Sunday, December 14, 2014

Does academic research have to be relevant? (Some thoughts on Hayek and the Virgin Mary.)



This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “Can A Philosopher Govern the United States? The Case of F.A. Hayek.” You can listen the whole episode online here.


There is a certain amount of faith required to advocate for philosophy. We tell our students (or our radio and blog audiences) that even the oldest ideas are still relevant. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about someone who lived two hundred or two thousand years ago, we continually promise that if we can get people to understand what they are saying, we can all learn something new and important about the world around us.

What’s funny about philosophers though, is that we spend most of our time arguing about what those ideas actually are. Instead of showing how historical thinkers are genuinely important to contemporary debate—instead of asking what Machiavelli or Jeremy Bentham might say about what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri, for example—we fight about the meaning of their texts. We undermine one another’s interpretations, we publish jargon-filled journal articles for tenure, and we focus on the most obscure terms and claims, and make them the center of our careers. Then, in the midst of it all, we wonder bitterly why cancer researchers get paid the big bucks and why we are still struggling to retain an audience.


The problem is that words change meanings and things that seem straightforward aren’t. In the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, the word virgin doesn’t actually mean someone who hasn’t had sex yet. It comes from the Hebrew word almah and can mean many things including unmarried woman, young women of childbearing age, a woman who hasn’t yet had a child, an inexperienced woman, or a young woman going through puberty. Mary, if she existed, probably wasn’t the virgin most people think she was, and scholars who want to talk seriously about the bible will want to insist that its original language be respected. They will explain that along the way, the writers of the Gospels read the Greek translation, not the Hebrew, and that this confused issues even more. There are no doubt biblical scholars screaming at their radios right now, claiming that I am still making it too simple or not cross-referencing certain terms. In the midst of all this linguistic debate, they leave aside today’s world and with it, the people who simply want to read their bibles for guidance.

All of this leads to the central question for today’s show: how is someone to do historical research and be contemporary at the same time? How does a scholar stand with one leg in the past and one leg in the present, and still be coherent, powerful, and persuasive? We ask this, not because of biblical ambiguity, but because of the contemporary love for a mid-twentieth century philosopher named Friedrich Hayek. Hayek wrote the political manifesto The Road to Serfdom, a book so (allegedly) libertarian that it inspired both Milton Friedman and Glenn Beck. (See the video of Beck talking about here.)

The historian in me wants to ask whether Beck got Hayek right, whether those who read that singular book understand how it fits in with the rest of his work, and whether their glorification of his politics is justified. But the part of me that hosts Why? wants to do something a bit more complex: to ask whether we should care what Hayek thought at all and to examine the experience of being forced to confront both truth and relevance at the same time. Hayek lived in fear of National Socialism and the Soviet Union, but we don’t. Most of his work appeared before the modern multinational corporation or the technological advances that fuel globalization. We can’t understand our world without them.

There was no World Wide Web for Hayek, or Twitter, and the stock market operated on human exchange, not computers’ high-frequency-trading. How can what he wrote matter without taking all of this into consideration? And, because we likely can’t think about economics without considering our own reality, is it even possible to truly grasp what Hayek thought when he wrote? What I suspect is that even though he lived so recently, we’ll still have many of the same difficulties we have when interpreting the bible. I think we’ll discover that reconstructing the recent past can be just as difficult as reconstructing more distant times, in part, because it will seem so familiar, that it will fool us into thinking its meaning is all on the surface.

Philosophers take the relevance of their subjects for granted. We have such a commitment to the wisdom of the generations that came before us that we don’t bother to defend their use, we just strive for interpretive accuracy. As a result, when the eyes of the world are finally upon us, we are all too often unprepared. We can’t justify our work because we’ve never had to before, and that failure, while ours alone, has consequences for the history we represent.

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