Michael Ignatieff: thinking for yourself in a university is not easy

Creativity often requires a sociable setting, but academics urgently need to avoid the dangers of following fashion, says former CEU head

十月 27, 2021

“Thinking for yourself in a university is not easy” and it is only possible to admit you are wrong “if you can separate your identity claims from your truth claims”, Michael Ignatieff has warned on past and current debates within universities.

The former president of the Central European University, which was forced to relocate from Budapest to Vienna in 2018 after coming under intense pressure from the government of Viktor Orbán, was speaking at London’s Royal Society.

He pointed to “the duty of international academic solidarity” at a time when “the institutional defences of academic freedom in Europe are much weaker than we think…Despite the magnificent support from fellow academics across Europe, despite the European Court of Justice pronouncing that the Orbán action was illegal, a member state of the European Union got away with the expulsion of a free institution.”

But Professor Ignatieff also explored some more perennial challenges to academic freedom and the particular forms they take today.

“Creativity is sociable,” he explained, “the truth is not…My best thoughts have occurred when listening silently to someone a lot smarter than me.” But although knowledge creation was a social activity, “the test of truth is not social but rather what the facts and evidence will support”, he added.

It had always been the task of universities, therefore, to “manage the paradox that the best thinking is done in company with others, but that original thinking that establishes new truth is contrarian, refractory to common sense, antithetical to ideology, hostile to doctrine and allergic to dogma”.

There were real dangers, Professor Ignatieff suggested, when “we allow our own minds to be taken over by the trends, fashions, movements and dogma that, thanks to new technology, now circulate at the speed of light”. Here he looked back to his time as a graduate student at Harvard University, when a series of intellectual trends – Marxism, structuralism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction – proved highly stimulating but then often “degenerated into closed language games for initiates”, he said.

He continued: “The ability to speak the language of the initiates was made the condition for hires, promotions, book contracts and other indices of academic prestige. There are still professors on many campuses whose initial contract was earned by a capacity to perfectly imitate the language of the priesthoods of yesteryear. Thinking for yourself in a university is not easy.”

“The intellectual movement of the 1970s and 1980s,” Professor Ignatieff went on, “thought of themselves as progressive, and all those who resisted as reactionary.” Today’s universities were “on the frontline of our long-deferred reckoning with our history of race, class and gender”, something that was “changing, I think for the better, the research subjects we work on and our contributions to public debate”.

Yet this also significantly raised the heat of debates, he said, because “the polarisation is not just ideological and political, it’s now racial and sexual as well, and therefore much more explosive, because when intellectual claims become identity claims the stakes become existential. People feel radically threatened because their identities are challenged.”

Professor Ignatieff’s lecture, titled “Academic Freedom: Right or Privilege?” was hosted by the Royal Society and the Council for At-Risk Academics. It also formed the eighth in the series of Science and Civilisation lectures, named after one given by Albert Einstein at London’s Royal Albert Hall in October 1933 as part of a major fundraising event organised by Cara’s predecessor and others to offer support to the many academics being expelled from Germany by the Nazis.

“It’s only possible to admit you are wrong,” Professor Ignatieff concluded, “if you can separate your identity claims from your truth claims, and it is only possible to live by the [Royal Society’s] motto ‘Take nobody’s word for it’ [Nullius in verba] if you are sufficiently independent even of progressive thought to assert your own right to ascertain truth for yourself.”




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Reader's comments (2)

Yes, paradigm shifts in scientific thinking are marked by contrarian viewpoints which are "refractory to common sense, antithetical to ideology, hostile to doctrine and allergic to dogma”. For example, the trajectories of medical research into Helicobacter pylori and its role in stomach ulcers, and management research into corporate psychopaths and their role in organisational disease were remarkably similar. Both streams of research were pioneered and propagated by just two or three individuals and both involved methodological breakthroughs. Nevertheless, both streams were initially ridiculed and suffered from lack of funding and publishing rejections. Eventually, both streams of research proved to be exceptionally insightful. The paradigmatic understanding of what causes stomach ulcers has been changed forever and the paradigmatic understanding of organisational disease has now been expanded to include corporate psychopathy as a causal influence. Top journal editors stifle breakthroughs by supressing heretical views. Clive Boddy.
I teach "You are not your code"... in other words, don't think that your ideas are wound up in your self-worth. If there's a group of us going out for dinner, and you fancy Chinese but the group decides to go for pizza, that's no reflection on you, it's just that more people wanted to eat pizza. Ideas are for having, examining, testing, chucking away...