We need an academic revolution

Nicholas Maxwell has taught philosophy at University College London for almost 30 years, and has devoted much of his working life to emphasize the need for a revolution in academic inquiry, so that the basic aim becomes not just to acquire knowledge, but to seek and promote social wisdom.

The crisis of our times is that we have science without wisdom.  This is the crisis behind all the others.  Population growth, the terrifyingly lethal character of modern war and terrorism, vast inequalities of wealth and power around the globe, destruction of natural habitats and rapid mass extinction of species, pollution of earth, sea and air, the impending disasters of climate change – even Presidents Trump and Putin: all these relatively recent crises have been made possible by modern science and technology.

How can the world learn to become wiser?

Successful science produces knowledge, which facilitates the development of technology, all of which enormously increases our power to act.  It is to be expected that this unprecedented power will often be used beneficially (as it has been used), to cure disease, feed people, and in general, enhance the quality of human life.  But it is also to be expected, in the absence of wisdom, that such an abrupt, massive increase in power will be used to cause harm, whether unintentionally, as in the case (initially at least) of environmental damage, or intentionally, as in war and terror.  And just this has happened.  Modern science and technology have made possible modern industry and agriculture, modern armaments, modern medicine and hygiene, which in turn have led to all the great benefits of the modern world, but also to population growth, habitat destruction, lethal modern war and terrorism, climate change and the other modern crises.  Even the election of Trump and Putin was helped by the digital revolution and social media.

Before the advent of modern science, lack of wisdom did not matter too much; we lacked the means to do too much damage to ourselves and the planet.  But now, in possession of unprecedented powers bequeathed to us by science, lack of wisdom has become a menace.  The crucial question becomes: How can the world learn to become wiser?

The answer is staring us in the face.  In order to learn how to become wiser we need traditions and institutions of learning rationally designed to help us learn wisdom.  This at present we do not have.  Academic inquiry as it exists at present, devoted primarily to the pursuit of specialized knowledge and technological know-how, is grossly and damagingly irrational when assessed from the standpoint of helping humanity acquire wisdom  –  wisdom being the capacity to realize what is of value for oneself and others, and thus including knowledge, understanding and technological know-how, but much else besides.  (Like knowledge, wisdom can be thought of as something possessed, not just by individuals, but by institutions, societies and cultures.)

Two elementary, banal rules of rational problem-solving are:

  1. articulate the problem to be solved,
  2. propose and critically assess possible solutions.

A kind of academic inquiry rationally devoted to helping humanity solve its problems of living so that that which is of value may be realized (thus enhancing wisdom) would put rules (1) and (2) into practice: it would give intellectual priority to (1) articulating our problems of living and (2) proposing and critically assessing possible solutions, possible actions, policies, philosophies of life.  This goes on, at present, within academia, but only on the fringes: the primary intellectual activity is to solve problems of knowledge, not problems of living.  To pursue knowledge more or less dissociated from the attempt to help humanity resolve its conflicts and problems of living in more just and cooperative ways than at present is not only irrational; it is a recipe for disaster, as we have seen.  It is this which has led to our distinctively modern global problems.

‘Social inquiry needs to change’

As I have argued at length in book after book, we need to bring about a revolution in the academic enterprise so that the basic aim becomes to promote wisdom rather than just acquire knowledge.   Social inquiry needs to change, so that it gives intellectual priority to problems of living over problems of knowledge about the social world.  The relationship between social inquiry and natural science needs to change, the new kind of social inquiry becoming more fundamental intellectually than natural science.  The natural sciences need to change so that three domains of discussion are recognized: evidence, theory, and aims, the latter involving problematic issues about what is unknown, values, and social use.  Education needs to change.  The whole relationship between academia and the social world needs to change, so that academia does not just study the social world, but rather is in two-way debate with it, ideas, experiences and arguments flowing in both directions.  Academia needs to become a kind of people’s civil service, doing openly for the public what actual civil services are supposed to do in secret for governments.

The relationship between social inquiry and natural science needs to change

Academics today have a profound responsibility before humanity to put their house in order, intellectually and morally, and create a kind of inquiry rationally devoted to helping humanity learn how to resolve its conflicts and problems of living in more just, cooperative ways than at present.

The argument of this Blog is spelled out in great detail in N. Maxwell, From Knowledge to Wisdom (Blackwell, 1984; 2nd ed., Pentire Press, 2007).  See also N. Maxwell: Two Great Problems of Learning: Science and Civilization, an ebook which can be downloaded for free, and How Universities Can Help Create a Wiser World: The Urgent Need for an Academic Revolution (Imprint Academic, 2014).  See alsohttp://www.ucl.ac.uk/from-knowledge-to-wisdom/ and http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/view/people/ANMAX22.date.html

Article Details

Nicholas Maxwell

Date Published:

March 1st, 2018

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