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Academic Values and the Possibility of an Academic Impartial Spectator


Emily Chamlee-Wright's essay is important and illuminating.  She is right that self-censorship is an issue of concern within the academy, she is right that abrasion and civility are both important values with the academy and beyond, and she is right that young scholars need role models to help them successfully navigate academia with those values in mind.  Much of what I say here is meant to help strengthen the case Chamlee-Wright makes.  I also raise some questions: What sorts of values are abrasion and civility?, How can we trust the "impartial spectator" we develop? How might the way academics are raised affect their impartial spectators? How can we trust role models?  Despite having concerns about how these questions should be answered, I am in broad agreement with Chamlee-Wright.

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  1. 1.

    Chamlee-Wright makes this point here:

  2. 2.

    Some political scientists are pessimistic. In “Democracy Devouring Itself: The Rise of the Incompetent Citizen and the Appeal of Populism” (forthcoming in Psychology of Political and Everyday Extremisms, edited by Domenico Uhng Our and José Manuel Sabucedo), Shawn Rosenberg argues that democracy has a structural weakness that makes it prey for populism. That weakness is a cognitive matter that might be thought linked to a failure to maintain robust discourse and if academics cannot maintain robust discourse (with abrasion and civility), it would be unsurprising if it cannot be maintained in society at large. It may be that we need to encourage it in broader civil society in order to strengthen it in the academy. See also Yascha Mounk’s The People Vs. Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2018) and David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends (Basic Books, 2018).

  3. 3.

    I use “verity” to mean “commitment to truth.” It is a matter of epistemic probity wherein the aim is truth and accuracy. It does not entail that only truths are told; we do not increase knowledge by only discussing truths. We increase knowledge (and wisdom!) By discussing claims accepted as truths, claims that are contested as truths, and claims used to contest claims accepted as truths. Some of each of these may be true and some of each may be false. We do not limit ourselves to discourse with those with whom we agree or those we know to be speaking truthfully; we do limit ourselves—or try to—to discourse with those whom we believe are honestly committed to truth. Honest commitment to truth entails a certain humility that one might be mistaken.

  4. 4.

    Obviously, this comes in degrees. Some will consider any claim. Others might wish to refrain from considering claims that have, in their views, been completely disproven (perhaps as a matter of scientific consensus). I think we have good reason to want academics to consider any and all claims, even if only to show how they can be set aside.

  5. 5.

    Alvin Goldman, Knowledge in a Social World (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), 212. I discuss this argument in my Toleration (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014) at 136-140.

  6. 6.

    Ibid, 189.

  7. 7.

    See her “Governing Campus Speech: A Bottom-Up Approach” in this journal, Volume 55, Issue 5, pp 392-402.

  8. 8.

    The singing duo Prussian Blue might be thought to exemplify this.

  9. 9.

    Chamlee-Wright is clearly correct that the tensions she discusses and I amplify are present in the lives of our undergraduates as well. I am less certain that she is right that they “know that intellectual challenge is essential to a successful college experience [but] … recognize that a price is paid if they deviate too far from orthodox views of the modern academy” (ibid). Many students that come with familiarity with the vocabulary of academics seem to come expecting to have to memorize rather than engage in abrasive challenge—a failure of a moral kind as Chamlee-Wright notes (ECWv2, 7). Some that come without that vocabulary seem quite ready to engage in the challenge—perhaps even debating some academic orthodoxy—a failure of a social kind that might not be forgiven by all of their professors.

  10. 10.

    See Khalil M. Habib’s “Persecution and the Art of Freedom: Alexis de Tocqueville on the Importance of Free Press and Free Speech in Democratic Society” (forthcoming, Social Philosophy and Policy). In The Present Age, Kierkegaard, a contemporary of Tocqueville’s, pressed similar concerns.

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Correspondence to Andrew Jason Cohen.

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Cohen, A.J. Academic Values and the Possibility of an Academic Impartial Spectator. Soc 56, 555–558 (2019).

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  • Impartial spectator
  • Role models
  • Free speech
  • Academic speech
  • Self-censorship
  • Abrasion
  • Civility.