Sunday, December 18, 2011

Metaphysical Academic Freedom I copped out on my last blog entry on academic freedom. If you all insist, I'll take a crack at the ever-elusive concept of "metaphysical academic freedom." To me, metaphysical academic freedom generally refers to either the descriptive (factual) capacity for human to "freely" produce a theory and the prescriptive (normative) conditions that might be involved. Descriptive academic freedom would  entail addressing the larger problems of biological and cultural determinism. Prescriptive academic freedom might involve the rights and duties that would undergird that "freedom of inquiry." Answers to academic questions are called theories (or conjectures) that either explain, predict, or control phenomena. So it's fair to ask two questions: "To what extent do I have a right to propose theories?" And, "To what extent do I have a right to propose theories to an academic community?"

First of all, what do we mean by a right to propose a theory? There are two kinds of rights: positive rights and negative rights. If I claim a positive right to propose a theory, then someone else has a duty to assist me. If I have a negative right, that means that my right is implies the duty of non-interference by others and does not necessarily mean that others have a duty to assist me or enable me to publish my theory. That is: "Ron you have a right to publish that book, I won't interfere with that! But I don't have a duty to read it, and I don't have a duty to publish it in my journal. How about a case study?

Ron W. is going up for promotion next year and believes that he needs one more publication. So he surfs the Internet and finds a journal titled the Journal of Arcane and Useless Philosophy, which has an acceptance rate of 98.2% and a circulation of 73 subscribers. It is published by the Society for Arcane and Useless Philosophy, which has a membership of 73. Ron thinks to himself: "Ah...the perfect home for my most recent scholarly essay: "Does Academic Freedom Imply Positive or Negative Rights?" He sends the essay to the editor, who then sends it to two "referees," who read it six months later and submit their respective reviews. Reader A loves it, and offers three minor revisions. Reader B hates it and recommends that it be rejected. The editor, however, notes that only three essays were submitted to the journal in the last three months (all were accepted) and that Volume 11 Number 16 needs one more article. So he decides to publish Ron's essay. As a result, Ron was promoted to full professor. Since then, three scholars read that article (one of them finished it!), the Society for Arcane Philosophy has disbanded, and their journal discontinued. However, that article still appears prominently on Ron's curriculum vitae. Question: Does "academic freedom" include a scholar's right to publish research in journals that no one reads? Do academic institutions have a right or a duty to read what their faculty publish? And, if so who and how much should that reader get paid? So much for metaphysical academic freedom.     


George Campbell said...

If I understand your blog, you are saying that academic freedom is used as an excuse for professors to publish dreck to journals that nobody ever reads in order to obtain financial security? What about the case of Ward Churchill who took a very unpopular position on the root cause of the 9/11 tragedy. This resulted in a thorough review of his past work, and sufficient just cause was found to fire him from the University of Colorado. Obviously, there are some limits to Academic Freedom if you want to keep your job. Maybe justifiably so - maybe what Churchill asserted simply could not be backed with facts so out the door he goes?

Freedom's Philosopher said...

Great point George This this blog entry was 50% "tongue in cheek." However, I would argue that "backed with facts" is often a smoke screen for political correctness. Churchill's problem was that "political correctness" is much more insidious in public institutions. Private institutions are at least transparent.