PSR Interviews #7: Critical Dogmatism: Academic Freedom Confronts Moral and Epistemological Certainty – an interview with Colin Wight

Academics should defend their colleagues against attacks on their academic freedom, even if they strongly disagree with the views expressed. And academic freedom should be protected by privileges similar to parliamentary immunity. Prof. Colin Wight explains his approach to academic freedom – a complex category, full of nuances and controversial issues, but fundamental for democracy. A fuller analysis of these issues can be found in Prof. Wight’s PSR article: Critical Dogmatism: Academic Freedom Confronts Moral and Epistemological Certainty

PSR: How would you define academic freedom?

My definition is quite traditional. Put simply, I define academic freedom as the “freedom of academics (including students) to teach, study, and pursue knowledge and research without unreasonable interference or restriction from the law, institutional regulations, or public pressure.” Defined this way, it is a particular kind of freedom (and responsibility) that academics possess in virtue of being academics. Hence, it is a form of freedom that not every member of society can call upon. This is why, as we will discuss later, I insist on distinguishing between free speech and academic freedom. In societies committed to free speech (and some aren’t), every member of that society has free speech protections. Only academics (and students) have protections pertaining to academic freedom. It only applies to the university sector. So it should be something that is highly valued and protected by all academics. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case today.

You claim that it is “one of the necessary components of a democratic society”. Why so, and what is the role of universities according to the principle of academic freedom?

Thomas Jefferson argued that a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy. Citizens need to be educated enough to assess the political arguments they are being asked to vote for. Universities play a role in educating the electorate, but they also play many other roles. One of their primary functions concerning academic freedom is to produce, preserve and protect knowledge in society, which can then inform public debate on complex issues. However, I want to stress the ‘inform’ here, as scientific knowledge cannot determine policy. It can provide a framework for considering the consequences of different policy options, but politics and values matter just as much in public debate.

But in complex and information-saturated societies, knowledge is vital for democracy. Citizens today are bombarded with information and misinformation, and they need trust in institutions to set out the facts in a non-partisan way. Science, produced in Universities is meant to provide that knowledge. Unfortunately, trust in almost all social institutions seems to be in decline, the university included. I fear that the politicisation of knowledge in the Covid-19 crisis is only accelerating that trend.

How one can misunderstand this concept? How would you differentiate between academic freedom, free speech and hate speech?

Let me admit first that I have a problem with the concept of hate speech. I don’t deny that it exists, but I believe that it’s such a subjective concept that it’s almost impossible to define in a way that can inform policy without also introducing harms in other areas. That said, if societies want to declare certain kinds of speech to be hate speech, then the appropriate way to determine that is through public debate. As a democrat, if the majority decide to ban certain kinds of speech as ‘hate speech, I’ll respect that decision, even though I might disagree with it. My view is even more radical in relation to societies I am not a member of. Hence, although I abhor blasphemy laws, I recognise the right of Islamic Societies, for example, to have laws against blasphemy.

But in complex and information-saturated societies, knowledge is vital for democracy. Citizens today are bombarded with information and misinformation, and they need trust in institutions to set out the facts in a non-partisan way. Science, produced in Universities is meant to provide that knowledge.

But laws against hate speech can end up being limits on free speech. There are always some limits on free speech, the question is, what those limits should be? This indicates something important about how I distinguish between free speech and academic freedom. Free speech is really a question of a society deciding what speech it should restrict to protect that society from harm caused by certain kinds of speech. Societies have the right to make that determination. They have a right to determine what limits they deem necessary to place on free speech to protect society.

On the other hand, the purpose of academic freedom is not to protect society, but to protect the truth. Truth has no national or social boundaries. Thus the only limits I would put on academic freedom, are the incitement to violence. Violence is no friend of truth either. If I was the supreme leader of my society, I’d apply that same standard to free speech as well. Still, since I’m not, I have to accept society’s right to set free speech limits. So we have a situation where I recognise the rights of societies to limit free speech, but I reject any limits (apart from inciting violence) on academic freedom. Societies have national boundaries, truth does not. And since academic freedom is about the production and protection of truth, it has no national boundaries. So state laws relating to free speech and hate speech should have no impact on academic freedom. This is why I argue that academic freedom is a higher-order value than free speech.

Can academic freedom be exercised, avoiding the risk of spreading (or even legitimising) racial, ethnic, sexist, or homophobic biases within academia? Are there any limits to academic freedom?

No, probably not. In contentious areas involving these and other subjects, it’s going to be impossible to escape the fact that we will find some arguments deeply distasteful. But the way to deal with opinions you disagree with in an academic setting is to engage with them and demonstrate where they go wrong. History teaches us that societies have often believed in things that have turned out to be wrong (slavery, the treatment of women, or theories of racial superiority, for example). We have no grounds to believe that some of our current beliefs won’t also turn out to also be wrong. I find moral and epistemological certainty to be dangerous positions. They assume that we have reached absolute truth about some moral or epistemological position. This kind of thinking leads to totalitarianism, and since we accept some societal limits on free speech, we need a place to test all ideas; that’s the academy.  The only limitations I would place on academic freedom are clear incitement to violence.

What is the view(s) of truth linked to this concept? Are there any disagreements? Is it connected to the idea of post-truth? 

Given that I believe that the role of academic freedom is to protect the pursuance of truth, we must understand what I mean by that term. I operate with two interconnected versions of truth. Technically, these can be understood as an ontological version, which is a truth that exists independent of whether it is known or not, and an epistemological account of truth which is known truth; or a better way to phrase that might be as accepted truth. Ontological truth is totally objective. It exists as it does irrespective of if it is known or not. Epistemological truth, on the other hand, is always approximate, and always subject to revision. To give an example of the former (ontological truth). Something happened to Flight MH370, the Malaysia Airlines aircraft that disappeared on 8 March 2014 while flying from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Beijing.

We do not know what happened, but something clearly did. This is a truth that exists but which is unknown. We do, however, have many theories about what happened. Still, we do not know which one most accurately captures what happened. We may never know. But still, something happened, and we hope that one day with better theories and more evidence we might come to know what happened. This is why I distinguish between the two kinds of truth. The way we assess the relationship between actual truth and accepted truth in science is based on evidence and debate.

A quote from  Vaclav Havel captures this dynamic well: “Keep the company of those that seek the truth – run from those that have found it”.

Given the difficulties we have knowing when our human-constructed version of the truth has captured, and to what extent, the truth of the phenomenon we are studying, then I embrace what is known as a Nietzschean perspectivism method of approaching the truth. That is to say that the more perspectives, views and opinions we bring to bear on a subject, the more likely our objectivity will be enhanced. And this is why academic freedom is so important. A group of scientists might think they have reached epistemological certainty on an issue. But we literally have no way of stepping outside of our current stock of knowledge to compare it with the truth of the world.

Our truth is a constructed truth. But the non constructed truth remains. And one lone dissenting voice in the academic community might just reveal something to us that improves our understanding, our version of the truth. So we need to protect the space where these lone dissenting voices might emerge, however much they might contradict the dominant accepted understanding. That is why I believe that epistemological (and moral) certainty are dangerous. It assumes we know with absolute certainty that our current account of some phenomenon’s truth absolutely matches the ontological truth of the phenomenon. Now, how does this relate to post-truth? It seems to me that a large part of the modern academy has actually given up on the idea of ontological (objective) truth. What happens in this instance is that all we are left with is our epistemological version of the truth, which, since it is no longer trying to grasp a truth independent of us, simply becomes true by virtue of those with the most power to make it stick. Thus truth becomes a function of power and has no existence in and of itself. A quote from  Vaclav Havel captures this dynamic well: “Keep the company of those that seek the truth – run from those that have found it”.

What are the significant dangers to academic freedom today?

There are many significant threats to academic freedom today. Some come from outside the university and some from within. Although, in many respects, external threats can have an internal aspect to them, and the internal threats can become externalised. Externally, perhaps the most significant threats are increased government interference in Universities and a lack of adequate funding. Government interference can be both explicit and implicit. For example, in Poland, the Government threatened to withdraw government funding from Universities due to a dispute over abortion policy. This was a direct attack on academic freedom. But also in Hungary, the closing down of universities believed to be critical of government policy, the closing down of certain courses and subjects, and government takeover of control of some universities are all attacks on academic freedom. But even in democracies such as Australia, Government attempts to control what research is funded are attacks on academic freedom. Often this works in less insidious ways that we have seen in Poland and Hungary. A good example here is how governments will set strategic research priorities. Only research that meets these priorities will receive funding. Here in Australia, government fuding for research is tied to a national interest test.. This means that academic staff will often change their research projects to chase the funding, which, of course, is linked to their promotion prospects. Other threats come from managerial practices such as university league tables that ensure that universities steer their staff to undertake teaching and research activities that will boost the league tables’ rankings. In this sense, academics’ autonomy to research and teach in their own way is continually being undermined.

In many respects, the structural context driving this is the lack of adequate funding from governments for Universities. But some of the biggest threats to academic freedom today come from within the universities themselves, and from academic themselves. There has been an increasing trend for academics to attempt to shut down views they disagree with. Open letters denouncing research that is disagreed with or deemed to be harmful are now becoming, if not the norm, common occurrences. Speaker is getting de-platformed, and some issues are said to be beyond debate. That some academics are engaging in this kind of behaviour rather than defending academic freedom is perhaps the biggest threat to academic freedom today. After all, if academics won’t defend academic freedom, then who will?

What are the significant dangers to academic freedom today?

In many respects, the structural context driving this is the lack of adequate funding from governments for Universities. But some of the biggest threats to academic freedom today come from within the universities themselves, and from academic themselves. There has been an increasing trend for academics to attempt to shut down views they disagree with. Open letters denouncing research that is disagreed with or deemed to be harmful are now becoming, if not the norm, common occurrences. Speaker are getting de-platformed, and some issues are said to be beyond debate. That some academics are engaging in this kind of behaviour rather than defending academic freedom is perhaps the biggest threat to academic freedom today. After all, if academics won’t defend academic freedom, then who will?

What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?

I would like readers of my article to takeaway the following main points: First, that academic freedom is a higher-order value than free speech. As such, any restriction on academic freedom must reach a much higher bar than free speech restrictions. Hence I would like to see academic freedom globally protected from state restrictions on free speech. So hate speech laws should not apply to academics in the conduct of their research and teaching.  In the article, I suggest that academics enjoy something equivalent to parliamentary privilege related to their research. Public comment is different. But academic freedom should be almost absolute apart from the incitement to violence. Second, I think academics must defend their colleagues against attacks on their academic freedom from other academics. And in particular, they should do so even when they might vehemently disagree with the views being expressed.  Academic freedom requires all academics to dispute controversial ideas by engaging with them, responding to them, martial the evidence, showing where they are wrong, and not merely acting in ways to shut debate down. Finally, academics need to recover their belief in ontological truth. The Idea that there is a truth we are attempting to discover, even if we ultimately fail. For we cannot know that we have failed unless we try. And we can not begin a journey in search of truth if we do not believe such a place exists.  We do not have a map that will guide us to truth, but we have to think the journey is worth embarking on

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Article: C. Wight (2020), Critical Dogmatism: Academic Freedom Confronts Moral and Epistemological Certainty, Political Studies Review

ABOUT

Colin Wight is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sydney, Australia. His research interests are the philosophy of social science and political violence. He served as the Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of International Relations from 2008 to 2013. Publications include Agents, Structures and International Relations: Politics as Ontology (Cambridge University Press, 2006), Rethinking Terrorism: Terrorism, Violence and the State (Palgrave, 2015), Scientific Realism in International Relations, edited with Jonathan Joseph (Routledge, 2010) and Realism, Philosophy and Social Science, co-authored with Kathryn Dean, Jonathan Joseph, and John Roberts. He is currently completing a book on Fragmentation and Pluralism in International Relations Theory.

Questions and production: Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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