Mark C. Taylor on the Kantian Architectonic of the University

By ‘the University’ let us understand the Modern university, for which, as the story goes, the plan was laid out in 1798 by Immanuel Kant, put into practice by Wilhelm von Humboldt with the founding of the University of Berlin in 1810, and exported to the US with the founding of Johns Hopkins University in 1876. I note this right away to attempt to inoculate myself from the reckless charge that I, like Mark Taylor, am ignorant of the fact that universities, where people such as Adam Smith taught, existed before Kant. Having hung out with Professor Taylor for the past 5 days, I can absolutely confirm that he’s not absolutely wrong about absolutely everything. Absolution, absolutely, at least from me.

Let’s pick up the story where we left off — or at least where we began: with Kant. In two public lectures he gave this week, the first on “Three Kinds of Philosophy” and the second on “Restructuring Higher Education,” Kant was key.

On Tuesday Taylor described Kant as in some sense the father of all three kinds of philosophy: (1) the scientific (figured by Hegel, though traced through analytic philosophy), (2) the artistic (figured by Kierkegaard, though traced through Continental philosophy), and (3) the neither/nor, in-between (figured by the Kant of the Critique of Judgment, a.k.a., Third Critique, though traced almost imperceptibly through postmodernism).

On Thursday Taylor traced the conceptual roots of the Modern university to Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties, arguing that Kant’s higher faculty is conceptually linked to Kant’s Second Critique (of Practical Reason), while the lower faculty of philosophy is linked to Kant’s First Critique (of Pure Reason). The crisis of the Modern university is associated, at least in part, with the fact that those of us in the lower faculty of philosophy (and that includes basically all the disciplines in which one can be granted a Doctor of Philosophy degree) tend still to resist any sort of instrumental justification for our research (we pursue knowledge for the sake of knowledge and worship at the feet of the idol of intrinsic value — in this, we all follow Aristotle, though Stanley Fish is today’s high priest of irrelevance). The higher faculties (which would include today’s professional schools, such as those in Law or Business), on the other hand, are concerned precisely with the practical, instrumental value of knowledge. This schism, along with the division of labor that Kant champions, leads to the mass production of PhDs who pursue more and more knowledge about less and less. Taylor then argued for a postmodern restructuring of the university as a network of interconnecting webs of cooperation rather than autonomous silos of competitors who wall themselves off from each other and the world.

Throughout both lectures Taylor suggested that the two talks were themselves related to each other — though he mostly left us to make the connection. Here’s how I would do it.

First, I would modify the description of the three kinds of philosophy, as follows. It’s not so much that we have a scientific/analytic kind, an artistic/Continental kind, and something that’s neither scientific nor artistic. Sure, that makes a certain sense, and it’s consistent with what I take to be at least a key element in several versions of the story of the analytic/Continental philosophy divide: that it’s really about the relative value each side places on science and philosophy, with the analysts valuing science more highly (philosophical naturalism) and the Continentals valuing philosophy more highly (constructivism).

Suppose, however, that the real divide in philosophy is neither analytic nor Continental. Suppose, instead, that the salient divide in philosophy is between those scholars who value philosophy for the sake of philosophy (to the exclusion of its practical relevance, a la Stanley Fish) and those philosopher who seek (a la Marx) to change the world. We could then think of the first type of philosophers as those who might gravitate toward Kant’s First Critique — they value the True, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, pure science, theoretical significance, and so forth. The second type of philosophers would be those who would gravitate toward Kant’s Second Critique — they value the Good, justice, the pursuit of knowledge for its practical employment in solving real-world problems, applied science, practical relevance, and so forth. This division of the first two types of philosophy actually makes Taylor’s appeal to Kant’s Third Critique more interesting. If modernity is something like the struggle between these two grand narratives (reason in its theoretical employment and reason in its practical employment — or theory and practice, for short), then the appeal to Kant’s Third Critique as a sort of third type of philosophy navigating between the first and second types, seeking rules, making indeterminate judgments, valuing the Beautiful (and the Sublime!) — well that has postmodernism a la Lyotard written all over it!

It also allows us to connect Taylor’s first and second lectures. The problem with the Modern university as designed by Kant is that it institutionalizes the split between the first two types of philosophy, which we now see are not just two types of folks within the discipline of philosophy, but rather two attitudes toward knowledge production (one theoretical, one practical). The Conflict of the Faculties instantiates an incomplete architectonic of the university — there is no Middle Faculty (of Judgment) to chart the course between the practical (higher) and theoretical (lower) faculties.

‘Interdisciplinarity’ is the placeholder for this missing faculty.

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