Academia & The Last Man

A central problem in the philosophy of education—whether it is known or unknown—is the lack of an adequate framework for understanding the contemporary university. This essay aims to provide a fundamental characterization of the present-day academy, this towards the end of unconcealing the inner logic of academia, something increasingly necessary for understanding the status of knowledge today.

At issue is that a great number of commentators seem to presuppose just what a university is or should be while leaving the question totally open-ended. What’s more, many scholars appear to be referencing antiquated and even totally obsolete models as the basis for analysis. When the credentialed experts are seen not only appealing to some mythic educational past but even going to great lengths to portray today’s university in rather flattering terms, we might take that as invitation to think more deeply. And it’s exactly against these sorts of trends that we should employ a strict academic realism. The claim is that when viewed through a proper lens, the true character of the contemporary university begins to show itself.

Before offering an alternative model, I do want to give a slight overview of what’s going on in the literature and otherwise. From across the political spectrum we can identify a few main themes subjected to pretty rancorous critique, and yet few commentators seem to connect it all together. From the right we see tracts against political correctness, identity struggle, moral relativism and, of course, the discussion of tenured radicals. And from the left we have critiques of corporatization, commercialization, privitization, in a word, neoliberalism and falling under this also academic labor issues, adjunctification, student loan indenture, and so forth. At the level of network news—whatever that means—and social media discourse (same question), the university is sometimes labeled a hotbed of Marxism—and even postmodern Neo-Marxism as you may be aware. I wondered if a more comprehensive analysis was possible, in fact, one that might explain the whole.

Just for starters it appears that in the contemporary academy—against the university of the 1960s and 70s—that the influence of Marx has waned (even if his citations haven’t). We don’t exactly see students dropping out to join trade unions as in generations past, although this isn’t to say the revolution can’t happen in the future. The view is that much of the emancipatory potential of Marx and of Freud have been digested and reterritorialized by liberal capital and the Gramscian march subjected to a war of attrition—basically ruthless neoliberal selection pressures exerted throughout the academy. Long story short, the idea is that the key to understanding the university no longer really hinges on Marx.

The claim I want to make is that the contemporary university system can be most comprehensively understood as Inverted Platonism. And while the term immediately brings Nietzsche to mind, the attempted overcoming of Plato as well as philosophy in general has been a dominant theme across the academy. This has manifestly been the case in the sciences and social sciences stretching even from Aristotle, to Francis Bacon, the radical enlighteners, to Auguste Comte and the positivists, and more recently from Karl Popper all the way to the current crop of scientists. This might be even more true in the humanities and posthumanities with the influence of Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Rorty, Quine, Wittgenstein etc., and broad commitments to nominalism, antiessentialism, emotivism, and perspectivism.

What I mean by Inverted Platonism, I’ll now seek to clarify drawing from Heidegger’s lecture course on Nietzsche, Volume 1, Will to Power as Art: “To overturn Platonism thus means to reverse the standard relation […]. When the inversion is fully executed, the sensuous becomes Being proper i.e., the true, i.e., Truth. The true is the senuous. That is what positivism teaches.”

Of course, we should note that Nietzsche is not quite finished: after overturning Platonism he strives to escape positivism, a maneuver that requires a full “metamorphosis of man” (in Heidegger’s phrase).

Nevertheless, with Inverted Platonism we have the:

Sensuous over the Ideal

The decertification of morality

And, if lacking Nietzsche’s commitment to overcoming, we’re left with an axiological vaccum.

What’s more, the commitment to the sensuous is not JUST the dominant theme of the natural sciences but also found in historical materialism, as well as many postmodern theoretical formations. Thus, the model of Inverted Platonism has an uncanny ability to bring together such diverse views as postivism, poststructuralism, critical rationalism, model dependent realism, deconstruction, and basically every other dominant theme in academic fashion—science, social science, & humanities—under one roof.

So what are the implications of this, if, in fact, true?

Overturning Platonism has thus transformed the university into a simulacrum of Plato’s model for education, just inverted. Foremost is that the notion of virtue is replaced by market valuation. Technocratic meritocracy is the necessary result and Plato’s philosopher kings are replaced by professional bureaucrats—managers with a seeming mandate towards the eradication of all high values. The Republic’s “Noble Lie”—that some people possess precious metals in their souls—even finds its counterpart in the ignoble lie of the contemporary university: “that student loans will set you free.” And just as Plato’s censorship was a natural extension of his teaching on virtue, we could reasonably expect to see the same vis a vis Inverted Platonism, thus accounting for cancel culture. And finally we see the full flowering of the hollow corporate ethos as administrators increasingly try to “run the university like general motors,” committing themselves to an eternally recurring corporate nihilism. The university has thus become the most elaborate justification for power in human history, a legitimation mechanism of unparalleled scale dedicated to producing precisely what Nietzsche called “The Last Man.”

Who is The Last Man or The Last Human Being? This is the one who does not overcome but is overtaken, by such desires as for comfortable self-preservation, honor in fashionable circles & the pleasures attending wealth. Both a “laughingstock and an embarrassment” they only destroy rather than build. And, what’s more, the last human being has a particular sort of conceit: “And what do they call that which makes them proud? Education, they call it, it distinguishes them from goatherds.”

Just as Plato started the academy dedicated to philosophy and therefore justice, the rise of Postivism, the decertification of morality and the spread of technoeconomic optimism have seemingly destined us for what Habermas called a “rationally totalitarian society.” At the same time, the abyss has been open at least since Nietzsche’s exploding of the Kantian system—and, at least according to the perspective of Inverted Platonism, there can be no source of external light. Hence, the Academy has become akin to the Cave.

To philosophize after this calamity, at least for those still of good faith, thus requires one to enter into the university and literally help drag academics out to the light. This is the task of Academiology, all irony aside, which is basically both the apex and the absolute nadir in the philosophy of education. And what this means for the student, the figure of the academic, and for greater society will be discussed going forward, with the aim of achieving even fuller disclosure of the meaning of the contemporary university beyond that.

2 responses to “Academia & The Last Man”

  1. It wouldn’t be so terrible if this were true:

    Technocratic meritocracy is the necessary result and Plato’s philosopher kings are replaced by professional bureaucrats.

    You are assuming far too much competence and integrity. There isn’t a meritocracy among the technocrats. During the Boomer Years (I just finished reading your Boomer Ideology post! I agree with a lot of it), I think there was some degree of advancement and recognition on the basis of merit. By merit, I mean a combination of ability, productivity, and insight. We couldn’t have accomplished what we did otherwise. However, meritocracy is largely absent everywhere now, be it the United States, UK, Canada, or Australia. I’m not sure if it exists in Germany, anywhere else in Europe, in Japan, or farther afield.

    Professional bureaucrats seem like a blight on the land but they can serve a fine purpose. Large scale engineering and construction projects require their expertise, e.g. building hospitals or keeping oil drilling platforms running safely and efficiently. Sadly, I don’t think there’s much of that going on anymore either. Professional administrative or government bureaucrats tend to become parasitic, and we have a lot of that now.


    1. Simply stated, I’m arguing that our current technocratic “meritocracy” has in many ways become worse than Platonic totalitarianism. Today’s professional bureaucrats lack the qualities required for legitimate authority under a well-balanced system. Just for starters, “Human Resources Management” is almost the exact opposite of leadership. Bureaucracy encourages both the hiding of responsibility for decisions and the opposite of ownership from managers. The trend with these professionals appears to be thoughtlessly advancing their careers in accord with the dominant ideological apparatus—and practically nothing else. This as opposed to excellence, virtue, ownership & charismatic personal leadership ordered towards the common good. In rare agreement with Hayek, I’d say bureaucracy lacks nothing but genius.

      As to definitional issues with “meritocracy,” there’s a significant movement of thinkers highly critical of the term to the point it’s taken to be inflected with dubiousness tout court. I fall in with that camp, but should’ve explained this better as I took it for granted. This critical thread is endorsed by Michael Young, Daniel Markovits, and, in part, Michael Sandel, who all seem to basically pre-load the term with its critical shortcomings. While Plato articulated some early intimations of pure meritocracy as such, the radical equality of his theoretical utopia—and even the noble lie—all help demonstrate the failings of our present system.

      I could go on at length about authority without experience but I’ll cut it short. Bad implementation of Weberian bureaucracy appears to be a merger of hyperspecialization, hubris, academic appanage, social capital leveraging, plus many of the same issues addressed by Michael Sandel in “The Tyranny of Merit.”

      You’ve indicated elsewhere that you don’t find my perspective cynical enough. If nothing else, by the conclusion of this project I intend to fully slake that thirst. Many thanks for the feedback.

      Liked by 2 people

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