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Universities shun universal verities

By David Long - posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The current debate at Sydney University about the activities of certain academics should not be allowed to hide the fact that the Australian university, qua university, is dead. It is not only dead in Australia. It is dead in the UK and in the USA although the idea of a university probably continues in one or two schools within the dead bodies in the USA – much as hair continues to grow for a short time after death.

The idea of the university can be traced back to the 4th century Athens, to the Academy and the Lyceum, to the philosophers, Plato and Aristotle.

It was in those schools that the most profound reflection on the human condition, on human nature, that is, philosophy, was undertaken and encouraged in the students. Plato’s family tutor was a man called Socrates. Socrates, it has been reported, called philosophy down from the heavens and focussed it firmly on man. Socrates had once been a natural philosopher, reflecting on the heavens and is the subject of Aristophanes’s play, The Clouds.


The questions that Socrates addressed to the people he met in the market place could be characterised as the ‘what is …’ questions; what is beauty, what is piety, what is justice. The fact that he addressed such questions to ordinary people (or at least to those who purported to hold such opinions) was not so he had an opportunity to shoot their theories down. That method of procedure was an assumption that people’s opinions contained an element of truth; more in some and less in others and by his procedure of contradiction, to move that opinion to a position closer to the truth. The result being not ‘truth,’ but right opinion.

The legacy of the Socratics and particularly Aristotle was that unaided human reason, that is, common sense, could discern the correct way of life for mankind, the way of life that would make mankind happy.

This claim was contested by the claim of revealed religion that the best way of life for man was obedience to God – revelation properly understood. It was this contest that drove the intellectual development of the West, the development of the truly human that permitted the West to make the only claim to being a civilisation.

It was within the university that this argument was conducted thus perpetuating the theoretical life as that was understood by Aristotle.

Sometime last century, however, the university became a multivarsity according to the Chancellor of the University of California, Clark Kerr.

The university, as its name implies, was an establishment that turned its students towards the ‘one’, a universal or comprehensive view of the whole (verto - I turn). The students became universal men. The multivarsity, which succeeded the university, now turns its students towards many things: unus to multus. The universal view has given way to the many views; ie., to specialisation.


The cause of this change of focus of the university is to be found in the application of the scientific method to the study of man. In order to achieve this break-through in understanding, however, a metaphysical transformation of man was necessary. It was one thing for science to correctly predict planetary motion, the tides and chemical reactions, etc; it was an entirely different thing to apply that scientific methodology to human beings. After all, since every person contains a power of choice, every person is radically unpredictable – despite what statistics might imply. Science, modern physical science, derives its authority from its ability to predict outcomes.

The transformation of the human soul that modern philosophers accomplished during the 17th and 18th centuries, replaced human reason as the cause of human action with the passions. In this scheme, reason plays no greater part in human action than an animal’s reason plays in its.

In the 19th Century, Auguste Comte developed his theory of positivism, a theory that is characterised by the distinction between facts and values. The theory, in a nutshell, posits that only facts can be known objectively; all values are subjective. Being subjective, values are qualities, and personal to the individual, like feelings. They cannot be objectively known or shared anymore that one person can feel another’s feelings. Under the positivist methodology, answers to questions such as ‘what is justice’, a question Plato addressed in his most famous book, are reduced by positivism to subjective feelings with no objective status.

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About the Author

David Long is a lawyer and writer with an interest in classical political philosophy and Shakespeare. He has written previously for The Bulletin and The Review.

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