Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

reconstituting the Republic of Letters (or not)

Here I want to follow up on my previous post on academic publishing and the patronage system.

First, just a note that the article by Stanley Fish that I cited in that post created an interesting conversation that can be found here, at least for those with JSTOR access.

Now, back to the main issues raised by Wellmon and Piper: As I mentioned in my earlier response, their work brings a welcome historical dimension to the issues they raise, identifying the ways in which the rise of the modern research university, starting in the late 18th century in Germany, sought to avoid or transcend the limitations of a patronage regime but ended up (largely, though not wholly) reinscribing such a regime in a disguised and more systematic form.

It was what we might call a Weberian development: a community or network of scholarship — the old Republic of Letters about which Anthony Grafton, more than anyone else, has written so eloquently — that depended a good deal on the charisma of individual figures, from Petrarch to Erasmus to Voltaire, was gradually rationalized and systematized. Wellmon and Piper and I are the heirs of that rationalized system, and for better or worse have to function within it. But as a professor at a private Christian university, as opposed to the public institutions that Chad and Andrew work at, my ties to that system are slightly looser. The epistemic world of Christian scholarship in the humanities overlaps with the larger scholarly world but has various regions that lie well off that map. At Wheaton, where I taught for 29 years, an English or philosophy professor could (might not, but could) get tenure while writing only for specifically Christian journals and presses; at Baylor, where I now teach, that would not be possible, but some publication with Christian scholarly outlets is usually acceptable.

So from where I sit the rise of the modern research university, with its national and often international standards of accreditation and prestige, is a mixed blessing, and I am tempted to wonder whether, in the university as it is currently constituted and likely to be constituted for the imaginable future, any serious alternative to the current epistemic regime can be achieved.

If such an alternative regime is ever to be realized, then it might well need to involve reflection on what elements of that Republic of Letters could be reconstituted. In contrast to the research university the Old Republic was characterized by

  • locally variable interests and approaches
  • dependence (as noted above) on individual charisma
  • loose and variable social ties among its members
  • loose and variable relations to intellectual institutions
  • a common language (Latin) for much of its history
  • private and locally variable publication technologies
  • dependence on postal service for most of its exchanges of ideas

For a time it seemed to me that the internet might allow for the formation of structurally similar networks of scholars, more-or-less loosely related to but not confined by academic institutions. I remember, ten or fifteen years ago, hearing fairly regularly from people who didn’t hold academic positions but who nevertheless — or perhaps not nevertheless but rather consequently — offered interesting ideas that I did not come across in my regular academic reading. (These people often held advanced degrees but did not have academic jobs, for a variety of reasons.)

The success of these networks depended on a reliable means of exchanging ideas, something that, early in internet’s history, was enabled by various technologies: the BBS, the newsgroup, the listserv. But when we moved from those technologies to the World Wide Web, and thus to comment-enabled blogs, things started to go seriously wrong, largely because ignorant and/or malicious people, who didn't even have to sign up for a listserv in order to share their opinions, drove the more measured and thoughtful people out of comment threads. Then, at about the time that everyone started to figure out the necessity of comment moderation, Twitter arose, and suddenly commenting on blogs seemed burdensome to people.

For instance, the number of comments on this blog has steadily declined, though for a while, until I began emphasizing that I don't read Twitter replies, people would respond there — inevitably more briefly, and therefore less clearly and cogently, than they would have if they had chosen instead to comment on the blog itself. Now I get very few responses at all to what I write here. I think the rise of social media, and especially Twitter, has done great damage to any hopes for an online Republic of Letters that could provide a kind of epistemic counterpoise to the Academy. Perhaps when Twitter burns itself out — which I believe it will do, and fairly soon, thanks to the crass indifference of its leadership to the abuse that goes on there — some new possibilities will arise, or old ones come back into view.

But without some such counterpoise — some intellectual ferment going on outside the disciplinary powers of the research university (and I mean “disciplinary” primarily in a Foucauldian sense) — then I doubt whether we’ll see a significant alteration in how the university works.

Let me return now to the question that Wellmon and Piper ask: “What are the epistemic effects of a system in which academic prestige is so unequally distributed and how might we, as an academy, foster a more intellectually diverse space of academic communication?” I want to suggest one possible answer to that question: If we want the university to become a more intellectually diverse space, then maybe we need to find ways to strengthen and vivify intellectual discourse outside the university. Because it is only when serious alternatives to the epistemic practices of the university are being cultivated elsewhere that the university is likely to reconsider how it does its business. In this way a major investment of academic intellectual resources in the world outside the academy could constitute, at one and the same time, a public service and a means of self-invigoration.


  • Can blogs represent the same kind of professional and academic prestige that academic journals do? Twitter may have killed the extra-academic intellectual ferment, and some blogs publish fantastic work, but the process of publishing a journal article still retains a mystic quality. People complain about how long it takes to publish in a journal, but the very duration lends the final product a tectonic allure, as if the months invested correlated to quality of writing. The length and frequency of blogs, on the other hand, evoke haste (however unfairly). If the counterpoise is to be successful, it also has to match the force and prestige of the medium, which is certainly part of why Twitter has failed us. Maybe online, essay-based journals would be a better community?

  • Connor, if blogs — or any other "serious alternatives to the epistemic practices of the university" — were to be prestige-conferring, then they would be part of the current system, not a counterpoise to it. And academic journals already live almost wholly online. I'm trying to imagine what kinds of interesting intellectual life could go on outside the current prestige-conferring system, which works online as well as elsewhere.

  • Thanks for this, Alan. As usual, I resonate both with your reflections and with the experiences that frame and produce them. In my research toward writing my epistemology ("Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian Epistemology," OUP 2014 and reviewed almost nowhere...), I read with much nodding and Schadenfreude the book by Michèle Lamont, "How Professors Think" (Harvard UP, 2009). It confirms in its own sphere--the world of elite research grant bodies--what your posts discuss.

    I doubt Thomas Kuhn would find any of this startling, grimly realistic as he was about how paradigms change (= eventually an old guard dies off and a new guard gets to call the tune), but all of this does give the lie to the illusion of meritocracy so assiduously cultivated by the elite universities.

    (This self-serving illusion strikes me as isomorphic with the self-serving illusion of the self-made success in business, the intrepid and industrious individual brilliantly triumphing on the utterly level playing field of economic contest. Yeah. Totally.)

    Like you, I earned my last degree at a pretty good university (Chicago) and I'm grateful for the excellently stimulating and informative experience of those years. But goodness gracious: Who really believes that the top scholars inevitably end up at the top places in a perfect pecking order? I can think of a dozen scholars immediately in the fields I know something about who are far more accomplished and interesting than their counterparts in the Tier One schools.

    What is to be done? Yes, one can avoid the rigmarole (and, often, sheer stupid frustration) of trying to get one's work noticed and approved by the gatekeepers of the major journals. But offer something outside their pretty small Overton windows, baby, and you are wasting everyone's time. Book publishing with good presses (my fifth with OUP is due out this fall) has been much more rewarding, with eminent scholars both refereeing the MSS. and blurbing the books, but without my having to kowtow to this year's fashion in the scholarly societies sponsoring the journals.

    Still, I did note that my OUP book hasn't been widely noticed. Indeed, a couple of reviewers did actually say that, because it doesn't conform to the current discourse of analytic philosophy of knowledge, it just ISN'T EPISTEMOLOGY. And that perhaps says it all: Not just inferior science, Stackhouse, but NOT science.

    Hang in there, Alan. The lure of the "inner circle" (CSL) is ever strong....

  • Aren't many of the same people who are high-prestige inside the academy also the ones who dominate the blogs outside of it? In part, because they're selected for the blogs based on pre-existing credentials, and also b/c hyper-productive people who can find the time to be prolific in both scholarship and the sub-scholarly but still pretty high-level internet Republic of Letters tend to be the people who are picked up by high-prestige places, which value such productivity?

  • John: I had not heard of the Lamont book, so thanks. I expect I will read it in squinting can't-look-away horrified fascination. And (like you) I'll keep doing what I've been doing, because I don't really know another way....

    Miss S-I: I'm inclined to disagree with your hypothesis, but that's pure instinct — I don't have any evidence. My inchoate sense of things is that academic gatekeepers almost always disapprove of blogging and online activity more generally. "Why are you spending time on that instead of writing for refereed publications?" I think many non-tenured academics have shied away from blogging ever since Daniel Drezner was denied tenure at Chicago a decade ago and his blogging was commonly cited as a reason for the denial. Conversely, one of the most influential bloggers I can think of is Scott Alexander, and not only is he not relying on credentials, that's not even his real name. (Many of his most influential posts are on subjects outside his professional expertise, psychiatry.) Anyway, that's a first tentative response to your question.

  • Some percentage of an academic's own intellectual life falls below the jurisdiction of the prestige-system, I'd imagine. The examples I can think of are all oral, rather than written, and local, rather than remote: extra-curricular study groups- either with colleagues or students, serious conversations with colleagues and students, informal colloquia, question periods at paper presentations, even moments in the classroom where pedagogy falls into the background. It seems to me that the epistemic customs of the prestige-system might not be able to dominate these sorts of activities. They could provide, not so much a counterpoise, as a refuge, even a seedbed.

    But seriously, what percentage of the working week do these sub-disciplinary intellectual activities constitute? Where is the percentage lower, and where higher?

  • If we look at what worked in the past, or rather to explore why the Republique des Lettres of the 16th to 18th centuries was succesful, might I add one further trait? Namely, the existence of an underlying ethos shared by those who participated in the intellectual network - that ethos being that, regardless of religion, politics or regional/national origin, the "lettered" shared fundamental premises concerning the means and ends of scholarship. The "means" would be a dedication to meticulous detail (not to be confused with proper methodology or criticism) and the ends being the pursuit of truth (that indeed, there was a truth to be pursued at all). Thus, despite being at opposite ends of the religious/ideological poles, a Claude de Saumaise, a French Protestant philologist, would take Baronius seriously despite the latter being a Roman cardinal (and biblical scholar). Milton took Saumaise seriously: he slandered & slammed the Frenchman, but he took him seriously to the point he thought it necessary to develop arguments sustaining his criticism of Salmasius's work. So, opposing religious & partisan sides took scholarship, in and of itself, seriously and considered it a worthy and noble pursuit. It was this underlying ethos that could allow for the rise of respected, neutral arbiters in determining what was good & worthwhile scholarship - I'm thinking of Huguenots like Pierre Bayle and Jean Le Clerc. Perhaps in a way, the Republique des Lettres was self-policing in that, the worst punishment to be meted out was to be called out for shoddy scholarship. No doubt many were shameless partisan hacks (I'm thinking Roger L'Estrange) but few sought out to be disdained by one's peers, or even rivals, neither of whom were necessarily one's own co-religionists or political allies. I think were there to be a reconstituted Republique des Lettres hors-university today, there would need to be not just charismatic figures à la Carl Sagan or Voltaire but also these neutral arbiters working in the background, out of the limelight. And I don't mean the dilettant cultural critics one could find a chock-a-block in Manhattan. There would also need to be an underlying, unspoken, unwritten, ethos shared by all who pitch in to join the Republique des Lettres and whose main worry wouldn't be "who?whom?" but rather "were you meticulous in your methodology?" (said no colleague to a fellow academic ever). Academics from within Academia would have to accept the possibility that there could be astute, meticulous, scholars from outside Academia on the one hand, and the general public would have to gain a renewed respect - and patience - for the precision and hard-work that goes into producing scholarship on the other.

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