There is a widespread but unfocused suspicion that something is wrong with universities, and with rigorous scholarship and research in general, but this suspicion has yet to go much beyond exasperated complaints about "political correctness", a sarcastic and unhelpful term, and a demand for more balance and freedom, which is, judging by the results, too nebulous to be useful. It seems obvious that more precision is required in diagnosing the problem before a remedy can be suggested. In this note I suggest that there is an inevitable and undesirable conflict between the processes of intellectual creation and the social institutions that are in most cases required to support them. No absolute solution is likely to be found, and it may be that we must content ourselves with mitigatory measures.
I begin with Quine's description of science as a network of provisional propositions extending from mathematics on the one side to history on the other. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this view is that being a network, and not a system, the propositions are not necessarily consistent one with another (their value is determined within their own domain of application), and that consequently when one or more of these propositions are found wanting, because of new data for example, they can be replaced or new propositions added without causing failure throughout the rest of the network, as would be the case were it a systematic philosophy. Quine's view is itself empirically strong; it corresponds with actual scientific practise at its best, in other words with the observed behaviour of scientists generating propositions (and here and below I use "science" in the maximally broad Quinean sense).
However, this raises the question whether such a network of propositions can ever be an entirely comfortable fit within an organisational structure, governmental and bureaucratic, which is essentially and necessarily systematic. That is to say that though the organisational structure of the university, and behind that the funding body of the state, in our own time, is and must be systematic, otherwise it could not function, this means that it will never be happy with and will actually be to a degree threatened by the rather different properties of the network of propositions that we, following Quine, call science.
Clearly it is not lethally incompatible – much good work is in fact done – but many of the problems around science in the universities, are, on this view, the cumulative outcome of the long-term residence of the scientific network within a systematic institutional, and governmental framework. As time goes on, the requirements of the system will tend to erode the quality of the network. It will erode it not only because it sometimes, though thankfully rarely, insists on the adoption of propositions that are inadequate though systematically convenient, such as those of Lysenko, but much more insidiously because it is subtly inimical to change in the network that will disrupt the systemic organisation of the institution. This opposition need not be strong to be harmful, for the quality of the network of propositions is, as is plain from Quine's description, derived from the rate of changes in the network, deletions, replacements and extensions, in other the words the rate at which it is revised in the light of new data. Even a small degradation in that rate could be, over time, cumulatively harmful.
What can be done about this? The difficulties are real, but one need not despair. For example, measures can be taken to ensure that the rate of propositional deletion and replacement remains high. I think myself that ensuring that the institutional framework is modular, and the modules as small as may be, is an important element. Even Departments may be too large. With that in mind I regret the increasing centrality of the University as opposed to the Colleges, in Cambridge, in Oxford, and elsewhere, and the dwindling number of non-university funded academics. To an extent institutional systems actually recognise this problem, but their response is, typically, to extend the system by creating new elements, new departments or "Centres", to use the administrative jargon, or Graduate Schools. Such attempts are intrinsically difficult – institutional creation by saltation is hazardous – and usually go quite unsupported by the existing system, which is content to let these ventures die a natural death. But in any case the effort doesn't actually address the main problem, which is the frictional effect of the existing systematic institutions. Splitting these institutions into smaller units might work, but it would be very difficult and unpopular, not least because it would disturb the status arrangements of the current staff, eroding differentials. I apologise for raising a topic that tact usually rules out of polite conversation, but in the real world rank and hierarchy matter a very great deal, as we all know.
An alternative, or perhaps a supplement to the departmental fragmentation, would be to encourage the existence of "associations" rather than formal departments. We know from the history of science and scholarship that these have been extremely productive of intellectual change, and many of us will have had positive experience from very lively phases in the existence of Societies composed of researchers interested in a particular area. However, these associations either tend not to last long, in their most valuable phases, or to become systematically institutionalised in order to survive, in which case the disruptive value of the association is diminished.
I wonder also whether much of the conflict between institutional system and intellectual network arises because the network and its operators are often required to contribute so heavily to an educational system. Educators are, quite understandably, reluctant to really engage with the provisionality and fluidity of the outer edge of thought. Whewell, for example, would not allow thermodynamics into the Cambridge tripos in the mid-nineteenth century because it was too advanced and uncertain. I am not saying that Whewell was wrong; not all; institutionally he was almost certainly right. But one cannot help wondering whether exclusion from the Tripos held back intellectual advance outside the lecture hall and supervision. An example might illustrate the point. As a consequence of Whewell's decision, Alfred Marshall's formal instruction in natural sciences was confined to the uncontroversial physics of his day. Doubtless he knew of thermodynamics, but the fact that it did not have the prestige of inclusion in the Tripos meant that it was not second nature to him. I have often wondered if economics might have taken a more productive line if his remarkable gifts had been forced to assimilate at an early age the admittedly provisional work of Clausius and Thomson.
Perhaps in addition to increased modularity within the system it would be worth considering more research positions free of teaching, and more institutions dedicated to research without any obligation to educate, even at the graduate level. This would have the benefit of minimising the degree to which the systematic educational institution feels threatened by fluid research network. I don't say it would be perfect, but it might help.
A further point needs to be guarded against, not because it is at present a problem, but because though safe from the hazard at present there is possibility that the United Kingdom might become exposed to this issue in the medium to longer term, say ten to fifty years. As I noted, even if systemic institutional braking causes only a small reduction in the rate of change in the propositional network this can over time be cumulatively undesirable. Small or medium-sized linguistic groups are at a particular risk of falling behind if they become insulated from the disruptive input of other propositional networks. Such a group would tend to become increasingly systematic in its orientation. Colloquially we would say it was 'inward looking'. Mathematics helps a great deal here – the lack of this common means of conceptual formation is one of the reasons that the humanities are much more vulnerable to institutional or systematic sclerosis – and happily, the United Kingdom is further protected against this problem by the fact that the international natural language of science is English. Indeed, I would cite this fact as one of the reasons why scientific research in the UK has held up so well in spite of many other countervailing difficulties. But this fortunate situation may not endure, and it would be foolish to ignore the possibility of the emergence of an alternative scientific language group, Chinese say, which is large enough to maintain a high rate of change within its network by absorbing corrections from outside but without the trouble of returning the favour. After all, we have witnessed this before; English replaced Latin as the scientific language, and in a somewhat similar circumstances to that obtaining today, with vast economic growth in Great Britain creating a viable new network that quickly surpassed that of Latin. It is incidentally worth noting that economic growth in Britain preceded scientific distinction: there is no crude linear connection between science and wealth, and Terence Kealey is surely on to something there. It is no accident, perhaps, that Bacon, whom Kealey blames for much of popular supposition that science leads to wealth, was a systematic philosopher, a lawyer, and a courtier in systematic status society. Bacon was pulled in two directions, rather as modern universities are, in fact.
With all that in mind, there is a clear need, I think, to keep the British propositional network and its contributors open to the networks of the rest of the world, as they are today. Consequently, I have some sympathy with those who worry that Brexit might reduce international intellectual connections. I think the fear is overstated, and relatively easily tackled, but there certainly is a perception in the rest of the world that Britain wishes to cut itself off. That is wrong, but it needs to be addressed, firstly by ensuring that British scientists travel, and that overseas scientists continue to come to Britain, but also that there is more emphasis placed on modern languages for scientists and indeed for engineers.
In summary, the recommendation is that if our institutions are to be as little inimical to a high rate of propositional change as is possible, there should be smaller and less stable departments, less teaching, more research institutions, particularly non-governmental institutions, more associations formal and informal, and more foreign languages. That is a tall order and it doesn't sound cheap. The question is whether the price is worth paying, and that is essentially a question of economy and political economy.
Finally, these are only mitigatory measures, and will not deliver entirely satisfactory results. In order that systems do not ultimately dominate propositional networks it will be necessary to accept that institutions, subjects, departments, even universities themselves, do not have infinite, valuable lives and do not deserve preservation for their own sakes. They are only a means to an end.