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It is high time that the intelligentsia renews the age-old spirit of public intellectual by recovering its connections with the social and political realities of the society, as our Columnist Taye Negussie (PhD) argues in this article

Relegating its traditional role of standing for truth, justice, and freedom only to the social activists, today the intelligentsia has become oblivious on the public scene. With the ever distancing of the intelligentsia from the day-to-day social, economic and political realities of the society, subsequently, the academia in many parts of the world has now turned to be an inert and lifeless intellectual environment. The members of the intelligentsia now seem more preoccupied with playing on dogmatic scientific doctrines and procedures than by the need to use intellectual ideas to deal with life’s concrete problems.

Perhaps, the major factor leafing to this disengagement, inter alia, is the current trend of ever growing ivory-tower specialization that puts up an iron-curtain between specialized and non-specialized knowledge as well as between intellectual specializations themselves. This, in turn, has led to the formation of some powerful specialist institutions–sort of intellectual enclaves–passionately committed to protect the turf and exalt their respective professions.

Each specialized field is, then, tasked with forging its own ethos of intellectual framework and working mechanism. For instance, those specialties which claim to be science would have to offer a specific definition of science, set forth an assumption concerning the nature of scientific knowledge, determine the commensurate method of scientific investigation and knowledge validation and posit a mode of scientific knowledge dissemination.

Apparently, the enthusiasm for institutionalizing specialized knowledge has got some significant implications. While, on one hand, it has led to an increasing confinement of the intellectuals within a narrow professional circle; on the other hand, the complication and sophistication of knowledge making process must have destructed the intelligentsia from exploring and reflecting on the pressing needs, demands and interests of the society.

The eminent Columbian University Professor of literature, the late Edward Said, characterizes this institutionalization process as a ‘trap of specialization’ that has locked the intellectuals into an inwardly focused and inwardly spiraling discourse through “self-made arcane vocabulary” understandable only to the respective specialists. For Said, this is a self-defeating exercise for it produced an intellectual realm quite far removed from the world of everyday life and ordinary need.

It goes without saying that much of the academic work remains unnoticed partly owing to its confinement largely in university libraries and restricted websites – out of the sight and judgment of the larger public – not to mention the difficulty essentially involved in understanding the vernacular of scientific expression by non-specialists.

 The ‘cult of scientificism’

Evidently, the whole process involved in institutionalizing the ethos of ‘specialized knowledge’ or ‘science’ is not much different from the process involved in institutionalizing other cultural life. Like any other cultural construction, this too, involves the formulation of doctrinaire assumptions, sanctioning of values and norms and construction of its own vernacular language among others.

To be sure, the definition given to the term science as a “systematic empirical study of things” could indeed be viewed as much a doctrinaire assumption in so far as it has arbitrarily presumed real knowledge to be gained through sensual experience and, thus, maintains this belief only by faithful adherence of its practitioners.

Likewise, the notion of scientific knowledge as something which “accumulates as time goes by” as well appears to be a hypothetical conception envisaged mainly with the purpose of protecting and sanctifying purportedly the prevailing system of scientific knowledge. The oddity of this assumption, however, is that any creative or innovative idea which refutes or contradicts the prevailing system of knowledge – more too often – is fated to get dismissed outright.

Thus, scientists throughout history have often had to fight conventional wisdom to validate their discoveries. In modern times, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren’s findings that bacteria can cause peptic ulcers and Judah Folkman’s discovery of chemical substance which treats numerous forms of cancer are just a few examples which were initially dismissed by their “peer reviewers” simply because they went against the conventional wisdom. Surprisingly enough, all these scientists latter on received Nobel Prizes for their novel contributions. This is quite telling about the problematic nature of the “peer or expert review” knowledge validation mechanism that is often taken for granted.

The highly celebrated philosopher of science of the 20th century, Thomas Khun, in his 1962 publication ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’, debunked the theory of cumulative science as a “myth”. According to Kuhn, though knowledge accumulation plays some role in the advancement of science, the truly major changes have come about “as a result of revolutionary ideas” which have succeeded in overturning the prevailing conventional wisdom.

By the same token, despite the claim of “objectivity”, “universality” and “cultural neutrality” a deeper probe into the operation of science quite well demonstrates its deep embeddedness within the cultural framework of the modern Western society. As cultural anthropologist Rosamund Billington argues in her book ‘Culture and Society’, the beliefs in “scientific knowledge” in modern societies operate in much the same way as “beliefs in God and Spirit” operate in traditional societies. According to her, a society’s picture of reality is protected not only by being seen as ‘sacred’ and ‘dangerous’ but also by being defined as ‘truth’. In modern societies, scientific ideas are most “sacred truths”; they have the same function as religions in traditional societies.

In a different context, we recall that the delusions of the superiority of Aryan race in Nazi Germany, and in US the genetically superior white over black were all but regarded as “scientific facts”. Thus, contrary to the conception of science as universally valid form of knowledge, it is indeed, like any other cultural system, a contextually-contrived belief system – hence the ‘cult of scientifism’ – operating, wittingly or unwittingly, to legitimatize and sustain the dominant socio-economic and political order.

 Renewing the spirit of public intellectual

Edward Said deplores the ‘cult of professionalism’ because it has produced a continually inward-turning intelligentsia. We have reached a stage, he says, at which specialization and professionalization, allied with self-constructed cultural dogma as well as a surprisingly insistent “quasi-religious quietism”, have transported the professional and academic intelligentsia into another world altogether. In that relatively “untroubled and secluded” world there seems to be no contact with the world of events and societies.

Moreover, Said believes ‘scientificism’ surrenders the social and political concerns of society to a discourse dominated by economists and technocrats that is often regarded as being the only true reflection of human affairs. Questions of justice, oppression, marginalization and racial equality are submerged almost entirely “beneath the language of money economy” with its utopian dream that ‘if the figures are right everything else will fall into place’.

It is, thus, high time that the intelligentsia renews the age-old spirit of public intellectual by recovering its connections with the social and political realities of the society in which it lives. Most importantly, the intelligentsia, first and foremost, ought to free itself from the shackle of ‘scientifism’ and narrow professionalism that has made it speak only to itself like a psychiatric patient.

Undoubtedly, this freedom will, by and large, embolden the intelligentsia to expose injustices and speak truth to the powers that be by candidly conveying one’s intellectual insights and investigative outcomes via a relatively more accessible medium of communication, though by no means the only way. Of course, this may demand the courage to scarify one’s “life comforts”. Yet, it is still worth doing; after all, as author Steve Pavlina has succinctly put it, “productivity is creating value and delivering it to people. All other busywork is unproductive fluff and should be minimized.” n

Taye Negussie (PhD) is an Assistant Professor of  Sociology at Addis Ababa University. He can be reached at: tayesosa@yahoo.com

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