For the Common Good Principles of American Academic Freedom
By Matthew W. Finkin Robert C. Post
Yale University Press Copyright © 2009 Robert C. Post and Matthew W. Finkin
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-300-14354-6
Chapter One The Historical Origins of the Concept of Academic Freedom
Academic freedom first appeared as a distinct concept in the late eighteenth century, though it spoke German at the time. German thinkers drew from the wellspring of the Enlightenment, which in turn drew from even deeper currents in intellectual history.
Throughout civilized human existence there have been ideas that cannot be expressed, questions that cannot be asked lest civil or ecclesiastical authority be offended or threatened. Let us begin with the stark impulse to suppress. It is visible in the book of Exodus. Tradition has it that when Korah led his rebellion against Moses, Korah questioned the law Moses had given the people, which required them to put blue fringes on the corners of their garments and to put a portion of the law on a scroll attached to the doorpost (a mezuzah).
As Louis Ginzberg recounts the story, Korah and his company appeared before Moses clothed all in blue. Korah asked Moses if they were then required to attach blue fringes, to which Moses responded that they must.
"If," replied Korah, "one fringe of [blue] suffices to fulfill this commandment, shouldnot a whole garment of [blue] answer the requirements of the law, even if there be no special fringe of [blue] in the corners?" "Must a Mezuzah be attached to the doorpost of a house filled with the sacred Books?" Moses answered, "Yea." Then Korah said: "The two hundred and seventy sections of the Torah are not sufficient, whereas the two sections attached to the door-post suffice!" ... "Laws so irrational," said Korah, "cannot possibly trace their origin from God. The Torah that thou didst teach to Israel is not therefore God's work, but thy work, hence art thou no prophet."
These questions might well be put to a class by a professor of theology or law today, but the response given at the time was, not to put too fine a point on it, biblical: the earth was made to swallow Korah and his followers.
Just as there has always been an impulse to suppress, so there has always been an instinct to resist. We find no advocate of academic freedom claiming kinship with Korah whose purpose in questioning authority was to foment political rebellion rather than to search for truth. But by the late nineteenth century several historical figures were customarily invoked as martyrs in the cause of intellectual freedom. Socrates typically heads the list, which invariably also includes Galileo. Giordano Bruno is often mentioned as well. Socrates has been much discussed, as has Galileo. So let us turn instead to the Campo de' Fiori (the Field of Flowers) in Rome, where, on February 17, 1600, Giordano Bruno, his jaws sealed by iron spikes lest he give public voice to yet more heresy, was burned to death.
It was not Bruno's physics but his metaphysics that brought him to the attention of the Inquisition, though one should not discount Bruno's maddeningly vexatious personality. In response to the sentence passed upon him, Bruno replied to his judges, "Perhaps your fear in passing this sentence upon me is greater than mine in accepting it." Unlike Galileo, whose confrontation with the church opens to modernity and to the triumphant epistemology of science, Bruno posed an older challenge. He obstinately and vehemently defended the right to think, write, and teach. Bruno stood for the freedom of philosophy to contend with the established truths of theology.
In 1588, Bruno had published in Prague the Articuli centum et sexaginta adversus huius tempestatis mathematicos atque philosophos, a book whose dedication to Emperor Rudolph II exudes the individualism and self-confidence of Jacob Burkhardt's Renaissance. It is worth noting at length. "Now as all this concerns the freedom to teach [Quod vero ad liberas disciplinas attinet]," Bruno wrote,
may I keep at arm's length not only the habit of belief, instilled in me through the teachings of tutors and parents, but also that "common sense" which-in many circumstances and places (as far as I have been able to judge for myself)-seems to engender deceit and distortion; may I keep them so at arm's length that I never assert anything, in the field of philosophy, without reflection or without grounds; and, for me, may all things remain equally open to doubt whenever they come up for discussion, whether they are things generally acknowledged to be abstruse and absurd, or whether they are things considered to be among the most certain and the most evident. Indeed, when debating ideas, it is harmful to define something without first weighing well its meaning; it is wicked to nod agreement out of exaggerated respect for others; it is mercenary, servile, and contrary to the dignity of the freedom of Man to bend the knee to another in unquestioning devotion; it is rank stupidity to believe out of habit; it is irrational to echo the opinion of the majority, as if the number of wise men must necessarily exceed or equal or approximate the infinite number of fools, or as if such a great multitude (even if they all blindly accepted the authority of Aristotle, or another leader of the same sort), could, while stumbling and lumbering forward in the darkness, understand or be worth more than, or even as much as, someone who has chosen to decide for himself.
Though Bruno was charged by the Inquisition with eight counts of heresy on the basis of statements extracted from his published works, one commentator concludes that he was burned less for any of these in particular than for "his wanton curiositas, for his belief in the limitless capacity of man to know-to know, eventually, what God knows." In the middle ages, curiositas alone was grounds for accusation. Those guilty of it were, in J. M. M. H. Thijssen's felicitous phrase, "victims of a curious mind."
Consider the case of Noël Journet, who in 1582 was burned to death in France for "blasphemy and execrable atheism." Journet, a twenty-eight-year-old former soldier -pockmarked, redheaded, and of average stature-teacher to the children of the village of Sainte Raffine, had learned a smattering of German and Flemish but not much else. He had been baptized a Catholic, converted to the Reformed Church, and proceeded to scandalize both. He attacked the authenticity of scripture largely on the ground of inconsistency and incredibility: How could Moses have written the five books if he describes his own death and burial in it? How could Samson bring down a building with his bare hands? Either the columns were architecturally far too close or his arms were inhumanly long. How could Sarah, at her age, possibly kindle the pharaoh's lust? And a good deal more. He concluded that all of it, Christianity included, was a fraud. His books were burned along with him, and Henry III congratulated the magistrates on their diligence.
Journet's trial occurred at a critical juncture, when elite attitudes toward the acquisition of knowledge were beginning to evolve. The medieval church had been critical not only of the pride of knowledge but also of the desire to know things not useful to salvation, of curiositas. The idea of forbidden knowledge continued to exert influence in the sixteenth century, in religious as well as in cosmic and political matters. Paul's words in Romans 11:20-"be not high-minded, but fear"-were mistranslated and applied to condemn knowledge itself. In 1507 an Italian translator put it, "non volere sapere le chose alte-that is, do not seek to know high things." But about the time of Journet, the idea of curiosity was in the process of changing. The concept of desirable knowledge was beginning to take root, working, as Carlo Ginzburg has illustrated, a literal reversal of values.
Instead of "altum sapere periculosum (it is dangerous to know high things)" displayed in conjunction with an illustration of Icarus's fall in an emblem book of 1618, a plate of 1686 shows Icarus in flight accompanied by the motto "Nil linquere inausum (Dare everything)." In 1719, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, the first to use a microscope for zoological study, adorned the title page of his Letters to the English Royal Society with the motto "Dum audes, ardua vinces ("if you will dare, you will overcome every difficulty)." At the end of the century Kant asked, What is enlightenment? and he answered in terms that echo Giordano Bruno: "Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!"
This change was heavily influenced by the rise of science, the emergence of a desire to collect, categorize, test, and reproduce by public demonstrations and performances, to hear presentations, and to disseminate results. Science, as J. Robert Oppenheimer remarked, pushes toward the articulation of "standards for giving meaning to questions and to discovering whether we are in agreement about what we are talking about." Science foregrounds the inevitability of "human fallibility" and the consequent need for critical reexamination.
The development of commerce was also enormously influential. Note, for example, the change in cartography. "Medieval cartographers," Marcia Colish tells us, "were not interested in displaying the period's geographical knowledge with scientific precision or to scale. Maps, for them, had a didactic and spiritual value; they placed Jerusalem at the center of the earth's surface because of its perceived spiritual centrality." By the eighteenth century, however, merchants, governments, and the military required maps crafted with practical precision.
An analogous "intellectual transformation" in the assembly, display, and understanding of information worked its way throughout society. As the need for specialized information expanded, so did the need for the expertise to collect, collate, and interpret information. "The steady growth of commerce," David Fellman explains, "led to the emergence of a philosophy of knowledge which stressed the basic contingency of ideas, and the utility of testing the value of ideas, not in terms of the power of those who espoused them, but rather in terms of their capacity to stand up under the competition of other ideas. There was a logical transition from the competition of the marketplace to the competition of ideas."
As a consequence of these developments, the intellectual landscape of Bruno and Journet fundamentally changed. There emerged the possibility of questioning received truths and institutions. Publishing his Historical and Critical Dictionary in 1692, Pierre Bayle, like Journet, also insisted on the Bible's inconsistencies, but Bayle survived to write a good deal more. "Evidently," Anthony Grafton writes, "something had happened in the intervening century. An exegetical as well as scientific revolution had taken place."
These developments were foundational for the establishment of academic freedom. The exile of Christian Wolff, a professor of mathematics and physics at the University of Halle who was reputed to be among the most distinguished philosophers of natural law and ethics in all of Europe, can serve as a figurative turning point. In 1723, King Frederick William I of Prussia himself ordered Wolff's banishment: "And hereby We also make known and declare, by Our Most Gracious order, that the aforementioned Professor Wolff be no longer permitted to remain here, and be not allowed to teach; and furthermore, the said Wolff be duly notified that within forty-eight hours after the reception of this order he is to depart the city of Halle and all our other royal dominions under pain of the halter [that is, the gallows]."
The king acted at the prompting of two Pietist generals who had been petitioned by members of the theology faculty at Halle to sanction Wolff's theological teachings, which were, they stressed, outside his license to teach mathematics. (Wolff was a popular teacher whose students had developed the disquieting propensity of challenging theologians in the classroom to prove their assertions.) The king acted not to punish Wolff's lack of teaching authority but because his generals had advised him that Wolff's theological determinism would increase military desertions. Wolff's position on predetermination of human action seemed to imply that desertion was a matter over which individual soldiers had no control and bore no moral responsibility. This was not a proposition that the soldier-king could regard with equanimity.
Wolff's expulsion triggered a polemical explosion throughout Europe. More than two hundred tracts addressed the case, most defending Wolff in terms of the "freedom of philosophy." In honor of Christian Wolff, Count Ernst Christoph von Manteuffel founded the Societas Alethophilorum (Society of the Friends of Truth) in 1736. A medal was struck bearing the legend from Horace sapere aude! (dare to know!). Intellectual freedom was taken to have prevailed when the new king, Frederick II (Frederick the Great), restored Wolff to Halle in 1740 as professor of public law and mathematics, vice chancellor of the university, and Prussian privy councillor (Geheimer Rat). The "triumph of the Enlightenment in Prussia" was complete when Wolff was made an imperial baron (Reichsfreiherr) in 1745. A half century later the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte could proclaim that "free investigation of every possible object of thought is without doubt a human right." As rector of the University of Jena, Fichte addressed the subject of "akademische Freiheit" (academic freedom) in 1811, by which time the term had already begun to take on a life of its own.
The term invoked an important but subtle affiliation with the idea of the medieval university. The privilege of scholars to study controversial texts and to essay novel propositions of philosophy and theology had been asserted since the fourteenth century. But as J. M. M. H. Thijssen explains in the context of the controversies at the University of Paris, the medieval concept of these privileges included neither freedom of teaching nor freedom of learning per se, but was based instead "on the principle of the freedom of the academic institution to manage its own affairs." In medieval thought, institutional autonomy was linked to the perceived integrity of reason and scholarly expertise. Thijssen emphasizes that "viewing medieval academic censures solely in terms of restrictions on academic freedom or the imprisonment of reason ... misses the distinct rational aspect in the process of examining and censuring medieval academics. Academic heresies and errors were demonstrated in a process of rational discourse, by cognitive criteria that were provided by experts."
However much a bishop might demand hierarchical respect for his office, he could not require deference to his theological reasoning. The Cistercian theologian Peter of Ceffons professed to have witnessed profound subtlety "silenced as error by a judge into whose head 'subtlety would have entered as easily as a fully loaded elephant could get through a finger ring.'" An enduring contribution of the medieval university can be found in the demand that judgments of scholarly competence belong to a body of scholarly masters. This idea of academic expertise as a collegial prerogative underwrote the institutional autonomy of the university and could be invoked to counter the dictates of nonacademic authority.
Medieval freedom of rational inquiry was nevertheless bounded on the one side by the limits of what the church was prepared to condemn as heresy and on the other by the distinction between scholarly disputation among experts and inciting doubt among the unlettered. The doctoral oath at the University of Wittenberg, which Martin Luther swore in 1512, granted a doctor of theology unhindered freedom to discuss questions of scriptural interpretation short of disseminating heretical doctrine; the Wittenberg faculty specifically extended this freedom in 1518 to Martin Luther's ninety-five theses. But Cardinal Cajetan, conducting the only official interrogation the church was able to make of Luther, raised the distinct question of free publication and concluded: "Although Brother Martin has put his opinions in the form of theses for academic disputation, he has nonetheless put them forward as firm results in sermons, and even, as I have been told, in the German language-within earshot of everyone, even the common 'stupid people.'" Medieval freedom of academic disputation did not extend to freedom of public address, least of all in the vernacular.
Excerpted from For the Common Good by Matthew W. Finkin Robert C. Post Copyright © 2009 by Robert C. Post and Matthew W. Finkin. Excerpted by permission.
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