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Cutting the universities

SIR: Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer (LRB, 19 November) continues to be vastly pleased with himself, his university (‘Cambridge, uniquely, is free from this fault’), and the lucid hardheadedness with which he settles all the issues that need facing.

On tenure contracts he repeats a currently fashionable non-sequitur that because tenure was designed to protect ‘academic freedom’ it has no business to be invoked ‘for the protection of jobs’. The two are not so easily separable, and more is at stake anyway than the two terms of this distinction (even if it were not a false one) by themselves suggest. First, the UGC’s pressure on individual universities to discontinue, reduce or expand particular academic activities in ways which might entail particular staff redundancies is precisely a breach of that ‘academic freedom’ which tenure was designed to ‘protect’: the freedom of universities and of individuals within them to pursue what they judge to be their true academic priorities, unmolested by externally-imposed conceptions of what these priorities ought to be at a given political moment. The immediate burden falls where academics have always had reason to fear it – on those areas of disinterested and speculative inquiry which are not considered at the time to be useful, profitable or socially desirable. Contraction is inevitable in times of economic stress and universities must accept their fair share. But it is precisely against the direct, crudely applied and irreversible consequences of such stresses that tenure’s protection of ‘academic freedom’ is most urgently needed.

The UGC may believe that it still just about preserves the fiction that universities are free to follow their academic judgment within the financial limitations. But its present (perhaps reluctant) posture of bullying dirigisme, backed by heavy ministerial noises off, seems calculated to achieve the opposite effect. The vocal and public admonitions of what the Government wants to see done (including the encouragement or discouragement of particular subject areas, and apparently the abolition of tenure itself) directly challenge that ‘academic freedom’ which Sir Peter and some leader-writers believe is no longer at issue.

The Charter of my university (like that, I assume, of some others) specifies in close detail the conditions under which an academic employee may be dismissed, and these do not include fluctuations of government policy. University Charters are not private contracts. They are granted by Royal Prerogative through the Privy Council, and their provisions have a public and national validation which the Government cannot shrug off as it might shrug off the haphazard products of agreements among private bodies or individuals. Ministerial encouragement of breach of contract would, of course, be unsavoury even if the contracts were of a more private kind (as they may be in some universities). But there is a distinct likelihood that a general abolition of tenure might entail retrospective legislation, a thing considered repugnant in British Parliamentary tradition as an infringement of freedoms not merely ‘academic’. Sir Peter somehow manages to inject a note of complacency into the very act of opining that this is ‘not an attractive prospect’. It is a measure of decline in public standards that a person in a position to be well-informed on such matters should be able to suppose, no doubt with justification, that it is a real ‘possibility which it would be foolish to ignore’.

The tendentious cant which reduces tenure to a false distinction between freedom and jobs also sidesteps a simple, glaring fact whose moral and social implications ought surely not to be overlooked. Tenure contracts are legally binding agreements on which large numbers of individuals have built an entire choice of life. These have usually been talented people, with other and more lucrative careers open to them at the start. Their trust in the security of the tenure system was part of what made it possible for them to develop the increasingly specialised skills which the advanced pursuit of their academic disciplines demanded of them, and which cannot easily be transplanted outside a University context. They have committed years or even whole lifetimes to research and to teaching programmes not immediately applicable elsewhere. Are the rules suddenly to be rewritten retroactively for a few thousand such people?

Sir Peter is probably right that we give tenure too early. This is one of the things about the system which requires overhauling, though not, in a civilised society, at the cost of a wholesale breach of existing contracts. But even here his comparisons with other countries are not scrupulously exact. It is true that it takes longer to obtain tenure in the United States and that some teachers are not kept on. But there are in America many more university institutions (proportionately to population) where such teachers may find employment, including tenured employment, if their original institution does not keep them on. American universities employ, by comparison with British ones, a huge turnover of junior teachers, and it is easier for a young academic to find a first job there. Because this is not so in Britain, the competition for first posts has always been exceptionally strong, and there is almost certainly less likelihood in British conditions of making a really poor initial appointment. And once it is achieved, tenure is in practice very firm indeed in the United States, as also in other major Western democracies. A senior French academic told me recently that in the French tenure system ‘posts can be made redundant, but not persons’, though tenure is again achieved more slowly than in this country. We may or may not accept the value of a tenure system, but as long as it exists it is a matter of public trust.

Claude Rawson
Department of English, University of Warwick


Ideal Speech

SIR: Geoffrey Hawthorn reviews my book, Hegel contra Sociology (LRB, 19 November) as if I build the case for Hegel’s importance for social theory on a dismissal of the case for Habermas’s ideal speech situation. He also says that I see sociological reason as ‘a deluded world’ which is ‘uncomprehendingly stuck “at the Fichtean station” ’. In fact, the first and longest chapter of my book is devoted to discussing the ‘neo-Kantian paradigm’, in order to derive the conditions of intelligibility of sociological reason, not its ‘uncomprehendability’. My discussion of Habermas is merely a sideline in this argument, which examines the Fichtean station as already half-way on the road between Kant and Hegel.

Hawthorn accuses me of saying ‘three times that Hegel has no social import if the absolute cannot be thought,’ and yet I ‘never quite say how to think it’. Yet the main bulk of the book is devoted to explaining how the absolute might be thought in different areas of social life: in politics, art, religion, philosophy etc. Finally, Hawthorn indicts me for severity, for being ‘far too self-denying’ in insisting ‘that if a view is not secure it has no value.’ But my whole book is a defence and restatement of the view that Hegelian heights are, as he puts it, the most ‘sensational’ in offering a perspective on the recurrent issues of social theory. Furthermore, I try to show that Hegel himself provides an account of why his view is ‘not secure’, an account which, I suggest, may usefully be applied to the history of Marxism.

In short, Geoffrey Hawthorn’s strategy of reducing so many books to their common denominator by elliptical reference to Rousseau and Habermas has caused him to overlook completely my claim that a neo-Hegelian Marxism might provide the best answer to the problem of Rousseau’s new Héloise.

Gillian Rose
University of Sussex

SIR: Authors may show forbearance when their ideas are misunderstood: but when misunderstanding borders on distortion, both of one’s own ideas and of those about which one writes, then there may be some obligation for authors to respond. It is this sense of obligation which prompts me to comment upon Geoffrey Hawthorn’s recent review of books dealing with issues in ‘critical theory’.

Included within the scope of this sweeping review is Paul Ricoeur’s Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. The themes of this book are summed up by Mr Hawthorn in one sentence: Ricoeur, it seems, conceives of language in terms of two poles ‘which ground reflection and hope together to reveal what we really may mean in what we say’. This is simply a misrepresentation of Ricoeur’s position. In Chapter Two of Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences Ricoeur is critical of the attempt to ‘ground reflection’ through an analysis of language. For Ricoeur, reflection is one stage in a process of interpretation which cannot be divorced from historical tradition and which does not stand in need of being ‘grounded’. As for the suggestion that the process of interpretation will ‘reveal what we really may mean in what we say’, it may be left to Mr Hawthorn, let alone Ricoeur, to tell us what this suggestion ‘really may mean’.

Mr Hawthorn’s treatment of my book, Critical Hermeneutics, is even more disconcerting. Apparently I have attempted ‘to rescue the whole of Habermas’s vertiginous ambition … by reconnecting the abstracted interlocutors of the ideal speech situation to what is, as put forward by Thompson, a disappointingly unargued and rather simple view of a very uncivil society’. Indeed such a view is unargued for, since I put forward no view of any society, uncivil or otherwise. What I argue for in the closing pages of my book (pages 209-13) is the following idea: to make sense of the notion of rationally resolving conflicts concerning the truth of interpretations, one must imagine the possibility that subjects could come to an agreement about the interpretations under conditions which were free from asymmetrical relations of power. I try to show how this idea can be elaborated so as to avoid some of the objections that may be levelled against Habermas’s formulation of the ideal speech situation.

I am sure that the careful reader could find difficulties in the arguments which I advance in Critical Hermeneutics. Mr Hawthorn dismisses these arguments out of hand, engaging in caricature rather than criticism. This, perhaps, is what he understands by ‘civility’.

John Thompson
Jesus College, Cambridge

Geoffrey Hawthorn writes: I did not intend to suggest that Gillian Rose makes her case for Hegel just against Habermas. I intended to say that she makes it against varieties of what may be described as ‘neo-Kantianism’. Habermas, about whom I was writing in the review, happens to be one of the most recent and most impressive ‘neo-Kantians’. Nor did I intend to reduce her book or any of the others. I intended merely to say in the space available to me how Hegel contra Sociology and the others connected to Habermas. However, I did intend to say, and would maintain, that Gillian Rose never quite tells us how to think the absolute. At page 204 she says that ‘if we cannot think the absolute this means that it is therefore not our thought in the sense of not realised. The absolute is the comprehensive thinking which transcends the dichotomies between concept and intuition, theoretical and practical reason. It cannot be thought (realised) because these dichotomies and their determination are not transcended.’ Yet, she continues, ‘once we realise this we can think the absolute by acknowledging the element of Sollen in such a thinking, by acknowledging the subjective element, the limits on our thinking the absolute. This is to think the absolute and to fail to think it quite differently from Kant and Fichte’s thinking and failing to think it.’ Other readers may take a different view, but the most charitable interpretation I could make of this paradox was that Gillian Rose was faute de mieux falling back upon a so-called ‘left Hegelian’ reading, in which, in her words (page 211), ‘speculative discourse [is] turned back into the discourse of abstract opposition.’ I believed myself to be confirmed in this by what she says about a possible Marxism at pages 219-220. She does indeed concede that Hegel himself saw the ‘historical barriers’ to his success (page 211), but does not defend his more purely logical and ontological arguments against the criticisms that have been made of them by Taylor and many others. So when I said that ‘we’, in ‘the international world of sociological reason’, are ‘uncomprehendingly’ stuck at the Fichtean station, I meant simply to record her view that we lack ‘comprehension’ in the true Hegelian sense of that term. I cannot speak for others, but I certainly do lack comprehension, because I cannot think the absolute any more clearly after reading Gillian Rose’s book than I could before, although I believe that I now understand why I cannot, which is a tribute to the book. Yet the paradox of not being able to do so and yet of not believing that Hegel has ‘no social import’, or no value, because I cannot, is a paradox that I would defend.

John Thompson misreads me on Ricoeur. I did not say, I do not understand what it would mean to say, that Ricoeur grounds reflection through language. I said, as Ricoeur himself says in the chapter to which John Thompson refers, that for him discourse is intelligible and so ‘grounded’ as a mediation between the memory of Exodus and the hope of Resurrection. My objection to John Thompson’s sociology is just that it is simple and tendentious. He sketches Society as consisting of nothing but putatively free and perspicuous subjects who are ‘dominated’ by unspecified institutions and ideologies. Accordingly, he supposes and does not defend the point of a critical theory.


Box of Data

SIR: You are very considerate to your readers in the provision of bibliographical information about the books reviewed and discussed by your contributors. You supply ISBNs and up-to-date prices, and, unlike too many journals, recognise the existence of paperbacks. The time and trouble it must take to gather this information are well justified.

But the box of data that accompanies Hans Aarsleff’s contentious article on Isaiah Berlin’s assessment of Vico (LRB, 5 November) makes me wonder about the principles and method of compilation of such data. You give price and publisher for both hardback and paperback editions, but ISBNs only for the hardbacks (the missing numbers are: Russian Thinkers, 0 14 02 2260 X; Concepts and Categories, 0 19 283027 9; Against the Current, 0 19 283028 7; Vico and Herder, 0 7011 2512 8). You (rightly) intend, it seems, to include preliminary pages in your calculations of extent, but in two cases you omit them (Against the Current is not 394, but 448 pages long, Personal Impressions 250 rather than 219). Concepts and Categories (220 pages, not 224) is out of print in hardback, which makes the hardback data of historical interest only. Personal Impressions was published not in 1979 but in 1980 – which makes it less anomalous that there is as yet no paperback edition (due from Oxford in October 1982). Finally, in his second paragraph Professor Aarsleff alludes to Four Essays on Liberty, the only collection of Isaiah Berlin’s work you do not list, and it may be worth adding its details for the sake of completeness: Oxford, 278 pp., £5.50 and £2.95, 1969, 0 19 215861 9 and 0 19 281034 0.

These remarks are made in the hope than an already excellent service can be further improved. The errors may only reveal inaccuracy in your source (British Books in Print?). If so, it seems there is no substitute for getting the data from the physical books themselves. It is a pity to geld the lily.

Henry Hardy
Oxford University Press

We take our figure for the number of pages from the last numbered page of the book.

Editor, ‘London Review’