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Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador,

Wills, Bernard. “Conservatism: The End of An Idea.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 7-16.

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I recently noticed that conservatism as a political stance is definitively dead. Truth is it has been on life support for decades. This has not stopped all sorts of people from using the term both positively and negatively. All sorts of people proudly proclaim themselves to be conservatives while others angrily denounce people as conservatives. The death of conservatism means, for starters, that neither group fully grasps of the term they are using. The word has become utterly detached from the thing. Another thing it means is that an individual may have conservative opinions but only in the sense that an individual may worship the goddess Artemis in her back yard or live like a 17th Century Puritan. It is a private eccentricity with no public institutional reality. The death of conservatism is then something like the death of God.

A New Classification of Politics: Three Ideologies

There is no significance to taking any public stand as a conservative. This is for one basic reason. This reason is that the victory of ideology in contemporary politics is now total and that conservatism is not an ideology.[1] Our political discourse is now divided between three ideological stances: the progressive, the neo-liberal and ethno-nationalist stances. So called social conservatives used to exist but they have utterly disappeared into the third stance as is plain with the rise of Trump in the United States and the rise of similar populists elsewhere.[2] There are now no social conservatives of any note who are not also ethno-nationalists and indeed primarily ethno-nationalists.

This is absolutely evident from their obsession with a purported clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. By and large Muslims share the values of social conservatives when it comes to things like family, modesty, the centrality of religion and so on. Yet social conservatives despise and fear Muslims all the same making it plain that by family values they mean white Anglo-Saxon family values and by piety they mean white Anglo-Saxon piety. That is the core of the ethno-nationalist position: that western Christian values are cherished not for their supposed universality but as the foundation of a tribal identity. From time to time the neo-Liberal stance is classified as ‘conservative’ though for no reason I can fathom: as Marx pointed out predatory capitalism rips the veil form all traditional pieties by reducing everything to a cash value. The proposition that limitless accumulation is the aim of life and indeed the primary duty of a citizen is consistent with no ancient wisdom I know of religious or otherwise.

Conservatism then is no more. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It is hardly my place to say: conservatism itself advises us that like all human constructions it is finite and imperfect. However, at this point the reader may well be waiting, impatiently, for a definition of conservatism. What is it that I say has died?

I will proceed to offer if not a definition then an account of what conservatism is in the root sense of the word: an attitude to the world which seeks to conserve or protect those principles, values or institutions on which genuine human flourishing has always and will always rest. It will then be evident that people who use the term most loudly haven’t the faintest interest in conservatism or conservative values and perhaps never have. Of course, I run the risk of baffling people (both boosters and knockers) who will not recognize their version of conservatism in anything I say. I ask such people to be patient until I finish my exposition.

How Were We Able to Drink Up the Sea?

I said above that conservatism is not an ideology: from writers labelled ‘conservative’ it would be difficult to cull a doctrinal statement. This means that it has no definition in the sense of a core statement of doctrine or set of prescriptive demands: it is, if like, the position which is not a position but rather an attitude and a practice. However, I can give you a living example of it from a much despised source.

I find an excellent description of conservatism as a life stance expressed in the five pillars of the Islamic faith.[3] Soi-disant ‘conservatives’ who are shocked and angered by this should ask themselves why as these values seem to me core to any conservative stance towards the world. The first of these pillars is the shahada or profession of faith: There is no god but god and Mohammed is his prophet. Now conservatism does not inherently care about the latter part of this assertion: it is happy to recognize a multitude of other prophets who have taught in other parts of the world such as Siddartha, Jesus, or Confucius.

The first however is essential: conservatism is theocratic in orientation. Humans are first and foremost unconditionally responsible to a divine order: to the standards which are ultimate because they are founded in the unchanging nature of God. No human being is to place any finite value, such as family, clan, party in the place of God. The regard the finite as infinite in value and as an absolute end is to commit the arch-error of shirk. On this basis conservatism attaches only a qualified value to the goods of this world: it does not absolutize the relative. No movement, no passion, no interest which is merely human or temporary can trump our duty to god and his sovereign will. Order is prior absolutely to freedom and in fact it is true freedom to recognize this.

Of course this whole position is pointless if we do not know God’s will. Fortunately, it is of the nature of god to reveal himself in scriptures, historical events, the exemplary deeds of prophets and saints and so on. God is present and active in the world. His will is manifest in the sacred teachings and philosophies (the philosophia perennialis) of the world as in the depths of our own conscience.[4] Indeed, his will is present even in those conscious non-believers who nonetheless enshrine the eternal verities (the good, the beautiful and the true) within their hearts.

For this reason, the second pillar enjoins us to prayer. Humans must remember and acknowledge both internally and externally the absoluteness of God. This is important because it cuts against the grain. Our tendency is to lose focus in the midst of the world’s distractions. We wander away from our final end and our ultimate good. We put wealth, or lust, or power or anger at the center of our lives instead of the union with god we all intrinsically long for. We miss our happiness by seeking it in things that cannot, of their very metaphysical nature, supply it.

This is why prayer, both personal and liturgical is central to a well lived life for in prayer we re-collect our ultimate aim, the peace that comes of divine union. This peace is the aim of all prayer even when expressed in its lowest manifestation which is petitionary prayer. Conservatism calls us to recollect those spiritual values that make for true fulfillment against everything faddish and temporary. It calls to put the eternal always before the merely modish and to this extent prayer is one of its liveliest manifestations as it a call to remember god in the midst of this world.

A Union of Materialism and Faith

Yet our lives are in this world too. Conservatism rejects the pessimism of the millenarian and gnostic. It does not long for an immanent millennium to destroy the present world order but waits patiently for the fulfillment of things in the fullness of time. Thus, when faced with the worldly Gnosticism of the secular revolutionary or the religious despair of those who simply wish to be raptured into eternity as the world burns it counsels skepticism. Thus, as our status in the next world is determined by how we live in this one our duty to god is also our duty to community. Almsgiving is then a conservative value. Wealth exists to be shared. It is not an idol and not an end. It is a means to community and those who are blessed with it in turn bless others. Wealth selfishly hoarded is not wealth at all and thus zakat is enjoined on all believers.

This is especially important as we tend to the selfish and misguided view that our wealth is the deserved result of our special virtue whereas in truth all good things come from god and god alone. As it comes from god it is given back to god as god is present in the neediness of our neighbors and the needs of our community. How vulgar then is the so called ‘prosperity gospel’ preached by certain Christians who claim to have Jesus in their hearts when they do not even have Mohammed! There are many displays of vulgar wealth in the Islamic world as in ours. People in the East and the West need constant reminding that the needs of the community outweigh the wants of the individual.

This is part of our human fallibility, our tendency to forget our ultimate end for merely proximate ones. The principle of almsgiving is, however, particularly salutary for those of us living in the Christian west as our societies have made the endless accumulation of personal wealth their over-riding principle even at the expense of the very soil we live on and the air we breathe. I should note though entirely in line with conservatism zakat assumes that differences between people entail differences in wealth and that this will not be abolished but equalized through giving.

The fourth pillar counsels fasting on the sound conservative principle that we do not live for the gratification of the senses but for the fulfillment of the spirit. Fasting reminds us that the primary struggle in life is with ourselves and that the demands of the moral and communal life are at odds (often) with the gratification of the senses. Indeed, there is no substitute for the feeling of hunger as those who never feel it have no conception of the suffering of those who do. This is why great wealth so often goes with poverty of the spirit and why it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

Yet fasting is only one letter away from feasting. As there is a time to curb the senses there is a time to release them particularly in the context of communal celebration. As Aristotle said long ago, proper self-control involves not just self-denial, knowing when to say no to our desires, but also knowing when to indulge them: one does not gorge at a funeral or fast at a wedding. Still, as giving free rein to our desires must be choice and not compulsion our moral training will tend to focus on self-denial so that our indulgence may be unconstrained by evil habit.

Finally, the fifth pillar enjoins on us pilgrimage to Mecca and why not as life itself is a pilgrimage? T. S. Eliot prays: “help us to care and not to care” and this is the core of the notion that we are pilgrims in this world. The world of time and space we inhabit is both affirmed and transcended. We give ourselves over to finite ends yet leave the fruit of our action in the hands of providence. The finite passes over to the infinite as we give over our worldly projects and passions, releasing them into the eternal will of God.

On practical level this is a powerful inoculation against despair as the world does not bear all the weight of our expectations (which of its creaturely nature it can never bear). Consider as an example the old expression “better dead than red”. Those who uttered this expression meant that the Western Bourgeois form of freedom was freedom absolute and that its potential loss justified the nuclear annihilation of the planet. Of course, Western Bourgeois freedom (though admirable in many ways) is a provincial form of freedom. It does not exhaust every possibility of human good. Only a whig-history-on-steroids view of western institutions as the inevitable and only culmination of human history could justify such nihilism.

Conservatism will have no truck with this sentiment. History is an arena of struggle subject to advances and retreats. Yet possibilities for good remain in the darkest of times and the insanity of history can never destroy or even affect in the slightest the eternal essence of God source and ground of all good. In a godless universe, where this world is the only locus of good, history becomes a battleground in which the stakes are absolute and compromise unthinkable: hence the vicious ideological battles of those who think they have solved the riddle of history and claim to be bringing about the final human good.

When Opposition to the Radical Falls Away

Of course it can be objected that conservatism as I have described it here has no more been tried than Christianity or communism. Conservativism, one might say, has never really existed outside the elegant, wistful prose of conservatives. There is much truth to this charge yet it is, of course, true of all moral stances that their instantiations are very far indeed from their archetypal forms. Hence we get the characteristic vice of the conservative: the tendency to forget fundamental values for external privileges and the inability to identify what it is that ought, in fact, to be conserved.

Still, on the plus side of the ledger, the conservative might well ask whether his or her own view is comprehensive of all its rivals. Conservatives share with progressives a concern for justice and equity especially for the poor and marginalized. Conservatives share with ethno-nationalism a concern for the particularities of language and culture over against the homogenizing tendencies of globalism and technocracy. Conservatives even share with neo-liberals a suspicion of totalitarian power, planning and control.

However, conservatism, in the west at least, may well be dead for a more fundamental reason. This is because there is a powerful alternative to the conservative tradition and that is the radical tradition. All three of our contemporary ideologies have their roots in radicalism and are closer to each other than they can readily imagine given their current conflict. For the radical tradition the constraints imposed by tradition are in almost all cases artificial. What the conservative tradition would constrain the radical tradition would release. Radicalism envisages a flowering of human diversity, a host of new avenues in which self-hood can be explored beyond the stale platitudes of convention. This radical principle has routed conservatism (much of which expressed itself as cheap nostalgia anyway) and is the default position of all North Americans.[5]

This spirit can express itself as radical egalitarianism or its opposite. For instance, among ethno-nationalists it is assumed that the will of the demos embodies the wisdom and good sense of the people. This wisdom would readily express itself were it not for the constraints imposed by various ‘elites’ whose abstract intellectualism has lost touch with the community and indeed with reality. These elites constantly invoke the authority of science, or education or expertise or data against what ‘simple folk’ can see with their own eyes. When the demos seeks to express its will this is declared ‘unconstitutional’ or ‘against the rule of law’ by lawyers or advocacy groups or other ‘elite’ institutions.

The demos however, holds all such institutions in contempt and seeks to impose its will through a ‘great leader’ who is willing to flout them and indeed is willing to flout moral convention altogether (even moral conventions like marital fidelity to which the demos remain sentimentally attached). Thus, we have a kind of direct democracy outside of constitutional and legal constraints such as conservatism has forever warned against. That these radicals sometimes espouse ‘conservative’ seeming policies or points of view is irrelevant as they espouse them lawlessly and in a manner contemptuous of the very traditions they claim to value.

Why, for instance, is it conservative to despise the opinions of the educated and even pour contempt on the intellect itself? Such things are an expression of a rebellious and anti-authoritarian spirit. The demos trusts only in its collective judgment and not only rejects but actively despises any other principle. That this attitude is over-determined by socio-economic factors is plain but that does not make it any easier to deal with on a day to day basis especially as the scapegoating of immigrants, prisoners and others is high on the populist wish-list and the populace resents institutional constraints on its will to revenge especially.[6]

There is of course the other side of this coin and that is the populism of progressive movements such as the occupy movement, black-bloc radicals and so on.[7] These movements, it must be said, have aims that seem overall nobler and better than the beefs and resentments of populists. However, this is a weakness as much as a strength: as I said above every stance struggles with its shadow. Noble ideals are a proven danger when not accompanied by political and moral pragmatism and relentless self-examination. Moral crusaders have a distressing tendency to fumble badly when actually called upon to run things: this is because sweeping moral denunciations are a form of cheap grace while actual governance (self-governance included) is slow, patient work.

Return to Innocence Lost (or Imagined)

There is also a false innocence that can maintained simply by never facing the temptations of power. William Blake (a far deeper radical) was a persistent critic of any form of abstract moralism. For him no political or theological order could be the basis of freedom that did not overcome the problem of self-righteousness: our tendency to identify ourselves with an abstract principle of goodness and others (inevitably) with an abstract principle of evil. In a powerful image he tells us that blood sacrifice and war are the culmination of the moral law, the categories of good and evil unrelieved by charity, solidarity, or forgiveness.[8]

Moralism is for Blake a form of violence. (see for instance plates 47-51 of Jerusalem) Our care must embrace the ‘minute particulars’ of humanity: no ‘humanism’ can be liberating that puts an abstraction like ‘Humanity’ before flesh and blood human beings. We all have encountered people who virtue signal on every conceivable ‘issue’ but have little but venom in their hearts: one danger of the progressive stance lies, then, in the monsters of self-righteous zeal that it breeds.

At any rate, such people envisage (after some difficult to specify revolutionary event) a world in which a host of sexualities, ethnicities, personalities and identities flourish without constraint and (though this is surely impossible) without mutual contradiction.[9] As the economic discipline of Capitalism lies behind all other forms of oppression the current economic order must be overthrown. The suggested alternative is often some form of anarchism.

Like the populists, anarchists distrust and despise constitutionalism which after all only serves to protect the oppressors. Indeed, the anarchists despise traditional civil liberties as a form of constraint and mock those who espouse them as ‘liberals’. In particular, they resent the fact that such liberties prevent them from waging all-out war against their eternal adversary the populists. The populists heartily agree. Both sides fantasize about epic street confrontations or cyber battles that will issue in a final rout of the forces of evil. In other words, they are secular (and indeed religious) millenarians.

Each believes in a great battle, an apocalyptic convulsion that will only happen if liberals and other idiots get out of the way. A significant minority of each group considers this not just as a ‘culture war’ but as a ‘war’ war with brickbats, fires and vandalism of property. At any rate both agree on the Manichean position: the world and everything in it is hopelessly vitiated and corrupt and must be purged by fire whether this be the literal fire of Armageddon or the flames of secular revolution.

Finally, we have the technological dreamers. They do not dream of an unconstrained populist will or an unconstrained flowering of genders and sexualities but of the unconstrained power of technical and economic innovation. The enemy is, again the state and its institutions. Regulation of industry and common sense controls over heedless technological advancement are as bizarre and repellent to them as constraints on abortion or sexuality are to progressives. They, after all, represent the creative energy behind all forms of human advancement, all growth and prosperity. Technological or business imperatives cannot be questioned without questioning prosperity and progress themselves: the two things which for this ideology are non-negotiable. Such people see nothing ironic or odd in the fact the demands of progress and the spread of prosperity never conflict with their own self-interest.

The self- interest of the entrepreneur or innovator is the interest of the community. In a seeming parody of the Marxist utopia where the freedom of each is the freedom of all the neo-liberals and libertarians do not see the economic freedom of the individual as ever conflicting with the good of the community. This is, of course, the dream of anarchists as well: that individual wills can exist in immediate and natural harmony once the power of the state is gone. The technophiles go even further however: for them this harmony can be achieved and maintained in the midst of unrestrained competition.

The magic of the market will smooth out all inequities and bring prosperity and balance to all (or, if the libertarian leans also to vengeful populism, to the deserving). At any rate the neo-liberals have one ace in the hole that it is difficult to imagine anyone overcoming: this is the fact that almost all acts of rebellion can be appropriated and monetized. This is particularly true of physical vandalism. Capitalism does not fetishize physical property the way some anarchists think it does: burn a bank to the ground and you will find only that stock in private security companies has gone up.

Liberation as Consuming Fire

For all three groups the enemy is clear as is the goal: the repressed must be liberated. The demos must be free to enact its vengeful fantasies on immigrants, prisoners or gays. The libertarian must be free to innovate and make more money than anyone can find a use for. Sexual and ethnic minorities must be free to express their forms of life to whatever limit logic implies. All must be free and all must be free especially of the enemy of freedom, the state and its laws and institutions.[10] This is the core of each position quite apart from the fact that within each there may be many demands reasonable in themselves.

This indicates that the radical stance is the stance where our politics is concerned. Everything must be liberated though conservatives may warn again and again that liberation may mean the freedom of everything awful as easily as the freedom of everything good. Lamentation however is pointless (with apologies to Canada’s lamenter-in-chief George Parkin Grant!). This is because the radical principle is our principle and is, indeed, along with conservatism, a fundamental human option. Moreover, it has great achievements to its credit even as conservatism has many disgraces.

At the same time radicalism imposes its own constraints: most of us would rejoice if anti-vaxxers stopped being such fools yet they are acting on an impeccable radical principle, that of personal autonomy, as well as a suspicion of institutionalized medicine that many of us share. In fact, this example raises a vexing problem: vaccination can only be carried out on a population, all must buy into it for it to work. How would an anarchist society founded on a principle of radical freedom (whether anarcho-communist or right wing patriot) handle a question of this sort? Will radical stances license such appalling disorder that conservatism will become a living option? Are Clinton and Trudeau after all the best we can hope for?

Blake certainly painted a dark vision of the hellish cycle of rebellion and reaction: the perpetual alteration between sanguinary radicalism and stultifying conservatism. Is this our future? Philosophy, alas, does not deal with the future. It counsels only that we temper hope as well as fear and judge all things sub-specie-aeternitatis. It is with this stoic sentiment, as boring as it is true, that I will conclude. We seem at an impasse though the author would certainly be happy to learn from others that he is unduly pessimistic about the world.

Contact details:


Aristophanes. The Clouds trans. C.D.C. Reeve, from The Trials of Socrates. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002)

Blake, William. Complete Poems ed. Alicia Ostriker. London: Penguin Classics, 1978.

Girard, René. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning trans. J.G. Williams. (Ottawa: Novalis, 2001)

Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Mind. trans. J.B. Baillie. (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1967.

Reno, Robert “Why I Am anti-anti-TrumpFirst Things. Retrieved from

Smith, John Huston. The World’s Religions New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

[1] A fundamental problem with conservatism is that as soon as it defines itself vis a vis its ideological rivals it itself becomes an ideological construct rather than an assumed form of life. At that point conservatism turns into reaction. This problem was noted as long ago as Aristophanes the Clouds. One ace in the hole of the radical tradition is that as soon as traditional norms are questioned and have to be self-consciously defended the conservative standpoint is lost. At that point conservatism becomes a position duking it out with the other positions scoring the odd victory here and suffering the odd reverse there.

[2] The fatal weakness of social conservatism as a political movement was that it never articulated a positive vision of society leaving this work first to neo-liberals and now to ethno-nationalists. Its politics was simply oppositional: devoted to blocking actions against abortion or homosexuality or other things deemed decadent, conflicts that were and are unwinnable. On this basis it forged its foolish alliance first with corporate kleptocracy and then with strident populism culminating in ludicrous defenses of Trumpism from previously reputable conservative publications like First Things. (e.g Robert Reno  

[3] For a rich introduction to Islam and indeed to other major faiths see The World’s Religions by John Huston Smith.

[4] This notion of a ‘perennial philosophy’ is central to writers we might place on the conservative spectrum from traditionalist writers like Rene Guenon to more eclectic figures like Aldous Huxley or Simone Weil who, while influential in some conservative circles, defy easy categorization. These metaphysically inclined thinkers contrast with the more pragmatic strain of conservatism stemming from the tradition of Burke and Swift. The American Russel Kirk may be taken as one of the last influential exponents of this view. One can add to this list the disciples of Leo Strauss (a far deeper thinker than Kirk), Canadians like George Grant as well as pure reactionaries in the tradition of Joseph de Maistre. What any of these figures would have thought of Donald J. Trump, a wealthy vulgarian straight from the pages of the Satyricon, one can only guess. Ironies abound here however: Guenon, a western convert to Islam, seems to have influenced the volcanic anti-Islamic rage of Steve Bannon. The paleo-conservatism of the genteel Russel Kirk also spawned the nativism of Pat Buchanan. Every stance has its shadow, the embodiment of its darker tendencies and ethno-nationalism seems to stand in this relation to conservatism.

[5] Any defense of a conservative principle in politics and society in the west can only be a highly qualified one for the reason that there are (in my view at least) a plurality of moral languages with claims on our attention and one of these is indeed that of the radical tradition. For Westerners this problem is acute for, as far as I able to determine, the roots of radicalism are in the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul. These are not Conservative documents in my reading of them precisely for their doctrine of radical solidarity with the poor which undermines the binaries on which traditional human societies are built (and sometimes subverts those texts themselves). It was not for nothing that the Emperors of Rome thought Christianity a fundamental threat to civilized standards. In the West, then, the radical principle is already present in its primary theological constitution (however much it tries to ignore or forget that fact).

[6] Indeed, conservative Christianity is, with some honorable exceptions, becoming a pharisaical revenge cult. Behind all the rhetoric around ‘security’ (Canada remains one of the securest societies on planet Earth where terrorism is concerned) and the ‘Muslim threat’ one will find the simple will to retaliate in kind against anyone who represents the hated ‘other’ no matter how guilty or how innocent.

[7] I have before me the online Anarchist Library compiled by the Green Mountain Collective. ( These sources give the inescapable impression of an abstract ideological rage consuming itself in an intellectual and historical vacuum: pretty much as Hegel saw the French revolutionaries. (The Phenomenology of Mind, 604) Talking to proponents of these views online (if talking is quite the word for it) only deepens this impression. Perhaps I am being harsh however: if the reader is curious, she may peruse Hegel’s chapter ‘Absolute Freedom and Terror’ and judge for herself if the comparison is apt. Those curious as to why the revolution always eats itself and why revolutionaries must at last turn on themselves may find Hegel’s analysis helpful.

[8] That ‘progressives’ will verbally disembowel each other over ideological differences barely discernible to outsiders shows that they are far from immune to the mimetic violence described by René Girard (2001; 24-31) Just as Blake said, moral abstraction enacts ritual violence. Progressivism is far from alone in this of course and indeed the ethno-nationalist stance is even more Manichean and violent. Still, the fact that it is over all the most humane of the current stances only makes the trap deeper: without what theologians once called a sense of sin it is difficult to imagine any politics escaping the scapegoating impulse and the self-righteous violence it manifests. Considering the ridicule and anger one provokes from many progressives by defending a stance of non-violence things do not seem hopeful.

[9] This is a deeper problem than many realize. The total liberation of one standpoint is the suppression of another: unconditional solidarity with ALL standpoints at once seems a chimerical notion. This is why in practice progressives (for instance) must always favor some oppressed people over others: aboriginal people in Guatemala, say, over outlandish folk like the Copts in Egypt. This why the radical stance may, for all protestations to the contrary, be implicitly totalitarian. Consider the following problem: A adopts the deep narrative about himself that he is the one true prophet of God. A desires not only the liberty to adopt this self-description but demands the universal recognition of this deep description by others. It is, to him, a fundamental denial of his personhood should anyone question his foundational narrative as, in his mind, he IS this narrative. However, trouble arises if B also adopts the deep story that SHE is the one true prophet of God as others cannot offer unconditional affirmation of both narratives. Here is where the currently much maligned standpoint of liberalism steps in. The liberal defers the eschaton by imposing articles of peace on A and B while each prosecutes their claim to be the one true prophet. With this peace imposed A and B come to the realization that, whatever differences divide them, they share a common nature as rational agents. They can now differ on each other’s deep story, neither one need be forced to accept the other because neither party is reducible to their narrative. With that they can go about their affairs. The alternative is playing the zero sum game of establishing my narrative as the dominant one through the suppression of the other contrary narrative. A simply destroys B. This is the totalitarian stance. Its dangers are evident yet the liberal stance costs as well. By entering that stance, we forgo universal recognition for the sake of peace and subordinate our deep story to the common good, at which point we cease to be simply our story, we assume a common public narrative as our own somewhat as we give up our private religious perceptions to join a church. I tend to think that is a cost worth paying though others may differ.

[10] This is why the most embattled principle of all is the centrism espoused by the Democratic party in the U.S. and the Liberal Party in Canada. As in the thirties it seems “the center cannot hold” (to quote W.B. Yeats). The basic problem seems to me that no centrist government can impose discipline on the fossil fuel-industry. Nor can it impose any discipline on the speculators and financiers who hoard badly needed funds offshore: a miserly activity contrary to the very nature of the capitalism they are said to espouse. That said, if there is anything which can be said to be ‘conservative’ in the current context it is belief in a social democratic state with traditional civil liberties protected by a strong constitutional framework. This, if I would hazard a guess, would be the best polity currently on offer. I have given short shrift to the phenomenon of political centrism in this piece, a deficiency I hope to make up in a subsequent essay.

Vice Ontology, Quassim Cassam

SERRC —  November 16, 2017 — 1 Comment

Author Information: Quassim Cassam, University of Warwick, UK,

Cassam, Quassim. “Vice Ontology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 20-27.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image by Francois Meehan via Flickr / Creative Commons


One of the frustrations of trying to make headway with the rapidly expanding literature on epistemic vices is the absence of an agreed list of such vices. Vice epistemologists are more than happy to say what makes a character trait, attitude of way of thinking epistemically vicious and most provide examples of epistemic vices or lists of the kind of thing that have in mind. But these lists tend to be a hotchpotch. Different philosophers provide different lists and while there is some overlap there are also some significant variations. Closed-mindedness is a popular favourite but some vices that appear on some lists fail to appear on others. Here, for example, is Linda Zagzebksi’s list:

intellectual pride, negligence, idleness, cowardice, conformity, carelessness, rigidity, prejudice, wishful thinking, closed-mindedness, insensitivity to detail, obtuseness, and lack of thoroughness (1996: 152).

Confronted by a list like this several questions suggest themselves: why do these items make it onto the list and not others? Why not dogmatism or gullibility? Is idleness really an epistemic vice or a vice in a more general sense? Are all the items on the list equally important or are some more important than others? What is the relationship between the listed vices? It isn’t necessarily a criticism of vice epistemologists that they rarely tackle such questions. They are mainly concerned to develop a theoretical account of the notion of an epistemic vice, and individual vices are more often than not only mentioned for illustrative purposes.

An Order for Vice

But as vice epistemologists get down to listing epistemic vices they need to make it clear on what basis included items have been included and excluded items have been excluded. If some epistemic vices are deemed to be subservient to others it needs to be explained why. As Ian James Kidd notes in his valuable contribution, an important but neglected issue for vice epistemology is taxonomy, and this means having a story to tell about the basis on which epistemic vices can reasonably be grouped and ordered.[1]

Kidd rises to this challenge by drawing on the historically influential notion of a capital vice.[2] Capital vices are ‘source vices’ that give rise to other vices. Kidd asks whether there are capital epistemic vices and gives closed-mindedness as a possible example. According to Heather Battaly, whose view Kidd discusses, closed-mindedness is an unwillingness or inability to engage seriously with relevant intellectual options.[3] One way to be closed-minded is to be dogmatic but Battaly suggests that closed-mindedness is the broader notion: one is dogmatic if one is closed-minded with respect to beliefs one already holds but one can be closed-minded without being dogmatic.

For Battaly, closed-mindedness does not require one already to have made up one’s mind since one can also be closed-minded in how one arrives at one’s beliefs. The upshot is that closed-mindedness is the ‘source of dogmatism’ (Kidd 2017: 14). This doesn’t settle the question whether closed-mindedness is a capital epistemic vice if genuine capital vices have more than one sub-vice.

Still, Kidd reads Battaly’s view of the link between closed-mindedness and dogmatism as providing at least some support for viewing the former as a capital epistemic vice. Furthermore, it looks as though the capitality relation is in this case a conceptual relation. It might be a psychological fact that being closed-minded tends to make a person dogmatic but the postulated connection between closed-mindedness and dogmatism looks conceptual: it is built into the concepts of closed-mindedness and dogmatism that being dogmatic is a way of being closed-minded.

To what are analyses of concepts of specific epistemic vices answerable? One might think: to the nature of those vices themselves but then it needs to be explained how talk of the ‘nature’ of epistemic vices is to be understood. In what sense do such vices have a ‘nature’ that analyses of them capture or fail to capture?

Going Back to Locke

This way of formulating the methodological question should resonate with readers of Locke, not least because it represents the question as turning on the ontology of vice. In Locke’s ontology there is a fundamental distinction between substances and modes. Substances, for Locke, are the ultimate subjects of predication and exist independently of us. Gold and horses are Lockean substances, and our complex ideas of substances aren’t just combinations of simple ideas or observable properties.

They are ideas of ‘distinct particular things subsisting by themselves’ with their own underlying nature that explains why they have the observable properties they have (II.xii.6).[4] Since our ideas of substances are ‘intended to be Representations of Substances, as they really are’ they are answerable to the nature of substances as they really are and aren’t guaranteed to be adequate, that is, to do justice to the actual nature of what they are intended to represent (

In contrast, our ideas of modes are ideas of qualities or attributes that can only exist as the qualities or attributes of a substance. Modes are dependent existences. Simple modes are combinations of the same simple idea whereas mixed modes combine ideas of several different kinds.[5] So, for example, theft is a mixed mode since the idea of theft is the idea of the concealed change of possession of something without the consent of the proprietor. Locke’s key claim about ideas of modes is that they are ‘voluntary Collections of simple Ideas, which the Mind puts together, without any reference to any real Archetypes’ (II.xxxi.3). It follows that these ideas can’t fail to be adequate since, as Michael Ayers puts it on Locke’s behalf, we form these ideas ‘without the need to refer to reality’ (1991: 57).[6] Take the idea of courage, which Locke regards as a mixed mode:

He that at first put together the Idea of Danger perceived, absence of disorder from Fear, sedate consideration of what was justly to be done, and executing it without that disturbance, or being deterred by the danger of it, had certainly in his Mind that complex Idea made up of that Combination: and intending it to be nothing else, but what it is; nor to have any other simple Ideas, but what it hath, it could not also be but an adequate idea: and laying this up in his Memory, with the name Courage annexed to it, to signifie it to others, and denominate from thence any Action he should observe to agree with it, had thereby a Standard to measure and dominate Actions by, as they agreed to it’ (II.xxxi.3).

When it comes to our ideas of substances it is reality that sets the standard for our ideas. With mixed modes, it is our ideas that set the standard for reality, so that an action is courageous just if it has the features that our idea of courage brings together. Locke doesn’t deny that ideas of mixed modes can be formed by experience and observation. For example, seeing two men wrestle can give one the idea of wrestling. For the most part, however, ideas of modes are the products of invention, of the ‘voluntary putting together of several simple Ideas in our own minds’ (II.xxii.9), without prior observation.

An interesting consequence of what might be described as Locke’s conceptualism about modes is that there is in a sense no external standard by reference to which disputes about what is and is not part of the idea of mixed modes can be settled.[7] Again Locke uses the example of courage to make his point.

Suppose that one person X’s idea of a courageous act includes the idea of ‘sedate consideration’ of ‘what is fittest to be done’ ( This is the idea of ‘an Action which may exist’ (ibid.) but another person Y has a different idea according to which a courageous action is one that is performed ‘without using one’s Reason or Industry’ (ibid.). Such actions are also possible, and Y’s idea is as ‘real’ as X’s. An action that displays courage by X’s lights might fail to do so by Y’s lights and vice versa but it seems that the only respect in which Y’s idea might count as ‘wrong, imperfect, or inadequate’ (II.xxxi.5) is if Y intends his idea of courage to be the same as X’s. Apart from that, both ideas are equally legitimate and can both be used in the classification of actions.

In fact, this isn’t quite Locke’s view since it omits one important qualification. At one point he argues that:

Mixed Modes and Relations, having no other reality, but what they have in the Minds of Men, there is nothing more required to those kinds of Ideas to make them real, but that they be so framed, that there be the possibility of existing comformable to them. These Ideas being themselves Archetypes, cannot differ from their Archetypes, and so cannot be chimerical, unless any one of them will jumble together in them inconsistent Ideas (

On reflection, however, consistency isn’t enough for our complex ideas of mixed modes to be ‘real’. For these ideas not to be ‘fantastical’ they must also ‘have a Conformity to the ordinary signification of the Name’ ( So it would count against Y’s (or X’s) conception of courage that it doesn’t accord with the ordinary meaning of common usage of words like ‘courage’ or ‘courageous’.

Return to the Present

What is the relevance of Locke’s discussion for the issues that Kidd is concerned with? A natural thought is that epistemic vices like closed-mindedness and dogmatism are, like the idea of courage, mixed modes. As noted previously, there is room for debate about how these epistemic vices are to be understood and how they are related. Starting with dogmatism, here is one account by Roberts and Wood:

A doctrine is a belief about the general character of the world, or some generally important aspect of the world, which bears the weight of many other beliefs. Thus a mother who refuses, in the face of what should be compelling evidence, to give up her belief that her son is innocent of a certain crime, is perhaps stubborn, obstinate, or blinded by her attachment, but she is not on that account dogmatic. By contrast, someone who holds irrationally to some fundamental doctrine, such as the tenets of Marxism or capitalism or Christianity, or some broad historical thesis such as that the Holocaust did not occur, is dogmatic (2007: 194-5).

Battaly sees things slightly differently. On her view, it is possible for a person to be dogmatic even in relation to relatively trivial beliefs or beliefs that aren’t representative of ideologies or doctrines. One can be dogmatic about whether one’s pet is well-behaved or whether one’s son is innocent of a crime. Roberts and Woods’ conception of dogmatism is narrow whereas Battaly’s conception is broad. Who is right?

If being ‘right’ is a matter of conceiving of dogmatism is a way that does justice to its real or true nature then the Lockean conceptualist says that there is no such thing. As a mixed mode, dogmatism is a voluntary collection of simple ideas. Roberts and Wood are free to stipulate that dogmatism has to do with doctrine and Battaly is free to reject this stipulation. Relative to Roberts and Woods’ complex idea of dogmatism the belief that one’s pet is well-behaved is too trivial to be dogmatic. Relative to Battaly’s idea of dogmatism the belief that one’s son is innocent of a certain crime might be dogmatic.

However, the disagreement between the broad and narrow accounts of dogmatism is, on a Lockean reading, a not very deep disagreement between two policies about the use of the term ‘dogmatic’. The most one can say is that the narrow account is closer to ordinary usage, and this might be a case for preferring that account. Beyond that, it’s not clear what is really at issue.

Turning to the relationship between dogmatism and closed-mindedness, Kidd bases his proposal that closed-mindedness is a capital vice of which dogmatism is an offspring on the idea that dogmatism is a sub-class of closed-mindedness: one is dogmatic if one is closed-minded with respect to beliefs one already holds but closed-mindedness doesn’t require one already to have made up one’s mind. Suppose, to borrow Battaly’s example, that P is the proposition that there was no Native American genocide. Even if a person starts out with no prior belief about the truth or falsity of P, their inquiry into its truth or falsity can still be closed-minded. They might, for example, systematically ignore evidence that P and look for evidence against P.

But if this is a how the inquirer behaves then a natural question would be: why is their inquiry into the truth or falsity of P closed-minded in just this way? And the answer that suggests itself is that they are closed-minded in just this way because they already really believe that P. So we do not have here a compelling case of closed-mindedness without the subject already having made up their mind about the topic at hand. The belief that P is implicit in their epistemic conduct and this means that their dogmatism can’t be distinguished from closed-mindedness in quite the way that Kidd recommends. Ordinarily, dogmatism and closed-mindedness aren’t clearly distinguished and there is bound to be an element of stipulation in any proposed way of carving up the territory.

Be Natural – Is There Anything Else?

This is not necessarily an objection to the notion of a capital vice. It is permissible for a vice epistemologist to try to bring some order to the chaos of ordinary thinking and represent one vice as an offshoot of another. It is important to recognize, however, that such proposed regimentations are just that: an attempt to introduce a degree of systematicity into a domain that lacks it. It’s helpful to compare the classification of epistemic vices with the classification of so-called ‘natural modes’. A criticism of Locke’s theory of mixed modes is that it ignores natural modes.[8] Examples of non-natural modes are the ideas of a lie, democracy and property. Lies are lies regardless of their underlying causes.[9]

In contrast, although diseases are modes, ‘the name of a disease will normally be introduced, and then be generally applied, on the basis of repeated experience of a set of symptoms, and on the assumption that on each occurrence they have the same common cause, whether a microbe or an underlying physiological condition’ (Ayers 1991: 91). However, there is a still a sense in which the individuality and boundary conditions of diseases are imposed by us. So, for example, diseases can be classified by bodily region, by organ, by effect, by the nature of the disease process, by aetiology, or on several other bases.[10] There is nothing that compels us to adopt one of these systems of classification rather than another and there is no absolute sense in which one particular system of classification is the ‘right’ one. With diseases and other such modes there is still the relativity to human interests and concerns that marks them out as modes rather than substances.

To make things even more complicated there are some modes that fall somewhere in between the natural and the non-natural. For example, one might take the view that perception and memory are such ‘intermediate’ modes. Perception is mechanism-dependent in the sense that it isn’t really perception unless some underlying physiological mechanism is involved. Plainly, however, no specific mechanism need be involved in all cases of perception. Human perception and dolphin perception both involve and require the operation of physiological mechanisms but the precise mechanisms will no doubt be very different in the two cases. The necessity of some mechanism is a respect in which intermediate modes are ‘natural’. The fact that no particular mechanism is required is a respect in which intermediate modes are akin to non-natural modes.[11]

In these terms, are epistemic vices natural, non-natural or intermediate modes? The discussion so far, with its emphasis on choice and stipulation in the classification of epistemic vices, might be thought to imply that such vices are non-natural but there is room for debate about this. Just as all manifestations of a particular disease are assumed to have a common cause at the level of physiology so it might be argued that the identification and attribution of epistemic vices is based on the assumption of a common psychological cause or mechanism. Epistemic vices are in this respect, and perhaps others too, like diseases.

Closed-mindedness is a case in point. There is the view that being closed-minded isn’t just a matter of being unwilling or unable to engage seriously with relevant intellectual options. A closed-minded person also has to have what Kruglanski calls a high need for ‘closure’, that is a low tolerance for confusion and ambiguity.[12] It might be argued that this is the distinctive psychological component of closed-mindedness that causally explains the various cognitive dispositions with which the trait is closely associated. In this case the psychological component is a motive. Would this justify the classification of closed-mindedness as a natural mode, an epistemic vice whose attribution in different cases is based on the assumption of a common motivational core that functions as a common psychological cause?

If so, then dogmatism is different from closed-mindedness in precisely this respect. What motivates a dogmatic commitment to a political doctrine might be a psychological need for closure but other motives are also possible. For example, a person’s dogmatism about a particular political doctrine might be a reflection of the ways in which a commitment to it is part of their identity, their sense of who they are.

Whether or not this is the right account of dogmatism it is doubtful that the motivational account applies epistemic vices generally. There are epistemic vices like stupidity, understood as foolishness rather than lack of intelligence, which lack an obvious motivational component. People aren’t motivated to be stupid in the way that they are supposedly motivated to be closed-minded. And even in the latter case one might wonder whether the desire for closure is strictly necessary or, even if it is, whether it is an independently identifiable component of closed-mindedness. One might count as having a high need for closure because one is closed-minded. Here, the attribution of the motive follows rather than underpins the attribution of the trait.

What Is a Vice of Knowledge?

So one should be careful about representing epistemic vices as natural modes. There is still the option of representing them as intermediate modes but it’s not clear whether epistemic vices are mechanism-dependent in anything like the way that perception is mechanism-dependent. This issue merits further discussion. In the meantime, the one thing that seems reasonably clear is that epistemic vices are epistemically harmful and blameworthy or otherwise reprehensible.[13] The sense in which they are epistemically harmful is that they systematically obstruct the gaining, keeping or sharing of knowledge. However, there is considerable room for maneuver when it comes to defining the individual character traits, attitudes or ways of thinking that are epistemically harmful.

Where does this leave the notion of a capital vice and the project of identifying some epistemic vices as capital vices and others as offspring vices? To the extent that ordinary ways of talking about vices like closed-mindedness and dogmatic are imprecise there is a lot to be said for the project of establishing clear lines of demarcation and relations of priority between different epistemic vices.

However, any such project needs to be informed by a proper conception of what epistemic vices are, ontologically speaking, and a well-founded view as to whether the project consists in the discovery of real distinctions that are there anyway or rather in the imposition of boundaries that only exist in virtue of our recognition of them. To think of epistemic vices as modes is to be committed to an ‘impositionist’ reading of the capital vices project. The point at which this project starts to look suspect is the point at which it is conceived of as fundamentally a project of discovery.[14] The discovery in this domain is that there is, in a certain sense, nothing to discover.[15]

Contact details:


Ayers, M. R. Locke, Volume 2: Ontology. London: Routledge, 1991.

Battaly, H. “Closed-Mindedness and Intellectual Vice,” Keynote Address delivered at the Harms and Wrongs in Epistemic Practice conference, University of Sheffield, 4 July 2017.

Cassam, Q. “Parfit on Persons.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 93 (1993): 17-37.

Cassam, Q. “Vice Epistemology.” The Monist, 88 (2016): 159-80.

Kidd, I., “Capital Epistemic Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6 (2017): 11-17.

Kruglanski, A. W. The Psychology of Closed-Mindedness. New York: Psychology Press, 2004.

Locke, J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by P. H. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Perry, D. L. “Locke on Mixed Modes, Relations, and Knowledge.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 5 (1967): 219-35.

Robbins, S. L, Robbins, J. H. & Scarpelli, D. G. “Classification of Diseases.” Retrieved from, 2017.

Roberts, R. C. & Wood, W. J. Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Zagzebski, L. Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[1] ‘Vice epistemology’, as I understand it, is the philosophical study of the nature, identity and significance of epistemic vices. See Cassam 2016. ‘Vice epistemologists’ are philosophers who work on, or in, vice epistemology. Notable vice epistemologists include Heather Battaly, Ian Kidd and Alessandra Tanesini.

[2] Kidd 2017.

[3] Battaly 2017.

[4] All references in this form are to a book, chapter and section of Locke 1975, which was originally published in 1689.

[5] Locke’s examples of mixed modes include beauty, theft, obligation, drunkenness, a lie, hypocrisy, sacrilege, murder, appeal, triumph, wrestling, fencing, boldness, habit, testiness, running, speaking, revenge, gratitude, polygamy, justice, liberality, and courage. This list is from Perry 1967.

[6] Locke illustrates the arbitrariness of mixed modes by noting that we have the complex idea of patricide but no special idea for the killing of a son or a sheep.

[7] There is more on ‘conceptualism’ in Cassam 1993.

[8] For a helpful discussion of this issue see Ayers 1991, chapter 8. My understanding of Locke is heavily indebted to Ayers’ commentary.

[9] See Ayers 1991: 97.

[10] For more on the classification of diseases see Robbins, Robbins and Scarpelli 2017.

[11] This paragraph is a summary of the discussion of intermediate modes in Ayers 1991: 96-7.

[12] Kruglanski 2004: 6-7.

[13] This is the essence of what I call ‘obstructivism’ about epistemic vice, the view that epistemic vices are blameworthy or otherwise reprehensible character traits, attitudes or ways of thinking that systematically obstruct the gaining, keeping or sharing of knowledge. For obstructivism, epistemic vices aren’t delineated by their motives.

[14] I’m not suggesting that this is how Kidd conceives of the project. His approach is more in keeping with impositionism.

[15] Thanks to Heather Battaly and Ian James Kidd for helpful comments.

Author Information: Gregory Lobo, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia,

Lobo, Gregory J. “Back to Basics: Straw Men, Status Functions, and Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 6-19.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image by United To End Genocide, via Flickr


“They won’t let me be a citizen, because then they have to give me rights and they won’t call me a refugee because then they have to give me aid,” said Mr. Saifullah. “I am not a citizen or a refugee. I am an illegal alien. I am nothing.”[1]

While Mr. Saifullah, quite tragically, gets it, Professor Corlett, sadly, does not. This brief essay is an attempt to help Professor Corlett “get it,” to understand why status functions are important for understanding human rights. Along the way some basic misunderstandings regarding the substance and purpose of John Searle’s reflections on how his social ontology might shed light on discussions of human rights will be clarified. These misunderstandings are evident in Corlett (2016),[2] henceforth simply 2016, and were initially addressed in a scant seven pages by Lobo (2017),[3] henceforth Lobo.[4] In reaction to Lobo’s seven pages, Professor Corlett produced a 22 page response,[5] henceforth 2017, rejecting Lobo’s clarifications and reaffirming his original conclusions as found in 2016.

In the first part of what follows, Corlett’s principal objection to Searle’s thinking will be re-presented. As in Lobo, it will be shown once more that the objection is unfounded, by comparing relevant textual citations from 2016 and 2017 with textual citations from Searle (2010)[6] and Searle (2011).[7] In the second part, the purpose of Searle’s intervention into the field of human rights thinking will be clarified. This will reveal that Corlett’s objections — even if they were not baseless — are in any event not germane.

Finally, what is claimed in Lobo to be Searle’s major contribution to human rights thinking, based on the concept of the status function, will be discussed. In 2017 Corlett mishandled (that is, treated without due care) Lobo’s representation (paraphrase) of what he, Lobo, understands to be Searle’s major contribution to the discussion.[8] It is possible that it is this error by Corlett that led to him dismissing said contribution in 2017 as entirely unoriginal. The discussion will clarify both the substance of Searle’s actual contribution and its originality.

Errors and Corrections

Fundamentally, Corlett errs in his characterization of Searle’s thinking on human rights. Among his initial errors is this: “Searle’s conception of human rights is purely institutional, e.g. he believes that such rights are products only of social construction.”[9] Corlett’s related but more principal concern would seem to be that Searle’s thinking on human rights “is not completely justified”[10] because Searle does not address the issue of what Corlett refers to as the “essential moral properties” of such rights. The best explication to found in Corlett of what this might mean is this: a human right “finds at least part of its grounding in morality.”[11] It is appropriate to ask, what is meant by morality? “By ‘morality,’ it is meant that such rights have moral foundations in an objective sense.”[12]

If the reader is less that satisfied with this tautology, so be it: Corlett offers nothing further. Of more concern, perhaps, is that based on Corlett (2016 and 2017) everything indicates that the guarantor of objectivity, and thus morality (and of the objectivity of objectivity and the morality of morality), would seem to be none other than the “tradition” or the “leading philosophers of human rights.” This, of course, should not worry the reader in any way at all. It is important to point out that Corlett re-words this moral concern of his towards the conclusion of 2016, criticizing Searle’s thinking, both in general and on human rights specifically, for lacking what he refers to as a “morally normative” component or element,[13] for which a non-tautological explication is never offered.

Now, to support this characterization of Searle’s thinking, Corlett quotes from Searle (2011), an article in which Searle is replying to some of the critics of his 2010 work. Having characterized Searle’s conception of human rights as “purely institutional” and “social construction[ist],” and complained that Searle’s thinking “does not even address” questions of morality in relation to human rights, Corlett seeks to give credence to this characterization by quoting Searle, thusly: “‘[o]n my [Searle is using the first person] account all rights are status functions and thus human creations. We do not discover human rights in nature as we discover human chromosomes. But if human rights are created by human beings, then what rationally compelling justification can we give for the creation of universal human rights?’ (Searle 2011, pp. 139–140).”[14]

Here it is relevant to ask, if Corlett is going to quote Searle asking what rationally compelling justification can be given for the creation of universal human rights, why does Corlett not let Searle answer? For Searle does answer the question Corlett quotes. But Corlett passes over Searle’s answer, as if it does not exist.

Instead of allowing Searle his answer (quoting it), Corlett immediately interjects a non sequitur: “In Searle’s terms, then, human rights are epistemically subjective rather than objective.”[15] Now, this is a non sequitur insofar as it has nothing to do with the question Searle poses; however, it is anything but a non sequitur for Corlett’s purposes. For by interjecting so, Corlett is clearly seeking to hang Searle on what Corlett sees as the problematic inferences one can make when reading Searle’s question in the absence of an answer.

Corlett, it appears, seems to want the reader to imagine that Searle is posing a rhetorical question, out of exasperation, to which everyone already knows the answer. Through his presentation of Searle’s question, absent Searle’s answer, it looks like Corlett is suggesting that in asking the question, “what rationally compelling justification can we give for the creation of universal human rights?”, Searle is implying that we really can’t give a rationally compelling justification for them at all. This would mean that we are left only with institutions and social construction — or what Corlett sums up as the “epistemically subjective”.

But Corlett is being dishonest.[16] For Searle does answer; his question is not born of exasperation, and it is certainly not rhetorical.[17] And his answer, as much as his question — which is about universal human rights and their justification — shows that Searle seeks, in fact, to ground human rights in moral foundations, even as he continues to understand human rights, indeed all rights, as the result of human creativity.

The Meaning of the Question

Still, before turning to Searle’s answer, it is worth considering further the implications of Searle’s question, especially with respect to Corlett’s accusation that Searle’s thinking lacks considerations of the morally normative. Searle asks about legitimacy in the creation of universal human rights. But for a right to be universal it would have to be, ipso facto, normative, morally so, ethically so, and it would have to be so normative for everyone — for it is universal. In other words, a universal human right is, by definition, always already morally normative, and Corlett’s principal complaint against Searle’s thinking, that it lacks consideration of the morally normative because it is purely institutional, collapses.

That being the case, it is still worth pondering the implications of Searle’s answer to the question he poses. Recall that Searle is asking after a rationally compelling justification for the creation of universal human rights. He immediately responds: “I offer a justification, but if I am right it limits the scope of human rights.”[18] How could this be so; how could his thinking contemplate limits (which again, suggests normativity)? For on Corlett’s reading, Searle’s “purely institutional”, “social construction[ist]” understanding of human rights amounts to a “madness” which does nothing less than pave the way to outrages like white supremacy and slave ownership.[19] On Corlett’s reading, Searle’s thinking allows any old anybody to dream up any whimsy that strikes their fancy and call it a human right. In 2016 Corlett, as is being evidenced, understands Searle poorly and thus his reading is completely wrong (not only plausibly wrong but, to repeat, completely wrong); but in 2017, after Lobo, Corlett still manages to somehow remain refractory to evidence that annuls his thesis.

Here is, finally, how Searle answers the question he posed: “A right is legitimately created only if it can rationally be justified by a correct conception of human nature, a set of values about human beings, and can rationally impose an obligation on all human beings to respect it.”[20] In insisting that the rights in question have to be rationally imposable on all, Searle is insisting on something that is equivalent to an insistence on moral normativity and universality. Corlett missed these words. One could argue that he had to miss them, for they incontrovertibly refute all elements of his thesis. Or it could be allowed, charitably, that in 2016 he missed these words due to the pressures of working to deadline, and the employment of the quite fallible strategy of selective reading, which has claimed many more and much greater heads than his.

What is perhaps quite unforgivable however, is Corlett’s reaction when confronted by these words of Searle in Lobo. In 2017, having had the chance to contemplate both the existence of these words, and the damage they quite clearly do to his thesis, Corlett responds in the following manner: he concedes that this “is the closest published statement by Searle of which I [Corlett] am aware that on the surface appears to align his view of human rights with the conception of human rights as moral ones which I attribute to the contemporary human rights tradition.”[21] But his concern, the reader will recall, is that Searle is a pure institutionalist, a “mad”[22] social constructionist, whose work “lacks an essentially morally normative component.”[23] The quotation, one among many (see Lobo for more), confirms that Corlett’s concerns are groundless. So now the less charitable conclusion must be drawn: Corlett is purposefully ignoring the evidence before his eyes.

How Do You Justify?

Look at his initial response: “on the surface,” he insists, superficially, this quotation seems to successfully indicate that Corlett has misjudged Searle. But only there, on the surface. “However, the statement does not quite succeed in doing so,”[24] Corlett continues, in an attempt to regain his footing. This is to be expected, for the reader will recall, Corlett’s standard is “complete justification.”[25] According to such logic, not quite succeeding amounts to nothing less than unmitigated failure. But in what way is the statement not quite successful? How will Corlett justify his use of the mitigating locution, “on the surface”?

As follows: “according to the conception of human rights which I articulate but do not endorse in Corlett (2016) and herein, being rationally justified by a correct conception of human nature is not a jointly sufficient condition of a human right, though it might be relevant to the issue of human rights possession (i.e., of who qualifies in having a human right).”[26] This “justification” is left without further comment. Corlett seems to think it is meaningful. The reader should decide for herself, but it is here deemed — further commentary notwithstanding — twaddle.

From the ridiculous to the sublime: what Corlett does next in his attempt to annul the overwhelming evidence that he has, as they say, constructed a straw man, a straw Searle, against whom to aim his arrows, is nothing less than extraordinary. He extends his attempt to undercut the pertinence Searle’s wholly unobjectionable observation that a “right is legitimately created only if it can rationally be justified by a correct conception of human nature,” by introducing into argument the following, equally unobjectionable, truism: “That something is rationally justified can be a subjective or relative matter.”[27] This is extraordinary — in this context — because Searle is careful to make this consideration central to his thinking.

In his discussion of human rights he very clearly says:  “I can at least argue for my conception of what I think is valuable in human life.”[28] In other words, and in the same sense, he can certainly argue (as can Corlett) for what he thinks should be morally normative. But as Searle immediately observes: “such arguments, as is typical in ethics, are not demonstrative, in the sense that any rational [and, it might well be added, reasonable] person is bound to accept them on pain of irrationality [or unreasonableness].”[29] Searle concludes this thought with an idea that should interest Corlett, for it speaks directly to the latter’s concerns: “But from the fact that they [the arguments] have an element of epistemic subjectivity, it does not follow that they are arbitrary or beyond the scope of argument”.[30]

It would seem there is little more to be said on this topic, for anyone who understands, at least roughly, how language works, knows that it is possible to say equivalent things without using identical words. Thus it is no stretch whatsoever to conclude on the basis of what Searle says that he is arguing, explicitly, for moral considerations in the elaboration of human rights. He explicitly rejects the notion that they can be elaborated arbitrarily or without reference to moral foundations. This information and argument was presented in Lobo, but ignored in and by Corlett in 2017.

When Is the Universal Truly Necessary?

Sadly, however, this is not in fact the least of it. What is truly astonishing about Corlett’s pointing up that subjectivity and rationality are an important concern — as indeed they are — is that, in neither 2016 nor 2017, is there found any clear (non-tautological) explication of what counts as “morally normative” — his central peeve — anyway; the closest Corlett comes to giving the expression some substance is when he refers to “what are moral rights above and beyond what societies say they are” in 2016,[31] and in 2017, when he says that “human rights are […] are non-institutionally moral or ethical, backed by valid moral or ethical principles or rules.”[32]

To repeat: in an attempt to cut at Searle, Corlett informs his reader (as if the reader were unaware): “That something is rationally justified can be a subjective or relative matter.”[33] To be clear, Corlett is broadcasting the insight that what counts as rational and as justified (and by extension, surely, what is “true,” “valid,” “objective” and so on) is in fact subjective, relative — to one’s point of view, no doubt. It is claimed here that this intervention is astonishing. Why? Not for its content, certainly, but because the subject of its enunciation, namely Corlett himself, has in both 2016 and 2017 used the following phrases as if they were not tainted with subjectivity or relativity in the slightest: “‘true morality’,”[34] “valid moral claims,”[35] “valid moral rules,”[36] “a morally enlightened moral conscience,”[37] “objectively valid moral rules,”[38] “valid moral principles,”[39] notions like “objectively valid,”[40] “a proper interpretation,”[41] formulations like “[b]y ‘valid’ is meant objectively valid,”[42] “valid moral or ethical principles,”[43]  and this, while exhausting, is hardly an exhaustive list.

In not one single instance that can be found does Corlett allow that something like “true morality” might be a subjective or relative matter, that what counts as “a morally enlightened moral conscience” might be an unsettled question, within the scope of argument.[44] What is to be made of a statement like the following: “what makes a human right valid […] is valid [?] moral/ethical principles or rules which confer [wait for it…] validity on a human rights claim or interest and thereby confer the right in question to a particular individual or group”?[45] It is too distressingly convoluted and tautological to be considered a valid[46] English sentence; but what is more bothersome in the present context is it begs the question (begged by all the other just cited formulations too): who decides what is valid, true, objective, normative, moral, proper and so on?[47]

For Corlett there is a “true morality” that is not subjective, not relative; there are “valid moral claims” that are not subjective or relative matters; there is a “morally enlightened moral conscience” (yes, he uses the redundancy) and this is neither subjective nor relative. It is surprising that Corlett — that anyone engaged in the philosophical, and more pointedly, the social epistemological, if you will, enterprise — would so unselfconsciously, so unreflectively, so unironically, deploy such terms in an attempt to find fault with Searle’s — indeed, anyone’s — thinking. Does he not realize that such formulations are entirely of a piece with the discourses of radical religionists, Nazis, Stalinists, Maoists and so on?

They are not, however, part of Searle’s discourse. And in this regard it is to be noted, as a sort of coda to this section, that in the piece most selectively cited by Corlett[48] in 2016, and which has provided much food for thought above, Searle has the following to say about validity and the morally normative. First, validity: “a valid justification does not necessarily produce agreement.”[49] This observation does not seem to register with Corlett (his truism cited above notwithstanding). Searle goes on: “As a philosopher I would have a much easier life if people agreed with all my valid arguments. (No doubt my adversaries have the same feeling about my inability to appreciate their ‘valid’ arguments.)

The point for the present discussion is that one can legitimately argue for the validity and universality of certain human rights even though one knows that the conception of human dignity that one is arguing from is not universally shared and that one’s arguments will not convince people who wish to deny humans their rights.”[50] Who would dispute this? On the face of the evidence (2016 and 2017) Corlett would: “the moral conception of a human rights holds that such rights do not change.”[51] In other words, Corlett thinks these things can placed beyond argument. An audience of totalitarians would likely be the first to agree.

Regarding human rights more specifically, Searle says: “there ought to be a general account of them and how they relate to our humanity.”[52] This is essentially an argument in favor of something like moral normativity; he then adds, “I try to provide the beginning of such an account.”[53] Indeed. He then offers up a critique of merely “utilitarian” justifications of human rights, which again evinces his understanding of the need for some sort of normative grounding for them. It is deeply troubling that Corlett cannot intellectually grasp this. Finally, Searle reiterates his point, already present in 2010 but ignored for some reason by Corlett in 2016 and 2017, namely, that “a right can continue to exist even when it is not recognized” and that one therefore does “not lose” one’s “rights in a situation where they are generally violated.”[54] This provides a segue into the next section.

Searle’s Purpose and Contribution

In 2017, towards the end of his 22 pages responding to Lobo’s seven, Corlett admits that he doesn’t really know what Searle is up to in Searle (2010): “this discussion of Searle’s view of human rights raises the question of precisely which questions he is attempting to answer.”[55] Corlett offers up a couple of possibilities; but both are wrong. The overall goal for the chapter that so vexes Corlett is not to explore the field or tradition of human rights but to see what light, if any, Searle’s social ontology sheds on the ontology of human rights.[56] Towards the end of his chapter, Searle, having partially (but hardly completely) explored the debate on human rights, summarizes his basic position, using italics:

the justification for human rights cannot be ethically neutral. It involves more than just a biological conception of what sorts of beings we are; it also involves a conception of what is valuable, actually or potentially, about our very existence.[57]

Though he does not speak of morality in this quotation, he mentions ethics and elaborates what he means: it concerns what is valuable about our existence, which is to say, what is good, and best even. In other words, he insists on the need to formulate human rights by the light of reason (it is unclear how else such universal human rights might be formulated), with close attention paid to considerations grounded in the non-institutional, i.e. the biological, and extending into the ethical and moral. This quotation, in and of itself, should be enough to short-circuit Corlett’s argument, and knock the stuffing, the straw, out of the Searlean stand-in he constructs; in the face of it he could gracefully admit that he had misread Searle (for misreading is something to which even the best of us succumb), perhaps express gratitude for the clarification, and all involved could move on. Or not.

And so, in 2016 and 2017 these words from Searle (2010), cited in Lobo, which constitute clear evidence that Searle acknowledges the need to ground human rights in moral norms, are simply ignored or disputed as not saying exactly what Corlett wants (remember: he will accept nothing less than complete justification). It remains to be seen whether they will be ignored again, so it is worth emphasizing what Searle is doing here: Searle is doing exactly what Corlett says he is not doing. That Searle doesn’t use Corlett’s favorite phrases is what seems to make it impossible for Corlett to see this. With the benefit of this second clarification, perhaps he will.

But Searle is also doing something else. While not concerned at all to align his thinking with Corlett’s hallowed tradition, he is anxious to explore and resolve a paradox at the heart of thinking about human rights: on the one hand it is said human rights did not exist before the Enlightenment, but on the other hand, it is also said that human rights have always existed, but were only recognized with the Enlightenment, and indeed, can exist even when not recognized.[58]

Searle’s way of resolving the paradox is what was argued in Lobo to be his big contribution to the debate, which Corlett in 2017 dismisses as unoriginal.

So Who Is Right?

First, it is important to see how Corlett understands Lobo’s paraphrasing of Searle’s contribution. Corlett, conveniently (in more than one sense of the word) cites Lobo summarizing Searle: “Searle ‘… makes a contribution to the philosophy of human rights whose importance, I think, is hard to exaggerate, when he points out that what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to the rights that accrue, automatically and inalienably, to each and every member of said community’ (Lobo 2017, 28.).”[59] This quotation is truncated, which would not be a problem[60] were the truncation signaled with an ellipsis; but it is not (and the initial ellipsis is not being questioned here).[61] Here is what Lobo wrote, with the missing words italicized:

…makes a contribution to the philosophy of human rights whose importance, I think, is hard to exaggerate, when he points out that what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as actual bearers, that each and every member of the human species must be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to the rights that accrue, automatically and inalienably, to each and every member of said community.[62]

Does it make a difference? Insofar as Corlett’s version of Lobo evinces once more what might at this point be justly characterized as a tendency to selectively read, to conveniently misread, it probably makes a difference. The difference it might make is compounded by the fact that Corlett repeats the misquotation again on his next page, and it is on the basis of this misquotation that he dismisses as unoriginal what Lobo has said is an important contribution to the human rights discussion, as “either assumed, asserted, or argued by many doing rights theory during the past few decades.”[63] Tellingly, he does not cite any textual support for this assertion. He does however again quote the substance of the misquotation (this is the third time), as part of his attempt to denude Searle’s contribution of value.

It is perhaps inevitable that, having misquoted Lobo, Corlett should misunderstand him, and believe him to be saying something already and widely said. What is it that Corlett thinks Lobo is saying, that has already been said? It is this: “one must be a human being in order to be in a position to make valid rights claims.”[64] Or, the “fact” that humans are “members of the human community”, Corlett continues, “places them in a position to possess human rights.”[65] Now if this were what Lobo is saying, and if this were what Searle is saying (for Lobo is taken to be explicating Searle here), then Corlett would be right, and Lobo, at the very least, would probably be embarrassed, but grateful for the lesson. But again, this formulation of Corlett is based on a misreading, evidenced by Corlett’s reliance on an unreliable, and ungrammatical misquotation he produced.

What the Meaning of the Argument Was in the First Place

So what is Lobo actually saying? First, a return to the accurate quote, again adding emphasis where appropriate: with regard to human rights “what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as actual bearers.” To make sense of this (these are the final lines of Lobo; the idea has been explicated previously in that text), one has to understand the socio-ontological difference between potential and actual bearers, and it is here that Searle’s work, whatever faults it may well and otherwise manifest, is so important.

For Searle’s work (specifically his discussion of status functions) allows us to understand that being human is not an ontological condition but a socio-ontological condition. This is a subtle point.[66] But it is profound.[67] One might say that there is the species, homo sapiens, (this is in a sense an assertion about ontological reality) members of which are potential bearers of human rights. But at the level of the symbolic, at the level of social ontology, members of the species homo sapiens are only often, but not always, regarded as humans and thus — lately at least — as possessors of human rights. Thus, potential bearers of human rights, that is members of the species homo sapiens, have to be recognized as humans (members of the human community) if they are to effectively have their human rights. If Corlett does not understand this, it is simply because he does not understand how status functions work, which is the subject for another occasion.

The second part of the text mishandled by Corlett is this, emphasizing with italics where necessary: “each and every member of the human species [i.e. every individual homo sapiens] must be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to” human rights. Note what is not being said here. It is not being said that “one must be a human being in order to be in a position to make valid rights claims”; nor is it being said that “members of the community of humans […] possess human rights.” These are both by now trite observations which, and Corlett is surely correct here, have long been part of the human rights tradition.

What is being said, based on Searlean social ontology, is that one must be recognized as a human being in order to make valid rights claims, that one must be seen as a member of the human community to (effectively) possess human rights, or to not have one’s human rights violated. What is the difference? The difference is that being a homo sapiens does not mean you are seen as, recognized as, a human being, a member of the community, and it is in this sense that a homo sapiens/human being can be said to both possess and be denied their human rights. Corlett’s whole discourse in 2016 and 2017 is predicated on the (mistaken) assumption that being human is socio-ontologically unproblematic and that the issue is the social existence and recognition of rights; but in fact it is about where and when homo sapiens are recognized and not recognized qua humans.

Corlett, and likely the tradition he invokes (if indeed he invokes its positions accurately, which at this point, it is not uncharitable to imagine, we have reason to doubt), may well say “No! Humans are humans, and as such are possessors of human rights!” Well, he and his vaunted tradition should go say it to Mr. Saifullah.

The Voice of a Lost Man

Mr. Saifullah? The reader is referred to the present essay’s epigraph. Mr. Saifullah, according to the story in the New York Times, is a member of the Rohingya refugee community living in Pakistan for the last four decades, in conditions that the paper describes as “distressingly impoverished even by Karachi’s standards.” He and the community to which he belongs are actively being denied their basic rights.

But how can this be so?, Corlett must ask — for surely Mr. Saifullah is human; clearly he belongs to the human community. Such a “fact”, Corlett would say, means he possesses rights, and he can claim them. Corlett would invoke the morally normative elements of the rights Mr. Saifullah possesses as a member of the human community and insist on the application of the normativity in question. And surely, just like that, Mr. Saifullah’s humanity would be recognized by the relevant parties and his rights, never lost, just violated, would be made effective.

If only it were so easy…

But Mr. Saifullah, unlike Corlett, gets it. He understands (that is to say, his words evidence at least an implicit understanding) that being a homo sapiens does not in fact make you a member of the human community, for he understands that the human community is not ontological in any straightforward way; rather, it is socially and symbolically ontological.[68] He understands that it is not what one is, but how one is seen, for how one is seen is what determines whether one will be afforded the considerations rights supposedly guarantee one.

Look at Mr. Saifullah’s words: “They won’t let me be a citizen, because then they have to give me rights and they won’t call me a refugee because then they have to give me aid”. And then: “I am not a citizen or a refugee. I am an illegal alien. I am nothing.” He understands that they — they, those who are not part of any hallowed tradition, but whose thinking on the matter is nonetheless decisive in a way Corlett, safely ensconced in the beautiful University of San Diego, doesn’t seem to even want to comprehend — don’t want to see him as a citizen or grant him citizenship, because then his rights as a human would have to be honored.

But nor will they call him a refugee, because in today’s world, refugees have rights to aid that have to be honored. But Mr. Saifullah is not done. For he knows that the Pakistani functionaries who are not honoring his rights cannot simply ignore him as if he were not there. He is not invisible; he exists.[69] But as what? And so they assign him a status function, though it is not the status function of human: in effect they are saying, this homo sapiens is not (at least not first and foremost) a human; he is, rather, an illegal alien.

As such it is not so much that his rights as a human are violated — for he is not seen as a human, at least not in the important sense; it is that qua this sort of social object — i.e. an other beyond the protections of the law — his “rights” need not be so much be ignored as actively violated. For how else would one treat an illegal alien?[70] In being counted as an illegal alien, he is able to be counted as nothing.

There is little left to say, except for the fact that Searle’s contribution sheds light on the rise in animal rights activism and indeed, on cases where people treat animals better than they treat homo sapiens. The former somehow acquire the status of human (understood in this case as the bearer of “rights” to life and comfort and to not be killed for food, etc.) and receive a level of care that millions of homo sapiens do not, these latter being assigned the status not of humans but of “the poor” or “the criminal” or “illegal aliens” or what have you. This point was made in Lobo.[71]

Conclusion: isn’t it (really) ironic?

Professor Corlett, to conclude, ends with stupendous irony, only adding substance to and validating Searle’s contribution, when he argues, in an attempt to score an inconsequential point against Searle (and Lobo), that there “are humans [what he means to say, though he doesn’t know it, is homo sapiens] both throughout history and today who have neither a moral […] right to life nor to freedom of expression, namely, those who deserve capital punishment based on their” crimes.[72]

Here Corlett is evidencing his subjective, relative perspective. For in Colombia, for example, such homo sapiens do not exist (at least not today): the Colombian constitution explicitly forbids not only capital punishment but also life imprisonment, no matter what the crime. But he is also evidencing an implicit endorsement of the Searlean perspective. For, of course, in contexts where such respect for what are still considered members of the human community in Colombia is absent, such homo sapiens are indeed, as he says, displaced from said community, and thus stripped of the rights that are otherwise a “simple” consequence of being (declared) human.

How? By declaring them to be something else. Which is to say that they are, through an institutional process, assigned a status function which, given the particular institutional arrangement and its foundational moral norms, supersedes the status function of human: they become now the condemned, convicts, guilty of capital crimes or indeed crimes against humanity, all status functions which permit and, in the corresponding situation, possibly demand that the organism to which such status function is assigned be put to death. Hopefully Professor Corlett will take some time to consider the consequences of this latent corroboration of Lobo’s presentation of Searle before dashing off another excessively long response. Or perhaps he will take the higher road, and simply leave things as they now stand.

Contact details:


Corlett, J. Angelo. “More on Searle on Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 15-36.

Corlett, J. Angelo. “Searle on Human Rights.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016): 440-463.

Lobo, Gregory J. “Reason, Morality and Recognition: On Searle’s Theory of Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no 9: (2017): 22-28.

Searle, John R. Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Searle, John R. “Replies.” Analysis 71, no. 4 (2011): 733-741.

[1] Mehreen Zahra-Malik, “Far From Myanmar Violence, Rohingya in Pakistan Are Seething,” The New York Times, Sep. 12, 2017, accessed Sep. 13, 2017 A version of this article appears in print on September 13, 2017, on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Far From Myanmar’s Strife, Pakistan’s Rohingya Suffer.

[2] J Angelo Corlett, “Searle on Human Rights,” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016): 440-463.

[3] Gregory J Lobo, “Reason, Morality and Recognition,” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 22-28.

[4] Fearing that the use of the first person, while often justified, nonetheless interrupts the dialectic of collaborative reasoning, as interlocutors instantiate a personal, private relationship with “their” arguments and interpretations, such that they become embodiments of the same and thus refractory to evidence that contradicts them/their position, the third person is employed consistently throughout this essay, in an attempt to avoid what in Colombia is called a dialogue of the deaf (diálogo de sordos).

[5] J Angelo Corlett, “More on Searle on Human Rights,” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 15-36.

[6] John R Searle, Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 2010).

[7]John R Searle, “Replies” Analysis 71, no. 4 (2011): 733-741.

[8] Corlett’s mishandling of Lobo’s words is troubling on the face of it; it is even more so in light of Corlett’s insistence that “both critics and defenders of an author’s work owe it to themselves, the author, and others to carefully quote an author in constructing her position” (2017, 32 emphasis added).

[9] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[10] Corlett, “Searle,” 455. It shall go unremarked that “complete justification” would seem to be an impossible standard.

[11] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[12] Corlett, “Searle,” 454-455. More will be said about Corlett’s use of the notion of objective below.

[13] Corlett, “Searle,” 461-462.

[14] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[15] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[16] Though Lobo’s sincere attempt to help Corlett understand and correct the errors in his understanding of Searle have been received ungraciously by Corlett and, rather, met with snide but baseless insinuations (see 2017, 32), the temptation to fall into a mimetic replication of Corlett’s unprofessional response will here be resisted. The characterization of Corlett as dishonest, to be absolutely clear, is direct, and based on the evidence: that even though Lobo points out what Corlett has done in 2016, alerting him to his error, Corlett continues to ignore the evidence, and proceeds as if it didn’t exist and directly refute his position. He might have been understandably distracted the first time round, but the second time suggests something approaching dishonesty. Additionally, elsewhere in 2017 (see page 26), Corlett again acts in such a way as to justify the charge of dishonesty, as when he textually cites Lobo paraphrasing Searle, ignores Lobo’s textual citation of Searle, and then faults Lobo for not citing Searle directly.

[17] At the risk of redundancy, the reader is again reminded that in 2017 Corlett points out that “both critics and defenders of an author’s work owe it to themselves, the author, and others to carefully quote an author in constructing her position” (2017, 32). It seems that  Corlett exempts himself from this simple standard, actively transgressing it by engaging in selective quotation to serve his ends or by simply representing his own version of an author’s position without recourse to textual evidence. For example, Corlett argues, or implies (the difference is hugely important to Corlett) that someone (probably Searle, possibly Lobo) is “insist[ing] that only humans can have a right to life” (2017, 33). But no one, at least niether Searle nor Lobo, insists on such a thing.

[18] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[19] Corlett, “Searle,” 456.

[20] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[21] Corlett, “More,” 28-29, emphasis added. It is important to point out that the issue is not really whether Searle’s thinking can be aligned with any tradition. What is in question is whether Searle integrates what Corlett refers to as moral normativity into his thinking on human rights. Though Searle doesn’t use that precise phrasing, the evidence is insurmountable: he clearly does.

[22] Again, Corlett deploys the phrase “Searlean madness” in 2016 (456) to make the case that there is no distance between Searle’s thinking and white supremacy. One wonders how much distance there is between this sort of aspersion and calumny.

[23] Corlett, “Searle,” 458.

[24] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[25] Corlett, “Searle,” 455.

[26] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[27] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[28] Searle, Making, 192.

[29] Searle, Making, 192. In footnote 18 on page 29 of 2017, Corlett makes a fuss about the difference between reasonable and rational, emphasizing his preference for the former. His argument is unconvincing and one can just as easily make the case for their interchangeability. A quick online search using Google reveals: rationality — the quality of being based on or in accordance with reason or logic. Corlett is quite clearly clutching at straw(s).

[30] Searle, Making, 192.

[31] Corlett, “Searle,” 455. One might ask, justly, in what way this formulation differs from Searle’s insistence that human rights be formulated to rationally impose an obligation on all human beings to respect them.

[32] Corlett, “More,” 22.

[33] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[34] Corlett, “Searle”, 455. Corlett uses quotation marks around this phrase, though it is not clear why. For they most certainly are not scare quotes. His use of the term is non-ironic, thoroughly sincere.

[35] Corlett, “Searle,” 456, 460.

[36] Corlett, “Searle,” 457.

[37] Corlett, “Searle,” 456, 457 twice, 459.

[38] Corlett, “Searle,” 455, 457.

[39] Corlett, “Searle,” 457.

[40] Corlett, “More,” 20.

[41] Corlett, “More,” 23.

[42] Wait, what? Corlett, “More,” 20.

[43] Corlett, “More,” 22.

[44] It is noted, in passing, that Searle would recognize such concepts to be subject to argument. See below.

[45] Corlett, “More,” 25.

[46] Stipulated here.

[47] To this most basic criticism can be added that Corlett, in repeatedly drawing on the formulation that human rights are “discovered by human reason” (2016, 455; 2017, 25, 34), seems to think that rights are on the same level as black holes and quarks (truly “discovered” by human reason before being empirically observed), and that, moreover, reason itself is an uncorrupt tool, that its ethical discoveries are somehow beyond subjectivity and relativity.

[48] That is to say, cited selectively, for Corlett’s rhetorical convenience, rather than for the dialectical process.

[49] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[50] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[51] Which might well lead one to describe such rights as eternal, insofar as eternal can be taken to mean unchanging.

[52] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[53] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[54] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[55] Corlett, “More,” 33.

[56] Searle, Making, 175.

[57] Searle, Making, 190.

[58] Searle, Making, 177.

[59] Corlett, “More,” 17.

[60] In point of fact it would be a problem, for as cited by Corlett, it is ungrammatical. Corlett appears not to notice.

[61] At the risk of even more redundancy: In 2017 Corlett insists that “both critics and defenders of an author’s work owe it to themselves, the author, and others to carefully quote an author in constructing her position” (2017, 32, emphasis added).

[62] Lobo, “Reason,” 28.

[63] Corlett, “More,” 18.

[64] Corlett, “More,” 18.

[65] Corlett, “More,” 18.

[66] Hence, possibly, Corlett’s difficulty with it?

[67] See previous note.

[68] As any high schooler who learned the Greek roots of the word barbarian implicitly understands too.

[69] One might put it this way: his ontology is not in question (but nor is it decisive). What is in question, and what will be decisive, is his social ontology.

[70] This question, should it not be clear, is posed rhetorically.

[71] As further evidence of Corlett’s problematic practice, he usurps Lobo’s use of the phenomena of animal rights to make what seems to be a similar point, but without attribution. But typically, he gets it wrong because he misses the point. Someone who, in his own words, “painstakingly summarize[d]” Searle’s social ontology clearly doesn’t understand Searle’s main contribution to the field, status functions, and thus misses the point that social ontology is not about what is, it is about what can claim to be and what is recognized as being. People treat animals as if they were human, sometimes as if they were more than human. Often, people do not treat humans (homo sapiens) as human.

[72] Corlett, “More,” 2017.

Author Information: Inkeri Koskinen, University of Helsinki,

Koskinen, Inkeri. “Not-So-Well-Designed Scientific Communities.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 54-58.

The pdf of the article includes specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image from Katie Walker via Flickr


The idea of hybrid concepts, simultaneously both epistemic and moral, has recently attracted the interest of philosophers, especially since the notion of epistemic injustice (Fricker 2007) became the central topic of a lively and growing discussion. In her article, Kristina Rolin adopts the idea of such hybridity, and investigates the possibility of understanding epistemic responsibility as having both epistemic and moral qualities.

Rolin argues that scientists belonging to epistemically well-designed communities are united by mutual epistemic responsibilities, and that these responsibilities ought to be understood in a specific way. Epistemically responsible behaviour towards fellow researchers—such as adopting a defense commitment with respect to one’s knowledge claims, or offering constructive criticism to colleagues—would not just be an epistemic duty, but also a moral one; one that shows moral respect for other human beings in their capacity as knowers.

However, as Rolin focuses on “well-designed scientific communities”, I fear that she fails to notice an implication of her own argument. Current trends in science policy encourage researchers in many fields to take up high-impact, solution-oriented, multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinary projects. If one can talk about “designing scientific communities” in this context, the design is clearly meant to challenge the existing division of epistemic labour in academia, and to destabilise speciality communities. If we follow Rolin’s own argumentation, understanding epistemic responsibility as a moral duty can thus become a surprisingly heavy burden for an individual researcher in such a situation.

Epistemic Cosmopolitanism

According to Rolin, accounts of epistemic responsibility that appeal to self-interested or epistemic motives need to be complemented with a moral account. Without one it is not always possible to explain why it is rational for an individual researcher to behave in an epistemically responsible way.

Both the self-interest account and the epistemic account state that scientists behave in an epistemically responsible way because they believe that it serves their own ends—be it career advancement, fame, and financial gain, or purely epistemic individual ends. However, as Rolin aptly points out, both accounts are insufficient in a situation where the ends of the individual researcher and the impersonal epistemic ends of science are not aligned. Only if researchers see epistemically responsible behaviour as a moral duty, will they act in an epistemically responsible way even if this does not serve their own ends.

It is to some degree ambiguous how Rolin’s account should be read—how normative it is, and in what sense. Some parts of her article could be interpreted as a somewhat Mertonian description of actual moral views held by individual scientists, and cultivated in scientific communities (Merton [1942] 1973). However, she also clearly gives normative advice: well-designed scientific communities should foster a moral account of epistemic responsibility.

But when offering a moral justification for her view, she at times seems to defend a stronger normative stance, one that would posit epistemic responsibility as a universal moral duty. However, her main argument does not require the strongest reading. I thus interpret her account as partly descriptive and partly normative: many researchers treat epistemic responsibility as a moral duty, and it is epistemically beneficial for scientific communities to foster such a view. Moreover, a moral justification can be offered for the view.

When defining her account more closely, Rolin cites ideas developed in political philosophy. She adopts Robert Goodin’s (1988) distinction between general and special moral duties, and names her account epistemic cosmopolitanism:

Epistemic cosmopolitanism states that (a) insofar as we are engaged in knowledge-seeking practices, we have general epistemic responsibilities, and (b) the special epistemic responsibilities scientists have as members of scientific communities are essentially distributed general epistemic responsibilities (Rolin 2017, 478).

One of the advantages of this account is of particular interest to me. Rolin notes that if epistemically responsible behaviour would be seen as just a general moral duty, it could be too demanding for individual researchers. Any scientist is bound to fail in an attempt to behave in an entirely epistemically responsible manner towards all existing scientific speciality communities, taking all their diverse standards of evidence into account. This result can be avoided through a division of epistemic labour. The general responsibilities can be distributed in a way that limits the audience towards which individual scientists must behave in an epistemically responsible way. Thus, “in epistemically well-designed scientific communities, no scientist is put into a position where she is not capable of carrying out her special epistemic responsibilities” (Rolin 2017, 478).

Trends in Science Policy

Rolin’s main interest is in epistemically well-designed scientific communities. However, she also takes up an example I mention in a recent paper (Koskinen 2016). In it I examine a few research articles in order to illustrate situations where a relevant scientific community has not been recognised, or where there is no clear community to be found. In these articles, researchers from diverse fields attempt to integrate archaeological, geological or seismological evidence with orally transmitted stories about great floods. In other words, they take the oral stories seriously, and attempt to use them as historical evidence. However, they fail to take into account folkloristic expertise on myths. This I find highly problematic, as the stories the researchers try to use as historical evidence include typical elements of the flood myth.

The aims of such attempts to integrate academic and extra-academic knowledge are both emancipatory—taking the oral histories of indigenous communities seriously—and practical, as knowledge about past natural catastrophes may help prevent new ones. This chimes well with certain current trends in science policy. Collaborations across disciplinary boundaries, and even across the boundaries of science, are promoted as a way to increase the societal impact of science and provide solutions to practical problems. Researchers are expected to contribute to solving the problems by integrating knowledge from different sources.

Such aims have been articulated in terms of systems theory, the Mode-2 concept of knowledge production and, recently, open science (Gibbons et al. 1994; Nowotny et al. 2001; Hirsch Hadorn et al. 2008), leading to the development of solution-oriented multi, inter-, and transdisciplinary research approaches. At the same time, critical feminist and postcolonial theories have influenced collaborative and participatory methodologies (Reason and Bradbury 2008; Harding 2011), and recently ideas borrowed from business have led to an increasing amount of ‘co-creation’ and ‘co-research’ in academia (see e.g. Horizon 2020).

All this, combined with keen competition for research funding, leads in some areas of academic research to increasing amounts of solution-oriented research projects that systematically break disciplinary boundaries. And simultaneously they often challenge the existing division of epistemic labour.

Challenging the Existing Division of Epistemic Labour

According to Rolin, well-designed scientific communities need to foster the moral account of epistemic responsibilities. The necessity becomes clear in such situations as are described above: it would be in the epistemic interests of scientific communities, and science in general, if folklorists were to offer constructive criticism to the archaeologists, geologists and seismologists. However, if the folklorists are motivated only by self-interest, or by personal epistemic goals, they have no reason to do so. Only if they see epistemic responsibility as a moral duty, one that is fundamentally based on general moral duties, will their actions be in accord with the epistemic interests of science. Rolin argues that this happens because the existing division of epistemic labour can be challenged.

Normally, according to epistemic cosmopolitanism, the epistemic responsibilities of folklorists would lie mainly in their own speciality community. However, if the existing division of epistemic labour does not serve the epistemic goals of science, this does not suffice. And if special moral duties are taken to be distributed general moral duties, the way of distributing them can always be changed. In fact, it must be changed, if that is the only way to follow the underlying general moral duties:

If the cooperation between archaeologists and folklorists is in the epistemic interests of science, a division of epistemic labour should be changed so that, at least in some cases, archaeologists and folklorists should have mutual special epistemic responsibilities. This is the basis for claiming that a folklorist has a moral obligation to intervene in the problematic use of orally transmitted stories in archaeology (Rolin 2017, 478–479).

The solution seems compelling, but I see a problem that Rolin does not sufficiently address. She seems to believe that situations where the existing division of epistemic labour is challenged are fairly rare, and that they lead to a new, stable division of epistemic labour. I do not think that this is the case.

Rolin cites Brad Wray (2011) and Uskali Mäki (2016) when emphasising that scientific speciality communities are not eternal. They may dissolve and new ones may emerge, and interdisciplinary collaboration can lead to the formation of new speciality communities. However, as Mäki and I have noted (Koskinen & Mäki 2016), solution-oriented inter- or transdisciplinary research does not necessarily, or even typically, lead to the formation of new scientific communities. Only global problems, such as biodiversity loss or climate change, are likely to function as catalysts in the disciplinary matrix, leading to the formation of numerous interdisciplinary research teams addressing the same problem field. Smaller, local problems generate only changeable constellations of inter- and transdisciplinary collaborations that dissolve once a project is over. If such collaborations become common, the state Rolin describes as a rare period of transition becomes the status quo.

It Can be Too Demanding

Rather than a critique of Rolin’s argument, the conclusion of this commentary is an observation that follows from the said argument. It helps us to clarify one possible reason for the difficulties that researchers encounter with inter- and transdisciplinary research.

Rolin argues that epistemically well-designed scientific communities should foster the idea of epistemic responsibilities being not only epistemic, but also moral duties. The usefulness of such an outlook becomes particularly clear in situations where the prevailing division of epistemic labour is challenged—for instance, when an interdisciplinary project fails to take some relevant viewpoint into account, and the researchers who would be able to offer valuable criticism do not benefit from offering it. In such a situation researchers motivated by self-interest or by individual epistemic goals would have no reason to offer the required criticism. This would be unfortunate, given the impersonal epistemic goals of science. So, we must hope that scientists see epistemically responsible behaviour as their moral duty.

However, for a researcher working in an environment where changeable, solution-oriented, multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinary projects are common, understanding epistemic responsibility as a moral duty may easily become a burden. The prevailing division of epistemic labour is challenged constantly, and without a new, stable division necessarily replacing it.

As Rolin notes, it is due to a tolerably clear division of labour that epistemic responsibilities understood as moral duties do not become too demanding for individual researchers. But as trends in science policy erode disciplinary boundaries, the division of labour becomes unstable. If it continues to be challenged, it is not just once or twice that responsible scientists may have to intervene and comment on research that is not in their area of specialisation. This can become a constant and exhausting duty. So if instead of well-designed scientific communities, we get their erosion by design, we may have to reconsider the moral account of epistemic responsibility.


Fricker, M. Epistemic injustice: power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Gibbons, M., Limoges, C., Nowotny, H., Schwartzman, S., Scott, P. & Trow, M. The new production of knowledge: the dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies. London: Sage, 1994.

Goodin, R. “What is So Special about Our Fellow Countrymen?” Ethics 98 no. 4 (1988): 663–686.

Hirsch Hadorn, G., Hoffmann-Riem, H., Biber-Klemm, S., Grossenbacher-Mansuy, W., Joye, D., Pohl, C., Wiesmann, U., Zemp, E. (Eds.). Handbook of Transdisciplinary Research. Berlin: Springer, 2008.

Harding, S. (Ed.). The postcolonial science and technology studies reader. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011.

Horizon 2020. Work Programme 2016–2017. European Commission Decision C (2017)2468 of 24 April 2017.

Koskinen, I. “Where is the Epistemic Community? On Democratisation of Science and Social Accounts of Objectivity.” Synthese. 4 August 2016. doi:10.1007/s11229-016-1173-2.

Koskinen, I., & Mäki, U. “Extra-academic transdisciplinarity and scientific pluralism: What might they learn from one another?” The European Journal of Philosophy of Science 6, no. 3 (2016): 419–444.

Mäki, U. “Philosophy of Interdisciplinarity. What? Why? How?” European Journal for Philosophy of Science 6, no. 3 (2016): 327–342.

Merton, R. K. “Science and Technology in a Democratic Order.” Journal of Legal and Political Sociology 1 (1942): 115–126. Reprinted as “The Normative Structure of Science.” In R. K Merton, The Sociology of Science. Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973: 267–278.

Nowotny, H., Scott, P., & Gibbons, M. Re-thinking science: knowledge and the public in an age of uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity, 2001.

Reason, P. and Bradbury, H. (Eds.). The Sage Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice. Sage, CA: 2008.

Rolin, K. “Scientific Community: A Moral Dimension.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 5 (2017), 468–483.

Wray, K. B. Kuhn’s Evolutionary Social Epistemology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Author Information: Daniel Robins, University of York, UK,

Robins, Daniel. “Toxic Necro-Waste.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 39-42.

The pdf of the article includes specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image credit 43545234@N03, via flickr


The concept of necro-waste is a fascinating one, with a wide application across the social sciences. Something that I wanted to highlight in this reply was the toxicity of necro-waste. Olson acknowledges this by discussing how necro-waste can cause harm to labour.[1] The example that he gives is the embalming fluids which can poison the embalmers working with them. This also applies to cremated remains, which can be breathed in by the crematorium staff handling them, causing breathing problems. But, for me, the toxicity of necro-waste goes beyond its materiality. It’s also socially polluting as toxicity can be drawn from the meaning of the corpse materials.

Ian Brady’s Remains

The question over what to do with the remains of the British serial killer, Ian Brady, demonstrates this point well. Between the years of 1963-1965, Brady, along with his accomplice, Myra Hindley, abducted, tortured, and murdered five children between the ages of 10-17. They then buried four of the victims on Saddleworth Moor. The body of 12 year old Keith Bennet is believed to still be buried there. Brady died in May and, four months after his death, the coroner’s inquest was held. For those four months, his corpse was held in a ‘monster morgue’, alongside the Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi.

It was not long after Brady’s death that the media reports turned to the question of what would happen to his remains. Christopher Sumner, the coroner that handled the body, stated that it would not be released until two assurances had been made. First, there would need to be a funeral director and crematorium staff willing to work with it. Second, Brady’s cremated remains were not to be spread on Saddleworth Moor.

Yet, Brady was born and raised in Glasgow, and it was believed that he wanted his cremated remains to be scattered there. However, Glasgow council were quick to state that his remains were not to be scattered on their lands. Thus, from early on there was a tight control over where Brady’s remains could and could not be disposed of.

This control exhibited in the management of Brady’s corpse is not unusual. Myra Hindley died in 2002 and there was a similar reluctance from funeral directors to work with her body. In the end, the final resting place of her remains was kept secret from the public and the funeral director that carried out the ceremony was never named for fear of their reputation being tarnished. In a sense, these mechanisms of control demarcate the remains as poisonous. There’s a reluctance to house them. Nobody must know where they have been disposed of as the meaning of the disposal site will change.

Ian Brady as Toxic Necro-Waste

The meanings associated with the remains of Ian Brady transform them into a form of toxic necro-waste. If necro-waste is a way of categorising corpse materials as waste, toxic necro-waste is a way of contextualising the most harmful and poisonous aspects of this waste. This could be present in their materiality, as stated at the beginning of this reply, or could also be present in the meaning of the waste material.

In the discussion above, Brady’s remains are comparable to barrelled radioactive waste, in that they are tightly controlled to prevent poisoning the environment. Much of this control, however, emanates from the meaning of the corpse materials. While Brady may now be deceased, the depravities that he committed do not simply go away. His corpse still holds the meaning of these because it is the vessel through which they were committed. The challenge becomes what to do with that vessel.

Disposing of Toxic Necro-Waste

The concept of toxic necro-waste problematizes the process of disposal. Indeed, Mary Douglas understands disposal as an act of putting something beyond a threshold. It is a way of creating boundaries and order.[2] However, the disposal of something also includes disposing of that ‘thing’s’ meaning.[3] The meanings attached to Brady demarcated him as something poisonous to society while he was alive. His body had been locked inside Ashworth hospital since 1985. It had been disposed of from society during this period as it was barred from the public, and suitably pacified. But, now that he’s dead, his corpse sits in an uncertain space. It has not yet been disposed of and, thus, not yet repositioned in the social order.

When necro-waste is physically disposed of, its meaning still remains. People visit grave sites to mourn, wear objects containing cremated remains, and visit sites of mass murder, such as the Cambodian killing fields. Brady will have no grave site. When the material disposal is carried out, the final location of his remains will likely be kept a secret. He will, however, continue to exist in the public consciousness through documentary, film, and television adaptations.

Toxic necro-waste brings these questions of disposing of necro-waste back to the forefront. There’s clearly more to be said about the interaction between necro-waste and the process of disposal. How, for instance, does society dispose of the socially poisonous when the disposal of meaning is incompatible with the physical process of disposal? These questions stretch necro-waste further than the fields of death care and health care. It’s a cultural waste too.

Troyer hinted at this with his sub type ‘Anxiety Producing Necro-Waste’.[4] Toxic necro-waste feeds into necro-waste on the movie screen. The story of Brady is told and retold until the meaning becomes adapted. In a sense, the toxicity becomes more consumable. It moves from being akin to barrelled radioactive waste to being similar to a cigarette. Cigarettes are still toxic, but we are happy to disregard the negative effects for the positive, psychological ones. Similarly, Brady is still toxic, but public fascinations with the morbid lead to a disregarding of this toxicity. It has been re-established as consumable through media.[5] This could be an attempt at disposing of the socially poisonous.

Toxic Necro-Waste

Bigger questions over cultural waste come out of this, but these are too big to adequately address in this reply. Though, what I hope that the concept of toxic necro-waste demonstrates is the powerful role that necro-waste can play in understanding contemporary culture. Perhaps this could be extended in further publications. Either way, the concept of necro-waste clearly has an exciting future. Its wide application across the social sciences guarantees this.


Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. London: Routledge, 2001.

Munro, Rolland. ‘Disposal of the Body: Upending Postmodernism.’ ephemera 1, no. 2 (2001): 108-130.

Olson, Philip R. “Knowing ‘Necro Waste.’” Social Epistemology 30, no. 3 (2016): 326-345.

Penfold-Mounce, Ruth. ‘Corpses, Popular Culture and Forensic Science: Public Obsession with Death.’ Mortality 21 no. 1 (2016): 19-35.

Troyer, John. “‘Owning’ Necro-Waste.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 3 (2016): 59-63.

[1] See Olson, 2016, 335.

[2] Douglas 2001, 2.

[3] Munro, 2001, 112.

[4] Troyer, 2016, 63.

[5] Penfold-Mounce, 2016, 19.

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,

Fuller, Steve. “How to Study: Roam, Record and Rehearse.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 62-64.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image credit: Jeffrey Smith, via flickr

My most successful study skill is one that I picked up very early in life—and perhaps is difficult to adopt after a certain age. Evidence of its success is that virtually everything I read appears to be hyperlinked to something in my memory. In practice, this means that I can randomly pick up a book and within fifteen minutes I can say something interesting about it—that is, more than summarize its contents. In this way, I make the book ‘my own’ in the sense of assigning it a place in my cognitive repertoire, to which I can then refer in the future.

There are three features to this skill. One is sheer exposure to many books. Another is taking notes on them. A third is integrating the notes into one’s mode of being, so that they function as a script in search of a performance. In sum, I give you the new 3 Rs: Roam, Record and Rehearse.


Let’s start with Roam. I’ve always understood reading as the most efficient means to manufacture equipment for the conduct of life. It is clearly more efficient than acquiring personal experience. But that’s a relatively superficial take on the situation. A better way of putting it is that reading should be seen as itself a form of personal experience. In the first instance, this means taking seriously the practice of browsing. By ‘browsing’ I mean forcing yourself to encounter a broader range of possibilities than you imagined was necessary for your reading purposes.

Those under the age of twenty may not appreciate that people used to have to occupy a dedicated physical space—somewhere in a bookshop or a library—to engage in ‘browsing’. It was an activity which forced encounters of works both ‘relevant’ and ‘irrelevant’ to one’s interests. Ideally, at least in terms of one’s own personal intellectual development, browsing would challenge the neatness of this distinction, as one came across books that turned out to be more illuminating than expected. To be sure, ‘browsing’ via computerized search engines still allow for that element of serendipity, as anyone experienced with Google or Amazon will know. Nevertheless, browser designers normally treat such a feature to be a flaw in the programme that should be remedied in the next iteration, so that you end up finding more items like the ones you previous searched for.

As a teenager in New York City in the 1970s I spent my Sunday afternoons browsing through the two biggest used bookshops in Greenwich Village, Strand and Barnes & Noble. Generally speaking, these bookshops were organized according to broad topics, somewhat like a library. However, certain sections were also organized according to book publishers, which was very illuminating. In this way, I learned, so to speak, ‘to judge a book by its cover’.  Publishing houses tend to have distinctive styles that attract specific sorts of authors. In this way, I was alerted to differences between ‘left’ and ‘right’ in politics, as well as ‘high’ and ‘low’ in culture. Taken together, these differences offer dimensions for mapping knowledge in ways that cut across academic disciplinary boundaries.

There is a more general lesson here: If you spend a lot of time browsing, you tend to distrust the standard ways in which books—or information, more generally—is categorized.


Back in New York I would buy about five used books at a time and read them immediately, annotating the margins of the pages. However, I quickly realized that this was not an effective way of ‘making the books my own’. So I shifted to keeping notebooks, in which I quite deliberately filtered what I read into something I found meaningful and to which I could return later. Invariably this practice led me to acquire idiosyncratic memories of whatever I read, since I was basically rewriting the books I read for my own purposes.

In my university days, I learned to call what I was doing ‘strong reading’. And I continue it to this day. Thus, in my academic writing, when I make formal reference to other works, I am usually acknowledging an inspiration—not citing an authority—for whatever claim I happen to be making. My aim is to take personal responsibility for what I say. I dislike the academic tendency to obscure the author’s voice in a flurry of scholarly references which simply repeat connections that could be made by a fairly standard Google search of the topic under discussion.


Now let’s move from Record to Rehearse. In a sense, rehearsal already begins when you shift from writing marginalia to full-blown notebook entries insofar as the latter forces you to reinvent what it is that you originally found compelling in the noteworthy text. Admittedly the cut-and-paste function in today’s computerized word processing programmes can undermine this practice, resulting in ‘notes’ that look more like marginal comments.

However, I engage in rehearsal even with texts of which I am the original author. You can keep yourself in a rehearsal mode by working on several pieces of writing (or creative projects) at once without bringing any of them to completion. In particular, you should stop working just when you are about to reach a climax in your train of thought. The next time you resume work you will then be forced to recreate the process that led you to that climactic point. Often you will discover that the one conclusion toward which you thought you had been heading turns out to have been a mirage. In fact, your ‘climax’ opens up a new chapter with multiple possibilities ahead.

Assuaging Alienation

I realize that some people will instinctively resist what I just prescribed. It seems to imply that no work should ever end, which is a nightmare for anyone who needs to produce something to a specific schedule in order to earn living!  And of course, I myself have authored more than twenty books. However, to my mind these works always end arbitrarily and even abruptly. (And my critics notice this!) Nevertheless, precisely because I do not see them as ‘finished’, they continue to live in my own mind as something to which I can always return. They become part of the repertoire that I always rehearse, which in turn defines the sort of person I am.

Perhaps a good way to see what I am recommending is as a solution to the problem of ‘alienation’ which Karl Marx famously identified. Alienation arises because industrial workers in capitalist regimes have no control over the products of their labour. Once the work is done, it is sold to people with whom they have no contact and over whom they have no control. However, alienation extends to intellectual life as well, as both journalists and academics need to write quite specific self-contained pieces that are targeted at clearly defined audiences. Under the circumstances, there is a tendency to write in a way that enables the author to detach him- or her- self from, if not outright forget, what they have written once it is published. Often this tendency is positively spun by saying that a piece of writing makes its point better than its author could ever do in person.

My own view is quite the opposite. You should treat the texts you write more like dramatic scripts or musical scores than like artworks. They should be designed to be performed in many different ways, not least by the original composer. There should always be an element of incompleteness that requires someone to bring the text alive. In short, it should always be in need of rehearsal. Taken together, Roam, Record and Rehearse has been a life strategy which has enabled me to integrate a wide range of influences into a dynamic source of inspiration and creativity that I understand to be very much my own.

Author Information: Adam Riggio, New Democratic Party of Canada,

Riggio, Adam. “Beyond Socrates: The Philosopher as Creative Craftsperson.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 13-21.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

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Image credit: Diogo Duarte, via flickr

This essay is a response to Robert Frodeman’s insightful “Socratics and Anti-Socratics: The Status of Expertise,” published 22 May on this site. I hope he, the rest of the SERRC community, and our readers will forgive the lateness of my reply.

Frodeman’s essay continues his challenge to the orthodoxy of academic institutions whose detailed manifesto was Socrates Tenured. He calls us to remember the rebellious character of philosophical thought. Philosophy today is a discipline institutionalized in the university system. It is a science requiring several years of training in its techniques of research and analysis. When I say science in this context, I mean it in the sense of a disciplinary (and disciplined) field of knowledge whose producers require expertise if they’re going to build high-quality product. Think of the old-fashioned German term Wissenschaft and you will have an effective image.

At the heart of Frodeman’s argument is the image of Socrates—the persecuted activist who was executed for obnoxiously challenging the moral and political orthodoxies of his society. His recent work explores the tensions and paradoxes between free thinkers and subject matter experts. The most important question in “Socratics and Anti-Socratics” is what kind of expertise marks the philosopher in the academy, and what kind of expertise marks the philosopher as the free thinker.

Frodeman’s answer—with which I agree—is that there appear to be two kinds of expert in the discipline of philosophy. There is the sub-disciplinary subject matter expert who offers a complex body of content to be mastered. This is his Anti-Socratic category. Then there is the free thinker who acts as a gadfly in her community, the expert in destabilizing popular certainties and common sense, who offers training in the deft use of techniques to do so.

The disciplinary thinker systematizes and delivers received wisdom using institutionally sanctioned techniques. The critical free thinker asks incisive questions that identify the material shortcomings and paradoxes of received wisdom when it’s put into practice. The two constitute a single movement in thinking among a community. A disciplinary approach to understanding the world becomes mainstream and institutionalized, and critics show how those mainstream ideas have become inadequate to the world in which they practice. Yet for all its questions, Socratic philosophy leaves the most important inquiry hanging: Now what?

Frodeman’s duality of an opposition between Anti-Socratic institutional experts and Socratic critical experts is fundamentally unfinished. His picture results in a tension and a conflict that appears insoluble. We must show how criticism is institutionalized to become a new mainstream better suited to the current era. An act of innovation in thought must complete this movement, and prepare for it to repeat as the new model of knowledge ossifies and faces its critics in the future.

Who Are a Socrates and a Protagoras Today?

But such innovation is no systematic synthesis out of the SparkNotes version of Hegel. That would be too simple. For instance, there need not be any content of the original calcified disciplinary framework that survives its creative assault—progress may include sweeping away the old way of doing things entirely.

Take the following analogy as an illustration: picture an artistic scene and society that has been entirely corrupted through a gentrifying city, and the collapse of any financial investment except for a few big-name producers. Rhetorically speaking, who in their right mind would ask Damien Hirst what is new, hip, boundary-breaking, and exciting in installation art in 2017?

Same thing for an academic discipline—major players who are at the end of long careers and have built significant institutional support are rarely connected to fresh younger scholars pursuing previously-neglected new directions. For the sake of this argument, lay aside—but please never ignore—the more vile and corrupt forms of decadence into which an institutionally-established academic all too often falls upon their old age.

Frodeman began his short essay with an example of a contemporary debate among the disciplinary community of academic university philosophy and the different lay experts of activist communities. This was Rebecca Tuvel’s essay in Hypatia on the possibility of transracial identity. The reception of “In Defence of Transracialism,” to put it mildly, inspired some controversy. The immediate, most hostile, response was that Tuvel’s article had done a kind of violence to transgender people. The intense criticism was called a “witch hunt” in New York Magazine.[1] In response, some members of Hypatia’s editorial staff issued an apology for having published Tuvel’s article in the first place. Higher-ranking editorial and board staff of Hypatia then denounced the apology, and some editors have resigned from their positions.

Perhaps the most straightforward lesson we can learn from Tuvel’s transracialism controversy is that academic research journals should simplify their editorial structures and have policies that clearly define the boundaries of responsibility and power for each staff member. Frodeman sees a more profound lesson, where this transracialism controversy is an illuminating example of different visions of expertise. Tuvel’s supporters take the stance, generally described, that her qualifications as a researcher specializing in feminist philosophy and the study of race and gender legitimate her right to articulate and defend her stand in the public sphere. Tuvel’s critics, generally speaking, hold that her legitimacy to speak on transgender issues should be rooted in material experiences of transgender life.

How would this fit into the binary Frodeman develops of Socratic and Anti-Socratic thought? Anti-Socratic thinking grounds the legitimacy of expertise in disciplinary knowledge of the academy. Socratic thinking focusses on challenging that disciplinary legitimacy, on grounds that the subject matter expert misses important aspects of reality thanks to its concentration on a limited number of ways of knowing. The expert speaks with self-assured certainty, while the gadfly challenges the expert by identifying important aspects of life that the expert’s disciplinary lens misses. So Tuvel would be an expert, that expertise allowing her article to walk us through a variety of different ways to understand what a genuine transracial identity could be. Her critics would be the gadflies, interrogating the limits of Tuvel’s expertise, showing how her disciplinary approach misses aspects of transgender people’s lived reality that are critical to understanding the material possibilities of trans existence.

Limits of Institutional and Critical Knowledge

I want to spend some more time analyzing the Tuvel controversy and some related issues, because I think this case reveals kinds of expertise that can supplement Frodeman’s vision. First, the institutionally-sanctioned expert describes some investigation into a real phenomenon using her disciplinary tools. So what tools did institutionally-sanctioned expert Rebecca Tuvel use to explore the possibility conditions of transracial identity?

If you read “In Defence of Transracialism,” you will find that Tuvel has masterfully used philosophical methods of conceptual analysis. Her essay fits seamlessly into the tradition of moral, ethical, and political philosophy established with G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica. She examines a number of different ways in which we can conceive of the personal and physical transformations of gender and race, most of which other philosophers in the field of feminist and gender studies have developed or analyzed.

Tuvel’s overall argument in the essay starts with the presumption that transgender identities are legitimate, then runs through several different ways we can understand the ‘trans’ of the transgender such that transracial identity could be legitimate. She concludes, from her analysis, that while several conceptions of transgender’s ‘trans’ cannot apply successfully to transracial’s ‘trans,’ there is at least one that can. Therefore, Tuvel concludes, it is possible to develop your own transracial identity, although the circumstances in which such an identity would be legitimate are much more narrow than those for transgender identity.

That’s all fine in its own context. At the same time, “In Defence of Transracialism” is clear evidence that the tradition and methods of philosophy which Principia Ethica began is out of steam and out of step. These methods cannot offer the insights that moral debates of our era require. There are several reasons why they fall short. One is a matter of audience. The essays published in journals like Hypatia are intended only for other disciplinary experts who have been sanctioned as such by the discipline’s institutions. They have been hired or are on the job market for positions in university humanities departments. The disciplinary community was not where the intense critique of Tuvel came from: it was the community of intersectional political activists. They had very different priorities in political thought and engagement from institutionalized academics, which made them an inappropriate audience for Tuvel’s explicitly conceptual essay.

An important aspect of this audience mismatch comes from a more fundamental way in which the academic mainstream style of moral and political thinking through conceptual analysis falls short of what our times call such thinking to achieve. Frodeman understands the controversy over Tuvel’s article as a matter of different standards of expertise competing over which will provide the popular ground rules for investigations of various possible trans identities. That was an important part of the controversy, but I think the idea which sparked the most fiery debate was over the real-life issue that brought the notion of transracial identity to public consciousness in the first place: the human train wreck named Rachel Dolezal.

When You Are Caught Unexpectedly in Reality

The debate over Tuvel’s essay unfolded as a matter of competing standards of expertise, what gives someone the legitimacy to speak on trans issues in public venues. However, in the eyes of her most strident critics, Tuvel’s primary offence had nothing to do with that, but that she introduced her inquiry as a comparison of actual transgender people with Dolezal. It suggested that Dolezal’s demented idea of transracial identity was of the same type as transgender people’s painful and risky innovations in the material possibilities of human identity. Tuvel’s argument unfolded at a highly abstract level of purely conceptual analysis about the possibility conditions for a transracial identity that considered no real people. She discussed only the ontological and ethical possibility conditions of a legitimate transracial identity.

The problem was that her introduction mentioned Dolezal as having brought the idea of transracial identity so forcefully to public consciousness. In those few first paragraphs, Tuvel used a casual, non-technical vocabulary. Any institution-bound academic humanities researcher would interpret such vocabulary as signalling the cursory scene setting of an introductory paragraph. University academics are encased so thoroughly in a professional world and discourse of experts that they know such words are inconsequential. It is common sense that the vague words of the introduction were precisely introductory, and that the words which really mattered would follow.

Outside the discourse of the university world, where political arguments are literally and frequently matters of real people’s lives and deaths, it is common sense that the most important words of a politically relevant essay are its links to material reality. They are the words that explain why what follows matters to all our lives. In Tuvel’s essay, the only words that linked her analysis to the lives of real people was her brief comment about Rachel Dolezal’s media circus. So the common sense of a political activist would take Tuvel’s essay as an explicit, if dry, comparison of transgender people to Dolezal herself. The institutional knowledge of Anti-Socratics had failed so epically in practical matters.

A Socratic Voice in the Marketplace of Content

It is clear from the most insightful and accurate examinations of Dolezal’s priorities and personality that her own transracial identity possesses nothing of what Tuvel herself could most charitably grant even an inkling of legitimacy. I want to focus on the only piece of philosophical writing I could find that cut through the idiotic ejaculation of witless soundbites that made up the enraging, sorry media spectacle of Dolezal. When I call this essay philosophical, I use the term in a very Socratic sense. Ijeoma Oluo isn’t a university professor. She is a Seattle-based journalist. But her interview with Rachel Dolezal has a Socratic spirit: a determined, intelligent interrogation of a mystifying world, aiming to understand what order there might be to its politics and morality.

I do not want to walk through Oluo’s entire article. You should read it yourself, because even after I discuss its most salient points for my own discussion, her interview itself is rich with ideas. It could be the seed of a novel with the psychological depth of Alice Munro, whose protagonist is as vile and magnetic as the greasiest creations of Mordecai Richler. The advantage (or horror) of the story is that its protagonist is a real person. Tuvel’s entirely abstract approach remains blind to what Oluo’s Socratic interrogation of the real woman Dolezal discovered: the practical impossibility of genuine transracial existence.

Oluo’s interview with Dolezal reveals the latter’s attitude and approach to her transracial life. Dolezal herself has not adopted a transracial identity for anything like the reasons transgender people pursue their identity. A transgender person faces incredible danger because of their identity.

Transgender people are frequent targets of violent hate crime, including murder. They often experience discrimination, both from fellow citizens and from aggressively transphobic elected politicians. Such hateful atmospheres of daily massive and minor persecutions cause terrifying mental health problems. Suicide rates of transgender people are horrifyingly high.

Rachel Dolezal has experienced none of this suffering in her attempt to live as a black woman. Oluo’s interview reveals that she believes herself to have suffered at a similar intensity, that she takes herself to be a victim of persecution. Oluo’s interview with Dolezal is a philosophical conversation about the nature and purpose of the latter’s own transracial identity. Its nature is in a decision that Dolezal made, based on her shoddy understanding of what social construction means. Dolezal understands race to be socially constructed, but she believes that the socially constructed is entirely unreal, a matter of simple human decisions about what to believe in.

Revealing Our Inadequacies

As any professional practitioner of the humanities knows, socially constructed systems of knowledge are as durable and resistant to change as a society itself. Anyone who has read any accessible, affordable, straightforward book about social theory knows that. Rachel Dolezal chose to become black to demonstrate, through her own example, the unreality of race. Oluo’s interview revealed Dolezal’s self-image as a messianic martyr ushering a post-race society into existence. She sees herself as a one-woman harbinger of a utopian humanity. The ego, self-importance, and ignorance on display is dazzling.

Even Tuvel gives a very glib account of social construction in “In Defence of Transracialism,” describing the practical possibility of genuine racial change like so: “Although race change is theoretically possible, whether it is practically possible will depend on a society’s willingness to adjust its rules for racial categorization to better accommodate individual self-identification.” As a scholar of inter-disciplinary feminist traditions, she should know better.

But the rarefied abstraction of her style prevents her from engaging with the physical difficulties of changing socially constructed institutions and cultural mores. Tuvel’s only engagement with the problems social construction’s inertia causes for a transracial identity is when she leans on Sally Haslanger’s conception of race. Haslanger’s notion that race is a matter of how others see you is interesting, but its conception of identity sticks to a community’s interpellation—a technical elaboration on the basic notion that race is a matter of how others see you.

These ideas are simply not adequate to the psychological and ethical complexity of Dolezal’s actual derangement. The thinking of this real woman, not an abstract consideration of the possibility conditions of transracial identity, has driven this political discourse about what the boundaries of racial and ethnic identity can be.

What Would a Creative Philosophical Discourse Look Like?

Oluo’s interview was never written with an eye on the controversy over Tuvel’s article or her arguments. Nonetheless, comparing how both writers approach the issue of transraciality illustrates the ossifying tendency of institutionalized disciplinary thinking and the fire in the belly of a Socratic interrogator. Tuvel’s approach to analyzing the possibility conditions of transracial existence was so tone-deaf because she was concerned only with a technical academic debate in the language of a narrow humanities discipline.

Hers was an argument entirely for the world of scholarship, and Tuvel’s expertise was entirely within that narrow disciplinary scope. She might privately maintain the political relevance of the issues she discussed, but how she discussed them utterly sidestepped the issues’ political relevance. Oluo is an improvement, her work being rooted in the critical interrogation of a real person’s actual values. Her thinking and writing shows the acuity of a philosophically sharp mind employing complex concepts of race, ethnicity, and social construction to the values of a real person, and that person’s attempt to impose her values on a hostile world.

The establishment voice has spoken and been shouted down. The gadfly has revealed the sad truth and could only walk away, exasperated. The camel and the lion have had their say. Can anything be built from this?

The most important groundwork of building a creative philosophical discourse is to admit the inadequacy of all the concepts you know best. The politics of race and nation throughout North America, Europe, southern Asia, and Africa today calls for publicly engaged philosophers and other humanities researchers and writers to engage and develop new ideas to battle racism and violence.

Rachel Dolezal’s twisted reasoning is an unfortunate blend of philosophical incompetence and delusions of grandeur. Ijeoma Oluo is uniquely perceptive in having understood this, and having been able to identify through the shrieking buzz of Dolezal’s extended media circus the precise ways in which her reasoning fails. Rebecca Tuvel fares far better than Dolezal herself, but still relies on the bloodless detachment of scholarly debate to engage with issues of many people’s real lives and deaths. Both Socratic interrogative criticism and Anti-Socratic disciplinary expertise have proven inadequate to the task.

The approach to racial politics that missed the mark most wildly was Dolezal’s own, for two reasons. She failed to understand the material power of socially constructed norms and institutions, and she was motivated by an egotistical desire to make herself a messiah for the revolution of a raceless world. Tuvel at least understood enough about the humanities’ scholarly debates on the nature of race to say something coherent. But her scholarly approach failed to comprehend the real urgency of race politics for our current moment. Worse, she did not even understand how her work would be received outside the scholarly community.

Both her article itself, as well as the reactions of Hypatia’s editors, supplies further evidence that disciplinary academic training does not prepare one for effective activism.

Tuvel’s failure was clearly empirical. She did not understand what is at stake for real people in questions of transgender and transracial identities, or at least wrote as if those stakes did not matter for her question. Oluo’s greatest success in her interview with Dolezal about transracial identity was her application of an incisive philosophical mind to an empirical case, understanding the ideological and political priorities of a real person.

A New Empiricism: Material Thinking

So whatever philosophical approach to political thinking succeeds will be essentially empirical, a unity of conceptual rigour and meticulous, systematic observation. Philosophers must understand human actions with the same analytic attention to detail as they have understood concepts and ideas for the last century. Such analysis must understand human action at the individual level of single people’s decisions and beliefs in their daily lives. But it must also understand the systematic dimensions of action, the complex web of relationships in which human activity is interlinked across the globe.

Techniques for achieving this analysis of action can, at least most obviously for now, be found in the discipline of ethnography. This includes rich skills of observation, understanding how reasons, ideology, and relationships throughout and across social networks, impact the development of personalities and self-conceptions. Philosophical reflection should no longer begin only with concepts, but with the personalities that put concepts into practical action through their individual and community’s ideologies and moralities.

Begin from understanding human thought in the real world of practice, where people are making a living and building their lives. Probe people’s political beliefs, moral ideals, relationships with their communities, countries, and the rest of the world, as well as how a person actually understands who and what she is. Analyze those concepts systematically. That means understanding how those concepts shape a person’s thinking and life priorities, as well as their internal coherence, paradoxes, and contradictions. Analyze how those concepts fit together into a broader philosophy or ideology, their coherence, paradoxes, and contradictions in co-existence as they build a single world-view. Understand what kind of world and personality those concepts will build in a person or community that lives according to their implications.

Begin with the world, work in thought, and let thought guide you to a better understanding of the world. Then communicate with the people whose ideologies, ideas, and philosophies you are analyzing. One of the central reasons for the enraged reaction to Tuvel’s essay was that she wrote it in a format appropriate only for journals of the professional academic humanities.

Even subtle differences in writing style helped doom her popular reception. She wrote her introduction as an unimportant prologue, where many in the popular audience read her introduction as a substantive hook. Adapting philosophical writing style to a popular intellectual audience with composition techniques from popular current affairs and journalism genres can be an aid to clarity and true practical impact. I am, of course, not talking about some institutional impact factor rating, but the real impact that philosophy can have: simultaneously interpreting the world and changing it.

Creative developments in philosophy come in many forms. They are all responses to changes in a society where typical ways of thinking and talking about ideas were shown to be inadequate. Different circumstances brought this inadequacy about each time philosophical creativity became required. We need to acknowledge when the old ways of doing things will not work as they did before, and see what has changed in the world to make our old ways ineffective. We must understand the causes of our own obsolescence, and upgrade our practice and skill-set to keep up with the demands of a world that will not bow to whatever is convenient for our established approaches to knowledge.


“Editors Quit at Feminist Journal that Compared Transgenders to Rachel Dolezal.” The College Fix (2017):

Flaherty, Colleen. “(Another) Shake-up At Hypatia.” Inside Higher Education (2017):

Frodeman, Robert. “Socratics and Anti-Socratics: The Status of Expertise.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 42-44.

Jeffries, Stuart. “German Philosophy Has Finally Gone Viral. Will That Be Its Undoing?” Foreign Policy Magazine (2017):

Oluo, Ijeoma. “The Heart of Whiteness: Ijeoma Oluo Interviews Rachel Dolezal, the White Woman Who Identifies as Black.” The Stranger (2017):

Singal, Jesse. “This Is What a Modern-Day Witch Hunt Looks Like.” New York Magazine (2017):

Tuvel, Rebecca. “In Defence of Transracialism.” Hypatia 32, no. 2 (2017): 263-278.

Zamudio-Suaréz, Fernanda. “Months After ‘Transracialism’ Flap, Controversy Still Rages at Feminist Philosophy Journal” Chronicle of Higher Education (2017):

[1] The use of the term “witch hunt” can easily be interpreted as a politically-charged denunciation of Tuvel critics with the same terms of abuse that progressive activists receive from Trumpist and alt-right conservatives. Voices in the academic community who are generally conservative about the institution have been unsparing in denouncing Tuvel’s critics. Although they may have overreacted, the editors who issued the apology in the light of controversy no more deserve aggression and pile-ons than Tuvel herself. Brian Leiter, a reliable weathervane of belligerent conservatism in the academic humanities, has been especially vile to former Hypatia editor Cressida Hayes, describing her as hypocritical, unprofessional, and appalling.

Author Information: Willem Halffman, Radboud University, and Hans Radder, VU University Amsterdam,

Halffman, Willem and Hans Radder, editors. “International Responses to the Academic Manifesto: Reports from 14 Countries.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, Special Report (2017): 1-76.

The PDF of the report gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Editor’s Note: On 23 July 2017 corrections and minor changes to this report, both the html and pdf formats, were made and posted.

Please refer to:

Image credit: Simon Ingram, via flickr

Table of Contents

Report Introduction
Willem Halffman and Hans Radder

1. The Wolf and the Sheep in Québec
Michel Lacroix
2. Beyond Privatization in U.S. Higher Education
Mark B. Brown
3. On the Ills of Management: The Brazilian Experience
Renato Dagnino and Marcos Barbosa de Oliveira
4. The Crisis of Japanese Academia: A Brief Report on Recent Developments
Makoto Katsumori
5. Australia: Reclaiming the Public University?
Simon Batterbury and Jason Byrne
6. On Wolves, Sheep and Shepherds: A Bosnian Comedy of Errors
Mario Hibert and Andrea Lešić-Thomas
7. Beside the Wolf There Is also a Ravenous Giant Octopus Eating Away Academic Freedom in Hungary
Anna Wessely
8. Striving for Academic Authenticity: A Slovak Position in the Context of the Academic Manifesto
Jozef Hvorecký, Emil Višňovský and Matúš Porubjak
9. Anxieties and Tensions in the Nordic Model—Finland and Scandinavia
Anita Välikangas
10. Activism over Acrimony: Not Getting Better but Getting Beyond the UK’s Research Excellence Framework
Richard Watermeyer
11. The Academic Manifesto: The Situation in Flanders
Koen Bogaert, Valerie De Craene, Anton Froeyman, Karen Stroobants and Sigrid Vertommen
12. Complutense University of Madrid and the Academic Manifesto: Common Traits of a Global Crisis in Higher Education
Eva Aladro Vico
13. Problems of the French Universities
Christophe Charle
14. The Struggle for the Public University in the Netherlands
Willem Halffman and Hans Radder

The Productivist University Goes Global (and So Does Its Resistance)
Willem Halffman and Hans Radder

(Added) Polish Reform of Higher Education: “Operation was Successful and Patient is Dead”
Izabela Wagner

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Report Introduction
Willem Halffman and Hans Radder

In April 2015, we published our Academic Manifesto, the slightly updated English version of an earlier Dutch article (Halffman and Radder 2013, 2015a). It described how universities are occupied by management, a regime obsessed with ‘accountability’ through measurement, increased competition, efficiency, ‘excellence’, and misconceived economic salvation. Given the occupation’s absurd side-effects, we examined how this colonization of the university came about and why it still persists. Furthermore, we sketched an alternative vision of a public university, more akin to a socially engaged knowledge commons than to a corporation. We also listed twenty concrete measures to achieve this public university. From the fact that management seemed impervious to cogent arguments, we concluded that significant change could only happen if academics take action. Hence, we explored eleven different strategies for a renewed university politics.

The article seems to have raised quite a stir over the last years. We have received supportive reactions by academics from many countries. There is now a Hungarian, a Spanish, a Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian and a Portuguese translation, while a French translation will be published shortly (Halffman and Radder 2015b, 2015c, 2016, 2017, forthcoming). All translations have been made in the context of academic protests in their respective countries as a call to action. Finally, at the moment, the Minerva website mentions 19K downloads of the Manifesto—which is quite exceptional for this type of journal.

On our part, these facts suggested the need for a follow-up. Apparently, the problems of academia we analyzed from a Dutch perspective were not limited to the Netherlands. Therefore, it seemed important to have a more detailed view of the current predicament of higher education in a range of different countries. For this purpose, we invited several colleagues who had earlier sent us a reaction to write a brief response to the Manifesto. These responses were to address the analyses, the evaluations and the proposed solutions of the Manifesto from the national perspectives of the respondents.

The aim was threefold. First, this overview would show the international dimension of the situation and could counter attempts to dismiss our criticism by claiming that the problems are merely local and incidental. Second, it would constitute an act of international solidarity and thus serve to motivate and support further forms of resistance. Third, it could help to devise effective strategies for political action by learning from each other.

As a result, we have received the reports that can be found below. Some are relatively short, others somewhat more extended. They originate from a large number of countries: Australia, Belgium (Flanders), Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Canada (Québec), Finland (and Scandinavia), Hungary, Japan, Spain, Slovakia, the United Kingdom and the United States. We have added to this inventory a concise piece on what has happened in the Netherlands since we published the first version of the Manifesto in 2013. Since the reports cannot be grouped in clearly different thematic clusters, we have ordered them according to the geographical regions of the authors’ countries. We conclude this collection with a sketch of our perspective on what we call the ‘productivist university’, both on the global features and on the equally global forms of resistance that we see emerging from the fourteen country reports.


Halffman, Willem and Hans Radder. 2013. “Het Academisch Manifest: Van een Bezette Naar een Publieke Universiteit.” Krisis: Tijdschrift Voor Actuele Filosofie (3): 2-18.

Halffman, Willem and Hans Radder. 2015a. “The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University.” Minerva 53 (2): 165-187.

Halffman, Willem and Hans Radder. 2015b. “A Megszállt Egyetemből Legyen Újra Közintézmény!” [In Hungarian.] Translated by Anna Wessely. Budapest Review of Books, 6 (July): 114-120.

Halffman, Willem and Hans Radder. 2015c. “Akademski Manifest: Od Okupiranog dso Javnog Univerziteta.” [In Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian.] Translated by Mario Hibert and Andrea Lešić. Pregled: 173-203.

Halffman, Willem and Hans Radder. 2016. “Manifiesto Académico: De la Universidad Ocupada a la Universidad Pública.” [In Spanish.] Translated by Eva Aladro Vico. (To be re-published in CIC Cuadernos de Información y Comunicación, 2017).

Halffman, Willem and Hans Radder. 2017. “Manifesto Acadêmico: De uma Universidade Ocupada a uma Universidade Pública.” [In Portuguese.] Translated by Amires Cianci von Atzingen, Carlos Machado and Marcos Barbosa de Oliveira. Revista ADUSP. (60): 6- 25.

Halffman, Willem and Hans Radder. Forthcoming. “Le Manifeste Académique.” [In French.] Translated by Michel Lacroix.

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1. Report from Québec and Canada

The Wolf and the Sheep in Québec
Michel Lacroix[1]

The Wolf is Everywhere

For a Québec university professor, reading the Academic Manifesto produces a very strong ‘worryingly familiar’ feeling. Indeed, the many-headed Wolf of management has occupied us too. One can recognize in Québec’s university system most of the symptoms of this occupation. The new regime of ‘indicator fetishism’ dominates the practices and discourses of university administrations, research grant institutions, as well as government and private funding organisations. All across the board, the pressure is on to produce ‘more’: more students in each classroom, in each education programme; more international students in every university; more publications and more research grants per scholar. The student/teacher ratio has gone up 40%, between 1995 and 2015, but the number of faculty burnouts has also been multiplied (by a factor of 6, in Laval University; see Leclerc, Bourassa and Macé 2016).

The intensity and intellectual emptiness of the competition between students, professors and institutions has reached very high levels and has created a circuit of systematic ratification of the precedent choices: most of the PhD grants go to students who received grants for their master thesis, and thus forward with the postdoctoral grants, the university jobs, all the way to the ‘Canada research chairs’, given to the previously most-funded scholars, who will then regularly receive yet more funding, for themselves and for their students. The concentration of grants in a few hands has thus engendered a very unequal academic oligopoly: 10% of the so-called elite of scholars receive as much as 80% of the grants’ money (Larivière 2013). All of this constantly devaluates teaching: the ‘true’ stars do not give more than one graduate seminar per year, the professors who have the ‘regular’ teaching load of four undergraduate courses are regarded as ‘poor fellows’, and about 50% of undergraduate courses is given by precarious lecturers. This also undermines the value of community service functions and thus the spirit of collegiality, to the point where undergraduate programme chairs, department chairs and, even more so, union officers, are considered obstacles or dead-ends for an ‘elite’ career. The Mathew Effect diagnosed by the Academic Manifesto affects Québec universities as much as the Dutch and European ones.

Here too, the deviation from the goal of preserving, transmitting and forging new knowledge, of developing critical analysis of ideas and practices, in order to compete more effectively, is based on an absurd ideology of excellence suggesting that every institution, every scholar, can and must be ‘in the top 1%’ of his domain, even as it actively aggravates structural inequalities, ‘naturalising’ them in tier systems. In the ever-increasing competition for new students, universities are building new campuses in each other’s backyards and are looking to open antennas in foreign countries. The same market-oriented logic pushes them to multiply teams for communications and international relations at every level. At the same time, the continuous governmental demands for more accountability, internalized by university administrations in their ‘new public management’ doctrine, has not diminished in the least their bureaucratic trends: more and more time and money are devoted to the production of reports (each university must send around 200 annual reports to the government). Between 1997 and 2008, the total payroll of the administrative staff has increased by 154%, three times as fast as the increase of the payroll for professors (FQPPU 2013).

The Wolf, as it has manifested itself in our universities, has two characteristics that were not described in the Manifesto. The first is the tendency of governments to put research funding at their own service, via thematic funds, which receive an ever-increasing portion of the money. While this breaches the autonomy of the academic field to choose and evaluate the relative interest of research domains, it has been much less intensely scrutinized and criticized than the funding coming from the private sector (the study by Lajoie [2009] has been severely criticized; see Gingras 2010). The second characteristic concerns the question of the ‘governance’ of the universities, or to use another language, the distribution of power inside the universities. There have been repeated efforts, from the government and the university administrations, to give more leeway to the principals and their teams, at the expense of collegiality. A projected bill, in 2009, would have given at least 60% of university boards to administrators from outside the universities. A unified opposition defeated this bill, but the struggle is still going on. In fact, in the last months, at the Université de Montréal and the Université du Québec à Montréal, two different proposals sketch new decision-making procedures with less power given to governance bodies where professors, lecturers and students are in the majority. Another aspect of administrative reforms inspired by the Wolf is the ‘budget devolution’, adopted by some universities, from the central administration towards the faculties and services. In their effects (if not in their objective), these reforms think of students as ‘revenues’ and of professors and courses as expenses, colouring most of the decisions with a strictly economic point of view.

I should also add that the student body, as organized through students unions, is in Quebec a very important force of opposition to the elitist and managerial transformation of the universities. Its strength flows and ebbs, but it can lead to massive mobilizations, as was shown in the ‘student spring’ of 2012, when a general strike against a 75% tuition fee increase lasted several months and rallied up to 300,000 students.

Despite these differences, the importance and magnitude of the similarities between the situation in Québec, the Netherlands, Europe and, I would say, North America, show that, regardless of the political, cultural or economic contexts, there is indeed a truly transnational movement towards a managerial university, based on a shared ideology, developed and made dominant by major institutions, with the benevolent help of governments. This is much more than a ‘crisis in the humanities’ (even if the humanities are the first to be targeted) or the consequence of years of government ‘austerity’. Twenty years ago, Bill Readings analysed the emergence and domination of the idea of excellence as a symptom of a globalisation movement transforming the university in a transnational commercial mall. The Academic Manifesto demonstrates that this movement has not only changed the conception of the university, but its whole fabric, from the day-to-day interactions between colleagues up to the university structures. What was still mostly a discourse in Readings’ book, has now materialized in procedures, forms, spreadsheets and burnouts.

From what a university professor from Québec can deduce from the Manifesto, it even seems that the situation has gotten worse in some European ‘national’ systems than it is here. Except for the deans, even the most stellar professors still have to teach at least one course every year; the sabbatical year is offered to every tenured teacher; the tenure is usually obtained by the vast majority, after four or five years; the universities still publish annual reports (even if their strategic plans are newspeak administrative prose devoid of any intellectual value); we have not seen any real pressure towards mergers; and the introduction of matching to finance research, while troubling, has been limited and open to ‘creative’ solutions.

The Sheep Strike Back?

There is a very important step, between the Manifesto and The University in Ruins (or the many important critiques of the managerial university, of which there were quite a few, around the time of the 2012 student strike [for instance, Baillargeon 2013; Martin and Ouellet 2011; Seymour 2013]), and this is the active research of concrete counter-attack moves. It also makes a very clear call for a transnational movement, in its conclusion: ‘Workers of all universities, unite!’ Some scholars will surely scoff at such a call to arms, even with its ‘tongue in cheek’ utopian consciousness. But this seems precisely one of the avenues that university professors, lecturers and students should examine, in order to shake off the feeling of a desperate rear guard (the village d’Astérix mentality). The study and critique of the university ‘world-system’, in its bureaucratic, elitist and mercantile guise, must not become another specialised field of study, but should engender, through networks of discussion and mobilization, an heterogeneous but combative republic of rebellious scholars. The logic of the present system (conferences, journals, seminars) could even be used against itself, to help foster an academic yet militant reflection and action.

As for the different strategies outlined in the Manifesto, some could offer important ways to achieve specific gains and build up solidarity locally. Collective refusal and collective opposition towards some administrative forms, documentation systems, or propositions, can be very useful. In my own university, they introduced a new evaluation policy, which demanded an annual, a triennial and a decennial evaluation for every program, all of them with pre-formed questions. After two years of experimentation with the annual report, in which they systematically wrote ‘nothing to declare’ to those questions, the programme directors of one department decided to stop compiling them, and stated why in the forms themselves, with copies to their colleagues in the same faculty. A few months after, the university abandoned the annual report.

The trade unions’ actions can also be very effective, depending on the local history and the legal context. At the Université du Québec à Montréal and the other branches of the Université du Québec, a collective agreement specifies the very structure of the university. This means that the administration cannot change the structure through a new collective agreement without reaching a deal with a majority of professors. Consequently, the union has a structural role in university affairs, from the process of hiring new professors to the process of creating new programs, and even concerning the overall teacher/student ratio.

Other university unions do not have this feature (some, as McGill, do not have unions, but only associations), but the possibility of a strike and the structures of collegiality still give them a say. However, even if many of the problems confronting professors in their work come from the same managerial, that is, the same ‘excellence’ ideology, most conflicts take place locally, with few echoes elsewhere. We have a provincial federation of professors (FQPPU), with a very combative spirit, which publishes well-documented studies on the state of Québec universities. One of the propositions put forward, which could hold back or even reverse the concentration of funds and prestige in fewer hands, is the provision of an annual research grant of CA$10,000 for every university professor (FQPPU 2016). However, there is no real ‘consciousness’, on the part of university professors, of what is really going on, concretely, in their colleagues’ universities. This seriously limits the possibility of a collective counter strike. The legal impossibility of a ‘social strike’ is another important constraint. Still, strikes could play an important role, in nurturing solidarity and in a structured, organized movement in favour of ‘contra-indicators’, an avenue where the expertise of many fields (labour relations, scientometrics, sociology of science, etc.) could come together. This would be even more necessary, in my view, at the international level (and could give purpose to the Education International [2017], or better still, create a Higher-Education International, since the former seems very distant and mostly focused on primary and secondary levels).


Baillargeon, Normand. 2013. Je ne Suis Pas Une PME. Montréal: Poètes de Brousse.

Education International/Internationale De L’éducation. 2017. “Education International—Latest News on Education.” Accessed March 24 2017.

FQPPU—Fédération Québécoise Des Professeurs et Professeures D’université. 2016. “Pour Une Subvention De Recherche Annuelle De Base.”

FQPPU—Fédération Québécoise Des Professeurs et Professeures D’université. 2013. “Ouvrir Ensemble Une Voie Pour L’université Québécoise.”

Gingras, Yves. 2010. “Qu’est-ce Que la Recherche Libre? Review of Vive la Recherche Libre! by Andrée Lajoie.” Recherches Sociographiques 51(1-2): 160-173.

Gingras, Yves. 2016. Bibliometrics and Research Evaluation: Uses and Abuses. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Giroux, Aline. 2006. Le Pacte faustien de L’université. Montréal: Liber.

Lajoie, Andrée. 2009. Vive la Recherche Libre! Montréal: Liber.

Larivière, Vincent. 2013. “La Concentration des Fonds de Recherche et ses Effets.” Découvrir (9).

Larivière, Vincent, Benoit Macaluso, Éric Archambault, and Yves Gingras. 2010. “Which Scientific Elites? On the Concentration of Research Funds, Publications and Citations.” Research Evaluation 19 (1): 49-53.

Leclerc, Chantal, Bruno Bourassa, and Christian Macé. 2016. “Dérives de la recherche et détresse psychologique: Une recherche qualitative.” Découvrir, no 6. Retrieved from

Martin, Éric, and Maxime Ouellet. 2011. Université Inc. Montréal: Lux.

Readings, Bill. 1997. The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Seymour, Michel. 2013. Une Idée de L’université. Propositions d’un Professeur Militant. Montréal: Boréal.

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2. Report from the United States

Beyond Privatization in U.S. Higher Education
Mark B. Brown[2]

In The Academic Manifesto Willem Halffman and Hans Radder (2015) deftly summarize many of the trends that are undermining the public university in the Netherlands and beyond. They see the ‘public’ in public university not primarily as a funding source but as a guiding philosophy and purpose. Even a privately funded university, such as many of the most prestigious universities in the United States, can be ‘public’ in this sense in various ways: it educates and informs the public; it provides not only private benefits but also public goods that have social and non-market benefits; and it strives to become a self-governing community that is publicly accountable to its members and to the various broader publics that have a stake in its activities.

As a faculty member at a regional public university in California, much of Halffman and Radder’s discussion sounds very familiar. Of course, the US higher education landscape is highly differentiated and complex, and I cannot offer a comprehensive comparison to the Netherlands. Here I only want to sketch a few points that speak to the situation portrayed by Halffman and Radder.

Privatization and Managerialism

Halffman and Radder paint a dismal yet, from a U.S. perspective, largely familiar picture of the current state of higher education:

A culture of competition increasingly undermines everyday collegiality and scholarly cooperation. Faculty compete for academic positions and recognition, while universities compete for public funding, private donors, students, and star faculty.

Commercially marketable research takes priority over both undergraduate teaching and basic research.

Contingent faculty comprise the majority of the faculty and teach most of the courses. They work on short-term contracts with very low pay, low job security, few opportunities for academic research or professional development, little or no say in university governance, and an everyday lack of respect and recognition.

Students tend to see themselves as consumers who care more about campus athletic and recreation opportunities than academic quality. Facing the prospect of high debt and a precarious labour market, they see the purpose of university education not primarily in intellectual inquiry or self-understanding, but as a means for acquiring the academic credentials and professional connections for a well-paying job.

Administrators increasingly rely on citation counts and other managerial accountability mechanisms to monitor faculty performance. Such mechanisms fail to capture the social value of research and teaching, create needless busywork, and foster a culture of distrust. Administrators claim such measures decrease costs and increase efficiency, but they generally do the opposite.

Each of these problems is easy to find at colleges and universities in the United States. Since about 1980, U.S. universities have increasingly come to define higher education less as a public good than as a private business enterprise. In his recent book, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, Christopher Newfield (2016) shows that privatization, which has become the most common response to the problems facing higher education, is actually the fundamental cause of these problems.

Privatization takes many forms in the United States: increases in student tuition and fees that effectively shift the cost of higher education from tax-payers to students and their families; outsourcing of support activities like educational technology, financial analysis, student health care, and food service to for-profit companies; increased reliance on private donors and foundations who often exert subtle (or not so subtle) influence on research and teaching; a neglect in both rhetoric and policy of the social and non-market benefits of higher education (e.g., increased public health, happiness, and problem-solving capacities); and a redefinition of students and faculty as human capital, focused on continuous self-investment for the purpose of economic security (see also Brown 2015).

Most importantly, Newfield argues, both conservatives and liberals in the U.S. tend to misunderstand the basic dynamics of university privatization. Conservatives see universities as susceptible to wasting public funds, and so they call for more managerial oversight, fiscal discipline, and an orientation toward corporate modes of governance. Liberals tend to see privatization as a necessary if regrettable response to cuts in public funding. Both mistakenly assume that there simply isn’t enough money to fund higher education as a genuine public good. And both see privatization as a way to save money, when actually it does the opposite.

Tuition increases, for example, did not begin as a response to cuts in public funding, as commonly assumed, but instead preceded such cuts. As Newfield (2016, 42) explains, ‘Public colleges and universities raised tuition about 50 per cent during the 1980s in constant dollars, and another 38 per cent in the 1990s, when real state funding actually increased slightly.’ When state legislatures learned that universities could bring in more student tuition, they were emboldened to cut public funding. Between 1990 and 2012, tuition of all colleges and universities taken together increased 297 per cent, twice the rate of health care costs. According to one recent assessment (Newfield et al. 2017), in 2016 California spent 39 per cent less per university student than fifteen years before, while student tuition and fees have more than doubled at both the University of California and California State University, and tripled at the state’s two-year community colleges.

One of the most striking and consequential changes has been an enormous shift in the makeup of the academic labour force. According to a 2014 report (AAUP 2014, Figure 1), between 1976 and 2011 there was a 369 per cent increase in full-time non-faculty professional positions (‘buyers and purchasing agents; human resources, training, and labor relations specialists; management analysts; loan counselors; lawyers; and other nonacademic workers’). Full-time non-tenure-track faculty increased 259 per cent, while tenured and tenure-track faculty grew by only 23 per cent, despite massive increases in enrolment. According to a 2016 report (AAUP 2016, 13), ‘[t]he majority (70 percent) of academic positions today are not only off the tenure track but also part time, with part-time instructional staff positions making up nearly 41 percent of the academic labor force and graduate teaching assistants making up almost another 13 percent’. The report also finds that spending on instruction at U.S. colleges and universities now makes up less than one-third of the overall higher education budget.

Under these circumstances, scepticism toward public funding for colleges and universities starts to seem entirely reasonable. Taxpayers rightly ask why they are paying for research that ends up subsidizing for-profit technology ventures with unclear public benefits. Parents rightly wonder why their children’s instructors are too overworked to provide adequate feedback on assignments, and why the most prominent professors devote so little time and effort to quality teaching (Brown 2015, 197).

Of course, public scepticism toward American universities also has other causes, including a long-standing tradition of anti-intellectualism. Many conservatives in the U.S. still see universities as bastions of sexual immorality and Marxist ideology, filled with left-wing professors intent on indoctrinating their children. In a recent speech, President Donald Trump’s newly appointed Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos (2017), echoed a familiar conservative theme when she said, ‘The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think’.

Finally, it is important to note a more insidious cause of public scepticism toward higher education in the U.S. From the 1950s until the 1970s, public universities were widely seen as a force for reducing inequalities of race, class, and gender. Despite serious shortcomings, the United States extended the promise of higher education to a broader cross-section of society than anywhere or any time in history. Over the past fifty years, the curriculum, the students, and (to some extent) the faculty have become far more representative of America’s demographic makeup (Newfield 2008). But the commitment to public higher education as a tool for reducing social inequality and rectifying historical injustices has gradually fallen by the wayside. In its place we have a vague liberal commitment to tolerance, pluralism, and multiculturalism, driven by an appeal to ‘inclusion’. To be sure, increased inclusion of historically marginalized groups is a major achievement, but it does not undo the accumulated effects of past injustices or eliminate racist and sexist attitudes. Indeed, while the story is complex, it is probably no accident that the white majority’s willingness to fund public universities has decreased just as the percentage of non-white students has increased.

What to Do?

Halffman and Radder (2015, 166) note that faculty critics of these developments have produced an ‘endless stream of opinion articles, lamentations, pressing letters and appeals’—and here is one more!—all with little discernible impact. And they place significant blame on themselves and their (our) fellow faculty: ‘[t]he ‘radical’ professor lectures on the French post-modernists, while using the citation panopticon to discipline the temporary staff. Critical philosophers publish sharp papers against ‘open office’ policies, but meekly conform to its introduction at their own institution. Today we publish a manifesto, tomorrow we pull the rug from under a colleague in the hope of gaining funds for a research assistant. Divide and conquer works because we all join in’ (173).

A similar message appeared in a recent piece by Kevin Birmingham (2017), the first contingent faculty member to receive a prestigious award for literary criticism at the University of Iowa.  ‘If you are a tenured (or tenure-track) faculty member teaching in a humanities department with Ph.D. candidates’, Birmingham wrote, ‘you are both the instrument and the direct beneficiary of exploitation’.

Halffman and Radder go on to list a series of potential resistance strategies, ranging from foot dragging and clerical sabotage to protests, strikes, and political advocacy. In many respects, the U.S. is ground zero of neoliberal privatization, and recent developments offer little cause for optimism in this regard. But there are also many promising examples of effective advocacy for the values and institutions of public higher education.

Perhaps the biggest change in recent years has been increased public awareness about contingent faculty. There have been numerous high-profile media reports about the dismal working conditions of contingent faculty (e.g. Fredrickson 2015). Contingent faculty have promoted their interests through research and advocacy groups like the New Faculty Majority (2017), the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (2017), the Delphi Project (2017), the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labour (2017), and the AAUP (2016). And on many campuses, contingent faculty have won small but significant gains in pay, benefits, job security, and participation rights in academic self-governance.

Many faculty labour unions in the U.S. have been highly engaged and effective advocates for the values of public higher education in general, and for contingent faculty in particular. Halffman and Radder write that trade unions at Dutch universities tend to only represent established professors, not contingent faculty. At the University of California, the reverse is the case, and the labour union for contingent faculty (UCAFT) has won pay raises and benefits, rights for due process in hiring, and a minimal amount of job security for faculty who have taught six years or more. At California State University, where I teach, the faculty union (CFA) represents both tenure-line and contingent faculty. Across the country, many contingent faculty have become unionized in recent years through the efforts of the Service Employees International Union’s Faculty Forward campaign. According to a recent report (Herbert 2016), since 2012 there has been a 25.9 per cent increase in faculty unions at private universities, and a 2.1 per cent increase at public universities. And faculty unionization has clear benefits: contingent faculty with union representation have an average of 25% higher pay (Flaherty 2013).

Finally, student activism seems to be on the rise, and it has the potential to transform the debate on higher education. Of course, some commentators have ridiculed today’s students as the anxious and fragile children of anxious and overly protective parents (Lukianoff and Haidt 2015). Today’s students, they say, demand coddling from college faculty and administrators in the form of speech codes, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and systems for reporting micro-aggression and other forms of disrespect toward women, racial and ethnic minorities, and other vulnerable identities. But such assessments exaggerate selected high profile cases, and they neglect considerable counter-evidence.

Surveys show that high percentages of today’s students are deeply involved in political causes of all kinds. For example, a 2015 survey (Eagan et al. 2015) at UCLA found that about 9 per cent of first-year students (and 16 per cent of first-year black students) said there is a ‘very good chance’ they will participate in a campus protest while in college. About 22 per cent said that influencing the political structure is ‘very important’ or ‘essential’. And over 40 per cent said it is ‘very important’ or ‘essential’ to promote racial understanding, influence social values, and become informed about political affairs.

During the past decade, thousands of American students have become involved in political campaigns of all kinds, including the student anti-sweatshop movement, campaigns against sexual assault, the campaign to push universities to divest from fossil fuels, and protests against racism and sexism on campus. At my own university, the Students for Quality Education have been fighting for truly public higher education since 2007.

It’s time more of us joined the struggle.


AAUP—American Association of University Professors. 2014. “Losing Focus: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession. 2013-14.”

AAUP—American Association of University Professors. 2016. “Higher Education at a Crossroads: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2015-16.”

Birmingham, K. 2017. “The Great Shame of Our Profession: How the Humanities Survive on Exploitation.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 12.

Brown, W. 2015. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. New York: Zone Books.

Coalition of Contingent Academic Labour. 2017. “About COCAL.”

Coalition on the Academic Workforce. 2017. “Coalition on the Academic Workforce.”

Delphi Project. 2017. “The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success.”

DeVos, B. 2017. “U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ Prepared Remarks at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference, February 23, U.S. Department of Education.”

Eagan, K., E. B. Stolzenberg, A. K. Bates, M. C. Aragon, M. R. Suchard, and C. Rios-Aguilar. 2015. The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2015. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.

Flaherty, C. 2013. “Union Raises for Adjuncts.” Inside Higher Ed, July 26.

Fredrickson, C. 2015. “There is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts.” The Atlantic, September 15.

Halffman, W., and H. Radder. 2015. “The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University.” Minerva 53 (3), 165–187.

Herbert, W. A. 2016. “The Winds of Changes Shift: An Analysis of Recent Growth in Bargaining Units and Representation Efforts in Higher Education.” Journal of Collective Bargaining in the Academy 8 (December).

Lukianoff, G., and J. Haidt. 2015. “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The Atlantic (September).

New Faculty Majority. 2017. “Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.”

Newfield, C. 2008. Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Newfield, C. 2016. The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and how We Can Fix Them. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Newfield, C., C. Hansen, J. Polansky, E. Hays, A. Hines-Shaikh, and S. A. Glantz. 2017. “The $48 fix: Reclaiming California’s Master Plan for higher education.” Berkeley, CA: Reclaim California Higher Education. 48dollars.

Newfield, C., C. Hansen, J. Polansky, E. Hays, A. Hines-Shaikh, and S. A. Glantz. 2017. “The $48 fix: Reclaiming California’s Master Plan for higher education.” Berkeley, CA: Reclaim California Higher Education. 48dollars.

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3. Report from Brazil

On the Ills of Management: The Brazilian Experience
Renato Dagnino and Marcos Barbosa de Oliveira[3]

To put things in a proper perspective, it must be said at the start that higher education in Brazil is provided by a private as well as a public sector. The private sector is by far the largest, catering for about 75% of the students. With a few honourable exceptions, which are always mentioned, in private universities practically no research is done. They are not universities in the proper sense of the term, which applies only to institutions that have research as one of their prime functions. Strictly speaking, they do not belong in academia, and hence, will be considered here only in one respect, to wit in connection with the dissimilarities between the situations in the Netherlands and in Brazil; all other considerations will refer only to the public sector. But first the similarities.

The main similarity is that in Brazil, as in the Netherlands, the spirit of management prevails, with most of its features: the predominance of ideologically biased quantitative over qualitative evaluations, the intense productivist pressure, the exacerbated competition, the overvaluation of published papers to the detriment of books, and other forms of production, especially teaching activities, the greater value placed on publications in English, in relation to those published in other languages (including, obviously, Portuguese), the fetishism of indicators, particularly the impact factor and the h-index, the assumption that raising global university rankings is the prime aim of academic administration, the stress on innovation as the purpose of scientific research, etc.

The deleterious side-effects of management methods, which make the administration so dysfunctional, are also the same: damage to academics’ quality of life, health problems due to stress caused by competitive pressures, occasionally leading to burnout cases, overproduction of papers, with the accompanying fall in quality, increase in the frequency of cases of misconduct (falsification and fabrication of data, plagiarism, duplicate publication, etc.), erosion of the concept of authorship, lack of time and energy for academics to reflect on their work, and to practice the social responsibility of science and scholarship, etc.

The final item of the list in the last but one paragraph deserves a special mention. Around the year 2000, a vigorous drive was initiated in Brazil to promote innovationism, meaning the establishment of the production of innovations as the prime objective of scientific research, an innovation being defined as an invention that can be adopted by a firm, thereby increasing its profits. The drive involves a large number of measures, like the favouring, by funding agencies, of projects with a potential to generate profitable applications, the incentivizing of joint projects between universities and firms, the realization of campaigns to foster the ‘culture of innovation’, the increase in the value attributed to the obtaining of patents in the evaluation of researchers, etc. The inescapable conclusion, based on official statistics, is that this whole mobilization has been a complete failure. This is not the place to expand on the causes of the failure. What can be said briefly is that it results from the uncritical adoption of policies of the metropolis, without taking into account the differences in the structure of the economy, between the countries of the metropolis and Brazil. The negative side effect in this case is the waste of resources, and the lack of consideration of other possible functions for scientific research, not necessarily dependent on the market.

Now the dissimilarities. The central figure in the Manifesto is the many-headed Wolf of management, which has occupied academia ‘with a mercenary army of professional administrators’. In Brazil (as well as in other Latin American countries), the agents are not professional administrators, but former or practising academics themselves; not a mercenary army but, one may say, a fifth column, drawn from the higher strata of the hierarchy, mostly in the domain of hard sciences. Not only that, but in a considerable proportion of cases, in the Ministry responsible for science and technology, in analogous organs (secretarias) in each state, and in the research financing agencies the top posts are also occupied by academics—at that level, mostly former academics. Their adoption of the spirit of management is not due to pressures from the government, or the private sector, or from society at large; it is basically the result of an uncritical imitation, often a caricature, of the practices in the metropolis. The first move that may be interpreted as a step in the direction of putting professional managers in charge of the administration is a contract signed by University of São Paulo (our largest and most important public university) and McKinsey & Company, the well-known management consulting firm. The contract entrusted McKinsey with a project aiming at ‘the creation of a fund-raising model, and the improvement of the administration and financial management’ of the university, and ‘the strengthening of the relation of the university with society and the productive sector [meaning, private firms]’.

The second dissimilarity has to do with the competition for students among universities. In Brazil, the higher education provided by the private sector has to be paid by the students; in the public sector, by a constitutional provision education at all levels (with a few exceptions, in the form of master’s degree courses) is free. Another crucial difference is that at the higher level, the education provided by public universities is of much better quality (whatever the criteria used) than that of the private ‘universities’. The result is that in the public sector the demand is always bigger than the supply on offer, and the entrance examinations are very selective. Competition for students, and all the marketing strategies that go with it, are restricted to the private sector.

The reaction to the advances of management by members of the academic community not involved in administration has been feeble. Among old-timers, the dissatisfaction with the new methods, especially the productivist, quantitative forms of evaluation, is quite strong, but manifests itself only in private conversations. The newcomers, on the other hand, start their careers already fully adapted to the spirit of management, which they conceive in a completely naturalized way, as a fact of academic life. Moreover, the ‘publish or perish’ pressure leaves everybody with little time and energy to reflect on the meaning of their work and about the system. It thus acts as an addictive drug, which is not only harmful, but affects the cognitive faculties, preventing the users to recognize its ills. The only concerted action against management is that of lecturers’ trade unions. In that connection, it is worth mentioning that the periodical published by Adusp (the lecturers’ association of University of São Paulo, affiliated to the national trade union) has a thematic number concerning productivism, which contains a Portuguese translation of the Academic Manifesto (number 60 of Revista da Adusp).

As regards the possibilities of changing things for the better, it must be recognized that the situation recently has got worse, due to the severe economic crisis Brazil is going through. The austerity programme adopted by the right-wing government that took power after the parliamentary coup that removed President Dilma Rousseff from office, involves drastic cuts in the financing of scientific research and the universities. For instance, compared to the peak year of 2013, the funds provided to the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovations and Communications suffered a reduction of 40%. There are some dramatic cases, like that of the State University of Rio de Janeiro which, due to absolute lack of resources, has not so far managed to conclude the second academic semester of last year, as it was then interrupted by a strike. In this situation, the academic community concentrates its energies on fighting the cuts (by means of manifestoes and pronouncements by the leadership of the academic societies—so far with little effect) and on adapting to the imposed penury. While the crisis persists, little energy is left to deal with the occupation by management.

The last paragraph was written in February 2017. On March the 30th, the government decreed a further slash of 44% to the federal science budget. The scientific community is getting desperate. In the words of Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the new budget is ‘an atomic bomb strike on Brazilian science’ (Nature, 3/3/2017).

All things considered, we hold this follow-up to the Academic Manifesto to be an important move in the struggle against the advances of management, and in favour of truly public universities. Moreover, given that, as we have indicated, the spirit of management arrived in Brazil by a process of imitation, we believe that the internationalization of the struggle is actually more important to us than to the Netherlands and the other developed countries.


Barbosa de Oliveira, M. 2013. “On the Commodification of Science: The Programmatic Dimension.” Science & Education 22 (10): 2463-2483.

Barbosa de Oliveira, M. 2014. “Technology and Basic Science: The Linear Model of Innovation.” Scientiae Studia 12 (Special Issue): 129-146.

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4. Report from Japan

The Crisis of Japanese Academia: A Brief Report on Recent Developments
Makoto Katsumori [4]

The current problems of academia, as critically analysed by Willem Halffman and Hans Radder in their Academic Manifesto, seem to be mostly common to the situation in Japan as well. A series of structural changes introduced to Japanese universities during the last couple of decades may be seen as part of the worldwide neoliberal restructuring of academic systems. At the same time, however, there also seem to be some features specific to the Japanese situation. It is noteworthy, in particular, that the national government, specifically the education ministry (officially ‘the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’), plays a central role in imposing reforms on universities—reforms that, under the guise of promoting the autonomy of universities, are in fact designed further to strengthen the government’s control of them. In this brief review, I will largely limit myself to an ‘almost journalistic description’ of such recent developments that seriously affect academic life in Japan.

A major turning point came in 2004, when all Japanese national universities were ‘incorporated’, that is, given the status of ‘national university corporations’. This incorporation, which was ostensibly to enhance the ‘independence and autonomy’ of each university (MEXT 2003), has actually functioned in a contrary manner. With this incorporation, the ‘operational grant’ from the education ministry, which constituted the largest source of revenue for national universities (about 48% of their total revenue in fiscal year 2004), began to be cut back by 1% annually (see Oba 2006). This reduction of the operational grant was coupled with the introduction and expansion of various kinds of funds that are selectively allocated on a competitive basis. Moreover, in due course, the operational grant itself assumed a competitive character, that is, became allocated according to the universities’ performance as regularly subjected to ‘third-party evaluation’. This set of mechanisms has worked as an enormous pressure on the universities to reorganize themselves in full compliance with the government’s intent. In this way, as pointed out by a number of critics, the incorporation of national universities has helped intensify their state control, which serves to reorient academic activity increasingly toward the managerial logic of efficiency and measurability combined with perpetual competition.

The incorporation of national universities has also involved measures to reinforce the hierarchical power structure within the university. Particularly, under the new system, the university president is no longer elected by vote of academic staff members, but selected by a committee consisting of a handful of internal representatives and external experts (even though the votes by staff members may be ‘taken into consideration’); and the university’s decision-making is no longer based on a collegial system, but on a regime centred on the president and the board of directors (see Oba 2006). In this way, while the government officially speaks of the enhanced autonomy of the university under the president’s strong leadership, the new governance system of national universities has in fact effectively helped the government to control the universities through the presidents’ power to override internal dissent.

In this new institutional setting, there have recently been some further developments concerning Japanese academia. In 2014, driven by the right-wing Abe administration, two education laws relevant to university governance were revised. Specifically, the revision of the School Education Law, which concerns not only national, but all universities, has considerably restricted the academic staff members’ right to deliberate on matters concerning the university. Faculty senates, consisting of all or a large part of full-time teachers, until then had the right to discuss major matters regarding the university, including those related to management and administration, although, as noted above, final decision-making at national universities had already been centralized in the hands of the president. The revised School Education Law stipulates, however, that faculty senates discuss matters concerning ‘teaching and research’, and that they ‘express opinions’ on these matters provided that the president considers it necessary (MEXT 2014).

One of the ‘pioneering’ steps to realize this new mode of governance was taken by my own Akita University, a national university located in northeast Japan. Earlier in 2014—shortly before the revision of the School Education Law—Akita University, strongly backed by the government, opened a new college named the Faculty of International Resource Sciences. In this Faculty, most academic staff members were to be systematically excluded from the discussion of basic university issues, which was almost entirely left to newly established ‘councils’ consisting of a few executive members as well as members from other universities and private business. This new system of governance, completely devoid of faculty autonomy and academic freedom, was on the surface voluntarily designed and proposed by the university itself, but with the aim of obtaining an additional subsidy from the government. As expected, the system was highly praised by government and business circles as a model to be followed by other universities. Shortly after the revision of the School Education Law, Akita University again took the lead in extending the new governance system to the whole university, though not to a full degree in the face of resistance from part of the academic staff and the labour union.

In 2015, the education ministry issued a notice to national universities which called on them to restructure their humanities and social science faculties as well as their teacher-training faculties: national universities should ‘take active steps to abolish these organizations or to convert them to serve areas that better meet society’s needs’. This move sparked a wave of protest among academia and mass media, and was reported critically by overseas media as well. Specifically, the presidents of some national universities expressed their intention not to comply with the above request, and the Science Council of Japan criticized the education ministry’s disregard for the humanities and social sciences and its narrow view of ‘society’s needs’ (The Science Council of Japan 2015). Faced with these adverse reactions, the education ministry verbally moderated their stance, saying that they by no means neglected the humanities or social sciences and did not intend to force the universities to scrap these areas. As pointed out by some critics, the public reaction to the ministry’s notice was partly occasioned by sensational media coverage, which gave rise to the impression that the government had suddenly moved to abolish faculties considered socially useless (Yoshimi 2016). Actually, much the same request was already made earlier by the ministry, and, more essentially, the same logic was already built into the government’s overall university policy since the 2004 incorporation of national universities. That is, the institutional setting of incorporated national universities—particularly the uneven resource distribution based on the evaluation of achievements—has systematically worked to the detriment of social science and especially the humanities, which are generally far less suited than natural-scientific fields to produce short-term measurable or quantifiable outcomes. Under these circumstances, a number of national universities have already taken steps to scale back the humanities or social science faculties and/or to close down some humanities-related departments in the teacher-training faculties. In this way, Japanese academia today, especially areas considered less useful and profitable, find themselves in an unprecedented serious crisis (see Muroi 2015).

To be sure, as may be seen from the description so far, recent developments concerning Japanese universities are not entirely without internal dissent or public criticism. Unfortunately, however, there has been no major resistance powerful enough to help reorient the overall situation, and we can hardly have prospects for such resistance in the near future. This seems to be partly due to people’s obedience and conformism ingrained in Japanese society, including academia, and also because the logic of efficiency and managerial control has become partly internalized by not a few academics themselves. I personally refuse as far as possible to cooperate with systems of control introduced one after another (such as the evaluation and self-evaluation of individual academic staff members), and, on certain occasions, join hands with some colleagues to raise a protest, but always find it difficult to appeal to the ‘silent majority’ to question or challenge the imposed norms. Under these circumstances, international exchange and dialogue occasioned and stimulated by the Academic Manifesto are all the more valuable, as they provide us with a broader perspective needed for our continued critical engagement with the situation.


MEXT [the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology]. 2003. “FY2003: White Paper on Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.”

MEXT [the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology]. 2003. “FY2003: White Paper on Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.”

MEXT. 2014. “Gakkō Kyōiku hō Oyobi Kokuritsu Daigaku Hōjin hō no Ichibu wo Kaisei Suru Hōritsu.”

Muroi, Hisashi. 2015. Bunkei Gakubu Kaitai [The Disbandment of Humanities Faculties]. Tokyo: Kadokawa.

Oba, Jun. 2006. “Incorporation of National Universities in Japan and its Impact Upon Institutional Governance.”

The Science Council of Japan. 2015. “Korekara no Daigaku no Arikata ni Kansuru Giron ni Yosete.”

Yoshimi, Shun’ya. 2016. Bunkei Gakubu Haishi’ no Shōgeki [The Impact of ‘Scrapping Humanities Faculties’]. Tokyo: Shūeisha.

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5. Report from Australia

Australia: Reclaiming the Public University?
Simon Batterbury and Jason Byrne[5]

In their provocative article, Halffman and Radder discuss the Kafkaesque worlds that academics in the Netherlands now find themselves in, as an underfunded university sector predates upon itself and its workforce (2015, 165-166). Their Academic Manifesto observes that many universities in the Netherlands have been ‘taken over’ by an ‘army of professional administrators’, who use managerialist approaches to drive performance-based objectives. The country’s tertiary institutions, they write, have become obsessively focused on ‘accountability’ and pursue neoliberal-style imperatives of ‘efficiency and excellence’. They paint a portrait of academics under siege, untrusted, and constantly micro-managed. The pursuit of so-called efficiency has involved accountability systems that are themselves wasteful, driving seemingly endless institutional restructuring. Moreover, institutions, the authors claim, have become obsessed with star-performers in research, driven by competitive targets that undergird global rankings. Metrics—publication outputs, journal quality, citations, impact and grant revenue—produce a culture of competition and sometimes, mercenary behaviours, on the part of academics and managers.

Profound changes across the tertiary sector are seen in many other countries, as this collection identifies. Many of these can be traced to shifting patterns of university funding. In the OECD countries, over the last thirty years, public higher education has been reconceived as a commodity (Watts 2016). As a result, students are now the clients, academics are customer-service providers and income earners, and many public universities have become businesses in all but name (Connell 2013). Against this backdrop, Halffman and Radder (2015) point to six major changes that have reconfigured tertiary education:

(i) Processes of benchmarking, auditing, and ‘indicator fetishism’ (e.g. targets, quotas);

(ii) A new landscape of competition (e.g. competition for students, research and teaching funding, ‘star’ professors

(iii) The casualization of university workforces and more unpaid work;

(iv) Multiple layers of management and administration, with increasing overheads in grant administration, and public relations, marketing, student support etc.;

(v) A relentless pursuit of excellence—however defined, and

(vi) Standardisation—in curricula, learning objectives, workload models, grant templates and personnel management.

These changes in the Netherlands have led to a system that is isolating, anonymous, bureaucratised and universalising, scaffolded by ambition, greed, incompetence and a constant quest for efficiencies and more status. While there may be beacons of light, they are heavily shielded in the article, which makes for depressing reading. Halffman and Radder’s provocation prompts two questions, to which we will try to respond: How does Australia compare? And what can Australian universities and their staff do?

Similarities and Differences

Tertiary institutions in Australia have experienced similar changes over thirty years. There have been funding cuts, a re-prioritization of higher education, and for academics, new performance-based research and teaching assessment metrics. As academics who have worked in Australia for over a decade, and with past experience in the United States and the United Kingdom, we have encountered the same issues. One of us was based at a ‘world top 40’ university, one of Australia’s oldest and best-resourced, and the other teaches at one of Australia’s leading universities in a tier of institutions that are less than 50 years old. Confronting different challenges, both institutions have experienced staff retrenchments, departmental reorganisation, bureaucratic systems of management, and externally-imposed targets.

Australia has several universities that are recognised globally, and a relatively highly educated population (ranking higher than average among OECD countries [OECD 2017]). It has been relatively untouched so far by recent international debacles beginning to affect higher education, such as immigration restrictions under the Trump Presidency in the USA, Brexit in the United Kingdom, major security threats, or financial meltdown in some European nations. Australia actually entered the 2007 Global Financial Crisis with a budget surplus. Its national governments tend to the right, viewed historically at federal level, and are voted in by a predominantly suburban population. International students are keen to study in Australia, and until strong immigration restrictions, also had a good possibility of staying in the country if they wished. Many of the problems we identify can be traced to the contemporary functioning of universities as market institutions, with diminished public funding. The national government is not keen on supporting the costs of a large university sector, even though student participation rates have increased substantially.

Tertiary Education Reforms

From 1974 (under the Whitlam Labor government) until the late 1980s, attending university in Australia was free or at nominal cost. Higher education was viewed as an important part of nation-building, to develop a competitive workforce, even framed as a ‘right’. However, in 1987, universities began to implement student fees, and within the next two years began charging full fees. Under the Dawkins Reforms (Sharrock 2013), the Hawke Labor government introduced legislation to enable students to take out interest-free loans via a Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS). These loans were repaid through income taxes, after a critical earnings threshold was crossed later in life. This is the situation today.

The Dawkins Reforms also restructured a two-tier sector of 19 universities and 46 colleges or institutes into a ‘unified’ sector, with close to 40 public universities—many created through mergers. Remaining technical and further education institutions (TAFE) were funded by state governments. These reforms also spurred an increase in international student recruitment, since they paid higher fees. Universities began to compete for Federal research funding—based on their performance and success in meeting national social and economic objectives. The Australian Research Council (ARC) dates to 1988 (independent from 2001), and still awards competitive research grants.

A raft of further reforms saw the growing dominance of free-market principles from the early 1990s. A demand-driven funding system was introduced by the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments in 2009. This was based on the Bradley Review (Dow and Kempner 2010) of higher education in 2008, which recommended higher enrolment targets—by 2025 the aim is for 40% of 25-34 year-olds to have a university degree (with a focus on those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds). The Review also reallocated Commonwealth (federal)-funded student places, based on demand, and established a Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) to regulate teaching quality.

The ambition was for universities to reorient degrees to focus more on ‘skills development’, purportedly to meet the needs of the contemporary global economy. In 2014, a Higher Education Bill was narrowly voted down—it would have allowed universities to be ‘deregulated’, to charge what they saw fit—currently domestic student fees are capped. Universities Australia, the peak university management body, actually supported the 2014 Bill, to the dismay of students. There was only one dissenter—the Vice Chancellor of the small University of Canberra, Stephen Parker, who deemed unregulated fees to be unethical and unfair (Parker 2014). But in 2017, there are new government proposals to raise student contributions to fees, cut government funding for teaching, introduce new performance criteria, and sharpen loan repayment conditions.

Raewyn Connell (2013, 2015) traces much of the financial and bureaucratic measures in Australia back to the Dawkins reforms of the 1980s. She argues that after redesigning the tertiary sector in the ways described above,

[t]he next step was to find someone else to pay [for funding education], and a neoliberal solution was at hand: fees. The federal government share of university funding began an astonishing collapse, from around 90 percent of university budgets at the start of the 1990s to around 45 percent now. Student fees have risen, decade after decade, to compensate. (Connell 2015, 24)

The results are striking. For example, an international PhD student at the University of Melbourne will pay around AU$36,000 (€24,555) per year in 2017 (discounting is discretionary), an international Science undergraduate AU$39,680 (€27,065), and AU$29,728 (€20,277) in Arts. At Griffith, an Arts student would pay at least AU$26,500 (€18,075). These fees, some of which are a little lower that equivalent public US universities, are not profit-making or greedy—they are essential. Institutions have to cross-subsidise their research and teaching using revenue from international and other fee-paying students. The high Australian dollar and difficulty in sustaining international enrolments make this a difficult task.

The obvious solution, as Connell (2015) argues, is to fund universities adequately from public funds, with suitable checks and balances, given this is an affluent nation in which universities play a vital economic role. But no government has chosen this route since the 1980s, and government funding has not even kept up with inflation. Budgeting pressures cascade down to academics and professional staff. Universities, caught up in the New Public Management with its ‘metrification of ‘quality’’ obsession (Lorenz 2015, 7) now vie to outcompete each other, and to attract domestic and international students based on their reputations. Australian universities have fully embraced international university rankings. Vice-Chancellors and university marketing machines are quick to publicise any improvements (online, and around the campus). Reputations are buttressed by spending on campus infrastructure (even if this is at the expense of more personnel), such as dining and recreational facilities, on-campus accommodation and so on. Some of these generate needed revenue. Capital expansion is in part to accommodate more students, but ‘quality’ of facilities and ‘student experience’ count towards rankings, thus meeting costs through enrolments.

The Wolf in Australia

Most (or a significant percentage of) academics are on some form of permanent or multi-year contracts. Most are paid adequate salaries because they are a skilled workforce and potential revenue earners. With the decline in core public funding, income generation has become just as essential as generating ‘knowledge’ and ideas, and it is a feature of annual performance evaluations at most universities. Furthermore, there is no academic tenure, which makes retrenchment possible if finances are tight (for a debate on tenure, see Batterbury 2008). The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) represents and fights to protect academics and professional staff, through collective bargaining agreements at each institution. These are hard-won. The NTEU has become increasingly important as universities have sought to respond to fiscal austerity by tightening budgets, retrenching staff, switching to online course delivery and converting the workforce to a higher percentage of (cheaper) sessional teachers and researchers, on short-term contracts. Sessional lecturers are probably doing up to half of all teaching in Australia, although figures are not available (Connell 2015). Thanks to the NTEU, the hourly rates for teaching, marking and tutorial work are generally good (much better than in North America), but as in the Netherlands and other countries, sessional academics can become trapped, with massive teaching loads and little time for their own research.

Neoliberal management has ushered in a tier of highly paid executives, suggesting cost savings are not equally distributed. Vice Chancellors (Presidents) of Australian universities now receive annual salaries of up to AU$ 1 million (€709,100). They are supported by layers of management—Deputy Vice Chancellors, Pro-Vice Chancellors, Deans, Assistant Deans and Heads of School, with salaries from around AU$200,000 to almost AU$500,000. The situation varies across the sector but the irony of an over-paid echelon of managers telling overworked academics to ‘work smarter’ is not lost on academic and professional staff. As funding dries up, class sizes increase, teaching loads blow out, bureaucratic processes multiply and colleagues become retrenched or leave due to high rates of stress, anxiety and depression, why should millions be paid to management? Disputes over working conditions have yet to translate into large-scale strikes and protests—in part, because poor pay is less of an issue for the cohort of permanent academic staff than in some other countries.

Another feature of cost reduction is ‘restructuring’. This is less visible in the top-ranked universities (the Group of Eight). It is not always successful. At La Trobe University in the early 2010s, a large reduction in humanities and social sciences staffing was retracted after protest and strong action (Bode and Dale 2012). Professor Judith Bessant’s firing at RMIT University, Melbourne, was a test case of line-management power—it was overturned in the courts which found RMIT contravened the Fair Work Act, and it did not appeal (Bessant 2015). But both of us have experienced departmental and broader faculty reshuffles, regularly losing and gaining colleagues, degrees and facilities under a new ‘Business Plan’ each time. In the younger universities, some Departments have been merged into super-departments, folded into larger Schools, which sit within Faculties—each requiring oversight from a managerial class but saving on administrative posts. Research and teaching are bifurcated in some cases, where teaching is managed by Heads of School and Deans, and research by Research Centre Directors. This creates further layers of bureaucracy and fragmentation, although there are exceptions. Melbourne has created a single School of Geography for research and teaching, but only after a whole Faculty (Land and Environment) was axed and merged into two others.

Because the academics function as an income-earning resource, the professional staff are usually the first to suffer during budget shortfalls. Across the sector, Australian universities have cut functions like student support to the bone. For example, the Business Improvement Program at the University of Melbourne (2013-2016) was announced on the back of a financial shortfall. Some 540 administrative jobs were targeted for termination by 1 January 2016 (Fioritti and See-Tho 2014). We do not know how many actually went, but many people lost work, reapplied in competition with each other for fewer jobs, and functions were moved online (Campbell and Morrissey 2015). Griffith University has had rounds of retrenchments, redundancies and ‘voluntary early retirements’. Student centres at both universities and across the country, once numerous and offering personalised support for enrolments and other queries, have been downsized or replaced, in one of our institutions by AI-based ‘helplines’ such as IBM Watson. Remaining human support has been centralised and therefore reduced. IT support has also become centralised, or outsourced, with substantial job losses and oftentimes, marginal financial benefits. Mailrooms have closed, various systems automated and linked to smart phone apps, and marketing and school outreach have been consolidated and centralised. The aim is to save salary costs. Efficiency has resulted in some areas, but oftentimes with higher workloads of those remaining, and substantially less human contact and therefore conviviality.

The two universities we know best have followed different routes. Melbourne is a well-ranked university and oversubscribed with student applicants. The most pervasive result of New Public Management at Melbourne is struggles over how their fees are allocated. Faculties are given financial targets, and must meet them. But for several years now, faculties have been in competition with each other to ‘capture’ student fees. There are ‘ownership’ disputes for classes and whole degrees, with fears of ‘fee leakage’ to other faculties. This does affect student choice, often narrowing most ‘elective’ classes on a degree to those taught in the most central faculty. Arguing over undergraduate degree ‘ownership’ has continued since a major restructuring took place in the mid-2000s, the ‘Melbourne Model’. An Academic Board adjudicates, but a new degree was established in 2017, with the majority of fees accruing to one faculty, more so than the one it has essentially replaced.

At Griffith, a range of degree offerings have been consolidated into larger units—such as a generic Bachelor of Science. Similar to Melbourne faculties are becoming concerned about leaking student load and income. Unlike Melbourne, Griffith is often forced to manage its entry scores to attract enough students to ‘meet quota’. Academics then have to support and scaffold student learning, when a growing number of students (often from non-traditional backgrounds), may lack adequate study skills. This has increased rates of attrition, which are closely monitored by management, and has placed an additional burden on academics to change their assessments and course delivery mode, offer improved student experiences, follow up students with one-on-one meetings, and undertake other ‘pastoral care’ efforts to maximise retention. Much of this is attributable to the ‘permanent competition’ in the sector identified by Halffman and Radder (2015).

Individual Performance Metrics

Faculty are now seeing quantified, individual performance targets. These are relatively recent. They can apply to publications, ‘grant capture’ and even evaluation of teaching. Targets are a feature of the commercial world too, and always cause stress. Individual performance could be managed much more sympathetically and more supportively without hard targets, and through regular feedback. Hard targets mean in the last instance, noncompliant individuals can be sanctioned or retrenched. Research success is now defined as much by winning Nationally Competitive Grants and ‘soft-money’ consultancy contracts—as by publications. ARC or the medical NHMRC grants are hard to get with success rates below 15% for several disciplines (ARC Discovery: 17.8%, 2017 [ARC 2017a]; NHMRC project grants 2016: 15.2%). Those who win them can insulate themselves against higher teaching loads, which are often borne by early-career academics or those deemed not to be so research active. ‘Grant capture’ and publications in top-ranked journals with high impact factors, also sway hiring and promotion decisions—much more so than teaching excellence or public outreach (no matter that a grant is nothing more than an input—money to conduct research, not an output, and some researchers have little need of them).

Doing research cheaply is not rewarded at all (Martin 2011)! Neither is publishing ethically and cheaply—open access and outside the commercial publishers that are crippling university library budgets. Taking many years to produce a stellar edited volume, for example, without top journal articles, is punished because this does not win the university sufficient points during national research excellence appraisals (ARC 2017b). In their worst forms, injunctions on input and output are close to being breaches of academic freedom, and they have worsened significantly over the last decade. Critics like Lorenz argue that ‘professions need professional autonomy in order to function properly and [that] quantified control makes this impossible’ (2015, 7).

Teaching is also subject to scrutiny and performance metrics—adding to stress. Oversight of quality is needed, but The Australian Quality Framework has standardised curricula. ‘Learning outcomes’ are now driving assessment. These are required in course profiles, which are contracts between academics and students for service delivery. Academics are assessed annually by centrally administered, mandatory student performance evaluations of both teaching and course experiences, as happens in many countries. Repeated failure to achieve teaching evaluation targets can have some effect on promotion and job prospects—even though international literature cautions that numerical values cannot be used to assess ‘quality’ (Stark 2013).

Internal support for research and conference attendance has dropped at the institutions we know. An automatic right to a research sabbatical is now rare. Academics are expected (or forced) to undertake a good deal of research work outside a 40 hour week—yet are exhorted to have a good work-life balance. Those encountering stress and depression are given little sympathy, typically told to telephone an outsourced counselling helpline and to access three free sessions of counselling per year.

All of this might be bearable if there was sympathy, opposition and protest by the university workforce. Constant struggle against inequity and pressure is materially and symbolically important, and a key feature of healthy workplaces. But many Australian academics, and professional staff, remain silent. Actual dissent is muted as people worry about the implications of dissent. Hope lies with the ‘stars’—the full professors whose services are too good or too lucrative to lose. But even there, collective action is rare. Many professors are not accustomed to such struggles, and sadly they may share some of the values of the management—their success is, after all, because they achieved the required targets or because they were fortunate enough to have climbed the food chain before the structural reforms to tertiary education really began to bite.

Many senior academics reproduce exhortations to staff to publish in top journals, obtain grants, and boost departmental success. Yet there are plenty of examples of ‘top academics’ and executive-level managers being unable to achieve the same key performance indicators as the lowly staff they harass and cajole. In addition, if they were those on ‘normal salaries, who prioritise intellectual content and public interest over reputation’ (Halffman and Radder 2015, 176), then perhaps they would be more likely to side with their overworked colleagues. This would solve many issues with one stroke.


In sum, many of Halffman and Radder’s (2015) points ring true in Australia. But academics are not yet under desperate siege in our better-funded universities, even if restructuring and the quest for even higher rankings has been onerous. There are many clusters of decent, hardworking and convivial people that socialise together and even have time for some blue-sky thinking and research. Australia has many foreign academics that still find its universities much better, and more tolerant, than those in their own countries. But many others are hunkered down, trying to meet the next target or deadline, and it is our belief that this is more and more common as performance metrics and rankings have taken on greater importance. It is mid- to lower-salary professional staff, predominantly women, who have suffered the most.

As the British Athena-Swan gender equality accreditation system (SAGE 2017) reaches Australia, these and other issues are beginning to be scrutinised. Herculean efforts have kept teaching quality good enough to continue to attract students, but perhaps too many of them, and certainly with fees that are already high when cost of living is taken into account. In the mid-to-lower ranked institutions, academic life can be become almost unbearable. There is widespread burnout, high staff turnover, low morale, and some departmental closures and retrenchments. Again there are exceptions and clusters of goodwill, but the structural conditions of persistent underfunding can easily close them down.

We concur with most of Halffman and Radder’s (2015) Manifesto of twenty points to alleviate the pain of neoliberal university bureaucracy and its unethical outcomes. But Australian problems begin outside the university sector. With its vast resource-rich landmass and small population, Australia is strongly embedded in the neoliberal mind-set and there is little willingness to fully fund its public universities. Many students want degrees that will position them in a nation that is largely neoliberal and business-focussed. While we agree a university should be ‘aimed at the common good’ (175), the Australian version says that students (and maybe industry) should pay, not the state. Connell (2015) wants an end to Australian student fees and advocates a return to adequate support to universities from the public purse. Even if we could get ‘star’ professors to protest metrification and high fees, a prerequisite for change is a national government much more committed to the public university.

We return where we began—the problem is systemic, and financial. Running a university means managing a huge budget, paying hundreds or thousands of staff, and keeping the lights on. An ethical university, if we could somehow get back to that, will not come cheap, and this cannot be ignored (Bode and Dale 2012). Ending inter-faculty competition, and muting inter-university competition, is something that can be done by agreement (possible through centralised revenue distribution, with staff input into the models used, and de-emphasising rankings and metrics). Restoring academic autonomy is also essential: this will not be easy, because metrification begins at the top, where research funding and the remaining block grants also come from.

Apparently, F.J. Foakes Jackson once said to a new academic at Cambridge: ‘It’s no use trying to be clever—we are all clever here; just try to be kind—a little kind’ (the exact citation is hard to locate). Restoring cultures of conviviality, respect and cooperation can increase the power of collective resistance and resilience at a small scale. All students and staff would benefit. We need academics that can ‘take back’ the university, rather than grudgingly accepting the inequalities and the workloads—currently they are a minority.

A university should trust its staff and students. And, academics want more than a pat on the back for their achievements. If they could practice ‘slow’ scholarship (Berg and Seeber 2016; Mountz et al. 2015), meet practical and ethical responsibilities, and support academic and professional colleagues more, then we would feel more confident about the future of Australian university life. For this we need less bureaucratic oversight from people who are not qualified, experienced or able to foster work cultures of support and collegiality. Again, this is a sweeping statement because it conceals vast differences across the sector. But Australia needs less New Public Management, and more ‘confidence governance’, as Sweden has recognised (Myklebust 2017).

Most embarrassingly, Connell (2015, 24) points out that in Australia,

[t]he universities are now full of fake accountability. At the same time, they have turned to public-relations techniques to attract potential students and donors and burnish the organization’s image. The corporate university now projects to the world a glossy fantasy of broad lawns, relaxed students, happy staff, spacious buildings, and eternal Australian sunshine. The cultural rationale of universities as bearers of truth, of rigorous thought, is becoming deeply compromised.

This phantasmagorical image conceals a troubling and sometimes unpleasant underside, as well as many decent people struggling hard to keep the Wolf from the door. And that really hurts.


ARC—Australian Research Council. 2017a. “Discovery Projects Selection Report for Funding Commencing in 2017.”

ARC—Australian Research Council. 2017b. “Excellence in Research for Australia.”

Batterbury, S.P.J. 2008. “Tenure or Permanent Contracts in North American Higher Education? A Critical Assessment. Policy Futures in Education 6 (3): 286-297.

Berg, M., and B. Seeber. 2016. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Bessant, J. 2015. “Smoking Guns: Reflections on Truth and Politics in the University.” In Through a Glass Darkly: The Social Sciences Look at the Neoliberal University, edited by M. Thornton, 229-258. Canberra: ANU Press.

Bode, K., and L. Dale. 2012. “‘Bullshit’? An Australian Perspective. Or, What can an Organisational Change Impact Statement Tell Us about Higher Education in Australia”. Australian Humanities Review 53: 1-15.

Campbell M., and P. Morrissey, eds. 2015.  The People’s Tribunal: An Inquiry into the ‘Business Improvement Program’ at the University of Melbourne. Melbourne: Discipline.

Connell, R. 2013. Neoliberalism and Higher Education: the Australian Case. Universities in Crisis—Blog of the International Sociological Association (ISA).

Connell, R. 2015. “Australian Universities Under Neoliberal Management: The Deepening Crisis.” International Higher Education 81: 23-25.

Dow, Coral, and Carol Kempner. 2010. “Meeting the Need for Higher Level Skills Through Tertiary Education Reform.”

Fioritti, Nathan, and Michelle See-Tho. 2014. “Inside the Business Improvement Program.” UMSU/Farrago, July 23.

Halffman, W., and H. Radder. 2015. The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University. Minerva 53(3): 165-187.

Lorenz, C. 2015.  “The Metrification of ‘Quality’ and the Fall of the Academic Profession.” Oxford Magazine Hilary week, Trinity term: 7-11.

Martin, B. 2011. “ERA: Adverse Consequences.” Australian Universities’ Review 53 (2): 99-102.

Mountz, A., A. Bonds, B. Mansfield, J. Loyd, J. Hyndman, M. Walton-Roberts, R. Basu, R. Whitson, R. Hawkins, T. Hamilton, and W. Curran. 2015. “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University.” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 14 (4): 1235-1259.

Myklebust, Jan Petter. 2017. “In Search of a New Form of University Governance.” University World News (450), July 6.

OECD. 2017. “OECD Better Life Index: Australia.”

Parker, Stephen. 2014. “Higher Education Changes a ‘Fraud on the Electorate’.” The Conversation, December 2.

SAGE—Science in Australia Gender Equity. 2017. “Athena SWAN Principles.”

Sharrock, Geoff. 2013. “Book Review: The Dawkins Revolution, 25 Years On.” Review of The Dawkins Revolution, 25 Years On, by Simon Marginson, Gwilym Croucher, Andrew Norton, and Julie Wells. The Conversation, October 23.

Stark, Philip. 2013. “What Exactly Do Student Evaluations Measure?” Berkeley Blog, October 21.

Watts, R. 2016. “The Idea of ‘Marketising’ the University: Against Magical Thinking.” In Public Universities, Managerialism and the Value of Higher Education, edited by R. Watts, 147-179. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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6. Report from Bosnia and Herzegovina

On Wolves, Sheep and Shepherds: A Bosnian Comedy of Errors
Mario Hibert and Andrea Lešić-Thomas[6]

There is a saying that the sheep spends all its life in fear of the wolf, only to be, in the end, eaten by the shepherd. The foundational leitmotif in the Academic Manifesto illustrates the current stage of management hunger in the corporate-academic complex. However, in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it raises issues of the post-communist transition to a neoliberal university, and its ambition to safeguard its ‘immature children’ on the path towards the ideal of modern education.  Still, who is the Shepherd, and who the Wolf, is a matter far from clear in the Bosnian (and we would argue, in the wider post-Yugoslav, and maybe even post-communist) case.

Of the two of us, Andrea has directly experienced something similar to the university system that the Manifesto describes and addresses. She both studied and taught literature in the United Kingdom (the original European testing ground for the managerial approach to universities), and experienced both the delights of having easy access to world-class teaching and research, and the frustrations of being made to justify the existence of the unprofitable humanities in the universities increasingly driven to function according to the neoliberal logic. Having returned to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2007, she was stunned by the almost surreal freedoms enjoyed by university lecturers in Bosnia, to teach however they like, to publish whatever and wherever they want, and to expect an almost automatic social status on the basis of having an academic title in front of their name. These freedoms, however, come from an unresolved, multi-layered chaos of a post-communist transition in search of a solution and from an almost deafening cacophony of clashing academic practices, tendencies and ideologies in search of a common tune. In this chaotic situation, the Manifesto provided a balm of calm and clarity. If we now have a space in which our future can be shaped, then it is better to look hard at what all the possible futures have to offer.

There are arguably four contradictory yet coexistent systems of academic ideology and practice embedded in the functioning of our university (the University of Sarajevo): its socialist foundations and legacy; the post-1992 nationalist ideology; the current burning desire to ‘catch up with the world’ and adapt to the ‘Bologna process’ (the pan-European project of convergence of degree structures, course credits and ensuring the ease of mobility of students and staff—which in the local interpretation is reduced to a ballooning bureaucracy and turned into the standardisation mania, and so has caused an equally passionate backlash amongst many of the teaching staff; see EUA 2017; EHEA 2017); and finally, a vague longing for the ‘ivory tower’ (of which there is very little authentic local experience, but which functions as the obvious contrast to the pains of the ‘Bologna process’).

Even though a couple of the Faculties of the University of Sarajevo were founded before and during World War II (Agriculture and Forestry, in 1940, and Medicine, in 1944), the University itself was founded in 1949. Our own Faculty of Philosophy (which initially taught not just the humanities, but social and natural sciences as well) was founded in 1950, making it one of the oldest and probably most representative members of the University’s initial purpose, which was to provide training for socially meaningful professions.7 The University of Sarajevo, as well as the three additional universities founded in mid-1970s in Bosnia (in Banja Luka, Tuzla and Mostar) were supposed to offer free education (be it in law, medicine, engineering or in teaching in secondary and primary schools) to talented individuals for the advancement of the whole of society, with the full set of moral and political demands that this entailed.8 This legacy is still evident in the fact that our Faculty, as well as the Faculty for the Natural Sciences and Mathematics, or the Art and Music Academies, offer degree programmes which include a set of courses in both theoretical and practical pedagogy, and thus enable their graduates to become teachers of the subject they studied without any additional training. In some cases, the pedagogy component is optional, but in many (and this is particularly the case in our Faculty) the only way to study, say, Bosnian Literature, is also to study to become a schoolteacher.

To this first operational level is added the post-war ideological framework. For the last 20-25 years, systemic nationalism, which provides the basic background noise if not the music sheet for most of what is being done in the social sciences and the humanities, has taken over the socialist educational institutions (along with everything else). Just as the socialist student was provided with a set of skills to become a socially useful worker, the post-socialist student of transitional Bosnia is being driven through a procedurally almost identical, and yet ideologically modified, educational system, in order to be made into a national subject and the cog in the nationalist machine (a ‘worker’ he or she is less likely to become in the economically moribund country kept afloat by international loans and held together by widespread corruption). Added to this is the proliferation of both state-owned and private new universities, all of which are increasingly driven to pursue student numbers, and compete with each other on the higher education market.

The third layer, the one which calls for modernisation and the adoption of international standards, and claims to wish to drag us from a backward past into the bright and globalist future, is the layer where the comedy of errors really starts in earnest. That layer is the one where nationalist (traditionalist, conservative, pre-modern) ideology shows itself as the perfect partner of transitional post-socialist neoliberal practice. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in the wider region, the Wolf is painted as the snarling, utopian, delusional, red flag-carrying beast, with its teeth sank into academic freedoms, whilst today’s neoliberal salvation is seen as the Shepherd who saved us with his commodification agenda, and will successfully shelter us from the ills of the past if only we would submit to standardisations, measurements, and quality control procedures of a purely administrative kind.

Our Shepherd rarely has any real investment in the best of what those international standards entail (such as peer scrutiny, robust debate, and constant questioning of received wisdom). It is more interested in replicating the cosmetic effects, following somebody else’s rules in evident bad faith, pontificating on international standards and the need for quality control, while serving up nationalist propaganda wrapped up in a semblance of scholarly discourse. It also shows an almost complete disregard for local academic traditions (discarded along with the rest of the socialist legacy), whilst at the same time claiming that it represents a return to national traditions, which were slaughtered by the socialist Wolf. Yes, our little comedy of errors really is that much fun.

Added to this is the fourth layer: the instrumentalisation of the belief in the sanctity of academic autonomy, and a longing for an imaginary (and illusory) ‘ivory tower’ of the past. This longing, with its airy proclamations of academic autonomy, and its accompanying dizzying mix of intellectual loftiness and academic irresponsibility, dilettantism and sublimity, mostly serves as a screen and an alibi for substandard teaching and research, as well as for corruption and clientelism.

When we presented the Academic Manifesto at a round table on the future of public universities organised by the University of Sarajevo, we focused our talk on the fact that competitiveness in our surroundings looks more like a caricature of salvation, since we do not even have operational administrative management to get close to a proper rearrangement.9 Our universities might demand that we only publish in indexed journals (as the University of Tuzla imposed on their staff last summer), but for many of us in the humanities and social sciences in Bosnia, local journals that are indexed simply do not exist within our own academic community, and our (once, in the days of the socialist Wolf, thriving) academic presses and journals barely survive from one publication to the next, with no long-term investment and no hope of any sustainable future. We have colleagues who despair at the thought of the future where they will no longer have any incentive to publish in local journals (such as they are), as much as many of us despair of the current chaos in which each of us has barely any real exposure to proper peer scrutiny (as opposed to either ideological rubbishing or superficial matey sycophantic support, both of which are available in abundance).

It is clear that it cannot go on like this forever, and that at some point we must decide which of all of this is going to be our future. For the two of us (and, it seems, for a fair number of our younger colleagues), we find that being children of Yugoslav socialism is nothing to be ashamed of, and that maybe the traditions of solidarity and cooperation, along with the perfectly solid scholarly legacy inherited from those days, may provide a home-grown basis from which to build a vision of public university for Bosnia’s future. For us, the Academic Manifesto was a reminder (and a warning to our colleagues who are in thrall to the neoliberal Wolf dressed as Shepherd) that we might just as well embrace our position on the margins of the global academic community, give up the self-colonisation project on which our universities are on the cusp of embarking, use this moment of chaotic freedom to build on the strengths our University’s foundation provides, and avoid the mistakes made by those who could afford them much more easily than we could. At least, that is what we are trying to argue. Wish us well, since, slowly but surely, we are being forced to liberate ourselves from the Wolf by being served up as dinner at the Shepherd’s Academic Inn.


EUA—European University Association. 2017. “European Research Area and the Bologna Process.” Accessed May 8 2017.

EHEA—European Higher Education Area. 2017 “How does the Bologna Process work?” Accessed May 8 2017.

Halffman, Willem and Hans Radder. 2015. “Akademski Manifest: Od Okupiranog Do Javnog Univerziteta.” [In Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian.] Translated by Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian. Translated by Mario Hibert and Andrea Lešić. Pregled: 173-203.

University of Sarajevo. 2017. “History of University.” Accessed May 8 2017.

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7. Report from Hungary

Beside the Wolf There is Also a Ravenous Giant Octopus Eating Away Academic Freedom in Hungary
Anna Wessely[10]

The Network of University Lecturers in Hungary (OHA) held a meeting in Budapest on 21 February 2017 to discuss the relevance for Hungary of the claims of the Academic Manifesto. This report summarises the main points of that discussion regarding three central questions.

1. What are the most significant similarities and dissimilarities with the situation in your country?

The situations are deceptively similar on the surface, on the level of day-to-day operations, but there are significant dissimilarities underneath, concerning the constantly changing legal context in which Hungarian universities are encouraged or permitted to exist. The Wolf’s strategy and rhetoric as well as the Wolf’s instruments will be used in an opportunistic and clearly selective manner if the government or the Ministry of Human Resources (sic!) want to justify specific organisational and funding arrangements, all directed at strengthening state control—financial, administrative, political—over universities.

We can see interference with, and restriction of the scope of, the autonomy of universities at all levels.

• A new law on higher education in 2012 curtailed the powers of the Rector (and, as a consequence, of all lower-level boards, administrative units, department heads, etc.) of a university by creating the position of the government-appointed Chancellor who has to countersign all decisions by the Rector if they are to take effect.

• A new administrative body was inserted into the organisation of the universities to warrant constant government control. It is the so-called Consistory with a secure pro-government majority, charged with overseeing, approving or vetoing decisions by the Senate of a university.

Legislation seems to bind only the universities, not the state administration. The extent of support, funding from the national budget for teaching and research, access to European funding, permission to take part in international projects, launching new educational and training programs, appointing full professors, setting the number of students to be admitted to study on all levels, setting the requirements for various degrees and university-issued certificates, etc., are all dependent on government approval that depends, in turn, on the loyalty to the government of the chief office holders at the university in question.

Circumventing or disregarding the decisions of the Academic Accreditation Board by legislation or singular administrative regulation, the government of Hungary succeeded in destroying the autonomy of the institutions of higher education even in academic matters. The exercise of their nominal autonomy and self-government tends to depend on the changing objectives of the national government and the equally volatile power relations at the various levels of public administration organisations.

The present government of Hungary (in office since 2010) proudly defines itself as an ‘illiberal democracy’. It strives to centralise all resources and get every institution and social process under its control. Private institutions of higher education are, just like all NGOs, no less threatened, except if they happen to enjoy the particular favour of the prime minister or the leading political parties. The mechanisms this government has put in motion and its mixed tactics of combining or alternating false accusations, derogatory labels and legalistic arguments with more or less covert coercion and benumbing propaganda prompted political analysts to speak of a mafia state and compare its functioning to the greed and deadly embrace of a huge predator: ‘The Hungarian Octopus’ (Magyar and Vásárhelyi 2017; Magyar 2016). Its most recent prey are the free churches, the NGOs and the Central European University (CEU).

The mixed tactics in the case of the CEU mean that the state does not prohibit or dissolve that university, but seeks to destroy the conditions of its functioning by pushing through Parliament a bill proposing certain modifications to the Higher Education Law, which happen to concern a single institution only, the Central European University. It does not matter if the legislative changes in the bill that was formulated, debated, and passed with a majority vote within three days, will turn out to be unconstitutional. By the time the courts in Hungary and, perhaps, even in Strasbourg, will have decided that the ‘lex CEU’ is unconstitutional and in conflict with European law and the EU accession documents, the government of Hungary will have caused CEU so much harm on the basis of the new law that it will find it difficult to survive. The Rector’s Office at CEU summarised the legislative changes and their expected impact on CEU as follows:

Summary of the Legislative Changes and Their Impact on CEU

Central European University is a higher education institution with a dual legal identity operating on a single campus in Budapest. CEU is chartered in the State of New York, where all its degree programs are registered. In the US, CEU is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. CEU is also established as a Hungarian university by the Hungarian Parliament under the name Közép-európai Egyetem (‘KEE’) and it is accredited by the Hungarian Accreditation Committee.

The dual identity of CEU/KEE enables the University to comply with both Hungarian and U.S. laws and award both Hungarian and U.S.-accredited degrees. CEU does not have operations in the US. This is a common model. CEU is one of many American-accredited international universities that do not operate any academic programs within the U.S., but have international level education brought to the doorsteps of local students. The amendments to the Hungarian national higher education law would require CEU to offer programs in the state of New York. Forcing CEU to do so would have no educational benefit and would incur needless financial and human resource costs.

The section of the amendment that most clearly illustrates discrimination against CEU is the provision that prevents Hungarian-accredited universities (in this case, KEE) from delivering programs or issuing degrees from universities from non-European OECD member states on behalf of CEU. Existing legislation allows for university programs and degrees from OECD countries (including the U.S.) to function through joint Hungarian entities, as CEU/KEE currently does. Hungary itself has been a member of OECD since 1996, and as such, should not discriminate against other OECD countries.

Another clear example of discrimination in the proposed amendment, is the elimination of a good-faith waiver that currently allows academic staff from third countries to work at the KEE entity without requiring a work permit. The change would create additional and unnecessary barriers to hiring and recruitment. The Hungarian government may deny such permits based on political or narrow bureaucratic considerations. Given that CEU relies particularly much on professors from outside of the EU, the new regulation would place the university in a disadvantageous position, if not simply make its operation impossible.

The proposed amendment also forbids institutions from having the same or similar names. This would require CEU’s two legal entities—which are jointly delivering programs—either to change the names they have used for decades or to discontinue operation in Hungary.

Lastly, the amendment would require a binding international agreement between Hungary and the US both on federal and state level supporting CEU’s operation as a foreign university in Hungary. Further, the law was amended within 24 hours before it was passed, requiring a binding international agreement to be completed within six months of the publication of the law and less than nine months to register programs in the foreign higher education institution’s country of origin. This is punitive and does not allow sufficient time for higher education institutions to comply with the newly adopted provisions.’ (Ignatieff, 7 April 2017)

This summary was published three weeks ago. Since then there have been massive street demonstrations, teach-ins, protests etc., by academic institutions, scientists, writers in Hungary and abroad. Yesterday (27 April) the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) called on Hungary to suspend parliamentary debate on Fidesz’s NGO law and halt implementation of Lex CEU (Novak 2017). And the story has not come to its end yet.

2. How do the assessments made in the Manifesto relate to the situation in Hungary?

From the perspective of the situation in Hungary, the assessment of the on-going processes of change, given in the Manifesto, is fully justified. As indicated in the title of this paper, the Wolf has been joined by the Octopus in our country. This means that even if direct political interference is in the forefront of interest now, the Wolf keeps working in all our schools of higher education, demanding and churning out regulations, reports, spreadsheets, etc. If we are persistent or lucky and get rid of the Octopus, the Wolf is here to stay. Not because we, professors or students, would miss his services or feel lost without his guidance, but because Hungary’s membership in the European Higher Education Area entails a similarity in the main trends of change in the whole of Europe. The next Hungarian government may and, hopefully also will, be liberal, democratic and transparent, but still it could not and would not fight the Wolf.

3. What possibilities are there, in Hungary, to change the situation for the better?

Nobody has ever opted for making the university an ‘ivory tower’, its alleged inhabitants felt never really comfortable. Anyway, the ivory tower is a combative slogan used by the opponents of academic freedom rather than anybody’s wish or lived experience. The public university as a knowledge commons is an attractive but risky idea in an age of commercially controlled, print or electronic, media that monopolise the transmission of information on topical issues. As long as the universities are under political control, strategies to change their situation and social role have to confront the government. This is what our small organisation, the Network of University Lecturers, tries to do, availing itself of the various means of political protest. Unfortunately, these actions are insufficient in a country where all major media outlets are under direct or indirect government control. From this perspective, university reform politics seems secondary and a much easier task. When we finally get there, however, we will find how difficult it is: workers of (all) universities are seldom willing to unite.


Ignatieff, M. 2017. “‘Lex CEU’ Now in Force, is Contested in Hungary, US, EU.” E-mail message to supporters of CEU by Michael Ignatieff, CEU President and Rector. April 13, 2017.

Magyar, B. 2016. Post-Communist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary. Budapest: Central European University Press.

Magyar, B., and J. Vásárhelyi, eds. 2017. Twenty-Five Sides of a Post-Communist Mafia State. Budapest: Central European University Press.

Novak, B. 2017. “Council of Europe Calls on Hungary to Suspend Debate on NGO Law, Rescind Lex CEU.” Budapest Beacon, 28, April 2017.

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8. Report from Slovakia

Striving for Academic Authenticity: A Slovak Position in the Context of the Academic Manifesto
Jozef Hvorecký, Emil Višňovský, and Matúš Porubjak[11]

The text of the Academic Manifesto (Halffman and Radder 2015) exactly captures not only the Dutch situation. A similar plague is devastating academic culture around the World. Naturally, there are also national specifics brought up by the factors rooted in the history. An example is tertiary education in Slovakia—which is in fact very young and, consequently, immature. The oldest still existing university was established in 1919, the second one in 1940. In 1990, after the Velvet Revolution, there were only twelve institutions of tertiary education, many of them rather small. Despite a much larger demand, the proportion of university-educated population was only slightly more than 10%.

The figures prove that the foundations of the Slovak system of tertiary education have been laid mostly during the Communist regime. Basically it represented a variation of the traditional Humboldtian model (as a heritage of the past Czechoslovakia) combined with the Soviet model. As to the former, its key idea of the unity of research and teaching was basically observed, including even some portions of academic freedom for some, though not for all. As to the latter, it controlled not only the proportion of students belonging to the ‘working class’ (including their possibility to be admitted), but also the content of all study programmes (with extended political pressure on the humanities). The academics learned that their obedience to authorities was the best way to survive or get promoted.

After the revolution in 1989, there was a chance for the revitalization of the system. The result cannot be considered a success mainly due to three reasons.

1. During the Communist regime, the salaries in all positions were more or less equal. However, the newly raising private sector started offering much bigger earnings to its qualified personnel. Many (primarily young) academics quickly left their universities to private businesses. This gap is still notable.

2. The remaining staff consisted either of enthusiasts devoted to education (and ready to continue their academic career irrespective of money), or of those who could not find better paid positions elsewhere. As the enthusiasts usually formed a minority, the academics with a passive and formal attitude to their education and research started to dominate many departments.

3. There was also an attempt to increase the quality of universities. It was primarily organised by researchers from mathematics, and natural and technical sciences, because these fields were less suppressed during the past. Unfortunately, they started applying their own quality criteria to all remaining fields. As scientometrics describes quality in these types of research rather well, it has been considered as the best and generally applicable tool.

The development in the 1990s and its first fruits are well identified in Bakoš (2011). The later developments have only strengthened these initial trends. The senior generation, which used to obey the authorities, continues to select their followers among those ready to obey, too. The salaries at universities are still much lower compared to the business world. Young potential academics are running out of the system—partially abroad, partially to businesses. The scientometric criteria have come to distort the system exactly in the way described in the Academic Manifesto. The road to this undesired state was different, but the current status quo is more or less the same: ‘academics cannot be trusted, and so have to be tested and monitored, under the permanent threat of reorganization, termination and dismissal’ (Halffman and Radder 2015, 166).

The ‘multi-headed Wolf of management’ has a slightly different face compared to the one in the Manifesto. A substantial portion of decision power is still centralized and remains in the hands of the Ministry of Education. Unfortunately, ‘a mercenary army of professional administrators, armed with spreadsheets’ does not consist of clerks only. The Accreditation Commission serves as its prime ally (Porubjak 2015). Its initial positive effort to improve the quality of universities through intensified research has resulted in the carbon-copy of the series of subsequent quality criteria: ‘the number of publications, then international publications, after which only English-language publications counted, thereafter articles in high-impact journals …’ (Halffman and Radder 2015, 167). At this very moment, the Accreditation Commission not only enables this kind of pressure but also opposes attempts to discuss changes in its criteria. One has to admit that two thirds of the members of the Accreditation Commission are academics from Slovak universities. A similar approach has been followed by an independent civic auditing organization named the Academic Ranking and Rating Agency (ARRA). It has tried to assess the quality of Slovak higher education institutions for more than ten years. Its assessment criteria are equally formal, insufficiently transparent and in some aspects misleading, as shown in Sýkora (2015).

If there is a difference compared to the Dutch situation, then it lies in the darker side of academic work. As the initial constellation of the post-communist educational system was worse compared to traditional democratic countries, there probably are more cases of violations of academic integrity (e.g. of plagiarism) and a lower desire to solve such problems. Its outcomes and ways-out are analysed in Hvorecký (2015).

No matter how paradoxical it may seem, the current academic system and the situation in Slovakia is a very powerful result of both: the former Soviet/Humboldtian model and the post-communist/neoliberal model. The two have found their ideological brother in each other. In post-communist countries, the bureaucratic-managerial Wolves have found perhaps the best possible ground for their neoliberal mission supported by the general ‘cultural turn’ toward the Mammon. Boyadjieva and Ilieva-Trichkova (2015) and Sabic (2015) show that the same situation can be found in other post-communist countries. In practical consequences, it simply means: what cannot be measured, does not exist, and what can be measured, has to be converted into pecuniary value. As a result, a new generation of junior academics have been raised in the environment that has adopted these unauthentic academic values and practices. In their minds and activities, these approaches are now considered ‘right’ and worthy to follow. The younger generation has adopted the idea of the academy as a machine, a factory, a business or an agency whose mission is to produce articles that, at the end of the day, bring money. Everything—knowledge, education, publications, citations, applications, etc.—must be measured by and/or converted into money (Višňovský 2014). These pseudo-academics and pseudo-academic managers do not talk science, wisdom, meaning, insight, understanding, values, etc. They just accept measures, inputs, outputs, performance, excellence, accreditation, evaluation, audit, and the like.

Nonetheless, the application of the majority of methods for change, proposed by Halffman and Radder, might lead to a disaster. In the near future, massive protests or demonstrations at universities are not probable. The community has learned to obey. The disobedient ones have left by their own decision, due to the unbreathable atmosphere, or ‘were left out’.

Thus, the change can come only through ‘education to academic democracy’. Its main aim must be to teach the community that academic freedom and integrity are keys to a better academy. It will require long and patient stepwise work. And an inevitable international communication among academics who, against all odds, still do not wish to give up on their determination in what they consider the meaning of their lives and work: the joy of inquiry and thinking. The current crisis of academia is not the ‘apogee’ of the crisis of humanity—at least not in comparison to the corruption of global politics. However, the ways out of it might hopefully show the way out beyond its one-time ‘ivory tower’ walls. The global role of academia is to work hard to stop the current stupefaction of humanity and to turn itself into a ‘gleam of light’—in the hope that it still is possible.


Bakoš, O. 2001. Katedra Paupológie [Department of Pauperology]. Bratislava: L.C.A.

Boyadjieva, P., and P. Ilieva-Trichkova. 2015. “Institutional Diversity and Graduate Employability: The Bulgarian Case.” In Diversity and Excellence in Higher Education: Can the Challenges be Reconciled?, edited by R.M.O. Pritchard, M. Klumppand, and U. Teichler, 153-171. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Halffman, Willem, and Hans Radder. 2015. “The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University.”  Minerva 53 (3): 165-187.

Hvorecký, J. 2015. Testament Vedca [Testament of a Researcher]. Bratislava: Premedia.

Porubjak, M. 2015. “Mráz Prichádza Odvšadial” [Freeze Comes from Everywhere]. Ostium 11(3). .

Sabic, N. 2015. “Governance Through Transparency Tools: The Case of Romanian Higher Education Reforms.” In Diversity and Excellence in Higher Education: Can the Challenges be Reconciled?, edited by R.M.O Pritchard, M. Klumpp, and U. Teichler, 217-230. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Sýkora, P. 2015. “Robí si ARRA Srandu z Filozofických Fakúlt?” [“Does ARRA Poke Fun at Faculties of Arts?”]. Accessed March 25 2017.

Višňovský, E., ed. 2014. Univerzita, Spoločnosť, Filozofia: Realita Verzus Hodnoty [University, Society, Philosophy: Reality Versus Values]. Bratislava: Iris.

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9. Report from Finland and Scandinavia

Anxieties and Tensions in the Nordic Model—Finland and Scandinavia
Anita Välikangas[12]

In December 2016, Willem Halffman and Hans Radder called for responses to “The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University.” I promised to describe recent developments in Finland, and to say something about how these developments stand in comparison with the other Nordic countries. At first glance, the task seemed quite straightforward: many items in the Manifesto sounded quite familiar to me. In Finland, we have seen cuts in university funding and a change in the direction of university research to solution-oriented and ‘policy-relevant’ research. New quantitative indicators to measure the impact of university research are constantly being developed. There are pressures to monitor and to increase the employability of university graduates, since a larger proportion of university funding is based on these figures. Rather than being based on the Humboldtian ideal, this new ideal seems to come from employment agencies. Within universities, the typical length of work contracts is quite short, and researchers tend to spend a lot of their time writing (and reading) grant proposals. There are increasingly fewer reasons to publish in national languages: this has had an impact especially in those scientific communities and disciplines that study local phenomena (Koskinen 2016). For these reasons, the Manifesto resonated quite well with my personal experiences, but at the same time, there were also some significant differences.

Compared with many European countries, the higher education system in Finland is still in a quite good shape. Even though the levels of funding for student allowances have decreased significantly in the last few years, there are still no tuition fees for domestic higher-education students. In Finland, as in other Nordic countries, universities receive most of their funding from the central government. Even though universities face pressures to find new sources of funding, few new activities have emerged, at least outside the technical universities. My personal view is that, currently, politicians and people in technology transfer offices like to represent these ventures as something that researchers ‘should’ be interested in doing. In practice, however, most of the researchers from non-applied sciences’ disciplines prefer to undertake normal research, teaching, and general social outreach activities. In this sense, the Manifesto’s estimation that the Nordic countries are still more public than occupied, is true.

Even if Nordic universities are funded from public money and students do not pay hefty tuition fees, it does not mean that the university community would be public in a wider sense. The concept of public, as implied by its Latin origin in populus, implies that it needs to include ‘the people’. Universities are not only schools that need to train young people with suitable, hopefully work-related, skills. Universities are also social communities, and in order to meet their responsibilities properly, they should be able to attract and retain talented researchers. As mentioned previously, university researchers’ work contracts in Finland are quite short, typically for only a few years. Competition is tough at all levels. In the humanities, the typical acceptance rate for starting PhD researcher applications is somewhere between 10 and 20%, and it definitely does not get any easier in later career stages. When the opportunities to undertake research full-time are so limited, many people can only dream of financial stability. A typical scenario is that a person spends a period of several months up to one or two years in a research-related project, and then, in the best-case scenario, in another one. The thing that remains constant is the need to seek new funding and a sense of vulnerability that cannot be erased. This situation is not very helpful for creating good scientific communities or places of learning.

Last year was quite grim for Finnish and Danish higher education institutions. In Finland, the government decided to cut research funding by €600 million over the next four years. In Denmark, the situation was at least as bleak: there were the largest-ever cuts to the education budget in the country’s history in 2016. These cuts totalled to 8.7 billion DKr (€1.17 billion), being a two per cent cut to the total education budget (Bothwell 2016; 2017). Cuts as large as this shake the confidence of people and communities. The University of Helsinki confirmed that it would cut staff numbers by nearly 1,000 by the end of 2017, and more than 500 members of staff lost their jobs at the University of Copenhagen (Grove 2016).

Nordic winters are typically dark. And in order to cope with this darkness, many people have developed a black sense of humour. If there was one positive thing last year, it was that it did not take much effort to find material for these jokes. For me, this occurred at my first visit to the newly-renovated Finnish national library. Renovated before the cuts, the building looked spectacular, but when strolling through the lonely corridors, it seemed that few personnel were around. When looking for items, I found an interesting book. However, when I opened it, it fell apart, and it was in such a dire state that it could not be borrowed. I brought the book to the information desk. The person sitting behind the desk looked like she was the only staff member in the whole building. She looked at the book: ‘Sorry, I cannot do anything about it. The person who was responsible for repairing the books was sacked’, she said. The book itself was on the ideals of universities, a defence of universities written in the 1950s.

However, there have been some successful moments. For instance, at the end of the 2016 negotiations between Finland’s higher education and research institutes and Elsevier and Wiley, a deal was reached that we could have access to their electronic journals for one more year ( 2016). At least so far, we did not need to decide what to do in situations in which we do not have access to these publishers’ journals. But there were also some plainly grim things. Many people found out that they would become unemployed, and almost all people were afraid of this. The layoffs were executed poorly. Why would any sound person feel loyal to an institution that treats them so badly?

So far, it remains unknown what will happen next in the story. Many people have decided not to wait for it. There are signs of a severe brain drain from Finland, signalling a catastrophe for Finnish research (Bothwell 2017). Typical destinations have been Sweden, Norway, Germany and the UK. Personally, I know several people who have either already moved or are planning to move. International mobility is typically a good thing, but here the unfortunate thing is that nobody is coming in to replace them, as there are few vacancies to fill. I would not be surprised if it later turns out that the cuts have resulted in increasing favouritism within academia. These aspects, as well, mean that there are fewer opportunities for people from underprivileged groups to find their place in the academy.

In matters concerning the future, my crystal ball is not capable of providing a 100% accurate prediction. I would not be very surprised, however, if we will next witness the introduction of firmer new public management-oriented strategies, and a firmer separation between power and execution. In Sweden, Mats Ericson, chair of the Swedish Association of University Teachers (SULF), was concerned about the de-professionalisation of teaching and research, and about pressures to increase external funding at Swedish universities (Ericson 2016).

As far as I know, a comprehensive account that would tell us which areas of research have been most badly affected by the financial cuts in Denmark and Finland does not exist. So far, I can only make an educated guess, and estimate that it is likely that the cuts have affected smaller disciplines and projects, and left those areas that were in line with ‘universities’ strategic priorities’ in a better position. In Finnish universities, a large proportion of the cuts were directed at support staff, a substantial number of whom have been made redundant or their work contracts have otherwise been discontinued.

Previously, at my own university, support staff worked in individual departments, and they were often people with knowledge and research training from the disciplines they were supporting. Now they have all been moved to a central location. As a result, many practical things, such as having information on webpages, booking classrooms, and offering students information on what courses are available, now require considerable effort from research and teaching staff. Previously, support staff and researchers met in coffee rooms and during lunch breaks. Now, they engage mostly through task-related communication. When support staff are separated from the research staff, or when people working on grants are not given desks close to their department, it is perhaps no wonder that the universities include an increasing number of people who do not perceive themselves as being an integral part of the university. For management, this is a good thing: isolated individuals can be managed more easily than groups can. With efficient management techniques, it does not take many years to destroy the ideal of collegiality.

At first glance, the idea of reacting to the Academic Manifesto from a Nordic perspective seemed quite easy: there are so many similarities. However, it is difficult to write about the developments across the whole Nordic area. Universities and university managements are currently changing at so many levels. There are changes within individual disciplines, at the faculty and university levels, and there are differences between countries. Changes affect many people, but it is quite difficult for people at different levels to communicate with each other and to oppose this development. In Finland, budget cuts have had some impacts that have distorted the university community and are diminishing the ideal of the collegial university. ‘Everyone has more of a stake in being left alone to be excellent than in intervening in the administrative process’, as summarised by Bill Readings (1997, 33). We are left alone, as isolated units. It is not easy to beat this process, but it is a task worth trying. I believe it would require active support for those university communities, in which the common element is something other than constant competition and strict divisions between groups of people.


Bothwell, E. 2016. “Nordic Higher Education in Decline? The Region’s Reputation for Excellence Could be Threatened by Funding Cuts and Restructuring.” Times Higher Education, September 15, 2016.

Bothwell, E. 2017. “Finland Funding Cuts a ‘Catastrophe’ for Research: Scholars Fear Reputation of Country’s Higher Education Sector will be Damaged as Evidence of Brain Drain Mounts.” Times Higher Education, January 17, 2017.

Ericson, M. 2016. “Academic Freedom Increasingly Restricted.” Accessed April 10 2017.

Grove, J. 2016. “University of Copenhagen to Cut More than 500 Jobs.” Times Higher Education, 11 February 2016. Accessed April 10, 2017.

Koskinen, I. 2016. “Objektiivisuus humanistisissa tieteissä” [Objectivity in humanities]. Niin et Näin 4: 35-42.

Readings, B. 1997. The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2016. “The Cost of Scientific Publications Must Not Get Out of Hand. Accessed April 10 2017.

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10. Report from the United Kingdom

Activism over Acrimony: Not Getting Better but Getting Beyond the UK’s Research Excellence Framework
Richard Watermeyer[13]

The unavoidability of academics ‘submitting’—both deferentially and opportunistically—to a culture of excellence in UK universities is more than already confirmed by what feels like the most protracted if paradoxically lightning of transitions between the UK’s last national research performance evaluation, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014, and its future successor, REF2021. Vice-chancellors, pro-vice chancellors, deans of faculty, heads of department, directors of research, impact officers and the various other administrative personnel populating UK universities find themselves busy messaging, at what is just short of four years from the likely point of institutional submission,[14] that all academics ‘eligible’ for inclusion in REF2021—which on the advisement of the recent Stern Review of REF2014 (2016) includes all ‘research active’ staff—should be concentrating their focus on getting their REF publications and impact case studies ready. The REF is, aside from its more junior and less prominent sibling, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)—the only game in town. And what a game.

For those not in the know, the REF is the system by which publically funded research conducted by researchers working in UK universities is evaluated by disciplinary expert panels of academic and user assessors. It is the yardstick by which researchers and the institutions they are affiliated to are considered persons and places of research excellence and those, therefore, also deserving of a slice, some larger than others depending on the measure of their performance, of the pie of Government ‘Quality Related’ (QR) funding; estimated to be worth somewhere in the region of £2 billion per annum to the UK’s higher education sector. The REF, therefore, counts for a lot in the binary and co-informing contexts of 1) universities’ financial sustainability and 2) institutional reputation, esteem and marketability. Its value to UK universities is in many ways, therefore, priceless. So much so that ‘for research, see REF’.

In such context, it is perhaps unsurprising that all manner of tactics, tricks and levers of competitive advantage have been reported as committed by universities in ensuring that the research they submit to the REF is the most competitive, and that consequently, is likely to court the most favourable response from REF panellists and most generous of QR returns. In the milieu of REF2014 various game-playing was committed by universities; the most prominent of which perhaps being that of hyper-selectivity by institutions in the choice of academic staff they chose to submit—the figures for which are staggering, at least in the context of those who were excluded. Of a potential 145,000 academic researchers eligible for inclusion in REF2014, only 50,000 were evaluated. 95,000 academic researchers were, it seems, not fit-to-be counted in the context of their potential excellence. Instead, a policy by universities of cherry-picking the best was preferred.

To my mind, this says one of two things. Firstly, that two thirds of the academic researchers based in the UK are in the estimation of their institutions not up to much. Secondly, the notion of excellence articulated in the REF is even more fatuous than first thought—with first-thinking predicated on an a priori sense of the meaninglessness of the term ‘excellence’. Crudely put then, and however one values a notion of excellence, REF2014 was only a partial and highly selective measure of the performance of UK academic researchers or a vastly expensive15, self-fulfilling (or safe-bet) exercise involving the confirmation of those deemed excellent by their institutions as excellent by REF panellists. Consequently, where the REF in such terms is attacked for being a limited show of the strengths of UK research and concomitantly for its treatment in marginalising and disenfranchising vast swathes of the UK’s academic community, the central recommendation of the Stern review of universal submission appears at first sight a genuine effort to lessen if not eradicate the deleterious effects suffered by the academic ‘rank and file’ of an aggressive and egregious system of performance management and auditability.

A recommendation for universal submission appears something, if only minor, in the way of an attempt to placate and appease those who perceive in the REF the emasculation of academic autonomy and scientific self-sovereignty and the intensification of government and managerial regulation and control. But it achieves this subtly and in a back-handed way by saying to academics, ‘You all can be involved’. One can’t help but think, however, that such a recommendation operates almost at the level of what the great émigré sociologist Herbert Marcuse (2002) spoke of as ‘repressive desublimation’ or a mirage of participatory democracy—if academics feel involved in something then they will likely just happily go along with it. It’s perhaps not so strange then that so much of what is considered wrong with the REF relates less to how it conflicts with or corrupts an Enlightenment ideal of science or of the Humboldtian university and instead how it denies academics an opportunity to participate in its game.

I have been one among other commentators who has argued strongly for greater inclusivity and equal participation for academics in the REF. But I’m minded now to think that this focus has been a little narrow, a touch reductive and a distraction from the bigger picture of what’s wrong. Perhaps, in fact, I’ve fallen prey to the kinds of quantitative mesmerisation—the sort of which I frequently caution my students and colleagues—that tell only too cogently and conclusively the story of non-participation. Now, however, as I look again, I’m struck that the argument against the REF has become excessively entangled if not hijacked by the theme of its unequal participation.

Whilst there can be no denying that non-participation in REF2014 has been detrimental to the social fabric of UK academia, a sense of academic collegiality, citizenship and community especially, the dominant critique of the REF has perhaps mistakenly advocated for increased participation and, therefore, compliance rather than disengagement. Moreover, the critique, largely one of victimisation, has neither developed nor progressed. Certainly, it has not translated in any meaningful or substantive way into activism. Such has been the focus of observation on what the REF does to academics in ways that challenge or compromise their identity and praxis, that the academic community in the UK has ostensibly lost sight of its capacity to affect positive change. Instead, academics have preferred to privilege the pathologisation of their profession and coterminously become immobilised by the homogeneity—and in large part indirectness—of their (pseudo)disapproval. Indeed, the curse of the REF is something that some academics not only embellish, but perversely appear even to enjoy as a ‘legitimate’ opportunity with which to lament their lot and indulge almost masochistically in a nostalgia of a golden age that never was.

As the object of their disaffection, that they love to hate, the REF also, however, emboldens the reproach of their detractors who detect within their diatribe and mythologies not the cry of injustice but the whine of narcissism. Of course, apologists may explain and defend this almost ritual of academic dissatisfaction, on the basis of academics’ escalating precariousness in the era of higher education’s neoliberalization. Where universities have surrendered their status and role as sanctuaries of critical pedagogy and have allowed, seemingly with little resistance, the de-professionalisation and de-politicisation of their academic community, academics have had to confront the impossible challenge of reconciling ever-greater demands of accountability with ever-diminishing autonomy. The co-emergence of their compliance and complaint is perhaps, therefore, whilst profoundly arrestive to an ideal of academic endeavour, entirely inevitable.

An excessive recent focus on issues of participation in the REF must, therefore, be reconsidered, indeed halted. It is such single-mindedness that has perhaps blunted and/or distorted the edge of critical commentary and unwittingly served to normalize and even legitimize the REF as the locus of control in the lives of UK academics. It has also perhaps consolidated and exacerbated the narcissism that has tended to plague what A.H. Halsey (1995) called the ‘donnish dominion’ and the perception of those looking-in that has bred mistrust and justified the implementation of such new public management technologies designed to instil order among academics as an alleged herd of cats. Hence, we find academics’ REF ‘submission’ as ambivalent and dichotomous. It is volunteered yet with an affected disdain. The REF ultimately perhaps reveals a trend, a penchant even among academics for wanting to be counted rather than doing what counts.

The virtue of the REF as an opportunity for academics to perform accountability is rightly contested. It is a grossly imperfect system that fosters a multitude of undesirable behaviours that also cause to neglect the purpose and role of the university as a genuinely public institution. However, academics ought not to gorge themselves on a fixation with its imperfections; rather they might engage with accountability unto themselves. If the REF is what ascribes academic researchers in the UK their identity, they might look in its mirror for a reflection of themselves as impetus for change. Where they are then to see what they don’t like, only active and direct transgression of the rules of the game may produce an identity other than that ostensibly foisted upon them. Easier said then done, no doubt. But something needing to be done, no less.


Halsey, A.H. 1995. Decline of Donnish Dominion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marcuse, H. 2002. One-Dimensional Man. Oxford and New York: Routledge.

Stern, N. 2016. “Building on Success and Learning from Experience: An Independent Review of the Research Excellence Framework.”

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11. Report from Belgium and Flanders

The Academic Manifesto: The Situation in Flanders
Koen Bogaert, Valerie De Craene, Anton Froeyman, Karen Stroobants, and Sigrid Vertommen [16]

In general, we would say that, despite some different accents or aspects, the situation described in The Academic Manifesto applies just as much to Flanders as it does to the Netherlands. Since the instalment of the Bologna Agreement (2008), a political agreement meant to create a common, standardized European higher-education space, the Flemish research landscape has changed dramatically. Indeed, as the Academic Manifesto mentions, the rationale here was that universities should not be trusted. The share of the (competitive) second and third money stream became increasingly larger, while the first stream (direct public funding for universities) was re-organized into a competitive system, where universities had to ‘fight’ each other for funding.[17] The weapons with which this fight was to be held were quantitative output parameters, such as the number of ECTS-credits taken, the number of PhD-degrees issued, the number of publications in Web of Science journals, the number of citations by Web of Science journals, etc. Since then, universities are in a continuous struggle to get more money for themselves, and (of course) less money for the other universities.  This rationale was then copied by universities into an internal allocation model, where different faculties have to ‘fight’ each other for money, and many faculties in their turn took over these criteria to deal with funding issues of their different departments.

Hence, this financial logic has pervaded all of academia: hiring decisions are based almost solely on how much money you can bring in (in the form of grants, PhD scholarships, publications, citations, and the like), which strongly determines the types of knowledge that are produced: cutting edge research or research where the outcome is unclear is avoided, while easily publishable research can prevail, even if the quality is mediocre, or the ideas unoriginal.  The kind of knowledge that is produced at universities is not (or no longer) the kind of knowledge that seems most interesting for researchers, or that is most beneficial to society, but rather the kind of knowledge that serves best the interests of academic policy makers and financiers. Generally speaking, the idea is widespread that things like academic research, education or public service are nothing but means to achieve a greater good, which is to get more money for your department/faculty/university. Activities that do not bring in money (such as lectures or articles for the general public, collaboration with NGOs or museums) are seen as a waste of time. This situation is made worse because universities also tend to spend more and more money on advertisement, business administration, communication and real estate projects instead of education or research. In this sense, again, we agree with the statements in the Academic Manifesto: Flemish academia is based on the idea that academics cannot be trusted, that they should be monitored closely by means of quantitative indicators, and that they should be under a continuous threat of losing their job if one wants them to achieve anything at all.

One thing that needs to be noted is the specific personnel structure of Flemish universities. Since the introduction of the Dehousse-tax exemption for PhD students (in 1993) the number of PhDs has risen spectacularly, from less than 3,000 in 1993 to around 10,000 in 2015. In a way, universities have been using the tax exemption for PhD students for the same reason multinational companies have shipped their production bases to low-wage countries: it’s a way to hire many more employees without having to spend extra money. This situation is made worse by the fact that universities get a bonus (of around 50,000 euro) for every completed PhD. Of course, this creates an incentive to hire as many PhD students as possible. This has two negative consequences.

The first is that the quality, and therefore the value, of a PhD degree is dropping steadily, since universities do not have any incentive not to let a PhD student graduate. The second is that there are lots of opportunities to do a PhD in Flanders, but very little career opportunities for PhD holders within academia. Policy makers reply to this that a PhD should provide you with extra skills for the labour market. While this sounds nice in theory, the concrete practice of the PhD trajectory is very different. Firstly, professors have (due to the rise in student numbers, the number of PhD students and the dramatic increase of time spent on grant proposal writing) less and less time to actually teach their PhD students. Secondly, universities, departments, and faculties only receive money for academic achievements in the narrow sense (publications, citations and PhD degrees). Hence, anything that does not lead directly to one of these achievements (such as investing in transferable skills, or networking outside academia) is often seen as a waste of time.

Meanwhile, the number of professors in 2017 is virtually the same as it was in 1993. Because the numbers of PhD students, master students and bachelor students have risen spectacularly, in combination with the ever increasing demand to write grant applications and do other administrative work, professors suffer from an enormous workload, and are under an abnormally high stress.

One important difference with the Netherlands is that all Flemish universities are run (largely) by academics, or, to be more precise, former academics, who went from being a professor into a career in university administration. Nevertheless, this has not stopped the proliferation of the new public management ideology, as it became clear quite quickly that these academic policy makers are susceptible to the same ways of thinking in terms of output, quantification and efficiency as ‘real’ managers are.

Another important difference is the engagement of the students in the protests against the neoliberal new public management university. In places such as the UK and the Netherlands, students form the driving force and the bulk of the (wo)manpower behind the protests. In Flanders, however, students and the official student bodies (for example the VVS, the Flemish Society of Students) are remarkably absent: they do protest when they are afflicted on a short-term individual level (for example by higher tuition fees or a compulsory entrance exam), but in most cases (with some notable exceptions, such as the humanities students in Ghent), they seem to be more or less in agreement with the general, official new public management discourse. The reason for this is—paradoxically—that students have since long had a strong and institutionalized voice in debates about higher education. Hence, it seems that being in contact with the establishment for so long has effectively turned them into a part of that establishment.

Last but not least, we need to bring attention to the gender gap at Flemish universities. Despite the fact that the majority of PhD students in Flanders are women, there is still a huge gender gap when it comes to the ‘higher’ academic positions. The percentage of female academics at the highest academic position (hoogleraar) is among the lowest in Europe. Hence, at Flemish universities, old boys’ networks are numerous, and the neoliberal university often goes hand in hand with a macho culture. There has been some awareness of this issue: the ‘women’s strike’ at Ghent University in the spring of 2017 received a lot of attention and we have seen the arrival of the first female rectors since long. Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go.

The Assessments in the Manifesto

We strongly agree with the general message of the Academic Manifesto: there is something very wrong with 21th-century academia, and the Wolves of management, efficiency, accountability and quantification are the most important culprits.

However, we are somewhat hesitant to share the Manifesto’s expectations of a change in formal decision structures. We understand that, from the point of view of the Netherlands, this seems like a good solution. However, in theory, Flemish universities have a kind of semi-democratic structure: the rector and vice-rector (who both have to be full professors) and the members of the board of directors, are elected by university staff and students by means of a kind of weighted democracy (in which the votes of full professors matter by far the most). This system, however, has by no means been able to stop or fight the many-headed Wolf of management. In practice, elected academics always seem to turn into accomplices of the Wolf as soon as they take a manager’s seat. And even if they don’t, there are still non-elected management phantoms in the background and in the corridors of administrations, who often succeed in taking the actual decision-making away from the elected policy makers.

Nevertheless, we agree with all recommendations made in the Manifesto. There is one recommendation, however, we would very much like to add: a recommendation on the precariousness of researcher’s job situations. The main reason why researchers and teachers still support the system is because they need to in order to keep their jobs, and compete with colleagues in equally precarious situations. Hence, we would very much like to introduce a compulsory minimal percentage of tenured staff in the academic community. This ratio may differ from field to field, depending on the chances of PhD holders on the labour market (which are very high in chemistry for example, but low in the humanities).

Action, and Possibilities to Change the Situation for the Better

In Flanders, the Bologna reforms and the managerial universities that sprung from it have been under continuous criticism since their coming into existence in the second half of the 2000s. Action groups such as the Slow Science Movement and the Actiegroep Hoger Onderwijs (‘Higher Education Action Group’) have helped bring the issue to the fore. Up until now, however, nothing has changed, despite many opinion pieces, articles, books and research on the matter. Nevertheless, it needs to be said that at some universities in Flanders, new rectors have been chosen with programmes that show signs of a willingness to name, and deal with, the problems that haunt the university. However, it still remains to be seen whether these ideas and promises will be put into practice.

At this point, the most important thing to do is to monitor this new generation of academic policy makers: will they put their money where their mouth is? If not, there is indeed, as the Manifesto states, a need for a different kind of action. A strike would definitely be a very good idea, and would definitely have an influence. However, it would not be easy to organize, since it might be hard to mobilize a sufficient amount of individual researchers, partly because of the individualistic mind-set of many researchers, and partly because of the fear of repercussions by the university board. Another possible option seems to be a combination of ‘sabotage’ and ‘refusal’, for example by means of an ‘administrative publication strike’. As said, the Flemish government allocates public funding partly based on publications in ISI, which it counts by searching people’s affiliation. If academics stop mentioning their institutional affiliation on their papers, they become invisible, and cannot be counted any longer. For each paper not counted, a university loses thousands of euros. This would give university boards the much needed financial incentive to strive for betterment. The biggest problem with this kind of action, next to the obvious danger of repercussions by the university board, would be that people could be afraid that their own department might lose money.

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12. Report from Spain

Complutense University of Madrid and the Academic Manifesto: Common Traits of a Global Crisis in Higher Education
Eva Aladro Vico[18]

The Academic Manifesto (published in April 2015) arrived at the Complutense University just at the beginning of a huge Re-structuring Process in which this centennial university was announced to close 9 of its 26 Faculties, some of them as legendary as the Faculty of Philosophy, where Ortega y Gasset, the famous Spanish thinker, had his cátedra, his chair, in 1930.

One of the professors at the Geological Sciences Faculty, one of the faculties about to close and to be assimilated by another one, decided to share the Academic Manifesto with colleagues, in the ‘Platform against the Restructuring Process at the UCM’. As we read it, we decided to translate the paper into Spanish in order to be accessible to all of Complutense University.

The process of a restructuration at the University Complutense is in fact an administrative and organisational earthquake that intends to cut the costs of secretarial staff and infrastructural spending, in this huge centre of Spanish public education. It will also cut the recruitment of new professors and it will entirely transform the articulated structure of UCM, divided into Faculties and Departments, into a much more gigantic and megalomaniac design. One of the ‘ideas’ was to merge the big Faculty of Medicine, and three other Faculties (Dentistry, Optical Sciences and Nursery) into a huge ‘Health Faculty’, producing a Centre of more than 10,000 students.

The Plan was announced as an academic re-organisation that wanted to rationalise and increase efficiency and excellence through the suppression of the Departmental articulation of the Faculties. It arrived just in the middle of an atmosphere of a competitive, impoverished and managerial conception of academic work, which preceded the announcement. The Academic Manifesto described exactly what we had suffered and were about to suffer in the process.

The Director or ‘Rector’ of Complutense University, a supposedly left-wing sympathiser, connected immediately, once he was elected a year ago, with the right-wing government of the Madrid local community, a government which was developing a big politics of cuts and privatising the public education system at all levels in the Madrid community. The Rector developed a whole strategy to manufacture consent about the re-structuring plans. He announced the ‘urgent’ Plan, proceeded to control mass media about it, and is now trying to loosen the pressure, because the Claustro, the main chamber of democratic decision in Complutense University, can veto the Plan and stop it definitively.

In fact, the academic opposition to the re-structuring and merging ideas was immediately stirred by some professors and directors of Departments and Faculties, who developed an electronic ‘Platform to the Reorganisation of Complutense University’. They arranged meetings and manifestos, they signed articles in the main newspapers and media, and they started a strategy of mobilising the university community, students included, sending by mail and by social media the comments and alternative plans to the UCM government.

The Platform against the Re-structuration in Complutense University used the Academic Manifesto as one of the critical pieces to inform and convince everybody in the UCM community of the general movement against the public university in the whole area of Europe.

The circumstances described in the article were so identical to the Spanish ones that all the community was shocked and surprised.  We could recognise the ‘Wolf’, the competitive jails, the rankings misuse, the ‘excellence’ marketing chatter, the ‘disloyalty’ charges against the rebels, etc.

One of the main syndicates of workers and professors sent all the UCM workers the Spanish translation of the Academic Manifesto, which was read by nearly all the university staff, including the office and managerial workers, who commented by mail their impressions and reactions. The University Complutense is an academic community of more than 20,000 workers (the biggest university in Spain).

The situation by now—some six months on—has slightly changed for the better. From the initial idea of suppressing nine Faculties, they now only try to close four of them. Many pressures and negotiations between Rectorate and the different Centres (Faculties and Departments) are producing a new style in the Plan. Many of the Faculties that were about to close will merge only organisationally and will preserve their academic structure.

The battle now is still against the demolition of the Department structure, which protects the academic careers, the teaching organisation, the specialisation and research in small groups. As a piece to display the manoeuvres and the strategies of the Rectorate, the Manifesto was really essential. It helped, with other pieces of academic studies, to create an opinion atmosphere against the process and to open a real opposition to the Plan.

The Academic Manifesto suited the Spanish university situation in all respects. Now that the crisis has beaten the entire Welfare State deeply in Spain, weakening public education, the public health-care system and other public services, the Spanish university is in a very weak position and even some left-wing political leaders are against its survival as a quality institution.

The new consciousness and the critical position of professors and students against the process is getting bigger and bigger. Students—who started to protest and occupied the Faculties in our process, and now are waiting for what will happen—are each time more aware of the dangers of losing a high quality university in their public system. The fight against the tendency is very clear and open. That is why some governors and managers try to reformulate the process, pressing for achieving or creating an artificial consent.

The democratic and autonomous structure of chambers of government in Complutense University still protects the possibility of stopping mergers and restructuration. Complutense University has a Claustro of hundreds of representatives who must accept the Plan, and they are not convinced. The Academic Manifesto has been very important as a tool to stir the critical positions, sharing with them information. The last word of the Claustro is really decisive in UCM.

As in Spain the political trends are now changing from a right hegemony to a more divided and collaborative political balance, with pacts and alliances, the protests will probably allow us to redirect the reorganisation processes and stop them where they are not yet implemented. That will be surely the case in Complutense University. The political uncertainty will give an oxygen balloon to our old university, which has now developed a much more active and critical stance among its professors and workers than the one it had some two years ago.

It seems essential to wake up the critical debate and to recover the critical function that the university always had in European social communities. The last decades of economic bubble and the impact of the crisis left the Spanish university in a very lost and weak condition. It seems that we are reaching times of reconstituting the essence of the university as an organ of critical education and research. These are the common traits of a big crisis in higher global education that we must fight, or we shall perish as developed countries.

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13. Report from France

Problems of the French Universities
Christophe Charle [19]

The current problems in French higher education are related to two complex factors. On the one hand, there are the long-term imbalances inherited from a history of successive reforms, which have tried to correct things in principle, but without ever really going to the root of the problem, as social, political and ideological forces have resisted the consideration of too radical policies. The repeated crises that have confronted certain governments since 1968 are testimony to these obstructions. On the other hand, reform attempts have targeted the segments that were easiest to reform (research, non-university institutions) and have used the internal contradictions among universities (conflicts between disciplines, rivalries between regions and between Paris and the provinces) to introduce changes desired by the government, but these attempts were never really discussed by the academic community in order to avoid crises and head-on confrontations with it. This is the strategy adopted in particular by conservative majorities that were keen to bring international university competition to France and to protect its elite sector, whether it concerns social elites or elites by intellectual recognition (the policies of excellence).

Since 2002, during the decade of right-wing political dominance and the five years of François Hollande, political choices have been limited to a sprinkling of appointments and external funding that has been insufficient to cover the increased needs resulting from the growing numbers of students asking for better training and professional prospects. In addition, universities have been reorganised with the objective to rise in the international rankings, in which very few French universities held prominent places. The problems inherited from the past and aggravated by these choices, have only become more accentuated, with the pauperisation of the smaller universities and the widening of the gaps between disciplines and between institutions.

This policy is the policy of ‘excellence’, the new international rallying call that is never really defined (excellence of what, for whom?). It typically does not question the privileges of the ‘great school’ sector (grandes écoles) and accentuates social, financial and career inequalities between the selective and non-selective sectors. We can identify four recurrent problems in French higher education.

Unequal Financing

This is the misallocation of resources that contradicts the principle of democratisation that has been advertised since the 1990s: those who already have, receive even more. The discourse of broken rungs on the social ladder is confirmed by the study failure rates and unemployment rates between different degree programmes, but no consequences are drawn from this to reboot the system. The failing social mobility is precisely the consequence of the structural inequalities maintained by the ‘policies of excellence’.

Premature Specialisation

This is the premature choice to specialise in the name of ‘professionalization’, advocated as a remedy for unemployment, even while current societies demand more and more ‘flexibility’, polyvalence, professional mobility during lifetime. While in other countries universities assume an important role in permanent education or the readjustment of older workers who fall victim to careers truncated by unemployment, they do not fulfil this role very well in France—except for the most qualified managerial staff who benefit from additional training paid by their employers (and in any case this mostly occurs through the sector of the écoles).

The Mirage of International Awards

The obsession with international rankings (such as the Shanghai index) that are, by their methodologies, ill-adapted to realistically measure the efficacy of a university system originates in a misconceived analogy with sports rankings. The university rankings are centred on international academic ‘reputations’ or on a few standardised disciplines, such as the natural sciences, and hence privilege research work that is but a minor fraction of the work done in most mass universities, which dominate the French academic landscape today. Pedagogical innovation, a university’s adaptation to its local environment or the capacity to integrate new groups and new issues are ignored, as these rankings use fixed academic indicators rooted in the past. However, these are the very qualities that show the true dynamism of an institution, not its conformity to an old-fashioned ideal dominated by criteria that are alien to education.

Loss of Independence

This obsession has been sustained by governments from left to right and cloaked in various reorganisation policies, which have created ungovernable bureaucratic entities, such as PRES (Poles of Research and Higher Education) or Comue (Communities of Universities and Institutes). This has aggravated inequalities between universities in their ability to acquire external resources, leading to financial deficits or administrative subjection. Control has become concentrated in small and exclusive groups, which has practically abolished the principle of autonomous education and pedagogical choice. Priorities are fixed in light of what ‘sells’ internationally or in the rankings, not in function of real needs or what lecturers and students actually require.

In sum, all that was granted to universities after 1968 or after 1984 (the two previous laws on higher education) is about to be abolished. The current reforms benefit but a minority of institutions, of academics and of students. French governments refuse to evaluate inadequate policies, already established abroad, which have demonstrated their limitations and lack of pertinence to solve French academic problems.

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14. Report from the Netherlands

The Struggle for the Public University in the Netherlands
Willem Halffman and Hans Radder[20]

Much has happened since we published the first (Dutch) version of the Academic Manifesto in the philosophy journal Krisis (Halffman and Radder 2013; for the English version, see Halffman and Radder 2015). Since then, there has been a remarkable wave of resistance among academic staff and students in the Netherlands: several protest groups arose, which published a flood of critical analyses, organised numerous debates, and engaged in many political actions. As a result of all this critical activity, some minor improvements have been made, but unfortunately many of our objections to Management’s colonisation of the university remain acutely relevant today. We briefly review the various forms of protest and reform initiatives of the past years and assess the changes of the main devices and policies deployed by the ‘Wolf’ of Management.

Resistance and Reform Action

Critical Movements

In the course of 2013, two critical movements arose: the Science in Transition group and the Platform for the Reform of Dutch Universities. The focus of the first is on the excesses of the current research culture, especially in the life and natural sciences (Science in Transition 2017). The group has organised a series of workshops and conferences, aimed primarily at academics and science policy organisations. Its main claim was that science had become too focused on producing research articles, at the expense of social relevance, but it did not question the fundamental features of the Wolf’s management. However, its tone of reasonability, its relations to the science policy establishment and a well-resourced website did draw the attention of many. The second initiative (in which both of us are involved) critically addresses a broader spectrum of issues concerning the research, education, organisation, administration and public role of Dutch universities (Platform H.NU 2017). A variety of activities were undertaken. One of these was to offer a petition for radical reforms of the universities to the Dutch Parliament early 2014. This petition was endorsed by seventeen relevant organisations, including several unions, university councils and professional associations. This more confrontational and political strategy raised attention, but its main effect was indirect: keeping pressure on those attempting change from within the system.

The Unions

One of the smaller unions, the Scientists’ Union (VAWO), has always been keen on supporting the broader work conditions of academics. However, the larger unions still had to make a shift from a primary emphasis on traditional labour issues (wages, pensions, employment) to a more systematic critique of the overall structures and cultures of current academia. At the moment, the focus of the unions is on the problems of precarious labour and work pressure, but these problems are now seen as embedded in broader issues of the system of research funding, managerial bureaucracy and administrative hierarchy. The unions have obtained some minor concessions through labour negotations, such as a concession from academic employers to a modest reduction in precarious labour.

Student and Staff Protests

At the same time, student activism was booming. Several student actions and an occupation took place at VU University Amsterdam. They were followed by a larger and longer occupation of the Maagdenhuis, the administrative centre of the University of Amsterdam, early 2015. In the wake of these occupations, the students’ protest organisation The New University was formed as well as the reform group Rethink-UvA (2017), primarily consisting of faculty of this university. Furthermore, significant actions, both by students and faculty, took place in other universities, especially in Groningen, Maastricht and Utrecht. All these critical movements found significant response among faculty, staff and students, as was for instance shown in the two ‘Nights of the University’, the first held in Amsterdam in 2014, the second in Groningen in 2015. More generally, the many events generated a lot of media attention, locally, nationally, and even internationally. These movements raised a major additional issue that we had overseen in the Manifesto, to our shame: the arrival of ethnic, gender and cultural diversity as a political issue at Dutch universities, especially in the more diverse Western part of the country.

Government and Political Parties

Meanwhile, the Government consisted of a coalition between the right-wing and neoliberal party VVD and the ‘new left’ social-democratic party PvdA. The former was the larger one, but the Minister of Education, Culture and Science was Jet Bussemaker, a social democrat. Generally speaking, science and university policy is not a popular subject among politicians and the dominance of the neoliberal ideology makes things worse. For instance, the only issue that came up, occasionally, during the last election campaigns in the spring of 2017, was the system of student loans that had recently replaced a bursary system. Although initially several political parties acknowledged the problems of the current university and science system, this consensus soon waned. The only parties with a consistent interest in, and constructive views of, the problems were the liberal democrats (D66) and the socialists (SP). MPs from these parties participated frequently in meetings and panels, criticizing work pressure and commodification and emphasizing the importance of academic self-governance.

Policy Advice

Expert advisory organisations, research organisations and academics have produced several reports on the future of research and higher education, most of which simply ignored the fundamental criticism and discontent. Among the exceptions was a report of the Rathenau Institute sketching different priorities for higher education and research (Van der Meulen, Pont, Faasse, Deuten, and Belder 2015). Even though this report did underline the possibility of alternatives in the heart of Dutch science policy circles, it did not provide an incisive analysis of the fundamental features of the current management regime. Another exception that also drew attention among research managers was the Leiden Manifesto, a brief but powerful statement on the meaningless and meaningful use of research metrics (Hicks, Wouters, Waltman, de Rijcke, and Rafols 2015). While not denying the value of some current output measurement, it did offer a vision of how this important aspect of the current regime could be reformed and made more reasonable.

Regime Change?

Under the pressure of protest and the perspective of reform, small changes have been made to the rule of the Wolf in the Netherlands, of which we can only discuss the most prominent here. The Leiden Manifesto is at least being noticed by some academic leaders in the Netherlands and in some places we see certain modifications of the indicator fetishism in the area of research.21 The Utrecht Medical Faculty, a quite significant research unit in the Dutch research landscape and run by a key member of the Science in Transition group, has initiated new staff assessment procedures that will rely less on purely quantitative indicators of academic pseudo-achievement, but pay more attention to social relevance.

The Dutch Standard Evaluation Protocol, which is generally used for the periodic audit of research units, now prescribes peer assessment of the best publications’ quality, and has skipped assessment in terms of mere quantity of publications. It remains to be seen how audit committees will apply the new rules—there is a risk that the process will start to resemble the English REF system (the Research Excellence Framework; see Watermeyer and Olssen 2016), along with its transfer market for top scorers.

Another relevant development is the articulation of ‘counter-measures’ for the humanities: a diverse set of more flexible indicators that can be used by humanities departments. These criteria for ‘Quality and Relevance in the Humanities’ ( 2017) are meant to be included in the Standard Evaluation Protocol. Even though this does not remove the dangers of indicator fetishism completely, it does at least allow the humanities to escape the imposition of natural science indicators, which are meaningless and often even destructive for these disciplines.

However, the idea that permanent competition of all against all is the royal road to efficiency and excellence is still thriving. The competition for students among universities is as fierce as it was, and has even been expanded by attempts to attract significantly more foreign students. Equally fierce is the competition for research money and research positions, with decreasing success rates in the competition for research grants (Rathenau Instituut 2017).

The related problem of the disproportionally large percentage of temporary teaching and research contracts is also far from solved. In addition, there is the plan to end the civil-service status for academic staff, which entails less job protection and undermines what was left of academic independence.

Under the motto that management of a university is essentially the same as managing any other organisation, some administrators were catapulted into universities from banking (Engelen, Fernandez, and Hendrikse 2014), or from other institutions completely alien to academia. Some of them have not fared well and have clashed hard with academic constituencies, especially at VU University Amsterdam and at the University of Amsterdam, even forcing some of them out of office. There seems to be some recognition that maybe there is something peculiar about academic work and that—just maybe—academics should be more involved in how universities are run. In this spirit, Minister Bussemaker has increased the say that student and faculty councils have in university politics. Even if their overall role is still primarily ‘advisory’, they now have at least a say in decisions on the main features of the university, faculty and department budgets.

Finally, not much seems to have changed concerning the promise of economic salvation and the broader issue of commodification (cf. Radder 2010). In spite of significant objections, the so-called Top Sector policy will be continued. That is to say that a substantial part of the budget of NWO, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (550 million euros for the two years of 2016 and 2017, which is roughly 35% of its yearly budget for research grants), will still be earmarked for research collaboration between publicly funded academics and private, commercial enterprises. Even in the debate on the Dutch Science Agenda, officially advertised as a form of citizen science, the rhetoric of economic salvation is present everywhere (De Graaf, Rinnooy Kan, and Molenaar 2017).

Activism: What Works?

In the last section of the Manifesto, we listed eleven strategies for change. Looking back at the experiences of the past four years in the Netherlands, a combination of the following strategies seems to have worked best (in as far as they have achieved anything at all): inclusion of the unions, which also provides opportunities for legal action; mass demonstrations (in the many large-scale debates and events) and contra-occupations (in which the students have played a very significant role); contra-indicators, such as the new Standard Evaluation Protocol and the new assessment criteria for the humanities; finally, parliamentary and political action, in the form of attempts to engage political parties and government in the cause for a public university. In general terms, a combination of pressure (from unions, protesting students and academics, political parties, media attention) with the development of concrete alternatives for university managers has generated minor reforms.

Assessment: Towards a Public University?

In the Manifesto, we articulated a number of principles for a public university. Unfortunately, apart from the promise to reduce quantitative productivity as an assessment criterion for research, not much progress has been made in the direction of the concrete measures we suggested to establish a more public university. Management has had to withdraw in some places, but overall, the modifications to the devices of the Wolf have remained marginal. Even if current policy promises come true, there will be a little bit less blind indicator fetishism, some more attention for the peculiarities of the humanities, a few per cent less casual labour, a little bit of ground regained for academic democracy, and a little more attention for social issues next to economic research priorities—in the most optimistic of assessments.

Nevertheless, something has shifted. When we wrote the Manifesto, we argued that the Wolf was so powerful, it could simply brush away all criticism as irrelevant, out-dated, or naïve. Protest could be ignored: it was not even necessary to reason with the opposition. This has changed. The Minister of Education visited the occupiers at the University of Amsterdam. Even in the lofty cloud of academic policy makers, there is now talk of social significance beyond economic relevance. Although the National Research Agenda has devolved from an ill-conceived citizen consultation into a venue for lobbying, at least there is the recognition that public deliberation on scientific and scholarly research could be meaningful and not just a matter for investment bankers (Halffman 2017).

In sum, some small progress has been made. Cracks have appeared and dissent has acquired legitimacy, but the tensions that sparked this dissent are still there. The huge wave of activism of 2015 has waned, but the resistance is still significant and much remains to be done.


De Graaf, B., A. Rinnooy Kan, and H. Molenaar, eds. 2017. The Dutch National Research Agenda in perspective: A Reflection on Research and Science Policy in Practice. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Engelen, E., R. Fernandez, and R. Hendrikse. 2014. “How Finance Penetrates its Other: A Cautionary Tale on the Financialization of a Dutch University.” Antipode 46 (4): 1072-1091.

Halffman, W. 2017. “De Nationale Wetenschapsagenda: Leuk Geprobeerd.”

Halffman, W. and H. Radder. 2013. “Het Academisch Manifest: Van een Bezette Naar een Publieke Universiteit.” Krisis: Tijdschrift voor Actuele Filosofie (3): 2-18.

Halffman, W. and H. Radder. 2015. “The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University.” Minerva 53 (2): 165-187.

Hicks, D., P. Wouters, L. Waltman, S. de Rijcke, and I. Rafols. 2015. “The Leiden Manifesto for Research Metrics.” Nature 520 (7548): 429-431.

Platform H.NU. 2017. “Platform Hervorming Nederlandse Universiteiten.” Accessed July 6 2017. 2017. “Quality and Relevance in the Humanities.”

Radder, H., ed. 2010. The Commodification of Academic Research: Science and the Modern University. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Rathenau Instituut. 2017. “Factsheet: aanvraagdruk bij NWO.”

Rethink-UvA. 2017. “UvA Staff for a New University.” Accessed July 6 2017.

Science in Transition. 2017. “Science in Transition—English.” Accessed July 6 2017.

Van der Meulen, B., P.M. Pont, P. Faasse, J. Deuten, and R. Belder. 2015. Keuzes Voor de Toekomst van de Nederlandse Wetenschap: Analyse van Beleidsopties bij Vier Scenario’s. Den Haag: Rathenau Instituut.

Watermeyer, R. and M. Olssen. 2016. “‘Excellence’ and Exclusion: The Individual Costs of Institutional Competitiveness.” Minerva 54 (2): 201-218.

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The Productivist University Goes Global (and So Does Its Resistance)
Willem Halffman and Hans Radder

The model of the productivist university has spread over the globe like wildfire. It organises academic work for maximum ‘output’ at the lowest possible cost, in the spirit of a corporation—even if, mostly and for the time being, still in public ownership. The model is supported and sold by a powerful discourse that promises accountability of researchers and their expenses through rigorous and impartial measurement; improved quality through fierce competition between researchers and their institutes; enhanced ‘efficiency’ in research and higher-education resource allocation; the fostering of ‘excellence’ or ‘top’ research and schooling; economic salvation through a never-ending stream of ‘innovations’; all led by professional managers who have earned their spurs in tougher worlds than leafy university campuses. The model finds its roots in the New Public Management of the 1980s, which advocated running public services like businesses and has allowed corporations to take over public transport, utilities, inspectorates, regulatory bodies, education, health care, and sometimes even police functions and prisons.

The productivist university model is pushed by a variety of believers. There are those with a blanket trust in rugged competition, the universal benefits of markets and the wonders of free enterprise, also on campus. Further to the right of the political spectrum, there are those who see this form of management as a convenient tool to get unruly academics back under state control, safely chained to their production mills. Then there are the ‘realistic’ factions who believe this is the only way to save public universities, to safeguard affordable higher education and research, faced by the massification of higher education and the need to escape the policies of permanent austerity. And then there are the well-intending scores of university administrators, academics-become-managers and policy makers, who have been made to believe that there is no alternative: this is how universities are managed; this is the professional standard. They explain the details to each other at professional conferences and professional training workshops and make sure the model spreads to countries in ‘need of modernisation’, such as aspiring EU candidates or global laggards.

The havoc caused by the productivist university is all around us. In the shadow of its win-win rhetoric lie the hidden costs not expressed in key performance indicators and the unintended, but no less destructive, ‘side-effects’. For those below the pinnacles of performance and recognition, academic employment has become precarious and stressful. Lecturers are expected to invest massively in courses they may not ever teach a second time, because the dynamics of production has already progressed to a ‘higher-quality’ curriculum. In spite of this, they are primarily assessed by their research ‘performance’, often in terms of reified and distorting indicators. Blunt evaluation systems reward researchers and institutes that have found ways to game the system through salami publishing, text recycling, citation rings, or other ways to boost proxy indicators. Academic self-rule through representative boards and councils has to make way for ‘more efficient’ professional managers, taking control over academic work and creating more hierarchical relations—especially as ‘increased autonomy’ of the university comes wrapped in the regimentation of ‘responsibilising’ performance indicators. Meanwhile, management seems obsessed with buildings, hoping one day to develop the real estate portfolio of US Ivy League schools, aggravating the logic of commodification that has penetrated university politics. PR and marketing specialists hope to tap into the international student market, bringing in ‘fresh talent’ and especially fresh scholarship money, while organising a brain drain from countries most in need of that talent. To draw in students, resources are reallocated from actual teaching and student support, to advertising and ‘holiday camp’ facilities. Growth is imperative, as is the belief in the benefits of scale, in ever-larger (but less convivial) research institutes, campuses and classrooms (see Batterbury and Byrne for the case of Australia[22]). In the global pseudo-market of research and education ‘output’, making local cultural and societal contributions is not, or hardly, rewarded. Regularly publishing in newspapers, magazines and non-English academic journals becomes a hobby or a sign of being an academic loser. Societal relevance has become a code word for the acquisition of funding, be it corporate or otherwise.

When we denounced this model in our Academic Manifesto as an occupation of our dear universities by an alien force, the ‘Wolf of management’, we knew the productivist university model had blown over to the Netherlands from the Anglo-American world. But little did we expect our angry Manifesto to resonate so far and wide. We received sympathetic mail from all corners of the world, including countries we presumed far less tainted by the madness of maximising management. We asked our respondents to tell us their stories, to explain what they saw happening in their countries and received thirteen accounts, which we complemented in this collection by our own description of recent events in the Netherlands. These accounts are not systematic and quantitative hypothesis-testing country studies. They are reports both prompted by personal experience and backed by empirical studies and cogent arguments. They tell of colonisation, of how the productivist model creeps in; but also of resistance and protest, sometimes resulting in partial victories. Below are the lessons we draw from these accounts, although ours is but one perspective on a wealth of contributions from widely differing contexts.

Productivism Contextualized

Many authors in this collection agree with Michel Lacroix that the analysis of the Academic Manifesto, recapitulated above in terms of a productivist university (following the term used by Dagnino and Barbosa de Oliveira), triggers a very strong ‘worryingly familiar’ feeling. At the same time, they point to significant contextual variations in the productivist model. As a result of conditions specific to national systems, geo-political regions, or even a specific university, the toolbox of productivism is applied selectively and adapted to local settings. In some places, such as Spain or Belgium (see Aladro Vico; Bogaert, De Craene, Froeyman, Stroobants and Vertommen), a relatively strong academic representation remains in place in the form of elected councils or elected deans, providing some leverage for resistance. However, even if academics are formally in control, the toolbox of productivism still spreads, supporting our uncomfortable observation that, at least partly, we are doing this to ourselves.

Of particular interest is the role of the productivist model in the post-communist context of Eastern Europe. Here, the productivist university is presented as the modern, professional model, shaking up clientelism, driving out free-loaders, while at the same time sneaking in the commodification of knowledge at the expense of local academic culture: see the accounts from Bosnia-Herzegovina (Hibert and Lešić-Thomas), Hungary (Wessely) and Slovakia (Hvorecký, Višňovský and Porubjak). In Hungary specifically, productivism is allied to a strongly authoritarian state that is using the discourse of managerialism to assert its power over liberal (and hence threatening) academics. In our communication with Eastern European academics—not explicitly in these accounts—we were struck by their perception of EU institutions as imposing the productivist model, either under the banner of facilitating student exchange (‘Bologna’) or simply as the paradigm of up-to-date university governance.

However, the idea that productivism is identical to good governance, the ‘right way to do things’ and worth emulating from countries at the top of the global science league, also spreads without such formal pressure. Both from Brazil and Spain (Dagnino and Barbosa de Oliveira; Aladro Vico) come reports of how tools and models are copied as alleged success recipes, but stripped of the stories covering the disadvantages, as if there are no downsides. In these circumstances, accounts of the dark side of productivism from seemingly successful countries such as the Netherlands can apparently help counter the managers’ hurrah.

National legislation and policies are a clear mediating factor in all cases, including the extreme government interference in Japanese universities (see Katsumori), the infamous UK Research Excellence Framework (see Watermeyer), the peculiar position of elite public institutions in France (see Charle) and the intrusive administrative reform attempts in Québec (see Lacroix). The massification of higher education has made university degrees attainable beyond the upper and higher middle classes. At the same time, in the face of an inability of national governments to match this growth in the budget, it has been an important source of tension for which productivist recipes are presented as a solution. Overall, this drives higher education towards (semi-)privatisation through raised fees and increased corporate funding, providing excuses for further public divestment (see Brown describing this logic for the US). These features also point to a certain weakness of our analysis in the Academic Manifesto. Although we briefly acknowledged in a footnote the significance of ‘wide-ranging political and socio-cultural developments’, our primary metaphor was the Wolf of management. Because a notion of the ‘managerial’ university might tend to ignore, or at least underestimate, the importance of wider factors, such as neoliberalist government policy, legislation and worldviews, we now prefer the more comprehensive notion of the productivist university.

Quite specific also is the position of English-speaking countries, which have a particular strategic advantage in the international (graduate) student ‘market’. Among these countries, Australia has attempted to turn the massification of higher education to its benefit, by attracting students from South-East Asia. Under the pressure of austerity politics, the foreign students are heralded as a way to preserve and even boost the position of Australian universities, a manoeuvre facilitated by a move to a more productivist university (see Batterbury and Byrne). Although the English-speaking countries have, in this respect, a strategic advantage, similar processes have occurred in the Netherlands, as we mentioned in our contribution to this collection. Thus, the University of Groningen proudly announces they will be the first ‘mainland European’ university to open a branch campus in China, in collaboration with China Agricultural University, Beijing, and alongside the Dutch dairy company Friesland Campina (University of Groningen 2017). They see China as an ‘enormous growth market for students’ and hope to lure to Groningen a significant number of the 450,000 Chinese students who go to study abroad and will then, of course, pay tuition fees that are  much higher than the Dutch fees (depending on the degree programme, they may be between four and sixteen times higher).

Besides these contextual features, similar elements keep returning when the productivist university goes global. As reorganisations are triggered by budget cuts, economic crises and austerity policies, or even by populist election victories, policy makers look for alternatives and find a model that is believed to work in some remote scientific Shangri-La, at the top of the Shanghai ranking. The country reports include several examples of persistent austerity policies that have hollowed out academic institutions and collegiality, such as in Denmark and Finland (see Välikangas), but probably nowhere as dramatic as in Brazil (see Dagnino and Barbosa de Oliveira). When the state lets down its universities, private capital seems the only way out, along with adventures in financialisation.

How to Resist the Productivist University

Modified by local specificities, accounts of the introduction of the productivist university, either partial or in full deplorable glory, have come to us from many places. Often, they come from academics relieved to find that others share their outrage; that they are not alone in their attempts to resist. Just as the specificities of the productivist university are mediated by local conditions, so are the forms of resistance. Ideally, resistance to the productivist university has three general aims. First, the creation and maintenance of solidarity among students, faculty and support staff. This includes the defence or formation of institutionally embedded democratic structures that guarantee all involved a voice and a vote in significant matters of their concern. Second, in-depth analysis and criticism of the current predicament of the university, complemented by the development of well-considered, concrete alternatives. Third, a variety of activities (primarily, debate and action) aimed at the realization of these alternatives.

In the Manifesto, we identified a long list of examples from labour movements to assess possible action forms against productivism. Which patterns of resistance can be found in our fourteen country reports? We briefly review seven different forms of resistance (or the reasons for their absence).

Democratic Intervention

The accounts from Spain and Belgium show that democratic university and faculty councils and elected deans may not prevent the introduction of productivism. Yet, the case of Spain also demonstrates that they may form crucial platforms from which to resist its most pernicious effects. For this reason, the small extension of the democratic rights of students and staff that resulted from the recent protests in the Netherlands constituted at least a step in the right direction.

Inversely, attempts to remove the institutions or deliberative platforms of academic democracy are a prime tactic to pave the way for productivism, as illustrated by the accounts from Japan and Hungary. Like these accounts, the Slovakian report emphasizes the value of academic democracy and argues for a return of personal integrity and academic freedom. The Bosnian report advocates a revival of some elements of the older Yugoslav socialist tradition, especially the virtues of solidarity and cooperation. In all these reports, opportunities for substantial change are seen to be few or even absent. Of the reasons for this, two stand out: an authoritarian, illiberal national government and an academic culture of passivity, obedience and conformism. The account from the United Kingdom argues that even well-meaning attempts to make the current system of research evaluation more inclusive, in fact conform and contribute to an intrinsically bad way of assessing research achievements.


The most remarkable pattern among the successful strategies to defend the university against productivism in the accounts we collected is the importance of unions, organizing academics, support staff and students. Brazil, Québec, Spain, the United States, Australia, the Netherlands: they all report how unionisation has been vital to counteract the devices of the Wolf. Unions provide a collective bargaining position over work conditions, can investigate and gather evidence, or organise up mass mobilisation for protest. Therefore, there is an important empirical question: how many university employees and how many students are member of a union? In the Netherlands, this is only a small fraction and we are afraid that the situation in most of the other countries is not much better. Still, these accounts suggest that unions are a key factor in successful resistance.

Demonstrations and Critical Action

The aims of demonstrations and critical, public actions by inhabitants of the university may vary. Sometimes it is to raise awareness of a range of problems, both among students, academics, the wider public, and policy-makers and politicians. They may also aim to put pressure on managers or policy makers to solve a particular problem in an appropriate way. Or they may try to enforce basic changes in higher-education politics and laws. The role and impact of these forms of resistance appear to differ significantly in the countries represented in our collection. The United States reports ‘many promising examples of effective advocacy for the values and institutions of public higher education’, especially student activism, resulting in increased public awareness of the current state of higher education in the US. The Netherlands has also seen a big wave of resistance, starting in 2013, culminating in 2015, and continuing now with lower amplitude. Some small, yet significant modifications to productivism have been achieved by providing alternative management strategies, such as the reforms in the new academic career model in development at the Utrecht Medical Centre.

In contrast, mobilising students and academics seems to be more difficult in Australia, due to the dominance of a widespread neoliberal worldview and politics. Also in the cases of Canada, Finland and Slovakia the individualising tactics of the Wolf, which increase competition rather than solidarity, seems to be quite successful. In Hungary, the first and strongest challenge is to defeat the ‘Octopus’, the anti-democratic and anti-intellectual national government, with its hugely destructive tentacles. However, thus far, the impact of demonstrations and critical actions has been small, while legal action is considered but is not seen as very promising.

Strikes and Collective Refusal

A few actual strikes have been reported: from Brazil, Canada and Belgium. We feel that, in the face of deteriorating working conditions, this form of resistance could be exploited more, especially by teaming up with the unions. In the Academic Manifesto, we also surmised the possibility of administrative civil disobedience, with sabotage strategies against petty administrative control measures. From Québec now comes a successful example of this strategy, as meaningless paperwork was withdrawn after a joint disobedience act to systematically report ‘nothing to declare’. Our Belgian colleagues propose collective action against output funding: the strong relation between the number of publications in journals indexed by the commercial company Thomson Reuters (recently sold and rebranded as Clarivate Analytics by investment bankers) and the public funds allocated to a university. If academics would stop mentioning their institutional affiliation in their publications and presentations, institutional output counting would be subverted without endangering individual careers. Such acts of non-cooperation are a powerful reminder that many of the productivist instruments are implemented with our assistance. At the same time, they remind us of the fact that these forms of resistance can only succeed if there exists a substantial measure of solidarity: many, or even most of the people involved should be prepared to participate.


The only reported contra-occupations took place in Spain and in the Netherlands. Yet, from other sources we hear that every so often they do occur in Brazil as well. It is primarily the younger generation of students who play an indispensable role in these strongly physical events. The Spanish and Dutch occupations have been quite successful in raising the awareness (of academics, politicians and the wider public) concerning the predicament of the universities, but they have not (yet) led to solutions to the big, fundamental problems.


Brain drain is a common form of exit: leaving your country because the situation elsewhere is perceived to be more promising. Another form of exit may happen even more frequently: frustrated or resigned young academics who decide to leave academia after their n-th brief and temporary teaching contract and/or their n-th rejected application for research money. Forms of exit have been mentioned in the reports from Finland, Slovakia and Australia, but they surely occur in many other countries as well. However, even if individuals may have good reasons for both forms of exit, individual resignation does not constitute an effective form of resistance, as we already stated in the Academic Manifesto.

Contra-Indicators and the Power of Humour

The only examples of contra-indicators come from the Netherlands, in the form of alternatives to the h-factor and specific assessment criteria for the humanities. In the Manifesto, we also advocated the development of more playful counter-measures. No doubt, the many forms of in-depth argument, serious debate and ‘hard’ action reviewed thus far, are necessary for effecting significant change. But will they also be sufficient for mobilising the silent majority? And will they be sufficient for keeping alive our own motivation in the face of (unavoidable) barriers and disappointments? Perhaps not. For these purposes, more playful actions may be equally important, showing that the emperor wears no clothes.

Last year, for instance, the Platform for the Reform of Dutch Universities organized a ranking-the-slogans contest (Platform H.NU 2016a). We collected all PR slogans of the Dutch universities on our website with a button to vote for the worst of them. At the same time, we approached newspapers and university magazines to make the action widely known. Finally, we calculated the scores, published the results of the contest and delivered the prizes at the governing boards of the two ‘winning’ universities.[23] We also offered a ‘random slogan generator’, based on an arbitrary selection of slogan clichés, to provide university management with a free alternative to expensive marketing bureaus (Platform H.NU 2016b).

The more serious, underlying aim of this playful action is, of course, a strong critique of the university as an ordinary commercial enterprise. Its particular target is the forceful and costly promotion of universities through extensive marketing and PR departments and branding campaigns. Ideally, this action should be accompanied by quantitative analyses of how much public money is being wasted in this way. The reports show that PR and marketing is seen to be a crucial task of universities in many countries. For this reason, similar playful actions could be appropriate and effective in other countries. They may make an indispensable contribution to raising public awareness and keeping up our own spirits.


As the productivist university goes global, people in academic institutions are beginning to realise that their struggles are not just against the mischief of a local phenomenon. Productivist recipes have spread fast, but the stories and analyses of their downsides are also catching up quickly. Our objective was to spread not just the analysis of what is wrong, but also of what can be done about it. The accounts from fourteen countries offer an overview of successful forms of action. Unions seem to play a crucial role, in many of the reports, but we think there is much in them that may assist the struggles you are facing in your own academic environment.

Which further steps could be made? More country accounts would be helpful: more reports on resistance strategies followed and tactics tested. It would be particularly interesting to get more stories from South-East Asia, a rich and fast-growing culture of research and higher education that has remained beyond our scope so far. The Middle East and African countries would also be interesting, for example covering the extensive political action at South African universities in recent years. Perhaps a next step could be to develop more systematic comparisons, but for now a geographic expansion of our coverage seems to be most useful.

Another major task will be to develop an outline of a radical alternative for the future, the features of a university that is profoundly public, proudly academic, but also financially sustainable. This is no mean feat, but as the next series of reorganisations comes around, you too may find yourself in need of a more inspiring vision than that of the productivist university.


Platform H.NU. 2016a. “Rijksuniversiteit Groningen Heeft Domste Universitaire Reclameleus.” Accessed July 10 2017.

Platform H.NU. 2016b. “University Slogan Generator.” Accessed July 10 2017.

University of Groningen. 2017. “University of Groningen to Start First Dutch Branch Campus in China.” Accessed July 10 2017.

[1] Michel Lacroix is Professor in Literary Studies at the Département d’études littéraires, Université du Québec à Montréal. His current research focuses on literary and scholarly periodicals, the sociology of literary groups, and transatlantic intellectual networks. He is also a union officer at UQAM.

[2] Mark B. Brown is Professor in the Department of Government at California State University, Sacramento. He is the author of Science in Democracy: Expertise, Institutions, and Representation (MIT Press, 2009), and various publications on the politics of expertise, political representation, bioethics, climate change, and related topics. He teaches courses on modern and contemporary political theory, democratic theory, and the politics of science, technology, and the environment.

[3] Renato Dagnino: Professor in the areas of Innovation Policy Analysis and Public Management at the Department of Science and Technology Policy (State University of Campinas—Unicamp), of which he was one of the organizers in the late 1970s. He has been a visiting professor at several Latin American universities. His most important books are Science and Technology in Brazil: The Decision-Making Process and the Research Community; Neutrality of Science and Technological Determinism; Social Technology: Conceptual and Methodological Contributions; The Defense Industry in the Lula Government and Strategic Public Management.
Marcos Barbosa de Oliveira: BSc in Physics (University of São Paulo (USP), 1970); PhD in History and Philosophy of Science (University of London, 1981). Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education, USP, until retirement in 2014. Now assistant lecturer at the Philosophy Graduate Programme (USP). Researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies (IEA-USP), member of the Philosophy, History and Sociology of Science and Technology research group. Member of Associação Filosófica Scientiae Studia. Recent publications in English: “On the Commodification of Science: The Programmatic Dimension” and “Technology and Basic Science: The Linear Model of Innovation.”;

[4] Makoto Katsumori is Professor of Philosophy, Faculty of Education and Human Studies, Akita University, Japan.

[5] Simon Batterbury is Professor of Political Ecology, Lancaster University and Principal Fellow, School of Geography, University of Melbourne. He has taught for 24 years in the UK, USA and Australia (including three years in program management). He has edited the free online Journal of Political Ecology since 2003.
Jason Byrne is Associate Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, Griffith University, Australia.

[6] Mario Hibert, PhD, since 2006 teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature and Librarianship, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Sarajevo. He holds a doctoral degree in information and communication science, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb, Croatia; and has a Master’s Degree in Human Rights and Democracy from the Center for Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Studies, University of Sarajevo/University of Bologna. He explores the critical issues of librarianship, networked society, digital culture and information ethics.
Andrea Lešić-Thomas, PhD, has studied (Belgrade and London), taught (School of Slavonic and East European Studies and Queen Mary, both University of London, and currently Philosophy Faculty, University of Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina) and written on comparative literature (Russian, French and South Slav literatures) and literary theory (in particular structuralism, narratology, and Bakhtin, as well as memory studies). She currently teaches literary theory at the University of Sarajevo, and conducts research on memory studies, cognitive poetics, love stories, and vampires. She is the author of the book Bahtin, Bart, strukturalizam: književnost kao spoznaja i mogućnost slobode. Beograd: Službeni Glasnik, 2011.

7 The official website of the University of Sarajevo, however, on the page detailing the history of the University, seems to imply that the institution draws its legacy from the founding of the Gazi Husrev-Bey’s Library in the 16th Century, as well as in the founding of various Seminaries (even though theology Faculties—Islamic, Catholic and Orthodox—have become the official members of the University only in the last few years) and of the National Museum in the 19th Century. This muddling of chronology is itself a sign of the muddled state of affairs (University of Sarajevo 2017).

8 Andrea’s father’s early career is a good example of this; a few years after World War II, he was amongst the crop of talented pupils who were, by government decree, picked out of grammar schools and enrolled in secondary schools which trained primary school teachers; upon graduation, aged 18, he was allocated to the primary school in the small town of Kreševo; two years later, a school inspector decided he was wasted in the small town and its primary school, and decreed him more suited to university study and an academic career; so, again by decree, he was amongst the first students of the Faculty of Philosophy where both Mario and Andrea now teach. This kind of detailed social engineering was not sustained for very long, but did remain as background logic to why people attended university in the first place.

9 Our translation of the Academic Manifesto was published in Pregled (Halffman and Radder 2015), the main academic publication for the social sciences of our university, in an issue which serves as the proceedings of a round table entitled ‘The Role and Place of Public Universities in Bosnia-Herzegovina’. The round table itself represented all sorts of views (from elderly academics defending the Humboldtian university to PhD students arguing that customer/student surveys show that customers/students are most satisfied if their institution has a plan for strategic development, above the quality of teaching and access to good libraries or laboratories, above even the good price of beer in the student cafeteria); it has been, as far as we are aware, completely ineffectual in terms of any policy impact, beneficial or malevolent, and at the time mostly served as a ritualistic airing of views.

[10] Anna Wessely, PhD, is art historian and sociologist. She is University Lecturer at Eötvös Loránd University and at the Fine Arts University in Budapest, President of the Hungarian Sociological Association, and Editor-in-Chief of the quarterly journal BUKSZ (Budapest Review of Books).

[11] Jozef Hvorecký, PhD, is Professor of Information Science at the High School of Management/City University of Seattle located in Trenčín, Slovakia, and an Honorary Lecturer at the University of Liverpool, UK.
Emil Višňovský, PhD, is Professor of Philosophy at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.
Matúš Porubjak, PhD, is Associate Professor of philosophy at University of Ss Cyril and Methodius in Trnava, Slovakia.

[12] Anita Välikangas is Doctoral Researcher at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Social Sciences. She is currently writing her doctoral dissertation on the connection between scientific research and policy making at the Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences (TINT).

[13] Richard Watermeyer is a Reader in Education at the University of Bath, UK. He is a sociologist of education (knowledge, science and expertise) with general interests in education policy, practice and pedagogy. He is specifically engaged with critical sociologies of higher education and a focus on new conceptualizations of academic praxis and the current and future role of the (public) university, particularly in the context of the marketization, globalization and neoliberalization of higher education.

[14] The formal timetable for REF2021 is still to be agreed.

15 Reported figures put the total cost of REF2014 at somewhere in the region of £240 million.

[16] Koen Bogaert is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Middle East and North Africa Research Group at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences at Ghent University, Belgium.
Valerie De Craene is a PhD student at the division of Geography and Tourism at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Leuven University, Belgium.
Anton Froeyman is a former academic (and now a free-lance academic consultant), who until 2016 worked as a Post-Doc at the Centre for Logic and Philosophy of Science at the Faculty of Arts & Humanities in Ghent University, Belgium.
Karen Stroobants is a Post-Doctoral researcher at the Centre for Protein Misfolding Diseases at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge and a former PhD student at the Department of Chemistry at Leuven University.
Sigrid Vertommen is a Teaching Assistant at the Middle East and North Africa Research Group at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences at Ghent University, Belgium.

[17] The money universities receive is denoted by means of different ‘streams’. The first stream consists of direct donations from the government to the universities. The second stream consists of bottom-up competitive funding for individual researchers (i.e. grants), the third stream is formed by money coming from top-down projects (from the government or the industry), and the fourth stream (which in Flanders is by far the smallest) consists of donations to the university by individuals (wealthy alumni, for example).

[18] Eva Aladro Vico is Director of the Department of Journalism III, Faculty of Information Sciences, at Complutense University Madrid; professor in Information and Communication Theory; Coordinator of the academic journal CIC Cuadernos de Información y Comunicación (Latindex, IBSS, WPCA, SA, Ebsco, Ulrich’s, DOAJ); Director of the research group Communicative Structures and Interactions Between the Different Levels of Interpersonal Communication, and autor of several academic articles and books, including̔ The 10 Laws of Information Theory (2015) and Digital Language: A Generative Grammar (2017). She is also a writer, a blogger and cultural activist.

[19] Christophe Charle, born in 1951, studies in Sorbonne and the École normale supérieure (Ulm); Senior Researcher at the CNRS (1978-1991); Professor of Modern History in Lyons and at Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne University since 1993; Director of the Institut d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 2000-2013; silver medal of the CNRS (2001); Senior member of the Institut universitaire de France (2003-2013). President of the Association de réflexion sur les enseignements supérieurs et la recherche (ARESER) ( Recent books: Histoire des Universités with J. Verger. Paris: PUF, 2012; Homo Historicus, Paris: A. Colin, 2013; La Dérégulation Culturelle, Essai D’histoire des Cultures en Europe au XIXe Siècle, Paris: PUF, 2015; editor of Histoire de la Vie Intellectuelle en France (XIXe-XXIe Siècle) with L. Jeanpierre, Paris: Seuil, 2016, 2 volumes.
This report translated from the French by Willem Halffman.

[20] Willem Halffman is Associate Professor at the Institute of Science, Innovation and Society of Radboud University, Nijmegen.
Hans Radder is Professor (Emeritus) at the Department of Philosophy, VU University Amsterdam.

21 In the area of teaching, micromanaging academics through the use of digitalized, quantitative systems is still rampant, and in some places even increasing.

[22] Mere names refer to the country reports in this collection.

[23] More than 3,200 people voted. Proud winner was the University of Groningen (Born leaders reach for infinity); the University of Amsterdam (We are U) scored an honourable second place, while VU University Amsterdam ended fourth with its profound Looking further.

Author Information:Erik Baker and Naomi Oreskes, Harvard University,,

Baker, Erik and Naomi Oreskes. “It’s No Game: Post-Truth and the Obligations of Science Studies.”[1] Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 1-10.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image credit: Walt Stoneburner, via flickr

In late April, 2017, the voice of a once-eminent institution of American democracy issued a public statement that embodied the evacuation of norms of truth and mutual understanding from American political discourse that since the 2016 presidential election has come to be known as “post-truth.” We aren’t talking about Donald Trump, whose habitual disregard of factual knowledge is troubling, to be sure, and whose advisor, Kellyanne Conway, made “alternative facts” part of the lexicon. Rather, we’re referring to the justification issued by New York Times opinion page editor James Bennet in defense of his decision to hire columnist Bret Stephens, a self-styled “climate agnostic,” and his spreading talking points of the fossil fuel industry-funded campaign to cast doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change and the integrity of climate scientists.[2] The notion of truth made no appearance in Bennet’s statement. “If all of our columnists and all of our contributors and all of our editorials agreed all the time,” he explained, “we wouldn’t be promoting the free exchange of ideas, and we wouldn’t be serving our readers very well.”[3] The intellectual merits of Stephens’ position are evidently not the point. What counts is only the ability to grease the gears of the “free exchange of ideas.”

Bennet’s defense exemplifies the ideology of the “marketplace of ideas,” particularly in its recent, neoliberal incarnation. Since the 1970s, it has become commonplace throughout much of Europe and America to evince suspicion of attempts to build public consensus about facts or values, regardless of motivation, and to maintain that the role of public-sphere institutions—including newspapers and universities—is simply to place as many private opinions as possible into competition (“free exchange”) with one another.[4] If it is meaningful to talk about a “post-truth” moment, this ideological development is surely among its salient facets. After all, “truth” has not become any more or less problematic as an evaluative concept in private life, with its countless everyday claims about the world. Only public truth claims, especially those with potential to form a basis for collective action, now seem newly troublesome. To the extent that the rise of “post-truth” holds out lessons for science studies, it is not because the discipline has singlehandedly swung a wrecking ball through conventional epistemic wisdom (as some practitioners would perhaps like to imagine[5]), but because the broader rise of marketplace-of-ideas thinking has infected even some of its most subversive-minded work.

Science as Game

In this commentary, we address and critique a concept commonly employed in theoretical science studies that is relevant to the contemporary situation: science as game. While we appreciate both the theoretical and empirical considerations that gave rise to this framework, we suggest that characterizing science as a game is epistemically and politically problematic. Like the notion of a broader marketplace of ideas, it denies the public character of factual knowledge about a commonly accessible world. More importantly, it trivializes the significance of the attempt to obtain information about that world that is as right as possible at a given place and time, and can be used to address and redress significant social issues. The result is the worst of both worlds, permitting neither criticism of scientific claims with any real teeth, nor the possibility of collective action built on public knowledge.[6] To break this stalemate, science studies must become more comfortable using concepts like truth, facts, and reality outside of the scare quotes to which they are currently relegated, and accepting that the evaluation of knowledge claims must necessarily entail normative judgments.[7]

Philosophical talk of “games” leads directly to thoughts of Wittgenstein, and to the scholar most responsible for introducing Wittgenstein to science studies, David Bloor. While we have great respect for Bloor’s work, we suggest that it carries uncomfortable similarities between the concept of science as a game in science studies and the neoliberal worldview. In his 1997 Wittgenstein, Rules and Institutions, Bloor argues for an analogy between his interpretation of the later Wittgenstein’s theory of meaning (central to Bloor’s influential writing on science) and the theory of prices of the neoliberal pioneer Ludwig von Mises. “The notion of the ‘real meaning’ of a concept or a sign deserves the same scorn as economists reserve for the outdated and unscientific notion of the ‘real’ or ‘just’ price of a commodity,” Bloor writes. “The only real price is the price paid in the course of real transactions as they proceed von Fall zu Fall. There is no standard outside these transactions.”[8] This analogy is the core of the marketplace of ideas concept, as it would later be developed by followers of von Mises, particularly Friedrich von Hayek. Just as there is no external standard of value in the world of commodities, there is no external standard of truth, such as conformity to an empirically accessible reality, in the world of science.[9] It is “scientism” (a term that von Hayek popularized) to invoke support for scientific knowledge claims outside of the transactions of the marketplace of ideas. Just as, for von Hayek and von Mises, the notion of economic justice falls in the face of the wisdom of the marketplace, so too does the notion of truth, at least as a regulative ideal to which any individual or finite group of people can sensibly aspire.

Contra Bloor (and von Hayek), we believe that it is imperative to think outside the sphere of market-like interactions in assessing both commodity prices and conclusions about scientific concepts. The prices of everything from healthcare and housing to food, education and even labor are hot-button political and social issues precisely because they affect people’s lives, sometimes dramatically, and because markets do not, in fact, always values these goods and services appropriately. Markets can be distorted and manipulated. People may lack the information necessary to judge value (something Adam Smith himself worried about). Prices may be inflated (or deflated) for reasons that bear little relation to what people value. And, most obviously in the case of environmental issues, the true cost of economic activity may not be reflected in market prices, because pollution, health costs, and other adverse effects are externalized. There is a reason why Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank, has called climate change the “greatest market failure ever seen.”[10] Markets can and do fail. Prices do not always reflect value. Perhaps most important, markets refuse justice and fairness as categories of analysis. As Thomas Piketty has recently emphasized, capitalism typically leads to great inequalities of wealth, and this can only be critiqued by invoking normative standards beyond the values of the marketplace.[11]

External normative standards are indispensable in a world where the outcome of the interactions within scientific communities matter immensely to people outside those communities. This requirement functions both in the defense of science, where appropriate, and the critique of it.[12] The history of scientific racism and sexism, for example, speaks to the inappropriateness of public deference to all scientific claims, and the necessity of principled critique.[13] Yet, the indispensability of scientific knowledge to political action in contemporary societies also demands the development of standards that justify public acceptance of certain scientific claims as definitive enough to ground collective projects, such as the existence of a community-wide consensus or multiple independent lines of evidence for the same conclusion.[14] (Indeed, we regard the suggestion of standards for the organization of scientific communities by Helen Longino as one of the most important contributions of the field of social epistemology.[15])

Although we reject any general equivalency between markets and scientific communities, we agree they are indeed alike in one key way: they both need regulation. As Jürgen Habermas once wrote in critique of Wittgenstein, “language games only work because they presuppose idealizations that transcend any particular language game; as a necessary condition of possibly reaching understanding, these idealizations give rise to the perspective of an agreement that is open to criticism on the basis of validity claims.”[16] Collective problem-solving requires that these sorts of external standards be brought to bear. The example of climate change illustrates our disagreement with Bloor (and von Mises) on both counts in one fell swoop. Though neither of us is a working economist, we nonetheless maintain that it is rational—on higher-order grounds external to the social “game” of the particular disciplines—for governments to impose a price on carbon (i.e., a carbon tax or emissions trading system), in part because we accept that the natural science consensus on climate change accurately describes the physical world we inhabit, and the social scientific consensus that a carbon pricing system could help remedy the market failure that is climate change.[17]

Quietism and Critique

We don’t want to unfairly single out Bloor. The science-as-game view—and its uncomfortable resonances with marketplace-of-ideas ideology—crops up in the work of many prominent science studies scholars, even some who have quarreled publicly with Bloor and the strong programme. Bruno Latour, for example, one of Bloor’s sharpest critics, draws Hayekian conclusions from different methodological premises. While Bloor invokes social forces to explain the outcome of scientific games,[18] Latour rejects the very idea of social forces. Rather, he claims, as Margaret Thatcher famously insisted, that “there is no such thing as ‘the social’ or ‘a society.’”[19] But whereas Thatcher at least acknowledged the existence of family, for Latour there are only monadic actants, competing “agonistically” with each other until order spontaneously emerges from the chaos, just as in a game of Go (an illustration of which graces the cover of his seminal first book Laboratory Life, with Steve Woolgar).[20] Social structures, evaluative norms, even “publics,” in his more recent work, are all chimeras, devoid of real meaning until this networked process has come to fulfillment. If that view might seem to make collective action for wide-reaching social change difficult to conceive, Latour agrees: “Seen as networks, … the modern world … permits scarcely anything more than small extensions of practices, slight accelerations in the circulation of knowledge, a tiny extension of societies, miniscule increases in the number of actors, small modifications of old beliefs.”[21] Rather than planning political projects with any real vision or bite—or concluding that a particular status-quo might be problematic, much less illegitimate—one should simply be patient, play the never-ending networked game, and see what happens.[22] But a choice for quietism is a choice nonetheless—“we are condemned to act,” as Immanuel Wallerstein once put it—one that supports and sustains the status quo.[23] Moreover, a sense of humility or fallibility by no means requires us to exaggerate the inevitability of the status quo or yield to the power of inertia.[24]

Latour has at least come clean about his rejection of any aspiration to “critique.”[25] But others who haven’t thrown in the towel have still been led into a similar morass by their commitment to a marketlike or playful view of science. The problem is that, if normative judgments external to the game are illegitimate, analysts are barred from making any arguments for or against particular views or practices. Only criticism of their premature exclusion from the marketplace is permitted. This standpoint interprets Bloor’s famous call for symmetry not so much as a methodological principle in intellectual analysis, but as a demand for the abandonment of all forms of epistemic and normative judgment, leading to the bizarre sight of scholars championing a widely-criticized “scientific” or intellectual cause while coyly refusing to endorse its conclusions themselves. Thus we find Bruno Latour praising the anti-environmentalist Breakthrough Institute while maintaining that he “disagrees with them all the time;” Sheila Jasanoff defending the use of made-to-order “litigation science” in courtrooms on the grounds of a scrupulous “impartiality” that rejects scholarly assessments of intellectual integrity or empirical adequacy in favor of letting “the parties themselves do more of the work of demarcation;” and Steve Fuller defending creationists’ insistence that their views should be taught in American science classrooms while remaining ostensibly “neutral” on the scientific question at issue.[26]

Fuller’s defense of creationism, in particular, shows the way that calls for “impartiality” are often in reality de facto side-taking: Fuller takes rhetorical tropes directly out of the creationist playbook, including his tendentious and anachronistic labelling of modern evolutionary biologists as “Darwinists.” Moreover, despite his explicit endorsement of the game view of science, Fuller refuses to accept defeat for the intelligent design project, either within the putative game of science, or in the American court system, which has repeatedly found the teaching of creationism to be unconstitutional. Moreover, Fuller’s insistence that creationism somehow has still not received a “fair run for its money” reveals that even he cannot avoid importing external standards (in this case fairness) to evaluate scientific results! After all, who ever said that science was fair?

In short, science studies scholars’ ascetic refusal of standards of good and bad science in favor of emergent judgments immanent to the “games” they analyze has vitiated critical analysis in favor of a weakened proceduralism that has struggled to resist the recent advance of neoliberal and conservative causes in the sciences. It has led to a situation where creationism is defended as an equally legitimate form of science, where the claims of think tanks that promulgate disinformation are equated with the claims of academic scientific research institutions, and corporations that have knowingly suppressed information pertinent to public health and safety are viewed as morally and epistemically equivalent to the plaintiffs who are fighting them. As for Fuller, leaving the question of standards unexamined and/ or implicit, and relying instead on the rhetoric of the “game,” enables him to avoid the challenge of defending a demonstrably indefensible position on its actual merits.

Where the Chips Fall

In diverse cases, key evaluative terms—legitimacy, disinformation, precedent, evidence, adequacy, reproducibility, natural (vis-à-vis supernatural), and yes, truth—have been so relativized and drained of meaning that it starts to seem like a category error even to attempt to refute equivalency claims. One might argue that this is alright: as scholars, we let the chips fall where they may. The problem, however, is that they do not fall evenly. The winner of this particular “game” is almost always status quo power: the conservative billionaires, fossil fuel companies, lead and benzene and tobacco manufacturers and others who have bankrolled think tanks and “litigation science” at the cost of biodiversity, human health and even human lives.[27] Scientists paid by the lead industry to defend their toxic product are not just innocently trying to have their day in court; they are trying to evade legal responsibility for the damage done by their products. The fossil fuel industry is not trying to advance our understanding of the climate system; they are trying to block political action that would decrease societal dependence on their products. But there is no way to make—much less defend—such claims without a robust concept of evidence.

Conversely, the communities, already victimized by decades of poverty and racial discrimination, who rely on reliable science in their fight for their children’s safety are not unjustly trying to short-circuit a process of “demarcation” better left to the adversarial court system.[28] It is a sad irony that STS, which often sees itself as championing the subaltern, has now in many cases become the intellectual defender of those who would crush the aspirations of ordinary people.

Abandoning the game view of science won’t require science studies scholars to reinvent the wheel, much less re-embrace Comtean triumphalism. On the contrary, there are a wide variety of perspectives from the history of epistemology, philosophy of science, and feminist, anti-racist, and anti-colonialist theory that permit critique that can be both epistemic and moral. One obvious source, championed by intellectual historians such as James Kloppenberg and philosophers such as Hilary Putnam and Jürgen Habermas, is the early American pragmatism of John Dewey and William James, a politically constructive alternative to both naïve foundationalism and the textualist rejection of the concept of truth found in the work of more recent “neo-pragmatists” like Richard Rorty.[29] Nancy Cartwright, Thomas Uebel, and John O’Neill have similarly reminded us of the intellectual and political potential in the (widely misinterpreted, when not ignored) “left Vienna Circle” philosophy of Otto Neurath.[30]

In a slightly different vein, Charles Mills, inspired in part by the social science of W.E.B. Du Bois, has insisted on the importance of a “veritistic” epistemological stance in characterizing the ignorance produced by white supremacy.[31] Alison Wylie has emphasized the extent to which many feminist critics of science “are by no means prepared to concede that their accounts are just equal but different alternatives to those they challenge,” but in fact often claim that “research informed by a feminist angle of vision … is simply better in quite conventional terms.”[32] Steven Epstein’s work on AIDS activism demonstrates that social movements issuing dramatic challenges to biomedical and scientific establishments can make good use of unabashed claims to genuine knowledge and “lay” expertise. Epstein’s work also serves as a reminder that moral neutrality is not the only, much less the best, route to rigorous scholarship.[33] Science studies scholars could also benefit from looking outside their immediate disciplinary surroundings to debates about poststructuralism in the analysis of (post)colonialism initiated by scholars like Benita Parry and Masao Miyoshi, as well as the emerging literature in philosophy and sociology about the relationship of the work of Michel Foucault to neoliberalism.[34]

For our own part, we have been critically exploring the implications of the institutional and financial organization of science during the Cold War and the recent neoliberal intensification of privatization in American society.[35] We think that this work suggests a further descriptive inadequacy in the science-as-game view, in addition to the normative inadequacies we have already described. In particular, it drives home the extent to which the structure of science is not constant. From the longitudinal perspective available to history, as opposed to sociological or ethnographic snapshot, it is possible to resolve the powerful societal forces—government, industry, and so on—driving changes in the way science operates, and to understand the way those scientific changes relate to broader political-economic imperatives and transformations. Rather than throwing up one’s hands and insisting that incommensurable particularity is all there is, science studies scholars might instead take a theoretical position that will allow us to characterize and respond to the dramatic transformations of academic work that are happening right now, and from which the humanities are by no means exempt.[36]

Academics must not treat themselves as isolated from broader patterns of social change, or worse, deny that change is a meaningful concept outside of the domain of microcosmic fluctuations in social arrangements. Powerful reactionary forces can reshape society and science (and reshape society through science) in accordance with their values; progressive movements in and outside of science have the potential to do the same. We are concerned that the “game” view of science traps us instead inside a Parmenidean field of homogenous particularity, an endless succession of games that may be full of enough sound and fury to interest scholars but still signify nothing overall.

Far from rendering science studies Whiggish or simply otiose, we believe that a willingness to discriminate, outside of scare quotes, between knowledge and ignorance or truth and falsity is vital for a scholarly agenda that respects one of the insights that scholars like Jasanoff have repeatedly and compellingly championed: in contemporary democratic polities, science matters. In a world where physicists state that genetic inferiority is the cause of poverty among black Americans, where lead paint manufacturers insist that their product does no harm to infants and children, and actresses encourage parents not to vaccinate their children against infectious diseases, an inability to discriminate between information and disinformation—between sense and nonsense (as the logical positivists so memorably put it)—is not simply an intellectual failure. It is a political and moral failure as well.

The Brundtland Commission famously defined “sustainable development” as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Like the approach we are advocating here, this definition treats the empirical and the normative as enfolded in one another. It sees them not as constructions that emerge stochastically in the fullness of time, but as questions that urgently demand robust answers in the present. One reason science matters so much in the present moment is its role in determining which activities are sustainable, and which are not. But if scientists are to make such judgments, then we, as science studies scholars, must be able to judge the scientists—positively as well as critically. Lives are at stake. We are not here merely to stand on the sidelines insisting that all we can do is ensure that all voices are heard, no matter how silly, stupid, or nefarious.

[1] We would like to thank Robert Proctor, Mott Greene, and Karim Bschir for reading drafts and providing helpful feedback on this piece.

[2] For an analysis of Stephens’ column, see Robert Proctor and Steve Lyons, “Soft Climate Denial at The New York Times,” Scientific American, May 8, 2017; for the history of the campaign to cast doubt on climate change science, see Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury Press, 2010); for information on the funding of this campaign, see in particular Robert J. Bruelle, “Institutionalizing delay: foundation funding and the creation of U.S. climate change counter-movement organizations,” Climatic Change 122 (4), 681–694, 2013.

[3] Accessible at

[4] For the recency of the concept, see Stanley Ingber, “The Marketplace of Ideas: A Legitimizing Myth,” Duke Law Journal, February 1984. The significance of the epistemological valorization of the marketplace of ideas to the broader neoliberal project has been increasingly well-understood by historians of neoliberalism; it is an emphasis, for instance, to the approach taken by the contributors to Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, eds., The Road from Mont Pèlerin (Harvard, 2009), especially Mirowski’s “Postface.”

[5] Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry vol. 30 (Winter 2004).

[6] See for instance John Ziman, Public Knowledge: An Essay Concerning the Social Dimension of Science (Cambridge University Press, 1968); as well as the many more recent perspectives we hold up below as exemplary of alternative approaches.

[7] Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. “Perspectives on global warming: A Book Symposium with Steven Yearley, David Mercer, and Andy Pitman.” Metascience vol. 21, pp. 531-559, 2012.

[8] David Bloor, Wittgenstein, Rules and Institutions (Routledge, 1997), pp. 76-77.

[9] As suggested by Helen Longino in The Future of Knowledge (Princeton University Press, 2001) as an alternative to the more vexed notion of “correspondence,” wrought with metaphysical difficulties Longino hopes to skirt. In Austrian economics, this rejection of the search for empirical, factual knowledge initially took the form, in von Mises’ thought, of the ostensibly purely deductive reasoning he called “praxaeology,” which was supposed to analytically uncover the imminent principles governing the economic game. Von Hayek went further, arguing that economics at its most rigorous merely theoretically explicates the limits of positive knowledge about empirical social realities. See, for instance, Friedrich von Hayek, “On Coping with Ignorance,” Ludwig von Mises Lecture, 1978.

[10] Nicholas H. Stern, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[11] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard/Belknap, 2013). In addition to critiquing market outcomes, philosophers have also invoked concepts of justice and fairness to challenge the extension of markets to new domains; see for example Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013) and Harvey Cox, The Market as God (Harvard University Press, 2016). This is also a theme in the Papal Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality, Laudato Si.

[12] For more on this point, see Naomi Oreskes, “Systematicity is Necessary but Not Sufficient: On the Problem of Facsimile Science,” in press, Synthèse.

[13] See among others Helen Longino, Science as Social Knowledge (Princeton University Press, 1990); Londa Schiebinger, Has Feminism Changed Science? (Harvard University Press, 1999); Sandra Harding, Science and Social Inequality: Feminist and Postcolonial Issues (University of Illinois Press, 2006); Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (Routledge, 1989); Evelynn Hammonds and Rebecca Herzig, The Nature of Difference: Sciences of Race in the United States from Jefferson to Genomics (MIT Press, 2008).

[14] Naomi Oreskes, “Trust in Science?” Tanner Lecture on Human Values, Princeton University, November 30, 2016; Naomi Oreskes, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change: How Do We Know We’re Not Wrong?” in Joseph F. C. DiMento and Pamela Doughman, eds., Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren (MIT Press, 2007), pp. 65-99.

[15] Helen Longino, Science as Social Knowledge (Princeton University Press, 1990), and The Future of Knowledge (Princeton University Press, 2001).

[16] Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (MIT Press, 1984), p. 199.

[17] See, for instance, Naomi Oreskes, “Without government, the market will not solve climate change: Why a meaningful carbon tax may be our only hope,” Scientific American (December 22, 2015), Naomi Oreskes and Jeremy Jones, “Want to protect the climate? Time for carbon pricing,” Boston Globe (May 3, 2017).

[18] Along with a purportedly empirical component that, as Latour has compellingly argued, is “canceled out” out of the final analysis because of its common presence to both parties in a dispute. See Bruno Latour, “For Bloor and Beyond: a Reply to David Bloor’s Anti-Latour,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 30 (1), pp.113-129, March 1998.

[19] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 5; this theme is an emphasis of his entire oeuvre. On Thatcher, see and James Meek, Private Island (Verso, 2014).

[20] Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (Routledge, 1979/1986); Bruno Latour, Science in Action (Harvard University Press, 1987). In Laboratory Life this emergence of order from chaos is explicitly analyzed as the outcome of a kind of free market in scientific “credit.” Spontaneous order is one of the foundational themes of Hayekian thought, and the game of Go is an often-employed analogy there as well. See, for instance, Peter Boettke, “The Theory of Spontaneous Order and Cultural Evolution in the Social Theory of F.A. Hayek,” Cultural Dynamics, vol. 3 (1), pp. 61-83, 1990; Gustav von Hertzen, The Spirit of the Game (CE Fritzes AB, 1993), especially chapter 4.

[21] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 47-48; for his revision of the notion of the public, see for example Latour’s Politics of Nature (Harvard University Press, 2004). For a more in-depth discussion of Latour vis-à-vis neoliberalism, see Philip Mirowski, “What Is Science Critique? Part 1: Lessig, Latour,” keynote address to Workshop on the Changing Political Economy of Research and Innovation, UCSD, March 2015.

[22] Our criticism here is not merely hypothetical. Latour’s long-time collaborator Michel Callon and the legal scholar David S. Caudill, for example, have both used Latourian actor-network theory to argue that critics of the privatization of science such as Philip Mirowski are mistaken and analysts should embrace, or at least concede the inevitability of, “hybrid” science that responds strongly to commercial interests. See Michel Callon, “From Science as an Economic Activity to Socioeconomics of Scientific Research,” in Philip Mirowski and Esther-Mirjam Sent, eds. Science Bought and Sold (University of Chicago Press, 2002); and David S. Caudill, “Law, Science, and the Economy: One Domain?” UC Irvine Law Review vol. 5 (393), pp. 393-412, 2015.

[23] Immanuel Wallerstein, The Essential Wallerstein (The New Press, 2000), p. 432.

[24] Naomi Oreskes, “On the ‘reality’ and reality of anthropogenic climate change,” Climatic Change vol. 119, pp. 559-560, 2013, especially p. 560 n. 4. Many philosophers have made this point. Hilary Putnam, for example, has argued that fallibilism actually demands a critical attitude, one that seeks to modify beliefs for which there is sufficient evidence to believe that they are mistaken, while also remaining willing to make genuine knowledge claims on the basis of admittedly less-than-perfect evidence. See his Realism with a Human Face (Harvard University Press, 1990), and Pragmatism: An Open Question (Oxford, 1995) in particular.

[25] Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry vol. 30 (Winter 2004).

[26] “Bruno Latour: Modernity is a Politically Dangerous Goal,” November 2014 interview with Latour by Patricia Junge, Colombina Schaeffer and Leonardo Valenzuela of Verdeseo; Zoë Corbyn, “Steve Fuller : Designer trouble,” The Guardian (January 31, 2006); Sheila Jasanoff, “Representation and Re-Presentation in Litigation Science,” Environmental Health Perspectives 116(1), pp. 123–129, January 2008. Fuller also has a professional relationship with the Breakthrough Institute, but the Institute seems somewhat fonder, in their publicity materials, of their connection with Latour.

[27] Even creationism, it’s worth remembering, is a big-money movement. The Discovery Institute, perhaps the most prominent “intelligent design” advocacy organization, is bankrolled largely by wealthy Republican donors, and was co-founded by notorious Reaganite supply-side economics guru and telecom deregulation champion George Gilder. See Jodi Wilgoren, “Politicized Scholars Put Evolution on the Defensive,” New York Times, August 21, 2005. Similarly, so-called grassroots anti-tax organizations often had links to the tobacco industry. See The corporate exploitation of ambiguity about the contours of disinformation can, of course, also take more anodyne forms, as in manipulative use of phrases like “natural flavoring” on food packaging. We thank Mott Greene for this example.

[28] David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children (University of California Press, 2013). See also Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution (University of California Press, 2nd edition 2013); and Stanton Glantz, ed., The Cigarette Papers (University of California Press, 1998).

[29] See James Kloppenburg, “Pragmatism: An Old Name for Some New Ways of Thinking?,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 83 (1), pp. 100-138, June 1996, which argues that Rorty misrepresents in many ways the core insights of the early pragmatists. See also Jürgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action (Beacon Press, vol. 1 1984, vol. 2 1987); Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth, and History (Cambridge University Press, 1981); see also William Rehg’s development of Habermas’s ideas on science in Cogent Science in Context: The Science Wars, Argumentation Theory, and Habermas (MIT Press, 2009).

[30] Nancy Cartwright, Jordi Cat, Lola Fleck, and Thomas Uebel, Otto Neurath: Philosophy between Science and Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1996); Thomas Uebel, “Political philosophy of science in logical empiricism: the left Vienna Circle,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 36, pp. 754-773, 2005; John O’Neill, “Unified science as political philosophy: positivism, pluralism and liberalism,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 34, pp. 575-596, 2003.

[31] Charles Mills, “White Ignorance,” in Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, eds., Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (Stanford University Press, 2008); see also his recent Black Rights/White Wrongs (Oxford University Press, 2017).

[32] Alison Wylie, Thinking from Things: Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology (University of California Press, 2002), p. 190. Helen Longino (Science as Social Knowledge, 1999) and Sarah Richardson (Sex Itself, University of Chicago Press, 2013), have made similar arguments about research in endocrinology and genetics.

[33] Steven Epstein, Impure Science (University of California Press, 1996); see especially pp. 13-14.

[34] See for instance Benita Parry, Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique (Routledge, 2004); Masao Miyoshi, “Ivory Tower in Escrow,” boundary 2, vol. 27 (1), pp. 7-50, Spring 2000. On Foucault, see recently Daniel Zamora and Michael C. Behrent, eds., Foucault and Neoliberalism (Polity Press, 2016); but note also the seeds of this critique in earlier works such as Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (MIT Press, 1984) and Nancy Fraser, “Michel Foucault: A ‘Young Conservative’?”, Ethics vol 96 (1), pp. 165-184, 1985, and “Foucault on Modern Power: Empirical Insights and Normative Confusions,” Praxis International, vol. 3, pp. 272-287, 1981.

[35] Naomi Oreskes and John Krige, eds., Science and Technology in the Global Cold War (MIT Press, 2015); Naomi Oreskes, Science on a Mission: American Oceanography in the Cold War (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming); Erik Baker, “The Ultimate Think Tank: Money and Science at the Santa Fe Institute,” manuscript in preparation.

[36] See, for instance, Philip Mirowski, Science-Mart (Harvard University Press, 2010); Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (MIT Press, 2015); Henry Giroux, Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Books, 2014); Sophia McClennen, “Neoliberalism and the Crisis of Intellectual Engagement,” Works and Days, vols. 26-27, 2008-2009.

Author Information: Lee Basham, South Texas College/University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley,

Basham, Lee. “Border Wall Post Truth: Case Study.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 40-49.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image credit: Anne McCormack, via flickr

“The more you show concern, the closer he’ll go to the edge … Some things are just too awful to publicize.”—Don Dilillio, White Noise

“History is hard to follow. Luckily, they killed Kennedy. Leaves bread crumbs if we stray.”—Alfonso Uribe

Dogs don’t look Up. The higher tossed the bone, the less likely they are to see it. Lost in a horizontal universe, they run tight circles, wondering, “where is it?”. On its way down it hits them on the head. Civilized primates are surely different. Our steep information hierarchies are different. Or in the high castles of information a few above look upon many circling below.

Far South Texas, a bone’s throw (or gun shot) from the US/Mexican border, enjoys post truth as a storied and comfortable tradition. So stable, we might question the addendum “post”. Here truth is ephemeral. Like rain, it appears rarely. When it does it collects in pools, grows strange stuff, gets smelly and then dries up.

Are we suddenly flung into a post-truth world? The sophists lost that one, the Stalinists, too. But history’s lessons, like a grade 2 curriculum, never end. They remain the same. Hope springs eternal. Adam Riggio, in “Subverting Reality”, takes a personal approach, emphasizing trust before truth, even providing a theory of true punk music; if form then content. All else is appropriation. Meet fake punk. While I’m not sure about that, I’m sympathetic. Perhaps form does not formulate in the end, which is why we should be suspicious of any form-allegiance. Including representational democracy. But his is an understandable approach. Like Riggio, I’ll take a personal line.

In letter to the editor style: I reside in McAllen, Texas. It is in the Rio Grande Valley. Locals call this the “RGV” or “956”.[1] Table chat I’ve shared in the wealthy parlors of Austin and San Antonio insists we are not really part of Texas, “They’re all Mexican”. But the map indicates we are. Because we are on the North side of the river.

A few miles South of town we have a long stretch of the Mexico/US Border. The Wall. It looks like minimalist conceptual art from the 1960s. Donald Judd comes to mind, Donald Trump, too.[2] Professional photographers adore it, prostrate before it. They fly in just to see and click. The border wall is by nature post-trust and so, post-truth. This Post Truth is a concrete condition. Literally. Made of concrete and steel, I’ve climbed it. Took me 1.5 minutes (a bit slower than average; wear tennis shoes, not boots). Recently, epistemologists have explored this scenario. Suspicion is natural to social primate life, not shocking, misplaced or shameful: The battle is not for trust, but realistic, strategic distrust.

Post Truth Life

We are Texas and proud we are. We proudly supply Washington DC with its cocaine, providing the capital the highest quality, best prices, in vast quantities. Our product is legend, a truly international undertaking, spanning 13 countries. This is our number one economic achievement. We proudly provide the largest, most vibrant, corporate retail experience to be found anywhere between San Antonio and the Federal District of Mexico. Our shopping is legend, a truly international undertaking, filling the parking lots with cars from the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, DF, alongside Canadian vehicles from Ontario, Alberta Quebec and others.[3] We are Texas and proud we are. This is our number one economic achievement. As one might imagine, such a list goes on. The local banks reflect our achievement. Billions of dollars beyond the productive abilities of our local legal economy are on deposit. Almost every penny in the banks is owned to the success of our local legal economy. But what I take to be our greatest achievement, which all this and more rests upon, is the borderland mind. In the parlance of the moment, it is deliciously post-trust and post-truth. If this isn’t social epistemology, what is?

I have lived on the border for more than a decade. My wife, originally from Monterrey, Mexico, and her family, have lived here since she was 14, and for several years before that just a few blocks South of the river’s South side. While most academics are Anglo imports and cling to the same, I didn’t make that mistake. Her family and my friends provide an intimate understanding.

Conspiracy theory is the way of life here, much of it well informed. Though truth is rare enough, its seasons are established and understood. The winds that sweep from Mexico into the North whip up some remarkable and telling conspiracy theories. As does the wind from Washington. Escobares, one of the oldest cities in the US, is a short drive West of McAllen. The Church is built of petrified wood. On the Border even the US census is post-truth and seen as such; not just in population count (understandably, it misses half the people),

At the 2010 census the city of Escobares had a population of 1,188. The racial composition of the population was 98.3% white (7.2% non-Hispanic white), 1.6% from some other race and 0.1% from two or more races.

Yet, 92.8% of the population was Hispanic or Latino with 92.3% identifying as being ethnically Mexican.[4]

Escobares is a white town? McAllen has a nearly identical US census profile. Derisive laughter on local radio and in front yard parties follows.

The Wall of Conspiracy

The Wall is patchy, has gaps. Erected by President Obama, many miles here, many miles there, ropes dangle everywhere to help travelers across it. Little kid’s shoes, kicked off as they climb, litter its base. Sometimes the kids fall. The Wall is not monolithic.  Nor opinion. Surprisingly, in an almost entirely Hispanic community, completing The Wall is both opposed and supported by many. Often the same people. This is not insanity, it is time honored strategy. Brings to mind the old movies where people hang two-sided picture frames with opposing photos, and flip the frame according to what a glance out the window informs them about their arriving guests. The photos mean nothing, the flipping, everything. Fireside conversations become remarkable. The anti-wall protests of local politicians are viewed in a familiar post-truth, fading race-war narrative: They have to say that. Both Democrats and Republicans copy cat this story line and then deny any allegiance to it at Rotary club meetings before racially well-mixed and approving audiences. Legal trade is good, the rest is a mess. Why a wall? None of them would do any lucrative illegal business. They pray before their meetings. But Northern cities in Mexico promote ineffective boycotts of McAllen’s retail miracle because of The Wall. They fear it hurts them financially. Odd. The McAllen Mayor responds by stringing a broad, mixed language banner across main street, declaring, “Bienvenidos to McAllen, Always Amigos”. The Wall issue dissolves.

Charades require political tension, sincere or contrived, perhaps a tactic of negotiation.

Why local support for The Wall? Too many headless bodies, too many severed heads. People are sick of the untouchable prostitution trap houses north and east of town. Fenced in, barbed wired, cinder-block buildings with armed guards, stocked with poached immigrant girls and boys, a parking lot full of Ford F150 trucks. The kidnappings of immigrants, the torture chambers and videos when the money never arrives. The ones that by shear luck avoid such fates are relegated to back country depots and “abandoned” houses. Often they are abandoned, forced to burglarize and rob to eat and continue their trek north.

People are also tired of the border’s relentless yet ironically impotent police state. One cannot drive the 57 miles from McAllen Texas to Rio Grande City without passing 20 or more roadside State Troopers in their cartel-black SUVs. Don’t bother to count the border patrol SUVs: They are more numerous. The State Troopers, euphemistically agents of “The Department of Public Safety (DPS)”, fill our now crowded jails with locals, on every imaginable infraction, no matter how trivial. After asking me where I lived, at the end of a convenience store line conversation, one told me, white on white, “Then ya know, people here are bad.” [5] These are not local Sheriffs, born and raised here, who understand people and who is and isn’t a problem. DPS is relentless, setting impromptu road blocks throughout our cities, tossing poor people in “county” for not having car insurance and the money to pay for it on the spot. Whole Facebook pages are devoted to avoiding the road-blocks in 956. Down at McAllen’s airport entire multi-story, brand new hotels are now filled with foreign agents of the state. The whole monster-mash, everyday is Halloween scène down on the border could be chronicled for pages.

All of this is perceived by a hardworking, fun-loving, family-driven community as an ill wind from the South, drawn by the bait-and-switch vacuum of an uncaring, all-consuming “great white north”, and a Washingtonian two-face. Right they are. With The Wall, perhaps these police-state parasites will leave. The slave traps will wither by the rule of no supply. Rich white and agringado activists up North be damned; who for their own, disconnected reasons, demand it never end.[6] To quote a close relative, “Nombre! They don’t live here!”.

People see The Wall as a conspiracy to placate the xenophobes up North, not protect anyone. Keep the cheap labor coming but assert, “We did something to stop it.”. People see The Wall as protection for those who otherwise would cross and fall into the many traps set for them by the coyotes, they also see The Wall as protection for themselves. They see The Wall as a conspiracy supported by the drug cartels and the Mexican government the cartels control (its official protests not withstanding) to simplify the business model, driving the local cells and resident smuggling entrepreneurs out of business. Using operatives in ICE and the Border patrol is more efficient: Cut out the middle women and men. People lament the damage this will do to our local economy and in some cases, personal income. People praise this. People see those who in the North who oppose The Wall as political fodder used by those who could not care less about them, but want to pretend they do without having a clue, or even trying to. People believe The Wall is a conspiracy, not just to keep Hispanics out, which they often despise depending on country (“OTMs”, Other than Mexicans) but to keep Americans in. As I quickly learned, though few border-landers verbally self-identify as “Mexicans” (that takes a trip across the river), they view a dangerous Mexico as safe-haven if things “go south” here in the United States. If a theoretical, grave political or economic crisis occurs, or just a particularly unpleasant but very real legal entanglement, escape to Mexico is their first resort.

People ask, after the finished wall, added concertina wire and all, what if they close the bridges? When they need to run, they want to be able. People see The Wall as an attempt to destroy the Mexican economy, forcing them into the proposed North American Union, where Canada has submitted in principle, and the only hold-outs are the resolute patriots of the Republic of Mexico, “Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States”.[7] Washington will never be its capital. A noble sentiment. More pedestrian conspiracy theories circulate about campaign contributions from international construction corporations and their local minions. Workers on both sides of the river hope the fix is in; it means jobs for everyone. Recall the Israeli government hired eager Palestinians to build their wall; but that’s another post truth reality. Revealingly, the Israeli example has been promoted in the American press as a model with the notorious phrase, “best practices”. Such is the politics of promised lands.

What is Post Truth?

Post truth is, first, access to a shared, community truth, is now lost. But that would only entail agnosticism. Post truth is more. It is also, second, seemingly contradictory claims now have equal legitimacy in the government, media and with the citizenry. No one looks up. This is an unlikely construct. Like choosing wallpaper, but this time for the mind, what a citizen believes, political, economic or otherwise, is entirely a matter of personal taste. And there is no accounting for taste. No epistemic grounds for ordinary controversy, but insidiously a double-truth theory laid upon the collective consciousness of democratic society. Collective madness. Hence: A post truth world. It’s a catastrophe. Or is it? Look up at the above.  What is epistemically interesting is that most of the conspiratorial stances above do enjoy some significant evidence and are mutually consistent. Hence simultaneously believed by the same persons. Enter real “post truth”, and a larger diagnosis of our information hierarchy. It is not reliable. Instead we look to each other.

Five Suggestions about Post Truth

Post truth is about epistemology, social and otherwise, but only at one or more steps removed. On the ground it is entirely pragmatic. Post truth is not to be confused with mere state propaganda. That is another, much more narrow notion. Post truth, as before defined, is ancient and ubiquitous. The 21st century is no different.

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1. The first, a bit tiresome to repeat, is found in several epistemic critiques of the pathologizing approach to conspiracy theory: We should not conflate suspicions with beliefs. There is nothing cognitively anomalous about post truth states of consciousness when read this way.[8] Suspicion is epistemically virtuous. The fears surrounding ambitions of pathology, how ever great, are immediately de-sized in face of this simple distinction. Suspicion is one of the virtues of Eric Blair’s famous character, Winston Smith—at least until he trusts and is captured, tortured and turned.

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2. “Post” implies a time before that has passed. More formally, it might be termed a tense-based situational truth agnosticism.[9] Applied to “trust” and “truth”, on the border, this proposed time before would require reference to the more social and intelligent Pleistocene mammals. Maybe to the first human visitors, ten or more thousand years ago, no doubt in search for water. An attitude of panic towards “post truth” seems misplaced. Nothing can survive laughter. This is a second suggestion. Post truth hysteria is, while initially quite understandable, difficult to take seriously for long. Rage concerning it, even more so.[10]

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3. Linguists point out that “trust” and “truth” are closely related. One births the other. By accident and so inclination, I am an epistemologist of trust, especially its “negative spaces”, to borrow from art-theory. These spaces in our current information hierarchy, where so few control what so many hear, and often believe, are legion. In our society navigating these is elevated to high art, one we should not fear. My third suggestion is that if nothing changes then nothing changes. And my prediction, nothing changes in a post truth world. Because nothing has changed. Or soon will.

Post trust is not the new normal, it is the oldest one. You don’t know people, or societies, until you go about with them. We should be cautious, watchful. As my son would put it, “We should lurk them hard”. A skeptical attitude, an expectation of post truth because of a post trust attitude, is appropriate, an adult attitude. Among billions of humans of all types and classes, we hardly know anyone. And those who protest this, doth protest too much. Such an attitude of truth-privilege, as found among the denizens of the political Avant-gardes and their fellow travelers in our mass media, has always been unearned.[11] One often betrayed. Professional managers of belief I will grant the mainstream media, professional purveyors of truth is quite a stretch, a needless one. But a conceit that has proven lethal.

Consider the 2003 Iraq invasion. We were told at the time, by both current and prior presidents, it was an invasion for feminism.[12] The media, including the New York Times, chimed in approval. Normalizing this invasion was this media’s crowning achievement of the 21st century’s first decade. One might think they got off on the wrong foot, but that would entirely depend on what the right foot is. I argue for a more functional outlook. Their function is basic societal stability, congruence with official narratives when these are fundamental ones, not truth; an establishment of normality in virtually anything. Truth has its place at their table only among the trivial, not basic stability. Consider the US civil rights movement. Here the political Avant-gardes and mass media had an effect we view as laudable. Yet this did not threaten the established political or capitalist order. It ushered old participants into greater integration within it and to new levels of participation on its behalf. Mr. Obama, for instance.

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4. Mainstream media and Avant-garde political pronouncements are unreliable in proportion to the importance to the purveyors that we accept them. I don’t mean this as revelatory, rather in the manner of reminder. The opportunities for manipulation loom especially large when popular cultures are involved, and the way we identify with these are transitioned to apathy or atrocities. Or both, simultaneously. This transcends political dichotomies like “right” and “left”. Both, because of their simplicity are easy marks. The proper study is, perhaps, is that of “faction”. A war for feminism? A war to extend democracy? A war for Arab prosperity and against child poverty? A war for American energy independence? A war for the world: Pax Americana? But the ploy worked, both popularly and within academia. It’s being re-wrought today. In the popular and academic hysteria following 9/11, Michael Walzer, champion of Just War Theory, wrote,

Old ideas may not fit the current reality; the war against terrorism to take the most current example, requires international cooperation that is radically undeveloped in theory as it is in practice. We should welcome military officers into the theoretical argument. They will make it a better argument than it would be if no one but professors took interest.[13]

Walzer asks to take his place among the generals. Walzer goes on to argue for the importance of aerial bombing while trying not to blow rather younger children to smithereens. Walzer’s justification? Protecting US soldiers. If any of this strikes us as new or news, we live in what I like to call the united states of amnesia.  He claims current bombing technology overwhelmingly protects the innocent. An interesting post truth formula. Who then are the guilty soldiers and functionaries, and how could they be? Denounce the stray bomb fragments, then embrace the counsel of professional conspirators of death in our moral considerations. This is suspect, politically, morally and epistemically. It is also feminism. That’s a post truth world. Long before a real estate agent joined the pantheon of US presidents.

The rebellion of conspiracy theory helps here. Conspiracy theory is typically, and properly, about suspicion, not belief. Certainty, even if just psychological, “truth”, is not an option in a responsible citizen. A vehement lament and protest against post-truth is inadequate if it ignores the importance of suspicion. But nothing like suspicion post-trusts and so post-truths. To borrow a lyric from Cohen, “that’s where the light comes in”. And we post-any-century-primates have good reason for suspicion. True, the opening years of the 21st century hit a home-run here, it wasn’t the first or last. If anything is transcendently true, that’s it.

If this functional, suspicious understanding becomes our baseline epistemology (as it is where I live), we might worry catastrophe will ensue. Like leaving a baby alone in a room with a hungry dog. But what actually happens is the dog patiently awaits, ignoring the obvious. Good dog. People and dogs share much. With humans what actually ensues is table talk, memes on the internet, and winks and rolling eyes across the TV room. Formally known as the “living room”, this post-living room space is not grade school and we are not attentive, intimidated students. We’re artists of negative spaces and we usually negotiate them with aplomb. Unless we really think mass media reliability is what post truth is post to. Then, I suppose, catastrophe does ensue: Only a brief emotional one, similar to losing one’s religion, one’s political piety. Cass Sunstien provides,

“Our main policy claim here is…a distinctive tactic for breaking up the hard core of extremists who supply conspiracy theories: cognitive Infiltration of extremist groups, whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of believers by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups.”[14]

Let’s conspire against citizens who worry you might be conspiring against them. Is there anything new here?

Riggio on Post Truth

Like Riggio, I view the existence of political truth as beyond evident. In the face of rhetoric concerning a “post truth” contagion, Riggio counters there is instead a battle for public trust. He’s right. He’s channeling, in fact, Brian Keeley’s classic public trust approach to alternative thought.[15] As with our confidence in science, mainstream media functions the same. But Riggio seems to think it is a new one, and one worth fighting and “winning”. Now what would be winning? As we finally fall asleep at night, we might appreciate this. But not in daylight. There’s no battle for public trust there. Most don’t, but say we do. And that’s a good thing.

Public trust has long ago headed down the yellow brick road with Dorothy in search of a wizard. Lies and compromise are recognized, from all quarters, as our long-term norm. Dorothy’s surprise and the wizard’s protests when he is revealed should hardly surprise. This is the road of the golden calf, representational democracy.

The closer you get to Washington DC, Paris, Beijing, London or the democratic republic of Moscow, the more obvious this perception and reality is. It’s celebrated in transatlantic, transnational airplane conversations that last for hours. It’s palpable before the edifices of any of these capitals’ secular monuments. As palpable before the non-secular: Like standing a few blocks before the Vatican, a previous political model, we can’t really deny it. These edifices now, as they were before, are saturated in farce.[16] Adam Riggio’s impassioned political piece, with his hands on the cold marble, reminds us that being too close to the temple can blind us to its real shape, strength and impressive age. Riggio writes,

[Mainstream media’s behavior] harms their reputation as sources of trustworthy knowledge about the world. Their knowledge of their real inadequacy can be seen in their steps to repair their knowledge production processes. These efforts are not a submission to the propagandistic demands of the Trump Presidency, but an attempt to rebuild real research capacities after the internet era’s disastrous collapse of the traditional newspaper industry.[17]

I see this as idealized media primitivism, “If only we could go back”. It’s absolutely admirable. But was print media ever supposed to be trusted? Print media set the stage for the invasion of Cuba and Mexico. It suppressed the deadly effects of nuclear testing in in the 1950s and 60s and then promulgated apologetics for the same. Between 1963 and 1967 the Vietnam War was, “the good guys shooting the Reds”.[18]  It played a similar role in Central American intervention, as well as the first and second “gulf” wars, fought deep in the desert. Mainstream media has long been superb at helping start wars, but way late to the anti-war party and poor in slowing or ending the same wars they supported. A post truth world hypothesis predicts this. An interesting point, one more interesting the more intense the consequences are. The more seemingly significant a political event—such as bizarre politics or senseless wars—the more normal it is initially portrayed by mainstream media. Eventually damage control follows. Public trust? Not likely. Certainly not well placed.

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5. So a final, fifth suggestion: Our paleo post-truth vision taps on our shoulders: The “new normal” political panic concerning a “post truth” world we find in political conversation and in mass media is an ahistorical and ephemeral protest. Our strange amnesia concerning our wars, the conduct of such and their strange results should be evidence enough. Communist Vietnam, with its victory in 1975, was by 1980 a capitalist country par excellence. An old point, going back to Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane. “I remember the good ole days when we had newspapers” seems an unlikely thesis.

Recall Eastern Europe. While giving a talk on conspiracy theories and media in Romania, one that might be characterized as a post truth position on media reliability in times of extreme crisis, the audience found the remarks welcome but fairly obvious. They doubted we of the West really had a free mainstream media in contrast, but they enjoyed the idea, the way we might enjoy a guest’s puppy; he’s cute. The truth can be toxic in many social and political settings. Good arguments indicate mass media hierarchies react accordingly everywhere. Far from being tempted to promulgate such truths, like afore mentioned hungry dog and baby, they leave toxic investigation alone. Why look? Why bite?


Politicization of knowledge is dubious. “Post Truth” is a political term of abuse, one that will quickly pass; a bear trap that springs on any and all. Just before the first World War, in 1912, Bertrand Russell pointed out that the truth “must be strange” about the most ordinary things, like tables or chairs.[19] Are politics, mass media power, any less strange? Now we all stand, down by the river, awaiting the evening’s usual transactions and gunfire.

We live in the united states of amnesia. In the rush of cotemporary civilization, memories are short, attention fractured and concentration quickly perishes. We just move on. The awesome spectacle of seemingly omnipotent governments and ideologically unified corporate global mass media along with a population driven by consumption and hedonism, might create a sense of futility where subversive narratives are concerned. But then in new form the subversive narratives are reborn and powerfully spread. The growing intensity of this cycle should give us pause. Perhaps the answer does not lie in seeking new, remedial, intellectually sophisticated ways to ignore it, but in addressing our information desert, our scarcity of real epistemic access to the information hierarchy hovering above us. And discovering ways this can be reversed in a world of unprecedented connectivity, so epistemic rationality can play a decisive role.[20]

For some this truth about post truth and its vicious ironies creates a scary place. Here on the edge of the United States, people have learned to live through that edge and embrace it. But in cozy heartlands in the US, Canada and Europe, most prefer to die in the comfort of our TV rooms so we don’t die “out there”, as Cormac McCarthy puts it, “…in all that darkness and all that cold”. But when the long reality of a post trust, post truth world is forcibly brought to their attention by real estate developers, some react, like Dorothy, with rage and despair. This is a mistake.

Social epistemology should embrace a socially borne epistemic skepticism. This is not an airborne toxic event, it is fresh air. Social epistemology might not be about explaining what we know so much as explaining what we don’t and the value of this negative space, its inescapability and benefits: The truth about post trust and truth. Post truth is everywhere, not just here on the border. We can’t land in Washington DC at Ronald Regan international airport and escape it. Welcome to the post-truth border, bienvenidos al frontera, where we all live and always have. Certainty is an enemy of the wise. If thought a virtue, representational democracy is the cure.

This returns us to dogs. Dog-like, though we be, primates can certainly learn to look up in intense interest. At the stars, for instance. I oppose The Wall. And can climb it. We don’t know until we go. The border is just beyond your cellar door. Do you live in Boston? There you are. Once you open up, look up. Don’t circle about in tight illusions. Embrace bright, buzzing, booming confusion.[21] You don’t know my real name.

[1] Local area code.

[2] Chilvers, Ian & Glaves-Smith, John eds., Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

[3] The latter are the so called “Winter Texans”. Fleeing the North’s ice and snow, but unwilling to cross the border and venture farther South into Mexico (except for one military controlled, dusty tourist town immediately across the river, wonderfully named “Nuevo Progreso”), they make their home here through fall, winter and spring.

[4] United States Census Bureau. Archived from the original on 2013-09-11. Retrieved 2008-01-31.

[5] DPS officers are not all this way. Many are quite compassionate, and increasingly confused by their massive presence here.

[6] “Agingado”; “becoming a gringo”.

[7] President Porfirio Diaz, “Tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos.”.

[8] See Basham, Lee and Matthew R. X. Dentith. “Social Science’s Conspiracy-Theory Panic: Now They Want to Cure Everyone.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 10 (2016): 12-19, and subsequent remarks, Dieguez, Sebastian, Gérald Bronner, Véronique Campion-Vincent, Sylvain Delouvée, Nicolas Gauvrit, Anthony Lantian & Pascal Wagner-Egger. “’They’ Respond: Comments on Basham et al.’s ‘Social Science’s Conspiracy-Theory Panic: Now They Want to Cure Everyone’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 12 (2016): 20-39. Basham, Lee. “Pathologizing Open Societies: A Reply to the Le Monde Social Scientists.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 2 (2017): 59-68.

[9] While a realist about truth, a situational truth agnosticism does not entail warrant/justification agnosticism. We don’t need to know if something is true to know it is probably true, given our best evidence, or probably not true.

[10] The political fate of Bernie Sanders comes to mind. A fine candidate, and my preferred, he was forced to recant at the Democratic Party Convention in 2016. One recalls the Hindenburg.

[11] The usual US suspects include CNN (“Combat News Network” in 2003-10 and more recently, “Clinton News Network”), NBC (“National Bombing Communications”) and FOX (a bit harder to parody due to the “x”, even though Mr. O’Reilly offered his services).

[12] George W. Bush and William J. Clinton.

[13] Walzer, Michael. “International Justice, War Crimes, and Terrorism: The U.S. Record.” Social Research, 69, no. 4 (winter 2002): 936.

[14] Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures”, University of Chicago Law School Public Law & Legal Theory Research Paper Series Paper No. 199 and University of Chicago Law School Law & Economics Research Paper Series Paper No. 387, 2008, 19, reprinted in the Journal of Political Philosophy, 2009.

[15] Keeley, Brian. “Of Conspiracy Theories”, Journal of Philosophy, 96, no. 3 (1999): 109-26. Keeley’s is a classic, but the Public Trust Approach (PTA) he advocates appears to fail on several levels. See the several critiques by Lee Basham, David Coady, Charles Pigden and Matthew R.X. Dentith.

[16] Not only farce, but a fair share.

[17] Riggio, Adam. “Subverting Reality: We Are Not ‘Post-Truth,’ But in a Battle for Public Trust.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 3 (2017): 71.

[18] See Hallin, Daniel C. The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

[19] Russell, Bertrand, The Problems of Philosophy, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1912. Russell continues, “In the following pages I have confined myself in the main to those problems of philosophy in regard to which I thought it possible to say something positive and constructive, since merely negative criticism seemed out of place.”

[20] A paraphrase from, “Conspiracy and Rationality” in Beyond Rationality, Contemporary Issues.Rom Harré and Carl Jenson, eds. Cambridge Scholars, Newcastle (2011): 84-85.

[21] James, William. The Principles of Psychology. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1890, page 462.