the learned academies and institutions of the day, in their libraries and in their classrooms. These covered important subjects beginning with religion and ending with unimportant topics, but at least ones that at the time scholars deemed sufficiently important to merit attention. The other way was the accumulation of knowledge by tradition, custom, folklore, and folkways (Maxim Gorky). For this kind of accumulation of knowledge, there were no libraries and scarcely any written records, and instead of transmitting knowledge by recruiting students, the method was possibly word-of-mouth and possibly engagement of apprentices. Perhaps what I have just said should meet criticism immediately. The two ways of accumulating knowledge were originally identical, or at least they always overlapped significantly. The learned doctor and the village herbalist were in communication, quite apart from the identity of their origins. Moreover, as long as religion controlled every custom and every tradition, the village priest was contact with the priest who was a professor—concerning many customs and folklores —and all medieval and Renaissance professors belonged to their churches in one way or another. Yet, much of the practical affairs of the world were unknown to the learned and vice versa. The learned (as well as the public at large) ignored widespread ideas and practices that had been stock-in-trade of members of occupational groups. The learned world greatly improved its knowledge when the Royal Society of London showed interest in mundane things that its predecessors had barely noticed. This included methods of foresting and of shipbuilding, as well as of mining and of producing gunpowder. Early in the nineteenth century, market research won some scientific interest too. Still, scholars and educators scarcely noticed many important items, such as sex-education. So much so, that the 1925 book of Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa, was sensational because it includes (scant) details about the sex education and sexual conduct of unmarried young girls in Samoa. The book includes also some official information of the colonialist government that suffices to prove her stories too utopian to be true; this very defect made her anthropological book a bestseller. By the time her stories were subject to public criticism, her reputation was invulnerable. The same happened with the much more realist 1927 Sex and Repression in Savage Society of Bronisław Malinowski that is too utopian as comparison of it with his diaries makes clear.[9] Sex education remains a part of tradition, transmitted from mothers to daughter and from adults to their adolescent friends, as well as between children around the block. For a long time this poor method of transmission prevented wider public forums from airing opinions and scholars from comparing notes. With the relaxation of taboos about a variety of subjects, these could be discussed in handbooks to the benefit of the public (despite the many superstitions that these books supported), the books criticized by reviewers and improved by succeeding writers. Look at the barrage of recent books that come to replace folklore and introduce better and wider knowledge and understanding of matters that may or may not be intellectually valuable, but which improve life considerably (Doctor Ruth). This way, the do-it-yourself literature included such items as, how to find a house to rent, how to raise a baby, how to succeed in business without really trying, and even how to date and how to wed; to say nothing about what astute Allen Wheelis has called the “do-it-yourself psychoanalysis kit”.[10] The Swedish government made it its business at that time to provide a television program teaching young girls how to masturbate hygienically. This may be not terribly important to the world of learning, but it seems to me eminently reasonable. Academics may and often do sneer at literatures of this kind, which offers specific advice or tidbits of philosophies of life. Philosophers are particularly prone to sneer at volumes like Bertrand Russell’s terrific 1930 Conquest of Happiness and his 1935 In Praise of Idleness. I think the ones who sneer at these works display pomp or ignorance of the information that such volumes have helped quite a few suffering individuals. They are useful, as their authors have meant them to be.[11] Books that help cram efficiently for exams should give way to books that help pass exams without cramming or even to books that help us deliver academic courses with no need to force the students to study—by exams or any other imposition. This volume is a starter in this direction.

It is not possible, you say. I say, it is, and profitably so for all concerned, chiefly students and professors but also academic administrators. I would not know that, since academics and academic administrators do not meet except at the very top of the academic pyramid, but it was my fortune that as a student I worked for my living in the office of an academic secretary and in other academic administrative offices. Later on I learned that as a medieval institution the university can run its internal affairs any way it likes; nothing stops it from doing this more systematically. And you never know what you can do until you try.

I was fortunate to have terrific professors who taught me by example how to exercise my freedom with impunity. I hope to tell you how to do it even though I am already retired and so I cannot offer you an up-to-date personal example. The reason for it is the absence of material akin to the absence of material on sex, and for similar reasons: too much confusion about it. The rapid growth of the academic world prepares for academic life as much as for sex. Education has managed to deprive many people of the joys of sex;[12] in the same way it deprives people of the joys of learning, and much more easily. There may be little intellectual content in the information and training that young people receive who prepare to teach infants the arts of reading, writing and arithmetic. The aim of imparting of this information is to reduce human suffering. One way to do this is the use of information to and training of teachers who first face a class of tiny tots as replacement of their reliance on their memory and on their knowledge of folklore. This should apply to young academic teachers who face a freshman class; it does not. At least in nine cases out of ten the preparation for this event is practically nil. It makes the event traumatic. Everybody knows this, and talks about it, but does nothing about it, when all we have to know is that taking care of your quest for knowledge makes you immune to most of the academic agonies with hardly any preparation. But I am anticipating myself. All I wish to say now is this. As a student I suffered from bad teachers and benefited from good ones; also, I flatter myself, as a teacher I have succeeded in improving the methods of my predecessors and found that I could give advice to young students that helped them—some of them, to be precise—to avoid some of my past misfortunes. I use the printed page to broadcast ideas and techniques—for some to use, and for others to improve upon, in the manner quite traditional in the commonwealth of learning, even if only marginally so.

For, whereas the training of youngsters to become schoolteachers may at times be of little intellectual interest—though it need not be, and in the hands of the dexterous teachers it will not be—the training of youngsters to become proper academics, intellectuals and recruiters and trainers of intellectuals, is itself of a great philosophical interest, whichever way you look at it. Hence, these pages, though intended as a manual of sorts—as a bag of tricks that will help you, I fervently hope, orient yourself in this jungle of the modern academic world—it is also an exercise in applied philosophy, no less.

It is a new venture. Incredible as it sounds, most evils of Academe are rooted in a philosophy of learning whose folly I am tired of discussing in books, articles, lectures and debates, in seminars, colloquia, and symposia, local, national, and international. I am tired of these exercises, particularly in view of my own teacher having fought the same battle for many decades already; he was tireless in the battle, but it bored me already then.[13] For, as he himself stressed, those who prefer not to heed criticism have the right to behave as they wish. That the current view of learning is full of defects is no news, yet most philosophers stick to it in the hope that these can undergo some correction. The prevalent philosophy, it seems, once it takes its grip over one philosopher or another, makes one lose all ability of even remotely entertaining the possibility that it is false and better given up altogether rather than undergo repeated patching up.

Now, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Rather than debate the relative merit or fault of this philosophy or that, we can try to look at both of them, each on a large scale, and see what comes of it. Of course, this kind of argument is neither conclusive nor safe. It is inconclusive as the wrong party may win by default or by the force of accidental and barely noticed circumstances. When it comes to education, it is not safe; it is indeed positively dangerous to experiment with human guinea pigs, since we do not know how harmful the outcomes of our experiments can be. Yet, I do recommend that you should make some of the experiments herein proposed and take full responsibility for it. Why?


Before answering this question, allow me to stress: I do consider quite an adventure your possible taking up my advice. Even if at the end of an experiment or two you will revert to your old ways, you may thereby lose something of no small significance to you. I have given such advice to quite a few people and watched their progress, so that I even have quite some empirical basis for what I say—here or later in this report—if this means anything to you (it should not; at least not much). I do not wish to report here the successful cases, nor the cases of people who pretended to want advice but did not. There were also, come to think of it, the disastrous cases of people who followed compromise solutions falling between their own ideas and mine—I need not discuss them either, since if you will read the following pages you will realize the frivolity of such procedures. I do wish to mention cases of following my ideas for a while and then giving up further attempts even though the ones tried were not quite failures. When one realizes that the jail’s door is open yet stays in jail, the experience causes some serious damage to one’s self-esteem: one learns this way that possibly one is a coward or a weakling (Sartre, No Exit, 1944). More accurately, those who ceased experimenting prior to failure have learned thereby that they prefer to live as they did hitherto, that they need not complain about their situations. This is progress.[14]

This is not any sort of psychoanalysis of hidden or suppressed wishes. Though hidden wishes do exist, Sigmund Freud greatly exaggerated it when he saw it everywhere. Although by viewing our true aims as different from our hidden aims he seems to have proclaimed us all too irrational, he has also proclaimed us much too rational by ascribing hidden aims wherever overt rationalities were missing, and thus he also ascribed to us some hidden rationalities.[15] This was Freud’s great error: he underestimated the force of confusion even when unaided by the unconscious, the sub-conscious, or the super-ego, or by any other complex mechanism. The following case will clearly illustrate this contention, as it has no connections with hidden motives.

Adam Smith’s great contribution to economics was his view that when two individuals trade they both expect to win, and his explanation of this new claim. The claim is so strange that not only all of Smith’s predecessors, but also many of his successors, including brilliant thinkers like Karl Marx, took it for granted that all gain through trade is compensated by equal loss through trades—for one party to gain another party must lose—particularly when workers sell their labor to employers. He labelled “surplus value” the value of employment for the employer minus what the employment pays to the worker. He was so proud of having added this idea to standard economic theory (that, incidentally, is more than a century out-of-date). To use modern jargon, the error is the claim that all trade is zero-sum game. (John Nash) Now, suppose that all trade is zero-sum. The question immediately presents itself, why does the losing party agree to the transaction? This question surfaced regularly since antiquity, and the answer was always the same: the losing parties agree to transactions under pressure: they undertake them reluctantly.

It is almost inconceivable that for so long so many scholars assented to this answer and that this answer is still popular. What is the reluctance that they notice? If it is that one may undertake a trade against one’s wish to avoid it, then we should notice that trading at gunpoint is not trade at all: it is highway robbery masked as trade. If it is the wish for a better deal, then this is true for all every act, including trade: the deal one accepts one deems the best one can get but it is far from what one would like it to be; the question is, why trade at a loss? Why trade when a better deal is possible? Is it believable that every year a farmer sells crops reluctantly and under pressure? Yes, it is; one can argue that farmers let the merchants rob them from no choice. That means that they forego a better option unwillingly. The anarchists say, in addition to buyer and seller, every deal involves the government that people bow to—out of ignorance (Lev Tolstoy). Smith agreed but considered this a minor matter.

Smith cut across the complications by insisting on one fact. Selling not at gunpoint is voluntary; hence, all parties to a trade expect benefit. The starving old a lady is reluctant to sell the silver that she had received as a wedding gift; ultimately, however, facing two ugly alternatives—of starving now with her silver in her possession to the last or letting the silver go in order to postpone starvation—obviously, she rightly settles for sale.

Smith faced a new problem: how do all the parties to a trade deal benefit from it? Whence the value added through trade? Answer: from specialization: any specialization requires trade—by truck and barter or by any other means. As far as economics matter, all of us, with no exception, are in the same position as that old lady: we all fervently wish to have more and better alternative options to choose from and we can all find some defect or another in any of the given alternatives. We can easily imagine an unavailable preferred alternative to the given options. When we choose a transaction, we choose among existing alternatives the one from which we hope to gain most. Karl Marx legitimized the complaint that we have all entered transactions involuntarily. He called the benefit surplus value and declared that it is due to a capitalist systematic error that robs the workers of their fair share: the seller and buyer, said Marx, are not always in a position different from the robber and the robbed. Because of this muddle, he considered himself an economist, and even in the great tradition of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. This deserves notice: there were mitigating circumstances, though: Smith had advocated the theory that the price of a commodity reflects its value and its value is the amount of labor invested in it. This ignores the scarcity of resources, a point made by Thomas Malthus whom Ricardo respected but whom Marx ridiculed. Although the surplus value theory of Marx is sheer hate propaganda (Bertrand Russell), he viewed politics as dispassionately as he could. All this is water under the bridge, since soon after Marx died economics underwent a great revolution. The hatred that he inaugurated has evolved into a whole irrationalist, anti-liberal philosophy, ignoring economic theory since it is liberal, resting as it does on Smith’s observation that all contracts are voluntary, and considering freedom as the freedom of choice, so that the more options one has the freer one is. Economist are still prone to the idea that workers have to accept the conditions of the employer or seek another employer, forgetting a plain fact: the improvement of the quality of working life is achievable, but not through the free market. Even if employers resist the improvement of the quality of working life due to the constraints of the free market, all people involved benefit from the implementation of the improvement and they take it for granted.

The earlier refutation of Marx’s theory was the rise of the standard of living of workers. Vladimir Ilych Lenin explained away this refutation.[16] As a student, I wanted to discuss this with my philosophy professor. He evaded me. He evidently did not know what to do, or how to save me confusion and resultant troubles. You need not be as foolish as I was. Do not fall for illiberal irrational fireworks. (Lenin explained the success of the western workers as due to their sharing the loot from the poor countries that the imperialists were robbing. Unlike Marx, he had no theory to explain how this alleged economic process takes place; he advocated the idea simply because it allowed him to cling to his dogma.)


Back to our business, then. We can say that those who willingly submit to constraints that they can refuse may still complain about them; they then phrase their complaint in a muddle that conceals their ability to refuse submission to the constraints about which they complain. There is a rationality in that confusion: since some people do choose to be free of the constraints in question, the ones who submit to them do so voluntarily, which is embarrassing. It is seems comforting to be too muddled to face the situation and admit that one is submissive. Nor is it easy to distinguish between law-abiding and submissiveness. We owe to Immanuel Kant the clear distinction between submissiveness and law abiding. Yet he could not tell us how to unmask submission that comes in the guise of law-abiding. The experiments that I suggest are to try to refuse to live by some constraints and see how it feels; for one who feels good yet returns to the live of submission will have to face one’s submissiveness, and find it very unpleasant. Sartre has rightly observed that realizing this torments prisoners as it shows them that they are unable to leave their jail anyway. Selma Lagerlöf is morally superior to Sartre, as she has rightly observed (The Wonderful Adventures of Nils Holgersson, 1906) that even slight encouragement may help the prisoner escape.

You may think that I am rather over-dramatic. I admire you for thinking such thoughts, because it shows how little you think of self-deception through confusion.[17] Unfortunately, I think it is a powerful factor. I shall elaborate no further, because I do hope that you, at least, will not mind the risk of reducing your ability to deceive yourself by confusion; it is possible you barely know how much you deceive yourself unknowingly. We all do! Never mind that for the time being. We should take personal problems seriously only when we bump into them.

To the answer to my question, then: why am I suggesting certain risky experiments? It is because I hope you are daring enough to take certain risks in the hope to learn something about yourself, your environment, and the various ways you may fit in it and thereby improve your lot and thus also your ability to contribute. Obviously, if you will try out some of my suggestions you may fail—in some exams or in the delivery of some lecture course that you may undertake, or anything else you try. You may even unwittingly make yourself an enemy or two. This is surprisingly easy to achieve. Such failures are no catastrophe; rather, avoiding them entirely or even avoiding most of them is the catastrophe that I wish to help you avoid. For, the only way to avoid failure almost entirely is to integrate with the system from the start through excess servility, through supreme caution, and through the relinquishing of all readiness to examine critically, not to say to improve, any part or aspect of the extant system. You can meet such conformists—in Academe as elsewhere; some of these get through successfully with the aid of unusual doses of great luck and immense talent. All too often, they are nervous wrecks. I do not know why this should be so, and I found that psychologists do not help me understand this. All they can say is that we all need a sense of challenge that we cannot sustain without some measure of failure; which is true, but not helpful and not enlightening. I have met a psychoanalyst from Hollywood—if you think for a moment you see that one can expect such talented straight successes to be there in a concentration higher than normal, and with a higher than normal ability to pay an analyst—and the said psychoanalyst boasted to me of having found a way to bring these people somehow to come to terms with their success. Unfortunately, I was unable to believe the story: I think it was bragging in the safety of the company of people like myself: ones with no contact with Hollywood so that they cannot divulge the violation of professional secrecy that such conversations may involve.

The point, you see, is general, but when applied to academic education and initiation, its significance undergoes great amplification. Academe requires conformity from all initiates, elicits it more often than usual, and remunerates it more often than usual. This has disastrous effects on both the commonwealth of learning as a whole and on its individual members. Academe requires conformity more often than usual, because conformity is to something ever so valuable as the treasures of accumulated knowledge, because every so often professors try to mold students in their own best self-images. They may fall short of their own self-images and then they deeply regret it; consequently, they might try to elicit better conformity from their students; alas, the defects are unintended consequences of general ideas and of general circumstances; and so, as long as the circumstances do not alter drastically, student will provide the same characteristic defects as their professors. Oh, students often go for conformity for the same reasons that their teachers offer when demanding it. The need for added incentive is obvious: the established want worthy successors (by our own standards); the unestablished want the help that only their professors may help them acquire. This is natural and very sad, and all those who complain about the great conservativism of Academe, as well as all who deny it, are slightly too superficial.[18] The question is, how are we to reduce excess conservatism although it comes naturally? My answer will depend on my criticism of the ideologies of professor and of student alike, and on my alternative ideology that I have borrowed, let me repeat, from my teacher Karl Popper.

His view of intellectual life as a spiritual adventure is not new; it is sufficiently popular to need no elaboration upon, not even in a longwinded text like the present one. His innovation, the point to elaborate on, is that the spirit gets broken all too often before the first occasion for an adventure by the ideology of the commonwealth of learning that supposedly accounts for the adventurous character of intellectual life but which instead opposes it and stifles it. The idea that endorsing the latest advances of science is obligatory sounds very reasonable; it is harmful. There is no need to advocate the latest advances of science: they are imposing. It is much harder to try to find their shortcomings. It is the first step for independence, says Popper, and possibly also for the rare ability to contribute to the growth of science.

This is not abstract. I too look for the bright-eyed student on whose shoulders the burden of the next generation may fall. The older I get the more I pay less attention to many merits and defects of students. I am now less impressed with their mental agility: on this point, Thomas S. Kuhn is right: the average student is intelligent enough to become a normal scientist. The quality I look for is therefore less intelligence and more intellectual-courage. It does not matter where it comes from—whether from physical courage, or from honesty and straightforwardness or uncompromising curiosity, or due to the hope of escaping from private miseries or social disadvantages and discriminations, or as means of social climbing or of impressing a member of the opposite sex. What matters is the degree of intellectual courage one can mobilize. On this I hope to tell you more later on—if you stick with me. The present inquiry is thus a combination of my attempt to help you through developing with ease your intellectual courage and your will to make experimentation part and parcel of your academic career, as well as a part of my attempt to make my own contribution to the commonwealth of learning through applied philosophy, through the development of the idea of the role of intellectual courage in the growth of knowledge that is part-and-parcel Popper’s theory of knowledge.

By now, I think you had ample warning and a fair opportunity to cease reading this volume. In any case, fare well!

— Boston, Massachusetts, Summer 1965;
— Herzliyah, Israel, Summer 2020.

5. P. S. My Advice in Brief

A classmate and a good friend of mine, Abdelhamid Ibrahim (“Bashi”) Sabra, later a Professor of the History of Arabic Science at Harvard University, has taught me something very important. He told me that he only published what he would have read profitably as a student, were it available then. I intend to emulate him: the present musing should comprise the advice that would have helped me if it were available to me when I was a student or a young academic. Not quite, however, since the present musing is rambling, unlike Sabra’s works that are admirably concise and well structured. I hope you are proficient in the art of browsing. It is of great value for a prospective academic who wants to choose independently what texts to overlook, what texts to read, and what texts to study diligently.

Here is a preview of my chief idea as far as your conduct is concerned. Find out what you want, independently of whether it is accessible. If you cannot find out, just decide. If you cannot decide for yourself, consult anyone or imitate anyone, but decide; if your decision does not appeal to you, then it is your prerogative to change it. (If you hesitate, you do not decide, and then you have no decision to change.) Have a goal, however tentative, and plan seriously your actions toward it. Do not plan hard work, do no plan dedication, and, above all, do not plan to do anything disagreeable to you. In particular, do not plan a martyrdom: we have too many martyrs already and they comprise sheer ballast. Try to avoid these as best you can. If you cannot see yourself overcoming the obstacles, look for a second best. But wait a bit. Many obstacles look at first glance much more formidable than they are. Be prepared to break every empty taboo, rule, or regulation on your way, as long as it incurs no pain to people around you (but ignore homilies against your decisions). If you do so with impunity or while paying a penalty smaller than remuneration for it and so not regretting the penalty, you are a better person and a better citizen for it. If the penalty is too heavy but not disastrous, consider it tuition fees. Avoid disastrous penalties as far as possible: in civil society, martyrdom is a defect, not a merit. Look around and you will find people who complain that they have worked very hard for the public interest only to get penalties in return. You will notice quickly that you do not want them as role models.

My intent here is to elaborate the above points that I consider universally valid[19] but particularly fruitfully applicable to Academe, and for two (polar) reasons. First, academic freedom is more valuable for achieving intellectual ends than other freedoms for their related ends, and then it is hard to depict and to offer institutionalized guidance for the protection of academic freedom. Some economic freedom, for instance, is essential for economic progress, but (pace Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek) there may be different systems of partial economic freedoms, of different economic incentives. Not so with academic freedom. Yet, due to the post-World War II rapid expansion of Academe (due to the GI Bill and similar incentives), current well-paid university professors are more regimented and more harassed—by bureaucrats and by their own red tape—than any other professionals within the same income-brackets. After all, returns for breaking taboos are enormous—both intellectual and material—particularly in Academe. I intend to elaborate on all this. The detailed discussions and suggestions that I will offer may well fail to help you in your specific predicament, but I hope you will notice their general drift and improve on them: modify my proposals to suit your specific needs, and do it in diverse ways and try them out; gently.

The leading lesson here is one that Gloria Steinem has advocated, and Ernest Gellner did earlier, as did George Orwell; perhaps Adelbert von Chamisso did so first. It is the most important general piece of advice: retain at any cost the most precious thing in your possession, and that is your self-esteem. There are reasons for endorsing any absurd thesis: that men are better than women are, the emperor’s new clothes are beautiful, that two plus two equals five or that you can live well enough without your shadow. Taking these absurdities seriously is the simplest, easiest, cleanest and most natural way to approach allowing yourself to lose your self-esteem whole. This loss is the first step towards the loss of all freedom.

I am glad you have chosen to become a colleague, and I welcome you warmly, even though I am not authorized to welcome you (especially since I refuse to examine your qualifications); I have no advice to you as to how to obtain an academic appointment; my advice to you is, do not trade your self-respect for an academic post—or for anything. No matter what they offer as compensation for the loss of self-esteem, it is a bad deal. Never allow anyone to offend your self-esteem (Gloria Steinem)! It turns out that you have no need to suffer such offense: odd as it sounds, guarding your self-esteem zealously never blocks happy and productive membership in any society, not even in Academe (Gellner). Many experts will say that this is naïve optimism; not so: it is the plain truth. It is also the right version of a familiar philosophy called eudaemonism: happiness and personal well-being is best achievable—if at all—by intelligent selfish conduct. If this idea is advisable anywhere, the obvious place for it is Academe.[20]

This is not to advise you to join Academe. Far from it. Unless you are intent on becoming an academic, you may find better luck elsewhere. What place in society you consider best for you, that place you should aim at. You may be mistaken about it; hence, you should be critically minded about it. Folk wisdom says so clearly. Even if you are a famous academic, if you do not like your place in Academe, my advice is, leave it at the first opportunity. Henceforth, I take it for granted that it is your decision to be an academic. I wish you success. If I can help you increase your odds, I will do so gladly. Alas, I have no idea how to do that; only how not to. Do not expect academic appointment to come from getting good grades in your academic studies. If anything helps enter Academe, it is being a good scholar, not from gaining good grades. Professors like students who go for good grades, as they give them least trouble; from peers they expect something else. It is often not academic excellence or anything like it. As far as experience can guide us, it tells that success in entering any profession is largely a matter of luck.[21] To the extent that it is not, the simplest advice is, do your best to improve yourself. Study the classics of your chosen profession and learn to speak and write clearly and to the point. Above all, do not write to fit the current fashion; it is too fickle, and it brings remuneration only to those who have sold their souls to powerful academic leaders who can see to it that at times some slavish acts that they supervise are remunerated. Leave them alone!

The best tool for this is planned spontaneity. Whatever you do out of a sense of compulsion and without joy is not sufficiently good; admittedly, at times it is necessary, but then it may be a necessary evil. You will be surprised to learn how much of what people consider necessary evil is not necessary, as you may find a version of it that is good and enjoyable. As urbane novelist William Somerset Maugham said (1940), “Now it is a funny thing about life; if you refuse to accept anything but the best you very often get it” (The Mixture As Before, “The Treasure”).

The reason for this surprising observation of Maugham is simple: most prohibitions are senseless. Only yesterday, most writers about sex, you may remember, viewed it as necessary evil. You will be surprised how much of what so many consider the worse evil turns out to be better than the alleged lesser evil. To stick to my example, consider matchmaking and free choice of one’s mate. Let me generalize. The commonest doctrine on earth is that of the original sin or the beast in us: let people do what they want, and they will steal, fornicate, and murder, causing social collapse. The extreme opposite doctrine is anarchism: people are good when no force steers them. Both doctrines are obviously false. However, surprisingly, recent history shows truth to be nearer to anarchism than to the doctrine of original sin. Thus, we may plan for the conditions under which spontaneity is more to the good than to destruction.

Planned spontaneity seems an oxymoron; it is not. What you wish to do now much depends on your immediate environment; you may choose it. Notoriously, you may carefully think up a few options, and then your eye falls casually on something exciting, and then things change in a flash—if you are game. Real intellectuals surround themselves with books they wish to read but have no time for: Dante, Galileo, an introduction to the calculus (elementary, analytic, or historical—depending on your background) some poetry, the score of a late Beethoven quartet. Purchase them in paperbacks; stuff with them your drawers, glove compartments, overcoat pockets. You will soon find yourself reading a few lines of Dante Alighieri while waiting for your girlfriend in your car. And enjoy it, too. It is indeed amazing how much flavor such minor occasions add to the general quality of life.

This is a simple example. Waiting for your girlfriend, however, is not a major part of your life. Can you make your profession, too, a happy pastime? Is it advisable? Is it moral? Yes. (You Can’t Take it with You) For further details go on reading.

This work is full of digression that I hope you will find amusing and/or instructive. They may also frustrate you, especially if you are very intent on quick advice. I have, therefore, given you my chief points already, so that you may now choose to dump this volume to the waste-basket, put it aside (in your glove compartment?) for a more propitious moment or settled down comfortably to read a few pages at the intended (by me) slow pace. You may have skipped the preface—this at your own risk, since the preface contains a caveat. You may now skip the first two parts of the book and go straight to the third one—on the condition that you do not place only me all the blame for your misunderstandings. Nevertheless, good luck!

Supposing you are decided on seeking a post in Academe and that everything you do you do right and even that you excel, the default assumption is that you will sooner or later succeed in obtaining an academic post. A least most of the students I met in my student days, admittedly very long ago, took this for granted. The most important point to make here is that this assumption is remote from the truth. Do not waste your precious time following it. There is no guarantee that anyone will receive an academic appointment nor that one’s tenure-track appointment will lead to tenure. The only optimist proviso to this observation is that in this respect selling your soul to the devil hardly improve your chances. It depends on whether the intriguing group that you align with wants you and succeeds in launching you. Know this: when you sell your freedom, you lose it at once; for what they promise you in return, you have no guarantee. (This explains why so many people in power are bitter: too many of them were victims of deceit: they were hurt and their subsequent success did not heal their wounds.)

I will return to the unpleasant part of Academe, intrigues and their insignificance. I will not return to your chances in entering Academe: there is little to say about it. All I can advise you to do is independent on whether you succeed or fail in this central issue. Remember: the time you spent in vain search of a job is sheer waste, and the most significant thing you can do to improve your chances at finding a job is to perform well the tasks that you like most. The only reasonable suggestion I can give you—no, it comes with no guarantee—is this. Find the expert who has published work nearest to your interest and taste. Study it. Find that person and present an explicit and clear request for assistance. End of suggestion. During my lengthy academic career, I learned that this is the only piece of advice that when it does not work you learn about it pronto, so that in that case it costs minimal loss of time and effort.

Let me end this introductory part with my lifelong effort to clear the intellectual confusion that feeds intrigues most: the silly view of criticism as hostile; already Plato has refuted it (Gorgias), yet to little avail.

Crites is the Greek for judge. We often confuse a judgement with the arguments that feed it, particularly negative ones. This leads to viewing the world as black-or-white: pointing to some strength / weakness of a position seems a judgement that is favorable / unfavorable; it limits comment to favorable / unfavorable ones. It leads to the view of any factual judgment with the moral judgment of it; to confuse mistake with guilt. Now all sense of guilt is silly. (Walter Kaufmann, Without Guilt and Justice, 1973) The view of all error as guilty overlooks the (legal) distinction between culpable, negligent error and reasonable error. It overlooks the (methodological) distinction between interesting and boring errors—which is more to your concern. Not so: teaching science includes classical theories that science has superseded; so does technology. The simplest form for a paper is to ask a question, examine and refute the most obvious answer to it, replace it, and so on, approaching the latest scientific theory in the clearest steps possible.[22]




[1] The standard requirement is that a doctoral dissertation adds to the stock of human knowledge. Few ask, what criteria apply here. Few professors tell their graduate students what they have to do to succeed.

[2] University publishing houses often enjoy subsidies meant to enable them to publish worthy books with small demand. They usually do not, and nevertheless they manage to suffer financial troubles.

[3] My The Very Idea of Modern Science: Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle, 298, 2013, 43.

[4] My Science and Its History: A Reassessment of the Historiography of Science, 2008, 64, 319, 326.

[5] Not that qualifications have to be detailed to be effective. At times the opposite is true: notoriously, the standard brief qualification “ceteris paribus” (“all things being equal”) suffices as an excuse for defunct (economic) predictions.

[6] A Philosopher’s Apprentice: In Karl Popper’s Workshop, Series in the Philosophy of Karl R. Popper and Critical Rationalism, 1993. Second edition, revised and extended, 2008.

[7] Bernard Shaw, John Bull’s Other Island, 1904

[8] My A Philosopher’s Apprentice, op cit. discusses this in some detail; I discuss schools of thought in general in my “Scientific Schools and their Success”, in my Science and Society, Studies in the Sociology of Science, 1981, 164-191.

[9] See my Science and Culture, 2003, Chapter 1.6.

[10] Allen Wheelis, The Quest for Identity, 1958.

[11] There are exceptions, such as handbooks that teach manipulative conduct. These are obviously objectionable. My example for this is Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People, 1936.

[12] The Joys of Sex of London University biology professor Alex Comfort, 1972, was a bestseller just because sex was then too often joyless. Similarly, Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique was a bestseller since it expressed the tremendous frustration of middle-class women by the expectation that they devote their energies to attend to the needs of their families and please their husbands.

[13] See my “Our agenda and its rationality”, in Gérald Bronner and Francesco Di Iorio, eds., The Mystery of Rationality: Mind, Beliefs and the Social Sciences, Springer Lecture Notes in Morphogenesis, 7-15.

[14] Tasha Eurich, (2018), “What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It)”. Retrieved from

[15] Konstantin Kolenda, “Unconscious motives and human action.” Inquiry 7.1-4 (1964): 1-12.

[16] Vladimir Ilych Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916.

[17] Under the influence of Wittgenstein, Carnap advocated the amazingly naïve idea that all disagreements between reasonable people are rooted in confusion so that clarification will bring about complete agreement. Although this exaggeration is naïve, its true core is important: many confusions want clarification. This exaggeration led to no practical achievement. Hence, my model is Adam Smith, not Wittgenstein or Carnap.

[18] The story that Richard Feynman tells in his autobiography is telling: he had to teach in Brazil to observe students’ submissiveness and to realize that he abhorred it. His experience is not unique.

[19] Bernard Shaw, Prefaces to Fanny’s First Play, 1911 and to Too True to be Good, 1933.

[20] If there is any counter-example for this, it is from the admirable me-too movement. Hopefully, the exploitation it was exposing is a thing of the past.

[21] Celebrated sociologist Max Weber said (“Science as a Vocation”),

“I personally owe it to some mere accidents that during my very early years I was appointed to a full professorship in a discipline in which men of my generation had achieved more that I had. And indeed I fancy on the basis of this experience that I have a sharp eye for the undeserved fate of the many whom accident has cast in the opposite direction and who within this selective apparatus in spite of all their ability do not attain the positions that are due them.”

This is a bit too self-effacing as a self-appraisal; yet it is true about the academic marketplace. My late wife was a leading sociologist and she failed to have a normal academic employment, partly as a woman, partly as anti-Marxist, and partly out of bad luck.

[22] R. G. Collingwood, Autobiography, 1939, Chapter V.

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