Monday, August 12, 2013


(Source: Nivaagaard Collection.)

I'm taking a "sabbatical" from blogging this semester. Actually, it's a sabbatical from pretty much all social media. I'll say something about it when I'm back in early 2014.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Utopian Epistemology

People sometimes tell me that my ideas about scholarly writing are great ... in an ideal world. In "the real world", by contrast, other conditions apply.

My first response is to point out that my ideas are entirely adjustable to whatever real, "on the ground", conditions you may be facing. So, in an ideal world, yes, you'd have three hours to write every day. But in the real world you can still write every day, if perhaps only for 30 minutes in some periods, where you're busy with other things. During truly brutal periods, you can write for as few as five minutes every day. That is, if my advice is to write every day for between five minutes and three hours, then surely I'm not insensitive to the limitations and messiness of real life?

On the other hand, I don't mind getting people to think about what an "ideal" research environment would look like. We can call this "utopian epistemology"*. If we organized a corner of society (call it "the university") for the purpose of providing ideal conditions for "the life of the mind", what would it look like? How would a day be structured? What would be demanded of researchers?

Now, my utopia would, of course, assign an important place to the practice of writing. And writing itself would be undertaken in a particular spirit. Simply put, researchers would understand that "knowing something" means being able to compose a coherent prose paragraph about it in half an hour. A significant portion of a researcher's day, therefore, would be spent writing paragraphs in 30-minute sessions (including a break of three or five minutes). Such a paragraph would state a claim and offer support for it.

In my utopia, then, all scholars are highly skilled crafters of prose. Their minds are trained to prose their world, if you will. The university would provide them with the time, peace and quiet, to keep themselves in shape as writers. And they would read each other's work as though it were a sincere attempt to communicate what they know to other knowledgeable people.

There is traditionally something "orderly" about utopia—something clean and well-lit, to use Hemingway's image. A utopian thinker doesn't like the "messiness" of real life, the way ordinary human foible, caprice, and even malice play into the conduct of social life. The utopian imagines a world in which everyone does their work in pursuit of commonly agreed upon goals. It is a world in which everyone has a purpose in life, and they pursue it openly, within the context of an institution that is set up to support them to that very end. In that sense, to be sure, a utopian epistemologist imagines an "ideal" university.

"Realists" and/or "cynics" take the view that people will always be driven by individual motives that are, often, at odds with the purpose of the institutions they work within. They see the institutions not, primarily, as ways to support the pursuit of common goals, but as ways of restricting individuals in their pursuit of private gain. The truth is, hopefully, somewhere in between, but I think the general societal trend these days has been to design (or "reform") or institutions not to help good people do good things but to prevent bad people from doing bad things. This also goes for the university. I think a little bit of utopian thinking would be a good thing at this time.

*I first came across the term "utopian epistemology" in Steve Fuller's first book, Social Epistemology (p. 283). He uses it to a somewhat different purpose there, but it's one that is connected to the sense I'm suggesting here. After all, if society had created the ideal university for the production and distribution of knowledge, the ordinary citizen would, presumably, feel somewhat differently than we do today about the authority of scientists.