Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thoughts on Where We Go

On pg 53 of Reason Papers No. 21, Fall 1996, Robert Campbell raises some interesting questions in the opening paragraphs of his short piece titled When Avoiding Scholarship is the Academic Thing to Do: Mary Midgely's Misinterpretation of Ayn Rand.

Contemporary academia is a long way fiom being a free marketplace of ideas. The customs of discipline, speciality, and faction closely regulate who is allowed to participate in the intellectual disputes of the day. Those deemed unworthy are preferentially ignored. When they can't be ignored, they must be dismissed - the quicker the better.

Ayn Rand conducted her entire career outside the university, and preferred to present
her ideas in novels. That is already a huge strike against her; taking the popular road excites distrust (if not envy) in most academics. Some labor is needed to trace the genealogy of Rand's ideas, and her closest living relatives in academia, the neo-Aristotelians, are distinctly diclasse'. Her rejection of altruism and advocacy of laissez-faire capitalism are about as welcome in most Departments of Philosophy, as calling for the disestablishment of public schools would be in Colleges of Education.

Much of this is as true today as it was in 1996, and applies not just to the ideas of Ayn Rand, but also to pro-market ideas in general, and perhaps Austrian economics in particular. Naturally, there are pro-market outlets. But when one takes that route, one is in danger of merely preaching to the choir. I have heard Pete Boettke say that it is important for Austrian economists to get published in non-Austrian journals, and that the way to do so is to just produce good economics work. This can work within the realm of scientific discourse, but it seems more difficult in the realm of the humanities, where truth claims are somewhat more ambigous than they are in the sciences.

So where does that leave those of us in the humanities who believe in heterodox (within the humanities) ideas? It seems odd to suggest that free market economics is completely heterodox within the humanities -- unless you are in the humanities -- but even something as well-established and accepted within the rest of academia as Darwinian evolutionary theory is not accepted as a legitimate interpretative strategy within the humanities, particularly literary criticism. It is as heterodox as free market interpretations of literature (while Marxism, discredited in economics and the real world, is alive and well in literary studies). So where does that leave us as literary theorists who use free market economics as an interpretative strategy, let alone Austrian economics, which is heterodox within economics?

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