Fish vs. Veblen on instrumentalism

Stanley Fish argues directly against an instrumentalist view of higher education:

I have argued that higher education, properly understood, is distinguished by the absence of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and measurable effects in the world.

This is a very old idea that has received periodic re-formulations. Here is a statement by the philosopher Michael Oakeshott that may stand as a representative example: “There is an important difference between learning which is concerned with the degree of understanding necessary to practice a skill, and learning which is expressly focused upon an enterprise of understanding and explaining.”

Understanding and explaining what? The answer is understanding and explaining anything as long as the exercise is not performed with the purpose of intervening in the social and political crises of the moment, as long, that is, as the activity is not regarded as instrumental – valued for its contribution to something more important than itself.

This seems to me not very well phrased, because the distinction between an institutional ideal (which is really what this is about) and institutional reality is not well established; and “instrumentalism” is very clumsily formulated. Fish mentalistically defines being “instrumental” as a matter of purpose or intention; while of course not everything that’s intended to be “useful” actually ends up being useful, and purposes are not often as monolithic as Fish makes them out to be. Is my intrinsic enjoyment of a bag of potato chips, to take the most laughable example, diminished or even altered by the fact that eating is also instrumentally useful for avoiding weakness and eventual death by starvation? Not really; contra Fish, something can be instrinsically valuable while also being useful for some other end, even when that “other end” is, abstractly, far more important than the immediately valuable experience of, say, chewing up crisp little ovals of grease and salt. Purposes can be multiple with regard to a given activity, whose “intrinsic” merits, moreover, aren’t automatically distorted by an instrumental attitude projected onto it. Extrinsic and intrinsic value, instrumentalism vs value en soi, are not mutually exclusive. And Fish is wrong to imagine that scholastic “understanding and explaining” are automatically distorted the minute that someone starts having an intention of  “intervening in social crises,” or that the academic merits of academic knowledge are incompatible with their having some other function, like job training.

Faced with demands for higher education to be “relevant” or “engaged,” either by producing a better corporate workforce as business leaders might want, or by teaching social justice as progressive activists would prefer — faced with these demands, anyway, Fish retreats into the argument that “higher education has no use; it is just intrinsically valuable.” It strikes me that this is actually an strangely deceptive move, because as a professor, higher education is obviously, trivially useful: Fish stands to gain an obvious utility — in fact a paycheck! — from the higher education that he argues is a “determined inutility.” Here is the unspoken reality of Fish’s argument: academic knowledge is useless to everyone except those faculty who are paid to reproduce it.

But part of the problem here lies in an overly dichotomous view of the relationship between the pragmatic instrumentality and the fanciful end in itself. It strikes me that Thorstein Veblen, a hundred years ago, had a much more insightful view of this relation, which I wrote about in my orals. I’m going to excerpt my analysis because it seems relevant here (you’ll probably notice the writing style becoming more academic):

In The Higher Learning in America: A memorandum on the conduct of universities by business men, the distinction between pragmatism and fantasy, the instrumental and the in-itself, is turned on its head so very many times that any settled synthesis of its terms becomes unfeasible. Veblen begins by examining “esoteric knowledge” in cross-cultural perspective. Although its “content and canons of truth and reality” vary, being products of a social group’s “institutions” and “habits of life,” he finds that esoteric knowledge is generally ascribed “great intrinsic value… of more substantial consequence than any or all of the material achievements or possessions of the community” (2). The pursuit of this knowledge is based on two instincts: the Idle Curiosity, and the Instinct of Workmanship. Now, here there is already a contradiction, multiply expressed. For one thing, esoteric knowledge is universally rated higher than practical material achievement, and yet it is itself a product of the work of institutions and specialists — in a sense, a practical achievement of its own. For another, the two instincts that lead to the production of esoteric knowledge are themselves opposed as pragmatism is to idealism: the Instinct of Workmanship is a kind of practical principle of production, while the Idle Curiosity is that which yields “a knowledge of things… apart from any ulterior use,” that is, a definitionally anti-pragmatic principle. To add one more wrinkle, in an earlier article Veblen had defined the Instinct of Workmanship as a “quasi-aesthetic sense of economic or industrial merit,” suggesting that even within the very principle of pragmatic action lies an a priori aesthetic norm.

In sum, at the most general level of collective symbolism, esoteric knowledge (which we Westerners call “higher learning”) is cast as impractical, as over and above practical activity. Yet the making of this esoteric knowledge is, for Veblen, a thoroughly practical institutional project, based moreover on a divided set of instincts which themselves recapitulate the troubled opposition between practical and impractical. Of course, “pragmatic” is not a monovalent term here either; higher learning is pragmatic inasmuch as it is the outcome of practice, but it is not pragmatic in the sense that it is not (for Veblen) directly instrumental knowledge, not necessarily useful in the doing of any other task. In other words, ‘esoteric knowledge’ is not pragmatic to the extent that it is (or should be) allowed to be an end in itself. Veblen, however, is skeptical that this knowledge embodies “fundamental and eternal truth,” commenting that “it is evident to any outsider that it will take its character and its scope and method from the habits of life of the group” (2). Insofar as the group inevitably disavows this institutional determination of its highest verities, it appears as if esoteric knowledge were, from the start, the product of a community’s fantasy of anchoring its ultimate view of reality in something other than practice.

But this purely abstract critique of higher learning is not the end; rather, Veblen treats it as the start of a more specific institutional critique of the intrusion of business logic into higher learning. Such an instrusion seemed to Veblen of relatively recent origin, a feature of post-Civil-War university expansion, the decline of clerical power in colleges, and the general system of business and industrial production of the period. For Veblen, business influence stemmed from the Boards of Control (as he summarized Trustees, Regents, and the like). Above all, the Board appointed the President, and controlled the budget; hence it was able to re-orient the university toward vocational and professional ends, to mandate constant financial and institutional growth, and to influence the hiring of business-friendly faculty and the removal of those who disrupted the institutional image — among other things.

In the course of the analysis, a whole new host of contradictions developed around this intrusion of the pragmatic into the academic. In theory, Veblen felt that “if the higher learning is incompatible with business shrewdness, business enterprise is, by the same token, incompatible with the higher learning… they are the two extreme poles of the modern cultural scheme” (12). In practice, however, this radical incompatibility seemed not to obtain. On the contrary, Veblen ascribed the institutional success of “practical men,” coming from technical and professional schools, to “that deference that is currently paid to men of affairs, at the same time that [their] practical training gives them an advantage over their purely academic colleagues, in the greater assurance and adroitness with which they are able to present their contentions” (9). In other words, practical men may have been out of place in academe in theory, but not in practice. As a result, “while the higher learning still remains as the enduring purpose and substantial interest of the university establishment, the dominant practical interests of the day will, transiently but effectually, govern the detail lines of academic policy, the range of instruction offered, and the character of the personnel” (16). Here, far from the university being opposed to business, this very distinction becomes the principle of the university’s internal operation: while the academic principles of impractical learning govern the outermost reaches of institutional form in the longue durée, all the practicalities of the university are shaped by practical men.

But in another set of dialectical reversals, Veblen took pains to show that the so-called practical men were themselves prisoners of a rather extensive panoply of fantasies and irrationalities. To begin with, Veblen views the incursion of the practical, professional men into the university as, in part, an effort to “lift [their work] to that dignity that it is pressed to attach to a non-utilitarian pursuit of learning” (9). In effect, pragmatists were in full pursuit of the non-instrumental, of values in themselves. More profoundly, insofar as the businessmen were ultimately representatives of the leisure class, their pursuit of profit and practicality was ultimately not practical, but was designed rather to afford opportunities for conspicuous leisure and consumption, that is, the intentional waste of resources in the pursuit of status. These businessmen, Veblen argued, steered the university into the same game: a headlong pursuit of institutional status by way of increasingly ostentatious buildings and grounds, student sports, grandiose academic ceremonies and the like (30, 37, 41). And these vast departures from the pursuit of learning became, for Veblen, a massive exercise in public and self-deception: “this large apparatus and traffic of make-believe… is the first and most unremitting object of executive solicitude” (64). All the while, this irrational “make-believe” was cloaked in a near-fetish of “the practical,” which became a justifying rhetoric for executive decisions in the service of private gain (49, 61).

“All of which may suggest reflections on the fitness of housing the quest of truth in an edifice of false pretences,” Veblen is led to exclaim at one point in this analysis (37). But the upshot of Veblen’s analysis is less a simple negation of higher learning by the forces of pragmatism, more a complex institutional vortex in which pragmatism constantly comes into new contradictions with the cultural, the moral, and the utopian. In one place he advocates the impracticality of scholarship; in another he paints scholarship as itself practical in relation to the fanciful delusions of the university presidents. Veblen himself, it seems, valued “practicality” more in theory than in practice: far from adapting to the demands of academic life, he was, as C. Wright Mills puts it, “a natural-born failure” in terms of institutional success. In short, I think we can see in Veblen an ongoing synthesis of fantasy and pragmatism, one contradicting the other only for the contradiction to become productive of the social system as a whole — only to again be brought into contradiction.

About Fish, then: he seems stuck at the zero degree of this synthetic process, not seeing the instrumental use to which he puts the “inutility” that he advocates, nor observing the ways in which the institution itself is internally structured by the distinction that he thinks should distinguish it from its outside. I’ve just been reading a book called L’empire de l’université (The Empire of the University) that argues for an end to any rigid intellectual distinction between the inside and the outside of the institution – an argument which would have fatal consequences for all efforts to evaluate the university’s value ahistorically in isolation from its societal context. Such as Fish’s.