What can we know? How should we live? In what or whom should we hope? A historian might fruitfully divide Western intellectual life into periods or cultures according to which one of these three questions was the central and controlling one for them. But this imaginary (and ambitious!) historian would find that he or she could not apply this principle of organization to the time after about 1980. Something astonishing appears to have happened. For the first time in history the answers to all three questions seem, for a large number of intellectuals at least, to depend completely upon the answer to the prior question: “Who are we?”
I find this development disturbingly problematic, but it does provide, I believe, the most relevant and urgent context for the consideration of questions that address the prospective relationships between religion and higher learning or spirituality and education today. I shall accordingly try in the essay that follows to do four things. First, I will outline more fully my own sense of our present predicament. Second, I will reflect upon how we arrived at this situation. Third, I will address some of the difficulties that attend communitarian accounts of knowledge and truth. Finally, I shall argue that in order to realize its own best aspirations, the modern academy must seek to retrieve and revivify within its communal life certain virtues that arose originally within religious communities.
Of the three basic human questions posed above, the epistemological question (What or how can we know?) was the last to be superseded by the question of community (Who are we?). Since the seventeenth century and until very recently, both the ethical question (How should we live?) and the religious question (In what or whom should we hope?) were superseded by the epistemological question. Thus, for example, before addressing the ethical question, moral philosophers felt obliged first to demonstrate that ethical discourse really was cognitively meaningful. In a similar manner, theologians often felt obliged to show how knowledge of God was possible before they proceeded to address religious questions whose answers presupposed the existence of a deity. Epistemology was thought to be foundational for all other inquiries. A more exact way of formulating the distinctiveness of our present situation would be to say that the community question has, in the last decade or so, replaced the epistemological question as foundational for all other inquiries.
As a way of both documenting and deepening our sense of this decisive shift in the current climate of opinion, I shall consider briefly two very influential books that appeared within four years of one another, Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) and Parker Palmer’s To Know As We Are Known (1983). Although the two books differ from one another in several important respects, they both concern themselves centrally with epistemological matters, and they converge from strikingly different directions upon the question of community. Rorty, an avowed secular humanist, writes from a position at the very center of the academic establishment, yet his book, in spite of its sometimes very technical discourse, is still widely discussed outside the academy. Palmer, a committed Christian, writes from a position peripheral to the academic establishment, yet his book continues to find large and receptive audiences within the secular academy as well as outside it. Thus, the two books together both evince and advance the community question as the most vital theme within contemporary intellectual life.
Both Rorty and Palmer develop powerful arguments against the epistemological scheme that has dominated Western thought since at least the seventeenth century. Rorty, who refers to this scheme as the “mirror of nature” or “foundationalism,” criticizes it from within the tradition of professional philosophy. Most of his book is a history of the unavailing efforts of philosophers, since the time of Descartes, to find certainty, to discover a set of sensations (“raw feels” or clear and distinct ideas) or terms (analytical truths, the symbols of mathematical logic) that would provide a secure foundation for all human inquiries and activities.
According to Rorty, philosophers have hoped to find a way of securing an absolute fit between our knowledge of the world and the world itself, to show that in at least one area of intellectual endeavor human knowledge really does “mirror” reality. And for most of the last three-hundred-and-fifty years this effort to ground all human knowledge has focused upon the physical sciences; indeed, “since the period of Descartes and Hobbes, the assumption that scientific discourse was normal discourse and that all other discourse needed to be modeled upon it has been the standard motive for philosophizing.”
Rorty not only demonstrates that the foundationalist project has in its own terms failed, he also shows how it led philosophy to abandon its proper subject. Through arguments that are too intricate and extensive to summarize here, Rorty shows how a series of philosophers, including especially Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, but also including Wilfred Sellars, Hilary Putnam, and Thomas Kuhn, have exposed foundationalism as a fundamentally misguided effort. But Rorty is even more interested in the baleful effects of foundationalism than he is in charting its collapse. “The Cartesian change from mind-as-reason to mind-as-inner-area,” he writes, “was not the triumph of the prideful individual subject freed from scholastic shackles so much as the triumph of the quest for certainty over the quest for wisdom. From that time forward, the way was open for philosophers either to attain the rigor of the mathematician or the mathematical physicist, or to explain the appearance of rigor in these fields, rather than to help people attain peace of mind. Science, rather than living, became philosophy’s subject, and epistemology its center.”
Palmer, to some extent like Rorty, begins with a critique of the dominant epistemological scheme of the last three centuries. Palmer calls this scheme “objectivism,” and he describes it not so much in terms of a history of ideas or a group of thinkers as in terms of a set of pedagogical practices that characterize the contemporary academy. Thus, Palmer’s focus remains in one respect broader and in another respect narrower than Rorty’s. Its comparative breadth consists in Palmer’s attention to the way in which most teachers teach, regardless of whether they are teaching philosophy, literature, religion, or physics. Palmer’s critique therefore extends to practices far beyond the narrower confines of professional philosophy. On the other hand, Palmer’s “objectivism” refers to the dominant strain or to an amalgam of two strains (empiricism and a certain kind of pragmatism) within the larger epistemological project that Rorty calls the “mirror of nature.” These distinctions are important, because they help in part to explain why Rorty finally argues for an abandonment of epistemology altogether, whereas Palmer seeks to replace or supersede objectivism with another epistemology.
The sources of Palmer’s critique of modern epistemology are very different from Rorty’s. Whereas Rorty relies exclusively upon philosophical writings that have subverted the foundationalist project, Palmer draws primarily upon Christian classics and upon a tradition of Christian spirituality that he traces back to the desert fathers. Moreover, Palmer’s indictment of objectivism stems from his insight that epistemologies have moral trajectories, that ways of knowing are not morally neutral but morally directive. Objectivism, he demonstrates, places the would-be knower in an alienated, even an antagonistic position over and against the known world. Impelled by curiosity and the mania for control, objectivism fractures the bonds of community and tends inherently toward violence. In view of this violent trajectory of objectivism, Palmer argues, “we must recover from our spiritual tradition the models and methods of knowing as an act of love.”
Yet another apparent difference between Rorty and Palmer reveals, upon closer scrutiny, the presence of a common spirit or at least a common undertaking between the two men, one that manifests itself most fully in something of a quest for community. Palmer always uses the term “objective” to describe the antagonistic posture of the isolated, active knower who seeks, for purposes of manipulation and control, to grasp, through the scientific method, the passive objects of the world in such a way that the knowledge that results “will reflect the nature of the objects in question rather than the knower’s whims.” Rorty, on the other hand, observes that we use the term “objective” sometimes to mean “representing things as they really are” and at other times to designate “the presence of, or the hope for, agreement among inquirers.” He argues that these two meanings of “objective” are by no means coextensive, and he decidedly prefers the latter to the former designation. Indeed, according to Rorty’s own preferred view of knowledge —”epistemological behaviorism,” as he somewhat infelicitously calls it—”we understand knowledge when we understand the social justification of belief, and thus have no need to view it as accuracy of representation.”
Though this view is by no means identical to the one that Palmer advocates, some of the affinities between the two are quite striking. Thus, for example. Palmer insists that both knowledge and truth are communal terms. Knowledge is not the result of the isolated individual’s efforts to mirror the world; it is instead a form of responsible relationship, even a “means to relationship,” with others. Knowing “becomes a reunion of separated beings whose primary bond is not of logic but of love”; truth is the name of this “community of relatedness.” For Rorty, once we see knowledge as a matter of conversation and of social practice, rather than as an attempt to mirror nature, truth is “what is good for us to believe” rather than privileged “contact with reality.” However much they may differ on other matters, both Rorty and Palmer understand knowledge and community as correlative terms.
They also both absorb aspects of the projects they criticize into the fabric of the enterprises they promote. Thus, Palmer recognizes that the objectivist project has “helped to untangle some very twisted strands of the human soul.” And he retains in his own epistemological scheme objectivism’s honorable opposition to self-centeredness. Rorty wishes to retain epistemological behaviorism’s understanding of objectivity, even as he argues for the abandonment of epistemology-centered philosophy in favor of hermeneutics.
Rorty’s description of the hermeneutical or edifying philosopher resembles Palmer’s description of the knower-in-community. Instead of passing judgment upon which discourses are rational and which are not, or seeking to “ground” all discourse in a common set of terms or procedures, the hermeneutical philosopher “sees the relations between various discourses as those of strands in a possible conversation, a conversation which presupposes no disciplinary matrix which unites the speakers, but where the hope of agreement is never lost so long as the conversation lasts. This hope is not a hope for the discovery of antecedently existing common ground, but simply hope for agreement, or, at least, exciting and fruitful disagreement.” Above all else, the edifying philosopher takes responsibility for keeping this conversation alive, not by “finding the proper set of terms into which all the contributions should be translated,” but by being willing “to pick up the jargon of the interlocutor, rather than translating it into one’s own.” The participants in this conversational endeavor—this societas—are “persons whose paths through life have fallen together, united by civility rather than by a common goal, much less a common ground.”
Rorty and Palmer do not finally share a “common ground” (a matter that I shall reconsider at a later point). I have nevertheless tried to discern here, by tacking back and forth between them and noting certain revealing points of intersection, the shape of the conversation that provides the current context for discussion about religion and higher education. The most important feature of that context seems to be the very recent but very striking ascendancy of the community question over all others. Before attempting to advance the discussion about religion and higher education within this context, and because the context itself seems so novel, I think it is important to enlarge the historical perspective upon our present situation by way of providing some correctives to the historical accounts that are either supplied or implied by Rorty and Palmer. Developing these correctives will also sharpen the features of some of the problems that are peculiar to our present situation.
Let me begin by stating as succinctly as I can the story of how we came to this present pass. The outlines of what Rorty calls foundationalism and what Palmer calls objectivism were developed during the seventeenth century by thinkers such as Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke. But two centuries elapsed before these ideas attained cultural dominion in the West (or at least in the Anglo-American portion of it). That dominion was completed by four concurrent and overlapping developments: the rise of professionalism, the emergence of the academic disciplines as we know them today, the making of the modern research university, and the shift from a mechanistic (because based upon physics) to a developmental (because based upon Darwinian biology) view of knowledge and culture.
During this same period (roughly 1870-1900), however, there arose several powerful critiques of the dominant, because recently institutionalized, epistemology. Nietzsche inaugurated one line of criticism that has continued through the works of Heidegger and Gadamer. Charles Peirce and William James began another one that has continued through Dewey and the Chicago pragmatists to Quine and Rorty. These various lines have by now threatened to undermine foundationalism altogether, but the institutional superstructures that secured foundationalism’s triumph remain intact. We stand in something of the same position relative to anti-foundationalism as was once occupied by early nineteenth-century American colleges relative to foundationalism. We are, to speak in sociologese, in a period of cultural lag, or, to speak more poetically, we are “caught between two worlds, the one dead, the other powerless to be born.”
It is important to stress that the two dominant lines of criticism noted above began during the 1870s and 1880s at precisely the same time that the modern research university emerged as a new institution of higher learning in America. Palmer, though he recognizes the appearance of significant dissent from the objectivist position, suggests that it has been only recently developed and voiced. And partly for this reason, he amalgamates one of these dissenting lines, pragmatism, with empiricism to describe objectivism.
Pragmatism, however, at least the pragmatism of William James, actually arose as a sharp protest against the kind of thinking that Palmer calls objectivism but which was called “positivism” at the time that James was writing in the 1870s and 1880s. Thus, for example, James’ earliest writings contain detailed attacks against what he called the “correspondence theory of truth.” He always insisted that we are “coefficients” of the truth we seek to know, neither alienated from nor antagonistic to the world of which we are a part. He argued, moreover, that the “whole man is at work within us”—our feelings, our faiths, our intuitions, and our hopes, as well as our thoughts and theories—when we seek knowledge. James was, as all of his writings attest, an unrelenting enemy of the objectivist or positivist account of knowing as a mere matter of logic and dispassionate reasoning.
Palmer ignores this Jamesean strain of pragmatism, because his own thinking was shaped, as he tells us in one of the most powerfully confessional portions of his book, by a different strand of the pragmatic tradition. He came to believe that knowledge emerges through the imposition of order upon the chaos of experience, and that truth is just a name for whatever “works” to solve certain problems, for whatever eventuates in a satisfactory manipulation of the world. This vulgarly practical and relativistic theory of truth perhaps most closely approximates the current, popular sense of the word “pragmatic,” and one can find warrants for it in the writings of all the pragmatists, even including some of James’.
Nevertheless, as Richard Bernstein has observed, the American pragmatists—especially Peirce, James, and Dewey—had already thematized an anti-foundational approach to philosophy before the First World War. In addition, they had emphasized the “social character of the self and the need to nurture a critical community of inquirers.” What Peirce long ago wrote about philosophers applies today to all of those who seek to discover knowledge and truth. Because, according to Peirce, our understanding of matters is invariably fallible and partial—both in the sense of “biased” and in the sense of seeing only a part—”we individually cannot reasonably hope to attain the ultimate philosophy which we pursue; we can only seek it, therefore, for the community of philosophers.”
In sum, we should not permit the cultural ascendancy during most of the twentieth century of a vulgar strain of pragmatism to obscure the very promising alternatives to objectivism that were developed by Peirce, James, and others as early as 1880. One strain of pragmatism has combined with logical positivism to produce objectivism. But another strain of pragmatism—its most original strain and one that is still discernible in Rorty—is very congenial to Palmer’s own critique of objectivism.
There is, however, another and better reason why Palmer ignored James and other late-nineteenth-century critics of objectivism: he did not set out to write a piece of intellectual history. Rather, as noted earlier, he derived objectivism from current pedagogical practice, and he never intended to suggest that objectivism, in the complete sense of the word, could be found in the writings of any given thinker or set of thinkers. Yet if Palmer is correct, as I think he is, in taking objectivism to be the epistemology that informs the practices of the modern university, and if I am correct in suggesting that James and others had already fashioned powerful alternative theories of knowledge as early as 1880, a vital historical question arises. How, given the presence of several conflicting epistemologies, did one of them come to dominate the modern university?
We might expect to find an answer to this question from Rorty, who is explicitly and deliberately historical in a way that Palmer is not. Rorty’s history is, however, purely “internalist” by design. He attends only to the development of ideas within the discipline of philosophy, not to external considerations—social, economic, technological, and political—that impinged in various ways upon that development and doubtless propelled it in certain directions. Though a complete historical explanation of the ascendancy of objectivism or foundationalism would require an analysis of all of these conditions, only one of them”the political factor”is crucially relevant to my present purpose.
That purpose is to issue an emphatic historical reminder to all of us who criticize the ethos of objectivism in the name of communitarian accounts of knowledge and truth. The principal danger inherent in communitarianism is tribalism and the subsequent violence that often arises among rival tribes, each of them inflexibly wedded to their respective versions of the truth. I would argue that objectivism arose initially and that it subsequently attained cultural dominion primarily because it was intended by its architects as a way of avoiding violence. We must at least add the desire for civil peace to the two desires, curiosity and control, that Palmer has identified as the motives for objectivism.
Hobbes and Descartes manifested this pacific motive most vividly of all the seventeenth-century advocates of objectivism or foundationalism. “Fear and I were born twins,” Hobbes said, remarking upon the fact that his birthday fell on the same day that England trembled under the onslaught of the Spanish Armada. When he developed the objectivist epistemology that encompassed the first part of Leviathan, when he argued, contrary to all the ancients, that nature “dissociates,” he did so, against the background of civil war, primarily to secure a rational foundation for politics so that such wars could be avoided in the future.
While Hobbes was brooding over the growing civil strife in England, Descartes was in winter quarters with the French army in Germany where the “fortune of war” had taken him. There he retreated alone into a stove-heated room “to look for the true method of attaining knowledge of everything [his] mind could grasp.” Again, as we can see from the autobiographical account Descartes gives us in his seminal Discourse on the Method of Rightly Directing One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences, the quest for certain and secure foundations began, as it had with Hobbes, in part as a stay against the confusion and violence born of religious conflict.
Objectivism as the best alternative to violence: both Rorty and Palmer ignore this important truth about the epistemological tradition they criticize, though they do so for different reasons. Rorty ignores it because he is concerned only with the internal history of modern philosophy. Palmer ignores it because he believes that in order to account for the violent trajectory of objectivism, he must find exclusively egoistic motivation—idle curiosity and the desire for control—as the basic impetus behind it.
I do not mean to suggest that Rorty and Palmer ignore the virtues of the Enlightenment altogether, much less that either man is antagonistic to them. Indeed, as noted earlier, they both incorporate some elements of objectivism into their own prescriptions. Palmer, moreover, openly insists that we must not romanticize the life of “the earlier [pre-modern] world [which] was often little more than a reflection of the passions and prejudices of those who claimed to know.” And Rorty states flatly that “the preservation of the values of the Enlightenment is our best hope.”
But by ignoring or at least underestimating the extent to which objectivism’s vices are precisely the defects of its virtues, both Rorty and Palmer are more sanguine than the historical record warrants in believing that one can persuasively disentangle the sinister strands of objectivism from its more humane strands within the academic conscience of the West. Any radical alternative to foundationalism or objectivism will seem to open up the prospect of renewed violence among different communities who would seem to have no rational foundation on the basis of which they might adjudicate the disagreements that will inevitably arise among them.
There may very well be a way successfully to assuage this fear of violence, and I think that Palmer at least has partially succeeded in doing so. But those who welcome the supersession of the epistemological question by the community question need to recognize how deep-seated and how historically well-founded are the fears of foundationalists who believe that if objectivism disappears, force, not some new epistemology, will take its place. This fear of tribalism and violence is perhaps the foremost difficulty that most communitarian accounts of knowledge must face.
Though I myself welcome the recent cultural ascendancy of the community question, I need to admit and then to face honestly three further difficulties that have attended this development before I can then proceed to demonstrate the need for the cultivation of certain religious virtues within communities of higher learning. These three difficulties should already be apparent from my brief account of Palmer and Rorty. First, the concept of community needs further specification. Second, the relationship between community on the one hand and knowledge and truth on the other hand needs further elucidation. Third, the communitarian impulse needs to be freed from hopelessly nostalgic yearnings. In the course of addressing these difficulties, I will anchor my discussion firmly within the actual experiences of common life within the present-day academy.
Much of the discussion of community today is marked by a degree of imprecision that borders on obscurity. Most parties to the discussion exhibit a terminological wavering of the sort that once characterized the discussion of culture among anthropologists. In the latter conversation, some thought of Culture (invariably with a capital C) as a unitary concept of an ideal and then proceeded to determine how much Culture any given group possessed. Others insisted that the topic could only be fruitfully pursued if one spoke of cultures, always in the lower-case plural and always designating empirical realities, to refer to all groups that shared a common language and a common past or identity. Still others oscillated between the grand ideal of Culture (variously described) and the actual diversity of groups, all of them cultures but possessing no discernible “essence” in common.
Conversation about community over the course of the last century has paralleled the conversation about culture. Thus, Dewey, one of the philosophers who has most influenced Rorty, sometimes spoke of publics or communities in the plural to refer to any group of people that recognizes itself as having some common problem or another. Under this description communities are kaleidoscopic, evanescent entities, assuming temporary shape and then dissolving once the problems that gave them their original purpose have disappeared or been resolved. On the other hand, Dewey spoke of the search for the “Great Community” or “Public,” and these were terms that designated his special sense of democracy itself.
Rorty’s own notions of community are much more obscure than Dewey’s. He never actually uses “community” as a significant analytical category, but he constantly refers to collectivities of one sort or another in his effort to substantiate what he takes to be the only defensible understanding of knowledge (what is warrantably assertible by us) and truth (whatever is good for us to believe). Thus, he speaks of the subjective conditions of inquiry of any kind as “just the facts about what a given society, or profession, or other group, takes to be good ground for assertions of a certain sort.” Rorty then refers to all of these collectivities as “disciplinary matrices.” This bewildering parade of names indicates that the dialectics of Dewey (his movement back and forth between the ideal and the reality of community) has degenerated, in Rorty’s hands at least, into sheer obscurantism.
Let me begin to demystify matters here by articulating some obvious truths. Academies are places of learning. Students and faculty come together because they seek knowledge and understanding. It may well be that many, perhaps most, students go to colleges and universities for other purposes; nevertheless, the two constitutive functions of academies are teaching and learning. These functions in turn include a variety of activities—reading, writing, computing, memorizing—that purport to advance disciplined thinking about important matters of human concern.
All disciplined thinking, even when it proceeds—as most of it does—in the solitary confines of the study, derives from and therefore depends upon social processes like language and tradition. Moreover, disciplined thought is itself often dialogical (involving two inner voices), more often conversational (involving many such voices). The eminent British philosopher of education, R. S. Peters, has put this latter and by now commonplace point as elegantly as anyone:
Plato once described philosophy as the soul’s dialogue with itself. It is a pity that this clue was not followed up. For the notion would not then have developed that reason is a sort of mental gadget that can be used by the individual or, as Hume described it, a “wonderful and unintelligible instinct in our souls.” The ability to reason, in the philosophical sense of thinking critically about one’s beliefs, develops only if a man keeps critical company so that a critic is incorporated in his own consciousness. The dialogue within is inseparable from the dialogue without.
This image of the individual disciplined thinker as engaged in a process that is in a derivative sense communal outlines some of the central and ideal features of academic community. First, this community is intentional in that it aims at knowledge and truth. Second, just as the voices within converse with one another in an intimate, critical, and engaging manner, so too must students and faculty treat one another with critical respect and concern. Like disciplined thought itself, community flourishes or perishes depending not only upon the critical acumen of the various voices that comprise it but also upon the extent to which and the manner in which they respect and listen to one another.
Of all the gatherings on a university campus, classroom meetings would seem most closely to approximate the ideal features of academic community just outlined. Like Dewey’s emerging publics, these meetings arise around a set of questions or problems or subject matters. And they are surely evanescent. But unlike Dewey’s publics, classroom meetings end not when a given problem has disappeared or been resolved but when a bell rings or a term concludes. Like the internal conversation that is disciplined thought, classroom meetings do aim at knowledge, truth, and understanding. But many, perhaps most, classroom meetings do not include much conversation, nor is there, for the most part, much intimacy and engagement among the several members of the group.
It therefore seems strained at best to speak of most classrooms as communities; perhaps they are best described, to borrow a term from Erving Goffman, as “focused gatherings.” Yet they are nevertheless the single most important element in the overall assemblage of groups that constitutes the academic community, for the classroom is the place where students learn the disciplines and the virtues that are necessary to participate in a community of learning. In short, every teacher is teaching at least two things in every classroom—his or her subject and the manners of learning. I use the term “manners” here deliberately to capture both the sense of “methods” and the sense of “virtues.”
Flourishing beyond the classrooms are a bewildering number of academic assemblies—faculty groups, sometimes defined along departmental lines, sometimes not; informal gatherings of students in residence halls and other locations; and any number of groups, comprised of both students and faculty, who congregate for the purpose of learning together. Faculty members are the most crucial element in this assemblage of groups, because they, more than the students, give shape and substance to the entire configuration of groups, because they are relatively more permanently rooted within any given academy, and because they are charged with the task of initiating the students into the discourses and the disciplines, the subjects and the manners of higher learning.
In brief, any academic community is itself an assemblage of groups that can be designated “communities,” not because they possess a common essence but because they display a certain family resemblance to one another. Even so, there are some basic outlines that circumscribe academic communities: their face-to-face quality, their common pursuit of knowledge and understanding, and their integral character, the sense in which the quality of the individual’s thought and the quality of the communities’ thinking are mutually dependent upon one another. The excellence of “the dialogue within is inseparable from the [excellence of] the dialogue without.”
When Parker Palmer claims that knowing is a “reunion of separated beings whose primary bond is not of logic but of love” or that knowledge is itself a form of responsible relationship, he intends, I think, to call attention to this integral character of the community of learning. When Rorty argues that “we understand knowledge when we understand the social justification of belief,” he too means to emphasize the irreducibly communal dimension of thought. Even so, both Palmer and Rorty occasionally mystify and perplex readers who need greater clarity about the exact connections between community on the one hand and knowledge and truth on the other. I will therefore turn now to this second difficulty that has arisen recently in the context of the community question.
Academic community does not refer to some sort of metaphysical entity that is prior to the individuals comprising it and free from its own history and traditions. It is instead, as I have been suggesting, a configuration of plural communities with their own conventions, disciplinary histories, standards of evidence and argument, and patterns of discourse. So we need not conjure up, in thinking through the relationships among community, knowledge, and truth, assortments of alchemists or flat-earthers as plausible examples of communities of inquirers within the contemporary academy. Inquiry takes place within academic communities that are themselves embedded within an epistemic context, which context conditions in large part the justification of belief. To know something is just to hold beliefs about it that are justified. Justification of belief is itself a communal endeavor, the outcome, if you will, of disciplined inquiry.
Though communal inquiry secures knowledge through internal processes of justification, it does not insure truth. Inquiries can go wrong in many ways and for many reasons. Even so, as Jeffrey Stout has well said in Ethics after Babel, “truth is a property of interpreted sentences, and interpreted sentences belong to languages which are human creations. The world-as-it-is-in-itself is, by definition, the world apart from the application of interpreted sentences by human beings—the world described for epistemological purposes as undescribed. It therefore includes no truths. To accept or discover the truth about something is to have acquired a language in which interpreted sentences can be applied in a certain way. It is therefore to make use of human artifice, to possess certain habits, beliefs, and so on. That is the only road to truth about anything.”
Academic communities are interpretive and self-critical. But though they aim at knowledge and truth, their capacity really to discover the truth about any matter will depend, as Stout here suggests, in part upon their possession of certain vocabularies, skills, and virtues. In other words, precision about truth and knowledge is itself contingent upon the understanding of the particular contexts within which these terms are used. For this reason, Parker Palmer is correct when he argues that community and truth are correlative terms.
In our present circumstances the clarification of the concept of academic community and the elucidation of knowledge and truth are therefore closely related enterprises. To ask about the meaning of truth is to raise questions about context, about the boundaries, the vocabulary, and the virtues that collectively define the shape and the substance of a particular community of inquirers whose primary intention is to discover the truth. Once the epistemological center of gravity has shifted to a place outside of the self, questions about communal ideals and questions about knowledge and truth are, though not identical to each other, ineluctably convergent.
Some contemporary thinkers, however, suspect all such references to communal ideals, regardless of whether these ideals are advanced within epistemological contexts, and this brings me to the third and final difficulty that attends current conversation about community. Michael Ignatieff, in his book The Needs of Strangers, has framed this last and fairly widespread critique of communal ideals as forcefully as anyone:
Words like fraternity, belonging, and community are so soaked with nostalgia and utopianism that they are nearly useless as guides to the real possibilities of solidarity in modern society. Modern life has changed the possibilities of civic solidarity, and our language stumbles behind like an overburdened porter with a mountain of old cases . . . . Our task is to find a language for our need for belonging which is not just a way of expressing nostalgia, fear, and estrangement from modernity.
Jeffrey Stout has discerned some of these same nostalgic impulses at work among several communitarians, and on that basis he has suggested that many of them suffer from “terminal wistfulness.” And Jeremy Waldron, who has himself been persuaded by Ignatieff’s critique among others, has noted repeatedly that terms like “brotherhood” and “community” are now merely code words that timid or estranged souls use to protest modernity.
Though all three of these critics are speaking about civic life, their misgivings about community apply as well to my discussion of academic life in communitarian terms. Ignatieff continues his critique of communitarians with a question: “Our political images of civic belonging remain haunted by the classical polis, by Athens, Rome, and Florence. Is there a language of belonging adequate to Los Angeles?” I might well ask, given my present purposes, “Is there a language of community adequate to UCLA?”
No and yes. No, because UCLA, along with any number of other large research-oriented universities, embodies in its practices and its language a Weberian conception of the academic vocation. And when Max Weber, in his famous address Wissenschaft als Beruf, sought to shape the self-understanding of the modern academy, he did so by insisting that the academic realm, like the political and economic realms, had become and would remain governed by means-end rationality and by impersonal constraints. Like Ignatieff, Weber believed that talk of friendship, community, and a sense of belonging was best consigned to private life. Up to a point, Weber and Ignatieff would surely be right: UCLA as a whole cannot be adequately analyzed by the language of community.
But matters are more complicated than this. One of UCLA’s own faculty members has written a historical study of civic life in early modern Philadelphia that is directly germane to my own analysis of his and others’ academic lives at UCLA. Gary B. Nash has noted that in pre-Revolutionary days, Philadelphia was in some sense a single community. But over time its population increased, its class divisions became more pronounced, its ethnic composition became more diverse, its neighborhoods changed their configurations, and its economic system became more geared to the impersonality of the marketplace. Unlike some historians who, in view of these developments, proclaim the loss of community in Philadelphia, Nash argues for another analytical strategy. “Rather than nostalgically tracing the eclipse of community,” he writes, “we need to trace the continuously evolving process of community.” Nash then proceeds to write about craft organizations, working-class taverns, benevolent societies, free black churches, and reform associations. Instead of dismissing these structured organizations as mere Gesellschaften, Nash assigns to them a leading role in the creation of genuine urban community, of what he calls “Gemeinschaft of mind—the mental life of community.”
Although analogies drawn between civic and academic life are far from perfect, I would insist that something like Nash’s analysis of Philadelphia better captures the fabric of his and others’ academic lives at UCLA than does the language of Gesellschaft. UCLA is simply less than the sum of its parts. Its intellectual vitality arises not at the level of the university as a whole but from the myriad of communities whose assemblage we designate UCLA. And these communities are marked in turn by features I have already outlined as circumscribing the family of communities that constitutes any college or university—face-to-face engagement, aspirations to knowledge and truth, and integral relationships between individual thought and communal conversation.
Neither the language of Gesellschaft nor the language of Gemeinschaft can adequately describe the modern academy. The two vocabularies arose initially, in the writings of Ferdinand Tonnies, in a kind of dialectical opposition to one another. Indeed, it would be a subtle historical task to determine whether the language of community arose as a protest against modernity or whether the language of modernity arose as a protest against what were taken to be the Utopian impulses behind the language of community. At any rate, Tonnies, who first coined the word “Gemeinschaft” as a sociological category, used the term in both a descriptive and a critical sense. “His images of Gemeinschaft,” Harry Liebersohn has shown, “were not an inducement to nostalgia so much as a powerful reminder of things that once had been and could return.”
To criticize communitarian thought simply because it deploys images drawn from a real or imagined past as criticism of the present is to dismiss arbitrarily much of modern social and political theory. Are we simply to disregard Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality because of his invocation of a state of nature and a subsequent state of nascent civil society? Are we to dismiss Thomas Paine because he takes us back to Eden on the road to establishing the rights of man? If thinkers as diverse as Rousseau, Paine, and Tonnies are all to be understood as Utopian insofar as they criticize the present from the standpoint of a real or imagined past, then utopianism is an honored mode of cultural criticism.
Communitarian accounts of knowledge and truth have been vulnerable to charges of tribalism, imprecision, and nostalgia in part because communitarians have been insufficiently attentive to the affections and the virtues that sustain disciplined communal conversation. So, for example, even though Rorty does not think of himself as a communitarian, he repeatedly insists that we must focus upon the “social justification of belief” if we are first to understand and then to pursue knowledge and truth. Yet Rorty’s understanding of communal processes is weak in part because he lacks a spiritual tradition within which he can articulate it. By contrast to Rorty, Parker Palmer is quite lucid on the subject of community precisely because he, unlike Rorty, is rooted in a spiritual tradition. And unlike many of his fellow communitarians, Palmer consistently connects his analyses of knowledge and community to his understanding of character, to what in his terms might be called spiritually grounded habits of mind.
Indeed, I shall venture further than Palmer to suggest that the practice of certain spiritual virtues is and always has been essential to processes of higher learning, even within the secular academy. I have tried thus far to demonstrate that the secular part of Western culture has itself raised the community question with unprecedented urgency and that the religious are best situated to address the question with authority based upon both tradition and experience. Here, however, I wish only to make a more restricted suggestion regarding the relationship between religion and communities of higher learning. I believe that the most promising argument for an integral relationship between them can be made through a demonstration that genuine learning has always entailed the exercise of virtues that arose initially within communities that were self-consciously religious in character. I want now briefly to consider three such virtues—humility, faith, and self-denial—and to show how each one of them is arguably indispensable to the process of genuine learning.
Much of what passes for laziness or the proverbial “lack of motivation” among today’s students really involves a lack of humility, stemming in part from a lack of piety or respect for that aspect of God’s ongoing creation that manifests itself in works of genius. During the last term, I asked my students why they had not thought through a particular passage from St. Augustine on friendship and loss. I knew, because I had by that time grown to know these students very well, that they cared very much about the matters that Augustine was examining. I had not realized, however, that some of my students were easily convinced, based upon a quick reading of the text, that Augustine was simply mistaken or overly agitated about these matters. Others complained that Augustine was unnecessarily obscure. All of them dismissed the passage in a peremptory fashion.
Current educational theory would suggest, in the face of these student comments, that I had failed properly to motivate them to want to learn about friendship and loss or that I had not managed to make Augustine accessible to them. I had probably failed in these ways. But my students could have overcome my failings had they been sufficiently humble, had they presumed that Augustine’s apparent obscurity was their problem, not his, and had they presumed that his apparent inconsistencies or excesses were not really the careless errors they took them to be.
Humility on this account does not mean uncritical acceptance: it means, in practical terms, the presumption of wisdom and authority in the author. My students are far too often ready to believe that Kant was just, in a given passage, murky or that Aristotle was pointlessly repetitive or that Tolstoy was, in the battle scenes of War and Peace, needlessly verbose. Such quick, easy, and dismissive appraisals preclude the possibility of learning from these writers. Yes, some of these judgments might turn out to be warranted, but the practice of humility at least prevents them from being made summarily. Some degree of humility is a precondition for learning.
As is faith. James Gustafson has recently argued that “if the university is to be a fruitful location for exploring larger issues of life, perhaps we need to acknowledge, each of us as scholars, teachers, and students, that all our knowing involves ‘faith,’ human confidence in what we have received.” The point seems indisputable. We all rely upon the work and the thought of others, and we cannot possibly think well in an atmosphere of mistrust. Again, as in the case of humility, trusting the research and the theories of others does not mean uncritical acceptance. It means, as Gustafson has said, that we typically believe what we are questioning and at the same time question what we are believing. Faith then is a persistent beat in the rhythm of intellectual life. Without it, we would not be able to learn. All of us in some sense or another really do believe in order to understand.
Finally, and perhaps fundamentally, the virtue of self-denial is indispensable to learning. By self-denial I mean the capacity first to risk and then to give ourselves up if necessary for the sake of the truth. The Italian Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola argued that the conflicts that arise within a community of inquiry are “peculiar in that here it is a gain to lose. Consequently, anyone very weak can and should not only not disparage them [the struggles], but also seek them voluntarily, since the loser truly receives benefit and not injury from the winner, for through him the loser returns home richer . . . .” I would prefer to say that truth is always the victor in these struggles. All participants lose, in the sense that they all surrender a part of themselves in the process of growing into the truth together.
Humility, faith, and self-denial: these practices neither exhaust the list of spiritual virtues that are indispensable to learning nor do they represent a list of distinctively Christian virtues. Indeed, the virtues I have touched upon here did not originate from the example of Jesus of Nazareth. They arose instead from the practices and the teachings of the ancient Hebrews, a people whose deep and widely celebrated commitment to learning was and still is informed by an epistemology that is profoundly communal in character. To say, with Parker Palmer, that we must “recover from our spiritual tradition the models and methods of knowing as an act of love” is to direct us to the roots of that tradition in ancient Israel for whom knowledge and intimacy were one and the same thing.
Nor should we limit our understanding of religious virtues to the Judeo-Christian strand of the Western tradition. Plato, whose academy, Josef Pieper reminds us, regularly performed religious sacrifices, understood very well the integral relationship between virtue and knowledge, character and learning. He chose the dialogue form, I believe, because it was the vehicle best designed to dramatize the movement of inquiry as an act of life, involving characters in conversation, not intellects in isolation. The Meno, Plato’s only dialogue on the subject of education, features a title character whose failures to learn are more frequently the results of flaws in his character than they are the results of lapses in his logic. Meno needs to change if he is to come to know the truth, and insofar as the truth comes to Meno, he does change, not just his ideas but his way of living.
Indeed, whether we look to the teachers of ancient Israel or to the Platonic academy or to Augustine at Cassiciacum or to the medieval university or to Pico’s disputatious Florence or to the small colleges of early nineteenth-century America, we find learning flourishing in communities formed by the conscious practice of spiritual virtues. Over the course of the last century, the modern university has ceased to attend to character formation, or it has imagined that such attention should be an “extra-curricular” enterprise having little or nothing to do with knowledge. From this perspective, the current ascendancy of the community question may be Western culture’s way of awakening from a comparatively brief slumber induced or at least maintained by objectivism. If so, the “problem” is not to explain, much less to justify, the relationship between religion and higher learning. The “problem” is to account for how we could ever have lost sight of it.
This blindness to the relationship between spirituality and learning has been in part the fault of the “enlightened” secular establishment and in part the fault of religious bigotry and obscurantism. David Hume insisted that some of the very virtues I have just discussed are inimical to learning. He understood very well that the Christian religion was not merely a set of teachings but a way of life. And in his Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals he insisted that “monkish” virtues like humility and self-sacrifice “stupefy the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper.” For all of its remarkable achievements, the enlightenment rationalism of Hume and others always had the potential to corrode the very virtues that made enlightened inquiry possible.
On the other hand, the religious bigotry and superstition that Hume assailed so mercilessly have persisted long after his critiques of them. At the very moment at the end of the nineteenth century that the universities were consolidating the triumph of objectivism, many of the religious were claiming that religion meant dogmatism based upon a peculiar reading of the Scriptures (Genesis as a geology text. for example). If the current ascendancy of the community question really does mark something of a rediscovery, we might expect that the religious will rediscover the ethical dimension of their spirituality at the same time that the academicians rediscover the spiritual dimension of their ethos.
To speak in such abstract and exalted terms is to engage the language of hope, not optimism. For it is one thing to suggest that the life of learning will always be in some sense dependent upon the exercise of spiritual virtues in however attenuated a form, quite another to imagine that the universities will turn to the practice of those spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, that give such virtues meaning and strength. I do not therefore expect any grand restructuring of academe in the near future, and I would myself shrink back from participating in such a venture. Again, I think that Palmer is correct. He argues that the place to begin to counter the objectivist epistemology that still grips the academy is in individual classrooms where teachers, disciplining themselves first, create spaces “where obedience to truth is practiced.”
I also agree with Palmer that the state of relatedness or wholeness that was present “in the beginning” constitutes the horizon of our hopes. But I read Genesis a bit differently from him, and I am therefore less sanguine than he is about the penultimate prospects of our knowledge under any description, even the description of knowing as an act of love. I noted earlier the ironic and paradoxical fact that the violent trajectory of objectivism was impelled in part by the desire for civil peace. I believe that Genesis teaches us that all human knowing is paradoxical in character, paradoxical because limited, limited because human.
Indeed, the first disobedience involves something like a “fall” into humanity. Mortality and self-consciousness (in the double sense of self-awareness and embarrassment) emerge from the knowledge of good and evil. And the sources of the most profound human achievements seem thereafter bound up inextricably with the sources of human shame and misery. Since this is so, the ultimate grounds for our hope must lie somewhere beyond ourselves and our knowing. Perhaps the pivotal point of relation between higher learning and religion lies somewhere between the deepest human sense of the limits of our knowing and the cultivation, in the midst of such chastening wisdom, of the spiritual virtue of hope.
Mark R. Schwehn is Dean of Christ College at Valparaiso University.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?